Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why Palestinian Leaders Are Doing Obama A Favor By Taking Their U.N. Bid To The Security Council

By Tony Karon

                        Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (EPA)
Friday's announcement by President Mahmoud Abbas that he will next week present the U.N. Security Council with a formal request for U.N. membership of a sovereign state of Palestine may be better news for Israel and the U.S. than it might appear, even if it confirms the failure of the Obama Administration to stop the move.
Conventional wisdom on the Palestinian move for U.N. action on the stalled peace process holds that seeking Security Council authorization of full U.N. membership creates a bigger headache for the Obama Administration than if the Palestinians instead heed European pleas to settle for a lesser option -- asking the General Assembly to upgrade the status of the Palestinian entity to something between an observer and a member  (or, as the media loves to say, something equivalent to the status of the Vatican, without pausing to consider quite how ridiculous that sounds). The reason the Security Council approach is deemed more challenging for President Obama is that it would osentsibly force the U.S. to isolate itself internationally -- and squander any Arab-public goodwill earned through  helping overthrow Gaddafi -- in order to wield the veto promised to Israel and the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Washington.
But the conventional wisdom has it wrong, suggests former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy, now at the New America Foundation.  An approach to the Security Council will actually reduce next week's much-hyped showdown during the General Assembly session in New York to little more than a series of predictable speeches. Going the Security Council route makes any action very unlikely. That's because the first response to a Security Council request to admit Palestine as a U.N. member state would that familiar Washington ritual: Setting up a committee.
"Any application would almost certainly have to be considered by a technical committee of the whole, and that could take time," warns Levy. The process would almost certainly be drawn out well beyond the General Assembly session. So, timing alone would likely deny the Palestinians the option of responding to a U.S. veto at the Security Council by immediately taking the issue to the General Assembly, where it would win overwhelming backing -- albeit for the lesser, but nonetheless potentially important goal of upgrading Palestinian status and codifying the international consensus on terms for a two-state solution, which Israel's government continues to reject.
By going to Security Council in the same week that the General Assembly is in session, in fact, the Palestinians "might even find their entire U.N. moment sidestepped by extended committee deliberation."
Even in the less probable event that a Security Council application for membership was brought to a rapid vote, the U.S. is unlikely to be the only country withholding its support: Germany has already indicated that it won't support a recognition of full member status now, nor is Britain likely to do so, while the votes of France and Colombia might be in play and the U.S. might even hope to persuade Nigeria and Gabon to abstain. By going to the Security Council without first demonstrating their overwhelming support in the General Assembly, the Palestinians are therefore taking a risk. (And, of course, some of the Europeans that won't vote in favor of full membership at the Security Council are trying to persuade Abbas to ask for something less at the General Assembly, for which they could vote without fearing they'd create an a confrontation over Israel's continued occupation of the territory of what had now been recognized as a sovereign Palestinian state.)
In short, despite all the buildup, next week's "showdown" in New York could turn out to be a damp squib if the Palestinians approach the Security Council and, as is likely, get no immediate answer. On the other hand, getting an overwhelming majority of the General Assembly to recognize the contours of a Palestinian state as being based on the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital, would strengthen the Palestinians' hand in future negotiations with Israel, even if the Assembly cannot confer full U.N. membership. That would provide a significant counterbalance to the advantages the Israelis enjoy by having peace talks exclusively mediated by Washington, where Israel's overwhelming advantage in domestic political support effectively precludes even-handedness.
But although matters remain fluid and very much in play, Friday's announcement suggests that Abbas is taking the largely symbolic route of applying for full membership, knowing that the outcome will be unfavorable but not having availed himself of an opportunity to expand Palestinian' leverage in a battle to end the occupation. Indeed, argues Levy, the Security Council route is almost certain to leave the status quo untouched. Abbas will go back to his people and tell them he won a moral victory; Netanyahu will tell Israelis that he, in fact, was the moral victor, and reality on the ground in the West Bank will remain entirely unchanged. As Levy puts it, "The journey back to the golden cage of Palestinian Authority co-habitation with Israeli occupation is a shorter one from the Security Council than it is from the General Assembly."
This commentary was published in the Time on 16/09/2011

Islamists Hit At Libya’s Liberal Leadership

By Borzou Daragahi in Tripoli and Roula Khalaf in London
Libyan rebels soldiers embrace as they grieve at Martyr Square formerly known as Green Square, for the Eid Al-Fitr prayer
A rift has emerged within Libya’s nascent political leadership as Islamists seek to assert themselves by lashing out against nominally secular liberals perceived as too power hungry and tainted by ties with the former regime of Muammer Gaddafi.
The tensions are raising questions about the role of Islamists in the post-Gaddafi era and threaten to destabilise a fragile national transitional council at a time when rebels are still fighting on several fronts.
The Arab spring has proved a boon for Islamist movements, which had formed the most organised opposition against autocratic regimes. Libya’s Islamists, however, are an unknown quantity and their influence on the political transition remains difficult to gauge.
Criticism of liberal members of the NTC, particularly the prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, has been led by Sheikh Ali Salabi, a Qatar-based Islamist preacher who is thought to be popular among Islamist-leaning Libyans.
Mr Jibril must resign, the sheikh told al-Jazeera news channel this week, because he lacks wide support in Libya and is too weak a prime minister.
Others were more explicit in their criticism of Mr Jibril, who completed his doctorate in political science at the University of Pittsburgh and spent much of his adult life abroad.
“He studied in the west, and his thinking is that way,” said Mohammed Darrat, a political leader in the city of Misurata. “We want Libyan democracy, but we don’t want something from outside.”
The infighting has caught the attention of Libya’s transitional authorities. Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the interim government, on Monday called for unity in his first speech since arriving in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. He told cheering crowds that Islamic law would be the main source of legislation, but also tried to assuage western fears by underlining that the state would be based on “moderate” Islam.
“We will not accept any extremist ideology, on the right or the left. We are a Muslim people, for a moderate Islam, and will stay on this road,” he said.
In reality, the ideological divide between Islamists and avowed liberals may be less significant than it appears. It is also narrower than in Egypt and Tunisia, where political transitions have provoked fierce tensions between the two camps.
Libya is a deeply conservative society, where alcohol is banned and most women wear the headscarf. Few argue over the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, because many of its tenets would appear to be in practice already.
But the leadership of the NTC, dominated by former officials of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime and exiles from abroad, has begun to rankle with Islamists, many of whom bore the brunt of repression for decades.
Analysts say Mr Jibril has become a convenient lightning rod for Islamists clamouring for greater power. They complain about his hard-hitting style, and contrast it unfavourably with the consensus-building of Mr Abdul Jalil.
Political insiders have been working to heal a rift between Mr Jebril and Abdul-Hakim Belhadj, the former leader of the Libya Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which has been accused of having ties with al-Qaeda. Mr Belhadj’s brigade was instrumental in capturing Tripoli and he now heads the military council in the capital.
The concern, within Libya and abroad, also stems from lack of clarity over the nature and appeal of Islamist movements. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Nahda party in Tunisia, there is no single political Islamist organisation that dominates.
Much of the attention has focused on the LIFG. But this was a small organisation that numbered only a few hundred hardened fighters. Its main leaders denounced violence after spending years in jail and the group itself was riddled with rivalries and divisions.
Sheikh Salabi is seen as a voice for the more mainstream political Islam espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, which once had a strong following among Libya’s middle class but was forced underground by Col Gaddafi’s repression. The sheikh is said to have been involved in negotiations over the formation of the NTC, which includes people close to the Brotherhood.
When the uprising erupted in eastern Libya in February, other local Islamist rebel groups emerged and the austere Salafi Islam has been gaining momentum, according to observers.
However, many Libyans follow Sufi orders, a form of mysticism very different to the literalism of the Salafis.
In the short term, the main challenge for the transitional government once the fighting subsides will be to integrate the disparate Islamist rebel groups into the security or political apparatus.
Even former defenders of the Gaddafi regime acknowledge that the democratic spirit of the Arab uprisings have changed Islamists.
“The dynamic of this revolution, the follow-up over the last six months, made these people grow up intellectually and to deal with these doubts [about them],” said Khaled Kaim, a former deputy foreign minister under Col Gaddafi now being held by rebels.
-This article was published in The Financial Times on 16/09/2011
-Additional reporting by Anna Fifield in Washington

Why Israel Should Vote For Palestinian Independence

Israel sees the Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations as a dire threat to its interests. But it could score a desperately needed diplomatic coup by doing what no one expects: voting, under several critical conditions, for Palestinian statehood.
By Isaac Herzog
This coming week, the Palestinian Authority intends to ask the United Nations to vote for Palestinian statehood during the annual session of the General Assembly. The Palestinian bid represents Israel’s greatest political challenge in years. Although the United States has promised to veto the resolution in the Security Council, it is likely that more than 140 countries in the General Assembly will vote in favor and grant the Palestinians the status of non-member state in the UN.
Israel’s current leadership considers the resolution a dire threat to the country’s strategic interests and has made it a top priority to limit the Palestinians’ diplomatic coup. But Israel could achieve its own desperately needed coup by doing what no one expects: voting, under several critical conditions, for Palestinian statehood.
There is no question that the Palestinian state that could be recognized by this vote would be far different from the one that most Israelis envisage. The vast majority of Israelis support a two-state solution and want a Palestinian state to emerge from bilateral negotiations rather than from a unilateral action at the UN. The proposal put before the UN, for example, could claim the 1967 lines as its borders and East Jerusalem as its capital. Such a resolution would render any Israeli presence within these lines inherently illegal and consequently make it harder for Israel to retain control over Jewish holy sites, such as the Western Wall, and the major settlement blocs, which bolster Israeli security and are generally expected to remain a part of Israel in exchange for land swaps. Palestinians will subsequently have trouble compromising on such internationally endorsed positions, and Israelis will find it hard to negotiate under such one-sided terms of reference.
Any Israeli rejection of the resolution could also lead to violence on the ground. Israel could be forced to respond to unrest in a way that deepens its international isolation and paves the way for increasing calls to boycott Israeli goods and companies and for countries to levy sanctions on Israel.
Moreover, the showdown at the UN comes amid the historic transition now taking place across the Middle East, leaving Israel’s strategic position uncertain. Israelis have watched with concern as the revolution in Egypt has created a power vacuum in the Sinai Peninsula and sparked anti-Israel sentiment in Cairo. The protests against Bashar al-Assad in Syria have made Israel’s northern borders unpredictable as well. Relations with Turkey, Israel’s traditional ally, continue to deteriorate. And in the midst of the upheaval, Iran continues to develop its nuclear program.
With instability and shifting sands all around them, Israeli leaders have called for caution and patience, especially in terms of advancing the peace process. The Israeli government has therefore launched a massive diplomatic campaign against the UN vote in September, attempting to build, in the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a “moral majority” of Western nations opposing the Palestinian effort.
But rather than oppose the resolution, Israel should seize the initiative and use it to its advantage by agreeing to support the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN. Voting for Palestinian statehood may finally open the door for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, strengthen the possibility of a two-state solution, and greatly improve Israel’s position in the region and in the international community.
The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has all but disintegrated over the past two years. The cooperative spirit of the Oslo process during the 1990s and the two rounds of serious permanent status negotiations over the last decade gave way to mutual distrust and blame.
This stalemate has proven dangerous to Israel. It has energized radicals on both sides of the conflict, fueled anti-Israel sentiment, harmed Israel’s international status, and jeopardized Israel’s alliances. But rather than attempt to break the deadlock and rescue Israel from these debilitating circumstances, Israel’s current leadership has resisted taking the lead. Last September, for example, Netanyahu refused U.S. President Barack Obama’s request that Israel extend its ten-month settlement freeze for an additional 60 to 90 days, harming Israel’s relations with its most important ally and painting the country as an obstacle to peace. Should Israel continue down this road, it may risk having a final settlement imposed on it by the international community.
To reverse course and revive the peace process, Israel should support Palestinian aspirations at the UN -- but only in exchange for several preconditions to be agreed on with the Palestinians, who bear equal responsibility for moving negotiations forward. Israel should announce its support for the UN resolution on the condition that the Palestinians agree to return to the table as soon as possible and without preconditions, fully backed and supported by the international community, and to determine the final settlement through bilateral negotiations. The UN resolution must reflect this aspiration and include Israel’s perspective as well. In addition, the two parties must agree to a framework for an interim process that will allow for negotiations based on Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state. This formula will defuse tensions and may prevent wide-scale violence from erupting.
As part of these understandings, Israel should affirm the parameters that former U.S. President Bill Clinton set in 2000 and which President Barack Obama further developed in May 2011: a two-state solution that realizes both the right to self-determination for both Jews and Palestinians, ends all historic claims, and establishes a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed territorial swaps and security arrangements that meet Israel’s vital security needs. This will allow Israel to annex major settlement blocs and Jewish holy places -- areas that most Israelis agree should remain part of their country.
To begin the interim negotiating process, Israel should take several meaningful steps, such as transferring additional security responsibility in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, freezing settlement construction on the other side of the security fence, offering compensation to Israeli settlers who wish to move back to Israel proper, and releasing prisoners of Fatah held in Israeli jails. The Palestinians, meanwhile, must agree to continue security cooperation in the West Bank, refrain from launching an international legal campaign against Israel, and avoid a power-sharing arrangement with Hamas. Questions regarding the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees should be determined once both sides have taken these interim steps and begun negotiating borders and security.
This proposal undoubtedly carries risks. For example, Palestinian refusal to implement the conditions for Israeli support of the UN resolution would further damage Israel’s strategic position. But the potential benefits of supporting the resolution far outweigh the perils. If Israel manages to garner solid international support by backing the Palestinian UN resolution, it may induce the Palestinians to return to negotiations. This would improve Israel’s international status, give it more diplomatic space to maneuver through the chaos in the Middle East, and allow it to shore up its security needs.
Most important, the above proposal may be the only way to preserve the idea of achieving peace through bilateral negotiations. By reaching a compromise with the Palestinian leadership over the UN resolution, Israel can halt the dangerous precedent of unilateral action for conflict resolution and instead preserve the principle of achieving a two-state solution through direct talks, a notion critical to Israel’s future. Such a concerted move would prevent a violent confrontation, give the Palestinians the dignity they seek, allow the parties to relaunch negotiations, and win Israel international favor while preserving its security needs. Now is the time not for prudence but for audacity.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Affairs on 16/09/2011
-ISAAC HERZOG, a former Israeli cabinet minister, is a member of the Foreign and Defense Committee, on behalf of the Israeli Labor Party, in the Knesset

U.S. Democracy Is No Model For Arabs

By Rami G. Khouri
I had a particularly enlightening and depressing day last week as a student of American democracy and Arab-Israeli diplomacy. I know better now why most Arabs have totally given up on expecting anything positive or fair to emerge from the United States when it comes to the Middle East. Democracy is a great and noble venture and a most utilitarian governance system; but it also has a dark and ugly side that is very visible in the U.S. these days.
My day started out while I was reading The New York Times on the flight from Boston to Philadelphia, including a front page article that noted, “The growing influence of Islamists in Libya raises hard questions about the ultimate character of the government and society that will rise in the place of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s autocracy.”
In what has become nearly the norm in American journalism and that of some other Western societies, even among quality media, wildly vague, unattributed and mostly unsubstantiated assertions are made about Arab or Islamic societies that include pessimistic expectations about what might result from the current revolts. Will Islamists take over? Will we have another Iran? Will democratic Arabs threaten Israel and badmouth the U.S.? Will the democratic moment wither away to be replaced by the authoritarianism that Arabs seem to know best?
Such attitudes reflect prevailing concerns, biases, fears, assumptions and preconceptions among some quarters across the U.S., without really subjecting the issues to any sort of rigorous intellectual or even professional journalistic scrutiny. This trend has been with us since the Arab Awakening started last December, and reflects not only Western fears and prejudices, but also some lingering Orientalism and a bit of racism here and there.
My second lesson in the vagaries in democracy – at least as practiced in the United States – occurred later that same day when I attended a city council meeting in Philadelphia. I went to hear the discussion about a resolution – which passed, as expected – strongly supporting U.S. Senate Resolution 185 that denounces the Palestinian request for United Nations recognition of statehood, threatens the Palestinians with American financial aid cutoffs, attacks Hamas in every possible manner, and generally repeats a litany of pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian positions that come right out of the Israeli lobby handbook of distortions, exaggerations and general hysteria.
There was good news and bad news here, though, because the frenzied rush by the Philadelphia city council to suddenly take a very one-sided position on a foreign policy issue that is beyond the mandate of the council was somewhat offset by several other factors. The fact that this issue was discussed in public was a sign that times are changing to some extent, because this pro-Israel position would normally pass without any discussion. The council’s public comments period saw half a dozen pro-Israel speakers, including the local Israeli consul-general, recite the usual arguments that held up very badly when assessed against the facts of the situation, but went over very well in the American political system in which Israeli views hold sway over any other argument – including the arguments in favor of the American national interest, it seems. But a handful of Americans (church officials, an Arab-American activist, a Jewish-American activist) also spoke up against the resolution, explaining why it was factually wrong, politically imbalanced, and diplomatically tendentious.
Lobbying by these and other people forced the council to vote on the resolution (instead of unanimously approving it, as was the case with other less contentious issues that day); and in the end two city council members voted against it, one abstained, and the others approved.
I left the chamber realizing that little has changed or will change in the U.S. vis-à-vis the severe pro-Israel bias on Arab-Israeli issues, partly because pro-Israel lobbies operate very effectively at local levels across the country, as well as through Washington-based institutions like registered lobbyists and think tanks. Yet forcing a vote, airing opposing views, and having three council members not vote for the resolution were small but meaningful signs of how serious activism and moral courage to speak out can have some impact in the U.S., however limited.
My conclusion at the end of the day was that the struggle for justice, fairness and equal rights in Israel and Palestine will not be won or even seriously nudged forward in the United States, where the structural biases for Zionist zealotry are too deeply entrenched.
This has also been a useful refresher course for me – 40 years after living and attending university in the United States – on why American democracy is not a useful model for the Arab world. I understand better now why Palestinians are taking their battle for statehood to the U.N. and defying the U.S. and its threats and blackmail; and why so many newly democratizing Arab societies are asking Americans offering money, advice and assistance on democratic state-building to stay home for now.
It’s amazing how much you can learn in America about democracy’s strengths and weaknesses in a day, traveling between the wellsprings of America’s imperfect democracy in Boston and Philadelphia.
This commentary was published in the Daily Star on 17/09/2011

Obama Must Deal With Turkey-Israel Crisis

By Morton Abramowitz and Henri J. Barkey
                                      Obama and Ardogan
U.S. policy in the Middle East is f loundering. President Obama’s two most important allies in the region are on a collision course. It will not be resolved by the State Department’s injunction to Turkey and Israel to “cool it.”
Turkey’s importance to Washington is clear: its involvement in NATO and its forces in Afghanistan; its strong economic ties to northern Iraq; its ongoing cooperation against terrorism; and, most recently, its role in the NATO missile defense shield. The depth of the U.S.-Turkey alliance makes the crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations one that equally involves the United States.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expanded his confrontation with Israel beyond the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident and into a full-scale assault on Israel’s position in the region. He recently declared that the Turkish navy will escort Turkish vessels going to Gaza to provide aid. Washington did not grasp where Erdogan’s sustained verbal attacks on Israel were heading. He now directly challenges our major alliance in the Middle East, and how far he will go is unclear. Obama himself must acknowledge that the situation is a crisis. As the political climates in Turkey and the United States harden, Erdogan and Obama will find it increasingly difficult to compromise.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said years ago that Turkey would construct a new order in the region. Erdogan followed this with criticism of interference in Middle Eastern affairs by “outside” powers, a clear shot at Washington. Erdogan’s rhetoric of late is about reducing Western influence in the region and teaching Israel a lesson for “irresponsible” or “immature” behavior.
Had Erdogan pushed only for an apology over the deaths of Turkish citizens in the May 2010 flotilla incident, Turkey’s actions would be understandable in the face of Israel’s unwise decision not to immediately resolve the problem. The recently leaked U.N. report on the flotilla affair sought to find a way for the sides to reconcile. Erdogan, however, is not interested in repairing the situation with Israel.
Erdogan is calculating that, as a NATO member, a European Union candidate country and the world’s 16th-largest economy, Turkey can move the Middle East in ways no other regional country can. He has significantly expanded Turkey’s trade and investment. He has successfully pivoted away from Libya and Syria, where he had been closely affiliated with the authoritarian regimes. He is wildly popular on the Arab street, and his address to the Arab League last Tuesday could well be a bid for the populist mantle last held by the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. His vigorous battle at the United Nations for a Palestinian statehood resolution is another step in his effort to isolate Israel.
By threatening to militarily contest Israel’s blockade of Gaza — which was deemed legal by the U.N. Palmer Commission — the Turkish government has laid down a serious challenge to American policy. Danger stems not just from potential miscommunication between those two countries but also from third parties with their own agendas, creating conditions for confrontation.
The eastern Mediterranean is already a caldron of competing claims and threatening rhetoric. Turkey’s minister for E.U. affairs warned this month that his country might stop Cyprus’s exploration for gas and oil, saying, “This is what we have the navy for.” Lebanon’s Hezbollah-dominated government is engaged in a verbal war with Israel over the latter’s gas discoveries off the coast at Haifa. Erdogan involved Turkey in negotiations between Cyprus and Israel on joint exploration opportunities when he told al-Jazeera this month that Israel would be prevented from exploiting the eastern Mediterranean’s oil and gas reserves on its own.
Washington is caught between two longtime allies. It cannot deal with the Israelis and Turks separately. Inaction is not a real option, as Israel could become a significant issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, especially if the United States is defeated in its opposition to a General Assembly vote to create a Palestinian state. The situation will generate concern on Capitol Hill and give Republicans another opportunity to attack Obama for not defending American interests and Israel.
Congress could also worsen the fray by reviving legislation regarding the Armenian genocide. A resolution recognizing the 1.5 million Armenians killed by Ottoman Turks has repeatedly failed to garner enough support for a floor vote. But its backers may calculate that the worsening conditions between Israel and Turkey would prompt the powerful Israel lobby to no longer support Turkey on this matter, raising the likelihood that the resolution would pass. Similarly, arms exports to Turkey will face greater scrutiny.
Obama may not have much time to prevent further deterioration. Israel has been seeking to build ties with Asia, Europe and the Americas; while the Arab Spring evolves, Israel is becoming increasingly isolated as countries such as Egypt and Jordan reassess ties. It is also floundering from the Obama administration’s mishandling of the peace process and of Israel in particular.
Obama’s meeting with Erdogan on Tuesday is crucial. He can take a few important steps. He should immediately deploy 6th Fleet ships from Norfolk to the Eastern Mediterranean to signal that the United States will not tolerate even inadvertent naval clashes. He needs to make clear to Erdogan that the United States will not side with Turkey against Israel and that Turkey’s current strategy risks undermining regional stability.
Obama could offer to work with Turkey and Israel to end the partial blockade of Gaza, provided Erdogan can persuade Hamas to abandon, once and for all, missile barrages and violence against Israel. Such a policy course would have wide international backing and give everyone some of what they want.
Erdogan has a choice: He can boost his domestic and regional popularity by deepening the confrontation with Israel or he could think beyond that by engaging in a constructive endeavor that will help regional stability.
-This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 17/09/2011
-Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, was U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 1989 to 1991. Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University

Yemen’s Counterrevolutionary Power-Play

By Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryan
                                    Anti-goverment protest in Sana'a
Observers of Yemen are often asked why the revolution there has taken so long and why it has been so inconclusive. The more basic question -- never asked, though inextricably tied to this -- is why an uprising started in the first place.
When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia and began to spread in the region, I did not think the conditions in Yemen were ripe for it. Indeed corruption, inequality, and the callous disregard for law were much worse in Yemen than any other country in the region. However, the conditions usually viewed as prerequisites for revolution -- a large and mobile middle class, a strong civil society, high literacy rate, and internet penetration -- are all non-existent. Yet the state does benefit from an historical accident, the adoption of a multi-party system in 1990 as part of the unity agreement between South and North Yemen. Twenty years of multi-party experience and the attendant mobilization skills of politicking made it possible for Yemeni activists to launch the revolution. Unfortunately, the absence of a broad middle class and a dynamic civil society has stunted the movement's momentum. The revolution has gradually transformed into what is largely an elitist struggle for power.
In February, the revolution was in its purest form, an escalating popular protest not controlled by political parties or political factions. Activists demonstrated a degree of national unity rarely witnessed in Yemen. But the Joint Meeting of Parties (JMP), the main coalition of opposition groups, was reluctant to participate in the protests. As a result, youth in squares across Yemen cried out, "No partisanship and no parties. It is a youth revolution."
Junior partners in the JMP, especially the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), were more forthcoming in support of the revolutionary platform from the start. Meanwhile, the Islamic party Islah, the main opposition faction, which until recently had an alliance with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was hesitant to commit until the revolution gathered pace. They had the most to lose by openly challenging the regime. Islah eventually joined the youth in full force and successfully maneuvered to control the organizing committee of Al-Taghyeer (Change) Square in Sana'a and was instrumental in setting up many provincial protest squares. It's worth noting that the exception to Islah dominance played out in al-Hurreyah (freedom) Square in Taiz, Yemen's third city, which came to be referred to as the heart of the revolution.

From then on, the slogans and the rhetoric of the protestors came to represent the voice of the JMP rather than the youth. A notable example of this shift in rhetoric is the attacks on the General People's Congress (GPC), the nominal ruling party which lacks hard power and which the masses do not perceive as a primary adversary of the revolution. Islah's disparagement of the GPC is seen as a self-serving tactic, a ploy which they hope would lead to disbanding the GPC and thus giving Islah a real chance of gaining a majority in post-revolution elections.
The situation transformed in March after the massacre at al-Karamah where snipers shot dead 54 unarmed youth and injured many more. That horrific event led to mass defections within the regime, the military, the bureaucracy, and the ruling party.
General Ali Mohsin, Shaykh Sadeq al-Ahmar, and Sheikh Abdul-Majid Al Zindani were the most notable converts to the revolution. Mohsin, the second-most powerful person in Yemen, was Saleh's closest ally. As Saleh succeeded in concentrating power around him and his closest relatives, Mohsin was sidelined and, in turn, became Saleh's greatest competitor. Al-Ahmar inherited the powerful position of the Paramount Sheikh of Hashid Tribal Confederacy from his father, the legendary Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, whose approval of Saleh was sought by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia before it agreed to install Saleh as president in 1978. Moreover, Zindani is the most popular and best-known Yemeni hard-line cleric with links to Osama Bin Laden. A leader of Islah, he was Saleh's ally against Islah moderate leadership in the past few years.
All three regime insiders -- Mohsin, al-Ahmar, and Zindani -- are publically perceived as equal partners with Saleh in the regime's past misdeeds. They lost some of their privilege in the past few years as Saleh and his family sought to monopolize power, but continued to enjoy access and privilege that even the vice president and prime minister couldn't dream of. Mohsin's forces, the First Armored Division, began to provide military protection to the Sana'a protest square while at the same time exercising excessive police control of the square.  Islah activists and radical students of Zindani's Al Iman University also lent hand to this crackdown. Many independent protesters, seeing their revolution being hijacked by the original tripod of regime power -- the military, the tribe, and politicized  Islam -- went home in resignation.
The introduction of these figures into the revolutionary camp polarized the public and gave the Saleh regime an opportunity to regain some popular support. Saleh moved from a defensive to an offensive posture. Hence, Saleh's supporters chanted, "No Mohsin; No Hamid (al-Ahmar)." At that point, the revolution appeared so adrift that many concluded that it was no longer a revolution; it became just another episode in the regime's perpetual factional competition and power struggle.
After the initial thuggish response, and the murder of more than 200 innocent protesters, the regime developed two comprehensive strategies. The first was to maneuver and stall in the hope of outlasting the revolutionary fervor so that Saleh can stay in power until the end of the presidential term, 2013 -- even if he has to give up much of his presidential authority to his vice president. The second strategy -- developed at the negotiation table by regime moderate negotiators, their JMP counterparts, and international mediators -- was a peaceful and orderly transfer of power, a political transformation that would lead to a fully decentralized parliamentary system.
Most of the GPC and the general public support such a transition, originally expressed in the famous Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, later elaborated upon by U.N. mediator Jamal Bin Omar. The GCC Initiative, signed by the JMP and GPC, stipulated the transfer of Saleh's executive power to the vice president, who would then oversee the formation of a government of national unity; the opposition would hold the prime-ministerial post and half the cabinet portfolios. In return for giving up power, Saleh and all his associates would be granted immunity from prosecution. But at the very last moment Saleh refused to sign it.
Both of these strategies have partially succeeded. While outlasting the revolution is an unreasonable expectation, the regime is now in a stronger position than it was just a few months ago. In contrast, the revolutionary movement has weakened due to the opposition's miscalculations, elites' hijacking of the revolution, and the regime's disingenuous plan to subject the people to such hardship that "stability" is valued at any cost. The second strategy is now at the final crossroads.
After months of false promises, Saleh has signed a limited delegation of power to his vice president. But will the process of implementing the initiative move forward? We are awaiting JMP's response. If they agree, they will find the vice president and most of the GPC to be as anxious to complete the transfer of power as they are. While this arrangement falls short of the opposition's expectations, the two sides can capitalize on the constitutional authority of the vice president to overcome Saleh's recalcitrance and proceed with the business of forming a government of national unity. In such an outcome, the power dynamic would change and produce a more powerful coalition in favor of a peaceful transfer of power. If that does not happen, though, there is nothing on the horizon that would stand in the way of a military confrontation that could -- if not checked by the international community -- deteriorate into civil war.
As the politicians haggle over the transfer of power, the youth seem to be set up for a bitter disappointment. While they advocate a new Yemen of freedom, democracy, equality, and equal opportunity, they find themselves in alliance with some of the shadiest characters of the old regime. Some of the youth leaders now recognize that they need to re-examine their alliances and identify those on the other side who share those democratic ideals. As the opposition is leaning toward accepting Saleh's latest initiative, many of the youth now realize that they have more in common with the GPC rank-and-file than they do with some of their current allies. Once Saleh leaves office, the youth can expand the democratic camp into the GPC popular base and improve the chances of having a more democratic future.
-This commentary was published in in The Foreign Policy on 16/09/2011
-Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani is a Yemeni political analyst and co-founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement

Shiite Proselytizing in Northeastern Syria Will Destabilize A Post-Assad Syria

By Carole A. O'Leary & Nicholas A. Heras

              Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Assad
Iran’s ties to Syria go beyond the geo-politics of the "Axis of Resistance." This is evident in the remote, volatile, and oil-rich al-Jazirah region of northeastern Syria, where there has been a noticeable increase in Iranian investment in religious and cultural centers over the last decade. Information gathered from interviews with Arab shaykhs, tribal youth, Kurds and Assyrians from the region suggest that Iranian financed Shi'a proselytizing, including cash handouts for conversion, is having an impact on conversion rates in the region.  Arab shaykhs representing the six largest tribes in the region assert that the Assad government covertly supports a missionary effort that has affected both the Sunni (Arab and Kurd) and Christian (Assyrian) communities. [1]
The Jazirah region encompasses the areas including and surrounding the cities of Hasakah, Raqqah, Qamishli, Deir al-Zawr, Mayadin and Abu Kamal. This region includes the Euphrates River and its major tributary, the Khabour River. Al-Jazirah is considered to be the agricultural “breadbasket” of Syria. It is also the locus of Syria’s oil industry and a major transit point for the entry, whether legal or illegal, of goods and livestock. [2] Arab tribal society is strongest in this region of Syria, which is comprised of tribal and mixed ethnic communities. Approximately 60% of Syria’s Arab tribal population resides in this complex ethno-linguistic zone, which also includes significant numbers of “politically sensitive” (non-Arab) communities of Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians and Turkomans.
Lingering ethnic conflicts and Kurdish nationalism have resulted in an extremely heavy security presence in al-Jazirah.  The Syrian government has historically employed a divide-and-conquer approach that has negatively impacted civil society and social cohesion in the communities of this region. Scores of individuals from al-Jazirah interviewed by the authors assert that the Syrian government is trying to create a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, especially between the Kurds on the one hand, and Arabs and Christians on the other. In addition to the intelligence and informant networks deployed by the regime in the northeast, other tactics to inhibit local level authority and autonomy are also utilized.  These include land nationalization, restrictions on farming and grazing rights and even forced relocation of whole groups of people (e.g. tribal Arabs and Kurds). The Syrian government’s attempts to assert total control over this oil-rich region have included blocking outside aid agencies from bringing relief to the area during the multi-year drought and subsequent famine that began in 2003.
The economic situation in al-Jazirah is dire.  The Hasakah Governorate in particular has been fiercely impacted by the economic crisis, precipitated by a multi-year drought that crippled the local agricultural economy and forced 36,000 families to leave the land they once farmed. Over 1.3 million people have been affected by the drought, and more than 803,000 Syrians have lost their work because of its impact on successive harvests (Executive [Beirut], November 2009). Even the more wealthy shaykhs of northeastern Syria are feeling the economic effects of the drought. Many of them are in debt to either the Ba’ath Party (through government-controlled banks) or to private lenders who cooperate with the Ba’ath Party. Shaykhs who refused to pay the exorbitant fees of the loan sharks were forced to leave thousands of acres of their land uncultivated for the 2009 planting season. [3]
While there are no generally accepted figures for conversion rates to Shi’ism in Syria, information provided to us by local shaykhs is informative. Shaykhs representing the six largest tribes in the region stated repeatedly that Shi’a missionaries were having an impact on Sunni to Shi’a conversion in the region, especially among the economically vulnerable young men forced to seek work outside of al-Jazirah. A Baggara shaykh reported that a Shi’a religious center near Aleppo, for example, sustains young tribesmen who leave al-Jazirah in search of jobs with financial support, information on safe housing and a place of refuge where they can interact with other youth from their home region. When questioned about the financing of the mosques, one local shaykh from the Jabbour tribe became uneasy, and would only state that the mosques were financed by “outsiders,” although he would not state who these outsiders were.
In a 2009 discussion with two tribal leaders, the Baggara shaykh (whose community is based both in al-Jazirah and south of Aleppo) stated that fully 25% of his tribe had converted to Shi’ism. While the second shaykh from the Shammar tribe (whose community is based in Hasakah) concurred with this figure regarding Baggara conversion, he stated that for his own tribe the conversion rate was less than one percent.  He added that the reason the Shammar are largely immune to religious conversion is their very strong adherence to what he termed “traditional Bedu values.”  He went on to explain that the Baggara were never historically “noble” camel herders and thus were “weak” in terms of adhering to traditional Arab tribal or “Bedu” norms.  In an interview that took place in June 2011, a local contact of one of the authors stated that the entire population of Qahtaania (a Baggara village between Qamishli and Malakiyya) has converted to Shi’ism, praying in the Ali ibn Abu Talib mosque built there in 2007. [4]
Conversion to Shi’ism is a contested phenomenon in the region. According to our interview data, the majority of converted Shi’a in al-Jazirah are secretive about their practices, preferring to practice their faith with fellow converts in husseiniya-like study groups in private homes. The main reason for this secrecy is the disapproval of the converts’ families and/or tribes. A contact of one of the authors, a young convert to Shi’ism from the Walde tribe that live near Raqqah, stated in September 2010 that: “There is a problem between the tribes and the Iranians, but between the leader [Bashar Al-Assad] and the Iranians, there is no problem.” Influential Sunni Syrians such as Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni of the Muslim Brotherhood have warned against “Shia-ization” in Syria. In a May 2008 interview, al-Bayanouni stated that: “on the cultural level, the Shi’ite school of Islam is spreading in Syria, funded by Iran and supported by the Iranian regime… This situation is exploited by people who give financial incentives, and pay the salaries of some tribal leaders, imams, and shaykhs, in order to convert these influential people to the Shi’ite school of Islam” (al-Arabiya, May 2, 2008).
The spread of Shi’ism in al-Jazirah, a majority Arab Sunni tribal region, adds another element of complexity to the dynamics of identity politics and organization of resistance to the regime there. Tribal, ethnic and sectarian differences exacerbated by decades of oppression and years of economic decay and out-migration, now coupled with Iranian cultural penetration through Shi’a missionary work, have destabilized the region and will have an impact on any attempt to form a post-Assad government in Syria.  It is the view of the authors that Iran has “soft” tools or resources in place that it can draw upon in a post- Assad Syria that reach beyond military and political power politics into the sociocultural realm.
Notes & References

- This report was published in the Terrorism Monitor, Volume: 9, Issue: 35, on 15/09/2011
Carole A. O'Leary is a Visiting Scholar at the Columbus School of Law's Program in Law & Religion within the Catholic University of America (CUA)
-Nicholas A. Heras is an M.A. Candidate in International Communication at the American University (DC) and a former David L. Boren Fellow

1. This article draws extensively from interviews conducted by the authors in 2008-2011 in Lebanon and Syria. The interview data suggests that there has been an increase in the number of Shi’a Muslim mosques and attendees at these mosques in al-Jazirah over the last decade. 
2. See “On the Ground from Syria to Iraq,” Harmony Project. (Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point: July 22, 2008), p. 86.
3. Information drawn from author interviews. See endnote 1 above.
4. The village of Hatla, near Deir ez Zawr in Hasakah Province, is also described as having been completely converted from Sunni Islam to Shi’ism (Washington Post, October 6, 2006)

The Role Of Christians In The Arab Spring

By Walid Choucair

                                   Patriarch Beshara Rai
There has been a media commotion in Lebanon caused by reactions to statements by the Maronite patriarch, Beshara Rai, who raised Christian fears of some aspects of the Arab spring, and the changes it might lead to, especially in Syria. One of the positive aspects is that this commotion has launched a debate, overtly and covertly, over the role of Christians at this particular juncture in the Arab world, as well as the repercussions of these events.
This discussion quickly moved from thinking about one issue to contemplating something wider in scope, namely the role of minorities and their position in the process of change, and the new political formulas that might result.
Patriarch Rai might not have meant to launch this discussion, which transcends the current political moment and approaches something deeper. Rai was eager to talk about the fear that Christians will pay the price of the Muslim Brotherhood's coming to power in Syria, and of a "Sunni alliance along with the Sunnis of Lebanon, which will lead to further crisis with the Shiites;" these remarks were preceded by the patriarch's comments about giving Syrian President Bashar Assad an opportunity to carry out reforms. However, the ramifications of these comments will not be limited to the Lebanese political arena, where it is easy to see such opinions exploited amid the current political division and rivalry.
The more important consequences of the domestic political uproar over Rai's comments are those that have appeared, and will appear, in three significant places, which are concerned with what Rai said. One is the Council of Maronite bishops, where some people do not share Rai's opinions about the Syrian regime and Hezbollah's weapons, which Rai linked to the Israeli occupation. The second is the Vatican, which shares the anxiety over the situation of Christians in the Middle East amid the growth of fundamentalism, but which has taken a stance on the events in Syria, as expressed by Pope Benedict XVI. On 8 August, the pope issued a "pressing appeal for the re-establishment as soon as possible of living together peacefully and an adequate response to the legitimate aspirations of the citizens, respecting their dignity, and for the benefit of the region's stability." Addressing Syria's ambassador to the Vatican, Benedict asked Assad to "respond to the aspirations of civil society and international organizations."
The third place is France, which informed Rai of its disappointment with his remarks.
The patriarch's anxiety raised the issue of whether the church in Lebanon, which can legitimately express the fears of the Christians in the entire east, has a new position vis-à-vis conditions in Lebanon and the region and the coming future, which will certainly witness changes due to the Arab spring. The patriarch acted based on the presumption that the Syrian regime will end, when he talked about the fear of a post-regime phase. This presumption remains debatable, unless Rai arrived at it as a result of the French affirmations that "the regime is finished" and was thus led to hastily express his fears.
In any case, there should be a search for answers to the Christians' questions about the post-revolution phase, and there should be more accuracy when discussing the reality of Islamist movements taking part in this process of political change. In an interview published a few days ago, Syrian opposition figure and writer Michel Kilo cautioned against looking at these movements based on the view of past experiences in the 1970s, when such groups used slogans of "God's rule" on earth and accused others of apostasy; today they are calling for pluralism and a civil state.
For a serious discussion of where Christians stand in terms of these revolutions, one should not link the matter to the survival of a given regime. The change that is coming to the region is the result of decades of injustice; moreover, the anxiety about Sunnis leading this change does not apply in all cases; the face of change in Iraq, which rid itself of dictatorship, was Shiite. The pan-Arab movements in the region have employed slogans and Islamic names that we now see every Friday, to mobilize people, since the day of prayer is when people can gather. The means of this mobilization extended to "Good Friday" at Easter time, while secular and Christian national leaders have used Islamic means of mobilization (Michel Aflaq and George Habash, for example).
Sectarian minorities cannot stand against the current phase of change in the region, if it is true that the Sunni majority alone is the fuel for this change, and will benefit from it.
The quickest way to overcome the anxiety about the post-revolution phase is for Christians to play a leading role in spreading the culture of human rights, democracy, the rotation of power and public freedoms, a culture that is enshrined by their presence within a larger majority.
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 16/09/2011

In Iran: An Electoral Charade Heats Up

By Amir Taheri
Although the next elections in Iran are six months away, the political establishment is in campaign mode already. The state-controlled media are full of "election news", and hardly a day passes without several gatherings to discuss election strategy.
The elections are for a new Islamic Consultative Assembly or Majlis, which, theoretically, represents the key legislative organ of the Khomeinist regime.
The 290 members of the current Majlis are divided into four factions, all of which hope to retain, or improve, their respective positions.
The majority faction consists of individuals who present themselves as foot soldiers of the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei. Their programme consists of whatever the Supreme Guide" chooses to say and do at any given time and on any given issue. Often, they go under the label of "Fundamentalists" or "Osouliyoun".
A second group is formed by supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who wish to evolve the system towards a better balance of power between the "Supreme Guide" and the President. The "fundamentalists" call them "the deviant tendency", accusing them of sharpening the knife of treason behind their backs.
In the third faction, one finds around 50 members labeled as "reformist", although it is not clear what reforms, if any, they advocate. Among them, one finds nostalgics of the days when Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami acted as president.
Finally, we have a dozen or so members who could be described as "weathervanes".
The "Osouliyoun', or Khamenei’s group, have a fundamental problem. They want a big turnout of voters to show that the popular uprising after the presidential election of 2009 has not dented the regime's support base. At the same time, they fear lest a big turnout translates into a massive rejection of the regime.
If the election becomes a referendum against the system, the traditional machinery for "fixing the results" might not be able to deliver as it has for three decades.
This is why the pro-Khamenei group is canvassing for the exclusion of all but a handful of candidates not totally devoted to the "Supreme Guide".
Theoretically, that is easy to do. The Council of Guardians, a mullah-dominated body that must vet candidates, could veto the candidacy of all but a handful of those suspected of less than total devotion to the "Supreme Guide".
However, such a move might reduce whatever attraction the elections might have. Sensing that things are fixed in advance, voters might not bother to go to the polls. A low turnout could be seen as a popular rejection of Khomeinism.
The pro-Ahmadinejad, or "deviant", faction also has its problems, including that of how to get its candidates past the Council of Guardians.
The guess is that the council will allow the "deviants" no more than two dozen seats in the next Majlis.
Ahmadinejad's dream of creating a political base that could continue after the end of his presidency in 2013 appears less realistic than five years ago.
Because the Islamic Republic does not have an independent election commission, the government controls the electoral process from start to finish. The Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Security and Intelligence run the show in cooperation with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Theoretically, therefore, Ahmadinejad could use those government departments to fix the results in favour of his faction.
His problem, however, is that, unlike 2009, the two key ministries involved and the IRGC are not headed by members of his faction. Today, all three posts are held by men who dislike Ahmadinejad for a variety of reasons.
Three of the five presidents who preceded Ahmadinejad tried to build personal support bases, and failed.
Khamenei became one of the two exceptions because he was intelligent enough to know that he could not claim a separate existence outside patronage from Ayatollah Khomeini, the "Supreme Guide" of the time. The other exception was Muhammad-Ali Raja'i, who did not have enough time to develop personal ambitions as he was assassinated a few weeks after becoming president.
To be sure, Ahmadinejad is a more astute politician than the other ambitious trio of presidents before him, Bani-Sadr, Rafsanjani and Khatami.
However, his problem is that he is forced to operate in a new configuration.
The 2009 presidential election put an end to the Khomeinist regime's electoral pretension. Without waiting for the official announcement of the results, the "Supreme Guide" intervened to anoint Ahmadinejad as victor. With a single blow, it became clear that elections counted for little. What counted was the word of the "Supreme Guide".
To have a separate existence, Ahmadinejad must challenge Khamenei’s rule by decree. But how could he when it was Khamenei who, in 2009, effectively decreed him as president?
The so-called "Reformists" have even bigger problems. The have to suck up to Khamenei so that he would let them become candidates in the first place. At the same time, they have to feint anger against Khamenei’s "dictatorship" so that they could attract urban middle class voters.
That balancing act is all the more difficult because the "reformists" are divided into numerous groups, each with a different agenda. At the same time, the urban middle classes who still think that they were cheated in 2009 do not appear interested in the coming election charade.
Their only hope now appears to be a coalition with Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a former police chief and Tehran's current Mayor. Qalibaf wants a Majlis victory as the springboard for his presidential bid in 2013. However, becoming too closely associated with "Reformists" might put him on Khamenei’s black list.
All that leaves the "weathervanes" as the only happy faction. Many are likely to squeeze in, as opportunists often do. In the Khomeinist system, as in despotisms in all cultures, political survival requires a good dose of opportunism.
Ahmad Tawakkoli, a notorious "weathervane", rejects the charge that people like him change with the wind.
"It is not us who change," he asserts. "It is the wind!"
-This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 16/09/2011
-Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI)