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A Political Smorgasbord!
Man's inhumanity to man is not only perpetrated by the vitriolic actions of those who are bad. It is also perpetrated by the vitiating inaction of those who are good - Martin Luther King, Jr

2 March   |   2005   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Just look at any map of the Middle East, the Gulf or northeast Africa today and you come across a whole catalogue of countries that are mired down in political dilemmas and tensions. However, those same countries are also gripped by the hope that they can move things forward for the better. Whether one takes the unending conflict in Israel and Palestine, or Iraq as the new ideological testing ground, or perhaps Syria and Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Sudan, there are polarised forces at play that are tugging in different directions. In fact, any responsible trip to those regions reveals big crises across the whole map. Those crises, though, could also become challenges and eventually translate into opportunities so long as the consequential risks are minimised and the 'movers and shakers' show the wisdom, vision, boldness and tenacity to capitalise on those overt or covert signs.

So how can one convert those potential forces into a dialogue between peoples and cultures - and ultimately into political results that would benefit all regions and wrench them out of the torpor that has cloaked them for decades? How possible is it to establish the beginnings of a sustainable dialogue between the West and the Arab World in order to bridge cultural differences, facilitate mutual understanding, and create a partnership to benefit the globe? In short, what are some of the current pulses in those large regions today?

Palestine witnessed few weeks ago an election for a successor to the late Chairman Yasser Arafat. Mahmoud Abbas, the new President of the Palestinian Authority, has been trying for the past month to re-ignite the dynamics of the Roadmap for Peace. Palestinians have already witnessed a tougher stance toward violence and suicide bombers, and a clear denunciation by their leadership of any acts of terrorism against unarmed Israeli civilians. Not only that, but the Palestinian Legislative Assembly coerced Prime Minister Ahmed Qrei' to choose a fresher and more vigorous cabinet that broke away to some extent from an older, tired and rather nepotistic predecessor regime. Amongst other positive appointments in the new 24-member cabinet, for instance, are Nasser Youssef who has been appointed Minister of Interior, and Salam Fayyad who has been re-confirmed as Minister of Finance - a bonus for all parties in view of his transparent and accountable financial and donor-friendly policies.

However, two factors temper indefatigably the sense of optimism in Israel and Palestine. One is the fear that the random violent attacks against Israeli civilian targets by different Palestinian or extra-territorial groupings would make Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rush back to the barracks in angry rejectionism and sever the beginnings of any negotiation with the new Palestinian leadership. This is hugely counter-productive, and frankly disingenuous, since Sharon knows as much as Abbas does that such acts of violence would recur regardless of the efforts deployed to contain them. What is required of peacemakers is courage in the face of adversity, not pretexts to drag out the process for another few months and grab some more Palestinian land in the meantime.

Hand in hand with such explosive imponderables is a second sobering fact. At the moment, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are 'posturing' toward each other by making small and largely innocuous gestures. The real test comes when the existential issues are placed on the agenda for discussion - Palestinian prisoners in Israeli gaols, Israeli settlements and water rights, Jerusalem, the snaking separation wall, final borders and refugees. Would it be possible to move forward, or would Israel retreat from making those avowedly painful decisions? If it fails to rise to the occasion, the situation would deteriorate again. The overall statistics in the Palestinian Territories - such as those published by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs Consolidated Appeals Process (OCHA CAP 2005) - already underline high levels of poverty, unemployment, dependence on food aid, inferior health services and falling educational levels. Those would increasingly get worse without any tangible progress in the process for peace.

In fact, and according to some political pundits, the Gaza pullout by PM Ariel Sharon (were it to happen by 20 th July) is simply a chessboard-worthy move. Seen in that light, Sharon is sacrificing Gaza in return for the world's acceptance of Israel's de facto annexation of 7% of West Bank territory. As the Israeli political columnist Nahum Barnea theorised in Yediot Aharonot , it is conceivable that Sharon has not become a dove but has remained, as always, a pragmatic hawk. So whilst it would be churlish to dismiss the withdrawal from Gaza, it is not inconceivable either that this is a clever ploy to drag the process ad infinitum , ensure peace and quiet on the security front and hold onto the West Bank.

The day of reckoning will come, I believe, once Israel completes the disengagement from Gaza. Yet, this is exactly the moment when both Israel and the Palestinians must ensure that the momentum is not slackened in such a way that the levels of frustration and mutual distrust peak again and usher once more stormy days with future rounds of hatred and violence. As Sarah Kreimer, Associate Director of the Israeli NGO Ir Amim pointed out in an article entitled Testing Democracy in Jerusalem [in the Jerusalem Post English-language daily] last month, Minister Natan Sharansky's widely-quoted 'town square test' should not put the burden of proof only on Palestinians. Rather, it means that Israel too should examine its own commitment to democracy before it addresses others about their own system of governance - particularly when it comes to litmus tests on the right to dissent, education and incitement, refugees and economic dependence.

A little further north, in Lebanon , another troublesome episode has sown fear and disquiet in the minds of many Lebanese men and women. The brutal car-bomb assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, one of the architects of Lebanon's post-war peace and reconstruction, has plunged the country into shock, doom and gloom for many of its citizens (and also wiped 30% off the value of the Solidaire shares owned by Hariri's reconstruction company). Nobody knows exactly who was responsible for this murder, although a militant organisation calling itself Victory and Jihad in Syria and Lebanon sent a video-tape to al-Jazeera claiming that it had killed Mr Hariri because of his ties with Saudi Arabia. But this claim could well be false, since the method, size and sophistication of the attack would suggest that it was the work of a well-organised and experienced group. Today, many political observers await the results of an international commission of enquiry that would investigate the identity of the assassins and / or their godfathers. But the reality is that Lebanon's politics are complex, factional and too-often violent despite the country's relative calm to date following the bloodshed and turbulence of the civil war from 1975 till 1990.

However, and regardless of its direct or indirect connivance in this attack, what remains certain is that Syria has already come under huge pressure to abide by UNSCR 1559 that demanded from it to pull its troops out of Lebanon. The statement by President Bashar Al-Assad only yesterday to re-deploy his 14,000 troops to Syria is an indication of the huge pressure he has come under - although he offered no firm timetable for the pullback, except to add that this will happen in the next few months. In fact, it is quite possible that any such orderly disengagement would occur under the latter provisions of the Taef Accord. It can be recalled that Syria helped put an end to Lebanon's civil war. However, under the Taef Accord that ended the war, its soldiers were supposed to leave eventually. Since 2001, the Syrian regime had reduced its troop numbers from 40,000 to 14,000 but had shown no inclination to withdraw the rest. So it is possible this pullback could be completed in coordination with the UN in order to avoid any near-term chaos in Lebanon.

In fact, it is not only well-known politicians, such as the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who are openly calling upon Syria to leave Lebanon. It is also clear when talking to the people on the streets of Beirut that Hariri would have made a strong political comeback in the forthcoming Lebanese legislative elections in May 2005, and this in itself would have been a bitter defeat for the Syrian regime and its regional strategy. According to Fares Boueiz, one of the leaders of the opposition, the resignation of PM Omar Karamé earlier this week could also be an indication that the worm is possibly turning for Damascus and that there is a palpable realignment of the power structures within the Syro-Lebanese axis.

In Iraq , the recent elections were a welcome relief to the world community at large. However, it is clear that there is a lot of sparring going on at the moment to choose the next Prime Minister. Whilst the Shi'ite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance have scored a higher result (48%) than the Kurds (26%) or interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's party (14%) in the National Assembly, it is not yet certain that they will be able to impose their candidate. However, Dr Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Interim Vice President and leader of the Da'wa party, is viewed as the likeliest candidate for the Prime Ministerial post. More importantly, the Kurds in the north have set their eyes on Kirkuk (that was vastly Kurdish until former President Saddam Hussein forcibly Arabised the region) due to its vast oil reserves as well as its geo-strategic location. Furthermore, there are hints that the Kurds are insisting on their autonomy as a gateway toward independence. This is unacceptable to the central government in Iraq, but it is equally unacceptable to Turkey that does not wish to see an emerging Kurdish entity on its borders. So Turkey is now wielding the Turkeman card in Kirkuk and dousing all Kurdish attempts toward self-determination - with implicit US acquiescence.

What is critical at present for this newly elected body in Iraq is to get down to brass tacks and draft the future permanent constitution of Iraq, one that will specify the Shari'ah as the main source of legislation. But having Islamic law as the primary source of such legislation should not worry anyone unduly at this stage. There are different forms of 'the rule of the jurisprudent' within the richly varied theosophy of Islam and those acquainted with the Gulf know that Wahhabi Sunni Qatar is as different from Wahhabi Sunni Saudi Arabia as Shi'ite Iraq could become from Shi'ite Iran. Besides, since the interim constitution gives the Sunni Arabs and Kurds veto power over the permanent constitution when it is put to a public referendum, there is no chance that a Shi'ite legal concept will become the foundation of the law in Iraq. Having said that, it is essential that the Sunnis [who boycotted the recent elections] also be consulted on the draft document. If not, they would opt out, the Kurds would retreat into their semi-autonomous enclaves, and the integrity of this federalist country would be compromised even further only one year after it was decimated by the war. In fact, the latest suicide attack in Hilla, resulting in 125 fatalities and a larger number of casualties, is a clear indication that Iraq is still perched on the edge of a precipice - whether one defines that precipice in political, sectarian, military or colonial terms.

As for Egypt , Iran and Saudi Arabia , there have been some telltale signs that the winds are possibly shifting there too - and perhaps not too imperceptibly either. In Egypt , there have been strong populist and political reactions against the strong-arm tactics of the Egyptian authorities in their arrest and imprisonment of Ayman Noor, Member of Parliament of the al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party, who had called for immediate constitutional reforms in Egypt. There were also strong reactions against President Hosni Moubarak's wish to run for an unprecedented fifth six-year term. However, the unusually strong American reaction has led the Egyptian President to reconsider his position and ask Parliament to amend the Constitution so that competitive, direct and multi-party elections become possible in the country. According to the draft document forwarded to Parliament by President Moubarak, this is being done by a subtle amendment of Article 76 of the Constitution whereby candidates for the presidency would need to be proposed by a legal political party and approved by an as-yet undetermined number of MP's or members of local councils. This does not perhaps augur well, and has led some commentators to wonder whether this change of heart is serious or a smart ruse by an inveterate politician.  

In Iran , the recent European tour by President Bush showed some political understanding in that he did not use the sledgehammer alone in threatening Iran with a military attack if it did not comply with the American diktat for a nuclear-free democracy. The hope still remains that Iran and the E3/EU, assisted by the IAEA, would reach an agreement on the future of Iran's nuclear programme and its work on sensitive nuclear fuel cycles. This would hopefully disbar a more punitive military [American] posture that would result in a backlash by the Iranians who would rally around the mullohcracy. As for Saudi Arabia , recent reports coming out of the kingdom indicate that the system is also showing timid albeit uncertain signs of change. One has to look no farther than Qatif, in the Eastern province, that is also home for most of the kingdom's Shi'ites. Qatif recently marked for the first time the Ashura holy day [a major religious festival which commemorates the martyrdom at Karbala of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed] without any interference by the Saudi authorities. This celebration followed a petition for equal rights entitled Partners in the Nation that was submitted a couple of years ago to Crown Prince Abdullah. At times, the West fails to appreciate those painstakingly slow developments in Saudi Arabia, although they herald a sea change in the Gulf region and should not be thwarted by excessive impatience or the deafening drums of war. In fact, the next round of municipal elections in the kingdom could well include women voters too, and it is obvious that the Saudi ruling dynasty is trying to find the middle ground between their future designs and the demands placed upon them by the post 9/11 global realities.

Finally, Sudan is still involved in a bitter feud in the Darfur region where some INGO's on the ground report that the Sudanese government and its allied Janjaweed militias are trying to change the demography of the region by making it devoid of African tribes. Certainly, there is no doubt about the slaughters in Darfur. However, the numbers remain fuzzy, and it is hard to know the total mortality over two years of ethnic cleansing, partly because the Sudanese government is blocking a UN team from going to Darfur and making such an estimate. Notwithstanding, independent figures exceed 225,000 deaths, with the number rising by about 10,000 per month, in addition to two million displaced persons.

What is happening in Darfur is not far from genocide, and the passive West is merely managing this genocide rather than halting it. Here, Rwanda comes to mind in terms of Western disinterest in a region that does not impact too much its vital strategy, or where economic interests {mainly oil and mineral ores} prevail and perhaps discourage the G-8 from responding as decisively as elsewhere in the pursuit of liberty and freedom. Watching the newly released documentary film Hotel Rwanda last week, I was struck by one poignant line in the film. Whilst the Hutus were cleansing with impunity half the Tutsi population of Rwanda, the US State Department was quibbling over whether the events in Rwanda qualified as 'genocide' or simply as 'acts of genocide'! It is true that the USA has qualified the events in Darfur as 'genocide', but it is obvious that such a step is being followed only by half-hearted attempts to stop the massacres that are being reported by monitors and journalists. It is hoped that the Darfur Accountability Act being introduced in the US Senate House {today} would help expand the African Union Force and establish enforceable no-fly zones. Moreover, the UN should assume its international mantle of responsibility and authorise a referral of the perpetrators to the International Criminal Court (ICC) alongside a raft of immediate political, diplomatic and targeted economic sanctions.

So where does this smorgasbord of conflicts leave us today?

Something is clearly astir in those regions, with a concomitant climate of change that is felt at both the official and grassroots levels - whether as a result of conviction, realpolitik , alliances or fear. The art of diplomacy is to nurture those saplings of democracy and human rights in a way that would not stunt their growth or encourage their supporters to retreat into sullen and ready hopelessness. In practical terms, this means it is necessary to follow rhetoric with sustainable policy, whilst being culturally sensitive to those regions and understanding that the beginnings of a sustainable dialogue between the Western and Arab worlds implies a conscious effort not to demonise the other unnecessarily. The common values that the Arab and Western worlds have shared in the past can still be replicated for the present. By using the top-bottom schematic of politicians, and the bottom-top diagram of grassroots and civil society, it would not be impossible to bridge cultural differences, facilitate mutual understanding and create a partnership that serves all peoples. Most of the Middle East has stagnated for far too long in a perverse time warp that reduced its brightest people to despair or barely contained rage. Is it not high time that we encourage and support those beginnings prudently, and in the process tease the cantankerous, angry, frustrated and subjugated peoples into a rights-based culture of peace, justice, equality and democracy for the sake of all the citizens of our global village?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2005   |   2 March


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