Arab autumn woes

As the global wrangling over Syria continues, militant attacks go on in ‘post-Arab Spring’ nations

Two-and-a-half years on from the explosive revolutions that toppled dictators and forced deep re-organisations of countries’ politics from Morocco to Yemen, there seems to be no let up in the deadly instability that has rocked many of the nations that underwent upheavals.

Yesterday, the Egyptian air forces carries out raids on Islamist militant positions in the restive Sinai area – a double strike as part of an ongoing battle with insurgents in the region more generally and also in probable retaliation for two suicide car bombings on Wednesday 11. Six soldiers lost their lives and many more people were wounded in the twin assault: one targeted the intelligence building in the town of Rafah and the other hit an armoured personnel carrier. A little-known jihadist group called Jund al-Islam claimed responsibility.

There was another car bombing on Wednesday, to the east over the border in Libya. This time the device went off near the country’s Foreign Ministry in the city of Benghazi. There were no serious casualties but the explosion came on both the anniversary of the 9/11 attack in the US in 2001 and the attack on the American Consulate in the Libyan city. The U.S. ambassador and three others died as al-Qaeda-linked militants broke into the diplomatic mission last year.

At the start of the week, on Monday, the Tunisian security forces killed two Islamist fighters belonging to the Ansar al-Sharia extremist group. And just today there was another bombing of Yemen’s main oil pipeline in the central Maarib province. It is the fourth attack on the pipeline in a month.

Algeria has also been in the news over the last few days after the release of a report into a deadly siege attack in January on a gas plant in the country’s desert borderlands with Libya. 40 people were killed when Islamist extremists overran the In Amenas facility, which was home to many Western workers as well as Algerians. Statoil, the Norwegian company, published on Thursday the conclusions of an internal investigation into the militant assault.

But despite all this unrest across the region, the past seven days have been another week where the focus of the world’s media has been on Syria. There has now been an agreement between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov over how to address the 21 August use of chemical weapons, but there remains a nervousness, with the use of force by the US not totally ruled out for all contexts. The world powers may be trying to deal with the Syrian crisis, but they are only looking into the chemical weapons side of that conflict, not the deteriorating state of the nation itself, wrecked by a war that shows no signs of stopping, and is becoming ever more complex regarding the ethnic and religious alliances and hostilities at play.

What this past week encapsulates is the overarching worry of the examples now being played out by the countries ahead of Syria in the ‘Arab Spring’ transition ladder. The war in Syria seems a long way from ending (if it ever technically does, that is), but even if it were concluding, the extremist elements on both sides of the conflict point to an ominous future for the country. If terrorist bombings can continue in countries that are perceived to have already gone through the ‘Arab Spring’, then the outlook for Syria, (which has had the longest war of all those countries, and thus more time for militants to weave their extremist aims into the region), is bleak – despite the Russia-US negotiations appearing to start to bear fruit.

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Shifting sands

On May 23 and 24 Egyptians will vote in the first round of the first presidential election since the fall of Hosni Mubarak

After growing unrest and anxiety over the military generals that have been governing the country since the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime last February, the public are finally getting their say. The parliamentary elections were welcomed and did not throw up many surprises, with the Islamists landing the most seats through the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. But it is the chance to elect the figurehead to lead the country away from dictatorship and military governance which has created the most excitement.

The first ever televised presidential debate took place last night, on 10 May, between the two front-runners of the 13-strong field of candidates. Neither ex-Foreign Minister Amr Moussa nor former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abul-Futoh have clean copybooks and their battle once more draws a long, deep line in the sand in between the two men over the issue of religion: the open liberalism of Moussa against the moderate Islam of Abdul-Futoh. With parties of all colours represented in parliament, from hardline Salafis to hardline secularists to the young revolutionaries who powered the upheavals last year, it is unsurprising that there is such a long list of possible presidents to lead a free nation for the first time. However, in any race for the hot-seat in any country there is always a short-list and a couple of favourites, it is just a further source of division that the top two for the new Egypt have plenty of baggage between them.

The country that one of them will be heading is an important place. As the most populous member of the Arab world and one of the largest in Africa, with more than 81m citizens, by size alone Egypt is a key state. But economically it is significant as well. It has been categorised as one of the crucial emerging economies on the CIVETS list, alongside Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Turkey and South Africa. This move has also been criticised, particularly seeing as economic growth has stalled in recent years. In 2009, GDP output was 4.6% but by last year, the revolutionary turmoil had taken its toll and the figures plummeted to 1%. Saudi Arabia has just approved a $2bn loan to help Cairo through this tricky period. Estimates for future Egyptian GDP growth are looking a bit brighter but do vary wildly:  forecasts for the 2012-13 financial period range from 1.6% to 3.5%. It is clear that the huge national changes that have taken place have wounded the country’s economy, mainly through scaring investors and foreign tourists. But they have been national changes which will hopefully free the nation.

The main geopolitical aspect to Egypt used to be its relations with Israel. Cairo not just recognised the Jewish nation but maintained a long-standing peace accord with its neighbour. However, in the debate last night, both candidates supported revision of the international deal, and Abdul-Futoh went as far as calling Israel an “enemy”. Egypt has an important trans-continental and regional role to uphold, being a bridge state between Africa-Asia, the Maghreb-Mediterranean, Arab-Israeli relations and Northern Africa-Central Africa. Egypt is also somewhere with major internal religious differences, as more than half of the world’s 18 million Coptic Christians live in the country. And Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become an unofficial focus point for the Arab unrest. It is a country on the move, but with an uncertain destination and with many uncertainties within. The next two weeks of campaigning to elect a fair driver to carry on the revolution are going to be as heated as the upheaval itself.

Waiting game

On the regional diplomatic front-line against the Syrian violence, more might be expected from Lebanon

It is a fractious neighbourhood. The repressive Assad regime in Syria is surrounded by Iraq (still rocking with violence of its own), Iran (currently quietly watching events from the corner), Israel (dealing with its own Spanish indignado-style protests at the moment), Jordan (where King Abdullah has spoken recently to reassure the people of reforms), Turkey (starting to get restless with Syria and now using its megaphone to condemn Bashar al Assad) and Lebanon (a successful democracy, sitting between West and the Middle East).

However, Beirut is failing to use its geopolitical location and the fact that it has a seat on the UN Security Council at the moment to be able to lead the pack on Syrian policy. When the condemnatory statement was on the table in New York, Lebanon lifted its pen and passed it on. Discussing his country’s refusal to sign, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was quoted as saying that:

“The decision reflected Lebanon’s clear convictions. This position sought the higher interests of Lebanon and the entire region, including Syria.”

It is true that a resolution would have been a more defiant outcome and the European-led statement was weak. But that is not a reason not to express support for a small step on the road to reform, sanctions or intervention. This last option is the most worrying and the one that scares Russia and China the most at the moment. But Lebanon does not have to call for a Libyan-style military move.

The violence has escalated in recent days to the shelling of the port of Latakia from the sea by the Syrian navy. A simple denunciation would carry weight, as Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern and major Muslim nation on the present Council (although Gabon and Nigeria have sizeable Islamic populations as well).

But Lebanon has some tricky politics. Hezbollah, the militant Shia Muslim group, supports the Assad regime. Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, looks more to the West. With politics opening up across the region, Hezbollah ought to pause and consider the fallout if it were to continue to support a regime that was to be thrown out and whose members, like Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, ended up in caged docks in front of a condemnatory public. Hezbollah has links to Iran and it is hard for them to think purely within national borders, such are the complexities of the regional patronages and ties.

If it were to do so, it may see the reformist agenda led by Hariri and also the tide of condemnation growing in regional big beasts like Turkey. Lebanon is swimming against the flow at the moment and it would be better at least to turn to face the shore, rather than the swelling, international, condemnatory white rollers brewing out at sea.

Kazakh cure

What can we expect from Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation?

Kazakhstan is about to complete its first month in the hotseat of the OIC – one of the most important Islamic blocs along with the Arab League and the World Islamic Economic Forum. The OIC, (the ‘C’ recently changed from ‘Conference’ to ‘Co-operation’), aims to promote common understanding, ambition and to foster goodwill and unity between member-states.

When one calls to mind Islamic countries, Kazakhstan does not often roll off the tongue naturally. It is true that there are bigger voices in the Islamic world, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey, and their reach goes beyond the borders of the Muslim world. But other, smaller members are beginning to show a bit more bite to their roles. The African Francophone members of the organisation are starting to grow in confidence but it is probably the Central Asian nations that are set to be the most significant group in the bloc. Kazakhstan embodies the image of a modern, political driver-nation that many countries, both within and outside the OIC, aspire to be.

Kazakhstan has said it wants to advance the OIC’s aim of continuing peaceful development with the rest of the world. It also wants to address the economic imbalances that exist within the organisation: Somalia and Benin are minnows compared to Malaysia and the UAE. The Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, outlined his proposals ‘to switch [the Islamic world] from commodity development to industrial innovation’, to develop a joint plan of actions in the energy sector and to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, an idea which he hopes could kick-start international de-nuclearisation.

Kazakhstan comes into the chairmanship in the right frame of mind and at the right time. From a global point-of-view, it is a nation well-positioned in the main pack chasing the front-runners – it is a forward-looking and forward-thinking country. From an Islamic perspective, it will be a reassuring but not tranquilising influence on a bloc still rocking from recent challenges. Arab uprisings in the Maghreb and Middle East, (notably the ongoing conflict in Libya and violence in Syria), ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan, political violence in Ivory Coast and the war in Afghanistan are some of the issues confronting Astana.

But secularism is written into the constitution and Kazakhstan underlines the right to freedom of religion, although more than 70% of the population is Muslim. It has successfully modelled itself as a bridge-state: between Europe and Asia; between ex-Soviet nations and the West; and now, hopefully, between hardline Islamic nations and more open members of OIC. It is a time for a safe pair of hands. Kazakhstan has the perfect platform to press on with social, industrial and economic ambitions, backed up by a significant but not overbearing Muslim tradition.

Rumblings of Delhi belly

Thousands marching in cities across the country. Politicians vilified. Demands for change. While the media spotlight has been on Egypt, the public have also been on the move in India.

The clamour has been over the increasing corruption that the nation fears is infecting their politicians and business leaders. Nepotism, embezzlement and abuse of powers are all charges that have been levelled at the political class. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, has stood firm and said he will not ‘spare’ anyone found guilty of corruption.

In December, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition headed a huge anti-sleaze demonstration in the capital. However the latest protests were not party-specific and it seems that the public is tired of all political corruption.

India is at an interesting global intersection at the moment and must aim publicly to clean up politics to ensure the continued smooth running of the fast-developing country. In December it signed an historic arms trade deal with Russia, deepening the ties between the two BRIC countries. It is undergoing a census of its 1.2 billion citizens. Kashmir remains a sticking-point in the region but it can provide India with a platform for reformist and more open dialogue in the future, even though it will never accept secessionist plans.

The sub-continent is in a time of trial. Pakistan, despite the exciting news for adrenaline-loving snow enthusiasts that a ski resort has opened in the Swat Valley, is nearing boiling point. The war in Afghanistan is going on inside its borders, sectarian violence is increasing and as the pressure increasing on politicians, the risks become ever more deadly.

But the Indian government ought not to discard talks with Pakistan simply because of the violence and the historic entrenchment over the area. India can continue to grow politically and this would help it grow into its shoes as the second-biggest country in the world, a role it might be able to play in the years to come on all levels – not just in terms of population.

Friday prayers can wait

Is the European Union stalling over policy towards the Islamic world?

Recent events in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have not gone totally unnoticed in Europe but there was a significant delay in releasing official reaction to the unrest which began in December. These events were occurring just across the sea, indeed the Italian island of Pantelleria lies only 45 miles or so from the Tunisian coast. And the EU is the largest trading partner for the Maghreb. Why was there no coherent policy announcement?

European ministers are dedicated at the moment to sorting out the financial crisis and trying to ensure that neither Spain nor Portugal goes the way of Greece and Ireland. Reacting to the downfall of the government in Tunisia raised confusion over how the bloc feels and eventually no clear response was issued. Whether or not to give Turkey a membership card has been relegated from the to-do list.

David Cameron has let it be known that the UK Government will be batting for the Turks but as Conservative Baroness Warsi, the UK’s first female Muslim Cabinet member, will say in a speech on Thursday 20 January, Britain has to get its national attitude towards Muslims right first before it can think about lecturing others on equality.

And this is part of the wider problem – there has never truly been a coherent, union-wide policy on this issue. Take burqas for example: should members be banning them or not? And as this blog noted last month, (‘Snow boots for Islamic fundamentalists’, 31 December 2010′), Islamic terror plots have been on the rise in Scandinavia and earlier this week a Somali man went on trial for the attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, a cartoonist who published drawings of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban. Should members be allowing the publication of such pictures?

Switzerland, surrounded by EU member-states, drew gasps of breath in 2009 when its parliament approved a ban on the building of minarets. There is also rising antipathy in Germany towards Muslims and Turkish inclusion in the EU. The majority of the country’s four million Muslims have Turkish ancestry and president Christian Wulff faced a particularly tough time on a state visit to Turkey last year. The EU talks at length about a common agricultural policy, a common defence policy and a common economic policy and 2011 should be the year when major steps are taken to discussing a common policy to all the issues surrounding the place of Islam in Europe.

The flight of the president

Mass demonstrations were rare in North Africa. But 2011 has begun in extremely turbulent fashion, with the Tunisian president, Zine El Abadine Ben Ali, fleeing his imploding country for the Gulf after weeks of riots left many dead and forced the army to move into the cities. The people, disaffected and finally showing it publicly, are seriously unhappy at the way their governments have been handling their economies and jobs markets.

Algeria has also been the scene of rioting and further west, the Arab winter of discontent has been continuing in Jordan, where thousands have been marching in protest at fuel and food prices. Calls for the president to fall on his sword have been ringing round the streets there too. Sectarian bombings in Egypt further along the Mediterranean coast have heightened tensions in the region.

But back in Algeria, this is how 2010 began, with national protests as Algerians were cross about the overbearing feeling of stasis pervading the country’s political psyche and forcing the pace of social development to slow to a crawl. They finished the year up in arms again but the state of the protests in the country for the moment has calmed, as its neighbour has boiled over.

Although the protests across the Maghreb began as demonstrations against rising fuel and food prices and youth unemployment, they have turned into public manifestations of pent-up hurt and stagnation at the lack of social mobility that has been perpetuated year after year by the long-serving premiers. They have been public rejections of the current politics.

The worst disturbances have been in previously mellow Tunisia. Once they started hitting the streets week after week, the police tried to match the swelling demonstrations. Yet the passion and fervour with which the strikes have been carried out snowballed as each day came and went. The protests intensified, demonstrators died, the police stepped up control measures. This is how the pattern continued until the complete meltdown of the country’s governing structure on 14 January, when the president fled, leaving the prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, in charge.

The pressure is now on the AU, the EU, the US and other Arab countries to respond and act. Tunisians will feel they have played their role, in ousting the president. International mediation will be needed to ensure that the fragility of Egyptian sectarianism and Algerian and Jordanian public strife do not exacerbate or Europe will have a serious problem just the other side of the Mediterranean.

The trouble with two presidents

It is Christmas time but the feeling of goodwill to all men seems not to have extended itself to elections season in Africa.

Laurent Gbagbo, the outgoing president of Ivory Coast was defeated in the vote on 28 November but has chosen to swear himself back into office, causing friction in the capital, Abidjan. The main problem appears to be that his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, has also taken the presidential oath. So Ivory Coast currently has two presidents, from opposing camps.

The African Union has sent ex-South African premier Thabo Mbeki to sort the situation out. However, his laissez-faire attitude towards Zimbabwe’s electoral hurdles is not easily forgotten. There are worries that he is something of a walkover when confronted with persistent and vociferous fellow African leaders.

Gbagbo has the army behind him and there are fears that Mbeki may pander to Gbagbo’s sympathies over Ouattara. The latter has strong backing from the north of the country and Mr Mbeki will be mindful of the geographical civil war in Ivory Coast in 2002-3, when the nation was divided into North and South. Nigeria is a clear and present example of the problems that can arise when you have a country split obviously into northerners and southerners. Sudan is rupturing over the issue. Further afield, the Korean Peninsula provides another example of the problem.

It is also election time at the moment in Egypt but there are problems afoot. Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition party, withdrew from the vote over allegations of electoral corruption. It was hardly surprising then, that the governing National Democratic Party returned over 97% of the seats. Egypt is an international focus point for the continent, but eyebrows cannot keep being raised over its ‘democratic’ structure. Next year’s presidential elections will be key.

Back in West Africa, Niger is gearing up for local elections to be held on 31 December and the more significant contest to be the country’s leader on 3 January. President Mamadou Tandja is under pressure after the military grabbed power in a coup earlier this year. The head of the national electoral commission, Abdourhamane Ghousmane, has urged all politicians and parties to work together to try to achieve a nationally-recognised result in the New Year.

All hopes rest on his words being honoured. Otherwise Mr Mbeki could be off on another power-mediating placement sooner than he thought.