Monday, February 20, 2012

Is Doha The New Arab Political Capital?

Qatar's popularity seems to be on the rise especially since the Arab Spring, as the country is perceived as being on the side of the Arab masses and doing something tangible to help them achieve their goals. On the other hand, there are those in states like Syria, Tunisia and Libya who resent what they see as its meddling in their internal affairs

By Omar Shariff

                                                                 Doha's skyline at night

For the past few years, and especially since the beginning of the ongoing Arab Spring, Qatar has perfected the art of punching above its weight in regional and international affairs. And it has done so primarily — though not always — through the projection of soft power. When Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the United States, Doha launched the $100 million (Dh367 million) Qatar Katrina Fund to help the battered citizens of the richest and mightiest nation on earth.

Putting its unbelievable wealth to good use, it took the lead in the reconstruction effort following Israel's war against Lebanon in 2006; so much so that the Iranian-allied Hezbollah's TV station, Al Manar, repeatedly broadcast a well-choreographed song thanking Qatar for its efforts. Again, following Israel's ruthless assault on Gaza in 2008/2009, Qatar was there with a helping hand.

But it is with the onset of the Arab Spring that Doha truly seems to have found its calling. Tiny Qatar's ambitions, apparently, know no bounds. It is trying to emerge as the major powerbroker in the Arab world, replacing traditional heavyweights like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It took the lead in organising the Arab and international effort to topple the deranged dictator in Tripoli, to the extent that it also carried out air raids on regime targets in Libya in tandem with Nato jets. "It's Qatar's moment in Arab history," declared Professor Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, one of the UAE's foremost political analysts and a Gulf News columnist. "When regional powers like Egypt and Iraq are in retreat, there is room for daring and ambitious small states like Qatar to play a leading role. It is filling a vacuum in the region, as it has the resources to do so."

Some critics have accused Doha of harbouring an Islamist agenda for the region, a thought dismissed by Dr Abdullah. "No; Qatar just has a Qatari agenda. It's a very ambitious state, with the resources to match. There is no more to it."

However, Gassan Al Ezzi, a Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese University in Beirut and an international affairs commentator, had a different take on the issue. "It is a difficult question to answer. But it is clear that Qatar has supported Islamist parties, which won elections in Egypt and Tunisia, and would most likely support them if they win elections in Libya and other countries. This gives Qatar influence over the ruling regimes in the post-revolution countries, including the most important Arab state, Egypt. Besides, political Islam is not the same in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt or others. Even within the same country, there are differences. For instance, in Egypt, the agenda of the Salafists is not the same as that of the Muslim Brotherhood."

Gabriel G. Tabarani, a Middle East expert who is also the editor in chief of Miraat Al Khaleej and author of the book In Jihad's New Heartlands: How The West Has Failed To Contain Islamic Fundamentalism, said that Qatar's intentions "remain murky". "Some say Qatar has a Napoleonic complex, others say it has an Islamist agenda. Qatar was very active in diplomacy even before the Arab Spring, but I cannot think of a specific interest that the country is pursuing through its expanding role. Qatar has no interests at stake. Its Arab Spring policy seems to be policy for policy's sake. However, Sunni revival via supporting mainstream Islamist groups in the countries that are witnessing change could make sense from a GCC security perspective to confront Iran.

"But for all the contradictions in its policies — and there are many — Qatar is advancing a decisive shift in Arab politics that many in the West have yet to embrace: a Middle East dominated by mainstream Islamist parties brought to power in a region that is more democratic, more conservative and more tumultuous. Qatar is a country without ideology. Its leaders know that the Islamists are the new power in the Arab world. This alliance will lay the foundation for a base of influence across the region." However, Tabarani did not feel that Qatar could be accused of having imperialist intentions. "I don't think it is the case. In terms of geopolitics, however much the role of the country has grown, the impact will remain limited. Bismarck has confirmed that the geography of the state is the permanent element in politics. Geography plays a role in determining the political influence of the state."

In Qatar's rapid ascendance in the region, there is no denying the central role played by the Al Jazeera TV station, especially the Arabic version, which has become a darling of the Arab masses. So has Qatar used Al Jazeera as a tool to promote its agenda? "Yes, absolutely," said Dr Abdullah. "It is a tool, and a very effective tool in Qatar's foreign policy. And there's nothing wrong with that. I think the BBC is a tool of British foreign policy, and CNN of American foreign policy and so on. This [Al Jazeera] is part of Qatar's soft power. And like any modern state, it is exercising it."

Al Ezzi seemed to concur. "As for the use of Al Jazeera as a tool, this is a reality we see everyday. But the station attained its present status well before the Arab revolts began; it was not only as a result of these revolutions."

According to Tabarani, one year ago, even those most optimistic about Qatar's potential could not predict that the Gulf state would one day be leading the Arab League and speaking on its behalf. "In fact the year of the Arab Spring has brought political change to several Arab countries, but even more so to Arab foreign policy with Qatar stepping in as a force in Middle East politics. However, I would not judge Qatar's foreign policy as smart or not. I'd say it's relevant."

Speaking about Qatar's role in Lebanon, Sahar Atrache, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group, said: "In Lebanon, Qatar was able to preserve very good relations with both the March 14 and the March 8 coalitions. Doha was a major funder of South Lebanon's reconstruction after the 2006 war. Its [current] stance on Syria has harmed its relations with Hezbollah, which are cooler today. Thus, it can't play the balancing role it used to. Instead, it chose to take the lead in most of the Arab uprisings."

Managing contradictions

Asked how had Qatar managed to emerge as the most dynamic Arab state in the Arab Spring, she observed, "For the past few years, unlike the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt under [Hosni] Mubarak, Syria or Iran, Qatar didn't fall into a Manichean division of the region. Thus it was able to manage contradictions in the region and developed good relations with very antagonistic forces (US/Syria and Iran; Hezbollah/Sa'ad Hariri in Lebanon). By doing so, Doha was able to fill a void left by other players. For instance, in Lebanon, when Syria and Saudi Arabia reached a deadlock in 2008, a ‘Doha agreement' was brokered. Qatar has relied on two major factors: its wealth that allowed it to fund a wide range of political parties, NGOs, research centres in the region, thus procuring it important leverages; and Al Jazeera, which it has used as a tool to promote diplomacy and discredit its rivals."

Atrache said that Al Jazeera thus "can't be considered as a professional, reliable source of information. In the Arab uprisings, it turned into a major player — not sure this is the media's role — and adopted biased standards in its coverage. Intentionally concealing the Bahraini revolt deeply contrasted with its very outspoken positions on Egypt, Libya, Syria …"

There is perhaps no government that dislikes the role Qatar is playing in the Arab Spring more than the regime in Damascus. Tabarani said that the diplomatic rift between Syria and Qatar has been simmering as the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East. "The tension between the two countries is now at its boiling point especially after the failed vote in the UN. Damascus sees Qatar as its main enemy now, and the main financier of the opposition. So their future relations if the Bashar Al Assad's regime stays is not promising."

However, regionally, Qatar's popularity seems to be on the rise, as the country is perceived as being on the side of the Arab masses and doing something tangible to help them achieve their goals. "On the streets of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, they are all thankful to Al Jazeera, which in turn means they are thankful to Qatar, which in turn means they are thankful to the Emir of Qatar, Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, who is probably the most popular man in the Middle East right now," said Dr Abdullah.

But a growing role for Doha in the region has also caused growing alarm. Quite apart from Syria, there are those in countries like Tunisia and Libya who resent what they see as Qatar's meddling in their internal affairs.

"Now, there may be people who are happy with its policies, and those who are unhappy. That is natural; Qatar should accept the fact that what it is doing will not be liked by 100 per cent of the people," Dr Abdullah noted.

He described Doha's role as "mind-boggling". "Qatar has played a constructive and positive role … in [the] Afghanistan [talks], in Yemen, Lebanon … sometimes on behalf of bigger powers in the region. By default or by design, Doha today is the political capital of the Arab world. And there's a lot of investment that has gone into this."

-This analysis was published in GULF NEWS on 12/02/2012
-Omar Shariff is the deputy opinion editor of Gulf NEWS

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Why Al-Assad Cannot Reform His Regime

By Gabriel G. Tabarani
            Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
On the 20th of July 2011 Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, under pressure from popular demonstrations and protests issued a decision to form a committee, headed by his Vice-President Farouq Al Sharaa, whose mission is to make proposals to amend the Constitution and to introduce legislative reforms to meet the demands of “the street” - to bring about party pluralism, achieve democracy, engender social justice and separate power from the executive to a more democratic mechanism.
This begs the question: does the Baath regime has the capability to carry out such reforms without committing political suicide? Furthermore, can President Bashar al-Assad implement such reforms given the current balance of power, which controls the foundations and the core of the authority in the country since more than 40 years?
To answer that, it is essential to return to the very beginning.
In 1973 the late President Hafez al-Assad worked on a new constitution which put all authority in his hand after having either excluded or eliminated all his political rivals. Following this he extended his reach to social groups, which, until then, were marginalized from Syrian political life. He also tried at the time to falsify the existence of a multi-party system by creating the imaginary “Front of Progressive Parties” which was formed from left-wing and communist parties that were pro-Baath. He also attempted to placate right-wing parties and mercantilists by coercing them through lax economic regulation. Most importantly he tightened his grip on the military, giving himself full control of the army and the various security agencies.
However, Al-Assad (Senior) faced during his term robust opposition, both by those close to him and by the broader Sunni opposition. He successfully overcame them by paying a bloody price, as evidenced by the suppression of Hama in 1982.
When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in July 2000 as Syrian President he focused on two things: first; the centralization of the State and the importance of the respect for its institutions, and second; the necessity for economic reform and addressing the problem of incipient corruption. In his early years he was able to carry out some economic reforms, for example the opening of private banks, reviewing currency exchange rules, limited private sector reform, reducing direct state involvement in the economy and opening the way for increased competition in some industrial sectors. Such limited reforms made for only piecemeal changes, and had limited impact on political life.
As for changes introduced by al-Assad (Junior) on political life, in the view of some  scholars and observers, can be monitored through the results of legislative elections held in 2003, which clearly showed full Baath party control over the entire electoral process, , both in terms of laws governing the process of forming candidate lists (in which play a major role the conservatives associated directly with the President and the local leadership of the Baath party) as well as the division of electoral constituencies. Naturally this did not allow the independent candidates to enter the elections if they were not loyal to the regime or linked to the ruling Baath party.
At governmental level, Al-Assad issued in 2003 a decree in which he commissioned the Baath party to run the process for planning, guidance, supervision and political control over the government. Also he altered the distribution of cabinet portfolios in a way that no minister can run more than one ministry. He was keen also to ensure that the Prime Minister at that time Naji Al-Otari maintained close ties to the Baath Party.
The structure of government in Syria makes it impossible for any major governmental decision (such as one affecting vital interests of the regime’s basic pillars: the army, the Baath party and the intelligence services agencies) to be carried out by anyone but the President himself. The centrality of the President position makes him the only source of decision-making, not the government which remains under the will of the President in everything, even in laws and legislation, and under the control of the Baath party through the “Committee on Party Control”. This situation has in fact marginalized the government executive with respect to the civil service and the organs of bureaucracy.
If the Parliament and the Government in Syria are weak, ineffective institutions under the control of the President and the Baath Party, the army and the intelligence agencies constitute the mainstay of the authority of the President and his basic strength, which holds the key to regime’s longevity in Syria.
The army constitutes, as the Baath party, the instrument to frame and educate the people, and according to the Syrian Constitution the task of the army also is to defend the regime. However, there is a close link between the army and the party, about 16 officers in the army high command are also members of the Central Committee of the Baath party. The Minister of Defence is also the President of the Military Committee of the Baath Party.
At the level of the security services, there are four intelligence services agencies all linked directly to the President of the Republic, namely: the Political Security Agency, the General Security Agency, the Military Intelligence Agency, and the Air Force Intelligence Agency. Along with those there is the Republican Guard which is an elite military unit; its task is to maintain the security of the President, its men enjoy special status and privileges. Overall those Syrian so-called security apparatus employs about 200,000 people. The focus of these agencies is away from government organs, as such the breakdown of their missions and roles will always keep the regime a safe distance away and beyond their reach. All appointments within Syria’s security agencies are aimed to keep the balance of power in favour of the President and to defend his interests.
However, defending the regime of Bashar al-Assad constitutes an essential interest for the leadership of the Baath Party, the Syrian army and the intelligence services, because they are in fact in defence of the continuation of their privileges and their own self-interests which are in-turn secured by the regime. So the survival of these security services with the party is subject to the survival of the regime and its fate.
A careful reading into the situation in Syria will show that all of the political reforms which are currently on the table and up for discussion will result in destroying the pillars upon which the regime is built. As such it cannot govern, nor exist, without them.  The President’s monopoly on executive authority along with the Baath party’s monopoly on political action and the political message are in the basis of the 1973 Constitution.
It is the opinion of most observers that Hafez Al-Assad built his regime "to measure" and made sure it focused around him. Recent modifications to the constitution have not been able to break the monopoly of the President nor that of the Baath party in national politics. More importantly they did not lead to genuine political change in the light of complete dominance of the Baath Party, the army and the security services on the State’s capabilities and the continued marginalization of Parliament and the role of the Government. The regime of Bashar al-Assad during his leadership made a "successful adaptation", mimicking the emergent changes in Syrian society if not remaining true to them.
The current balance of political forces in Syrian politics means that the reforms demanded by protesters as well as by western governments appear similar to a request from the regime to commit political suicide via constitutional amendment. To fulfil these demands meaningfully is an impossible request, because doing so will destroy the foundations of the Al-Assad regime. However, the cosmetic amendments which have occurred do not truly affect the powers of the President or those of the party or the military. Nor do they impact the security services and their control over the political life.
The Syrian President knows that the reform required will destroy the basic pillars on which the regime founded. This would kill of the Baath party’s chances of ever again holding power in Syria; and his person and authority would be exposed to the wrath of those currently benefiting from Al-Assad family rule who stand to lose their privileges. Such beneficiary groups continue to hold substantial weight and will play a decisive role in the current conflict between the opposition movement in Syria and the currently entrenched regime.
Is Al-Assad ready, willing and able to think about the future of Syria as he pretends more than the future of his Baath regime and himself? This is the question which is waiting for an answer in the coming weeks.
This commentary was published on in USA, in Arabs Today in UK and on Middle East Spectator blog on 21/07/2011

The Tunisian Revolution And Its Reality

By Gabriel G. Tabarani

How beautiful and dizzyingly optimistic the early days of Tunisia’s revolution were back in January, and when the dust finally set, the air was tinged pink with the wildest of hopes and expectations. At that time, the Tunisians did not yet know that the brave new dawn that had just risen over their land would illuminate the entire Arab world, from the sands of Egypt to the orchards of Damascus.
It all began in earnest at the trauma ward of the town of Ben Arous where Mohammad Bouazizi was admitted after immolating himself on 17 December 2010, after having received a humiliating slap courtesy of Tunisian policemen. At the time, the university graduate turn subsistence peddler could not have known what the repercussions of his desperate actions would be – producing a butterfly effect resulting in the tornado that would change the political landscape across the Middle East.
The first, unsuspecting, victim of the ensuring political tumult was Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali  the muddled puppet, obeying the orders of a tyrannical wife. In the five months since, the Tunisian outlook is much greyer and harsh realities are beginning to set in as pro-democracy groups are resigned to preaching patience and hoping for better days. Clearly, the revolution is suffering from a hangover -you can hear it and see it.
However, Tunisia has always possessed a fair amount of the elements deemed necessary for establishing and maintaining a political system which at least approaches a Western-style democracy: social cohesion, an educated middle class, a legacy of authentic non-governmental civic and professional organizations, such as trade unions and its bar association as well as a strong tradition of secularism and concern for women's rights. Furthermore, it benefits from the absence of the grievances and complexes regarding its colonial past and the French language that one finds in neighbouring Algeria.
Nonetheless, Tunisian political life has from the outset been dominated by the office of President, leaving all other political parties and forces emasculated. As such the opening up of Tunisia’s political system carries its own risks which first began to appear after the revolution– in particular the return of the radical “Salafi” movement. In fact, the last serious challenge to the political order prior to the Jasmine Revolution (as January’s uprising is now known) came from the Islamist movement “el-Nahda”. Its leading figure, Rachid Ghannoushi, was once considered an Islamic thinker whose ideas came closer to accepting Western-style democracy and political pluralism than his counterparts elsewhere although one can certainly find other examples of such men. However, now that his party has been officially recognised by the government, the issue is whether “el-Nahda” constitutes an enemy from within for the Jasmine Revolution especially given its soaring popularity?
A video appeared on Facebook on 4 May, in which the former interior minister Farhat Rajhi, a trusted public figure in Tunisia, claimed that Ben Ali loyalists still hold significant sway in the political sphere and that they were planning a military coup, depending on the results of July’s election. Furthermore, he suspected that there is collusion with Algeria to counter the increased popularity of “el-Nahda” (who according to polls could get c.20 percent of votes in the event of an election).
Whether the accusations are true or not does not matter in the paranoia of post-revolution Tunisia. They proved to be a political bombshell as the message was delivered by a highly respected figure whose claims confirmed suspicions already harboured by many.
State practices such as internet censorship and police beatings of journalists, that Tunisians thought had been place firmly in the past, have returned. “First he tried to grab my phone from me and my camera,” said radio journalist Marwa Rekik, accosted by a policeman while covering the protests. “He hit me on the head; I have five stitches in my head.” Her legs were covered in bruises from police batons. Thirteen other journalists also report being beaten by the police.
The government has declined to comment, but in a televised interview on 7 May the Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi denied a counter-revolution and called Farhat Rajhi a liar. He said the beating of journalists was a mistake. Rekik finds that hard to believe: “They could say they took me for an ordinary citizen, but there were 14 of us and each of us said we were journalists.” However, that was last May, in the midst of the mess and troubles, when the state seemed overwhelmed by the accumulation of problems, unable to answer the many questions posed by the ordinary Tunisian.
Last Wednesday, the government settled the issue of elections for a Constituent Assembly or parliament. These had been originally scheduled for July 24, however the ballot will take place now on October 23 “in better conditions of freedom and transparency”. However, the wait for legislation necessary to establish a body with the remit to draft a new constitution could last indefinitely – this pause in progress could result in the "habits inherited from the former regime" continuing.
Bloggers, and there are millions, who connected to Facebook and Twitter express their dismay at the current inertia. Extracts quoted by Maghrabia highlight these concerns: "I'm afraid. What the future look like? who will lead the country? a new dictator? The reassuring signals are weak. We are talking about web blocked, torture, trials delay. Time is short.”  Highlighted in every such posting, the feeling of apprehension, even fear, is ubiquitous. With good reason, it seems.
The economy, once thriving, is on the road of arduous recovery. Tourism (representing almost 7 per cent of GDP) is falling into the red and nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, and this is according to official figures – so the truth may be even worse. The young, the driving dynamo of the revolution, fear of unemployment and its inevitable consequence: that of social marginalization.
The Minister of Social Affairs, Mohammad Ennaceur has proposed reform including a new tax system, an increase in wages and improved education and healthcare systems. Once the backbone of Tunisian society, the middle class now barely is making ends meet. Furthermore, the gap between the rich and less rich is far from been filled. In addition, the gross disparity remains between coastal cities and inland, and the unanimous opinion is that the Association Agreement with the EU would need to be expanded to other partners. Tunisia, once the ancient granary of Rome, needs its second-wind at a time when the post-revolution has stalled and it now faces the challenges involved with learning about and establishing an effective democracy.
Certainly, in the life of nations, a mere semester does not count for a lot. At the very least one could augur that it is but the first step on the path to national renewal. However, there remains the risk that in the current vacuum that it could turn out to be a mere prelude to extremism -such an outcome is feared by the majority of Tunisians. An active and vocal minority are working against such a development.
The optimism and euphoria of January’s revolution has given unfortunately way to dread. The revolution is not yet over and its goals are far from assured. Observers still question whether a new social contract can be established between the political and economic elites and the public at large. One which can avoid excessive upheaval and trauma thus placing Tunisia on the path towards a better future?
It seems that the answer must wait at least until next October.
This commentary was published on in USA, in Arabs Today in UK and on Middle East Spectator blog on 10/06/2011

Strangers In The Same Bed

By Gabriel G. Tabarani
Since last March, when the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and the Baath Party began, the reaction from other regional players has been characterized by a strange sense of irony. It seemed clear that for various reasons, Israel, Iran, Gulf Arab states (GCC), and Turkey all aligned in support the Assad regime’s survival – as opposed to regime change or any other alternative. The United States can be added to this motley coalition of states thus allowing for appropriate use of the well-known American political expression: “strangers in the same bed".
These countries have persuaded themselves, either by illusion or fear, that the claim that the alternative might be chaos, civil war, or a new Islamic fundamentalist state.
On the security front, Israel wants to maintain calm on the Syrian front. Despite the fact that Bashar al-Assad remains a constant irritation to Tel Aviv, mainly through his support and armament of "Hezbollah" and "Hamas", the Syrian army is no longer considered a strategic threat to Israel. This is evidenced by Syrian forces failing to defending the country or attacking when Israeli planes penetrate Syrian airspace or bombed its nascent nuclear reactor.
The Israel-Syria border has been quiet since the 1973 war. While it is a member of the "resistance axis," Syria under Assad has not itself challenged Israel in any military way. It is also a regime with very few soft-power assets with which to challenge Israel in the regional or international diplomatic arena.  Syria under the Assads engaged in frequent peace-partner flirtations with Israel and could be considered the most domesticated of the members of that resistance alliance.
Israel's initial response to the wave of regional anti-regime protests reaching Syria was, according to reliable reports,  to privately root for the "devil we know" approach -- encouraging allies, including the U.S., to go easy on the Assad regime. That may sound counterintuitive -- Israel is not at peace with Syria, the Assad regime is close to Iran, hosts the Hamas leadership, and is considered to actively assist in the arming of Hezbollah. Yet an explanation for this Israeli disposition is also not too hard to fathom.
Politically, Israel prefers authoritarian Arab regimes (in the mould of Mubarak or Assad), founded on the illusionary basis that they impose "stability". This stability is much preferred given that Israel suspects the likely alternative to be the rule of "Muslim Brotherhood" –a body politic that will show even greater hostility towards Israel. This view was confirmed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several Israeli experts on Syrian affairs.
Of course, Iran's position is easier to understand. The Tehran-Damascus alliance stretches back to 1979 and has political, strategic and economic, if not doctrinal, dimensions and benefits. Damascus is Tehran’s portal to the Arab world allowing it to play a role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Furthermore the special relationship between Syria and Iran has facilitated Iranian sponsorship of "Hezbollah" and its support of "Hamas". This, interestingly, makes Iran a true player in Mediterranean politics for the first time since the Persian Empire's wars against the Greeks.
Despite their disapproval of the Alawite regime, further compounded by President Assad’s insults towards leaders of the Arab Gulf countries (criticising their leaders for not being true men) the GCC states maintain their support for the status quo. They are not comfortable with change that calls for empowerment of peoples to self-determination. These countries also fear the Islamic bogeyman, the chaos of civil war and the possibility of transmission or contagion to countries where the GCC requires stability, such as Lebanon and Jordan.
Over the past decade Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has invested substantial time and efforts to transform Syria into a Turkish diplomatic gateway into the Arab Mashreq (the economic agreement between Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon signed in 2010).He has developed strong personal ties with President Bashar al-Assad and has tried to "sell" to the West and Israel not only Assad as a potential architect for peace, but also as "reformer." However, Erdogan is under pressure now to persuade Assad to accelerate reforms in order to stay in power.
If all the other positions are clear and understandable, then Washington's Middle East position is a paradoxical embarrassment waiting to happen. President Barack Obama called his "ally" Hosni Mubarak publicly to launch “Now” the process of transition to representative government in February following the start of pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt. However, after more than two months following the start of the Syrian uprising President Obama called upon Bashar al-Assad to begin a similar process of transition or "to come out of the way."
This commentary was published on in USA, in Arabs Today in UK and on Middle East Spectator blog on 08/06/2011

Egypt Revolution Still Searching For Identity

By Gabriel G. Tabarani

Next year, the Egyptian revolution will mark its sixtieth anniversary. We are of course referring to the coup d’etat led by Gamal Abdel Nasser on July 23rd, 1952 – whereby his Free Officer movement overthrew and expelled King Farouk. They subsequently established their republic to spearhead and finally deliver a long-held ambition: the creation of the "Arab Ummah" (Arab Nation), a single nation pan-Arab and united nation stretching "from the Gulf to the Ocean". This ideal of pan-Arabism, up to this point, had to endure marginalisation at the hands of the era’s Real Politik.
These dreamers came and went and were succeeded by Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak – ruling for eleven and thirty years, respectively. Mubarak having recently been ousted following an unprecedented uprising, started in al-Tahrir square, whose shock-waves continue to be felt across the Arab world up to now.
Following Nasser’s ideologically optimistic rule, the Sadat regime was defined by the establishment of a cadre of “fat cats” who gorged themselves on their nation’s wealth and the trappings of power. This system was replicated and refined further under the Mubarak regime, Mubarak having been Sadat’s vice-president and thus well versed on the abuse of authority for personal gain. The result: galloping population growth, rising illiteracy and increasing unemployment – all unwavering in their consistency.
Today, three-and-a-half months after the fall of the last of the modern-pharaohs, Egypt is still rife with uncertainty. Following the hedonism of revolution the mood is currently very sobering. Queries now focus on national identity; this is of vital importance to Egypt given its history as one of the great ancient civilizations, its role as a major regional political and military power and its current responsibility as a mirror to the broader Arab psyche.
Whilst Egypt asks itself these soulful questions, as well as coming up with an institutional frames upon which to establish them, the baltaguiya (loosely translated as vagabonds,thugs or thieves) of the Mubarak regime remain. All the while the Muslim Brotherhood has begun to emerge from the underground where it has hidden for nearly six decades. Furthermore and consequently, there are rising sectarian tensions; as demonstrated by the May 7thImbabaevents between Muslims and Coptic Christians – the two largest elements of Egypt’s religious jigsaw.
The above tensions are overlaid with the machinations of the latest demonstrations in Cairo’s al-Tahrir square (as well as other major cities across the country). These reflect the anxiety and uncertainty amongst the core-elements of the popular movement that led January’s revolution. Liberals, leftists and moderate activists feel that – thus far – the protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak have yet to achieve much: their demands are as yet almost entirely unfulfilled.
Aspirations to make Egypt a prosperous democracy are fading due to the inefficiency of the current, military led, interim administration. Despite its role in allowing the recent revolution to take place, the military is still tainted somewhat by association to the Mubarak era. The interim administration has to deal with, not only, traditional parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood but also more unpredictable elements such as comical old opposition groups, business interests that flourished under Mubarak and of course good old-fashioned tribal alliances.
Despite these inherent challenges, Egyptians across the board are working out how to square their unique circle to ensure that diversity,tolerance, stability as well as progress and national identityare established and fostered. One hopes that, given the era of “strongmen” has passed its norms will soon too become history, replaced instead with a robust formula to allow the desires of Egypt’s modern revolutionaries to be fulfilled.
These challenges cause immense strain on the Egyptian psyche, like the cracking the seams of the corset too long imposed on the people. Egyptian society is very much faith based - and whilst Muslims and Copts still strive to present an image of a nation united by the slogans of its revolution – it is still a heavily fractured society. As sectarian as Bahrain or Syria, as tribal as Libya or Yemen and as religious divided as Sudan where Muslims and Christians are perpetually at each other’s throats. In all these comparative countries we see the spectre of a disastrous enterprise in “democratization” initiated by George W. Bush.
Support for Hezbollah in Egypt is low; one could even say that the group is unpopular. However, the Muslim Brotherhood has learnt valuable lessons from the Lebanese-paramilitary force in winning hearts and minds. In an article published by the New York times the new role assumed by the Muslim Brotherhood is discussed with a villager referring to an effective presence at all times: “They set the tents, he says, they provide free meals, medicines for patients etc....” What does this mean? Simply that the state is absent, sadly, replaced by a party that wants to be seen as interested in the needs of the people. Membership will come later, when those satisfied persons want to thank the Brotherhood for its generosity for giving them the most basic needs.
Whilst President Obama can deliver rhetoric about the billions needed to revive a sluggish Arabic economy, everyone knows that he is struggling to find the bottom of the abyss that is the US fiscal deficit. As such, this particular foreign policy conundrum will require his full arsenal persuasive powers to draw upon Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to provide the necessary stimulus – whether sufficient funds can be raised to effectively stimulate the Egyptian economy remains to be seen. However, this remains a vital step in legitimising whatever regime emerges following the interim administration as well as minimising groundswell support for ideologically and politically motivated groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt, and the Arab world with it, find themself at a crucial cross-roads where eventually a multitude of possibilities will have to collapse to form a single reality – and in a similar vein to a famously falsely attributed to André Malraux - "the twenty-first century will be religious or it will not be at all" as will Egypt and the Arab world have to decide to select national consciousness over sectarianism.
In a similar vein, the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras commented (correctly in my eyes) that "nothing is born or perishes, but things already existing combine and then separate again." Translated into political-speak: everything is cyclical – structures and paradigms are established, decline and collapse only to be replaced with new ones. In the here and now, this means that the Arab world is beginning to dismantle the political, and potentially territorial, scaffolding created after the First World War. If this is the case, the ramifications for the region and the World generally will be immense.
This commentary was published on in USA, in Arabs Today in UK and on Middle East Spectator blob on 06/06/2011

Lessons From The Arab Spring

By Gabriel Tabarani 
Since February 2011, following the uprising in Tunisia, the populations of many countries in the Middle East and North Africa have successively made the headlines by taking part in revolts and popular demonstrations against their corrupt ruling regimes.
To a careful observer, there is no doubt that a common scenario has been repeated in each of these countries. During their time in power, the leaders of these states attracted and gathered around them a circle of privileged individuals or groups to which they delegated important powers, and their associated trappings. In return, these leaders demanded their protégés’ blind submission, creating a quasi-dictatorial regime and the necessary internal security structures to ensure unwavering support.
These privileged few, in turn, exercised strict control over the population to keep the masses in ignorance and to prevent protest. Fearing for their privileges, they fought a constant battle against transparency and direct citizen participation in governance. This, with the aim of hiding what was going on behind the government’s closed doors.
The Tunisian and Egyptian masses have finally rid themselves of their "tyrants." However, serious doubts remain about the possibility of a definitive purification of local government and the departure of former entourages from power.
In some countries, the revolution has already begun, with varying chances of success. In other countries, negotiations are underway between the rulers and the ruled to institute some mitigating reforms. In all countries, the following questions will be asked of those who manage to take power from, or to share power with, leaders currently in place.
1. What system should be used to ensure the fair distribution of state resources through the entire population going forwards?
2. Should the administrations and experts who had been set up by the "tyrants" be replaced; and how should this be carried out?
3. How to ensure that the management of the state will be rational, efficient and above all fair, and that it will ensure sustainable development in the country?
In fact, as mentioned by a Tunisian professor at a conference on this subject a couple of weeks ago, the young revolutionaries in Tunisia need (to begin with)to deal with the same players who held centre stage during the successive terms of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. It is logistically impossible to replace at short notice, technicians, experts, officials and political professionals who have to their credit many years of experience in their respective fields.
To prevent the fruits of the revolution from be monopolized again and diverted to a new ruling clique that merely displaces its predecessors, it would require that in each country revolutionary committees be formed to establish new priorities that are fairer for all. I refer in particular to the case of Libya which is currently experiencing the darkest period in its history.
This would include the creation of a new development plan from which a new system of governance, with the necessary checks and balances would be introduced and applied. Citizens should reserve the right to monitor their governments to ensure that all the objectives of the revolution are achieved. For this purpose, it would be important to make use of three key elements: transparency, planning and participation.
Transparency is a term that is easily understood, though its implementation has generally proved to be "mission impossible" to date in the Middle East and North African countries.
Planning is essential to developing a program tailored to each nation’s particular circumstances as so to develop and sustain its economy while ensuring the welfare of its people.
Participation; it implies the association of the people in the governance of the country. The success of such an enterprise is essential to prevent a return of the old tyrants or the emergence of new dictators. This participation should enable the people to join in the creation of plans, determination of national objectives and in monitoring the implementation of reforms envisaged in these plans.    
This commentary was published on in USA, in Arabs Today in UK and on Middle East Spectator blog on 29/05/2011

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Dispassionate Take On Radical Islam

GULF NEWS: An analysis of fundamentalism in the Arab world, its origins and the way the West sees it

Reviewed by Omar Shariff

Jihad’s New Heartlands
Jihad’s New Heartlands: How the West Has Failed to Contain Islamic Fundamentalism By Gabriel G. Tabarani, AuthorHouse, 476 pages, £19.99

The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, which toppled the Shah's dictatorship, was followed by another seminal event that same year — the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to prop up the country's communist government.

The Mujahideen's nine-year guerrilla war which followed — backed ardently by the United States, of course — led to the humiliating withdrawal and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. But it also bred the first generation of Islamist radicals, many of whom returned to their respective countries as hardened combatants. One such individual was Osama Bin Laden.
In his meticulously researched book Jihad's New Heartlands: How the West Has Failed to Contain Islamic Fundamentalism, Gabriel G. Tabarani provides a historical narrative of the global Islamist movement leading to the events of 1979 and culminating in the death of Bin Laden.

Tabarani, an old Middle East hand based in London, analyses the huge range of Islamic groups in countries ranging from Algeria to Pakistan and from Russia to Somalia. In doing so, he gives us the background information and places it in a cultural context, which is very critical to understanding the phenomenon that is Muslim extremism.
The modern origins of the plethora of Islamist movements that pepper the globe can be traced back to 1928, when the Egyptian schoolteacher and imam, Hassan Al Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood. This was primarily in response to British colonialism. Al Banna was assassinated in 1948 and the Egyptian state continued with its repression of the group through the 1950s and 1960s.

One of the most influential and strident ideologues of the movement was the US-educated Saeed Qutb. His experiences in the West and in Egypt convinced him that the answer to the ills of society lay in going back to the fundamentals of Islam. While in prison, he wrote Milestones, a book that continues to inspire extremists to this day. Qutb's execution in 1966 for his political views made him a martyr to many Islamists around the world.
As Tabarani observes, "Although the tangible entity of the Brotherhood was purged by [Jamal Abdul] Nasser, the ideology of the movement remained. Not to be annihilated by means of torture, imprisonments and executions, the members of the Muslim Brotherhood endured."

Today's Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is, of course, a far cry from the days of Qutb and has long since disavowed violence. As the author says, a new generation has come forward that is engaged in and focused on working within the system.
Now the Brotherhood finds itself in a position where it is expected to do very well in parliamentary elections in post-Mubarak Egypt, as is its Tunisian affiliate Al Nahda (see interview on page 9 in Gulf News 08/07/2011).

Especially since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, religious extremism has been the subject of hundreds of books, often by authors with dubious credentials and/or a set agenda.
Oversimplification of the issue has also been a constant theme. But in his book, Tabarani displays not only an expertise in the subject matter but also explains a complex issue in a dispassionate, impartial manner.

Apart from looking at extremism in Islamic societies, Tabarani also tackles the issue in the West. The author offers some pertinent advice: It is high time for the US, and the West in general, to change their attitude towards Muslims and correct past mistakes.
-This Book Review was published in The GULF NEWS on 08/07/2011
-Omar Sharif is The Deputy Editor of The Gulf News
-Jihad's New Heartlands: How the West Has Failed to Contain Islamic FundamentalismBy Gabriel G. Tabarani, AuthorHouse, 476 pages, £19.99