Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

Posts by Category

Showing posts for "U.S. Foreign Policy"

Guest Post: How Pakistan Sees the United States

by Ed Husain

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi (Courtesy Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi)

The following was written by Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, the founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance and a member of Khudi Pakistan. He tweets at @ali_abbas_zaidi.

It was November 1979. Anti-American outrage filled the streets of Pakistan. Several U.S. facilities were attacked across the country. A mob in Islamabad nearly burned the U.S. embassy to the ground. The chant “Kill the American infidels!” echoed in the air in response to the siege of Mecca’s grand mosque, Islam’s holiest site.

Pakistani crowds angered by the unprecedented events unfolding in Mecca concluded that such a plot could only be orchestrated by Americans. It turned out they were wrong. The homegrown radical group in Saudi Arabia that led the bloody siege had no link with the United States.

While the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has experienced many changes in the decades since, miscalculations of ground realities on both sides and anti-American sentiment have remained.

The majority of people in Pakistan admire the way Americans live—almost every Pakistani family has a member settled in the United States—but a glaring majority hates the impact of U.S. policies in Pakistan. The United States is considered by many to be the “great Satan.” Every U.S. political move in Pakistan is interpreted as an effort to destabilize Pakistan or to fight a war against Islam. Aggressive rhetoric on the Pakistani side—at times reflecting an unrealistic worldview and at times responding justifiably to belligerent U.S. action—molds mass perceptions. Read more »

Our Man in Pakistan?

by Ed Husain

Pakistan's former president Pervez Musharraf gives a news conference at the launch of his party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (Luke MacGregor/Courtesy Reuters).

His close proximity to former U.S. president George W. Bush earned him the popular moniker, “Busharraf.” So it was with some intrigue that I went to hear Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, address a prestigious and influential U.S. audience at a packed meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations’ headquarters in New York this week.

I was struck by what was, essentially, his appeal for U.S. political sponsorship of his bid to contest elections in Pakistan next year. He spoke eloquently about the poor state of U.S.-Pakistan relations, the need for a peace settlement with elements of the Taliban, and his country’s—and his own—unhelpful Machiavellian attitude toward India and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the following facts left me worried:

First, for a man who prosecuted the war on terror with such vigor, it was unforgivable for him to say to an Indian journalist who asked about Pakistan’s export of terrorism, ‘Sir, your terrorist is someone else’s freedom fighter.” This moral equivocation is the same justification used by terrorists to inflict harm on innocent lives around the world. Musharraf should know better.

Second, a major cause for widespread, ongoing anti-American radicalization in Pakistan is the CIA-led drone attacks in the country’s tribal regions.  Musharraf did not make any references to the drones, their many innocent victims, and the perceived violation of Pakistani sovereignty. It would have been wiser to reassure the audience that a Pakistan under his control would be a nation in which the United States would not need to use drones because terrorists would be brought to justice. Ignoring the issue of drones is self-defeating all around. Read more »

Syria, Sanctions, and “Evils of the Transition”

by Ed Husain
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Syrian state television in Damascus on August 21, 2011 (SANA/Courtesy Reuters).)

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Syrian state television in Damascus on August 21, 2011 (SANA/Courtesy Reuters).

I can never forget that callous, cold, and counter-productive answer from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright when she was asked about the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children as a result of sanctions: “We think the price is worth it.

The sanctions were designed to weaken Saddam Hussein’s regime—they did not. Instead, we had Secretary Albright in a CBS interview undermining every fiber of the moral authority of the United States. That mistake cannot be repeated again.

Sanctions against the population of Gaza, collective punishment for voting for the political wing of a terrorist movement, have not led to mass street protests against Hamas or weakening of its control over Gaza. The Arab uprisings were an ideal moment for Gazans to rise up against Islamist rule by Hamas and call for Western support—they did not. Hamas has delayed holding elections in Gaza. There is yet to be mass outcry.

In Syria, in the large cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and elsewhere, the country’s president remains popular. Sanctions, however productive, will not dislodge this popularity. A population accustomed to blaming outsiders will fault Israel, the United States, and the European Union for punishing them. In time, anti-American sentiment will rise further as the regime demands “sacrifices for the motherland” from its people. Any opposition to such rallying cries will be labeled as khiyanah, or betrayal. Democracy activists will be cast as jasoos, or spies. These two Arabic words are not only deeply derogatory, but are exceptionally effective in creating outcasts of the most noble of citizens. Read more »

Saudi Arabia: A Step Backward

by Ed Husain

Saudi Arabia's newly-appointed crown prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz attends a news conference in Mecca in this December 26, 2006 file photo (Ali Jarekji/Courtesy Reuters).

I was in Saudi Arabia when King Fahd died in 2005. There was genuine remorse among Saudis young and old at the passing of the king. Portraits of the king covered car windows for weeks—a spontaneous and unprecedented outburst of Saudi national grief. There was also hope that the new king, Abdullah, would help bring Saudi Arabia into the twenty-first century. That dream ended yesterday with the appointment of Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as crown prince, or de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia as King Abdullah continues to undergo hospital treatment for his declining health condition.

In the corridors of power in Washington, DC, and London there was some relief that Prince Nayef, as expected, had become crown prince. In contrast, young Saudis on Twitter, Saudi democracy activists, and vocal women were filled with foreboding as to what lies ahead in their country. Granted, Nayef has been a vociferous enemy of al-Qaeda elements inside Saudi Arabia and eliminated hundreds of operatives, while arresting thousands since 2003. But this was not because he opposed jihadi ideology or Islamist thinking. His public attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood come not because he differs with their brand of Salafi Islam, but because they seek to undermine the House of Saud.

It was the same Nayef that after 9/11 said the attacks were a Jewish plot and “the Saudis [were] being framed” because fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were revealed to be Saudi. Read more »

Shifts in Egyptian Public Opinion

by Ed Husain

Protesters walk past a placard depicting Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, at Tahrir Square after Friday prayers in Cairo September 30, 2011. The banner reads "unite before the military tanks step on you" (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

The great belief that the Egyptian military does not kill its own was shattered this weekend as the army crushed a Christian protest in Cairo. Coptic Christians that wanted answers about the lack of support for new churches and the government’s failure to investigate previous attacks on Christians were answered with military bullets. Egypt is a country in transition with an increasingly impatient population. Last week, Mohamed Tantawi—head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—sought to reassure Egyptians that democracy remains the future for their great country. But with growing sectarian strife (three churches burned in the last four months), economic difficulties, political instability, and blaming “global conspiracies” for Egypt’s challenges, it remains to be seen if the current military control of the country will end.

How are Egyptian attitudes changing after the jubilation of their revolution? What do Egyptians consider to be their biggest national problem now that former president Hosni Mubarak cannot be blamed for everything? Who is the frontrunner for the presidential elections? Are Egyptians excited about free and fair elections? What of attitudes toward Israel? Read more »

Islamist War of Words in Egypt

by Ed Husain

A man holds the Quran during a protest at Tahrir Square in Cairo on July 29, 2011 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

When I was in Cairo earlier this year, members of the Muslim Brotherhood complained to me that under former president Hosni Mubarak’s rule they had been denied licenses for satellite television channels while the more hardline Wahhabi (or Salafi) Muslims had been granted several. In a nation with high rates of illiteracy, unemployment, and late-night sleeping habits, spending hours watching television is the norm. As a result, Wahhabi ideas were given a platform through which they have influenced Egyptian political and religious thinking.

The effect of Wahhabi channels on political discussions in Egypt is such that during Friday prayers in Tahrir Square today, the preacher felt compelled to publicly attack “Wahhabi money” that he claims is dedicated to countering the aims of Egypt’s secular revolution. It is laudable that liberal activists in Tahrir Square not only continue to hold weekly congregational prayers there every Friday, but that they depend on mainstream imams such as Mazhar Shaheen to counter the rise of Salafism in Egypt.

Egypt’s liberals will need all the support they can get from more mainstream clerics. As elections draw near, the language of Egypt’s Wahhabis is becoming more confrontational, threatening, and worryingly confident. Allegedly bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, Wahhabis initially rejected the revolution and spoke out against overthrowing Mubarak’s government. But that has now changed.

A prominent Wahhabi leader, Sheikh Shihab El-Din Ahmed, spoke at a mass conference of Wahhabis yesterday and declared:

A fatwa has been issued by religious scholars that seeking political power in the current times is a religious obligation in order to implement sharia. If we negate this duty, we will be held accountable [by God] on the day of judgment.

In the coming months, we will hear this argument in other Arab countries, too. And the key Arabic phrase that Ahmed uses, tatbiq al-sharia, or “implementing sharia” will be a major policy challenge for Egypt, but also for the United States in its relations with Egypt. What does tatbiq al-sharia mean in real terms?  How does it manifest? The Arab Street will revisit extremist obsessions with tatbiq al-sharia next week. Read more »

Tread Carefully in Syria

by Ed Husain

Members of the Syrian opposition fronts argue among themselves during a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2, 2011 (Stringer Turkey/Courtesy Reuters).

It is fashionable in Western capitals to call for regime change in Syria, but with what consequences? The two overarching arguments to remove Syrian president Bashar al-Assad are that his regime is a bastion of anti-Americanism and that he is an Iranian proxy. Recent reports of civil war in Syria and opposition demands of a no-fly zone will only lead to more violence from the Assad regime.

I have nothing but profound admiration for the courageous protestors who risk their lives daily in some of Syria’s major cities, organizing protests through networks of local coordination committees. This weekend’s opposition meeting in Istanbul, though fractious and acrimonious, is a sign of attempts at unity among Syrian democracy activists. However, the lesson from Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya is that this generation does not possess the political networks or clout to mobilize the masses after the overthrow of a regime—the revolutionary booty almost always goes to Islamist and salafist movements, at least for now. Read more »

Turkish Lessons for U.S. Foreign Policy

by Ed Husain

Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan arrives to address the opening session of the Arab foreign ministers' meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on September 13, 2011 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

When I visit Arab countries, I often hear the United States accused of being an ‘‘imperial power.’’ It is also viewed as being too close to Israel, and religious extremists of the al-Qaeda trend invariably refer to the United States as “crusaders.” Consequently, important U.S. political messages on the need for democracy, the importance of freedom, and the advantages of building secular polities are ignored or ridiculed as “neoconservatism”—a discrediting label associated closely with the Iraq war in most Arab minds.

Whatever the United States’ intentions and failures in Iraq, it did not seek to colonize Iraq, or any other Arab nation for that matter. In contrast, Turkey was a major imperial power for several centuries across the Middle East. Until very recently, Turkey was not only detested by Kurds and Lebanese Armenians for the atrocities that Turkey committed against these people, but most Egyptians and Syrians were taught in their schools that Turkey’s four-hundred-year-old occupation of Arab countries was responsible for Arab economic and political decline.
Read more »

Pakistan Is Indispensable to the United States

by Ed Husain

Pakistan's foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar addresses the media in Ankara on August 11, 2011 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters)

“Disloyal, deceptive, and a danger to the United States” was how Texas congressman Ted Poe described Pakistan in a bid to freeze aid to the country. Gone are the days of Charlie Wilson when General Zia’s Pakistan was the funnel through which the U.S. bankrolled the Afghan mujahideen. Then, billions of dollars were provided for jihadis without the knowledge of the U.S. taxpayer. General Zia was no friend of the West, either.

But today’s American lawmakers want to be loved by the world. They forget that superpowers exert authority and influence, and that does not always make for affection between countries. The Greeks, Romans, and British were not always loved by the world. Idaho Republican senator James Risch spoke for many of his colleagues and compatriots when he said “Frankly, I’m getting tired of it, and I think Americans are getting tired of it as far as shoveling money in there at people who just flat don’t like us.”

Having visited Pakistan, I think most Pakistanis have problems with U.S. foreign policy in their region—not Americans per se. A popular joke in the country helps underscore this point: if your mother is on her death bed, Pakistanis ask one another, would you give her Pakistani medicine or American drugs? The answer is always the latter. This trust in American science, alongside the popularity of American clothes, movies, culture, and education, are not the hallmarks of a people that hate the United States.

Read more »