Stretching My Gambes

Archive for the ‘Middle East Politics’ Category

ElBaradei the nucleus

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Published on the newstatesman.com (25/02/2010)

The Muslim Brotherhood has historically provided the main opposition to Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. But as April’s parliamentary elections approach, their internal struggles and the return to Cairo of a key reformist figure suggest that the colour of Egypt’s opposition is changing.

The return of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has increased speculation that he will challenge Mubarak in the 2011 presidential elections. Mubarak has yet to announce whether he will run and commentators have suggested he is grooming his son Gamal Mubarak — head of the ruling National Party’s policy committee — to succeed him.

That ElBaradei has not been associated with corruption and comes with a good international reputation makes him a popular contender. Further, as Magdi Abdelhadi, the BBC’s Arab affairs analyst, notes, ElBaradei’s appeal lies in being a civilian. Egypt has been controlled by the military since 1952.

Although he has suggested he would stand if the election could be guaranteed to be fair, or if he could run as an independent, amendments to the Egyptian constitution in 2005 make ElBaradei’s challenge ineligible.

Candidates must be members of political parties that have been in existence for at least five years. Alternatively, they must be independents, endorsed by parliament and the local councils. As both forums are dominated by Mubarak’s ruling party, an endorsement for ElBaradei seems somewhat unlikely.

Yet while it may be difficult for the ex-IAEA chief himself to stand, and even though he has been somewhat noncommittal about his plans, he has offered encouraging signals to Egypt’s reform movement. This week he met with various opposition groups to form the National Front for Change and has opened membership to anyone demanding an alternative to the National Party.

Reports indicate that the meeting, which took place at ElBaradei’s house, was attended by a mix of prominent Egyptian activists, intellectuals and politicians: leaders of the Democratic Front, the liberal Constitutional Party, the Ghad party, a faction of the Wafd party, as well as representatives of the Kefaya movement and the Sixth of April Youth. Although the Muslim Brotherhood are rumoured to have attended the meeting, which took place on Tuesday, their dominance in Egypt’s opposition would appear to be waning as the focus shifts to the new man.

This is certainly not helped by divisions within the Brotherhood. The party leadership elections in late 2009 demonstrated the split between the party’s older conservative elements, who invest their energy in religious and social programmes, and the largely reform-minded younger members. While the conservatives won, the reformists continue to advocate engagement with other democratic, secular opposition movements. The reform faction is preparing candidates for the April elections.

It would be foolish to expect one man to lead the charge against Mubarak and the presumed succession by Gamal. However, ElBaradei has galvanised the opposition and given it fresh momentum in the lead-up to the elections. It will be interesting to see if the presence of this new focal point for the opposition helps it shed its familiar Islamist guise.

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Written by Henry Smith

17/03/2010 at 23:54

Kurds fractured before Iraq elections

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Published on the newstatesman.com (12/02/2010)

Since 2003 the Kurdish region has been a bastion of stability amid the turmoil of Iraq. Foreign companies have put down roots there, the Lebanese pop star Elissa will sing there, and Turkey got over its fear of Kurdish nationalism to trade there — to the tune of $10bn.

However, stability and security are being undone as the dominance of the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s PUK and the Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani’s KDP is threatened by the emergence of the Goran (or “change”) party.

The strength of the alliance between the KDP and the PUK had previously given the Kurds the confidence to negotiate oil contracts without Baghdad’s agreement, and to push for increased regional autonomy. However, in July last year, Goran campaigned in the northern regional elections on an anti-corruption ticket against the Kurdish Alliance and won 23.6 per cent of the vote.

Goran will compete against the PUK and the KDP in national elections in March, the first time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein that the Kurdish vote will be split. This development has rocked the Kurdish establishment and damaged the region’s stability — when a Goran meeting was attacked this week, the finger was pointed at Talabani’s PUK.

The vice-president of Goran’s bloc in the Kurdistan parliament, Shaho Saaed, said: “A PUK militia disturbed a meeting of our electoral list before opening fire and wounding three people.”

As recriminations fly and the region’s reputation for security is dented, the worst effects could be on the Kurds’ bargaining power in post-election negotiations. With the status of Kirkuk, regional division of oil revenues and the integration of the various armed forces all crucial matters requiring attention in post-election bargaining, any lack of Kurdish unity will hamper the region’s ability to reassert itself in post-Saddam Iraq.

Written by Henry Smith

17/03/2010 at 23:49

Iran: the failed protests

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Published on the newstatesman.com (11/02/2010).

The Islamic Republic’s 31st anniversary was unlikely to pass without incident. However, reformist and opposition figures have been left disappointed with their achievements.

Mass celebrations at Azadi Square, in central Tehran, were greeted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The president appeared to make good his promise to deliver a “telling blow” to the west: he declared that Iran was now a nuclear state, with the capacity to enrich uranium to 20 per cent.

One day they said we cannot enrich uranium, but with the resistance of our leader, nation . . . and with the help of God, the Iranian nation has become nuclear.

The reformist “Green Movement” had planned demonstrations to express popular discontent with the lack of democratic accountability and representation in Iran. However their attempts were quashed by a security apparatus clearly prepared for them. The movement had declared that “each Iranian is a media outlet”, but their attempts to use technology to co-ordinate their protests were disrupted by blocks on Gmail and weak internet connections.

Demonstrators were met by the Basiji and Revolutionary Guard, who ensured that large groups of oppositionists could not congregate. The tactics appear to have been effective, leaving a representative of the National Iranian American Council to conclude on its live blog:

One thing I’m struck by is just how much the government has been in control today. Sure, they chartered busses and lured tens of thousands to the official government rally with free food, but they have also managed to keep the opposition activities largely on their terms today.

Despite the government’s tight management of the main scene in Tehran, there have been reports of clashes with notable political figures.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s granddaughter has reportedly been arrested, along with her husband, a brother of Mohammed Khatami.

Mehdi Karroubi’s car was attacked and a number of his followers were arrested, including his youngest son, Ali. Karroubi himself suffered pepper spray and tear gas burns. You can read an interview with one of his sons here.

Reports from later in the day have claimed that Mir Hossein Moussavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, was attacked by plain-clothed militia forces. It is said that postings on Moussavi’s website corroborate these claims.

Attacks on high-profile reformist individuals are likely to add weight to calls for accountability and justice, fuelling the demonstrations against the government. Events may have been state-managed well today but the reformists’ message remains the same. Although the government isn’t teetering towards revolution as some commentators may claim, tensions continue to fester and seem unlikely to disappear.

Written by Henry Smith

17/03/2010 at 23:36

Freedom unfulfilled for Iranians

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Published on the newstatesman.com (11/02/2010)

The anniversary of the Islamic revolution has traditionally been greeted with mass celebrations by Iranians congregating around the Azadi or Freedom Tower in Tehran. However, the government’s celebrations are set to be marred by protesters calling for increased accountability and representation.

While the government attempts to demonstrate its strength to the outside world in light of pressure over its nuclear program, principally through rocket launches and enhancing uranium enrichment – ostensibly for the production of medical isotopes – they face a renewed bout of domestic dissent.

The trajectory of the revolution has been fiercely contested since power was initially seized from the Shah by a heterogeneous mix of Marxist, nationalist, religious and secular movements but the months following the disputed elections in June 2009 have arguably produced the most severe and violent clashes witnessed since 1979.

There have been moments of unrest from marginalised ethnic groups and student movements in Iran, but they lacked the broad support base that the “Green movement” appears to generate. The movement’s followers come from a mix of social and ethnic strata and resultantly is not restricted to rich, Westernised northern Tehranis. Moreover, they are increasingly hard for the regime to handle with their use of digital media. While the mix of individuals is perhaps a new challenge to the Islamic Republic, their message is not.

Iran has arguably fulfilled two thirds of its revolutionary demands: “Independence, Freedom and the Islamic Republic”, however the call for freedom remains unfulfilled and it is this that maintains the demonstrations. Hamid Dabashi makes a similar point:

The history and the political culture of revolt against tyranny actually predate the Islamic revolution of 1977-1979. The young Iranians pouring into the streets of their homeland in recent months to demand their civil liberties are nourished and inspired by the same fountain of liberty that moved their parents in the years leading up to the 1979 revolution. …What we are witnessing in the streets of Iran and among Iranians around the globe is the resurgence of a vibrant political culture that gave rise to the 1979 revolution.

The majority of demonstrators will not be calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic but for the accountability and representation they have been denied through electoral irregularities and the government’s brute displays of force. Even those who have chanted “Death to Khamenei” are not calling for a revolution but wish to display their dismay at the violence they have observed.

Yasaman Baji, an Iranian reporter based in Iran, details a conversation she had with one such supporter:

“I don’t agree with this slogan but I shouted it along with the crowd,” he said. “We were angry. How else can empty-handed people respond to the violence that is directed at them?”

The nominal leaders of the Green Movement have called for non-violent demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the revolution but have also emphasised that the struggle is with despotism, not the Islamic Republic. Amidst rumours of conciliatory gestures between leaders of competing factions, Mr. Moussavi said in an interview on his website Kaleme.org: “Dictatorship in the name of religion is the worst kind. The most evident manifestation of a continued tyrannical attitude is the abuse of parliament and the judiciary. We have completely lost hope in the judiciary.”

Written by Henry Smith

17/03/2010 at 23:27

Iraq election reprieve fails to hide sectarian tensions

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Published on the newstatesman.com (04/02/2010).

Last month, 511 candidates were barred from participating in the 7 March Iraqi elections, ostensibly due to their links with Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. While this applied to a mix of Sunni, Shia and secular candidates, the lack of transparency and accountability ensured that the step was widely regarded as a measure to marginalise the Sunni community.

Despite a history of co-operation and peaceful coexistence, sectarian identities were politicised in Iraq by Saddam’s extensive use of patronage networks. The security vacuum and insecurities that have plagued the country post-occupation have exacerbated these tensions. So has the use of proxies by Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The boycott by Sunni parties undermined the legitimacy of the 2005 election and a similar scenario was feared again this year. The decision by the Independent High Electoral Commission to allow the barred candidates to run, although not to hold office until they are cleared of Ba’athist links, should restore some credibility to the process.

The decision appears to have been pushed through in part by US Vice-President Joe Biden, who visited Baghdad late last month. As such, the move has been dismissed by some as an attempt to ensure “smooth sailing” until the US withdrawal.

Meanwhile, there are visible signs that the problems are far more ingrained in Iraqi society.

Since Monday there have been five reported bombings in Baghdad, Karbala and Hilla. Wednesday’s attacks in Karbala came two days after a woman disguised as a Shia pilgrim struck a procession in north Baghdad, killing at least 38 people.

The targets are Shias travelling to Karbala to mark the end of 40 days of mourning the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s death. The pilgrimage was banned under Saddam and has routinely attracted violence since it started again in 2004.

Although the violence is undermining Prime Minister al-Maliki’s election platform of improving security for Iraqis, it is arguably doing more to halt attempts at reconciling existing sectarian tensions. While the perpetrators clearly have an interest in preventing the latter, it is surely in the interests of Iraqis and regional security.

Written by Henry Smith

04/02/2010 at 20:08

Obama’s Iran policy could quash dissent

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Published on newstatesman.com (01/02/2010)

The United States is ramping up its military presence in the Gulf with the reported sale of patriot missile systems to Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), together with the deployment of two warships capable of shooting down missiles directed at the littoral states in the Gulf.

This can be interpreted in two ways. First, Obama is signalling its capability and intent to an Israeli regime that appears particularly interested in taking unilateral and pre-emptive strikes against Iran’s nuclear programme. Second, Obama is attempting to demonstrate that America is willing to take military action against Tehran.

Being seen to placate Israel, again, will only damage Obama’s reputation further in the region, which has sunk and sunk since its zenith – when he delivered a speech at the Al-Azhar University in June 2009.

More importantly, however, the decision is exactly the sort of American action the incumbents in Tehran need, and probably want, in order to cement their position. While Iran’s leadership has survived the protests and demonstrations that resulted from the disputed election in June, severe discontent still exists within different elements of the Iranian population. By ramping up the threat of military action against Tehran any renegotiation of political power in the country can be seized by hardline elements with a vested interest in maintaining poor relations with the US.

Since the election protest the regime has routinely attempted to cast the protests and demonstrations as a result of foreign meddling in the country’s affairs. A list of 60 blacklisted organisations has now been published by the regime, the majority of which are foreign institutions perceived as a threat.

The country’s history of interference at the hands of American, British and Russian agents developed an anti-imperialist norm that remains pervasive throughout the population. The CIA and MI6 orchestrated coup d’etat against Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 is an event imprinted in Iranian consciousness.

The very foundation of the Iranian revolution in 1979 was the rejection of foreign interference in the country’s affairs. Pre-revolutionary writings from intellectuals like Jamal Al-e Ahmad and Ali Shari’ati spoke of the “Westoxification” of Iran and the need for the country to “return to oneself”. These slogans transcended different political factions regardless of their positions as Islamists, Marxists, republicans or socialists, and manifest themselves in the revolutionary slogans of “Neither East nor West, just the Islamic Republic” and “Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic”.

Political power is in the process of being renegotiated in Iran but threatening the regime in such an overt manner gives them the material it needs to quash the efforts of brave Iranians to confront the brutal authoritarianism displayed by the regime. Iran remains a post-revolutionary state, not a pre-revolutionary state, and the upheavals of 1979 are still playing themselves out.

However, by allowing the Iranian government to divert attention from domestic matters towards the imminent threat of America and Israel, Obama would risk closing the spaces that Iranians have carved for themselves.

Written by Henry Smith

01/02/2010 at 22:36

Yemen’s next steps

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Published on the newstatesman.com (28/12/2010)

Yesterday’s conference on Yemen made some important signals of intent for tackling the country’s fragility and insecurity. However the the need for domestic reform, the complexity of Yemen’s role in regional security and the need for investment in Yemen’s transition to a post-oil economy remain understated.

Agreeing on: ‘…respect for [Yemen’s] sovereignty and independence, and commitment to non-interference in Yemen’s internal affairs’ was an important initial step. Visible foreign interference would have merely exacerbated existing tensions, especially in light of comments from the Council of Clerics, an influential body amongst the mosaic of tribal and religious leaders through which President Ali Abdullah Saleh governs by proxy.

Aside from opposing military intervention, including covert attacks, the group has come down hard upon yesterday’s London conference. The clerics identified the event as “aggression against Yemenis” aimed at paving the way for foreign occupation of the country. A member of the Council of Clerics, Sheikh Saleh Salabani, claimed that US strikes would “drive the populace into the arms of al-Qaeda. We might not love al-Qaeda, but it is for our government to get rid of them and not anyone else.”

While direct intervention has been discounted, indeed it was unlikely given Obama’s domestic economic and political context, covert cooperation between the American and Yemeni intelligence services will continue. Being seen to fight Al Qaeda is a domestic imperative for Obama, as since the attempted bomb attack Yemen is perceived by the U.S. public as a threat to the heartland of America. However, any assistance provided to combat Al Qaeda needs to ensure that the separate conflicts in the north, with the marginalised Houthis, and the south, with southern separatists, are not conflated by Saleh under a narrative of counter-terrorism.

Domestic reform
The conference shied away from openly criticising Saleh’s government. Despite calling for reform in-line with IMF prescriptions, there was no mention of last year’s parliamentary elections, which have been delayed until April 2011 ostensibly due to issues of national security. The conference also fails to mention the presidential election in 2006, in which Saleh won 77 per cent of the vote. The EU’s analysis of the election concluded that despite positive steps towards democratic procedures it had not been fairly administered due to the use of state resources, the prevention of female participation, overt favouritism from state media, the incarceration of opposition supporters and concerns over the counting process. This was overlooked by Tim Torlot, the British ambassador to Yemen.

The uprisings by the Houthis and southern separatists, although rooted in older disputes and with their own specific grievances, are both responses to their respective economic and political marginalisation. To bring stability to Yemen, issues of accountability and representation need to be incorporated into the demands and pressure placed on Saleh.

Regional inclusion
The conference agreed that “…economic and social reform by the government of Yemen was key to long term stability and prosperity.” To this end a crucial step was made by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) Secretary General, who agreed to host a meeting in Riyadh on February 27-28 for Yemen’s regional neighbours and international partners.

Despite Yemen’s status as the most populous country in the Arabian peninsula, the GCC has shown no sign of investing the amounts needed to develop and support Yemen’s economy. Meanwhile, they continually deny Yemen membership due to the fact that the country’s relatively large population, which exceeds the combined population of all six GGC members, would give it unwanted influence and undermine Saudi Arabia’s leadership.

Mai Yamani, an author and commentator on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, has claimed that the GCC members’ failure to open their economies, which always require migrant labour, to Yemen’s young men is short-sighted and has a potentially deleterious impact on regional security. Those who have visited Sana’a say it serves as testament to the skill of Yemeni labourers. However, since the First Gulf War in 1991 Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have routinely expelled Yemeni workers. In December 2009, Saudi Arabia expelled 54,000 Yemeni workers.

Yamani has called for America and the UK, as patrons of the GCC, to encourage the Gulf states to include Yemen in the GCC. A solution to Yemen’s numerous problems is dependent on its inclusion. In reference to the dissemination of Saudi Arabia’s severe Wahabbi doctrine, Yamani states: “…instead of exporting religious radicalism to Yemen, importing its manpower could neutralize Yemen’s problems.”

The post-oil transition
The GCC together with the international community have a crucial role to play in restoring Yemen’s economy. Traditionally reliant on oil, the supplies are drying up. Production peaked in 2002 at 460,000 b/d, but has fallen to the current rate of 300,000-350,000 b/d. It is hard to overstate the significance of Yemen’s oil sector. The World Bank estimates that oil accounts for 90 per cent of export earnings and 75 per cent of government revenue. They predict that state revenues from hydrocarbon sales will plummet sharply during 2009-10, reaching zero by 2017.

As such, investment and economic support needs to be strategically targeted at those sectors of the economy that can play a role in Yemen’s transition to a post-oil economy. Projects need to reinvest in the country’s agriculture and undermine the dominance of Qat, which has a deleterious impact on both the water table and the populations’ mental health.

Piracy and the Gulf of Aden
Future revenue from oil is reliant on establishing new offshore sites in order to improve output levels, however piracy risks in the Gulf of Aden have stunted international investment. This problem has also disrupted the development of Yemen’s nascent liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector, which came on-line in October 2009.

Yemen is not merely a victim of piracy – weapons and money are easily passed across the Gulf of Aden, supporting militancy and piracy in the region. Moreover, Yemen acts as a conduit for international arms smuggling, notably for weapons destined for Somalia, and is crucial to improving security in the region. The conference failed to address these matters, which is a significant oversight given the ability of piracy networks across the Gulf to disrupt the stability of global oil supplies.

The conference has made important signals of intent but it is not enough. It understates the need to look at Yemen and horn of Africa holistically and how insecurity is exacerbated by Saleh’s methods of governance. A lot may reside on the meeting in Riyadh.

Written by Henry Smith

01/02/2010 at 22:30