1.19.2008

Middle East Weekly Wire by POMED

These are some excerpts from the latest issues of Weekly Wire by the Project on Middle East Democracy.

January 14, 2008

Thoughts on Bush's Middle East Trip: President Bush left last Tuesday on a nine-day trip to the Middle East with stops in Israel, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Somehad low expectations for the visit, describing the desire to revive support for Middle Eastern democracy as hopeless, while others urge Bush to use this opportune time to set a new course in addressing tensions with Iran. Another analyst implores Bush to advocate a small, easy-to-build-upon initiative, rather than a grand gesture, for the Israeli and Palestinian people. One article remarks on the irony that four of the six Arab nations on the trip are monarchies and highlight Saudi Arabia as a prominent monarchy of great relevance to US foreign policy. In a different light, an editorial argues that the trip exemplifies Bush's stature as "the most consequential leader in the long history of America's encounter" with the Middle East. Meanwhile, a survey of Middle Eastern media highlighted the Arab consensus that "success will only come if the US puts pressure on Israel." Along with this, some noted with interest the "overwhelming focus on the Palestinian issue and the virtual silence on both Iran and Iraq" in Arab media coverage of the trip. In Abu Dhabi yesterday, President Bush gave what was billed as the "signature" speech of his trip, outlining his policy for the Middle East. Some claimed that Bush veered from advocating democratic reforms in order to emphasize the threat of Iran, while others praised his continuing prioritization of spreading democracy and freedom to the world: "America's 'freedom agenda' is not the cause of its current travails in the Middle East."

Unified or Divided Iraq?: In recognition of the first anniversary of Bush's announcement to escalate U.S. forces in Iraq, analysts urged the necessity of a bottom-up political surge in Iraq to provide legitimacy to local governments and sustain grassroots initiatives. One analyst evaluated the pressures against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been criticized for not delivering on promises of reform, while others expressed concern over Muqtada al-Sadr's intentions to become an ayatollah in Iraq, or the damage done to internal Iraqi reconciliation by "four ticking time bombs." Others discuss the U.S. interest in a unified Iraq despite Kurdish desires for independence, and suggest that "there should be no aid and no diplomatic legitimacy so long as Iraqi Kurdistan remains a PKK safe haven, sells U.S. security to the highest bidder, and leaves democratic reform stagnant."

Challenges to Democracy in the Arab World: One analystdefended the use of hereditary political power in the Middle East, admitting that while this system clashes with concepts of Western democracy, it provides stability for post-revolution states. An online forum features several prominent voices weighing in on the sustainability of democracy in the Middle East, in reaction to a Charles Issawi quote asserting that, "In the Middle East the economic and social soil is still not deep enough to enable political democracy to strike root and flourish."
Meanwhile, others asked the question: "Does the United States genuinely support democracy in the Arab world-or only when it furthers Washington's interests?"

Shifting U.S. Policy Toward Iran: Many in Washington note thecosts of containing Iran by arguing that rallying Sunni Arab states in favor of such policy is "unsound and impractical" while some declare that bilateral negotiations with Iran are pointless and tough sanctions are the only way to ameliorate the crisis that Iran's stance poses. Analysts in Washington recently discussed the presidential prospects for Tehran mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, described by many as"neither reformist nor strictly conservative," who could challenge President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 elections.

Potential for a Democratic Pakistan: While many in Washington argue that the U.S. plan to stabilize Pakistan is heading for disaster, many advocate a path to a stable, democratic Pakistan and urge the United States "to use its influence to persuade Pakistan's military to loosen its grip on power and negotiate with politicians with popular support." Some note the particular importance of this in light of the vast disparity between the level of democracy funding and overall contributions to Pakistan by the administration's budget request to Congress last year.

Presidential Candidates, Democracy and Foreign Policy: The 2008 Democratic Presidential candidates showed some small but important policy variations in their opinions on US foreign policy toward Pakistan. While Barack Obama argued that the U.S. should not shy from encouraging democracy in Pakistan, John Edwards seemed to offer tacit support for President Musharraf, and Hillary Clinton expressed concern over "what comes next" if Musharraf were removed from power., One analyst praises Bill Richardson's insight with regard to democracy promotion in the Muslim world after Richardson bowed out of the Democratic President race last week. In the context of an in-depth look at the Democratic Presidential candidates' foreign policy advisors, especially those of Clinton and Obama, some wonder whether a candidate's assemblage of advisors really matters in the end, while others look for conclusions to draw, but don't find many.

In the GOP debate last week in New Hampshire, John McCain, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney aligned mostly in support of the Bush Doctrine, while Mike Huckabee was gently skeptical of the Bush administration's foreign policy, promising to chart a course "between maintaining stability and promoting democracy" in the Muslim World. A succinct roundup of the exchange can be found here. When the Republican candidates were dealt the inevitable "what should we do about Musharraf" question in last week's tussle in South Carolina, Fred Thompson and many of his counterparts recognized that democracy is in Pakistan's long-term security interest (and therefore our interest) while Ron Paul decried our financial largesse in support of a "military dictator."

Pakistanis' View of Democracy: A new poll conducted in Pakistan, with results revealed in an event here last week, demonstrated strong public support for democracy: when asked "to use the 10-point scale to measure the importance of living 'in a country that is governed by representatives elected by the people,' the mean response of Pakistanis is 8.4." In reaction, a recent analyst criticizes the U.S. government for violating the wishes of a country's people under the guise of promoting freedom. A Pakistani professor offered an in-depth look at the country's uneven electoral history and its contribution to this lack of public confidence in the Pakistani political system.

In the continuing vocal debate following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, some honor Bhutto's contributions to democracy, while others condemn the media's glorification of the Bhutto family, noting that both Benazir and her husband have been charged on counts of corruption in the past. Some drew comparisons between the political situations in Pakistan and Lebanon, relating Benazir Bhutto's assassination to the murder of Rafik Hariro, while others expressed concern over the future of Benazir Bhutto's political party and the Bhutto family's attitude that democracy should be used to avenge Benazir's assassination. While some analysts worry about the political effects of Bhutto's assassination, noting that several political parties, not just Bhutto's PPP, are using her memory to bolster their own campaigns, others expressed concern about Bilawal Bhutto Zardari's inheritance of the leadership of Pakistan's largest party from his mother as the continuation of the trend of dynastic succession in the country and the region.

An Emerging Lebanon Deal? In the Arab League's ongoing efforts to help resolve the political crisis in Lebanon, an agreement in Cairo appears to have been reached, involving the immediate passage of a constitutional amendment to allow Michel Suleiman to become President and the formation of national unity government. Some described the Arab League proposal as giving "the Maronite president more power than he has had since the Taif Agreement of 1989" while some Lebaneseurged caution on the deal, citing the external threat of Iran's influence. One commentator states that the Arab League's efforts will be closely linked to the continuing investigation into Rafik Hariri's assassination.

Political State of Turkey: Recent analysis discusses the optimistic political prospects for Turkey, stating that critics and the media have overestimated the danger of Islam to democracy. Others emphasized divisions between religious and secular factions, expressing concern over the stability of the political system. On a different note, one analyst implores that a recent lethal blast in southeastern Turkey be seen against "the backdrop of a domestic struggle over the political and cultural identity of Turkey," indicating that it could endanger the continuance of Turkish economic and political reforms and also undermine Turkey's relationships with Iran, Syria, Israel, and the United States, as well as Turkey's bid for membership in the European Union.

Arab Views on Bush's Trip: A survey of Middle Eastern media highlighted the Arab consensus that "success will only come if the US puts pressure on Israel." Along with this, some noted with interest the "overwhelming focus on the Palestinian issue and the virtual silence on both Iran and Iraq" in Arab media coverage of the trip.

A rare opinion survey conducted last month in Saudi Arabia by Terror Free Tomorrow has produced fascinating results, showing dramatic improvement of Saudi opinion of the U.S. in recent months. In the Christian Science Monitor, Terror Free Tomorrow Executive Director Kenneth Ballen concludes that the people of Saudi Arabia may in fact be the answer to the recurring question, "Where is the voice of the moderate Muslim majority who stand against Al Qaeda, bin Laden, and terrorism?"


December 31, 2007

The Bhutto Assassination and Its Aftermath in Pakistan: Pakistan was rocked this week by the assassination of Pakistani People's Party (PPP) leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto during a political rally in Rawalpindi. Bhutto was shot and also targeted by a suicide bomb blast that killed more than thirty of her supporters at the rally. Many noted the void left behind, while opinions varied as to what's next for Pakistan. Several commentators argued that the elections scheduled for January should be postponed to allow the PPP to regroup and to permit for a more democratic contest, but others claim that the "way to honor Bhutto's legacy is for Musharraf to pick up her banner of relentlessly trying to bring back democracy to Pakistan," by holding elections as scheduled. But some fear that Pakistan has already lost the opportunity for the peaceful transfer of power. One article surveys the possible fate of elections in the absence of the Pakistani political leader who recently enjoyed the most popular support.

Many observers praised Bhutto for "her unwavering devotion to democracy," while others criticize Bhutto's "recklessness," and remember her rule as marked by corruption, ruthlessness, and nepotism, seen as carrying on with her 19-year-old son's ascendance to lead the PPP. Many agree that "In her death, as in her life, Benazir Bhutto has drawn attention to the need for building a moderate Muslim democracy in Pakistan." POMED's Shadi Hamid writes that the threat of Islamist control of nuclear weapons is not the overriding danger that some see, as extremists may have the power to threaten and terrorize but they are not on the verge of a takeover. He also writes that the Middle East will remain a powder keg with frequent destabilizing events such as Bhutto's assassination until the problems of "economic, political, religious, and cultural stagnation" that produce extremism are resolved.

Shifting Political Scene in Iraq: One observer notes how military success in the form of decreased violence in Iraq highlights the need for more political success and looks at U.S. plans to encourage such progress. Another examines the little-reported, recently formed alliance between Tareq al Hashemi, head of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, and the two major Kurdish parties, led by Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, while the political and military struggle between Iraqi Shiite leaders Muqtada al Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq's Abul Aziz al Hakim continues. And another commentator draws attention to statements from Iraqi government officials indicating their distrust of paramilitary Sunni Awakening Councils.

Lebanese Stalemate Carries on into 2008: Difficulties remain as Lebanon's political forces struggle to reach agreement on how to amend the constitution to allow consensus candidate General Michel Suleiman to become president, making yet another postponement of elections likely. A year-end editorial argues that "Lebanon's heartless politicians are betraying its hapless people," and it blames politicians on both sides for the current impasse, noting that "No one - Lebanese or foreign - can rule this country alone. Those who would dispute this fact are victims of their own delusions or someone else's." One Lebanese commentator proposes that reforms toward removing sectarianism from the Lebanese political system begin with the judiciary. Meanwhile, an American analyst argues that the U.S. does not have a foreign policy strategy in Lebanon willing to acknowledge the country's new political reality.


December 24, 2007

US Pressures Lebanon to Elect President: Last week, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Welch to return to Beirut to tell Lebanese leaders that "The United States believes that it is time now to elect a new president" and to pressure Speaker Nabih Berri "to convene a session of Parliament...to end a three-week power vacuum." President Bush was asked whether he would talk to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to work on ending Lebanon's political crisis, responding that he has "ruled out direct talks" with Assad because "he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hezbollah, suiciders go from his country into Iraq and he destabilizes Lebanon."

Consequences of U.S. Policy in Iraq and Turkey: One observer argued that despite "the much-touted progress in Iraq," "transforming thousands of anti-American Sunni insurgents into U.S.-funded Sunni militias is not without cost," thus, "the surge and American payoffs to Sunni tribal leaders may eventually backfire, producing more instability and possibly a regional war." However, some credited the surge for "bolstering, ever so slightly, the advocates of conciliation and weakening the partisans of sectarian war," and maintain it has led to a compromise in the volatile city of Kirkuk where Kurds, Turkmens, and Arabs live. Others commented on the Turkish raid launched on Kurdish PKK separatists in northern Iraq and argued that despite Turkish claims that the US gave permission for the attack, "A US official in Turkey said commanders had not approved the attacks, but had been informed before they took place." Additionally, some say that while President Bush has "promised Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Washington would aid Turkey's fight against terrorism," the "increasingly assertive State Department has embraced an ill-advised diplomatic strategy toward the PKK that will likely backfire..."

US Relations with Libya: Some claim that "Muammar Qadhafi provided the Bush administration with a unique post-9/11 foreign policy triumph that has endured-though it has not, as had been hoped, prompted other antagonists to follow in Libya's footsteps." Others commented on the Bush administration's "resumption of diplomatic ties with Libya," arguing that the relationship "is not going as smoothly as the Bush administration had hoped" and that "the US should rethink normalizing relations with Libya" because "The country continues to behave like a rogue state."

The International Community Confronts Iran: One commentator maintains that the international community is "not trying to stop Iran [from] enjoying the benefits of nuclear power...," it is only "Iran's pursuit of proliferation-sensitive activities, particularly its enrichment program..." that concerns the international community. Moreover, "The world put Iran's Islamic rulers on notice" last week when "the 192-member United Nations General Assembly voted its 'deep concern' over escalating atrocities in Iran, such as stoning, repression of female dissidents, and persecution of human rights defenders." Additionally, one observer maintains that "Both the EU and the US should be prepared to enter into direct, comprehensive, and unconditional negotiations with Iran" because "An honest offer of engagement would allow Ahmadinejad's pragmatic opponents to show that it is Iran's president and his controversial policies, not the West, that are at fault."


Despite Delay, New Amendment Allows Election of General Suleiman: Last week, "Speaker Nabih Berri postponed a parliamentary session to elect a new Lebanese president for the ninth time." And Prime Minister Siniora's government has today proposed a draft law for a constitutional amendment to elect army chief Michel Suleiman as president, and has "approved a motion calling for an extraordinary legislative session by parliament as of January 1, to tackle the amendment bill." Meanwhile, Lebanon's opposition has threatened to boycott the presidential vote "unless the ruling coalition agrees to the shape of a future government ahead of the vote." Also, one analyst describes Lebanese Christians as being in a "debilitating dilemma," concluding that "For Christians to survive as a community, they must accept that the only way to do so is through reform of the confessional arrangement...," and "Unless Christians grasp the necessity of deconfessionalizing Parliament, they may find themselves facing a new reality where the Sunni, Shiite and Christian communities are each represented by a third of parliamentary seats," meaning that the "Christians would be the ones surrendering the most power; but more significantly national solidarity would be lost."

Sectarianism and Instability in Iraq: Last week, there were reports that Muqtada al-Sadr may extend the cease fire he declared in late August. One observer noted that "Sadr's stand-down order was consistent with a pattern he had set over the last few years, in which he periodically pulled back to allow rogue elements of his militia to be picked off by coalition forces. Another observer addressed "the concrete walls which have been erected between new Sunni and Shia neighborhoods throughout Baghdad..." and argued that the walls are "making permanent the ethnic cleansing of the last few years, and ensuring that resentments will continue to stymie Iraqi political reconciliation for the foreseeable future." Also, one analyst argued that in Mosul the "calm is now gone" because "al-Qaeda in Iraq and rejectionist Sunni insurgents have opted to abandon surge-bloated Baghdad and Anbar" for Mosul and "with both insurgents and foreign terrorists set up in Mosul, Kirkuk, and their surrounding provinces...the next powder keg of the Iraq War is due to ignite." Additionally, al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri released a new video last week in which he "identifies Iraq as the primary field for jihad..." Moreover, an Iraqi government spokesman announced that "Iraq will need foreign troops to help defend it for another 10 years," but he maintains that Iraqis "will not accept U.S. bases indefinitely."

Turkey Takes on the Kurdish PKK: Last week, "Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq overnight and carried out a small-scale operation against Kurdish separatists" as a result of "public pressure to act after PKK attacks on its security forces..." In response to the raid, the Iraqi Parliament condemned the attack. One pundit argued that "in the larger picture, this operation does not provide a solution to Turkey's Kurdish dilemma." Also, some say that "The raid represents the 'stick' side of the two-pronged Turkish policy effort mounted in recent weeks...that holds the promise of success after several years of enduring PKK attacks that have had mounting success." Others argued that Turkey's actions "whether within Turkey, Iran or the Kurdish Autonomous Region represents a sustained effort by the Turkish military that violate the sovereignty of other nations and the human rights of the Kurdish peoples." Also, "Turkish military authorities arrested Nurettin Demirtas, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Society Party, with Demirtas' supporters claiming that his arrest was political. In addition, some are concerned about a new press bill approved by the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG's) parliament containing restrictive provisions, "including amendments that would allow the government to suspend newspapers..." and require "that editors in chief be members of the Kurdistan Journalists' Syndicate (KJS)."

State of Emergency Lifted in Pakistan: "President Pervez Musharraf lifted the six-week-old state of emergency and restored the Constitution...after passing a flurry of constitutional amendments and decrees to ensure his recent actions would not be challenged by any court." Prior to the reversal of emergency law, opposition leaders had questions for President Musharraf and President Bush. Also, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said that she and others are still "worried that the elections are going to be rigged in favor of the ruling party..." Moreover, according to one analyst "The picture of Pakistan today is bleak" and "the political situation will likely get much worse before it gets better."

Despite Mubarak's Crackdowns, Egyptian Democracy Movement Lives: According to one analyst, "9/11 and the vaguely defined 'war on terror'" were "the perfect opportunity" for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "to summon up his trusty narrative about fighting terror at all costs, especially in justifying his exceptional powers, not to mention his government's growing crackdowns on its own citizens." Yet, another observer noted that "Facebook and YouTube are where the young Egyptian democracy movement lives" and that "There are more than 60 Facebook groups devoted to liberal Egyptian causes" and "many of them have thousands of members." Also, one observer comments on "the movie that everyone is talking about in Cairo these days: Heyya Fauda (It's Chaos)," which "has been predictably championed by the opposition press and criticized by state hacks" and is said to open "with actual footage of the many street protests and altercations between demonstrators and riot police that shook Cairo in the last few years."

Women and Islamic Societies: One analyst highlighted the debate about the state of Muslim women and posed hard questions like: "What can be done about stoning in Muslim countries? Is honor killing a crime of passion or a crime of religion?" Others commented on the "extraordinary case" in Saudi Arabia in which "a rape victim was condemned for associating with a man not her relative," and made a "comparison of Saudi and South African apartheid", and noting differences in Western attitudes toward the two. More recently, Saudi King Abdullah pardoned the rape victim, but pundits say the pardon "was a direct response to an international outcry rather than an effort to reform the kingdom's Islamic sharia courts." Others have "mixed" reactions to the pardon and say that while they are "relieved that the sentence won't be carried out,..."this is not the end" because "there are other injustices still taking place in the Saudi courts." Moreover, others noted that "One must ask these Islamic majority societies to be more consistent with their own values and to stick to justice by refusing to abuse Islam" and that "They must protect the independence of the judicial system and protect innocent people, poor or rich, Muslims or non-Muslims, men and women equally." Lastly, one analyst addressed the notion of "Damsels in distress" and argued that "The west should stop using the liberalization of Muslim women to justify its strategy of dominance."



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