Friday, May 22, 2009

The View from Istanbul - Day One

By Justin McMahan
May 22, 2009

ISTANBUL - Dre and I launched this blog as a forum in which to write and post audio / video during the six weeks that we will spend in the Middle East. During the next forty plus days, we have reservations / plans to fly / drive to visit with friends in Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Egypt. That is the framework. Beyond that, we’ll play it by ear.

Of course we will visit our fair share of mosques, souqs and ruins, but the driving force behind this trip is a desire to learn from and about people from diverse ethnic backgrounds (Turkmen, Arabs, Persians, Kurds), religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), sects (Maronite, Sunni, Allawi, Shia) and so forth.

It should be an interesting time to be in the region. Iraq’s neighbors watch nervously as the U.S. draw-down continues apace. Though forced at gunpoint, and in the wake of more than 4,000 American and up to 100,000 Iraqi casualties, the inescapable fact is that a serious effort is underway to build a democracy in the heart of the Levant.

The roots of Iraqi civil society grow stronger by the day. Indeed, while we witness the demise of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe, Baghdad is today home to roughly 100 functioning newspapers. Journalists there have no qualms about criticizing the al-Malaki government, or anyone else.

Elections are scheduled for early 2010. In the interim, will the al-Malaki government be able to maintain order but also govern with an even hand and reach out to Sunnis and Kurds? The fate of the Dawa party hangs in the balance. Countries like Egypt, which are grappling these very days with civil society and electoral reform, will watch closely.

We will be in Beirut during the June 7 election. If Hezbollah wins additional seats in parliament, as expected, U.S. and EU governments will be faced with a tough decision. Do they choose not to recognize another democratically elected Islamic party, as they did with Hamas after the January 2006 election, or do they agree on a framework similar to the way they dealt with the IRA’s Sinn Fein, and recognize Hezbollah’s political arm?

We will be in Iran during the June 12 election (also Justine and Stephen’s wedding… congratulations!). The world will watch closely to see if the Iranian people will vote to unclench their government’s fist by voting for the reformer Moussavi. Incidentally, I heard today that Moussavi’s wife is campaigning with and for him and taking on a very public advocacy role. This is a new development in Iranian political campaign gender dynamics.

Meanwhile, President Ahmadinejad, whose political fortunes have been damaged by the drop in oil prices, has campaigned tirelessly these past weeks in a bid to secure the support of his people for another term. Israel will watch closely as they weigh the pros and cons of a pre-emptive military strike on suspected nuclear facilities there. President Obama is expected to be in Israel during the Iran election, perhaps to personally ensure that they refrain from doing so. But even the election of Moussavi is unlikely to provide Israel with much comfort. He would not stop the nuclear program, at least not in the near term, and not without a generous package of incentives.

All of this against a backdrop of a new American President who gave his first interview to Al Arabiya, who made Mahmoud Abbas among the first leaders called and who told an audience in Ankara that “the West will never be at war with Islam.” Obama has taken a harder line with Israel, as evidenced not only by his recent meeting with PM Netanyahu, but also by remarks made by Biden at AIPAC and Secretary Clinton on repeated occasions. In a few weeks, Obama will deliver a highly anticipated speech in Cairo, still the Pennsylvania Avenue of the Arab street. This time, the Street will look for more than just a change in tone, but it will nonetheless be interesting to see how much the President’s remarks resonate in the region and at the polls.

1 comment:

  1. Hope you guys are having fun - lets see some video/pictures up on the blog!