July 29, 2009

A New Government... For War?

It has been more than a month, since the March 14th coalition won the Lebanese parliamentary elections. The delay in the agreement on the government’s formation was expected, given Lebanon’s inherently polarized politico-sectarian system. Three years ago Hizbullah and Amal walked out on the government triggering a constitutional and legitimacy crisis for Beirut. The crisis, then and now, lies in the opposition’s understanding of the nature of Lebanese politics. Whilst the parliamentary majority felt it was natural that it would rule as any given majority would, the Hizbullah-led opposition (comprising various Christian, Druz and Sunni parties) bid to differ. Their line of reasoning holds that Lebanon’s splintered sects must be ruled by consensus rather than majority. The voters appear not to have responded enthusiastically to the latter proposition.

Three years ago, the opposition's fervent demands for what they termed the “guaranteeing third” of government ministries (enjoying veto power effectively) threw the country into an acute political crisis that lasted for two years. After the recent elections, similar demands were made of prime minister-elect Sa’d Al-Hariri. This time around, however, the opposition’s demands fell flat, as it took less than two months for Hariri to forge an agreement on the new government. Hizbullah has cleared the way for the new government to form, signaling its content with its prospective configuration.

The National reports that “according to political sources in Beirut and reports in the local media, the parties have agreed to a format that would give the majority 15 seats, the opposition a 10-seat portion and allow President Michel Suleiman, who is widely seen as an independent, five seats to prevent a plurality by the majority.” This arrangement would, in effect, award President Suleiman, known for his impartiality, veto power over government decisions. Speaker of the parliament, and head of Hizbullah-allied Amal movement, Nabih Berry affirmed the details would be hammered out in two days, and that “principally the government has been formed.”

Al-Akhbar and An-Nahar newspapers published lists of probable candidates for the ministerial positions in the new government.

The rapid political progress in Beirut is explained less by the appeal of the 15-10-5 formula to the opposition, and more by the menacing developments along the southern borders. The Likud government has tried to diplomatically capitalize on an explosion in a southern Lebanese village, which seemed to have been caused by stocked Hizbulla ammunition in a residential house. Tel Aviv asked for renegotiating the 1701 Security Council resolution governing the mandate of the United Nations Interim Forces In Lebanon (UNIFIL). After threatening that “Israel will not stand idly by,” Al Quds Al Arabi reports that four Mirkava tanks moved alarmingly close to the disputed borders, and that several Israeli jets violated Lebanese airspace flying over the Biqa’ Valley and Hassbia.

On his part, Nasrallah looked unshaken by the threats, as he issued his own. In a typical televised speech, Nasrallah warned that an Israeli attack on Hizbullah stronghold of Beirut’s Southern District (devastated during the last war), would induce retaliation against Israel’s biggest city of Tel Aviv. If Israel were to bomb Beirut, Hizbullah will attack surprising targets in Israel (possibly Israel’s nuclear reactors). Concerns over the eruption of a new war between Israel and Hizbullah are so serious that the meeting between Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, and US secretary of defense, Robert Gates, was clouded by discussions over the potential confrontation.

Hizbullah’s willingness to permit the Hariri government to form is an attempt to ensure a stable domestic front, should external development take an ugly turn.

July 27, 2009

Mubarak's Ikhwan Policy

On their way to prison, Muslim Brotherhood members look upbeat!

Center for a New American Security non-resident fellow, Marc Lynch, wrote a remarkable blog entry a few days ago criticizing the recent crackdown on "moderate Islamists" in Egypt. Lynch astutely notes that the effort appears to deliberately radicalize moderate elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Al-Ikhwan.

Cairo has long played this game. It has consistently persecuted moderate (especially secular) elements of the opposition. Mubarak's best foreign policy mantra has been it is either me or the radical Islamists. Alas, the international community has taken the bait every single time. The boogeyman policy works.

There was even juicier news broken by Al-Shorouk Al-Jadeed newspaper. According to "informed official sources," the Egyptian regime was not after a confrontation with the Ikhwan (in reference to the latest round of arrests), but was rather driven to it to “maintain stability”, and curtail the Brotherhood’s foreign contacts. It is not a secret that some Ikhwan figures have pursued dialogues with American and European officials.

The real bombshell is that a senior National Democratic Party (NDP) official sent an offer to the Ikhwan’s leadership urging them to cease their contacts and anti-government campaigns in exchange for releasing detained Muslim Brotherhood members. The Ikhwan were also asked not to run candidates for all seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections, and to tacitly endorse Gamal Mubarak’s succession of his ailing father.

The offer was partially accepted by Mahdi Akef, the Ikhwan’s Supreme Guide. Akef’s counteroffer stressed the need to release all detained and imprisoned Muslim Brothers, and assured the NDP of his willingness to withhold candidates from running in 2010. His offer did not include assurances regarding the group’s stance on Gamal Mubarak’s likely bid for the presidency. Akef’s counteroffer has not been accepted by the NDP yet. The reports have been vehemently denied by Ali El-Din Hilal, the NDP’s media secretary general. Akef, in turn, denied that there is a deal with the “ruling regime,” instead confirming his receipt of an offer.

These reports and others indicating government support for minor opposition parties set the tone for the upcoming confrontation. The Mubarak regime is increasingly nervous about the Ikhwan’s performance in the next parliamentary elections, and their reaction to the succession of Hosni Mubarak by his son. It is conceivable that Mubarak, whose old age and poor health are too visible to mask, is willing to ensure that his son takes over, prior to his death. The only viable opposition movement in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood; hence, Cairo’s deployment of a carrot and stick policy. The moderate Islamist group’s refusal to sing along muddies already murky waters. What is next for Egypt?

July 26, 2009

Update from the Land of the Pharaohs

I have been away from Underreported longer than I had anticipated or wished to be. I am glad to finally be back. Alas, I have no earth-shattering reason why I have not been able to post some blog entries. I have neither been into a Turkish prison, nor have I been denied entry at Cairo's International Airport. For the most part, I did not have an internet connection. Those from, or familiar with, the Middle East can also imagine how much time I have spent catching up with my extended family.

I will start posting again tomorrow with more inside stories than ever before. Or so I hope!

From Egypt's Northern Coast,

Yasser M. El-Shimy

July 13, 2009

Erdogan's Dilemma

(Prime Minister Erdogan pointing a fingure at the Israeli President.)
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has gained much popularity both in Turkey and in the Muslim world when he publicly scolded the Israeli president Shimon Peres, blasting Israeli military operation in Gaza as "a crime against humanity." Erdogan vehemently demanded more time from the moderator to respond to Peres' statements and, when given time, accused the president of "knowing very well how to kill". Click here for the video.
The undiplomatic burst of rage had serious implications for Turkish-Israeli relations. Major General Avi Mizrahi of the Israeli Defense Forces said the Turkish Prime Minister should have "looked in the mirror," before criticizing Israel (in reference to the Turkish presence in Cyprus). The IDF tried to contain the controversy claiming the general's comments did not represent "the official position of the IDF."

The Erdogan-Peres incident which had created a lot of buzz during the legislative and municipal elections in both Turkey and Israel proved less damaging to mutual relations than once feared. In fact, what started as a Turkish-Israeli spat turned into a self-review of Turkey's regional policies, particularly towards Cyprus.
The recent trip of Mahmoud Abbas to the Republic of Cyprus (Greek-Cypriot southern part of the island that enjoys EU membership since 2004) was not well received by Turkish media and public. It should be noted that a sizable Turkish population lives in northern Cyprus, and has enjoyed Ankara's complete support over the decades. The Greek Cypriots rejected uniting the island with their Turkish neighbors. Now, neither Turkey nor Turkish Cyprus have EU membership. What is worse, both Greece and the Greek Cypriots must approve Ankara's EU membership.
Erdogan may have expected gratitude from the Palestinian president, but that he did not receive. Reports from the Greek Cypriot media that the president Demetris Christofias thanked Abbas for bringing up Greek Cypriots issues at the Organization of the Islamic Conference and for Palestine's support for Greek Cypriot's "struggle." The visit was perceived by Turkey as an ungrateful behavior on the Palestinians' side.

Cyprus is a hot spot of Turkey. Turkey claims it had a right to intervene as a guarantor force in order to respond to Greek supported junta in the island. Greek Cypriots, conversely, cite the existence of Turkish troops in the islands, and human rights violations during the 1974 invasion. While the analogy between Turkey- Cyprus and Israel-Palestine is far from being exact, these two areas have suffered from ethnic conflict following the withdrawal of British mandate.
So why does Turkey feel betrayed by Abbas' statements? First of all, Turks would like to think of themselves as a "benevolent power," whose benign intentions and actions are misconstrued by others. Second, Turkey's new foreign policy under the guidance of Ahmet Davutoglu, an advisor to the government and as of May 2009, the new Foreign Minister has aimed at shifting Ankara's strategic posture from relative isolationism into being a more influential actor. For a couple of years now, Turkey has connected with countries from all over the world with official visits and opening of embassies in parts of the globe with which Turkey had not had significant relations. Turkey's desire and accomplishment to be a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and its self-appointed role as an honest broker of peace between Syria and Israel are part of newfound sense and aspiration of being influential in world politics, and can be best described as "neo-Ottomanism".

The question is whether the Erdogan government has been managing the transition smoothly. The Erdogan Davos rant reveals otherwise. However, the orientation of Turkish government seems to indicate that Davutoglu's policy of "zero problems" (i.e.: maintaing food relations with all of neighbors) is still the prevailing foreign policy tool as was manifest in Ankara's rush to congratulate Ahmedinejad after the Iranian elections. Time will show if Turkey's strategic plans to gain a greater role in the region and in the world will have more pros then cons but until then ups and downs with fellow countries will dominate the daily politics.

So far, signs indicate that relations with Israel are back to normal on the diplomatic level, the angry exchange has caused Turkey lose half of the average number of Israeli tourists. Nabil Marouf, Palestinian ambassador to Turkey denies reports that Abbas backs Greek Cypriots and Turkey has now moved onto another cause to defend: the Uighurs.

Underreported Goes to the Middle East

I am rather pleased to announce that I will be going to Turkey and Egypt this summer, for the next one and a half months. During this period, I should post qualitatively more "underreported" news items, though perhaps less frequently. So please bear with me, if I don't update every other day. I hope the posts will provide better insights into developments on the ground, as I write from Cairo or Istanbul.

Thank you for your time.

July 10, 2009

And the Dam Cracks...

(British Ambassador Frances Guy veiled for a meeting with Lebanese Shiite Spiritual leader Sayyed Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, regarded by many as religious figurehead for Hizbullah's followers) 

After eight long years of mixing oranges and apples, the Europeans appear to have finally learned the distinctions between constituency-based and societally-active Islamist militant movements, on the one hand, and takfiri, transnational terrorist groups, on the other. The former, notably Hizbullah and Hamas, have grievances founded primarily on nationalist grounds. These grievances relate, for the most part, to their nations' loss of land in previous armed confrontations with Israel. Their overriding objective is to reclaim of these territories, as well as gain political power. The latter, however, is interested in a much grander project that finds little sympathy amongst Muslims. The Al-Qaeda-types seek to depose all heads of state in the Muslim world, get rid of foreign occupation, and establish a Caliphate system. In pursuit of these objectives, takfiri groups have no qualm about murduring every one standing in the way, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

That the differences are glaring between both camps is easy to conclude. Nevertheless, Western government have long refused to acknowledge, at least not publicly, the differences, preferring to lump all militant Islamist groups in an uneasy monloithic bloc. In some instances, non-violent Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were thrown into the mix.

It is no secret that the aforementioned strategy have not yielded progress on any front. The situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and Lebanon are virtually the same now as they were a few years ago. But we might be witnessing a reverse of the tide. On June 9th, Hizbullah Member of Parliament, Muhammad Ra'd, held a 2 hour meeting with a British parliamentary delegation, accompanied by the British ambassador in Beirut, Frances Guy. The delegation included members of Britain's three largest political parties, the Labor, the Conservative and the Liberal Democratic parties. Ambassador Guy had previously met with MP Ra'd last month.

Yesterday, French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, announced his intent to meet with representatives from the Shi'a Lebanese militant party. If the meeting does take place, it would be the first such meeting between a high-level European diplomat, and a member of a group identified by the US State Department as a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, there are rumors that the EU's High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, will be meeting soon with Hizbullah's Hussein Al Hajj Hassan. There is definitely no dearth of Europeans meeting with Hizbullah.

Could it be that the Europeans have suddenly become more nuanced in their foreign policy posture towards the Middle East, whereas the United States has not? Probably not. I think the Obama administration is already stretching the limits of its domestic constituencies by appointing an ambassador to Syria, seeking dialogue with Tehran and opposing expanding Israeli settlements. Washington may have tacitly supported this engagement process, which the US itself cannot pursue, to test the waters, and see how much can be agreed on diplomatically with Hizbullah. After all, Hizbullah is not on the EU's list of terrorist organizations.

I would like very much to hear your thoughts on the reasons behind this series of meetings between European diplomats and Hizbullah members of parliament. 

July 8, 2009

Not in my Backyard!

"Israel can determine for itself... what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else". Joe Biden's permissive remarks regarding a potential Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities enjoyed a lot of attention in the mainstream media. Biden's remarks were perhaps only eclipsed by the President's swift disavowal of them. Nevertheless, neither President Obama nor Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, ruled out military force as an option. Iran, on its part, considers an Israeli attack to be an American attack.

There was equally significant news on this very subject coming from the Middle East that was not widely reported in the United States, however. Two American allies, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, distanced themselves from the scheme. These two countries hold the key to an Israeli assault on Iran, as Israel is more likely to fly through their airspace to carry out the operation rather than go through Syrian or Turkish territories. The pair is predictably wary of Tehran's retaliation, which is bound to be profoundly destabilizing to the region.

A July 5th report by the Sunday Times suggested that Riyadh had, in fact, given Tel Aviv the green light to fly its bombers through Saudi airspace. But Saudi officials and analysts vehemently deny the reports, describing the potential strike as a "belligerent activity." The Iraqi government went even further warning that "any penetration of Iraqi airspace by an Israeli national would be considered an attack against Iraq," and a violation of its sovereignty. Hassan al-Sanid, a member of Iraq’s parliamentary committee on security and defense, claimed that under the Status Of ForcesAgreement (S.O.F.A), "Iraqi land, sea, and air shall not be used as a launching or transit point for attacks against other countries."

So, what is happening exactly? I have a five possible explanations. First, the American Vice President is being his usual self, not committing to the President's diplomatic discipline. Second, President Obama is keenly aware of the devastating repercussions across the region of an Israeli attack on Iran. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the so-called anti-Iran Arab-Israeli alliance is not as solid as some of its cheerleaders wish it to be. Not only does it lack any popular foundation, but Arab governments will not be caught collaborating with the Jewish State against the Islamic Republic. Iraq, though likely to be on good terms with Washington for a few years, is acutely sensitive to the needs and concerns of its more powerful neighbor. Saudi Arabia does not wish to experience the wrath of the Ayatollahs, should the attack come via Riyadh. Fourth, a good cop, bad cop scenario may be in place. Washington may well be emphasizing its relative benign attitude towards Iran through stressing Israel's sovereign will and the lack of an American green light. Fifth, and more likely, the regional actors, the US included, do not seem to have a clue what to do next regarding Iran, hence the conflicting statements. All options are bad; that of which they are certain.

July 1, 2009

Shrinking Turkey

Despite Prime Minister Erdogan's statements that Turkey is not and will never be hit by the global financial crisis, all economic indicators point that the Turkish economy is officially in a recession. In the first quarter of 2009, Turkish economy has shrunk by a whopping 13.8 percent, making the decline second only to the country's 1945 World War II economy. This is exacerbated by a growing unemployment. According to the Turkish Board of Statistics, youth unemployment rose to 28.6 percent from 21.5 percent since last year. Considering that Turkey's unemployed young population has always been a concern for European countries, these figures have implications beyond Turkey's domestic politics. As we highlighted in our June 24th blog entry, unemployment among the youth is a problem throughout the Middle East.

The government of Erdogan has taken pride in (and credit for) the booming economy, and has repeatedly claimed that the global financial crisis will miss Turkey. Ankara also delayed an IMF deal fearing a public backlash during the municipal elections, although the overall growth rate of GDP has fallen from 4.7 percent in 2007 to 1.1 percent in 2008. We expect to see whether the AKP will go continue hiding its head in the sand or will acknowledge that Turkey is now officially in recession. If Turkey's economic malaise persists, the AKP will be hard-pressed to win another parliamentary commanding majority in 2011.

Ankara needs the EU more than ever now, but ironically the sluggish performance of its economy will further undermine its odds of membership.

You did it! No, You did it!

Fatah and Hamas are back to their childish finger-pointing; this time over the issue of political prisoners. The "national reconciliation" talks between the two movements have been conducted in Cairo for several months now, with few signs of progress.

Egypt has been hosting the soap opera-like negotiations to prove the reselince of its (ever-diminishing) regional role. Mubarak also wishes to undo some of the political damage he sustained for helping Israel blockade Gaza during the Gaza Offensive and beyond. The latter policy proved neither effective in toppling Hamas from power (a goal espoused by Cairo for the last two years), nor particularly popular in the Muslim world. In fact, the Egyptian regime was decried by protesters around the world, and widely vilified on Al Jazeera's coverage of the war. The latest news from Cairo, however, reveals the country's continuing inability to mediate regional conflicts as efficiently as the mini-state of Qatar (the host and funder of Al Jazeera News Network) does.

If you expected the irreconcilable differences between Hamas and Fatah to be regarding recognition of Israel, the role and membership of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the formation of national unity government, etc., you'd be mistaken. While the two parties struggle to find common ground on these issues, Hamas and Fatah have been apparetnly arresting each other, even as "national reconciliation" talks are held. Negotiation experts would probably define this as a non-confidence-building measure. Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Gaza-based prime-minister, blamed the failure of the negotiations on Fatah's "intransigence" regarding the release of Hamas political prisoners (Hamas activists and militants detained by Ramallah's security forces). Haniyeh went on to blast his "brothers in Fatah" for being controlled by the demands of Israel and the United States. Fatah has recently launched a crackdown on some Hamas figures in the West Bank, resulting in the infamous Qalqilya incident. Shortly after the collapse of the talks, it was reported that 10 Hamas members were rounded up in the West Bank on the claim they were planning attacks against Ramallah government figures. Yet, Fatah insisted that some 468 of its memebers are alreadly held by Hamas (a charge Hamas denies), and Presdient Abbass held the Islamist movement responsible for the talks' failure by prioritizing "factional interests" over national reconciliation.

The talks were supposed to end on July 7th with a national unity agreement. Instead, the news came from Cairo that July 25th-28th is the new date for yet another round of talks. This hardly comes as a surprise. Not only has Egypt failed to play an active mediating role conducive to an agreement, but in many cases Cairo blatantly took the side of Fatah.

The Palestinian factions have their own reasons for perpetuating the status quo as well. Hamas wishes to reinforce itself as a fact of life in Gaza. In other words, the longer Hamas clings onto power in the Strip, the more likely that Ramallah, Tel Aviv and Washington would have to accept the organization as a partner in a future peace agreement. Hamas may also be cherishing the victim's image that boosts its popularity among Palestinians, whilst depicting its secular rival as a stooge for the Israeli occupation. On the other hand, Fatah is adamant to demonstrate its relevance. The secular organization's populartiy is sagging, its reach of authority is confined, and its internal cohesion is in question. Abbass and the Fayyad government are trying to remain relevant by showing their ability to counter Hamas' growing influence in the West Bank. Abbass, after all, knows he is the preffered peace partner.

I would like to hear your thoughts on how Arab-Israeli peace can be reached in light of the ongoing rift between the two main Palestinian parties. Or can it be reached with two different authorities?

Another Boost for Underreported

When Tom Ricks predicted my blog was going to be "essential for those following events in the Middle East," I was very flattered, though not as hopeful. These things take time. But on Sunday, Andrew Sullivan, one of the world's most remarkable bloggers, referred to my blog post on unemployment in Egypt. I am speechless, and deeply grateful.

Thank you.

P.S.: I have been away for the last two days moving from Boston to DC. I apologize for not blogging on Monday or Tuesday. Underreported will strike back starting today.