Saturday, May 14, 2011

Exclusive: Taliban Leader Details Final Visit With bin Laden

In an exclusive interview, a senior Taliban official says the terrorist leader was hardly a hermit. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on his extensive meetings with aides and money-men. This article was published in The Daily Beast on 14/05/2011

If a senior Afghan Taliban commander is to be believed, Osama bin Laden was not as isolated in his final years as many people think. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, the guerrilla chieftain, who for years has provided information that proved reliable, says he visited the late al Qaeda leader two years ago in his high-walled hideout in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad. He says bin Laden, who was killed in a midnight raid by Navy SEALs on May 2, also received occasional visits from al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and Arab fundraisers.

Although U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge that bin Laden was “an active player,” operating an “active command and control center” at his compound, their assumption was that he communicated with his followers almost exclusively via computer memory sticks delivered by relays of couriers. On the contrary, however, his meetings now seem not to have been limited to one or two trusted couriers, but instead to have included face-to-face huddles with fellow plotters right under the noses of the Pakistani military and its intelligence agents.

The commander, a member of the Peshawar shura that controls insurgent operations in eastern Afghanistan, still refuses to disclose just what he discussed with bin Laden, but says the meeting was arranged by an unnamed senior al Qaeda leader. Asking not to be named for security reasons, he says that he and bin Laden became close in the late 1990s, when the al Qaeda founder was based in eastern Afghanistan’s largest city, Jalalabad. At the time, the commander held an important position in the region, and bin Laden came to trust him. “The Sheik [as bin Laden’s followers call him] was my best friend,” the commander says. “We used to meet in Jalalabad.”

When the commander saw him again in Abbottabad, he seemed healthy enough, and well briefed on recent developments. “The Sheik was in good shape in mind and body,” the commander recalls. Nevertheless, he was struck by how bin Laden had changed in the years since 9/11. “The Sheik was not the same Sheik I had seen before the Americans attacked,” he says. “He looked tired and certainly was concerned about his safety and financial matters.” Nevertheless, bin Laden displayed more energy than the commander had expected before the Abbottabad visit. “I was surprised,” he says. “He seemed much more alive and active than I had thought.”

Bin Laden said he had been forced to keep working hard because he had lost so many of his senior lieutenants. “The Sheik told me of all of his top aides who had been killed or captured,” he says. “So he said he had no choice but to be active and meet people, despite the security risks.” The visitors included senior aides: “He said he was meeting with other top al Qaeda leaders who could get access to Abbottabad without endangering their safety.” The commander recalls that two other men were present during the meeting but that neither one said a word. They were not bin Laden’s sons, he says. And bin Laden spoke of having direct contacts with money men from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. “He said fundraising was crucial, but he limited the number of contributors he saw because of the risk,” the commander says. “He was afraid these face-to-face meetings would lead his enemies to his house.”

In fact, the world’s most-wanted fugitive said, he had chosen to live in Abbottabad just because he considered it such an “unexpected” place for him to hole up. What scared him most wasn’t America’s spy agencies, he told the commander; it was Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. “The Sheik feared the ISI more than the CIA,” the commander says.

While discussing the Afghan insurgents’ war against the Americans, bin Laden said he had heard no news of the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, since 2001. Even so, the al Qaeda leader seemed upbeat. “The Sheik told me not to worry,” the commander recalls. “He said things will get better for the Taliban.” He nevertheless insists that although al Qaeda has provided moral and spiritual support to the insurgents, as well as some manpower, the Taliban never received “a single dollar” from bin Laden.


Separately, a senior ISI officer tells The Daily Beast that Pakistani interrogators have learned little from questioning bin Laden’s three wives, who were picked up by Pakistani security forces after the American raid on the compound. “The interrogations of the women have been rather useless,” says the officer. “The women had no idea of his jihadi activities.” He says the women were sequestered in the house and were not privy to bin Laden’s activities or interactions with any of his lieutenants. This is not surprising, he says; the ISI had learned equally little from interrogating the wives of other al Qaeda operatives, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin Al-Shibh. “These Arabs traditionally don’t share much if anything at all with their women,” the officer says. “We only know that the wives were kept in the house for a long time, never allowed to leave and were never involved in his meetings or work.”

Sami Yousafzai is Newsweek's correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he has covered militancy, al Qaeda, and the Taliban for the magazine since 9/11. He was born in Afghanistan but moved to Pakistan with his family after the Russian invasion in 1979. He began his career as a sports journalist but switched to war reporting in 1997.

Ron Moreau is Newsweek’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and has been covering the region for the magazine the past 10 years. Since he first joined Newsweek during the Vietnam War, he has reported extensively from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

The Resignation Of George Mitchell

By Elliott Abrams 
This commentary was published in CFR blog on 13/05/2011

George Mitchell resigned today (Friday 13, 2011) as the President’s special envoy for the Middle East. Mitchell was appointed the second day President Obama was in office, January 22, 2009, and his role was given great importance. He was a symbol of the new Administration’s determination to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He made innumerable trips to the region, gave many press conferences, and assembled a substantial staff. So what happened?

I am told that the final straw for Mitchell was a failure to convince the White House that the President’s speech next week must include a American detailed plan for Middle East peace. That would be a very bad idea, rightly rejected (if my sources are right) by the White House. Mitchell was said to believe that such a plan could bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table now for a serious negotiation.

This is extraordinary, for it seems to overlook the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement signed two weeks ago. Israel is not going to negotiate with a delegation containing Hamas representatives, whether an American plan is on the table or not. Moreover, both parties would likely have rejected parts of any detailed American proposal (while officially applauding it, of course), so Mitchell’s idea would have left the President looking weaker. It was bad advice.

In fact, Mitchell’s advice has been disastrous all along. He is one of the fathers of the idea that a 100% construction freeze in Jerusalem as well as all the West Bank settlements is a necessary precondition for peace talks. Such a total freeze is impossible for any Israeli prime minister, and had never previously been viewed by Palestinian leaders as a prerequisite to going to the table.  Of course, once Mitchell got that approach adopted by the President, the Palestinians had to adopt it as well; they could not risk appearing less demanding than we were. The end result was frustration on all sides. In a strikingly nasty interview with Newsweek, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told the story this way: “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze.  I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.” It is sad to say so, but for about two years now Israeli and Palestinian officials alike have been complaining that Mitchell had strong ideas and meant well but did not listen to them. That the President saw Mitchell off with a written statement rather than a warm personal embrace may suggest that he had worn out his welcome at the White House too. The President thanked Mitchell by saying that “as he returns to his family, George leaves behind a proud legacy of dedicated public service….” That does not make it sound like the Administration plans on enlisting him again in any other capacity.

Who should replace Mitchell? The Bush Administration had no special envoy, and the Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary for the Near East did the heavy lifting when there was a need for diplomatic action. That is a better model. If a new envoy is named now, he or she will have nothing to do: at least until the Palestinian elections next year settle the role of Hamas in their political system there will be no negotiations. That suggests the old Washington practice of “dual hatting:” if you absolutely have to have an envoy, name the current Assistant Secretary for the Near East or some other State official with a real job. Then you can say you still have an envoy, but that person won’t have to do make-work and gin up trips to looks busy.

The President has made the right decision, if my information is right, in diminishing the attention to Israeli-Palestinian matters in his forthcoming address and concentrating instead on Bin Laden and the Arab Spring. The “peace process” has been brought to a screeching halt by the deal between Fatah and Hamas. The President would do himself no favors by making it a central part of next week’s speech

Syria's Refugees From Terror

In a small Lebanese village just beyond the Syrian border, those fleeing the regime's crackdown tell of terror and oppression back home. 
By Hanin Ghaddar 
This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 13/05/2011

The northern Lebanese village of Wadi Khaled is so close to Syria that its residents can hear gunfire from across the border as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad attempts to put down a persistent revolt from his long-oppressed citizens. And as violence in nearby Syrian cities of Tal Kalakh and Homs has worsened, it has also been a refuge for fleeing Syrians.
According to Sheikh Abdullah, a prominent religious figure in the village, Wadi Khaled has received more than 1,350 refugees from Syria in the past 10 days, most of them women and children. More are expected to arrive in the coming days. Protesters took to the streets by the thousands again on Friday, reportedly flooding the streets of Damascus, Hama, and Homs in defiance of Assad's crackdown. Human rights organizations have reported that up to 850 people have been killed so far during the uprising, while more than 10,000 have been arrested. 

With a media blackout in place across Syria, Wadi Khaled, a predominantly Sunni village of around 30,000 people, is also one of the best locations to learn what's occurring across the border. The news is grim: The Syrian refugees there tell a story of state-sponsored violence and oppression that suggest Assad will stop at nothing to keep his grip on power.

Munther, a 35-year-old chain-smoker, answered our questions without taking his eyes off the BBC Arabic report on Syria playing on a television overhead. He escaped with his family from the Bab Amr neighborhood of Homs on Saturday. He had been participating in the protests every Friday for two months since the uprising took hold in mid-March. "They were shooting at us to disperse the protests, but it was still manageable because you can hide as soon as they start shooting," he said. However, he decided to flee when Assad sent in tanks on May 7. "I have children and I have to protect them."

Munther, like many other Syrian refugees, came to Wadi Khaled because he has relatives there. It is only a 15-minute car ride from Homs, and the Lebanese-Syrian border has done little to hinder ties between the villages on either side of the international line. Most Wadi Khaled residents are originally Bedouins with tribal links to those in Homs and Tal Kalakh, and the last of them was given Lebanese nationality in 1994. Inter-marriages between the two communities are also common.

There is no official crossing between Wadi Khaled and the Homs Governate on the Syrian side of the border. A concrete bridge over the Southern Kabir River links the two regions, but Lebanese or Syrian checkpoints are nowhere to be found; refugees simply cross the border on foot. Lebanese residents buy cheap bread and vegetables from neighboring villages in Syira and cross back into Wadi Khaled unmolested. Gasoline smuggling is rampant.

That has left village notables with the task of caring for the needs of their newly arrived quests. Sheikh Abdullah is taking care of the refugees' logistics and safety. "Many families coming from Syria have relatives here and they are staying at their houses, but at one point, if they keep coming, there might be a humanitarian crisis," he said.

Refugees describe a government crackdown so severe that it makes normal life impossible. "The first thing the security forces do when they besiege the city -- and this happened in Daraa, Jasem, Enkhel, Tel Kalakh, and Homs -- is to cut the electricity, the phones, and the Internet. Then they shoot at water tanks situated on the rooftops to cut the water," said Abed, a 30-year-old man from Tel Kalakh.

It took Abed 20 minutes to start discussing the crackdown. He first sent the women and children to the other part of the small apartment where we met, and expressed clear apprehension at discussing developments in Syria. While he first denied participating in the protests, he later admitted that he never skipped a Friday demonstration. It wasn't hard to understand his fear. "Sometimes, they do door-to-door arrests when they are looking for certain activists," he said. "And when they enter the houses, they steal everything they see."

The main objective, according to many of these refugees, is to create a mood of panic among the residents. "They want us to realize that security, which the regime can and has always provided, is more important than freedom, which they cannot and will not provide," Abed said.

Mustafa, a young single man who came to Wadi Khaled with his sisters, said that he had seen injured civilians in the streets and the protesters were not allowed to rescue them. "Only in Syria people are dying from an injury in the foot. They are left in the streets to bleed to death," he said. YouTube provides ample proof of this grim reality -- gruesome videos show corpses lying untended in the street and Syrians braving gunfire to rescue their wounded and dying comrades.

But for Mustafa, the most horrific incident occurred last week when the protesters tried to establish a camp, modeled after Cairo's Tahrir Square, in the main square of Homs. He said that security forces arrived around 1 a.m. and killed more than a hundred protesters, put the bodies in garbage trucks, and took them to Tadmur desert, where they were buried in a mass grave.

With media largely stifled in Syria, Mustafa fears that the Assad regime is getting away with murder. "[A]s much as we try to spread the news to the world through our limited experience with technology and Facebook, many of these crimes are still unknown," he said. "The media is the only weapon the people have."

Activists are also using towns like Wadi Khaled to coordinate their activities and get their message out to the world. Hussam, a former political prisoner from Homs, was in Wadi Khaled for one day to meet with European delegations and some journalists. Hussam, who has been involved in organizing the protests for six weeks, said that his main task is to spread the anti-Assad movement's message through Facebook groups and face-to-face meetings with human rights and legal organizations.

Hussam insists that the protest movement will remain peaceful in order to thwart the regime's strategy of instigating sectarian tensions between Syria's Sunni and Alawite communities. "We all believe, including the Muslim Brotherhood members who are still inside Syria, that dictatorship and oppression only lead to violence," he said."Our main goal is freedom and the people are paying with their blood to achieve this goal."

If recent events are any indication, Assad is hoping a display of overwhelming military force will be enough to quell the uprising. His first cousin Rami Makhlouf, a prominent player in Syria's economy and a key regime insider, told the New York Times on Wednesday: "We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end."

But the killings could also be Assad's undoing. "Each family in Daraa, Banyas, Enkhel, Homs, and Jassem lost a member," said Hussam. "We will never go back to silence."

Hanin Ghaddar is managing editor of NOW Lebanon

A Muslim Brotherhood Leader On Bin Laden, Israel And Egypt’s Elections

By Lally Weymouth 
This interview was published in The Washington Post on 14/05/2011

Banned for years under President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood now functions openly in Egypt and is expected to win a sizable bloc of seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Washington Post Senior Associate Editor Lally Weymouth interviewed Essam El-Erian, a physician and senior member of the brotherhood’s ruling guidance council, in the organization’s new $11 million headquarters on May 4. Following are excerpts: 

What did you think of the killing of Osama bin Laden?

For us, Osama bin Laden never represented Islam. Islam is a peaceful religion. Violent groups are a minority among Islamic groups. . . .

Even though it was war, it didn’t give America the right to kill a person while the forces could capture him.
So bin Laden shouldn’t have been killed?

To be brought to justice, this would have been better for America. . . . America committed some mistakes. First, killing him instead of arresting him. Second, they violated the sovereignty of Pakistan, putting the president and the Pakistani government in a critical situation. I criticize bin Laden and al-Qaeda. It [Pakistan] is a corrupted regime. But we are talking about the state, not the regime. This gives an important message to others — to Saudi Arabia and all your allies — that they are not trusted.
The Muslim Brotherhood has had many problems in Egypt during the past 30 years. A lot of your members — including yourself — have been put in jail. You have come a long way to have this vast headquarters now. Two years ago, this would not have been allowed.

Yes, but this change was brought about by Egyptians. Because for the last two centuries, this region has been under interference from others on the outside.
Mubarak did not occupy the country.

Yes. He was Egyptian. This was an internal occupation. Who was supporting Mubarak? Not the army only. The army got rid of him. The main support to Mubarak was from the U.S.
You think the army got rid of him?

Yes, after they saw millions of people in the streets. . . . Your administration tried to give him a shelter as they do now with [Libya’s Moammar] Gaddafi and [Yemen’s Ali Abdullah] Saleh.
Was it the power of the people or the power of the mosques?

This revolution had many steps to it. . . . I was arrested myself before the assassination of [Anwar] Sadat for one year. We were all arrested and released after Sadat’s assassination. Then I became a member of the parliament from 1987 to 1990. Then I was arrested again and tried before a military court, and jailed for five years. And during the last seven years, I was arrested five times. Annually I was arrested.
Were you put in jail each time or just arrested?

Yes, put in jail. . . . The last time I was arrested was during the revolution . . . 58 hours in jail. The revolution did not start on 25 January. We had many battles — about the independence of the judiciary and about free and fair elections. We reached this point, and they launched a new campaign on Facebook, that is true.
People say the army is sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The army is a professional army, a neutral army. The army cannot take the responsibility for this country and for shooting people. The army is keen to transfer power to the people after free and fair elections. That is very important — to have an army in Egypt that supports democracy. This is a new army — those colleagues of [former president Gamal Abdel] Nasser’s are dead, and those who participated in the October War [in 1973] are mostly gone. This is a new army not spoiled by politics, not having dreams of catching power. . . . Many of them studied in the U.S., talked with your officials and your think tanks — they are well-educated. They are nationalists — they have nothing to do with politics. From the start, they stated that they reject any call to keep power or stay for a long time.
Will the Muslim Brotherhood win the next election because it is so organized?

The next election must represent all political factions, even weak groups. We as the Muslim Brotherhood are keen to have a coalition to go to the elections together to have a parliament that represents all Egyptians, not only powerful groups. All Egyptians must be represented — Muslims, Coptics, leftists, liberalists, nationalists, Islamists — all must be there to have a neutral committee to write the constitution. This is very important for a real democracy.
Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood will have the largest bloc in the parliament?

The last election which was semi-free, semi-fair, in 2005, we gained 20 percent of the seats. In the next election, we are not targeting the majority at all. So we will nominate between 45 to 50 percent. . . . I think it would be fair to gain 30 percent in a free and fair election.
Let’s talk about your vision for a new Egypt.

It must be democratic with a parliamentary system, cooperative with the region, cooperative with the world. We have common values. We are ready for democracy, we are fighting for freedom.
What about America? Do you see good relations continuing?

Of course. But America must respect this independence of Egypt. We started by talking about the violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan. We have no problem with the U.S. except that it supported Mubarak for 30 years continuously and without any alarm to stop his violations of human rights. The Egyptian people may have some bitterness in their chest about America’s policy. . . .
America supported Saudi Arabia, which is a closed regime. They supported Saddam Hussein for a long time, and then they killed him. They supported the Iran of [Shah] Pahlavi and has been against Iran of today.

You cannot say Iran is a democratic power.
I cannot of course describe Iran as a democratic power. But it is better than at the time of the shah.

What about Israel? Will Egypt keep the treaty?
The state would keep the treaty.

Would you keep the treaty?
Yes, a new parliament would make that decision. The army says frankly, and we say it also: We cannot cancel a treaty by a verbal decision. Treaties have regulations and must be respected from both sides. When one side doesn’t respect the treaty, the international community must obligate it to do so.

Your leader, Mohammed Badie, said Arab and Muslim regimes are betraying their people by failing to confront Muslims’ real enemies — not only Israel but also the U.S. Is this your opinion?
No. We never talk about America as an enemy. Of course you can have a strategy which since [Henry] Kissinger’s visit to Sadat gives optimum support to Israel. America needs to catch the moment. If you don’t review and revise your strategy for the region, you can lose this region.

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood said governments have no right to stop their people from fighting the United States, and those who do are ignoring Allah’s call to wage jihad.
That is against occupying troops, against occupation. That is a human right. Yesterday [Afghan President] Karzai went to the press to say you killed bin Laden in Pakistan and you are killing innocent people in Afghanistan. That is Karzai, your man. And now you create chaos in Iraq and you hand Iraq to Iran.

The idea is to resist foreign troops?

On Sunday after killing bin Laden, we called on America to start deploying their troops out of Afghanistan and out of Iraq. . . . When Obama was elected, he said he was going to withdraw from Iraq. This is a proper moment if he is going to win the next election.
What about Egyptian troops in the Sinai?

Sinai is Egyptian land, and it must be treated as any Egyptian land.

But the Sinai has been demilitarized.
We are not threatening Israel. Israel is hurting itself by its policies. It is discriminating inside Israel against Arabs. . . . Israel is not under threat from Arabs — it is under threat from inside Israel, from its leaders like [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman. It is under threat from Israelis. I studied the society of Israel, I know everything about this fight and this state. My dream is that we are not going to destroy Israel. If it doesn’t revise its policy against Arabs and Jews, it can destroy itself. My dream is to live together as we did before the state of Israel. We lived in peace. We were never in conflict. Americans and Europeans exported the conflict created by Hitler to our land.

You mean because there was a Holocaust?
Yes. The Holocaust was a massacre against a race, against a religion — it is a really big crime, but we were never accused of it. Why do the Palestinians pay the price of Nazis?

Do you think Egypt should be ruled by sharia law?
The principles of sharia are the main source of legalization. That is in the constitution. You look for sharia as a foundation.

What does it say about the role of women?

Equal to men.
So could a woman run for office?

Of course, if the people elected it.
What about minorities?

Equal rights.

People say the Muslim Brothers are using the Salafis, who practice a fundamentalist form of Islam.
Never — the Salafis were used against us.

So you have a relationship with them?
Not a relationship, no. They have some doubts about democracy. They are extremist in some affairs about women. But the majority of them are nonviolent. We advise them to respect democracy, respect Copts.

Would you ban alcohol if you come to power?
We are not going to come to power. Our power is our values. But we are not going to use this power to rule the country.

Is every businessman going to be put on trial or forced to leave the country?
Please, America is a powerful country, it is a strong country. It is a shame for America to be afraid of Islam or Egyptians or democracy or the will of the people or choice of the people. The America which we know is an America of values, not an America of troops, of arms. America that exports values to the whole world, not bombarding Afghanistan or Iraq. That is the America which we respect and the America which we want to live with.

Do you want to see Mubarak put on trial?
[Perhaps] he can pass away safely. He is an elderly man, a sick man. . . .

Mubarak put me in jail for about eight years, but I never feel revenge toward him. He had many opportunities, many options to save himself and his family and the country. He lost them all. And the people here can forgive him for anything, but they cannot forgive him for ordering the police to kill people in the streets.

Why I Blew The Whistle About Palestine

Israel's attack on Gaza and the disastrous 'peace talks' compelled me to leak what I knew

By Ziyad Clot 
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 14/05/2011

In Palestine, the time has come for national reconciliation. On the eve of the 63rd commemoration of the Nakba – the uprooting of Palestinians that accompanied the creation of Israel in 1948 – this is a long-awaited and hopeful moment. Earlier this year the release by al-Jazeera and the Guardian of 1,600 documents related to the so-called peace process caused deep consternation among Palestinians and in the Arab world. Covering more than 10 years of talks (from 1999 to 2010) between Israel and the PLO, the Palestine papers illustrated the tragic consequences of an inequitable and destructive political process which had been based on the assumption that the Palestinians could in effect negotiate their rights and achieve self-determination while enduring the hardship of the Israeli occupation.

My name has been circulated as one of the possible sources of these leaks. I would like to clarify here the extent of my involvement in these revelations and explain my motives. I have always acted in the best interest of the Palestinian people, in its entirety, and to the full extent of my capacity.

My own experience with the "peace process" started in Ramallah, in January 2008, after I was recruited as an adviser for the negotiation support unit (NSU) of the PLO, specifically in charge of the Palestinian refugee file. That was a few weeks after a goal had been set at the Annapolis conference: the creation of the Palestinian state by the end of 2008. Only 11 months into my job, in November of that year, I resigned. By December 2008, instead of the establishment of a state in Palestine, I witnessed on TV the killing of more than 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza by the Israeli army.

My strong motives for leaving my position with the NSU and my assessment of the "peace process" were clearly detailed to Palestinian negotiators in my resignation letter dated of 9th November 2008.

The "peace negotiations" were a deceptive farce whereby biased terms were unilaterally imposed by Israel and systematically endorsed by the US and EU. Far from enabling a negotiated and fair end to the conflict, the pursuit of the Oslo process deepened Israeli segregationist policies and justified the tightening of the security control imposed on the Palestinian population, as well as its geographical fragmentation. Far from preserving the land on which to build a state, it has tolerated the intensification of the colonisation of the Palestinian territory. Far from maintaining a national cohesion, the process I participated in, albeit briefly, was instrumental in creating and aggravating divisions among Palestinians. In its most recent developments, it became a cruel enterprise from which the Palestinians of Gaza have suffered the most. Last but not least, these negotiations excluded for the most part the great majority of the Palestinian people: the seven million Palestinian refugees. My experience over those 11 months in Ramallah confirmed that the PLO, given its structure, was not in a position to represent all Palestinian rights and interests.

Tragically, the Palestinians were left uninformed of the fate of their individual and collective rights in the negotiations, and their divided political leaderships were not held accountable for their decisions or inaction. After I resigned, I believed I had a duty to inform the public.

Shortly after the Gaza war I started to write about my experience in Ramallah. In my 2010 book, Il n'y aura pas d'Etat Palestinien (There will be no Palestinian State), I concluded: "The peace process is a spectacle, a farce, played to the detriment of Palestinian reconciliation, at the cost of the bloodshed in Gaza." In full conscience, and acting independently, I later agreed to share some information with al-Jazeera specifically with regard to the fate of Palestinian refugee rights in the 2008 talks. Other sources did the same, although I am unaware of their identity. Taking these tragic developments of the "peace process" to a wider Arab and western audience was justified because it was in the public interest of the Palestinian people. I had – and still have – no doubt that I had a moral, legal and political obligation to proceed accordingly.

Today, I am relieved that this first-hand information is available to Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory, in Israel and in exile. In a way, Palestinian rights are back in their holders' possession and the people are now in a position to make enlightened decisions about the future of their struggle. I am also glad that international stakeholders to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can access these documents. The world can no longer overlook that while Palestinians' strong commitment to peace is genuine, the fruitless pursuit of a "peace process" framed according to the exclusive conditions of the occupying power leads to compromises which would be unacceptable in any other region of the globe.

Finally, I feel reassured that the people of Palestine overwhelmingly realise that the reconciliation between all their constituents must be the first step towards national liberation. The Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians in Israel and the Palestinians living in exile have a common future. The path to Palestinian self-determination will require the participation of all in a renewed political platform

Why No Outcry Over These Torturing Tyrants?

By Robert Fisk
This commentary was published in The Independent on 14/05/2011
Christopher Hill, a former US secretary of state for east Asia who was ambassador to Iraq – and usually a very obedient and un-eloquent American diplomat – wrote the other day that "the notion that a dictator can claim the sovereign right to abuse his people has become unacceptable".
Unless, of course – and Mr Hill did not mention this – you happen to live in Bahrain. On this tiny island, a Sunni monarchy, the al-Khalifas, rule a majority Shia population and have responded to democratic protests with death sentences, mass arrests, the imprisonment of doctors for letting patients die after protests and an "invitation" to Saudi forces to enter the country. They have also destroyed dozens of Shia mosques with all the thoroughness of a 9/11 pilot. But then, let's remember that most of the 9/11 killers were indeed Saudis.
And what do we get for it? Silence. Silence in the US media, largely silence in the European press, silence from our own beloved CamerClegg and of course from the White House. And – shame of shame – silence from the Arabs who know where their bread is buttered. That means, of course, also silence from al-Jazeera. I often appear on their otherwise excellent Arabic and English editions, but their failure to mention Bahrain is shameful, a dollop of shit in the dignity that they have brought to reporting in the Middle East. The Emir of Qatar – I know him and like him very much – does not need to belittle his television empire in this way.
CamerClegg is silent, of course, because Bahrain is one of our "friends" in the Gulf, an eager arms buyer, home to thousands of Brit expatriates who – during the mini-revolution by Bahrain's Shia – spent their time writing vicious letters to the local pro-Khalifa press denouncing Western journalists. And as for the demonstrators, I recall a young Shia woman telling me that if only the Crown Prince would come to the Pearl Roundabout and talk with the protesters, they would carry him on their shoulders around the square. I believed her. But he didn't come. Instead, he destroyed their mosques and claimed the protests were an Iranian plot – which was never the case – and destroyed the statue of the pearl at the roundabout, thus deforming the very history of his own country.
Obama, needless to say, has his own reasons for silence. Bahrain hosts the US Fifth Fleet and the Americans don't want to be shoved out of their happy little port (albeit that they could up-sticks and move to the UAE or Qatar anytime they wish) and want to defend Bahrain from mythical Iranian aggression. So you won't find La Clinton, so keen to abuse the Assad family, saying anything bad about the al-Khalifas. Why on earth not? Are we all in debt to the Gulf Arabs? They are honourable people and understand when criticism is said with good faith. But no, we are silent. Even when Bahraini students in Britain are deprived of their grants because they protested outside their London embassy, we are silent. CamerClegg, shame on you.
Bahrain has never had a reputation as a "friend" of the West, albeit that is how it likes to be portrayed. More than 20 years ago, anyone protesting the royal family's dominance risked being tortured in the security police headquarters. The head of it was a former British police Special Branch officer whose senior torturer was a pernicious major in the Jordanian army. When I published their names, I was rewarded with a cartoon in the government newspaper Al-Khaleej which pictured me as a rabid dog. Rabid dogs, of course, have to be exterminated. It was not a joke. It was a threat.
The al-Khalifas have no problems with the opposition newspaper, Al-Wasat, however. They arrested one of its founders, Karim Fakhrawi, on 5 April. He died in police custody a week later. Ten days later, they arrested the paper's columnist, Haidar Mohamed al-Naimi. He has not been seen since. Again, silence from CamerClegg, Obama, La Clinton and the rest. The arrest and charging of Shia Muslim doctors for letting their patients die – the patients having been shot by the "security forces", of course – is even more vile. I was in the hospital when these patients were brought in. The doctors' reaction was horror mixed with fear – they had simply never seen such close-range gunshot wounds before. Now they have been arrested, doctors and patients taken from their hospital beds. If this was happening in Damascus, Homs or Hama or Aleppo, the voices of CamerClegg, and Obama and La Clinton would be ringing in our ears. But no. Silence. Four men have been sentenced to death for killing two Bahraini policemen. It was a closed military court. Their "confessions" were aired on television, Soviet-style. No word from CamerClegg or Obama or La Clinton.
What is this nonsense? Well, I will tell you. It has nothing to do with the Bahrainis or the al-Khalifas. It is all about our fear of Saudi Arabia. Which also means it is about oil. It is about our absolute refusal to remember that 9/11 was committed largely by Saudis. It is about our refusal to remember that Saudi Arabia supported the Taliban, that Bin Laden was a Saudi, that the most cruel version of Islam comes from Saudi Arabia, the land of head-choppers and hand-cutters. It is about a conversation I had with a Bahraini official – a good and decent and honest man – in which I asked him why the Bahraini prime minister could not be elected by a majority Shia population. "The Saudis would never permit it," he said. Yes, our other friends. The Saudis.

Palestinians Drop America-Israel, For Now

By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 13/05/2011 

Much of the American-Israeli reaction to the reconciliation agreement the leading Palestinian movements Fateh and Hamas signed last week has focused on what this means for the peace process with Israel.

Not surprisingly, much of this same American-Israeli reaction to Palestinian issues once again misses the point. This is mainly because there is no peace process with Israel, and Palestinian leaders are signalling that they have essentially stopped playing the game of Middle East diplomacy according to the American-Israeli rules and, instead, wish to focus on the internal development and national unity needs of the Palestinian people they serve.

Whether or not the reconciliation impacts positively or negatively on the diplomatic front with Israel will be determined in about 18 months from now, after the year-long Palestinian interim technocratic government paves the way for new elections in the occupied territories and a newly elected and relegitimised Palestinian Authority leadership takes office. Equally significantly, the coming year will see moves to reactivate and also relegitimise the organs of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which will allow the reemergence of a coherent, integrated and credible voice that speaks for all Palestinians around the world.

A unified Palestinian national leadership with robust democratic pluralism will chart out a diplomatic position that will reflect nothing new because the existing common ground among the Palestinians is already manifested in both internal Palestinian documents and in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that remains on the table. This position demands full Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied in 1967 (with agreed land swaps), establishing a sovereign Palestinian state in those areas, resolving the refugee issue on the basis of agreed options for refugees anchored in existing international law and UN resolutions, and normal, peaceful bilateral relations in all spheres.

This is what the Palestinians will reaffirm yet again - but this is not what the Cairo-brokered reconciliation agreement is all about.

Those fuzzy-headed analysts and commentators in the United States and Israel who merely parrot Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s instant reaction to the reconciliation should really make an effort to be more mature and factual in their analysis. They are making the same mistake that America-Israel have made for decades: dealing with the Palestinians solely through the lens of Israeli security concerns and American domestic political fears of the pro-Israeli zealots in Washington who will end the careers of American politicians who stray far from the prevalent Zionist worldview.

Thus, almost every American-Israeli reaction to the accord has included a demand that Hamas recognise Israel and renounce violence before anyone in the political world can take another breath or step. If there is a world prize for “missing the point”, it should be awarded to every politicians, analyst and commentator who makes such demands.

Netanyahu said just hours after the accord was announced that “the Palestinian Authority has to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas” and he actually pinpointed a critical aspect of this reconciliation. The Palestinians have chosen peace within Palestine as their current national priority, because peace with Israel seems impossible now, for two reasons: Israel refuses to address seriously the core Palestinian demand of redressing Palestinian refugeehood (which is the heart of the conflict for Palestinians), and the United States continues to mediate in a manner that favours Israeli over Palestinian strategic concerns.

The Palestinians, consequently, have essentially given up for now - though not forever - on Israel as a negotiating partner and the United States as a credible mediator. If you are not convinced, consider this evidence: the four principal Palestinian dynamics of recent years have all represented a drift away from American-mediated diplomatic negotiations with the Israelis, and instead have affirmed a new strategy that seeks a different route to national rights and statehood one day.

The four are the Fateh- and Salam Fayyad-driven two-year plan to develop the foundational institutions for a West Bank-anchored Palestinian state by this autumn; Hamas’ strategy of promoting the development of Gaza while forcing a long-term truce with Israel; the Fateh-driven strategy of going to the UN General Assembly this September to ask for formal international recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state; and, the Hamas-Fateh reconciliation that seeks to reconstitute a single national leadership, political strategy and state-building process.

I am not sure what more the Israelis and Americans need in terms of evidence that the Palestinians have given up on America-Israel as a meaningful political interlocutor for the moment and are forging ahead in other directions - until conditions are more promising for diplomatic progress. Such conditions include truly impartial American mediation, a more sincere and flexible Israeli leadership, and a united Palestinian people and nation that can bolster its leadership in any future negotiations.

For now, though, only naïve dreamers, delusional fools and political miscreants would react to the Hamas-Fateh reconciliation by asking what it means for peace with Israel or demanding that Hamas recognise Israel before anything else happens.

GCC Gapples With Iranian Threat

Khalaf Al Habtoor writes: Gulf states must increase their military might and bolster unity to defend their sovereignty 
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 14/05/2011

  • Image Credit: AP
  • Iran's seizure of an oil well on the disputed Iran-Iraq border could trouble Iraq's drive to attract the international investment needed to develop its beleaguered oil sector.
Forget the fiery rhetoric! The US/Israel and Iran have more in common than you might think. All share the same aim: to control oil-rich Arab States and prevent them from forming a power bloc. Earlier, they were co-conspirators in that endeavour. The question is whether Iran truly is an enemy of the West as the Iranian leadership tries to portray?

The rivalry between Persians and Arabs goes back to the Muslim conquests when Persians embraced Islam. Today, Iranians wrap themselves in an Islamic flag yet the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian New Year Nowrouz is still Iran's most celebrated festival. Attempts by Iranian clerics to undermine the Shiite holy city of Najaf in Iraq in favour of the Iranian city of Qom exemplify Tehran's nationalism.

If Iran was a true friend of Arabs, it would not impede Arabic being spoken, the construction of Sunni mosques or parents from giving traditional Arab names to their newborns. Moreover, Tehran still occupies UAE islands, refuses demands from Arab Al Ahwaz (Khuzestan) for autonomy, has territorial claims on Bahrain and threatens airlines that use ‘Arabian Gulf' instead of ‘Persian Gulf' with being barred from Iranian airspace.

Dr Abdullah Al Nafisi, a specialist on Shiite affairs, says Iranians are primarily Persian nationalists who use their faith to reach Arabs via Shiite Arab minorities. He says Iranian officialdom from the Supreme Leader down once followed the teachings of the cleric/politician Abdullah Nouri who maintains that all Gulf States belong to Persia and promotes retribution on Arabs for destroying the Persian Empire. Secret dealings between Israel, the US and Persia extend back to Mohammad Reza Shah when Iranian oil flowed to Israel and, in turn, Israel supplied Iran with missile assembly plants, military training — and details of Jamal Abdul Nasser's military planning according to a book by Trita Parsi titled Treacherous Alliance. When Yasser Arafat met Khomeini he was lectured on the need for Palestinians to reject Arab nationalism for their Islamic roots. Parsi maintains Khomeini didn't seriously support the Palestinian cause. His primary aim was to indoctrinate Arabs with his credo and bolster Arab Shiites.

A research paper by Xue Maior concludes "Iran disseminates the principles of the Iranian revolution under anti-Israel slogans". Israel never took the ‘Little Satan' slur seriously and lobbied Washington to renew relations with Tehran.

In 1981, Iran helped facilitate Israel's attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor and during the Iran-Iraq War Iran purchased weapons from Israel, writes Parsi. In early 1986, President Reagan signed a secret memo authorising the sale of US arms to Iran resulting in the Iran-Contra scandal.

With the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Tehran saw its plan to dominate the Arab world slipping away and so began funding and arming Islamist rejectionist groups to spoil the peace process. Despite being included in George W. Bush's ‘Axis of Evil', Iran offered to help strengthen the Afghan army under US supervision and in 2002, the US initiated talks with prominent Iranians. Tehran later urged Iraqi Shiites not to resist the 2003 US-led occupation of Iraq for good reason. Iraq was defanged and is now ruled by pro-Iranian politicians. Bush spent billions and sacrificed lives only to deliver Iraq to Iran. Tehran has since made efforts to woo Washington to get anti-Iranian sanctions lifted although they do not heavily impact the Iranian economy like those that crippled Iraq — indicating the West isn't serious about disciplining Iran.

Pretence of enmity

It's curious, too, that Washington has been flexing its muscles over Iran's uranium enrichment programme since 2006, but has refrained from packing a punch in the way Saddam was punished for his non-existent WMD. In recent decades, Iran has hardened its grip on Lebanon and expanded its influence to Syria, Iraq and Yemen as well as to Shiite minorities in the Gulf. Prior to the Arab Spring veteran leaders kept a lid on Tehran's ambitions. The toppling of strong Arab leaderships invites sectarian conflict, extremist organisations — and civil war. Such divisions under the banner of ‘freedom' serve Iran. The new Egypt has permitted Iranian warships through Suez and is normalising diplomatic relations with Tehran despite GCC reservations.

While the US is supportive of revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya, its condemnation of Iran's repression has been lukewarm. Could the ‘enmity' between Iran and the US/Israel be an elaborate act? If Tehran has covertly cooperated with its enemies in the past, that may be occurring now.

Keeping up the pretence of enmity is a win-win situation for all concerned. Israel has a pretext to propagandise its security needs in the face of an Iranian existential threat. Iran uses anti-Israel slogans to increase its standing among Muslims. And the US has an excuse to maintain its military footprint in the Gulf. What if, in the future, Washington, Tel Aviv formed an alliance similar to the one that existed at the time of the Shah? How would that impact the independence of Gulf States? It may be that scenario is in preparation which would explain the West's softly-softly approach on Iran. I would urge GCC states to increase their military might and unify to defend against threats to our land and dignity. In a climate where major powers are dumping close allies to suit their interests we cannot rely on others' protection. We're on our own — the sooner we start taking care of ourselves the better.

Khalaf Al Habtoor is a businessman and chairman of Al Habtoor Group.

Egypt... It's Too Late

By Ahmed al-Jarallah  
This commentary was published in The Arab Times on 14/05/2011  

Is this the revolution sought by the Egyptians who demonstrated for days together at Tahrir Square in Cairo to oust the regime of ex-president Hosni Mubarak? Do they want this Egypt which is sinking and where some cities are witnessing small-scale civil wars due to lack of security and sectarian sedition? If what we are witnessing currently on Egypt’s streets is what was sought by this so-called revolution, and if revolutions destroy nations and lead to bloodshed under sectarian and religious slogans, then may all such revolutions be doomed.

It seems those inflaming the Egyptian society currently do not understand the meaning of leaving Egypt a prey for sectarian sedition and chaos. They seem not to appreciate that the direct losses resulting from the revolution have exceeded 70 billion Egyptian pounds, with the indirect losses much higher. The number of poor has increased and what is remaining of state institutions is further being damaged as people are feverishly seeking revenge from the former regime officials. It is as if those who are running the affairs currently are not the product of the regime that they toppled and drove the country towards an unknown destiny after paralyzing all establishments.

Issues that are currently being faced by the biggest Arab state do not threaten it alone, but will affect all other Arab countries due to Egypt’s influence on all economic, political, and social aspects. Therefore, the Egyptian situation is not of concern for just a few people. The Cairo of Al-Mue’ez (a former Islamic ruler of Egypt) will not allow itself to be turned into a giant guillotine that beheads people on the basis of suspicions or intentions. It won’t accept its streets being barricaded, or Copts turning into enemies of Muslims or vice versa. That is why Egypt, the Mother of the World, must come out of this chaotic trance and realize the dilemma it is facing. Some people wanted to make Tahrir Square alone the basis of authority and ruling and as a result, the country is sinking into the ugly swamp of sectarian sedition which if left unchecked will burn everyone, leaving no winners whatsoever.

It will take Egypt a long time, at least ten years, before it returns back to a wise administration that is capable of putting an end to the ugly face of sectarian sedition. Egypt needs an administration that can simultaneously stop the ever-speeding economic collapse and restore its foreign policy to its central Arab role. These issues were not taken into consideration by those who enthusiastically sought the toppling of the state through the toppling of president Hosni Mubarak. They are the ones who refused the man’s reformist attempts and also a peaceful transition of power through presidential elections that were supposed to be held next September. They refused everything notable after he declared his acceptance of the popular demands. Had they accepted, Egypt would have saved itself the costly bill it paid in terms of blood, property and economy. It would have been saved from falling a victim to blind feverish revenge; however, it is now too late.

The Arab Spring Reshuffles Turkey’s Cards

By Raghida Dergham from Istanbul 
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 13/05/2011 

Today, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds himself trapped between his friendships with unpopular Arab and Iranian leaders, and public opinion in the countries now crossing into democracy, a public that is readily poised to accuse Erdogan of double standards should he continue to be hesitant and undecided. The Turkish Prime Minister is thus aware that there can be no escape from reformulating the identity and the nature of Turkey’s desired regional role. However, he is not certain when it comes to the ultimate fate of the events in Syria, Libya or Iran, and therefore wishes he could somehow postpone taking a decision. Erdogan, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are all closely monitoring the Arab Spring which made change mandatory for Turkish foreign policy, and made the reconsideration of the doctrine embraced by the three men imperative, a doctrine of ‘zero problems’ in the relations, or friendships, with the neighboring Islamic nations.

The factors that dictate how Turkish regional and international policy should be redrafted are completely different from what they were, when Turkey’s neighboring countries enjoyed a certain degree of stability guaranteed by authoritarian rule and tyranny. Back then, the leadership in Turkey could well turn a blind eye to the violations perpetrated by its friends in power in Libya, Syria and Iran, in the name of stability. Erdogan was thus able to ‘ride the popular wave’ as a hero who challenged Israeli arrogance and compensated for the shortcomings of Arab leaders. But today, Erdogan finds himself having to choose between his personal and political ties with the authoritarian leaders, and the peoples who are rising up against them and who are openly calling on him to cease protecting these leaders.

With regard to Libya, Erdogan made his position clear after much hesitation, taking measures as a result, and calling on Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to step down. As regards Syria, Erdogan began sending important signals, albeit he continues to be hesitant, as he awaits the developments on the scene and the positions that will be adopted by other parties. These latter do not only comprise the Arabs or Iran, but also the European nations, the United States as well as China and Russia. What is taking place in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring has reshuffled the Turkish cards, both in the east with the Arab nations, Iran and Israel, and the west with the Obama administration and also with the European Union.

In truth this could prove to be in Turkey’s interests, and not just for the benefit of the Arabs. The policy pursued by the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey was built on premises that are at odds with the principles of supporting democracy, and bordered on overconfidence, triumphalism, and a push for excessive clout and influence. This nearly drove it to near arrogance at the domestic level, perhaps somehow weakening afterwards because the Turkish people are divided over the ideology of the ruling party and its long-term goals.

At the domestic level in Turkey, there is a sense of restlessness because of the near-overturning of secularism in Turkey. But there is some measure of reassurance that the rebellion against secularism will not turn into a coup against it, not just because of the makeup of the Turkish people, but also because the Turkish army would not support an Iranian-style Islamic Republic in Turkey.

The geographical position of Turkey affords the country some protection from fundamentalism, as Turkey is in need of both the West and the East. Iran’s model of theocratic autocracy is not tempting for the Turks, who take pride in democracy in a Muslim country. Also, Turkey is comfortable with both its European and Asian spheres, and the government of Turkey today seeks to export the Islamic democratic model as though it is desirable and valuable goods. Then there is the elections factor, which will be settled next month. The ruling party is concerned by potential surprises resulting from the Arab Spring or those resisting it, in Syria and Libya in particular. The party’s victory is almost guaranteed, and hence, the last thing it needs is something that would put that in jeopardy.

But the matter does not involve only discrediting stances or principles, or burning the Turkish flag as happened in Benghazi, before Erdogan’s government took the decision to close the Turkish embassy in Tripoli and call on Gaddafi to step down. It also involves the economic aspect, and the tremendous financial losses incurred in Libya and perhaps even Syria. This is in addition to the need to tighten belts until the Arab region has overcome its difficult transitional phase. This is not to mention the competition with countries such as France, so that the ‘pie’ does not end up being completely in its hands, whether in Libya or elsewhere.

In fact, Turkish exports to Libya had reached up to two billion dollars annually, with nearly 20 thousand Turks active in Libya in construction projects under contracts with Gaddafi’s government. The problem lies not just in not knowing ‘when’ Gaddafi will step down – and at what cost-, but also in the fierce competition with France, which does not want to lose its share of the pie in Libya as it did in Iraq, when the Bush administration excluded it and kept all the spoils to itself. Ankara feels that is it more worthy of benefiting from this than France, but it fears that its hesitation may have led to strengthening France’s foothold in Libya, while Erdogan and his government were discussing the merits of siding with the rebels against Gaddafi.

But relatively speaking, Erdogan finds himself in a better position with regard to the situation in Libya compared to that in Syria. There is international consensus against Muammar Gaddafi, and NATO is at the helm of a military campaign against him. Furthermore, the Arab Gulf states and the Arab League had been the first to take action, which led to stern stances on the part of the UN Security Council. But even under these circumstances, Erdogan was late to make a decision, although Abdullah Gul was clear and ready from the beginning, according to several sources.

Erdogan’s confusion as to how to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is clear. True, he sent him several public messages stating that he was making a mistake and that Turkey will not be able to provide him with cover if he continues to use of force against the protesters. And true, Erdogan has told several Arab and Western officials that he was fed up with Bashar Al-Assad’s unwillingness or inability to implement necessary reform or to contain the protests through concessions, not through bloody repression. And certainly, Erdogan would like to be able to convince his two friends, Gaddafi and Assad, either to anticipate events and comprehensively reform their policies, or to understand matters and take the necessary decisions, either to step down or to bring others into a partnership in power – if it is indeed not too late.

Today, Erdogan does not have a magic wand to change the mentality of his friends the rulers as he wishes. That is why he finds himself frustrated, and yet not in a position that would give him the luxury of time, either to elude taking a decision or to ‘ride the wave’. The “street” which gave him the momentum of leadership he boasted of is the same “street” which is now putting him under scrutiny, and holding him accountable. It is not enough today for any regional leader to use the challenging and the antagonizing of Israel as a means to compensate for their shortcomings at the domestic level, as does Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or to gain popularity that would enable them to achieve regional influence. The priorities are different now, even if the Palestinian Cause remains present in the Arab mind. The criteria for judging those seeking leadership have become quite different.

Erdogan and Turkey’s leaders are well aware of this, and that is why there are significant indications of changes taking place. Following are a few such signs and their broad highlights:

* The Turkish Prime Minister was among the first, if not the very first, to hasten the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, in a step some considered to be exemplary boldness and sound interpretation of the political scene, while others considered it to be a political step to exploit the vacuum in regional leadership engendered by ousting Mubarak.

* Regardless, the Arab Spring in Egypt started a new chapter in Turkish-Egyptian relations, one that perhaps contributed to the Turkish and Egyptian advice to the Hamas movement of taking the path of reconciliation with Fatah and working with the Palestinian Authority towards a new regional and international strategy.

* Such Turkish and Egyptian advice would not have been welcomed by Hamas had the Arab Spring not come to Syria and shown both Hamas and Turkey that leadership was beginning to slip away from Damascus and that such a process could not be stopped. The regime in Damascus has chosen “power” over “reform” and resolved to believe that the Arab Spring was just a fad.

* Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tested the limits of his influence with both Gaddafi and Assad. He has finally understood that it is difficult to speak the language of democracy with those friends who were brought up on dictatorship. He has also understood that the cost of his relationships with authoritarian leaderships at a time when peoples are demanding democracy would be quite high for him, for his party and for Turkey.

* Erdogan has also had a taste of wrongly expecting to win regional roles for himself through the Syrian gateway. He had maintained his close friendship with Assad at a time when Syria was in a state of complete isolation, following the American invasion of Iraq and in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Erdogan gave Assad a lifeline and exerted a lot of effort to bring him out of isolation, even at the expense of Iraq and Lebanon. Later he wagered on playing the role of mediator between Syria and Israel, before deciding that it would be better for him to play the Palestinian card, in view of what it gained him in terms of popularity at the level of the Arab street.

* Erdogan’s relationship with Syria represents a major test for him and his party, regardless of the relationship between Turkey and Israel. It is the Syrian question then that will test the commitment of Turkey and its ruling party to democracy. The Syrian question will also test how sincere the relationship between Erdogan and the Arab people is, a people which had been marginalized in times of strong relations between rulers, and which today has become a public opinion to be taken into consideration as it observes, scrutinizes and judges. The Syrian question, and not just the Libyan question, also provides a margin for reshaping relations with Turkey and Europe.

* Restoring the relationship with Israel is not excluded in Turkey’s thinking, albeit not by renouncing fundamental principles. The Turkish government realizes the importance of the Israeli element in its relations with the United States, yet it also realizes the importance gained by Turkey’s regional role and its effect on the Turkish-American relationship. Indeed, there are indications of shared messages to Israel, from regional, American and international actors, signifying not confrontation but rather the policy of moving forward with or without it. And that is a message that is of the utmost importance.

* The regional role played by Turkey today does not go through the Syrian-Israeli gateway, nor does it go through challenging Israel for the purpose of domestic containment or through a Turkish-Syrian-Iranian partnership to drive Hamas towards defiance. Ankara realizes that this is a new role for it to play, one that requires it to tear up many of the cards that used to be fundamental in the Turkish doctrine as envisioned by the Justice and Development Party.

* The relationship with Iran’s government and with Iran’s people is also part of the new formula. Indeed, Erdogan had in the past made sure to give Iran the space to use pretexts and elude challenges, as well as protection from pressures and requirements. Today the situation is different. There are indications of another spring on the Iranian scene. And Ankara is trying to prepare itself for another surprise, one that could do away with the very basis of its old policy.

Sudan: Uncertain Times Ahead

By Amir Taheri 
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 13/05/2011 

Who is next? People are asking this question with reference to the current tsunami of Arab revolts.

In less than six months, virtually all Arab military-security regimes have been either toppled or plunged into crises with unpredictable outcomes.

So far, one such regime has managed to avoid the tsunami: that of General Omar Hassan al-Bashir in Sudan.

On Monday, the division of Sudan became official with the south, based on Juba, emerging as a new independent country. The split will come into full effect in July.

Bashir must have hoped that letting the south go would enable him to consolidate his power in Khartoum at least until 2014. He has said he would not seek re-election after that, although few would believe him.

However, what looks nice and easy on paper may turn out different in reality. The split could produce one of the biggest "population exchanges" ever seen in Africa.

On Monday, almost 1.5 million southerners living in north Sudan officially became "aliens". At the other end of the bargain there are perhaps 300,000 northerners in the south whose status remains unclear. Large numbers of people in the so-called "marginal areas" may also be forced to move in either direction. The "population exchange" and the resettlement costs could run into billions of dollars with a negative impact on the economies of both the south and the north.
In any case, once a system suffers a fracture, other fractures will almost inevitably follow.

This is what is happening in al-Bashir's Sudan.

The first fracture is taking shape within the ruling elite, now more narrowly based than ever.
It seems that three factions, with rival strategies, are emerging.

The first faction's strategy is based half on hope and half on fear.

The hope is that, with the "thorn" of the south removed, the regime would be able to "finish" the anemic opposition and consolidate its hold on power.

The fear is that any attempt at reform could trigger the kind of uprising that has shaken other despotic Arab regimes.

Backed by security services, this faction is led by al-Bashir himself, with presidential advisor Nafie Ali Nafie as its war-horse.

The second faction, led by Vice President Ali Osman Taha, wants the ruling machine, the National Congress Party (NCP) to promote a dialogue with opposition parties in the hope of co-opting some and neutralizing others.

A Machiavellian of the first-order, Taha also harbours thinly disguised presidential ambitions of his own. He is a man whose handshake is always accompanied with a hidden knife in the other hand. He betrayed his original patron Hassan al-Turabi, and would think nothing of feeding al-Bashir to the wolves, if and when necessary for the advancement of his own career.

It is possible that al-Turabi, the regime's former sevengali and now an opponent, has ties with this faction.

The third faction, backed by the party's middle cadres and, at least until recently led by Salah Gosh, seeks a less cynical response to the "Arab tsunami". The faction has harped on the idea of a "second republic" that would be based more on popular support than military backing.

The second fracture has a geographical expression. The south's split has whetted the secessionist appetite of other regions. Until a few years ago, no one cast a second look at the so-called "transitional areas" of Abyei, southern Korodfan and Blue Nile. The discovery of substantial oil reserves in these regions has transformed them into valuable real estate. That, in turn, has led to the emergence of secessionist groups who resent the NCP's brutal domination.

To the burgeoning secessionism of these regions we have to add the continuing war in Darfur among others. (The fight9ing in the East ahs calmed down, at least for the time being.)

The third fracture concerns the issue of identity. With southern Sudan going its way, the NCP claims that the remaining part of the country could assert an exclusive "Arab-Islamic" identity. That, in turn, means the imposition of the Shariaa as the country's only legal framework.

Many Sudanese, however, feel uncomfortable with the arbitrary nature of a scheme that ignores the complexities of Sudan as a cocktail of Arab, African, Islamic and secular identities.

In any case, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 envisaged a series of measures intended to lead to democratic transition during a six-year interim period.

That interim period will end in July with Sudan nowhere near a democratic transition.

The fourth fracture could be detected in the very structure of the Sudanese state and army. In fact, President al-Bashir may have succeeded in dissolving the state structures and replacing it with a network of patronage developed through tribal links, personal loyalties and naked joint interests.

Today, governors of many provinces are acting as feudal warlords with largely nominal control from Khartoum.

At the same time corruption, partly fueled by oil income, is spreading to state structures at all levels. Compared to other African countries, Sudan once used to have a clean administration with a bureaucratic elite that had a sense of loyalty to the state rather than Mafia-style interest groups.

The gangrene of corruption has not spared the army whose top brass feel it is cheated out of their share of the booty by al-Bashir and his civilian network.

Paradoxically, the current configuration increases the possibility of a military coup. The top brass may want to air brush al-Bashir, who has an international arrest warrant dangling above his head, out of the picture so that they could reassert the army's dominant position in what is left of the country.

Amid all this, the opposition parties appear locked in a different time zone.

Their call for a constitutional review conference sound almost surrealistic. They do not realise that Sudan's political illness is too deep and too complicated to be treated with classical clichés.

These gentlemen are asking for a rearrangement of deck-chairs while the ship itself is sinking.

May be, Sudan does not only need a new ruling elite but also a new opposition.

And, that new opposition, as the experiences of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria has shown, could only come from the grassroots. Leaders of the various opposition parties are old and tired men, relics of another age. Though well meaning and respectable they cannot vocalise the new realities of Sudan's political life, let alone visualize a different future for the country.