Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ahmadinejad Has Fuelled Iran's Power Struggle

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disregard for the constitution has brought him up against both the supreme leader and parliament

By Massoumeh Torfeh
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 21/05/2011

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has named himself as caretaker oil minister. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters

This week the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took his challenge against the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to a new high by warning that Khamenei would be powerless without public support. "The leader's hands are tied without public support," Ahmadinejad told the state TV's channel 2. Questioning the sanctity of the supreme leader in this direct fashion goes against the grain of the Islamic republic, especially when uttered by the president and when it follows another episode of power struggle.

Ahmadinejad also confronted the conservative majority in parliament by rejecting its demand for a new committee to oversee the parliamentary elections due this winter. He insisted that no one other than the ministry of interior has the right to interfere in the elections.

In one week he reduced eight ministries to four, sacked four ministers, appointed a new deputy and named himself as caretaker oil minister without the due parliamentary procedures or consultation with the leader.

This escalating confrontation between the president and the leader on the one hand, and the president and the parliament on the other is causing new cracks at the leadership level, effectively creating a three-tier system. It is also causing further friction in conservative ranks, creating three major camps and several splinter groups.

The controversial Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, his main adviser and confidant, leads the president's team. They are the most rightwing conservatives; yet, because they are nonclerical and younger looking they seem bold in challenging the clergy.

Mashaei is demanding an "Iranian republic" rather than an "Islamic Republic" – apparently in an effort to attract the young who protested after the presidential elections of 2009. He presents himself as the theorist of a new school of thought praising the glories of Iran, and humanity, putting these above Islam.

On Wednesday he received authorisation to open a private university called the International Comprehensive University for Iranians – whatever that means. He is also said to be funding several new newspapers including the popular Haft e Sobh ("Seven in the Morning"). Designed to be modern and fashionable to appeal to the young, it covers gossip, music, film, cooking and sport. Yekshanbe Weekly and Tamasha daily are other papers launched allegedly by Mashaei who is keen on winning the youth vote in the presidential elections of 2013.

The conservatives are hitting back. They call Mashaei and his supporters the "misguided gang". Some like Faashnews ("Revealing News") close to Mohammad Hossein Safar-Harandy, a staunch supporter of the supreme leader, call Ahmadinejad and Mashaei "coup plotters". There are numerous articles in conservative papers accusing the group of being the new threat to the Islamic Republic. Even Ahmadinejad's guru, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, criticised him on Thursday for undermining the leader for the sake of this group, and for grooming Mashaei to be the next president.

Oblivious to the conservative backlash, the president strengthened his team on Thursday by appointing another controversial deputy, Ruhollah Ahmadzadeh-Kermani, a close associated of Mashaei.

The more serious confrontation is taking place in parliament where majority conservative MPs are calling on Ahmadinejad to justify what they term as his "illegal" decisions. The parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, has demanded that recent changes to the ministries must first be approved by the parliament.

The president is also being ridiculed for appointing himself as caretaker oil minister in order to chair the 159th Opec meeting due on 8 June in Vienna. Some 12 MPs listing 50 cases of president's disregard for the constitution are threatening impeachment and the powerful Guardian Council has branded his oil ministry move as "illegal".

What would tilt the balance is the support of the powerful Revolutionary Guards. The chief commander of Revolutionary Guards has refrained from taking sides. He has, however, expressed his dislike of the "misguided gang". "There are many insiders concealing their opposition to the leader," General Mohammad Ali Jafari told Fardanews. "If they dare reveal their views they will be defeated". In what appears like a friendly warning to Ahmadinejad, he said it was not clear why "a popular politician" should continue to provide cover for this divergent group.

Ahmadinejad has proved to be obstinate both at home and in international affairs. Yet, it is hard to see how he can muster the required political strength to fight both the supreme leader and the parliament, especially when the conservative majority and the almost all clergy are against him, and the Revolutionary Guards are sounding disapproval.

As for the public support he is so keen on, it is also hard to see the public going behind him in opposition to the leader. It is even less likely that the progressive young will be swayed by Mashaei's flirtations. They are highly sceptical of anyone connected to Ahmadinejad.

Instead they are watching and waiting for the conservatives to fight their way out. They know that casting the new Iranian political mould will not be done by anyone inside the Islamist regime.

Uneasy Times In Lebanon As Syrian Revolt Simmers

By Robert Fisk
This commentary was published in The Independent on 21/05/2011

The lovely northern Lebanese city of Tripoli should be a place of peace and happiness. But normal life is under threat from the turbulence across the border in Syria
The lovely northern Lebanese city of Tripoli should be a place of peace and happiness. But normal life is under threat from the turbulence across the border in Syria

If you want to discover the truth about Tripoli, you have only to visit the castle of Saint Gilles.

Instead of Crusaders, the Lebanese army is inside, and around the great 12th-century walls and at the massive doors, separating the Alawi Shias from the Sunni Muslims of Lebanon's second city. There are armoured vehicles, truckloads of troops and Humvees and coils of sparkling barbed wire in case Syria's violence slops over into its tiny neighbour. The Alawites have stocked up with weapons, they tell you – but this is unfair, because everyone in Lebanon has access to an automatic rifle or a pistol. The ghosts of the Lebanese civil war wake up regularly and haunt these people.
Take a visit to the Nini hospital and visit the underground surgery of former MP Mustafa Alouche, a bright, cheerful man who used to represent caretaker prime minister Saad Hariri's Future party – until, he says, the Syrians persuaded the Saudis to persuade Hariri to force him to step down. "The city is still very quiet," he says, "more than you would expect when you would imagine some people want to express their hatred of Syria. I'm not sure the Syrians will do anything, but if things get worse, civil war might happen – it might even end up like Libya."

The problem, of course, is that Tripoli is scarcely two hours' drive from the Syrian city of Homs. Many of its people have relatives over the border– this goes back to the days before the French mandate divided Syria and created Lebanon. The minority Syrian Alawites, to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs, and the majority Syrian Sunnis are represented in this lovely Lebanese city with its fine clock-tower, its wonderful mosque and souk, its ancient, rusting steam locomotives and the finest ice-cream shop in the Levant. It should be a place of happiness rather than fear.

Alouche, who is a general surgeon, says that the quiet here is "divinely controlled" – God might not like this task, I write in the margin of my notebook – but that "if there is an escalation in Syria, people are nervous that there could be some action by Sunnis in Tripoli against the Alawis. You know, when the Syrian army was in Lebanon, the Syrians used to interfere in every part of our life. I used to avoid meeting them. At one point, in 1999, they contacted me to be a 'collaborator'. They said that Bashar al-Assad, who was on the way up, was a doctor and so was I. I said I did not want to go into politics under their support."
These are dangerous things for anyone to say these days and a friend has warned Alouche that his life may be in danger. "He says I am under threat, but I don't find real means to defend myself. I am working as a doctor." But he is not the only man who is concerned. Sheikh Da'i al-Islam al-Shahal leads the Institution of the Salafist Party in Lebanon, a big man in a white robe and a massive, equally white beard who was constantly threatened when the Syrian army and secret service were here from 1976 until 2005. He is just the kind of preacher whom their government likes to hold up as an "extremist" whom only the Baath party can handle.

"Most of the population of Tripoli are appalled at the bloodshed and oppression, the siege and invasion of the city of Deraa," he says. "We are neighbours of the Syrians and we have many social links with them. According to the Syrian regime, the opposition has gone out of control and become dangerous – but the regime has itself brought about a catastrophe. I think they are nearing the end. They may try to hold on to power on the people's corpses – or the country will go down to division as Gaddafi has done."
It is the second time in an hour that Libya's tragedy has been evoked. "We and the people of Tripoli object deeply to the human rights violations that are occurring at the cost of lives and blood," Sheikh al-Shahal says. "It's a terror-security state. They have no friends, no true friends. They have only self-interest. I tried to mediate at Denniyeh [where armed Islamists and the Lebanese army fought a pitched battle over 10 years ago] but the Syrians refused my mediation – they preferred a confrontation so they could say 'the Lebanese can't control themselves, so how much they need us'."

Al-Shahal believes the Lebanese Alawis are being armed by Damascus – "they are selling themselves to their allies in Syria," he says, "but this does not stop us offering goodwill and giving our opinions without fear. What we seek is to reach a truce through dialogue and understanding." Al-Shahal is anxious to point out that the West misunderstands Salafism and its strict interpretation of the Koran. "We have nothing to do with violence and extremism."
But mention Osama bin Laden and he has strong views. "I think that his killing helped America but US losses will be greater," he says. "Maybe the new head of al-Qaeda will be much more brutal. And throwing his body in the sea, this is something the Arab and Muslim world cannot accept. Throwing him to the fishes shows a bitterness that does not befit human nature. Dignity should be shown to any dead person and Islamic principles say if you die on Earth, then a piece of the Earth is reserved for you. We have a saying that 'an excuse is worse than guilt'. What is wrong with people seeing where he is buried? Maybe they could have buried him on a far mountain where people would not go..."

I doubt that this would stop anyone visiting a Bin Laden grave, I say. But we part on good terms, some of the Sheikh's 10 children watching from the door of the kitchen. Oh yes, and the black-market price of an AK-47 rifle in Tripoli is now said to be $1,500. Like the fishes, food for thought.

Obama’s Power Was In The Idealism

 By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 21/05/2011
President Barack Obama’s speech on Thursday laying out the American government’s position on the Arab Spring and the Arab-Israeli conflict is a historic text that has the potential to do much good – if it proves to be a blueprint for policy-making rather than just a showcase for speechmaking.
The context and the content of the speech are both significant, and related.
The context is that Obama was speaking after decades of consistent and cumulative failure in U.S.-mediated peacemaking between Arabs and Israelis, and the massive deterioration of credibility, support and respect among public opinion and governments across the entire region, not only in the Arab world. Arabs, Israelis, Turks and Iranians have all resisted and defied American pressures, requests and cajoling in recent years, leaving the United States marginalized and disrespected across the region. It has immense power in all fields – but little impact when it uses that power.
Obama was also in a peculiar position of responding to the initiative that millions of ordinary Arabs had taken in launching citizen revolts against half a dozen Arab governments. No longer was the U.S. pointing the way, but rather it was following, and trying to catch up with, the lead taken by Arab men and women across the region who have defined the new ground rules of citizenship, statehood, power and governance. Free Arabs in recent months were setting the stage for a confused America.
In this context, the content and substance of Obama’s speech were important, for three main reasons. First, his use of the phrase “self-determination” to describe what ordinary Arabs were doing in their revolts against autocracy and police states is a profound advance on previous vacillating American responses to the current Arab Spring. There is no ambiguity in “self-determination,” a phrase that has political as well as legal connotations.
Second, Obama also made it clear that the right to live in freedom and democracy – to be a self-determinant citizenry – is a universal right that should be enjoyed by Bahrainis who are strategically close to the U.S. as well as by Libyans and Syrians who are not. He affirmed, as he should have, that freedom is indivisible, as it indeed is.
The American president is not the purveyor of self-determination to nations and peoples; but this universal quest is significantly boosted if the U.S. president positions his country as standing squarely behind the struggle of all freedom-loving men and women, regardless of which country they live in. In truth, we should not expect more from Obama than what he gave us: to state explicitly, without hesitation or exception, that the U.S. supports a set of core rights of freedom, democracy, security, economic prosperity and the rule of law; and that it supports them for all people, not only some people as was the case in the past.
Obama’s noting that the legitimacy of governments derives from the freedom and self-expression of its citizens was a very welcomed position – but it will have practical meaning only if the U.S. government now puts its policies where its mouth is.
The third important if slightly nuanced point in his speech was the position he staked out for the U.S. government on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. He did not lay down radical new policies, but he provided important new space in some pivotal areas, and emphasized vital principles in a manner that took on new meaning because it came from the president one day before meeting the Israeli prime minister.
The new space relates to how the U.S. and others will deal with the Hamas-Fatah unity government in Palestine. He left open the possibility that this government could be a partner for negotiations, if it provided answers to legitimate questions the Israelis raise about how they can be expected to negotiate with a party (Hamas) that rejects them and tries to destroy them. He also said the Quartet (the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia) must exert new efforts to get beyond the impasse of the stalled negotiations – and thus he explicitly refused to repeat the Quartet demands of Hamas which are not matched by parallel demands from Israel.
In both cases, Obama rejected the Israeli demands that a blanket veto be placed on contacts with Hamas, and left open the possibility – indeed, the suggestion, I would say – that fresh thinking, flexibility and rational clarity from Israel, the Palestinians and the Quartet alike could break the stalemate and move toward the goal of two states living in peace.
The president’s comments on the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations, and the need for sovereign, secure states in Israel and Palestine as the ultimate goal of negotiations, were bolstered by his proposal to make agreement in principle on the issues of security and territory the foundation for more complex negotiations on resolving the refugees and Jerusalem issues.
Obama’s retreating from the Washington pro-Israel lobby’s zealotry on boycotting Hamas and the unity government in favor of a more balanced and rational approach to negotiating with any party advocating peaceful conflict-resolution effectively breaks away from the traditional Israeli right wing’s dominance over Washington’s Middle East policies. In this respect, it is a form American self-determination We will see if this newfound American Spring lasts, and moves ahead in tandem with the Arab Spring.
Barack Obama has made a powerful and constructive speech, showing that he is prepared to line up with the Arab and universal struggle for freedom, and to break free from a chronically failed approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking while opening spaces in which new approaches might be explored.

Hypocrites Rush To Condemn Bahrain

Khalaf Al Habtoor writes: The rulers and the peoples of the Gulf are more than capable of sorting out their own problems
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 21/05/2011

Now I've really seen it all. It's bad enough that Western countries — those same Western countries that launched wars of aggression on Iraq and Afghanistan — have been putting out holier than thou statements regarding Bahrain, the Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr has got in on the act. I'm amazed at the sheer audacity of the man.

In the first place, he's been staging rallies all over Iraq from Mosul to Basra supposedly in support of the Bahrain people suffering from ‘oppression' — or in other words inflaming tensions between the Bahrainis and their government. And then, after trying to stir things up, he feigns concern at the situation, announcing approvingly that the Qatari Emir Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani "has promised to mediate a solution to the crisis in Bahrain and that he would personally meet with Arab presidents and kings to resolve this crisis."

If Al Sadr was so interested in peaceably resolving the crisis then why is he going out of his way to pour fuel on the embers? Al Sadr may be Iraqi but, in fact, he's Iran's man and has no business meddling in the affairs of GCC states. Lest we forget, it's worth reiterating that Al Sadr's Shiite militia the Mahdi Army is responsible for the deaths of thousands during 2006-2007 when sectarian conflict was at its peak in Iraq. The Mahdi Army was considered so ruthless that a Pentagon report described it as a greater threat to Iraq's security than even Al Qaida in Iraq.

At one time, an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant in Al Sadr's name for the murder of a moderate Shiite leader that was quashed by the US under the conditions of a negotiated truce. In 2008, Tehran persuaded Al Sadr to relinquish control of Basra in favour of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government when he promptly travelled to Iran ostensibly to study in the Iranian city of Qom announcing he hoped to become an ayatollah. He returned to his homeland when Iran brokered eight seats in the Iraqi parliament for his bloc.
Al Sadr's role

Given that Iran is the premier instigator of Bahrain's current troubles, Al Sadr's ‘peacemaking' is highly suspect. It's not difficult to know where Tehran stands. Just turn to the country's English-language news network Press TV to get the message loud and clear; it's the only satellite channel that has rolling negative news slamming Bahrain's rulers as well as Saudi Arabia for helping secure the Gulf island state.

Just last week, Iran's Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami demanded Saudi Arabia withdraw its forces from Bahrain while urging Bahrainis to "stand up and resist. Know that victory is yours." At the same time Iranian clerics in Qom were chanting "Death to the House of Saud", "Death to the House of Al Khalifa". How those people think they can get away with such blatant hypocrisy is mind-blowing when Iranian dissidents are routinely arrested, beaten, even killed. In February, thousands of Iranian government supporters were chanting for the execution of opposition leaders. Someone should tell the mullahs that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

In reality, neither Al Sadr nor his robed colleagues in Qom care about the well being of the Bahraini people. Their real goal is to expand Iran's influence in the Gulf, which the overthrow of the Bahraini monarchy for a Shiite-controlled government would facilitate. Iran has made territorial claims on Bahrain in the past and last month, the Chief of Staff of Iran's Armed Forces General Hassan Firouzabadi really let the cat out of the bag. "The Persian Gulf has always, is and shall always belong to Iran," he said.

Internal vigilance

That shocking statement from such a prominent Iranian military figure was denounced by the Secretary-General of the GCC Dr Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani as an aggressive indication of Iran's expansionist ambitions. "The Gulf belongs to all states on its shores, and Iran has no right to claim otherwise as it owns nothing from the Gulf but its territorial waters," he said, calling the general's remarks ‘irresponsible' and warning of their negative effect on Iranian-GCC relations. No one welcomes tanks patrolling the streets of Manama. But as long as Bahrain has such an avaricious, meddling neighbour, Bahrain's government has to remain vigilant against those within who would like nothing more than to hand over Bahrain to Tehran's keeping. Moreover, Bahrain is too small to have the luxury of tolerating riots that erode its reputation of being a secure and stable place to do business.

Permitting anarchists to bring Bahrain to the edge of chaos would have been detrimental to the majority of peace-loving Bahrainis appreciative of their high standard of living but also to the security of the Gulf as a whole. The crackdown isn't something the Bahraini authorities wanted but unless they were prepared to gift wrap their country for the mullahs, they had no choice. Any Iranian military or civil presence in Bahrain which borders Saudi Arabia would be a provocation potentially destabilising the entire region.

If Al Sadr is at a loss for something useful to do, he should stay focused on Iraq's problems or get involved in Iran's. They have enough to keep him busy for the next 50 years. The rulers and the peoples of the Gulf are more than capable of sorting out their own.

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

Egypt Judiciary is'Independent'

By Ahmed al-Jarallah
This commentary was published in The Arab Times on 21/05/2011

Everybody knows that the great Egyptian judiciary has been maintaining its independence since ages. It ignores the ranting of people and depends only on documental evidence, because public outcries are led by emotion and ignore evidence and proof. Therefore, everybody is assured that the great judiciary will never deviate under any circumstances and also not give in to public outcry, no matter how loud the noise.

Many people have been speculating about the possible amount of wealth in possession of those in detention while the investigation is still going on. Some of them do not have proof, but revelations from the judge, whose ruling will be final, paint a different picture. The masses do not possess the authority to pre-judge a person, a leader, a minister or businessperson. We want to clarify here that we are not using this medium to defend former president Hosni Mubarak, his wife and children or any Egyptian or non-Egyptian minister or businessman for that matter.

Some people are possibly unaware that businessmen seize opportunities and expand their operations. This they do by employing thousands of people who in turn activate economic activities in their countries. Businesspeople seize opportunities to avoid getting into the hands of neophytes. If there is any lapse in this aspect, people should blame those who did not take the lapses into consideration rather than disrupting projects and making people jobless. We should not call those who lose sleep to develop projects as thieves stealing national wealth. Such behavior violates principles of sound economic transactions. Moreover, heeding to public outcries or doing anything outside the constitutional axis will impede efforts to restore Egypt’s old glory.

Turmoil usually leads to the unknown and is capable of destroying the economy of the country. Egyptian military leader Hussein Al-Tantawi, in his last speech, indicated that Egypt is moving in that direction. The man has been telling the public that the recent development had knocked confidence in the national economy and aggravated the crises.

Coming back to the Egyptian judiciary, we know that it is independent and deals with people fairly. Public outcry never determines the course of judgment. We agree that the populace has the right to demand reforms, but they should realize that anybody who expects loyalty should also be loyal. They should understand that Egyptian judiciary is as solid as a rock and does not pass judgments based on external outcry.

According to our ancestors, the plaintiff and the defendant always hold contrary opinions about the judge. One supports the judge, while the other opposes, but he shouldn’t stand by any of them. In fact, justice and the Constitution should show him the way out. He remains the custodian of justice, with a firm belief in the fact that butter will dry but what benefits human beings remains on ground forever.

A Syria War Or US-Iranian Negotiation?

By Walid Choucair
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 20/05/2011

When Palestinian young people broached the fence that divides Syria and the occupied Golan Heights last Sunday, one of them – Hussein Hijazi (among others) – reached the Golan. There, he took a bus with peace activists to Haifa, to see his family home. The story filled the pages of newspapers the next day, and the symbolism of the incident prompted many people, including Israelis, to think about the deep meaning behind it.

The Israeli media drew conclusions from what took place on the Golan, the fence dividing the Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras from occupied Palestine, the Qalandia checkpoint, and other places where people marched to commemorate the right to return by Palestinian refugees. The Israeli media concluded that the Arab revolution was knocking on the doors of Israel, while it was also natural for others to conclude that because Hussein Hijazi managed to reach and cross the occupied Golan, this meant that any Syrian resistance activity to liberate the Golan could end the disengagement agreement signed in 1973. The movement on the Golan front, after nearly 40 years of quiet, was a new element, which set off warning bells for the Israelis and other concerned countries in the international community.

However, the symbolism of this incident is linked, in another way, to the crisis that the region is now experiencing. The Syrian message, as many in international circles understood it, was that Damascus is able to rock the stability of Israel if the international community escalates its pressure on the regime, as part of the domestic crisis that Syria is experiencing, amid continuing protests and a crackdown against them by the regime of President Bashar Assad. Syria might shake Israel's stability, even if the regime is forced to wage war, and even if it comes out a loser, by the standards of the military balance of forces, as a way out of its domestic crisis. This option is being discussed quite a bit, if these international pressures, along with the actions by the domestic opposition, put the regime in a difficult position.

This war might take different forms, such as operations against the Israeli occupation instead of a traditional type of war. However, the decision to wage such a conflict is not possible unless the Lebanese front joins the confrontation against Israel, if developments continue. This requires a decision by Hezbollah to wage this war, which will certainly follow a decision by Iran to undertake a "heavy-duty" policy in this regard, entailing an air bridge toward Syria and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, there are barriers to seeing the message of last Sunday go beyond mere symbolism. If the decision for a confrontation with Israel lies with Syria, Iran plays an important role in this decision; Syria has an eye on the developments in the struggle underway inside Iran, whether among conservatives themselves, or between the conservatives and the opposition, which has been dormant but not vanished. If the confrontation goes as far as war, and is a decision by Iran, via Hezbollah, the latter will not want war and will seek to avoid it, in view of its cost for the party and for Lebanon. The Iranians are anxious about the domestic situation in Syria, just as Syria is anxious about Iran's domestic situation. Moreover, Tehran is focused on limiting the losses to its Gulf policy, especially in Bahrain, by trying to normalize relations with Gulf countries as a result of the decisive stance by the Gulf Cooperation Council on Iranian intervention in its affairs.

Iran is not known for being hasty in such situations, especially in light of the fact that Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Khameini is winning out over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the struggle over the reins of power. Iran is undertaking a thorough review of developments in the region and of the emerging situation in Syria, which is difficult for Tehran to consider, as in the past, a key part of its plan in the region, without this meaning a lack of support for its ally in Damascus.

It is likely that "wisdom" that characterizes Iranian calculation might take Tehran toward a totally different policy – negotiation and opening channels of communication with the West and the United States, instead of heading toward confrontation and war.

The Arab Spring And The Sudanese Summer

By Osman Mirghani
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 21/05/2011

Is Sudan safeguarded from the "Arab Spring"? Is the current Sudanese regime immune to uprisings and revolutions?

This question has been asked repeatedly following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the protests spreading to other countries in the region, particularly since Sudan is witnessing a number of problems, most importantly the consequences of Southern Sudan's secession, the ongoing war in Darfur, and the deteriorating economic situation in the country which means that [national] insolvency is looming on the horizon. In addition to this, the Sudanese people tasted popular revolutions and uprisings a long time prior to the Arab Spring, namely the October 1964 revolution, and then later the April 1985 revolution. Therefore, the Sudanese people have always been prime candidates to rise up against despotic rule and security suppression, whether this was a purely military rule, a military rule in civilian clothing, or a coercive civilian rule under the banner of the "one party." From this point of view, many people within and beyond the Arab world are wondering how Sudan, to a large extent, has remained outside of the sphere of Arab revolutions, and whether the al-Bashir regime has succeeded in taming the people, and conclusively eliminating the opposition, or whether it has managed to form a popular base that prevents the outbreak of a significant uprising against the regime.

The reality is that the Sudanese government's approach to the "Arab Spring" and the statements issued by Sudanese officials over the past three months reflect a deep sense of concern about the possibility of Sudan contracting this contagion, even if the regime is trying to play down and deny that Sudan is being affected by what is happening in the region. When the Egyptian revolution was reaching a climax in the final days of January, the Sudanese regime imposed a complete blackout on news of this revolution, as if it were happening on another planet, not in a neighbouring country that shares borders and a long history with Sunday. The people [of Sudan] had to watch what was happening [in Egypt] on Arab and foreign satellite television channels because the official Sudanese media was not allowing people to keep abreast of the latest developments, which is something that the entire world was closely monitoring. When a group of young Sudanese, inspired by what was taking place in their northern neighbour, took to the streets to demonstrate and call for change, the regime responded with a violent crackdown, utilizing its brutal security machinery which it had hardened over the past 21 years, in order to protect itself against any popular uprisings or military coups.

After the Mubarak regime had been ousted, al-Bashir flew to Cairo to "welcome" the new regime, and the Sudanese foreign minister issued a statement saying that the relations between the two countries had entered a new phase of cooperation. After this, the figures within the Khartoum regime began to talk about "integration" and the unity of the Nile Valley, knowing that Islamists within the al-Bashir regime had been repeating this line and fervently hoping to extend their influence by strengthening relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the coming period. The Khartoum regime, which is looking for a way to renege on its commitment to Southern Sudan's secession by focusing on the talk of implementing Islamic Sharia Law and the establishment of an Islamic republic, does not view a democratic or post-revolutionary Egypt as a natural ally, unless of course their aspirations towards seeing the Muslim Brotherhood strengthen their presence in any future Egyptian government is realized. At the very least, Khartoum can hope to neutralize Cairo by talking about the "integration" initiative, in the same manner as the Nimeiry regime did in the past. For in reality [former Sudanese president] Gaafar Nimeiry was looking for political support for his regime, rather than genuine economic and social integration [with Egypt]. Of course, this is a Machiavellian perspective that is not so far removed from the approach of this Sudanese regime which came to power by staging a military coup against a democratic regime and which since then has ruled the country with an iron fist.

Despite the changes taking place in its two neighbouring countries (Egypt and Libya), and in another nearby country (Yemen), as well as in allied country (Syria), the Sudanese regime is refusing to learn any lessons. It is continuing, until now, to bet on the iron fist, and on eliminating and marginalizing other forces. The hawks have gotten rid of all the figures within the regime who want to hold dialogue and reconcile with the opposition, something that would lead the country towards genuine democracy and [political] pluralism, putting an end to the autocratic period and resulting in a peaceful transition of power. Over the past few weeks, the Sudanese people have been monitoring a battle that has come into the public view, between two of the President's aides, over the issues of an economic open-door policy and dialogue with opposition parties. Prior to this, the people had monitored the statements made by presidential aide Nafie Ali Nafie, one of the regime's most prominent hawks, during which he described the opposition forces as being "parties subject to [foreign] embassies" and said that the opposition was deluding itself if it believed that the revolutions that had erupted in other Arab countries would strengthen their position in Sudan or bring them to power. Nafie, who is a security figure lacking in political flexibility, said that he believed that Sudan – under its present regime – had "inspired" the region's people to rise up "after they witnessed the dignity with which the Sudanese people are living in by refusing to submit."

What "dignity" is this that has inspired the Arab people? Is it the dignity seen in the division of one's homeland or the ongoing Darfur war? Is it the dignity which resulted in the spread of corruption and prejudice, and the country being run as if it were a private company, with the revenue solely being passed on to the regime's supporters?

Sudan is in for a hot summer, especially as Southern Sudan's secession is officially taking place in July, and there is heightened tension over contact lines and shared borders. The [Sudanese] regime has even failed in managing the secession process. In other words, it has failed in handling a failure, and did not achieve the long sought after peace. In fact, there is still a chance of war being renewed with the South, amidst the ongoing problems and escalating rhetoric. This coincides with the possibility of further escalation with regards to the Darfur War and the aggravated economic problems in northern Sudan, with the country losing a huge percentage of its oil revenue [due to the secession of the south]. All of this means that Sudan remains within the sphere of influence of crises, and is not immune to the repercussions of the "Arab Spring', even if these are coming late. As the people of Sudan say, there is no spring in Sudan, it is either hot or boiling.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Old Bear Of The Assad Regime Is Falling

Syria's people no longer fear the state violence machine. The only legitimacy they will accept now is from the ballot box

By Ali al-Hajj
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 19/05/2011

Syria's president Bashar al-Assad
Syria's president Bashar al-Assad is coming under increasing pressure to resign. Photograph: Khaled Al-Hariri/Reuters
These days wherever you go on the streets of old Damascus you can hear whispers anticipating the fall of the Assad regime. No one knows how. No one asks how.

This was, for decades, the capital of Syria's silent republic. When you visit former ministers and businessmen close to the regime, you feel as if you are in a fantasy scene on a famous Syrian TV drama. The theatrics have succeeded in convincing the Arab world that terrorist extremists have infiltrated anti-government protesters, but they have failed to persuade the children of Deraa of that.

The stooges tell you they are against the security forces' harsh tactics, and criticise the repression of the protesters. Yet at the same time they are convinced that the Syrian regime is based upon a nonnegotiable and fundamental philosophy: that of the iron fist. Political reform would require that the Assad regime unclench that fist, thus weakening itself and accelerating its collapse.

Some of these regime figures have known first-hand how the west thinks. Some have served long years as ambassadors for Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar. They will tell you clearly: we know that the west is not merely toying with the regime, its pressure is not without weight, and President Assad is mistaken if he thinks he will survive on this path. Some express regret at the years of effort spent building Syria's international relations, which have now been laid to waste.

Syria's people face that most violent and bloodthirsty of Middle Eastern regimes, yet take to the streets every Friday with bare hands and chests, affording tanks and snipers a simple chance to shoot to kill. The people defy all the complex and carefully organised regulations put in place by the Assad regime to prevent demonstrators from reaching squares, and to forestall the emergence of an equivalent to Cairo's Tahrir Square.

The Syrian people think the time for change has come, and they cannot go back. They do not fear the state violence machine. They will not accept reforms promised by a regime in broad daylight, then disregarded come nightfall. All credibility and legitimacy has been lost.

At last, the only legitimacy acceptable to the people of Syria is that to emerge via the ballot box. When you ask Syrians about the west's stance, they tell you there is no doubt: the civilised world will not leave them isolated; international legitimacy is the strongest path now; and the interests of the west lie in a democratic, peaceful Syria that endeavours for scientific, economic, and societal development.

In other words, the complete opposite of the current situation, which is based on meddling in the world affairs and extorting governments.

We cannot analyse the situation in Syria without observing the full picture, and without being careful not to gloss over details. A complete portrait embraces Syria's internal situation, the options for neighbouring and regional states, and the western stance. In its various shades and tones, this scene portrays the fate of the Assad regime as an aging bear, born in March 1963, now falling from the uppermost branches of the tree.

The world tries to slow the fall, so as to soften the blow and avoid an explosion in the region. Not only is there Turkey and the Kurdish question; Lebanon and the contradictions of Sunni, Shia, Christian and Druze; Iraq, Jordan and their tribal, ethnic and religious overlaps with Syria; but also Israel, which no longer trusts a regime that subjects its people to all forms of violence and lawlessness.

• This article was commissioned and translated in collaboration with Meedan.

Putting America On Democracy's Side

In his Mideast speech, President Obama rejected Bush's blind allegiance to Israel and put himself squarely on the side of human rights.

By Peter Beinart
This commentary was published in The Daily Beast on 20/05/2011

Can we now, after the president’s Thursday Mideast speech, finally stop calling Barack Obama a “realist?” Please. Ever since he emerged on the national stage more than three years ago, commentators have been claiming that Obama—unlike George W. Bush—places national interest, not human freedom, at the heart of his foreign policy. That narrative began with a wild misreading of Bush, the president who deepened America’s ties to a bevy of oil-rich tyrannies, especially in Africa; bear-hugged Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf; conducted business as usual with China; encouraged Fatah strongmen to try to militarily topple the Hamas government Palestinians elected in 2006; welched on U.S. commitments to build a functioning democracy in Afghanistan and, oh yes, oversaw the torture of terror suspects on at least three continents.

Obama, by contrast, was a “realist” because he opposed invading countries and toppling their governments in order to install democracy. But by that standard, all American presidents are realists, since rarely has America ever toppled governments to install democracy. Democracy has at times been the byproduct of our wars, but their rationale has almost always been security, including in Iraq, where freedom was an afterthought in Bush’s biggest pre-war speeches until it turned out Iraq contained no WMD. (Even America’s recent humanitarian interventions—Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya—have aimed at saving lives, not installing democracy).
The real difference between Obama and Bush is that Obama actually is what Bush said he was: a moral universalist. Bush’s universalism was mostly a mask for his Manichaeism. For him, a country’s human-rights record was largely a function of its acquiescence to American power. Thus, oppressive anti-American regimes and movements like Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas were rightly denounced. But when governments lined up on America’s side in the “war on terror”—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt—they suddenly became “moderates,” as if that was a moral category rather than geopolitical one. This conflation of geopolitical categories with moral ones has a long history on the American right: think of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous claim that America’s anticommunist friends were merely “authoritarian” and therefore morally superior to the Soviet Union’s, which were “totalitarian.” But it reached its apex in the Bush administration, which deemed Israel—because it is America’s democratic ally—virtually incapable of violating human rights, even in the West Bank, where it is not a democracy. The more strongly a country backed America’s wars, the less Bush’s freedom talk applied to it, which helps explain why, when it came to the United States itself, Bush acted as if violating human rights was something America did not—indeed, could not—do.

The striking, inspiring thing about the revolutions in the Middle East is their genuine universalism. For the most part, the protesters don’t seem to care whether the governments oppressing them are theocratic, secular, or monarchical, pro-American, anti-American, or somewhere in between. They want them out. That’s part of why the American right—which still habitually conflates universal morality and American power—has found the demonstrations so befuddling. They want Obama to embrace nonviolent antigovernment protest in Iran and Syria, because those regimes are hostile to the U.S., but not necessarily in Egypt and Bahrain, and certainly not in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—even though these movements are all part of an organic whole.
Obama draws distinctions too, of course. He didn’t nudge Saudi Arabia toward reform in his speech (although he didn’t use the specter of Iranian power as an excuse for Saudi tyranny either). Still, by jettisoning Bush’s “us versus them” framework—by not pretending that the line dividing Middle Eastern freedom and Middle Eastern tyranny is coterminous with the line dividing America’s friends and enemies—he put America genuinely on democracy’s side. He demanded change not only in Iran and Syria, but in U.S. allies like Yemen and Bahrain as well, and in so doing differentiated himself from the thugs in Tehran, who in a reflection of their own “us versus them” hypocrisy, demand freedom in Sana while abetting wholesale slaughter in Damascus.

By embracing all—rather than only some—of the Arab spring, Obama also powerfully distanced himself from Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who supports Arab democracy so long as it never impairs his ability to forestall Palestinian democracy. Obama spoke strongly about Israeli security, and he has backed up those words by helping Israel build its potentially revolutionary antimissile defense system, Iron Dome. But when it came to a Palestinian state, he put more distance between himself and Netanyahu than he has since he lost the settlements fight. First of all, he called for a “contiguous” Palestinian state, something Netanyahu has never endorsed—a principle that if taken seriously would require Israel to dismantle not merely small, remote settlements, but large ones like Ariel, which Netanyahu has called “the heart of our country.” He said there could be no permanent Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, something Netanyahu demanded as recently as this week. And although he said “Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer” to Israeli anxieties about negotiating with Hamas given its refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist, he didn’t repeat the Quartet (read: Bush administration’s) demand that Hamas accept all past peace agreements as a precursor to any negotiations. In other words, he didn’t say the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation makes peace impossible, as Netanyahu will likely do when he addresses AIPAC next week. That’s particularly important given the overall thrust of Obama’s speech, because reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is the only path back to free elections throughout the Palestinian territories. Which is to say: Obama put himself on the side of Palestinian democracy, too.
All this may not matter as much as we’d like. American power has declined in the Middle East, in part because of the financial crisis, in part because other powers have gained strength, in part because we are militarily bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, in part because we have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program and in part because Obama could never bend Netanyahu to his will. Even the Palestinians—long the weakest player in the region—seem to be pursuing a strategy based on a post-American world. People in the Middle East don’t listen to American speeches like they once did.

Still Obama allied America with those Arabs and Iranians thirsting for freedom, and he did so in a subtle but remarkable way. He invoked, as he so often does, the civil-rights movement. Not World War II, where American power served the cause of freedom. Not the Cold War, where American power did as well, at least in Europe. But the civil-rights movement: where an oppressed people struggling for freedom confronted American power, and won. It’s a more subversive analogy than we generally acknowledge, and one that should make everyone battling oppression in the Middle East—in Sana, Damascus, Cairo, Tehran, and Ramallah, too—smile.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His latest book is The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Zoning Out Nukes In The Middle East

By Kevin Martin
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 20/05/2011 

Deterrence is the officially stated reason that the United States maintains a nuclear arsenal of over 9,000 total warheads. The other nuclear weapons states have more or less adopted deterrence theory as their own. The basic tenet of deterrence theory is that no rational leader would threaten the United States with a nuclear attack for fear that the United States would retaliate by obliterating its attacker.

Although the headlines coming out of the Middle East are about revolutions and repressions, nuclear weapons remain a key problem in the region. The nuclear issue that has gotten the most attention has been Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons any more than the current nuclear weapons states should. But military threats against Iran’s nuclear sites should be abandoned for a host of reasons (starting yet another war in the Middle East and killing more innocent civilians and further disrupting the world economy, just for starters).

However, Israel and the United States have consistently left open the threat of military action against Iran to stop its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapons capacity. But if deterrence theory applies,
Israel’s nuclear arsenal of at least 200 weapons, not to mention the much larger U.S. arsenal, should dissuade Iran from launching any nuclear attacks of its own.

The only reason that deterrence theory might not apply is that Iran’s ruling mullahs are somehow irrational and therefore can’t be deterred like the “rational” rulers of other countries. That’s just plain wrong. They, along with other allegedly “crazy” regimes such as those in Libya, Burma, and North Korea) act rationally to maintain their power. We may not like the decisions they make, but they are quite rational actors of self-preservation.
Zoning Out Nukes

The point is not to somehow shore up deterrence theory but to make it obsolete by pursuing the global elimination of nuclear weapons. In the Middle East context, a 2012 conference will be under the auspices of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to establish a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the region (similar zones are already in force in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and Antarctica). South and Southwest Asia are the only portions of the Global South not currently part of a NWFZ.
Perhaps ironically given the current situation and the fact its nuclear program at the time was receiving U.S. assistance, Iran was the first country to call for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in 1974. It still advocates for one, as do all the other countries in the region except Israel. But Israel's position is not entirely fixed. In September 2009, Israel supported an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution calling for such a zone. And rumors have arisen that Israel might participate in the conference, if only not to be seen as obstructionist. A WMD-Free Zone would surely benefit Israel, as it doesn’t want to see a nuclear arms buildup in the region.

The problem of nuclear weapons in the Middle East extends beyond just Israel and Iran. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and perhaps other countries in the region could go nuclear as well. A Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone, which appears unrealistic given Israel’s refusal to even officially acknowledge its nuclear arsenal and the U.S. support for this stance, would be much better than an unfettered nuclear arms race in the region. The new, more democratic governments that emerge from the current Arab Spring, to the extent that they are more transparent and accountable to their citizens than their predecessors, could help to address the challenging regional security issues.
Washington and the Zone

 It's unlikely that the United States, in a presidential election year, will engage the issue of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East in a frank manner. Indeed, the United States might set low expectations or provide leadership in convening the conference only to protect Israel. Still, international civil society groups and peace activists, including many from the region, are working to mobilize public support — either at the official conference or at a separate meeting — for establishing such a zone.
As the relative decline of U.S. power and the rise of other regional powers continue to shape a more multi-polar world, the United States and Israel cannot expect to continue to ignore the other countries in the region — and not just on this issue. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and regional security mechanisms must be strengthened, but not merely on U.S. and Israeli terms, as is now the case.

 The establishment of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East might have ripple effects for regional peace. The zone could provide a regional security confidence boost for Israel via increased transparency (and perhaps a decreased sense of isolation on Israel’s part). It would also bolster the effort to abolish nuclear weapons worldwide. This month, the Obama administration submitted two protocols establishing similar zones in Africa and the South Pacific to the Senate. Now it's time to turn to the Middle East, where a WMD-Free Zone could help avert awful alternatives — a potential Israel-Iran conflict, a regional arms race, or a catastrophic world war.
Kevin Martin is executive director of Peace Action and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. Founded in 1957, Peace Action (formerly SANE/Freeze) is the largest U.S. peace and disarmament organization.

The Middle East Crisis That Just Won't Go Away

Barack Obama may think that Israel and Palestine alone can end their decades of conflict, but the Arab Spring has changed the contours of any potential negotiations.

By Salman Shaikh
This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 20/05/2011

It is often said by people in the Middle East, especially Israelis and Palestinians, that "in the end, we always come back to the Arab-Israeli conflict." That is exactly what happened on Thursday, May 19, when U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a major policy speech at the State Department, introducing new principles for negotiations based on 1967 borders, and this past weekend, when at least 10 unarmed protesters were killed by Israeli fire on a day the Palestinians call the "Nakba," or "Catastrophe." The Arab-Israeli conflict is once again front and center.

But if the broad brush strokes of this story are by now painfully familiar, the context and the particulars of this week may point to a different kind of flare-up while the United States seeks to restart peace talks. There is, of course, the Arab Spring: The Palestinians see the new narrative of the Arab revolts for greater freedoms, justice, and equality joining their own decades-old search for the same, and for a state of their own. For Israelis, Sunday, May 15, was the day when the Arab awakening washed up on their own still provisional borders, reminding them yet again of how vulnerable they are and how isolated they have become.
Coordinated protests on Israel's 1949 armistice lines with Syria and Lebanon -- as well as in the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, and Jordan -- have alarmed many Israelis and raised concerns that Israel lacks the practical means to counter mass demonstrations in the future. In fact, only a heavy security presence near the Egyptian and Jordanian borders with Israel prevented protesters from besieging these areas as well. Israelis are realizing the tangible effects of a rapidly changing region in which old certainties are dying and fears of a return to conflict are revived.

Palestinian refugees, meanwhile, used the tools of today's revolutions -- the Internet in general and Facebook in particular -- to organize protests and assert their right to return to their homes in what is now Israel. An estimated 600,000 Palestinians are on Facebook in the West Bank and Gaza alone, and nearly one-third of them are thought to be politically influenced by social media. When Fatah and Hamas finally signed a reconciliation agreement two weeks ago in Cairo, they were responding in part to a campaign for Palestinian unity organized by Internet activists that had managed to mobilize thousands in both the West Bank and Gaza. Emboldened by these developments, activists are organizing more mass protests and marches to pressure Israel, the international community, and their own leadership as the Palestinian-imposed deadline for statehood approaches in September.
What made this year's Nakba Day all the more remarkable, though, were the events along the Syrian-Israeli de facto border. Thirty-eight years of near-total calm along the nearly 50-mile frontier were shattered as dozens of Palestinian protesters trampled their way through the security fence into the Israel-occupied Golan Heights. The event marked a failure for Israeli intelligence and the military and showed the impotence of the 1,250-member United Nations observer force established to monitor the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement. It also showed that Bashar al-Assad's Baathist regime is ready to export instability if necessary, especially to Israel; given the degree of restrictions on movement in the area, it is inconceivable that the protesters could have reached the security fence without the acquiescence and participation of the Syrian authorities and security forces.

With the situation in Syria likely to worsen in the weeks ahead, was the breach a power play from a regime determined to reinforce the point that only it can ensure stability? Or was this a means of diverting attention from Syria's own crackdown and bolstering Assad's credentials as a resistance regime against Israel? In fact, it was likely both. The move may have backfired, however, leading Israel's military to conclude that Assad and his regime cannot be relied upon to deliver calm along their sensitive border. With May 15's events, the assertion that only with Assad comes stability and after him there is chaos has already been turned on its head. This is the moment for the international community to send a clear signal that it will not tolerate being blackmailed by the Assad regime, especially when the region's stability and security are at stake.
Obama's speech on Thursday proved that American and Israeli leaders can put off talking about these issues, but not for long. The president's mention of the 1967 borders as a basis for talks with the Palestinians provoked a sharp response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even before he got on the plane to Washington, where he is due to meet with Obama May 20 and speak to a joint session of Congress on May 24. Netanyahu rejected Israel's withdrawal to such "indefensible" borders. As Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn opined in his recent editorial, Netanyahu's aim is to bolster Israel's defenses against the third intifada -- not present major concessions.

By offering ideas on future security arrangements for a demilitarized Palestinian state as well as borders, Obama has finally laid out parameters on two of the four main issues (the others being Jerusalem and refugees) of the conflict. He also stressed the importance of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state that borders Egypt and Jordan, but rejected the idea that Palestinians could establish a state through a vote at the United Nations in September.
The problem is that these ideas have come two years too late. The parties aren't speaking to one another, and their last attempt to do so only showed how far apart they are. There are also serious doubts as to whether the U.S. president has the political will and political strategy to push both Israelis and Palestinians as he campaigns for reelection. At best, Obama has pressed another reset button in order to start talks. He has not explained a clear way forward other than a vague call for the United States, the Middle East quartet, and Arab states "to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse." Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders, particularly President Mahmoud Abbas, feel freed by the Palestinian unity deal and will likely pursue their efforts for recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations if serious negotiations do not start soon -- despite Obama's explicit rejection of this move.

This year's changes in the Middle East and North Africa have had a profound impact on the prospects for peace in the region. The people of the Arab world are no longer willing to play by the old rules, in which peacemaking is determined by Israel's security concerns and the United States' electoral calendar. There is a growing impatience to ensure justice for the Palestinians and a state of their own. Serious moves are required, therefore, to establish two states, Israel and Palestine, this year. The situation requires a new international effort similar to the Madrid conference that followed the first Gulf War in 1991. Back then, it was U.S. leadership that brought new impetus to achieve peace between Arabs and Israelis. This time, clear parameters on borders and security arrangements, as presented by Obama on Thursday, as well as the other core issues, could provide the basis and impetus for a final-status deal.
Failing that, the relevance of both Israeli concerns and American efforts will continue to recede as the Palestinians seize the initiative in an environment dictated by Arab popular will. It promises to be a long, hot summer in the Middle East.

Salman Shaikh is director of the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He previously served as the special assistant to the U.N. envoy for the Middle East peace process.

Tunisia And Egypt Face Separate Paths Toward Democracy

By Alfred Stepan
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 20/05/2011
With protests fading in Tunis and seeming to have peaked in Cairo, it is time to ask whether Tunisia and Egypt will complete democratic transitions.
I have been visiting both countries, where many democratic activists have been comparing their situation with the more than 20 successful and failed democratic-transition attempts throughout the world that I have observed and analyzed.
One fear should be dismissed immediately: despite worries about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy, more than 500 million Muslims now live in Muslim-majority countries that are commonly classified as democracies – Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh, Senegal, Mali and Albania. But for almost 40 years, not a single Arab-majority country has been classified as a democracy, so a democratic transition in either Tunisia or Egypt (or elsewhere in the region) would be of immense importance for the entire Arab world.
Tunisia’s chances of becoming a democracy before the year ends are, I believe, surprisingly good. A key factor here is that the military is not complicating the transition to democracy. Tunisia has a small military (only about 36,000 soldiers), and, since independence in 1956, it had been led by two party-based non-democratic leaders who strove to keep the military out of politics. Moreover, the current civilian-led interim government engages in at least some negotiations about the new democratic rules of the game with virtually all of the major political actors who generated the revolution and who will contest the elections.
Tunisia’s interim government has announced that elections to a Constituent Assembly will be held on July 24, 2011, and, crucially, that as soon as the votes are counted, it will step down. As in the classic democratic transitions in Spain and India, the newly elected Constituent Assembly will have the responsibility of forming the government.
The Constituent Assembly will be free to choose a presidential, semi-presidential or parliamentary system. A consensus is emerging among political leaders to choose the same system as the 10 post-communist countries that have been admitted to the European Union: parliamentarianism.
Finally, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who leads the largest Islamic-inspired political party, Al-Nahda, went out of his way to tell me that he has signed an agreement with some secular parties that he will not try to change Tunisia’s women-friendly family code, the most liberal in the Arab world. While many party leaders do not fully trust Ghannouchi, they believe that in the new democratic environment, the political costs to Al-Nahda would be too great for it to risk trying to impose Islamic rule. They also increasingly believe that the most democratically effective policy toward Al-Nahda for secular parties is accommodation, not exclusion.
Democratization in Egypt in the long term is probable, but it does not share the more favorable conditions found in Tunisia. One of the biggest differences between the two countries is that every Egyptian president since 1952 has been a military officer. Eighteen generals lead the Post-Mubarak interim government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). They unilaterally issue statements about what they see as the rules of the game for future elections. Key civil-society and political actors repeatedly told me that they had little access to, and almost no politically serious negotiations with, the SCAF.
The clashes in Tahrir Square on April 9-10, in which two protesters died, were the most serious to date between activists and the army. The distance between the army and young democratic activists grew further on April 11, when a military court sentenced the first blogger since the fall of Mubarak to prison for criticizing the military.
In the SCAF’s March 30 “Constitutional Declaration,” it became absolutely clear that, unlike Tunisia, the Parliament to be elected in September will not form a government. Articles 56 and 61 stipulate that the SCAF will retain a broad range of executive powers until a president is elected. Instead of Parliament acting as the sovereign body that will write a constitution, Article 60 mandates that it is to “elect a 100-member constituent assembly.” The question now is how many non-elected outside experts will end up in this “constituent assembly” and how they will arrive there.
Of course, many still fear that Islamic fundamentalists will hijack Egypt’s revolution. But I see that as an improbable outcome, given the growing diversification of Muslim identities in the new context of political freedoms, secular parties’ efforts to keep the Muslim Brotherhood within electoral politics, and the profiles of the three leading presidential candidates, none of whom want the Egyptian Revolution to be captured.
In short, a successful democratic transition is possible in Tunisia, and not impossible in Egypt. That fact, alone, should bolster the hopes of Arab democratic activists elsewhere as well.
Alfred Stepan is a professor of government at Columbia University and the author, with Juan J. Linz and Yogendra Yadav, of the recently published “Crafting State Nations.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate-Institute for Human Sciences © (

The Magic Key

By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in Jordan Times on 20/05/2011

What is it about free Arabs that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other leading Western officials still do not fully understand or embrace?

I am troubled that every few months we hear a drumroll of anticipation building up to a moment when we are told to expect a defining speech or a new statement, or another initiative, or just a really heartfelt television interview in which the United States will clearly define its policy towards... well, towards many things - in fact, towards an entire, ever-changing constellation of moving targets in the Middle East that seem to deeply confound the United States government at the historic moment when Arabs en masse agitate for their own liberty and rights.

It is troubling to see those who claim to ring the bell of freedom for all humankind prove hesitant to apply a freedom-promoting and -supporting foreign policy across the entire Arab world.

This is not purely an American issue, to be fair, as Europeans, Turks and other freedom-loving democrats have also supported the Arab revolts for freedom and citizenship rights with selectivity and serial hesitancy.

Washington’s attitude to the Arab Spring reflects a wider problem across much of the Western world that I personally experience daily in my assorted discussions with journalists, officials, diplomats and researchers. It is the same old and ugly problem of double standards in many Western governments’ treatment of Arab issues.

In this case, the problem is simply that the epic Arab struggle for liberty, rights and dignity is perceived by many abroad as a television drama that is captivating, even thrilling - but one that remains peculiarly detached from the world of Western powers and, more importantly, remains beyond that realm of people, political movements and social forces that the West can embrace with the same clarity and force with which, for example, it embraced the Soviet dissidents in the 1970s and 80s.

The Arab citizen’s right to liberty is neither clear nor consistent in Western eyes. When it approaches the realms of Israel or oil, especially, Arab liberty becomes the victim and ward of greater Western interests.

I believe that Western powers and other global democracies should grasp and act on the basis of two cardinal points now that the Arab Spring has reached a critical turning point.

Tunisia and Egypt are transitioning to democracy, Libya and Yemen will do so within months, and struggles with undetermined outcomes are under way in Syria, Bahrain and, to a lesser degree, in Jordan, Morocco and Oman.

The first is to appreciate the Arab Spring as a long-term process, and not to recoil and then retrench in the company of known dictators and ruling thugs once the momentum for democratic change slows down.

The Arab Spring should be seen like its namesake, the Prague Spring of 1968: a historic outburst of long pent-up demands for citizen rights that finally break through in places but get repressed by a gun-wielding hard state in other places.

The Arab world is like the old Soviet Empire: the Hungarian Revolt in the mid-1950s, the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the 1980 Solidarity Movement in Poland, and the Russian dissidents throughout those decades ultimately peaked and broke through in 1989-90 to engineer the collapse of Soviet authoritarianism. That was a gradual but cumulative process, with several springs followed by terrible winters of repression, just as we witness across the Arab world today.

The second point is simply that, of all the alluring attributes of liberty, the most important one is that liberty is indivisible. That should form the foundation of American policy towards the Arabs who fight and die for their rights.

In his speech, Obama should not bore or insult us with what we all know and believe in. We don’t need lectures on the glory of Islam or the proud history of Arabs, or the shared benefits of quality education and liberal trade regimes. We don’t need lessons on the utility of free elections, accountability or constitutionalism.

We don’t need diversions into the crazed world of frenzied terrorist cults. We don’t need more pussyfooting baby steps by bewildered secretaries of state who ask Arab autocrats to please use a bit less force against their own people.

All we need from powerful Western democracies is a new level of courage, honesty and logical self-interest that allows them to declare openly and unequivocally: liberty is the birthright of all human beings, and the United States supports the absolute and undifferentiated right of all those who struggle for their rights to achieve and enjoy those rights, including Arabs, Iranians, as was the case with the Soviet dissidents back then.

Obama should proclaim that Washington will actively assist those who fight for their freedoms, and oppose those who deny such freedoms. He will find that the Arabs and others will then achieve their own liberty, just as the subjugated Soviet victims did.

There is a magic key waiting to be grasped, here for the joy and well-being of all, and it is the simple proposition that freedom is indivisible.

Why is that so hard for the self-proclaimed purveyors of freedom to grasp this idea and to make it the core of their foreign policy in the Arab world at a time when millions of Arabs are prepared to fight and die for this simple truth?