Saturday, June 4, 2011

Egypt Revolution Still Searching For Identity

By Gabriel G Tabarani

Next year, the Egyptian revolution will mark its sixtieth anniversary. We are of course referring to the coup d’etat led by Gamal Abdel Nasser on July 23rd, 1952 – whereby his Free Officer movement overthrew and expelled King Farouk. They subsequently established their republic to spearhead and finally deliver a long-held ambition: the creation of the "Arab Ummah" (Arab Nation), a single nation pan-Arab and united nation stretching "from the Gulf to the Ocean". This ideal of pan-Arabism, up to this point, had to endure marginalisation at the hands of the era’s Real Politik.

These dreamers came and went and were succeeded by Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak – ruling for eleven and thirty years, respectively. Mubarak having recently been ousted following an unprecedented uprising, started in al-Tahrir square, whose shock-waves continue to be felt across the Arab world up to now.

Following Nasser’s ideologically optimistic rule, the Sadat regime was defined by the establishment of a cadre of “fat cats” who gorged themselves on their nation’s wealth and the trappings of power. This system was replicated and refined further under the Mubarak regime, Mubarak having been Sadat’s vice-president and thus well versed on the abuse of authority for personal gain. The result: galloping population growth, rising illiteracy and increasing unemployment – all unwavering in their consistency.

Today, three-and-a-half months after the fall of the last of the modern-pharaohs, Egypt is still rife with uncertainty. Following the hedonism of revolution the mood is currently very sobering. Queries now focus on national identity; this is of vital importance to Egypt given its history as one of the great ancient civilizations, its role as a major regional political and military power and its current responsibility as a mirror to the broader Arab psyche.

Whilst Egypt asks itself these soulful questions, as well as coming up with an institutional frames upon which to establish them, the baltaguiya (loosely translated as vagabonds or thieves) of the Mubarak regime remain. All the while the Muslim Brotherhood has begun to emerge from the underground where it has hidden for nearly six decades. Furthermore and consequently, there are rising sectarian tensions; as demonstrated by the May 7th Imbaba events between Muslims and Coptic Christians – the two largest elements of Egypt’s religious jigsaw.

The above tensions are overlaid with the machinations of the latest demonstrations in Cairo’s al-Tahrir square (as well as other major cities across the country). These reflect the anxiety and uncertainty amongst the core-elements of the popular movement that led January’s revolution. Liberals, leftists and moderate activists feel that – thus far – the protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak have yet to achieve much: their demands are as yet almost entirely unfulfilled.

Aspirations to make Egypt a prosperous democracy are fading due to the inefficiency of the current, military led, interim administration. Despite its role in allowing the recent revolution to take place, the military is still tainted somewhat by association to the Mubarak era. The interim administration has to deal with, not only, traditional parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood but also more unpredictable elements such as comical old opposition groups, business interests that flourished under Mubarak and of course good old-fashioned tribal alliances.  

Despite these inherent challenges, Egyptians across the board are working out how to square their unique circle to ensure that diversity, tolerance, stability as well as progress and national identity are established and fostered. One hopes that, given the era of “strongmen” has passed its norms will soon too become history, replaced instead with a robust formula to allow the desires of Egypt’s modern revolutionaries to be fulfilled.

These challenges cause immense strain on the Egyptian psyche, like the cracking the seams of the corset too long imposed on the people. Egyptian society is very much faith based - and whilst Muslims and Copts still strive to present an image of a nation united by the slogans of its revolution – it is still a heavily fractured society. As sectarian as Bahrain or Syria, as tribal as Libya or Yemen and as religious divided as Sudan where Muslims and Christians are perpetually at each other’s throats. In all these comparative countries we see the spectre of a disastrous enterprise in “democratization” initiated by George W. Bush.

Support for Hezbollah in Egypt is low; one could even say that the group is unpopular. However, the Muslim Brotherhood has learnt valuable lessons from the Lebanese-paramilitary force in winning hearts and minds. In an article published by the New York times the new role assumed by the Muslim Brotherhood is discussed with a villager referring to an effective presence at all times: “They set the tents, he says, they provide free meals, medicines for patients etc....” What does this mean? Simply that the state is absent, sadly, replaced by a party that wants to be seen as interested in the needs of the people. Membership will come later, when those satisfied persons want to thank the Brotherhood for its generosity for giving them the most basic needs.

Whilst President Obama can deliver rhetoric about the billions needed to revive a sluggish Arabic economy, everyone knows that he is struggling to find the bottom of the abyss that is the US fiscal deficit. As such, this particular foreign policy conundrum will require his full arsenal persuasive powers to draw upon Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to provide the necessary stimulus – whether sufficient funds can be raised to effectively stimulate the Egyptian economy remains to be seen. However, this remains a vital step in legitimising whatever regime emerges following the interim administration as well as minimising groundswell support for ideologically and politically motivated groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt, and the Arab world with it, find themself at a crucial cross-roads where eventually a multitude of possibilities will have to collapse to form a single reality – and in a similar vein to a famously falsely attributed to André Malraux - "the twenty-first century will be religious or it will not be at all" as will Egypt and the Arab world have to decide to select national consciousness over sectarianism. 

In a similar vein, the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras commented (correctly in my eyes) that "nothing is born or perishes, but things already existing combine and then separate again." Translated into political-speak: everything is cyclical – structures and paradigms are established, decline and collapse only to be replaced with new ones. In the here and now, this means that the Arab world is beginning to dismantle the political, and potentially territorial, scaffolding created after the First World War. If this is the case, the ramifications for the region and the World generally will be immense.

The Momentous Return Of The Arab Citizen

By Rami G. Khouri  
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 04/06/2011 

Egyptians refer to their “revolution” in describing the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last February, and they revel in its continuing afterglow, appreciating how significant and satisfying was their deed.

The post-revolution phase under way in the country represents a more difficult challenge than the weeks of street demonstrations that sent Mubarak into retirement. He, his sons and some senior officials are detained and will soon be tried in court.
Everyone asks one question every day in Egypt: Did the revolution really change much beyond removing the top layer of officials from office, and will a democratic system fully take root in the country?

It was to answer this question that I spoke with a cross-section of ordinary Egyptians, professionals, academics and activists in Cairo this week.
I also found a rich vantage point from which to understand the deeper political issues at play in Egypt when I participated in a two-day seminar of 30 representatives of non-governmental organizations, from a dozen Arab countries, who gathered to discuss what the organizers described as “paths toward democratic changes and equitable development in the Arab region: toward building a civil state and establishing a new social contract.”

The meeting – convened by the Arab NGO Network for Development, the Arab Institute for Human Rights, and the Egyptian Association for the Community Participation Enhancement – clarified what I see as the three most important political dynamics to emerge from the Egyptian experience (which is also taking place in Tunisia).
First, the Tahrir Square experience was an exhilarating case of mass empowerment of once helpless individuals who all came together and were able to remove their disliked previous government.

Second, the concept of “the consent of the governed” is now operational in Egypt, as “people power” has become the legitimate source of authority and governance, but without ideological expression or anchorage.
And third, the spirit of Tahrir Square must now be translated into a new governance structure and social contract that provide citizens with both their political and civil rights and also the promise of more egalitarian socio-economic development prospects.

The NGO activists who came from all corners of the Arab world to discuss these issues in Cairo this week knew instinctively from their decades of experience that they had to achieve one overriding imperative if the newly forged assets of the popular rebellions across the Arab world were to be translated into long-term gains for all citizens: the new governance systems of the Arab world must be based on rights of citizens that are both clearly defined in constitutions and implemented and enforced on the ground through credible legal and political structures. Among the critical elements that must define a new social contract and credible constitutionalism are a strong, independent judiciary, and a new relationship between the military-security sector and the civilian population.
The political contest under way in Egypt today sees the spirit of Tahrir Square continuing to manifest itself in several forms (street demonstrations, legal action, new political parties, civil society activism, dynamic media) that seek to define a new governance system in the face of the two most powerful forces hovering over the society – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Egyptians increasingly see a growing alliance between the military and the Islamists, which some activists even refer to as a quiet coup d’etat.

The new element at play now is the Arab citizen, who has been empowered and energized by his or her confrontation with the autocratic old order. Masses of Arabs today feel that they have the ability not just to demand, but also to enforce, their rights as citizens in the pluralistic and constitutional democracies they seek to construct from the wreckage of the Arab security states they endured for many decades.
The polarization, fragmentation, or even the violent collapse of some Arab states – Somalia, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Algeria and Iraq to date, with others lined up to follow suit – is the natural consequence of political systems that fail to provide their citizens with the rights they expect. Rehabilitating and rebuilding more stable Arab states and governance systems today requires addressing the equal rights of all citizens in the political, civic, economic, cultural and social fields, and “constitutionalizing the protection of citizen rights,” as one Moroccan scholar called it.

The historic change that Tunisia and Egypt have triggered is simply that Arab citizens are now players in this process, having been mostly idle bystanders in the past four generations when Arab statehood proliferated without any real citizen sovereignty taking root in parallel. This struggle to define the new Arab world will go on for some years. The important thing is that it has finally started in earnest, and its outcome will be determined largely by the interaction among indigenous actors that now include the once-vanished but now reinvigorated protagonist in the saga of statehood: the Arab citizen.

Beyond Rhetoric In Iraq

Mohammad Akef Jamal writes: Statements and counter-statements between the various political blocs are doing nothing to solve the country's myriad problems 
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 04/06/2011 

Is it possible to get to know the condition of a certain people through statements by their key government officials? Or is it better to make field visits to get acquainted with the lifestyle and conditions of people in different towns and cities along with their income per capita, the state of educational establishments, health facilities, number of newspapers, jails and other details?

Or perhaps there are better methods to obtain more accurate information regarding a given people, subjectively and devoid of sentiments and emotions?
Statements by politicians are usually contradictory and confuse the observer, as they lack subjectivity at times and are always biased, especially when the politician highlights the merits of his political agenda vis-a-vis his opponents.

These statements are usually analysed by a few writers who have greater access to the media, and who shape public opinion.
Some of these statements reflect the people’s reality from the perspective of the politician in question.

They include details regarding the status quo but some of its context is lost in the special political agenda of the politician. At other times, his personal ambitions take precedence and statements are timed to serve the politician’s goals.
The motives behind these statements are not to uncover the truth alone. However, in developed countries with deep democratic roots and respect for human rights, the truth is an important factor in statements. In developing countries — where individuals are still beholden to tribal, religious and sectarian norms — the picture differs tremendously and there’s a disconnect between reality and the statements made by politicians.

Statements made by Iraqi politicians paint a very confusing image of the prevailing situation in the country, as politicians are far removed from the people and their hardships.
Iraqis are considered one of the most politically aware people, and Iraq’s streets have always witnessed bloody demonstrations; jails in Iraq have always been full of political detainees, and many have l being tortured to death. Iraqis have had to flee to countries in the region and indeed around the world.

After the downfall of the former totalitarian regime, the streets of Iraq filled up with people voicing their political opinions. Political parties and civil community organisations mushroomed and newspapers with differing political views sprung up. However, people do not just analyse politics, but also want to talk about the hardships they encounter on a daily basis.
There is a big gap between politicians and the people. Moreover, when discussing the miserable conditions in the country, politicians will only talk about solutions according to the vision of a particular bloc, forgetting that the country cannot tolerate further neglect.

At a time when the struggle between different political blocs in Iraq over security is escalating and living conditions are getting worse, we find pressure increasing on Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and Eyad Allawi, former Iraqi premier and Chairman of the Al Iraqiya bloc. But they are not the only politicians in the county who can find a solution.
The US is exerting indirect pressure through the initiatives suggested by Masoud Barzani, President of Iraqi Kurdistan, while the UN is trying to influence politicians through the Secretary-General’s representative in Iraq.

Attempts are being made to secure a direct meeting between Al Maliki and Allawi. There’s a need to move on from the method of exchanging letters between the two leaders to direct talks, attended by Barzani to revive his Erbil initiative, which encountered many setbacks from the beginning.
Iraq’s problems will not end with reconciliation between Al Maliki and Allawi, which is farfetched — the letter sent by Allawi to Al Maliki on May 7 as a reply to Al Maliki’s May 6 letter reveals the scale of the political crisis in Iraq.

Allawi did not need a lot of time to ponder over Al Maliki’s letter, as nothing in it was new.
In order to understand the true situation in Iraq, one must not believe all ‘information’ available through official and non-official sources, as none are reliable. People’s opinions are also an unreliable as a source of information as they are varied and are subject to personal interests.

Documents that are issued by international organisations which cite Iraq’s conditions in a professional manner are a better source for any researcher.
Documents issued by the Unicef, the WHO, Amnesty International and others are transparent and point to the massive problems afflicting Iraq, which cannot be solved only through a meeting between Al Maliki and Allawi.

 Dr Mohammad Akef Jamal is an Iraqi writer based in Dubai.

Transition Pact Must For Yemen

By Ahmed Al-Jarallah
This commentary was published in The Arab Times on 04/06/2011

The dangerous developments in Sanaa — the attack on the presidential mansion and the consequent bombing of houses of leaders of Al-Ahmar family — have put Yemen in the hands of the devil. The situation will persist unless all parties involved are ready to put their differences aside and immediately sign a peaceful transition pact. This is important because the exchange of arbitrary shelling and killing over the last six days, in addition to previous bloody clashes indicate that no group can claim superiority over the other. Is it not enough for the two groups to realize that each of them has a limited ability which leads to equal strength and prevents triumph of one group over the other?

Besides, we need to ask a question. Did the two groups, which first accepted the GCC initiative and later impeded its signing through useless protocol, achieve their objectives? Don’t they realize that civil war, once it erupts, can only be stopped by a miracle? It seems as if the warring factions want to drag the country into complete violence, because the incidents revolve around those who forgot the slogan, ‘We either face the challenge of developing the country or die.’ When the flood of destruction comes, it will consume everybody, so none of the two factions will face any challenge.

There is no doubt that each of the two factions has hawks who lay down their conditions. If some members of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s group, including the president, support peaceful transition of government, the Joint Forum also has some hawks who stick to the GCC initiative. This simply means that these people agree on the content but disagree on the structures. Therefore, the Joint Forum should be blamed for wasting the golden opportunity to rescue Yemen from escalated crisis by refusing to sign the initiative at the Presidential Palace.

President Saleh should also share the blame for sticking to the condition that he will not leave the country which has been soaked in a bloodbath. No matter how significant an issue, it is not worth pushing the country into disaster. It is clear that the clash of intentions between the two factions is the main obstruction to the resolution of the crisis. This condition has put everybody in a reproaching situation, because we can feel that each group wants to enforce its desire over the other at any cost, even if its means taking the path of destruction.

Everybody should now understand that although both the factions have tested their strengths, the president still has an edge. And since the man agreed to sign the GCC initiative, the GCC nations should make fresh moves to exploit the available opportunity. This will prevent further deterioration in the situation and also prevent regional powers from benefitting and implementing ‘breakup’ agendas. Iran’s suspicious moves, which have been exposed, are a good example to prove the point.

Secretary General of the GCC Abdul-Latif Al-Zayyani did well by announcing his readiness to make fresh moves in the Yemeni issue. However, announcements alone are not enough and immediate action needs to be taken, because blood continues to flow and only a serious initiative can stop it. Meanwhile, the hawks of the two factions should stop the cock clash. There is no more time to flex muscles and it is important to rescue Yemen from useless war crimes, whose mastermind will be recorded in the history. Nobody wishes to witness another ‘Dahes and Al-Ghabra War’ fought with bombs, latest technology and weapons of mass destruction. 

Ahmed al-Jarallah is the Editor-In-Chief of The Arab Times and the daily Arabic Assyassah

The Autumn Of Lebanon And The Arab Spring

By Walid Choucair
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 03/06/2011

Is it possible that Lebanon is experiencing an "autumn" of unknown duration, at a time that has come to be called the "Arab spring"?

The essence of Arab revolutions and uprisings, irrespective of the problems they encounter in this or that country, is based on trying to achieve a minimum of political pluralism, after decades of tyranny and one-party rule. Meanwhile, the domestic struggle in Lebanon is moving that country's political life in the direction of less pluralism, by which Lebanon has always been distinguished compared to its surrounding region, despite the distortions in the country's political life due to the sectarian political regime.

The Taif Accord resulted when Lebanon's pluralism reached a crisis over dividing power between Muslims and Christians. The partnership between them was distributed based on a precise balance, and the Lebanese sects' acceptance of this system was based on the idea that this partnership should be subjected to bargaining and political settlements imposed by the needs of a variety of sects and political forces in these sects, with each making mutual concessions instead of seeking all-out domination over the power structure.

However, Taif could not be implemented, due to external, and specifically Syrian, intervention in managing power in Lebanon, and this prevented the implementation of the distribution mechanism that was created for various decision-making posts. The reason for the blockage of Taif was essentially external, and in many instances relied on the use of force. The Lebanese were not allowed to test their ability to bargain and see concessions made by the elements making up political society; this is because the use of force and violence in drafting political settlements does away with, at the core, the idea of pluralism, rendering such a system a disguised "one-party" system.

The element of external force obscures the true reasons for the obstruction of a Lebanese pluralistic formula. This is because domestic polarization in the dispute over positions of decision-making is a reflection of the external competition over holding on to power in Lebanon, as expressed through issues such as the dispute over Lebanon's regional role, its identity and its alliances… Thus, local political forces require artificial domestic slogans that justify the reasons for their bias toward external parties. Therefore, the regional and international external settlement over Lebanon is not ready yet, although the preparations for completing it (the settlement between Saudi Arabia and Syria, or "S-S") involved concessions imposed by Lebanese pluralism, but what actually happened was the bringing down of the national unity government headed by Saad Hariri. The external situation did not permit the degree of national unity presumed by the settlement. Thus, also, Lebanon's external conditions prevent Hariri from even playing his role as a caretaker prime minister. He is denied a role in running day to day affairs, even if it involves the rescue of Lebanese stuck in the Ivory Coast. He is forced to leave the country because there are those "who do not want to hear his name." There are efforts being made to do away with his connections to state technical and security organizations; meanwhile, a prime minister is designated but he is unable to speak in the name of his sect and plays no role in the formation of a new government, except for "waiting" for what the influential political forces do to complete the Cabinet formation, which has yet to be completed…

The same goes for how the president and speaker of Parliament are unable to create an agreement that is limited in size and duration on extending the mandate of the Central Bank governor, even though this issue is connected to maintaining a minimum level of monetary stability. The former is obliged to provide cover for the inter-Christian conflict, in which he represents one of the parties, by taking steps to compensate for the efforts by his rivals to weaken him. This growing struggle has prompted some to seize the opportunity of putting forward the idea of amending the Taif Accord. The speaker, meanwhile, must provide cover for the Sunni-Shiite struggle by accusing his rivals of taking Lebanon 60 years backward, without taking into consideration his own role and sharing of power over the last 20 years.

Thus, also, a political leader such as Walid Jumblatt, whose weight must be taken into consideration in the country's formula, resorts to waxing nostalgic about the old, i.e. pre-Taif Lebanon. This is a result of his feeling of "weightlessness" on the political scene. He visits former Prime Minister Salim Hoss and seeks guidance from his opinions, and remembers the late Prime Minister Saeb Salam when visiting his son, Tammam, and the elder Salam's slogan, "no victor, no vanquished." This phrase has profound symbolism.

Lebanon is in a state of chaos. The local and external influential political forces in the country are awaiting the results of the Arab spring, in order to discover the shore upon which the Lebanese ship will dock. This need leads to a suspension of everything else, such as Taif, and the requirements of pluralism that govern the agreement. A state of chaos is fertile ground for some to slip toward the logic of all-out victory. It is the autumn of Lebanon.

Iran:The Fight At The Top Heats Up

By Amir Taheri 
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 03/06/2011 

To jump or not to jump? For Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that has become the question.

Not long ago, Ahmadinejad was regarded as the most powerful of the five presidents the Islamic Republic in its three decades of existence.

With the opposition "green" movement almost silenced, his administration faced no serious challenge within the Khomeinist movement establishment. Ahmadinejad also marked some success selling his doctrine of "Iranian Islam" as a substitute for the hotchpotch concocted by Ayatollah Khomeini. Translated into 30 languages, his authorised biography, "Ahmadinejad: The Miracle of the Century", was supposed to have sold a million copies.

His entourage boasted that, in the 2009 presidential election he would have won 35 million, rather than 25 million accorded him. The entourage claimed that, Ahmadinejad lost 10 million votes because of his association with "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei.

The entourage also claimed that Ahmadinejad supporters are poised to win a two-thirds majority in next year's parliamentary election.

Today, things look different.

Tehran is full of rumors that, deeply depressed, Ahmadinejad may be thinking of stepping down.

The media controlled by Khamenei maintain a daily barrage of attacks against the president.
The other day, the newspaper Kayhan ran this headline: "Ahmadinejad on Way to Anathema (Takfir)".

Media attacks may not be the main source of Ahmadinejad's reported depression. Hardly a day passes without Khamenei vetoing a decision of the president.

Ahmadinejad wanted to sack Heydar Moslehi, the Minister of Intelligence and Security. Khamenei intervened to reinstate the minister whose incompetence had become proverbial.

Ahmadinejad sulked for 11 days before swallowing "the biter pill" and re-admitting the mullah Moslehi to the Cabinet.

Ahmadinejad wanted to merge four ministries to cut bureaucratic costs. Khamenei intervened to refer the matter to the Islamic Majis, Iran's fake parliament.

The "Supreme Guide" also ordered that new ministers submit to a vote of confidence in the Majlis.

The message that Ahmadinejad is in office at Khamenei's pleasure is circulated by the latter's entourage. The other day, Muhammad-Reza Bahonar, a Khamenei mouthpiece in the Majlis, told the press that the "Supreme Guide" wanted " to retain the president until the natural end of his administration" in 2013.

The media controlled by Khamenei miss no opportunity to brand Ahmadinejad's closest associate, Esfandiar Masha'i, as "an enemy of Islam", a " Persian nationalist", and even "an agent of Imperialism."

In a statement circulated in Tehran last week, Hezbollah, a group controlled by security services, threatened to kill Masha'i.

At the same time, Khamenei has ordered the Larijani brothers to prepare the "after Ahmadinejad". The eldest brother, Ali-Ardeshir, the Speaker of the Majlis, is already casting himself as the next president of the republic. The second brother, Sadeq, who wears the clothes of a mullah, is using his position as Chief Justice to threaten Ahmadinejad with "legal consequences" of the government's unspecified decisions. A third Larijani brother, Muhammad-Jawad, has informed British contacts that with "Ahmadinejad's imminent end", there would be " a new beginning in Iranian foreign policy."

In a bid to repair relations with Riyadh, Ahmadinejad wanted to dispatch Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi to Saudi Arabia for a "working visit". Khamenei signaled his opposition through newspapers controlled by his office.

For weeks, Ahmadinejad tired to appoint a Governor for the Fars province. His choice was chased away by Khamenei henchmen laying siege to the governor's office in Shiraz.

Hardly a day passes without a mullah, including some on his payroll until recently, attacking Ahmadinejad. Often, it is clear that Khamenei offered a fatter envelope to the mullah concerned.

The military are also ranged against Ahmadinejad. Once regarded as Ahmadinejad's principal supporters, Revolutionary Guard generals are appearing on TV to denounce the president's "deviant tendency."

Even on minor issues, Khamenei is advertising his authority.

Last week, Ahmadinejad's office approved a decision by the Iranian Academy to replace the French word "police", in use in Iran since the 19th century, with the Persian word "passvar."
This was part of Ahmadinejad's decision to "purify" the Persian vocabulary by getting rid of Arabic and other foreign words.

Khamenei vetoed the decision as" another sign of Iranian nationalism" which he regards as a threat to Islam.

Few in Tehran missed the irony of a mullah defending a French word against a Persian equivalent.

Pro-Khamenei newspapers drop hints about "secret contacts" between Ahmadinejad and the "green" opposition to form a front against Khamenei. There is talk of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani setting aside his old hatred of Ahmadinejad in a bid to isolate the "Supreme Guide".

Finally, security forces have arrested over 50 members of Ahmadinejad's entourage, including some close friends, on charges of "spreading unauthorized beliefs".

What does all this mean?

There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are at loggerheads.

This is no surprise. As explained in a previous column all presidents have had trouble with the "Supreme Guide" of the time. Sharing power at the summit is always problematic. Unable to fly, a double-headed eagle often tears itself apart.

Initially, Ahmadinejad angered Khamenei by scripting his group out of numerous juicy contracts and business deals.

However, for the first time, the fight may also be about something more than personal power.

Ahmadinejad has realised the bankruptcy of the Khomeinist discourse and is trying to replace it with a pseudo-nationalistic, and perhaps more dangerous, narrative in which the mullahs have no place.

Khamenei may be trying to push Ahmadinejad to the brink in the hope that the president would lose his nerve and throw in the towel.

However, Ahmadinejad might prove a tougher cookie than Khamenei apparently hopes.

My guess is that Ahmadinejad will not jump and, if pushed, would not flee into exile as did the first President of the Islamic Republic Abol-Hassan Banisadr. Nor would Ahmadinejad kowtow to the "Supreme Guide" as did Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami.

What about assassination? That is what happened to Muhammad-Ali Raja'i, the second President of the Islamic Republic.

That Khamenei is attacking Ahmadinejad every day is a sign that the "Supreme Guide" is scared. According to a Persian proverb, like a snake, a mullah is most dangerous when frightened.

Friday, June 3, 2011

For Khamenei, The Name Of The Game In Iran Is Equilibrium

By Mehdi Khalaji
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 03/06/2011
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has now made the mistake that all Iranian presidents make: he has challenged the authority of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is doomed to fail.
The challenge posed by Ahmadinejad is such a predictable part of Iranian politics that it has come to be known as “the president’s symptom.” It emerges from a president’s confidence that, as a popularly elected leader, he should not be constrained by the oversight of the supreme leader. But the history of the Islamic Republic is littered with its presidents’ failed attempts to consolidate an independent power center. Ultimately in the country, divine authority has trumped political authority.
This dual authority is embedded in the Islamic Republic’s Constitution, and inevitably tilts toward the divine, particularly in a president’s second term. Ahmadinejad is not an exception to this rule. In fact, because he has pushed harder than his predecessors, his star is falling faster. Moreover, the controversial presidential election of June 2009, and the political crisis that ensued, irreparably damaged Ahmadinejad’s democratic legitimacy.
Khamenei was forced to use his authority to support the president, and has since repeatedly condemned the “Green Movement” that opposed Ahmadinejad’s re-election. As a result, Ahmadinejad has been the most costly president that Khamenei has had to support to date, because he forced the supreme leader to deplete his power in the face of a common enemy – a move that called into question his own judgment and tarnished his reputation.
Ahmadinejad himself, however, has generally ignored the post-election crisis in his public statements, and evidently believed that Khamenei’s post-election backing meant that the supreme leader would remain passive in the face of encroachments on his traditional powers and prerogatives. Indeed, for the last two years, Ahmadinejad has repeatedly undermined Parliament, and abruptly dismissed ministers tied to Khamenei, such as Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi.
Since becoming supreme leader 22 years ago, Khamenei has been relatively weak. However, he has adapted to this situation by seeking to encourage weakness in the Islamic Republic’s other high offices. He has supported factionalism in the government, and, when necessary, he has weakened factions that he had previously supported. Most importantly, Khamenei has ensured that Iran’s presidents remain weak themselves, regardless of their agenda or popularity.
So, now that the threat posed by the Green Movement has diminished – at least in Khamenei’s eyes – the time has come to call Ahmadinejad to account. Both men are hard at work preparing for the March 2012 parliamentary election, as well as the 2013 presidential election, and Khamenei has taken off the gloves. He has given official propagandists the green light to attack Ahmadinejad and his cronies explicitly, portraying them as people who do not believe in the principle of the guardianship of the Shiite jurist, that of wilayat al-faqih, the key concept bequeathed by the Islamic Republic’s founder, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In the official view, Ahmadinejad and his circle lack rationality and wisdom; indeed, they are said to be in the grip of superstition. There are even rumors that some of them have resorted to witchcraft to summon spirits from beyond the grave, and that Ahmadinejad has had direct contact with the hidden Imam (the Shiite messiah).
Likewise, the judiciary, under Khamenei’s control, has accused the vice president, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, of leading an economic mafia, and many of Ahmadinejad’s allies have been arrested or are currently under investigation.
It is likely that the Council of Guardians, which can veto legislation and bar candidates from standing in elections, will use its power to shift the balance of power in favor of Ahmadinejad’s conservative critics. The leaders of the anti-Ahmadinejad camp, the brothers Ali and Sadeq Larijani, who head the Parliament and judiciary, respectively, will help Khamenei to push the president from the center of power.
But since Khamenei cannot accept a single, united political faction, it is extremely unlikely that he will allow the Larijani camp (which includes Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati) to become powerful enough to win the next presidential election.
Khamenei will likely create a new faction to compete with traditional conservatives after Ahmadinejad’s decline. This might force him to pick a new face for the next presidential election, someone with little domestic-policy experience and little influence over the lives of ordinary people. One possible candidate is Said Jalili, Iran’s current nuclear negotiator, or someone who is like him. Only those with a strong background in intelligence or in the Revolutionary Guards, and with a low profile in domestic politics, need apply.
Having full control over the judiciary, the intelligence apparatus, and the military makes Khamenei seem invincible against all political factions or elected officials. This reality will lead the regime down an increasingly autocratic path, where it will apply more aggression at home and defy the West with greater self-confidence.
But the concentration of power in the supreme leader’s hands poses risks for the Islamic Republic. When Khamenei dies, there is no strong and obvious successor to him. And, since he has systematically weakened Iran’s political institutions so that the Islamic Republic itself has come to be identified with his person, his absence will create a vacuum. Khamenei’s strength today foreshadows greater uncertainty in Iran’s future.
Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (

Fault Lines In Netanyahu's Dazzling Show

By Rami G. Khouri 
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 03/06/2011 

By any standard, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance in Washington last week was stunning in its audacity and intensity - but probably will be seen as negative rather than positive for Israel in the long run, for the fault lines it revealed and the precedents it set.

His performance revealed four major breaches that may be damaging for Israel - those between him and President Barack Obama, between the American presidency and the Congress, between the pro-Israel lobby in the United States and the rest of the country (Congress excepted), and between the Israeli people and their government.

All four dynamics have their ups and downs, but when they converge, as may be the case now, Netanyahu, the brash star performer in Washington last week, may soon be seen as a political jerk, in his country and in the US.

Netanyahu’s extraordinary reception in the Congress, full of hysterical adulation and blind, rabid support for any position that he took, clarified an important point in the current American-Israeli ties: Congress is Israel’s most important terrain and its main line of defence in the United States, which it controls with unheard of unanimity.

This is due to the very simple fact that every American member of Congress lives in absolute fear of being denounced by the pro-Israeli lobbies in the US as unfriendly to Israel, which would immediately result in that congressman or woman losing his/her seat in the next election (this has happened enough times in the recent past, with people like Charles Percy, Paul Findley, Pete McCloskey and others, to make incumbent members refrain from testing the pro-Israeli forces’ immense powers to destroy an American political career).

This is perfectly legal and normal in American political terms, but it is distasteful to most Americans to see their parliament become a captive and manipulated tool in the hands of a foreign power that uses it as a platform to challenge the American president.

The congressional subservience to Israel revealed itself as so exaggerated last week that many Americans took notice - and some started to speak out.

Analysts, columnists and ordinary Americans alike have started asking if they should put up with a foreign leader lecturing the American president in the White House, and also asking if their Congress represents American or Israeli interests in the Middle East.

This attitude will once again open the debate that started a few years ago (after the publication of the book “The Israel Lobby”) about whether the pro-Israel lobbies are healthy or destructive for Americans.

When the American and Israeli leaders mistrust or dislike each other and each other’s policies, and when foreigners intervene between the American Congress and the presidency, this can only spell trouble for Israel down the road, if these breaches are not quickly repaired.

The Obama position that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a permanent peace accord should be based on the 1967 lines with agreed swaps is not so significant for its novelty, for it is not new. But it is significant for the fact that it marks the second major issue (the Israeli settlements freeze demand being the other) on which this American president has publicly declared the preferred American policy as one that is independent of the Israeli policy.

Israel cannot accept that the United States and its president openly take positions on issues of strategic concern to Israelis that diverge from the Israeli position. That Obama has now done this twice in two years is the equivalent of a political existential threat from Israel’s perspective, which is why Netanyahu went berserk and put on the show of how Israel effectively can dictate the US Congress’ position on Middle East-related issues.

Netanyahu also faces problems at home, to judge by a new poll in Israel showing that 57 per cent of the population thinks he should have agreed with Obama rather than oppose him - because the Israeli public knows that the United States is Israel’s most important long-term strategic ally, and not one to be alienated.

The events in Washington last week showed that Israel relies heavily on the US for its strategic wellbeing and survival, but also that the US Congress in turn relies heavily on Israeli approval for its own well-being and continued incumbency.

With the US Congress now finding its extreme position on Israel somewhat isolated from the relatively more balanced position of the American president and public, Israel slips dangerously towards a point where its political support in the US is as much a consequence of frightened, nearly prostituted, legislators as it is a reflection of the deep and firm support for the security of Israel that the United States traditionally saw as a worthy goal in its own right.

These fascinating movements in key Israeli-American relationships are worth monitoring. While being dazzled by Netanyahu’s powerful, self-assertive, performance in Washington, we should pay more attention to the underlying fault lines that such a dramatic show reveals.

Difficult Path To Arab Democracy

Marwan Al Kabalan writes: Popular governments need time to take hold, but it is important that the first step has been taken
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 03/06/2011 

Despite what appears to be a genuine democratic movement in the Arab world, western analysts remain largely sceptical about whether this will lead to a full-fledge democratic transformation. In an article published in the current issue of the prestigious magazine Foreign Affairs, Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Director of Stanford University's Centre on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, cast doubts on the future of the so-called Arab Spring. Under the title A Fourth Wave or False Start?, he questioned the possibility that the march towards democratic change in the Arab world might end up producing any sort of political system but not democracy. Similarly, George Friedman of Stratfor presented more or less the same argument. "The Middle East has seen many demonstrations of late, but that does not make them revolutions". Furthermore, all demonstrations are not revolutions. All revolutions are not democratic revolutions. All democratic revolutions do not lead to constitutional democracy. That might very well be the case in the Arab world, Friedman argued.

The challenges facing the transition to democracy in the Arab world are very real indeed. There is increasing doubt that the Egyptian army, which ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, might not want to facilitate a genuine democratic transition. It may try to prevent it by generating conditions on the ground that discredit democracy and make Egyptians beg for another autocracy. The ruling officers have, for example, turned a blind eye to mounting religious and sectarian strife in addition to the rising crimes. The military has also arrested dozens of peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square and tried them in military tribunals over the last two months. In April, one such detainee was sentenced to three years in prison for "insulting the military establishment". Yet it claims that it cannot rein in rising insecurity. Many Egyptians see this as part of the military's grand design to undermine democracy before it takes hold.
In Tunisia, the conditions are different but might nonetheless produce similar outcomes. The parliamentary elections slated for this autumn are unlikely to help change the political map of the country in a fundamental way. New political forces, representing the younger generation, those who made change possible, have no chance of being able to build competitive party and campaign structures in time. If the electoral system remains unchanged too, it might well allow the cronies of the former president win a thumping majority of the seats in parliament.

Hurdles persist
Elsewhere in the region, the transition to democracy appears to be much more difficult. In places where regimes have turned arms against their own people to prevent change, different sets of conditions have led to freezing the march towards the emergence of more representative governments.

In Syria, instead of negotiating some future power-sharing deal, the regime has opted for a heavy-handed approach to quash the uprising. In Yemen, the country is slowly but surely drifting towards civil war. Having seen the fate of Mubarak, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is playing for time, notwithstanding the risk of widespread violence, foreign interference or even partition. Libya has been a unique case from the very beginning. Here, the picture has become complicated to the extent that made many believe that the existence of the country itself might be hanging in the balance.
Indeed, the transition to democracy will not be easy in the Arab world, but western scholars tend to forget that it has not been easy anywhere in the world. In Europe, for example, it took several decades, and in cases centuries, for democracy to take hold. In England, the cradle of world democracy, the quest for a parliamentarian system took 40 years of violent conflict. Constitutional monarchy needed two revolutions to be established (in 1642 and 1688). It was interrupted by autocratic rule several times during this period and after it. In France, the final victory of the French revolution came after a century of bloody conflict, revolutions, counter revolutions and foreign military interventions. Democracy was firmly established and accepted as the most viable form of government only after the 1870 military defeat against Germany. In Russia, two decades after the fall of Communism, the country is still largely seen as being undemocratic.

There are many other examples about the difficult path of democratic change from Latin America to Southern Europe. The Arab path will not be any easy. The most important fact is, however, that Arabs have taken the first step on the long way towards democracy and that is what matters here.
Marwan Al Kabalan is Lecturer in Media and International Relations at Damascus University, Syria.

Fearing The Muslim Brotherhood

By Ali Ibrahim 
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 02/06/2011 

How to safely negotiate the transitional period is now the dilemma for both Egypt and Tunisia. The question whether to slow down or accelerate this process remains a puzzling matter for all sides in this post-revolution period, especially with regards to the consequences of the upcoming legislative and presidential elections, and the creation of new constitutions that accurately reflect the peoples' desire for truly democratic states.

The common denominator in the existing heated debate is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Islamic Nahda in Tunisia, two groups sharing almost the same ideology. Both groups have lodged strong claims to accelerate the constitutional process, aiming to get the ball rolling regardless of what shape the new situation will take on. Those who advocate a slower process claim that conditions must be created for the ballot boxes to reflect the genuine hopes and opinions of society, rather than existing powers seizing the opportunity.

In the cases of Egypt and Tunisia, political powers are deliberating and seem confused, and this is manifested in the form of screaming and fighting, rather than genuine dialogue. This follows the euphoria felt by everyone in the revolution's early days, after the success in overthrowing the regime. Despite deep concerns regarding this situation, this is a natural occurrence in such circumstances. The case of Egypt and Tunisia is like that of a thirsty man whose initial hope was to have a mouthful of water, yet after he obtained this, he realized that he needed a full bottle. Now the people want to ensure their future, and not return to the past.

The problem with the transitional period is that it is unstable by nature, and everyone is guessing what will happen in the future. The economic sector is most affected by this transitional period, because investors require a clear vision and knowledge of the ruling regime before they make any decision. Likewise the security situation could be adversely affected by the transitional period, and many are obsessed with this subject, especially in Egypt. Yet some see this as an exaggeration and scaremongering. For example, we have not seen neighborhoods attacking other neighborhoods, and when there were incidents of sectarian tension, saboteurs were lurking behind the scenes.

Shortening the transitional period should enable the country to reap the fruits of the revolution, and lay the foundation of a new legitimacy, something that is direly needed. Domestically, there is a need to stabilize the situation and gauge the real size of political powers through the ballot boxes, and externally the world needs to know what regime it is dealing with both politically and economically. Yet the problem with shortening the transitional period, as is the case with Egypt, is that it gives an advantage to already established powers such as the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas other parties, which were integral to the revolution, are unable to organize or prepare themselves in time.

This all is true, but one should not fall into an obsessive fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, because they are, after all, part of the political structure. Even if the transitional period is prolonged, the Brotherhood, just like other parties, will derive benefits, not to mention the privilege of carrying out organized political activity, after long years of oppression under the previous authoritarian rule. The Brotherhood is now engaged in politics, and its political rivals must do the same, whether they agree with it or not.

Other powers need to organize themselves in parties or alliances, with a practical political program that is convincing and clear to the people. Above all, new political forces must prove their existence by engaging in daily political action, as this alone can determine the voter's decision in the ballot box.

An example of "proving their existence" was manifested last Friday in Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated. This activity was conducted in absence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which launched an intimidating and frightening campaign about what would happen. On the contrary, we witnessed a disciplined demonstration, and protestors left the square peacefully after they had conveyed a clear message that there are other powers which can mobilize; powers that should be taken into consideration.

The transitional period requires an element of harmony between all political powers. Prolonging this period entails the great risk of falling in the middle of the road before reaching the goal, whereas an acceleration could lead to the dominance of a certain political power, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The solution may be found in making a commitment or concluding an agreement on major general principles that would govern any constitution or upcoming regime, such as the transfer of authority, and the respect of political, religious, economic and personal freedoms.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

These 'Virginity Tests' Will Spark Egypt's Next Revolution

The 'virginity tests' used by Egypt's new rulers show the struggle for women's rights goes on

By Mona Eltahawy
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 02/06/2011
women tahrir square
Egyptian women protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo. A general has admitted that women detained during protests in the square a month after Mubarak's overthrow had been subjected to 'virginity tests'. Photograph: Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

There's a thin line between sex and politics, and it is nonsense to keep repeating the mantra that Egypt's revolution "wasn't about gender". What revolution worth its salt can be fuelled by demands of freedom and dignity and not have gender nestled in its beating heart – especially in a country replete with misogyny, religious fundamentalism (of both the Islamic and Christian kind) and which for 60 years has chafed under a hybrid of military-police rule?

If the "it wasn't about gender" mantra is stuck on repeat so that we don't scare the boys away, then let them remember the state screwed them too, literally – ask political prisoners, and remember the condoms and Viagra found when protesters stormed state security headquarters.

Lest we forget, we replaced Hosni Mubarak with a supreme council of Mubaraks – aka the supreme council of armed forces (SCAF) – a general who recently spoke to CNN kindly reminded us how the patriarch sounds. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he admitted that female activists detained during a Tahrir Square demonstration a month after Mubarak's overthrow had indeed been subjected to "virginity tests" – as the women have insisted all along. "The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine," the general said. "These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and (drugs)."

I have no doubt he genuinely believed that explanation would actually make sense. It is, after all, very rare for Egyptian women to spend the night outside their home, and couples must present a marriage certificate if they want to book a hotel room together. But even the patriarch misfires.

Almost exactly five years ago, Mubarak unwittingly politicised many previously apolitical Egyptians when his security forces and their hired thugs began to deliberately target for sexual assault female activists and journalists at demonstrations. In conservative Egypt, where most women endured daily street sexual harassment in silence, the regime was determined to fondle and grope women in the hope it would shame them back home. Instead, women held up their skirts torn into pieces for the media to see. It's one thing to be groped and harassed by passers-by, but when the state gropes you, it gives a green light that you are fair game.

The next year, mass sexual assaults in downtown Cairo targeted girls and women during a religious festival. The police watched and did nothing. The state denied the assaults took place, but bloggers at the scene exposed that lie; this encouraged women to speak out and forced men to listen. For many Egyptian men, this was the first time they realised what it meant for their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters to navigate the battlefield that Egyptian streets had become. More than 80% of women now say they've been street sexually harassed, and more than 60% of men admit to having done so.

And with the virginity tests, here is SCAF retracing that thin line between sex and politics again, in the hope of shaming women away from demonstrating. The council has already replicated many of the other sins that had Mubarak facing the wrong end of a revolution: military trials for civilians, detentions and torture (by military police now, state security then), and an intolerance of critics.

Let's be clear, "virginity tests" are common in Egypt and straddle class and urban/rural divides. Be it the traditional midwife checking for a hymen on a bride's wedding night, or a forensics expert or doctor called in after a prospective bridegroom's suspicions, young women are forced to spread their legs to appease the god of virginity. But no one talks about it.

But it's different when the state/SCAF is the one forcing women's legs apart. A protest is planned for Saturday. It's a perfect time for gender to come out of the revolution's closet.
This must be our moment of reckoning with the god of virginity. The rage against the military must also target the humiliation brought by those tests, regardless of who carries them out.

So far, Egypt's Arab-language media has largely looked the other way. As Fatma Emam, a young revolutionary, told Bloomberg soon after Mubarak was forced to step down: "The revolution is not only taking place in Tahrir, it is taking place in every Egyptian house. It is the revolution of fighting the patriarch."

Saudi Islamists And The Potential For Protest

By Stéphane Lacroix 
This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 02/06/2011

Saudi Arabia has remained fairly quiet during the recent months of Arab uprisings. A few demonstrations did take place, mostly in the Eastern Province, but never gathered more than a couple of thousands. As for the Facebook calls for a "Saudi revolution" on March 11, they had no real impact on the ground. Some observers found this surprising, given the fact that many of the causes of revolutions elsewhere in the region exist in Saudi Arabia. There is corruption, repression, and, despite the country's wealth, socioeconomic problems that particularly affect the youth -- it is said that at least 25 percent of Saudis below age 30 are unemployed.

Some observers argued that nothing had happened, or even could happen, in Saudi Arabia because the kingdom possesses two extraordinary resources in huge quantities. This first is a symbolic resource, religion, through the regime's alliance with the official Wahhabi religious establishment, while the second resource is a material one, oil. These resources, however, have their limits. The real reason that Saudi Arabia has not seen major protests is that the Saudi regime has effectively co-opted the Sahwa, the powerful Islamist network which would have to play a major role in any sustained mobilization of protests.

Neither Islam nor oil wealth necessarily shield the Saudi state from criticism. Religion can be, and has been, contested by opponents of the state, particularly by Islamists. The Wahhabi religious establishment is currently led by relatively weak figures. The current mufti Abd al-Aziz Al al-Shaykh lacks the strong credentials of his predecessor, Sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Baz. Oil money, however abundant, inevitably creates frustrations because its distribution follows established networks of patronage that favor some over others. This is especially notable at the regional level, where Najd receives much more of the state's largesse than does the kingdom's periphery. What is more, the announcement on March 18 by King Abdullah of a $100 billion aid package wasn't only met by cheers as some expected. It also provoked angry reactions in some intellectual circles, which saw this as an insult to the Saudis' "dignity."

Saudi Arabia has more of a history of political mobilization than many realize. A pro-democracy current has evolved over the last 10 years. Its core component has historically been the dozens of intellectuals, Sunnis and Shiites, of Islamist and liberal backgrounds who have come together since 2003 to repeatedly demand, through increasingly provocative petitions, the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in the kingdom. Among the latest, and boldest, moves made by members of this group have been the creation in October 2009 of the kingdom's first fully independent human rights organization, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, and the establishment in February of the kingdom's first political party, Hizb al-Umma. Although members of this group have been repressed, many have pledged to continue their activism.

In addition to those older and more experienced intellectuals, a new generation of young political activists is gaining increasing influence. They are connected through social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter, and count among their "friends" numerous young Egyptian and Yemeni activists, whose revolutionary "know-hows" they have been sharing in the last few months. They are idealistic and bold, and they do not feel bound by old political allegiances. Many have subscribed to the demands for a constitutional monarchy of the older intellectuals, providing them with the young base that they were lacking. In a way, the profile of these young activists is very similar to that of some in the April 6 movement in Egypt. And like the April 6, they could well act as a trigger for change.

But if these young people resemble the April 6 movement, then there exists in Saudi Arabia a group that shares the same characteristics and occupies a similar position in the system as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: The Sahwa (or al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Awakening) is an Islamist group whose ideology is based on a mix between Wahhabi ideas in religion and the Muslim Brotherhood's ideas in politics.

Like the Brotherhood in Egypt, the Sahwa in Saudi Arabia is by far the largest and best organized nonstate group, with arguably hundreds of thousands of members. Its mobilizing capacity is huge, far ahead of any other group, including the tribes which have for the last few decades lost a lot of their political relevance. An illustration of this were the 2005 municipal elections, which provided observers with an unprecedented opportunity to measure the ability of Saudi political actors to mobilize their supporters. In most districts of the major cities, Sahwa-backed candidates won with impressive scores.

It is therefore unlikely that any popular movement would take hold without the Sahwa's support because generating a sustained political challenge to the state requires organized and committed activists, solid mobilizing structures, and networks -- things that can't simply be obtained through Facebook and that only the Sahwa can provide. Again, Sahwis are like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: They may not start the protest, but it won't succeed without them.

This is where the Saudi case is different from others. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood may have long ceased being a confrontational force when the January 25 revolution started, but it still represented a clear opposition to the Egyptian state. The Sahwa, however, has a different track record. Although its members may be very critical of the Saudi state in private, they have generally remained loyal to it. There is an organic, almost incestuous, relationship that exists between the Sahwa and the Saudi state. While Islamist movements in most countries developed on the margins of the state and against it, the Sahwa was the product of the co-optation of foreign members of the Muslim Brotherhood into the Saudi state in the 1950s and 1960s. It developed and spread from the state, heavily benefiting from the state's structures and resources. The fear of losing this very favorable position that the Sahwa occupies has, until now, represented a key obstacle to its transformation into a real opposition movement.

This explains why the majority of Sahwis have generally remained loyal throughout the recent months. For instance, when calls for demonstrations in the kingdom were issued, most Sahwi religious figures came out to denounce them. Some even went so far as to explain that demonstrations were not a legitimate means of asking for change. Aware of the Sahwa's crucial importance, the state has also done all it could to reinforce the relationship: In the $100 billion aid package announced by King Abdullah, there is money for religious institutions, including some known to be Sahwa strongholds.

This does not necessarily mean that there is no potential for protest, however. The Sahwa's history shows that it behaves as a strategic actor. For instance, in the early 1990s, in the wake of the Gulf War, when Islamist figures launched an opposition campaign against the regime, the Sahwa first supported the movement because it thought it could succeed -- before eventually withdrawing its support when understanding the risks. This means that in the future, if the Sahwa sees clearly favorable opportunities, it may decide to switch sides and support a protest.
There are already signs that some in the Sahwa may be willing to adopt a more critical posture. Late February, for instance, came out a petition called "Towards a State of Rights and Institutions" asking for democratic change (though expressed in a very conservative language) and signed by a few notable figures associated with the Sahwa, including Salman al-Awda. Also, in late April, a number of other key Sahwa figures, including Nasir al-Umar, signed a text calling for the release of or a fair trial for the country's thousands of "political prisoners," many of whom were arrested on terrorism charges after 2003.

Despite these relatively isolated moves, however, it is unlikely that in the current context the Sahwa would be willing to sacrifice its relations with the regime. There is potential for Islamist protest in Saudi Arabia, but not in the near term. And without the Islamists' participation, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will be the scene of the kinds of sustained mobilization that have rocked much of the rest of the Arab world.

Stéphane Lacroix is an assistant professor at Sciences Po and the author of Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Saudi Arabia.

The Slaughter In Syria

This editorial-opinion was published in The Washington Post on 02/06/2011 

Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad has benefited substantially from the difficulty the world’s media have had in reporting on the protest movement in Syria and the regime’s brutal suppression of it. Foreign journalists are banned from Syria and anyone attempting to film or otherwise report on events since mid-March has been subject to arrest and torture by security forces.

But Mr. Assad does not live in the world of his father, whose massacre of tens of thousands of people in the city of Hama in 1982 was not fully reported to the outside world for months. Today brave Syrians have managed to post hundreds of cellphone videos to the Internet, documenting the regime’s practice of assaulting unarmed civilians with tanks, artillery and automatic weapons. One showing the mutilated body of 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khatib, who was arrested and murdered by security forces, has horrified the world and inspired more protests across Syria.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch made an important contribution to knowledge about the events in Daraa, a town and its surrounding province in southwestern Syria where mass protests first erupted on March 18. Based on interviews with more than 50 residents and a review of dozens of videos, the group concluded that at least 418 people have been killed there over the course of 10 weeks and that the regime’s “abuses qualify as crimes against humanity.”

The report is stomach-turning in its account of what was inflicted on the community of 80,000 and its suburbs. The trouble began, it says, when 15 young boys, aged 10 to 15, were arrested for anti-regime graffiti; when they were finally released, they were “bruised and bloodied after what they described as severe torture in detention.” As mass protests swelled, “security forces deliberately targeted protesters,” who bared their chests and carried olive branches to show their peaceful intentions. A mosque where many took refuge was assaulted on March 23, leading to the deaths of 30.
On April 25, an 11-day siege of the city began, during which anyone taking to the streets — including children seeking food or medicine — was fired on by troops or rooftop snipers. When thousands of people marched on the town April 29 in an effort to break the siege, troops again opened fire, killing at least 62, according to the report.

Two of the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch were among thousands detained in Daraa’s soccer stadium on May 1 when, they said, security forces arbitrarily selected a group of more than 20 young men, lined them up and gunned them down. Other witnesses described an incident in which several soldiers who refused to shoot at protesters were themselves shot and killed.
Partly due to the limited information, the world is reacting slowly to these atrocities. The State Department called the case of Hamza Ali al-Khatib “horrifying” and “appalling,” but U.S. policy, restated by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday, remains a “hope” that “the Syrian government will end the brutality and begin a transition to real democracy.” Ms. Clinton ought to read the Human Rights Watch report. No one who does so could propose such an outcome with a straight face. Perhaps the United States cannot intervene to save Daraa, as it did the Libyan city of Benghazi. But the focus of its policy should be holding Mr. Assad accountable for these crimes — and not pretending that he can become a legitimate ruler.

The Void In Lebanon. Who Really Gains?

By Michael Young 
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 02/06/2011  

What did Walid Jumblatt mean when he told the daily Al-Akhbar this week that Hezbollah did not want to form a government?

And when the Druze leader went on to say that a government was necessary for the party and Syria as well, was that a discreet way of saying that it was Damascus that was holding up the government-formation process – a thought that Jumblatt, of course, immediately perished by refusing to link the Syrian tension to the Lebanese government crisis?
There can be no serious doubt that the situation in Syria weighs heavily on the stalemate in Beirut. The explanations are many for why Najib Mikati has been unable to form a government, and quite a few happen to be true; but perhaps the most significant is that Syria has been lukewarm in pushing for a new team. The prime minister-designate is not about to embark on fashioning a Cabinet without strong Syrian backing, especially a partisan Cabinet in which he would have to stand his ground against Hezbollah and Michel Aoun.

Which returns us to the implications of Jumblatt’s remarks. The regime of President Bashar Assad evidently has no real interest in a Mikati government, because it has no interest in filling a Lebanese political vacuum that it seeks to exploit in order to survive at home. Through Lebanon, Damascus can send, and has sent, warning shots regionally and internationally, to the effect that it must either be the Assads and their Makhlouf cousins in power, or else chaos will ensue. That was the essence of what Rami Makhlouf, the financial pillar of the Syrian regime, told The New York Times in a recent interview.
Since that interview was published, two things have happened in Lebanon to bring home Makhlouf’s message. Hezbollah, with perceptible Syrian approval, and in a move coordinated with similar measures on the Golan Heights, helped mobilize demonstrators along the Lebanese-Israeli border to commemorate Nakba Day. This was a pinprick, destined to echo Makhlouf’s comments that “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.”

And last Friday, an Italian UNIFIL unit was the target of a bomb attack in Rmeileh. It’s unclear who planted the device, but the attack came at the very moment when foreign embassies were indicating that Makhlouf had pointedly mentioned, in an off-the-record aside during his New York Times interview, that United Nations forces in Lebanon might be assaulted. If there were any doubts, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had earlier dispelled them when declaring, after the European Union imposed sanctions on Bashar Assad, “I say this measure, just as it will harm Syria’s interests, it will harm Europe’s interest. And Syria won’t remain silent about this measure.”
Although Hezbollah is siding with the Syrian regime against Syrian protesters, as its secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, made clear last week, you have to wonder whether the party and Syria share the desire to maintain a void in Lebanon. In strict terms Jumblatt may again be right that Hezbollah doesn’t want a government, but is this a matter of choice, or is the party obligated to follow the Syrian lead?

Only a few months ago Hezbollah was willing to take the hazardous step of barring Saad Hariri’s return to office, in the hope that it could follow this up by swiftly forming a favorable government that would face supposedly imminent indictments issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Today, we must believe that Hezbollah’s sense of urgency has evaporated and that the party is no longer concerned with the likelihood that the tribunal will formally accuse party members of involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri. There is a disconnect here, one suggesting that Syria’s objectives and Hezbollah’s may not be as closely aligned as some assume over delaying a Cabinet.
It is a matter of anxiety in Beirut how Hezbollah might react if the situation in Syria were to deteriorate further and the Assad regime’s hold on power were loosened further. In that event the existence of a Lebanese government would help Hezbollah, because if the party has to watch one of its principal allies collapsing, it would prefer to do so after having anchored itself in the legitimacy of Lebanese state institutions. In other words the party needs a government in place that it can dominate, both to bless its weapons and help it absorb the aftershocks of a tribunal indictment and radical change in Syria.

The assessment of some foreign observers is that if the Assads are ousted, Hezbollah will respond by striking a harsh blow domestically to reaffirm its authority. Perhaps, but this, more reasonably, would be an act of desperation. In the Lebanese context it might lead to civil conflict, particularly if the party were to take such a step minus its valuable Syrian partner, in the presence of a new order in Damascus bound to be hostile to Hezbollah. Another May 2008 would fail, even more so when we recall that Hezbollah was hard-pressed to end its military operations quickly at the time, after the triumph in western Beirut. Seizing territory is easier than controlling it. Hezbollah would be reckless in assuming that it can successfully overcome all of Lebanon.
The deadlock will persist in Beirut, with Najib Mikati remaining unable to form a government. However, it’s still an open question whether Hezbollah truly gains from this state of affairs, even if Syria does. Assad wants an open Lebanese playing field to manipulate. Yet at some stage Nasrallah needs the state to be credible, as it may become the last bastion between Hezbollah and regional and international demands that the party surrender its arms.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster), listed as one of the 10 notable books of 2010 by The Wall Street Journal. He tweets @BeirutCalling.