China sees India as a potential nuisance, let’s not be in a hurry to resolve the border dispute when the distance is as vast as it is now, Arun Shourie tells National Editor (News Operations) Rakesh Sinha in an interview days before Narendra Modi leaves for China. How do you view the Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to China? Arguably the principal achievement of Mr Narendra Modi has thus far been the energy and the clear focus he has brought to foreign policy. A distinguished academic was pointing out the other day that the backdrop of each of the PM’s visits abroad has been China: those to Japan, to Fiji, to Australia, to the two Pacific Powers — US and Canada; the fact that our President was in Vietnam on the eve of President Xi’s visit to India; the Prime Minister’s visits to countries in the Indian Ocean. The GCF — the Greatest Common Factor — in these has been one: China. Hence, a clear focus. Does this suggest that he sees China as the main problem for India? I certainly cannot say how he sees China. But the fact is that, while Pakistan is the immediate problem, China is the principal challenge in the long run — and in part Pakistan is a problem because of China. China’s great skill has been the manipulation of power and the symbols of power. It has a definite view of its place in the world: that it must be the dominant power in Asia now, and the principal power in the world tomorrow. And don’t forget the success that they have already achieved towards these goals. China is the most significant factor in international calculations today: its economy is five times that of India; its foreign exchange reserves are ten times ours; its defence spending is three-and-a-half times that of Japan. No country in Asia, and much farther afield, takes a decision without factoring in China’s likely reaction. On the contrary, even allies of the USA are only too willing to head for the Chinese door disregarding reactions of the US: look how 42 countries have already signed up for the Infrastructure Bank that will be dominated by China. But isn’t the Chinese economy facing deep problems today? Indeed, it is: the property and stock markets have swollen as bubbles. Local governments have been on a building spree through “shadow banking”. And so on. But China’s problems are not going to solve ours: all they can do is that they may give us a little more time. More important, who knows how China will react if it really landed in serious problems: will it lunge for external belligerence to divert attention of its people? And please remember, nor is it just that they have acquired capacity, they have acquired the necessary reputation: that they are entirely capable of using force to enforce their interests and claims; that—the complete opposite of the US— China will stay the course: its territorial claims vis a vis countries that it regards as its rivals — Japan — or mere “squatters”— as it sees the countries with claims to the Spratly Islands, say. Where does India fit into its worldview? A fundamental objective of China’s strategic doctrine has been to “manage the periphery” — this originally meant the areas from which hostile hordes could descend and wreak defeats on the Chinese. But in general it means all areas from which China’s interests can be hurt: today, with the advance of technologies, etc., the US can affect China’s interests; and so, the US too must be managed. We, in any case, are literally on its periphery. —————————————- —————————————- It views India as a potential nuisance—one that must be kept busy in South Asia. And it has a willing instrument in Pakistan to do so. The Wiles of War, a Chinese war-classic, advises, “Murder with a borrowed knife”! Second, the Chinese establishment has long felt that Indians are a docile people who will always be doing somebody’s bidding: first they did what the British wanted; then India was under the tutelage of the Soviet Union; now, in their assessment, it is becoming the instrument of the Americans. Trade with China has grown to $70 billion today. Won’t this so enmesh the interests of India and China that China will come to value India’s partnership? That is a complete delusion — the delusion that trade, and even economic interests in the large will deflect China from its central objective, of power, of domination. The Japanese leadership reasoned the same way twenty years ago. And see what they are experiencing at the hands of China today. Second, we must look at the nature of our trade with China: we are exporting raw materials — iron ore, bauxite — and importing finished goods: so many of our companies, for instance in electronic items, have become just traders in Chinese goods. Isn’t that precisely the kind of trade against which Indian nationalists, from Dadabhai Naoroji on, protested? And then, before going gaga over that figure of $70 billion, remember that is the total value of trade: it is made up of $15 billion of exports from India to China, and $5 billion imports from China into India! What about soliciting Chinese investments, especially in what is one of the main priorities of this government, infrastructure? Two points. First, assume a contract is given to a Chinese firm to lay a rail track: won’t that involve the same problems—land acquisition, etc.—that an Indian firm would have to face? And if you are prepared to clear the way for that Chinese firm, why not for an Indian firm? Second, several types of projects and infrastructure have security implications: power, for instance, telecom infrastructure certainly. And China’s record in penetrating networks, for instance computer networks, has been documented time and again: you just have to read the Munk Center’s report on how China penetrated computer networks of over a hundred countries — including India, of course — and used this to send key data from these in real time to Chinese bases; or the earlier Cox Committee’s report to the US Congress: you just have to glance through these and you will see what we will be opening ourselves to if we were to allow them entry into infrastructure in sectors like telecom. So, my response would be: extreme wariness. You imply that India isn’t able to meet the Chinese challenge or threat on its own. What should it do? First, as we are not able to equal China’s acquisition of influence, yes, we must seek common ground with all countries that are apprehensive of China today—for sharing intelligence and assessments; for coordinating positions in international organisations and negotiations; for technology acquisition, etc. For instance, we must exert ourselves to the maximum to make common cause with countries along the Mekong that are as worried by the steps that China is taking to divert waters. But we must always remember that, just as we will not go to war to safeguard anybody else’s interests, no one will go to war with China, or even sacrifice any vital interest of its own because China has grabbed more territory in Ladakh or Arunachal, or because they are diverting Tibetan waters to the east and north of China. Look at the way NATO has remained paralysed over Ukraine. Hence, the first point is: closer relationships with other countries, most certainly; but there is no substitute for building what the Chinese call Comprehensive National Strength. Second, true, there is a substantial backlash against China’s overt aggressiveness—from East and Southeast Asia to Africa to Latin America — but we have to be able to and adroit enough to take advantage of it. The first requisite is to follow up on the Prime Minister’s visits we talked of earlier: execute the projects that have been announced or agreed with those countries. We also have a reputation for forgetting about the agreements and announcements that were made and the MoUs that were signed, once the visit is over. Let’s talk about the PM’s visit. What do you think he should bear in mind? First and foremost, he must bear in mind how the Chinese swept Panditji off his feet. They zeroed in on his intense desire to be a world leader. Remember how Chou En-lai — one of the 20th Century’s great masters of diplomacy — dissimulated as an eager student: asking Panditji about Indochina, about world affairs. Soon, Panditji was asking him whether, in addition to what Chou had asked, he would not also like to know about the Arabs, about U Nu, about the difference between the two types of Buddhism… The next day, Panditji wrote to Krishna Menon that he had found Chou to be not well informed about world affairs, but that after their meeting he was better equipped! And how the Chinese completely bowled him over during his visit to China — with uncountable crowds, and the rest. So much so that, after a strenuous day, Panditji was writing a long letter to Edwina Mountbatten: a wave of freedom has swept over China because of my visit, he wrote . . . What a tragedy. At the least, we should not fool ourselves. When President Hu Jintao came to India in 2006, the then Foreign Minister told our Parliament that, as a result of the talks, China supported India’s case for becoming a member of the Security Council. There was absolutely nothing to that effect in the Joint Declaration. In fact, China was even then blocking and continued to block all attempts to enlarge and reform the Security Council. ——————————————————– ——————————————————– I would go further. As Mr Shyam Saran reminded us in his K Subramaniam Lecture, the Prime Minister must remember that the Chinese regard deception, double-talk to be just elements of statecraft, and would be astonished, even offended, if you held the deceptions against them. He recalled how, on his visit to Peking, Mr R K Nehru had told Chou en-Lai that China’s statements on Kashmir seemed to call into question India’s position in regard to J&K being a part of India. Chou had asked, “Has China ever said that India’s position on J&K is wrong?” We had taken this to be endorsement of our position. On a subsequent visit, R K Nehru drew Chou’s attention to the fact that by then Chinese statements had begun mirroring Pakistan’s position even more closely. He reminded Chou of what Chou had said on their last interaction: “Has China ever said that India’s position on J&K is wrong?” Chou now asked in return, “But has China ever said that India’s position on Kashmir is correct?” The same sequence had been played out with Panditji directly. Panditji had remonstrated with Chou how Chinese government maps showed vast swathes of India to be part of China. Chou had said that these were “old Kuomintang maps” and the Chinese government had not had the time to check them for accuracy. Panditji had taken this to be an endorsement of our position in regard to the border with China. When some years later, Panditji pointed to the maps, and reminded Chou of what he had said earlier, Chou turned around and said in effect, “Indeed, these are old maps. We have checked them. They set out the border correctly.” And now the same thing has been happening in regard to the agreement on principles for settlement of the border dispute that was signed in 2005. Does this mean that India remains suspicious forever, does nothing to solve the border dispute? Not at all. We should, of course, explore whatever measures can be taken to minimise incidents on the border. But we really should, one, not be in a hurry to “solve” the dispute — especially not when the distance between China and India is as vast as it has become; two, always remember that an agreement is worth something only if you can make it expensive for the other side to violate it. But what if some local commander in Ladakh takes it into his head to take a swipe? Decides to thrust a thousand Chinese soldiers into Ladakh at the very time their President is in Delhi? Are relations between two great countries to be mortgaged to local commanders? It will be worse than foolish to make-believe that the foray at the border or the reiteration of the claim to Arunachal is the work of some local commander, or some PLA general. The PLA has always been subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party. President Xi is the chairman of the Military Commission also. And especially these days, the PLA leadership is very much on the defensive because of the anti-corruption drive: a very large number of generals and other senior officers are under investigation. Therefore, do not fool yourself into believing that what happens is without direction from the high leadership of China. And look, not at what they are saying, look at what they are doing. One of our wisest strategic thinkers, General V Raghavan, tells us how they lull others by talking “strategic reassurance”, even as they foment “tactical turbulence”. And in our case, they are moving fast to reinforce not just tactical but strategic inequality: from Arunachal to the ring of ports, to the projects they are executing in PoK; from the planned railway line to Kathmandu to the militarisation of Tibet; from blocking ADB loan for a mere technical study for a project in Arunachal to preventing reform of the Security Council; even as they forcibly alter the rules of international order in the South China Sea and in regard to the Air Notification Zone in East Asia . . . ‘I certainly cannot say how he sees China. But the fact is that, while Pakistan is the immediate problem, China is the principal challenge in the long run.’© Provided by Indian Express ‘I certainly cannot say how he sees China. But the fact is that, while Pakistan is the immediate problem, China is the principal challenge in the long run.’ So in your view what should the government be doing? First and foremost, we must speak clearly to the Chinese about our concerns: about their assertions that Arunachal is just a part of “Southern Tibet”; about infrastructure projects they are executing in PoK [even before the latest announcements in Pakistan, there were already 35 of these]; about the transfer of arms, of atomic and missile know-how to Pakistan; about incursions across the border; about diversion of Tibetan waters; about the military bases in Tibet; about naval bases around India. Won’t raising these issues guarantee a failure of the talks? Josh Malihabadi put it well: Badi kartaa hai dushman aur hum sharmaye jaatey hain! The adversary rains evil and we cringe in shyness. Raising issues apart, what more should the government do? We must do everything possible to speed up development of the Northeast—and that does not mean just throwing money at the region; and ensuring that people from the region feel welcome and esteemed everywhere in India. Beware of opening up the border towards Kunming: that will only clear the gates for China to suck the Northeast into the Chinese “sphere of prosperity”. Second, we must reflect on what reconciling ourselves to Chinese occupation of Tibet has cost us. Our interests, our security are deeply intertwined with those of Tibet. There are several reasons why China is now fabricating and pressing its claims in regard to Arunachal. But one reason clearly is that it is preparing itself for the post-Dalai Lama time: that no reincarnation may be claimed to have taken place in Tawang, for instance, as is said to have happened in the case of the Sixth Dalai Lama. The slightest easing on such matters will have catastrophic consequences. Whatever the Chinese say, we must leave no one in any doubt that we will continue to support the Dalai Lama, and his successors. We should go further and think in terms of a Buddhist civilisational challenge to China: careful observers of China report that large numbers of Chinese are turning again to dharma: including relatives of very high personages of the current government of China. But to do so, we must learn about Buddhism. We must revere those who practise it: especially the masters who are in India itself. Everyone will see through our efforts if we just use Buddhism as a device to attract tourists. Nor can we convince anyone that we are the land of the Buddha, that we greatly treasure the teachings and memory of the Buddha, and simultaneously try to snatch the Bodh Gaya temple from Buddhists. What if you were asked to suggest just one or two things to the PM? Don’t worry; I am not going to be asked. But if I were asked, I would say: one, do not disregard the institutional memory of the Ministry of External Affairs; more than that, two, spend time with those — persons like General Raghavan and Shyam Saran whom I mentioned — who have spent years and years studying China, and its methods. When you meet them, reflect carefully on views and assessments that are contrary to your instincts: remember the consequences that flowed from the heavy hand by which Panditji throttled the views which he said were contrary to his world view—those of the Counsel General in Lhasa, the Political Officer in Gangtok… to say nothing of the letter of Sardar Patel. http://www.msn.com/en-in/news/national/at-the-least-we-should-not-fool-ourselves-arun-shourie/ar-BBj7YS5?ocid=SKY2DHP
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Saudis have sided with all political players in Yemen at one point or another. They want a government of their choosing installed in Sanaa and are willing to go to any extreme for this
As the crisis in Yemen quite predictably lingers on, so does the chorus of what the veteran US diplomat and Yemen expert Barbara Bodine had once described as the “tired canards about Yemen”. In tandem with the cookie-cutter analysis of the Yemen situation is the tedious discourse on sectarianism in Pakistan, depicting any potential Pakistani involvement in Yemen as a surefire trigger for an all out Shia-Sunni war at home. Timely warnings, advising Pakistani civilian and military leadership to steer clear of the Yemeni quicksand, came in from many analysts after the government vowed to “defend the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia” and, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz, in a phone conversation with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, expressed full support for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, asserting that “all potentials of the Pakistani army are offered to the Kingdom”.
That Pakistan should not intervene in conflicts that are neither its business nor an existential threat to it is not moot but framing it in sectarian terms could, unfortunately, turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, the consequences of which the country, particularly the Shias, can ill afford. Whether the request for troops comes from a Wahhabist monarchy or an Alawite regime, the answer should be a resounding no. Maintaining a non-aligned posture is prudent diplomacy and should not have to be justified on the basis of a flimsy Shia-Sunni binary. Neither are all conflicts in the Middle East purely sectarian nor are all sectarian conflicts are created equal. The overwhelming majority of Pakistani Shias belongs to the Twelver denomination, which has little in common with the Zaydis of Yemen, who self-identify as yet another sect of Islam distinct from the Shias. Zaydis, also called the ‘Fivers’, unlike the Twelver Shias, follow the theological framework laid down by Zayd-Ibne-Ali-Ibne-Hussain and also reject the Vilayat-e-Faqih (rule of the Islamic jurist) model of theocracy established by the late Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran. Insinuating that the Pakistani Shias, who are beleaguered but well-integrated in society and state, will be up in arms in support of the Zaydis of Yemen is fraught with identifying them as agent provocateurs doing the outside powers’ bidding. If the Pakistani Shias were to take to militancy they would have done so after being battered to pulp for years on end now. Identifying them with Iran, the Zaydis or the Syrian Alawite regime is patently lazy scholarship and could potentially be lethal for a community that is practically under siege from the radicalised Wahhabi-Salafi outfits in Pakistan.
The Houthi uprising in Yemen is not about doctrinal or sectarian issues; overwhelmingly Sunni troops loyal to the former Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh are fighting alongside the Houthis. Incidentally, just like the Zaydis — of whom the Houthis are but one clan — diverge from the Twelver Shias, the Sunnis of Yemen are predominantly of the Shafi’i denomination, which is distinct from the Saudis and Pakistanis who follow the Wahhabi-Hanbali and Hanafi Sunnism, respectively. Saleh’s son, Ahmad Abdullah Saleh, controlled the republican guards whose alignment with the Houthis tilted the balance against President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is now on the run. The Zaydis had ruled the northern and northwestern swathes of Yemen for a good 1,000 years when their kingdom, called the Imamate, ended in 1962 with the toppling of their leader, Muhammad al-Badr. Incidentally, the Saudi Arabian monarchy then backed and intervened militarily on behalf of the royalists against the republicans inspired and buttressed by the secular pan-Arabist Gamal Abdal-Nasser. When former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh took charge in 1978 the Saudis backed him and continued to do so throughout the Cold War — against the Marxist-Leninist state in South Yemen — up until his toppling after the 2011 popular uprisings. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which along with the Saudis is now bombing the Houthi-Saleh forces, had brokered a deal in 2011 that allowed Saleh to retain control of large sections of the military.
The Saudis fully supported Ali Abdullah Saleh while he made common cause with al Qaeda in the mid-1990s, when the southern secessionists tried to undo the 1990 reunification of North and South Yemen. Saleh had patronised terrorists like Tareq al-Fadhli, a veteran of the anti-Soviet jihadist war, and accommodated them in his regime. Al-Fadhli formally joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) last year. The Saudis are backing ousted president Hadi and the tribes — many of whom are in cahoots with the AQAP — supporting him. The point being that the Saudi war in Yemen is not about sects or protecting the holy sites in the Kingdom. The Saudis have sided with all political players in Yemen at one point or another. They want a government of their choosing installed in Sanaa and are willing to go to any extreme for this. Is there an Iranian involvement in the present Yemeni crisis? One would be surprised if that was not the case. The Iranian backing of the Houthis, however, has been played by both the Saudis and the Iranians themselves. The hype around Iran’s role gives the Saudis a battle cry as well as an opportunity to the Iranians to be perceived as stronger and more resourceful than they actually are.
The crisis in Yemen remains a tussle over territory, resources and political power between the Houthis, Ali Saleh and a section of the tribal confederacy on one side and Hadi’s ousted regime and other tribes, including the Hashids, on the other. Yemen is a country about two-thirds the size of Pakistan with an exponentially growing population and terribly scarce resources. It has no surface water, i.e. rivers or lakes, and negligible energy resources for a population of 25 million people, one in four of whom is clinically undernourished. The fractious tribes, decades’ old political fault lines and the extreme poverty make Yemen not exactly a cake walk for any army as invaders from the Romans to Nasser’s Arab republicans discovered at their peril. The Pakistani civil and military leadership is beholden to the Saudis for a slew of reasons and the country may end up waddling into the Yemeni quagmire after all. The hefty price of doing geopolitical business with the Saudis for decades has been the virulent radicalisation of Pakistani society, which has directly hurt the country’s majority Sunni population not just smaller sects, the tired canards about Yemen and sectarianism notwithstanding.
The much-awaited and recently ended visit by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to the U.S. has resulted in an expected decision by the President Obama to “maintain our current posture of 9,800 troops through the end of the year.”
What was Ghani’s visit about, what did it achieve, and what lies ahead for Afghanistan?
Ghani, who made a three-day visit to the U.S. last week, took almost six months after he took over as president to come to the U.S. Strangely, he has undertaken many foreign visits during this period – to China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – but kept the U.S. visit pending. His main compulsion was that he needed to convince the U.S. that the unprecedented national unity government in Afghanistan is for real, is functioning and could be a meaningful interlocutor for Washington.
Ghani, who addressed a joint session of Congress, may have succeeded only partly. He took along Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah with him to the U.S., which helped to display that their alliance, which was midwifed by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry personally, has been holding.
Whether he succeeded in convincing Obama we do not know. Surely, Obama knows that Ghani is yet to complete his cabinet formation because consensus is lacking between the various factions and power brokers in Kabul.
Abdullah also largely kept his thoughts to himself while in the U.S., leaving the floor to Ghani, which was of course correct behavior, and Abdullah is a protocol-conscious statesman. But then, he is also a loquacious politician and it must have been hard on him to mutely watch the proceedings at the Oval Office, think tanks, media, US Congress and so on.
Interestingly, before undertaking the visit to the U.S., Abdullah held two below-the-radar consultations – in Moscow in February and in Delhi in mid-March. (Ghani is yet to visit Russia or India.)
Obama cannot be unaware of the political rumblings in Kabul, of restive elements representing disparate interests (including prominent figures who served under former president Hamid Karzai) voicing dissenting opinions over Ghani’s policies. Obama was circumspect about praising the Ghani government’s performance so far and instead urged him to complete the cabinet formation quickly. Suffice it to say, an editorial by the New York Times couldn’t have summed up better:
“Mr. Ghani has big visions. He told Congress he aims for the country to be self-sustaining, and weaned of international assistance that now is central to the economy, within this decade. He talked of Afghanistan’s being an Asian hub crossed by pipelines, rail lines and modern telecom and banking services. These are worthy goals, but they are still based mostly on hope,” the Times wrote.
The manner in which Obama justified the decision to freeze the troop withdrawal through 2015, needs to be noted carefully. It was not even remotely meant to be a political endorsement. Obama was detached, clinical, and coolly pragmatic:
We’re essentially moving the drawdown over to the right for several months, in part to compensate for the lengthy period it took for government formation (in Kabul); in part because we want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed so we don’t have to go back, so we don’t have to respond in an emergency because counterterrorist – or because terrorist activities are being launched out of Afghanistan … it made sense for us to provide a few extra months for us to be able to help on things like logistics, making sure that equipment is not just in place but it’s also used properly; that the training and advising and strategic input that’s been provided continues through this fighting season.
Before meeting Obama, Ghani had harped on a looming threat from the Islamic State to Afghanistan. Ghani wrote in an op-ed in Washington Post, “Afghanistan has become the eastern wall standing against the butchery of ISIL … Because Afghanistan must never again become a launching ground for terrorist attacks, we want to continue to work with the United States … A continued security partnership … will ensure that we will be an important ally in the decades to come.” But Obama wouldn’t be drawn into the topic.
On the other hand, Obama insisted that there is no policy change being contemplated. He reiterated his earlier decision of a “final consolidation (of U.S. troops numbering 1000) to a Kabul-based embassy presence by the end of 2016.” He pointed out that the “transition out of a combat role (for U.S. troops) has not changed.” He also stressed that the overriding consideration will be to reduce casualties – “It’s been over 90 days since two Americans were killed in Afghanistan.”
Obama was focused on what needs to be done: fulfilling the commitment to “train, advise and assist” Afghan security forces, including targeted counterterrosim operations and, secondly, to seek Congressional approval on funding to sustain 352,000 Afghan security personnel through 2017.
Obama added the caveat, “Reconciliation and a political settlement remain the surest way to achieve the full drawdown of US and foreign troops from Afghanistan in a way that safeguards international interests and peace in Afghanistan, as well as US national security interests.”
All in all, Obama will carry the can of worms till end-2017 and, thereafter, it would be up to the next president and the Republican-dominated Congress to carry it forward – or dump it.
The big question is: Will this satisfy Pakistan? An element of strategic ambiguity has crept into the Pakistani stance. Indeed, Ghani is the best interlocutor that Pakistan could hope to have in Kabul. He has been quite receptive to the Pakistani demand that the Afghan intelligence broke its nexus with the Pakistani Taliban (which would enable the Pakistani military to effectively control the internal security situation) and, secondly, that Kabul severely delimited India’s presence and role in Afghanistan.
No doubt, Ghani has gone the extra league to mend Afghan-Pakistan ties. But all he can say until now is, as he put it rather sardonically at the Brookings Institution, “I’m cautiously optimistic that we have begun a process of fundamental transformation (of Afghan-Pakistan relations) … Without sanctuary, a long-term rebellion is impossible. When sanctuaries end, peace breaks out. That’s what happened in Central America and Latin America, that’s what has happened in Africa… I’m hopeful that we will have sufficient wisdom not to sink but to swim together.”
These are sad words for a proud Afghan and a head of state to say and they betray Ghani’s sense of unease and growing wariness that Pakistan on its part is yet to make good its promises to him, namely, to bring the Taliban to the peace talks and get things moving in the business of reaching a settlement.
The fact of the matter is that while there have been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing by the top Pakistani generals – with the army chief, ISI boss, et al rushing to Kabul and to Washington and so on – and claiming that Pakistan has had a change of mind regarding international terrorism, they are yet to act on the ground to meet the Afghan expectations.
Pakistan’s priority at the moment seems to lie in extracting the maximum cooperation from Ghani and to crush the security threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban as quickly as possible. The Afghan peace talks will remain a second priority until this task is successfully accomplished.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is making a few cosmetic moves now and then in the direction of facilitating tentative contacts between Ghani’s people and the Taliban – just enough to keep the pot boiling and to ensure Ghani remains engaged. But how long can this charade continue without Ghani getting impatient? He is already looking rather foolish and naïve in the Afghan bazaar.
Besides, Pakistan has lately revived the age-old myth that the Taliban led by Mullah Omar is an independent entity beyond its control. A further twist has also been added most recently that there is a schism brewing within the Taliban leadership – between the politicians and the field commanders – as to the wisdom or need to negotiate with Ghani’s government at all.
Smoke and mirrors
Now, when the Taliban leaders are caught up in an internal debate on the ABC of any peace talks with the established government in Kabul, how can Pakistan force march them to the negotiating table? Sounds logical, isn’t it?
It seems smoke and mirrors all over again. In the Pakistani calculus, the priority lies in extracting the most out of Ghani while the present power-sharing arrangement in Kabul lasts. Pakistan never quite trusted Abdullah. Pakistan knows that Ghani’s drive for reforms and good governance – revival of the economy, crackdown on corruption, eradication of drugs and narcotics, elimination of warlordism, etc – is a long haul and popular disenchantment is setting in.
Furthermore, Obama is keeping his cards close to his chest and Pakistan is unsure whether the Taliban would be accommodated in the manner in which it would want to be in the medium and long term, the most influential arbiter in the Hindu Kush. The idea of ‘strategic depth’ continues to influence the Pakistani thinking. This is where the US intentions – especially the likelihood of long term U.S. military presence – bother the Pakistani generals.
Why should Pakistan commit itself – and the Taliban – to genuine peace talks unless there is clarity about the way things are going? This may seem like a chicken-and-egg situation but nothing can be done about it when there is a real danger that the current dispensation in Kabul could collapse under the combined weight of economic, political or military stress.
As the spring arrives and the ‘fighting season’ begins, Taliban can be expected to make a strong bid to damage the credibility of the Afghan Army and test its capacities. The continued U.S. troop presence gives an alibi to continue with the fighting and Pakistan will plead helpless and try to pass the buck.
Obama anticipates such a turn of events. The challenge facing the U.S. will be to ensure that on the one hand, the Afghan army doesn’t pack up, while on the other hand, to keep the casualties low for the American troops. It is a difficult challenge, because despite the disengagement from a direct combat role, there’s going to be “specialized areas” where the U.S. forces may have to step in and that would bring then into the Taliban’s crosshairs.
Obama tried to be optimistic by claiming that the Afghan security forces are better equipped than the Taliban or the Haqqani Network. But then, he would surely know that in fighting an insurgency, which happens to enjoy some degree of genuine popular support, there are so many other variables at work beyond the quality of the equipment.
the Arab League and the United Nations have fully transformed themselves into the ill-fated League of Nations that more than 70 years ago disgraced itself into oblivion when it failed to condemn foreign aggressions that eventually led to the cataclysm of World War Two.
As delegates gathered in Egypt’s resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh for the Arab League last weekend, nearly half of its member states were at the same time openly engaged in an aerial blitz on one of the League’s weakest countries – Yemen.
Far from issuing any misgiving, or appeal for restraint, the League fully endorsed the onslaught on Yemen and even went on to call for a new «unified military force» to repeat the action in other countries where a «security risk» is deemed. This is a cart blanche for further foreign military interventions bypassing the United Nations Security Council. In other words, it is open season for lawless aggression.
With a population of only 24 million and half of them living in poverty, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab region. It is also one of the founding members of the Arab League, which was formed in 1945 at the end of the Second World War.
Since last week, scores of Yemeni civilians, including children, have been killed in a massive bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia and co-ordinated by the United States. The bombing coalition of 10 countries include Egypt, North Sudan, Morocco and the Persian Gulf Arab states of Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain. More than 200 fighter jets from those countries have been reported carrying out air strikes on the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, as well as on the southern port city of Aden and surrounding countryside.
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab countries claim that the Houthi-led uprising in Yemen is being orchestrated by Iran. But the claims are far from substantiated and most likely trumped-up for self-serving reasons of providing justification for what is otherwise simply criminal aggression toward Yemen. The Washington Post reported: «The Saudis and their allies think [sic] that the Shiite rebels are backed by Iran and that Tehran is trying to exert control over a country [regime] that has been an an ally of Riyadh and Washington.» The latter factual detail about the erstwhile Yemeni regime being an ally of Riyadh and Washington is the real key to the latest Saudi-led offensive, not the speculative hearsay about Iran.
So, Yemen is being bombed and civilians are being massacred merely because the Saudis and their allies «think» that Iran is somehow involved. No proof, no legal case, just bombs away.
The Houthis are a Shia sect and reportedly maintain friendly political, diplomatic relations with Shia Iran. But both parties categorically deny any military involvement. Rather, the Houthis, also known as Ansarullah, appear to be the vanguard of popular rebellion against the ousted Yemeni regime that was long-supported by Saudi Arabia and the US. Last week, the deposed president Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled the country to take refuge in Saudi Arabia. Even if Iran was supporting the Houthis that still does not legitimise an all-out bombing of Yemen led by a consortium of Arab monarchies armed and guided by the US.
In Sanaa over the past week family homes, shops and offices have been demolished during hundreds of sorties by warplanes as the Saudi-led coalition pounded the city on nightly raids. Yemen’s international airport was so badly hit it is no longer functioning, thus cutting off the country. A naval blockade by Saudi, Egyptian and US warships has also severed Yemen’s access to the Red Sea to its west. While in on the southern coast, in Aden, bodies of civilians were reportedly strewn on streets as hospitals filled up with the wounded, and as US warships patrolled the Gulf of Aden.
Against this background of slaughter, the Arab League endorsed the Saudi-led military attacks. Saudi King Salman told the summit that the bombing campaign would continue until Houthi rebels are defeated. Meaning there is no end in sight to the onslaught. Indeed, it is now anticipated that the extensive aerial bombardment and naval siege is paving the way for a massive ground invasion of 150,000 Saudi troops that were mobilised last week along the northern Yemeni border.
Attending the Arab League convocation, and royally received, was the discredited president of Yemen, Mansour Hadi. He called on the Saudi military coalition to not relent in its strikes against his own country until the Houthi «Iranian stooges» are crushed. The irony is that Mansour Hadi is widely excoriated within Yemen, and not just by the Houthis, as a stooge of Saudi Arabia and Washington. His steadfast refusal to deliver on popular demands for a democratic transition in Yemen over the past three years led to the Houthis seizing the capital and government institutions at the end of 2014.
The latest Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, overseen by Washington, has been condemned by Iran, Russia and China.
But the United Nations has shown lamentable passivity in the face of this foreign aggression on Yemen. Speaking at the Arab League summit, UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon failed to make any condemnation of the aerial bombardment of that country.
«It is my fervent hope that at this Arab League summit leaders will lay down clear guidelines to peacefully resolve the crisis in Yemen,» said Ban Ki-Moon with a complacency bordering on cynicism. He urged Arab members to engage in peace talks supposedly brokered by his special envoy, Jamal Benomar. This was said while Saudi Arabia and others were openly vowing to continue their blitzkrieg.
The naked aggression on Yemen, with the complicity of the US and European capitals, is perhaps the nadir for the Arab League and the United Nations. The descent of these organisations into disgraceful irrelevance has been decades in the making. The despicable transformation into tools of aggression is now clear in the eyes of the world.
The UN and the Arab League have remained silent while the US and its allies launched war after war on countries over the past two decades, most notably on Iraq during the 1990s and 2000s, which resulted in over one million dead, mainly civilians. Worse, the UN and the Arab League stand accused of complicity by giving Washington a de facto green light – and on some occasions logistical support – to wage its wars across the Middle East.
In 2011, the Arab League expelled Libya and Syria, even though these countries were being subjected to US-NATO aggression, along with the collusion of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was murdered by NATO-assisted and Gulf-financed extremists in 2011, denounced the Arab League before his death as «finished».
Syria, as with Yemen, was one of the founding members of the Arab League, yet the government of President Bashar al Assad remains to this day suspended from the 22-member organisation. The Syrian government’s seat has been given over to the Western-backed Syrian National Council which is comprised of non-entity exiles who have no popular mandate within Syria.
The League is thus nothing more than a self-serving talking shop dominated by Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Gulf Arab kingdoms. As client regimes of Washington, that in turn makes the League a tool of the US to give a thin cover for its imperial predations in the Middle East and North Africa.
Ironically, one of the founding principles of the Arab League is to protect the «sovereignty and independence» of its members.
Ominously, the lawlessness and outright aggression that has gripped international affairs – with the latest manifestation in the collective bombing of Yemen – is reminiscent of the 1930s.
That perilous period saw a series of international aggressions carried out by fascist powers with impunity. The League of Nations – a forerunner of the United Nations – facilitated these aggressions through its shameful silence and connivance. When Japan annexed large swathes of China’s Manchuria in 1931, the League of Nations, including the US, Britain and France, largely turned a blind eye. As they did when fascist Italy bombed its way into Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935-36, Franco’s Spain subjugated Catalonia in 1938, and Hitler’s Nazi Germany annexed Austria and Czech Sudetenland, also in 1938.
The complete breakdown in any semblance of international law during the 1930s and the rise of state-sponsored gangsterism paved the way for the Second World War.
A similar process of degeneration is also well underway in the present day, led largely by the US and its coterie of allies among the NATO alliance and oil-rich Arab dictatorships. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen are but some of the evil fruit from the poison that is coursing through international relations. And yet, ludicrously, Washington accuses Putin and Moscow of behaving like Hitler with a malign 20th Century atavism.
That a defenceless, impoverished country such as Yemen can be openly bombed by hundreds of US-supplied F-15 fighter jets – and for that criminality to be widely endorsed – is a sure sign that the world is once again sliding into the abyss of rampant criminality and the possibility of a more catastrophic all-out war.
The US administration has launched the process of getting congressional approval of an attack against Syria. The Senate foreign affairs committee has voted for the resolution supporting the planned action. The next step is moving the motion to the full Senate and then to the House of Representative to receive bipartisan support. This way Washington is trying to make the decision to strike Syria look legitimate, even if it is going around the UN Security Council.
The prediction that the war will spill over to encompass the entire Middle East in case the United States strikes Syria is coming true. As it was supposed to be, the first outside actor to get involved is Iran. The enlistment is on, Iranian young people are willing to put on uniform and defend Syria. The number of volunteers is nearing 100 thousand. They have sent a letter to the President of Syria asking for his permission to be deployed in the area of Golan Heights… They want their government to provide airlift to Syria across the Iraqi airspace. Iraq is the country with large Shiite population; the probability is high that thousands of Shiites there will join the Iranian volunteers. Obama wanted the inter-religious strife in the Middle East turn into a slaughter of universal scope, now he can get it, or to be more exact, he can provoke its start in Syria by launching the Tomahawk missiles against this country.
It’s Syria that is in sight, but the main target is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The newly elected President Rouhani’s policy is aimed at normalization of relations with the West and putting a stop to international isolation. It evokes concern among the United States and Israel’s ruling circles. It’s a long time since Americans have been putting blame on Iran for all the troubles of the Middle East, even when it was clear that Iran had nothing to do with what happened. It may sound as a paradox, but the Tehran’s readiness to start the talks on nuclear program was perceived by the Obama’s administration as a threat to its interests. According to the White House logic, it may lose the main argument in the confrontation with Tehran. Then the US sanctions will instill no fear anymore. Europe is already sending unambiguous signals to demonstrate that it expects real progress to be achieved at the talks. The US has no trade ties with Tehran and it views the sanctions as an effective leverage in the standoff while Europeans face multibillion losses.
The argument of “Iranian nuclear threat” has become an obsession for Washington after Ahmadinejad is gone. It fully matches the intent to find a pretext for war. The Syrian phase of the military operation is to start pretty soon.
Iran needs no war. Instead Iranians want Obama to seriously weigh the consequences of such action letting him know that there is no way he could hide behind the back of Congress. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarifsaid said, “Mr. Obama cannot interpret and change the international law based on his own wish.” He added, that, “Only the UN Security Council, under special circumstances, can authorize a collective action, and that will be under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, and this issue needs the approval of the Security Council.” By and large it coincides with the Russia’s position.
Tehran sees no intrigue in the fact that Congress will finally sanction the war against Syria, it is just curious to see how the US lawmakers will manage to do it under the pretext of “punishing” Syria for using chemical weapons while going around the Iranian issue. The members of Congress will inevitably take into consideration the “Iranian factor.” Calling for war against Syria, State Secretary John Kerry tries to convince lawmakers that, if no action is taken against Syria, Iran is more likely to move ahead on its nuclear program. Kerry does not deliberate on availability of direct link between the events in Syria and the Iranian nuclear program, he simply states the White House position. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says taking no action against Syria will undermine the Washington’s ability to counter the Iranian nuclear efforts. The US Congress is under heavy influence of Jewish lobby and the arguments work because, while being hostile to Syria, Israel always had Iran in mind. Where exactly the “red line” is drawn presents a matter of rather minor importance for Israeli politicians. Some Republicans in Congress not only support the action against Syria but call for an intervention of larger scale sayinga limited strike will not be enough to seriously scare Iran. Astrike against Syria is likely to make Tehran boost its security, including the acquisition of nuclear weapons as a universal deterrent… This isa reasonable warning which is not heeded somehow. Having Iran in sight, a military provocation against Syria is also aimed at stoking disagreement in the ranks of Iranian leadership. Washington hopes that war-minded politicians will prevail and the Iranian government will have to cede and abandon balanced approaches to the issue. Indeed, only a few months ago such overt threats from Washington would have stoked a storm of responses, former President Ahmadinejad used to strike the keynote. Now Iran appears to be extremely restrained. Talking to Obama in absentia, Iran’s Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan uses proper diplomatic language and insists that all problems should be solved by political means.
Still, the public restraint of the new Iranian government should leave no illusions for Americans. It’s not government bureaucrats they’ll have to deal with in case combat actions start, but rather the Iranian Republic’s armed forces – the guarantee of retaliation in case the country is attacked.
Iran’s chief of staff Hassan Firouzabadi was quoted declaring that if the US strikes Syria, Israel will be attacked. It’s not an occasion that Iranian volunteers, who are going to defend Syria, pay no interest in being deployed in the areas adjacent to the borders with Turkey of Jordan. No, they want it to be the Golan Heights – the line of Syrian-Israeli border stand-off since a long time. A potential strike delivered by Iran against Israel in retaliation for US attacking Syria is the worst scenario of all; this is the case when it’s impossible to avoid a large-scale Middle East war. Instead of taking a decision to back away from a military action against Syria, Obama is driving Iran against the wall by staging incessant provocations like. For instance, the recent demonstrative Israeli missile defense test in preparation for Iranian retaliatory strike.
In response to millions of Egyptians taking to streets, army and number of political and religious leaders propose roadmap aimed at ending year of unrest
Today’s milestone marks a new phase in the Egyptian revolution, one which many had awaited since Mubarak stepped down in February 2011. The statement, read out by military chief-of-staff Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, describes a roadmap that includes the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, suspending the constitution temporarily, and handing over power to the head of Egypt’s High Constitutional Court.
The roadmap, which various political and religious figures participated in drafting, includes forming a committee for revising the constitution, formation of a council for “national reconciliation,” revising laws for parliamentary elections and holding early presidential elections.
Attendees at the press conference where El-Sisi gave his speech included a number of top military and police officials who sat in two rows on either side of the podium.
They included the Coptic Orthodox patriarch Tawadros II, the grand imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayyeb, Mohamed ElBaradei, a representative of the Salafist Nour Party, Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, one of the anti-Morsi Rebel campaign’s founders, and a senior judicial figure. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party refused to join the meeting.
The statement was received with enthusiasm and cheers by anti-Morsi protesters to close the first chapter of the Egyptian revolution and mark the end of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The army took these actions following the massive demonstrations, marches and sit-ins that started on 30 June throughout the country. According to some estimates, as many as 17 million Egyptians took to the streets.
The historically unprecedented turnout shook the country and was expected to cause pressure on the presidency. Limited violence erupted leaving 34 dead and a few hundred injured, but no massive or organised violence erupted.
The army was the first to come out with a statement on Monday, 1 July giving a 48-hour ultimatum for political forces to come together to “fulfil the people’s demands” or the army would present a roadmap for the country including all political currents. The police followed suit to announce that they were siding with the Egyptian people and protecting protestors.
A speech by President Mohamed Morsi on midnight, 1 July came in reaction to the army statement, calling any attempt to overthrow legitimacy a call for civil war and saying that he was willing to shed his own blood to protect it. Meanwhile, clashes took place in Giza, west of Cairo, leaving 17 dead and hundreds injured before the police finally intervened.
Hours before the end of the 48-hour deadline, the general commanders of the Egyptian Armed Forces met, headed by Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. They called for meetings with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Tamarod (Rebel) campaign, ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, as well as Mohamed ElBaradei, who was delegated by the 30 June Front and the National Salvation Front (NSF).
Earlier Wednesday, 3 July, Tamarod stressed its demands for Morsi to step down. At the same time, the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy refused any calls for negotiations with the army, calling any non-constitutional step a military coup.
The alliance was formed on the Friday before the demonstrations to support Morsi. It is led by the Muslim Brotherhood and includes the moderate-Islamist Wasat Party, the Salafist Watan Party and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya’s Building and Development Party.
The spark of action against the president started with the Rebel campaign in May calling to withdraw confidence from the president. Against all expectations, the campaign gathered a lot of public support, leading many opposition leaders and public figures to back the movement and support it publicly until it succeeded in gathering 22 million signatures.
The signatures were to be submitted to the prosecutor-general on 30 June, the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, to demand he step down.
Rebel, together with the NSF, 6 April and other groups, formed the June 30 Front, which called for mass demonstrations on 30 June to request Morsi step down.
Meanwhile, fuel and electricity shortages caused public anger and unrest throughout the country, fuelling the signature drive, deepening the crisis. A minor cabinet change and a gubernatorial shuffle that brought many Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood members to public office hastened the unrest and signalled increasing disturbance.
Morsi also hosted a large celebration in Cairo on 22 June where he announced support for the Syrian revolution against the regime, which came only one day after a US announcement to the same effect. The army’s reactions to these statements apparently had not been favorable.
Morsi refused any compromises, either to change individuals or take actions to slow or stop the crisis. A public speech the president gave days before 30 June was awaited with eagerness in hopes it might offer some answers to mitigate the situation. But the speech only addressed the president’s “achievements” and asked the opposition not to get dragged by remnants of old regime into burning the country.
One Year in Brief
The Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, took power in 30 June 2012 following a number of alliances formed with pro-revolution groups and various political powers. Throughout his first year in office, he turned his back on a number of promises given to the Egyptian people and to his electoral alliance, most significant of which was the re-formulation of the constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution.
Not only did Morsi continue with the Islamist-leaning constituent assembly, but Morsi forced a constitutional declaration ahead of the completion of the constitution, giving himself legislative and executive powers and securing the Shura Council against judicial oversight.
This led to significant anger in the streets that turned violent near Cairo’s presidential palace in December 2012, where a number of non-Islamists were killed allegedly by a Brotherhood militia. The National Salvation Front (NSF) was formed as coalition of political parties, movements and activists to oppose the constitutional declaration.
Anger only escalated following the referendum to pass the new constitution against all opposition requests to review it. The constitution eventually passed with a 63 percent majority, but the hoped-for stability never materialised, and the worsening economic crisis was aggravated by instability and a security vacuum.
Currency devaluation, fuel shortages, electricity cuts and dwindling tourism only pointed to an unstable regime that is heading downhill, yet the Muslim Brotherhood and the president gave no indication that a plan was underway to reverse the trend beyond statements and temporary international loans.
Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi (C) attends with prominent Sunni clerics a Syria solidarity conference organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, in Cairo in this handout picture provided by the Egyptian Presidency dated June 15, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)
Despite decades of planning for Egypt’s eventual transition into an Islamic state, only two years of post-revolution politics appear to have put paid to the Muslim Brotherhood’s longed-for Islamist renaissance
As Egypt’s first freely chosen president took the stage last summer, the thousands arrayed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square roared their approval. After a knife’s-edge vote, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi had clinched the country’s most powerful civilian position – the secretive Islamist organization’s goal for over eight decades. Now, surely, an Islamic state was within its grasp.
But one year on, Morsi’s unofficial inauguration in downtown Cairo seems more like the pinnacle of the Islamists’ power then the emergence of a Sharia-compliant Egypt.
In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood’s dream of establishing an Islamic state in Egypt is nowhere close to becoming a reality. Some experts believe that, not only has Morsi’s first year in power tarnished the image of the 85-year-old group, but that of all Islamists.
Following Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011, the Islamists – and specifically the Brotherhood – were expected to effortlessly climb to power. They were the largest opposition present at the time and had the sympathy of many average Egyptians. Their selling point was Islamic Law and the establishment of an Islamic state that would take Egypt back to the glory days of Islam.
The Brotherhood quickly established its political leg, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Meanwhile, members of Egypt’s Salafist Call – the country’s largest Salafist movement – established the Nour Party. During the Mubarak era, Salafists had refused to participate in opposition politics on grounds that it was sinful to oppose a Muslim ruler.
Parliamentary, constitutional travails
The two competed in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary and Shura Council elections, winning majorities in both. Despite their lackluster performance in parliament – in which they were accused of ignoring pressing matters, such as Egypt’s failing economy, while focusing on trivial issues – they remained popular with many Egyptians.
“Their performance in parliament had a negative impact,” explained political analyst and former MP Emad Gad. “But when Morsi came to power, most people still had a positive view of the Islamic project. But during his first year in office he managed to destroy this image in the eyes of most Egyptians.”
He points out that Morsi has made many promises that he never kept and that his regime has tried to ‘Brotherhoodise’ the nation by taking over many of the country’s top institutions, including the Ministry of Interior and the judiciary.
However, Gad adds that the turning point came when he passed a constitution that was rejected by most political forces in Egypt.
The constituent assembly tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution saw numerous squabbles, along with accusations that Islamist assembly members were forcing their opinions on the non-Islamist minority. This led most non-Islamist members to withdraw from the constitution-drafting body, leaving only the Islamists to conduct a final vote in a 14-hour marathon session.
“After this, he confirmed to the public that the Islamic current is undemocratic and does not like dialogue,” said Gad.
Morsi’s refusal to fulfill his promises, including the creation of a coalition government that would include Egypt’s diverse political forces, also hurt his popularity, say critics.
“His lack of commitment to democracy made people not trust him,” explained Khalil El-Anani, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Secondly, it showed that the Islamists are fascists, and don’t have a democratic ideology.”
Additionally, many Egyptians began to realise that what is said and what is done are two different things.
“He talked about the Islamic project, but did not apply Islamic Law, which is one of the main sellers of the Islamic project,” said El-Anani.
El-Anani pointed out that Morsi agreed to take a loan from the IMF at interest, which is forbidden by Islamic Law.
However, Ahmed Sobie, a leading member of the FJP shoots down these accusations.
“The Islamic current has actually proven to be much more democratic and more serious about pushing Egypt into a democratic path then the other currents,” he said.
He pointed out that it is the Islamist current that has fought to keep the parliament and Shura Council in place. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) that was ruling Egypt after the ousting of Mubarak had dissolved the parliament in June after a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) found fault with laws governing the assembly’s elections.
One of Morsi’s first actions after becoming president is to reinstate the parliament. When the SCC suspended his decision a few days later, the Islamists began a yearlong fight to keep the Shura Council, which was threatened with a similar fate.
“We did this to protect Egypt. We had to make sure that all its important institutions were working,” Sobie added.
He also said that it was the Islamists who fought to draft a new constitution for Egypt. He also denied that the Islamists controlled the constituent assembly.
“Let’s not forget that it was the Islamist ultra conservative Building and Development Party that decided to give up their seats in the constituent assembly for the liberals and leftists,” Sobie said. “They did this in order to give them a voice,” stressed Sobie.
He also pointed out that it was Morsi who turned Egypt from a military state to a civil state.
“I doubt either the liberal or Nasserists would have been able to do this amidst all the criticism we received,” explained Sobie.
Alienating the Islamists
However, it is not just the liberal and leftists forces that are at loggerheads with Morsi. The Islamists themselves have also felt let down by him.
“I believe that Morsi’s first year in power, had a negative impact on the Islamic project,” said Nader Bakar, spokesperson of the Salafist Nour Party.
He accused Morsi and the brotherhood of marginalizing and alienating anyone who is not a member of the group. The he points out shed a bad light on the Islamic project.
“The Islamic project does not say that you discriminate between the citizens of one country; it does not say promote authoritarian rule, it does not tell us to ignore those who have opposing views,” explained Bakar. “The stubbornness of the brotherhood and the unprofessional manner in which they dealt with all the problems of the country has had a negative impact on the way average Egyptians view the Islamists.”
The Islamists also had other gripes with Morsi including his decision to license liquor stores and his lack of support to officers wanting to sport Islamist-style beards. He also opted to smooth relations with Iran thus paving the way for Shia tourists – often seen as a threat by Sunni Muslims – to enter Egypt.
“He also allowed security forces to pursue jihadists, which turned even more Islamists against him,” said El-Anani.
He adds that several other factors have led to the Brotherhood’s failure to lead the country, one of which is the lack of experience in running a populous, diverse and complex state like Egypt.
Mubarak’s iron-fisted rule and repression of the Islamists also resulted in their being excluded from working in government bodies and gaining needed experience.
“Another is the secretive character of the Brotherhood,” said El-Anani. “They know how to work under pressure, but not openly.”
Nor did Egypt’s January 25 Revolution provide the group sufficient time to go from repressed opposition to ruling power.
El-Anani cited the example of Turkey, where the Islamists were gradually drawn into politics allowing them to develop their ideas and moderate their political discourse and approach.
In Egypt, by contrast, the Brotherhood was faced with what El-Anani calls “sudden inclusion.”
“They couldn’t strike the balance between being an opposition movement and a responsible political force or ruling party. So they now hover between both,” he explained. “They still think of themselves as an opposition movement, staging protests, strikes and sit-ins; the mindset has not changed.”
On a more practical level, Morsi’s government has failed to provide Egyptians with much needed services. During the past year, there have been frequent power cuts, along with shortages of diesel fuel, gasoline and bread, among other vital commodities.
“These shortfalls are what bother people the most,” says political analyst Amr Hashem Rabie. “In terms of other issues – concerning politics, judicial independence, human rights and civil rights – Mubarak repressed the Egyptians in all this, too. But he, at least, offered these services to the people, so they were patient with his rule to a certain extent.”
What’s more, the Islamists’ united front after Mubarak’s downfall did not last long. Within months, cracks appeared, as electoral rivalries heated up.
Hostilities climaxed when the Salafist Nour Party split in early 2013, after party president Emad Abdel-Ghafour defected and announced the formation of a new party, the Watan Party. There were reports that the Brotherhood had played a role in the falling out.
“The Brotherhood encouraged the differences between the Salafists to split and weaken them,” explained El-Anani. “This is what used to happen under Mubarak; it’s the same old game played by Mubarak-era leaders to divide the opposition in order to manipulate them.”
Another issue is that inter-Islamist divisions have always been present. Their unity in the days following the revolution, says El-Anani, was only temporary.
“There has always been historical tension between them,” he explained. “They never trusted each other. This dates back to the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, when they clashed in Alexandria University.”
Tarek Osman, author of ‘Egypt on the Brink,’ added that the revolution had brought together different Islamic forces to fight a common enemy.
“The revolution brought together these forces behind a very clear objective: defining themselves as ‘Islamists’ against the old regime and against the liberal current in Egypt,” he said. “The more they delve into the details of the country’s legislative, political and economic transition, the more the fractures appear.”
Many Egyptians are now discontented with the Brotherhood’s performance. The group’s seeming confusion has prompted a popular joke: “The Brotherhood fought to control Egypt for 80 years but had no plan what to do when it actually achieved it.”
It remains unclear how much damage this last year has done to the Islamists’ popularity.
“In this struggle about the country’s social identity, the shape of the future, the loudest voice – the key determinant – will be the 45-million Egyptians under 35 years old,” said Osman.
“Their preferences, ideas and views will be the deciding factor,” he asserted. “At the end of the day, it is a fight over the hearts and minds of this generation.”
ESSENTIALLY ANTITHETICAL: Malaysia and Pakistan are poles apart politically, socially and economically. Pakistan’s elections will be held on 11 May 2013. Malaysia, on the other hand, has sworn in Najib Razak for a second term as prime minister after his National Front Coalition, which has governed the Southeast Asian country since independence from Britain in 1957, won 133 of the 222 seats in the Malaysian parliament on Sunday’s general elections. Najib took his oath on Monday before the country’s King Abdel-Halim Muadzam Shah in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
Economic prosperity has failed to bridge the deep socio-economic, racial and ethnic fissures that divide Malaysian society. Poverty has exacerbated Pakistan’s predicament as a borderline failed state. Both Malaysia and Pakistan are facing momentous changes on the social and political fronts. The Malaysian general election on Sunday was a test of the country’s democratic credentials. Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed, still a powerful figure in the dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main party within the ruling Barisan Nasional or National Front Coalition, laid the foundations of Malaysia’s economic miracle. The country’s economic prosperity placated its ethnic minorities, predominantly Chinese who compose a quarter of Malaysia’s 28 million people, and the Indians, roughly 15 per cent of the Malaysian population. There is no prospect, though, of an Arab Spring in either Malaysia or Pakistan, but for radically different reasons.
Serial embarrassments around corruption and nepotism in Malaysia have at worst left a scratch on the booming, resource-rich Southeast Asian nation’s reputational gloss. Pakistan is not as prosperous as Malaysia. However, Pakistan also is mired in corruption.
It is high time Pakistan understood that Asia is an opportunity for its talents, its creativity, its wealth and its jobs. And, that India is the key to the rest of Asia, the gateway to the continent. The two South Asian countries are at loggerheads over a number of critically important issues. They are viciously critical of each others’ foreign and domestic policies and relations between India and Pakistan are strained.
What is at stake is climacteric. It concerns South Asia’s capacity to offer a better future for its people. The latest row between the two South Asian nations revolved around Sarabjit Singh, convicted of spying and over his role in bomb attacks that killed 14 people in Pakistan in 1990 and sentenced to death by Pakistan in 1991. Singh died after being attacked with bricks by inmates in Lahore’s jail. Delhi called the attack “barbaric”. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice.
Malaysia has no such serious issues with its neighbours in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the paradoxical result of Sunday’s election is rising frustration in an economy that is outperforming both Asia and the world. Najib’s National Front Coalition which has ruled for 56 years held on to power in elections branded as fraudulent by a bitter and disgruntled opposition. The three-party opposition People’s Alliance took seven seats from the National Front, extending the gains it made in the last election in 2008, when the ruling National Front lost the two-thirds majority that had allowed it to amend the Malaysian constitution. Defeated opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim accused the ruling Barisan Nasional Coalition of widespread fraud before and during the polls.
Najib’s ruling party naturally denied the opposition’s allegations. Some 80 per cent of registered voters cast ballots and Malaysia’s Election Commission decreed that the ruling party had passed the threshold of 112 seats in the 222-seat parliament. The question is whether the ruling Barisan Nasional Coalition will govern the country forever. And, if so is Malaysian democracy credible?
Malaysia’s Election Commission declared that the National Front won enough parliamentary seats to form a government, compared with the opposition’s 74 seats, with another 25 electoral races still to be tallied. The poor showing of the ruling coalition in the 2008 vote hastened the resignation of Abdallah Badawi as prime minister, giving way to Najib. It is highly unlikely that Sunday’s results will spell Najib’s political demise, at least not for the time being.
The Malaysian election was poised on a knife-edge.
Najib, a seasoned politician, considers Mahathir his mentor. He served in a series of governments in the 1980s and 1990s, reaching the post of deputy prime minister and heir apparent to the illustrious Mahathir, venerated in Malaysia and across the developing world. Under the stewardship of Najib, a 59-year-old British-educated aristocrat, Malaysia has embarked on a series of economic and social reforms to improve its competitiveness and boost incomes. Sunday’s electoral result will enable him to press ahead with a series of ambitious spending plans designed to accelerate economic growth and help this resource-rich Southeast Asian nation catch up with some of its wealthier regional heavyweights such as South Korea and Taiwan and neighbours, most notably Singapore.
A perception is spreading that Malaysia’s vaunted political stability and economic prosperity is cheating those at the bottom out of what they were promised. Ironically, those at the bottom are not the ethnic minorities but rather the sons of the soil, the Bumiputera or Bumiputra, the indigenous ethnic Malay whom the National Front purports to champion. Indeed, 16 of Malaysia’s 20 billionaires are ethnic Chinese.
Ibrahim’s opposition alliance campaigned hard on speeding up the pace of socio-economic change, pledging to remove a race-based system of quotas and preferences that has characterised Malaysia for decades. Ibrahim likewise pledged to open up Malaysia’s closely controlled political system.
Malaysia’s Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections observed that voters included people from Indonesia, Myanmar, and other countries — a claim which Najib denied — to boost the ruling coalition’s votes. Najib has vowed to accelerate an ambitious $444 billion plan to upgrade the country’s infrastructure by the end of the decade and enable the country to compete more effectively against its regional rivals instead of jostling for export orders with middle-income countries such as Thailand, Indonesia or Vietnam.
MALAYSIAN MALAISE: The United Malays National Organisation, the main party in the ruling National Front, can no longer take victory for granted, even though it poses as the representative of the indigenous Malay people. The three-party opposition alliance led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim offers an alternative for an increasing number of ethnic Malays as well as the ethnic minorities.
After claiming an improbable early victory, Ibrahim later said that he rejected the result because the country’s Election Commission had failed to investigate evidence of widespread voter fraud. He said that the powers that be had connived to “steal an election”. The New York-based Human Rights Watch warned there had been well-planned attacks against the country’s independent media ahead of the polls.
“It is an election we consider fraudulent and the Electoral Commission has failed,” Ibrahim declared. The world, and most Malaysians, knew that Najib was the favourite to win. Disaffection with the ruling coalition is not sufficient reason to dislodge it from power. Ibrahim was abruptly sacked in 1998 and spent the next six years in prison on charges that he is homosexual, a serious drawback in the conservative, mainly Muslim Malaysian society. Homosexual acts are illegal in Malaysia. He has long denied the allegations of his homosexuality. In 2000 he was then found guilty of sodomy with his wife’s driver and jailed for a further nine years, to be served concurrently with his other sentence. It then appeared that his political career had come to an embarrassing even scandalous end.
However, with his conviction overturned in 2004, he made a political comeback. Ibrahim began laying the groundwork for an opposition challenge on Putrajaya, the country’s administrative capital, with his supporters making unprecedented gains in 2008’s national elections. And, he has been a force to be reckoned with in Malaysian politics ever since. On Sunday, Ibrahim refused to concede defeat, accusing the Malaysian authorities of widespread abuses which he stressed had distorted the result of the election. Ibrahim’s Twitter account claimed his People’s Alliance had won Sunday’s vote, and urged the National Front and Malaysia’s Election Commission not to meddle with the result. Election Commission Deputy Chairman Ahmed Omar said the opposition leader was “bluffing” and “talking nonsense”.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that an increasing number of Malaysia’s middle class have turned to Ibrahim and the opposition, attracted by his pledge to tackle corruption. The ethnic Chinese, too, look to Ibrahim for support to end race-based policies pursued by the ruling coalition that favour the indigenous Bumiputera in business, education and housing. Indeed, ethnic Chinese parties affiliated with the National Front suffered heavy losses in 2008 and were punished by voters again on Sunday. Moreover, Malaysia’s incumbent Prime Minister Najib could now come under pressure from conservatives in his own ruling coalition for not delivering a more powerful majority despite a robust economy and a $2.6 billion deluge of social handouts to poor families. Still, the indigenous Bumiputera, after decades of positive discrimination by the ruling coalition find themselves saddled with social ills and particularly with shoddy degrees — especially as the ruling party designated the Malay language as the medium of higher learning, as opposed to English — that do not deliver them the promised prestigious jobs or social status.
PAKISTAN’S PREDICAMENT: If Malaysia is a mainly Muslim nation, Pakistan’s very raison d’être is Islam. It was founded in 1947 as a sanctuary and the political entity of South Asia’s Muslims. Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, is a catalyst for change. Militant Islamists have long threatened the democratic process in Pakistan. And, it is a matter for the Pakistani people and their institutions to determine whether the militant Islamists have overstepped the line in recent years. On the face of it, the Pakistani constitution does not tell against them.
And, some of the issues the militant Islamists address are precisely those Pakistani voters want elected politicians to grapple with publicly. In 2002, 51 per cent of Islamabad’s voters cast their ballots and in 2008, the capital had the highest voter turnout percentage in Pakistan. A little over half of the city’s 482,801 registered voters — 50.01 per cent to be exact — cast their ballots in the previous election. And, the majority of voters in Islamabad voted against the militant Islamists. Indeed, contrary to international misconceptions about Pakistan, the upper echelons of Pakistani society and most of its middle classes absolutely abhor the militant Islamists.
The worry should not be that Pakistan falls into the hands of militant Islamists and their heinous or rather wayward populist ways, but that the very stability of Pakistan’s political economy makes it too rigid to respond to the needs and aspirations of contemporary Pakistanis.
Education is key. A poor educational system is still based in huge swathes of the country in the outmoded madrassa system of religious learning. Tellingly, Pakistan’s Centre for Civic Education Executive Director Zafarullah Khan pointed out recently that Islamabad had relatively high voter turnout figures because the city’s electorate is comparatively well-educated and has access to adequate means of transport.
Democracy in Pakistan or the lack of it, therefore, is inextricably intertwined with, or at least closely related to the levels of education. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the number of registered voters in Islamabad has increased by 30 per cent to 629,233 for this year’s election. The new voters include at least 117,892 youth between the ages of 18 to 25. The ECP announced that there will be 550 polling stations across Islamabad’s two constituencies in the upcoming polls.
The party that will control Islamabad will not necessarily govern Pakistan. It is the party that will garner more votes in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, and the country’s largest city Karachi in the southern Sindh province that will determine who rules this riotous country.
“The law and order situation will be a major deterrent for citizens, who may avoid voting in some areas of Pakistan,” Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency Executive Director Ahmed Bilal Mahbub ominously warned this week. “If there is no untoward incident in Islamabad, I expect voter turnout to be the same or higher than 2008,” he concluded.
The port city of Karachi in which the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) has the most support is Pakistan’s most cosmopolitan metropolis. This has been reflected in election results in the post-1985 period when martial law and the ban on political parties were lifted. The MQM has been a part of countless governments at the federal level, yet the manifold problems Pakistan’s most populous metropolis remain unresolved.
Pakistani politicians, again contrary to mistaken global perceptions, take democracy very seriously. The number of candidates in the Pakistani capital will also play a part in voter turnout for next week’s polls. A whopping 77 candidates are contesting for two National Assembly seats, with 51 vying for one constituency alone.
Pakistan’s elite still treat militant Islamism as taboo. In next week’s Pakistani general election, voting will take place in all parliamentary constituencies in Pakistan to elect MPs to seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament and to the four Provincial Assemblies — Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The socialist-oriented, and Sindh-based Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Bilwal Bhutto-Zardari son of the late Pakistani charismatic politician Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari, the 11th president of Pakistan, is expected to do well. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif proposes the modernisation of federal and provincial hospitals and general health care.
Yet, it is personalities and not social issues that often pre-occupy the collective political psyche of Pakistan. Bhutto-Zardari announced last year that Pakistan asked Interpol to issue a “red warrant” against former Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf for his alleged involvement in the assassination of his mother on 27 December 2007. Bhutto’s assassination in Islamabad’s twin city of Rawalpindi appeared to disrupt the democratic process in Pakistan.
In retrospect, however, it did not. The problem with Pakistan is that most of its politicians are disreputable — including the late Bhutto herself. In April 1999, Bhutto and Zardari were convicted for receiving indemnities from a Swiss goods inspection company that was hired to end corruption in the collection of customs duties. The couple received a fine of $8.6 million. The Swiss and Pakistani governments subsequently indicted Zardari for money laundering. In August 2003, a Swiss judge convicted Bhutto and Zardari of money laundering and sentenced them to six months imprisonment and a fine of $50,000. After his second release in late 2004, he left for exile in Dubai. More recently Zardari left Pakistan for Dubai to undergo medical tests and treatment, reportedly for a “small stroke”.
Another serious problem with Pakistan is the leading politicians’ attempt to interfere with the presumably independent judiciary. For instance, Zardari and Sharif met in Lahore in June 2008 to discuss Musharraf’s removal and the constitutional amendments. Pakistan has never been the same since.
In February 2009, Zardari and the Musharraf-appointed Supreme Court attempted to disqualify Nawaz Sharif from running in any elections. And, again in February 2010, Zardari sparked a standoff by attempting to appoint a Supreme Court candidate without the court’s approval. The son of a large Sindhi landowning family originally from tribal Baluchistan, Zardari has come under scrutiny for his arm-twisting tactics in politics.
Internationally acclaimed cricketer turned politician Imran Khan too has made his mark on Pakistani politics. Indeed, he is the dark horse of Pakistani politics. Khan was voted as Asia’s Person of the Year 2012 scoring more than 88 per cent of the total votes cast. Born in the Punjabi city of Lahore to a family of Pashtun origin, Khan is the chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI).
Ironically, in 1999, when Nawaz Sharif’s government was removed in a military coup and General Pervez Musharraf took over as chief executive, Imran Khan declared that the “man in khaki”, Musharraf, was the answer to Pakistan’s predicament. Disillusionment set in however, and the PTI decided to withdraw its support shortly before the 2002 elections. While the party’s message of justice and accountability appealed to people weary of confrontational and self-serving politics by the mainstream parties, the PTI’s lack of grass-roots organisation weakens it. Next, the PTI marketed itself as a vociferous opponent of Musharraf’s military rule, even after the latter had assumed the fig leaf of democracy. Imran Khan subsequently became one of the most vocal proponents of the lawyers’ movement which sought to reverse Musharraf’s suspension of Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Indeed, the theme of the struggle between politicians and the judiciary in Pakistan is often analogous with issues of law and order, on the one hand, and democracy on the other. These issues also correlate with women’s rights. Both the PTI and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) have, during their campaigns, overlooked the question of championing women’s rights in Pakistan. The PPP takes the issue more seriously. And while the Awami National Party (ANP) talks about crimes against women, Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid’s (PML-Q) manifesto treats women’s rights with a similar disinterest to the other major Pakistani parties.
The MQM does tackle women’s rights from a social perspective from its stronghold of Karachi, a city that has one of the highest standards of education in the country. The MQM manifesto focuses on an increase in staff and equipment at primary and secondary health centres, training of providers at all levels, basic health units, rural health centres and mother and child care centres, and gives a separate section to Family Welfare that talks of bringing down the population growth rate. These are issues that unfortunately do not win votes in much of Pakistan.
Pakistan’s Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), however, is a bastion of the militant Islamists. It is the least developed of Pakistan’s provinces. The Jamaat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) are two critically important parties in FATA. The total number of registered voters in FATA is 1,738,313, including 596,079 women. Yet in a few constituencies such as North Waziristan and South Waziristan, candidates of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Quami Movement have been marginalised and even physically threatened. The militant Islamists lobbed a hand grenade in the office of PML-N leader General Abdel-Kader Baloch in Kharan town of Balochistan, one of Pakistan’s poorest and least developed provinces.
Such incidents of violence have increased in the past decade, ironically a period that witnessed the advancement of Pakistani democracy. Baloch said five PML-N workers were injured in the attack. The blast also damaged the electoral office of PML-N. Militant Islamists also targeted the electoral office of National Party (NP) Mach town of Balochistan. Police said militants hurled a hand grenade at the NP office.
There is no guarantee that the forthcoming elections in Pakistan will be free and fair. Indeed, already there are signs of widespread attempts at rigging. For instance, a police team recovered and confiscated the National Assembly ballot papers during the search of a vehicle and that the papers were not carrying the seal of the Election Commission of Pakistan and appeared to be fake.
Predominantly Sunni Muslim Pakistan has witnessed a spiralling wave of violence against the Shia Muslim minority and other religious minorities such as the Christians. It is not clear how confessional conflicts will impact the vote. What is crystal clear, however, is that most of Pakistan’s political parties are highlighting the country’s socio-economic shortcomings, and coming up with measures to combat poverty and underdevelopment. “The convergence of all the manifestos on attaching priorities to the critical areas shows that the political parties are aware of the gravity of the situation,” suggested a study by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE). Political parties, accordingly, have paid heed to policy advice coming from the Planning Commission, observes the study entitled “A socio-economic assessment of manifestos: election 2013”. Still, the child and infant mortality rate in Pakistan is exceptionally high, and maternal mortality rate is even higher, and because the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for maternal health are unlikely to be met in the near future, quality health, education, living, social security and justice remain a challenge for most Pakistanis. The PIDE study curiously noted that tackling the country’s energy crisis topped the agendas of almost all the Pakistani political parties’ manifestos — a preposterous bet on a perennial Pakistani problem.
BANGLADESHI BEDLAM: Politically speaking, Pakistan and Bangladesh are on the same wavelength. Like Pakistan, overwhelmingly Muslim Bangladesh does face serious tensions between the mainstream political parties — the ruling Awami League and the rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — and the militant Islamists. Other major political parties include the moderate Islamist Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI).
Traditionally, the Awami League has aligned itself politically with smaller secularist and leftist parties while the BNP collaborates more closely with Islamist groups. Bangladesh, was however, founded as a secular and multi-party parliamentary democracy in 1971 when it broke away from Pakistan after the bitter Bangladesh Liberation War. Like Pakistan, Bangladesh soon after independence descended into political turmoil, and successive military takeovers shook the foundations of the nascent democracy.
Scores of people were killed in maniacal clashes between police and militant Islamist protesters in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, on Sunday and Monday, compounding the trauma in the country that is struggling to come to terms with the collapse of a textile factory that killed more 650 people, mostly women workers, late last month. This week, a leviathan demonstration, spearheaded by the Hefazat-e-Islam, a movement of teachers and students of religious schools, descended into chaotic scenes of pandemonium on Sunday evening when the militant Islamists and police and ruling Awami League activists fought feverishly over the insistence of the Islamists to implement an anti-blasphemy law and their demands for the severe punishment of alleged “atheist” bloggers who they claim have insulted Islam and the Prophet Mohamed. Several hundred shops were torched and vehicles were burnt during pitched battles that raged into the night.
More assertive militant Islamists and myriad social ills are a most dangerous powder keg. Islam and politics have become badly entangled in two of the most populous Muslim nations — Pakistan and Bangladesh. Malaysia is not immune to militant Islamism in its own backyard, but because it is considerably more prosperous economically than either Pakistan or Bangladesh, the urgency of the struggle between secularism and militant Islam is less apparent. Malaysia, though, is not entirely immune to the menace.
It should be said, however, that all three Asian predominantly Muslim nations are not behaving as if they are under imminent attack from the militant Islamists or living in the shadow of the destruction of democracy. Regardless of the rhetorical fusillades of local politicians and an over-excited international media, all three are trying to cope, with varying degrees of success, with the dynamics of, and collision between secularism and political Islam, between moderate and militant Islam.
A damaged tank belonging to forces loyal to Al-Assad is seen at a deserted street in the besieged area of Homs (photo: Reuters)
Rumours have been spreading about the possibility of partitioning Syria if the regime finds itself close to collapse, with some observers claiming that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is now plotting to break up the country along political, social and demographic lines, with others claiming that this would be effectively impossible.
Partitioning Syria would not be limited to breaking off the Western coastal region where the president and key figures from the regime come from and where many regime loyalists and Alawites are concentrated. Instead, it could also include the possibility of partitioning the country into religious, sectarian and possibly even regional entities.
Under this scenario, Syria would effectively collapse, being divided into four or five separate entities with different and opposing outlooks effectively hostile to each other. Talk of partitioning the country is not new. For decades, proposals about the future of Syria have been floated, and pessimists are now talking about partition as a way out for the regime if it finds itself cornered.
However, pressure from domestic and foreign sources may prevent the implementation of such a plan, especially if the Syrians themselves are determined to maintain the unity of their country. Partitioning would only serve Syria’s enemies and not be in anyone’s interests, many say, apart from some small segments of the population.
Nevertheless, for the time being a political solution to the crisis the country faces remains unattainable, and brutal confrontations continue as religious and sectarian mobilisation climbs amid calls for religious and factional extremism.
As a result, there has been talk of a possible Kurdish enclave in the north of the country, along with a Western portion made up of the present regime and its Alawite supporters. There has also been talk of minority Druze and Christian areas, along with a majority Sunni area that would make up most of the present country.
The Syrian opposition asserts that the regime now fears defeat and sectarian retribution and so has started to carve out a region for itself in its traditional strongholds along the coastal mountain range. This region includes Homs, Hamah, Idlib and as far as northwest Syria, cutting the area off from Western Syria.
Other opposition figures have accused the regime of planning to ethnically cleanse Sunni villages that could be included in the partition plan in order to spread terror among their residents and cause them to flee. In the light of such plans, these figures say, action should be stepped up to overthrow the regime.
Since the start of the uprising against the Al-Assad regime two years ago, the regime has tried to militarise the minority Alawites along sectarian lines, something that has been successful because of the international community’s statements that it does not intend to intervene in the country and will not arm the revolutionaries.
Once the military balance began to tip towards the revolutionaries and they took control of large swathes of the country, the regime began to destroy these areas by adopting scorched-earth tactics.
The Alawites began leaving for Western Syria in the belief that this area would be safer, and the regime and its supporters have reportedly been discussing a plan to set up a small Alawite state and divide the country into sectarian and ethnic cantons that would weaken the Sunni regions, giving these cantons the names of a federation, confederation, non-centralised political administration and so on.
Meanwhile, the massacres have been increasing, and the regime has aimed to further implicate the Alawites in them in order to try to prevent them from objecting to an independent statelet.
Alawite opposition to the regime is limited, and at the beginning of the uprising many Alawites said they feared change and demanded guarantees of the safety of their community, wanting reassurances that they would continue to control the Syrian state and its agencies.
In response to such fears, the revolutionaries declared the Syrian people were united and that the Alawites did not need guarantees because the “homeland is for all.”
“The massacres that have taken place in Homs, Hamah and Idlib in central Syria in areas where the Alawite supporters of Al-Assad are located have been no coincidence,” Fayez Sara, an opposition figure, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “These have been part of a pre-planned policy aiming to terrorise residents so that Sunnis flee these areas, paving the way for the creation of a mini Alawite state along the coast.”
“The massacres are part of a plot that aims to divide northern Syria (Aleppo and Hamah) from southern Syria (Damascus), in preparation for a US-Russian-Iranian agreement to divide Syria into cantons as part of a confederation with a weak central government if the revolution overthrows, or comes close to overthrowing, the regime.”
According to many moderate opposition politicians, however, the regime cannot be described as Alawite, Christian, Sunni or Druze. Instead, it is simply corrupt and oppressive, such people say. It is not defending its own sect, but is instead simply defending what it has stolen from the people and its own privileges.
It would be a grave mistake to fight against it as an Alawite regime, because this could cause this sect to defend it in self-defence, making it difficult for Alawites to turn their backs on the regime and possibly triggering a sectarian civil war in the country.
Meanwhile, the US has said that its offer for Al-Assad to leave power safely does not include his moving to his birthplace of Latakia and creating an Alawite statelet there. In Washington’s view, there can be no question of forming an Alawite mini-state because the US is adamant about maintaining the integrity and unity of Syrian territory.
Commenting on the domestic and foreign objections to partitioning the country, Sara said that “there are broad segments inside Syria that reject partition, not only because of their political culture and heritage, but also because of their cognisance of the interests of the Syrian people.”
“Since its launch, the Syrian revolution has attempted to reconfirm the unity and solidarity of the Syrian people even as the regime and its supporters have tried to break it. Overall domestic sentiment leans towards resisting partition in order to maintain a united Syria that provides freedom and dignity for its citizenry where all can co-exist without discrimination.”
“Meanwhile, there are also international and regional forces that object to partition, notably because of neighbouring states with populations that are extensions of what exists in Syria. There are Kurds, Sunnis and Alawites in Turkey, for example, and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. There are Sunnis in Jordan, and Sunnis, Alawites and Christians in Lebanon. No one would be able to stop these communities from reacting against the idea of partition, especially if it is caused by or the result of violence.”
“As for the major powers, most of these also reject splitting the country in order to protect their own interests because they would prefer to deal with a single regime. Partitioning Syria would destabilise the states of the region and perhaps lead to their partitioning too, which would destabilise the supply of oil and gas around the world.”
Wael Al-Sawah, a political activist, said that the “regime cannot guarantee the [support] of the sect of which it has declared itself the spokesperson and protector. While there is a group within the sect that supports [Al-Assad], hundreds of thousands of patriotic Syrians from this same sect will not accept any division of their homeland and their becoming isolated in a sectarian mini-state.”
“They will fight this possibility and support the motherland. Thousands of Alawites who have participated in the revolution since the first day will reject Al-Assad’s reign over such an Alawite statelet. They will be joined by their families and friends who will refuse to sacrifice their sons for the sake of a single family that wants to divide Syria,” Al-Sawah said, referring to the Al-Assad family.
Observers believe it will be impossible to create an Alawite mini-state because the demographic reality on the ground is complicated and difficult to disentangle. There is a Sunni majority that would be difficult to displace and a sizable number of Christians who will not accept partition, as well as a percentage of Alawites who oppose the regime and reject it too, including Alawite clerics, military personnel and intellectuals.
However, some radical Sunni opposition elements say there is empathy between the regime and the Alawite sect, and this is not how they view other groups that could be even stronger supporters of the regime. The longer the conflict continues in Syria, the more risky the notion of partition or sectarian division in deciding the fate of the country becomes.
In Lebanon, there are Christian fears of Hizbullah’s possible military involvement in the conflict, and in the north there have been Kurdish demands for a federation. Russia and Iran have not concealed the fact that in the last resort they could be willing to partition Syria and create an Alawite state in the West with the possibility of a Druze state in the south.
“The revolutionaries only have one option, which is to topple the regime by force,” said opposition figure Fawwaz Tallu. “The regime and its supporters have left them with no other choice. This can only be done by going to the Alawite regions and disarming them in order to bring those who have committed crimes against the Syrian people to justice irrespective of their sect.”
“Justice according to the law and through the courts is the sole guarantee that the Alawites can once again be integrated into Syria’s fabric, which was destroyed by this sect after murdering thieves led them into the present adventure.”
Much of the Syrian opposition believes that the best guarantee for the Alawites and for the minorities in general would be for these to support the overthrow of the regime and the creation of a civil state free of tyranny, the rule of security agencies and the presence of sectarian configurations.
This would be a democratic state ruled by a civil constitution that protected equal rights and freedoms and did not countenance sectarian quotas or the partitioning of the country. If a state of this sort cannot be brought about, partition or civil war may await the country.
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, damaged buildings wrecked by an Israeli airstrike are seen in Damascus, Syria, on May 5. (SANA/AP)
In a series of meetings over the past year, Israel laid out to the U.S. beforehand what would trigger a strike in Syria. Eli Lake reports.
Israel did not seek permission from the United States before launching two missile strikes this weekend hitting targets inside Syria—but the strikes were part of a policy that Washington had already signaled its acquiescence to, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
In a series of high-level meetings between U.S. and Israeli officials over the last year, the Israelis explained in detail the conditions that would lead them to attack targets inside Syria. Israel’s “red lines,” articulated in private and public, include the shipment from Iran of advanced anti-aircraft weapons, advanced missiles, and chemical or unconventional weapons to the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah, according to public reports and U.S. officials.
While Iran has sent conventional arms through Syria to Hezbollah for years, Israel is concerned that the Islamic Republic may now be sending the Lebanese militia advanced weapons designed for national armed forces, including rockets with the range to put most of Israel’s population at risk of attack, shore-to-ship missiles of the sort Hezbollah successfully used in its 2006 war with Israel, and advanced anti-aircraft weaponry. Another red line for Israel would be if sarin gas or other chemical weapons possessed by the Syrian government found their way to Hezbollah in the midst of Syria’s bloody and chaotic civil war.
“In general they told us in every possible way that this kind of strike would be coming,” said a U.S. intelligence official. Another U.S. official said, “Israel shares its intelligence on Syria with us almost in real time. These latest strikes were an example of Israel enforcing its own red lines.”
This two strikes this week were the first since one in January, also apparently aimed at Hezbollah-bound weaponry. The New York Times reported Sunday that the targets this weekend included a warehouse at Damascus International Airport, with stocks of the Fateh-110 missile—a solid-fuel missile that would give Hezbollah the capacity to strike Tel Aviv. That was followed by a second strike that hit the Center for Scientific Research in Jamraya, a military facility in a suburb of Damascus. The Wall Street Journal reported that both attacks were launched from Lebanese airspace.
President Obama signaled Sunday that the U.S. had no objections to the strikes. “What I have said in the past and I continue to believe is that the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” the president told Telemundo. “We coordinate closely with the Israelis, recognizing they are very close to Syria, they are very close to Lebanon.”
That approach contrasts with Obama’s sometimes open spats with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the prudence of attacking Iran. While the two leaders have recently said they share the same view of intelligence on Iran’s progress toward achieving a nuclear weapon, they’ve drawn very different red lines for when a military response would be warranted. While the U.S. has vowed to top Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon, Israel has vowed to stop the Islamic Republic from acquiring the capability to make one, a significantly lower threshold.
“In general they told us in every possible way that this kind of strike would be coming,” said a U.S. intelligence official.
Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who is the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said, “Iran shows no reluctance to share its most advanced conventional weapons with Hezbollah. This raises the question of whether Iran is preparing to transfer unconventional weapons capability.”
Those concerns come as U.S. military commanders publicly have acknowledged that the United States no longer knows where many of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stocks are now located.
The precedent of the U.S. making allowances for Israel military actions inside Syria in some ways dates back to the Bush administration. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state and national-security adviser under George W. Bush, wrote in her memoir, for example, that both she and then–Defense secretary Robert Gates were skeptical of Israeli claims in 2007 that Syria was developing a nuclear-weapons program at the al-Kibar nuclear facility in Syria in 2007—and encouraged President Bush to decline Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s request that the U.S. take out the facility. After CIA director Mike Hayden said he had only low confidence that the reactor there was in fact part of a weapons program, Bush rejected the request, and Israel destroyed the facility itself, without American permission. Neither side publicly confirmed the strike. In 2008, several months after the Israeli strike, the Bush administration made public intelligence that it said confirmed the Syrian site had indeed housed a nuclear reactor. The White House also shared with Congress video of North Korean nuclear scientists at the facility.
Politicians and pundits weighed America’s role in Syria, now that Israel has attacked.
Much has changed for Israel since 2007. In recent years, the Israel Defense Forces have quietly adopted a new doctrine to target Iran’s weapons network throughout the Middle East, including through targeted killings, drone attacks, and military actions in other countries. Those actions have included the 2010 assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas military commander, in his hotel room at Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in a somewhat botched operation in which the killers were captured on camera. That same year, Israeli drones fired on al-Mabhouh’s successor, Abdel Latif al-Ashqar, in Sudan. In 2011 Israeli Mossad commandos kidnapped in Ukraine an alleged Hamas operative named Dirar Abu Sisi, who had emigrated there that year to seek citizenship.
At the end of 2011, the Israel Defense Forces created a new strategic command that placed elite military units that worked in foreign countries, often in secret, under a single command structure similar to U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, the operational command for Navy SEALs and the U.S. Army’s Delta Force. “The depth command is a clear signal to Iran,” an Israeli defense official told The Daily Beast in March. “We are willing to go wherever we need to go to stop you.”
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz hinted at this approach in March when he addressed the annual strategic conference at Herzliya, signaling Israel’s willingness to use military force to stop weaponry originating in other countries from reaching Israel’s enemies in Lebanon and Gaza.
“If we have to go into a village and under the ground, that is something we will make sure we are flexible enough to do, that we are able to adapt ourselves to the new situation. We will have to do other things as well. From dozens of places in the world we are being attacked, they are looking at us, and they are watching us,” Gantz said.
Eli Lake is the senior national-security correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He previously covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times. Lake has also been a contributing editor at The New Republic since 2008 and covered diplomacy, intelligence, and the military for the late New York Sun. He has lived in Cairo and traveled to war zones in Sudan, Iraq, and Gaza. He is one of the few journalists to report from all three members of President Bush’s axis of evil: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.
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