Friday, January 20, 2012

A Tale Of Two Diasporas

Iraqi exiles were gung-ho to overthrow Saddam. So why are Iranian-Americans so keen on dialogue with the mullahs who rule Iran?
An eerily familiar drumbeat of war is intensifying across Washington, just as the United States ends its decade-long adventure in Iraq. The ghosts of America's neoconservative past have dusted off their Iraq playbook to make the case for war with Iran. Their formula is simple but effective: Portray the Iranian government and its nuclear program as existential threats, insist that a chain of catastrophic events will result from inaction, and minimize the costs and risks of war.
If one looks back, however, neoconservative officials in the U.S. government weren't alone in their push for war with Iraq. A crucial aspect of selling the war to the U.S. public was support within the Iraqi-American community. Iraqi dissidents living abroad, such as Ahmed Chalabi and Kanan Makiya, as well as supposed whistle-blowers turned known fabricators like the infamous "Curveball," led a contingent of vocal Iraqis who pushed for steadily more aggressive actions to topple Saddam Hussein's regime. Their promise that the invasion would be a cakewalk and that U.S. soldiers would be greeted with flowers and candy didn't quite pan out. Now, the fruits of their labor are clear for all to see -- a broken country, devastated by war and sectarian strife, with no discernible end in sight.
Iranian-Americans, in stark contrast with the Iraqi diaspora, have largely opposed a rush to war. This is a fact that I have observed up close, while working in the State Department's Office of Iranian Affairs and now at the National Iranian American Council, where I maintain close and continuing contact with Iranian-Americans to ensure we accurately represent their views. Together, these two vantage points have crystallized one key takeaway: Iranian-Americans deeply resent the Iranian regime, but prefer U.S. policies that emphasize engagement and de-escalation.
Why have Iraqis and Iranians living abroad reached such drastically different conclusions? For more than three decades, the Iranian-American community has grappled with the paradox of wanting to make Iran a better place -- but fearing success as much as defeat. Some worry that contributing to positive changes inside Iran will only strengthen a draconian system, extending its lease on life.
For many Iranian-Americans, this dilemma was resolved by their disastrous historical experience with revolutionary upheaval. Rather than laying the groundwork for democracy, Iran's 1979 revolution simply replaced one dictatorship with another. As a result, Iranian-Americans strongly prefer to use the rule of law to alter not only the Iranian government's behavior, but also the thinking of Iranians inside Iran.
Efforts by the Iranian-American community to promote engagement and oppose military intervention have been consistent and cohesive. The University of California, Berkeley, conducted a scientifically sound opinion survey that found that roughly 70 percent of Iranian-American respondents favored dialogue and negotiations between the United States and Iran. In 2008, the Iranian-American community mobilized this majority into a successful campaign to defeat a congressional resolution that would have taken a decisive step toward war.
The Iranian-American community's overwhelming support for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign is also a telling indicator of its political attitudes. For every dollar raised by Republican nominee John McCain from Iranian-Americans, Obama -- who was running on a platform that promoted engagement with Iran -- raised five.
Iranian-Americans understand from personal experience that abrupt political change is unlikely to produce the desired result. Retired ambassador John Limbert, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran during my tenure in Foggy Bottom, reflected poignantly on this understanding in a 1999 speech. "Our liberal-minded Iranian friends,­ whom we counted on to contain the [1979] revolution's excesses, proved to be helpless in political turmoil," he said. "They were too much like us: They could write penetrating analyses and biting editorials, but lacked the stomach for the brutality that wins revolutions."
Despite the fact that a majority of Iranian-Americans favor a more tolerant, pluralistic, and democratic system in Iran, they see little evidence that U.S. efforts to topple the current regime would bring Iranian democrats to power. Within Iran, rampant popular dissatisfaction has yet to evolve into a sustainable and coherent challenge to the system. The Iranian government's monopoly on violence has prevented such challenges, but has not ended the desire for change. Even the original leaders of Iran's Green Movement, which emerged from the country's contested 2009 presidential election, were attempting to push for peaceful change through the ballot box.
The ongoing death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan has made the Iranian-American community even warier about foreign efforts to "liberate" their ancestral homeland. Right or wrong, many in the Iranian diaspora see the U.S. invasion of Iraq as less about nuclear programs or democracy, and more as a gambit to seize oil resources. These conspiracy theories may seem absurd, but behind them lies a deeper reality that is very powerful in the minds of Iranian-Americans.
Few Iranian-Americans would welcome the prospects of a U.S. intervention under the auspices of democracy promotion that, in turn, shattered any semblance of stability and ignited a destructive cycle of conflict. Iran's contested 2009 presidential election and the ongoing human rights abuses have left Iranian-Americans searching for new ways to help foster peaceful, indigenous change. Their ideas remain diverse, but there is near-unanimous consent that change should occur without bloodshed.
Like their Iraqi brethren, Iranian expatriates want to change their government -- it is their methods that differ. A majority of Iranian-Americans would welcome an improvement of relations between Washington and Tehran because it increases the prospects for positive, peaceful change from within. The watershed event of the Islamic Republic's nearly 33-year history -- widespread protests in 2009 -- occurred at the height of Obama's "mutual interests and mutual respect" initiative. Many of the West's Iran analysts and experts, both Iranian and American, assert that the regime needs a U.S. enemy for its survival. If true, wouldn't sustained offers of friendship -- which would put the Iranian regime's domestic agenda at the forefront -- provide the biggest threat to the regime?
Engagement with the Iranian government understandably spurs many moral dilemmas for Iranian-Americans. Most, however, understand the alternatives -- particularly when juxtaposed with Iraq, where war has resulted in nearly 200,000 Iraqis dead (based on conservative estimates), 1.3 million Iraqis displaced, and decades' worth of destroyed lives for those still living in a perpetual war zone.
Let's not kid ourselves: There are Iranian-Americans who support U.S.-sponsored regime change in Iran -- and in due time, American neoconservatives will find their kindred spirits. We undoubtedly have our Chalabis and Makiyas -- some long-established, some coming of age. But it's clear that most Iranian-Americans distrust anyone who welcomes foreign armies into the motherland.
There is no arguing that Iran must change. The Iranian government's human rights record is appalling, people lack basic freedoms, and economic disarray prevents Iranians from managing the present or planning for the future. Few Iranian-Americans are calling for sitting idly by and waiting for the situation in Iran to improve on its own. But it's a rare voice indeed that is calling for war.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 19/01/2012
-Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Do Arab Women Need Electoral Quotas?

By Aili Mari Tripp
Women are at a crossroads in the Middle East and North Africa. This is widely reflected in the current battles over the adoption of quotas aimed at improving women's chances of being elected into parliaments. Although women's quotas were introduced as early as 1979 in Egypt, there are new efforts underway in the Middle East to implement them. Last year, Tunisia adopted a law requiring that party lists alternate between men and women. In a more restrained manner, Libya recently drafted an election law that gives women only 10 percent of the seats. However, the struggle for quotas has also met with resistance as in Egypt, which abandoned a 2010 quota law altogether that would have ensured the presence of 64 women in the parliament. 
Quotas are not only being adopted in the legislative arena in the Middle East, they are being entertained in government as well. Recently, the Iraqi cabinet approved a quota system that requires women to make up half of all hires in the ministries of health and education and to account for 30 percent of hires at all other ministries.
Although Middle East parties and governments trail other world regions in the adoption of quotas and in female legislative representation more generally, where they have adopted quotas, they are beginning to experience modest rates of success. Middle East countries that have quotas, in effect, have over twice the rates of representation (19 percent) when compared with countries where women are permitted to run for office but do not have quotas (8 percent). In fact, five Middle Eastern countries even have higher rates of female legislative representation than in the United States, where women hold 16.5 percent of Congressional seats (See Table).
Having participated in the movements for political reform in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iran, and elsewhere, many women's rights activists have seized on this moment to demand broader political, economic, and social rights. Conservative and Islamist forces have also been energized by recent developments, as is evident in the recent elections in Egypt, and they are among those forces pushing back against such an agenda promoting women's participation.
While women continue to confront serious challenges to their advancement in the Middle East and North Africa, there are some profound changes underway that are forcing radical transformations in women's status. The percentage of women in universities in the region increased from 9 percent to 27 percent between 1991 and 2009. There are considerably more women than men enrolled in universities in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Iran, Israel, Jordan, and Kuwait. In Egypt, women make up half the university students. It is not surprising, therefore, that women are now demanding a greater role in key political and economic institutions. Women are already visible in a number of public arenas. They make up a quarter of the judges and prosecution staff in the region. Although some of the lowest rates of female labor force participation in the world are found in the Middle East and North Africa (26 percent), the number of women in the public sector is increasing. In the United Arab Emirates, the proportion of women in the public sector increased from 12 percent in 1995 to 66 percent in 2007.
The benefits of these changes extend broadly to other arenas as well. As the 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development indicates, fertility rates are declining dramatically in the region. In Morocco, they fell from 4 to 2.5 children per woman between 1992 and 2004. Maternal mortality rates have experienced the largest declines worldwide in this region with a 59 percent drop between 1990 and 2008.
Today, women in the Middle East and around the globe are finding that the adoption of quotas offers some of the best possibilities for women to gain legislative seats. Reserved seats that only women compete for are found in approximately 17 countries. Large numbers of reserved seats can be particularly effective in contexts in which parties can't be trusted to adopt strategies to ensure female legislative representation. In roughly 33 countries, constitutional reforms and legislative changes have been used to encourage all political parties to include women on party lists. Parties have voluntarily adopted quotas in about 50 countries. The success of legislative and party driven quotas depends on such factors as how high women are placed on the party list and whether they are alternated with men on that list. Parties often make these determinations based on ideology, but also on such considerations as the number of seats they expect to win in a district and the number of contested positions in a district. The use of proportional representation electoral systems also strongly support relatively high levels of female representation, but to a lesser degree as quotas have come into play.
The reasons for adopting quotas in the Middle East and North Africa are similar to those found in other parts of the world. Women's organizations, movements, or party women have pushed for quotas because they see them as a means of increasing women's political representation where cultural, economic, or institutional factors pose particular challenges to women. They see them as a way to advance gender equality, justice, and fairness, and ensure that women's interests are represented in the political arena. For activists, quotas may take on powerful symbolic significance because they represent an acknowledgment of and attempt to redress women's exclusion from the political arena. But, advocates for quotas reach well beyond women's rights activists. Party elites often argue for quotas in order to gain political advantage or be seen as forces of modernization and moderation. Quotas are also a means of appealing to women voters. For left-leaning parties quotas are a means of advancing an ideological stance regarding equality.
Not all feminists support quotas. Many worry that quotas will lead to the election of unqualified token women or that the women elected will not be concerned about advancing women's rights. Some believe that quotas reinforce stereotypes about women as being apolitical. Also, many are concerned that reserved seats, in particular, create a ceiling for women's representation.
Changes in international norms, advanced by the United Nations, the African Union, and other such organizations, especially after the 1995 U.N. Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing have also resulted in the adoption of quotas. In Iraq, international and U.S. women's organizations together with Iraqi women's organizations exerted pressure that resulted in a 25 percent quota for women.
Social unrest itself can stir up changes in gender relations that also lead to the adoption of quotas. This has been most evident in Sub-Saharan Africa, where post-conflict countries have been the most open to adopting quotas. This has resulted in post-conflict countries having double the rates of female legislative representation when compared with countries in Africa that have not experience conflict.
The introduction of quotas challenges older explanations for why women in the Middle East have been so slow to gain political, economic, and social ground relative to other world regions. The most common arguments point to Islam as creating special cultural barriers for women. However, with the emergence of quotas, Islam no longer appears to be a particular impediment to women's legislative representation in countries like Tanzania, Sudan, Mauritania, Senegal, Pakistan, or many other countries with large or predominantly Muslim populations. Michael Ross has argued that oil production is mostly to blame for the lag in women's rights because it reduces the number of women in the workforce, which impacts fertility rates, educational levels of females, and ultimately women's political representation and participation. Others like Mounira Charrad claim that strong patriarchal kinship based networks predate the discovery of oil and have their own independent impact on women's status. However, with the introduction of quotas, we may be now witnessing an important turning point in the struggle for women's rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, the adoption of quotas appears to trump explanations that pertain to Islam, culture, kinship, and oil and is increasingly proving to be a force for women's advancement in the political arena. How far women will be able to use their emerging positions of political power to advance women's rights remains to be seen.
Women's Legislative Representation and Use of Quotas in the Middle East and North Africa
Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union; Global Database of Quotas for Women
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 19/01/2012
-Aili Mari Tripp is a Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She directs the university's Center for Research on Gender and Women.  Currently, she is serving as the president of the U.S.-based African Studies Association

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Just What Does Jordan’s Abdullah Understand?

By Laurie A. Brand and Fayez Y. Hammad

                                        Jordan's King Abdullah II
"Fahimtkum," meaning "I get it," (literally, "I have understood you") became famous this time last year when then-Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali cynically proclaimed it in a speech, a last ditch effort to convince the Tunisian people that he had heard their discontent and was ready to make serious changes.
In late summer 2011, a new Jordanian political satire taking its name -- "Al`an fahimtkum" ("Now I understand you") -- from the same phrase of Ben Ali's, began running on the stage of the Concord Theatre in Amman. Using the family of a Jordanian of modest means who works as a driver for a government minister, Abu Saqr, the play's successive scenes address a range of the country's current political scandals and woes: from repeated references to the government's questionable sales of state land and assets, to mocking the process by which government ministers are chosen, to raising questions about just who has been sending the baltajiyyah (thugs) to beat up protesters at opposition meetings and demonstrations over the past year. In December, demand for tickets increased dramatically after King Abdullah II attended and reportedly much enjoyed the play.
What does this play and its reception, both by the Jordanian public and the palace, indicate regarding the current state of affairs in the kingdom? Concern, indeed, anxiety is widespread and palpable in Jordan these days, not only over the direction of the country and its future stability, but also concerning who is actually making decisions, and what recent developments reveal about possible conflicts between unspecified "centers of power." Awn Shawkat al-Khasawneh, the third prime minister in a year, and a respected international lawyer, has recently taken what appear as bold steps to respond to growing demands for greater accountability. Old scandals thought put to rest have been reopened. For example, there is Casinogate, the project for a gambling complex at the Dead Sea that was signed by an earlier prime minister, Ma`ruf al-Bakhit, without proper government approval. There is also the case of the business tycoon, Khalid Shahin, convicted for bribery in a corruption case regarding the Jordan Petroleum Refinery Company, who was released from prison for a trip abroad for medical treatment only to be spotted in London dining with his family at a fancy restaurant.
However, toward year's end, new "irregularities" came to light on nearly a weekly basis. Most notably was the revelation of the title transfer of thousands of acres of state land to the king's name, which the royal court attempted to explain away as a move simply intended to avoid cumbersome bureaucratic procedures that could slow down their disposition for development purposes. Khasawneh is also apparently opening investigations into the privatization of numerous state enterprises, cases that are likely to involve at best mismanagement and at worst criminal profit at state expense. While cracking down on corruption has certainly been central among protestors' demands, the way new cases are being announced raises important questions. Is this the beginning of a serious process? Is it an unrepresentative sample of characters intended to serve as sacrificial lambs? Or are we about to witness a period of account settling among various power centers by denouncing certain figures for corruption?
Adding to the sense of uncertainty regarding what is happening and who is responsible, some forces in the regime seem to believe that sending in goon squads to intimidate critics or opponents calling for reform can be accomplished with no trail leading back to them as long as the perpetrators don't wear government-issued uniforms. In the past, behind-the-scenes intimidation by the mukhabarat (internal intelligence) or, more recently, by the baton-wielding Darak (gendarmerie) forces has been used in such situations, generally achieving the desired effect. But for the last several months, some center(s) of power -- perhaps from within the security services or, according to other speculation, even the palace, (given the king's special forces background) -- have sponsored seemingly unaffiliated baltajiyyah to intimidate opposition meetings and protests. In some cases they have merely attacked peaceful protesters while uniformed state security forces look on. M; more recently, following a march by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the northwest town of Mafraq, they upped the ante by setting the MB headquarters on fire. If the intent was to intimidate the Brotherhood, the assault backfired miserably, as Khasawneh responded by returning the influential and charitable Islamic Center Society to Brotherhood control. The Brotherhood responded by organizing a major demonstration in downtown Amman the last Friday of the year featuring a martial display of young demonstrators intended to clearly send the message that it is capable of defending itself against the baltajiyyah if the state is unable or unwilling to provide security.
All of this may seem relatively tame for those who look to Jordan's neighbor to the north and compare the use of force in Syria with that in the Hashemite Kingdom. But Jordan's population is much smaller than Syria's and, superficial appearances notwithstanding, still largely based in tribal structure. In such a setting, the state cannot get away with the use of deadly force, particularly not against an opposition which to date is overwhelmingly composed of Transjordanians, not Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
Hence, recent regime behavior raises many questions. Who within it supports Prime Minister Khasawneh's attempts at reform? Who feels most threatened by demonstrations calling for an end to corruption? Who is making the decisions to send in the thugs, and how long will it take before someone with an ounce of wisdom realizes that such crude attempts at repression, generally by Transjordanians against other Transjordanians, have serious potential to spin out of control? (And can we finally put to rest the tired canard about Jordanians of Palestinian origin being the source of potential unrest or threat to the system?)
King Abdullah apparently enjoyed "Al`an Fahimtkum," smiling throughout the entire production. If so, one can only wonder, has he really understood? Even more important, exactly what is it that he thinks he understands? There is no shortage these days of open and direct criticisms of the king, including references to his inability to understand his people because of his poor Arabic. While the play's critiques all attribute responsibility for the country's problems to "the government," several of its references should have hit home with the monarch personally. In any case, few Jordanians believe corruption stops at the ministerial level. Just as serious, much popular anxiety is a direct result of Jordanians' no longer believing the king has control of the situation or that he is capable of steering Jordan effectively through the current regional and domestic turmoil. Indeed, he is increasingly seen as part of the problem. The palace called for a meeting this past week with a group of former prime ministers to consult regarding the current situation. If press accounts of the meeting are to be believed, this gathering, the likes of which has not been held for some eight years, served to air myriad criticisms and concerns, including from one former prime minister who reportedly told the king, "Sidi, I have worked in the state bureaucracy for 50 years...frankly, I don't understand what is happening these days, nor do I understand how the affairs of this country are being run." 
If the regime -- palace, government, and security forces -- continues on its current course, the possibilities for more serious instability are real. Given the current murky nature of the alliances of actors involved and the balance of power among them, it is troubling that the gap between what the king has understood and what he needs to understand to manage the current demands for change seems unlikely to narrow; indeed, it threatens to continue to widen as the region enters year two of what long ago stopped feeling anything like an "Arab Spring."     
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 17/01/2012
-Laurie A. Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor and Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. Fayez Y. Hammad is lecturer in the Department of Political Science and the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California

Morocco's Silent Revolution

Morocco’s experience of the Arab spring of 2011, including constitutional reform and a parliamentary election, exemplifies the country’s political distinctiveness within the region. The events of 2012 will demonstrate how far hopes of real change can be sustained, says Valentina Bartolucci.

King Mohammed commemorated the 10th anniversary of his accession to the throne
The last few weeks of 2011 were critical for democracy in the middle east, as illustrated by developments in a number of countries. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh signed an agreement to give up power, though he has yet to deliver on this repeated pledge; in Bahrain, the government accepted the findings of a frank report on human rights; in Egypt, thousands of people demonstrated to reclaim their revolution; and in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, parliamentary elections were held - the first since the wave of protests that began to sweep the Arab world in December 2010.
Morocco’s experience in the context of these region-wide trends has been as distinctive as that of any other Arab country. In 2011, Morocco too was characterised by popular protests demanding governmental changes and constitutional reforms (see "The Moroccan exception, and a king’s speech", 11 March 2011).
But subsequent events showed once more that Morocco, even within north Africa, has a singular political character. The most obvious external aspect of this is that the country is a monarchy; and in the aftermath of the protests - and in contrast to other rulers who responded to demonstrations with force - Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, quickly promised constitutional reforms. A new constitution was proposed, and endorsed on 1 July 2011 in a referendum.
Under the new constitution, the king no longer has the title of “commander of the faithful” (and by extension his “sacred status”. He also now is obliged to appoint the prime minister from the majority party in parliament. Yet he retains ultimate authority: via control over the military apparatus and the religious establishment, the power to implement emergency laws, and the capacity to veto new laws and ministerial appointments.
This process and result reflect Morocco’s distinctiveness, in three ways. First, the king remains very popular among the general public and is widely believed to act as the guarantor of political stability and social cohesion, and arbitrator between opposed factions. The consequence is that very few people in the country want to depose the king or seek outright revolution. Rather, Moroccans are more inclined to seek gradual change continuous with the country’s history and religious values.
Second, this path of change itself follows the democratic reforms - of the family code, of the religious sector, and of justice - that have occurred in Morocco since Mohammed VI’s accession to the throne in 1999.
Third, the king’s strategic approach has been able to defuse the ostensible threat of violent groups resorting to a violent jihad, in a way that has won praise from western observers (see Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco: a journey in the space between monarchy and Islamism", 5 February 2003). This strategy reinforces the sense that Moroccans are both devoted to their king and in their vast majority deeply hostile to violence.
The political process
The parliamentary elections held on 25 November 2011 were a test of whether the king’s approach of gradual reforms was still popular in the country. The Islamist PJD (Party of Justice and Development) - for long been perceived by Moroccans and international observers alike as the only credible political party in the country - was the victor. This indicated that those who sought real change in the country wanted this to be achieved within the system by more effective reforms, not through revolts (see Laila Lalami, "Morocco's Moderate Revolution", Foreign Policy, 21 February 2011).
The PJD owed its victory to four factors. First, it focused its campaign not on issues such as the banning of alcohol or women’s headscarves, but on a strong anti-corruption programme with detailed policy proposals - on, for example, delivering good governance and social justice, fighting endemic corruption, revamping the country’s abysmal education system, and improving people’s economic condition.
Second, its connecting theme was a call for dignity, which - backed by good organisation, grassroots networks, and motivated candidates - attracted many people who saw the Islamists as a means to escape a sense of subjugation by the west.
Third, the party benefited from the fact that the push for change in Morocco had discredited political parties closely associated with the status quo, such as the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (formed by a friend of the king). Fourth, the PJD was able to assure the middle class that it was not totally “Islamist” but rather had an “Islamic reference” that linked Islam with political dignity.
The PJD’s breakthrough was the culmination of a long period when its image had provoked elements of fear as well as hope. The party had in recent years moderated its tone and compromised on matters such as the reform of the family code (which it had initially opposed) and a stringent anti-terrorism law passed in the aftermath of the Casablanca bombings in May 2003. After later attacks, the PJD had been obliged to reiterate its total opposition to any form of violence, absolute repudiation of terrorism, and its open and peaceful character.
The monarchy played an important role in this process: both in encouraging Islamists who oppose violence and support the monarchy to participate in the political game (thus making it easier for the palace to exercise influence over it - to the extent that PJD members are known as “the Islamists of the palace”), and in cracking down on adherents of the Salafist ideology. Yet some still fear that an internal takeover of the PJD would lead to the radicalisation of Moroccan society.
This perception prompted the PJD’s secretary-general Abdelilah Benkirane to stress that the party will neither infringe personal liberties nor dictate to Moroccans how to behave, and to state that its chief concern is to improve the country socially and economically. Benkirane’s first public statement after the election declared: "Religion belongs in the mosques and we are not going to interfere in people’s personal lives."
The promise of change
Morocco’s political development in 2011, including the holding of parliamentary elections and the victory of the Islamist party, shows that even in a constrained setting there is hope for those seeking real and sustainable change while working within the system. Yet outstanding issues and challenges remain. Just before the election, the youth-led movement “February 20”, some left-wing parties and the outlawed Justice & Charity movement founded by Sheikh Yassine called for a boycott and organised demonstrations in all major cities.
The boycott demand was countered by government encouragement to vote by poster campaigns and televised announcements; in the event more than 45% of eligible voters cast their ballots, but there was also a high number of spoiled ballots, which may represent another form of protest against the status quo (and, perhaps, that there is less fear than in the past about committing such an act).
Overall, the parliamentary elections of 25 November 2011 contain signs of progress. They demonstrate that Moroccans want radical change and that such change can emerge from inside the system. Moroccans suffer from the same problems as do others across the Arab world - endemic corruption, poor housing, widespread poverty, social inequality, and increasing unemployment. Yet, unlike their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere they will probably not go down the path of revolution.
Here, the PJD and the coalition government it leads - formed on 3 January 2012, and headed by Abdelilah Benkirane - could play a crucial role. Morocco is presently on the threshold of profound social, political and economic transformation. If the new government can assume more ownership of the political process, disaffected Moroccans may find new hope in the system.
But in order to fulfil this hope, the PJD faces two big issues. First, it must ensure that the governing coalition is a strong one, able to ensure that it is not over-constrained by the previous rules of the palace. Second, the PJD must demonstrate that it is willing to work within the system, thus reassuring worried observers that it is able to compromise and to maintain the country’s diversity and liberal lifestyle. The signs here are mixed.
Morocco remains unique among the countries affected by the “Arab spring”: ruled by a monarch who is not a dictator and is supported by the great majority of the population, with a government that has been able both to maintain its specificity while maintaining close ties with Europe and the United States. This context helps explain the character of the authorities’ reaction to demonstrations and disaffection. Its elections suggested that real internal change - even a silent revolution - is possible. The events of 2012 will to a great degree show how far that hope can be realised.
-This commentary was published in OpenDemocracy’s blog on 17/01/2012

Monday, January 16, 2012

Flexing Muscle, Baghdad Detains U.S. Contractors


Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is filling a void left by the United States military.
Iraqi authorities have detained a few hundred foreign contractors in recent weeks, industry officials say, including many Americans who work for the United States Embassy, in one of the first major signs of the Iraqi government’s asserting its sovereignty after the American troop withdrawal last month.
The detentions have occurred largely at the airport in Baghdad and at checkpoints around the capital after the Iraqi authorities raised questions about the contractors’ documents, including visas, weapons permits and authorizations to drive certain routes. Although no formal charges have been filed, the detentions have lasted from a few hours to nearly three weeks.
The crackdown comes amid other moves by the Iraqi government to take over functions that had been performed by the United States military and to claim areas of the country it had controlled. In the final weeks of the military withdrawal, the son of Iraq’s prime minister began evicting Western companies and contractors from the heavily fortified Green Zone, which had been the heart of the United States military operation for much of the war.
Just after the last American troops left in December, the Iraqis stopped issuing and renewing many weapons licenses and other authorizations. The restrictions created a sequence of events in which contractors were being detained for having expired documents that the government would not renew.
The Iraqi authorities have also imposed new limitations on visas. In some recent cases, contractors have been told they have 10 days to leave Iraq or face arrest in what some industry officials call a form of controlled harassment.
Latif Rashid, a senior adviser to the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, and a former minister of water, said in an interview that the Iraqis’ deep mistrust of security contractors had led the government to strictly monitor them. “We have to apply our own rules now,” he said.
This month, Iraqi authorities kept scores of contractors penned up at Baghdad’s international airport for nearly a week until their visa disputes were resolved. Industry officials said more than 100 foreigners were detained; American officials acknowledged the detainments but would not put a number on them.
Private contractors are integral to postwar Iraq’s economic development and security, foreign businessmen and American officials say, but they remain a powerful symbol of American might, with some Iraqis accusing them of running roughshod over the country.
An image of contractors as trigger-happy mercenaries who were above the law was seared into the minds of Iraqis after several violent episodes involving private sector workers, chief among them the 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square when military contractors for Blackwater killed 17 civilians.
Iraq’s oil sector alone, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the government’s budget, relies heavily on tens of thousands of foreign employees. The United States Embassy employs 5,000 contractors to protect its 11,000 employees and to train the Iraqi military to operate tanks, helicopters and weapons systems that the United States has sold them.
The United States had been providing much of the accreditation for contractors to work in Iraq. But after the military withdrawal, contractors had to deal with a Iraqi bureaucracy at a time when the government was engulfed in a political crisis and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, fearing a coup, was moving tanks into the Green Zone.
The delays for visa approvals have disrupted the daily movement of supplies and personnel around Iraq, prompting formal protests from dozens of companies operating in Iraq. And they have raised deeper questions about how the Maliki government intends to treat foreign workers and how willing foreign companies will be to invest here.
“While private organizations are often able to resolve low-level disputes and irregularities, this issue is beyond our ability to resolve,” the International Stability Operations Association, a Washington-based group that represents more than 50 companies and aid organizations that work in conflict, post-conflict and disaster relief zones, said in a letter on Sunday to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Doug Brooks, president of the organization, said in a telephone interview that the number of civilian contractors who have been detained was in the “low hundreds.” He added in an e-mail on Sunday, “Everyone is impacted, but the roots have more to do with political infighting than any hostility to the U.S.”
As Iraqi and American officials were negotiating last summer to keep American troops in Iraq into 2012, the Iraqis refused to grant American troops immunity from Iraqi law, in large part because of violent episodes like the one in Nisour Square. Although the contractors working for the embassy are doing many of the same jobs American troops had, including training, logistics, maintenance and private security, they are not protected from Iraqi law
Mr. Rashid, the adviser to Mr. Talabani, said Iraqis are fed up with foreign contractors. “The Iraqi public is not happy with security contractors. They caused a lot of pain,” he said. “There is a general bad feeling towards the security contractors among the Iraqis and that has created bad feelings towards them all.”
Mr. Rashid said that traveling to the United States to work was no different. “Every time I go to the airport in New York they open my suitcase three times,” he said. “How long does it take to get an American visa?”
An adviser to Mr. Maliki said that as part of the current agreement between the United States and Iraq, no Americans should be in the country without the permission of the Iraqi government.
“Iraq always welcomes foreigners into the country, but they have to come through legally and in a way that respects that Iraq now has sovereignty and control over its land,” said the adviser, Ali Moussawi.
Last month, two Americans, a Fijian and 12 Iraqis employed by Triple Canopy, a private security company, were detained for 18 days after their 10-vehicle convoy from Kalsu, south of Baghdad, to Taji, north of the capital, was stopped for what Iraqi officials said was improper paperwork.
One of the Americans, Alex Antiohos, 32, a former Army Green Beret medic from North Babylon, N.Y., who served in the Iraq war, said in a telephone interview Sunday that he and his colleagues were kept at an Iraqi army camp, fed insect-infested plates of rice and fish, forced to sleep in a former jail, and though not physically mistreated were verbally threatened by an Iraqi general who visited them periodically. “At times, I feared for my safety,” Mr. Antiohos said.
In a statement, Triple Canopy, which denied any problems with documents, said that during the detention period, company officials were in contact with employees by cellphone, and brought them food, blankets, clothing, medical supplies and cellphone batteries. All were released unharmed on Dec. 27.
The detention drew the ire of Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican who heads the House Homeland Security Committee. His office was contacted by Mr. Antiohos’s wife on Dec. 19 seeking help to get the employees released. Mr. King criticized the United States Embassy in Baghdad for failing to help release the contractors caught in a drama that he said might have resulted in part from rival Iraqi ministries’ battling for political primacy.
“They could have been held as power plays by one Iraq department against another, but what adds to the problem is that it does not appear that the State Department is doing anything near what they could be doing,” Mr. King said in a telephone interview.
The United States Embassy in Baghdad, as well as senior State Department and military officials, say that no Americans are currently being detained, and they insist the detentions and visa delays are more the result of bureaucratic inexperience than malevolent intentions.
“The embassy has pushed for consistency and transparency in the government of Iraq’s immigration and customs procedures and urged American citizens to review their travel documents to ensure that they comply with Iraqi requirements to help avoid such incidents,” an Embassy spokesman said in a statement.
One senior American military official said that the current disconnect between the Iraqis and the contractors was “primarily an adjustment of our standard operating procedures as we adapt our people and they adapt their security forces to the new situation.”
-This report was published in The Newyork Times on 16/01/2012
-Michael S. Schmidt reported from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Fear Of Civil War Mounts In Syria As Crisis Deepens

By ANTHONY SHADID from Beirut, Lebanon

Syrians watched President Bashar al-Assad's address in a shop in Damascus on Tuesday
The failure of an Arab League mission to stanch violence in Syria, an international community with little leverage and a government as defiant as its opposition is in disarray have left Syria descending into a protracted, chaotic and perhaps unnegotiable conflict.
The opposition speaks less of prospects for the fall of President Bashar al-Assad and more about a civil war that some argue has already begun, with the government losing control over some regions and its authority ebbing in the suburbs of the capital and parts of major cities like Homs and Hama. Even the capital, Damascus, which had remained calm for months, has been carved up with checkpoints and its residents have been frightened by the sounds of gunfire.
The deepening stalemate underlines the extent to which events are slipping out of control. In a town about a half-hour drive from Damascus, the police station was recently burned down and in retaliation electricity and water were cut off, diplomats say. For a time, residents drew water in buckets from a well. Some people are too afraid to drive major highways at night.
In Homs, a city that a Lebanese politician called “the Stalingrad of the Syrian revolution,” reports have grown of sectarian cleansing of once-mixed neighborhoods, where some roads have become borders too dangerous for taxis to cross. In a suggestion that reflected the sense of desperation, the emir of Qatar said in an interview with CBS, an excerpt of which was released Saturday, that Arab troops should intervene in Syria to “stop the killing.”
“There’s absolutely no sign of light,” said a Western diplomat in Damascus, a city once so calm it was called Syria’s Green Zone. “If anything, it’s darker than ever. And I don’t know where it’s going to end. I can’t tell you. I don’t think anyone can.”
The forbidding tableau painted by diplomats, residents, opposition figures and even some government supporters suggests a far more complicated picture than that offered by Mr. Assad, who delivered a 15,000-word speech on Tuesday, declaring, “We will defeat this conspiracy without any doubt.” The next day, he appeared in public for the first time since the uprising began in a Syrian backwater last March.
More telling, perhaps, was the arrival of a Russian ship last week, said to be carrying ammunition and seeming to signal the determination of the government to fight to the end.
“Day by day, Syrians are closer to fighting each other,” said a 30-year-old activist in Arabeen, near the capital, who gave his name as Abdel-Rahman and joined a protest of about 1,000 people there on Friday. “Bashar has divided Syrians into two groups — one with him, one against him — and the coming days will bring more blood into the streets.”
In the other Arab revolts, diplomacy and, in Libya’s case, armed intervention proved crucial in the unfolding of events. Even Bahrain had an international commission whose report on the uprising there was viewed by the United States and some parties in that gulf state as a basis for reform. Syria has emerged as the country where the stalemate inside is mirrored by deadlock abroad.
Syria still counts on the support of Russia and China in the United Nations Security Council. In the Arab world, Syria has allies in Iraq and Algeria, whose foreign minister said Wednesday that Syria “is in the process of making more of an effort.”
But on Sunday, the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, urged Mr. Assad to halt the violence against the protesters and said the time of dynasties and one-man rule in the Arab world were coming to an end.
 “Today, I say again to President Assad of Syria: Stop the violence. Stop killing your people. The path of repression is a dead end,”  news agencies quoted Mr. Ban as saying at a conference in Lebanon on political reform.
Another diplomat in Damascus was fatalistic. “There’s not much more that anyone, at the international level, can do,” he said. “There’s not much more the Arab League can, either.”
Syria’s agreement to allow 165 observers from the Arab League last month to monitor a deal that seemed stillborn even when it was announced — a government pledge to end violence, free prisoners and pull the military from cities — was viewed as one of the last diplomatic tools.
But last week, one of the monitors, an Algerian named Anwar Malek, resigned in disgust, saying the mission had only given Mr. Assad cover to continue the crackdown. Opposition activists say hundreds have died since the monitors arrived.
“Bashar was looking for a shield, and he found it with us,” Mr. Malek said in an interview. “The mission has failed until now. It hasn’t achieved anything.”
He said at least three other monitors were also quitting.
The mission’s leader, Lt. Gen. Muhammad Ahmed al-Dabi, who once ran Sudan’s notorious military intelligence agency, attacked Mr. Malek, saying he stayed in his hotel room rather than doing his job. But Nabil el-Araby, the Arab League’s secretary general, acknowledged where Syria might be headed, with or without the monitors.
“Yes, I fear a civil war, and the events that we see and hear about now could lead to a civil war,” he said in an interview with an Egyptian television station.
He echoed a growing sentiment in many capitals, the potential for Syria’s crisis to intersect with a combustible array of rivalries in the region.
Peter Harling, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, said, “I’ve never seen something quite so ominous take shape in the region in 15 years.”
As with past speeches, Mr. Assad’s address on Tuesday was not meant for the protesters challenging his 11-year rule. His audience, analysts say, was his supporters, who were by many accounts buoyed by his projection of confidence and his suggestion of reform: a constitutional referendum and the prospect of a national unity government.
“They finally grasped it, and this is the first positive sign they’ve shown,” said a 28-year-old Damascus resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He tried to attend the rally on Wednesday but got stuck in traffic. “They’ve now moved from defense to offense.”
Mr. Assad still commands a largely loyal government. Unlike in Libya, defections from within the leadership, or even diplomatic service, have been few — so rare, in fact, that the departure of a mid-ranking cleric from the state’s religious establishment recently was hailed as a victory by the opposition.
For many, the calculus remains much as it did at the beginning of the uprising. Though some soldiers have defected from the military, the more essential security forces, dominated by Mr. Assad’s own Alawite clan, have remained cohesive. Their loyalty, along with support from nervous Christians — who with the Alawites make up more than a fifth of the country — means his fall is not imminent or even likely.
But residents and diplomats speak of the erosion of his authority, often framed as the diminishment of the prestige of the state. Embassies have drastically reduced their staffs, and residents in Damascus speak of a growing anxiety after twin bombings tore through a fortified part of the capital in December.
“There is nothing happening around us, but psychologically, the stress ... I don’t know, it’s hitting home now,” said a 29-year-old bank employee in Damascus who declined to give her name. “The last explosions were really close. It’s very stressful.”
In Homs, beleaguered but still famous for its humor, residents have poked fun at the grimness. A joke these days has a husband bringing home a chicken. He suggests his wife cook it in the oven. But there’s no gas, she tells him. The stove? No electricity, she says. Spared, the chicken declares, “God, Syria, Bashar and no one else!”
Activists admit to a growing vacuum in embattled streets, as the bitterly divided exiled opposition fails to connect with the domestic protest movement.
“They don’t understand the situation on the ground, and they have to be blamed for that,” said Wissam Tarif, an activist with Avaaz, a human rights and advocacy group. He warned about a growing armed presence in Syria, with no leadership. “It’s a very dangerous business. The vacuum will eventually be filled. By whom, we don’t know.”
Another resident in Damascus, where blackouts are becoming more frequent and longer, cast the future starkly.
“Each side is trying to eliminate or belittle the other,” he said. “They both refuse to acknowledge the other side. When you talk to them, they will convince you that, come on already, it’s a done deal, God is with them. God must be torn, I tell you.”
-This report was published in The NewYork Times on 15/01/2012
-Hwaida Saad and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Beirut, and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations