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The Killing Fields 23.IV.2012 07:25
It is written in the book of Isaiah that to all God would give 'within mine house and with my walls a place everlasting name.' This was the inspiration for the name of the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, for those who meet their ends in mass graves often die twice: once when their lives are taken from them, and again when their identities rot away until their bones cannot be separated from those who met their ends beside them. At the memorial stupa in Choeung Ek, the best-known of Cambodia's infamous Killing Fields, these bones are piled 17 levels high, the skulls of thousands of these victims staring out at you at eye level, testifying wordlessly to Man's inhumanity to Man.

And though they can never return to their families, their survivors work tirelessly to prevent this second death - to preserve, as in Jerusalem, at least a shred of the identity of each person, so that the very last of them does not disappear from this earth. For it is all but impossible not to be dwarfed by the enormity of the crimes committed during the disastrous Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79, and thus to reduce its victims, as in Stalin's famous dictum, to a mere statistic. One cannot conceive of even the 17,000 victims of Choeung Ek, yet that was but one of many execution sites, which together claimed more than one and a half million sacrifices to the cause of 'revolution'. Even here, the remains of only 9,000 have been recovered, and each rainy season the ground, endlessly churning, swells and casts up yet more skulls, teeth and bones: no rest for these men, women and children, even decades on.

The only consolation that, like so many totalitarian regimes, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records, preserving the name of each man trucked here to meet his end. As in the case of Hitler's Germany, the bureaucratic process belies an institutional awareness of the enormous moral outrage being committed, so full of small lies ostensibly to deceive the victims, but partly to allow the criminals to deceive themselves. As people were hacked to death in Choeung Ek - bullets too precious to be wasted on such tasks - the sounds of revolutionary songs and diesel motors played to drown out the screams of the dying, to keep up the pretence that this was, perhaps, merely a military base. To allow all but those present to keep up a denial, willing or subconscious, of what was truly happening. And even if it happened here, perhaps it was just one - not one of hundreds of such sites that destroyed almost a third of the country's entire population.

And, as one looks upon the empty pits, and at the bones and shreds of cloth, and the undisturbed ground that has yet to reveal its victims to the light, the most disturbing thought occurs: that the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity, not the guards but the ones who gave the orders, thought of themselves as on the side of good. How can you separate out the lust for power in the mind of a man who believes he is assisting in the birth of an ideal society? And, conversely, how many of those we know personally that think of themselves as 'moral' are simply following a system of rules that happens to lead to the fulfilment their own desires? It is not evil to think this way - merely human - and the greatest achievement of civilisation is to take us away from this bloody patrimony. Its extreme, the terrible utopian visions of men like Pol Pot, claim to encompass humanity but deny the human - and the Khmer Rouge slogan expressed this perfectly in its attitude to each of its victims: 'to keep you is no gain; to kill you is no loss.'

Louis XIV famously said "l'état, c'est moi" - I am the state. But the utopian dictator claims an even larger authority - he does not rule over the people, he is the people. His interests, or the Party's, are the people's, and if one of the people should oppose them, well he was really opposing his very self, like a cancerous cell destroying its own body. And so, such a polity fights constantly against the very human beings it claims to be saving; every revolution devours its young. And this remains true of every power that tries to shape a society: the Americans trying to remake Vietnam in their own image said 'we must burn the village to save the village' - that if their lives did not confirm to the ideal vision, they were meaningless, and therefore forfeit.

And speaking of the same Americans, thanks to them, China, the UK and others, Pol Pot and his murderous regime held a United Nations until 1993, for 14 years after Cambodia itself was free of them. Why? Because Cambodia had been liberated by the Vietnamese, in alliance with the Soviet Union, and put "People's Republic" in its name. The Cold War and the Sino-Soviet split are far more important than the lives of some insignificant peasants. How can one mere life compare to the glorious society being created by the Khmer Rouge? How can one mere life compare to the struggle against global Communism which threatens to engulf us all? And Pol Pot died comfortably under house arrest, and only now are some of his associates being prosecuted for their crimes, immune for years from prosecution because we did not like those who might prosecute him. And as for the human beings caught in the middle - well, what could be more human than to deny others their humanity?

Phnom Penh, Cambodia Kh

Weekend protestacular! 29.VI.2010 09:26
Each Friday, there is a demonstration in the Palestinian village of Bil'in, which is cut in half by the Israeli 'security fence.' They have been going on for so long that their course has become almost ritualised, a weekly tradition which recurs with only minor variations. The protesters - a mix of Palestinians, activists and what can only be described as tourists - advance on the gate in the wall that has cut the farmers off from their fields, while Israeli soldiers wait on the other side. Though the protest is essentially peaceful, the true objective is to provoke the inevitable Israeli reaction; tear gas, first as warning shots, and then directly at the protesters. You wait as long as you can, watch the harmless warning shots sail over your head, though the urge to panic is fierce because others are doing so, but then you run - though if you've left it too late, the tear gas canisters will hum by your head and land at your feet as you try to dodge them or, at least, not inhale. Inevitably, the exploding canisters spark fires; you grab olive branches and try to put them out as close as possible, so that the field lost behind the wall is not matched by one lost to the flames. The police charges in - if you can't run fast enough, you're arrested - though this week it seemed that their hearts weren't in it and they stopped charging right away.

Each Saturday, there is a march through the streets of Hebron protesting against the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have decided to settle in its centre - the most indefensible and most aggressive of the settlements that dot 'Judea and Samaria', Israel's claimed province in the West Bank. Israel has closed off the streets that lead to the settlers' houses, and while the settlers have no shortage of running water, Palestinian homes must for the most part do without. The march assembles first at the gate of the closed street, chanting slogans that more-or-less rhyme while the IDF soldiers stand by, clearly bored to have to watch all these random white people for yet another week - though they also have a man taking photographs so they have records of all us troublemakers. Then, the soldiers block one street down which the demonstration passes - the group of protesters tries to push through, the most hardcore of the activists - Anarchists Against the Wall, especially - pushing right against the protesters, others pushing against the whole group from behind. As someone who's never protested before, never really been in a fight, the physicality of the moment was incredible - three soldiers against fifteen people pushing as hard as they could, and yet we slid back no matter how hard we tried to dig in; this was, however, the only moment of the protests that felt like resistance, a genuine exertion of all one's strength against an opposing force and, somewhat poignantly, a futile one. As the march winds its way past the settlers' houses - perched high above the Palestinian market - they throw eggs and beer bottles at you, protected, of course, by the IDF - and they also throw water in what has to be a slap in the face to remind Palestinians of their lack of it. Eventually, the march dies down, the chants fade away, the activists prepare for next week's or tomorrow's demonstrations, and the protest tourists put away their cameras. The street remains closed.

Though I'm likely to participate in more protests in the coming months, I didn't come to Israel to be an activist, and I don't plan on making tear gas something my lungs have to deal with regularly - one unexpected thing about tear gas is that it hurts the throat more than the eyes; in fact, it was highlighted at the pre-protest briefing that the Israeli tear gas is 'more concentrated than what [we're] used to in the United States or Europe'. That sentence really drives home why I could never really be here as an activist - because it's not just about opposition, which I share very strongly, to Israel's policies here, but about being part of a movement, or even a subculture. Many people here are veterans of anti-globalisation protests like the ones in Toronto, and many have an anarchist or left-wing view of the world that I simply don't share. At the Hebron protest, the most common slogan was '1-2-3-4, occupation no more!', but its corollary was '5-6-7-8, Israel is a fascist state!', which are words I simply cannot say, because I don't believe them. Israel is an oppressive occupying power, yes, but for Israeli citizens - even Arab ones - it protects far more rights than the average government. But for many people I've met here, Israel is just the most shameless part of a larger, undifferentiated, evil Zionist-American-corporate juggernaut trampling on people wherever it can, the proverbial boot stamping on a human face. It's commonplace to hear that Zionism is racism, or that Israel should simply cease to exist; Helen Thomas' comment that the Jews should 'get the hell out of Palestine' is far from controversial here. I believe Israel does have a right to exist - though I probably wouldn't have in 1948 - though I oppose its policies in Palestine as vehemently as any activist. But the culture of activism here is one I feel I'd be unlikely to feel comfortable in.

Which is of course one of the strangest things, because my English friends and I were near the front of both protests, chanting loudly and advancing, while many of the activists (at Bil'in - at Hebron they were very passionate) hung back. If I'm perfectly honest it's probably because we're all easily bored and don't like to do things half-assed - if we're at a protest, we're gonna protest damn it - but this also means that when we took a cigarette break we spent most of it making fun of the protest itself. Our behaviour - and the fact that we hid our faces behind black-and-white keffiyes, making us look more than a little like militants - made most people assume we were a hardcore activist group (hell, one girl asked me if I'd organised the protest), but in point of fact, it's really hard to say where we are on the spectrum between protest tourists and actual activists. On the one hand, we were all invested in the issues, we all have clear ideas on the conflict, and none of us would protest for something we didn't believe in. On the other, though, we didn't really take it all that seriously, and I can't claim not to have done it out for the thrill, the adrenaline rush - excitement and adventure and really wild things - which puts us firmly in the protest tourist camp. We genuinely enjoyed ourselves - though if I had to it constantly, as the ISM does, I'd be likely to burn out - and in fact joked that we should form a freelance protest group (suggested name: 'Drunkards against x'.

Coming home, too, you can't help but feel the addiction of action, of being someone who does something and even risks his safety to do it. We never felt really endangered at the Bil'in protest, and our exposure to the tear gas was two volleys which we avoided for the most part (my eyes and throat stopped hurting within an hour or so). We weren't arrested, and the only physical violence we experienced was at our own instigation, pushing against the IDF soldiers. But talking afterwards with people, you couldn't help but embellish the excitement - people assumed we were proper activists, and we did little to dispel the impression (though one girl we were with, Hari, genuinely is one). The rush is undeniable, the fear as the canisters fly around you, surrendering to the 'flight' instinct as you run away from the soldiers and, ultimately, the satisfaction of telling others of the adventure they wouldn't dare to have. Protest tourism - and the larger phenomenon, conflict tourism - is hard to assess, because while on one level it just feels wrong, the fact is that international observers at the protest who come home and tell people what happened is one of the best things that could happen, especially average people and not those already involved in the movement. The tourists definitely outnumber the activists - at Bil'in, my friends and one anarchist guy who was clearly extremely committed were the only internationals helping put out the fire, even though the Palestinians were specifically calling to them - but the fact is that an international who does nothing is just as valuable simply because he's there, keeping Israel in the world spotlight which, for all its arrogance, it clearly doesn't want to act badly in. It's easy to be disdainful of someone who protests just to get some cool pictures - but I don't think that, deep down, our knowledge of the conflict makes us that much better.

On a final note, it's also fascinating to see some of the media coverage. On the left here, the presumption is that since the pro-Israeli media is so incredibly biased (and it is - the Jerusalem Post is beyond parody), the underground media must be the only one bringing real news. But the only two pieces I found about the Hebron demonstration - this and this, both from Palestinian sources - both claim Israeli aggression against the protesters, which as an eyewitness I can say is categorically untrue. The IDF did not shut down the protest, nor did it attack the protesters. It did prevent the demonstration from going down a Hebron street, but meeting that with resistance was precisely the point of the protest, and both sides understood this. Overall, I though the IDF soldiers very professionally, not using excessive force in any instance - in fact, their main screw up was failing to shoot over their own barrier and tear-gassing themselves, which was absolutely hilarious. My favourite soldier even had a clear sense of humour about the whole thing - on being screamed at as a 'fucking fascist', he simply casually said watch your language - though admittedly as this was happening his colleague was pointing his rifle at an 8-year-old Palestinian boy who was too close to the barrier, and whom the adults had to pull off. The protests have an established dynamic that, in a way, is sort of a balance between the two sides' objectives, and there's no need to accuse Israel of aggression where there isn't any, especially when it already commits so many aggressive acts as well; frankly from what I've heard the Toronto Metropolitan Police have acquitted themselves much worse in a much less dangerous situation.

I will be going to more protests because I believe in the cause, and that the settlements and the dividing wall are among the worst and most oppressive policies being practiced by any first-world nation. I'll do it because I hope for a two-station solution, even though i don't think it's possible anymore. And I do think that the protesters against these policies are doing more than anyone else to curtail the excesses of Israeli power in the West Bank, and that the current economic improvement in the West Bank is largely due to the international pressure they help bring to bear. But, like all encounters with an ostensibly idealist movement, one can't deny a certain disillusionment, a certain shallowness, a preponderance of slogans over analysis and of good vs. evil narratives over attempts to understand. I've also been on a visit to the settlements, which I've been meaning to write about for weeks but haven't done, and if there's any lesson from it all, it's that there's absolutely no substitute from seeing these things first hand, as it is really drives home how ill-formed your previous opinions (and boy, did I have them) have been.

Hebron, Palestine Ps

On terrorism in Yemen 13.VIII.2009 13:26
Yemen, in which I'm currently living, makes the news for pretty much only one reason - violence (with the occasionally human interest story about child brides thrown in). There's the kidnappings, the terrorist attacks, the Shia rebellion, the civil war - a never ending stream of destruction. As I write this, the top story on al-Jazeera reads 'Yemen warplanes pound rebel strongholds' which, it must be admitted, is exactly what's happening. The paradox of it all is that, on a day-to-day basis in the capital, Sana'a, I'm safer than I would be in any Western city, even Toronto, because of the total absence of street crime and, although foreigners have been targeted elsewhere, the capital is perfectly secure. The reason for this counter-intuitive state of affairs is, as always, that the country is far more complicated than the label it's assigned in the media: in Yemen's case, that of a potential failed state and new headquarters for al-Qaeda.

Broadly speaking, there are four sources of violence in Yemen: tribal kidnappings, the Houthi rebellion in the North, 'al-Qaeda' terrorist attacks such as the one on the USS Cole, and the Southern independence movement. The first, targeted at foreigners like me but paradoxically less threatening, is kidnappings. Headline-grabbing though they are, these are essentially harmless: all the laws of the traditional host-guest relationship apply, so you sit around eating and drinking tea with the mild inconvenience that you're not allowed to leave (this being a notoriously hard thing to do at Middle Eastern households anyway). After the government caves in and gives your kidnappers the money/weapons/what have you, you simply go home, as did a Dutch couple kidnapped a few months back. All this started in the 80's or 90's, when the government tried to resolve a few kidnappings quickly by giving into demands, and the tribes realised that this was an effective tactic. It's not at all about harming the foreigners, but about tribal relations with government - and it must be remembered that loyalty to the tribe and family still means a lot more than loyalty to the state, and the central government's control over many of the tribes ranges from loose to non-existence, the former mostly through bribes and appointments. Nevertheless, if you ever see 'Polish-Canadian, 25, held hostage in Yemen' on the BBC, it's almost certainly nothing to worry about.

The second conflict, and the big one right now, is the war against the Houthi rebels in the North, specifically in Saada province, in which hundreds of people have died over the past decade or so. The Houthis are a tribal group occupying the mountains reaches of the north of the country, near the borders of Saudi Arabia, and belong to the Zaidi sect of Shi'a Islam. Until the revolution in 1962, Yemen was a theocracy, ruled by a Zaidi Imam, and the government accuses the Houthis of wanting to reinstate such rule. However, this is far from clear: most everyone I talk to says that no one really knows what the Houthis want, and many express dismay that the government and its well-funded military haven't crushed them already, wondering at some secret motives. This is the conflict that's really serious, and it was in Saada that nine foreigners - Germans, Brits and a South Korean - were kidnapped some months ago. Three have been found dead, and rumours continue to swirl about the fate of the other six.

Though I said above that kidnapping poses no threat to foreigners, this case was altogether different, and calls up an aspect of foreign aid work that is very rarely commented upon: missionaries. The nine who were kidnapped were operating in an area known for violent conflict, and it's said that, in addition to running a hospital, their organisation was also trying to win a few souls for Jesus on the side. We always assume that people who are attacked are either gold-hearted aid workers (as a sidebar, through my travels I've discovered that many aid workers are in fact assholes) or innocent tourists at the wrong place at the wrong time. However, one has to remember that in many places, especially among Muslims, proselytising is deeply, deeply resented; this is not to say that the missionaries deserved to be killed, but one has to remember that engaging in such activity - and bringing your family to help do so - is putting yourself at risk. Similarly, there were a few attacks against Koreans during the beginning of my stay here, and though at the time it just seemed random, but I suddenly remembered a similar incident years back in Afghanistan and the country's large and fervent Christian population and suddenly it all made a little more sense.

Third on our list of Yemeni terror threats we have that symbol of evil incarnate, Islamic terrorism, mostly under the guise of al-Qaeda. This is the one that gets the most play in the press, for obvious reasons, and it's the reason that great swathes of the country are inaccessible to tourists. This includes the Sabaean ruins at Ma'rib, which I would love to see, but unfortunately can't because an attack killed seven Spanish tourists there last year; groups like this were also the ones responsible for the attack on the USS Cole. As in many Arab countries, this is the reason American funds flow to a government that has, otherwise, fairly little public support and even less actual democratic legitimacy. Nevertheless, there is a genuine movement of attacks in Yemen roughly in line with the broader Islamist one

The more interesting phenomenon, however, is that every attack is perpatrated by al-Qaeda. While this is theoretically possible, the fact is that it is in both the government's and the terrorists' interest to say that it was no matter the circumstances. The word 'al-Qaeda' is the 'open sesame' to American foreign aid coffers, its mere mention getting the instant attention of the State department; and point out the fact that if the central government were to lose control, the whole country could become al-Qaeda's new base, thereby negating the so-called 'good war' in Afghanistan, well, that's a nice fat paycheque for the ruling party. On the other hand, say you're some random terrorist, maybe Islamic, or just anti-Western, or both - imagine the instant prestige you get when your successful attack becomes a certified 'al-Qaeda'™ attack. So the government calls it al-Qaeda to get the Americans' attention, and it's not really in anyone's interest to rebut the claim, and so bin Laden's terror network appears to get more and more firmly established in Yemen. That's the problem with the whole treatment of al-Qaeda now - if it ever was an actual network (ie with funds flowing and chains of command), now it's just become something people say to get attention. Of course, it's a brush with which it's hard to tar a Shi'a group like the Houthis - which may be one reason that war hasn't been resolved - but the Saudis have solved that problem by invoking the other Great Evil, Iran, who is supposedly sponsoring them. Nevermind that the Zaidis have a form of Shi'ism no Iranian would recognise - they must be behind it anyway. That'll get the money coming in.

The idea of al-Qaeda ties is one that the government has used sporadically against our fourth and final 'terrorist' group, Southern separatists. Yemen used to be two countries from 1962 until unification in 1990 (which a civil war in 1994 tried, and failed, to undo), the communist South being generally more permissive than the standard Arab dictatorship of the North, centred economically around the port of Aden. Now (as ever in regions with some sense of identity, cf. Quebec), they claim that the north is oppressing them economically and culturally, and demanding more rights. A few people on the fringe want full independence - and of course the government has seized on such 'traitors' to shut down news papers, take political prisoners, and kill protesters for the freedom of said prisoners, as happened a few weeks back. There's really almost no danger from the 'separatists' - perhaps the ludicrous Chinese term for Tibetans, 'splittists', would be better? - and the occasional flare-up, as so many things here, certainly has more to with tribe than nation. However, the government will always use the spectre of civil war and failed state to clamp down, with international approval, on the most likely source of an effective and reasonable opposition in the country.

Yemen is not, by any standards, a calm country, and it's no stranger to violence - a walk down the main streets will see plenty of vendors with clips of ammo, and an AK-47 apparently costs approximately $150. And though the capital is quite far from the conflict areas, apparently last summer you could hear the bombardments of a nearby stronghold from downtown. However, in my view, Sana'a remains perfectly safe, and I in it, and I have the greatest violence I've experienced here was stupid little kids yelling at me about my tallness and long hair. The problem is, of course, that for all the real disasters here - education, poverty, women's rights - the media simply report on the war, the terrorist attacks, the kidnappings and the 'separatists,' without any detail, nuance or sense of the complex way in which all these things differ and fit together, painting a picture that, from my current seat at Abu Ali's teashop staring at the gorgeous buildings of Old Sana'a, is anything but.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

Democracy in Iran 12.VI.2009 11:54
Iran is a strange beast. Over the past weeks, it's seen expressions of political dissent that would be unthinkable in any of the various dictatorships - American-sponsored or otherwise - that dot the Arab world, including the one I'm writing from. On the other hand, it's not exactly a democracy either; hundreds upon hundreds of names were dismissed from the electoral rolls, and every candidate here has ties to the revolutionary establishment of the 1980s - except Ahmadinejad. On the one hand, Iran's Guardian Council issues edicts at whim, but on the other the Islamic Republic has a species of checks and balances, which have meant that never in its history has it really been able to speak in one voice, much as the three branches of the American government can rarely be said to do so. The elections aren't exactly free, but they aren't exactly undemocratic. In short, the Islamic Republic has an unelected government - but every few years, the people have the chance to elect an opposition.

In spite of the censorship and random jailings, of all the countries I've visited Iranians were freest with their political opinions - it would sometimes take me seconds for a taxi driver to tell me what he hates about the current government. Iran is, above all, a proud and cultured nation - its poets form a major part of the national psyche, and the Persian Empire is a source of pride, rather than being dismissed as an irrelevance of the jahiliyya, the 'time of ignorance' before the advent of Islam. Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric once tapped into this strong nationalistic current - as did Khomeini's thirty years ago - but now that he is seen as an embarrassment, the proud of the country are turning their backs on him.

Much like the recent Lebanese election, the Western media is viewing this one through a Western prism - as some sort of referendum of isolationism and Islamism vs. internationalism and secularism. One thing I never read about - and one that was extremely prominent during my visit to the country - was the rural/urban divide, for which one of the best parallels is the popularity of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand. Ahmadinejad has followed much the same path, positioning himself as a champion of poor against the corrupt urban elite which has been at or near the centres of power since the revolution. His religious views have little impact in the countryside, where most women wear the hijab anyway, and his alleged mismanagement of the economy hasn't negatively affected those who wer shut out from prosperity in the first place.

I was in Iran on al-Quds day - the last Friday of Ramadan, devoted by Imam Khomeini to the liberation of Jerusalem - and found myself caught in a demonstration of thousands in Isfahan's gorgeous Naksh-e-Jahan, shouting marg bar Amrika! marg bar Israil! - Death to America, Death to Israel. Except this was anything but an expression of the popular will; the government forced anyone in a union to attend or be fired, but I did speak to many genuine Ahmadinejad supporters there - invariably, it turned out, bused in from the countryside by the regime because the more educated, less conservative urbanites are embarrassed by such a spectacle. And, like many pluralistic societies, Iranian political opinion doesn't lend itself to easy categorisation; two girls we met were very conservative; they supported the Ayatollahs and criticised girls wearing bad hijab or holding their boyfriend's hands in public. But they didn't support Ahmadinejad - because when Iranians see him, they see what the rest of the word sees: that he's an embarrassing populist simpleton.

And in here comes another difference - in Yemen, no woman would ever spontaneously come up to a strange man to talk to him, let alone about Politics, and this holds true to a greater and lesser extent in the Arab world. Iran is famed as a bastion of women's oppression, and it is hardly innocent on the subject - volunteer militiamen go around on Thursday nights harassing and humiliating women behaving 'immodestly' (why Thursdays? Because while no one knows when the 12th Imam, awaited by all Shi'a since his occultation, will return to earth, it's known that it will be on a Friday, and the Islamic Republic neds to be ready). Nevertheless, women in Iran are more independent, better educated, and more politically active than in any Arab country I've visited; 60% of university graduates are women, their literacy is high, and they form an active part of the workforce. All it takes is to look at the attendance of either side's political rallies - men are the majority, but they don't overwhelm. And for all the talk of Iran's oppressive conservatism, there's no shortage of female Ahmadinejad supporters.

This is because Ahmadinejad's support has many sources. In addition to the rural/urban divide, there's one issue that Western commentators consistently overlook: corruption. Outside of Ahmadinejad, most of the ruling elite have been part of the establishment since the Shah's downfall, and it was they who benefited from the economic opening under Rafsanjani in the 1990's. I know from life in Poland and Yemen that there are few things more repressive than the daily humiliations of a corrupt government; faced years ago with a slate of establishment candidates and one, Ahmadinejad, who was nothing if not honest, it's not that surprising that they voted for him, and that many will do so now. It's one of the major issues Palestinians mentioned when they said they supported Hamas, and it's definitely one of the reasons that the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys so much popularity over Mubarak's clique in Egypt. And Ahmadinejad is honest; he says what he means, even when what he means makes little to no sense or is outright offensive.

There's also an illusion that anyone who votes against Ahmadinejad is somehow pro-American, but the Republic isn't about to stop being Islamic, nor is it about to given up it's nuclear programme. Why? Because nuclear deterrent is seen as the only way to stop an American invasion. This often gets referred to as 'paranoid', but its anything but when you consider that the United States engineered a coup against a popular prime minister in 1953, put a brutal dictator in his place - for the incredible extent of this brutality, read Kapuscinski's excellent Shahanshah - supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran even while he openly used chemical weapons, shot down an Iranian passenger plane and then claimed it was a suicide bombing, and invaded its immediate neighbour on what can only be described as the flimsiest of pretexts and now has thousands of troops stationed just across the border. North Korea - a far greater danger to everyone than Iraq was - doesn't even get considered for 'military action' because it has nuclear weapons, which shows itself to be the only effective deterrent. Americans have short memories, and think that now that Bush is gone people should 'just trust them', but a part of the world where many major streets are named for past dates doesn't work that way.

The elections today aren't free - the government has denied Mousavi screen time, and tried to block the sites like Facebook that his supporters use - but they are far from the farces of Mubarak's Egypt. This kind of semi-democratic, pluralistic cacophony is, in fact, what Khomeini envisioned - with himself the arbiter between the various factions. In fact, it was only Khamenei who started using the Guardian Council to vet election candidates he didn't like. Just after the revolution, contrary to Western perceptions, the most Islamic faction was also the one that was the most democratic - they felt that the Islamic Republic's legitimacy naturally stemmed from the people who, if given the opportunity, would choose just such a government - much like the logic that drives Americans to believe that any genuinely free elections will choose an American-like society, and leaves the bewildered when it doesn't, as in Palestine. These pro-democratic radicals were, in fact, the Imam Khomeini's most fervent supporters, and Mir Hossein Mousavi was one of them; after their marginalisation by Khamenei after his accession, they re-emerged as the 'reformers', softening their religious policies but not losing their belief that democracy is the source of legitimacy. It is Mousavi that many, including myself, are hoping will win today's election, but even if he fails to, recent events in Iran should serve to dispel any simplistic charicatures about this complex and fascinating country.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

On the Party of God 31.V.2009 13:43
Yesterday in the mid-afternoon, while at my teacher's house chewing qat, discussing politics and religion, everyone yelling over the others to be heard, as is the local custom. But at 6:30, the room fell silent: on the television, a man had taken the podium and was about to speak. His image, and his bearing, was hardly frightening - he looks like anyone's grandfather - but nevertheless, he is considered a leading terrorist by Europe and America, and a hero by many Arabs: Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's militia-cum-political party, Hezbollah. Behind him, the flags of the country and the party superimposed to display the two most enduring symbols of Lebanon: the cedar and the kalashnikov.

My Arabic is far from perfect, so for a political speech like this, my comprehension is at around 60%, but it was nevertheless fascinating to watch. Nasrallah is a tremendous speaker, able to achieve the gravitas of a statesman, the passion of a preacher and, by switching from Classical Arabic to the local dialect, the relatability of the common man - the last a quality shared by the likes of Gemal Abdul Nasser, but perfected in the down-home malapropisms of George W. Bush, the degree to which these were accidental remaining a matter of debate. The speech had none of the turgid rhetoric and theology so common among Islamists - witness Ahmadinejad's unwatchable diatribe at the UN - but then, he wasn't speaking to his party, but to the country as a whole, hoping to bring his party into the government and appeal to the nation as a whole - the Christian minority excepted of course.

What's most interesting is the way Hezbollah now positions itself - not as a terrorist organisation, or even as an insurgency, but as the natural (and only) defense of Lebanon against a hostile enemy which has, it must be admitted, invaded once or twice in the past. The Lebanese army is helpless in the face of the superior technology and funding of the Israeli Defence Forces, whose leadership definitely believes that the best Defence is a good Offence, and yet Hezbollah managed to push them out of Lebanon three years ago, winning it many supporters across the Arab world. For Nasrallah, Hezbollah is willing to defend the people against their enemies - he harked back to Lebanon's resistance to the Ottoman Turks repeatedly - while the government is either unwilling or too in thrall to the United States to do so. In a typical moment, he asked 'what would happen if the prime minister went to Iran and asked for weapons?' But of course, he won't - America would never allow it. But this allows Nasrallah to claim a conciliatory stance - Hezbollah would gladly integrate itself into the national army if that army were genuinely willing or able to defend the nation. Needless to say, the situation isn't likely to come up.

As I watched him on the screen, I could also see his younger self in a picture hanging over the television. It's difficult to overstate the popularity Nasrallah and Hezbollah enjoy in the Arab world, especially since the 2006 war. And, far from being confined to the more conservative elements of society, it's quite widespread. Now obviously, part of the appeal is the victory in the 2006 Lebanon war, but here's another element that Western commentators often overlook - honesty. One big reason Nasrallah is popular is because, unlike the vast majority of politicians in the region, he actually says what he believes. This particular factor can be seen behind many elections that are often cited as proof of the 'radicalisation' of Middle Eastern politics - the Hamas vs. Fatah is projected as being between pro-peace and pro-violence factions, whereas most people refuse to vote for Fatah because it is corrupt and domestically ineffective, supported far more by foreign governments than Palestinians. Similarly, in the 2004 elections, Iranians faced a choice between a bevy of establishment candidates and one unknown quantity who was, if nothing else, honest - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His election was in many ways a protest against a corrupt establishment, and if nothing else can be said for him, he practices what he preaches, appalling though it may be. Lest this seem like an Arab or Muslim problem, witness Netanyahu's shock that Obama's saying 'the United States wants a halt on settlements' meant 'the United States wants a halt on settlements.'

One hypocrisy that's always annoyed me about Western and Israeli commentary is that the definition of 'terrorism' seems to be 'anything Muslims who don't like us happen to do.' Yes, Hezbollah has engaged in terrorism - the prolonged kidnapping of Western hostages can hardly be called anything else - but the targeting of Israeli military installations is not. When Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers, the statement wasn't that 'Israel expects them to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions on Prisoners of War', but rather took the same tone as an attack on a shopping centre might. Similarly, the famous suicide bombings on the US Marine and French Paratrooper barracks were military attacks - I've never understood why suicide bombing is somehow so 'reprehensible' in the est; I guess it's one of those tokens that separates Them from Us. Though there's clearly a continuum between those two Hezbollah bombers, the young men who marched proudly into minefields during the Iran-Iraq war, and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Such wanton loss of life is a tragedy - but it isn't qualitatively different when they do it than when we do. Hezbollah remains the only organisation in Lebanon that has carried out extensive attacks against military targets widely perceived to be acting against the state - which, of course, in no way excuses its past attacks on civilian ones.

Hezbollah has been tremendously successful not because it preaches violence but because it, in large part, promises what people want and comes through on those promises. In a country whose southern regions suffered more than a decade of occupation, it is widely seen as having beat back the occupiers, when the Army proved hopelessly unlikely to do so. In a country where memories of the Sabra and Shatila resonate as does Nanking for the Chinese or Katyń for the Poles, they were the only ones who could claim a victory against the perpetrators. And in a country in which many, especially in the Shi'a and Palestinian underclasses, see themselves as besieged on all sides, with Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton making ridiculous statements that amounted to 'don't vote for Hezbollah because we said so,' and Der Spiegel accusing Hezbollah of having a hand in Rafiq Hariri's murder, Hezbollah claims the common, honouring the 'martyr' Hariri despite having been anything but a supporter during his lifetime. In a country with a stark division between the rich and a poor, and a history of violence seen in few modern states, it is hardly a wonder many people turn to the Party of God, the kalashnikov proudly on its black-and-yellow flag, as their bulwark against a hostile world.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye