Archive for the ‘Arab revolutions’ Category

Trump, liberalism and the search for meaning

18/12/2016

An article argues that Trump has returned America to its norm of fighting over identity, morality and religion, “Americans have elected an “illiberal democrat” as president. That doesn’t mean the United States will become an illiberal democracy — where democratically elected leaders fundamentally erode the rights and freedoms we associate with the classical liberal tradition — anytime soon. But it does mean we could become one. As a minority and a Muslim, the result of this election is distressing — and perhaps the most frightening event I’ve experienced in my own country. That said, there is something admirable in the idea that democratic outcomes will be respected even when people you hate (or people that hate you) come to power. I’ve studied “existential” elections in the Middle East, where there is simply too much at stake for the losers of elections to accept that the victors have, in fact, won. I was nervous about Donald Trump. But I also recognized that he was an unusually compelling candidate in an age when they are few and far between. I remember the first time I heard him give a long, rambling, ad-libbed speech at a raucous rally. It’s not just that I couldn’t look away; I didn’t want to. Trump was funny, charismatic, and vaguely charming but also quite obviously petty and vindictive. His rallies were more like faith-based festivals. This wasn’t politics as an end — it was politics as a means to something else, although I wasn’t quite sure what. But I did know that I had seen it before”.

The writer goes on to point out “It’s almost unfair to compare Trump to the democratically elected Islamists that I normally study, since Trump’s open disrespect not just for liberal norms, but democratic ones as well, has been so unabashed. In his infamous statement during the final presidential debate, Trump refused to commit himself to democratic outcomes if his opponent won. Mainstream Islamist groups that participate in elections — whatever we think their true intentions are — have rarely gone this far. The differences between ethno-nationalist parties, such as Trump’s new Republicans, and religious parties are of course numerous, which makes the similarities all the more glaring. There is the same sense of victimization, real and imagined, at the hands of an entrenched elite, coupled with an acute sense of loss. In both cases, the leader of the movement is seen as the embodiment of the national will, representing “the people.” The overlap between Trumpism and Islamism is no coincidence. In my book Islamic Exceptionalism, which discusses Islam’s tensions with liberalism and liberal democracy, I argue that some public role for religion is necessary in religiously conservative societies. Religion, unlike secular nationalism or socialism, can provide a common language and a kind of asabiyya — a 14th-century Arabic term coined by the historian Ibn Khaldun meaning roughly “group consciousness.” Asabiyya was needed to bind states together, providing cohesion and shared purpose”.

The author crucially argues that “In less religious or “post-Christian” societies, a mainstream Christianity is no longer capable of providing the necessary group identity. But that doesn’t mean other ideas won’t fill the vacuum. In other words, be careful what you wish for: An America where religion plays less of a role isn’t necessarily a better one, if what replaces religion is white nativism. Whether it’s nativism, European-style ethno-nationalism, or, in the case of the Middle East, Islamism, the thread that connects these disparate experiments is similar: the flailing search for a politics of meaning. The ideologies might seem incoherent or hollow, but they all aspire to some sort of social solidarity, anchoring public life in sharply defined identities. During the Arab Spring, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood hoped, at least in the long run, to transform Egypt into a kind of missionary state. The essence of politics then isn’t just, or even primarily, about improving citizens’ quality of life — it’s about directing their energies toward moral, philosophical, or ideological ends. When the state entrusts itself with a cause — whether based around religion or ethnic identity — citizens are no longer individuals pursuing their own conception of the good life; they are part of a larger brotherhood, entrusted with a mission to reshape society”.

Pointedly he contends that “This isn’t necessarily surprising. Western elites too often assume liberalism as a default setting, but after spending more than six years living, studying, and conducting fieldwork in the Middle East, and after witnessing the demise of the Arab Spring, my view of human nature became quite a bit darker. Illiberalism, not liberalism, seemed the default setting. Islamism promised to remove the spiritual confusion associated with individualism and seemingly unlimited choices. I’ll never forget sitting in the back of a Cairo cab with a random guy, who was getting high on hashish and going on about the need for sharia, or Islamic law. He wanted an Islamic state to force him to stop doing drugs because he didn’t want to sin. But he didn’t know how, at least not on his own. Despite watching the march of illiberalism nearly everywhere, from Europe to the Middle East to Asia, I resisted my own conclusions when it came to considering the appeal of Trump’s illiberalism at home”.

He continues “As a personality, he was singular and compelling — but could he really win in a country where constitutional liberalism was so deeply entrenched? Intellectually, I knew we had to take his movement seriously and thought he had a good chance of winning. But as an American citizen with a stake in my country’s democratic ideals, I couldn’t bring myself to actually visualize it as something real. We all need to believe in our better angels, particularly when it comes to the very countries in which we live and believe. The writer Yascha Mounk called Nov. 8 “the worst night for liberal democracy since [1942].” He’s probably right. But there is a perhaps sunnier way to view Trump’s election: It could prove a definitive rebuke to what liberal democracy had, contrary to the intent of its originators, become — the kind of center-left managerial technocracy that was as uninspiring as it was unthreatening. This techno-liberalism could, to be sure, improve people’s lives by nudgingand tinkering around the margins. But aside from the “poetry” of periodic moments like Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, it offered only the prose of technocratic policy — prose that could become its own kind of faith, offering certainty and even a sense of identity, but primarily directed at elites and wonks who believed that the future of politics was in finding the right “facts.” These facts, objective and unimpeachable, would aid in the slow work of, say, refining a flawed universal health-care system and getting Wall Street to behave a little bit better. For everyone else, it failed to offer a substantive politics of meaning”.

Importantly he posits that “Humans need to belong, and so we gravitate toward in-groups of like-minded people. In my case, those like-minded people are of different races and religions, but we share a culture, lifestyle, and a sensibility. We were moved by the kind of joyous diversity on display at the Democratic National Convention. In those images, I could recognize the America that I knew and perhaps the only America I hoped to know.  But most members of the so-called and now somewhat clichéd “white working class” relate to each other more than they could ever relate to me. They see me as different, in part because I am. Is this a kind of nativism? Maybe. But, ultimately, my politics are just as motivated by identity and culture as theirs. The decline of Christianity in the United States has left an ideological vacuum, and for many, perhaps most, modern liberalism is just a bit too boring to fill the gap. Or, to put it differently, it doesn’t provide the existential meaning that they want and even crave”.

He ends “In his seminal essay “The End of History?” the political scientist Francis Fukuyama grappled with the victory of liberal democracy. He wrote that “the struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” But Fukuyama was ambivalent about this, instinctively recognizing liberal democracy’s inherent weakness before most. He ended his article on a prescient if now somewhat terrifying note: “Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.” We are now condemned to live in exciting times. Boredom is, quite clearly, underrated. At the same time, I must confess that as Trump’s victory settled, my despair was coupled with a rush of blood to the head. I felt my fear, including for my family, giving me a sense of purpose. I at least knew what I believed in and what I hoped America could still become. And, in one way or another, even if we don’t quite consciously want it, it’s something we all apparently need — something, whatever it is, to fight for. Now Americans on both sides of the ever-widening divide will have it.

 

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French troops in Libya

27/07/2016

Three French soldiers were killed during a mission to gather intelligence in Libya, President Francois Hollande said Wednesday in the first official confirmation that France has troops in the country where IS controls a key city. Hollande said the troops died in a helicopter accident while taking part in “dangerous intelligence operations”. He did not say when the incident took place. Libyan sources gave a different account of events, telling AFP the M17 helicopter was shot down by surface-to-air missiles. They were “probably targeted by Islamist groups in the Magroun area, about 65 kilometres west of Benghazi” on Sunday, a commander of forces loyal to a controversial general, Khalifa Haftar, said. Another source close to Haftar — who opposes the internationally backed unity government in Tripoli as well as the Islamist factions that have overrun large parts of the country — said the dead soldiers were military advisors”.

The problems of peace

17/07/2016

Stephen Walt argues the benefits of war, “A striking trend in contemporary world politics is the apparent erosion of political unity in so many different places. In the Middle East, we’ve seen the upheavals of the Arab Spring and the continuing bloodbaths in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere. In Europe, support for the European Union continues to drop, Great Britain may vote to leave it, and Scotland might still decide to exit the United Kingdom. Here in the United States, we have a level of bitter partisanship not seen for many decades, the two main political parties are themselves deeply divided, and the presumptive GOP presidential candidate is a rank amateur (in several senses of that term). To say “the center cannot hold” seems like an understatement these days. What’s going on here? Some people believe today’s fractious politics is a consequence of globalization, which has accelerated the pace of change, threatened traditional cultural norms, and left millions of people feeling marginalized. Other observers blame economic policies that have enriched the One Percent and insulated them from their own misdeeds, leaving the rest of us to forage for the crumbs from their table. Or perhaps the digital revolution and new media are the real culprits, with the combination of cable TV, Twitter, and other modern means of communication lowering barriers to entry, coarsening the national dialogue, spreading extremism, and making the nastiest forms of political innuendo seem legitimate”.

Interestingly he makes the point “There may be some truth in each of these claims, but they all overlook an even more important explanation for the fractious state of contemporary politics: peace. Don’t get me wrong: I think peace is wonderful, and I wish more politicians talked about it openly and did more to further it. But prolonged periods of peace may also have a downside: They allow divisions within different societies to grow and deepen. Even worse, they may eventually drive the world back toward war”.

Walt adds “I wish I could claim this was my original idea, but this explanation for our present divisions has been around for quite a while. Indeed, 20 years ago, political scientist Michael Desch published a fascinating article in the academic journal International Organization, titled “War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States?” Drawing on the earlier work of Max Weber, Otto Hintze, George Simmel, Charles Tilly, Lewis Coser, and others, Desch argued that war (and external threats more generally) were perhaps the single-most important factor explaining the emergence of strong, centralized states and cohesive national polities. In particular, the pressures of international competition forced rival states to develop effective bureaucracies, efficient systems of taxation, and formidable armies, and it also encouraged the promotion of patriotism and a dampening of internal divisions. When the wolf is at the door, domestic quarrels are put aside in order to deal with the more immediate danger. Unfortunately, this argument also implies that the arrival of peace can have a negative effect on national unity”.

Walt rightly questions this proposition, “Does the historical record support this view? Desch thought so. In his words: “Variation in the intensity of the international security competition also affected the cohesion of many states. From the end of the Napoleonic wars and the Treaty of Versailles in 1815 until the Crimean War of 1853-1856, the external threat environment facing European states became relatively benign. The period between 1815 and 1853 witnessed an unprecedented breakdown in state cohesion manifested in a series of internal upheavals in various European states.” He also saw a similar pattern in U.S. history.”

Walt summarises the article noting, “The two world wars, by contrast, helped create the modern American federal state and were a powerful source of national unity, a trend reinforced even more by the subsequent Cold War. In Desch’s view, “The cold war was the ‘perfect’ type of threat. It never escalated to a major war … although it was serious enough to be a unifying factor.” The end of the Cold War removed this source of unity, however, and as Nils Petter Gleditsch, John Mueller, Steven Pinker, and Joshua Goldstein have all argued, the level of conflict (and external threat) in the world has been declining (until a recent modest uptick). The result, as Desch foresaw two decades ago, has been growing internal disunity and a weakening of state effectiveness, although the strength of these tendencies varies widely around the world. States that mobilise power through market mechanisms appear to be more robust than those that do so through coercive extraction, and there is also a “ratchet effect” when states go stronger. Because bureaucracies and institutions created at one point in time rarely go out of business as soon as their original rationale disappears, and because modern states do more than just prepare for war, a decline in external threats does not necessarily cause modern states to shrink all the way back to their pre-threat proportions. But as we are now seeing, it can make their internal politics far more divisive”.

Walt notes that “Desch to some striking predictions, including:“First, the viability of multiethnic states facing a less challenging external security environment will certainly decrease … [T]hose that survive will have to cope with a much higher level of ethnic separatism and demands for autonomy. “States with deep ethnic, social, or linguistic cleavages facing a more benign threat environment should find it harder to maintain cohesion. Key cases to watch here are Israel (secular versus religious Jews and the Jewish majority versus the Arab minority), multiethnic Arab states such as Syria (Alawites) and Jordan (Palestinians), Afghanistan (various political factions), much of black Africa (tribal), and especially South Africa (Zulus and whites). “[T]he longer the period of reduced international security competition, the more likely are developed states to be plagued by the rise of narrow sectoral, rather than broad encompassing, interest groups. [The United States is] now witnessing significant challenges to federal authority, a growing consensus on the need to cut spending to balance the federal budget, serious efforts to eliminate cabinet departments and other federal agencies, skepticism about a state-dominated industrial policy, and a Republican-controlled Congress committed to, and so far successful, in its efforts to limit the growth of the American state.” Sounds about right to me”.

Walt rightly points out that “Although some of Desch’s predictions were not fully borne out, his article anticipated many of the fissiparous tendencies that characterise political life in the United States, Europe, and parts of the developing world. At a minimum, his crystal ball has performed much better than Frank Fukuyama’s belief that we had reached the “end of history,” or the late Samuel P. Huntington’s forecast of a looming “clash of civilizations.” “Not so fast,” I hear you say. What about al Qaeda and the threat that states face from violent extremism of all sorts? Didn’t 9/11 actually produce an upsurge of national unity in the United States along with the creation of state structures like the Department of Homeland Security? And doesn’t the growing political rancor in the face of the dangers posed by al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or even Putin’s Russia cast serious doubt on Desch’s argument? Don’t shocking events like the recent attacks in Orlando, Florida, give us reason to put aside our differences and pull together once again? It would be nice to think so, but I have my doubts. The threat from al Qaeda and its ilk is just not serious enough to galvanise the national unity that a genuine international rivalry produces”.

Walt mentions that “international terrorism is also the shadowy, hard-to-measure danger that can turn a nation’s fears inward and magnify domestic divisions. When a hostile group uses terrorism, and is able to attract a handful of supporters abroad, it inevitably triggers fears of “fifth columns” or “lone wolves” or even some vast and well-orchestrated plot to attack us here at home. Contemporary Islamophobia is a perfect illustration of this sort of concern, and it is precisely this thinking Donald Trump has exploited in his unexpected march to the Republican presidential nomination. In short, if the U.S.-Soviet Cold War was the “perfect” threat for generating national unity, terrorism is perhaps the worst type of danger for holding the United States together. It’s not fearsome enough to bring a new “Greatest Generation” to the fore, and politicians eager to play on our worst fears can easily exploit it in ways that are more likely to divide than to unite the country. If Desch is right — and I think he is — the implications are both ironic and disheartening. Reducing external dangers turns out to have a downside: The less threatened we are by the outside world, the more prone we are to ugly quarrels at home. Even worse, peace may even contain the seeds of its own destruction. As we are now seeing in the Middle East, the collapse of unity and state authority can easily trigger violent internal conflicts that eventually drag outside powers back in”.

 

“Saif al-Islam remains behind bars”

13/07/2016

Ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam remains behind bars, despite reports he had benefited from a general amnesty, authorities in the town where he is detained said Friday. Saif al-Islam “is still in prison and will not be released despite contradictory remarks” in the media about his whereabouts, the authorities in Zintan, a town southwest of Tripoli that opposes the unity government based in the capital, said”.

“Options yet for attacking the growing Islamic State threat in Libya”

16/03/2016

The Pentagon has presented the White House with the most detailed set of military options yet for attacking the growing Islamic State threat in Libya, including a range of potential airstrikes against training camps, command centers, munitions depots and other militant targets. Airstrikes against as many as 30 to 40 targets in four areas of the country would aim to deal a crippling blow to the Islamic State’s most dangerous affiliate outside of Iraq and Syria, and open the way for Western-backed Libyan militias to battle Islamic State fighters on the ground. Allied bombers would carry out additional airstrikes to support the militias on the ground. The military option was described by five American officials who have been briefed on the plans and spoke about them on the condition of anonymity because of their confidential nature. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter outlined this option to President Obama’s top national security advisers at a so-called principals meeting on Feb. 22. But the plan is not being actively considered, at least for now, while the Obama administration presses ahead with a diplomatic initiative to form a unity government from rival factions inside Libya, administration officials said. Even so, the United States military is poised to carry out limited airstrikes if ordered against terrorists in Libya who threatened Americans or American interests, just as it did against an Islamic State training camp in western Libya last month”.

“The biggest obstacle to confronting ISIS is Libya’s broken state”

23/02/2016

An interesting piece discusses how to best intervene in Libya.

It starts, “In recent weeks, a succession of U.S. and European officials have warned that military operations to stop the creeping advance of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the shattered North African state of Libya are imminent. Since the summer of 2014, ISIS has exploited a governance vacuum and a factional civil war in Libya to expand what was once just a toehold into a foothold. It has clashed with, and in some areas displaced, older jihadist groups affiliated with al Qaeda. It has used Libya’s lawlessness to attract foreign recruits, conduct training, and plot operations abroad. ISIS now controls the central coastal city of Sirte and is attacking the nearby petroleum facilities to prevent much-needed revenue from reaching Libya’s central bank. And perhaps most worrisome, U.S. officials recently stated that ISIS has sent hundreds of fighters from Iraq and Syria to Libya in a calculated fallback strategy; the total number ISIS fighters in Libya is estimated between 3,000 and 6,500″.

Correctly the authors write that “There’s no doubt that the ISIS presence demands a forcible response, above all from Libyans themselves, backed by Western support. That assistance is likely to involve special operations forces—who are reportedly already on the ground—liaising with, training, and advising Libyan units, backed by aircraft using precision-guided munitions. But this approach carries great risks. The West must proceed carefully, or else it could exacerbate Libya’s political fractures, encourage warlordism, or undermine attempts to re-establish a single government and lay the basis for a cohesive and civilian-controlled military. Any strategy to tackle ISIS should first aim at bridging Libyan political divides and channeling assistance in a way that promotes cooperation between rival forces. For Libyans and Western governments alike, the biggest obstacle to confronting ISIS is Libya’s broken state”.

They note that “For the past year and half, the country has been split into two loose constellations of political factions and armed actors. The first is the Tripoli-based “Dawn” coalition, which comprises Islamist fighters and militias from the western part of the country. The second is the “Dignity” umbrella, which is drawn from eastern tribes, federalists, some western militias, and Qaddafi-era officers recruited into a self-styled “Libyan National Army” led by General Khalifa Hifter. In the past year, internal power struggles have fractured these two groups to the point that they exist only in name. Worse, both have been so focused on preventing rivals from gaining ground that they’ve allowed ISIS to expand, often cynically using the terrorist group’s presence to accuse their adversaries of collusion. Representatives from the two sides recently signed a UN-brokered agreement to form a unity government, which, Western officials hope, will soon issue a formal invitation for military assistance. But the unity agreement is fragile and incomplete, having been pushed through under Western pressure despite resistance from key local players. The Presidency Council, the nine-member executive body established by the agreement, has started to falter before even having managed to form a government. Unless it can obtain the formal support of Libya’s two rival legislatures and take office in the capital, Tripoli, the unity government will be widely perceived as a Western puppet”.

The writers make the point that “Two options are currently on the table: a training program to stand up new army units loyal to the government and a counterterrorism effort focused on providing assistance to those forces on the ground that are most capable and most willing to confront ISIS. Neither option offers a remedy to the problem of factionalism in Libya’s security sector—and both could make matters worse. The training program is based on the flawed premise that Libya lacks skilled fighters. In fact, it has lacked governments capable of bringing skilled fighters under state control. A Western training effort in 2013–14 to build a national army—the so-called general purpose force—failed because there were no national structures for recruits to join: rival political interests in Libya’s state institutions had turned the security sector into a hodge-podge of factional militias. Another training program risks simply repeating this error unless the Presidency Council can agree on a realistic roadmap for building a unified and professional military. In the best-case scenario, such efforts would result in a reliable military for future governments to use. But it would not offer an immediate response to the urgent ISIS threat”.

The writers go on to argue “Counterterrorism assistance must proceed hand-in-hand with building inclusive political and security institutions. The two should be mutually reinforcing. Instead of a training mission or a direct intervention in the form of airstrikes, the West’s priority should be to support the establishment of integrated structures and units in the security sector. At the political level, that will require intensive engagement to overcome the standoff over the army leadership and promote cooperation between representatives of rival factions in the Presidency Council, its government, and the military command. On the ground, the West must tie assistance for the fight against ISIS to a process of integration of armed groups”.

He notes the need for co-ordinated foreign assistance and that “Western involvement in Libya should be geared toward supporting the unity government, which will need to back any efforts to promote battlefield coordination among regional militias. No single faction should receive assistance unless it is considered both neutral in local power struggles and loyal to the unity government. Further, if the government makes progress on re-unifying command structures, Western assistance should flow through a national chain of command, rather than directly to regional coordination centers. Of course, if the council remains paralyzed by internal divisions or the agreement collapses, the Western backed regional coordination centers will have no chance of ever evolving into a foundation for an integrated military. At the very least, however, the strategy will reduce the risk that military assistance will widen political rifts and contribute to the failure of the unity government. Alarmist assessments of ISIS in Libya should not lead to a hasty and heavy-handed intervention. ISIS may be expanding its presence in Libya, but it has not been able tap into the popular discontent of broad segments of the population—yet”.

Sisi’s Egypt, five years on

03/02/2016

A piece notes the problems for President Sisi in Egypt with the 25 January marking the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian protests, “that sparked Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising, and the Egyptian government is on edge. Fearing that activists will use the occasion to launch a new round of mass protests, the regime has intensified its crackdown on oppositionists in recent weeks, arresting members of prominent revolutionary organizations, anti-government Facebook page administrators, and critical journalists. The regime has also taken its fight to the mosques, with the minister of Islamic endowments decreeing that protesting on Jan. 25 “contravenes sharia law, as it drags Egyptians into violence.” President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi provided perhaps the direst warning about the potential dangers of new civil unrest. In a speech in December, heaccused those “calling for a new revolution” of trying to “ruin this country and destroy the people.” Sisi is right to be worried — but not necessarily about the prospect of renewed protests. While his popularity has declined in recent months due to Egypt’s sputtering economy, another mass uprising appears unlikely. Instead, Sisi’s vulnerability comes from an entirely different source — from within his own regime, where new tensions have emerged in recent months”.

The writer notes that “Sisi’s anxiety about another mass uprising isn’t surprising. It reflects his intimate knowledge of recent Egyptian cataclysms and his perhaps inevitable fear that history could repeat itself. After all, he was Egypt’s director of military intelligence when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces responded to the January 2011 uprising by toppling then-President Hosni Mubarak, and he was Egypt’s defense minister when the military once again responded to mass protests in June 2013 by ousting the country’s first elected president, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. That latter decision made him public enemy No. 1 for the Brotherhood, which vowed to avenge Morsi’s overthrow. But it also made Sisi a national hero to many millions of Egyptians who feared that the Brotherhood was governing Egypt into the ground, and it carried him to victory in the barely contested May 2014 presidential election”.

The piece mentions that “With economic growth slowing, currency reserves falling, inflation rising, and youth unemployment still soaring, Egyptians are feeling the pinch — and complaining about it more audibly that at any point in the past two years. For the time being, however, there appears to be little popular enthusiasm for another uprising. The experience of the past five years has made many, and perhaps most, Egyptians politically risk-averse, and the absence of any clear alternative to Sisi makes them fear that another uprising could spark significant instability. The severe chaos that has overtaken other Arab Spring countries adds to their sense of caution. Egyptians commonly point to state collapse in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq and embrace their unhappy status quo by comparison. But new tensions within Sisi’s regime could spell instability down the road. Although analysts frequently speak of the country’s “deep state” as if it is a unified and omnipotent entity, it is in fact a loose coalition of power centers that includes state bodies such as the military, intelligence, police, and judiciary — as well as nonstate entities such as the powerful clans of the Nile Delta, tribes of Upper Egypt, private media outlets, and the business community. And while these power centers often have competing interests (for example, the Interior Ministry and the military were rivals during Mubarak’s latter years), they unified behind Sisi following Morsi’s ouster forone overarching reason: They viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their respective interests”.

Yet this compact seems to be breaking up, “In recent months, however, this fear of the Brotherhood’s return has diminished. With tens of thousands of Muslim Brothers in prison, its exiled leadership increasingly divided, and fewer Muslim Brothers within Egypt willing to risk getting killed at demonstrations, the organization no longer exists as a coherent entity on the ground. “We don’t hear much about them now,” a military general told me in November. “They create some problems … but they see no result from what they are doing.” Without the threat of the Brotherhood to unify the Sisi regime’s core power centers, latent tensions are now coming to the fore”.

The author notes the problems of Sisi with the business community and the dramatic arrest of a tycoon, “The problem, multiple Egyptian businessmen told me, wasn’t the fact that Diab was arrested — “we support upholding the law,” one told me — but the manner in which he was arrested. At 5 in the morning, an armed counterterrorism team stormed into Diab’s bedroom where he was sleeping with his wife, handcuffed him and his son, and then leaked the photographs to the press”.

The article adds that “There are also signs of tension between Sisi and the security services. While the security services’ activities are opaque, they exert significant influence over the country’s private media networks and are likely permitting, if not encouraging, the sudden upsurge in criticism that Sisi has faced in recent months”.

He gives the example of how “The tensions among the security agencies are even more apparent on Egyptian satellite networks, where specific security agencies are suddenly being criticized quite openly. In late December, TV host Tawfiq Okasha, who has long promoted pro-regime conspiracy theories, claimed during a live television interview with TV host Youssef el-Husseiny that Egypt’s General Intelligence Service and the NSS had turned against him after previously offering support”.

The writer ends noting that “Perhaps most significantly, foreign officials have reported strains between Sisi and the military. While the military might seem like the president’s natural base of support, officials attribute the tension to Sisi’s notoriously narrow political circle, which breeds mistrust and perhaps jealousy among other high-ranking officials. Egypt’s rising economic and security challenges have only amplified the military’s concerns. “[Generals] say that Sisi is isolated and surrounded by guys who don’t have answers,” one official told me. “They are starting to ask questions. ‘Why is Alexandriaflooding? Why are Mexican tourists getting killed? This is embarrassing.’” There are also hints of friction within the top brass, with high-ranking generals showing a lack of deference to their superiors during meetings with foreign officials. It is difficult to assess the depth or urgency of these intra-regime rifts. The Sisi regime’s inner workings are barely visible to outside observers, and even members of the core power centers find the current situation confusing. “There is definitely a power struggle,” one well-connected businessman told me”.

“History is not going to look particularly kindly on his tenure”

19/01/2016

A piece discusses the last State of the Union speech given by President Obama, “However hard President Barack Obama tried on Tuesday night to convince the American people that his seven years of wartime leadership have left the country safer and stronger, I’d venture to guess that history is not going to look particularly kindly on his tenure as America’s commander-in-chief. Yes, he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden—a gutsy, important move. There was also the strike in Yemen that took out the radical al Qaeda preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki — a U.S. citizen, no less. Not an easy call by any means, and one that was almost certain to trigger controversy, not least among Obama’s progressive base. You get points for that. More broadly, especially during his first term (when re-election concerns figured prominently, a cynic might add) the president proved relentless in using drones to target jihadist leaders across the Middle East and South Asia. Indeed, when it comes to warfare by remote control, he’s authorized 10 times more strikes than George W. Bush, leaving his predecessor looking positively timid by comparison”.

The writer notes “In Afghanistan, the president announced in 2009 a surge of 30,000 troops — but in the very next sentence told the enemy that he’d withdraw them in 18 months, without reference to the situation on the ground. What successful military leader in the history of the world has ever done that? While Obama has now reversed his politically-driven commitment to remove all U.S. forces before he leaves office, he still plans to draw down to the ridiculously inadequate number of 5,500 troops — despite ample evidence, month after month, that conditions are dangerously deteriorating. The Taliban insurgency threatens more areas of the country than at any time since 2001. New al Qaeda training camps are sprouting uparound the country, including one of the largest ever — repeat, ever — covering 30 square miles, which U.S. forces only belatedly discovered and destroyed in October. What else is out there that we don’t know about? And if all that wasn’t ominous enough, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan is increasingly entrenched and rapidly expanding its capabilities”.

He goes on to argue “Libya was supposed to be the poster child for Obama’s light footprint approach to the smart deployment of American hard power. Uh, right. Deferring to French and British leadership, U.S. air power played a key role in bringing down the Gaddafi regime. Mission accomplished, or so he thought, the president abandoned the playing field as quickly as he could, declaring victory while turning his back on even the pretense of a post-conflict stabilization effort. Chaos ensued. A failed state dominated by marauding jihadists. Four U.S. government employees murdered, including the first ambassador killed in the line of duty since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. And yet again, the icing on the cake, the emergence of an ever-more powerful Islamic State affiliate, controlling territory, attacking vital oil installations, and no doubt planning as we speak to launch terror attacks into Europe — a mere hop, skip, and a jump across the Mediterranean”.

Then the writer gets to Obama’s failed legacy in the Iraq and Syria, “And then we come to Iraq and Syria. Where to begin? Do we have to? The series of sorry, sordid, ideologically-motivated missteps have been endlessly rehashed. Painful. Tragic. Unnecessary. The precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, with Obama’s absurd declaration that “we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home.” Tell it to the troops that had to march right back in 2014 to help prevent Baghdad’s collapse and re-conquer territory previously won with American blood. Then there’s the bizarre, almost surreal retreat from enforcement of the Syria red line. After Obama publicly pledged that Assad’s punishment for gassing his own people would amount to nothing more than “a shot across the bow,” and John Kerry assured the world that any strike would be “unbelievably small,” it didn’t seem like the mangling of American credibility could get any worse. But oh, it did. Paging Vladimir Putin! Then there’s the war against the Islamic State, itself. We will defeat them. No, wait. We will destroy them. But rest assured that we will never put troops on the ground. Ah, yes, the Obama way of war: don’t proceed without first spelling out to the enemy — as well as prospective allies that you hope to enlist in the fight — all the capabilities that you will never bring to bear to achieve victory. Eighteen months later, the war drags on. The enemy metastasizes across multiple countries and continents. A global jihadist insurgency gathers on the horizon. For the first time in four decades, Russian power has returned to the Middle East with a vengeance. Europe strains to the breaking point under the weight of its worst refugee crisis since World War II”.

Correctly he argues that “With the world coming apart at the seams, with U.S. leadership and credibility in a slow death spiral, with adversaries across the threat spectrum increasingly coming to the conclusion that it is open season on Pax Americana, it’s hard to think of a worse time to be hollowing out the instrument of American power that has underwritten global stability and prosperity for 70 years”.

Obama’s correct but endless proclamation of the myth of American decline have done nothing to stop Russian actions, or Saudi fears, or Chinese actions into believing that maybe he protests too much.

The piece ends “Obama has never worn the garb of commander-in-chief comfortably. He’s led a nation at war, often in multiple theaters, for his entire presidency. One of those — the war against the Islamic State — he launched himself. Yet can anyone recall a single speech, even a single memorable line, delivered with the purpose of galvanizing the troops, much less the nation, to sustain the level of sacrifice, commitment, and leadership necessary for victory? That’s no accident. Just think of the catch phrases and concepts that are most associated with Obama’s national security doctrine: Time to focus on nation building at home. Leading from behind. Don’t do stupid shit. Hitting singles and doubles. Ending wars by withdrawing from them. The list goes on. But no assessment of Obama’s performance as commander-in-chief is more damning than the one offered by his own Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, in his 2014 memoir, Duty. Discussing the president’s leadership of the war in Afghanistan, Gates writes that by early 2010 he had concluded that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” Despite having just months earlier ordered an additional 30,000 troops into combat, Gates is astonished to find that the president harbored fundamental doubts about his strategy, claiming that Obama was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail.” Gates is particularly confounded by what he sees as the President’s lack of passion as a wartime leader who was responsible for maintaining the morale of his troops and their faith in the mission”.

Saudi fears of Iran, overproduction and Obama

15/01/2016

A report in Foreign Policy discusses the fear felt by many in the House of Saud, “The true surprise about the Saudi-Iranian contretemps over the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is that it caught so many people off guard in the first place. Anyone paying attention to Saudi Arabia knew that something like this was a long time coming. Unfortunately, not enough people were paying attention until it was too late. It’s impossible to understand the current situation without delving into Saudi politics and foreign policy. But it’s equally important to be honest about the limits of our knowledge. Very much like the Islamic Republic of Iran, it’s very difficult for anyone outside the highest reaches of government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to really understand its fears and strategies”.

The writer argues that “it’s clear that Saudi policy has to be understood as an interweaving of Saudi internal and external interests, and right now those interests are overwhelmingly about fear. The external threats it seems to see are easier for Americans to recognise than the internal ones. But what we often miss is how the Saudis see external issues affecting their internal circumstances and creating domestic threats they find far more frightening than the external threat on its own. At the broadest level, when the Saudis in Riyadh look at the Middle East around them, they see a region spiraling out of control. Since 2011, they have witnessed a massive increase in general instability across the region”.

The writer notes that civil wars, terrorism and refugees have turned a placid region into one wrecked by chaos, “Indeed, both the civil wars and the spillover they generate have also produced a general mobilization of the Middle East’s Shiites, instigated and led by Iran. And that includes the Shiites in the Saudi kingdom. Officials in private and press reports occasionally note that hundreds of Saudi security service personnel have been killed and wounded in operations in the Eastern Province, the home to the vast majority of the kingdom’s Shiites. Americans tend not to pay attention to these operations because we see them as proof that the Saudis have things well in hand; but another way to look at it is that the Saudis are fighting pitched battles with someone in the cities of the Eastern Province. In other words, there seems to be a much higher degree of mobilization and violent confrontation among the Saudi Shiites than most realize”.

Implausibly he argues “Then there are Saudi fears about the oil market. Everyone seems to believe that the Saudis are purposely not cutting back production to kill off North American shale producers. But that is absolutely not what the Saudis are saying, either in private or public. Instead, they are saying that they can no longer control the oil market because there are too many other sources and all of the OPEC countries cheat like crazy whenever Riyadh tries to orchestrate a production cut. This has happened to them repeatedly over the past 20 to 30 years. They try to cut production to prevent oil prices from dropping, and the rest of OPEC takes advantage of it to pump as much as they can, contrary to what they promised and agreed to. The result is that there is no overall supply curtailment and the Saudis lose market share. This time around, they have stated that they cannot realistically control the OPEC oil supply, so they are not going to try to do so. Instead, they are going to fight for market share. But doing so means having to win a race to the bottom, with the result that their oil revenues are plummeting”.

Correctly he writes “the region’s civil wars have the Saudis so frightened that they have intervened in unprecedented ways. They have poured tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars into Syria and Yemen and to a lesser extent Iraq and Libya. They are pouring tens of billions more into Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and Bahrain to shore up their governments, prevent state collapse under the strain of the spillover from neighbouring civil wars, and thus prevent more civil wars on their own borders. But these increased foreign-policy costs coupled with reduced oil revenues have forced the Saudis to draw from their sovereign wealth fund at a rate of $12 to 14 billion per month — a pace that will wipe out those reserves in less than three years, but is likely to cause severe domestic political problems (including dissension within the royal family) long before”.

He ends noting “the Saudis feel frustrated and abandoned by the United States. Many Saudis and other Gulf Arabs consider President Barack Obama deeply ignorant, if not outright foolish, about the world and the Middle East. They evince out-and-out contempt for him and his policies. From their perspective, the United States has turned its back on its traditional allies in the Middle East. Washington is doing the least it can in Iraq, and effectively nothing in Libya and Syria, with the result that none of those conflicts is getting better. If anything, they are actually getting worse. Moreover, Saudi Arabia seems to differ over whether Obama is using the new nuclear deal with Tehran to deliberately try to shift the United States from the Saudi side to the Iranian side in the grand, regional struggle or if he is allowing it to happen unintentionally. The more charitable Saudi position is the former, because that suggests that Obama at least understands what he is doing, even if they think it a mistake and a betrayal. The latter view, for Saudis, sees him as a virtual imbecile who is destroying the Middle East without any understanding or recognition”.

For those who have argued that the Saudi’s have no where else to go during Obama’s term he argues “The depth of Saudi anger and contempt for the current American leadership is important to understand because it is another critical element of their worldview and policies, as best we can understand them. With the Middle East coming apart at the seams (in Saudi Arabia’s view), the United States — the traditional regional hegemon — is doing nothing to stop it and even encouraging Iran to widen the fissures. Since the United States can’t or won’t do anything, someone else has to, and that someone can only be Saudi Arabia. The dramatic increase in Riyadh’s willingness to intervene abroad, with both financial and military power, has been driven by its sense that dramatic action is required to prevent the region from melting down altogether and taking the kingdom down with it”.

He ends “the Saudis are scared of the rising tide of popular mobilization and Shiite mobilization; they are scared by their loss of control over the oil market and what that is forcing them to do domestically; they are scared by the spillover from the region’s civil wars and the costs that they are being forced to bear to try to prevent that spillover from affecting them; and they are scared that we are abandoning them for Iran”.

Libya seeks military intervention

01/09/2015

The Islamic State militants who control the Libyan city of Surtare resorting to mass beheadings, public crucifixions and other stark displays of brutality as they seek to crush an insurrection, the foreign minister of Libya’s internationally recognized government said Tuesday at a meeting of Arab diplomats here. The foreign minister, Mohamed el-Dayri, cited the violence in an appeal to the member states of the Arab League for military intervention against the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “Can Libyans now stop this flood in Surt represented by the Islamic State? I say the answer is no,” Mr. Dayri told the assembled Arab delegates in Cairo, arguing that a weapons embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council at the start of the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi five years ago was now depriving the recognized government of “the most basic needs” in weaponry. “There is a siege on the Libyan Army and its children and its capabilities,” Mr. Dayri said, “by not equipping it to achieve the necessary triumph over this black darkness.”

“Resumed formal security talks with Egypt”

10/08/2015

Despite persistent human rights concerns, the United States on Sunday resumed formal security talks with Egypt that were last held six years ago and kept on hiatus until now amid political unrest that swept the country in the wake of the Arab Spring. Two days after the U.S. delivered eight F-16 warplanes to Egypt as part of a military support package that the Obama administration is boosting to help Egypt counter an increasing terrorist threat, Secretary of State John Kerry restarted the so-called “strategic dialogue” with Egyptian officials in Cairo. The dialogue was last held in 2009 and did not occur in subsequent years due to the Arab Spring and turmoil following the ouster of Egypt’s authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Kerry said the administration is committed to working with Egypt to enhance its military capabilities as it confronts growing threats from extremists, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. That aid had been on hold until earlier this year due to human rights and democracy concerns in the wake of the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013″.

“Rejected a U.N. draft proposal to form a unity government”

16/06/2015

Libya’s elected parliament rejected a U.N. draft proposal to form a unity government and withdrew from talks aimed at ending the country’s crippling power struggle, a senior lawmaker said Tuesday. The decision will be a blow to efforts by United Nations Special Envoy Bernardino Leon, who had only on Monday presented a new proposal to form a unity government after hosting negotiations between the factions for months. Libya is in chaos, with two governments and parliaments fighting for territory and oil resources. The official administration has been based in the east since a rival faction seized Tripoli in August, setting up a rival government. The eastern parliament has also banned its delegates from traveling to Germany for a meeting with European and North African leaders to discuss Leon’s proposal, lawmaker Tareq al-Jouroushi told Reuters. “A majority of deputies voted to reject the proposal,” he said by telephone from Tobruk, an eastern city where the House of Representatives is now based. The house’s spokesman Farraj Hashem could not be immediately reached for comment. Late Monday, Leon submitted his fourth proposal for a unity government. Delegates from both factions had been expected to head to Germany before returning to consult with their political bases and traveling back to Morocco for more talks”.

House of Salman

01/05/2015

A piece reports on another shuffle by King Salman of Saudi Arabia, “Salman reshuffled his cabinet Wednesday, appointing a new heir to the throne, empowering a coterie of younger Saudi officials — and signaling that he’s ready to step up Riyadh’s push to counter Iran’s rising influence across the Middle East. The reorganization comes amid heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and Tehran, with Riyadh conducting an ongoing military offensive against the Houthi rebels in Yemen whom it views as an Iranian proxy. Since succeeding the late King Abdullah in January, Salman has signaled that he plans to pursue a more assertive foreign policy designed, in large part, to ensure that Iran is unable to undermine Saudi influence across the Arabian Peninsula. Wednesday’s appointments appear to strengthen the officials that have helped to promulgate that policy. Salman tapped his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, left, the country’s powerful interior minister, as Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, replacing the current ruler’s half-brother, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, right, an ally of the former monarch. Nayef, 55, will continue to serve as interior minister after the reshuffle”.

It adds crucially that “Nayef’s appointment means that for the first time in Saudi Arabia’s history, a grandson of the kingdom’s founder — and not one of his sons — stands next in line for the throne. Salman’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, above, was named to the role of deputy crown prince. Bin Salman, who took over the role of defense minister in January, is thought to be in his early 30s. He will continue to serve as the top defense official, a post from which he has directed the month-long Saudi campaign in Yemen. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, 75, right, was also replaced Wednesday, when Salman named the the first non-royal, Washington Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir, left, to the post. Faisal is said to have been in poor health, and reportedly asked to retire. He has led the Saudi Foreign Ministry since 1975”.

A related piece notes that “As part of the royal decrees, King Salman relieved Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz — the youngest surviving son of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdulaziz — of his post. King Salman replaced him with Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, his nephew and the architect of the kingdom’s counterterrorism strategy, who now becomes the first grandson of King Abdulaziz to be next in line for the throne. King Salman appointed his favourite son, Mohammed bin Salman, who by most accounts is in his early to mid-30s, as deputy crown prince”.

The author adds that “In a kingdom used to slow, evolutionary change, this pre-dawn reshuffling of Saudi Arabia’s top leadership is tectonic. The changes were not entirely unexpected, however, though few expected it would be so soon. Since King Salman ascended to the throne in January, his son Mohammed has risen sharply through the ranks. He was appointed defense minister and head of the royal court, a position that has been compared to a Saudi version of prime minister. It had become clear to everyone in the kingdom that the young prince was going places”.

The piece continues “Analysts here say that the new succession plan is indicative of the new monarch’s control over the levers of power in the kingdom. King Salman — in contrast to his predecessor, King Abdullah — is close to the religious leadership and is known to be a more conservative man personally. Unlike King Abdullah, he is also one of seven full brothers from the same wife of King Abdulaziz who together are known as the Sudairi Seven, the largest and most cohesive bloc within the family”.

Interestingly it mentions that “The new appointments also appear geared toward improving the state of Saudi Arabia’s lethargic bureaucracy, which is bogged down in process and paperwork. Shamal Investment’s Faisal bin Farhan pointed to the fact that the royal decrees also sacked the health minister and two of his deputies, moving the head of oil giant Aramco, Khalid al-Falih, to the helm. “You usually see someone with a medical background in this position, but now we have a CEO type,” he said approvingly. “We needed a manager.” Indeed, the appointments are part of a broader governmental shift that began in January with the king’s coronation. At that time, King Salman abolished the 17 councils that had managed government affairs. In their place, he streamlined the bureaucracy into just two national committees. Mohammed bin Nayef now oversees all ministers in the political and security realms, while Mohammed bin Salman watches the economic and social spheres”.

It ends “Internationally, the appointments signaled that King Salman is keen to end several years of stormy ties with Washington. In addition to the changes to succession, the announcement included several others ministerial swaps, most notably removing Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who had been in his post for four decades, and replacing him with Adel al-Jubeir, the outgoing ambassador to Washington. Prince Saud had overseen testy relations between Riyadh and Washington, which disagreed with a host of regional policies in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Jubeir, who is known and trusted in Washington, is a less divisive face. He has been the primary media spokesman of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, even announcing the beginning of the military operation from the Saudi Embassy in Washington. He is not a member of the Al Saud family — a rarity for such a senior position — and insiders expect that his role will be to implement the decisions made by the royal court in Riyadh”.

It concludes “King Salman finalized these changes on the evening of April 28, hosting an allegiance ceremony after the evening prayer. But the monarch may yet have a few surprises in the works: Analysts here say there are likely even more shake-ups to come, perhaps including key portfolios like the Petroleum Ministry and the National Guard”.

A related piece by Bruce Reidel argues “Not only does he lack experience, but unlike most Saudi princes, Mohammed bin Salman was not educated in the West. Instead, he studied law at King Saud University. There is controversy over his age, reputed to be anywhere from 29 to 34; officially his birthday is July 24, 1980. He chairs a number of young people’s organizations and seeks to portray himself as the leader of the next generation of Saudis. Two-thirds of Saudis are under 30. He also chairs the powerful development and economics committee, which coordinates economic policies, including oil pricing and supply. These changes are profound shifts in power between generations in a society that honors age and experience. In promoting his nephew and son, King Salman is passing the torch to the next two generations of royals. Since 1902, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by the founder of the modern kingdom, Ibn Saud Abdul-Aziz, or his sons. Salman will be the last son to reign. The royal court says all the changes have been endorsed by a majority in the Allegiance Council, the committee of Ibn Saud’s sons and grandsons, but the legitimacy of who selects the next generation and on what criteria has been a question mark over the succession process for years. The king hopes this is now all settled, but has he in his own mind set the future lineup? How much is he building consensus among the family for his rapid changes? Many wonder about the king’s health and how that might affect his decision making. Meanwhile, the kingdom has arrested scores of people allegedly linked to the Islamic State, including some planning to attack the US Embassy. The Saudis are unconvinced that the United States has a viable strategy in Iraq that will not leave Tehran the dominant power there, but they do not think Washington has a strategy in Syria. Most of all, they worry about their own war in Yemen. Never has the kingdom been so aggressive with its own military in trying to force a regime change. The Yemeni war is part Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry, part unfinished Arab Spring business and part Sunni-Shiite sectarian animosity. It is now, above all, Salman’s war, as well as his son’s. The surprise elevation of Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman underscores how the stakes in this war are crucial not only to Yemen’s future, but also increasingly to the future of the House of Saud. The hawks need to produce tangible results or face losing credibility”.

Not mentioned is how the House of Saud will react to this. For now the princes have kept quiet but if King Salman continues to turn the House of Saud into the House of Salman there could be open disagreements, or worse.

 

Lessons from Libya

14/04/2015

Alan Kuperman examines the mess that is modern day Libya. Yet he fails to acknowledge that his solution would have left the country in a much worse position.

He opens “On March 17, 2011, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, spearheaded by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, authorizing military intervention in Libya. The goal, Obama explained, was to save the lives of peaceful, pro-democracy protesters who found themselves the target of a crackdown by Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Not only did Gaddafi endanger the momentum of the nascent Arab Spring, which had recently swept away authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, but he also was poised to commit a bloodbath in the Libyan city where the uprising had started, said the president. “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi—a city nearly the size of Charlotte—could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world,” Obama declared. Two days after the UN authorisation, the United States and other NATO countries established a no-fly zone throughout Libya and started bombing Qaddafi’s forces. Seven months later, in October 2011, after an extended military campaign with sustained Western support, rebel forces conquered the country and shot Qaddafi dead”.

After the bombing campaign Kuperman notes that “the United States seemed to have scored a hat trick: nurturing the Arab Spring, averting a Rwanda-like genocide, and eliminating Libya as a potential source of terrorism. That verdict, however, turns out to have been premature. In retrospect, Obama’s intervention in Libya was an abject failure, judged even by its own standards. Libya has not only failed to evolve into a democracy; it has devolved into a failed state”.

Controversially he argues “there was a better policy available—not intervening at all, because peaceful Libyan civilians were not actually being targeted. Had the United States and its allies followed that course, they could have spared Libya from the resulting chaos and given it a chance of progress under Qaddafi’s chosen successor: his relatively liberal, Western-educated son Saif al-Islam. Instead, Libya today is riddled with vicious militias and anti-American terrorists—and thus serves as a cautionary tale of how humanitarian intervention can backfire for both the intervener and those it is intended to help”.

Such a view not only distorts the history of Libya it makes a mockery of the brutal regime that he led. It assumes that Gaddafi would have given power to his son and that his son would have turned Libya into a Switzerland of North Africa.

The writer notes “Optimism about Libya reached its apogee in July 2012, when democratic elections brought to power a moderate, secular coalition government—a stark change from Qaddafi’s four decades of dictatorship. But the country quickly slid downhill. Its first elected prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shagour, lasted less than one month in office. His quick ouster foreshadowed the trouble to come: as of this writing, Libya has had seven prime ministers in less than four years. Islamists came to dominate the first postwar parliament, the General National Congress. Meanwhile, the new government failed to disarm dozens of militias that had arisen during NATO’s seven-month intervention, especially Islamist ones, leading to deadly turf battles between rival tribes and commanders, which continue to this day. In October 2013, secessionists in eastern Libya, where most of the country’s oil is located, declared their own government. That same month, Ali Zeidan, then the country’s prime minister, was kidnapped and held hostage. In light of the growing Islamist influence within Libya’s government, in the spring of 2014, the United States postponed a plan to train an armed force of 6,000–8,000 Libyan troops”.

He notes that “By May 2014, Libya had come to the brink of a new civil war—between liberals and Islamists. That month, a renegade secular general named Khalifa Hifter seized control of the air force to attack Islamist militias in Benghazi, later expanding his targets to include the Islamist-dominated legislature in Tripoli. Elections last June did nothing to resolve the chaos. Most Libyans had already given up on democracy, as voter turnout dropped from 1.7 million in the previous poll to just 630,000. Secular parties declared victory and formed a new legislature, the House of Representatives, but the Islamists refused to accept that outcome. The result was two competing parliaments, each claiming to be the legitimate one”.

He argues that “As bad as Libya’s human rights situation was under Qaddafi, it has gotten worse since NATO ousted him. Immediately after taking power, the rebels perpetrated scores of reprisal killings, in addition to torturing, beating, and arbitrarily detaining thousands of suspected Qaddafi supporters. The rebels also expelled 30,000 mostly black residents from the town of Tawergha and burned or looted their homes and shops, on the grounds that some of them supposedly had been mercenaries”.

Yet the writer has learnt the wrong lessons. Instead of not interventing and leaving Libya in the hands of a supposed Ghandi in the making, it would have been better to give Libya the support, both technical and financial that it needed to allow it to have a gradually emerging civil society where there was none under Gaddafi. This would have taken time, perhaps years, or a decade, but the long term benefits would have been enormous. It would have meant a stable, democratic and wealthy Libya that would have been safe and stable.

As a result of this not occuring the costs have been clear, “Libya’s quality of life has been sharply degraded by an economic free fall. That is mainly because the country’s production of oil, its lifeblood, remains severely depressed by the protracted conflict. Prior to the revolution, Libya produced 1.65 million barrels of oil a day, a figure that dropped to zero during NATO’s intervention. Although production temporarily recovered to 85 percent of its previous rate, ever since secessionists seized eastern oil ports in August 2013, output has averaged only 30 percent of the prewar level. Ongoing fighting has closed airports and seaports in Libya’s two biggest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. In many cities, residents are subjected to massive power outages—up to 18 hours a day in Tripoli. The recent privation represents a stark descent for a country that the UN’s Human Development Index traditionally had ranked as having the highest standard of living in all of Africa”.

He argues that “by the time NATO intervened, Libya’s violence was on the verge of ending. Qaddafi’s well-armed forces had routed the ragtag rebels, who were retreating home. By mid-March 2011, government forces were poised to recapture the last rebel stronghold of Benghazi, thereby ending the one-month conflict at a total cost of just over 1,000 lives. Just then, however, Libyan expatriates in Switzerland affiliated with the rebels issued warnings of an impending “bloodbath” in Benghazi, which Western media duly reported but which in retrospect appear to have been propaganda. In reality, on March 17, Qaddafi pledged to protect the civilians of Benghazi, as he had those of other recaptured cities, adding that his forces had “left the way open” for the rebels to retreat to Egypt. Simply put, the militants were about to lose the war, and so their overseas agents raised the specter of genocide to attract a NATO intervention—which worked like a charm. There is no evidence or reason to believe that Qaddafi had planned or intended to perpetrate a killing campaign”.

This is nothing but a fantasy. Gaddafi would only have continued to bomb his own citizens into submission until he had decided they had had enough. The writer admits, “Admittedly, the government did attempt to intimidate the rebels, promising to pursue them relentlessly. But Qaddafi never translated that rhetoric into targeting civilians. From March 5 to March 15, 2011, government forces recaptured all but one of the major rebel-held cities, and in none did they kill civilians in revenge, let alone commit a bloodbath. Indeed, as his forces approached Benghazi, Qaddafi issued public reassurances that they would harm neither civilians nor rebels who disarmed”.

He correctly notes that “Another unintended consequence of the Libya intervention has been to amplify the threat of terrorism from the country. Although Qaddafi supported terrorism decades ago—as witnessed by his regime’s later paying reparations for the Lockerbie airplane bombing of 1988—the Libyan leader had evolved into a U.S. ally against global terrorism even before 9/11. He did so partly because he faced a domestic threat from al Qaeda–affiliated militants, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group”.

He does add rightly that “Since NATO’s intervention in 2011, however, Libya and its neighbour Mali have turned into terrorist havens. Radical Islamist groups, which Qaddafi had suppressed, emerged under NATO air cover as some of the most competent fighters of the rebellion. Supplied with weapons by sympathetic countries such as Qatar, the militias refused to disarm after Qaddafi fell. Their persistent threat was highlighted in September 2012 when jihadists, including from the group Ansar al-Sharia, attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, killing Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three of his colleagues. Last year, the UN formally declared Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization because of its affiliation with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Libya’s Islamist militants are now fighting for control of the entire country, and they are making headway. In April 2014, they captured a secret military base near Tripoli that, ironically, U.S. special operations forces had established in the summer of 2012 to train Libyan counterterrorist forces. Qatar and Sudan have flown weapons to the Islamists as recently as September 2014. In response, the more secular governments of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt launched air strikes against Islamist militants in Tripoli and Benghazi in August and October of last year. Libya’s jihadists now include more than just al Qaeda affiliates; as of January 2015, factions aligned with ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, have perpetrated killings or kidnappings in all three of Libya’s traditional administrative zones”.

Laughably he writes that Gaddafi was preparing Libya for rule by his son who would have radically altered the country for the better “Despite the massive turmoil caused by the intervention, some of its unrepentant supporters claim that the alternative—leaving Qaddafi in power—would have been even worse. But Qaddafi was not Libya’s future in any case. Sixty-nine years old and in ill health, he was laying the groundwork for a transition to his son Saif, who for many years had been preparing a reform agenda. “I will not accept any position unless there is a new constitution, new laws, and transparent elections,” Saif declared in 2010. “Everyone should have access to public office. We should not have a monopoly on power.” Saif also convinced his father that the regime should admit culpability for a notorious 1996 prison massacre and pay compensation to the families of hundreds of victims. In addition, in 2008, Saif published testimony from former prisoners alleging torture by revolutionary committees—the regime’s zealous but unofficial watchdogs—whom he demanded be disarmed. From 2009 to 2010, Saif persuaded his father to release nearly all of Libya’s political prisoners, creating a deradicalization program for Islamists that Western experts cited as a model. He also advocated abolishing Libya’s Information Ministry in favor of private media. He even flew in renowned American scholars—including Francis Fukuyama, Robert Putnam, and Cass Sunstein—to lecture on civil society and democracy”.

Yet all of this was at the same time when the United States was threatening action against Libya until it gave up its WMD programme. To then say that in this context Saif would have turned Libya into some kind of democracy would be ridiculous. All the arguments the author put forward are nothing compared to the violence and brutality he meted out to rebel groups in 2011. At the same time his behaviour during his father’s regime should not be forgotten and no attempts were made to have democracy and human rights during his father’s rule. To pretend that once Saif came to power everything would change is nothing sort of make believe.

He concludes “Obama also acknowledges regrets about Libya, but unfortunately, he has drawn the wrong lesson. “I think we underestimated . . . the need to come in full force,” the president told the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in August 2014. “If you’re gonna do this,” he elaborated, “there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies.” But that is exactly the wrong take-away. The error in Libya was not an inadequate post-intervention effort; it was the decision to intervene in the first place”.

Again he is wrong. This is exactly the course that should be taken, but the ADD that afflicts America and all democracies dealing with long term foreign policy decisions remains. Unless politicians are willing to take the hard measures needed half hearted measures like Libya, and the mistakes that go with them will not end.

Obama’s lack of a correct strategy

02/04/2015

A piece by David Rothkopf argues that the chaos in the Middle East is being made worse because of the total lack of strategy from President Obama.

He starts “Just because the Middle East’s descent into chaos is hardly the fault of the Obama administration, that doesn’t mean its policies in the region are not an egregious failure. The situation in the region is unprecedented. For the first time since the World Wars, virtually every country from Libya to Afghanistan is involved in a military conflict. (Oman seems to be the exception.) The degree of chaos, uncertainty, and complexity among the twisted and often contradictory alliances and enmities is mind-boggling. America and its allies are fighting alongside Iran to combat the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria but in Yemen, the United States and many of those same regional partners are collaborating to push back Iranian-backed Houthi forces. Israel and Saudi Arabia are closely aligned in their concerns about Iran while historical divisions between the two remain great. Iran supports Bashar al-Assad in Syria; the United States and Western allies deplore his policies but tolerate his presence while some of the rebel forces we are supporting in the fight against the Islamic State in that country seek his (long overdue) removal. The United States wants the states of the region to stand up for their own interests — just not in Libya or when they don’t get America’s permission first”.

He argues that those who want to see the current crises of the Middle East and argue that America should just walk away “let this fire burn out? In fact, come to think of it, wasn’t that our plan? Wasn’t that the reason that Barack Obama was elected? Well, no. Taking the last point first, Obama was arguably elected to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but he also explicitly took on the responsibility of keeping America safe from further threats that might come out of that region. And as president he had the broader responsibility of advancing our national interests worldwide. And those interests require that we remain engaged in the Middle East. On the energy front, while we have plenty of supply, energy prices are set globally and that means that major fluctuations in supply or perceptions of risk will impact us. Further, were this regionwide conflict to deteriorate further, it could have very serious global economic consequences. The Sunni-Shiite war could spread. The Islamic State, embedded throughout the region, could take advantage of the chaos, as would other groups like al Qaeda or al-Nusra Front in Syria or Libya Dawn or Hamas”.

He makes the important point “Not only would prolonged chaos and weakened governments make it ever harder to manage and contain the threats produced in the region, but ultimately when these wars end, national governments will emerge, and American influence with them will be directly linked to how constructive our perceived role was in creating and then supporting them. (And to the extent that we are disengaged or otherwise rendered impotent, our influence over the nature of those governments will be diminished or, as seems quite possible, eliminated entirely.) And if our influence diminishes, that of others will certainly grow (as it already has). That may seem unimportant now but in the long run, with the new rivalries and challenges of the 21st century unfolding as they might, giving up influence in this strategically important corner of the world — and letting others gain that influence — could have very unhappy ramifications”.

He argues that President Obama “does not have the luxury of walking away from this upheaval/these conflicts, or the room to employ halfway measures, reactive or largely improvised initiatives that exist without benefit of any broader strategy. And unfortunately for America, for our allies, for the region, and for the world, those are the three primary approaches that have been employed by this White House. These approaches have contributed materially to the situation we now face. The situation in Iraq was stabilising and markedly improving in the last two years of the Bush administration, thanks to the surge, attention to the Sunnis, and the active week-to-week involvement of the president and senior officials in the details of trying to fix a situation — let’s be blunt, a catastrophe — of which they were the authors. That includes trying to manage their really bad choice as prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. It was no Jeffersonian paradise. But the trend line was in the right direction when they left office. President Obama’s decision to rush to the exits (which took the form of not really doing what was necessary to produce the kind of Status of Forces Agreement that would have enabled a prolonged American troop presence) undid this”.

He makes the point that the lack of effective Obama administration engagement in the Middle East has “fed the growing and acute distrust of the Obama administration among some of our most vital allies in the Gulf, in Egypt, and elsewhere. Do not think it did not lead them to the awareness that they would have to take action on their own in Yemen to counterbalance Iran’s gains. The United States has since scrambled to paper this over by arguing Washington is supporting both the fight against the Houthis in Yemen and not really working too closely with Iran in Iraq”.

He argues that “Bad choices, mismanagement, and faulty diplomacy are not the primary causes of America’s problems of its own making in the region. The biggest culprit is strategic incoherence. We don’t seem to have a clear view of our interests or a vision for the future of the region fostered in collaboration with our allies there and elsewhere. “Leave it to the folks on the ground” is no more a U.S. foreign-policy strategy than is “don’t do stupid shit.” It is a modality at best and in fact, it is really an abrogation of responsibility when so many of these relationships do have trade, investment, political, military, and other elements that give the United States leverage that it could and should use to advance its interests. Our relations with other major powers likewise should provide us with such tools if we were to do the diplomatic heavy lifting to produce coordinated efforts”.

Of course the problem with this argument is that it assumes having a sound strategy will solve the problems. Indeed, there is a “strategy” if one can call it that. The recently released National Security Strategy that attempts to legitimise the administrations Middle East isolationism. Therefore the attempts by the writer to say that it is simply strategy are only half the picture. There are also fundamentally bad choices as well as chronic mismanagement to blame as well.

He does correctly argue that “We need to push back hard on the idea that somehow Iran is about to become our friend. The nuclear threat is just one the many threats it poses and not the greatest one. Geopolitically, our failings and inaction have created a sense among countries of the region to seek other support from other big powers. From Egypt to Israel to the Gulf, virtually every country in the region is (ironically) pivoting to Asia — to China and to India and, where possible, to Japan and Southeast Asia. And Russian influence is growing too in Cairo, in Tel Aviv, and in Tehran. Better burden-sharing is fine. Greatly reduced influence not so much. In the region that means rebuilding old alliances through attention to our partners’ needs, through actions, not words, through listening, not offering up placating speeches. Further, we must recognize that in some conflicts unless we are willing to commit some number of boots on the ground (and the fight against IS is one such conflict) we will not be seen to be truly leading, truly committed, and others who are willing to make such commitments (like the Iranians) will gain”.

He makes the valid point that diplomacy there should be used “to the fights in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya? Yes. But we will only be successful if our opponents know that they will pay a high price that would be inflicted by a committed coalition that includes the resources and genuine engagement of the leaders of the richest and most powerful nation on Earth alongside regional leaders it clearly trusts and empowers to take the lead on regional issues. And the negotiations will only work if we practice the kind of diplomacy that is not impeded by artificial deadlines and undercut by messages that we need the deal more than the other side does”.

He concludes “So, by all means, let’s acknowledge the complex origins of the current crisis. But let’s not minimise that the failure to be more effective in addressing it can and almost certainly will lead to major losses for American interests in the region. Further and finally, this is a moment that requires great vigilance and should be producing much greater multilateral action by the United States and our allies and within the U.N. Having effectively every country in the region at war is as likely to lead to escalation as it is to solutions. More so. We are not far from seeing the conflicts connect into what could be the biggest conflagration the world has seen since August 1945. And even if that does not happen, prolonged chaos will feed into the spread of extremism in Africa, Asia, and the spread of terrorism in Europe and North America. The stakes could not be higher. And it is clear, even if we recognise America’s limited ability to impact what is happening on the ground, that we have an urgent obligation to try and to try to do so in new ways. Because what we have done for the past six years is just not working and in fact is making the world’s worst situation worse”.

 

Terrorism in Tunis

27/03/2015

A report discusses the recent attacks in Tunis and their significance, “gunmen stormed the National Bardo Museum of Tunis, killing 21 and briefly taking several hostages. The death toll may still rise. Two of the attackers were eventually killed, but others may be at large. While their motivations and ties are not yet clear, the impact of this event could be substantial for Tunisia’s political transition as a fragile post-Arab Spring democracy. This is a new frontier for Tunisia. The small country sandwiched between Libya and Algeria is the Arab Spring’s lone success story of political compromise and hard-fought consensus. The country’s citizens have not seen, until today, any serious terrorist attacks against civilians (though there have been assassinations and attacks on soldiers and military officials). Tunisians have forged a functioning democracy”.

The writer notes how peaceful Tunisia has been since the 2011 revolutions, “Libya has devolved into unending chaos, violence, and dysfunction. After a brief flirtation with democracy, Egypt returned to a thinly veiled military dictatorship. Today’s attack in Tunisia presents an important test for the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. If politicians respond the wrong way to this tragic event and let old divisions creep into the country’s fragile new political dynamic, Tunisia could fall into the same traps that derailed the Libyan and Egyptian transitions. In 2013, two assassinations of prominent politicians threatened to derail the country’s impressive political progress toward national reconciliation. For months, the legislature was shut down, its doors closed to debate and discussion. In that instance, it seemed, the terrorists had achieved their goal. Then, with strong leadership from both sides — moderate Islamists and pragmatic secularists from the ‘old’ Tunisia — the stalemate ended”.

He goes on to add that the “attack jeopardizes this success. For the most part, extremists have thus far been sidelined — but extreme elements, among both the Islamists and the old-guard secularists, will now be tempted to view this tragic event as a political gift, allowing them to grandstand, accuse their opponents, and employ divisive politics to jump-start their agendas. Elements within the party of newly elected president Beji Caid Essebsi will certainly call for a robust authoritarian crackdown. Moreover, members of his movement who believe that Islamists — writ large — are to blame for Tunisia’s turmoil and violence will speak with a louder voice after today, possibly gaining some influence”.

Naturally he makes the point that “It is crucial that President Essebsi be the president of all Tunisians by ignoring these divisive voices. Instead, he must stay the course of working with moderate Islamists while ensuring a robust security presence based on strong intelligence gathering — but without sacrificing either the political progress that has been so painfully achieved or Tunisians’ fundamental rights. On the opposite side of the political divide, Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Ennahda, must continue to work in good faith with the government and avoid provocative rhetoric that paints this attack as the fault of any political party of figure. Undeniably, resisting such methods will be difficult for both sides. But resist they must”.

He continues “attack may prod prospective visitors to consider Morocco instead — with important negative implications for Tunisia’s already fragile economy. In that sense, this attack may create larger ramifications for the political transition by crippling the country’s painfully slow economic recovery. This attack will likely not be the last. Tunisia is in a bad neighborhood. To the east lies the Libyan quagmire”.

He concludes “In just two days, Tunisia will celebrate its national independence day. On Friday, President Essebsi should invite the leaders of Ennahda and other political movements to the presidential palace in order to speak with one united voice, on one same stage, with one unifying mission: a stable, peaceful, democratic Tunisia that will not deviate from its course, turn to extremism, or be tempted by authoritarianism when terrorists attack. This is an opportunity for the Tunisian political elite to show clearly and resolutely that their Arab Spring will not wither in the face of cowardly violence”.

 

No short term Libyan solutions

24/02/2015

An article discusses the best way to intervene in Libya.

It opens “On Feb. 17, 2011, Libyans launched the uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi, who had lorded it over them for 42 years.* The popular revolt came at a high cost: Thousands died in the fighting that toppled the dictator. Still, the overwhelming majority of the population welcomed their new freedom with joy. There was also a widespread sense of gratitude to the NATO forces that had intervened on the side of the revolution. Today there is little rejoicing to be seen. The mood now is one of desperation, and the general sense of optimism that accompanied the end of the Qaddafi era has evaporated. For the past four years the rest of the world watched idly as Libya descended into chaos; now it looks less like a country inspired by the promise of democracy than a textbook example of a failed state. It is indicative of how far Libya has fallen that the forces of the Islamic State (IS) have managed, with apparent effortlessness, to gain a foothold in the country. On Sunday, IS forces issued a gruesome video that purported to show the mass execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians captured by the group. That atrocity prompted the Egyptian government to launch airstrikes yesterday on the Libyan city of Derna, an IS stronghold. As a result, almost four years after the revolution, Libya now finds itself facing a new kind of intervention — one that takes place amid the post-revolutionary chaos and instability that have engulfed the country, forcing regional players to take unilateral action”.

The writer makes the valid point that “Yet the situation is hardly clear-cut. Is a spontaneous and virtually unplanned Egyptian air campaign against IS really a good move? The Islamic State threat in Libya has been there for many months, and those who wish to strike a decisive blow against it can only do so if their actions are based on a comprehensive strategy. The airstrikes might win applause on the streets in both Egypt and Libya for a few days, but in the medium term Cairo’s actions could prove counterproductive”.

He goes on to note that “If planners in Egypt and elsewhere wish to avoid such mistakes, they could start by analyzing the shortcomings of NATO’s intervention in 2011, which offers a case study in the hazards of embarking on military action in political transitions without first devising a solid political strategy to deal with the aftermath. Egypt, Italy, and France are currently leading an effort to persuade the U.N. Security Council of the need for a new military intervention in Libya to bolster the internationally recognised government against IS. But embarking on such an ill-thought-out action is highly unlikely to yield favourable results, especially since the Islamic State is well positioned to exploit the current lack of unified government and strong state institutions. It’s worth noting that this is far from the first attack staged by IS forces in Libya. Last month IS gunmen shot their way into a luxury hotel in Tripoli that houses the Islamist government that is the main rival of the government in the east”.

The remedy to this he argues, is “In addition to securing the country’s borders, any intervention in Libya should also focus on protecting vital oil infrastructure. Rebuilding the security and defence sectors should also be a top priority — but without ill-advised efforts to appease militias or their leaders by trying to integrate them without proper vetting, training, or discipline. One British effort to train members of Libyan militias, which resulted in a string of criminal acts in a town near the U.K. training facility, offered an excellent example of the sorts of disasters that can occur. That experience should service as a valuable lesson for both Libyan and international partners seeking to train members of the security forces in the future. For their part, Libyans have to ensure that economic and governance opportunities are fairly distributed, pushing back against post-revolutionary policies that institutionalised exclusion, injustice, and lack of accountability. Only by uniting can Libyans face the challenges of the future”.

He ends “The crisis in Libya is becoming less of a local problem and more of a regional and international one. Both Libyan leaders and the international community must acknowledge this reality. While a homegrown solution to the crisis would have been the preferred option, Libyans now lack the capacity to address their problems on their own. Their country needs the help of the outside world. It is crucial that any solution must be coordinated with trustworthy Libyan partners who can join the international community in the struggle against the rise of the Islamic State and who stand for inclusion, democracy, and the rule of law. Such Libyan voices are indispensable to any international or regional solution”.

Pushing Riyadh

12/02/2015

A piece from the Economist argues that Western leaders must do more to pressure Saudi Arabia into reforming.

It starts “THE House of Saud has been written off many times: when Arab nationalism swept through the Middle East; when the mullahs dethroned the Shah of Iran; when jihadists turned their suicide-bombs against the kingdom. Yet the sons of Abdel Aziz bin Saud have confounded all challengers. This week they staged a smooth transition from King Abdullah, who died on January 23rd, to his half-brother, Salman. And, for all the kingdom’s harshness at home and fuelling of extremism abroad, the world’s leaders flocked to Riyadh. Barack Obama cut short a trip to India to pay homage to the new king”.

The writer harshly goes on to write that “This is a craven spectacle from democracies that claim to uphold universal human rights. When authoritarians elsewhere point to the Western silence on Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, and its ruthless suppression of dissent, and cry double standards, they have a point. The West’s relationship with the Al Sauds must change. So must the dynasty itself”.

Saying that President Obama paid “homage” to King Salman is as bad as those who said that he humiliated himself before the emperor of Japan. It is unhelpful and does much to lend poison to those who dislike President Obama personally rather than the policies he persues. Democracies do uphold universal human rights but, as the writer knows, the world is a messy place. At the same time the Economist whines when people try to speed up the development of these societies by bringing them human rights. Now it seems that same magazine thinks it is being done too slowly. Which is it to be? The other point that should be made is there are certainly double standards but this is life, or more accurately, international relations. It is not always possible, or wise, to use the same standards in the domestic field as in the international sphere.

The author goes on to note fairly, “The Al Sauds have kept power through a double Faustian pact: with the West, which has provided security in exchange for oil; and with Wahhabi clerics, who offer religious legitimacy in return for the state’s power to enforce and spread their intolerant version of Islam. That dual bargain is under strain. Wahhabism is feeding anti-Western radicals, while many Western observers see little difference between jihadists who decapitate foes in Syria and Saudi henchmen who behead adulteresses. The question is whether the West should continue the humiliating coddling, or risk something worse by pushing for change”.

Pointedly he admits “The ‘realist’ argument should not be dismissed out of hand. It is better to have the Al Sauds—with their oil, wealth and control of Muslim holy places—as friends than as foes. The repudiation of jihadism is best done by pious Muslims such as them. And as Arab republics collapse—from Libya to Syria, Iraq and Yemen—the monarchies are proving more resilient. Moreover, odd as it may seem, the Al Sauds often stand at the reformist end of the narrow Saudi spectrum. Cautiously, King Abdullah gave some space to women in public life, promoted their education and encouraged young Saudis to gain Western training. He convinced fellow Arab leaders to make Israel an important peace offer in 2002. If the Al Sauds were toppled their replacement would not be a nice democratic parliament; it would be chaos or, maybe, jihadists”.

He goes on to mention “this realism is not that realistic. The main risk for the Al Sauds is that they move too slowly and they may be overwhelmed. The Wahhabism they nurture endangers not just the outside world, but the dynasty itself. It sustains jihadist ideology, stokes sectarianism and exposes the monarchy to charges of hypocrisy. Meanwhile the old rentier state that bought obedience with generous subsidies and overt piousness is weakening. Oil revenues have fallen sharply, meaning jobs for young Saudi men are in short supply. Women are entering employment; social media are making ordinary Saudis less biddable (see article). To govern this evolving country, the Al Sauds must accept more pluralism, in both politics and faith. And they need to be pushed down this path”.

Yet this argument has several flaws. Firstly, the Al Saud are trying to balance both the demands of the young and those of the clerics. King Abdullah did move things forward but he was constrained by the very clerics he needs to sustain his rule. Pushing them too far would be dangerous as they may one day use their authority to undermine the Saud. What comes after them could be much, much worse. Secondly, the argument that was made about the end of the rentier state is overblown. Certainly the price of oil is falling but mainly because the Saudis have refused to cut production. The other point to be borne in mind is that when the state is so generous, as it is in Saudi Arabia, then there is little chance that vast numbers of youth will rise up. Instead they will make life difficult but it is doubtful that full scale revolution will occur, as the author seems to imply. This was seen before during the Arab revolutions in 2011 and 2012. Much was made of potential protests but they came to naught.

He ends “So Western leaders should maintain the ties but ditch the sycophancy. Their friendship should be more conditional on reform—specifically the taming of Saudi Arabia’s savage religious judiciary. Visits like Mr Obama’s should follow the same pattern as they do in Russia or China: they should include formal protests about human rights and public meetings with dissidents, with non-Wahhabis (including the Shias), and with women. After all, friends speak plainly. Supplicants who kiss the gold-braided gown are mere courtiers”.

Secularists and Islamists in Tunisia

12/02/2015

Tunisia’s parliament on Thursday approved a coalition government led by the secular Nidaa Tounes party and including its Islamist rivals, following landmark elections in the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Out of 204 MPs who attended, 166 voted in favor, 30 against and eight abstained, after Prime Minister Habib Essid withdrew an earlier list which had excluded moderate Islamists Ennahda. It is the first government to be formed after the North African country’s first free presidential and parliamentary elections last year. Parliament speaker Mohamed Ennaceur welcomed what he called “a comfortable majority” in the vote of confidence”.

“Revoked a controversial law which banned”

10/02/2015

Libya’s internationally recognised parliament has revoked a controversial law which banned Gaddafi-era officials from taking part in politics. The law was passed under duress in 2013 when MPs were being besieged by armed groups in the capital Tripoli. It was criticised by rights groups who described it as sweeping. The elected parliament in the city of Tobruk has only limited powers and is opposed by the militia controlling the capital Tripoli. “We voted to cancel the political isolation law – it’s done,” one MP, Ibrahim Alzgheid, told the BBC. However, the Tobruk-based legislature in the east holds little sway over the rest of the country, making it doubtful whether the new measures will be enforceable”.

Ennahda joins Nidaa Tounes

06/02/2015

Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party Ennahda has agreed to join its main rival secular party Nidaa Tounes in a coalition government, party leaders said on Sunday. The agreement could bolster stability in Tunisia, which is just emerging from its transition to full democracy four years after the uprising that ousted autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. The deal came after Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Habib Essid’s new cabinet faced a threat of rejection in parliament last week from key parties, including Ennahda, because they opposed his choice of ministers. The prime minister had announced a government without any cabinet posts for moderate Islamists”.

“The mantle of regional leadership won’t be passed as easily”

02/02/2015

After the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the new king, Salman coming to the throne a piece asks if King Salman can manage an increasingly unstable Middle East.

It opens “‘We are passing startling days,’ Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah declared in February 2012, candidly revealing his astonishment at events across the Middle East. In the year prior to the king’s statement, the monarch had lost close allies in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi — never trusted by the kingdom — was also gone. Riyadh was pushing for the downfall of another foe, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who was in the midst of an increasingly bloody crackdown on his own citizens. When Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution calling for Assad to leave power, the Saudi king could hold his tongue no more”.

The writer makes the point that “King Abdullah played an outsized role in trying to shape the Middle East’s many crises, and the question now for the entire region is who will fill his shoes. Just hours before the king’s death, Yemen’s president resigned from office, leaving that country in the de facto control of Shiite Houthi rebels. Islamic State militants may be taking a hit from airstrikes in Iraq, but in Syria they are regrouping and even gaining territory. Tiny Bahrain, dependent on Saudi largesse, is facing a severe budget crisis amid falling oil prices, and local opposition protests are ongoing. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s generous aid is economically vital to keeping discontent at bay”.

The author writes that after King Abdullah “the mantle of regional leadership won’t be passed as easily”.

He continues “King Abdullah’s reticence for change was based on a long-held view that stability was the guarantor of peace for the kingdom. ‘His Majesty the king has always made it a clear priority for Saudi to focus on the stability, safety, and security of its people,’ Saudi Shura Council member Wafa Taiba told me in 2013. On Syria, King Abdullah initially sought to achieve the same. After years of on-and-off friendship with the Assads, the two countries normalized relations by the time the first signs of unrest appeared in Syria. King Abdullah tried to reason with Damascus: ‘In the beginning, he sent countless letters to the Syrian president and sent many officials to meet him and made continuous phone calls to warn him about the gravity and danger of the situation,’ King Abdullah’s son Prince Miteb told the Saudi Gazette in a rare media interview in 2013″.

The writer mentions that “Washington’s surprise decision in 2013 to open talks with Iran was viewed as a menace to Saudi Arabia’s regional influence, threatening to legitimize Tehran’s ambitions in the region. ‘I am afraid Iran will give up something on [its nuclear program] to get something else from the big powers in terms of regional politics,’ Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Saudi Arabia’s appointed Shura Council, told Reuters in November 2013. ‘And I’m worrying about giving Iran more space or a freer hand in the region.'”

However as has been stated here before, America has no other option than to talk to Iran. To do anything else, even before the talks have finished is idiotic. Abdullah should see this but is blinded by his hatred, sometimes rational, sometimes not, of Iran. To expect America to just tow the Saudi line when a real rapprochement could be in the offing would make no sense.

He goes on to discuss King Salman, “The question now is who will handle all these escalating disasters. New King Salman is thought to be ailing, so new Crown Prince Muqrin will likely take over many of the responsibilities that hadn’t transferred to him already. The newly appointed deputy crown prince, Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, promises to play an equally influential role. But whichever Saudi leader takes the reins, he will be challenged by the sheer range of foreign-policy challenges and the kingdom’s lack of manpower in tackling them. There has been bitter competition within the Saudi government for control over the most pressing files: The Syria portfolio, for example, was tossed back and forth for two years between the gregarious deal-maker Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef”.

He continues “The men had nearly polar opposite strategies. While Prince Bandar was pulled out of retirement to ferry weapons and supplies to the rebels, Prince Mohammed cautiously warned about the risk that Saudi jihadis would personally get involved. He tightened the reins on fundraising and, with his counterterrorism approach, became Washington’s favoured man in Riyadh”.

He ends “The Gulf’s rising regional powers are also likely to fill some of the policy gaps. Qatar took a shot at managing the Arab Spring fallout for three years after 2011, backing rebels in Libya and Syria and an Islamist-led government in Egypt. But Riyadh demonstrably objected what it saw as Doha’s obstinate and foolish behaviour; Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors to Qatar last March and promised not to reinstate them until the country played ball. Absent King Abdullah — who was said to have personally chastised the young Qatari emir — Doha may see a chance to try again. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, is likely to continue its rise as the most important U.S. regional ally. Dubbed ‘little Sparta‘ in Washington, Emirati jets have flown the most sorties in the anti-Islamic State coalition. Its zero-tolerance attitude toward extremism is much closer to U.S. policy than either Saudi or Qatari policy”.

 

 

“A reminder of the ruthless crackdown”

31/01/2015

At least 18 people were killed in political violence on Sunday, the fourth anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising, a reminder of the ruthless crackdown the military-backed government has used to silence any echoes of that revolt. Security officials said three of those killed were militants trying to plant bombs that accidentally exploded in two Nile Delta towns, and three others were police conscripts. At least 12 others were civilians killed by security forces. As many as 10 civilians were killed in clashes in the Matariya district, a frequent flash point on the northern edge of Cairo, and dozens of civilians were reportedly injured in clashes at scattered protests around the country. After nearly 18 months of recurring police shootings at street protests since the military takeover in 2013, it was the deaths of two others killed over the weekend that most captured Egypt’s attention”.

More talks about Libya

27/01/2015

A new round of talks between rival Libyan factions will take place in Geneva on Monday, the United Nations said, even as gunmen kidnapped the deputy foreign minister of the recognised government. Nearly four years after a NATO-backed revolt ousted Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is in turmoil with two rival governments and two parliaments backed by armed factions who Western governments fear may drag the country into civil war. The internationally-recognised government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and the elected House of Representatives have worked out of the east after one faction, Libya Dawn, took over Tripoli in the summer, set up its own government and reinstated the old parliament known as the GNC. A delegation from the House of Representatives and parties allied to Tripoli attended a first round of talks in Switzerland this month, but major representatives from Libya Dawn and the General National Congress have not joined. In a new push, the U.N. mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said two rounds of talks would take place this week in Switzerland. A first round pursing the “main political track” would convene on Monday followed by a second one gathering local councils”.

Peace talks in Libya

21/01/2015

Libya’s warring factions have agreed on an “agenda” to form a unity government after two days of U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva, the U.N. said Friday. The North African nation has been gripped by civil conflict since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in a 2011 uprising, with rival governments and powerful militias battling for control of key cities and the nation’s oil wealth. “The participants agreed after extensive deliberation on an agenda that includes reaching a political agreement to form a consensual national unity government and the necessary security arrangements to end the fighting,” a U.N. statement said”.

Mubarak charges overturned

21/01/2015

A court in Egypt has overturned the convictions for embezzlement of former President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons and ordered a retrial. Mr Mubarak was jailed for three years in May after being found guilty of fraudulently billing the government for $14m (£9.3m) of personal expenses. But the Court of Cassation found legal procedures were not followed properly. It was the last remaining case keeping Mr Mubarak behind bars. The 86-year-old has been in detention since April 2011. Mr Mubarak’s lawyer told the BBC he hoped his client would soon be released from Cairo military hospital, where is being held. Charges of conspiring in the killing of hundreds of protesters during the uprising that ended his rule in 2011 were dropped in November. The former president and his sons – Alaa, 53, and Gamal, 51 – were also cleared of two separate corruption charges”.

More oil price volatility

15/01/2015

An interesting piece by Robert McNally and Michael Levi argues that as the current price of oil continues to fall, that this volatility in price will continue.

They open “Three years ago, in an essay for Foreign Affairs, we predicted a new era of volatile oil prices. The market laughed at us: the next three years were the smoothest in decades. Oil prices, on average, moved just three percent each month and even less from year to year. The calm was so eerie that analysts began to hail a new era of oil price stability. The past month, however, has upended that confident view. What began as a gradual slide, from $115 a barrel on June 19 to $100 a barrel by September 8, turned into something more serious, with prices plunging as low as $84 by mid-October. Volatility is back­­—and our 2011 essay explains why”.

Importantly they give context, “The story began this summer, when oil prices began to fall due to weak economic growth worldwide and increased oil production in Libya. More supply and less demand normally lead to lower prices, but traders assumed that Saudi Arabia—the largest oil producer in OPEC—would curb its own production to keep the market stable, creating a price floor of about $90 per barrel. Instead, Saudi Arabia shocked the market, hinting that it could live with lower prices and would not rush to cut production. As a result, prices dropped precipitously”.

They go on to make the point that “During the 2000s, however, Saudi spare capacity slowly dwindled, shrinking Riyadh’s ability to prevent price swings. The Arab Spring didn’t help: With demands for domestic spending on the rise, cutting production and sales became even more difficult for a country dependent on oil revenue”.

They question what held prices so stable, they posit the theory that it is mostly, just luck. They write that the many disruptions in Nigeria and the Middle East “were almost perfectly counterbalanced by unexpected gains in U.S. tight oil output. Lackluster GDP growth also helped tamp down global oil demand”.

The writers go on to note “The return to volatility poses an immediate risk to the global economy. It is volatility, rather than high prices, that endangers global economic growth; right now, for example, falling prices are a positive, as consumers with more money in their pockets can buy more and stimulate the economy. But with Saudi Arabia and OPEC less able or willing to moderate oil prices, consumers can expect more price spikes alongside sharp price declines. Volatility also scares investors and consumers, deterring them from investing in oil infrastructure and from buying more efficient cars and trucks. Policymakers should therefore not view falling prices only as a sign of relief, but also as an indicator of trouble”.

They end “In 2011, we compared the stable oil market of yore to the Disney ride “It’s A Small World”—gentle and unremarkable—and warned that consumers might soon find themselves on the scary and unpredictable “Space Mountain.” A bit of good luck handed them a three-year trip down a soothing waterway. But the roller coaster ride has returned with a vengeance. It would be wrong to dismiss the possibility of another spell of calm, but it would be equally foolish to assume that the ride is over”.

Christians, continue to suffer

15/01/2015

Thirteen Egyptians were kidnapped in the Libyan city of Sirte, adding to seven that went missing last week in the war-torn North African country, Egypt’s state news agency said on Saturday. Libya is split between militias loyal to an internationally recognized government, which Egypt supports, and those allied to a rival government based in Tripoli that includes Islamist groups and politicians. The 13 reported kidnapped on Saturday were Coptic Christians and Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, had met with senior church officials on Saturday amid efforts to solve the crisis, state news agency MENA said. Magdy Malik, a Christian activist in Egypt, said that gunmen stormed a residence for expatriates in Sirte and abducted the thirteen Copts. Egyptian Copts have been targeted in Libya before during the chaos that broke out when militias that fought together to oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi then trained their arms on one another”.

Southern Front to the rescue?

07/01/2015

A hopeful article argues that where the Syrian revolution began in Deraa, may be able to turn aginst the Assad regime.

It opens “Syria’s civil war is heading toward a point of no return. Advances by the Islamic State (IS) in eastern and northern Syria and the resurgence of other jihadi organizations in northwestern Syria are pushing the remnants of the so-called “moderate” armed opposition squarely into the Syrian regime’s line of fire. Any hope that a secular, nationalist movement can govern post-Assad Syria is rapidly waning. In the south of the country, however, an important force could represent an alternative to both the brutality of the regime and the jihadis. A coalition of secular and nationalist rebels known as the Southern Front (SF) has been able to hold territory for many months in the governorate of Daraa, 90 miles south of Damascus. Its model of rule deserves greater scrutiny: The coalition, which binds together roughly 50 armed groups, has generated a singular example of civil-military governance in Syria — creating a “third way” of local governance that threatens Bashar al-Assad’s depiction of the Syrian opposition movement as extremists and terrorists”.

He goes on to explain that “Since 2013, the SF coalition has relied on a combination of strategies to hold ground in Daraa. It has co-opted and forged tactical alliances with the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front; it has coordinated with the local militias and the tribes in the areas; and it is holding the military and ideological line against IS, al-Nusra Front, and other militant Salafist organizations, while fighting off the advances of the Assad regime and its auxiliary forcesThe SF coalition falls under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, but has generally disassociated itself from the political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), on the grounds that the SNC has lost legitimacy because it is primarily composed of exiles. Several of the most powerful rebel groups in southern Syria are active members of the coalition”.

He adds that “since late 2013 some of these factions have reportedly begun to receive more substantial training and weaponry from Western and Arab countries”.  The Daraa governorate is a largely agricultural region of 1,400 square miles, home to slightly over 1 million people, most of whom belong to Arab Sunni tribes with connections in Jordan and cousins as far afield as Iraq and Saudi Arabia. While the land is predominately rural and sparsely populated, it is strategically important, as it borders two important U.S. allies in the region, Israel and Jordan”.

He posits the theory that “Despite its loose alliance with the local franchises of rebel militant Salafi groups, SF leaders espouse an ideal of a future Syria that is secular, nationalist, and multiethnic. SF leaders promised in their Dec. 10, 2014, communiqué that ‘the protection of all Syrian citizens, their property and their rights without any distinction of religion, culture, ethnicity, or political affiliation in accordance with International Humanitarian Law and the international standards of Human Rights.’ The SF forces have also attempted to mediate among the fractious rebel groups within their ranks, ensuring cooperation and operational unity. They have also offered reassurances to the minority Christians in the province, particularly in the large town of Izra, and continue to conduct outreach through tribal sheikhs and rebel coordinating committee members to loyalist Druze communities in neighboring al-Sweida province”.

Naturally being over optimistic at this stage would be unwise. Many Islamist groups are able to speak the talk of Western liberals but in governing, or tactics they are very different. There is little real way in known whether this alliance with Salafi groups is just a basic marriage of convenience, realism, or if it is something more long term and SF are just using the language of the West to gain legitimacy.

The author mentions that “the SF coalition has had some measured success working with the local councils to administer civilian aid effectively. Currently, brigades within the coalition protect local civilian coordination committees, offering security to the civilians who are providing municipal services and distributing humanitarian aid across the region. In addition, where possible, its forces are protecting critical local infrastructure such as wheat silos, wells and water purification plants, schools, and electricity grids”.

He notes that “Daraa is far more homogeneous than almost any other area of Syria. It would be difficult to replicate the SF’s example of inclusive civil-military governance in more ethnically diverse and complicated governorates in the north, such as Aleppo”.

Despite this obvious defect with SF he still writes that “the coalition still represents the type of partner that the international community seeks in Syria — credible and militarily capable enough to hold contested territory, while willing to countenance a future Syria that is secular, nationalist, inclusive, and respects minority rights”.

He explains away the alliance between SF and the al-Nusra Front arguing “The two groups have tactically allied in the south because of their shared goal — defeating the Assad regime. The SF militias and al-Nusra Front also participate jointly in overseeing local social welfare programs. In many cases across Daraa, members of SF groups and local fighters in al-Nusra Front come from the same tribe, clan, and even extended families. To avoid conflict between the rebel groups that can devolve into tribal and familial blood feuds, the SF and al-Nusra Front have largely avoided fighting one another”.

He ends “Despite its shortcomings, the Southern Front coalition does provide a glimmer of hope amid Syria’s increasingly dismal political landscape. The international community should recognize the demonstration effect offered by the SF model in Daraa and more strongly support its local, indigenous governance structure — including by increasing military and humanitarian assistance to the armed groups leading the coalition. The Southern Front should be the focus of training and material support from the United States and its allies, allowing it to repel potential IS advances in the region”.

 

“Essebsi won the country’s first free presidential”

01/01/2015

Veteran Tunisian politician Beji Caid Essebsi won the country’s first free presidential election in the final step of a transition to democracy after an uprising that ousted autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Essebsi, a former Ben Ali official, beat rival Moncef Marzouki with 55.68 percent of the vote against 44.32 percent in Sunday’s run-off ballot between the two men, according to results released on Monday by electoral authorities. Both candidates called for calm after rioting briefly broke out in several southern towns in protest over the return of an old guard figure, and witnesses said an office of Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party was set alight in one town. A former parliament speaker under Ben Ali, Essebsi recast himself as an experienced technocrat. His secular party Nidaa Tounes – Call for Tunisia – profited from a backlash against the post-revolt Islamist government, which many voters blamed for turmoil after 2011″.

The Tunisian model

14/12/2014

An article from Foreign Affairs discusses the recent peaceful election in Tunisia and is seen by the authors as the model for the rest of the Arab world.

They begin, “Nearly four years ago, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled for his life when the first of the Arab Spring uprisings forced him from power. Most of his ministers were close on his heels, scurrying to save themselves in exile. Many of those who did not flee went into hiding or jail. Several months later, Tunisia held its first competitive multi-party elections. In that vote, however, Tunisians did not have complete freedom of choice; all the top-level figures associated with Ben Ali’s toppled regime were banned from running—a short-term measure that was designed to protect the fragile new democracy from slipping back toward dictatorship”.

He writes that several former members of the old regime are running for election,  “three former top-level Ben Ali­-era ministers will compete in presidential elections in late-November: Kemal Morjane, Mondher Znaidi, and Abderrahim Zouari. The sitting government gave them permission to run in the spirit of national reconciliation and inclusivity. That decision might seem surprising. After all, in addition to keeping the state running, new democratic politicians must decide how to cope with the cobwebs of authoritarianism. They are inevitably eager to ensure not only that the dictator is removed, but also that members of the dictator’s regime are purged”.

He makes the vital point that “If Ben Ali’s former ministers had been banned, they could have become a source of volatility—as symbols of political martyrdom to their followers. Banned candidates may also launch coups and civil wars, taking power with bullets after being excluded from the ballot box”.

Of course not all ideas are equal. Some have been proven to be worthless but some ideas have more muscle behind them than others so to say that let all of them fight it out in the debating ring and the best will win, is naïve.

He goes on to argue that “With few exceptions, Tunisia has avoided similar mistakes. Instead, the country has designed its transition to build consensus rather than exploit divisions, on constructive dialogue rather than protracted standoffs, and on inclusion rather than exclusion. For one, none of the major institutional organs of Ben Ali’s state—including the military—was excised or disbanded. Instead, each was reformed and molded to respond to Tunisia’s new and democratically elected government. That same restraint stopped Tunisia from making the mistake of blindly purging politicians and bureaucrats with considerable expertise. In 2011, a commission led by the respected jurist Yadh Ben Achour ruled that ministerial-level politicians under Ben Ali’s regime should be disqualified from the country’s first democratic elections, but not from future participation in public life or politics. This decision coincided with the disbanding of Ben Ali’s ruling RCD party, but did not prohibit former members of the party from contesting future elections”.

He ends “This month’s elections are thus both a celebration of Tunisia’s success and a crucial test. Throughout 2013, hardline Islamists (including conservative members of Tunisia’s big-tent Islamist party, Ennahda, and their further-right counterparts, the Wafa Movement) proposed to renew the directive that disqualified the Mounachidine and banned from standing for election anyone who had served in Ben Ali’s government. When it came to a vote in May, though, the legislation was rejected—even with the Mounachidine provision stripped from the final proposal”.

He concludes “Polls suggest that the Islamist coalition, Ennahda, is most likely to win the parliamentary vote, but that the presidency will most likely be captured by the secular 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, a former minister of foreign affairs for Ben Ali’s predecessor who also served as the interim prime minister of Tunisia after Ben Ali fled the country in early 2011. Essebsi does have some ties to Ben Ali (he served as the president of the Chamber of Deputies for a year in the early 1990s), but he is not considered a close ally of the deposed strongman. His age may prove to be an issue, but he is a competent leader who is neither a staunch defender of Ben Ali nor a zealous secularist unwilling to compromise with the country’s moderate Islamists. It would have been a shame, in other words, to disqualify him”.

 

Saudi Shiites

08/12/2014

A piece mentions the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia.

It begins, “Since 2011 (and even before), al-Awamiya has been ground zero in a largely forgotten corner of the Arab Spring: the struggle of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites — who comprise about 15 percent of the country’s population — for greater political and economic rights, and especially equal treatment by the country’s dominant Salafi establishment, which regards them as deviants from Sunni orthodoxy. Since the first wave of protests in 2011, approximately 20 young men from al-Awamiya and other Shiite towns have died at the hands of government forces, sometimes during peaceful demonstrations and occasionally in violent exchangeswith police. Many of their demands extended far beyond Shiite-specific reforms, encompassing changes to the very structure of power in Saudi Arabia: reform of the judiciary, the release of political prisoners, a constitution, and greater power for elected bodies. This is precisely what made them so threatening. On Oct. 15, tensions escalated when a Riyadh court sentenced to death Nimr al-Nimr, a charismatic Shiite cleric from al-Awamiya. Nimr was charged with seeking“foreign meddling” and taking up arms against security forces. To be sure, his personal attacks on the royal family were inflammatory and politically unwise, including a now-infamous sermon celebrating the death of Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, the late crown prince and interior minister, in 2012. But Nimr had studiously avoided incitement to violence in his speeches, distanced himself from Iran, and called for the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Many of the Shiite activists I spoke with idolised Nimr as an icon of resistance, but one who continually extolled the virtues of peaceful activism and dignity”.

He goes on to write “Riyadh has pledged to counter the barbarity of the Islamic State and has warnedthat the terrorist group intends to incite sectarian conflict inside the kingdom. Yet in its own domestic policies, the Saudi government has institutionalized sectarianism in virtually every aspect of political, social, and economic life. It is a witches’ brew that has largely escaped U.S. attention, but one that has long provided the ideological grist for the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadi groups. To be sure, since the 1990s, the Saudi government has made some relative progressin terms of infrastructural development of the Eastern Province, where Shiite villages and towns have historically lagged behind their Sunni neighbours in terms of government funding. allowed some degree of religious freedom for the exercise of Shiite rituals and practices. Perhaps one positive byproduct of the killings in recent months has been rare expressions of cross-sectarian unity by influential Sunni clerics, senior Saudi officials, and editorialists. Some observershave gone so far as to predict that the tragedy marks a turning point, ushering in a new era of Sunni-Shiite harmony in the kingdom”.

He goes on to make the point that “Saudi commentators have been arguing that, whatever its excesses, the Islamic State at least has the virtue of being a Sunni bufferagainst an expanding Shiite crescent. And in the aftermath of the al-Ahsa attack, scattered voices across Saudi Arabia — from religious faculty to newspaper columnists — tried to shift the blame back to Syria and Iran, with some even hinting that the Shiites themselvesand their Iranian backers had orchestrated the attack. This is the sort of deceitful discourse that creates fertile ground for violence and puts limits on lasting, cross-sectarian reforms. In recent months, there have been revealing indications of just how entrenched these limits are. Potential bridge-builders between Sunnis and Shiites have been subjected to increased pressure and prosecution”.

The author continues “A day after the al-Ahsa killings, the Saudi minister of culture and information announced the shutdown of al-Wesal, an anti-Shiite satelliteTV stationthat was widely despised by many Shiite activists I met. But less than a day later, the minister was sacked. The reasons for his dismissal are unknown, and several observers have ruled out any connection. What is certain is that his statement on the channel’s ban triggered criticismby Saudi Sunnis on social media, some of whom demanded that Shiite channels be shuttered as well. As of this writing, al-Wesal is still in operation and being received in Saudi Arabia”.

He adds that “Both episodes show the dilemma that confronts more moderate wings of the Saudi royal family that may genuinely wish for a relaxation of the sectarian orthodoxy and the enactment of limited reforms, but must be mindful of the backlash from conservatives. The result is a delicate balancing act by the royals that results in frequent reversals and mixed signals to Shiites. The sentencing of Nimr may have resulted from just such a calculus. It was a way for the House of Saud to deflect pressure from Salafi clerics and conservative factions who oppose the regime’s incarceration of Sunnis critical of King Abdullah’s reforms. Some of these voices also resent the kingdom’s participation in the anti-Islamic State coalition, which they see as tilting the regional balance of power in favor of Iran and Shiites”.

Crucially he makes the point that “Many Saudi observers and Western diplomats told me that the sentence is unlikely to be carried out and assume King Abdullah will issue a royal pardon at the eleventh hour. But the damage to Shiite trust and Saudi Arabia’s social fabric has been done. In commuting the sentence, King Abdullah will try once more to portray himself to his country’s Shiites as a benevolent protector, holding back Sunni radicals. But Saudi Arabia’s leadership will yet again fail to take the steps needed to address the roots of Shiite dissent”.

He ends, making the praticial point, “In particular, Washington should demand the repeal of sweeping new anti-terrorism lawsthat criminalize broad categories of social and political activism, such as that of Nimr and Shammari. The United States also should be wary of religion-based “counterradicalization” programsthat are showcased by Riyadh’s state-funded clerical establishment as part of the fight against the Islamic State. “Counterradical” does not mean “countersectarian” in the Saudi context. Many of the clerical arguments in these programs are geared toward insulating the regime from the radicals’ attacks while ignoring the more intolerant, sectarian, and anti-American tenets of extremist discourse. And because the clerics delivering these messages are tied to the government, they often lack credibility in the eyes of the audiences most susceptible to the Islamic State’s appeal. Perhaps most importantly, the United States should continue to engage Riyadh on reforms that offer equal political and economic opportunities to all Saudis, regardless of their sect. Such policies will not only redress Shiite grievances in increasingly restive towns like al-Awamiya, but will also combat the narrative of Sunni chauvinism that drives Saudis into the ranks of the Islamic State”.

 

Isolationist India

08/12/2014

In an excellent article in Foreign Affairs, Shashank Joshi explains why India is isolationist. He begins, “Shortly after Narendra Modi became prime minister of India in May 2014, his government faced its first foreign policy crisis. Just weeks after his inauguration, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured 41 Indian construction workers in Mosul and 46 Indian nurses in Tikrit, producing one of India’s worst-ever hostage crises. This was not the first time that New Delhi had been rocked by events 2,000 miles away”.

He writes that “The fate of the Middle East, home to roughly seven million Indians, has long been tied to that of India. As Salman Khurshid, then India’s foreign minister, noted in 2013, the Persian Gulf, which supplies two-thirds of India’s oil and gas, is the country’s largest trading partner — more important than the 28 countries of the European Union combined. Despite its stake in the region, however, India has remained passive in the face of crises. It appears wary of taking on a more assertive diplomatic or military role — more likely to evacuate citizens than send more in to grapple with the Middle East’s problems”.

Fundamentally he writes that “New Delhi has reacted to turmoil in the Middle East with interest but little else. In 2003, for example, according to the historian Rudra Chaudhuri, New Delhi briefly considered deploying its 6th Infantry Division to northern Iraq — a contingent that would have been the second largest in the country, behind only that of the United States. New Delhi ultimately dismissed this possibility, however, in the absence of a supportive resolution from the United Nations. Although New Delhi appeared eager to advance the U.S.-Indian relationship by committing troops, it would not do so at the cost of its historical commitment to multilateralism”.

Of course the problem with this policy is that the real world quickly intervenes in this fairytale foreign policy, events like the hostage situation. There is also the repuation to bear in mind. A country the size of India without an engaged foreign policy can draw heckles of laughter from those who see India proclaiming its importaance in the supposedly new global order.

He adds that “New Delhi has viewed subsequent uprisings in Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere similarly. Like China and Russia, India voted against UN resolutions in February and July 2012 that called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. It also abstained from voting on a harsher resolution in July 2013, arguing that it could not support ‘effecting regime change by sleight of hand,’ and opposed the United States’ proposed punitive missile strikes. Indeed, India’s foreign ministry continues to assert on its website that ‘India and Syria enjoy friendly political relations based on historic and civilizational ties.'”

Joshi says that this isolationism is a result of “New Delhi is wary of supporting popular uprisings that it views as causing regional instability and disruptions in the global energy market. The Indian government heavily subsidizes public sector domestic oil companies and products — New Delhi has spent 1.4 percent of India’s GDP on fuel subsidies since 2008 — and is therefore particularly vulnerable to market volatility, especially if the Indian rupee falls relative to the U.S. dollar. India has another vested interest in the Middle East’s status quo: remittances. Given the substantial population of Indian citizens in the Middle East — Libya was home to some 18,000 in 2011, for example, and Iraq to 10,000 this year — it is no surprise that the region provides India with its highest remittances. In 2012, for example, India received $69 billion in remittances, of which $30 billion came from the Gulf States, including $15 billion from the United Arab Emirates and $8 billion from Saudi Arabia. Instability, in the form of Western interventions, domestic unrest, and the like, threatens this cash flow”.

For all the talk of India being an economic superpower the sheer size of these figures would lead one to question the veracity of this claim.

He goes on to argue that “Indian policymakers tend to view recent Western intervention in the Middle East as comparable to the U.S.-funded and Pakistan-led effort to support opposition forces in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979. In the Indian view, it was the West’s intervention that primed Afghanistan for the growth and spread of radical Islam. Suhasini Haidar, strategic & diplomatic affairs editor of the Indian newspaper The Hindu, summarized the feelings of many Indians in a July 2014 op-ed: ‘Each of the countries today at the center of the world’s concerns over extremism is, in fact, a country that has seen direct or indirect Western intervention, not Western absence — Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Iraq.’ Moreover, India is particularly wary of Saudi Arabia’s role in supporting ultra-conservative Islamists, a caution compounded by India’s pragmatic relationship with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. These beliefs explain why, during Modi’s first official visit to Washington in September, he ruled out India joining the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, which includes Saudi Arabia but excludes Iran. It also helps explain why India has not supported opposition forces in Syria: Like Moscow and Tehran, New Delhi sees the Assad government as an authoritarian but secular regime that has been attacked by fundamentalists armed and funded by the West, and believes the civil war will lead to long-term disorder, further extremism, or both”.

He ends the piece “For now, India appears unlikely to broaden its role in the Middle East. At the Geneva II peace talks in early 2014, for example, India appeared unwilling to use its influence over the Assad regime to help broker an end to the Syrian civil war. Unlike countries such as Turkey that revel in the pomp of mediation, India sees advantage in obscurity: Why invite global scrutiny of its position on a sectarian civil war, the argument goes, when the prospects of success are so low and the likelihood of alienating one side so high? In September, an article in the Hindustan Times newspaper suggested that, in the wake of the spread of ISIS, New Delhi would consider offering “material and financial” support to the Kurdistan Regional Government”.

He concludes “India has too much on its regional plate — an increasingly violent border with Pakistan, growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean, and a fragile Afghanistan — to devote serious resources to the Middle East. But a nation that seeks a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has so many economic and security interests at stake in the Middle East could benefit from a larger role. Any future military role, however, would have to be predicated on a robust UN-authorised multilateral framework, something that is likely to prove elusive. New Delhi could nevertheless leverage its unusual position — positive relations with both Iran and Israel, for instance — to play an important role in regional diplomacy. A larger and more diverse Indian diplomatic and intelligence footprint in the region would also help India protect its citizens and understand the complex mosaic of regional players in a place like northern Iraq. And, as Russian and Chinese interest in the Middle East grows, Western powers should welcome a broader and deeper Indian role”.

No changes against Mubarak

04/12/2014

An Egyptian court dropped all remaining criminal charges against former President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday in a sweeping repudiation of the Arab Spring uprising that forced him from power. The court dismissed murder charges against Mr. Mubarak in the killing of protesters demanding an end to his 30-year rule — charges that once inspired crowds to hang the president’s effigy from the lampposts of Tahrir Square in Cairo and captivated the region. His reviled security chief and a half-dozen top police officials were acquitted. The court also acquitted Mr. Mubarak, his two sons and a wealthy business associate of corruption charges; the three others had come to personify the rampant self-dealing of Mr. Mubarak’s era as much as the president himself. If normal legal procedures are followed, Mr. Mubarak could soon go free for the first time since his top generals removed him from power amid a popular revolt in 2011, although it was not clear whether those rules would be adhered to. About 1,000 demonstrators gathered around Tahrir Square at night to protest the decision, but heavily armed security forces had closed off the traffic circle. By 9 p.m., the police were firing tear gas and birdshot to drive away the crowds, and by midnight state news media reported that at least one person had been killed and more than 85 were arrested. More than five months after the inauguration of a military-backed strongman, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the authorities appeared to calculate that the Egyptian public was so weary of unrest that it had lost a desire for retribution against Mr. Mubarak, or at least that they now had a firm enough grip to suppress any backlash”.

History in Tunisia

29/11/2014

A report discusses the first round in the presidential election in Tunisia.

It starts “On Sunday, Nov. 23, Tunisians voted in their first democratic presidential election. None of the candidates won a majority, so a second round is scheduled to take place next month. But it’s already clear that the race to the finish line is going to be very, very close. To nobody’s surprise, veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi came in first with 39.46 percent of the popular vote, followed by incumbent interim president Moncef Marzouki, who secured 33.43 percent”.

He gives vital context, “Essebsi is the leader of the secular Nida Tounes movement, which includes many political figures from the pre-revolutionary era, while Marzouki and his party have a more solid record of opposition to the dictatorship that ruled Tunisia until 2011. Marzouki’s party, the Congress for the Republic (CPR), is known for its hostility to former regime figures and its sympathy to the more conservative faction of Tunisian society, a group of voters that helped Marzouki secure the second place in the first round of the presidential election. However, the party has seen its popularity shrink over recent years, as it went from winning 29 seats in 2011 election to getting just four seats in last month’s legislative poll. Were it not for the (sometimes tacit) support of Islamists, it would have been difficult for Marzouki to make it to the runoff. It remains to be seen if Marzouki will be able to gain the support of more Tunisians to get reelected”.

He adds that “The failure of the Troika, the tripartite coalition between the Islamist Ennahda party and two other centrist parties (including Marzouki’s Congress of the Republic), to address people’s social and economic concerns made it easier for their strong rival Nida Tounes to win a plurality in last month’s parliamentary election. Nida Tounes, formed by Essebsi in July 2012, is a heterogeneous party that brings together trade unionists, secular and progressive political activists, and “counterrevolutionary” figures associated with Tunisia’s autocratic leaders, Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Both men were notorious for their lack of respect for human rights and their hostility to Islamists”.

The writer goes on to make the point “Many of those who support Nida Tounes and Essebsi’s candidacy do so out of despair over the scarcity of options. Moreover, Nida Tounes presents itself as the party that has the know-how to run the country, in contrast to the Islamist leaders who spent the past decades in exile or jail”.

He continues giving the case of “Yosra Tlili, a 35-year-old engineer, said she was opting for Essebsi because she wanted to make sure she put her vote to use. “I love Hamma because he’s a brave and impressive activist,” she told me. “But this is no time for emotions.” Tlili was referring to Hamma Hammami, the candidate of the leftist Popular Front, a long-time political activist who is also married to Radhia Nasraoui, a renowned anti-torture activist. However, Hamma came in third with only 7.8 percent of the popular vote, excluding him from the second round”.

The piece ends “While some people seem relatively unconcerned about the return of figures from the pre-revolutionary system, and express a willingness to sacrifice some of their newly gained freedoms for the sake of security and promised economic prosperity, others still prefer a chaotic post-revolution Tunisia to the ghost of the former regime. “My brother went to jail and was prevented from graduating from university because he was a religious kid,” Kamel told me. “I don’t want that to happen again.” Kamel (who declined to give me his first name) was standing in line to vote in the Rue de Marseille polling station in downtown Tunis”.

He concludes “Next month, Tunisians will find themselves facing hard choices. It seems that most Tunisians have reservations about both candidates. Nevertheless, people are forced to choose between two bad alternatives: an elderly remnant of the former regime, associated with decades of oppression, and an ineffective president who stands as a reminder of the failure of the Troika years”.

Libya’s production problems

15/11/2014

As the price of oil continues to fall, Keith Johnson writes about the production of oil in Libya.

He begins the piece “The stunningly improbable return of oil production in Libya, right in the middle of a civil war, is one of the reasons crude prices have been tumbling. But now this Libyan crude renaissance looks to be ebbing — with potentially nasty consequences for Libya and a fresh dose of uncertainty for an already rattled oil market. The latest development is an armed struggle for control of Libya’s biggest oil field, El Sharara, in the country’s south. Reuters reported that an armed group linked to the rebel government in Tripoli stormed the field last week, marking the first time that the breakaway government sought control of the country’s oil resources”.

Johnson makes the point that “On Monday, Nov. 10, that militia appeared to have control of the field; even so, Libya’s National Oil Corp. hopes to restart production as soon as Wednesday. In the meantime, that struggle disrupted the power supply to another nearby oil field, taking it offline too. Together, those losses have temporarily cut Libya’s precarious oil output by about 300,000 barrels a day. Back in the summer — during an apparent high-water mark — Libya was pumping as many as 900,000 barrels daily. Fresh protests in an eastern Libyan port are disrupting oil exports there, further complicating matters. Libya’s oil miracle looks like the latest victim of the factional violence that has rent the country to pieces since the 2011 uprising”.

The situation, Johnson mentions is worsened by “Libya’s civil war has spawned rival governments, each with its own loyal militias. On Wednesday, car bombs ripped through cities in eastern Libya, including Tobruk. To make matters worse, last week the Libyan Supreme Court in Tripoli declared the exiled, internationally recognised parliament in Tobruk illegal, sowing further political uncertainty that could worsen conditions for Libya’s oil industry”.

Interestingly he posits the theory that “it’s unclear just how much the factional fighting will hurt Libya’s oil industry, as there are no reliable estimates on current production. Before the 2011 uprising, Libya produced about 1.6 million barrels a day. This year, amid standoffs between rival factions, Libya’s output dropped to as little as 100,000 barrels. A sudden and stunning recovery followed. OPEC figures that Libya, a core member of the oil-exporting cartel, produced more than 750,000 barrels daily in September and may have pumped almost 850,000 barrels a day in October. Some estimates put Libyan output even higher. That doesn’t seem to be the case today. National Oil Corp. insiders just told Platts, the energy-market experts, that production has plummeted to 540,000 barrels. But even that figure doesn’t really add up: Libya doesn’t seem to be exporting anywhere near what it claims to be producing. Also, its domestic refining industry is too small to be eating the difference. Confusion over how much the country is producing is mirrored by confusion over who’s overseeing production”.

He adds later in the piece “What’s not clear is what comes next. ‘They could use oil infrastructure for political leverage or instead keep the hydrocarbon sector out of politics,’ Porter said. Libya is already paring back its budget, and a sustained drop in oil production could force even more austerity. In late October, the rump parliament slashed the budget by 20 percent because of the shortfall in oil revenues during the first half of the year. Libyan lawmakers estimate the budget deficit this year could hit $15 billion. Although parliament is trying to spare public-sector salaries the ax, needed infrastructure projects could get squeezed, possibly fueling more unrest”.

The consequences of this lack of funds available could mean militias not being paid which would mean “the country’s oil production could decline further. Security guards, for example, went on strike over unpaid wages at one of the country’s main ports for oil exports over the weekend. That locks up one-tenth of Libya’s export capacity. But Libya’s petro-dysfunction probably doesn’t remove enough barrels from the glutted global market to send oil prices rising again”.

Johnson closes “Despite the chaos in numerous oil-producing countries, Libya included, oil traders have shrugged off the uncertainty. On Monday, when fresh reports surfaced of trouble at Libya’s biggest oil field, crude prices ended up falling on the day. Tuesday and Wednesday, benchmark crude traded in London continued to fall. In other words, oil prices tumbled when Libyan production was roaring and continued falling when Libyan output sputtered”.

He ends “Financial markets abhor uncertainty, basic economics holds, but the turmoil across the Middle East has not rattled traders. Nor has it seemed to cut supply lower than demand, making investment banks increasingly bearish about oil prices. JPMorgan Chase just slashed its outlook for Brent crude prices next year”.

Mohammed VI’s choices

09/11/2014

An article in Foreign Affairs notes the consequences of the Arab revolutions in Morocco.

The article opens “Morocco’s king has always had it good. He governs the country in practice but has been able to shield himself from criticism by presenting himself as being above politics. The palace has been able to maintain this balance by retaining the right to appoint a prime minister to ensure that a loyal government carries out the crown’s preferred policies. But the Arab Spring­–driven 2011 constitutional reforms, which mandated that the king would appoint a prime minister from among the members of the largest political party in Parliament—a royal concession that seemed so minimal at the time—may be changing Morocco’s political system more than anticipated. Namely, it has allowed Morocco’s governing Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), to increase the palace’s political accountability. As the first Moroccan prime minister to come to power on the basis of his party’s electoral strength, Abdelilah Benkirane has been unwilling to accept the traditional role of palace scapegoat. In the past, he has admitted his fraught relationship with the palace. He has also been candid with the public about the king’s overriding power and the limits of his own ability to pursue reform. Benkirane has mentioned countless times that he cannot be held responsible for what is happening in the country, since it is the king who governs. And in a 2013 interview with Le Monde, Benkirane declared that “if it doesn’t work with the king, I will simply leave.” Although that may not seem especially provocative, traditionally a minister or employee of the king never threatens to resign, as it is considered pressure on the king”.

He goes on to make the point “As a result, a new narrative is taking hold among the Moroccan public. It still avoids explicitly criticizing the king, but it makes clear where the blame lies for the country’s shortcomings. An example came in the form of a recent televised debate between members of the PJD-led government and opposition leaders. At one point, one of them was criticizing the government when one PJD member chimed in to remind the audience that the government is His Majesty’s government. An opposition leader responded that the opposition, too, is His Majesty’s. The king, in other words, controls the government and the opposition. That is not the sort of thing that is usually said in public, much less on television. In effect, through his new approach, Benkirane has ensured that the king is publicly and explicitly perceived as a political player—and the monarchy, likewise, as a political institution—something the palace is almost certainly not comfortable with”.

Interestingly he argues “Benkirane’s strategy arose as a response to two truths. First, he and the PJD realized early on that although the constitutional changes from 2011 would not necessarily give the government much direct power, it did give him and his allies some space to engage in politics. They were bolstered by several new trends. First, in the wake of the 2011 protests and reforms, average Moroccans were starting to get interested in politics. Second, as a result of greater engagement, there has been more popular demand for accountability from those who rule. And finally, the fact that the prime minister came from the largest party meant that the palace was suddenly more beholden to the public, so it was more willing to tolerate some of Benkirane’s behavior. Benkirane is capitaliaing on these trends but then simultaneously making it clear that he does not rule the country and that any claim to the contrary is a pretense”.

He adds, “For one, Benkirane and the PJD are effective politicians. Further, the PJD’s agenda is broadly popular among Moroccans. For the palace, among the most worrying items on the PJD’s agenda are plans to reform the subsidies fund (Caisse de Compensation). The PJD’s goal is to gradually reduce the current subsidies; although officially aimed at lowering the cost of living for the entire population, they benefit the middle and upper classes most because the poor cannot take advantage of the largest part of the subsidies, which covers hydrocarbons. Several companies owned by palace loyalists have been taking advantage of the generous fund, which, in 2013, had a budget of about $6 billion. The PJD wants to replace these subsidies with direct monetary aid to the poorest families. If successful, the PJD could come to be seen as a champion of the poor, undermining a pillar of the monarchy’s legitimacy”.

Crucially he goes on to mention that “All of this puts the monarchy in a difficult position, and thus far, it has yet to devise an effective response. Through its allies in Parliament and in the government, the palace has tried to stymie the PJD and attempted to marginalize Benkirane by holding up legislation and sowing discord among members of the PJD’s governing coalition. But this approach, which lends credence to Benkirane’s claims that the monarchy is partisan, has arguably worsened the crown’s position”.

He ends “Simultaneously, the palace has gone back to intimidation to solidify its position. Recently, for example, it launched crackdowns on individuals who criticize the monarchy. That includes the journalist Ali Anouzla, who has gone to great lengths to point out that the monarchy’s wealth is increasing at a time when Morocco’s population still faces severe poverty and high unemployment rates. With the public now more aware of politics and more interested in participating, this is a problem for the government. In post-2011 Morocco, the palace’s responses could easily backfire. And that is because the PJD and Benkirane have played their hand well. They took advantage of a small opening to shake the monarchy’s careful balance. Benkirane’s goal, in the end, is not necessarily to win full control. Rather, it is to force accountability on the player that actually runs the state—the king. And it is this political transformation that is shaping up to be the PJD’s most significant contribution to Moroccan politics”.

The king, Mohammed VI, has a choice to make, either become obstructionist which will mean the probable loss of his throne or he could continue the process that has begun and take the historical credit and secure the future of his dynasty by becoming a figurehead, albeit a secure one. The latter course may prove more of a long term given the future short term problems that will be probably be coming to both Morocco and Jordan.

 

No more oil money for Egypt?

03/11/2014

Keith Johnson argues that Egypt is noting the continuing fall in the price of oil.

He begins, “The bears that barged into the oil market and knocked crude prices down one-quarter from their summertime highs appear to be hunkering down for a lengthy stay. Big investment banks, including Goldman Sachs and Barclays, have just slashed their forecasts for next year’s oil price. Energy analysts Wood MacKenzie said Tuesday that a sluggish economy could keep oil benchmark prices around $80 a barrel unless OPEC makes production cuts. That means the oil-price slump of the last four months may not be a bug, but a feature of frothy, oversupplied markets. That’s clearly not good news for some spendthrift oil producers, especially Iraq, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela, whose distorted economies require ever-higher oil prices to balance the budget. But a looming question is how a prolonged drop in oil prices will affect their better-off brethren, especially the rich petrostates of the Persian Gulf. There are two things to keep an eye on. First, these countries have enormous and costly domestic obligations, like generous energy subsidies and social spending meant to forestall the kind of public discontent that simmered in nearby countries for years and which boiled over in the Arab Spring”.

Johnson adds that “If oil prices keep falling, the Gulf states may also be unable to keep splashing massive amounts of foreign aid to teetering states in the Middle East and North Africa that aren’t blessed with bottomless reserves of oil and gas, like Egypt and Morocco. For decades, in some cases, rich Gulf states have propped up distant neighbours, both to parry excessive European influence and to ensure political stability in a region historically lacking it”.

Crucially he argues “That makes the fiscal health of the Gulf states a prime concern for Cairo, Rabat, and Amman — especially since the economy of the Middle East was wheezing even before oil prices went on a walkabout. The one consolation for Egypt and others is that the core Gulf states are still rolling in cash, which should be just enough to let them maintain their domestic and foreign spending priorities — at least for now. The International Monetary Fund said on Monday that the Middle East and North Africa is poised for another year of disappointing growth; Masood Ahmed, the IMF’s Middle East director, warned that even flusher countries like Saudi Arabia could slip into deficits as soon as next year if oil prices stay low. For Gulf countries as a whole, the IMF said, lower oil prices could wipe $175 billion off their projected fiscal surpluses”.

The price of oil is stressed again when he notes “Indeed, the worse-off countries in the region have already had to go that route. Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and Tunisia have all recently announced plans to cut energy subsidies to save money. Now, even oil-rich states are mulling similar steps. Kuwait’s finance minister called spending cuts “inevitable” over the weekend, while Oman’s finance minister echoed the sentiment, calling subsidies “wasteful” and saying that spending reforms were necessary at a time of falling oil prices. Tiny Bahrain has spent all year trying to roll back subsidies, but faces a great deal of political opposition. But there is another big potential risk to the region: The budget impacts of falling oil prices could percolate down to countries that don’t even export the stuff. Belt-tightening in petrostates, in other words, could curtail the generous foreign assistance that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others have showered on Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco to keep their economies afloat and stave off the specter of unfriendly governments steeped in Islamist ideology”.

Giving context he makes the point “For years, Riyadh and other flush capitals in the Gulf have poured billions of dollars into countries across the region. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Jordan has become increasingly reliant on Saudi aid, though the erratic nature of that aid unnerves plenty of folks in the Hashemite kingdom. Jordan and Morocco each got a $2.5 billion pledge last year to help develop their economies and tackle endemic unemployment that could undermine their ruling monarchies. The Gulf states are particularly generous with Jordan because they are trying to help the country deal with the costs of absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the Islamic State’s advances in Syria and Iraq. The Gulf states, Jordan, and Morocco have also discussed trading financial aid for closer military ties. A prolonged slump in oil could force Gulf States to rein in their foreign assistance budgets, some observers fear, with nasty consequences for their neighbours.”

Turning to Egypt Johnson ends “Perhaps more important is the aid that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have thrown at Egypt to prop up strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since he ousted Egypt’s former leader, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi. Together, the Saudis and Emiratis have pledged $20 billion to keep Egypt’s economy from flatlining, and have so far delivered almost $17 billion, including cash and oil products. Moody’s Investors Service, a debt-ratings agency, recently revised its outlook for Egypt upwards from negative to stable and said that external aid from the big Gulf states was one of the main drivers of the improvement. The aid initially helped compensate for Qatar’s withdrawal of financial support for Egypt (it had backed Morsi) and later helped forestall a massive energy crunch”.

He concludes “For Sisi, overflowing Gulf coffers after a decade of relatively high oil prices are welcome news. The six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Emirates — together have about $2.5 trillion stashed away. Saudi Arabia alone has more than $740 billion, while Kuwait more than half a trillion dollars in reserve. People close to the UAE stress that the Emirates is not in danger of a cash crunch anytime soon: It has massive oil reserves, low oil-extraction costs, and the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund. That, plus the existential risk that an imploding Egypt would pose should keep Gulf checkbooks from slamming shut anytime soon”.

Tunisia’s new government

01/11/2014

Tunisia’s Ennahda party, the first Islamist movement to secure power after the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolts, conceded defeat on Monday in elections that are set to make its main secular rival the strongest force in parliament. Official results from Sunday’s elections – the second parliamentary vote since Tunisians set off uprisings across much of the Arab World by overthrowing autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali – were still to be announced. But a senior official at Ennahda, which ruled in a coalition until it was forced to make way for a caretaker government during a political crisis at the start of this year, acknowledged defeat by the secular Nidaa Tounes party. “We have accepted this result, and congratulate the winner Nidaa Tounes,” the official, Lotfi Zitoun, told Reuters. However, he repeated the party’s call for a new coalition including Ennahda. “We are calling once again for the formation of a unity government in the interest of the country.” Earlier, a party source said preliminary tallies showed the secular party had won 80 seats in the 217-member assembly, ahead of 67 secured by Ennahda”.

Haftar esclates attacks

24/10/2014

A Libyan general who has led a six-month campaign to rid the country of Islamists sharply escalated his attacks on Benghazi on Wednesday, with a concerted ground assault and airstrikes — pledging to give up command if he succeeds. Gun battles raged in several parts of the city throughout the day to an extent not seen since the general, Khalifa Hifter, 71, began his campaign six months ago, before a backlash by Islamist militias — some of them hard-liners like Ansar Al Sharia — forced his soldiers and their allies to retreat to the outskirts of Benghazi. In a televised address announcing the assault, General Hifter, who calls his campaign Operation Dignity, declared that his men “are now ready to reach their most important goal for this phase, which is the liberation of the city of Benghazi.” His latest advance is part of a sharp escalation of fighting on both the eastern and western ends of the country despite the urgent pleas of United Nations officials and Western diplomats for a nationwide cease-fire.”

Who runs Libya?

20/10/2014

A piece in Foreign Policy documents the governance problems faced by Libya with competing factions claiming authority.

It starts “In a luxury hotel on Tripoli’s seafront, the man who claims to be running a government holds court. Omar al-Hasi, a university lecturer from the city of Benghazi, tried and failed this year to become Libya’s prime minister. Today he leads what he calls a “national salvation government” in opposition to that of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, who is currently based in eastern Libya”.

The author goes on to write that “For most ordinary Libyans, however, who exactly is in charge of their country remains an open question. Thinni is supported by an internationally recognised parliament, but his government’s writ extends little beyond its sparsely attended sessions in the small coastal town of Tobruk near the border with Egypt. Hasi was appointed by a rump of the new parliament’s unpopular predecessor, the Islamist-dominated General National Congress, which revived itself in Tripoli in the wake of a fierce weeks-long militia battle that tipped the balance of power to where it matters: the capital, home to ministries and state institutions like the national oil corporation. When Hasi says “we,” he means the thuwar, or “revolutionaries” — a word he uses liberally in conversation and in the speeches he has delivered to crowds in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square. But thuwar is a bitterly contested word three years after the uprising that dislodged Muammar al-Gaddafi. The militias that fought each other for control of Tripoli this summer were all on the same side in 2011. What divides them now is a scramble for power and resources, underpinned by rivalry between towns and tribes. Appeals to revolutionary sentiment may help rally Hasi’s base, but they leave a great many Libyans cold”.

Naturally, Hasi has been accused of leading a coup, “In addition to the main Misrata forces, Libyan Dawn contains dozens of militias — both Islamist and non-Islamist — from Tripoli and several other western towns, as well as Amazigh (or Berber) fighters. The Misratans and the Amazigh in particular bridle at those who seek to cast Libyan Dawn as an Islamist takeover, a narrative pushed by their routed opponents.Part of this narrative are the whispering campaigns that allege Hasi is a former member of the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a militant group that posed the most serious threat to Qaddafi in the 1990s. Hasi says he once helped an injured LIFG figure escape from a hospital in Benghazi — a famous episode in the city — but was never a member. He says he does not even self-describe as Islamist”.

That diversity could well prove Libyan Dawn’s undoing, now that the goal that united its members — driving Zintan-linked militias from Tripoli — has been achieved. Misratan commanders, for their part, insist they can easily deal with hard-line Islamists within the coalition. “They know we are stronger than them and greater in number,” says one key militia figure from Misrata. “We’re not going to accept a religious dictatorship any more than we accepted Qaddafi.”

The consequences of this are plain to see, “The militias’ fighting this summer left Tripoli scarred: The international airport is a burned-out shell, and scores of homes lie ruined in the worst-hit neighbourhoods. But elsewhere in the capital, life goes on — families flock to the beach or busy cafes, and traffic snarls in the usual gridlock. There is little overt militia presence, apart from outside certain ministries and the area around the destroyed airport. The Dawn camp knows it needs to get the people on its side. Its effort is hindered, however, by lingering memories of the killing of more than 40 demonstrators by Misratan militiamen last year. “All these militias are as bad as the other, no matter who they claim to represent,” says one shop owner who shuttered his business for weeks in July and August”.

It concludes, “A U.N.-fostered dialogue began last week between parliamentarians boycotting and attending sessions in Tobruk, but many Libyans say such initiatives are merely window dressing if the deeper militia problem is not addressed. As the Tripoli versus Tobruk debacle continues, institutions like the Central Bank, which is based in the capital, are being pulled into the fray: Its governor was recently dismissed by the parliament in Tobruk; he is standing down while taking legal action against the move. In the meantime, Hasi is installing more appointees in ministries in Tripoli and claiming that the international community will have no choice but to recognize his administration sooner rather than later. The power struggle threatening to tear Libya apart is not just playing out among politicians and militiamen but also within families, with many divided on what they consider to be the legitimate authorities. Over a dinner at an upscale Lebanese restaurant in Tripoli, two brothers who live in opposite ends of the country illustrate the growing polarisation”.

Spreading Iranian influence

20/10/2014

A piece has argued that Iranian influence has seeped into Yemen.

It begins, “Stopping the Islamic State has taken over the headlines and dominated Middle East policy debates in recent weeks. While the jihadists’ rampage is cause for understandable concern, it has obscured a huge strategic shift in another Middle Eastern linchpin: Yemen. The takeover of Sanaa in mid-September by the Houthis, a Shiite minority group, has dire implications for Yemen’s neighbours and for the American war on terror. And further escalation seems likely. On Oct. 8, Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi called for mass demonstrations against foreign meddling in the country’s politics. Above all else, the latest developments in Sanaa represent a huge victory for Iran. But the Houthis’ decision to tie their fate to Tehran’s regional machinations risks tearing Yemen apart and throwing the country into chaos”.

He goes on to make the point that “many Yemenis have believed that Iran provides money and training to the Houthis, who comprise 30 percent of Yemen’s 25 million citizens. Officials in Sanaa, from President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to party leaders, have accused Iran of meddling in their affairs. Meanwhile, Iranian officials are all too happy to encourage such suspicions: In a recent statement, Ali Riza Zakani, Tehran’s representative in the Iranian Parliament, bragged that Sanaa would be the fourth Arab capital to fall into Iran’s hands. Houthi militias rode into Sanaa in mid-September, on a wave of popular discontent over rising fuel prices and rampant corruption”.

He goes on to make the point that “on Sept. 21, one day after Jamal Benomar, the United Nations’ representative in Yemen, announced an agreement to resolve the crisis, the Houthis took over ministries, military bases, government buildings, and the airport. Neither the army nor the police fought back. Sanaa was practically handed over to the Houthis — almost a mirror image of Iraq’s response to the Islamic State (IS) in June. Yemen’s prime minister resigned, accusing the president of  monopolising power, thus fulfilling the rebels’ main demand: the resignation of his government. The Houthis then sat down with the president and the other political parties, who had no choice but to oblige, after the balance of power had shifted in the Houthis’ favour. They soon signed the “Peace and National Partnership” agreement, which had been negotiated under Benomar. But it seems like Iran is getting the best deal out of it. The agreement called for the swift naming of a new prime minister, the formation of a new government, and the appointment of two presidential advisors who would influence the selection of cabinet members and the distribution seats among the various parties. Significantly, these advisors would be selected from the Houthis and Al Hirak, the southern separatist movement”.

He mentions that this did not end the crisis but it continued, “when the president named a new prime minister on Oct. 7, the Houthis rejected his choice, perpetuating Yemen’s political crisis. Houthi leaders accused the president, improbably, of bowing to American pressure during the selection process. If this kind of political spoiling seems familiar, that’s because the Houthis have ripped it straight from Hezbollah’s playbook. When the Iran-backed group took over Beirut in 2008, it used force against its political opponents, occupied the city, then sat alongside them to sign a new power-sharing deal and form a new government, giving the Shiite party veto power over its decisions. Six years later, Hezbollah’s hold over Lebanon is blocking the election of a new president, causing a political vacuum”.

He makes the point that “The implications of events in Yemen extend beyond its borders. Bab Al Mandab is a key strait that passes through the Gulf of Aden, linking the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. It serves as the world’s main oil transit waterway, and main shipping lifeline through the Suez Canal. If the Houthis secured Bab Al Mandab and the sea in Al Hudaydah governorate, another strategic waterway, they would control the traffic from the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf, a sobering prospect for those worried about increased Iranian influence in the region. Hadi is well aware of the geo-political stakes. In his interview with Al Hayat he said that “whoever holds the keys to Bab Al Mandab and the Hormuz Strait does not need a nuclear bomb.””

The piece concludes “Sanaa faces yet another problem. Houthi leaders know how to speak to the fears of the West — and especially those of the United States. At his victory rally in Sanaa on Sept. 23, Houthi leader al-Houthi said the takeover of Sanaa will lead to stability. He spoke as a victor, presenting himself as the new power player and the enemy of al Qaeda, a signal to the United States and its allies that he is fighting terrorism just like them — exactly as Hezbollah claims it is doing now in Lebanon. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for its part, seems energised by the developments. On Sept. 25, it put out a statement accusing the Houthis of “completing the Persian project in Yemen,” and calling on the Sunnis to take up arms. Indeed, the group has already begun attacking the Houthis in different parts of Yemen, threatening to further enflame this this already-raging sectarian conflict”.

He closes “Sanaa, meanwhile, remains under occupation by the Houthis. They refuse to withdraw their heavy weapons from the capital, or return the large cache of weapons taken from the military. Meanwhile, President Hadi has yet to name a new prime minister. Interestingly, the U.N. Security Council has welcomed the new agreement, calling on all the parties to implement it and turn over “all medium and heavy weapons to legitimate state security bodies.” If the Houthis do not rein in their militias, withdraw their heavy weapons, fully implement the U.N. agreement, and mend their relations with the rest of the country, Yemen might spiral out of control. Tehran may be pleased with itself. But its Yemen adventure might show the limitations of its power, and the heavy price for its penchant to play the spoiler. In the meantime, it is in the interests of the United States, and the interests of Yemen’s neighbors to help roll back the Houthi advance and implement the peace agreement”.

 

“Falling oil prices have Russian policymakers worried”

14/10/2014

As oil hovers around $88 per barrel, Keith Johnson writes that the low price is not effecting regimes like Russia and Saudi Arabia, for now.

It opens “Oil prices continued falling Thursday, dipping to levels last seen almost two years ago, despite a steady drumbeat of perilous developments from Ukraine to Iraq to Hong Kong. But for all the turmoil in oil markets, not all petrostates are panicking. Although big producers, from Saudi Arabia to Russia, rely on high crude prices to balance their budgets, the price hasn’t dropped low enough, or long enough, to fiscally squeeze them just yet. Crude oil traded in New York slipped below $90 a barrel in midday trading Thursday before settling slightly higher; Brent crude traded in London fell to about $93 a barrel, continuing a plunge that began in June. Oil prices had reached $115 a barrel over the summer, at the height of the Islamic State’s territorial gains in Iraq. In other words, the benchmark oil price has fallen by one-fifth in little more than three months, despite a potent and bottomless cocktail of the kind of scary news that used to send oil prices soaring, from rampaging terrorists to renewed Cold War tensions”.

Johnson goes on to write “The explanation, however, is easy enough to find: Producers, especially those in OPEC, just keep pumping, even as a tottering world economy needs less Black Gold. That supply-demand imbalance is made even worse by production gains in the United States, a surprising and unlikely rebound in Libyan output, and near-record production levels from Russia. Oil prices have definitely fallen — but not collapsed. By historical standards, prices are still very high; in real-dollar terms, $90-odd barrels are rare, equating to volatile periods such as the late 19th century, the late 1970s, or the current spike that began in the mid-2000s. More importantly, cheaper oil doesn’t hit producers equally: Some, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, are well prepared to weather softer oil prices in the short term, whereas Iraq, Russia, and the like have more to fear, and not just from falling oil. But it would take either a sustained drop or a much sharper price plunge to require big petrostates to start making painful choices. Some observers are sounding the warning bell nonetheless. The International Monetary Fund recently warned that Saudi Arabia could slip into deficit much sooner than expected because its domestic spending has jumped since the start of the Arab Spring and it needs higher oil prices than just a few years ago to balance its budget. Gulf countries overall relied on oil fetching about $62 a barrel in 2009 to stay in the black; last year that baseline rose to $82 and climbing”.

Interestingly he posits the theory that “Saudi Arabia and its neighbours have plenty of cushion. Riyadh ran budget surpluses for years, has huge currency reserves, and has almost no debt. Ninety-dollar barrels are obviously not as profitable as $115 ones, but it won’t force any drastic changes in Saudi policy. ‘In the short term, the Saudis are the last ones who need to worry. They can sit it out for a couple of years, even with oil below $90,’ said Laura El-Katiri, a research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. Other Gulf states, such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, can also resort to deficits or spending tweaks to weather a price storm, she said. That may partly explain the deaf ears turned by Saudi Arabia and other big OPEC members to Iran’s pleas. Of the big producers, Iran by far requires the highest prices to remain fiscally sound, by some estimates as much as $130 a barrel. Further, Iran has been hammered by Western sanctions that have cut its oil exports — and earnings — almost in half”.

He makes the valid point that “Cheaper oil is a threat to Iraq, too. Given its huge internal spending commitments, Baghdad’s green eyeshades pencil in ever-higher prices — by some estimates, at least $93 a barrel — to square the books. And unlike other OPEC members, Iraq doesn’t have deep reserves to fall back on, making it much more sensitive to short-term price swings. It also has a much more immediate problem in the form of rampaging Islamic State terrorists, who on Thursday made further inroads in western Iraq”.

Johnson ends “Russia could feel the pain next. Oil far outweighs gas in Russia’s energy-export mix, but Moscow’s budget is predicated on Brent crude prices north of $100 a barrel. What’s more, Russia’s economy has also been battered by Western sanctions in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, leading to ruble flight, slumping markets, higher interest rates, and slashed growth forecasts. Now, falling oil prices have Russian policymakers worried: One former finance minister said cheaper oil could punch a $30 billion to $40 billion hole in Russian revenues. The Russian Central Bank, meanwhile, is scrambling to prepare for oil prices as low as $60 a barrel, Reuters reported. Russia’s current finance minister said Thursday that cheaper oil is a huge risk to its wobbly economy”.

Decision time in Tunisia

29/09/2014

A piece notes the events in Tunisia, “Tunisia will vote in national elections in national parliamentary and presidential elections — marking the second and third vote since former dictator Ben Ali was driven from power during the first Arab Spring uprising. When voters cast their ballots, they will have to choose between two competing visions for the future of their divided society. One vision is devoutly religious, conservative, and more rural, turning its gaze east toward Tunisia’s co-religionists in the Middle East. The other sees a secular, liberal, and urban Tunisia, yearning to emulate Europe rather than far away desert kingdoms. Luckily, the two big-tent parties that dominate Tunisian politics seem to be putting the country before ideological divides, hoping to build a Tunisia that has as much room for the sacrosanctity of the Quran as it does for democracy, human rights, and individual liberties. On the right is Ennahda, a moderate Islamist coalition that was created in 1989 and was outlawed and persecuted heavily under Ben Ali’s reign. On the left is Nidaa Tounes, or “Call for Tunisia,” a hodgepodge of secular leftists, progressive liberals, and moderate pragmatists that were previously affiliated with Ben Ali’s former Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party”.

Of course the choice is not as stark as this and Tunisia will not become some Las Vegas of the Middle East overnight, should the “secularists” win the votes. The writer adds “Rather than doing what politicians do best — exploiting national divides for personal and political gain — both sides have made a conscious choice to seek consensus. Last week, for example, Ennahda announced that it would not field a presidential candidate in the upcoming November election, because its leaders do not want to expand its considerable power over the state. Such profound symbols of pragmatic reconciliation are a bold attempt to build a bridge between the two Tunisias”.

This is indeed certainly a bold gesture and one that should be warmly welcomed. The danger however is that rather than allow these arguments to be debated in the public sphere as openly as possible, the result of this could be a clositered Ennahda and its followers could feel cheated by being deprived of the chance to vote for it in national elections.

He goes on to note “That being said, these admirable efforts haven’t gone over well with everyone. Groups like Ansar al-Sharia have made clear that they intend to destroy anything but a firmly conservative country, turning to violence rather than reconciliation and putting ideology before national prosperity. Tunisians that flocked to Islamic State (IS) bases in Iraq and Syria may attempt to return for the vote, an explosive risk to Tunisia’s fragile democracy. Spillover violence from Libya’s low-level civil war is also a grave risk. But even if terrorists don’t derail the elections, internal political rivalries could. After a generation of brutal dictatorship, the country is divided over whether former members of Ben Ali’s regime should be allowed to stand as candidates in the upcoming vote. That debate is a political minefield, especially for Ennahda. Many of its current members were dedicated to the Islamist cause from the early days, only to end up rotting and tortured in jails during Ben Ali’s dictatorship”.

The writer adds unsuprisingly that “In the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamists with both experiences found themselves in the same party once more. Unsurprisingly, the formerly jailed members resented those who had been strolling the streets of Paris and London. The former exiles also tend to be more moderate, talking the talk of a sort of “Islamism-lite” that European diplomats could support. In other words, even within the Islamist party, the divide of two Tunisias is apparent. Ultimately, the internal battle played out as conservative members of Ennahda (partnering with hardliners from the Wafa Movement) backed a full purge of anyone who had previously been a member of Ben Ali’s regime. Moderates backed inclusion in the spirit of putting the past behind Tunisia. The moderates won the debate; in June, the Tunisian Assembly rejected the conservative push to put exclusion and vengeance over inclusion and reconciliation. As a result, the upcoming elections will be inclusive, and to put the icing on this consensus-building cake, moderate members of Ennahda are now suggesting a grand bargain with Nidaa Tounes — a party led by a man that would have been excluded under the political exclusion law. Even Kemal Morjane, a former defense minister and minister of foreign affairs under Ben Ali, announced last Saturday that he would be a candidate in the election.

He ends the piece “If the birthplace of the Arab Spring is to bridge its internal divides and create one stable, peaceful Tunisia, the October and November elections must go smoothly. Elections are not a panacea, but clean and peaceful elections will offer a rebuke to Islamist extremists. They must not be marred by violence and terrorist attacks. The West can and should help. In late August, the United States announced that it would send $60 million in new military aid to Tunisia to help it fight its terror threat. In mid-August, Tunisia’s government announced that it would be calling up reservists, attempting to field a ragtag group of 30,000 soldiers — many of them reservists — so that those on active duty can continue hunting terror cells. These are excellent first steps. But the United States and other international partners can still do more to help shore up security before, during, and after Tunisia’s elections. The fragile Tunisian government could use more military advisers and logistical support. Drone surveillance should be used to help stem the threat of cross-border terrorism from Libya”.

He closes on a note of caution “If these elections proceed peacefully, Tunisia could serve as a beacon of hope for the Middle East, exemplifying a successful transition from ruthless dictatorship to hybrid Islamist democracy — all while maintaining multi-party elections, human rights, and a thoughtful, consensus-driven political dialogue. If they do not, and Tunisia’s extremists are able to hijack the elections by creating chaos, then Tunisia’s budding democracy will collapse under the weight of two competing visions. Yet another Arab Spring country will wither, wilt, and collapse, following in the bloody footsteps of Libya and Syria”.

 

Obama the unrealist

23/09/2014

Elbridge Colby writes in the National Review that President Obama is not the realist many make him out to be. He opens “before his presidency began, Barack Obama articulated a foreign-policy course markedly different from that of his immediate predecessors. Not only did he present himself as the anti-Bush, but he also indicated that his administration would take a different approach to national security than had the Clinton administration. He was to be, in his aides’ terms, a “realist,” much in the mold of George H. W. Bush. As his then–chief of staff Rahm Emanuel put it in 2010: “Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist. If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41.” Nor has this view been confined to the White House; many commentators across the political spectrum have remarked that the Obama administration epitomized what realism would look like in practice, even under a Republican president”.

Of course this is a gross simplification by Emanuel of Bush 41 and Bush 43 and the tenedencies that drove their foreign policies. There is plenty of idealist in Bush 41 and plenty of realist in his son, the obvious example is the six party talks with North Korea which was the carrot to the axis of evil stick.

Colby goes on to write “Nearly halfway through his second term, it is time to take stock. Is President Obama actually a realist? The answer matters, particularly for Republicans and conservatives, who traditionally have claimed the mantle of realism in foreign affairs. Potential 2016 presidential candidates are beginning to think through what line they will take on foreign policy, and the notion that Obama’s approach has been realist would no doubt lead many to recoil from realism”.

Colby argues that “Obama is no realist. The president might approve of restraint in international affairs; he might be skeptical of grand projects, ambivalent about the promotion of democracy and human rights, and even inclined toward retrenchment. But that doesn’t make him a realist”.

Indeed the only realism that should be praticed in this interconnted world is an expansive realism that sees events as interconnected as opposed to Obama who saw Syria and Iraq separately, a mistake he is now having to fix.

Colby adds “It helps to have a clearer sense of what realism is. Though there is a distinct school of thought that goes by this name (and even by the term “neo-realism”), practical realism (like conservatism) denotes a persuasion more than a clear doctrine. In essence, it is the view that the international arena is a lastingly tough and competitive one; that power matters in foreign relations and is often determinative; that countries pursue their interests more commonly than their stated ideals; and that force, deterrence, and coercion, while risky, are inherent elements of foreign policy and cannot be ignored or eliminated. In their policy prescriptions, realists tend to emphasize maintaining power and advantage, implementing a strategy to exploit strengths and mitigate weaknesses, pursuing the stable and satisfactory rather than the ideal, and sticking to the axiom that good fences make good neighbours”.

Colby makes the point that “If this sounds a good bit like what most people understand by conservatism, that is no accident. One can credibly argue that realism, with its Burkean focus on the achievable rather than the transformational and the prudent rather than the ideal, is nearly a synonym for conservatism. Of course, neither realists nor conservatives think that realism offers a complete account of what a nation’s foreign policy should be. The greatest realists, such as Eisenhower, were deeply moral in their approach. But the morality of what one might call “righteous realism,” with its emphasis on responsibility and stewardship rather than purity of intent, is different from the high-minded tub-thumping of Woodrow Wilson or the hand-wringing of Jimmy Carter. For instance, George H. W. Bush, that paragon of recent presidential realism, showed a profound sense of responsibility in how he handled the end of the Cold War and in his carefully targeted outrage at Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait”.

He goes on to make the point that “Obama’s approach exhibits some elements of realism, most notably a caution about the overuse of force. Realists emphasize that force is an unpredictable and often costly instrument, and they tend to be conservative in their estimates about how well things will work out when nations reach for their guns. But restraint is not what fundamentally characterises realism. Rather, because realists see the international arena as innately competitive and often dangerous, they believe that strength is critical to a successful foreign policy”.

He concludes “A review of the president’s foreign-policy record bears this out. Consider the president’s fumbling over his “red line” on Syria. No realist would so cavalierly draw a red line, especially over such a peripheral interest, only to do nothing when the line is crossed. No realist would allow the world — friend and foe — to take away the lesson that America’s pledge is so unreliable. Nor would a realist have pursued the uneven, unpredictable, and often contradictory approach toward the “Arab Spring” that this administration did. The president’s response to the upheavals in the Middle East has seemed to vacillate between a starry-eyed idealism about the prospect for a liberal revolution and a ham-fisted effort at realpolitik. Citing humanitarian aims, for instance, the administration intervened in Libya and helped upend Qaddafi’s regime; then it did virtually nothing to help stabilize Libya in the bloody aftermath. In the same way, the administration publicly pushed Mubarak to give up power in Egypt and then quietly accepted the government of General Sisi”.

Libyan PM asked back

05/09/2014

Libya’s elected parliament, the House of Representatives, has asked Abdullah al-Thinni to form a new caretaker government, amid political division and ongoing violence in the country. “The House has reappointed Abdullah al-Thinni today as the prime minister, asking him to form a crisis government within a period of time not exceeding two weeks,” a spokesman said on Monday. The move came as the government said it had lost control of most ministries and state institutions located in Tripoli after rival armed groups took over the capital. Last month, senior officials and the elected parliament moved to the remote eastern city of Tobruk as an alliance of armed factions led by forces from the western city of Misrata took control of Tripoli, having expelled a rival group. All ministries, the central bank and the state-owned National Oil Corp (NOC) are located in the capital. Thinni had been prime minister of the oil-rich country since March, but his position has been challenged by a rival parliament refusing to recognise the House of Representatives. Last Thursday Thinni and his cabinet announced their resignation to make way for a new government based on parliamentary elections held in June”.

Libyan PM resigns

30/08/2014

Libya’s prime minister and his cabinet have resigned to make way for a new government based on parliamentary elections held in June, a government statement said. Abdullah al-Thinni’s cabinet said on Thursday that it had resigned according to Libya’s constitutional rules to allow the new House of Representatives to form a government based on all parts of society. The House of Representatives replaced the General National Congress in June, but was forced to move to Tobruk in the far east of the country to escape a month of street fighting in the capital, Tripoli. Armed factions mainly from the northwestern city of Misrata expelled from the capital a rival group from Zintan, and have pushed to reinstate the previous parliament, the GNC. Islamists were much stronger in the GNC than in the new assembly dominated by liberal and federalist politicians”.

“Haftar’s air force”

24/08/2014

Renegade General Khalifa Haftar’s air force was responsible for strikes on Islamist-leaning militia in Tripoli on Monday, one of his commanders said, after weeks of fighting for the capital in Libya’s worst violence since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011. Fighters from Misrata – east of Tripoli – have been battling militia from the western Zintan region for weeks and have thrown the North African state into anarchy. Zintanis and Misratis worked together to topple Gaddafi but have fallen out since. The fighting hitherto has been limited to ground action with artillery and rockets. None of the militias had been thought to own warplanes, while the central government has only an outdated air force, badly in need of repair. Libyan television news channels speculated that the country’s neighbours might be behind the overnight air strikes, which Tripoli official Mohammed al-Kriwi said had killed about five people and wounded as many as 30″.

Qatar, Turkey and Hamas

10/08/2014

Amid the violence and destruction by Israel in Palestine an article examines those who fund and support Hamas, Qatar and Turkey. It opens “the next time there is an effort to broker a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel — and there will be a next time — Qatar and Turkey should be sitting at the table beside Hamas, not among the respected diplomats trying to engage in honest statecraft. It’s getting harder and harder to deny that Doha and Ankara, two long-standing allies of the United States, are full Hamas partners. That much has been crystal clear to regional players like Egypt and Saudi Arabia for a while. And now the United States seems to be getting a better sense of where Qatar and Turkey’s real allegiances lie. Why else would Secretary of State John Kerry have appealed to both countries to secure the release of captured Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin before the Israelis announced he was dead? Qatar is widely believed to be Hamas’s top sponsor. In 2012, then-emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani visited Gaza and pledged $400 million in economic aid. Just last month, Doha tried to transfer millions of dollars via Jordan’s Arab Bank to pay salaries to Hamas civil servants in Gaza. While that was blocked at Washington’s behest, support continues in other important ways. For example, Qatar is the home base of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and a gaggle of other senior Hamas figures. Neither Hamas nor Qatar is terribly concerned about the optics, either”.

Turning to Turkey the author notes that the country “is the home of another Hamas leader: Saleh al-Arouri. The founder of the West Bank branch of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, Arouri has become an increasingly important figure for the group in recent years. One Israeli security official recently went so far as to say that “al-Arouri was connected to the act” of kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teens in the West Bank in June. Meanwhile, the Turkish government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emerged a strident proponent of Hamas. Erdogan’s AKP government has reportedly agreed to donate significantly to Hamas, mostly through public works projects like mosques, schools, and hospitals, but also through direct financial support, according to some reports. It is therefore not surprising that the Israelis have been opposed to the role of these two Hamas patrons in the cease-fire negotiation process since the current Gaza conflict began last month. Israel was particularly irked about the participation of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah in a high-profile diplomatic summit in Paris on July 26. They were even more incensed when the U.S. secretary of state reportedly forwarded a Qatari-Turkish cease-fire plan to Jerusalem for consideration”.

Interestingly he posits the theory that “In the current negotiations, Qatar and Turkey have been pushing a plan that benefits Hamas above all else. They have been angling for a one-sided deal that would ignore Israel’s security concerns, ease Israel’s blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and help connect the Palestinian terror group-cum-government to the global economy But it’s not only Israel that was offended by this dynamic. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) also ripped into Turkey and Qatar for “bypass[ing] the PLO as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” at the Paris summit. PLO President Mahmoud Abbas slammed Hamas for hiding behind its two patrons”.

He makes the point that “Others in the Arab world, particularly the traditional monarchies that seek to counter the destabilizing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, are equally furious about the role Qatar and Turkey are playing in the cease-fire negotiations. AsNewsweek reported, “Officials from … Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to name a few interested parties, watched with astonishment over the weekend as Kerry engaged in Paris with … the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey.” Israel’s left-leaning Haaretz also noted that the elevation of Qatar and Turkey constituted a “slap on the face” to these regional powers”.

Indeed the backing of Qatar of Hamas will only further strain relations between the Gulf monarchies and Qatar.

The author goes on to note, “The deep divisions in the Middle East over the Brotherhood and Hamas are a symptom of a larger phenomenon. There has been a disintegration of traditional Middle East roles since the Arab Spring. Egypt is no longer the most powerful U.S. proxy in the Arab world. Qatar and Turkey are trying to punch above their weight, while exploiting the strained ties between Israel and the United States over the Iranian nuclear program. And many other countries are too mired in their own chaos to care either way. This has created gridlock on the diplomatic front, which explains, to some extent, why a negotiated cease-fire has been elusive after four weeks of bitter fighting in Gaza. But here’s the rub: Israel and Egypt are the two countries that have to border Gaza. If they don’t want to bend to the cease-fire demands of Hamas and its patrons — independently or collectively — it is ultimately their call. More importantly, Egypt and Israel understand Qatar and Turkey are simply not honest brokers. They helped create this crisis with Hamas and now they say they want to solve it”.

He questions the notion that Qatar and Turkey can force Hamas to talks with Israel, even if it was in their interests to do so, “it’s unclear if Doha or Ankara can actually deliver. Al-Attiyah and Davutoglu took an undeserved victory lap on Thursday when they issued a joint statement on the announcement of a three-day humanitarian cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. The cease-fire ended the following day, less than two hours after it had started, with the capture of Goldin. That’s when Kerry turned to both countries, imploring them to help get Israel’s soldier back as a first step toward another cease-fire”.

He ends the piece “members of Congress do have something to say about the role of these two countries in their support for Hamas.Legislators penned letters to officials from both Qatar and Turkey last year, expressing deep concern for their support to terrorist-sponsoring states and terror groups. CongressmanPeter Roskam (R-Ill.) released a letter last Thursday addressed to Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, demanding that Washington re-evaluate its relationship with Doha, including its hosting of the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East, so long as it continues to support Hamas. For now, both Qatar and Turkey appear to have been sidelined after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would withdraw unilaterally from Gaza without negotiating the terms with Hamas. Netanyahu’s official reason was that Hamas could not be trusted to hold up its end of the deal. But in so doing, the Israeli prime minister also negated the influence of Hamas’s top patrons, leaving them without a diplomatic role to play in the ongoing negotiations in Cairo”.

Libyan parliament convenes

10/08/2014

Libyan leaders, struggling to keep their country from spinning further out of control, convened a newly elected Parliament for its first session on Monday. But raging militia battles in Tripoli, the capital, and in Benghazi, the second-largest city, forced them to hold the meeting in Tobruk, a relatively stable port in the east. And a senior Egyptian political figure suggested on Monday that his country might intervene in Libya militarily if calm cannot be restored. The newly elected lawmakers vowed to prevent the collapse of their state. “We will prove to the world that Libya is not a failed country,” Abu Bakr  Bueira, the lawmaker presiding over the session, declared, according to news reports. Although the street fighting in Tripoli and Benghazi is driven mainly by local militia rivalries, it is converging into the same national conflict. Islamists and their tribal or regional allies are on one side, fighting what they say is an authoritarian counterrevolution, while anti-Islamist groups with allied tribes and fragments of the former Qaddafi dictatorship’s forces are on the other side, fighting what they say is Islamist domination that has allowed the militia mayhem to spread”.