Friday, January 7, 2011

The Levant's Diplomatic Soup Thickens

By Rami G. Khouri 
This commentary was published in the Daily Star on 08/01/2011

In the past 10 days I have had the enjoyable and enlightening experiences of being in New York, Paris, Beirut and Damascus, four countries that have complex and mostly messy relationships.

The center of gravity of the issues among them is what happens in Lebanon, but it is not really mainly about what happens to or in Lebanon. It is mostly about Israel, Iran, and Syria’s role in the region, which includes a major focus on Hizbullah and wonderment about what will happen when The Hague-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon (S.T.L.) announces the indictments of those to be charged with assassinating the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

What is most fascinating about these relationships – especially the Washington-Damascus relationship – is that they are heavily defined by uncertainty and concerns about the others’ intentions, which generates a steady stream of escalating assumptions, accusations and threats, in some cases culminating in sanctions, such as Washington’s unilateral sanctions against Syria.

This thick diplomatic soup has been stirred anew with the announcement last week that President Barack Obama had taken advantage of the recess in the U.S. Congress to sign the paperwork allowing his nominated ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, to assume his post – 10 months after his appointment was held up by politics in the U.S. Senate.

This move is already being interpreted in different ways by the various parties. According to a statement issued by the U.S. ambassador in Lebanon, Maura Connelly, the Obama administration seems to want the world to understand this move as another way to pressure Syria and get it to behave according to the accepted rules of civilized countries.

In a statement supporting Lebanon’s sovereignty and security and the importance of the S.T.L., the ambassador also noted that, “The timing of Ambassador Ford’s appointment is only reflective of the need to protect and advance U.S. interests and security in the region. Appointing a U.S. ambassador to Damascus should not be viewed as a reward to the Syrian government. Having an ambassador in Damascus improves our ability to deliver firm messages to the Syrian government and to articulate clearly our concerns and priorities to Syria. No step taken with Syria comes at Lebanon’s expense. Robert Ford is one of the most qualified U.S. diplomats in the Foreign Service. He is tough, principled and skilled with a proven track record.”

This American tone is in keeping with the recent legacy of the “kick-ass” style of foreign policy that George W. Bush used in the Middle East and that Obama has only slightly altered. With Syria and Iran, in particular, Washington persists in assuming the worst in those countries’ foreign policy aims in the Middle East and responds with tough words and occasional sanctions, or symbolic moves like withholding the ambassadorial appointment. This may be psychologically and politically satisfying for American politicians in their domestic arena where pro-Israeli interests prevail, but in the field it is largely a failure. The Syrians, Iranians and others who have been subjected to such diplomacy have not changed their domestic or foreign policies in any appreciable way. Washington has kicked ass, but mostly its own so far.

In Damascus this week, I sensed among Syrians some satisfaction that the Americans had blinked first by sending their ambassador, given Syrian insistence that an American ambassador in Damascus should not have been a reward, incentive or prize that the Syrians had to earn through their good behavior. The American motives or expectations from the move remain – like everything else in this arena – unclear. The best that can be said is that Americans are sensible and reasonable people, and the Obama administration is reflecting this by acknowledging that having an ambassador in Damascus is useful for conducting high-level diplomacy, especially in view of the total failure of the policy of withholding the ambassador. The American tough-guy statements on the ambassadorial move, Syria, and the S.T.L. were routine reiterations of existing positions, and thus were not especially enlightening or noteworthy.

Both the Americans and Syrians have been saying to each other for years that they want the other to engage in “actions, not words,” so this action by the U.S. should be acknowledged as a constructive one that simply brings things back to a normal operating mode where diplomacy can occur at its most efficient level. A thorough, serious and ongoing diplomatic negotiation with Syria is crucial because of Damascus’ complex, multiple links with every single major player and conflict in the Middle East, where the Syrians often use their own in-region brand of tough-guy rhetoric and “kick-ass” foreign policy.

The key element here is “negotiation,” not mere “engagement” or “dialogue.” This is made more complex by Lebanese politics, the S.T.L.’s implications, Iranian and Arab interests, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet unless serious American-Syrian and American-Iranian negotiations over each of the countries’ respective strategic interests take place, we can expect only sustained stress and perpetual conflict, which would only make fools of all concerned.

Moqtada al-Sadr Should Not Be Above The Law

Sadr is wanted by the Iraqi judiciary for his alleged involvement in my father's murder. Why was he not arrested on his return?

This commentary was published in The Guardian on 06/01/2011

Moqtada al-Sadr returns to Iraq
Moqtada al-Sadr surrounded by bodyguards arrives in Najaf this week, after nearly four years in exile from Iraq. Photograph: Qassem Zein/AFP/Getty Images

Moqtada al-Sadr has finally returned to Najaf in Iraq after almost four years of self-imposed exile. Senior Sadrists claimed that the reason he left Iraq was to continue his theological studies in Iran. However, there was another thorny issue behind his absence: Sadr is still wanted by the Iraqi judiciary for his alleged involvement in my father's murder eight years ago.

The arrest warrant for Sadr stands to this day as Iraqi judge Raed al-Juhi signed it in April 2004. Juhi is the investigative judge who presided over the first hearing of the Dujail massacre that eventually led to Saddam Hussein's execution in December 2006.

The fact that Sadr was not arrested upon his arrival this week says a lot about Iraq's new government and its claimed dedication to integrity.

Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, gained a lot of political currency when he tackled Sadr's militias in March 2008 and his parliamentary bloc, named the State of Law, came second in the last general election. However, a lot has changed since then and it's no coincidence that Sadr's return to Najaf comes less than two weeks after the new government was patched together with his blessing.

The "State of Law" slogan was exhausted during the runup to the election but the words must become part of the reality on the ground and not just another empty promise made to galvanise political support and win votes. The Iraqi government must prove to its people that no one is above the law, regardless of religious rank or political affiliation.

Similarly, the Iraqi judiciary must prove its integrity and independence by not bowing down to political pressure from the government. The new ruling elite in Baghdad rightly accused the previous regime's courts, under the Ba'ath party, of being unduly susceptible to political interference but the irony is they themselves are following suit.

My father's murder was not a mysterious assassination carried out in pitch-black darkness but rather shamelessly executed in broad daylight under the watchful eyes of hundreds of witnesses. It was the testimonies of some of these witnesses, who saw my father being dragged to Sadr's office, and then to a nearby roundabout where he was killed, that led to the arrest warrants being issued for Sadr and a dozen of his lieutenants and followers.

Sadr himself denies having a role in the murder, so why does he not go before an Iraqi court, where he will have a chance to clear his name?

By killing the son of a Grand Ayatollah in April 2003, and brazenly attacking him inside Iraq's holiest shrine, the Sadrists wanted to send a message to all other potential rivals that they were a force to be reckoned with. Today, when they control 39 seats in parliament, have eight ministers who sit in the cabinet, the only guarantee that they will not return to violence is their word.

Saddam ruled Iraq with an iron first and controlled almost every aspect of its society but nonetheless, more than 30 years later, justice eventually caught up with him and his Ba'ath party. The Sadrists today are not nearly as powerful as the previous regime, and there is no doubt that justice will eventually catch up with them, too.

The Iraqi government has a chance to send a strong signal to the Iraqi people by first enforcing the rule of law on itself before it does so on others. Or, it can rig the judicial file and whitewash this case before a kangaroo court in exchange for Sadr's guarantee that he will calm down for the next four years and leave armed insurgency behind him for good.

South Sudan: Independence Beckons

A referendum on secession for South Sudan seems very likely to happen, and the people seem certain to say yes

ONLY weeks ago, international observers and local politicians were outdoing each other with predictions of the horrors to befall South Sudan around the time of its independence referendum. There was talk of mass rape, armed incursions from the north, even a resumption of full-scale civil war. Some reckoned the vote on January 9th would not take place at all.

Such fears were not outlandish. Sudan has gone through decades of conflict between Muslim northerners and Christian and animist southerners. Some 2m people had been killed before the two sides, six years ago, signed a peace accord which included a provision to give the southerners an eventual vote for independence. Northern leaders have made half-hearted attempts to derail or delay the creation of a new state. Sudan’s defence minister, among others, darkly warned against the dire consequences of secession.

But previously restive border provinces have remained quiet, at least by local standards. Two villagers were killed and four injured in an attack four days before Christmas by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a vicious Ugandan rebel movement that haunts the south-western borderlands and was at one time supported by the north to weaken the south. Incidents of violence have persisted here and there but have been isolated and contained.

Foreign diplomats and southern Sudanese leaders are scratching their heads in wonder at getting to a point where the referendum seems pretty sure to take place on time and with relatively few immediate worries. It is the best outcome they could have hoped for. Being so close to fulfilling their national dream, many southerners would be deeply disappointed—and their leaders hard-pressed to rein in armed supporters—should there be a severe last-minute hiccup.

American pressure has helped to ease the way. Early in his presidency, Barack Obama paid much less attention to Sudan than his predecessor did, but that changed in the middle of last year, when he tripled the number of American officials in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, and sent a flurry of envoys to Khartoum, the hitherto undivided country’s capital, to press President Omar al-Bashir to let the south go. The Americans offered to normalise relations with Mr Bashir’s government provided he behaved decently towards the south (and in the western region of Darfur). If he at last proves co-operative, the Americans may remove Sudan from their list of state sponsors of terrorism, exchange ambassadors, lift the punitive sanctions they imposed several years ago, and forgive part of the country’s $40 billion of debt.

Crucially, the Americans, who helped broker the peace deal between north and south in 2005, also went along with bending some of the referendum rules. To meet tight deadlines, not all 3.5m registered voters have been properly identified. A waiting period between registration and voting was shortened from 90 days to 30. And ballot papers were simplified so that the illiterate—some 85% of southerners—could vote more easily; a picture of two clasped hands stands for unity with the north, a single raised hand means independence.

Observers from the European Union and from the Atlanta-based Carter Center say they are happy with the preparations. Except for two incidents in Akobo and Kiir Adem (see map), registration went smoothly; 3,000 voting centres have been set up across the south, in northern districts with large clusters of ethnic southerners, and in foreign countries with a big diaspora of Sudanese southerners.

The official result is not expected for several weeks, yet the outcome is in no doubt. The number of people intending to vote for unity with the north is tiny. Your correspondent failed to find a single one.

Mr Bashir this week acknowledged, at least indirectly, the complete lack of southern support for the government in Khartoum. He may even have accepted the likelihood of separation. On a visit to Juba on January 4th, he declared, as his southern counterpart stood beside him, “If the vote is for secession, we will support you and congratulate you.”

The thuggish yet canny Mr Bashir has lost most of his means of manipulation. For years he sent weapons to southerners hostile to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the dominant southern group, to destabilise the region. But many of these rebels recently reconciled themselves to the southern leadership in return for money and promises of amnesty.

At the same time, the south’s army, a collection of hardened bush fighters with an increasingly sophisticated arsenal, tightened its grip on the north-south border by deploying additional units three months ago. They disrupted the transfer of arms to the biggest renegade, George Athor. A helicopter carrying his chief of operations was captured at a refuelling stop with help from Americans. Mr Athor subsequently agreed to a ceasefire.

The biggest worry for the south and its backers abroad is turnout. At least 60% of eligible voters must cast ballots for the referendum result to be valid. “The horror of horrors would be getting a 59% turnout figure,” says a Western diplomat. Having come this close to independence, most southerners would see any majority as justification for secession. But their leaders have promised to abide strictly by the rules, to deprive the north of any grounds to refuse independence.

Hoping to ensure a high turnout, southern leaders have organised a publicity campaign unlike anything this poor and remote part of Africa has seen. Stickers, posters and T-shirts favouring secession fill Juba’s streets, most of them still made of mud. “The final walk to freedom,” reads one. A giant clock counts down the minutes to self-rule.

In remote villages picture posters beckon the illiterate to polling stations. The church, the best-run and most respected institution in the south, has swung behind the campaign. In between sermons and gospel songs during services, priests urge believers to vote. “It is your duty,” Juba’s Catholic bishop told his congregation.

The government sounds increasingly confident as the referendum draws near. But a smooth transition is another matter. Before declaring independence, scheduled for July 9th, north and south must finalise a separation agreement. A formula must be found for sharing the oil revenue from jointly operated fields. A method must be devised for joint control of disputed areas such as oil-rich Abyei, which lies on the border between north and south and which is not having its own referendum, as mandated in the 2005 peace accord.

Negotiating a final deal is a job for the sort of tough guy that George Clooney, an actor-cum-campaigner, likes to play in his films: sly, ruthlessly pragmatic but with a big heart. Mr Clooney is currently making one of his regular forays up the Nile in the service of Sudanese peace and brotherly love. In a recent newspaper article he urged South Sudan to accept a divorce deal “of the kind that can leave a bad taste in your mouth but that gets the job done”.

Who Assassinated Iraqi Academics?

By Adi Shamoo
This article was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 06/01/2011

By April 2004, just a little over a year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and before the sectarian violence began, the Iraqi Association of University Teachers (AUT) reported that 250 academics had been killed. Award-winning British journalist Robert Fisk had warned early that year of the assassinations of Iraqi academics, but few U.S. newspapers picked up on the story.  By the end of 2006, according to The Independent, over 470 academics had been killed. Another British paper, The Guardian, reported that about 500 academics were killed just from the Universities of Baghdad and Basra alone.

Based on multiple sources, the BRussells Tribunal sifted through such reports and published on its website the names of over 400 murdered academics and when they were killed. Although the exact total number of assassinated academics is not really known, the indefatigable advocate for human rights Dirk Adriaensens gives a detailed analysis of the data available so far in his contribution to the book Cultural Cleansing in Iraq. According to Adriaensens, most of those killed were from the Universities of Bagdad (57 percent) and Basra (14 percent). In addition, 35 percent died in detention after being arrested/kidnapped by some security forces. The modus operandi for the killings was a professional, well-organized assassination. Fifty-four percent of the deaths occurred as a targeted killing, at point-blank range with hand guns or automatic weapons. The killing of academics did not follow any sectarian agenda since the murdered were Sunni and Shia. No one has taken responsibility for the killings, and no one has been arrested.

The reports of these murdered Iraqi academics have been around for a few years, mostly in the foreign press and on websites. I admit to an initial skepticism about their veracity. I was even more concerned about who was responsible for these heinous crimes and why. Iraqis living in Iraq knew of these murders first-hand, but did not know the culprits. Their suspicions fell naturally on the occupying power.

Along with these tragic deaths was the concomitant wave of death threats and intimidation against other Iraqi academics, which resulted in tens of thousands of Iraqi academics literally running abroad for their life. The Washington Post recently described the plight of one Iraqi family living in the United States after the husband, a professor, was assassinated and the wife, a physician, survived but gravely wounded. For some, the escape abroad was only temporary. A professor and a dean who left and returned in the past six months to Iraq were professionally assassinated.  Iraq has suffered the decapitation of its intellectual class on a staggering scale, which has thrown the country back to the dark ages.

According to the new revelations of Wikileaks, in some cases the United States, through the military, contractors, and others, killed innocent Iraqi civilians including women and children. As a matter of policy we handed over Iraqi detainees to Iraqi security forces with full knowledge that they would be subjected to torture, rape, and murder. Moreover, when our military received the reports of torture, rape, and murder it chose to ignore them. Such a policy is contrary to international law, U.S. laws, and American values.

It's not clear whether the U.S. government or the U.S. military knows who assassinated the Iraqi academics. We don't know if U.S. officials or military commanders looked the other way when local security forces committed those crimes. But the Wikileaks documents raise many disturbing questions about a possible U.S. role in these assassinations. Even the Gulf Cooperation Council, and its half-dozen U.S.-friendly Arab members, has called on the Obama administration to "open a serious and transparent investigation" into possible "crimes against humanity."

The evidence so far is sufficient to warrant a thorough investigation by an independent body. Iraqis, Americans, and the world need to know the truth.

Pakistan's Shifting Religious Battles

By Wajahat Ali
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 07/01/2011

It has come as a shock to many to see the incredibly positive reaction from nearly 500 Barelvi clerics in Pakistan, regarded as moderate Muslims in an increasingly radicalized environment, to the assassination Tuesday of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer by a member of his security detail.

Many writers have previously thought of Pakistan's Barelvi community as a kind of moderate antidote to radical groups operating in the country; Barelvi leaders have until now opposed many of the operational tactics of terrorist organizations more commonly associated with the country's Deobandi and Salafi groups, such as suicide bombings and attacks against state institutions. One of the leading Barelvi scholars issued a comprehensive, 600-page fatwa last year condemning global terrorism. And a Barelvi cleric who had spoken up against the Taliban was brutally targeted in a suicide attack inside his mosque in June of last year, shortly after leading the Friday congregation in prayer.

But the Barelvi community's favorable stance toward the country's notorious blasphemy laws and its decision to support Governor Taseer's murderer demonstrate the fluidity of belief and group ideologies in Pakistan, rather than a strict dichotomy between Barelvis and others. This increasingly unclear line between hardliners and so-called moderates is all the more interesting when compared to developments taking place among Pakistan's more literalist Deobandi clerics, including a fascinating debate that recently took place within its religious circles about the war in Afghanistan.

The debate - one largely overlooked by media organizations across the world - began last year when a young but well-esteemed Deobandi religious scholar, Muhammad Ammar Khan Nasir (who also edits his own newsletter, Al Sharia) declared that it was not permissible on religious grounds for non-Afghan Muslims to fight against international forces in Afghanistan. His statement signaled the rise of a conservative religious opposition to the Taliban, an opposition that could have a positive impact on the struggle against religious militancy in the region.

In his statement, Ammar Nasir refused to describe the Afghan conflict as jihad, or holy war, pointing to the fact that the conflict and Western intervention was triggered by the 9/11 attacks that killed thousands of unarmed American civilians.

Responding to a query, he said that the attacks in New York and Washington were against the spirit of Islamic war ethics, which forbid Muslims from killing non-combatants. He also added that a war could only acquire the status of jihad if it was not launched by Muslims through "an immoral and un-Islamic act."

While claiming that the Afghan Taliban reserved the right to resist the foreign occupation of their land, Ammar Nasir insisted that Pakistan's citizens should not jump into the fray since that would put them on a collision course with the Pakistani state. He argued that the people of Pakistan could criticize their country's foreign policy and amend it through non-violent means. Yet he also emphasized that they were bound to follow their government's decisions and remain loyal to the state, per Sunni Muslim tradition of obeying the government.

Ammar Nasir maintained that Pakistan's government had taken a conscious decision to work with the international community in Afghanistan, adding that the government would then be guilty of going against the principles of Islam if it was still supporting the Taliban.

Religious conservatives in Pakistan found it difficult to ignore his opinion on the issue, due to Ammar Nasir's strong Islamic credentials and the fact that he belongs to a respected family of Deobandi clerics.

His grandfather, Maulana Muhammad Sarfaraz Khan Safdar, fought for the implementation of shariah in Pakistan throughout his life and even travelled to Afghanistan when the Taliban gained political ascendency in that country to meet with the group's spiritual leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar.

Ammar Nasir's father, Maulana Zahid-ul Rashidi, was also affiliated with a leading Islamist political faction, Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam Pakistan. His family espoused Deobandi Islam, also practiced by the Taliban.

Maulana Nasir's detractors quickly challenged the basic premise of his argument, however. According to one of them, al Qaeda was just the "figment of American imagination." Another one questioned the group's involvement in the 9/11 attacks, claiming that Washington had failed to provide any evidence of that to the international community.

Some people even contended that the U.S. remained in "a permanent state of war," with the world, adding that it had killed more innocent people in history than any other state and it was right to bring the United States' "oppression" to an end.

However, a few participants in the debate were more concerned about the situation in Pakistan rather than the conduct of American foreign policy.

Ammar Nasir, who frequently referred to al Qaeda's self-incriminating statements in the wake of the 9/11 attacks throughout the debate, pointed out that Islamists in Pakistan took their inspiration from the Afghan Taliban. This was despite the fact that the militia had "limited understanding of world politics" and "required intellectual guidance itself."

He urged Pakistan's religious community to abandon its state of denial and recognize, not justify, the Taliban's weaknesses.

The debate, which was recently published in Al Shariah, may not bring about an overnight change in Pakistan. But it clearly implies that some Islamic scholars in that country, even those associated with its most conservative strains of religious thought, have started criticizing extremist movements in the region.

The discussion also reflects the fact that Islamic circles are not intellectually stagnant in Pakistan. In fact, some of its members have finally recognized that it is not sufficient to live a life of piety in a bubble; instead, they have chosen to confront tough questions about religion and modernity and how the two can be reconciled.

Ammar Nasir is currently writing a critique of Ayman al Zawahiri's The Morning and the Lamp, a treatise in which al Qaeda's second-in-command has ruthlessly criticized Pakistan's constitution, claiming "that apostasy is rooted in the state's foundational document."

In a conversation with the author, Ammar Nasir claimed that many religious clerics in Pakistan were critically examining the extremist ideology of militant groups. But he also added that the fear of retribution kept them from openly criticizing many of these Islamist factions.

But religious scholars like Ammar Nasir will not be able to reclaim Islam from radical groups as long as their views are not projected by media organizations across the world. The fact that this debate was not even covered by mainstream news outlets, even in Pakistan, reflects where that country stands in its struggle against religious militancy, and how far it has yet to go.

Wajahat Ali is The Asia Foundation's William P. Fuller Fellow. Currently, he is working with the New America Foundation as their South Asia Research Fellow. The views expressed in this article are his own.

The Options Available When Faced With The Failure Of Arab Governments

By Raghida Dergham, New York
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 07/01/2011

The time has come to discuss the options available when faced with the failure of governments and opposition movements to place state and country ahead of the seat of power and to launch a serious brainstorming workshop to look into “what do we do?” What do we do about the fact that the political battlefield has shrunk into a power struggle between security forces loyal to governments and militias that reject governments and claim to be the better alternative? The majority of Arabs, despite their charged feelings and fleeting emotions, will not choose the rule of religious extremism in place of the military rule prevalent as a de facto situation in most Arab countries, no matter how upset and angry they might become at governments that frustrate their peoples on a daily basis. The Arab elite is scattered and divided, some of them employed, others facing difficulties, and some implementing the programs of the government or the opposition, because they in turn seek power. The gravest and most terrible insult lies in the claims made by such elites of solidarity with the people – especially those elites that seek government change through bloody, religious, sectarian or extremist opposition, or through an opposition that brings together all of those attributes. The time has come to expose such “elites” and to unleash the voices that believe in building, not in destroying. And this requires courage – the courage of elites that seek to play a constructive role, but are either afraid, or concerned about their personal interests, or too short-sighted, being content with watching the battle unfold between governments and oppositions movements, causing the collapse of states, the division of countries, secession or even the fragmentation of nations. This is certainly not exclusively a mere foreign plan or conspiracy against the Arabs, no matter how much foreign forces contribute to it. Indeed, those who are implementing this are Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern, and the responsibility they bear is no less than that of foreign forces. The Arab region has grown accustomed to waiting for the leader who will cause change. And it is perhaps time for a brainstorming workshop into the multiplicity of leadership, in the sense of ceasing to wait for a single individual and working on building the state. Of course, building state institutions represents the most prominent basis for state-building, yet today there is a dire need for an urgent diagnosis of what is happening in Arab countries, in terms of division, secession and fragmentation, in order to quickly set down “what to do?” scenarios. There is a dire need to diagnose what is happening to Christians in Arab countries, in light of the massacres in Alexandria and Iraq, and in light of Hezbollah’s successful assimilation of a Christian leadership in Lebanon called Michel Aoun. The government of former President Anwar Sadat and that of current President Hosni Mubarak have adopted the method of containing the Muslim Brotherhood by “outbidding” it in terms of religiosity and social extremism. The result of this has been the opposite and has taught them a difficult lesson. Sudan is on the verge of division, when its Christian South secedes from its North, which President Omar Al-Bashir wants purely Islamic and governed on the basis of Sharia law. And in the name of the seat of power, Yemen now threatens to return to secession, and perhaps in fact fragmentation, as long as the state and the opposition, of multiple identities, do not start to place the state ahead of power. As for Palestine, it is the victim of battles over the seat of power even before the state is created. What to do, then?

Leaders of the private sector in the Arab World have grown weary of politics, yet they acknowledge that their business would not run smoothly without good relations with the governments in the countries they work in. The same applies to the relations of some businessmen with the opposition in these countries, including extremist opposition movements at the religious or sectarian level, or opposition movements that have resorted to forming armed militias.

If referendums were held in Arab countries today, they would prove that the peoples of these countries want better governments but do not want authoritarian, blood-thirsty and extremist opposition movements, nor want to be governed by radical Islamists.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is for the Arabs a mere “outlet for venting” only when it comes to Israel. But when it comes to the quality of life in the said country, the majority of Arabs do not want Tehran’s model, but would prefer the models of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Istanbul and Beirut.

What happened in Alexandria and in Cairo is painful, because it has brought to the two cities Tehran’s social obscurantism, after Khomeini’s revolution caused the greatest setback for modernity in the Middle East and launched the competition of religious radicalism there. Alexandria now competes against Tehran in the field of hijab (Islamic veil) and niqab (face-veil), and the ancient city, famed for its openness and as a pioneer of culture and modernity, has turned into one that is on the path to decay, had it not been for the revival of that wonderful library – the Library of Alexandria (Bibliotheca Alexandrina) – under the leadership of an enlightened and visionary man, Doctor Ismail Serageldin. This library has come as a burst of light amidst this darkness, but it alone could not prevent the social drift towards disastrous sectarianism, which took shape in the church massacre a few days ago and which portends much worse if stern measures are not taken.

The Egyptian government did not distribute niqabs and hijabs among the women of Egypt, but it did not think deeply enough of the meaning of this phenomenon and of how to resolve it, so that it may not turn into religious extremism and sectarianism. It focused on taking security measures against extremism and terrorism, and forgot that the most important ally it had in this battle was moderation within the ranks of the people and of the elite, leading them both to distance themselves from moderation.

The government did not work on fostering and cultivating people’s spontaneous reluctance to accept extremism, so as for this to serve its interests and those of the state. It paid no heed to people’s fears of Islamists in power, and thus lost an important popular base which could have been – and could still be – its ally if the government were to repair what it has spoiled. The first thing it must acknowledge is that the people are no longer spontaneously on its side and that some of the elites have become far away from moderation, yet adding a “however”. Yet this part of the population does not want the alternative being offered by the Islamists, and wishes for an unusual surprise that would return the focus to country and state first.

The secession of Southern Sudan, expected after the referendum, coincides with the events in Egypt by chance, unless the massacre of Alexandria was a calculated response to the secession, which in turn represents a blow for Egypt. Indeed, Sudan, from Egypt’s point of view, has always been one of its zones of influence, and its division could be taken as yet another step on the path of dwarfing Egypt’s regional roles. This process of dwarfing began when Egypt eliminated itself from the strategic military equation with Israel through the Camp David Accords. Syria destroyed what remained of such an equation when it entered as a direct party and ally to the first Gulf War, which struck Iraq out of the strategic equation with Israel, placing the regime’s considerations ahead of what it had originally adopted as a pillar of the state and of its policy.

The battlefields of regional roles today lie primarily in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. Lebanon is currently at the forefront of such battles, including the battle of excluding Egypt and reducing its regional role. At the same time, the sovereignty of the state is truncated in Lebanon in the first place by a regional decision led by Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, in the language of weapons and under the slogan of “opposition” to the government. Yet the government too is responsible for having the powers of the state truncated, because it does not behave with the dignity and authority of the state, but rather positions itself in order to remain in power.

In Palestine, division, infighting and separation is taking place not for the sake of the “state”, which has yet to see the light of day, but for the sake of the seat of power. Hamas wants that seat, but the Palestinian people do not want an Islamist emirate and do not want to be the victims of the “resistance” of words rather than deeds, which uses them and offers them in sacrifice through decisions taken by Palestinian factions based in Syria and in Lebanon that implement Iranian goals at the expense of the Palestinian people.

Divisions in Israel, unlike Arab divisions, always remain within the framework of containment in the name of the state first, whatever happens. Thus, between competition and role distribution, the seat of power takes the backseat to the priority of the state.

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would have been able to save Iraq from war had he not placed the regime above and ahead of Iraq. Iraq today still sways to the winds of sectarianism and bloodlust, because of that malignant disease that is making men in the Arab region addicted to the seat of power even if it costs them country and state.

Sudan’s ever-repeated tragedy may bring it another kind of infighting after the secession – that of tribes in the South amongst themselves, as well as infighting deep in the North as well, clinging to power and money.

What to do, then?

The governments are the ones that can save country and state, if they truly awaken from their nightmare of clinging jealously to power and take as their allies the peoples and the elites, who long for reform, not for coup d’├ętats.

Iran: Ahmadinejad's Quest For Legitimacy

By Amir Taheri
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 07/01/2011
Hoping to regain a measure of legitimacy in the wake of the disputed presidential election in 2009, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be trying to recast himself as a nationalist leading a struggle against foreign foes.
We have already noted this trend in previous columns as, slowly but surely, the president abandoned the standard Islamist discourse in favour of a nationalist one. Now, there are fresh signs to confirm the trend.
On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad made a trip to Semnan, the native province of his parents, to inaugurate some real or imaginary projects. At a gathering of his supporters, he made an hour-long speech in which, according to the text published by the official news agency IRNA, the word Islam was not mentioned once.
Ahmadinejad spoke of “the land of the pure” one of the names that ancient Aryans gave to Iran as they settled in it. Instead of using the word “ummah” which denotes the Muslim community and is favoured by the mullahs, the president used the word “mellat” which means “nation” in Persian. He developed his new theme of the “Iranian school”, as opposed to the “Islamic school”, and claimed that, thanks to its ancient civilisation, Iran was capable of offering mankind leadership. On his arrival, Ahmadinejad received a list of demands by the local population.
According to the province’s Director of Cultural Affairs, Hamid Yazdani, top of the list was a demand for the extension of an exhibition in Tehran. There, the item on exhibit is the famous Cyrus Cylinder that contains an edict by Cyrus the Great the founder of the Persian Empire. The cylinder is on loan from the British Museum in London and is due to be returned there next week. “The people of Semnan wish to see a relic of a civilisation that brought light to the world,” Yazdani claimed.
All that is anathema to the mullahs who claim that, before Islam appeared to end “the Age of Darkness”, there was no civilisation anywhere in the world. The late Ruhallah Khomeini, the mullah who founded the regime, hated such words as “nation” and Iran. This is why he insisted that Iran’s parliament, known as the National Consultative Assembly of Iran, be renamed the Islamic Consultative Assembly. In almost every government institution, the word Iran was replaced by the word Islamic. Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, one of the founders of the Khomeinist regime, even suggested that Iran be re-named Islamistan. “Nationalism is a sin and a disease,” Khalkhali wrote in 1981.

Ahmadinejad’s nationalistic twist has been criticised by mullahs including “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi. The president has responded with defiance. “There are people who are afraid of the word Iran,” he said in a recent speech. “Let them be! This is Iran and we are Iranians.”
In December, he despatched the Revolutionary Guards to stop a group of Islamists from destroying the ancient remains of the Temple of Anahita the Goddess of Fertility in Kangavar, west of Tehran.
Ahmadinejad may be a late convert to a trend that one might call Iranism. The trend has affected almost all Iranian political groups including almost all the opposition.
Former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mussavi, the man who claims to have won the 2009 presidential election against Ahmadinejad, has adopted an almost entirely nationalistic discourse. He no longer uses the title seyyed that denotes his claim of decent from seventh Imam of Shi’ism.

A man who denied the very existence of an Iranian nation in the 1980s has recast himself into the role of its legitimate spokesman.]
The Mujahedin Khalq, a guerrilla outfit that helped Khomeini win power, started as a cocktail of Marxist and Islamist groups with is own flag, insignia and anthem. In recent years, however, it has moved into the opposition and rallied under Iran’s national flag and “lion and sun” insignia. As for its anthem, it has adopted the “O Iran” hymn, one of the most popular tributes to Iranian nationalism.
Even the more openly Marxist groups, such as the People’s Fedayeen Guerrillas, have almost totally abandoned their leftist discourse in favour of one that emphasises nationalism and democracy.
Almost all Iranian political movements opposing the Khomeinist regime have adopted the green-white-red tricolour flag, the Lion and Sun insignia, and the hymn “O Iran!”.
Iranism is affecting all aspects of life in Iran. Many public speeches now start with the phrase "In The Name of God and Iran.”
The number of visitors to ancient ruins and monuments, including the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargad north of Shiraz, is growing by leaps and bounds. The Cyrus Cylinder exhibition, in Tehran’s Museum of Ancient Iran, drew record crowds. People queued all night long to enter the exhibition that Ahmadinejad’s Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i claims to be the most popular in Iranian history.
For the first time since the mullahs came to power, Iranian embassies and offices of the government-owned airline abroad have been ordered to display posters showing some of Iran’s pre-Islamic monuments.
The return of Iranism is the latest sign of Iran’s split personality. As a people, the Iranians have a history that spans almost 30 centuries. Half of that time-span is covered by Iran’s ancient glory whilst Iran was a major contributor to the creation of an Islamic civilisation in the other half. To reject either half would be to deny a major part of the Iranian identity.
People like Khomeini, who denied the existence of an Iranian identity, resembled those Marxist internationalists who favoured class solidarity over nationalism.
It is too early to decide whether Ahmadinejad’s attempt at posing as an Iranian nationalist has any chance of success.

His new discourse might resonate with segments of the urban middle classes as well as part of the military. It may also mislead some people into believing that Ahmadinejad’s provocative foreign policy is motivated by national interest rather than ideological considerations.
The new discourse may also help the government justify its policy of repression against Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities as they become more vocal in their demands for autonomy and cultural rights.
In the end, however, Ahmadinejad’s move towards the last refuge of the scoundrel, is unlikely to succeed. A repressive regime with an anti-Iranian ideology cannot be transformed overnight into one motivated by patriotism. Beating the drum of ancient glories will not change the fact that the Iranian economy is losing 3,000 jobs each day while growth is in sub-zero regions. Nor will it prevent a substantial number of Iranians from sincerely believing that Ahmadinejad stole the 2009 election.
Whether he talks of Iran or Islam, many nationalists and at least some Islamists will find it hard to trust a leadership that has isolated the country and is keeping it in a state of perpetual crisis.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Peace With Syria Is Actually Possible

The Israeli-Arab conflict has included a ritual dance for years now called "The Palestinian track has reached a dead end? Let's go, Syria!"
By Elie Podeh
This Commentary was published in Haaretz on 06/01/2011
As in oil and gas exploration, drilling in the Israeli-Arab conflict has recently produced hopeful signs. Yet these signs, too, have long since ceased to interest the public, and with considerable justice. After all, the Israeli-Arab conflict has included a ritual dance for years now called "The Palestinian track has reached a dead end? Let's go, Syria!"

Since the 1990s, there have been numerous examples of switches between the two tracks, since the politicians' working assumption is that diplomatic negotiations cannot progress along both tracks at once. Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, preferred to focus on the Syrian track, but later abandoned it in favor of the Palestinian track, which ended in the Oslo Accords. Ehud Barak also initially favored the Syrian track, but after he failed there, he decided to move over to the Palestinian track - where he also failed.

assad - Amos Biderman - January 6 2011 Illustration: Syria's Assad.
Photo by: Amos Biderman

And now, talks with the Palestinians have once again reached a dead end. So it's no surprise that the Syrian option is once again sprouting up. The convergence of several signs - U.S. envoy Dennis Ross' visit to Damascus, the appointment of a new American ambassador to Damascus and reports in both the Arab and the Israeli press about secret talks - evokes the possibility that perhaps the smoke really does attest to the presence of a fire, even if it is currently a small one.

Aside from the dead end on the Palestinian track, what has actually changed on the Syrian one? A great deal, but at the same time, nothing at all. Syrian President Bashar Assad's worldview hasn't changed. Ever since he took power, his stance has been consistent: He is willing to conduct negotiations and sign an agreement that will lead to a full Israeli withdrawal to the banks of Lake Kinneret, but not to normalize relations (as in the peace with Egypt ). All the rest - demilitarization of the Golan Heights, early warning stations, an industrial park on the Golan, and so forth - can be discussed during the negotiations.

What has changed, however, is the environment. Turkey is no longer Israel's ally, and therefore cannot serve as a mediator. And Iran has increased its influence over Syria (via a series of military and economic agreements ), as well as its involvement in Lebanon.

That last development is actually particularly interesting, because it creates a basis for distancing Syria from Iran due to the former's fear of becoming a mere appendage of the latter. It's worth emphasizing that despite the alliance between the two countries, Syria's natural place in the regional alignment is with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and there's nothing to prevent it from returning to that place if given the right incentives.

But what is Israel doing? Very little. It hasn't responded to Assad's proposals with the appropriate seriousness. It has plenty of excuses: Syria's alliance with Iran, its support for Hezbollah, and of course Assad's uncompromising position. Nevertheless, the Syrian conflict is riper for solution than the Palestinian one.

Most of the issues have already been resolved in previous rounds of talks, and none of the outstanding disputes (including the question of Lake Kinneret ) is anywhere near as significant as the problems of Jerusalem or the Palestinian refugees. And the advantages of a peace agreement with Syria are numerous and well-known; thus it's no surprise that many people in the defense establishment support such a deal.

But such a move requires a leadership decision. And so far, no Israeli prime minister has ever dared to make such a decision.

Judging from past experience, it is reasonable to assume that the current drilling on the Syrian track will also come up empty, since the composition of the current government does not imply any potential to exploit this opportunity. But one brave decision could alter the regional balance of power in Israel's favor and strike a decisive blow at the forces of radical Islam headed by Iran. So where's the Israeli leader who would be willing to take up the gauntlet?
The author is a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

What Obama Can Do In The Middle East

By George S. Hishmeh
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 07/01/2011

Barack Obama must be very disappointed these days since he was hardly applauded in the American media, which reviewed his domestic and foreign policies, especially his stance on the Middle East, at the beginning of the century’s second decade.

In foreign affairs, his “signature issue” during his first two years has been the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, which disappointingly remains in limbo, despite his key appointment of former senator George Mitchell as his Middle East peace envoy just as he stepped triumphantly into the White House.

The then popular American president was hoping to reach a settlement within a year after the direct talks where launched last September. Even his regrettable attempt at appeasing Israel with a significant arms and financial deal failed to prompt the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to abandon its colonial expansion into the Palestinian territories occupied after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Surprisingly, there was hardly a review in the American media about US Middle East policies, past or future, an indication that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may not be all that prominent for American readers. But more likely, all reviewers were at loss as to what to expect from Obama after his “shellacking” in the mid-term elections.

However, there is no doubt the Middle East, especially settling the Arab-Israeli conflict, is one of the key issues that will affect the US role in world affairs, a point the president recognised in his early appointment of Mitchell.

Another key issue is the continued commitment of US troops to the region - Iraq and Afghanistan - for many months to come.

But how can Obama surmount his “biggest disaster” to date in the Middle East, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, despite the surprising Republican control of the House of Representatives?

He has simply to outmanoeuvre his opponents in Congress, as was the case with his unexpected appointment last week during a congressional recess of a new ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who had been named to that position several months ago, but about who Congress did not take any action because of the influence of some pro-Israel representatives.

Another step he ought to take is to work more closely with European leaders and the United Nations, especially the so-called Quartet on the Middle East, composed of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia, which has been sidelined by the Obama administration. The Quartet’s special envoy is the former British prime minister, Tony Blair.

Moreover, the growing number of governments, especially from South America, who have recently announced their recognition of the Palestinian state should provide the Obama administration with more ammunition to twist Israel’s arm; the latter is reported concerned by the number of states rallying to the support of the Palestinian leadership.

The sooner Obama comes to grips with the decades-long conflict the better he can help with the serious problems facing this oil-rich and strategic region. These include the recent terrorist attacks on Christians in Egypt and Iraq, where many lives have been lost, the ageing of several Arab leaders whose absence may change the region’s nature, the likely division of the Sudan, where the southern region may vote on January 9 to secede and form an independent state, and the anticipated turmoil that could erupt in Lebanon once the international court takes a decision about the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

Not least of all is the survival of the shaky regime that has just been installed in Iraq, as well as Turkey’s and Iran’s growing roles in Middle East affairs, much to the chagrin of Israel.

The beginning of a new decade in the region should usher, most likely with the support of the US, much-needed and vibrant democracies, not fake ones where parliaments amount to nothing more than instruments in the hands of one ruler. In this respect, it is high time that the region should begin to establish independent media financed by advertising rather than governments.

Foreign firms should be encouraged to begin advertising in the media so that the publishers can stand on their feet, which is rarely the case in many of the region countries.

All this could begin to develop once the region’s most serious problem, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is settled honourably and fairly.

Here is where Obama needs to focus in the next few months, if not weeks, rather than continuously yield to Israeli pressure, just like the latest Netanyahu demand who, publicly and arrogantly, appealed for the release of Jonathan Pollard, the US intelligence analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel and whom the Israeli prime minister had once visited in jail.

Dilemmas Of Life In Egypt's Tipping Economy

Egypt's 'baksheesh' culture helps poor people get by and maintains relative social peace, but it encourages subservience

By Khaled Diab
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 06/01/2011

A cafe in Egypt
Tipping is almost compulsory in Egypt – not only in cafes but for everyone from deliverymen to unofficial parking supervisors and petrol pump attendants. Photograph: Alamy

One sure sign that I've arrived in Egypt is that my wallet and pockets suddenly get fatter as they pile on the Egyptian pounds to deal with the country's largely cash-based economy. In addition, I always endeavour to carry plenty of lower denomination banknotes to facilitate the prodigious amount of tipping ahead.

With the relative uncommonness of tipping in northern Europe, I experience quite a culture shock for the first few days of any visit. In Belgium, tipping is only common at restaurants and occasionally at bars, though quite a few Belgians I know never tip.

In Egypt, leaving sweeteners at eateries is only the tip of the tipping iceberg. Alongside haggling, tipping is a pervasive feature of the Egyptian economy. Millions of Egyptians depend on these gratuities for their survival and exist in a kind of parallel "baksheesh economy", abandoned by government and employers alike. In fact, the cynic in me might quip that, with the grinding poverty, neglect, marginalisation and disempowerment that poor Egyptians endure, tips could be the only change, loose as it might be, that some are willing to believe in.

In a country with high unemployment and overflowing with surplus labour, well-off Egyptians tip everyone from deliverymen, unofficial parking supervisors and petrol pump attendants to the even less necessary toilet attendants who hand them a napkin to dry their hands and the bagger who packs their shopping at the checkout.

Expat Egyptians are often expected to go that extra mile, and dig deeper into their pockets and tip at a greater angle than locals. By the end of any visit to Egypt, I experience something akin to tipping fatigue.

My wife speaks fluent Arabic, is streetwise and can haggle better than a local, but the language of baksheesh is one she's never warmed to nor cared to master. Despite years of experience and my awareness of the economic importance of tipping, I also dislike the practice which, I am well aware, I unwittingly connive in perpetuating.

When I pay baksheesh, I do so partly because it is a social norm but mostly out of a sense of guilt at the wide economic gulf generally separating me from the person I am tipping. And in a society where the LE 35 minimum wage (less than £4) is irrelevant, where labour protection is a joke and where social safety nets are tattered and threadbare, baksheesh helps somewhat to redistribute wealth and, at its best, is an informal expression of social solidarity and cohesion.

But, as my wife rightly points out, baksheesh is neither the most efficient nor the fairest way of seeking greater socio-economic justice. For people like me who believe in equality and egalitarianism, part of the problem is that baksheesh reward subservience, punish dignity and encourage a master-servant sort of mentality between the well-off and the poor.

Though tips may take the edge off poverty and maintain social peace, looked at unflatteringly, they also serve to keep the poor in their place by constantly reminding them of how their economic survival is not down to their hard work but due to the patronage of their "betters".

In anticipation of a tip, ingratiation and hypocrisy are often the order of the day, though I make a point of tipping less or not at all in such circumstances. Very proud workers might forgo tips which, for many menial service sector jobs, is tantamount to financial suicide, while others will swallow their pride at the altar of economic survival, which necessitates that the sensitive tipper must try his best to be subtle and considerate when tipping them.

Baksheesh also provide employers in the service sector with the opportunity to dump the responsibility for their workers on to the customers' laps and, hence, act as a disincentive to work, except in circumstances where a tip is forthcoming.

The baksheesh culture makes it difficult to read the intentions of certain strangers and decide whether they're doing you a favour out of the goodness of their heart or in anticipation of your papering their palm with banknotes. Misread the signals and you could end up unintentionally insulting a generous stranger or being insulted by a mean one. The same can also apply to poorer people you know personally.

Far more troubling is how the baksheesh culture has become endemic, over the past few decades, in the underpaid civil service and public sector, which, one could say, has effectively privatised the government and made it accessible only to those who can pay.

Though I too have been guilty of discreetly greasing some palms to expedite paperwork to which I'm entitled, the occasions on which I have done this have left me with a bitter aftertaste, a sense of self-loathing and a "never again" vow.

Usually, however, I obstinately refuse to pay which brings along its own set of frustrations in the form of stonewalling, bureaucratic origami and long and winding paper trails. A few years ago, my wife and I gave up, in anger and frustration, on registering our marriage in Egypt because it was transforming our holiday into a helly-day, and I've yet to pluck up the courage to try to register our son's birth.

As a form of social solidarity, baksheesh will at best paper over the cracks but can never tip the balance on poverty. On the down side, tips provide poor incentives to work, create subservience and even promote petty corruption. And as inequalities widen, baksheesh will not be able to stave off the inevitable reckoning between the haves and have-nothings.

Sadr's Act II As Iraq's Kingmaker

By Mohamad Bazzi    
This Op-Ed was published on the Council on Foreign Relations' site on 06/01/2011

The bad boy of Iraqi politics, anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, is once again positioning himself as kingmaker - this time in forming a government and the selection of a new prime minister.

Sadr may well determine the fates of current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his rival Ayad Allawi, a former premier whose coalition won a narrow plurality of seats in the new Parliament. By jockeying to cast the deciding vote on Iraq's next prime minister, Sadr has once again shown greater political skill than his Iraqi rivals and the United States usually give him credit for.

On Oct 1, the day that Iraq surpassed the record - 207 days - for the time between a parliamentary election and the formation of a government, Sadr's political bloc finally backed Mr Maliki in his bid to remain in office. Although Mr Maliki still has not secured a majority in the 325-seat Parliament, Sadr's support is likely to help the Premier in his effort to reach a deal with other factions, especially the Kurds.

But Sadr's political ascendance threatens to stoke sectarian tensions in Iraq: his followers were responsible for some of the worst atrocities against Sunnis during the country's recent civil war. Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, unleashed death squads that assassinated Sunnis and drove them out of Shi'ite neighbourhoods. The Mahdi Army is among several Iraqi Shi'ite militias that received extensive training and weapons from Iran, according to classified US military field reports released by WikiLeaks last week. The weapons included rockets, magnetic bombs and surface-to-air missiles that were used to attack US forces in Iraq.

Since 2007, Sadr has lived in self-imposed exile in the Iranian holy city of Qom. After the March 7 parliamentary elections, he began receiving emissaries from Iraqi factions seeking his support. The cleric's influence swelled because no single group was able to dominate the balloting. Mr Allawi's Iraqiya list won the largest share with 91 seats, followed by Mr Maliki's State of Law coalition with 89, and the Shi'ite-led Iraqi National Alliance (INA) with 70 seats. Sadr's movement won 40 seats, the largest share within the INA.

Mr Maliki is trying to outmanoeuvre Mr Allawi, whose secular coalition attracted strong support among Iraq's Sunni minority. The Shi'ite alliance has claimed the right to form a government, which will likely exclude the Sunnis. This threatens to once again unleash the sectarian warfare that shattered Iraq from 2005 to 2007.

Sadr represents the triumph of a defiant brand of Shi'ism in Iraq. As the backroom dealing unfolds, Iraq's senior Shi'ite clerics have remained largely silent. Because Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and other theologians shun direct political involvement, they create a power vacuum among Iraqi Shi'ites - one that Sadr is eager to fill. He wants to be both a respected cleric and a political broker.

In the struggle for power within the Shi'ite community, Sadr had two claims to leadership: He is the son of a revered cleric killed by Saddam Hussein's regime, and he did not leave Iraq to live in comfortable exile during Saddam's rule. Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq Al-Sadr, was one of the pre-eminent scholars of the Shi'ite world. Unlike Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the elder Sadr argued that clerics should be involved in social and political matters.

Amid the euphoria that followed the ouster of Saddam's regime in 2003, clergymen debated their role in politics. Sadr and his supporters argued that they must fill the void left by the Baathist system. They denounced the US occupation and American plans to install an interim government made up mainly of exiled Iraqi politicians like Mr Ahmad Chalabi and Mr Allawi.

Sadr's followers seized control of hospitals, schools and mosques in parts of Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. Sadr drew tens of thousands to his rallies and Friday sermons. He created the Mahdi Army, which had several thousand fighters - most of them young, impoverished Shi'ites from Baghdad's slums and southern Iraq.

Since he emerged as the fiercest Shi'ite critic of the US occupation, Sadr has been remarkably adept at using religious symbols to position himself as heir to a long line of Shi'ite martyrs. By doing so, he has tapped into a central tenet of Shi'ism: dying in defence of one's beliefs, as the sect's founders did in the seventh century. During months of travelling around Iraq in 2003 and 2004, I saw the same poster hanging in homes and on walls of Shi'ite neighbourhoods: Sadr, cradling his assassinated father, blood dripping from his forehead and chest. The elder Sadr is holding up a copy of the Quran. The faceless shadow of Shi'ism's founding figure, Imam Ali, looms over father and son.

In reality, Sadr was not with his father when agents of the Baathist regime gunned him down in 1999. The cleric's two eldest sons were with him, and they too were killed. But the painting is one example of how Sadr has used his father's martyrdom to build support among Iraqi Shi'ites. And it helps explain why young Iraqis were willing to die for him, even as senior clerics urged them to avoid confronting US forces.

Sadr started out as a militia leader, with the populist appeal and credibility that comes from being heir to a family of martyrs. He then turned himself into one of Iraq's most effective and ruthless politicians. The elder clerics watched from the sidelines, confident that their rarefied religious authority would be more enduring than the young upstart's fleeting political power. But now he is on his way to becoming an even more formidable kingmaker in Iraq.

The writer is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Jordan's Troubling New Parliament

By Assaf David
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 06/01/2011

Recent analysis of Jordan's November parliamentary elections have focused on the odd, sub-district electoral system that further fragmented clans and tribes and resulted in violent clashes between them. While real politics takes place outside the parliament, the 16th parliament is presumed to be "loyalist" due to its overwhelmingly tribal and Transjordanian makeup.

However, a conservative parliament is by no means good news for the regime. The big majority of politically novice MP's render the House rather unpredictable, and the fact that there are very few Islamists and Palestinians in it is of no consequence, since the makeup of the previous parliament was not substantially different and it was still dissolved before the end of its term. Moreover, the new parliament is only part of the political equation, as the new government and senate seem to balance it. Finally, the fact that both traditional as well as Transjordanian opposition circles gradually dismiss the political institutions as irrelevant to the management of social and political conflicts is alarming. The new parliament, which granted the government a record vote of confidence, may be another signal of the demise of the old patterns of state-society relations in the Kingdom and the rise of new, dangerous trends.

Election Day itself was a successful show of fair and transparent electoral procedures and saw reasonable voter turnout. However, a close examination of the figures reveals a different story. As of the date of closing the voters registry, some 2.4 million voters were registered, or 55 percent of the 4.3 million eligible voters. Therefore, while the 1.26 million voters comprised indeed a turnout of 53 percent of registered voters, they amounted to less than 30 percent of all eligible voters in the kingdom. All in all, as few as 473,000 citizens, namely 13 percent of eligible voters, voted in favor of the 120 newly elected MP's. The doubts raised by military veterans on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other hand, regarding the level of representation and even the legitimacy of the new parliament seem, therefore, quite in place.

Two-thirds of Jordan's 16th Parliament are entirely new faces in the Lower House of Representatives. Official sources estimated that about 12 percent of all voters were Palestinian-Jordanians, and rumor has it that the King had expressed distress and disdain about that. The reasons for Palestinians to avoid the elections were the boycott by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has many Palestinian supporters, as well as concern that any contact with Interior Ministry branches for registration may result in citizenship withdrawal. Notably, not only Transjordanians interpreted the demographic makeup of the new parliament as a subtle recognition of Palestinian-Jordanians of their "guest status" in Jordan.

This said, some interesting occurrences could be observed in the "Palestinian" context of the parliamentary elections. First, four residents of Palestinian refugee camps at the center and north of the kingdom were elected to parliament. Interestingly, three of them are official members of the Fatah movement (including one who made a failed attempt at the elections for the sixth general assembly of Fatah in Ramallah). Further, two of the most popular candidates in the elections were of Palestinian origin: Mijhem al-Sqour, who originates from Beesan/Beit-Shean, representing the poor Jordan Valley area (first place in Jordan), and Khalil Attiyeh, a well-known old time Palestinian-Jordanian politician from Amman (second place).

Faisal al-Fayez, formerly Chief of Royal Court and Prime Minister (October 2003-April 2005) was elected as chair of the new Parliament. Spending much time recently denying his future ‘appointment' to this position, al-Fayez nonetheless traveled across the kingdom meeting with tribes and asking for their support, as rival candidates gradually withdrew from the race in order to clear the way for him. The Transjordanian opposition considered this an official appointment by the state, and tied this with the amendments to the Election Law that allowed the regime to strengthen the "divide and rule" practices between the tribes.

With this, the regime completed the intentional breaking of the "Abd al-Hadi branch" of the Majali tribe. The long-time chair of parliament, whose relations with the regime was on a downhill slope in recent years given his strong opposition to the liberal elite, was not only impeached, but three brothers from the competing branch of Majali (that of the late Hazza') were appointed to (or allowed to assume) important political and security positions. It is hard to tell whether these changes in the tribal map of official power centers, and the increasing fragmentation between tribes, will assist the regime in materializing its economic and political strategies. Al-Fayez himself was impeached from the position of Prime Minister in 2005 after colliding with the liberals headed by Dr. Bassem Awadallah.

As is customary following new parliamentary elections, a new government (still headed by Samir al-Rifa'i) was sworn in. The main appointments were for the positions of Deputy Prime Ministers: the two past deputies, senior economic minister Raja'i al-Muasher and the conservative Interior Minister Nayef al-Qadi were removed from office. In their stead, the King's advisor Aiman al-Safadi was appointed deputy prime minister and spokesperson for the government, and Sa'd Hayel al-Srour was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister. The chair of the Lawyers Association was appointed Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and the old time opposition leader Musa al Ma'ayteh remained the Minister of Political Reform. All these counter-balance somewhat the conservatives in the government and parliament. Observers commented that the new composition of the government is in fact a cocktail of liberals and technocrats hailing from several important tribes represented in the new parliament. It appears that inner regime circles estimate or hope that the current composition of the government, especially after the impeachment of al-Muasher, will promote the passing of controversial economic legislation in parliament that met the objection of the previous House.

Notably, the regime took the opportunity to get rid of the powerful al-Qadi, who was too determined to disenfranchise Palestinians, and may have even worked to undermine al-Srour, claiming that the latter sought to naturalize Palestinians so that they can vote for him. For quite some time, the King has been uneasy with the overly broad interpretation of the "decision of disengagement" from the West Bank (1988) and allegedly even instructed al-Qadi to avoid that. As part of the regime's counter pressure against the conservatives, data was published "proving" that very few Jordanian women married foreigners, but these data did not detail the number of Jordanian women who married West Bank Palestinians. In any event, the expectations that the new government take a more moderate line regarding the citizenship of Palestinians seem to materialize. Power brokers in the 16th parliament, headed by the new chair, may play a role in this regard, and some new MP's already declared that they would object to the withdrawal of citizenship from Palestinians.

The new Senate -- another common move following parliamentary elections -- remains headed by the popular and seasoned politician of Palestinian origin Taher al-Masri. Thirty out of the 60 members of the Upper House are new, while another 28 were members in the last Senate and two others were ministers that were ousted from the government. As a rule, the composition of the Senate constitutes a significant blow to the old elite and the conservatives, and compensation to liberals and Palestinians for their under-representation in the government and parliament. The number of past Prime Ministers declined, and the number of past senior officers from the security establishment, Chiefs of Staff, heads of Mukhabarat and retired generals, was also significantly reduced. Al-Muasher and al-Qadi were not included in the new Senate. Abd al-Majid Dhnebat, the past leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is on good terms with the regime, was also included in the Senate composition. He may be facing disciplinary proceedings in the movement, though the likelihood of that is not great at this stage. The fact that the appointed House -- also called "the King's Council" -- includes many liberals and Palestinians, and few strong conservatives and senior military and security officials, is a telling one.

The new parliament's record vote of confidence in the government -- 111 of the present 119 members of the House (93 percent) -- was the subject of bitter jokes in Jordan, portraying the government's embarrassment of the ridiculous vote. Some lamented Jordan's missed opportunity to score a world record as the first constitutional-partisan political system ever to grant a government a unanimous vote of confidence. It appears that most members of parliament were attentive to the state's standpoint that confronting the government means confronting the King himself, and at any rate did not want to jeopardize the allocation of resources to their constituencies. However, this development, too, is an ominous sign to the demise of Jordan's hardly-earned patterns of political bargaining, as it marks an underlying assumption that real conflict management does not take place in parliament anymore. Opposition groups, both old and new, might coalesce (the MB's contacts with military veterans are a good case in point) against the political order or, far worse than that, take their differences to the streets.

Assaf David is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He recently submitted his dissertation on civil-military relations in Jordan under King Hussein and King Abdullah II.