Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hariri: Iran Can Calm Tension In Lebanon

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, foreground, and Iranian Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahim. (AP)

By Parisa Hafezi
This article was published in Arab News on 28/11/2010 
TEHRAN: Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrived in Iran on Saturday, seeking its help to prevent political tensions turning violent if a UN-backed tribunal indicts Hezbollah members for killing his father.

Western diplomats have said that the tribunal could indict members of Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, by early next year for the 2005 bombing which killed former Premier Rafik Hariri and 21 others.

Lebanese politicians fear the indictments could prompt confrontation and possible violence between Hezbollah, which has denied any involvement in Hariri's killing, and allies of the prime minister.

Hariri was welcomed to Iran by first Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi who vowed to deepen ties with Lebanon. "We should use all of our capacities to expand the ties ... and to take giant steps in line with our interests," Rahimi said after a meeting with Hariri.

Hariri was expected to meet senior Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the three-day visit, Iranian television said.

Ahead of his first official visit to Iran, Hariri told Iran's state news agency that Iran could play an important role in allaying tension in Lebanon.

"Iran plays an important role in the Middle East region ... particularly in resolving crisis and maintaining stability in Lebanon," IRNA quoted Hariri as saying.

Ahmadinejad visited Lebanon in October, when he said Iran supported all Lebanese but highlighted the influence of Hezbollah by visiting its strongholds.

Lebanese officials hope a recent initiative by the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria will help prevent any escalation. Iran's endorsement of the Saudi-Syrian efforts is essential for their success.

"Hariri's visit ... is a piece in the regional movement toward (accomplishing) the deal," Lebanese analyst Oussam Safa said, adding it will give Hariri direct access to Iran without having to go through Tehran's allies — Hezbollah or Syria.

"It will help Hariri to get Iran's support in calming Hezbollah's reaction if the indictment is issued," he said.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has urged all Lebanese to boycott the tribunal and vowed to block the arrest of any of his members. He has also called on Hariri to repudiate the tribunal, which he described as an "Israeli project".

Iran's English language Press TV quoted Ghazanfar Roknabadi, Iran's ambassador to Beirut, as saying that Hariri's visit was "historically significant" and would have positive results on Lebanon in the next few days, .

"Iran backs unity among Lebanese political groups ... the visit will also be appreciated in Lebanon," said Roknabadi.

Some Iranian papers said Hariri's visit could build a strong front against Israel, which Tehran refuses to recognize. Israel has not ruled out the possibility of a military attack if diplomacy fails to resolve Iran's nuclear standoff.

"The visit will expand ties between Iran and Lebanon and will surely strengthen the resistance movement against the Zionist regime (Israel)," said Deputy Foreign Minister Reza Sheibani, the state-run Iran Daily newspaper reported.

Fading Prospect Of A Settlment To The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Musa Keilani
This comment was published in The Jordan Times on 28/11/2010

It is becoming increasingly clear to the world that there is little prospect of a fair and just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A major hurdle on the way to an acceptable peace agreement on the Palestinian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli fronts is the Israeli Knesset’s adoption of a bill stipulating that any withdrawal from “annexed territory” should have a two-third majority Knesset support or, in the absence of such a support, be endorsed by the people of Israel. The “annexed territory” include? occupied Arab East Jerusalem of the Palestinians and the Golan Heights of Syria.

The Israeli parliament is dominated by hawkish parties that reject any “compromise” with the Palestinians. There is no chance a hypothetical peace agreement calling on Israel to give up even a part of Arab East Jerusalem will get a two-thirds majority in the Knesset. When it comes to the issue being put to a referendum, it is clear that Israelis favouring relinquishing Arab East Jerusalem would be a small minority.

That will also be the case with the Golan Heights, which many Israelis consider as vital to their country’s security and water resources. The strategic plateau contains the source of two-thirds of Israel’s water consumption.

The overriding factor here is that Israel has reserved for itself the right to decide the future of territory it seized through the use of military force, in defiance of the UN Charter and all relevant international laws and conventions. It is an open challenge to the rest of the world, although few government leaders would declare so in public. Where does the so-called peace process stand today? Nowhere, given the obstacles placed by Israel in the way of peace negotiations.

Israel has ruled out returning Arab East Jerusalem to the Palestinians and this makes it impossible for any Palestinian leader to enter peace negotiations. Then, there is the issue of refugees and their rights.

Although it has agreed to discuss the fate of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, Israel would not budge from its position which shows no respect for their right to return to their ancestral land or receive compensation for the properties they lost.

As far as Israel is concerned, the problem of refugees has become an Arab and international problem. It has suggested that the countries hosting the refugees could absorb them into their populations. Of course, Israel would have no objections if the issue of compensation is worked out without its involvement, meaning that the international community would shoulder the responsibility.

Israel is indeed ready to resume direct peace negotiations with the Palestinians, particularly that it has received many sweeteners in the form of diplomatic assurances and a free military package that includes some 20 advanced fighter aircraft. As far as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concerned, Israel could resume peace talks anytime and keep the Palestinians dangling on a string for decades to come without offering them anything.

The Palestinian leaders say they would not renew peace talks without a freeze of settlement construction in the occupied territories, including Arab East Jerusalem.

It is clear that the US would somehow work out a compromise and coerce the Palestinians back into peace negotiations.

Under the US proposal, there would be a 90-day freeze in settlement construction during which Israel and the Palestinians would work out an agreement on their borders. The idea is that setting out the borders would solve half the problem, because both sides would know what they would be getting in a final agreement and this would end the dispute over settlements and clear the way for solutions to other issues.

One fails to see the reason for the US optimism. The Israelis and the Palestinians have been negotiating on and off for 19 years, but could not reach any agreement.

How, then, could one expect the two sides to work out an agreement in three months? Isn’t it also clear that Israel, which is entrenched in its position of controller of Palestinian territories, would only seek to dictate its terms to the Palestinians? How could any Palestinian leader accept an agreement that would simply mean signing away the rights of his people once and for all?

Any resumption of peace negotiations under the present conditions would be a wasted exercise.

The conditions need to be changed and this could come about only by creating moves that would shake the status quo. One of those moves should definitely be an end to the Palestinian dependence on others. The Palestinians should assert their rights as a people who seek self-determination and independence under the UN Charter and other relevant conventions. Once they do, there would be a chance to shake up the status quo in a way that would serve Palestinian interests.

Building Museum, And Fresh Arab Identity

By Nicolai Ouroussoff
This article was published in The New York Times on 26/11/2010
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — It is an audacious experiment: two small, oil-rich countries in the Middle East are using architecture and art to reshape their national identities virtually overnight, and in the process to redeem the tarnished image of Arabs abroad while showing the way toward a modern society within the boundaries of Islam.
Here, on a barren island on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, workers have dug the foundations for three colossal museums: an $800 million Frank Gehry-designed branch of the Guggenheim 12 times the size of its New York flagship; a half-billion-dollar outpost of the Louvre by Jean Nouvel; and a showcase for national history by Foster & Partners, the design for which was unveiled on Thursday. And plans are moving ahead for yet another museum, about maritime history, to be designed by Tadao Ando.
Nearly 200 miles across the Persian Gulf, Doha, the capital of Qatar, has been mapping out its own extravagant cultural vision. A Museum of Islamic Art, a bone-white I. M. Pei-designed temple, opened in 2008 and dazzled the international museum establishment. In December the government will open a museum of modern Arab art with a collection that spans the mid-19th-century to the present. Construction has just begun on a museum of Qatari history, also by Mr. Nouvel, and the design for a museum of Orientalist art by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron is to be made public next year.
To a critic traveling through the region, the speed at which museums are being built in Abu Dhabi — and the international brand names attached to some of them — conjured culture-flavored versions of the overwrought real-estate spectacles that famously shaped its fellow emirate, Dubai. By contrast, Doha’s vision seemed a more calculated attempt to find a balance between modernization and Islam.
But in both cases leaders also see their construction sprees as part of sweeping efforts to retool their societies for a post-Sept. 11, post-oil world. Their goal is not only to build a more positive image of the Middle East at a time when anti-Islamic sentiment continues to build across Europe and the United States, but also to create a kind of latter-day Silk Road, one on which their countries are powerful cultural and economic hinges between the West and rising powers like India and China.
And they are betting that they can do this without alienating significant parts of the Arab world, which may see in these undertakings the same kind of Western-oriented cosmopolitanism that flourished in places like Cairo and Tehran not so long ago, and that helped fuel the rise of militant fundamentalism.
Building a New Narrative
A little over a half-century ago Abu Dhabi was a Bedouin village with no literary or scientific traditions to speak of, no urban history. Its few thousand inhabitants, mostly poor and illiterate, survived largely on animal herding, fishing and pearl diving.
After oil production began here in the 1960s, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan, who founded the country by bringing several emirates together under Abu Dhabi’s leadership in the early 1970s, made deals with Western oil companies that financed the area’s first paved roads, hospitals and schools. The emirates became a kind of Switzerland of the Middle East, a haven of calm and prosperity surrounded by big, aggressive neighbors, Iran and Iraq to the north and Saudi Arabia to the west.
But by the time Sheik Zayed’s descendants began coming to power in the 1990s, that low-key approach felt out of date. Globalism was the catchword of the moment, and the construction boom in neighboring Dubai was demonstrating, despite its later bust, how completely a city could transform itself in just a few years.
As important, reliance on economic ties with the West began to seem imprudent after Sept. 11, as Western governments scrutinized all sorts of Arab financial dealings with increasing intensity, and even travel to the West became a sometimes degrading experience for Arabs.
In 2005 Sheikh Zayed’s son and heir, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, approached Thomas Krens, who was the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York, with the idea of creating a new branch of the Guggenheim Museum — a Middle Eastern version of what Mr. Krens and Mr. Gehry had accomplished a decade earlier in Bilbao, Spain. But the sheik’s ambitions were never so small: within a few years the proposed site of the project, Saadiyat Island, a 10-square-mile development zone just north of Abu Dhabi’s urban center, was being planned as a miniature city built around culture and leisure, with some of the most recognizable names from the creative world.
Abu Dhabi’s blockbuster deal with the Louvre was signed in 2007; another deal, with the British Museum, to design exhibitions for Foster & Partners’ Zayed National Museum, was signed two years later. The maritime museum by Mr. Ando and a performing arts center by Zaha Hadid are still being planned. These cultural megaprojects will be joined by a campus of New York University on Saadiyat Island’s southern shore and, in a location to be determined, a four-million-square-foot development for media companies and film studios meant partly to provide job training and opportunities for young Emiratis.
Sheik Khalifa and his government want all this to instill national pride in a new generation of Emiratis while providing citizens with tools, both intellectual and psychological, for living in a global society. The idea, several people told me on a recent visit, is to tell a new story, one that breaks with a long history of regional decline, including the recent upheavals caused by militant fundamentalism, and to re-establish a semblance of cultural parity with the West.
“There are religious extremists everywhere in the Middle East — even here,” said an Arab consultant who has worked on several developments and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired. The sheik, this person said, believes the cosmopolitan influences of the projects may help “open up the minds of these younger Emiratis before they go down that road.”
Of all the projects, the Louvre outpost seems the most natural fit with Abu Dhabi’s globalist aspirations. On top of a generous construction budget, the government is paying France $1.3 billion, mainly to establish an art-borrowing agreement that will ensure that it gets the pick of the Louvre’s encyclopedic collections, as well as art from several other museums. The range and depth of those collections will allow the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which is being marketed as a “universal museum,” to show off the cultural achievements of civilizations from every corner of the world.
And Mr. Nouvel’s design for this museum — a maze of gallery buildings and canals, all covered by a huge stainless-steel dome — is a wonderfully romantic evocation of a Middle East at ease with technology. Sunlight will penetrate its perforated skin, creating hundreds of beams that recall the interiors of great mosques, or even the filtering of light through the tree canopies in an oasis. Tucked under the dome, the galleries and their watery setting refer to Venice — an emblem, Mr. Nouvel has said, of the fertile cultural crosscurrents that once existed between East and West.
Globalism or Colonialism?
But while the Louvre will be able to draw on thousands of years of shifting cultural influences, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which is focused on 1965 to the present, a period culturally dominated by the West, reveals the problems that arise when the political message you are trying to send collides with historical reality.
Mr. Krens envisioned a “global museum” that nonetheless seemed to acknowledge the primacy of Western contemporary art. The museum — from the outside, a chaotic pileup of translucent cones and gigantic children’s building blocks — was organized around a cluster of first-floor galleries representing key movements in Europe and the United States. Islamic collections would be housed two floors above, while warehouselike galleries would radiate out from the core, each devoted to a different region — the Far East, India, Africa. The plan’s Western bent didn’t fly for the clients, or for Richard Armstrong, who replaced Mr. Krens as the director of the Guggenheim Foundation in 2008.
Nine months ago Mr. Armstrong began developing an alternative plan, in which artists from all over the world would be grouped together in theme galleries: abstract art, Pop Art, performance art and so on. Even in this scheme, however, Mr. Armstrong admits that galleries will end up being organized around major anchor pieces that are, by and large, by blue-chip Western artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Anselm Kiefer.
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has a team of three curators working in New York to build a collection with a budget of up to $600 million, more than 200 times the annual acquisitions budget of the Guggenheim in Manhattan. But they need to be done in time for the museum’s opening in just three years — a time frame that many people in the museum world regard as absurdly short.
Similar issues arose with the plan for the Zayed National Museum, the institution that most directly speaks to the country’s identity. The museum was intended to explore the United Arab Emirates’ relatively sparse historical record through the life of Sheik Zayed, a man known for his humility, who died in 2004. Yet after Norman Foster presented his initial design proposal, in 2007, he was told that the country’s leadership wanted something grander, even though there was still no clear idea of what, exactly, would go inside.
Mr. Foster was sent back to the drawing board, and a team of curators from the British Museum worked out an exhibition program. The new design features an enormous landscaped mound capped by five featherlike wind towers — the tallest one rising 300 feet — an attempt to evoke falconry, a favorite pastime of Arab royals.
That the collections of both the Guggenheim and the National Museum are being planned in the West raises a larger issue: while the money for all these developments comes from Emirati oil, the projects themselves are being shaped almost exclusively by foreigners. Abu Dhabi has become a revolving door of museum directors, architects, curators and other high-level consultants, and the hectic pace at which their plans are being pushed through has contributed to a sense among some here that what is being touted as a societywide embrace of global culture will end up being just another example of cultural colonialism.
The Media Zone will have a similarly strong international flavor. The government hopes that its mix of corporate offices and production studios will attract foreign news companies, as well as Bollywood studios. And an early design — clusters of sleekly contoured towers set atop six superblocks — involved a whole cast of celebrated Western architects, including Bernard Tschumi, Diller Scofidio & Renfro and UNStudio.
Just east of the city’s museum district, workers have broken ground on a 27-acre New York University campus, vaguely Beaux-Arts in plan, where classes will be taught in English and where there will be no quotas ensuring that Emiratis or other Arabs are given a significant number of places.
Insiders and Outsiders
The Arab world has been down a similar road. An earlier wave of Western consultants — businessmen, foreign service types, engineers and architects — poured into the Middle East in the 1950s and ’60s, selling a cold war brand of modernity that would uplift Arab societies, in particular by fostering a thriving middle class. In practice the changes often simply reinforced divisions between a privileged elite — modern, educated, in tune with the West — and a struggling underclass, something that was not a small factor in the rise of fundamentalist violence.
The new museums will be embedded in a kind of suburban opulence that can be found all over the Middle East, but rarely in such isolation and on such an expansive scale as in Abu Dhabi. The concrete frames of a new St. Regis hotel and resort and a Park Hyatt are rising just down the coast from the museum district, along Saadiyat Beach. Nearby, a 2,000-home walled community is going up along an 18-hole golf course designed by Gary Player, to be joined eventually by several more luxury residential developments and two marinas for hundreds of yachts. A tram will loop around Saadiyat, connecting these developments to the museums.
As telling, in its way, is the Workers’ Village that I was taken to see during a tour of the island. The camp, still under construction, is expected to house 40,000 foreigners brought in to build this paradise.
It is neatly divided into three-story prefabricated housing blocks, which are interspersed with pretty courtyards. A two-story structure, just off one of the courtyards, serves as a communal hall, with dining on the ground floor and a library upstairs with books arranged by language: Arabic, Hindi, Nepalese, Tamil, Malaysian. The same languages blare from TV rooms off a balcony.
In some sense this village embodies a version of the cosmopolitanism Abu Dhabi says it is trying to create. But even if it is completed as planned, it will house only a small fraction of the city’s hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers; the rest will presumably live in cramped quarters in the city’s industrial sector or in faraway desert encampments. And once the museums are completed, a spokesman for the government development agency told me, it will be bulldozed to make room for more hotels and luxury housing.
Arabic Tradition in Qatar
Doha, like Abu Dhabi, was built from a small trading village into a city of about a million in the last 50 years. But both the museums being built around Doha and the art and artifacts to which they are dedicated — private collections amassed over decades by members of the ruling family — reflect a more patient, gradual approach to culture building than that of Abu Dhabi, and one that looks less to the West. If the cultural identities that both cities are trying to create are to some extent fictions, Doha’s is one woven largely of the cosmopolitan traditions of the region — that is, of places like Damascus, Istanbul and Cairo.
The three major Qatari national collections were assembled by the emir’s cousins Sheik Hassan al-Thani and Sheik Saud al-Thani, who began collecting in the 1980s, when art was still viewed as dubious, even unmanly, among the country’s elites.
“If I talked about modern art, no one understood me,” Sheik Hassan told me when we met in Doha. “It was impossible to even start this conversation.”
In the 1990s a new emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, began to liberalize many institutions and to open the door cautiously to the outside world. In 1995 he announced plans for Education City: a sprawling campus whose programs are now run by American universities like Texas A&M and Georgetown, but with agreements to ensure that a large proportion of its students are Qatari nationals. A year later he established the news network Al Jazeera.
The museum projects were also part of this liberalization effort. After Sheik Saud agreed to donate his collection of Islamic art to the state, Sheik Hamad hired Mr. Pei to design a building for it. When the resulting Museum of Islamic Art opened, it was celebrated as a successful Modernist interpretation of Islamic precedents, from the ablution fountain of the Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo to old Islamic fortresses in North Africa. Its monumental forms express Mr. Pei’s ideal of a world in which modernity and tradition exist in perfect balance.
As striking as Mr. Pei’s architecture, however, was the obvious subtext of the collection, whose treasures range from Iraqi ceramics to Spanish silk curtains and Indian jewelry. If these pieces were assembled with an eye to exploring the richness of Islamic art — and the historic reach of Islam — their presentation was also a way to emphasize the cultural crosscurrents that produced them. The message, directed at both local and foreign audiences, is that much of what is great in Western, Eastern and Middle Eastern traditions is based on their connections to one another.
“My father often says, in order to have peace, we need to first respect each other’s cultures,” said Sheika al-Mayassa Bint Hamad Al Thani, the emir’s 28-year-old daughter and the main force behind the museum building program in Qatar. “And people in the West don’t understand the Middle East. They come with bin Laden in their heads.”
The museums, she hopes, will help “to change that mind-set.”
The newer national collections, parts of which will be unveiled to the public over the next few months, will take that idea into more provocative territory. The Orientalism collection in particular seems like an improbable focus for a museum in the Arab world. The collection, displayed in a town house until its new home is completed, centers on depictions of Arab life by 19th-century French and English artists. In one room a caricature of a squatting North African warrior hangs near a painting of Algerian women performing a seductive dance. There are also portraits of sultans and pashas by Italian artists, extending back to the 16th century, when the cultural scales were tipping away from the Ottoman Empire and toward Renaissance Europe.
To a Westerner, the 19th-century paintings can be especially uncomfortable — they present what now seem clich├ęs of Arab life that reflect back our own prejudices. But to many Arabs they are also vividly detailed historical records of a period that is otherwise undocumented. Realistic painting did not exist then in the Arab world; photography was not common until the late 19th century. As Sheik Hassan saw it when he was building the collection, these were the only records of a life that was fast fading from memory.
“I recognize this life,” Sheik Hassan said. “The sheik sitting in his tent, I know these costumes are 100 percent right — even the tint of the button. The hare, it is from North Africa.”
The paintings are not simply relics of cultural imperialism, he added. “You should think of all of this as part of a cultural movement, an exchange of ideas.”
Still, by shining a light into the darker corners of Arab history, as well as at its ancient glories, the Orientalist museum suggests an understanding — rare anywhere — that the foundations of any healthy culture must be built on an unflinching appraisal of the past. Rather than airbrush that past, the government intends to put it up to public scrutiny.
A similar impulse is shaping Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, which will open in a temporary home at the end of December. When I first visited the collection, which was still in storage, I felt the weight of the West’s cultural influence in frequent derivative references to artists like Picasso. Just as many works, however, were inspired expressions of the artist’s struggle to come to terms with that influence without losing touch with his or her own identity.
Piecing together the fragments of that 20th-century history and linking them to present-day Qatar will be one of the museum’s core missions, said Wassan al-Khudhairi, its Iraqi-born director, as she gave a tour of the rooms. “Baghdad, Cairo, Beirut, North Africa, Syria, Jordan,” she said. “This is the culture.”
Not that Doha is overlooking its own less glamorous past. In contrast to Mr. Foster’s evocation of the sport of Arabian kings in Abu Dhabi’s National Museum, Mr. Nouvel’s design for the Qatar National Museum draws on the forms of local sand roses: tiny pink encrustations buried just under the desert’s surface. The building will be composed of clusters of concrete discs that seem to have tumbled across the site, gently encircling a palm-shaded courtyard. Inside, displays of tents, fabrics, saddles and other objects, as well as enormous video screens that will immerse the visitor in the experience of the desert, are meant to convey both the humble origins of Qatar’s royal family and the nobility of Bedouin life.
Like all of Doha’s new cultural buildings, the National Museum is being carefully integrated into the city, rather than set apart in a special zone. It will be built within the boundaries of the original settlement, now the city’s center, on the site of an early-20th-century palace of a former emir. Mr. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art, though on a man-made island, stands just off the corniche, not far from the old souks. The government is considering several downtown sites for the permanent home of Mathaf.
Radical Social Transformation
Doha’s methodical approach to culture building is echoed in an even broader plan to re-engineer the demographics of the city, according to Stan Wypych, an Australian consultant for the city’s planning authority. The population of Doha is expected to grow to 2.3 million by 2032. By then, with the current construction boom over, the bulk of its 700,000 laborers, mostly from South and Southeast Asia, will have gone home, replaced, the government hopes, with the kind of educated, white-collar workers whom it sees as the future of the new society.
Some of these new professionals would be housed in places like Lusail City, a 14-square-mile district of apartment towers, villas and marinas under construction at the city’s edge. Other developments, designed with more traditional courtyards and within walking distance of mosques or plazas, are being marketed to Arabs, including Qataris who fled the city to suburban villas decades ago, as part of an effort to entice them to the historic city center. The idea is to integrate the new expatriates without sacrificing Doha’s Arab character.
“The social transformation is pretty radical,” Mr. Wypych said. “It’s happening pretty fast.”
As comprehensive as this vision seems, however, questions still linger, as in Abu Dhabi, about whom it will speak to. Few fundamentalists are likely to distinguish between one approach to modernization and another. Even many educated Arabs in and outside Qatar — among the museums’ target audience — see a disturbing inconsistency in these grand plans.
“Some have lived here 50 years,” said Fares Braizat, a Jordanian professor at Qatar University who has been working on a census of foreign nationals. “They speak Arabic with a Qatari dialect, but they are still not allowed Qatari citizenship” or any of the enviable perks that go with it: free education and health care, interest-free government loans, preference in hiring, a sense of equality.
Mr. Braizat’s point zeroes in on what could turn out to be the great flaw in the plans of both cities. Leaders are investing enormous amounts in these projects, and they are likely to leave behind some extraordinary buildings and institutions. But if they can’t get over that final hurdle and persuade enough people that they have a shared stake in this future, they will never realize their most ambitious goals. Worse, they may end up reinforcing the cynicism about engagement with the West that brought down Western-style modernism in this part of the world decades ago.

Erdogan...Fulfill Your Promises

By Abdul Rahman al-Rashed
This comment was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 27/11/2010

We have gotten used to hearing Iran and the eager Arab countries threatening Israel whenever there is a glimmer of a threat to Lebanon or the Palestinians, saying "we will not be silent" and repeating the slogan "we will not stand idly by."
We have been driven to despair from this; these slogans have been exhausted and we have never seen – not even once – any application of this on the ground to the point that some people believe that the objective of these slogans is to revive the conflict, rather than deter Israeli aggression.
Now Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has entered the fray, announcing that from this moment forward his country will not tolerate any Israeli attack. He made this statement in Lebanon, where thousands of people came out to welcome him, in recognition of his brave words against Israel.
However we are worried that the frustrated Arabs who cling to any hope with regards to confronting Israel will be fooled again. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated such slogans many times but did not lift a finger when Lebanon and the Gaza Strip were attacked.
Statements such as these have a long history that date back to the era of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who made such statements the heart of his policy but in the end was frustrated and failed to achieve anything in this regard.
If Erdogan means what he says, and will mobilize his forces to confront any Israeli aggression then we will gladly stand by him because we know that Israel will think twice before attacking – and even if it does attack this will be costly – due to the danger of confronting Turkey. More importantly than this, the Turkish military cover will create a new reality for the Arabs that will force the current hard-line Israeli leadership to accept negotiations. This is something that previously occurred with regards to the Camp David [negations], and [a reality such as this] was enforced upon Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and most recently Yitzhak Rabin.

However unfortunately, I believe that Erdogan means what he said literally. He said "we will not be silent" and this means that the Turks will verbally denounce and criticize Israel. We are not in need of more talk, for this is precisely what everybody else is doing, and that includes the smallest and weakest Arab countries. So what's the point?
Let me tell you what the price is for this verbal support; it encourages more adventures, and results in huge loses for the Arab side, from the Palestinians to the Lebanese, and their supports. This is something that we must reject, whether it is from Turkey or elsewhere.
Turkey is a great military power that is capable of confronting Israel, it should either say well and good and place its [military] forces in a position to fulfill these promises or remain silent. The Arabs are tired of promises and exploitative propaganda. The Arabs are tired of visitors coming to see its destroyed homes, hospitals full of the injured, and its cemeteries and graveyards. They need someone to help them, either in peace or in war.
The Arabs, particularly the injured – including the Palestinians and the Lebanese – are not in need of expressions of solidarity and encouragement but rather full engagement with them. Many Arab politicians and others have exploited such slogans in order to strengthen internal and external leadership.
Why has Turkey made this promise and threat? Turkey previously threatened Israel after 8 of its citizens were killed by Israeli forces in international waters, but in the end it did nothing, and this clearly shows that Turkey – despite its sympathy towards the Palestinian cause – will not lift a figure in the event of any Israeli attack.
Therefore we say, don't believe [in such slogans] so you won't be taken in by them.

Lebanon And The STL: Political Deal Or Security Breakdown?

By Raghida Dergham from New York
This comment was published in al-Hayat on 27/11/2010
Analyses place Lebanon between a security breakdown and a political deal in the wake of the report of Canadian television network CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), which claimed to reveal documents from the UN Investigation Commission into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, having reached the conclusion that members of Hezbollah had been behind the assassination which took place in 2005 and led to the death of an additional 22 people. The CBC report addresses the process of execution and does not touch upon who was responsible for taking the decision to carry it out. It may seem that the report condemns Hezbollah alone, yet the fact of the matter is that it condemns the second head of the investigation, Belgian Commissioner Serge Brammertz , who had discovered the Hezbollah element in the assassination but had “lost” the relevant documents which had been delivered to the commission by Internal Security Forces (ISF) Captain Wissam Eid, who was later assassinated in 2008. Brammertz today holds a high-ranking position as Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and had spent two years, from January 2006 to January 2008, being silent about what he was doing when heading the UN commission in charge of investigating the Hariri assassination. The CBC report reveals new elements about Brammertz’s role which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should examine carefully. Indeed, Brammertz failed to safeguard the investigation and to protect witnesses, and the decisions he made or his “negligence” regarding the documents may call for a lawsuit being filed against him, because what he did may have contributed to the killing of the man who had actually conducted the investigation, while Brammertz, by negligence or purposely, buried the evidence. The least that Ban Ki-moon should do is start an internal investigation into Serge Brammertz, in order to understand how it might be conceivable for the head of a UN investigation to “neglect”, “lose”, “forget” or “overlook” a report held by the commission for a year and a half. Moreover, the Secretary-General should call for an internal investigation of the UN over the leaking of documents that belong to the investigation. It is not sufficient to denounce and lay the blame on the media for obtaining these documents. What is required is for the current head of the investigation since 2008 and the General Prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), Canadian Daniel Bellemare, to be held to account, because the documents were leaked during their mandate. Just as importantly, Bellemare is today required to stop playing the same game adopted by Serge Brammertz of hiding behind the secrecy of the investigation in order to refrain from clarifying its developments. Today, Daniel Bellemare bears the moral responsibility of telling the Lebanese people what he holds, instead of tampering with their emotions, their security and their future. Indeed, if he truly intends to issue an indictment against one or eight individuals, let him clearly say that he has resolved to do so and when. If he truly has witnesses, a case and evidence that would allow him to prosecute before the STL, he must tell the Lebanese and the United Nations that he is ready for such a task. Indeed, there are those who believe that Bellemare’s bankruptcy in this respect has led him to play the game of secrecy, and that he will not issue any indictments, because the UN investigation has failed to work quickly and diligently, wasting around 5 years at the hands of two unprofessional men: Brammertz and Bellemare. Yet on the other hand, there are those from among Security Council members who say that Daniel Bellemare is ready to issue the preliminary indictment, one step at a time, and that he has told major countries at the Security Council that he is resolved to move forward by accusing members of Hezbollah towards revealing everything that took place in the case of the Hariri assassination and in that of the other assassinations, which the investigation has proven to be connected. Which then is the real Bellemare? Perhaps this question is not as important as the questions that currently stand about the formulas of the political deal or security breakdown after the CBC report. Below is an overview of what is taking place in the corridors of the United Nations and of the capitals of the countries concerned.

The clearest of stances is that no one really knows what will happen at the security level if indictments are issued, or what will happen in the framework of political deals being discussed locally, regionally and internationally.

The five permanent members of the Security Council stand at an equal distance from the Special Tribunal to try those involved in the Hariri assassination. The United States, Russia, China, Britain and France will not abandon the STL through a Security Council Resolution, which means that there is absolutely no way to annul the STL. And these countries will not openly enter as parties to any local or regional deals that would make them seem as if bidding or compromising on justice.

France is the country that is most confused, due to the fact that President Nicolas Sarkozy is waging a battle against the diplomatic team in his government because of the STL. He is personally part to the political bargains going through Damascus and Doha, while the Foreign Ministry feels ashamed and concerned as it watches France getting confused and backing away from its traditions and its principles when it comes to its relationship with Lebanon. French diplomats, in Paris as at the United Nations, are trying to elude reproach and blame by pointing to the “weakness” of the Barack Obama Administration and its waning resolve to seriously deal with the issue of Lebanon. They also point to the “dispersal” of Sunni leadership in the Arab World.

They say that the lack of available options to “counter” threats of driving Lebanon towards a civil war if indictments are issued against Hezbollah is making France unable to deal with the next step. The reason is that Sarkozy refuses to address an important element in the equation, which is Damascus, for his own reasons, which may be connected to his special relationship with Doha.

The British are pretending to be certain that there is no need to worry about a security breakdown resulting from the indictment. They say that the information they hold from intelligence and diplomacy indicates that Hezbollah will not implement its security threats and will not drive the country to confrontation for several reasons – some connected to Iran and some to Israel, as well as some that concern the reasons and the grounds for Hezbollah incriminating itself before being incriminated by the CBC report or by the STL. They are of the opinion that everyone will retreat into a kind of “status quo”, and that regional and international sorting out of the relationship between Iran and the international community, between Iran and Israel, between Syria and Iran, or between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is not yet complete. The British have decided to move forward with the wager on creating a rift in the relationship between Syria and Iran, and they look exclusively to Hezbollah in this relationship, with its notable implications and corollaries with Israel. Britain thus predicts calm, if not a deal being struck.

The Russians consider that a certain party, a certain country or a certain group, wants to thwart the issuing of the indictment, and this from their point of view explains the appearance of the CBC report. Indeed, publicly condemning Hezbollah in the media and public opinion by way of the CBC report aims at preventing it being condemned at the STL in The Hague. Some Russians suggest that “they” – without naming them – sought by such a leak to obstruct the progress towards a trial that may lead to years of hearings, as well as to other individuals being tried, not only members of Hezbollah.

“They”, in Russia’s thinking, are from within the Barack Obama Administration, regardless of the fact that the person who appears to be behind the leaks is most likely one of the investigators, having lost patience at Daniel Bellemare’s procrastination and pretense at behaving professionally, knowing that he has spent two years threatening to resign at times, ill at times, and suggesting that indictments will be issued at others. The investigator in question is from among those who worked with Serge Brammertz and witnessed the extent of his laxity and neglect of the investigation, being exclusively concerned with himself with the aim of being promoted bureaucratically, while at the same time neglecting to carry out the tasks entrusted to him by the man who recommended him, i.e. the first investigator, Detlev Mehlis.

Indeed, what was mentioned in the CBC report about the telephone communications network and its ties to people in the government was mentioned in Detlev Mehlis’s first report, including the cell of eight people that was monitoring Hariri’s movements. This was in 2005, and what Mehlis’s report had essentially relied on were those telephone communications, as mentioned in his report.

However, returning to the major powers, China has no core concern with the STL, Lebanon or the regional relationships concerned with the assassination. The United States, of course, is at the forefront not of clarity, but of obscurity, in spite of its recent statements and its announcement over funding the STL.

There is a general impression that the US Administration wants to incriminate Hezbollah and remove suspicion and accusations from Syria. However, there is also talk of “factions” within the US Administration that seek dialogue with Iran by accusing Hezbollah. Such dialogue, as usual, comprises two aspects, that of the carrot and that of the stick.

However, the stick would not come through what is held by the STL, but would rather be connected to what is held by US intelligence – in the sense that what was leaked to the CBC is only a sample of what US intelligence holds. Consequently, either cooperation, dialogue and engagement will take place, not at the Lebanese level, but rather at the nuclear and regional levels, or else the information held by intelligence agencies will find its way to Daniel Bellemare, allowing him to truly issue meaningful indictments.

A noteworthy question is: why has Hezbollah taken the initiative to condemn itself before the STL condemns it? Those well-informed about the internal structure of the party say that there is battle taking place between the Syrian side and the Iranian side within Hezbollah – and this is perhaps the most important battle, one that should be closely examined.

Will there be a political deal or a security breakdown? Of course the prime moral responsibility falls on Lebanese leaderships, and in particular on Hezbollah. Yet the moral responsibility also falls to the same extent on the United Nations and on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who should hold to account two men who have driven Lebanon to the edge of the abyss. And between the two, from the US Administration in Washington to the political leadership in Damascus to mediators from Ankara to Riyadh to Doha, moral responsibility requires the “political deal” to last more than a few days. Indeed, the Lebanese have become emotionally drained. They are as much victims and martyrs as a man named Wissam Eid.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Washington Bends For Israel Once Again

By Rami G. Khouri
This comment was published by The Daily Star on 27/11/2010

The revelation in the United States Wednesday that Washington was offering Israel new security-related guarantees in return for a two-month extension of the partial moratorium on new Jewish colonies in the occupied Palestinian territories is neither surprising nor encouraging. It may reflect a continuation of the tradition in Washington that emphasizes a fawning and almost servile attitude to Israeli “security” concerns as the primary substantive issue in Arab-Israeli negotiations, which the Israelis astutely use as leverage in tactical negotiations to press their side of the negotiations.

By this kind of pandering to Israeli “security” concerns, the United States repeatedly makes three major mistakes. First, it attempts to provide external guarantees for Israeli security concerns in a historical context in which Israel has repeatedly shown for decades that it will only trust itself to ensure its own security. The US can give Israel money, technology, diplomatic support and other tangible assistance, but the security of Israel will not be outsourced. The more the US gives in to Israeli demands anchored in “security” arguments – like the current expectation that the US will support a lengthy Israeli military presence in the eastern Jordan Valley – the more Israel comes up with new demands that it says are vital to its security.

Second, this approach gives Palestinian concerns and rights second-class status, which has been one of the main reasons for the failure of the American-mediated peace process since the 1970s.

The Arab-Israeli peace-making process under American tutelage has largely been transformed into a dual process of domestic politics in the US and Israel, which focuses primarily on Israeli demands rather than on the mutual rights of Israelis, Palestinians and other involved Arabs.

Third, this approach to diplomacy largely removes international law and United Nations resolutions from the conflict-resolution process, transforming it mainly into a function of Israeli security concerns and Israeli domestic political dictates related to maintaining a parliamentary majority for the coalition government of the day.

Someone should stand up in Washington and ask why it is that the only major breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli peace-making have occurred when the US was not the principal or initial mediator. For decades now Washington has worked on the principle first articulated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, that the US should do all it can to make Israel feel secure, so that Israel could take the hard concessions necessary for a peace agreement. But that approach has been a glaring failure, giving Israel the time, protection and diplomatic cover it needs to keep expanding its colonies and settlements while refusing consistently to seriously address the single most important issue on the Palestinian side: the forced exile and refugee status of the Palestinians and the need to overcome those conditions through a combination of statehood, repatriation, compensation and other means that would coexist with a Jewish-majority Israeli state that is accepted in peace in the region.

The leaks about the latest American move in the negotiations also suggested that Washington would work to create a regional security framework that has been interpreted to mean some sort of anti-Iranian front that includes Arabs and Israelis. In other words, the US is now acceding to Israeli-dictated “security” arrangements that go far beyond Israel’s immediate borders. But these have little chance of success given that such an approach has consistently failed to materialize since the Reagan administration first tried it in the early 1980s. Public opinion in much of the Arab world supports Iran, and some key Arab actors (Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas) have strategic links with Iran that seem to serve them well for the time being.

So American tactics and strategy in the current Arab-Israeli negotiations remain puzzling, to say the least, but perhaps not so puzzling when the hand of pro-Israeli American allies and proxies like Dennis Ross seems to be at work here. Offering Israel substantive gains in return for a brief extension of a partial pause in Zionist colonialism seems like a strange way of achieving a comprehensive and permanent peace agreement, but then strange things always happen when American politicians and Israeli proxies dictate the flow of diplomacy, as is the case now. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, wants to use a short extension of the settlement freeze to extract more American concessions, including the release of the convicted Israeli spy now in an American jail, Jonathan Pollard. In other words, the settlements can be partially frozen for some more time, if the price is right for Israeli politicians.

This seems to be a bizarre way to do diplomacy, but in the absence of a serious, credible strategy by the Palestinians and their Arab supporters we are likely to continue to see this kind of approach for some time.

Awaiting The Final Step

By George S. Hishmeh
This comment was published in The Jordan Times on 26/11/2010

The longer the standstill in the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority the further both are from a fair settlement and the more complex the terms will be in the future, especially now that Israel manages to up the ante almost daily.

In the meantime, a war of words has emerged, among former US officials, some known to be sympathetic to Israel, and well-known commentators who regularly echo the Zionist position.
Absent from this melee are pro-Palestinian analysts or advocates, a deplorable situation that exposes the deplorable position of the US administration, Obama’s and all others preceding it, which failed to be evenhanded.

As was noted in a recent Washington Post news report, “in return for Israel accepting a [proposed] 90-day settlement freeze, the Obama team agreed to veto anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations and to sell $3 billion worth of fighter jets - essentially, a payment of $33.3 million for each day of the freeze”.

More alarmingly, the US has reportedly “agreed never again to ask (Israel) for a settlement freeze (and) to exempt the area surrounding Jerusalem from the freeze”, which is the east sector of the Holy City, potentially the capital of Palestine.

James L. Jones, the former national security adviser of President Barack Obama acknowledged in an appearance at the Aspen Institute that the need for Washington to be more aggressive to promote a Mideast peace “has been advocated certainly, by some of the leaders in the Arab world, and the Europeans, and it’s certainly something that the administration at some point might have to consider”. He did not suggest a deadline but stressed: “Whatever it is, we have to find a solution to this; failure is not an op?ion here.”

The failure of the Obama administration to be forceful has allowed, by many accounts, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to avoid taking any positive steps. Topping his latest list of negative manoeuvres has been the approval by Israel’s right-leaning Knesset of a historic legislation that requires than any peace deal that would compel Israel to cede any annexed Palestinian territory, particularly Arab East Jerusalem or the Syrian Golan Heights, be subjected to a national referendum.

Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition Kadima Party, said that Netanyahu opted for this manoeuvre because he is “a weak prime minister” who was comfortable with passing on responsibility. But the other logical view, coming on the heels of the proposed “loyalty oath”, to be taken henceforth by would-be Israeli citizens, recognising Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state”, is that the approved referendum would kill the two-state solution since it requires a super-majority of the 120-member Knesset. Only 65 ?embers approved the referendum vote.

The State Department declined to comment on the referendum decision, with a spokesman saying this is an “internal Israeli issue”. But a former US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, published an op-ed column decrying the Obama administration’s decision to offer Israel what has been described as “a gold-plated menu of incentives”, including advanced warplanes, as a reward for its “bad behaviour”. Kurtzer, who now teaches Middle East politics at Princeton University, believes that “Washington will almost c?rtainly come to regret bribing Israel, Israel may regret receiving such a bribe even more”.

The former ambassador wondered sarcastically in his Washington Post column: “Will the rewards for Israel be automatically renewable? Meaning, if Israel is willing to continue the settlement freeze after three months, will another set of rewards be the price for that?”

Another op-ed written by former ambassador to Israel, Samuel W. Lewis, and two others called on the US to address the endgame in this conflict.

“An American statement of principles would mobilise regional support,” they said in The New York Times, adding: “It would provide for the first time, a public framework for engaging sponsors of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

In other words, they continued, “at a minimum, the American declaration should be based on the 1967 lines, with agreed territorial swaps; support a compromise on Jerusalem that allows for two capitals for two states; include provisions about security limitations and guarantees; reiterate America’s support for an agreed solution to the refugee problem; and reaffirm our long-standing commitment to the state of Israel”.

All this should come in a presidential speech, they suggested. Well and good, but if not, the next step for the Palestinians will be to drop all the negotiations and go to the Untied Nations.

After all, it was the UN General Assembly that divided Palestine into two countries in 1947, and after 63 years, it is high time for this world body to accept a state of Palestine as a full-fledged member, as it did when it accepted Israel, which does not yet have identified borders.

Saudi Arabia Foils Al-Qaeda Plot

By Muhammad Al-Sulami 
This article was published in Arab News on 27/11/2010

Saudi security forces have arrested 149 people from 19 cells linked to the Al-Qaeda network in the past 8 months and foiled attacks against government and security officials as well as journalists, the Interior Ministry said on Friday.

In a press conference in Riyadh, ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour ibn Turki said a total of 2.24 million riyals ($597,237) were seized from suspected Al-Qaeda members trying to collect money and spread their  ideology during the Haj and Umrah pilgrimages.

“In the past eight months 149 people linked to Al-Qaeda were arrested, among them were 124 Saudis and 25 were from other nationalities,” Turki said.

Al-Turki said the assassination plots were in advanced stages of execution when they were uncovered. “Documents and weapons for the execution of the plots were seized. Action was also taken with the help of Interpol to arrest foreign and local people involved in the plots.”

The spokesman said that advocates of deviant ideologies on Internet forums had usernames such as Killer, Anwar, Lover of Allah and Abu Rayyan. A woman militant who used a pseudonym on Internet forums was also tracked and arrested.

Al-Turki said that some of the militants entered the Kingdom on the pretext of performing Haj or Umrah and then went to secret locations for training.

He added that investigations are under way to trace the source of the militants’ funding and stop them.

“The ministry calls upon anyone who placed himself in a dubious position or maintains terrorist links in any form to turn himself in to the departments concerned so that he realizes the error of his actions. His surrender will be taken into account at the time of his trial,” Al-Turki said.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah said in a message to Haj pilgrims last week: “The terror that threatens the world is attributed to Muslims when it is caused by extremists who are outside the scope of the tolerant religion of Islam. The perpetrators of terror represent none but themselves even though they appear in the guise of Islam.”

Egyptian Election: Politicians Don't Realise They Could Be Tweeted Out

With the spread of consumer technology like mobiles, the time when voters were relegated to the spectators' seats has gone.

By Amira Nowaira
This comment was published in The Guardian on 26/11/2010

Egyptian legislative elections have always seemed fascinating to watch but hopelessly predictable. The current elections seem to be no exception, although there are indications that the winds of change have started to blow.

For the last 60 years parliamentary elections have been held with admirable regularity. Parliaments with various names, from Nasser's National Assembly to today's People's Assembly, have been in place to prove to the world that we have a functioning democracy.

But democracy often exists only in the eye of the beholder. Successive regimes, from Nasser through Sadat to Mubarak, have all insisted they were democratic. It was no doubt the fault of the citizens themselves if they did not recognise that basic, simple truth.

Not many people now realise that during the Nasser era elections were held and people were urged to go out and vote. True, the National Union, established in 1957, and later the Socialist Union were the only legally recognised parties, and their hold on power was uncontested. But the elections were not rigged. Rigging was unnecessary because the government sifted the candidates before nominating them and giving them its blessing. So it mattered little to the regime whether Mohammed, Ahmed or Laila was finally elected. Like taxes deducted at source, candidates were carefully scrutinised and pruned before they were offered for election.

But the rules of the game have changed since then. The Egyptian government now finds itself facing new challenges threatening its very authority and its monopoly on information and communication.

The ruling National Democratic party, however, seems hopelessly out of touch with the times. It doesn't realise that the day might come when it could be tweeted out of power. Nor is it able to understand that it won't be able to station the country's security forces on the information superhighway as it does on Cairo's ring-roads.

The time when citizens were relegated to the spectator seats is gone. The state can restrict the live coverage of polling stations but it cannot stop people using mobile phones to send photos and videos through web services such as Nor can it stop people using blogs, Facebook or Twitter to relay information it doesn't approve of.

Egypt's contradictions may be a source of infinite amusement, but also one of genuine distress. Where else can you find a state of emergency that stays in place for 30 years? The word "emergency" implies a brief, intense situation that should disappear as soon as it is dealt with. But 30 years?

And where else can you find a presidential candidate casting his vote for another instead of himself? This was what the 90-year-old Ahmed El-Sabbahi did in 2005, when he proudly declared that he gave his vote to Mubarak.

More seriously, where else can you find a banned organisation like the Muslim Brotherhood getting high-profile coverage in the media and a sizable representation in the 2005 parliament? If the organisation is illegal and banned, why are they all over the media, giving interviews and making statements?

Where else can you find a nation with more than 50% of its population under the age of 15 that is ruled mostly by septuagenarians and octogenarians? Whenever the ruling NDP tries to indicate its endorsement of the nation's youth, it is actually referring to people in their 50s. One must admit, though, that the NDP deserves marks for consistency at least, for if power is still in the hands of octogenarians in the prime of life, then the 50-year olds of the NDP are green youths still being groomed for their future.

One of the features of the 2010 parliamentary elections to be held tomorrow is that the ruling NDP is standing in many constituencies in opposition to itself. The party, reluctant to upset some of its prominent members, has ended up nominating two, three or even four candidates in the same constituency contesting the same seat along with other non-party candidates. The more the merrier, according to the NDP. And non-NDP candidates may defect to the NDP as soon as its over, as happened after the 2005 parliamentary elections.

So the whole election may boil down to the NDP versus NDP, or the NDP versus the Muslim Brothers. The voters are therefore in the happy position of being able to freely choose either the frying pan of the NDP or the fire of the Muslim Brotherhood (if the Brothers can keep out of jail during the campaign). Women have even more limited options, for the Muslim Brotherhood is by definition a negation of their very existence, unless a woman should decide to turn into an honorary "brother".

A great deal has been said about the newly established 64-seat quota for women to increase their percentage in parliament. I just hope that these women do not become the wallflowers they are intended to be.

When the curtain finally falls, amid the mad cheering and the deafening chants of victory, will this election make any difference to the lives of the 80 million Egyptians who have followed the action mostly from the safe distance of their spectator seats? I doubt it. But while the outcome is assured, I feel sure things will never be the same again. The NDP is well advised to take heed.

Water Or Egypt’s Role?

By Hassan Haidar
This comment was published in al-Hayat on 25/11/2010

The statements made by Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi have surprised Egypt and many others as well. And although Cairo rushed to deny any efforts on its part to start a war against Addis Ababa due to the dispute over dividing the water of the Nile, finding strange the claims made by Zenawi, and denying as well his accusation against it of offering support to Ethiopian opposition groups, the stance taken by Ethiopia raises many questions over its timing, content and purpose, as well as over who might be inciting it.

Zenawi’s words coincide with Addis Ababa hosting the summit of East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which was intended to discuss the situation in Sudan and Somalia, and which witnessed Ethiopian “mediation” between Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and his Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit to resolve the dispute over the referendum and the region of Abyei. Here too a second “warfront” was started against Egypt, which is exerting tremendous effort in this regard and which is concerned with the situation in Sudan much more than is Ethiopia, the Prime Minister of which has been excessive in warning against the return of infighting between the two parts of Sudan.

These Ethiopian claims have had many preludes in Addis Ababa. Indeed, Ethiopian newspapers have applied themselves since the beginning of the year to publishing scenarios of an expected war against Egypt, attributed to American and Western researchers. Most of these scenarios aim at justifying the unilateral steps taken by Ethiopia in terms of building dams on the Nile without consulting with the two downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, and at inciting Ethiopians against Egypt under the pretext that 85 percent of the river’s water comes from springs located on their soil and that they have the right to make use of it as they wish, without any consideration for international law and for ratified treaties concerning the division of the river’s water.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry considered Ethiopia’s escalation to be the result of the “frustration” felt by Addis Ababa after having ratified with four other countries a new draft agreement for dividing the water, one which is finding difficulties to be recognized internationally, because it does not include all the countries through which the Nile flows. The Ministry has asserted that Cairo clings to its firm legal and political stance on this issue, and that it follows the path of dialogue and cooperation, one which it has never relinquished or thought of alternatives for.

Yet Cairo suspects an Israeli role, as well as a sympathetic US role, in inciting Addis Ababa against Egypt and its role in the region, in both its Arab and African aspects. Egyptian sources say that Tel Aviv has contributed to financing the building of dams in Ethiopia, which appear to be useless for agriculture and aimed only at withholding water and producing some electricity, and that it is exerting pressures aimed at an old goal: demanding that Egypt retract its categorical refusal to supply Israel with part of the Nile’s water, or else its share of the water would gradually be decreased, with Ethiopia’s cooperation, which would threaten its security, in terms of food as well as politics – something the features of which have begun to appear with the decision by the Egyptian government to decrease the areas reserved for growing rice due to the large quantities of water it requires, and the subsequent fact that the government has had to import quantities of water at high prices in order to provide the needs of local consumption.

Egyptian circles also mention evidence of the growing relationship between Israel and Ethiopia, which would represent the background for Addis Ababa’s stances. Among such evidence is the decision announced by Tel Aviv this month to assimilate new waves of Ethiopian Jews (Falasha), reaching up to eight thousand people over the next four years, under the pretext of saving them from a deteriorating humanitarian situation at home – this after Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had chosen Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda (countries of the Nile basin) as stops in his trip to Africa last September, a trip which especially involved proposing water projects.

In Tehran, "The Shark" Faces Choppy Waters

By Amir Taheri
This comment was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 26/11/2010
Until just a year ago, Mehdi Hashemi was a shadowy figure on the margins of politics and business in the Islamic Republic in Iran.
His friends praised his business acumen that, so they claimed, had helped him make several hundred million dollars before his 21st birthday.
They also recalled how, in his late teens, he had visited Washington on a secret diplomatic mission in the 1980s on behalf of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. During that visit, Mehdi had toured the White House and informed his interlocutor, Lt. Colonel Oliver North, that the ayatollah was prepared to become a close ally and partner of the United States. The mission had failed to achieve its goal because American journalists, always looking for another Watergate, had spilled the beans and triggered the so-called Iran-Contra scandal.
Mehdi Hashemi’s detractors have always seen him as a wheeler- dealer acting as front man for his once powerful father Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The same detractors claim that Mehdi built his business empire thanks to juicy government contracts and questionable deals with foreign countries, notably China.
Last week, as he was contemplating his future in a luxury hotel in London, Mehdi Hashemi earned that an arrest warrant ahs been issued against him and that he would be picked up as soon as he sets foot in Iran. Among a dozen or so charges levelled against him by the Islamic Revolutionary Prosecutor is “activities against national security.”
The state-owned media have been spreading all sorts of rumours about Mehdi’s alleged contacts with un-named “foreign powers” to undermine and even overthrow the Khomeinist regime.
Whatever the truth about Mehdi Hashemi, one thing is certain: by the late 1990s he had become a symbol of nepotism and corruption in a political system that claims to be whiter than white.
Thus, when he launched his first presidential bid over five years ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had his eyes on Mehdi Hashemi as an easy target. Without ever naming him, Ahmadinejad claimed that the Rafsanjanis had tried to cast themselves as a new aristocracy of which Mehdi was the worst example.
With a hint here and a nod there, Ahmadinejad claimed that he would bring the Rafsanjanis to justice on unspecified charges of corruption.
Once he had won the presidency, however, Ahmadinejad realised that the Rafsanjani clan and its network of business and political allies were much stronger than he had thought.
During Ahmadinejad’s first term in office, Rafsanjani managed to retain his position as Chairman of the Expediency Council, a powerful pulpit from which he could counter may of the president’s moves.
Rafsanjani did even better. He managed to get himself elected as the Speaker of the Assembly of Experts, a powerful organ that, in theory at least, could impeach and replace the Supreme Guide.
Over the past five years, Ahmadinejad has developed an alliance with the military-security elites who believe that they have been cheated by the mullahs of their opportunity to get rich. As a result, most of the juiciest government contracts have gone to companies controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The Rafsanjani clan has even lost its 25-year long control of Iran’s trade with China.
Rafsanjani has always played a long game, weathering many a political storm and earning the sobriquet of “the shark”.
This is why he has refused to openly side with the anti-Ahmadinejad coalition formed after last year’s controversial presidential election. Even when Ahmadinejad ordered a cat-and-mouse game against the clan, including briefly arresting Rafsanjani’s wife and daughter, the “shark” managed to keep his cool.
For almost three decades, Rafsanjani’s cautious game has helped him survive where many others lost their political fortunes and, on occasions, even their lives. In fact, Rafsanjani is one of only two close associates of Khomeini to be still alive, in Iran, free, and in power. The other one is Ali Khamenei. All other close associates of Khomeini are either dead, in exile, in prison or, at least, out of power.
This time, however, the strategy that worked for such a long time, may prove ineffective. Ahmadinejad regards it as his mission to break Rafsanjani and, in doing so, break a whole generation of political mullahs who see themselves as the true custodians of the Khomeinist revolution.
And it is in this that Rafsanjani might find a glimmer of hope. If Ahmadinejad succeeds in bringing down Rafsanjani, would he know when and where to stop? Would he not try to undermine Khamenei’s position? After all, it is now clear that the president and the Supreme Guide do not share the same world and have different opinions on a number of key issues.
Ahmadinejad has built his political persona on two claims.
The first is that he has a line of communication with the Hidden Imam, which means that he could receive guidance from an authority far higher than Khomeini let alone Khamenei. Ahmadinejad’s second claim is that the faith that he professes is “the Iranian interpretation of Islam” and thus closer to nationalism than religion.
So far, Ahmadinejad has not succeeded in fully developing his radical reinterpretation of the o-called Islamic revolution in clear ideological terms. However, a number of his aides and allies, including Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i and Muhammad-Ali Ramin are busy concocting a witches’ brew called “the Iranian school of Islam.
In such an ideological concoction, there would be no room for political mullahs, least of all a “Supreme Guide”.
Thus, at first glance, Mehdi Rafsanjani may appear to be a small pawn that is easily jettisoned. However, his downfall could trigger an avalanche that would bury more important figures with him.
Today, the always clever Mehdi is faced with a dire choice: either contemplate a life in exile, which would mean a vote of no confidence in the Khomeinist regime’s judicial system, or return home to an uncertain future.
In exile, he would join hundreds of former Khomeinist officials who gather in the cafes of Paris, London and New York to plot the end of Ahmadinejad.
At home, he would join scores of former Khomeinist officials in the notorious Evin Prison where tens of thousands of people have been executed or have died under torture since 1979.
In the system that the late ayatollah invented, no one is safe.
No one, not even “the shark.”