Monday, January 31, 2011
The 1950s and 1960s saw revolutionary fervor sweeping the Arab region. What many Arabs called revolutions were mere military coups that saw generals sweeping into power. Yet despite their vowed animosity to the kingdoms that they toppled, the new generals-turned-rulers endorsed the very same hereditary succession model that they promised to replace with democratic government. Decades after the start of their hybrid model that mixes revolutionary republics with hereditary rules, these Arab republics, also known as republicies to denote the combination of republics and monarchies, are facing popular resentment.
In Egypt, army general Gamal Abdul-Nasser toppled King Farouq in 1952 and replaced his rule with a government based on Arab chauvinism, socialism and the principles of the republic. Nasser’s nonviable hybrid was underwritten by his iron fist rule, which depended on his friends the generals and his notorious intelligence services.
Nasser’s model was copied elsewhere in the region, especially in Iraq and Syria. Like in Egypt, the failing socialist republic model was a thin veil that hid behind it iron fists and brutality. Even though Syria’s rule of the generals had preceded that of Nasser as it started as early as 1949, the intelligence model Syria copied later from Nasser. In 1958, Iraq followed Egypt and Syria as generals toppled the monarchy. In 1969, Libya followed suit when Colonel Moammar Qadhaffi, one of the longest ruling sovereigns today, knocked out the country’s monarchy and took over.
As if to mock their peoples, none of the Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi or Libyan coups delivered on any of the promises of their “revolutions.” Syria and Iraq stood out for their unprecedented brutality. Egypt’s “republacy” was more known for its corruption under the rule of three successive generals: Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Libya’s ruler, for his part, became the target of world mockery with his whimsical theories on rulership.
The mess in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Libya went on for decades. Iraq was the first to fall with the advent of US tanks as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. While Syria looked next at the time, its regime survived international isolation between 2005 and 2008. Libya succeeded in ending decades of similar isolation by 2004. Egypt, the dandy of Western governments since its peace treaty with Israel in 1979, now faces possible demise due to its rulers’ unprecedented levels of corruption and abuse of basic human rights.
Which one of the Arab republicies, that also include Yemen and Algeria, will fall first, now that Iraq is out of the way, is the question. The Egypt republacy is in danger. Who’s next is the question.
Sunday, January 30, 2011
By HUSSAIN ABDUL-HUSSAIN
The New York Times
Published: January 30, 2011
WASHINGTON — “Write something beautiful about Mr. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and we’ll take care of you,” said Azzidine, who identified himself as an adviser to the Tunisian president as he discreetly showed me an envelope full of $100 bills.
It was 2002 and I was reporting on the Arab League Summit in Beirut. We were not given access to Phoenicia Hotel, where the meetings were held, and were instead held at the nearby children’s science fair, which was turned into a media center.
Since the meetings were broadcast live on TV, the thousands of journalists at the center had plenty of time to schmooze. But in Arab countries, wherever there are journalists, there are also government operatives trying to buy this journalist or threaten that reporter.
I spent most of my time hiding from that Azzidine guy who was trying to hire me for the Tunisian dictator’s propaganda. I was also running away from members of the Iraqi delegation who knew that I held an Iraqi passport and threatened to take it away unless I praised the wisdom of our own tyrant, Saddam Hussein. (Saddam could not make it to Beirut but sent his second-in-charge, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the only Baathist leader still at large today.)
As a resident of Lebanon, I was also trying to avoid Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agents. In 2002, Syria was in full control of Lebanon. The Syrians wanted to make sure that the Beirut summit was conducted on their terms. The Syrian autocrat, President Bashar al-Assad, was able to shutout a closed-circuit speech by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, under siege in Ramallah during Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, which was aimed at ending the Second Intifada that had started two years earlier.
In Beirut in 2002, I was more preoccupied with hiding from the agents of the different Arab dictators than actually reporting on the summit.
That explains why when America launched Operation Iraqi Freedom a year later I was among the very few to publicly support the war.
My family and I had been forced out of Iraq in 1982, and I knew best what it meant to live under Saddam’s brutal regime. Therefore, I endorsed toppling him.
It was unfortunate that in the years that followed, the American occupation of Iraq turned out to be a mess, and costly for many of us. I was in Baghdad when my uncle Jaafar was shot dead by looters.
In 2005, the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri unleashed popular fury in the streets of Beirut that forced an end to 30 years of Syrian occupation. But the dictator of Damascus and his allies in Hezbollah hit back. Two of my dear friends, the journalist Samir Kassir and Khaled Eido, were killed in separate politically-motivated bombings.
Hezbollah later sowed more terror across Beirut. In May 2008, the militia’s fighters burned down the Al Mustaqbal newspaper and Future TV, where dozens of my friends work. Shortly after, my good journalist friend Omar was beaten, almost to death, at the hands of Hezbollah’s bandits.
But in 2009 the Lebanese showed even more defiance as they voted pro-democracy politicians into a parliamentary majority. In another place in the region, similar electoral surprises were making history when Iranians defied their regime both in the ballot boxes and in the streets, only to be brutally smashed.
Despite language and ethnic differences, I wrote in favor of the Green movement and Iran’s democracy. I lamented Neda Soltan, who was shot dead on camera. I marked the one-year anniversary of her death, which coincided with the fifth anniversary of the death of a my friend Samir Kassir, in June.
In 2011, less than a decade from the Beirut summit of 2002, two of the most repressive Arab regimes, in Iraq and Tunisia, are down. Two other regimes in Egypt and Yemen are scared of the scent of blossoming flowers of freedom.
It took Iraq a few bloody years and nine months to form a cabinet, but Iraqis, like Tunisians, will improve in the ways of democracy. Only practice makes perfect. It is now time for the Syrians and Libyans to make a move. They’ve been the ones repressed the most, the longest.
Of course we understand that the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, met with Assad in Damascus, and that the West’s interests lie with the Libyan autocrat Muammar el-Qaddafi and his country’s oil reserves. But we are sure times will change. There is no tyrant in human history who survived forever.
I called Omar the other day to congratulate him on the birth of his baby girl, Yasma. We discussed Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. He told me his neck still hurts from when the Hezbollah thugs beat him.
“But it was totally worth it,” Omar said. “Yasma will live in a free Middle East,” he added.
To my uncle Jaafar in Baghdad, to Samir and Khaled in Beirut, to Neda in Tehran, to Tunisians, Yemenis and Egyptians, your blood has not been lost in vain. Within a decade, two tyrants were removed; it will take less to topple the rest.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington correspondent of the Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai.
The Syrian people "also aspire to justice and freedom," they said in a statement sent to AFP.
"We salute the Tunisian people and their revolution and the uprising of the Egyptian people and their resistance to a corrupt and repressive regime," read the signed statement.
"We hope with all people, including the Syrians, for justice, liberty and equality for all," they said.
"The Tunisian people were in one month able to bring down one of the Arab world's most dictatorial and corrupt regimes ...
"This revolution has shown Arabs how closely Tunisia resembles their own countries, where power and wealth are concentrated in the same hands, and where repression and the plundering of the public purse go hand-in-hand."
It said "Arab governments had rushed to offer limited social services while tightening their grip on their people" but "this has not prevented other Arab peoples, especially the Egyptians, from drawing inspiration" from Tunisia.
"The Arab people have found their route to freedom, namely peaceful, non-violent social resistance uniting the population against those who repress it and steal its wealth," said the text.
Among the 39 signatories were political opposition figures who have served long prison terms, including economist Aref Dalila, poet Faraj Beirakdar, and authors Yassin Haj Saleh, Michel Kilo and Fayez Sara.
Filmmakers, researchers and lawyers were also on the list.
Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
It looks like a matter of time before the Husni Mubarak regime collapses. In fact, if Mubarak had the interest of Egypt in mind, he would have announced that he is stepping down as soon as possible in order to avoid further chaos and deaths. Mubarak should handover the government to a neutral force that can manage the country until free and fair elections are held under international supervision.
Who's next to go of the Arab (and Persian) tyrants is now the question. Maybe it is time for Syria and the Syrians to send their dictator, Bashar Assad, home.
On a different not, it feels torture to watch the Middle East's Spring of Freedom on Al-Jazeera TV that is funded by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah, the autocrat of Qatar. It feels painful to get lessons in democracy from the TV station of a dictator. Even worse, it feels also painful to see supporters of the Syrian and Iranian regimes cheering for the downfall of Mubarak. While we all support the downfall of Egypt's ruler, those whose houses are made of glass -- i.e. the Qatari, Syrian and Iranian dictators and their TVs and supporters -- should chill and maybe reflect on the lack of freedom in their own countries.
Thursday, January 27, 2011
This is a great book from a meticulous author, albeit not as an insider as he thinks he is. Never mind the few mistakes, such as Ariel Sharon being a general during the 1982 Israel war in Lebanon (Sharon was defense minister at the time). The book is well-researched and should probably be transformed into one of those impressive public TV documentaries.
Lacey’s point of strength is his ability to shift between micro and macro smoothly. Like a good movie, the book closes by updating readers on the whereabouts of its main characters. Lacey provides enough history needed for first time readers, which makes the book extremely helpful for beginners on Saudi Arabia.
The book opens with the story of Juhayman Al-Oteibi, the man who organized the occupation of Mecca in 1979. Lacey suggests that Juhayman’s debacle was a turning point in Saudi politics and policies, as the kingdom eventually endorsed his radical platform. While true, Lacey should have also noted the influence of the Islamic revolution of Iran in pushing more Islamist radicalism across the region, including inside Saudi Arabia.
The buildup of radical Islam – with official government blessing – across the kingdom was coupled with the war in Afghanistan between a growing Islamist movement there and the Soviet occupation. Saudis were generous in supporting the war, as young Saudi men found their way to the rank and file of the anti-Soviet movement throughout the 1980s.
Once the war in Afghanistan ended, the Saudi warriors – first and foremost amongst them Osama Ben Laden – found themselves addicted to war and thus became cannons on the loose. It was only a matter of time before they turned their attention against Saudi Arabia and its allies, mainly the United States. Throughout the 1990s, the Saudi government found itself grappling with de-radicalizing its own citizens and containing the radicals’ security threat. By the end of the decade, King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke. Crown Prince Abdullah became the de facto ruler.
The crown prince had to wait to become King to implement a series of reforms that he had in mind. According to Lacey, the king’s religious credentials and his reputation as a hardworking man who stays away from excesses put him in a good position to initiate reform.
Finally, Lacey skillfully shows how in Saudi Arabia, change does not necessarily start from the top down, and perhaps should be implemented from the bottom up, that is Saudi Arabia can change only after the culture of its people changes. He cites a few cases, such as an assault on a girl in Qatif, to showcase the importance of the ruling family in curbing fanatics and old common practices that are at odds with modernity and modern states at large.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Only a few friends left: In this photo released by Hezbollah Media Office on Jan. 18, 2011, Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, meets with Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani, in Beirut, Lebanon.
The Huffington Post
Even if the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) finds members from Hezbollah, or senior Syrian officials, involved in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, no one believes that international justice will have the muscle to punish any of the criminals. What is puzzling, however, is how Hezbollah, which experienced firsthand the power of UN Security Council resolutions, tries to test the will of the international community.
For almost a decade leading to Hezbollah's victory over Israel in 2000, the group sang praise to Security Council Resolution 425, which stipulated an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.
Hezbollah was instrumental in forcing Israel out of Lebanon, but only because after 22 years of occupation -- in defiance of the UN -- Israel had finally to cave and comply. By the same token, Hezbollah might show its undisputed force domestically, but the Security Council-created STL will never go away.
There are no second guesses for the results of the showdown between Hezbollah and Syria, on the one hand, and the Security Council on the other. The UN will ultimately prevail. So far in the game of testing international will, the world has always won, whether by forcing Saddam's occupation out of Kuwait, or by negotiating the return of Sinai to Egypt.
But what pitted Hezbollah and Syria against the world in the first place? The answer is: Hezbollah's overconfidence and Syria's miscalculations.
When the UN suggested that Lebanon's parliament create the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as a joint Lebanese-international body, Hezbollah treated the affair as a domestic one. And since the Party of God had become accustomed to imposing its will on everybody else, it felt certain that it could scrap the tribunal by shutting down the parliament.
Meanwhile Hezbollah's allies in Damascus also committed a faux pas. They dealt with the tribunal the same way Syria torpedoed the May 17, 1983 Peace Accord, signed between the governments of Lebanon and Israel but never ratified in a defiant parliament instigated by Syria to kill the treaty. What the Syrians failed to notice, however, was that stopping the Security Council was way too different than killing a bilateral agreement between Lebanon and Israel.
Since 2005, undermining the international investigation, and later the tribunal, has dictated all the steps of Hezbollah and Syria. Unfortunately for these two, time is showing that they have been jumping in hoops.
The resignation of the ministers of Hezbollah and its allies on Wednesday is the third in five years. Instructing supporters to massively take to the streets, burning tires, cutting roads or putting up a tent town in downtown Beirut have also been tried in the past, but failed to end the tribunal.
Should Hezbollah's militia sweep Beirut, like in May 2008, it might force its rivals to concede while inviting the Security Council to perhaps approve yet another resolution that further denounces the group and alienates it. In any case, STL will continue.
Past reports concluded that it is not in Hezbollah's interest to take the country to civil war, which can be swiftly started but cannot be as easily stopped. Civil war will weaken Hezbollah's grip on state intelligence units, on which the party's power depends, both domestically and when confronting foreign enemies.
Similar reports indicated that it is most likely that, while politically turning the heat on its rivals, Hezbollah will stop short of violence. Instead, in the event that the STL accuses members from Hezbollah, the party will remain as defiant as ever.
After all, Hezbollah's officials do not fear that their visas will be revoked. The Hezbollah leadership has rarely been welcome in world capitals other than Damascus and Tehran, and probably Pyongyang and Caracas.
Last but not least, it remains in Hezbollah's interest to maintain an old existing dichotomy inside Lebanon. While the internationally-accepted March 14 coalition represents Lebanon and prevents any possible UN sanctions against it, Hezbollah can hide behind the weak state and spare Lebanon the UN wrath.
Syria, for its part, has employed different tactics. While pushing to civil war in the hopes that the world would come begging for Syria's help to end the Lebanese bloodbath, and in return kill STL, Damascus has also formed the best legal defense team money can buy to fly to The Hague in the case the tribunal pointed fingers at any Syrian officials.
Unlike Hezbollah, Syria cannot afford to stand defiant. In Damascus, there is no dichotomy and therefore there is nowhere for the regime to run and hide.
Amidst overconfidence and miscalculations, Hezbollah and Syria have provoked the world and are now confronting it. Punishing the March 14 coalition or the Lebanese state will do little to end this showdown in Hezbollah's or Syria's favor.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
After forcing Mikati as prime minister through a vote, Hezbollah might force another vote over tribunal
Writing's on the wall ... a poster of Najib Mikati in the Sunni bastion city of Tripoli, north of Beirut. Mr Mikati is set to take power. Photo: AFP
Lebanon remains in the spotlight as Najib Mikati, now officially named prime minister, tries to form a cabinet and convince the world that he was not Hezbollah’s choice for the job, at the time Washington announced its fears of the party’s dominance of the new cabinet.
Even though Mikati has repeatedly styled himself as a centrist candidate for all parties, the new prime minister will have to deal with staunch opposition – now being led by his predecessor Saad Hariri. And despite getting the call to form cabinet, Mikati received a thin majority, 68 out of 128 lawmakers, while 60 others voted against him. Parliamentary opposition to Mikati was coupled with street rallies, which turned at times into riots, demanding that Mikati decline the job and turn it back to Hariri. When forming his cabinet, Mikati will have to grapple with parliamentary and popular domestic opposition, in addition to regional and international disapproval. The new premier receives the blessing only of Hezbollah and its allies, inside Lebanon, and Syria, Qatar, and reluctantly France, internationally.
When Mikati embarks on forming his new cabinet, it looks impossible that he can make it a national unity one, even though he is to be expected to call it as such. But whether national unity or not, Mikati will be tested when he will be invited to deal with Lebanon’s most divisive issue: Lebanon’s cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. In an interview, Mikati said that the tribunal, created by the UN Security Council, will go on regardless of Lebanon’s stance. However, Mikati added, Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal should not be taken for granted. He said that such cooperation will be debated inside “state institutions.”
After the debate, the Lebanese might still be divided – the same way they are divided over Mikati himself becoming Prime Minister. The question hence becomes: If the Lebanese remain divided over their state’s cooperation with the tribunal, will anti-tribunal parties call the final shot by going to a vote that they can win in the same way they won the appointment of Mikati over Hariri?
Mikati will try to hide Hezbollah’s twisting of arms and subsequent defeats of its opponents by putting a democracy face to an operation that is completely underwritten by Hezbollah’s ability to use violence. However, the world – especially Washington and regional capitals – are not guaranteed to buy what Mikati is trying to sell. When they don’t, and if they try to act on it, more political confrontations might still be in the cards.
Friday, January 21, 2011
Steffen Hertog does a wonderful job in this book on the political economy of Saudi Arabia. He opens by asking a few questions, such as: "Why did infrastructure projects of the 70s and 80s succeed, but regulations of the 90s fail? Why did some policies get implemented while others foundered?"
As he unpacks the institutions that form the Saudi state and narrates the history of their formation, Hertog strives to examine the successes and failures of the state at large. He argues that the kingdom has "islands of efficiency with explicit mandates to bypass state bureaucracy," on the one hand, while the government failed in three policy areas since the year 2000, on the other. The failures include the kingdom's inability to successfully implement the laws for the Saudization of Labor, laws for foreign investments, and policies for accession into the WTO.
Among Hertog's "very efficient and capable parts of the Saudi State" are the Central Bank SAMA, the national oil company ARAMCO and the state-owned petrochemical group SABEC. Unfortunately, not all Saudi state institutions turned out to be as efficient as some ministries that became fiefdoms under the exclusive control of their respective ministers, princes and commoners.
"Ministries of Defense and Interior, the National Guard and the Religious Bureaucracy have reached a level of internal autonomy that is almost unrivaled among modern states," according to Hertog, who writes that some Saudi institutions have become states within the state.
To make things worse, relations between the Saudi ministries have always been "vertical" rather than "horizontal." In other words, relations between the different Saudi institutions go through senior bureaucrats and princes only, rather than through mid and low level civil servants. This vertical connection between institutions of the Saudi state, "with no ruling party, no parliament, and no organized press group that can force a stronger horizontal integration of the system," has meant that the kingdom has virtually no forum to discuss regulations or their implementation.
The sharp division into fiefdoms has caused inefficiencies and at times overlaps. Hertog talks about the "war of bulldozers," when many contractors where assigned to the same projects. With the state's inability to resolve the differences, it was up to contractors to divide the work amongst themselves. Hertog also reports that at times, Saudi Arabia had more than "wanted" intelligence list. This means that some people might be on the black list of this security unit, but not on the list of the other.
What made of the Saudi state what it is today, a mix of efficient institutions and inefficient ministries? Hertog believes that the answer lies in the "sociology of sharing the wealth." He writes that "money was used to pacify society at a political level." This, coupled with patrimonial traditions among the elite, made reforms more difficult.
Despite his hypothesis, Hertog is careful not to label Saudi Arabia as a rentier state per se. He argues that "theories of the rentier state, for which the kingdom has always served as a primary example, are painted with too wide a brush." The author argues that the rentier state label suggests that the government in Saudi Arabia is autonomous from society, which is not the case.
In Saudi Arabia, according to Hertog, the state "started this way," that is when the state - thanks to oil profit - was independent from society. Eventually, as the state started using money to integrate society into its rapidly expanding bureaucracy, the state became "committed to its clients," which in turn cemented the rentier model and made it difficult to reverse.
Hertog believes that oil "made it possible to build the (Saudi) state from scratch," during which "elites created massive rent-seeking networks," with strict hierarchies centered on those elites. This made cleavages between institutions deep, and therefore reform more complicated.
For those looking for a book on the political or social history of the kingdom, this is not the book (I suggest Robert Lacey's Inside the Kingdom instead). However, for those interested in a specialized public administration analysis of the Saudi state, this is certainly your book, and Hertog is your guy.
As Obama pressed China’s leader on leveling the fields, journalists cornered him on human rights
US President Barack Obama (R) and Chinese President Hu Jintao reach to shake hands following a joint press conference
Behind closed doors, US President Barack Obama pressed his guest , Chinese President Hu Jintao, on the need for “leveling the field” economically between the two countries. In a press conference, American journalists insisted that Hu answer their questions on China’s poor record on human rights. The Chinese president admitted that “a lot needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.”
The dinner that President Barack Obama held at the White House for visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao was the first of its kind. But also for the first time, China’s leader stood before a free press at a conference that the two leaders held after their meeting.
After a string of meetings, Obama announced that the US will commit to $45billion worth of exports to China as part of “leveling the fields” between the two countries. For a while, Americans have accused China of flooding US markets with its products, while keeping its markets closed to American products. The balance of trade between the two countries has been positive in China’s favor for a long time, causing a chronic accumulation of deficit on the American side and an ultimate loss of jobs that moved from the US to China.
While Obama’s administration gleefully announced the surge in US exports to China, experts doubted the sustainability of America’s new thrust and accused Beijing of only importing technological innovations. They reasoned that once China copies America’s new technology and starts its own production, it will close its markets to US products again. The trade riddle between the two nations is far from being resolved.
Meanwhile, the US press blamed Obama for sounding too soft on China’s human rights. Obama said that China had come a long way over the past 30 years, arguing that in the coming 30 years, China will evolve into a better place. US journalists attending the Obama-Hu press conference, however, were not willing to wait for 30 years to see China’s human rights record improve.
One journalist asked Hu about the issue. The Chinese leader dodged the question. A second journalist took his turn, this time insisting on an answer from Hu. Running out of excuses, the Chinese leader admitted that “a lot needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.”
Thursday, January 20, 2011
It has been a while since I read such a badly-written and miserable book. I could not even force myself to finish half of it.
So Mr. Khanna thinks that people can press a button and take the world to a new renaissance. Never mind that the last renaissance took centuries of human experience, intellectual debates, wars, revolutions and most important of all the appearance of new technologies that changed the modes of production and ultimately dislodged the prevailing socio-economic construct of Europe before the year 1500.
But hey, what would you know, Mr. Khanna offers us a manual, a knows-it-all book of revelations. In 210 pages, the world we live in can be transformed from what Khanna calls a neo-medieval state into a state of renaissance. What does the world need for such transformation to happen, other than reading Khanna's gem? The answer is simply to change the style of the world's diplomats!
Khanna's incoherent ideas swing back and forth. One time he is analyzing the world. Another time he addresses the reader (you) or the youth at large. He encourages them to endorse the change that he "charts." All of a sudden, the book becomes a political pamphlet addressing the new generation.
And since my area of specialty is the Middle East, I was curious to read his take about the region, or what he calls "facts on the ground." Despite his command of "basic" Arabic as per his website's CV, Khanna suddenly becomes an expert on the Middle East. The problem there, according to Khanna, is the map drawn by colonial powers in the second decade of the twentieth century. To rectify ages of conflict is easy, just redraw these borders along oil pipelines!
Generations of religious wars, ethnic divides, the fight over natural resources and inherited social prejudices, the patriarchal nature of society, the abundance of natural resources that have facilitated the rise of patronage networks and clientelist states are all absent from Khanna's analysis. In the Middle East, just fix the region's map and all will be well.
From his website, it looks like Parag Khanna commands a successful PR. He's been honored in many prestigious places while his book has won the recognition of some important people. But when it comes to Khana's intellectual powers, these seem to pale if compared to his PR stunts. Khanna seem to have an intermittent knowledge of the debates over the points that he discusses. His arguments come out of nowhere, and argue nothing.
His book is a waste of time and money!
Monday, January 17, 2011
Lebanon’s political stalemate persists as international tribunal prepares to issue indictment
Lebanon's Prime Pinister Saad Hariri (r) is greeted by his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan before a meeting in Ankara, on 14 January 2011. Hariri is in Turkey for talks on the political turmoil in his country. (© ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Lebanon’s politics reached an unprecedented level of paralysis on Monday with the delay of presidential consultations with parliamentary blocs, originally designed to name a prime minister after Saad Hariri’s cabinet collapsed last week with the resignation of Hezbollah’s ministers.
But while the formation of a new Lebanese cabinet stalled, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) – created by the UN to try the perpetrators of the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and dozen other politicians, journalists and lawmakers – announced that its Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare had submitted the draft of his indictment to Pre-trial Judge Daniel Fransen.
The indictment, to become public at any moment, is widely believed to point fingers at Hezbollah senior members, and possibly Syrian officials. Such belief has pushed the “Party of God” to instruct its ministers to resign in order to force the Hariri’s cabinet to expire. Together with Syrian officials, the Hezbollah leadership threatened violence should Hariri and his allies fail to denounce the STL indictment.
In an attempt to bridge the gap between Hezbollah and Hariri, Turkish and Qatari officials met with their Syrian counterparts in Damascus. After the meeting, the Turkish and Qatari Foreign Minister Daoud Oglu and Hamad bin Jassem headed to Beirut in a bid to prevent any possible deterioration in security. Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Mussa had earlier warned that the situation in Lebanon was dangerous.
Meanwhile in Washington, President Barak Obama voiced his unwavering support to both STL and Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability. “I welcome the announcement by the Office of the Prosecutor for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon today that he has filed an indictment relating to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 others,” Obama said in a statement.
“This action represents an important step toward ending the era of impunity for murder in Lebanon, and achieving justice for the Lebanese people. I know that this is a significant and emotional time for the Lebanese people, and we join the international community in calling on all Lebanese leaders and factions to preserve calm and exercise restraint,” he added.
“The United States is a strong friend of Lebanon and we stand steadfastly with others in support of Lebanese sovereignty, independence, and stability,” according to the statement, which also said that the “Special Tribunal for Lebanon must be allowed to continue its work, free from interference and coercion” arguing that those “who have tried to manufacture a crisis and force a choice between justice or stability in Lebanon are offering a false choice, as the Lebanese people have a right to both justice and stability, and efforts to undercut the STL only legitimize its efforts and suggest its opponents have something to hide. “
Obama concluded: “At this critical moment, all friends of Lebanon must stand with the people of Lebanon.”
Friday, January 14, 2011
Majority of Americans want change in US Afghanistan strategy
A surprising 71 percent of registered US voters who identify themselves as conservatives, a majority of which are Tea Party supporters, expressed worry over the cost of America’s war in Afghanistan according to the findings of a poll by the Washington-based Afghanistan Study Group. The survey of America’s conservatives, concluded on 10 January, also found that two-thirds of them support a reduction of US troop levels, while 57 percent agree that that the United States can dramatically lower the number of troops and money spent in Afghanistan without putting America at risk.
The group’s report estimated the cost of the war at $100 billion every year, and argued that a change in strategy was crucial for the longest war in America’s history, now at nine years. It defined the “vital interests” for the US in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as: “Preventing Afghanistan from being a ‘safe haven’ from which Al-Qaeda or other extremists can organize more effective attacks on the US homeland; and ensuring that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal does not fall into hostile hands.”
Based on the survey’s findings, the Afghanistan Study Group also argued that America “does not require a military victory over the Taliban,” and that a Taliban takeover is unlikely even if the United States reduces its military commitment.” The report said, “The Taliban is a rural insurgency rooted primarily in Afghanistan’s Pashtun population, and succeeded due in some part to the disenfranchisement of rural Pashtuns.” Therefore, “the Taliban’s seizure of power in the 1990s was due to an unusual set of circumstances that no longer exist and are unlikely to be repeated.”
The group expressed opposition to America’s counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, and said that given the nation’s “present economic circumstances, reducing the staggering costs of the Afghan war is an urgent priority.” It highlighted the importance of American prosperity as a national security imperative: “Maintaining the long-term health of the US economy is just as important to American strength and security as protecting US soil from enemy (including terrorist) attacks.”
Thursday, January 13, 2011
The Huffington Post
If Hezbollah commands parliamentary majority – thanks to Walid Jumblatt possibly switching sides – will it insist that the new cabinet be formed with the consent of every single party represented in parliament, including the biggest bloc of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, like it forced Hariri to grant every minority wish when he strived to form his cabinet over the span of six months?
Hezbollah today is not acting like the Party of God, but like God himself. The party that waged campaigns to cry foul over what it depicted as the Shiite underrepresentation inside successive cabinets, does not consider knocking out Sunni Hariri as trespassing on the rights of the Sunnis, undisputedly represented by the prime minister.
Also consider how “national consensus” now means little in Hezbollah’s rhetoric. Hezbollah’s lawmaker Mohamed Raad has already called for replacing Hariri with a prime minister closer to “resistance.” If parliamentary majority gives Hezbollah the right to name a prime minister, will Hezbollah give Hariri and his minority a blocking third in the new cabinet, similar to the one Hezbollah forced on Hariri and his majority in November 2009?
Between June 2005 and November 2009, Hezbollah obstructed every majority vote, whether in parliament or inside cabinet. Now that Hezbollah coerced Jumblatt into joining its ranks, it suddenly started preaching about voting inside cabinet. When Hariri kept cabinet shut, just like Hezbollah’s ally Speaker Nabih Berri shut down parliament for two years fearing a majority vote against Hezbollah’s will, Hezbollah forced the cabinet to collapse.
When Hariri and his majority, after winning the 2009 elections, considered replacing Speaker Berri, Hezbollah and Berri raised hell considering the choice of the Shiite speaker a monopoly for the Shiites only.
Clearly, rules in Lebanon apply only when Hezbollah want them to, and this depends on whether Hezbollah can get what it wants inside parliament, or forcefully by occupying the streets or burning down buildings of its rivals.
Even though the party has every constitutional right to behave the way it is doing today, in that it has become a parliamentary majority and can replace Hariri and form a cabinet to its liking, the party should first apologize for all the years it preached otherwise.
And if Hariri ever gets the blocking third in the to-be-formed Hezbollah cabinet, then maybe Hariri would consider blocking Hezbollah’s plans to scrap the tribunal inside cabinet, to stop the vote on bringing the so-called false witnesses before Lebanese justice, and to force the government to collapse whenever matters go against his wishes.
Perhaps Hariri as a minority in opposition can play games with whoever replaces him as prime minister. Perhaps Hariri would want to impose lawmaker and former PM Fouad Siniora, not so much a darling for Hezbollah, as the Minister of Finance, or maybe Hariri would even consider appointing failing candidates in the 2009 elections to key portfolios, just like Hezbollah's behaved between June and November 2009.
As long as Hariri is concerned, he can wait up to six months until the new majority grant him his wishes before joining the new cabinet since Hezbollah has taught the Lebanese that cabinets should, at all times, represent all the Lebanese and respect all their wishes.
And while at it, and since Hezbollah’s lawmakers have suddenly become champions of the constitution and its stipulations, someone should remind the party that its arms are illegal.
Hezbollah’s majority is not enough to amend the constitution and bend it to give the right to “some Lebanese” to carry arms, while banning others from doing so. Until Hezbollah can twist the constitution, equality between citizens will remain the basis of the Lebanese republic, meaning either all Lebanese can own missiles and military night goggles, or nobody can.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Hezbollah’s ministers resign after failing to derail tribunal
Lebanon's government collapses after March 8 ministers and one minister close to President Michel Sleiman withdrew from cabinet. (Dalati & Nohra)
Eleven ministers representing Hezbollah and its allies resigned yesterday, forcing the collapse of the cabinet of Saad Hariri, 14 months after its formation, which took 16 months. The Hezbollah walkout came after the party and its allies failed to dissuade Hariri from supporting the UN-created Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), formed to bring to justice perpetrators of the 2005 assassination of his father and predecessor Rafik Hariri and a dozen other anti-Hezbollah politicians, journalists and military personnel.
The Lebanese stalemate has been brewing for the past few weeks. Hezbollah denounced the tribunal, accused it of being an Israeli and American conspiracy and demanded that the cabinet convene to vote on ending Lebanon’s commitments to STL, including the scrapping of a protocol of cooperation and stopping Lebanon’s 51 percent footing of the tribunal’s bill. Hezbollah also demanded that the cabinet vote on bringing what the party calls STL’s “false witnesses” before Lebanese justice. The party and its allies threatened that violence in Lebanon might break out, should the cabinet fail to swiftly stop international justice.
Hariri, for his part, stood his ground and insisted that justice and stability are not mutually exclusive. In his support, regional powers as well as the United States and France voiced their continued commitment toward STL. These powers also announced the payment of their share of the UN fees due to the tribunal.
Meanwhile, STL’s indictment is expected to come out on Monday, according to the NOW Lebanon news portal. According to a recent report by Washington’s Congressional Research Service, the indictment will accuse members of Hezbollah, and probably senior Syrian officials, of involvement in the Hariri crime.
On the ground, Lebanese worker unions – most of whose leadership is affiliated with Hezbollah and Syria – promised to take to the streets to protest wages, a step that is believed to be politically motivated. Such protests might lead to escalation and consequentially confrontations in the streets.
Whether Lebanon will head to an all-out civil war cannot be determined with certainty. It is most likely that Hezbollah and its allies will stir away from taking the country into a full scale conflict, which in the medium and long terms, will open the doors to anti-Hezbollah forces striking roots inside Lebanon and possibly hunting down party officials later. In this context, it is most probable that Lebanon’s confrontation will remain within the political realm. The fact that Hezbollah and its allies chose to walk out of government, instead of sending their militias to the streets of Beirut like in May 2008, tells that war is not in the interest of any party yet.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Is it time to regulate arms in the United States?
Jared Loughner, 22, opened fire as Democratic Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords met with constituents outside a Safeway supermarket in Tuscon, Arizona, seriously wounding her and killing six others, including a federal judge and a nine-year old.
County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik captured America’s mood when he said that Arizona had become “the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry” in the country. But the problem clearly went far beyond Arizona. In Alaska, former Republican vice-presidential candidate contender Sara Palin had put a "target map" on her Facebook page ahead of the November mid-term elections. The image highlighted the districts of 20 Democratic politicians she had singled out for defeat after they supported President Barack Obama's healthcare reforms.
One of the targets whose district was marked with the crosshair graphic was Giffords, whose office in Tucson was hit by shotgun pellets earlier this month. The Congresswoman, now fighting for her life in hospital, had criticized Palin for using the gun graphic saying: “When people do that, they’ve got to realize there are consequences to that action.”
The crosshairs were quickly taken off Palin’s page. Rebecca Mansour, Palin's spokesperson, said the crosshairs were never intended to be gun sights. She told a radio show: “It was simply crosshairs like you’d see on maps. It never occurred to us that anybody would consider it violent.” But what maps have crosshairs? Clearly, some Republican maps do.
Those who are familiar with America’s politics might have seen the shooting coming. In July, California police arrested Byron Williams after a shootout on a highway. A drunk Williams said he was on his way to shoot senior figures at the Tides Foundation. According to Media Matters, since right-wing Glen Beck's show premiered on 19 January 2009, Tides had been mentioned on 31 editions of Fox News programs, 29 of which were editions of Beck's show. In most of those references, Beck attacked Tides, often weaving the organization into his conspiracy theories. Two of those Beck mentions occurred during the week before Williams’ shootout.
"To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with," Sheriff Dupnik said after the shooting.
For the United States to stem shooting rampages, it might need some comprehensive solutions, perhaps including amending the Second Amendment, which gives Americans the right to bear arms. However, despite the horror, the Tuscon tragedy did not suggest that America’s mood was turning sour on gun rights as most lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, questioned only how Loughner—with his history of mental instability—could acquire a gun. After all, even Giffords was a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment.
“Just because you have a mental illness doesn’t mean you’re prohibited from buying a gun,” an official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Wall Street Journal. “You can be diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and buy a gun. A judge has to find you mentally ill before you are prohibited,” the official concluded.
UPDATE: Some Good News - Carolyn McCarthy readies gun control bill.
One of the fiercest gun control advocates in Congress, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), pounced on the shooting massacre in Tucson, Ariz., Sunday, promising to introduce legislation as soon as Monday targeting the high-capacity ammunition clip the gunman used.
McCarthy ran for Congress after her husband was gunned down and her son seriously injured in a shooting in 1993 on a Long Island commuter train.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
During the last week of December, two news tidbits came to the fore in Washington. The first had it that the US administration was planning to replace Peace Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell with his predecessor, current Special Advisor on Iran Dennis Ross. The second reported that America had succeeded in establishing a secret channel for peace talks between Syria and Israel.
Putting the two together, I reported that Ross had visited Damascus as a secret conduit for peace with Tel Aviv. The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) denied the Ross visit and the secret channel, and insisted that Syria’s peace talks with Israel were conducted strictly through Mitchell. One day later, Executive Vice President of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein told Israel’s Channel 10, and later US daily Politico, that he had made a trip to Syria and met with President Bashar al-Assad.
Hoenlein insisted, though, that the purpose of his visit was “humanitarian,” and that he sought to urge Assad to approve the return of the remaining Syrian Jews to Israel.
It is hard to believe that, with the Mideast peace process stalling on all tracks, Hoenlein – a friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who made his trip with the latter’s knowledge – went to Damascus only to discuss Syrian Jews.
It is more conceivable, however, that Hoenlein’s trip was a repeat of a visit of another one of Netanyahu’s friends, Ron Lauder, to then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in 1998, when Netanyahu was facing trouble with Washington for dragging his feet on peace talks with the Palestinians. It has been argued that the Israeli prime minister often uses the Syrian track to ease America’s pressure on him when it comes to the Palestinians.
In 1998, like in 2007, 2008 and 2010, secret channels were created between Damascus and Tel Aviv, but none resulted in a peace accord. And while it seems that both Damascus and Tel Aviv are now familiar with such political maneuvers, it looks like Washington is the only one that never learns. Whenever an Israeli-Syrian channel is created, US officials become ecstatic, express optimism that peace could be realized very soon, and turn a new page in their relations with both Damascus and Tel Aviv.
For both Syria and Israel, the “secret peace talks” between them have proven to be the best button they can press to reset their relations with Washington. The trick has always worked.
In Beirut, the Lebanese have always known that Damascus uses the “peace talks with Israel” card whenever it feels it has its back against the wall with the Americans. But what many Lebanese don’t notice is that the Israelis also use this trick.
Between Syria and Israel, there has always been a sort of regional political symbiosis, often at the expense of the Lebanese and the Palestinians.
In 2010, Netanyahu was still being blamed in Washington – albeit discreetly – for obstructing peace with the Palestinians. The Israeli leader therefore needed a way out: Enter Hoenlein and the Syrian meeting. Assad too fears that the impending indictment from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) could point the finger at parties from his regime for the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The Israeli-Syrian maneuver is clear: A US delegate convinces Washington that both are peace-seeking nations and should be rewarded. Pressure on Netanyahu stops, while the STL is undermined.
In Washington, however, some still believe that Israeli-Syrian peace is possible. This faction now has the ear of President Barak Obama, who has been convinced that with Hoenlein visiting Assad, both Syria and Israel are serious about peace.
Obama, frustrated by the stalling Palestinian peace track, appointed Robert Ford Ambassador to Syria during the US Congressional recess, falsely believing that Israeli-Syrian peace is within reach, at least in the coming 12 months, before Ford has to appear on Capitol Hill to convince senators that his deployment was a good idea.
On a recent TV talk show that hosted me and a Syrian analyst from Damascus, I quoted a statement by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who said that it was Israel who broke Syria’s international isolation through indirect peace talks in 2008.
Naturally, the Syrian analyst was offended to hear that his country had gotten help form the “Israeli enemy.” To counter my argument, he said that on the contrary, it was former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who was facing domestic political trouble and who used talks with Syria to boost his position. The analyst found himself unwillingly arguing that Damascus had extended a political lifeline to Olmert, a secret Syrians rarely like to discuss in public, but always want Washington to hear in private.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington correspondent of Kuwaiti daily newspaper Al-Rai
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
American delegate carries messages between Damascus and Tel Aviv
A secret American channel was established between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to various Arab, American and Israeli news reports. Some argued that a breakthrough in peace talks might be in the cards, yet evidence shows that the visit of an American delegate to Damascus serves short-term interests of both Damascus and Tel Aviv, and helps them win favors they need with Washington.
Uncertainty continues to surround recent media reports, first announced by the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai. of a secret American channel established between Syrian and Israeli officials. Although Syria denied the reports, and Netanyahu said he knew of the delegate’s trip but did not send any messages to Assad, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told American daily Politico that he had actually visited Damascus 10 days ago.
Hoenlein went on to say that he met with Assad “not as a negotiator or a mediator” but to “have discussions about humanitarian issues.” He added, “I am for four decades involved in humanitarian issues and concerns, and we held discussions about humanitarian issues.” However, he refused to reveal any details about the meeting.
Israel’s Channel 10 confirmed the visit, adding that Netanyahu had sent him as an emissary to Damascus.
While many ponder the significance of such a channel at this time, a number of observers have argued that both Damascus and Tel Aviv have a vested interest in showing Washington that peace talks between them are moving forward. These analysts believe that Al-Assad fears that an indictment by the Special Tribunal on Lebanon might point fingers at Syrian officials. At the same time, Netanyahu is under increasing US pressure blaming him for the delay in peace with the Palestinians. Both Al-Assad and Netanyahu need to ease US pressure for different reasons, and a secret peace talks channel, sponsored by Washington, fits the bill for both.
Meanwhile, the Israeli prime minister told the Knesset that he was ready for peace with Syria, but blamed Damascus for asking to regain control of the whole of the Golan Heights even before negotiations started. Netanyahu also said that Dennis Ross, the White House’s special advisor on Iran, was scheduled to visit Israel this week for peace talks. As America’s special envoy for peace throughout most of the 1990s, many observers believe that Ross’s shuttling between Washington and Tel Aviv signals that a Syrian-Israeli accord has shifted from the category of “peace process” to that of the “situation of Iran in the region.”