Apr 21, 2011

Obama’s dilemma in Saudi Arabia


Saudi Arabia is an exceptional ally of the United States where American values and interests collide, and where Washington’s sincerity in supporting democracy and human rights is open to question. The Human Rights Watch reported today that the Saudi authorities have arrested since February 2011 over 160 peaceful protestors in violation of international human rights law. Like the three monkeys, though, the Obama administration publicly pretends to be deaf, blind and mute.

“It’s the oil,” tells me Peter Bergen, a terrorism analyst and author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Bin Laden. “Countries are not people. The relationships are mostly based on interests. We’re going to stick with the Saudis.” The reason is obvious. They have the world’s largest oil reserves. And the U.S. is heavily dependent on its relationship with Saudi Arabia to keep oil prices manageable and to help fight terrorism.

The problem, however, is that we have been calling the Saudis “moderate” – defying what being “moderate” really means when it comes to religious practices. In this context, all it means is that the Saudis are a committed ally of the U.S.

When the majority of the 9/11 hijackers turned out to be Saudi nationals, however, many realized that calling Saudis moderate did not do justice to the term.  The U.S. media felt completely free to strongly criticize the Saudis, and the Kingdom’s image soared. The Saudis created a full-court press of public relations, but it turned out to be ineffective. So they came up with a cunning diplomatic plan.

The Saudi initiative, later accepted as the Arab initiative, aimed to bring a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the Saudis showed themselves to be key in solving this long-term conflict, they also knew how to silence their American critics – and suddenly the negative press subsided. It’s clear that this issue is being used as a distraction for numerous reasons.

When the Middle East is transforming so rapidly, however, it is not clear what will save the Saudi Kingdom this time. “Who thought that Libya was immune from the Arab awakening,” says Bergen. “Two years down the road, it is possible [that they are forced to make changes.] There are ways for these monarchies to change. They can become constitutional monarchies. There are no constitutional dictatorships, right? They’re also able to bribe their citizens.”

Indeed, King Abdullah ordered a massive development and state welfare payment for the people in February easily excessing 35 billion dollars. Still, time will show whether money can buy everything. But one thing is clear: When the Israelis go to the polls next time to change their government, it will be a routine practice for them.

Apr 19, 2011

Let’s stand up for the Bahraini Shiites

Sectarianism in the Middle East is grievous, pernicious and enveloped in denial. Two officials – Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Conference, and Ambassador Shaikh Abdul-Aziz Al Khalifa, international media advisor of the Information Affairs Authority of Bahrain – offered me their perspectives on the issue. Both told me their thoughts about why sectarianism has begun to dominate the situation. One blamed the U.S. policies in the Middle East. The other accused the Iranian regime. Yet I couldn’t help but wish that they would admit that the mindset of the ruling elites and some segments of the Muslim population include horrifying sectarian discrimination. The Arab awakening will be incomplete if the Arab world does not confront its own demons in the form of sectarian segregation.

When I sat down with Ihsanoglu, I wondered about the OIC position on the Bahraini government’s crackdown on its Shiite led opposition, I expected to hear some self-criticism of the Islamic world, and some expression of concern over sectarian-based politics. I hoped to hear an admission of trouble in the Muslim world that needs to be addressed. But it did not happen. I was disappointed, and wondered if that was even a reasonable expectation when speaking to someone whose organization not only is based in Riyadh, but also represents Iran as well.

When asked about the Bahraini government’s approach to the protesters, which moved from a “severe crackdown” to “vindictive,” Ihsanoglu blamed the U.S. invasion and American policies in Iraq for creating sectarian conflict. “Prior to that, Saddam Hussein treated everyone badly,” he said. “Yet Shiites and Kurds and all others worked in his government. They were all equally mistreated.” When I reminded him that the Iraqis came to Washington separated as Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Shiites to lobby for a regime change, Ihsanoglu said, “Up until the (2003) intervention, Iraqis thought of themselves first as Iraqis and then as Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, or Turcomans. But it was never their primary identity. Their sectarian and ethnic differences came as their second and even third identity. Yet the ones who lobbied here used those differences, and when the U.S. put a new system in place they built it on those differences. What the French did in Lebanon 90 years ago, the U.S. did in Iraq eight years ago.”

Ihsanoglu did not claim that the U.S. invented the sectarian conflict, but he did argue that the Bush administration consciously pushed for it. And he explained the OIC’s efforts to reconcile Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. “In 2006, we succeeded in bringing together Sunni and Shiite leaders while sectarian violence was at its peak,” he said. “We made them sign on a 10-point agreement. We brought an end to claims such as, ‘I’m a Shiite, therefore I’m right,’ or ‘I’m a Sunni, therefore I’m right.’ That conflict came to an end religiously…Yet, the Iraqis are now politically divided just like in Lebanon.”

Although there may be different viewpoints over whether that religious conflict has ended, Ihsanoglu claimed that this is the legitimate truth; an objective analysis of the past decade and that U.S. policies caused the sectarian conflict to emerge. “[But] we’re against turning these issues into sectarian ideologies or make it part of a political confrontation,” he said. “What we say concerning Bahrain or elsewhere, the political issues need to be resolved in political frameworks. There should be a clear distance between politics and religion, and one should not intervene in the other; because it could take us to very dangerous places. We lived it in Iraq, and we don’t want to relive it again. If you bring religion into politics, things become bloody. We don’t want to see blood being spilled over again.”

But how do we prevent it from happening? Hammering American policies in Iraq is merely a distraction from the long-term oppression of Shiites in Sunni-ruled dictatorships. The majority of the countries that Ihsanoglu represents actually mix religion and politics. The bottom line is that as long as the Sunnis dominate the power centers of these regimes, they don’t care about the others. The Shiites outside Iran have been put down for far too long, and have been pushed to accept their place. They do have legitimate grievances that cannot be denied. Bahrain has a Shiite majority population, but the Sunnis rule it.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa introduced reforms a decade ago, including a parliamentary system. But the districts have been gerrymandered to produce an automatic Sunni majority every election, and now the Shiites want to be politically active. The Arab awakening does not discriminate against the Shiites – and each time they attempt to do something, they’re blamed to be Iranian agents. The U.S.–Saudi relationship is being tested in Bahrain, as Saudis have enjoyed U.S. support for so long that they want to make sure that they’re being favored at every turn, at any cost. If the U.S. sides with the people and makes its values a priority, it’s impossible to deny the legitimate grievances of Shiites and other minorities in the Muslim world.

The Bahraini government announced last Thursday that it would close al-Wifaq, the Shiite opposition party, but it didn’t follow through – possibly due to outside pressure. With all the measures being taken against the opposition, or the threats of punitive measures against the party, the Kingdom’s reforms have been rendered meaningless. In the last election, al Wifaq ran for 18 seats and won all of them. When the protests began two months ago, they submitted their resignations; but Parliament accepted only 11 of them. According to the Bahraini constitution, an election must take place in 60 days from the day those resignations became effective. But under these circumstances, who would take Bahraini elections seriously?

I interviewed Ambassador Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Khalifa, the former Bahrain Ambassador to the UK and the international media advisor at the Information Affairs Authority of Bahrain, before the Bahraini government attempted to close Al-Wifaq. Al Khalifa went back-and-forth as to whether to accept that there could be a legitimate Shiite grievance in Bahrain. At the end, he chose to blame outside intervention in their domestic affairs. “When you have the Iranian television channels, Alalam, Al-Manar, Ahlulbayt, Press TV, the Hezbollah channels, that are stirring poison and encouraging the protestors to keep their stand and giving support to the Shiite movement in Bahrain, that’s not helpful,” he said. “We believe this is a direct interference in Bahrain’s internal politics.”

Al Khalifa was also critical of the Iraqi government. “I think the Iraqi parliament went to a 10 day vacation in Baghdad in solidarity with the Shiites in Bahrain. The [Iraqi] prime minister is making other inflammatory remarks supporting Shiites. What’s this?” asked the Bahraini international media advisor. “If there is anything that he can offer, he must [admit] that ‘We went through a civil war. We had to come up with conciliatory program. Can we do something for you?’” The fact is that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, also a Shiite, suspended the parliament’s work briefly and expressed concern “that the events in Bahrain could unleash a regional sectarian war like the one that menaced Iraq just a few years ago.”

The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, recently detailed a chilling account of how the Saudi soldiers wage a campaign of sectarian violence. Mahmoud, a Bahraini Shia, shares his eye-witness account. “They managed to catch two people, aged no more than 30, and were beating them up badly, swearing at them all the time and cursing the Shia clerics, saying: “Where is al-Khomeini now? Where is al-Sistani, you Shia dogs?” he tells. “They say that we are spies for Iran, but nobody here wants to be ruled from Iran. We are Shia, but we are also Arabs, not Persians. We do not want help from Iran. We want democracy in our own country.”

Indeed, I was curious about why there were early reports that the Bahraini government was considering talks with the opposition, but any mention of the “talks about talks” is no longer.

Ambassador Al Khalifa claimed that the Crown Prince met the opposition’s demands to begin talks.  “We were asking for dialogue for one month, and there was no reciprocation from the opposition. They increased their demands and added the precondition. Now we have the upper hand and have another problem: the Sunni camp is so angry, we were put through hell, our lives were totally disrupted and now we don’t want to hear anything about dialogue, we believe in reforms, but we don’t need the style of protestors and for the protestors to be rewarded,” he said. “So we have a problem now that the Sunnis are reluctant to have this dialogue. I think the official line from the government is this: Once law and order is restored fully then we can think about having a national dialogue that will include both Sunnis and Shias for a better Bahrain.”

It’s stunning that the international community takes a selective approach toward human rights and democracy in the Middle East, and does nothing about Bahrain. The situation brings the Saudi and Iranian political circumstances to the forefront, and shows how they use religion and victimize people in their power game. The Shiites have legitimate grievances and they need to be given comfort, not military suppression. The Bahraini Ambassador admitted that the military presence is not sustainable, but what is the solution? “On the ground, the purge against Shiite workers in government and parastatal jobs continues,” a friend in Bahrain tells me. “[A] nd new regulations making it easier to hire foreigners send a clear signal that they are trying to squeeze the Shi’a out.”

Why is it so difficult for Muslim leaders to accept responsibility for their own mistakes and find ways to deal with the issue? When will it be the time to stand up for human dignity without worrying about power and political benefit?

Mar 14, 2011

P.J.Crowley resigns as State Department Spokesman

P.J. Crowley was forced to resign on Sunday as State Department spokesman over his remarks concerning the Bradley Manning case. Crowley criticized the detention conditions of Manning, the Army private who is being held in solitary confinement in Quantico, Virginia, under suspicion that he leaked highly classified State Department cables to the Website WikiLeaks.

During a visit to MIT last week, Crowley was asked “to address “the elephant in the room.” What did Crowley think…about Wikileaks?” wrote BBC reporter Phillipa Thomas on her blog.” About the United States, in his words, “torturing a prisoner in a military brig?”

Crowley’s answer was sharp and pointed. “What’s being done to Bradley Manning by my colleagues at the Department of Defense “is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid…Nonetheless, Bradley Manning is in the right place.”

Crowley deserves a great deal of praise for his bravity and integrity for not shying away from standing up for his principles and values.

“The unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a serious crime under U.S. law,” he said in a written statement on his departure Sunday. “My recent comments regarding the conditions of the pre-trial detention of Private First Class Bradley Manning were intended to highlight the broader, even strategic impact of discreet actions undertaken by national security agencies every day and their impact on our global standing and leadership…The exercise of power in today’s challenging times and relentless media environment must be prudent and consistent with our laws and values.”

Amnesty International recently was raising concerns that he has been confined to a windowless cell for 23 hours a day and that he is stripped down to his boxers at night and is not given pillows or blankets. CNN reports that his lawyer also “says the young private recently had to sleep in the nude because defense officials thought there was a suicide threat and decided to take away his boxer shorts.”

Crowley will be replaced by Michael Hammer, a White House spokesman.

Mar 10, 2011

Reform as wrenching as upheaval

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/dbb1f24a-49be-11e0-acf0-00144feab49a.html#axzz1GA66ILhY

By David Gardner in London
Published: March 8 2011 20:18 | Last updated: March 8 2011 20:18

The young revolutionaries of Egypt and Tunisia, after toppling Hosni Mubarak and Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, have managed to cleanse government of their henchmen and are now starting on their police state enforcers. Yet, while their thirst for political reform is unquenchable, little has emerged about their attitude towards the economic reforms their countries desperately need.

That debate, when it comes, could be as wrenching as the political upheaval. That is because the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes, which ran their economies as rackets for a tight circle of kleptocrats and concessionaires, may have discredited the very idea of reform.

That discredit is the greater insofar as Egypt and Tunisia were held up by bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as pioneers of economic reform in the region, while what Egyptians and Tunisians saw was cronyism and regime maintenance. The alibi peddled by western governments and their Arab clients that “structural reform” could unlock political reform – “give us some liberals to liberalise with” as one US ambassador to Cairo put it – was laughable.

Egypt did at times engage technocrats in a theoretically credible attempt to chart a transition from a command economy dominated by the public sector to an investment-powered, export-led, high growth model. Measures such as limited privatisation did, indeed, seed a perceptible rise in investment. But a closer examination of policy would have revealed a picture of mutation rather than change.

Privatisation, for example, invariably favoured regime loyalists such as steel baron Ahmed Ezz, who became a leader of Mr Mubarak’s ruling party and ally of his banker son, Gamal Mubarak. Mr Ezz is facing charges relating to his business and political activities, while the Mubarak family’s assets are frozen. By parcelling out concessions to loyalist businessmen, a regime based on the military and security services expanded its base. Genuine reforms – including changes to corporate law ordered by Mr Mubarak – were vetoed by the security apparatchiks as curbs on their discretionary powers. So, instead of confronting an insiders’ economy, the regime widened the circle of insiders.

In this cat’s cradle of mutual enrichment, scores of businessmen went into parliament – a seat of patronage rather than power – while retired officers remuneratively graced their company boards. In this “sinister cohabitation between power and capital”, as Nader Fergany, the Egyptian lead author of the UN’s 2002 Arab Human Development Report, called it, a particularly indolent form of crony capitalism thrived, but the bulk of Egyptians did not.

The number of Egyptians living on or below $2 a day grew from 39 to 43 per cent on Mr Mubarak’s watch. From 2005, after reform resumed, his government had to triple spending on food and fuel subsidies from 8.1 per cent to 26.1 per cent of current government expenditures. Spending on schools and infrastructure shrivelled. Now, by IMF reckoning, Egypt’s economy needs to grow by 10 per cent each year for the next decade just to absorb the   currently unemployed and new entrants to the workforce.

The crisis has led to strikes releasing bottled-up demands for better pay and conditions. Much of the economy is at a standstill.

Egypt has until now managed to stumble on as a skewed rentier economy of a different kind to the oil-rich Gulf model, earning between two-thirds and three-quarters of its foreign exchange from foreign aid, gas sales, Suez Canal fees, remittances and tourism. The military, furthermore, is insulated by its own business empire, with most of its weaponry provided for by a $1.3bn annual US stipend.

What Egypt needs is a modern education system to unlock the reservoir of talent of its 85m people. It needs law-based institutions. It needs a competitive environment to attract the right investment. There is so much upheaval still to come.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011. You may share using our article tools. Please don’t cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

A New Beginning

Greetings, Everyone. I’m interested in writing about foreign policy issues concerning Turkey and the Mid-East. So, this blog will be no different. I hope you will enjoy the journey…

Behind the Egyptian turmoil

By Tulin Daloglu

There is too much speculation about what comes next in Egypt. Fear dominates the air. The Obama administration does not seem to know as to how exactly to deal with the issue. Today, the anti-Mubarak protestors made it clear that they will not engage in any negotiation until the Egyptian President goes out of power. The message is clear: the genie is out of the bottle, and there is no way to put it back.

For almost two weeks now, Egyptians are on the street not because Hosni Mubarak has stayed in power for 30 long years, but because they’re fed up with pervasive corruption and mismanagement of their countries wealth; and favoritism of the higher echelons who denied them a chance to grow together as a healthy society. People finally said, “Enough!” They want to see a regime change. They demand “clean politics, clean society.”

The Interior Ministry’s unbearable attacks on the peaceful demonstrators and the cheap tactics of intimidating the foreign media to stop covering the events, made the Egyptian military be perceived as an innocent victim of the Mubarak era. The reality, however, could not be further from the truth. The senior Egyptian military have immensely benefited from the regime. When the push comes to shove, they won’t hesitate from bringing down Mubarak, but if and only if they can be assured that he is replaced by another of the regime, such as the newly appointed vice president Omar Sleiman who is also a former military. They would want to see the old system to continue benefitting them.

The senior Egyptian military, such as Chief of Staff Lt.Gen. Sam Enan, and the group of Major generals beneath him including Major General Mohammed Al-Assar who is Assistant to the Defense Minister – have been in these positions for 10 – 15 years. Many of these Major generals had already served in the military and retired and were brought back in at the rank of a two-star general. They do not change position in every 2 -3 years like most militaries. They serve at the pleasure of Mubarak and his right hand, the Defense Minister Marshal Tantawi. They have gained great wealth and power under Mubarak, and they will want to continue that.

“The junior military officers despise their superiors,” tells me one former American official who have closely monitored the relations with Egypt. They well know about the corruption, but they can’t do a thing about it. The system denies them the chance to get promoted like in any regular army. “Even though the U.S. government provides Egypt $1.2 million a year (that is totally separate from the Foreign Military Financing which is $1.3 billion a year) for International Military Training and Education (IMET) funding, the junior officers come for training and then get out of the military as soon as their 2 year conscription is fulfilled,” says the former official. Although there are significant corruption allegations concerning the defense minister and the senior levels of the military, this is still an army with honest and decent people.

The Egyptian people want to see change. It took them too long to say “Enough!” But there will be no change if the military takes over with those senior officials intact. While it is near impossible to detail the military’s corruption road map, there are widely known rumors – like the dealings at the Suez Canal.“During my research in Cairo,” recently wrote Matthew Axelrod at ForeingPolicy.com, who served as the North Africa and Egypt Director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005 – 2007, “foreign diplomats told me that Egyptian military officers regularly supplemented their incomes by receiving cash for routine military services including Suez Canal passage.”

If the people are out on the street seeking regime change, it’s time for Mubarak’s selective appointees in the military to go with him, as well. Any deal that cuts short of addressing the seriousness of the widespread corruption allegations will further endanger the future of the country. While many on Tahrir Square are rightly proud of their military, the corruption allegations of the senior Egyptian military officers need to be acknowledged.

Understandably, many are concerned for Muslim Brotherhood to come to power in Egypt. Yet Mubarak’s regime had hijacked the U.S. with those scare tactics for many years, and there is still the fear. It’s time to admit that Mubarak’s regime has helped to strengthen the extremists, and his never-coming exit from the Egyptian political scenery – once again – creates the potential to even deepen their strength in the Egyptian society. Therefore, it may be time for the U.S. to make two points clear: 1) End corruption for your country’s good. Good governance on your side will weaken the Muslim Brotherhood. 2) Do it so, because it is the right thing for Egypt. Do it so, because preserving peace with Israel will continue to benefit Egypt’s interests. And that ensures that Egypt continues to get their U.S. assistance because that is part of the Camp David deal.

When Egyptians are on the street demanding, “clean politics, clean society,” there is no better time than this to deal with the issue of corruption. If done right, there will be no fear for tomorrows, but Egyptians may really start a new era of enlightenment.