Saturday, August 6, 2011

In liberated Libya In The Year 2961

The Berber people, known as Amazigh, find rare unity as they form one of the fronts taking on the might of the Gaddafi regime

By Moez Zeiton

Tifinagh writing
Tifinagh script is a powerful symbol of Amazigh resistance to the Gaddafi regime. Photograph: Moez Zeiton

"Did you know that this is the year 2961?" my driver asked as we drove along a tortuous road through the mountains. At first, I thought he was joking but he went on to explain that the Amazigh calendar started in 950BC.

As we stopped at each checkpoint, I strained to understand what he was saying to the local people, imagining that it was some odd dialect of Arabic – but I had no idea what any of the words meant.

This recent encounter opened my eyes to a long-neglected ethnic culture in my own backyard in Libya. The Amazigh people (also known as Berbers) are Numidian descendents and the indigenous people of north Africa. They can be found from the Canary Islands in the Atlantic (where they were expelled in the 15th-century Spanish conquest) to the Siwa oasis in Egypt.

The Amazigh of Libya are found mainly in the Jebel Nafusa region (the western mountains) which has become the third front in a three-pronged resistance movement against the rule of Muammar Gaddafi.

Since coming to power and attempting to take on the Nasserist mantle of Arab nationalism, Gaddafi had tried to Arabise the Amazigh of Jebel Nafusa. He attempted to erase their cultural identity by banning their language.

"Why can't we have our own identity?" one of the town's elders asked me. "In Britain, they have Welsh and Gaelic people each with their own unique identity which the British government supports. They even have some degree of political autonomy but we are not even asking for that. We just want to be able to teach our children about our culture and heritage."

Perhaps testament to the lack of development and neglect of the region is the 300km road from the Tunisian-Libyan border crossing of Dheiba-Wazin to the garrison town of Gharyan. "It's exactly like the Italians left it," one of the revolutionaries manning a checkpoint said, referring to the colonial era.

In fact, despite their lack of resources, the revolutionaries have done more to develop this road in the past few months than Gaddafi did in four decades. As we drove near Irheybaat the usual white lines in the centre of the road transformed into runway markings. On either side of the road, stood runway lights and at the end there was a windsock.

This improvised airport is being used for members of the National Transitional Council to visit the region and allow delivery of essential supplies (though nobody would confirm whether it had been used for military supplies).

The rich culture of the Amazigh has found a new lease of life since the uprising began. Not only that, but it has also acted as a unifying force for the region in the face of Gaddafi's troops.

"The revolution has brought us all together," remarked one local from Yefren, "We all had our tribal allegiances before, and it would be rare for anyone to eat from the same gasa'a (shared plate) as someone from another Amazigh town. Now Nalut, Kabaw, Jadu, Zintan, Yefren, al-Qalaa – we all eat in the same plate."

With this unity in hand, the Amazigh have managed to withstand a much better equipped and advanced mechanised force in Gaddafi's battalions. The remaining inhabitants of Yefren, Kikla and al-Qalaa told me how, for more than two months around April and May, they withstood the advance of government troops using their superior knowledge of the terrain.

In Yefren, they dug a huge trench through the main road leading in to the town. Government troops could not advance with their mechanised vehicles and an advance with infantry was not an option for Gaddafi's men due to their poor morale and motivation.

I met a 15-year-old boy, Sifax, who was one of those protecting the town of during the siege. He was wearing a Real Madrid football shirt with the name of Zinedine Zidane – one of the best-regarded footballers of all time – printed on the back. "You do know that he is Amazigh, right?" he asked me.

He then proudly showed me the weapon he used to defend his town during the two-month siege – a 1940s-era Italian Carcano rifle handed down from his grandfather.

The Amazigh people are a close-knit community and while it would be foolish to assume that nobody in Gaddafi's ranks that speaks their language, it would be difficult for a non-Amazigh to infiltrate their ranks – and this provides them with extra security.

The Tifinagh letters of the Amazigh language can be seen in inscriptions and graffiti all over the Nafusa region in defiance of the regime. The first book to appear in the Amazigh language since 17 February is a children's alphabet book published by the newly established National Foundation for Amazigh Culture in Yefren. And every liberated town in the Nafusa region has its own media centre.

The old mathaba building in the centre of Yefren was where Gadaffi's much-feared elite guards were stationed. It was the place where political opponents were persecuted and even killed. Now every room has been transformed into an art exhibition of Gaddafi's crimes against the Libyan people with murals dedicated to the martyrs of the capital, Tripoli.

The Amazigh population have found a new sense of identity that they hope to express freely in a democratic Libya. Different ethnic groups and cultures in a country add to its value and should not be seen as a reason for friction or disharmony. On the contrary, it is the blending of these different cultures that will foster good relations and understanding between people.

In the three-pronged assault on Gaddafi from Benghazi to Misrata to Jebel Nafusa, each region has had its fair share of casualties and sacrifices. Recalling the long siege of Misrata and the sacrifice of hundreds of lives there, many Libyans now refer to its people as "the lions of Misrata". By the same token, the Amazigh are surely the tigers of Jebel Nafusa.

-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 06/08/2011
Moez Zeiton is a British-Libyan doctor and activist

The City And Its Workers That First Took On Mubarak

By Robert Fisk
The Egyptian cotton city of Mahallah hides its political lessons well.
A place of 24-hour-a-day Stalinist factories, ruined 19th-century townhouses buried between concrete blocks and a shambling railway system of filthy rolling stock, only the appearance of a startlingly huge cockroach scuttling across the floor of the municipality office prompts the council workers to sit up. That and the arrival of a stranger creature: your sweat-soaked correspondent, inquiring about an industrial strike that began and ended five years ago.
Every time I asked about the strike, the officials asked me if I'd seen Mubarak in his Cairo court cage. They thought I was talking about the battles in Tahrir Square last January. Only when one of the heroines of the Battle of Mahallah, Widdad Dimirdash, a scarved woman of super-energy, loud voice and a great sense of pride, walks into the room do they understand. Mrs Dimirdash helped to lead one of the first great strikes against the government-owned (that is, Mubarak-owned) Misr Cotton Company in 2006. "It wasn't really political," she says – I'm not sure I believe her here – "but we had no choice. Our wages had become so low and the cost of food so high that we could no more afford to eat and live."
Of the 30,000 cotton workers in Mahallah – women and men labour in separate factories – 6,000 are female. They stopped work along with the men, living in their separate factories and refusing to leave until they received a "massive" pay increase; from £60 a month to £100, making them – still – among the lowest-paid industrial workers in Egypt. But the Mubarak government agreed the new salaries within three days.
It had no option. Mahallah, the centre of Egypt's export trade, was too big to fight. "The First Cotton Town in the Delta", a rusting sign informs me as I drive past broken pavements, garbage and "toc-tocs", the puttering petrol-shrouded rickshaws that cluster round the old level crossing. The city wears its history lightly but it floats, nevertheless, around those decrepit ruins. Originally introduced by the French in 1817, cotton from Mahallah flourished when the American civil war cut Europe off from its transatlantic imports in the 1860s. Goodbye Deep South. Welcome Nile Delta.
On 6 April 2008, however, the people of Mahallah added yet another footnote to their history. This time they marched in the streets, negotiating with a Mubarak government minister for better working conditions and salaries, and withstanding the violence of the police. Mrs Dimirdash was one of two women in the seven-strong workers' negotiating team. "The people set up camps in the main boulevard, the 'Street of the President'," local journalist Adel Dora recalled for me. "The baltagi [pro-government street thugs armed with crowbars] attacked us terribly and the police used tear gas, but we got people to come in and support us from the countryside by using Facebook." Only two Arab satellite television channels covered the Mahallah battle. The Egyptian press, Dora says, "simply lied about us – they printed everything the Mubarak government wanted". The men and women of the city held out for a week.
In 2009, they tried again, but this time – and here Dora lowered his head – the people were frightened. "They were afraid of the police, of being killed, of more violence, of what the government might do to them." Dora told his story with great anger but, oddly, with little sense of the precedent his city had set. Here in dingy Mahallah in 2006 and in 2008 was a miniature, if premature, version of the very revolution that would overwhelm the Egyptian government this February and send Hosni Mubarak to his prison cage stretcher-bed in Cairo this week. The unity of ordinary men and women, the use of Facebook, the city-centre encampment, the baltagi and the tear-gas-firing cops; it all reappeared before our eyes in Tahrir Square. And in that square we found – though we did not understand their presence – men and women from Mahallah. Yes, they knew how to overthrow a dictator.
The French journalist Alain Gresh was among the first to grasp the full significance of this; that these workers were "the forgotten actors" of the Egyptian revolution. He has recorded how one Egyptian industrial reporter responded to his questions in Cairo by asking: "Why, up till now, have the rebellions in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain failed?" He might have added Syria to the list. But it was in Tunisia, whose unions were strong, that the Tunisian general workers' syndicate finally brought down the Ben Ali dictatorship. In his final days, its call for a general strike was devastating. Nor were the men and women of Mahallah the only industrial workers to crush Mubarak's power. The Suez cement factory complex workers – who had staged their own miniature "revolution" in 2009 to protest at the company's cement sales to Israel – began another political strike in February of this year.
As for the workers of Syria, Libya, Yemen, they had long ago been co-opted, Baathised, Green Booked or tribalised, socialism being an unhappy inspiration to most dictators despite their expressions of friendship for the old Soviet Union. So does it take a strong trade union or workers' movement to bring revolutions in the Middle East to successful fruition? Mahallah is a grubby city – but its place in history is growing by the year.
This commentary was published in The Independent on 06/08/2011

To Russia, Relations With Arabs Are All About Interests

By Akram Baker
Why anyone would expect Russia to treat revolutionary events in the Arab world any differently than the pathetic and ham-fisted manner of the West is beyond me. Like any major power, Russia has interests; it has no principles. When we look through this lens at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev’s responses to the people power upheavals, we are able to better understand where the bear is coming from.
Russia’s deepest fear in this regard is the spread of these dangerous democratic movements to its own “near abroad” nations, or even the Russian heartland itself. The last thing it wants is an uprising aimed at the corrupt ruling classes anywhere in the regions of central Asia or the Caucasus (especially the north).
However, being a recent inductee into the so-called democratic international community, Russia’s leadership is not free to verbalize this. Both pillars of Russian power, the prime ministry and the presidency – while not always in synch anymore – are lockstep when it comes to this issue. They both pay lip service to democracy and democratic freedoms, but honestly would prefer not to say a thing.
The most critical and obvious factors driving Russia’s thinking toward the Arab region are, as always, twofold: economic and political. As representatives of a sophisticated power, the leaders in the Kremlin do not look at the region as one mass of Arab rebels. Like their American counterparts, they are willing to confront this ruler or that one when it comes to beating up, shooting or detaining their own peoples, and to either look the other way or even openly support others doing the exact same thing.
A case in point: the United States was very, very slow in tossing Egypt’s aging President Hosni Mubarak under the proverbial bus, yet quick to condemn the madman in Tripoli and the kid thug in Damascus. At the same time, they sat so hard on their hands regarding the brutal repression by their allies in Bahrain (and Saudi Arabia), I was afraid they would never get up again.
Mirror this with Russia’s response to the latest events. Moscow has been spending an enormous amount of time and energy trying to gain control over the flow of North African gas to Western Europe in order to solidify its place as absolute kingpin of the European natural and heating gas market. The state-owned economic megapower, Gazprom, has a very substantial stake in Libya’s energy industry, especially the so-called “Elephant” oil field. The Russians are loath to put all that at risk for some pesky democracy protesters.
They are also worried about losing their estimated $4 billion worth of arms contracts with Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. So what we hear from the banks of the Moskva is an almost American chorus of “restraint is called for by both sides, a ceasefire is the best possible solution” type of fence-sitting that would make U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proud. Russian saber-rattling was always going to be relatively tame, thereby allowing the West a somewhat free hand (within boundaries, of course) in its response to the Libyan regime.
Syria, however, is a completely different ballgame. Russia’s political, economic, cultural and educational ties run long and deep with the Alawite ruling clique in Damascus. I cannot imagine a situation where either Putin or Medvedev would discard President Bashar Assad like Obama finally did Mubarak. There is simply too much on the line for them. Short of an indigenous coup, where Assad is either expelled or killed, Moscow will not allow the West to do a Libya II on Syria. They would veto any United Nations Security Council resolution, and take real military steps to show that they mean business. And why shouldn’t they? The U.S. goes overboard in propping up the Israeli occupation and the decades-long repression of the Palestinian people – why shouldn’t Russia have its own pet nation?
The point is that Russia, like the Western nations, will only intercede on the side of angels when it suits its perceived national economic and security interests. The peoples of the Arab worlds are proving themselves to be braver and more determined than anyone ever thought they would be. I believe that time will prove them right and the bankrupt policies of both Russia and the West will be relegated to the dustbin of history, along with Joseph Stalin, Ferdinand Marcos and now Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali and Mubarak.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 05/08/2011
-Akram Baker is an entrepreneur and independent political analyst. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter

Understanding Iranian Pragmatism

Ever since its revolution, Tehran has been trying to strike a balance between Islamic values and national interests
By Marwan Kabalan
In March, Saudi Arabia led a coalition force from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into Bahrain to help the government there deal with the unrest instigated by forces believed to have close ties to Iran. ome analysts expected Tehran to take an aggressive stand as the forces moved into Bahrain.
Expectations on Iran's response ranged between putting the US 5th Fleet's base in jeopardy, to using its covert capabilities to threaten the stability of other Gulf Arab states, to direct military intervention.
For the Iranians, the events in Bahrain and the likelihood of it spreading into the Arabian Peninsula represented a golden opportunity for pursuing their long-standing interest of dominating the Gulf.
To the surprise of many, Iran's reaction did not pass the edge of rhetoric. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad strongly condemned the intervention and so did other Iranian leaders. Iran's hardliners who usually dub the US as the ‘Great Satan' went merely a step further when they blamed Washington for giving the ‘green light' to crush the Shiite uprising, "threatening to jeopardise America's interests in the region".
In fact, the effects of ideological influences on the foreign policy of any state present a formidable political and intellectual challenge; and for a country like Iran, which is caught in the pangs of revolution and religion, the challenge is even greater. Ever since its revolution; Iran has been trying to strike a balance between its Islamic values and national interests. This balance has not always been easy to hold.
For instance, Iran has been one of the loudest opponents of the US policy in the Middle East and the Gulf region since 1979.
Oddly enough, however, the revolutionary regime in Tehran found itself — on many occasions — acting against the very logic of its existence and in accordance with US interests. One example in which national interests and the survival of the regime took priority over all other considerations was the relations with the US in the early days of the Iran-Iraq war.
Historians and analysts insist that despite the declared enmity between the two countries, US arms did not stop flowing to Iran, through Israel, even during the hostage crisis, which lasted for 444 days. Iranian cargo planes used Madrid as a refuelling station on the way from the US, carrying spare parts for the US-trained Iranian army.
This was the case not long before the Iran-Contra affair — in which the US agreed to supply Iran with arms, through Israel, in exchange for Iran's help to release the US hostages in Lebanon — was made public.
The Azeri-Armenian war presented another example in which Iran ignored the ideological tenets of the revolution and pursued its national interest instead. Iran surprised many indeed when it supported Christian Armenians against fellow Muslim Azeris during the Nogorno-Karabakh dispute. During the war in Bosnia, Iran and the US found themselves in the same trench again.
Overthrow of Taliban
Throughout that war the US equipped groups of Arab Afghans with weapons and ammunition to fight Bosnian Serbs. The weapons were transported from Iran to Turkey, and shipped by American Hercules planes to Bosnia. Arab Mujahideen were also transported to Bosnia and Kosovo on American airplanes with Iranian help.
Iran was also one of the beneficiaries of the September 11 attacks on the US. It rushed to denounce the attacks and despite its public position against the US invasion of Afghanistan, the US media spoke about US-Iranian co-operation to help overthrow the Taliban regime — a stubborn enemy of Tehran. Iran allowed US warplanes to use its national airspace and US marines were transported on Iranian cargo planes to the east and northern parts of Afghanistan.
Iran also viewed the US invasion of Iraq as a golden opportunity to fulfil a long-held strategic goal of replacing the regime of Saddam Hussain with a friendlier one.
Secret US-Iranian talks were held in European capitals to discuss how Iran could help in overthrowing the Baath rule in Baghdad.
Three decades after its revolution, Iranian foreign policy is getting increasingly influenced by national interest and the instinct of survival, not by Islam or the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran's mild reaction to the intervention in Bahrain must be understood within the context of this pragmatism.
-This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 06/08/2011
-Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations at Damascus University's Faculty of Political Science and Media in Syria

Do We Know It's Ramadan In Somalia?

There's the temptation to sing Do We Know It's Ramadan when thinking about Somalia this holy month. But hold you tongue.
By Saeed Saeed
In November 1984 the rock musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure wrote the charity single Do They Know It's Christmas to raise funds for the growing famine in Ethiopia.
 Frantically consulting Rolodexes, both managed the difficult task of getting more than 40 artists to take part in the one-day recording. The song went on to raise more than £5 million and became the highest-grossing UK single of all time.
 Now more than 25 years later, the haunting images of famine have returned. This time, however, it is luckless Somalia that bears the brunt.
Although the Ethiopian famine came to prominence in the days before Christmas, the Somali version arrives in the heart of Ramadan, one of Islam's holiest months. The contrasting images of the dire situation in Somalia and the festivities in fellow Muslim countries are striking.
In Somalia, children scurry from dilapidated tents in search of water and food, while residents in first world Muslim nations flock to colourful Ramadan tents for iftar feasts.
While some suffering Somalis proclaim that this Ramadan will be no different when it comes to undertaking the fast, news reports from the Gulf speak of growing consumer dissatisfaction at price gouging by opportunistic retailers.
Although no Muslim artists are reported to be planning to follow the route of Geldof and Ure, it is the dignity of some of the fasting Somalis that leads one to ask: Do We Know It's Ramadan?
After spending two decades' worth of Ramadans in Australia, I was excited at the prospect at sharing this blessed month in a Muslim country. Stories from friends and families who had lived or fasted in such societies whetted the appetite, so to speak.
"It is so easy," a relative said. "It is a beautiful feeling because you don't have to worry about things like finding a mosque."
"The food!" a friend exclaimed. "All shapes and colours … and it's all halal."
They were not wrong. In the days leading up to Ramadan in Abu Dhabi, I sensed a palpable, infectious excitement. Mosques received an extra scrubbing to prepare for the rush of worshippers, while small portable mosques were placed in front of those undergoing renovations.
Even corporations came across as benign, with large banners wishing potential customers Ramadan Kareem. Then the crescent moon was sighted and society happily slipped into Ramadan mode. The street lanterns festooning my Karama neighbourhood beam bons mots of encouragement to be more generous.
The mosques bulged during Salat Al Taraweeh, a special congregational prayer performed nightly during Ramadan. Our work life dropped a few gears as most companies and businesses implemented shorter working hours.
And, of course, a sure sign that the month is well and truly here is in the daily Ramadan rush hour: the white-knuckle driving experience before sunset as the whole country seems to rush home to break the fast on time.
 The excitement and jubilation extend into a wonderful month-long festival with Eid Al Fitr, the three-day celebration marked with gifts serving as the pinnacle.
This year, however, Ramadan has taken a less-fortunate Muslim neighbour to remind us what our true intentions should be when fasting. When it comes to Somalia, the term "less fortunate" seems hopelessly inappropriate. Mauled by decades of civil war and foreign interventions, Somalia is in the grips of a growing famine that has already claimed the lives of nearly 30,000 children alone.
The Somalian president is visiting neighbouring countries with his hat out and international aid bodies are marshalling teams to enter affected areas.
Fortunately, the Emirati Red Crescent and the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Humanitarian Foundation have arrived in Mogadishu to distribute much-needed food to more than 350,000 refugees in 55 camps.
As well as the rice, maize, cooking oil and dates, what our Somali brethren really require from fellow Muslims in the Gulf is empathy, a quality that forms a cornerstone of Ramadan but sadly has lost lustre among the seasonal indulgences.
Fasting is often lazily described as an attempt to feel similar to those poor or downtrodden. One cannot act or be poor. You either are or are not. The desperation intrinsic to poverty or famine lies in the lack of hope. One cannot simulate such a feeling, knowing it will all come to an end in a few hours.
So the best explanation for why we forgo food and water is to foster a sense of empathy with those less fortunate. This is where Ramadan's true treasure lies. Yet it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve when one's life is wrapped up in modern comfort.
When everything - from work hours to social activities - is geared towards making your fast as easy as possible, the bar to achieving empathy grows higher. That's why we hear stories that the most rewarding fasts are those of people living in some of the more challenging locations.
Although it is becoming increasingly easier now, Ramadan remains an uphill struggle for most Australians, for example. Each day brings daily challenges, from fasting among coffee-drinking and sandwich-munching co-workers, to finding a place to pray while at work or school. Not to mention the nightly commutes to the mosque.
During the summer months, the fasting could stretch up to 17 hours; Taraweeh prayers finished only three hours before the next day's fasting began. Despite the hardships, each Ramadan Down Under is looked forward to with more enthusiasm. My family and friends say it's the community solidarity that pushes them through some of the spiritual humps the long month presents.
I prefer to define that solidarity as the empathy the blessed month brings. With each Ramadan, empathy is rekindled and it continues to hold the small Australian Muslim community together in spite of the near endless barrage negative media coverage.
Similar stories can be heard from Muslim communities in Europe and North America - even in the Caribbean. While Australian, North American and European Muslims must look for mosques each Ramadan, the challenge for those blessed to be living in Muslim societies is to foster and maintain that empathy.
I do not advocate turning off our air conditioning systems for the month to live a more ascetic life. The joy of Ramadan lies in the daily social interactions and family gatherings. But we do need to become more aware of our actions: whether it is in the way we conduct our communal iftars or the activities done while fasting.
This is the best means to prevent Ramadan joining the likes of Christmas and Easter, which, sadly, have come to represent the pinnacle of shopping and consumption of confectioneries.
Empathy is as close as we will get to those fasting in unimaginable conditions in Somalia this Ramadan. Through empathy their hunger will echo in our temporarily empty stomachs, their pleas will be on our tongues when we kneel down in prayer. It is from here that true charity can be given, without prompting from media campaigns or a sappy pop song.
-This commentary was published in The National on 06/08/2011
-Saeed Saeed is a feature writer for The National

The Security Council’s Pro-Syrian ‘Defiance Coalition’ Crumbles

By Raghida Dergham in New York
 At long last, the members of the UN Security Council have united in condemning the broad violation of human rights and use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities, and have placed the regime in Damascus under observation and accountability. Having hitherto categorically opposed the discussion of the Syrian crisis at the Security Council, the so-called ‘defiance coalition’ has crumbled, and its members have now joined the “consensus” over the need to break the deadly silence on Syria, as hundreds of civilians there have fallen victim to the brutality of their government.
This coalition in fact comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, or the BRICs. These countries had strongly resisted involving the Security Council in the Syrian crisis, using the Libyan predicament as a pretext. To the BRICs, the Western countries and NATO have gone too far in their understanding of Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 on Libya, which were, as a result, interpreted as a mandate for carrying out military operations that the BRICs did not have in mind when they approved the two resolutions.
The BRICs then overcame their demurral, allowing the Security Council to adopt a clear position on Syria. By contrast, the Arab League and with it the majority of Arab countries have chosen to bury their heads in the sand, and abstain from taking a stance on Syria similar to theirs on Libya. Whether this has stemmed from their duplicity or their argument that strategic circumstances in the two countries differ, the essence of the official Arab stance is to forsake the Syrian people, and the stance of the Arab League – as disclosed by its new Secretary-General Nabil El-Araby – reduces it to the level of an institution that represents regimes and governments exclusively, and not the Arab peoples, their rights and their aspirations for democracy and freedom. On the other hand, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has proven much bolder in defending the Arabs peoples, and refused to remain silent vis-à-vis the oppression and the violence they are being subjected to at the hands of their ruling regimes. He has raised the banner of human rights high and declared his absolute devotion to the principle of ending impunity. Ban Ki-moon persisted in contacting the leaders concerned, and never stopped trying, even when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refused to take the UN Secretary General’s phone calls in protest of the latter’s criticism against the Syrian leader. This week, when the military stepped up its operations and killed 140 people in Hama in a single day, Ban Ki-moon did not hesitate to say that Bashar al-Assad had “lost all sense of humanity”. He made this statement while deadly silence continued to mar the Arab League, as well as the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which had a staunch position on the Libyan crisis, but was nearly absent with regard to Syria.
This week’s developments at the Security Council were also worthy of note, in light of the stance taken by Lebanon, the only Arab member of the UNSC. Lebanon had taken the initiative over Libya, when Lebanese Ambassador Nawaf Salam carried the “document” designating the Arab League’s official position, with a view to gather support for the stances issued by the Council in this vein. Several precedents were recorded as a result, among them tasking the International Criminal Court (ICC) with investigating crimes against humanity – and the ensuing arrest warrants issued by the ICC against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his son. Yet when it came to similar violations in Syria, the role of Lebanon at the Security Council regressed, from taking the initiative to being elusive and silent, as Lebanon dodged its responsibilities. In truth, the Security Council members were very understanding of this, in view of the “special” relationship between Lebanon and Syria, in the sense that the Lebanese government is subjected to the dictates of the Syrian government.
The novel thing about Lebanon’s stance was the fact that it “disassociated” itself from the presidential statement issued by the Security Council, which called on Syrian authorities “to fully respect human rights and to comply with their obligations under applicable international law”, asserting that “those responsible for the violence should be held accountable”.
Seldom does the Security Council issue a statement that does not meet the approval of all 15 of its members, although there perhaps were one or two rare precedents in the 1970s. The BRICs, in particular Russia, had tried to hide behind Lebanon and its inability to join the consensus over a presidential statement. However, the deteriorating situation in Syria forced them to allow the Security Council to issue some kind of statement, albeit preferring it to be a presidential statement rather than a formal resolution.
The Lebanese government, however, opted not to join this consensus, in order not to antagonize Damascus, and also out of fear that the Lebanese government would collapse as a result. At the same time, Lebanon did not want to bear responsibility for obstructing the presidential statement or to allow any party to use its stance as a pretext to do the same. This is why it opted for the idea of Lebanon “disassociating itself” from the presidential statement, as Deputy Permanent Representative Caroline Ziade said at the Security Council, stating that Lebanon believes that the statement “does not help in addressing the current situation in Syria”.
Thus, the Lebanese government dodged both a quandary and its responsibility at the same time. It did not stand in the way of the Security Council’s unity and consensus over a strong and firm statement that used a resolute language with Damascus. As one person said, Lebanon raised its arm to allow consensus to pass instead of bowing before pressures to reject any condemnation of Damascus, or to obstruct the presidential statement, something that would most likely have led to a resolution being issued by the UNSC. Yet at the end of the day, and whether it is a presidential statement or a formal resolution, a unanimous stance has been taken in condemning the Syrian authorities’ crackdown on civilians. The Lebanese government could not join in, however, in view of the “special relationship”. However, one must state that this relationship is not predicated on real independence, but rather the contrary. This of course is something that this government may be reproached for, and is indeed a source of embarrassment for the country.
Ultimately, every Security Council member state behaved in accordance with their responsibilities, even when some had acted previously with a great deal of demurral, defiance and obstructionism of accountability, while the Syrian authorities continued to shed blood. The stances of the BRICs thus seemed as if they were encouraging Damascus to go even further in committing its violations, as the regime felt that it was above being held to account and under the protection of the defiance coalition at the Security Council. Thus, those countries have done harm to the Syrian people, as they have prompted the Syrian regime to delude itself into thinking that it would not be held to account.
But the spectre of accountability and prosecution will continue to loom over Arab regimes, which have seen their people come out into the streets to demand that they leave and step down. This is while a difference in the magnitude of these regimes’ fear from international versus local accountability and prosecution indeed exists. The sight of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak lying on a hospital bed inside a caged dock and under trial is doubtless a terrifying scene for any head of state watching his people rise up against him. Perhaps, as some have said, the trial of Hosni Mubarak, with his two sons Alaa and Gamal present with him in the dock in the white uniforms mandatory for defendants, will prompt the ruling class in the Arab countries to cling even more to power and to refuse to step down, out of fear of being subjected to a popular or official trial.
But this terrifying scene could perhaps also prompt those in power in Libya, Yemen and Syria, to consider the idea of stepping down and leaving in a more positive light. It could lead to doing away with their slogan of “I shall never leave”, because staying in the country would carry the risk of their being killed or prosecuted, while leaving with guarantees may ensure them a lesser extent of accountability.
The presence of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Saudi Arabia protects him, in effect, from facing the possibility of prosecution or accountability inside Yemen. The initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had presented him with the idea of stepping down and not being held to account or prosecuted. After he stalled for a long time in responding to this initiative, the events on the ground and his injury took him to Saudi Arabia for treatment, something that brought him in effect outside the scope of accountability, as he is to all intents and purposes stepping down from power.
Meanwhile, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi refused to listen to the advice given to him and to the offers for him to step down and leave before the ICC issues arrest warrants against him and his son, Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, on charges of committing war crimes. This has reduced the possibilities of ensuring his safe departure. Even when countries not party to the ICC had presented Gaddafi with the idea of stepping down and offered him their willingness to host him away from prosecution, he presumed that, even if he became – as he now is – wanted by international justice, he would be above being held to account. He assumed that his case would follow the model of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir’s case, who was able to remain in power, and has even continued to receive Western and international officials, despite the arrest warrant issued against him by the ICC. By doing this he took the risk of possibly being prosecuted at home alongside being held to account by international justice. Perhaps the sight of Hosni Mubarak in the caged dock will push Muammar Gaddafi to reconsider, step down and leave to some corner of Africa. But then perhaps it will have the opposite effect.
As for Bashar Al-Assad, he does not seem likely to admit that the collapse of his regime has become inevitable, and still believes that those who will be held to account and prosecuted instead are those who dared to defy his regime and protest in Syrian cities. The sight of Hosni Mubarak in the caged dock may indeed lead him to reconsider and recalculate, and to decide that he would not expose himself to any local trial or international accountability. Rather, he may prove more intelligent than the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and step down in an orderly and respectable fashion. But yet the opposite may happen.
 What is perfectly clear is that a radical change has taken place in the stances taken by the international community, and by important and influential countries both in the Security Council and outside of it. Meanwhile, the US Administration has indeed resolved to irrevocably step up pressures on the regime and cut off its lifelines. This is while Europe has been clear and determined in irreversibly abandoning the regime in Damascus. And as regards Russia, it has begun to reconsider its stances, and so have China, India, Brazil and South Africa. So perhaps what Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said reflects the general atmosphere, when he pleaded with Bashar Al-Assad to “please listen more attentively”, adding that “just continuing like this is not sustainable” and that “he cannot, and they cannot, continue like this, killing their people”.
-This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 05/08/2011

Syria: Not A State?

By Adel Al Toraifi
Nobody wants to describe their own country as a “failed state”, or see it transformed into a battlefield. Anybody whose country has experienced a bloody civil war knows what it is to be an exile, or not to be allowed to return home. What is happening today in Syria can only be described as a civil war; with a partisan army and sectarian armed militia confronting the peaceful majority. When watching hundreds of unarmed protesters being shot and killed by pro-regime forces, one can only ask: how can this happen in a modern civil state?
In an interview with Dr .Muhammad al-Houni, the long-time adviser to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi stated that the situation in Libya was destined to become a civil war, unlike the Egyptian and Tunisian cases where the military sided with the demonstrators to protect the state against collapse. Dr. al-Houni stated that “Libya is a country without a constitution, an army, a parliament, or [political] parties. Libya is a country without a president or vice president. Libya is not a state.” [Al Majalla Magazine, 19 July issue].
This might seem a harsh description of Libya and the Libyan people; however in reality Libya is not alone in this, indeed there are a number of Arab republics that can be viewed as countries ruled by authoritarian regimes but which cannot be considered civil states that possess constitutional legitimacy and sovereignty, unless we are judging this by the criteria of “Westphalian sovereignty”. As for the concept of modern states – namely a state of institutions that possesses constitutional legitimacy and follows secular conventional laws – no such state exists in the ranks of modern Arab republics. One only needs to look at the Syrian state today and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to confirm this. Neither country possessed civil institutions in the modern understanding, for the apparatus and institutions that are in place are nothing more than an extension of the ruling parties. As for institutions such as the judiciary and the military, these are solely made up by members of the political elite, whilst the constitution is nothing more than a document that sanctions one-party rule and which nobody but the ruling party is allowed to interpret.
In situations such as this, it is difficult to find a modern civil state that exists on the ground [in the Arab world], rather than a nationalist entity that has the features of a state, and which can perform the tasks of a state, and which can represent a people on the regional and international arenas, if nothing more. We are, of course, speaking about countries that possess full sovereignty in the eyes of international law as well as regional and international organizations. However the concept of a state in this instance is more than borders and diplomatic recognition according to international law. Here we must distinguish between a state as a political entity (polity) and a state based on constitutional legitimacy in which civil law prevails; meaning a state of law (Rechtsstaat).
Readers might say that it is pointless to distinguish between these two meanings whilst protests are raging against republican regimes in the region. However this distinction is necessary and important because Arab people today only know what they don’t want [with regards to the features of any future state], namely an autocratic single party state under a president-for-life. However they do not know what kind of state they want to replace this with. The Arab demonstrator who loudly calls for his president to “depart” is sincere in his rejection of the existing regime, but there is no agreement with the demonstrator standing next to him – or indeed with other citizens who are not demonstrating at all – regarding the mechanisms of rule, or the form of the future regime or state that will replace the existing one. We have repeatedly heard that the majority of people want a democratically electoral regime, but in reality the ballot box is a neutral mechanism or system for bringing in a regime, it is not a regime in itself. As for the issue of democracy, it is nothing more than the superficial conception of what might be termed the “people’s will” or “majority rule.” There are, of course, those who know what they want with regards to any future regime, but what concerns us here is that there is no consensus in any Arab republic today with regards to the nature or form of the future political regime that will replace the existing autocratic one.
Such talk goes beyond mere philosophic self-indulgence, and rather represents the crux of the matter with regards to the current popular uprisings taking place in more than one Arab state. Some might say that the priority should not be putting forward different models of rule, but rather toppling the autocratic regimes that are confronting their own people with arms and killing them. However we must say that the popular uprisings taking place in the region should possess the bare minimum with regards to conceiving a realistic alternative to replace the existing regimes. Everybody wants democracy, but everybody has their own interpretation of what is required.
There are those who argue that the popular uprisings that have swept the Arab republics have brought together contradictory ideological currents and trends, uniting them in their opposition of hereditary rule and life-long presidencies. However the question that must be asked here is: what happens after the former regime departs peacefully or is forcibly overthrown? Will these different political entities be able to agree to a realistic political and economic mechanism with regards to establishing a modern civil state? We still don’t know the answer to this question, and it is open to a number of possibilities, some of which are good, and some of which are bad.
Arab states are political entities that have, for the most part, yet to fulfil the modern civil state model. There is no shame in acknowledging this, but rather the problem lies with those who are blinded to this fact. Let us take Syria, for example, it is today witnessing unprecedented unrest in its modern history and is on the verge of a civil war with sectarian dimensions. This country, which had been formed out of several Ottoman administrative divisions, suddenly became a state in itself, after the colonial power [the Ottoman Empire] laid the foundations for this and the establishment of the [modern] state of Syria. Some Syrians [following independence] thought of uniting with the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq, whilst Syria did unify with Egypt during the Nasserite era [forming the United Arab Republic]. Following the collapse of this joint-state, Syria might have united with Iraq were it not for the disagreements between the Baathist parties in both countries. Over the past 40 years, Syria has been ruled by a racist ideological party that portrayed itself as a regime of “resistance” externally, whilst remained an Alawite-controlled regime internally. If you look at the divided and contradictory opposition in Syria [calling for the overthrow of the Damascus regime] according to its ideological, sectarian, nationalist and tribal loyalties, you would see that they are political entities whose adherers have no clear or unified national vision regarding the future of the Syrian state.
This does not represent justification for the existing regime remaining in power, but we must acknowledge that there are flaws and a lack of political, ethical, and moral awareness with regards to the majority of parties and individuals within the opposition across the region. In the 1920s and 1930s, some argued that the regional states priority must be to obtain independence and get rid of the foreign colonialism, and then following this our nations and states could dedicate themselves to building a modern civil state. However over the past 100 years, Arabs have failed, with a few exceptions, to establish modern civil states. Today, defenders of the "Arab Spring" argue that priority should be given to getting rid of these despotic rulers and then we can focus upon establishing modern civil states in the future. But here lies the dilemma: demonstrators in Arab squares may be able to topple the existing regimes, but it is not clear how they will create better regimes without changing the ideas, values, morals or religious systems in the Arab world.
In her book "God has Ninety-Nine Names" (1997), Judith Miller summarized the Syrian state of affairs by asking "What has al-Assad built? A number of hotels, roads and statues of himself. By the humanitarian criteria, he has built nothing; not democracy, not even genuine governmental institutions. Our country has no foundations; this is why I am afraid. When Hafiz [al-Assad] dies, I do not know what will happen to us. Will we see chaos, civil war, or the rise of an armed Islamist government?”
-This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 06/08/2011
-Adel Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla magazine

Friday, August 5, 2011

Could Arab Staying Power Ultimately Defeat Zionism?

Abbas's UN appeal, combined with the civil rights fight inside Israel, is changing the nature of the Palestinian struggle

By David Hearst

Matt Kenyon 05/08/2011
'Sumud', meaning steadfastness, or staying put, has become a strategy for many Palestinians living inside Israel. Illustration: Matt Kenyon

There is an Arabic word you come across a lot when Palestinians talk about their future. Sumud means steadfastness, and it has turned into a strategy: when the imbalance of power is so pronounced, the most important thing to do is to stay put.
Staying put against overwhelming odds is regarded as a victory. But it is more than just a word. It's the look in Rifqua al-Kurd's eyes as she fights eviction in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. She lives out of boxes, because when the police throw her out and the settlers move in she doesn't want the clothes thrown into the street. Sumud is the tenacity with which Mohammed Hussein Jibor, a farmer, clings to a rock-strewn patch of land in the South Hebron hills in 38 degrees heat. His water cistern has been destroyed three times this year because he does not have a permit for it, even though the court acknowleges it is his land. Sumud sums up the attitude of the Bedouin struggling to stay in 45 unrecognised villages in the Negev, without a supply of water, electricity or schools. Once the entire Negev was theirs, now only 6% is. Israel wants to put the Bedouin in townships while establishing 130 Jewish villages and agricultural settlements on the land. Talab al-Sana, their MP, says: "They want Jews to be Bedouin and Bedouin to be Ashkenaz [European Jews]."

Sumud crops up in some unexpected places – not only East Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza, but in Jaffa, Lod, and in Arab communities all over Israel among people who have nominally the same rights as any other citizen. As September looms and with it the attempt by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to get a declaration of statehood from the UN, the spotlight has swivelled on to these .
This is not a casual shift, as it could affect outcomes. If Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank, and allows it to join with Gaza, the result could be two states – a Palestinian one alongside an Israeli one. But if you accompany that with a civil rights movement inside Israel, the goal could be very different – a secular, democratic state "for all its citizens", where Jew, Christian and Muslim are equal. A one-state solution in which Jewish citizens lose an inbuilt majority. The end of Zionism, no less.

More than 100,000 Arabs stayed on after 1948 and today number more than 1.5 million, roughly a fifth of the population of Israel. The '48 Arabs, as they are known, are no longer seen as separate, exclusive or privileged. After so many years, their fight for civil rights within Israel is a struggle most Palestinians under occupation can identify with. It was not always thus. They were known pejoratively as "insiders", according to the dissident Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, who has written a book about them. Trying to be "good Arabs" in Jewish eyes was tantamout to collaboration in Arab ones. But much has changed.
Pappé says: "The people in the West Bank understood what the minorities inside Israel felt like, after years of deriding them for being lesser Palestinians, and that when the main impulse of the power that controls everything in your daily life is expulsionist, staying put is quite an achievement."

Another historian, Sami Abu Shehadeh, is doing his doctoral thesis on Jaffa as the major Arab cultural and economic centre during the mandate period. It had its own Arabic press, eight cinemas, five hospitals and about 120,000 people. After the 1948 war, 3,900 were left.
It is standard practice for historians at Tel Aviv University to explain the time frame of their research and why it ends when it does. Shehadeh stopped his in 1948 because that was when Jaffa stopped existing as a city. "My adviser told me: 'Sami, we might agree or disagree on the word expelled, but I don't know who will sit on your committee [to adjudicate the thesis] if you insist on using it.'" A compromise was negotiated – rare in this part of the world. Shehadeh wrote that, as a result of the war, the Arabs of Jaffa "had to leave and were not allowed back".

"Forget politics, on the basic historical facts we fight on everything," he says. "I dont even know where to start a normal discussion. We live totally separate lives. Outsiders don't see it. In Israel there are different spaces for Jews and Arabs. The problem is the vast majority of elites, and not just political but economic and intellectual ones, define themselves as being part of a Jewish democracy and concentrate all their thinking on the rights of the Jews. Non-Jews, be they Christian or Muslim, are excluded from any serious decision-making process in their lives."
That goes for the Israeli left as well as right. As a member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipal council, Shehadeh tried to persuade Yaël Dayan, the leftwing head of the coalition in charge of the council, to divide Tel Aviv-Jaffa into quarters, like any other big city. Maybe it is better for the Arabs of Jaffa if we keep on running things for them, he was told.

"The only thing the world knows about Jaffa is oranges," says Shehadeh. "I am not an orange. [Benjamin] Netanyahu, when he was finance minister, called people like me a demographic timebomb. How can I explain to my children that they are a bomb?"
The discrimination suffered by his community is extensively documented. Half live below the poverty line, 48% can not build a house for the next 15 years because there no permits or plans. Only 19% of Arab women with Israeli citizenship are in a job, compared with 65% of Jewish women.

But the terrain of their changing identity and allegiance is not so well mapped. Israel demands expressions of loyality from them. Loyality to what, they ask. A democracy or a supremacist state?
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 05/08/2011
David Hearst is a foreign leader writer for the Guardian

The Mubarak Trial, Or Justice Over Power

By Rami G. Khouri
The trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons that started in Cairo on Wednesday is both stirring and historic. It captures a rare moment of renaissance in Egypt and the Arab world, the rebirth of a people and their political culture that had died long ago and to a large extent detoured away from the march of human history.
The most telling and operative aspect of the court proceedings were the words “justice is the basis of governance,” inscribed in Arabic on the front of the judge’s dais. Here was the symbol, and also the substance, of a moribund land coming back to life, where the mass ignominy and shame of citizens are slowly being replaced with national pride, self-confidence and hope.
It is hard to exaggerate the symbolism of what happened in that Cairo courtroom. Nothing like this sort of cleansing and rebirth has ever been experienced in the Arab world during the past century, since the modern Arab state system was born. This is why for six months now, the entire Middle East has followed day-to-day events in Egypt with a combination of awe and anticipation. Arabs everywhere have been deeply impressed by the dramatic and continuing transformation of Egyptian political culture, and fully aware that what happens in Egypt is likely to influence the future of their countries.
The good news and the steps forward continue to flow, week after week, alongside the difficulties and frustrations of a slow Egyptian political transformation and economic revitalization. It was clear from the start that the revolution launched in January of this year would need months and years to run its course, as an exhausted, corrupt old system of authoritarian rule was replaced by a new and democratic governance structure that has to be built from the ground up.
The Mubarak trial is a special moment for many reasons, but one stands out above all the rest: It reassures Egyptians and Arabs that an essential building block of a democratic and equitable new Egyptian system is already in place – a fair and independent justice system. The sight of Mubarak and his sons Gamal and Alaa, former Interior Minister Habib Adly, along with other accused former officials, in a public trial where they have a chance to argue and prove their innocence is one of the most important signs to date of the heady promise of this Egyptian revolution. It affirms in a way that has been missing from Egypt for the last 60 years – 60 years! – of military-dominated governments that nobody is above the law, and that everybody has access to the protection of the due process of law.
I am impressed and buoyed by these developments because I believe that the three essential elements of credible democracy – or movement toward democracy, in the Egyptian case – are now in place: a respectable and independent judicial system, a free press and other means for citizens to express themselves, and mechanisms by which the authority of civilians can challenge or temper the rule of military men (including parliaments and constitutional protections).
That is why the start of this Mubarak trial is so significant. It is partly about dealing with the crimes and traumas of the past; but it is much more about asserting the promise and hopes of the future of the Egyptian people. They went to bed on Wednesday night confident that public officials who engage in criminal activity in the future are likely to be held accountable for ill deeds – before a fair court.
Most importantly, perhaps, the trial is important and historic because it provides a unique example of how the bad can be transformed into the good in this messy, often derelict, Arab world that we have inherited from the last four generations of selfish rulers. The Mubarak trial – however it turns out – sends the simple but powerful message that we should never lose hope in the fundamental sense of justice and fairness permeating so many aspects of Arab life and culture, but that has often been lost in the lust for power and money that dominates so many dimensions of Arab public authority and governance.
“Justice” is not a newly discovered realm for Arab citizens. It has long been a rallying cry for opposition movements across the Arab world during the past several generations, whether Islamists, nationalists, tribalists, progressives or others. Justice largely disappeared from public and private life, however, when military and security men and their executive branch underlings gutted, bought, or terrorized independent judiciaries, and stacked parliaments with their ilk.
On Wednesday in Cairo, however, justice resurfaced with drama. We should bear in mind, though, that the return of the tribunal, and the rule of law, to Egyptian life, rather than the demise of the accused, was the really important story, and lesson that will endure.
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 05/08/2011

What To Do About Yemen?

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Whilst there has been much analysis on the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, comparatively little attention has been devoted to the situation in Yemen, where there have been ongoing protests, particularly in the south, against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has announced that he will not seek another term in office. This raises two important questions. What is the present state of Western governments’ policies towards Yemen? How, if at all, should they be changed? These problems are urgent to resolve in light of the active Al-Qaeda insurgency (‘Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’- AQAP) in the south of the country, which is likely to have been responsible for the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Currently, the main financial backer of Saleh’s government is the US, which has dramatically increased military aid to Yemen since the failed Christmas plot. This aid has effectively been doubledand could well reach $250 millionin 2011, excluding the substantial amounts of development aid that will probably increase too. The US also occasionally carries out drone attacks in counter-terrorism operations. Despite such measures, however, the country has become progressively more unstable, as Al-Qaeda now has a well-established foothold in the south, which is itself mostly in the hands of separatist movements that Saleh failed to integrate into the political system after the Yemeni civil war in the 1990s.
One useful way to look into the failures of Western policies in Yemen is through examining the Wikileaks cables, which show that US diplomats were actually well aware of Saleh’s double game of diverting aid to suppress internal opponents. For example, U.S. ambassador Stephen Seche noted in one cable that Saleh was using a commando group (funded and trained by Britain and the US since 2002 to fight Al-Qaeda) and perhaps American Humvees against Houthis.
The Houthis are a Shi’a movement in the north of the country that began a revolt in 2004, primarily in opposition to what they regard as discrimination by Saleh’s government against the north in terms of jobs, development and lack of political autonomy. Although Qatar was able to mediate a ceasefire between the Houthis and Saleh’s government back in August, a lasting peace agreement failed to materialise. Seche himself merely protests vainly against what he rightly sees as the Yemeni government’s misuse of US military aid.
Incidentally, the cables dispel the myth that US officials regard Al-Qaeda as being in any sort of alliance with the Houthis. For example, in a meeting in September 2009 with White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, Saleh specifically pressured the US to provide armoured vehicles, airplanes and ambulances for his campaign against the Houthis. Brennan rejected Saleh’s pleas, affirmingthat ‘the USG [U.S. government] is prohibited by law from providing military support to the [Yemeni government] to be used against the Houthis since the USG considers the group a domestic insurgency’.
Meanwhile, Saleh has been remarkably tolerant of Al-Qaeda figures in Yemen. At lunch with a US envoy in 2007, he openly braggedabout having met with Jamal Badawi for a chat only two weeks earlier. Badawi was the chief Al-Qaeda member responsible for orchestrating the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 that killed seventeen people. Though Badawi’s whereabouts are unknown today, it is clear that Saleh has been pursuing a strategy of attempting to co-opt Al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen rather than crack down on them. When one also takes into account the diversion of Western support to crush internal opposition, is it any wonder that Al-Qaeda is so well entrenched in the country, in contrast to an estimate of only 50-100 Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan?
So what is the best course of action for Western governments vis-à-vis Yemen? Given the corruption and unpopularity of Saleh’s regime, together with its unreliability as an ally in counter-terrorism operations against AQAP, it seems that the most sensible option is to simply end aid to his government and allow it to fall at the hands of the current wave of protests in Yemen.
One might object that such a move would instead help AQAP by creating a power vacuum. This would certainly be a risk, but not if the West backs the Houthis, who are themselves opposed to Al-Qaeda, with the latter now having declared jihadagainst the Houthis in an audio message posted on the Internet. As Saeed Ali al-Shihri, the deputy leader of AQAP, puts it: ‘to our Sunni fellows in northern Yemeni provinces of Saada, Al- Jouf and Amran, we (AQAP) announced jihad (holy war) against Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite advocates’.
In this context, it should be pointed out that there is no evidence that Iran is backing the Houthi rebels. Even so, with Western support and guarantees for protection, the Houthis could well serve as a containment force, diverting AQAP’s attention from waging international jihad and spreading beyond Yemen into the Arabian Peninsula, since the group’s primary goal is to unite Yemen as an Islamist state.
On the other hand, the US should end drone attacks in Yemen (where overt military intervention, as in Somalia and Pakistan, undermines our own security interests), whilst Western governments should make it clear to AQAP that any further aggression will be met with severe retaliation. Furthermore, if our governments are to win over the Houthis, who are at present resentful of Western support for Saleh, they should also put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop conducting airstrikes against Houthis in Yemeni territory, a fact of which US officials have long been aware.
By adopting a strategy of containment as outlined, it does not follow that AQAP will be eradicated from Yemen, but the West will at least be able to safeguard security interests against any threats emanating from Islamist militants in that country. For too long, review of policy towards Yemen has been neglected. A major shift is desperately needed.
-This commentary was published in The Yemen Times on 04/08/2011
-Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an intern at Daniel Pipes’ Philadelphia-based think-tank, the Middle East Forum