Saturday, July 9, 2011

Syria's Angel Of Death Gives Insight Into Terror

The footage showing a lone gunman shooting randomly before turning his fire on the cameraman is too raw not to be real

By Jonathan Jones

Syria gunman fixedView larger picture
Video footage has emerged from Homs, Syria in which a man filming gunfire in the streets appears to be shot dead by a sniper. Photograph: YouTube
The angel of death has been caught on camera. That is what a gunman randomly shooting from a dark doorway looks like in raw and terrifying video footage that has surfaced this week on YouTube. Wearing military-looking khaki and firing quite randomly at people in a Syrian city, "without any reason and no demonstrations", the figure embodies the stories of ruthless state violence emerging from a country where conventional reporting is all but impossible.
You look at death, and death looks at you. The cameraman – apparently using a mobile phone to grab these images in the heat of the moment – nervously and jerkily photographs a vertiginous collage of building facades, balconies and a fleeing crowd on the street below before homing in on the sinister military figure who is shooting from a doorway on a balcony just below his elevated viewpoint. But no sooner does the camera see the assassin than the assassin sees the photographer: and shoots. The last part of the video is a brown abstract mist as we hear moans against continuing shots and yells.
Life here seems to have created its own grisly remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. The analogies are eerily close. Hitchcock's classic film is set in an enclosed urban space, with tall buildings facing one another over a courtyard. As an injured war photographer recuperates in his apartment he becomes a voyeur out of boredom and witnesses a murder: he has to use the flash of his camera as a defence when the murderer comes to get him. James Stewart survives, but this photographer appears to have died. And instead of the painted wooden architecture of a Hitchcock film set, the power of this sequence of images lies in the rapid jagged evocation of a very real city: the messy jumble of balconies and stained walls, the glimpses of blue sky and the road below, the surfaces of concrete and asphalt, take us into the textures and experience of urban Syria. And then that doorway materialises, dark and bleak, and the shooter appears.
Yet all its echoes of fictional cinema raise a question. Is this film entirely reliable and authentic? It was posted on YouTube earlier in the week but soon some viewers started to raise doubts, as was reported by Global Voices. The way that I have described the video perhaps fuels suspicion. For can it really be chance that has replicated the classic topos of the endangered voyeur perfectly so framed by Hitchcock? With tight press controls in place in Syria, and the consequent impossibility of checking facts, scepticism is inevitable. It is natural to be cautious after the widely followed blog A Gay Girl in Damascus was exposed as a hoax. So, let's begin with a tough question: is this film a fake?
We should start not with art criticism, but history. Contemporary events in Syria conform to patterns of violence that go back to the 1980s. This week protesters, or people the army classed as protesters, have been killed in Hama, as resistance to the regime of Bashar al-Assad refuses to fade away. The focus on Hama chills those who can remember the events of 1982. It was the city where the Assad family chose to obliterate a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood. After violence by both sides failed to settle an Islamist rising, Rifaat al-Assad led a military onslaught on Hama that culminated in a systematic campaign of cold-blooded executions in which at least 10,000 people died.
Just to describe that calculated use of extreme violence is to see how the images in this film do indeed fit the facts of Syrian government violence. The gunman hidden in a doorway is the kind of calculated random attack by which this regime has traditionally outfought threats. It is a government with an appetite for violence and a policy of overreaction that has until now been highly effective. The more you look at the known facts the more this footage feels true.
Its soundtrack – even for anglophone listeners – surely clinches the authenticity. Moans and cries, shots and sounds of panic are too real to be faked. The blank screen as the cameraman lies dying is another rawly real aspect of the footage. To doubt this film's reliability is, in the end, to doubt too much. It is a visceral insight into what is happening right now in Syria, a glimpse of a truth more calamitous than fiction.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 08/07/2011
- Jonathan Jones writes on art for the Guardian and was on the jury for the 2009 Turner prize

Once More to Tahrir Square

On a hot summer day, Egypt's revolution grinds on. 

By Max Strasser from Cairo

Tahrir Square: "Stop!! we are not fools"

Under a baking hot Egyptian afternoon sun, old women in full face veils mingle with teenage boys in designer jeans. Coptic Christians stand next to conservative Muslims, chanting together that they want freedom. Factory workers from the Nile Delta sit in tents, reading pamphlets passed out by web-savvy activists. The whole country is watching. On a Friday 147 days after Hosni Mubarak resigned from Egypt's presidency, tens of thousands of Egyptians are again taking to downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square to pressure their government to listen to their demands for change. Many are saying they will not leave the square until their demands are met. Meanwhile, other cities around Egypt are seeing similar protests.

If the scene is reminiscent of last winter's dramatic three-week uprising -- scorching heat aside -- it is not by coincidence. July 8's protest is an extension of the revolution, which many Egyptians believe has not yet been brought to fruition. The feeling has been reinforced in recent weeks by the perception that justice is not being served for dozens of corrupt officials who ran the country and then ordered the killing of protesters during the uprising. "Revolution First," reads a common protest sign in Tahrir.
"They don't care about change," Mohamed Said, a young electrical engineer, said of the military junta that now runs the country, as we stood in one of the square's few shady spots. "They just care about holding the situation together. But if we pressure them, they will respond."

During the 18 days that captured the world's attention, demonstrators around Egypt chanted what is now the iconic slogan of the Arab Spring: "The people demand the removal of the regime."
Five months later, the regime's figurehead is gone and some changes have occurred, but many here believe that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is happy to keep most of the characteristics of the regime in place, from university presidents with ties to Mubarak's corrupt National Democratic Party to a new foreign minister who was a longtime Mubarak sycophant to continuing censorship of the media.

With everyone from trade unionists to ultraconservative Salafists participating in the protest, a single, unified list of demands is hard to find. In a statement released on July 4, the Coalition of Youth of the Revolution, which speaks for some revolutionaries, announced a list of ambitious demands that included economic concerns -- like raising the minimum wage and increasing spending on health care and education -- in addition to demands for political change, like cracking down on corruption and prosecuting police officers who violated human rights. When the Muslim Brotherhood announced its participation, the group dropped its economic and political demands and focused on reform of the security forces.
That might not be a problem. "I don't think we need to have a particular focus," Alaa Abd El Fattah, a prominent Egyptian blogger and longtime anti-regime activist, told me. "We are returning back to the slogan about the fall of the regime. Initially, when we toppled Mubarak, we felt that the rest of the job would be easy. Now it is obvious that the regime is regrouping and the SCAF has finally chosen a side," i.e., the regime's.

Euphoria followed Mubarak's resignation on Feb. 11, but since then the pace of change has been slow. In March, the much-despised domestic torture and spying apparatus was officially dissolved, but many of its ranking members kept their jobs -- the institution was simply rebranded under old management. In April, Mubarak's ruling party was disbanded, but many of its cronies maintain their positions in influential institutions and some party members are regrouping and forming new political parties. Mubarak and his sons have been detained for investigation on charges of corruption and killing protesters. The two sons are in jail, but Mubarak is said to be in a hospital in the Sinai resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. (The ex-president allegedly had a heart attack after the investigation began in April. His defense lawyers claimed last month that he has cancer.) Many doubt he will ever stand trial.
The past few weeks have seen a surge of frustrations for pro-change Egyptians.

The most worrying issue has been a trend of postponements and acquittals in trials of former regime officials. On June 26, the trial of Habib el-Adly, the former interior minister responsible for the domestic security services and one of the most hated figures in the deposed regime, was postponed until late July. On Tuesday, July 5, a criminal court acquitted two former Mubarak-era ministers on corruption charges. A day later, seven police officers accused of killing protesters in January in the canal city of Suez -- seen in Egypt as the beating heart of the revolution -- were released on bail, prompting violent clashes between the families of murdered protesters and security forces.
"The judgment is slow, and that's not what we need right now," said Mohamed Mohsen, a middle-age employee at an import-export company, attending the protest. "We are in a revolution. A revolution demands speedy judgment and special judgment."

Previous major protests have been preceded by concessions from the SCAF and the government. This time the concession came too little too late. On Thursday evening, just hours before the protests were set to begin and after some had already set up their tents, the interim interior minister announced that later this month there will be a major shake-up at the ministry, with hundreds of police officers to be fired. That's barely a beginning, though. "Reform begins when those who were implicated in torture, murder, and corruption stand serious trials," Fattah, the blogger, said.
The issue of justice for the families of those killed in the uprising, who are widely venerated and considered martyrs, has helped push frustration to the surface. On June 28, amid somewhat confusing circumstances, relatives of the martyrs clashed with the Interior Ministry's security forces. More anti-regime forces arrived for the fight and a downtown battle of projectiles (rocks and glass bottles from the protesters; tear gas and, according to human rights organizations, live fire from the police) lasted for more than 12 hours.

"It's the martyrs that brought people here today," Said, the electrical engineer, told me. "If this were a protest just about the Constitution, it would be very different."
Expectations for Friday were high. "May God protect the youth tomorrow who are fighting for justice for the martyrs," Shaaban Hassan Al Magali, an elderly man who works odd jobs in downtown Cairo, said to me the day before the protests. "This is our country, and there must be justice for those who died for it."

By Thursday afternoon, the small tent city that has been in the square since the clashes on June 28 had doubled in size. Over the past few days the area in and around Tahrir Square had seen an explosion of graffiti that reads "Take to the streets on July 8: The revolution is still on."
But not everyone in Egypt is happy about a continuing revolution. "There are too many protests. Every week they are in Tahrir, and no one even knows why," said Gameel Ali, who runs a small vegetable stand in downtown Cairo not far from the square. Ali says that when there are protests he has no business.

That sentiment is fairly common. Many Egyptians believe that ongoing political uncertainty contributes to the country's current economic hardships, an argument that the state-run media, on which many Egyptians still rely for news, has eagerly promoted. Over the past few days, a previously unknown group calling itself the People's Committee to Defend Egypt has been passing out fliers in subway stations and at busy street corners arguing that protesters against the military are destroying Egypt.
But the protesters don't necessarily need a majority of Egyptians to join them in the street in order to have their message heard by the SCAF and the interim government. According to a poll conducted this spring by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, only 11 percent of Egyptians participated in the 18-day uprising. But they were still able to topple a president who had been in power for 30 years.

Friday's demonstration suggests that the street can still put pressure on the SCAF. "The Egyptian revolution is now going through a critical moment, a real fork in the road. It can either win and accomplish its goals or (heavens forbid), it can also lose, leaving the old regime to return in a slightly different form," Alaa Al Aswany, a bestselling novelist and respected public intellectual, wrote in a recent op-ed. "Only those who made the revolution can protect it."
-This article was published in The Foreign Policy on 08/07/2011
-Max Strasser is a writer and editor based in Cairo

A Dictator's Trial That Even His Enemies Questioned

By Robert Fisk

Ben Ali and his wife: now facing at least 35 years in jail
Ben Ali and his wife: now facing at least 35 years in jail (AFP/Getty)

How do you defend a dictator who's been around for years and years and years when he's accused of – well, being a dictator for years and years and years?

When I mention the "trials" of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the former Tunisian autocrat's lawyer throws his hands in the air, an expression of cynicism and laughter on his face. "These weren't judgements, they weren't even real cases – they were a joke," Akram Azoury says of the Tunis courts which last month, after just one-and-a-half hours of deliberations, sentenced Ben Ali and his wife Leila Traboulsi to 35 years' imprisonment and the equivalent of £48m in fines, and then, this week, to another 15-and-a-half years. "The speed of the first trial – the length of time between the opening of the trial and the judgement – was closer to a Formula One race than to a classical judicial procedure."

Oddly, Ben Ali's first farcical trial – with no witnesses and no lawyers chosen by the defendant – enraged both his lawyer and the ex-dictator's most vehement opponents. They wanted charges of high treason and crowds of tortured ex-prisoners to testify to the brutality of the Ben Ali regime. Azoury, a Lebanese Christian who acted for Ben Ali with his French colleague Jean-Yves Le Borgne and who runs a family legal practice in Beirut – his two daughters are also lawyers – wanted a fair trial. "No lawyers were invited to the court," Azoury says with quiet fury. "I had power of attorney, certified by the Tunisian embassy in Beirut. I applied for a visa – but I was not granted a visa. I applied to the Tunisian Bar for authorisation – and I was not granted authorisation." In the end, the Tunisian Bar appointed two lawyers of its own to "defend" Ben Ali.

"This trial, it violates each and every criteria of the 1966 Fair Trial pact that preceded the pact of civil rights of the European Union," Azoury says. "After 1966, the Human Rights Committee was set up in Geneva. This court hearing in Tunis was not eligible to qualify as a trial – so the verdict is not a verdict. No European country can extradite Ben Ali to Tunisia based on this verdict. Should he be free in France, England, Germany, especially if he was in England and the Tunisians wanted to extradite him, no court in England would accept to do this." I forbear to suggest that no immigration officer in England – let alone France – would allow Ben Ali or his wife to enter the country, although Mr Azoury does believe his client should leave Saudi Arabia.

"Ben Ali described the judgements as 'the wording of the justice of the victors'. Don't forget that the mere fact that President..." – and here I note Azoury can still call his client 'President' – "...Ben Ali hired me as his lawyer is a precedent in this part of the world. It means he wants to play by the rules. He doesn't care about a political trial. He governed Tunisia for 25 years and it's the right of the Tunisian people to judge him. In his opinion, these accusations are not made innocently. If you look at the substance of these accusations, they are shameful. They want to kill him morally. Don't forget that all this stuff in the second trial – the drugs and weapons – were 'found' in his official residence two or three months after Ben Ali left. After seven months now, you might 'find' nuclear weapons in his residence!"

The second "trial" of Ben Ali this week – for possession of drugs and illegal weapons – also added another fine of £50,000. Even his Tribunal Bar-appointed lawyers objected that the hearing was unfair. "The only purpose," Azoury says, "was to brand President Ben Ali as a drugs dealer and weapons dealer before the Tunisian elections."

But why did the old dictator hire a Lebanese lawyer to act for him? Azoury has an interesting legal pedigree. In 2000, he defended Lebanese petroleum minister Barsoumian and secured his acquittal before the courts after 11 months of imprisonment; in 2003, he prosecuted board members of the Medina Bank; in 2005, he represented General Jamil Sayed of the Lebanese General Security when he was accused by the UN tribunal of possible involvement in the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri. After four years of false imprisonment, Sayed was released by the UN who admitted it had no evidence against him.

"A lawyer can only perform his job in a court of law," Azoury says. ""Law and politics cannot be present at the same time. My job was to take the politics out of the courtroom. Because if they wanted a political judgement in Tunis, it has already been issued and executed. The guy (Ben Ali) is not going to Tunisia any more. I respect this. But if the Tunisian authorities want to start a real judicial process, they should abide by the principles of a fair trial."

But Akram Azoury is no patsy. "It is an excellent thing to judge heads of state," he says suddenly. "It will help to implement a culture of justice – because the responsibility of the new regime in Tunisia is also to implement due process of law. If these rulers were that bad, there should be no difficulty in convicting them after a fair trial." Azoury lived in Tunis for a month in 1989 when he was consultant to the company building the new Arab League headquarters, but never met Ben Ali. "I wasn't involved in politics," he says.

But he clearly thinks a lot about it. When we talked of the Tunisian revolution, Azoury spoke of the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi – whose death by self-immolation started the revolt against Ben Ali – in words that I am still pondering. "The body of Bouazizi will either be a light in this part of the world," Azoury says. "Or he will be the fire that will consume it."

This commentary was published in The Independent on 09/07/2011

True Sovereignty Is What Arabs Are After

By Rami G. Khouri  
Events are moving so quickly in the citizen revolts across the Arab world that an observer could easily feel lost trying to understand what is really happening – or just trying to sort out the new and historic from the routine agitation of discontented men and women.
Two developments in Syria and Egypt this week have helped clarify what is going on, and what is really at stake. These two are the return of tens of thousands of protests to Tahrir Square in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, to express discontent with the slow pace of the trials of individuals from the former Mubarak regime accused of graft and killing; and the visit to central Hama by Robert Ford, the American ambassador to Syria.
These two very different events converge in focusing our attention on the ultimate issue at stake in the Arab revolts, the prize, if you will: national sovereignty. This has been the heart of the ongoing political confrontation between Arab citizens and their ruling authorities since the current revolt started in December in Tunisia. However, in reality the contest over Arab sovereignty dates back many decades.
The question of sovereignty is about who holds ultimate power and who is in charge of national decision-making in the independent countries that have defined the modern Arab world during much of the past century. Most national decisions in a majority of Arab countries for much of the past century have been made by small groups of unelected men forming the political elite. The current revolts impose, at their core, the reconfiguration of this power system, to give citizens a major role in national policy-making.
In fact, this is not simply a struggle between rulers and the ruled. Four and a half parties can be identified as contenders for the sovereign authority in the Arab world: existing governments, security agencies, and citizens are the three key ones; but many Arabs also feel that decisions in their countries are actually being made by major Western powers, and even by Israel (my half-party in the four and a half list), which is often accused of driving decision-making in some states, especially Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, where deference to Israeli wishes is institutionalized in assorted peace agreements.
The developments in Cairo and Hama this week are significant because they go to the heart of the matter of who ultimately shapes national policy in Arab states. Egyptians who return to the streets in their hundreds of thousands send the message that they see power as being vested in the people, and thus expect their government to pursue policies that are shaped by citizens and respond to their demands and rights. It is important to recognize the political and historical significance of this development at this delicate and decisive transitional moment that will shape for many years the nature of national political sovereignty in Egypt.
What happens in Egypt influences developments in other Arab countries. A revolution that began in January overthrew the Mubarak regime, but it has not yet been replaced by a credible new governance system, and the transitional Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still holds ultimate power. The demonstrators want to make sure that power remains anchored in the will of the citizenry, thus affirming in practice the consent of the governed. Some Arabs are finally experiencing the same thrill that French and American citizens experienced in the late 18th century, followed by many other democracies: the exercise of citizen sovereignty.
Robert Ford’s visit to Hama touches on a different dimension of this same process. However, it includes the added complexity of how foreign powers relate to events within the Arab world. The State Department explained that the Ford visit had been a show of solidarity with the residents of Hama, saying that the ambassador had “spent the day expressing our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves.”
The battle in Syria, as in the entire Arab world, is not only about peaceful assembly and self-expression, of course; it is about defining the ultimate authority for the exercise of power, and thus about sovereignty itself. The United States says it believes that the citizens of Syria should participate in this process, and the ambassador’s visit was a dramatic gesture of support for citizen rights.
I ignore for now whether this is an appropriate ambassadorial gesture, and whether anyone believes Washington is sincere or credible in its support for Arab citizen rights. What matters is to grasp the historic nature of this seminal moment in modern Arab history, when national sovereignty is at stake and being reshaped – in Cairo, Hama and hundreds of other cities and town across the Arab world.
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 09/07/2011

Anti-Zionism Growing Among Jews

Pro-Palestine Jewish activists and organisations blame Israel for 'crimes against humanity'
By As'ad Abdul Rahman
A large group of Jewish activists opposed to the Zionist ideology are challenging Israel's occupation, racist and colonial policies against Palestinians and calling for the return of Palestinian refugees.
The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) of organisations and activists in western countries firmly support the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel as a moral tool in response to Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands.
The state of Israel, the manifestation of Zionism, declares IJAN, is "a colonial project that dishonours the memories of the European Jews who perished in the genocide in Europe".
Rejecting the Zionist ideology and institutions as "unjust…. leading to further entrenchment of an apartheid system and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people", the Network further indicates that such policies are implicating every Jew "in the oppression of the Palestinian people and in the debasement of Jewish heritages, struggles for justice and alliances with fellow human beings".
Along this line, IJAN has been launching campaigns to draw support to its activities, with one targeting and seeking to halt support to the National Jewish Fund, responsible since the early years of the twentieth century for capturing Palestinian lands or seizing their ownership papers.
In June 2010, IJAN hosted in Detroit, USA, the first anti-Zionist gathering, the ‘Assembly of Jews: Confronting Racism and Israeli Apartheid'. The gathering was declared a success. IJAN activists also joined campaigns in 2009 and 2010 in the USA, held in support of the BDS movement, led by a Palestinian coalition of civil society organisations.
Earlier in February 2009, IJAN published an appeal by an anti-colonialist Israeli citizen calling on Unesco to ‘revoke Israel's membership'. In fact, when in February, 2011, the Zionist organisations in America and around the world issued a statement condemning the BDS campaign, IJAN's 34 anti-Zionist Jewish individuals and organisations issued a counter statement declaring: (a) The BDS activities "are a moral tool of non-violent, peaceful response to more than 60 years of Israeli colonialism, and (b) "Rightfully place accountability on Israeli institutions (and their allies and partners) that use business, culture and academic ties to white-wash Israel's responsibility for continuing crimes against humanity".
These anti-Zionist Jewish activists and organisations put the blame for ‘crimes against humanity' on Israel and its colonial structure in order to prevent blaming all Jews for the actions of Israel.
They have categorically rejected the label of anti-Semitism attached by the Zionists to the BDS campaigns, saying such "campaigns the world over are not rooted in anti-Jewish sentiment against the daily, brutal occupation of Palestine and military threat to the region by the state of Israel."
False claims of anti-Semitism, according to IJAN, "distort the true nature of the Palestinian struggle and are an affront to, and betrayal of the long history of Jewish survival and resistance to persecution".
Such groups of Jewish activists are asserting the need "for justice in Palestine which does not include the domination and colonisation of the Palestinian people which have made Israel a racist state that is only for the privilege of Jews".
Law of reciprocity
These groups of Jews around the world have always considered themselves as the voice of conscience that should sound the danger bell against persecution based on gender, race, creed, colour or ethnicity. When a certain community was being persecuted by a racist/colonial system, Jews were the first to oppose it fearing they might be the next in line to face such an action.
Conscientious Jews take to their hearts the certainty of the law of reciprocity, sent down to Moses and which stood behind the ‘Golden Rule' that says: "Treat thy neighbour as thyself". The law of reciprocity is commonly known as "what goes around shall come around".
In the Torah it says: "Who lives by the sword shall die by the sword". Where the Zionist entity is concerned, it means that who live by dispossessing others of their lives and lands, shall be dispossessed in the same way. Ending the Israeli apartheid system is the strategy of the BDS campaign backed by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, a strategy that once brought an end to South Africa's racist regime.
Indeed, conscientious Jews are opposed to the Zionist ideology being aware of the fact that its basic principle is racist and discriminatory and is bound to lead to the destruction of the Zionist entity. They are trying to protect Jewish communities from the aftermath of the predicted destruction being anticipated by every Christian fundamentalist in the West, and by Western intelligence agencies.
‘The war against terrorism' is a battle with multiple fronts designed to prevent the use of mass destruction weapons hitting Tel Aviv and major western cities, especially New York City and Washington D.C.
This is why the safety and survival of the Palestinian people are linked to Jewish survival, both, according to IJAN, are being threatened by Israel's racist and colonial Zionism.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 09/07/2011
-Professor As'ad Abdul Rahman is the Chairman of the Palestinian Encyclopedia

South Sudan's Day In The Sun

Its people are gaining independence today but have yet to build a fully functioning state
The South Sudanese minister of information, Barnaba Marial, wells up at the thought of independence for his nation. It is bigger than his wedding day, he says; the biggest day of his life.
For Marial, and for most of his countrymen, the journey of two wars, two million dead, starting with an uprising in the town of Torit in 1955, is a march of a people out of the steppe, swamps and hills of the lower reaches of the Nile.
The part of the leader was for a long time played by John Garang, the founder of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army and its political wing, the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLA/SPLM).
Garang died in a helicopter crash in 2005 after securing a peace deal with the rulers in Sudan's north. His successor was Salva Kiir, who like Garang was from the majority Dinka people.
Free at last, free at last. Even out in the bush the celebratory mood is infectious and moving. Almost everyone, from generals to cattle herders has been learning the new national anthem. The first verse goes, "Land of great abundance, uphold us united in peace and liberty".
No one doubts the abundance. South Sudan has fertile and well-watered lands, with an estimated 8 million to 14 million people (nobody really knows) compared with 84 million in neighbouring Ethiopia.
Villagers in South Sudan need not buy farmland. They simply walk into the scrub and cultivate it. The price of a smallholding of several hectares is only the minimal sum needed to have it marked out and registered.
South Sudan has the potential to be among the largest food producers in Africa. The country also has hardwood timber. It has oil, gold, chromium, iron ore and a host of other minerals.
Some reckon oil revenues will fall off before 2020. Others are more hopeful. The government wants to divide up unused concessions owned by Total, a French company, and sell them to other enterprises.
But the combination of abundance and weak government almost never has a happy outcome in Africa. The new government can draw on very few trained officials. Ministries lack computers. Tax collectors are illiterate. The new country could break down in civil conflict along the unsettled northern border or within itself.
A recent agreement between north and south to put 4,200 Ethiopian peacekeepers in the disputed region of Abyei may hold. Neither side wants a return to war. Even so, the UN says 2,000 people have been killed and 300,000 displaced in fighting so far this year. The north is mostly to blame, particularly in the Kordofan region.
But there have also been cases of South Sudan hammering militias that dared to defy it. That reflects squabbling over local resources, lack of communications in a country with few roads and indiscipline in ragtag bits of the army.
Myriad hurdles
There is also the dogmatism of the SPLM. As with most African liberation movements, history has only one telling. The guerrillas are intolerant of criticism and angry at journalists.
Yet a state built solely on the SPLM's narrative is bound to disappoint. The vice-president of the new country, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, has already been sidelined. He is distrusted by some of the Dinka higher-ups.
If South Sudan is to hold together and prosper, it has to overcome many hurdles. The first is transport. The republic is a quagmire for several months a year. Rains swamp what few roads there are.
Some progress has been made in building gravel tracks. It is possible to drive between some of the federal states even during the rainy season. But transport remains expensive and settlements themselves are often sunk in mud. New ideas and technologies are needed.
A second challenge is "monetising" the country's livestock and moving the Dinka and Nuer cultures on from cow worship. The government says the country has 12 million cattle and 24 million goats and sheep. Yet there is no meat-export industry and little interest among herders in selling their animals.
A further task is to push development and investment beyond Juba, the pleasant town on the Nile chosen as the capital that is dominated by Dinkas. The governor of the state of Eastern Equatoria, Louis Lobo Lojore, says his people want more federalism.
That means, for example, giving states the right to strike deals with foreign investors. Ministers in Juba rudely dismiss such ambitions. Investment has to come through the capital and the terms must be decided by officials there.
A question keeps cropping up: is South Sudan a nation of equals or a Dinka state? Unless there is a balance between Juba and state capitals and between Dinkas and other groups, South Sudan may prove too big and diverse — too Yugoslav, in other words — to hold together.
This commentary was published in The Economist on 09/07/2011

Lebanon: The Game Of Words

By Walid Choucair
Lebanon is seeing a huge political struggle now being dominated by playing with words and manoeuvring, as big-time headlines and slogans are wielded. Some parties are saying one thing and privately maintaining the opposite; they put forward descriptions by which they mean to cover up things that are the opposite of their true meaning. They announce commitments that allow them to escape their pledge, and then to place the responsibility on others.
It is a game with a single function, namely to cover up the stepping back from commitments, and to secure cover for the coup against the types of consensus without which it will be difficult to guarantee stability in Lebanon. It is a game of the art of maneuver, which is being carried out by those who are professionals when it comes to the policy of waiting – waiting for something to happen outside this game, which will turn things upside-down and alter the political scene. Then, the arena will be one in which the true players would appear, or these professionals would gain time in order to for them to turn the situation upside-down, when the time is right.
Over the last three days, the debate in the Lebanese Parliament has seen a considerable amount of playing with words, especially by the majority, and particularly over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is trying to uncover the truth behind the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. However, there is a fundamental significance to this control over this game, which saw, before and during the parliamentary session, vague expressions that could be interpreted in various ways: in other words, what happened outside the session and will happen afterwards will help clarify the true meanings and objectives behind this game, which is legitimate in the eyes of Lebanese politicians.
They believe that engaging in this game indicates intelligence and acumen, to the degree that they sometimes go as far as to believe in their playing with words. However, they also fail to notice the embarrassing situation they are in, the confusion that dominates them, and their anxiety about their actual situation. The game takes them as far as believing these arguments, and upon them they base expectations. However, most of them find no embarrassment in stepping back from what they say, because their public will believe them in any case, and keep in line, or forget what they said previously. This is because a group affiliation attracts this public to them, or because the circumstances have changed, such that accommodating themselves to these new stances is justified, and any retreat will be understood by some of this public, at the least.
The easiest example to indicate this is the seamless ability of Walid Jumblatt, the head of the National Struggle Front parliamentary bloc, to undergo tremendous political changes, due to the shifting balance of power, and justify this by saying that he had "erred." Meanwhile, Hezbollah has found no embarrassment in stepping back from its positions, or "jumping forward" on other fronts, in the game of words. The party is cohesive. Besides, the loyalty of its base and the surplus of force it enjoys locally and regionally allows it to disregard any type of calculations on this front. Before the formation of the new government, Hezbollah's leadership and cadres were convinced that it would not be formed, but it was. The party believed that the government would not continue, but it did and the party accepted to include it in previous government policy statements, and supported them. However, Hezbollah believed that justice through this government would undermine stability, because it would bring civil strife, so it turned around and rejected a deal trading justice for stability, and asserted that there would be no civil strife.
In this gamble, between its actual position and the talk it puts out, Hezbollah is relying on its over-confidence, even though its rivals see this as confusion and a sign of mistaken calculations, which will eventually prompt the party to modify its stances, and try to outrace things.
Speaker Nabih Berri is matching Jumblatt and Hezbollah in the game of words, because he plays it well, is good at maneuvering, and is accommodating himself to the changes without incurring huge losses. He is taking advantage of his position as the speaker of Parliament, who is needed by his allies and some of his rivals.
Other leaders do not care about losing credibility in this game of words.
However, Prime Minister Najib Mikati enters the game without a party to support him, or a group affiliation to constitute a mass base that can help him compensate for the damage he might incur from this game when he faces the facts of the actual situation, if it leads to shrinking his margin of maneuver. Then, he will be forced to take a clear stance or exit the game when the hour of truth comes. This is because he will obliged to be loyal to one of the sides; what he says contains two interpretations, and he will be forced to take sides, or step away, especially since there is no settlement to the dispute over the STL on the horizon.
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 08/07/2011

Friday, July 8, 2011

Dispassionate Take On Radical Islam

GULF NEWS: An analysis of fundamentalism in the Arab world, its origins and the way the West sees it

Reviewed by Omar Shariff

Jihad’s New Heartlands
Jihad’s New Heartlands: How the West Has Failed to Contain Islamic Fundamentalism By Gabriel G. Tabarani, AuthorHouse, 476 pages, £19.99

The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, which toppled the Shah's dictatorship, was followed by another seminal event that same year — the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to prop up the country's communist government. 
The Mujahideen's nine-year guerrilla war which followed — backed ardently by the United States, of course — led to the humiliating withdrawal and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. But it also bred the first generation of Islamist radicals, many of whom returned to their respective countries as hardened combatants. One such individual was Osama Bin Laden.
In his meticulously researched book Jihad's New Heartlands: How the West Has Failed to Contain Islamic Fundamentalism, Gabriel G. Tabarani provides a historical narrative of the global Islamist movement leading to the events of 1979 and culminating in the death of Bin Laden.
Tabarani, an old Middle East hand based in London, analyses the huge range of Islamic groups in countries ranging from Algeria to Pakistan and from Russia to Somalia. In doing so, he gives us the background information and places it in a cultural context, which is very critical to understanding the phenomenon that is Muslim extremism.
The modern origins of the plethora of Islamist movements that pepper the globe can be traced back to 1928, when the Egyptian schoolteacher and imam, Hassan Al Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood. This was primarily in response to British colonialism. Al Banna was assassinated in 1948 and the Egyptian state continued with its repression of the group through the 1950s and 1960s.
One of the most influential and strident ideologues of the movement was the US-educated Saeed Qutb. His experiences in the West and in Egypt convinced him that the answer to the ills of society lay in going back to the fundamentals of Islam. While in prison, he wrote Milestones, a book that continues to inspire extremists to this day. Qutb's execution in 1966 for his political views made him a martyr to many Islamists around the world.
As Tabarani observes, "Although the tangible entity of the Brotherhood was purged by [Jamal Abdul] Nasser, the ideology of the movement remained. Not to be annihilated by means of torture, imprisonments and executions, the members of the Muslim Brotherhood endured."
Today's Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is, of course, a far cry from the days of Qutb and has long since disavowed violence. As the author says, a new generation has come forward that is engaged in and focused on working within the system.
Now the Brotherhood finds itself in a position where it is expected to do very well in parliamentary elections in post-Mubarak Egypt, as is its Tunisian affiliate Al Nahda (see interview on page 9 in Gulf News 08/07/2011).
Especially since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, religious extremism has been the subject of hundreds of books, often by authors with dubious credentials and/or a set agenda.
Oversimplification of the issue has also been a constant theme. But in his book, Tabarani displays not only an expertise in the subject matter but also explains a complex issue in a dispassionate, impartial manner.
Apart from looking at extremism in Islamic societies, Tabarani also tackles the issue in the West. The author offers some pertinent advice: It is high time for the US, and the West in general, to change their attitude towards Muslims and correct past mistakes.
-This Book Review was published in The GULF NEWS on 08/07/2011
-Omar Sharif is The Deputy Editor of The Gulf News
-Jihad's New Heartlands: How the West Has Failed to Contain Islamic FundamentalismBy Gabriel G. Tabarani, AuthorHouse, 476 pages, £19.99

Reality Check On Extremism

GULF NEWS: Gabriel G. Tabarani feels a greater ideology will rise to counter fundamentalism

 By Omar Shariff

Gabriel G. Tabarani
Gabriel G. Tabarani

In Jihad's New Heartlands: How The West Has Failed To Contain Islamic Fundamentalism, London-based author Gabriel G. Tabarani draws on his extensive experience in the Middle East to provide an insight into the phenomenon of extremism and what can be done to combat it. Excerpts from an interview:

·         What is the future of political Islam in the Muslim world?

-          Most experts' studies confirm that Islamist movements meet a deeply perceived public need in the Muslim world, a need that continues to be felt after several decades of activism that have not yet reached their end. Otherwise how does one explain these movements' success and support? It is possible that the role of political Islam will be diminished at some point in this century, but one of two things must happen: Either the conditions that helped propel Islamism into the political sphere will have to disappear, or some other force or ideology will have to rise to meet the need more effectively.

 ·         With the death of the Al Qaida supremo, and people’s weariness with the unending militant violence, do you think we are looking at a post-extremist era in the Muslim world?

-          The death of Osama Bin Laden doesn't bring the death of his brand of politics. Al Qaida and affiliates have a thriving franchise in Yemen and Pakistan, and could gain other bases in the region. However, the killing of Bin Laden comes at a crucial time in the history of the Middle East. The Arab Spring is reshaping the region and its politics in ways not seen in generations.

The successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the unresolved uprisings in Syria, Libya and Yemen are thus far post-Islamist. These political shifts have not been driven by discourse on Israel, US foreign policy or ideological zeal. They have been caused by a desire to improve their nations' internal conditions.

 ·         Following the toppling of the authoritarian regimes in Tunis and Cairo, both the Al Nahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are expected to do well in the general elections. How would you assess this probability, given that both Rashid Al Gannoushi of Al Nahda and Essam Al Erian of the Brotherhood are seen as moderate pragmatists?

 -          I suppose the best way to answer your question is to run through the gradients. First, I do not believe Al Nahda or the Muslim Brotherhood will gain sufficient support to form majority governments. The next gradient down from here is that they will form part of a coalition government with non-Islamist parties. This seems most likely, given the poll data (Muslim Brotherhood 20 per cent and Al Nahda 18 per cent). That accounts for the near term; the longer term will depend on how the Islamic parties perform in government or opposition.

·         Is the AK Party in Turkey the model to be followed by all Islamist or Muslim conservative groups seeking power through the ballot?

-          Reconciling Islamic heritage and popular demands for participatory government and individual rights has posed a dilemma for Islamic activists. This has focused on how to present Islam in a "secular" context. The debate among Muslim thinkers has yet to yield a clear explanation about the interaction between secularism and Islam. However, it is possible to glean from media and academic analysis a perception that these advocates seem to model their notion of "secular Islam" on the Justice and Development Party (AK) in Turkey, where a separation is emerging between one's faith and public life or a separation of church and state, as it is understood in the West. It seems that the AK Party in Turkey will be the model to follow by Islamist movements after its success in government under a secular constitution, which it is now trying to change.

 ·         You contend that Ethiopia had to intervene militarily in Somalia when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was briefly in power — a period characterised by peace for the first time in many years. Is it fair to blame the ICU, when people at that time saw it as US-backed aggression by a dictatorial regime in Addis Ababa, which led to disastrous consequences for all concerned, especially Somali civilians?

 -          I never contend in my book that Ethiopia had no choice but to intervene militarily. However, given the situation at the time, "the hardliners ... began pushing the ICU [the then ruling Islamic Courts Union] into increasingly bellicose and radical positions that alarmed neighbouring Ethiopia and the United States. The ICU declared jihad on Ethiopia .... In short, the hardliners in the ICU did everything they could to provoke a war with Ethiopia, and in late December 2006 they got their wish."

 So my aim in my book was never to contend or to blame. My objective is merely to put forth the truth in an unbiased manner, according to documented information. This is without taking sides or passing judgement.

 Furthermore, to fully understand the Ethiopian government's actions at the time, more analysis would have been needed — however, I felt that this was beyond the remit of my latest book and thus was only touched upon briefly.

 ·         Do you think Western political and economic interests can be aligned with the values and politics of moderate Islamist parties? If so, why has this not happened across the Muslim world?

-          Of course, Western political and economic interests can overlap with values and politics of moderate Islamist parties. Otherwise, how could one explain the success of Turkey's AK Party and its relationship with the West?

 Perhaps a more salient question would be: Why has cooperation between the West and the Islamist moderates not yet materialised? This is owed to the West's ignorance and misunderstanding of Islamist moderates' aims compared to those held by radical Islamic Salafis — this is understandable to a certain extent after the events of September 11. However, with the arrival of the Arab Spring, it would appear that the West (the US in particular) has tacitly accepted to work with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria and perhaps in other places in the future.

 ·         The subtitle of your book is ‘Why the West Has Failed to Contain Islamic Fundamentalism'. But for the most part of the book, you have concentrated on the different challenges of militancy in various Muslim countries.

 -   You are correct in drawing attention to the subtitle. However, as mentioned it is a subtitle — there to add colour and clarity to the main title, that being Jihad's New Heartlands. I thought it is best for the reader that I focus the most part of the book on providing detailed analysis of Jihad's traditional heartlands, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and its new heartlands such as Yemen, Somalia, the Levant, the Maghreb, Pakistan and Afghanistan. As this book is written in English, it is most likely to be read by Western audiences who are likely to benefit most from an understanding of the origin of radicalism in Islam, a topic sensationalised by the Western press. I wanted them to get an appreciation for Islam as a religion of peace — how it was originally intended — and not as a warlike faith as some conservative pundits in the West may pretend.

-This Interview was published in The Gulf News on 08/07/2011
-Omar Sharif is the Deputy Editor of the Gulf News

Liberalization In Morocco Falls Short

By Intissar Fakir
On July 1, Moroccans voted overwhelmingly to approve a new constitution proposed by King Mohammad VI roughly two weeks earlier. This new constitution represents the culmination of a process crafted largely by the king in an attempt to quell the protests and avoid potentially more threatening unrest. In a mid-June address to the nation, the king portrayed the coming reforms as transformative.
In reality, they offer little by way of empowering Parliament, guaranteeing independence of the judiciary, or making the ruling elite accountable to the people.
Leading up to the referendum, the February 20 Movement and those hopeful to see change, were rightly disappointed by the new constitution and dismayed by the rushed referendum to approve it. But the Interior Ministry reported that 98.5 percent of voters had approved the document with a voter turnout rate of about 73 percent of eligible voters – an extraordinarily high number given the political apathy that characterized past elections as well as calls for boycott.
With a vote margin typical of authoritarian regimes, the monarchy can easily claim that these reforms have satisfied its subjects and that further opposition would be contrary to the popular will. Rather than driving reform, the referendum and the new constitution are more likely to kill hopes of further liberalization in Morocco, real political reform that alters the kingdom’s fundamental political structures.
The king’s strategy to portray himself as leading reform is not new, and was, in fact, mastered by his father King Hassan II. The pattern is clear; whenever a sense of popular dissatisfaction emerges, largely superficial reforms are quickly pushed through and further debate is cut off. A little violence is sometimes employed here and there, enough to scare opponents, but not enough to draw international attention. This strategy has allowed the monarchy to remain on top through almost every crisis; the king appears as the arbiter of political turmoil rather than its object. The proposed constitutional change is doing exactly that. And the referendum last week has likely marked the end of liberalization – at least for the time being.
In order to lend this constitutional revision exercise some credibility, a few genuinely positive changes were enacted, though they tended to be social rather than political. The indigenous Berber language, Amazigh, will now become an official language alongside Arabic. Gender equality is also assured – at least in writing – although it is unclear how the promise of gender equality will affect family laws and inheritance laws (which are in accordance with Islamic principles).
The new constitution also provides for freedom of expression and freedom of the press. However, limits will remain as the king reaffirmed in the June 17 speech that “the person of the king shall be inviolable, and that respect and reverence shall be due to him as king, commander of the faithful and head of state.”
But even apart from that, it remains to be seen whether the government is prepared to accept journalistic freedom. The king’s speech came out shortly after Rachid Niny, editor of the local paper Almassae, was sentenced to one year in jail and a fine for his scrutiny and criticism of the ruling elite and security apparatus.
The main political change that many reformers had hoped to see is a smaller role for the king. However, it is clear the king had no intention of allowing limitations to his power. The new constitution gives the prime minister – now to be known as president of the government – a bigger role without taking away the king’s power. The king will now nominate a prime minister from the party that holds the largest share of the popular vote. However, this was already the case with Abbas al-Fassi, the current prime minister.
Under the new constitution, the prime minister will have the authority to “propose and dismiss” members of the Cabinet and a few other civilian posts, though the king maintains his prerogatives to appoint the powerful walis, or governors, ambassadors, and heads of security institutions. The prime minister still cannot dissolve the Cabinet without the king’s consent. The king can delegate the chairmanship of the council of ministers to the prime minister but the latter can only operate within the confines of agendas set by the king.
The king will retain his religious and military leadership status, key pillars of his power; he presides over the High Ulama Council and controls the armed forces. Surrendering his religious authority or sway over the armed forces was never really on the table. And while this was predictable, it highlights the sense that the monarchy ultimately relies on religion and forces to maintain its power.
The new constitution may be an innovative restructuring of national institutions, but all real decisive power remains in the hands of the king. The near unanimity of the referendum does not necessarily mean that this constitution represents the political reform that Moroccans have demanded. The vote for incremental change endorsed by the king could be more a rejection of the uncertainties of transition that Egypt and Tunisia are undergoing and of the chaos and violence that is consuming Libya, Syria and Yemen. But when regional turmoil calms, there may be a realization that the new reformist constitution did more to arrest the process of liberalization in Morocco kindled by the Arab Spring than advance it.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 08/07/2011
-Intissar Fakir is special assistant to the deputy president at the National Endowment for Democracy. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the NED