Saturday, November 6, 2010

Eventful Week In Saudi Arabia

By Tariq A. Al-Maeena
This comment was published in Gulf News on 7/11/2010

This past week was an eventful one for Saudi Arabia. In its annual report, Doing Business, the World Bank rated Saudi Arabia as the best country in which to do business in the region. Saudi Arabia also moved up a notch to eleventh spot among all nations in the Doing Business 2011 report.

According to the report, "Saudi Arabia, the region's highest-ranking economy on the overall ease of doing business, focused on four areas of business regulation in the past year". This explains its rise in the rankings. But it was also during this past week that certain events took place that would have perhaps discouraged foreign investors and venture capitalists eager to cash in.

A Saudi taxi driver was charged with khulwa (illegitimate seclusion) because he drove a Chinese nurse from the hospital she worked at to the local market in the vicinity in south Jeddah. The Jeddah Summary Court has started proceedings in the case of the taxi driver, a young Saudi man in his 20s who was stopped by members of the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (Haia), who accused him of being in illegitimate seclusion with the woman.

In his defence, the young man stated he was helping his father as he had lost his car in the Jeddah floods in November, and was thus driving his father's taxi. He added that he had no previous relationship with the nurse. The Vice cops' security patrol caught the young man while he was dropping off the nurse at the market and took him to a nearby police station for questioning. The case continues.

In another event, a total of 1,240 non-Saudi Quran teachers have been barred from teaching in Jeddah. According to the Makkah region branch of the organisation in charge of Quran memorisation (tahfiz), "Quran memorising classes have not been stopped. The classes continue but only with Saudi teachers …"

"All expatriate teachers who work for the society have been stopped from teaching," stated the chairman of the Charitable Society for Holy Quran Memorisation (Makkah Region).

"We received a statement from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Call and Guidance ordering us to stop expatriate teachers from teaching the Quran. We were told that expatriate teachers are committing violations and breaking rules, but we do not know what these violations are. Most of the expatriate teachers are qualified enough and never create problems. We also received orders not to transfer the residency permits of expatriate teachers to us," he said.
Unspecified violations

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Call and Guidance said in a report that it wants Saudis to teach the Quran because of violations committed by expatriate teachers. It did not elaborate on the nature of such violations. No one from the ministry was available to discuss this matter further.

And finally, the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta of Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa on Sunday banning women cashiers from working in the Kingdom's supermarkets. The Senior Board of Ulema, chaired by the Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh, said in its ruling on Sunday that the mixing of sexes is forbidden and women should not seek jobs where they could encounter men.

"It is not permitted for Muslim women to work in a mixed environment with men who are not related to them, and women should look for jobs that do not lead to them interacting with men, which might cause attraction from both sides," the fatwa stated.

Citing Quran verses and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), the board urged women to stay away from such jobs for the sake of Allah, who would reward them accordingly.

The Kingdom's top government-sanctioned board of senior Islamic scholars endorsed the fatwa, which also calls for a ban on women cashiers elsewhere because it violates the Kingdom's rules on the segregation of sexes. The decision was prompted following demands by a hard-line conservative preacher who had publicly called for a boycott of supermarkets, which had begun employing women cashiers less than two months ago.

Needless to say, the fatwa has become a heated point of discussion in this never-ending compendium of contradictions.

Bombing Iran Will Strengthen It; Only Peace Will Weaken Iran

In Israel's history, very few years have opened without flowery declarations about 'a decisive year.' For the most part, they turned out to be years of missed opportunities.

By Gideon Levy
This Comment was published in Haaretz on 5/11/2010
A moment after the U.S. congressional election season, a moment before the presidential election season, a very short window of opportunity opens for the decision-making season. This is likely to be an unparalleled season of danger. As usual, on the agenda is an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and "the peace process."

Nothing has come of the latter, but even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like for once to make a decision, "go down in history" and set aside this whole headache of two states and freezing the settlements, Likud MKs Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely. Defense Minister Ehud Barak also wants it. So the coming months are destined for trouble, and calamity is looming. The relatively easy way for Netanyahu and Barak to decide, and make people forget, could be through bombing. Yes, this could succeed once again, as it did in Iraq and that mysterious country, but this success, too, would be imaginary. A failure would be disastrous, and there is a plethora of horror scenarios for the day after.

Iran is dangerous; an Iran that is bombed will be even more dangerous. The regime in Iran is stable; the regime after a bombing will be even more stable. Anyone who wants to strengthen it is invited to bomb. Anyone who wants to unite the Iranian people even more behind its leadership is invited to threaten and attack. Anyone who wants to spur on Iran even more to get a nuclear bomb is invited to intimidate it. Even the last of the ayatollahs knows the truth: If Afghanistan or Iraq had an atomic bomb, the United States would not have dared to invade them, and their regimes would have been spared.

The last of the ayatollahs also knows that lashing out at Israel the occupier is the best way to preserve the regime. And in Israel, the last of the experts knows that bombing Iran will merely delay the development of a bomb by a few years. Anyone who wants to prove that Israel knows how to bomb - to bomb once again - is invited to embark on that crazy adventure.

On the other hand, anyone who wants to weaken Iran, to isolate it and neutralize its dangers even partially, is invited to act differently. There is only one way to remove the threat for more than two or three years - by making peace. It's irritating how simple that sounds, and how unrealistic. It's possible to imagine an "unrealistic" scenario like this: Israel responds to Syria's entreaties for peace, challenges it and signs a peace treaty with it. Iran then loses one strategic ally - Syria. Another strategic ally returns to Israel - Turkey. And there is peace upon Israel.

One can imagine even wilder developments. Israel ends the occupation and reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Iran loses its most vitriolic pretext for attacking Israel. After all, what can President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad say if the Palestinians make a deal with Israel? Who will listen to him after Nablus, Gaza, Hebron and half of Jerusalem become sovereign territory and the Arab League declares peace? And how much support will he be able to muster if he is left without all these excuses for aggression, standing almost alone in the face of a new Middle East with only Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and maybe Hamas remaining at his side?

Iran will then become like Libya once was, isolated and ridiculous, and after that, perhaps like Libya is today, accepted and belonging. Does this sound oversimplified? Maybe, but the "complex" and "realistic" alternatives are more unrealistic and dangerous.

The most hazardous process that has occurred in Israel in recent years is the loss of rationality. For a long time now, Israel has not known what's good for it; the most serious harm to its interests has been caused by its own deeds, powerful "friendly fire" time and again.

The decision-making season is at hand and the decisions will have to be made mainly by two people - Netanyahu and Barack Obama. We didn't expect anything of the first while we were disappointed by the second. Nevertheless, the last word has not yet been said about them. The U.S. president has the power to hold back an Israeli bombing attack and put pressure on this country to choose the other path. Obama owes this to Israel and to world security. It must be said in Netanyahu's favor that he has never taken Israel to war, a rare achievement for an Israeli prime minister. It's worth his while to keep it that way.

In Israel's history, very few years have opened without flowery declarations about "a decisive year." For the most part, they turned out to be years of missed opportunities. The decision-making season that began this week could turn into neither of these; it could turn out to be the season of catastrophe.

The Proxy War In The Middle East May Escalate In The Coming Weeks

By David Ignatius 
This commentary was published in Daily Star on 6/11/2010 

While American eyes were focused on the midterm elections, a bitter conflict has continued between the US and Iran for influence in the Middle East.

The flash points have been Iraq and Lebanon, where the Iranians have been pushing through their proxies for what amounts to political control. The US and its allies have been resisting – sometimes feebly, but enough to slow the Iranian advance. In both Baghdad and Beirut, the proxy warfare may escalate in coming weeks.

The Obama administration hopes that this jousting with Iran is a prelude to serious talks on limits to Tehran’s nuclear program. In the administration’s view, the Iranians have been squeezed by UN sanctions – and are fighting back in Iraq and Lebanon partly to show they still have leverage.

The White House has repeatedly signaled Iran that it wants a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue. The signals back from Tehran have been ambiguous, as usual, but the Iranians have said they are ready to meet later this month for more talks with the US and its key allies, perhaps in Vienna.

The tantalizing hints that Iran wants negotiations have included outreach to American contacts by Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a key political adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A second Ahmadinejad adviser attended a US-organized meeting in Rome on October 18 about stabilizing Afghanistan. Through various intermediaries, the US has indicated it would accept phased negotiations that began with a Turkish compromise for fueling the Tehran Research Reactor and then moved to Iran’s overall nuclear program.

The game of nuclear chicken has been going on for nearly a decade now, and for all the jockeying over the next round of talks, there’s little hard evidence yet that the Iranians are serious about reaching a deal. Meanwhile, their drive for political power in Baghdad and Beirut continues.

The US resistance to Tehran has been a kind of rope-a-dope strategy, with US allies absorbing Iranian blows while Washington dickers for compromise – and, metaphorically, waits for Iran to punch itself out. The US hope, in the words of former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, is that “Iranian influence is self-limiting. The harder they push, the more resistance they get.”

In Iraq, more than seven months have passed since the March parliamentary elections without formation of a new government. Iran has put its weight behind Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s bid to stay in power, and is said to have created a special task force in Baghdad to pressure Iraqi factions. Iran is said to have cut off covert subsidies to Shiite parties that refused to back Maliki.

The US, strangely, has also tacitly supported Maliki’s quest. But Washington has insisted that the Iraqiya Party, headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and backed by Iraq’s Sunni community, must be included in a coalition government. Supporting the US demand is Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader who is kingmaker in these negotiations.

Some Iraqis fear that Tehran is planning a campaign of reprisals. A source last week sent me a purported Iraqi intelligence report claiming that “Iranian intelligence officers [plan] a two-stage operation involving assassinating [former] members of the Baath Party and former and current officers in the army and intelligence agency.”

The proxy war in Lebanon is just as fierce. Hizbullah, the Shiite organization created by Iran, is fulminating against an international tribunal that is reportedly preparing to indict Hizbullah members next month for the 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. The US has organized a coalition, including Russia, to support the tribunal’s work. If indictments are issued, Hizbullah may move to topple the Lebanese government – creating a new showdown. How the US and Israel would respond isn’t clear but their options would limited.

An angry Ahmadinejad last week accused Russia of selling out to “Satan” by supporting sanctions and canceling a planned sale to Iran of ground-to-air missiles.

The Obama administration hopes that an isolated Iran will eventually seek a compromise on the nuclear issue. But as Karim Sadjadpour argues in Foreign Policy, this regime with a “victimization complex” needs America as an enemy, perhaps more than ever. It makes sense for the US to explore every reasonable area of compromise, but the proxy wars in Iraq and Lebanon show that Iran wants to bargain from strength, too.

After the election furor, President Barack Obama must turn to this test – and discover whether Iran wants negotiations to reach a deal, or to kill time.

Obama and "Consensus"

By Walid Choucair
This comment was published in al-Hayat on 5/11/2008

The world focused its attention on the American elections of 2008, as the overwhelming majority of people wanted to change the policy of former President George W Bush due to the chaos he created in the world and in America itself. Likewise, the world also observed this week’s mid-term elections, for signs of the future impact of the Republican majority on the policies of President Barack Obama in several international crises. The Middle East is a fundamental player here, not to mention the American domestic situation, and particularly the economy, which impacts the world economy, and thus many of the political decisions taken in US foreign policy.

It is logical to predict the results of the Republican Party’s control of the House, with the Democrats and Obama retaining the majority in the Senate, after having had majorities in both houses. But the upending of the situation is nothing new in American politics over decades.
On this point, the expert in domestic US affairs, Riad Tabbara, who experienced this period as a researcher and ambassador at the United Nations, then Lebanon’s ambassador to Washington, says that a review of the results of 17 mid-term elections in the last decades indicates that 15 have had similar results to this week’s polls. In other words, the president and his party have only retained the majority two times. The general and dominant trend is for a number of voters who supported the president to withhold this support two years into his term. This is because they are unsatisfied by the achievement of his promises made during the campaign, or because these promises were translated into failed policies.

Obama announced that he would deal with the Republican majority in the House through means of consensus (a word that dominates the political situation in Lebanon and Iraq these days, despite the difference in the means and mechanisms of pressure). The previous experience with bipartisanship between a president who has lost a majority and the majority party has been undertaken before, with some success, such as in the term of Bill Clinton, when he took decisions for six years with the Republicans, and achieved economic success for his country.
Certainly, Obama will face a difficulty that will force him to make compromises with the Republicans, whose success does not mean that things can be measured in black and white. Tea Party members of the Republican Party managed to win some seats, campaigning on racism, isolationism, extreme free market ideals, a rejection of social programs, and a rejection of taxes on companies. Some of these policies are problems for Obama, but not alone – he is joined here by the liberal and moderate wings of the Republican party, which are less conservative. These figures succeeded in states that traditionally belong to the Republicans, and not Democrats.

The success of these candidates amid the win by the Republicans in the House resulted from the lack of improvement in the economy after the great crisis of 2008. American voters are in a hurry to solve the problem of growing unemployment, and a sluggish economy, while Obama’s team and his party affirm that their economic measures prevented an all-out collapse. This prompted the New York Times to comment, saying that if the plane doesn’t crash, it’s not enough reason to credit the captain.

The domestic challenges that Obama faces will overrule foreign policy challenges, with regard to coming economic reforms, after it became difficult for Republicans to go backward after what they achieved with Obama on health care and supporting faltering economic sectors, and raising some taxes. As for foreign policy, the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats are very small. Obama is carrying out what was already begun at the end of the Bush presidency, with regard to withdrawing from Iraq by the end of the year. Obama has returned to an open bias toward Israel with regard to peace negotiations, compared to a different type of enthusiasm at the beginning of his term. The Zionist lobby has a greater ability to influence his decisions, in light of domestic difficulties.

Obama has returned to the hard-line stance that the other party was famous for, with Iran, after he began his term with an initiative for engagement and dialogue with Tehran. He has also gone back to a hard-line policy on Lebanon, with Syrian and Iranian policies in this country, in parallel to not giving up engagement in dialogue with Damascus, which is what the Republicans were calling for. “Consensus” between Obama and his rivals in the Middle East will be worrying.

Syria And America: The End Of The Honeymoon Period

By Tariq Alhomayed
This comment was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 6/11/2010
It seems that the American – Syrian honeymoon has come to an end, and to make matters worse, the Republican Party has gained control of the US Congress following this week's mid-term elections. Damascus wasted two years of Obama's presidency, failing to achieve anything; during this period the Syrians dealt with Washington in the same manner that they deal with certain Arab countries, and this is something that can be seen in their response to the statement made by US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, in which Damascus called on Feltman to "recognize historical and geographical facts."
Two years after Washington extended its hand to Damascus, the US is outraged by the Syrian behavior in Lebanon, with the Americans believing that Damascus is contributing to undermining security and stability there. This is something expressed by US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, and Feltman himself reiterated this in his statement that provoked the Syrians. If we add a Republican-controlled Congress to this equation, then we can say that Obama cannot continue opening up to Syrian in this manner, especially as there have long been demands in Washington that the US reassess the manner in which it is dealing with Syria.
When we say Damascus has wasted opportunities, this can be seen in the number of times that US members of Congress have visited Syria, especially the Democrats, without making any progress worth mentioning. Apart from the Republican's hostility towards Damascus, the Syrians also made a mistake by antagonizing the Democrats, and it is enough to recall the visit made to Damascus by House Speaker Congresswomen Nancy Pelosi during the presidency of George W Bush, and how this was portrayed as a move by the Democrats to attack Bush's policies on Syria. The Democrats similarly did not benefit from this visit.
The situation in Washington will be worse today for the Syrians now that the Republicans have gained control of Congress; for the US is not a marginal state, and Damascus cannot afford to be unconcerned with any disputes with Washington. Rather it is a genuine superpower, and what is most dangerous of all is that Syria is snubbing Washington, not thanks to its own strength, but relying upon cards that are entirely in the hands of Iran.
It seems that the Syrians were not provoked by the advice contained in Feltman's statement, but when he directly and frankly asked "do they [the Syrians] think the Iranians are able to get the Golan [Heights] back for them? I find that improbable." Feltman went on to enumerate the deficiencies in the Syrian – Iranian alliance with regards to Lebanon and Iraq, and he also expressed his commitment to the Hariri tribunal. Just a few days after this, Washington announced it was making a financial donation to the Hariri tribunal. As for Iraq, Feltman said "Iran tried to have a unified Shia front for the [Iraqi] elections. They failed. Iran summoned Iraqi politicians after the elections to form a government. They failed. Iran tied to unify all the Shia behind one prime minister candidate. They failed. Going back earlier, Iran tried to prevent the Iraqis from approving the security agreement as well as the strategic framework agreement."
On the other hand, and two years after Obama extended his hand to the Syrians – and with Republican now in control of the Congress – we find that Damascus has made little progress with America; the international tribunal is ongoing, the US sanctions on Syria have not been lifted, and the US Ambassador to Syria has yet to take residence, whilst Damascus has not achieved anything in Iraq.
This is truly sad, for Damascus has missed a lot of opportunities over the past two years, and today it is returning to square one with regards to its relations with Washington.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Middle East's Stagnant 'Change'

By Ramzi Baroud
This comment was published in Arab News on 5/11/2010

Democracy in the Middle East continues to be a hugely popular topic of discussion. Its virtues are tirelessly praised by rulers and oppositions alike, by intellectuals and ordinary people, by political prisoners and their prison guards. Yet, in actuality, it also remains an illusion, if not a front to ensure the demise of any real possibility of public participation in decision-making.

Bahrain was the latest Arab country to hold free and fair elections. It managed a reasonable voter turnout of 67 percent. The opposition also did very well, winning 45 percent of the seats. In terms of fairness and transparency, the Bahraini elections could serve as an excellent example of how ‘things are changing’ in the Middle East. More, they might provide Western leaders, such as US President Barack Obama an opportunity to commend the contribution of American guidance to ‘progress’ in the region.

In actual fact, nothing is changing — except for the insistence by some that it is. Arab governments have made two important discoveries in the last decade.

The first discovery is that US interests cannot peacefully coexist with true democracies in the region. Egypt had a rude awaking in 2005, when Muslim Brotherhood candidates won fifth of the votes, if not more. This was followed by the unmatched democratic revolution in Palestine when Hamas won the majority of the vote. The aftermath of both of these events was enough to remind both Arabs and the US of the folly of their so-called democracy project.

The second realization is that Arabs are not judged by the genuineness of their democracy; rather, the success of their democratic experiences is judged on the basis of how well they can serve and protect US interests. Since the democracy radar is measured by Washington, Arab countries deemed lacking in democratic reforms are often cited as promising and fledgling democracies in Congressional reports or White House statements. Countries deemed hostile to US economic and political interests are remorselessly shunned, as if their experiments with democracy could never yield anything of worth or consideration.

These two realizations led to a superficial change of course, forming a new trend that Shadi Hamid, writing in Foreign Policy, refers to as “free but unfair — and rather meaningless — election.” Free elections are known to be the cornerstone of true democracy. Thus by giving the impression of freedom, automatically one tends to conclude fairness. But fairness is nowhere to be found, for if it truly exists then change becomes possible and is likely to follow. Those who have followed the new democratic experiences of some Arab countries will have observed that they have also been defined by the same political stagnation of the pre-democracy years.

American journalist, Sydney J. Harris once wrote, “Democracy is the only system that persists in asking the powers that be whether they are the powers that ought to be.” If Harris is correct, then whatever is underway in the Middle East is anything but democracy. Although new parliamentarians are elected, new faces flash on television, and an increasing number of women are paraded along with their male colleagues following each election, the powers that be remain unchanged, unhinged and truly unchallenged.

Most polls, whether conducted by Arab or non-Arab pollsters, indicate that the vast majority of Arab people view democracy in very positive terms. But the plot has truly thickened in recent years, when on the one hand democracy has become a household name in much of the Middle East, and not one ruler or government contests its virtues. Yet, no true democracy has in fact actualized in any shape or form.

Have Middle Eastern ruling elites figured out the democracy trick, the great con of our time? Have they realized that democracy in the Middle East is only what the White House says it can be?

Israel has mastered this very trick since the day of its inception. This is what Hasan Afif El-Hasan argues in his new and very instructive book, Is the Two-State Solution Already Dead?

“The identity of the Israelis in their legal documents and ID cards is expressed in terms of their group religious affiliation as Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Bahai, Durzi, etc., where all privileges are conferred by the state on the Jews by virtue of being Jews, thus making Israel an religio-ethnocracy rather than a liberal democracy.”

Israel’s unique democracy is in fact getting more unique, as non-Jewish citizens of Israel are subjected to increasing levels of legal harassment and are constantly asked to jump through all sorts of political hoops to prove their loyalty to the Jewish state. Still, clever and persistent Israel has managed to present itself to the world at large, Arabs included, as being a model democracy.

This was and continues to be the original democracy con in the Middle East. It took some Arab governments decades to catch up and also present themselves as democratic, whatever the reality on the ground. This is not your everyday democracy scheme. It is particularly devious because it can boast of being free, fair and transparent — and the numbers would actually attest to that — but the political structure would still be construed in such a way that the freely elected parliaments are blocked from legislating effectively to challenge the powers that be. If any legislation is allowed to pass, through, say, unelected upper houses, and approved by the ultimate ruler (both usually serving as an insurance system against elected parliaments), it tends to be unimportant and largely decorative.

Since democracy is always a work in progress, for no country can claim to be perfectly democratic, then Middle East governments can always use this idea to justify their own shortcomings.

Expectedly, the US tends to honor that, bestowing praise on their friends, and condemning their enemies — the former for courageously taking on democratic initiatives and the latter for failing the democracy test.

The great democracy con would not succeed, were it not for the fact that many players, including the US, are so invested in its success. As for the ordinary people, who are eager to see their rights respected, freedoms honored, and political horizons expanded, well, they can always vote — even if only their vote actually counts for nothing, and only further validates the very system they are trying to change.

Barzani Is Doing Everything Possible To Annex Kirkuk

By Jassim Al-Azzawi
This comment was published in The Gulf News on 6/11/2010

The steady rise of Kurdish power in Iraq in the last two decades has increased regional concerns and confounded Iraqis across the political spectrum. With the fall of Saddam Hussain's regime, the Kurds have emerged as kingmakers; their parliamentary swing bloc has become indispensable to forming governments and passing crucial bills and their regional capital, Irbil, has become a magnet for party political bosses who visit to pay homage and seek support.

The extraordinary rise in Kurdish fortune is the direct result of Kurdish unity, Baghdad's disintegration — both in political and military terms — and vital American support given to the Kurds at crucial junctures in their struggle for power and prominence. The northern no-fly zone, imposed by the US immediately after the first Gulf War in 1991, and the invasion of Iraq have given the Kurds the freedom and power to prosper, expand their influence throughout government institutions and create fait accompli on the ground.

"The Kurds feel they have the legitimacy to expand their influence and extract greater advantage. They are practising realpolitik," says Dr Ali Alawi, an Iraq expert who also served as defence and finance minister in 2004-2005. Kurdish ambition seems relentless and shows no signs of stopping at securing a semi-independent region composed of the three Kurdish provinces of Arbil, Sulaimania and Dhook. While Iraqi Arabs were murdering each other in a horrendous civil war the Kurds were busy extending their hegemony to oil-rich Kirkuk, Diyala and Mosul, and creating the so-called "disputed areas".

But is this unchecked power expansion sustainable? Under what future circumstances would the Iraqi army challenge the Kurdish forces? The humiliation suffered by the Iraqi army at the hands of Peshmerga forces in Mosul, Kirkuk and Diyala has provoked calls by Iraqi nationalists to put an end to this degradation. And despite disingenuous denials by Kurdish and Arab politicians that future confrontation between Baghdad and Arbil is impossible, events on the ground paint a different picture. When Washington announced the sale of advanced US fighter jets to modernise the Iraqi air force, the speaker of the Kurdish parliament Adnan Al Mufti blasted the deal and said the planes would be used against the Kurds. In 2008 US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker had to personally intervene to avert a major military clash between Peshmerga forces and Iraq's Third Army on the outskirts of the city of Khanaqeen. The Third Army was sent by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki to answer calls for help by the Arab and Turkmen inhabitants of Khanaqeen protesting Kurdish oppression.

The Kurds perceive Baghdad's current weakness as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve unchallenged Kurdish power in Iraq and Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, is determined to extract all possible concessions, whether through political bargains or brute military force, before Baghdad regains its balance and determination to reasserts its central role. "Resistance by those who have been given the short end of the stick to form a countervailing force, without the backing of Baghdad, is not imminent," says Alawi.

Barzani's eyes are fixed on Kirkuk as the ultimate prize. To achieve that, the Kurds have presented the three main political factions with a list of 19 thorny demands in return for their support to form a new government. It is hard to see, however, how party leaders will be able to keep their coalitions intact if they succumb to Kurdish dictates. Even if they agree to oblige the Kurds, will the new nationalist parliament agree to play along?

Darkening clouds

Today, the Kurds enjoy unchallenged influence in Kirkuk. They control the security and economic life of the city, to the bitter resentment of its Turkmen and Arab inhabitants. Anger, cries of oppression and charges of torture, killings and kidnappings committed by Peshmerga forces have become a staple diet of the city's political life. These accusations are resonating in Baghdad, especially among politicians who perceive Kurdish actions as confrontational and thwarting efforts to achieve Iraq's holy grail of national reconciliation.

"The Kurds are facing a moment of crisis and feel trapped. They've overplayed their hands over Kirkuk and oil. They produce oil but cannot sell it," says George Joffe, a lecturer at Cambridge University. "They've become extremely dependent on Turkey's economic investment. Now they realise they cannot achieve independence and that is why they are trying to play the role of mediators and not kingmakers."

Yet, despite this explosive situation, Arab political leaders remain silent because they know they are currently not in a position to challenge Barzani and his fierce Peshmerga forces. The Iraqi army is still very weak and it will take several years of modernisation and training to regain its former strength. A modern Iraqi air force is also several years away.

This deteriorating situation has the hallmark of a major future military confrontation and may drive the entire country into an all out north-south war. That eventuality is perhaps a decade away, if the current situation is not reversed in time. A war over Kirkuk may become Barzani's Waterloo.

Armageddon In Lebanon?

By Rami G. Khouri
This comment was published in Jordan Times on 5/11/2010

Who would have thought that a gynaecologist’s office in the Hizbollah-dominated southern Beirut suburb of Dahieh would be the symbolic place where the colonial and anti-colonial struggles of the past century would reach their confrontational peak and bring to a head this long-simmering war?

Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s call last Thursday on all Lebanese to stop cooperating with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is investigating and will soon indict those it believes killed former prime minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others five years ago, followed an attempt by STL officers to examine patient files in the doctor’s office in Dahieh a few days ago, presumably because the STL has evidence it believes implicates some Hizbollah personnel in the assassinations.

Hizbollah supporters, mostly women, beat back the STL party and quickly heightened the political confrontation that has been brewing in the country for months.

Sheikh Nasrallah’s open call to boycott and actively oppose the STL marks an historic moment of reckoning that is as dangerous as it was inevitable. This is because Hizbollah and the STL represent perhaps the two most powerful symbols of the two most important forces that have defined the Middle East for the past century or more: on the one hand, Western (including Israeli) interests and interventions that seek to shape this region in a manner that suits Western aims more than it suits indigenous rights, a?d, on the other, native Arab-Islamic-nationalist resistance that seeks to shape our societies according to Arab-Islamic worldviews, as defined by a consensus of local actors, identities and forces.

Stripped to its core, this tension between Hizbollah and the STL is a microcosm of the overarching fact of the modern era in which Western-manufactured Arab statehood has generally failed to gain either real traction or sustained credibility. Thus, it has fallen on groups like Hizbollah to play a leading role in confronting Israeli and Western powers in a manner that most Arab governments have been unable or unwilling to do.

Therefore, we live through this historic but frightening moment when a century of confrontation reaches a pivotal juncture: the collective will of the Western-dominated world (the Security Council-created STL) confronts the strong rejection and public resistance of the only Arab group (Hizbollah) that has forced an Israeli military withdrawal and confounded the Israeli armed forces, while transcending Arabism and Islamism, religiosity and secularism, Arabs and Iranians, Shiites and Sunnis, and assorted Leb?nese Christians and Muslims.

The confrontation now playing itself out in various public milieus between Hizbollah and the STL is made more complex and difficult to resolve because of deep links with other regional actors, especially Israel, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

The STL is unlike anything that the Arab world has witnessed or experienced in its entire modern history, because it represents something frightening to many Arabs: the unanimous decision of the Security Council of the UN to probe deep into the inner fibres of Arab societies - mostly Lebanon and Syria, in this case - in order to stop the political assassinations that shocked the world five years ago (but that have also plagued the modern Arab world for the past half a century or more, without anyone caring?.

The majority of Lebanese want to know who killed Hariri and would like to see such assassinations cease once and for all, but they have proved unable to do this on their own.

The Security Council stepped in forcefully in early 2005 to do the job, and it did so partly because some powers that dominate the council saw an opportunity to hit the Syrians and Hizbollah hard. At a moment when the neoconservative-controlled United States thought it could frighten any Arab party into compliance with its dictates simply by brandishing the threat of an Iraq-like assault, the move was made to push Syria out of Lebanon and to disarm Hizbollah. The scenes that followed did not conform to the script the Bush-Cheney White House and their pro-Israel zealot friends had envisaged, because Syria, Hizbollah, Iran and others pushed back and resisted the moves against them. That dynamic has no? reached its climax in events centred on Lebanon.

Two powerful forces confront each other now in public: American-dominated Western colonial intervention in the Arab region, and Islamist-dominated Arab-Islamic resistance from within that same Arab region. Three options present themselves: one of these two forces has to back down, both have to compromise and postpone the day of reckoning in their epic struggle, or they will soon settle this on the battlefields of Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Iran, American-dominated Iraq and Afghanistan, and the oil and gas fie?ds of the Gulf Arab states.

Armageddon will look like a kindergarten cookie dance if the third option materialises, which is now a bit more likely than it was a week ago.

Egypt: Trendsetter In The Mideast

By Youssef Boutros-Ghali (Egypt's Finance Minister)
This comment was published in The Washington Post on 5/11/2010

Egypt's political future has become a hot topic in Washington as parliamentary and presidential elections approach. Some policy wonks claim that Egypt is stagnant and that our government is resisting change. But those of us who work in the Egyptian government believe that what matters most to ordinary Egyptians is their standard of living; in this respect, the country is undergoing an astonishing transformation.

In the five years since we launched our economic reform program, close to 4 million jobs have been created. Egypt's Human Development Index growth rate - the United Nations measure based on health, education and income - is the 10th-fastest in the world and almost double the global average. From 2005 to 2008, our economy grew at an annual rate of 7.2 percent; despite the global downturn, growth is expected to top 6 percent this year. The World Bank has named Egypt the Middle East's top economic reformer for the past three years. These are hardly signs of stagnation.

Economic growth has helped make Egyptian civil society the most dynamic in the Middle East. Independent satellite broadcasts reach 70 percent of the population. There are more than 500 independent journalism publications and more than 160,000 bloggers. Indeed, there are more opposition dailies in Egypt than in any other Middle Eastern nation. There is also Internet freedom; Google searches are unfettered. Women occupy 23 percent of public positions, and at least 12 percent of seats in the next parliament will be allocated to women.

In many respects, Egypt is a different country from the one it was five years ago.
Unfortunately, the narrative in Washington's policy community has yet to reflect that. Western observers ritually point out the imperfections in our political system - many of which we acknowledge and openly debate. The fact that Egyptians are having open discussions about the upcoming elections, government performance, poverty and even the president is proof of a healthy political space. Moreover, for all the speculation about the leadership transition, the Egyptian constitution defines a precise framework for presidential elections, which are open to any political party that has at least one seat in Parliament. At no time in its modern history has Egypt faced a crisis of transition.

We recognize that Egypt still has a long way to go. Far too many people live in poverty, and too few receive a proper education. But there can be little doubt that Egypt is at a turning point toward much broader prosperity.

The fundamental challenge is to further our economic reforms as Egypt opens up politically. This is why this month's parliamentary elections and next year's presidential election are critical.

The National Democratic Party, to which I belong, will seek a renewed mandate for change through these elections. We believe ours is the only party with the vision and the track record to bring continuing prosperity and growth to Egypt.

The main alternative to our vision is offered by those who would steer the country away from economic liberalism, religious tolerance and social progress and toward greater fundamentalism, eventually creating a religious state in a country that has always embraced diversity. Imagine for a moment an Egypt in the hands of fundamentalist mullahs, fomenting instability and allied with rogue regimes.

As a member of Egypt's Christian community - the largest in the Middle East - I know all too well the dangers of religious intolerance. As finance minister, I recognize the imperative of change in the face of entrenched interests. And as an elected member of Parliament I have come to realize that change without home-grown political support is unsustainable.

Our vision for Egypt is of a modern civil state based on equality, religious tolerance and a free-market economy. Prosperity and better education can drive peaceful political change, which we hope will in turn revive a multiparty system that has unfortunately withered somewhat in recent years. The choice should not just be between the National Democratic Party and the fundamentalists. There must be room for vibrant secular alternatives.

American assistance to Egypt over the past 30 years has played a vital role in building a free-market economy. As Egypt's economy has grown, the relationship has shifted from one based on economic aid - now less than $200 million annually - to one based on trade and investment.
Egypt has long been a regional trendsetter. Ours is the largest country in the Arab world; transforming Egypt's economy will generate prosperity and stability throughout the region and provide a bulwark against extremism. In the end, an economically developed and politically stable Egypt will improve America's security and help to create the foundations of a prosperous and stable Middle East.

Six Characters And Five Conflicting Texts

By Amir Taheri
This comment was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 5/11/2010
It is that time of the year again: time for 'negotiations' between Iran and the so-called international community. The exercise has become part of the diplomatic calendar since 2005 when the United Nations' Security Council called on the Islamic Republic in Iran, suspected of developing nuclear weapons, to stop uranium enrichment.
Tehran has responded with a classic smoke and mirrors number. It says it does not accept the UN's five resolutions but is, nevertheless, prepared to discuss them with the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany in 'a wider effort' to reshape the international system. In other words, Tehran is proposing to transform the 5+1 group into a 5+1+1 group with the Islamic Republic as the new member of a global leadership team.
President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad has called for a new global system in which the Islamic Republic, acknowledged as a 'great power', would lead the way for a 'fundamental transformation' of the world order.
Needless to say, the 5+1 is not interested in that. It claims that the Islamic Republic is violating the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which it remains a signatory, and should stop doing so or face sanctions. The problem is that, despite private assertions that Tehran is playing tricks to buy time, the 5+1 group has remained ready, not to say indecently keen, to talk to the Islamic Republic.
Although they all voted for the Security Council resolutions, members of the 5+1 remain divided on their analysis of the problem.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States has adopted an analysis based on two assumptions.
The first is that the Islamic Republic is behaving badly because it has legitimate grievances that ought to be addressed. In other words, if the Islamic Republic is developing a nuclear arsenal it is the fault of the United States and its Western allies.
The second assumption is that, if those unspecified grievances are remedied, Tehran will stop its nuclear programme.
Both assumptions are wrong. The Islamic Republic has no specific grievances. It just wants to replace the US as the principal power in the Middle East and Western Asia. To that end, it has developed a number of alliances across the region, and acquired client states, notably Syria and, very soon perhaps, Lebanon and Iraq.
The second assumption is equally wrong. Iran started its nuclear programme in 1972 when it was an ally of the United States. The US knew from the start that, in the mid to long term, the Iranian programme would include a military dimension. This is why, in a major arms deal that gave Iran unique access to the full range lf American weapons, President Richard Nixon explicitly excluded any help in the nuclear domain. In 1974, President Gerald Ford when further by effectively vetoing contracts o build nuclear power stations in Iran, forcing the Shah to switch to German and France.
The British under their new Prime Minister David Cameron are equally on the wrong track. They believe that it was Ahmadinejad who ordered uranium enrichment and gave the Iranian programme a military dimension.
To that end, London is trying to help develop a 'moderate' alternative to Ahmadinejad. In recent weeks, British officials have been in 'fruitful contact' with individuals close to former presidents of the Islamic Republic Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami. Some experts close to the new coalition government in London are trying to promote other 'potential leadership figures' within the Khomeinist establishment in Tehran.
The truth is that it was Rafsanjani who, in 1989, revived Iran's nuclear programme, which had been scrapped by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. As for uranium enrichment, it was Khatami who pressed the 'go' button shortly before leaving office in 2005. The German analysis is also questionable. It is based on the assumption that Iran under the Khomeinists suffers from economic 'under-achievement' and could be brought back into the global system through trade.
According to this analysis, at least a part of the ruling clique, especially within the growingly influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is more interested in getting rich than developing a nuclear bomb.
Not long ago, in a conversation with a senior German official, I was surprised at the naiveté of his approach. 'If they see that they could make more and more money they would not want to risk losing everything,' he said with a chuckle. After all, Chancellor Helmut Kohl bought back East German with his chequebook!
China, a trading superpower but lacking a credible political profile, shares at least part of the German analysis. This is why companies directly owned by the IRGC have emerged as China's principal trading partners in Iran. Last year China became Ira's number one trading partner with $30 billion in exports ahead of Germany with $10 billion.
However, the German analysis is equally wrong. The part of the establishment, especially in the IRGC, on which the German analysis depends, is already making lots of money. According to a recent study by the Tehran Chamber of Commerce, companies owned by the IRGC are the principal beneficiaries of sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations since 2005. IRGC billionaires believe that they could both build a bomb and make more money.
The Russian analysis is not quite clear at the time of this writing. Vladimir Putin, sometimes regarded as the power-behind-the-throne in Moscow, tried to play the Islamic Republic as a card against the United States in the context Cold War-style of big power rivalries.
Moscow's ambiguous position has been a major encouragement for radicals within the Khomeinist establishment. In recent weeks, with Putin's power apparently diminishing, if not fading, Moscow has taken a tougher line against the Khomeinist regime. President Dmitry Medvedev, apparently liberating himself from the chains imposed by Putin's patronage, has signalled a new approach in Moscow. He has cancelled a contract to sell Tehran the S-300 air-defence system and ended a programme under which Russia trained Iranian military and security personnel. Judging by his public statements, Medvedev appears to be moving closer to the French analysis under President Nicolas Sarkozy.
This analysis is based on the assumption that the only way to force Tehran to comply with UN resolutions is to tighten the screws on the Islamic Republic until its bones begin to crack. Sarkozy advocates a determined, not to say aggressive, enforcement of UN resolutions including stop-and-search operations against Iranian ships and aircraft. Sarkozy's advisors even advocate ' proximity pressure' measures to increase the cost of defiance for Tehran.
The French analysis, now partly shared by Russia, is equally flawed. The faction in control in Tehran will not be moved by anything that does not threaten the survival of the regime.
Here, the G+1 is faced with what Iranians call ' the carpet-weavers' mentality'. Weaving a carpet is a long and arduous task. A good carpet could take up to three years to weave. Many events could slow down the process or stop it temporarily. But the weaver is not deterred, returning to in 1989 the loom, at the first opportunity.
The result of the analytical confusion within the G+1 group is the annual talks that have given Tehran five more years to advance its nuclear programme. Two years ago, the Islamic Republic had 800 functioning centrifuges to enrich uranium. Today, it claims more than 12000 with promises of 50,000, including new 'designer' ones, by 2012.

Religious And Cultural Desertification

By Husam Itani
This comment was published in al-Hayat on 5/11/2010
The crimes committed against the Iraqi Christians, the last of which was the massacre of Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, do not only threaten to transform the Arab region into an ethnic and religious desert, but also herald the death of the remaining cultural plurality in this region.

If the constant attacks on Iraq’s Christians are added to the expansion of the threats of Al-Qaeda organization to the Egyptian Copts against the backdrop of some “popular” practices shrouded in the cloak of political Islam, as well as the attempts to push Lebanon’s Christians toward choices which are all bitter and dangerous, the future of the Christians in this part of the world appears to be bleak – with immigration as the only way out of it.

However, the bleak future of the Christian minority appears as bright as day when compared with what awaits the Muslim majority and its different sects and varieties. Indeed, while the fate of the Christians in the Arab countries was isolated from the general deterioration and collapse of Arab society and culture, and while the catastrophes affecting them were depicted as being events which solely concerned them and the communities close to them, this does not reflect the reality of the Arab situation in which the areas of tolerance and the acceptance of the other political, sectarian and religious opinion are rapidly narrowing down.

The monitoring of two Arab conditions - in Egypt and Iraq - shows without the shadow of a doubt that the restraints imposed on the independent media and the intellectual and personal freedoms, are proceeding hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder with the rise of the voices and the hands that are hostile to the Christians and the other religious minorities (such as the case of the Baha’i group, the pursuit of those who converted to Shiism and the bloody attacks on the Yazidi villages in Iraq, to name but a few).

The talk about the importance of preserving the minorities whose rights were long disregarded may not carry more than good intentions. But on the opposite end of these intentions, it is becoming clearer by the day that the immigration of the Christians from the Arab countries - in which many other minorities were wiped out during the last century - is coinciding with the immigration of countless numbers of people enjoying vital specializations for any serious developmental projects in the region. Moreover, a considerable number of Arab intellectuals are now permanently living abroad and in remote places of exile, while perceiving any call to return to their homeland as being a blunt call to commit suicide.

The idea saying that Israel is reaping numerous benefits from the transformation of the region into an arena of sectarian wars that is under the hegemony of one group is old. What is important today is not the prevention of Israel from reaping the fruits of the Arab weakness and retreat and from exploiting our crises, considering that this will happen anyway. What is important is to shed light on the existing link between our countries’ transformation into a land that rejects plurality and the West’s imminent announcement of its relinquishing of the policy of cultural and ethnic plurality which has been prevailing over it since the end of World War II.

While rightful objections rejected the talk about “the clash of civilizations” which placed the world in the context of a pattern of conflicting and opposing provinces and cultures, it is sad today to see this hostility toward religious and cultural plurality gaining new grounds, in both the East and the West. Still, there is a major difference between the two, since at a time when the West has economic and cultural alternatives allowing the extremist right-wing parties that are on the rise to beautify the policies of isolation and introversion, we in the East lack that luxury, along with all other types of political and economic luxuries.

Yet, a faction of us still wishes to commit massacres in places of worship while threatening to expand its activities and kill more innocent people without any regard for the depth of the abyss toward which it is rushing, while leading us all along with it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Obama Can Make Peace, But Must Not Force A Final Deal

If anyone in Jerusalem had hoped the Tea Party would save the settlers' party, they were seriously mistaken.

By Ari Shavit
This comment was published in Haaretz on 5/11/2010

There were no real surprises in the U.S. midterm elections. The Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives but not the Senate, came out strong in Kentucky but not California, grabbed a majority of seats, but did not enjoy a overwhelming victory.

Barack Obama is still there. He's weakened but undefeated, bruised but not beaten - moderately wounded.

If anyone in Jerusalem had hoped the Tea Party would save the settlers' party, they were seriously mistaken. The 2010 midterm election time out is over. Today is the day after the elections, after the holidays, after the foreplay.

The real game begins now and the name of the game is Palestine. The endgame: establishing a viable Palestinian state within a year.

Why? Because the incumbent American president identifies with the Palestinians and their suffering and wants to do right by them. Because the American president believes establishing a Palestinian state would placate the Arab Muslim world, which he wishes to appease. Because the American president knows that in the absence of good news in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, Palestine is his only chance of making positive headlines.

Only a Palestinian state would justify the Nobel Peace prize he received, only it can give Obama the international legacy he craves, only it can lift the spirit of Obama's self-defined liberal camp.

So in 2011 Palestine will be to the resolute president what health care reform was to him in 2009. For better or worse, through fire or water, wisely or foolishly - Barack Hussein Obama will see to the establishment of the state of Palestine.

In a certain sense, the president's resolve is to be commended. It's good to have a world leader trying to save the two-state solution at the last moment. It's good to have a world leader willing to invest huge resources to implement the two-state solution. It's good to have statesman who still has a sufficient sense of justness to understand that the present situation is intolerable. It's good to have a statesman naive enough to think he can fix the world.

But in another sense Obama's determination is dangerous. Speed is from the devil, as the Arab saying goes. Simplism is a recipe for disaster. The path to hell is paved with good intentions not anchored in reality.

Bill Clinton tried to impose democracy on the Middle East and failed. If Obama tries to impose an end to the conflict prematurely, he will upset the stability, encourage violence and leave chaos in his wake.

The dilemma is acute: political correctness or political reason; puristic policy trying to build a castle in the sky or sober policy trying to change reality on the ground.

In actuality, the most positive process taking place in the region is Salam Fayyad's. A new, building, thriving Palestinian society is being formed in the West Bank.

Unless the Fayyad process is given a substantial political dimension, it will collapse. But it will also collapse if it is given  an unachievable political horizon. The wise thing to do is to tailor the quiet Palestinian revolution a political suit that fits it. Not to try to close the refugee case in two months, not to try to solve the Jerusalem problem in two weeks, not to let ideology and theology put impassable hurdles before the Palestinians and Israelis.

The only way is an interim agreement, which would minimize the occupation without ending the conflict and without endangering Israel.

The coming weeks will be decisive. Obama, even after losses at home, has enough power to coerce Israel. He can confront it, isolate it and impose a false peace on it.

But Obama does not have enough power to turn the fake into real. He cannot topple Hamas, revoke the demand for return and turn a Palestine into a peace-loving state. So if he insists on forcing the issue, all hell will break loose.

In contrast, if he chooses the pragmatic path - he has a good chance of making a change. Only a partial, not final, peace, will grant the Nobel laureate the peace he is pursuing.

Lebanon: Preconditions For Talks Lead Nowhere

This editorial was published in Daily Star on 5/11/2010

The middle of this week has not been kind to the constitutional institutions of Lebanon. The Cabinet failed Wednesday to meet for a scheduled session. Despite the official reasons that were given for the cancellation, we the Lebanese know that it was over a political impasse.

A session of National Dialogue at Baabda Palace Thursday was the second in the one-two punch. This time, a boycott by a group of March 8 figures was the obvious reason for the failure to hold a fruitful session, even to talk.

The past few weeks have seen the Lebanese government encounter weekly speed bumps over its ability to convene; there are serious doubts that either the Cabinet or the National Dialogue sessions will resume soon. This is despite the many demands from members of the public that politicians solve their problems and enable the country to move forward.

There are, naturally, dozens and dozens of pressing issues that require action by Lebanon’s political authorities, but the Lebanese have become used to seeing their interests sidelined by the inability of a segment of the political class to get its act together, and work out a compromise, or a modus vivendi.

When dialogue disappears, irrespective of how harsh the tone, and inflammatory the rhetoric, everyone is in trouble. This is the point at which the words of politicians disappear, and are replaced by the actions of people in the streets.

As is well known, in political terms, the “Lebanese street” is in a pitiful state. In the view of local analysts and experts, or their counterparts in the region and the rest of the world, this street is a powder keg – it’s open to all possibilities, and the Lebanese have seen the tiny flare-ups here and there over the past months.

It’s as if everyone has forgotten the lessons of 1975, when one side tried to neutralize the other by using extra-constitutional means. But why go this far back, in a country where political amnesia is rampant?

It’s as if the lessons of 2008, when a similar crisis led to a bloody breakdown in authority, have been completely forgotten.

Since these same politicians end up stoking these crises, and then agree on a compromise in the end, politicians could save the country a considerable amount of anxiety and harm, and get serious about finding a solution now, before it’s too late.

Setting preconditions on dialogue won’t lead anywhere – if politicians and officials truly want to bolster the state institutions, they must realize that placing conditions on the mere act of sitting down together will lead nowhere.

No Compromise on Colonisation In Palestine

Leviev's decision to halt construction work in West Bank is a reason to celebrate.

This opinion was published in Gulf News on 5/11/2010

After years of mounting pressure, Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev is finally pulling the plug on the colony-building activities by his Africa-Israel construction conglomerate. While the decision is being portrayed to the Israeli media as one which was taken earlier this week purely on financial reasons, there is reason for all who oppose the colonisation of Palestine to celebrate a little.

Israel's Coalition of Women for Peace revealed the decision after it received a letter from Leviev's Africa-Israel corporation. According to the letter, "neither the company nor any of its subsidiaries and/or other companies controlled by the company are at present involved in or have any plans for future involvement in development, construction or building of real estate in [colonies] in the West Bank." The conglomerate was involved in the construction of illegal Jewish colonies located in Har Homa, Adam, Mattityahub East and Zuffrim, and in the West Bank villages of Jayyous and Bil'in.

As long as Palestinian lands are illegally occupied and its villages colonised by the Israelis, there can be no compromise. Palestinian land belongs to Palestinian people and any construction — from the biggest construction company to the smallest spade in the earth — must not be allowed. Leviev's decision, while welcome, came after years of pressure on the billionaire. Indeed, he is a wealthy man today based on his immoral construction activities in seized lands, having reaped the rewards of colonisation in a state that treats Palestinians as a subservient people in their own land.

It is through international pressure that Leviev made his decision. His cheques to Oxfam and Unicef were unwelcome as the profits of an illegal and immoral coloniser. His diamond business was rightly shunned by stars and celebrities who did not want to be tainted by his jewels. If there is a lesson, it is that international pressure and media campaigns can have results. Those who treated Leviev as a pariah for his construction in the Occupied Territories deserve credit. It is a pity that others in the Jewish state do not follow up on his deeds, ending the illegal construction of houses on lands seized from Palestinians.

If al-Qa'ida Really Want To Hit The West, They Can

By Patrick Cockburn
This comment was published in The Independent on 4/11/2010

The ability of al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula, now based in Yemen, to smuggle sophisticated bombs concealed in ink cartridges for printers on board planes is even more ominous than it sounds. This is because Western governments have so often exaggerated the threat from the most amateur and ineffective conspirators since 9/11 that they do not have any rhetoric left to describe the development of new and more serious threats.

The failure of al-Qa'ida to stage a second round of attacks on the scale of 9/11 is often attributed to the arduous work of Western security services, eliminating al-Qa'ida leaders and isolating or destroying their strongholds. But there is another more significant reason why there has hitherto been no repeat of the 9/11 attacks in the west. In Iraq and north west Pakistan, where al-Qa'ida has its most important regional franchises, the organisation and its local allies are far more interested in murdering non-Sunni Muslims, or Christians where they are available, than in killing American troops.
The Iraqi government and US generals keep crowing about their successes in eliminating al-Qa'ida in Iraq, leading to the fury of people of Baghdad who grimly wait for the next bloody onslaught. Imagine, for a moment, that the same al-Qa'ida fanatics in Iraq who butcher non-Sunni Muslims in such numbers were to turn their attention to attacking Western targets abroad in the air and on the ground. This would not be the work of a Nigerian student stuffing explosives into his underpants in an abortive attempt to blow up a plane over Chicago, as happened last Christmas, or an American-Pakistani more recently planting a car bomb which failed to explode in Times Square in New York. In contrast bombs constructed by al-Qa'ida in Iraq, or similar Jihadi organisations in Pakistan, almost invariably go off with horrendous results.

Why hasn't al-Qa'ida tried harder against the US and western Europe? One reason is that it was originally a tiny organisation even when it could operate more freely in Afghanistan and north west Pakistan before 2001.

Its militants were so few in number that when it made a publicity video it had to hire local tribesman by the day to pretend to be members in training. It swiftly achieved its chief post-9/11 aim. Osama bin Laden had said that his strategy was to "provoke and bait" the US into "bleeding wars" throughout the Muslim world. Thanks to George Bush and Tony Blair he succeeded far beyond his dreams. Given the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan it is extraordinary to hear US pundits suggest dispatching hunter-killer groups under the control of the CIA or the US military to Yemen.

The original al-Qai'da led by Osama bin Laden paid a certain price for its rapid expansion post 9/11. It did not control its franchisees. In Iraq, al-Qa'ida began to put down roots in 2003 but it was much more interested in killing Shia than Americans. This remained true after the US was able to persuade the more secular Sunni insurgents, who were the one who had been blowing up Americans, to change sides in 2006/7. The Iraqi variant of al-Qa'ida have relentlessly continued their war against the Shia to this day.

The same is true in Pakistan. The US and British Governments repeatedly point to the Pakistan-Afghan border areas as the source of Jihadi plots against them. It is here that potential "terrorists" supposedly got their training, though fortunately few of the trainees seemed to know how to make a bomb after living for weeks in areas where this is common knowledge.
Hitherto the most powerful franchisees of al-Qa'ida have been more interested in fighting their local enemies than blowing up planes but this could always change. If it did then these groups have suicide bombers in their hundreds and experienced cadres ready to direct and equip them with sophisticated devices. Yemen might just be the first signs of this.
Listening to expertscan be a mug's game

The most enraging moment for any correspondent writing about Iraq, Afghanistan or Yemen is to turn on the television and see some "talking head" pontificating about the conflicts. The self-declared expert is always glib, self-assured and irredeemably ignorant about what is going on. They are usually supportive of whatever line the government, American or British, is trying to sell. There is no health check on their credentials. Bookers who engage them for appearances on TV and radio never seem to run a simple check on their knowledge by asking when they were last in the country they claim to know so much about.

It is worse in the US than in Britain, where the best of American reporters are supposed to amplify their descriptions and justify their analysis by quoting some purportedly independent expert. When missiles were falling on Baghdad in 1999 I remember watching a highly experienced correspondent crawl through falling shrapnel to use a satellite phone. He told me: "My paper insists I call a think tank in Washington to find out what is happening."

“The Gates Of Hell”

By Ghassan Charbel
This comment was published in al-Hayat on 4/11/2010

What we are facing is not a problem, a crisis, or a complicated or thorny issue. We do not stand before a deadline that can be postponed, ignored, or left to a doctor called time. We are not faced with a momentary conflict that can be overcome with admonition – which is the cleanser of hearts; or with hugs and a gathering around a greasy banquet; or with a general statement from an Arab summit; or a sentence by the secretary general of the Arab League laden with insinuations. We are not faced with a cloud that is rapidly blown away by the winds of solidarity, and the emergence of amiability among the members of the same family after a knife fight; or forcing newspapers to change their headlines; or pumping optimism and smiles on TV. If only we were faced with such a crisis.

A few years ago, I used to be startled and horrified when an organization’s statement threatened to open “the gates of hell”. I used to have the same feeling whenever I heard a fervent politician calling his opponent to yield to his will to avoid opening the “gates of hell”. I used to consider this type of threats to be a scare tactic and an exaggeration. Indeed, opening the “gates of hell” requires unusual abilities and tragic circumstances. Moreover, holding this type of keys does not serve a cause or enhance an image.

I do not wish to say at all that I have applied to join the camp of those who promise people with the “gates of hell”. However, I feel that the region is susceptible to slip towards climates of this kind. I write this because my profession makes me follow the news in this pleasant part of the world known as the Middle East. It also makes me sometimes sleep in troubled capitals and not be satisfied with the official answers to my questions. My profession makes me sound out the ordinary citizens in the countries I visit. Unfortunately, happy countries do not attract journalists and are not on their to-visit lists.

I have a feeling that we are in the worst Arab situation our generation has known. It is more serious than what it was when the Iraqi-Iranian war started in 1980; more serious than what it was in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon and occupied an Arab capital for the first time; more serious than what it was the day Saddam Hussein’s regime invaded Kuwait and the Desert Storm blew. It is also more serious than what it was when the US military machinery uprooted Saddam’s regime in 2003 with a mixture of conceit, recklessness, and ignorance. We are in a more serious situation than the one we went through during the “New York and Washington invasions” in 2001.

My dear reader, it is your right to accuse me of exaggerating a little or even a lot. But let us interpret some events. Didn’t you pause at the festival of booby-trapped cars in Baghdad two days ago? Didn’t you wonder about its security implications, timing, and dangers linked to awakening sectarian violence amidst the existing political stalemate? What about the carnage at the church and the decision to punish the Iraqis because of their religious adherence and under the pretext of responding to the Copts in Egypt? Didn’t you also pause at the luxury of Iraqi politicians, who have spent eight months searching for a government as though they were living amidst Swedish institutions rather than in the middle of the Iraqi volcano?

My dear reader, didn’t you pause at the news of Yemeni packages and the images of al-Awlaki on TV screens around the world, and the isolation that might affect Yemen, and the catastrophe that might strike the region, if Al Qaeda manages to entrench itself in the harsh terrain caves and the caves of difficult demographic and social structure? What if the US chose for example to confront the danger coming from Yemen on the Yemeni territory itself? Doesn’t this herald the opening of the “gates of hell”?

The talk about the “gates of hell” is also open in Lebanon. There are those who announce that the issuance of the indictment won’t open the gates of justice but rather the “gates of hell”. It is obvious that the various Lebanese institutions are under unbearable strong pressure. There are those who say that these same gates will open if the opponents of the issuance of the indictment resort to force and the Lebanese army stands by. They also say that the army could lose its unity and status, and this would facilitate Al Qaeda’s appearance on the Lebanese scene, carrying with it a plan to open the “gates of hell”.

We can talk about other arenas where collapses and dangers lurk. The tragedy is that we are dealing with an extremely serious situation with ordinary means. We might say that we are treating cancer with aspirin, and the results are known.

The Harrassment Map

By Diana Mukkaled
This comment was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 4/11/2010
Statistics say that Egypt has one of the highest rates of women subjected to sexual harassment in the world.
We do not know if this figure is accurate, but the growing phenomenon of sexual harassment in Egypt is a fact of life, and if it is proven that Egypt is in fact amongst the worst in the world in this regard, then it certainly would not be a shock.
How can we forget what happened a few years ago, when on the second day of Eid al-Fitr, and in broad daylight, a collective frenzy of harassment took place, in the most crowded streets of the Egyptian capital?!
Today, some human rights groups are preparing to launch a website, allowing Egyptians to report incidents of harassment quickly, by sending mobile phone text messages, or by using the “Twitter” social network. The website, called ‘Harass Map’, will include a digital map of Cairo displaying harassment hotspots, i.e. those areas with high levels of reported harassment cases, and which could pose a danger to women. This information will be exchanged between activists, the media, and the Egyptian Interior Ministry. Those launching the site say that the idea behind the launch is to inform women who are targeted by harassment that they are not alone, and they can get help immediately.
There is no doubt that the new media, and first and foremost blogs, have brought the issue of sexual harassment against women to public attention. This medium has become the predominant force dealing with the phenomenon, while the traditional media outlets described it as the actions of individuals, with nothing to do with Egyptian society on the whole. The rise of the Egyptian blogging community means that evidence, and vivid images of what is happening on some streets in Cairo, can be published on the Internet. These incidents range from physical and verbal transgressions, inappropriate staring or touching, and the tearing of clothes. The blogging community has managed to expose this phenomenon to society and the state, initiating discussions on the issue, and ways to reduce it. There are two most likely approaches to confront this scourge: the first would be a superficial treatment, blaming the phenomenon on social influences such as the spread of unemployment and marginalization, increased repression, and the decline of morality.
The second approach would be a religious one, where often the victim, or the woman [in most cases], is blamed as responsible for the actions of their harasser. However, it is important to note that most women who are subjected to harassment also wear the veil.
If these high rates of harassment are in direct proportion to the high rates of unemployment and low incomes, then it cannot be ignored that they are also in direct proportion to the rise in religious conservatism, and particularly in Egypt. If harassment is prevalent in an environment suffering from unemployment, then it is also prevalent in the same environment which is dominated by social and political religion. Here we should ask the question: Why, with a higher proportion of women wearing the hijab and niqab, and this can be observed on Egypt’s streets, is there also a rising ‘frenzy’ of harassment, whereby the streets have transformed into an arena where men lurk in wait for women, as we see and hear about every day?
A genuine analysis of this problem needs the courage shown by the new media, which took upon itself the task of combating the phenomenon of harassment. Merely restricting public space or limiting freedom of expression will not be helpful at all, with regards to understanding the phenomenon, or limiting it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Signs Of Effective Counter-Terrorism

By Joseph A Kechichian
This comment was published in Gulf News on 4/11/2010

Beyond the familiar and hugely irrelevant media frenzy of the past few days, one has to be somewhat pleased that the latest amateurish terrorism efforts — to ship bomb packages to Chicago synagogues (early version) or to blow up cargo planes (later version) — failed.

Equally revelatory was the confirmation that what actually prevented two simultaneous bombing attempts were the result of tips from Saudi Arabia. Was this an example of successful cooperation between Saudi intelligence services and their Western counterparts?

Although 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens, the kingdom is proving to be an essential partner in preventing fresh terrorist activities, with many confused adherents part of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that gained an undeniable foothold in volatile Yemen.
Still, one has to think outside the box, and ask why terrorists would ship printer cartridges from Yemen to the US? Is this not like Washington exporting oil to Kuwait? Equally problematic is the alleged mastermind'(s) intentions to place explosives on board planes through fully identifiable tracking systems, with names, addresses, and telephone numbers that will ensure instantaneous recognition.

These are not haphazard points even if we now know that there was a breach in airline security protocols, as press reports confirm that one or perhaps two devices were flown on Qatar Airways aircraft from Sana'a to Doha, and onwards to Dubai.

PETN explosive materials were apparently found that could not be detected by standard airport security screening equipment. PETN is so sophisticated that no X-ray screening or even trained sniffer dogs could identify them. In fact, they were only "discovered" after an intelligence tip off, which is instructive in its own right.

According to unverified sources — the speed with which this information became public leads one to be somewhat sceptical—the prime suspect for constructing the devices was the Saudi-born bomb-maker, Ebrahim Hassan Al Asiri, a leading AQAP militant. Hassan's brother, Abdullah Hassan Al Asiri, was the 23-year-old who stuffed his underwear with PETN as he committed suicide on August 27, 2009, when he attempted to assassinate Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef, the Saudi Deputy Minister of the Interior.

Abdullah Hassan Al Asiri's stratagem, which was very similar to the efforts of Omar Farouq Abdul Muttalib, the failed Christmas 2009 Nigerian but Yemen-trained ‘underpant bomber', targeted a high-ranking Al Saud family member, which was the reason why Riyadh embarked on a systematic effort to beef up its intelligence network. Indeed, within a single year, Saudi intelligence activities in Yemen became so well tuned that they probably now surpass those of its muscle bound Yemeni counterpart.

This is a welcome development and US President Barack Obama called King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz a few days ago to thank him for the significant success. Gone are the days when Saudi officers were, or could be accused of being, unresponsive. Hardly anyone with responsibility in Saudi Arabia can now look the other way. Even traditional tribal customs, where loyalty to one's kith and kin stood ahead of any allegiance to the state or its institutions, gave way.

Nevertheless, while this awareness is truly commendable, it is critical to seriously think of the conditions under which Yemenis live, to better understand current and future trends.
Yemen is too poor to function well on the Arabian Peninsula. Few should be surprised that some of its sons and daughters find jihadism attractive. With limited oil income, expected to run out before the end of the next decade, and even less water, the estimated 23 million Yemenis will double in the next 25 years. Unemployment, already around 35 per cent, will rise too. Jobs are scarce and millions toil elsewhere.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a military leader whose understanding of economic needs are rudimentary at best though 30 years in power should have helped. Corruption runs high and prospects for improvement are extremely limited. Tourism, the one potential area where progress could be registered, is literally hostage to tribal kidnappings, which drive foreign investments away. A majority of Yemenis are disgusted even if a few are inclined to support extremism. Most are eager to improve their lives and need genuine help.

This is where Saudi Arabia comes in. For while it is extremely important to have top-notch intelligence services watching a festering environment next door, it is far more important, especially in the long run, to plan for the day after. Is it not in Riyadh's interests to supplement its intelligence and security assistance with development aid? Would investments in the socio-economic welfare of a close but vital neighbour not guarantee real security?

The struggle against terrorism cannot be solely won by military means, no matter how ingenious. Although one must confront extremism, the more one emphasises clashes, the more sceptical moderate voices become.

Success comes when intelligence services coordinate their efforts and share critical data, as was the case in this instance, but only if such hard work is followed by real investments that prevent the ills that generate hatred in the first place. Too many have died in the past and more may perish in the future. One method to win over sceptics is to give a hand to the weak to alleviate their vulnerabilities and seal their commitments to hope.