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Thursday, June 30, 2011

...and it's not even friday!

Big things going on the last few days.

Egypt – major clashes between protesters and police again – hundreds or even thousands injured. Some have blamed former Mubarak insiders for provoking the incidents, but the anger has been hovering under the surface for weeks. The families of the 800+ people killed by the police during the Tahrir square protests have seen no justice - neither the police, the state secret police, nor the regime thugs and baltagi have been made answerable for their murderous brutality. The patience of a people who know their own power is running out. 

On a related note, the prosecution of the police responsible for the 2010 death of Kahled Said (one of the triggers of the Arab spring in Egypt), has been delayed until the end of this summer. In this case, however, the delay may be a good thing. The police under investigation were being charged with excessive force and illegal arrest, but the family of Kahled Said was able to introduce a second, independent, autopsy report as evidence, which may allow the charge of homicide to be added to the charges against the poilice – a much more serious charge that carries much stronger sentencing guidelines.

Lebanon – The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has finally released its first indictments in their investigation of the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Arrest warrants against four Lebanese hezbollah members. Were issued and the Lebanese government has 30 days to serve the warrants. The prime minister has been a bit cagey about how far this will go, and many Hezbollah supporters are dismissing the whole thing as a us/Zionist plot to destabilize Lebanon. The individuals named are regarded as most directly connected to the actual carrying out of the act, while two more sets of indictments will be coming out later this year. It seems that the STL is going to work its way up the chain of authority, so the plotters and backers of the assassination won’t be targeted until the fall.

For extensive coverage and background on this check out the coverage here: http://qifanabki.com/2011/06/30/stl-indicts-four-suspects-in-hariri-murder/

SyriaProtests have hit Aleppo. This is a big deal – Aleppo is the industrial center of Syria and Assad's government cannot afford to turn the city’s residents against them.

Bahrain – Saudi Arabia started pulling troops out of Bahraintwo days ago and the Bahraini King gave a nice speech about justice yesterday and then turned his thugs loose on the protesters. Protesters were agressively dispersed by riot police using teargas and stun grenades indiscriminately. Check out https://twitter.com/#!/angryarabiya for updates.

In other news, police in Saudi Arabia arrested five woman drivers yesterday.

It figures. In Egypt and Bahrain protesters face clubs, rubber bullets, and tear gas. In Libya and Syria protesters face tanks and life ammunition. In Saudi Arabia you protest by taking your BMW for a spin around the block. Ah well. Baby steps.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Today is "blog4syria" day

I unfortunately don't have time to pull together a full post, so I'll direct you to Zenobia's piece "A day is not enough to blog about Syria"

Also, global voices online has a good roundup of some other posts on Syria here: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/06/24/syria-blogging-day-for-syria/

If you're interested in learning a bit more about Syria's precariousness from a cultural standpoint, you should head over to Michael Dunn's blog at the Middle East Iinstitute website (which you are already reading, right? RIGHT?) In particular, he links to a great piece on Allawite identity called "The Alawi Dillema, revisited" which...well...you should just read it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The horrible spectacle of false justice in Bahrain

It’s overwhelming sometimes. Despite the ongoing brutal violence taking place in Syria, Libya and Yemen, sometimes the flagrant abuse of power that hides itself in the guise of law is harder to stomach. Today in Bahrain, eight activists were sentenced to life in prison on false charges.

Life

In prison

I don’t really have a whole lot to say about it. To call it a travesty of justice is an understatement.

Outside of Bahrain the outrage seems muted – the size of the situations elsewhere are so much bigger, while Bahrain is so small that the scale gets lost in the mix (not to mention the ancient law of journalism – if it bleeds it leads), but per capita, Bahrain is suffering on a level that no other middle eastern country is right now.

Rather than simply restate the details (you can read more here), I have excerpted a section of yesterday’s twitterfeed by Zainab Alkhawaja, a Bahraini blogger who posts under the name @angryarabiya

Her father is one of the eight who were sentenced to life in prison today.

***

On my way to military court, to witness the sentencing of my father
and 20 other activists & leaders.

Hello all, tweeting from a prison called Bahrain. Where all Bahrainis
have been serving a life-sentence under the oppression of the regime.

Today, my father, prominent human rights activist, Abdulhadi
Alkhawaja, has been sentenced to life in prison.

My father is a just man, & as Thoreau wrote "Under a gov which
imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a
prison"

After the sentence was read, my father raised his fist & shouted "WE
SHALL CONTINUE ON THE PATH OF PEACEFUL RESISTANCE!"

they started violently shoving my father out of the court room. All I
could think was "God is greater than these oppressors", so I said so

as my brothers have been doing from their rooftops every night, I
shouted "Allahu Akbar", until my mouth was covered by a military
policeman

I was pulled out of court with my mouth covered, then taken to a room
where i got handcuffed with my hands behind my back

with me in the room was Jalila, teacher who has been imprisoned for
being a part of the teachers association. Her trial was be4 my fathers

Jalila hadn't seen her children for 68 days, the youngest is a 5 year
old. Today she saw them for the 1st time since her arrest

We looked @ each other & smiled, couldn't speak with all the military
police in the room

A military policeman came into the room, walking directly towards me
and spat in my face. I looked away and smiled. Jalila looked v. upset

Another policeman came in & started shouting "IF ONLY WE WERE IN
TEHRAN WE COULD HAVE HANGED YOU A LONG TIME AGO!"

Jalila quietly whispered "Are u Zainab", I nodded. I fely very bad for
her, not seeing her children for that long broke my heart :(

policeman started wagging his finger in my face "Today I used my hand
to cover your mouth, next time I'll use something else to shut u up"

I looked away from him, & did not respond, #Sharp writes to overcome
fear we must understand it. I breathed deeply to get my heart rate
down

The policeman cntnd "If u dare show ur face @ the appeal, I will show
u wat i can do to you" I noticed his hands were trembling...

I cant say I wasn't afraid but with help of God I became v. calm &
relaxed. I smiled alot with Jalila to let her know I'm ok.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to see our hero Ayat Alqurmuzi, but even
hearing her name put a smile on my face & made me even more calm

My father & those with him might be behind bars, but they are more
free in spirit and mind than any of us. I am so proud of our
activists.

as AlSingace always tells us, "We will be released!". I dont believe
for a second that my dad & the others will spend their lives in prison

the Bahraini ppl wont allow it. Becuz we will all "continue on the
path of peaceful resistance"

***

For a bit more background, I also recommend Zainab's letter to Barack Obama. I don't always agree with her, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for her and her family.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Quick follow-up on Lebanon and Hezbollah

As a follow-up to Wednesday's post on Lebanon I wanted to provide some opportunities for deeper reading.

Elias Muhanna a Lebanese scholar and blogger has a great post entitled "What Hizbullah Wants From Mikati" where he looks at Hez's current political strategy in relation to Prime Minister Mikati, and where their endgame is headed.

If you're interested in learning a bit more about Hezbollah's ongoing maneuvers in response to the International Court of Justice's Special Tribunal for Lebanon (the investigation into the 2005 assasination of PM Rafik Hariri) you can find a timeline here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Lebanon - dark clouds on the horizon.

When I first started writing this blog six months ago my initial inspiration came from a cluster of events that had all kicked off than the space of a few weeks: the self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazzizi, major splits in Israel’s leading political party, a referendum for the partition of the Sudan, an increasingly vocal Egyptian online political community, the growing likelihood of internationally recognized Palestinian nationhood, and the collapse of the Lebanese government.

Interestingly enough, that last incident has been far less of a factor in the Middle East instability than any of the other aforementioned events.

Until now.

Lebanon, no stranger to civil unrest, is finally feeling the impact of the Arab Spring in what promises to be a spectacular, and possibly disastrous fashion.

After more than five months of dithering and ambiguity, a Lebanese government has finally come together.

In early January, the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) announced that they were on the verge of releasing their findings into the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Most suspected that the finger of blame would be pointed with varying degrees of directness at prominent Lebanese affiliates of Hezbollah, Bashir Assad’s inner circle in Syria, and quite possibly even elements within the Iranian government. Syrian political power and Iranian money are deeply enmeshed in the delicate balance of Lebanese democracy - such a revelation would be unacceptable to certain parties in all three countries.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri (son of the aforementioned assassinated Rafik Hariri) was encouraged to denounce the findings of the UN ICJ commission investigating his own father's assassination, thereby delegitimizing its findings. This was unacceptable to Saad from both a personal standpoint (they killed his Dad!) and a political one (he was the leader of the March 14 alliance, a political coalition committed to Lebanese independence from Syria)

The Lebanese government functions through a delicate balance of power-sharing and checks & balances between ethno-religious demographic groups. In response to Saad’s refusal to denounce the ICJ, ten opposition members of the Lebanese government immediately withdrew from his cabinet. This was the constitutional equivalent of a vote of no-confidence – the government cannot operate legitimately without the participation of the opposition. With their exit, a new mutually agreeable prime minister needed to be selected, effectively removing Saad from his position with a single stroke.

This is where it gets interesting. (Actually, it's already interesting. Lebanese politics are fascinating.)

Something happened.

Actually, something didn’t happen.

Actually, two interesting things didn't happen.

The international Court of Justice didn't release their findings, and the Lebanese cabinet didn’t re-form.

In the meantime, the rest of the Middle East was going haywire. Ousted dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, revolution in Libya, major repression in Bahrain and Yemen, etc.

And in Lebanon, nothing.

Until now.

Like it or not, the history of Lebanon and history of Syria are inextricably linked, and as the Syrian government escalated its campaign of brutality and repression over the past few weeks, it was just a matter of time before Lebanon felt the effects.

In particular, the die was cast when Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, spoke out in support of Bashir Assad as the Syrian army was attacking its citizenry with horrifying violence. This public declaration showed that Hezbollah was on the side of the Syrian regime, and not the Arabs of the Levant.

Two days ago, the Lebanese government suddenly, and without warning, coalesced into functional form (doubtlessly with no small amount of arm-twisting by the Syrian government).

Although not all of the new cabinet members are Shia, much less direct affiliates of Hezbollah, Hezbollah still has a disproportionate amount of influence in this new government.

So, what does this all mean?

It means that Lebanon is on a crash course towards three things:

1. The international Court of Justice. I'm not sure what the reasons were for their protracted period of silence, but even when initial word of the upcoming ICJ pronouncement came out in January it was unclear as to whether they would be revealing their findings in a few weeks or a few months. As it stands, the delay in their announcement is actually a good thing. If they had made their announcement at any point during the last few months it could have effectively been ignored because, well, Lebanon didn't have a government. Now, with an authority structure there also comes an accountability structure, and it is quite likely that certain elements in power will be identified as having been directly or indirectly involved in the assassination of President Rafik Hariri…and someone will probably feel the need to do something about it.

2. Syria. There's not much that can be said about this at this point. President Assad may be able to keep his grip on power for a a few more months, but probably not much more. The Syrian regime is heavily invested in Hezbollah, has held an inordinate degree of control over the Lebanese political apparatus for decades, and their inevitable collapse will create an unstable power vacuum whose impact is virtually impossible to calculate.

3. Hezbollah. Unless they take some drastic measures, Hezbollah is screwed in the long term, although they may be able to consolidate power in the short-term. This is actually pretty scary. Hezbollah’s militia forces in southern Lebanon are better trained and equipped than most of the Lebanese army (this has been a major point of contention in Lebanese politics for many years). If they feel that their power base is threatened by events in Syria or Lebanon they may simply take matters into their own hands and undertake “the continuation of politics by other means.”

What does this add up to?

Nothing good for Lebanon, I’m afraid.
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Sunday, June 12, 2011

News and such.

As I’ve mentioned before, it was not my intention to just use this blog to collect links and news updates on the Middle East. My hope was to use my anthropological background and general familiarity with Middle East politics to provide a little context and insight into the various situations unfolding in the Middle East. As a part-time blogger with a job and a life it hasn’t been easy for me to put out as much of the kind of material that I’d prefer to – updates and links make up the greater part of this blog’s content.

I’m in the process of adjusting the format a little bit, I’ll be adding some interviews, podcasts, and maybe a few book/movie/music reviews as well. In the meantime, I’ll still be posting links and news update (which I also do on my twitter feed) and trying to add a constructive and useful perspective to the whole mess.

So, what’s up?

Morocco, which I left in the “relatively safe” column for the past several months, has lately been slipping towards the “unstable” category. In particular, a young engineer was beaten to death by the police a little over a week ago, catalyzing a new round of more focused protests.

The government has, so far, been walking a fine line between allowing public protests while still keeping their hand firmly on the situation.

That being said, there may be genuine constitutional reform in the works – an early draft of the new constitution has been making the rounds - and although it continues to grant the King special dispensation (albeit slightly diminished), it does enact some separation of powers, it makes the Amazigh (Berber) Language an official language of Morocco, and says some nice things about human rights.


Will this be enough to forestall further disruption? It depends on

1. How reasonable the final version of the constitution looks to the protesters (and if it gets implemented).
2. How reasonable the protesters’ reaction looks to the wider population.

Regardless, an excellent resource for those looking to follow the Moroccan protests more closely can be found at http://www.mamfakinch.com/

Yemen

I’ve been openly skeptical of yemen’s ability to make it through its current political instability without major internal conflict. Civil War isn’t a sure thing, but it’s still pretty likely. AJ has a good piece on power profiles in the new Yemen, and some possible outcomes.

Bahrain

The state of emergency was revoked a few days ago, but repression has continued. A few notable things have happened since then.

Formula 1 racing decided that the Grand Prix, delayed in Feb. due to protests, could still be held in Bahrain. This caused a wave of outcry around the world, culminating with 11 of the twelve teams announcing that they wouldn’t participate in the race in Bahrain because of the government’s suppression of dissent. This is a MAJOR EMBARRASSMENT to a government that deserves much worse.

President Obama met with Bahraini crown prince on Friday, but only for a few minutes. Prince Al Kalifa is generally considered to be a reformer, relative to the rest of the Bahraini royal family, and the meeting may earn him a little cachet, but the big story was on the streets yesterday, with more than 10,000 marching peacefully in the streets of Manama calling for reform. The opposition successfully showed that they aren’t going anywhere.

Iran
A silent protest was held in Tehran to commemorate the second anniversary of the stolen 2009 Iranian election, and was predictably greeted with violence.

There's a more detailed account of yesterday's protests here

Imprisoned Iranian activist and journalist Hoda Saber died today. Ten days into a hunger strike he suffered a heart attack, but was denied medical attention for six hours afterwards.

Libya

The Libyan freedom fighters continue to make progress one town at a time, and the NTC was most recently recognized by Spain, Australia and the UAE.

Sec State Clinton will be addressing members of the African Union on Tuesday – I’m interested to hear what she has to say…

Turkey

National elections in turkey today that could have major regional impact. Prime Minister Erdogan won easily, as did his political party AKP, securing the 50% that ensures a mandate to lead, but not the supermajority that would have allowed them to revise the constitution. The Turkish Kurds made major gains in this election as well.

Turkey isn’t my strongest suit, but I’ll try to link to some good analysis of the election outcomes in the next few days.

Syria

There’s a good bit of back and forth over whether or not Assad has any chance of holding on to power.
Here’s one that says yes: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/assad-likely-to-succeed-in-bid-to-quell-syria-protests-1.367160

Here's one that says no: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/12/syrian-inflighting-assad-power-slipping

Personally, based on the scope and scale of the protests around the country, I don’t think he has a snowball’s chance in hell. I think the breaking point will come from within the army – the rank and file soldiers are already acting under duress, and the continually escalating atrocities are taking a terrible toll, as more and more reports of punitive military executions creep out.

There’s a worthwhile piece on Syria, the Syrian military, and the uprising here (and it uses the word rubicon in the title, so I pretty much have to link to it, right?)

Palestine

Although most of the recent media attention surrounding Israel/palestine has focused on the incidents in the Golan, the heart of the Arab spring in Palestine is taking place much farther south in Nabi Saleh, where a string of protests and clashes between the IDF and residents have been taking place regularly for the past several weeks.

Those of you who are hip to the twitter can follow Israeli journalist Joseph Dana, who has been doing regular reporting on the Nabi Saleh protests.

The terrorism and violence of the second intifada is generally regarded by most Palestinians to have been a long-term failure. Now the Palestinian nonviolence movement, long-ignored by international media, suppressed by the Israeli government, and derided by more aggressive Palestinian factions as ineffectual or even traitorous, has been moving steadily to the forefront.

On a lighter note...

How to make Bedouin Style Chicken

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The situation in Libya - June

As we reach the 80 day mark of intervention in Libya, NATO has extended their mission by another 90 days, though my guess is that we have only a week or two left. The conclusion of the Libyan revolution is so close I can taste it.

Russia, who initially abstained from voting on the imposition of the no-fly-plus on Libya, finally voiced its support for the National Transitional Coucil (NTC). Jordan has also recognized the NTC and is in the process of establishing a diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

On Monday eight high-ranking libyan officers (five of whom were generals) who had escaped to Italy called on the remaining few generals to follow their example, and abandon the regime. Estimates place the number of remaining generals at less then ten. The degradation of Qaddafi’s command and control can be seen in the utter failure of his military to achieve anything resembling success against anything other than lightly armed mountain villages.

The police and military enforcement in Tripoli are now making heavy use of motorcycles, instead of the trucks and jeeps that were previously the norm, suggesting that the fuel shortage is at a critical stage. The humanitarian situation in Tripoli is reaching disastrous proportions, with food and water almost gone.

Tripoli is now seeing small protests and guerrilla attacks against the government on a daily basis, and the NATO bombings have accelerated over the past few days. Rumor has it that Qaddafi is sleeping in Tripoli-area hospitals for fear of coalition airstrikes.

Meanwhile the RAF has started to use Apache helicopters, enabling much more precise targeting for their strikes (though this comes at a somewhat higher risk to the pilots).

South African president Jacob Zuma visited Libya on Monday and met with Qaddafi to discuss a peace settlement. The outcome of the conversation was pretty much a bust – Qaddafi is adamant in his refusal to step down, which is a deal-breaker for the NTC. (shortly after Zuma left Tripoli the city was subjected to a massive wave of NATO air strikes)

Overall, things are still going slowly and steadily against Qaddafi.

Anyone who uses the word "stalemate" is in denial and/or an idiot.