Commentators have offered numerous theories for what caused the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and who participated in them. They range from youth and their chronic unemployment, to liberal activists and their demands for civil rights, to workers and absolute levels of material deprivation. Stories of individual participants and analyses of specific groups taking part in the uprisings have provided much insight into this question, but only a representative sample of participants can help weigh the importance of different factors driving protesters. The latest wave of the Arab Barometer, a nationally representative survey administered in the wake of the protests, provides some answers.
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A two-day conference at the University of Bahrain in the capital Manama last week was intended to show the United States and the region that the Bahraini government is making progress toward democratic governance and addressing the grievances of the country's majority Shiite population. But the discussions were less than convincing because there was no empirical data or other direct evidence to support the participants' claims.
Many participants -- Bahraini academics, some government officials, and even U.S. congressmen -- declared that there has been real progress in the ongoing national dialogue, which began anew this winter between the government and factions within the opposition. The majority Shiite opposition is demanding political and economic rights. The dialogue first began in the spring of 2011, after an uprising by the Shiite-led dominated opposition erupted, and has come and gone since then. [BREAK]]
At the conference, while participating on a panel about Bahrain's political situation, I asked several participants to describe in detail the progress they were referring to between the government and the opposition. None of them provided any substantive answers. After the conference was over, I checked in with a few opposition leaders who told me that there have been approximately 10 sessions with relatively low-level government participation, but the government has offered no concessions to meet the opposition's demands and the dialogue has been virtually ineffective.
A second topic that dominated the conference involved whether opposition groups, such as al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, has close ties to, or is even manipulated by, Iran. The consensus was that the group takes orders from Iran when organizing demonstrations against the Bahraini government; some participants even accused some Shiite opposition factions of attempting to establish an Iranian-style theocracy in Bahrain with a cleric as the head of state. At least one participant claimed the opposition was collaborating with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards to try to overthrow the Bahraini government.
Congressman Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana, and former diplomat John Bolton chimed in to warn of the Iranian threat. "Iran is trying to undermine the government of Bahrain and we need to make sure Iran's aims are not achieved," Burton said. Bolton warned that the threat from Iran is not only Tehran's potential to develop a nuclear weapon, but "the regime has made it clear it aims for hegemony" in the region. A Bahraini participant said he did not blame al-Wefaq for its actions because it "gets its instructions from Iran."
There is little doubt that for more than 30 years Shiite Iran has tried to assert its influence through military force and soft power throughout the Middle East. And nearly every week, leading figures in Iran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chastise the Bahraini government for its repression of its Shiite population and call for the regime to be toppled. And true, there were attempted, but failed, coups plotted by Iranian agents in the 1990s against the Bahraini government.
But to date, there is no evidence -- at least based upon public information and my own research of the country -- that Iran is working to topple the Bahraini government, even though Tehran would welcome a change in Manama. A member of the royal family agreed with me that a distinction needs to be made between Iran's direct intervention in countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and its indirect influence in Bahrain. For example, Iranian state-owned media broadcasts its programming into Bahrain on an estimated 30 media outlets in Arabic. The message is generally that the Sunni Bahraini government represses the Shiite population, and Iran is the guardian of all Shiites.
A distinction should also be made between Iran's religious influence on the Arab Shiites, not only in Bahrain but across the Arab world, and its political influence. Many Shiites, including some in Bahrain, follow the teachings of clerics in Iran as well as those in Lebanon and Iraq.
In addition, even if Iran were trying to destabilize Bahrain, this has nothing to do with the grievances of the opposition. The Bahraini government should not try to cast aside the legitimate demands of the opposition by playing the card of the Iranian threat. If the Bahraini government wants to convince Washington and the region that reforms are underway, officials should provide details instead of focusing on Iran, which only sidelines this discussion.
As part of an attempt to show the Bahraini government is enacting reforms in order to address the marginalization of the Shiites, conference participants stated that most of the 24 recommendations in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), an over 500-page report authored by the renowned international law expert, Cherif Bassiouni, have been implemented. In fact, Congressman Burton said that 18 of the recommendations have been enforced, but he did not say where he got his information.
The BICI report, issued in November 2011, confirmed that thousands of people were detained and tortured during the heat of the uprising in 2011, and some were killed by government security forces. The report also confirmed that many Shiite had been removed from their jobs for discriminatory reasons. The report called for sweeping reforms, including a restructuring of the police and security forces, an independent media (which in Bahrain is controlled by the state), and an end to repression.
Looking for confirmation on Burton's statement, I asked at the conference if anyone knew which of the BICI recommendations have been implemented. According to U.S.-based human rights organizations -- which have been very vocal about Bahrain's reluctance to take the report seriously -- only a handful of the 24 recommendations have been implemented.
There is much talk these days in Washington of progress between the Bahraini government and opposition groups toward reaching reconciliation. The promotion of the crown prince, considered the reformer in the family, to deputy prime minister has made some in the United States hopeful that the reform process will pick up speed.
Stability in Bahrain is of great importance to the United States. Manama is the home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, whose presence in the Gulf ensures the flow of oil and other energy exports through the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway connecting the Gulf to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Because of significant U.S. strategic and economic interests in a stable Bahrain, the Obama administration has declined to adopt a hard line on the Bahraini government's human rights abuses and institutionalized discrimination.
If the conference was any guide, the Bahraini political elites do not want to be perceived as presiding over a repressive state. Therefore, the moderates within the Bahrain government -- those in the crown prince's inner circle -- should seize upon the moment and push for reform. This would be far more effective at improving Bahrain's image and showing a commitment to reform than conferences in which there is little or no talk about addressing the grievances of the opposition.
Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of the forthcoming, The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi'a-Sunni Divide, to be published in April by Brookings.
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Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are essential to democracy and a key way for people of all political views to band together to influence public debate. But once more, the Egyptian government is threatening to restrict NGOs that receive foreign funds. Exercised about criticism from some of these groups, the ruling party is pushing a bill that would empower the government to decide which groups are allowed to receive foreign funding. That would invite the government to pick favorites, approving foreign funds for lapdogs while rejecting them for critics, particularly human rights groups.
But why are foreign funds so nefarious when received by NGOs yet apparently uncontroversial when received by others? The Egyptian military receives billions of dollars in aid from the United States; does that make it a subversive organization? The Egyptian government is desperately seeking foreign funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF); is that an act of treason? Egyptian businesses are clamoring for foreign direct investment and the spending of foreign tourists; are these acts of disloyalty?
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The growing reports of increased U.S. support for the armed opposition in Syria with the training of Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias in Jordan and the facilitating of arms shipments into the country through Turkey mark an increase in overall U.S. assistance over two years into the conflict. While such actions are tempting in efforts to bring an end to Syria's deepening civil war, a military solution for either side has not been achievable these past two years. What is needed, instead, is to combine military assistance with a coordinated strategy of capacity building within the opposition, which can then have measurable results and reinforce international efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.
A better-trained, organized opposition that is able to make political and military gains could change not only the situation on the ground, but also the perception of the crisis in Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. Based on our conversations with former senior members of the Assad regime and individuals in contact with the regime presently, Assad is still confident that he can manage to suppress the uprisings and bring the opposition to the table to negotiate on his terms.
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After a three-year rupture, one of the most important relationships in the Middle East is on the cusp of repair. It will be a long while before Turkey and Israel can go back to business as usual, and the relationship will remain hostage to Israeli policy toward Palestinians. Nevertheless, last month's Israeli apology to Turkey has far-reaching implications for the region. It clears a path for the two countries to work together, albeit behind-the-scenes, on their most urgent common concern -- Syria -- as well as a host of other issues, including military technology and NATO-Israel cooperation.
The impasse broke two weeks ago when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to his Turkish counterpart, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for a 2010 Israeli raid that resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. The two countries' relationship had been strained in the preceding years, in part because of Israel's war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in December 2008 to January 2009. In the summer of 2009, Erdogan famously stormed off a stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland after a clash with Israel's President Shimon Peres over the war. But the 2010 raid gave Erdogan an opportunity to curry favor at home with the MHP, the Nationalist Action Party, and raise his regional stature further.
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The role and plight of ethnic minorities in Iranian society tends to receive little attention from Western analysts and policymakers. This may be largely due to the predominance of Tehran as the focal point of Iranian culture, politics, and foreign policy. Moreover, Iran's ethnic minorities have been heavily marginalized by Iran's Persian-dominated Shiite theocracy. The suppression of minority rights has resulted in ethnic insurgencies over the years, some of which continue to bedevil the Iranian regime.
Nevertheless, many Iranian officials, religious leaders, and intellectuals, particularly those associated with the reformist movement, have come to view Iran's ethnic minorities as an essential component of the national fabric. They have also come to realize that the Iranian regime's repression and discrimination against minorities has not only slowed Iran's advancement, but it could one day jeopardize the survival of the Islamic Republic -- and even Iran's territorial integrity.
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There could be more outrageous public relations disasters for a government to engage in. There could be. I just can't think of any. Imagine Jon Stewart being arrested on charges of insulting U.S. President Barack Obama and insulting Judaism. Then imagine that in the entire English-speaking world, there are only political satirists. You then get to what it means for the Egyptian authorities to issue an arrest warrant for Bassem Youssef, and the easily predictable repercussions. But this case goes far beyond Bassem Youssef -- it speaks to the future of freedom of expression and the media in the largest Arab country, and to the success of its ongoing revolution.
Bassem Youssef is a unique phenomenon -- a political satirist that is well known all over the Arab world, as well as the West. His meteoric rise through the use of social media and television over the past two years could never have been planned, but he emerged at a time when Egyptians and Arabs were waiting for a non-partisan critic to combine classic Egyptian irony with political awareness. In the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising, Bassem Youssef considered the revolution as a continuing one -- and that his role within it would be to push the envelope of public discourse, holding authority to account. But always with humor -- and thus far, he has touched not only the hearts of Egyptians, but of Arabs around the world.
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Egypt's experience with constitutions over the past half-century may reverse Marx's dictum that everything in history occurs twice, first as tragedy and then as farce. Egypt's 1971 constitution -- memorably described by NGO activist Nasser Amin as "a joke that turned serious" was replaced by a 2012 document written in a process that began with high hopes and ended with bitter recriminations, high-handed maneuvers by the drafters, and an opposition boycott of the final stages of the drafting.
But if Egypt's current constitution was produced in a tragic process, the ongoing drama may now be taking a series of unexpected turns as the constitution begins to work in ways that are surprising the political forces that dominated its composition. The short-term result is confusing and complicates an already impossibly complicated transition. The longer-term result could be to entice opposition elements back into participating as they come to realize the system does provide opportunities to hem in their adversaries who now sit in power.
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"Freedom of The Press" is often referred to as the fourth pillar of any modern democracy. Democratizing the media has been one of the achievements of the United States in many state-building experiments around the world -- but this was not the case in Iraq. After the U.S. intervention in 2003, Iraqi media was transformed from being a heavily controlled state propaganda tool, to a plethora of political, ethnic, tribal, and sectarian mouthpieces.
When Saddam Hussein assumed power on July 17, 1979, the Iraqi press was mostly government-owned. The former Iraqi dictator used the media to promote his ideas and to control the country in a style reminiscent of the Nazi regime in Germany. His propaganda machine was active until the end. Remarkably his official newspapers were still being distributed on April 9, 2003 -- the day his brutal regime was toppled.
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In many cases, the deluge of Iraq-10-years-on commentary seems to be preoccupied with apportioning blame and delving into questions that cannot but deteriorate into adolescent moralizing or ideological one-upmanship such as "was it worth it?" Or "was it right to invade?" The subject of "sectarianism" (here identified with the Sunni-Shiite divide), a morally charged and confused one at the best of times, has featured prominently in these polemics. This is particularly unfortunate given that a subject as complex and as multi-layered as sectarian identity cannot be reduced to the confines of an ill-conceived U.S. military adventure in 2003.
Since the invasion, many people in Iraq and beyond, repulsed by the ugly manifestations of sectarian entrenchment and ultimately sectarian violence have tried to find someone to blame. Such efforts have often been linked to views regarding the war: blame "sectarianism" on the Americans and their partners if you were against the war and blame it on any and everyone else, not least Arab Iraqis, if you were for it. However, whilst it is undoubtedly a momentous turning point in the story of sectarian relations, 2003 is by no means the first chapter. Suggesting that 2003 marks the definitive line between a sectarian and a non-sectarian Iraq is as misleading a view as one insisting on viewing sectarian entrenchment as the status quo ad infinitum of Iraqi society.
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Following the successful ousting of the Baath regime on April 9, 2003, Iraq began its transition toward a process of democratization that gradually achieved important gains in transferring some powers to the previously disenfranchised population. This transition has progressed from direct U.S. rule to partial Iraqi participation, and finally full Iraqi administration of the country. Since Iraqis reclaimed sovereignty in 2004 they have managed to write and ratify a constitution, hold regular provincial and general elections, and begin to establish a tradition of peaceful transfer of political power and parliamentary life. This is a very significant reversal of the authoritarian rule in Iraq between 1958 and 2003, when governments were only replaced by violence and coups.
However, the slow transition to democracy and the many setbacks in the process are still frustrating to many Iraqis. This is mainly because Iraqis have no consensus on the shape of their future regime. They are divided on the questions of federalism and the scope of the central government's powers; a majority government versus a power-sharing arrangement; the identity of Iraq as a neutral state with policies driven by its national interests or as a part of some larger regional context (Arab, Islamic, etc.); among many other disputes.
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After nearly three decades of bloody struggle with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey might finally be entering a post-conflict era. On Wednesday, the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence on Imrali Island since 1999, called for an immediate cease-fire and for thousands of his fighters to withdraw from Turkish territory. The call followed a round of talks that began in October 2012 between Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and Ocalan to convince the PKK fighters to lay down their arms and withdraw from Turkish soil. On Ocalan's counsel and in a gesture of good will, the PKK released eight Turkish soldiers and civil servants last week that had been abducted almost two years ago.
Ocalan's call could mark the first step in ending one of the world's longest running insurgencies. If it were to succeed, it would also favorably impact Turkey's democratization process, as well as possibly change the course of the Syrian uprising.
While observers of the Iraq War anniversary argue over the scale of the mistake -- a colossal folly rooted in imperial ambition and hubris, or simply an error based on faulty intelligence and misplaced fear -- the devil is in the details. These numbers, assembled by some of the 29 contributors to the Costs of War Project based at Brown University, help put the past 10 years in perspective.
0: Al Qaeda had no presence in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion. But a new organization, known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, has since formed and has attacked U.S. and Iraqi forces, and wages regular attacks on Iraqi civilians. Additionally, by 2013, AQI had spread offshoots and technical know-how to Syria, Jordan, and Libya. If Iraq became a "front" in the war on terrorism, as Jessica Stern, former member of the National Security Council and current fellow at the Hoover Institution, and her co-author Megan McBride, say "it is a front that the United States created."
2 plus 2: Conflicts exacerbated by the Iraq War. Iran and North Korea were apparently not intimidated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, nor deterred from pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Conversely, the war in Afghanistan was arguably prolonged by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and has escalated into Pakistan, with a corresponding increase in military spending and loss of life.
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If there is any consensus on Yemen these days, it is around the assertion that the National Dialogue Conference that commenced Monday must succeed. Of course, what must happen often does not. But the problems with the insistence on the need for success go deeper. The meaning of success is subject to such widely different interpretations, by domestic and international actors alike, that any outcome short of outright anarchy is likely to be heralded by some, while even a seeming breakthrough will be condemned by many.
But the more substantial problem with the claim that the National Dialogue must succeed is that it overlooks features of Yemen's transitional process that have been broken from the outset, and largely ignores the sustained, reasoned critique that this process has engendered from the beginning. This critique has been expressed not simply by mounting separatism in the southern city of Aden and its peripheries, or even the obvious loss of sovereignty over some parts of the country over the past two years. Indeed, those forms of critique actually fit the prevailing narrative of Yemen as preternaturally divided and ungovernable, a narrative that helped to justify former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule for three decades, as he sold himself to Yemeni and foreign audiences as the least worst alternative to anarchy.
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Looking at the past 10 years of Iraq's history through the lens of displacement reveals a complex -- and sobering -- reality. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, humanitarian agencies prepared for a massive outpouring of Iraqi refugees. But this didn't happen. Instead a much more dynamic and complex form of displacement occurred. First, some 500,000 Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had been displaced by the Saddam Hussein regime returned to their places of origin. Then, in the 2003 to 2006 period, more than a million Iraqis were displaced as sectarian militias battled for control of specific neighborhoods. In February 2006, the bombing of the Al-Askaria Mosque and its violent aftermath ratcheted the numbers of IDPs up to a staggering 2.7 million. In a period of about a year, five percent of Iraq's total population fled their homes and settled elsewhere in Iraq while an additional 2 million or so fled the country entirely. It is important to underscore that this displacement was not just a by-product of the conflict, but rather the result of deliberate policies of sectarian cleansing by armed militias.
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Among the urban elite and diplomatic community in Sanaa, all eyes will turn to the launch of the long-awaited National Dialogue Conference today, a key component of the transition plan agreed upon in November 2011 that ushered out former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in exchange for full immunity. The good news about the internationally-backed agreement is that Saleh was finally forced from the presidency after more than 30 years of autocratic rule and the fighting stopped. The bad news is that it did not address any of the underlying issues that have plagued Yemen since before the uprising and have only been exacerbated in the time since. The National Dialogue, thus, is positioned to tackle the thorniest issues including calls for Southern independence, the restive Houthi movement in the north, the question of federalism and decentralization, constitutional reform, empowering women and youth, and other issues.
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This March is a critical month in Yemen's political transition since 2011, when millions of peaceful street protesters ended 33 years of rule by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the coming week, the country's transitional leader, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is scheduled to inaugurate the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Beginning on March 18, the NDC is expected to hold a series of meetings with more than 500 representatives, who will attempt to find solutions to several pressing problems for Yemen. What hangs in the balance is nothing less than Yemeni national unity. The conference was supposed to start last year after Hadi was elevated to the post of president by public referendum in February 2012. For the sake of a successful national dialogue, it was recognized the NDC had to take place under a large tent encompassing all the major political parties and social factions. Building this tent has proven difficult. The process was postponed more than once because some parties refused to accept a predetermined number of seats, while others refused to participate under any circumstances.
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In early February, a car made its way along the winding road from the southern Yemeni port city of Aden to Dhale, a dusty mountain town of traditional mud-brick houses. As the car sped toward its destination, the flags and checkpoints increased in regularity with every passing mile.
Yemen's flag is made up of three horizontal stripes of red, white, and black. Those flying from the rooftops along the roadside sported an additional blue triangle dotted with a single red star. The flags, a remnant of the south's independent past, are a symbol of defiance; the checkpoints, manned by soldiers from Yemen's north, a source of simmering tension.
"See," said Fatima, an Adeni college professor, as the car stopped at yet another checkpoint so that a uniformed youth, his cheek bulging with the narcotic qat leaf and an AK-47 casually slung across his shoulder, could take a look inside. "How can they say that this is not an occupation?"
On February 16, thousands of Port Saidis marched during the funeral of 23-year-old Mahmoud al-Nahas who had been shot by a stray bullet in the eye 21 days earlier. Nearly three weeks later four more lives were being mourned, two of them were a 16 and 22 year old, bringing the death toll of Port Saidi civilians to an estimated 47 (records vary). The violence, which has continued in the form of civil disobedience and protests, started when the city rioted on January 26 in reaction to the sentencing by a Cairo court of 21 Port Saidi men to death for their alleged role in the massacring of 74 Cairo football fans of the "Ultras Ahlawy" group on February 1, 2012. The violence over the past two months that has turned the city into a scene of a war zone and only started to dissipate after complete military occupation of the city four days ago is merely a symptom of Port Saidis' growing resentment toward Cairo's central government. Locals believe that President Mohamed Morsi and his government have scapegoated Port Said and pushed the city to the brink in order to avoid the wrath of the Ultras Ahlawy. In turn, locals have become determined to make Morsi and his government feel the wrath of their anger; they explicitly ignored his declared state of emergency and night time curfew. It would be a mistake to categorize the seemingly endless instability gripping Port Said as an isolated incident of the revolution. Rather, it is the product of decade-long grievances against unjust and haphazard economic policies left to boil under the city's surface and widen the gap between Port Said and Cairo's central authority.
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In some respects, Jordan's recent electoral process began and ended with Abdullah an-Nsour. Nsour was first appointed prime minister of Jordan in October 2012, replacing Fayez Tarawneh, who had served a mere five months. At that time, Nsour became the fifth prime minister of Jordan since the start of the regional Arab Spring at the end of 2010. Now, apparently, he is also the sixth, tapped to form a new government following Jordan's January 2013 parliamentary elections.
There are other signs of continuity amidst all the discussion of reform. Immediately after the elections, the new parliament elected Saad Hayel Srour to be speaker of parliament. Srour had served in the post several times before. Along similar lines, former Prime Minister Tarawneh was appointed Chief of the Royal Hashemite Court. Both men are conservative veteran officials. Similarly, the shift from Nsour to Nsour as prime minister doesn't exactly cry out "change," yet parts of the process were actually new and different.
When Saudi activists Abdullah al-Hamed and Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani headed to the Criminal Court in Riyadh on Saturday morning, they knew what was waiting for them. The two founding members of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) have been on trial since June 2012, and the judge was expected to hand down his ruling at the session scheduled on Saturday. As the defendants arrived to the court, they were received by more than 100 activists who came to show their support and attend the hearing which was also marked by a heavy presence of security officers with truncheons hanging from their belts.
The government has been accusing al-Hamed and al-Qahtani with a series of charges that include founding an unlicensed human rights organization, seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder, undermining national unity, breaking allegiance to the ruler, disobeying the ruler, and questioning the integrity of officials. These are considered serious charges in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy where political dissent in not usually tolerated. It does not allow protests, political parties, or unions. Saudi Arabia is also a main ally of the United States in the Middle East.
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I walk through a Tunisian market around midday, at the entrance to the fortress of Sousse, a town about 90 minutes southeast of the capital Tunis on the coast. A man is selling Salafi books and copies of the Quran from a maple wood table, 12 feet long, in front of a small masjid inside the old fortress walls, which were built in the ninth century by the Aghlabid caliph Ziyadat Allah I.
Two men are sitting nearby, at the edge of a dry, broken-down fountain, enjoying the sunny and mild weather. I approach them, along with three Tunisian friends, to ask for an interview. One dismisses me outright, gets up and leaves. He thinks I am in the American mukhabarat (intelligence). The other accepts. I sit next to him, shake his hand, and we both exchange salam alaykum pleasantries.
"Are You Muslim or a non-Muslim?" he asks.
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The Egyptian opposition's decision to boycott parliamentary elections looks familiar to those of us who study Latin America, where high profile boycotts have periodically been used by parties who distrust the government in charge of administering those elections. Unfortunately for the Egyptian opposition, the Latin American experience should be seen as a cautionary tale, since boycotts have too often turned into self-inflicted political wounds. The opposition is choosing not to act as a legislative brake on the executive, thereby reducing its own political influence.
Whether in the Middle East, Latin America, or elsewhere, this is the basic scenario. A controversial regime in a politically divided country holds elections and opposition parties must decide whether to participate or withdraw. Both choices require a difficult cost-benefit calculation.
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Two years after the Police Day demonstrations that forced former President Hosni Mubarak from office, Egypt's political transformation has only just begun. The uncertainty that necessarily accompanies this change presents particular dilemmas for the United States, for whom partnership with Egypt has been a bedrock of regional policy for decades. Bedeviled by uncertainty and mutual mistrust, U.S.-Egyptian ties have been fraught since the revolution -- and on both sides there are those who say it's time to cut the cord. Yet these two countries still have many core interests in common and, as the November 2012 Gaza crisis proved, they can work together effectively to advance them.
For the United States, Egypt's revolution presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a more robust and reliable strategic partnership than was ever possible before, based on mutual interests with a government rooted in the consent of the Egyptian people and accountable to them. But realizing this opportunity will require an adroit, long-term approach, one that eschews transactional bargains with specific Egyptian actors in favor of a consistent commitment to supporting the emergence of a pluralistic Egyptian political system.
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During its erratic and tumultuous transition Egypt has lurched from crisis to crisis, muddling its way through to a series of sub-optimal resolutions. Throughout this uncertain period, the United States has sought to maintain a low-key engagement, cognizant of its longstanding association with the autocratic regime of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, its eroded regional prestige, and its inability to dictate domestic political outcomes in another country. As President Barack Obama recently stated, "We are not going to be able to control every aspect of every transition and transformation." Following the misguided bluster and hubris of recent years, this humility is a laudable and needed corrective.
However, in post-Mubarak Egypt, entreaties to restraint now mask a more enduring reality: in dealing with the country's newly-empowered Islamists, U.S. policy in Egypt remains trapped in the old ways of thinking that produced a bet on authoritarian stability.
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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has finally issued dates for the new parliamentary elections, due now to begin April, and end in July, over staggered rounds. Voices within the opposition have begun to splinter apart over participation; the presidential candidate that never was, Nobel Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei, has already called for a boycott. Looming in the distance, however, is the key reality around what the country is going to look like in a few months time -- and if a civilian led Egypt is still a reality. Indeed, ElBaradei recently reminded the international community of the stakes in this regard, explicitly indicating that holding elections in April would risk placing the country into a state of "total chaos and instability," resulting in a military intervention. He said, "If Egypt is on the brink of default, if law and order is absent, [the army] have a national duty to intervene."
ElBaradei was not advocating the intervention of the military -- he was simply pointing that it may happen as a natural consequence. Nevertheless, a certain scenario has been making the rounds around some elements within the political elite in Egypt's opposition -- some, it should be noted, rather than all or most. It goes something like this:
Morsi has made a mess of the transition to democracy, and even though he was elected, he has failed in his duty. The political turmoil and polarization are proof enough of that -- the economic disaster that is about to fall upon Egypt will simply be the logical consequence of all of that, and will ensure that the military intervenes to save the country. When the military does so, the Muslim Brotherhood might put up a little bit of a struggle, but they'll fold pretty quickly in order to assure themselves a political future in Egypt. Alternatively, they might fight a little bit, but the military will make short shrift of them, and they will then be shunted underground, ending for once and for all this abysmal experiment of Islamist rule in Egypt. The military, having understood the mistakes it made during Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi's reign, will be far more suave this time around, and will set the stage for a new constitution, and a new presidential election, before it departs the scene. The international community will cluck, cluck, perhaps, but will quietly be satisfied, as they also never wanted an Islamist regime to emerge. The opposition will then provide an alternative leadership that can lead Egypt forward.
It is an interesting scenario, to say the least -- but it is not terribly realistic, let alone ethical. The military may indeed intervene, as it might under any regime that contributes to the instability of Egypt -- it did so under Mubarak, and it may do so again. However, Morsi is not Mubarak. The military intervened when it was clear the overwhelming majority of the country wanted Mubarak to go -- demonstrating in massive protests, in which millions of people over several weeks showed that they would not accept anything less than his departure. The same cannot be said for Morsi. He is certainly unpopular -- and with very good reason -- but the vast majority of Egyptians haven't shown they want him to have the same fate as Mubarak.
If the military were to intervene, moreover, no one should expect it to be a walk in the park. When Mubarak was forced to resign by the military, his own establishment, including those who had the arms, turned against him. The police force would not fight against the military, and that was that. In a scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood is forced from power -- a movement, living in an existential moment, that already feels the world is out to get it -- it is hard to see the MB not reacting with force. It would eventually lose against the combined forces of the military and the police -- but it would not be pretty. It would be a betrayal of the revolution of Tahrir forever, if any "revolutionaries" wanted such a bloodbath in order to put aside their political opponents.
If the military then takes control, the assumption that this leadership would be that much different from the previous Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is not certain, to say the least. The former SCAF under Tantawi, regardless of the media assertions to the contrary, was incredibly popular in Egypt. Among the political elite, whether opposition or MB, it had a varied reputation -- but across the country, the military's standing was solid. It may thus believe that there are actually not many errors to correct for, and another transitional phase may not prove to be all that much better than the last one. Of course, no one knows how it will behave -- only that in general, the military will look out for it's own interests, which include the stability of Egypt, as well as the fortification of military independence and autonomy.
To assume that the opposition leadership has the ability to provide a genuine alternative that can steer the country better may turn out to be wishful thinking -- in general, political leadership in Egypt has been indescribably lacking for the masses of Egyptians. This goes just as much for the opposition, which does not enjoy as much blame as the MB for the political turmoil, as it is not in power -- but is still hardly stellar by comparison.
What is generally true is that the international community would, in all likelihood, cluck, cluck, and let things unfold as it will -- as long as Egypt remains stable. The failure of Egypt is simply not an option, for broader political, economic, and security considerations.
All of this should not come as a surprise to any political force within Egypt -- whether the opposition or the MB. However, the uncomfortable truth is that the way to avoid this outcome is not in the opposition's court. Even if it were to disavow, and actively be against any military involvement in politics, its weight is negligible in that regard -- the military will come or not come according to its own calculus, not that of the opposition. The Egyptian presidency is what makes the difference in Egypt in terms of averting the realization of this scenario. The presidency must be aware that within the opposition, the broad majority would want to avoid any further turmoil in Egypt. They no longer need political allies who are simply willing to back up the government -- the presidency need partners who are willing to serve in a genuine national salvation government that resolves the political turmoil on the one hand, and sets into motion an economic recovery immediately. As the days go on, that all becomes more and more difficult -- and the likely scenarios become less and less palatable, for everyone.
Dr. H. A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations at the Brookings Institution, and ISPU, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs and West-Muslim world relations. Follow him on Twitter@hahellyer.
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On Friday, February 22, I flew from London to Dubai to participate in a conference jointly organized by the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics (LSE) -- where I work -- and the American University of Sharjah (AUS). The theme of the conference was "The New Middle East: Transition in the Arab World," and my paper was entitled "Bahrain's Uprising: Domestic Implications and Regional and International Perspectives." The one-day event was scheduled to take place on Sunday, February 24 at the AUS campus. However, the LSE abruptly pulled out of the conference on Thursday after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government intervened to inform AUS that no discussion of Bahrain would be permitted. By leaving their decision until the very last minute -- the weekend immediately prior to the conference -- the authorities may have hoped that AUS and the LSE would accept it as a "fait accompli" and proceed. To their credit, the LSE immediately withdrew from the event, citing "restrictions imposed on the intellectual control of the event that threatened academic freedom." With many of the U.S.-based workshop speakers already in Dubai or in the air, we took the decision to continue with our trip; for me it was the first leg of a three-country visit in the Gulf, and I also had been invited to lecture at Zayed University on February 25.
On arrival at Dubai International Airport, I was stopped by immigration officials and separated from the two LSE colleagues with whom I had been traveling. My passport clearly had triggered a red flag in the system and the official called over his supervisor. I was separated from my colleagues and taken to a backroom where security personnel examined each page of my passport in minute detail. An official then disappeared with my passport for 45 minutes before returning with a representative from Emirates Airline who informed me that I was being denied entry to the UAE and sent back to London. I had to purchase my own ticket to fly back to Gatwick -- but not before randomly being approached by an airport staffer who asked if I would complete a customer satisfaction survey.
Facing perhaps its biggest crisis yet, Yemen's ruling party of over three decades, the General People's Congress (GPC), is in desperate need of reform. As one of the only ruling parties to have survived a widespread Arab Spring uprising, it is now navigating uncharted territory. While the party and its leader, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, are doing infinitely better than their imprisoned, exiled, dead, or dismantled counterparts across the Middle East and North Africa, the party's continued relevance and prosperity is by no means guaranteed, a reality to which it is struggling to adjust.
Formed in 1982 by Saleh, then president of the northern Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), the GPC was created to counter the rise of dissident leftist groups, like the National Democratic Front. Over time, the GPC grew into the country's dominant political force, winning the most seats in the first national elections held after the unification of the YAR and the southern People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990. In the last parliamentary elections held in Yemen, in 2003, the party won 76 percent of seats. But, by the time the Arab Spring broke out the GPC was more a collection of powerful elites living off access to government coffers than a political party in the democratic sense of the term. Hardly bound to public opinion, the GPC ruled with relative impunity and only occasional resistance from the country's pseudo opposition coalition (the Joint Meeting Parties, or JMP). In hindsight, it is not surprising that the party became a primary target of revolutionaries.
Arriving in the Libyan capital Tripoli, it is immediately (and dispiritingly) clear just how much needs to be done before the country can experience any sort of secure and just order. During my January research trip to Libya, the city seemed to have been overtaken by a paramilitary culture. The streets of Tripoli are thronged with Libyans in military uniform; not members of a national army, but rather of an expanding constellation of independent revolutionary and military councils. The city regularly rings out with automatic gunfire, particularly at night. Its walls, meanwhile, are papered with posters of the 2011 revolution's "martyrs," some of which couple a professional studio portrait with a later, amateur picture of the same man's corpse. Surrounded on all sides by headshots of the Libyan revolution's dead, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine how Libya can achieve national reconciliation and become a stable, functioning country.
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Egypt watchers were briefly all a-twitter yesterday about the appointment of the country's first post-revolutionary mufti. With rumors widespread that a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader, Abd al-Rahman al-Barr, would get the nod, concerns that the "Brotherhoodization" of the Egyptian state was soon to spread to the official religious establishment. In the end, al-Barr was passed over, but the brief kerfuffle obscures the real long-term struggle likely to take place over Egyptian religious institutions.
Instead of al-Barr, the designee is Shawqi Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Karim, a scholar of Islamic law teaching in Tanta. ‘Abd al-Karim is a figure known to his colleagues but with a low public profile. He has written widely on subjects ranging from the narrowly technical (a comparison between Islamic and civil law on the right to cancel a sale while the contracting parties are still in each other's presence), to the broadly social ("Women and Globalization in the Arabian Peninsula" in which he praises the spread of education among women but decries homosexuality), and to the esoteric (a book on sex selection and sex changes, a surprisingly lively topic among Islamic legal specialists in part because laws governing the family and even prayer are highly gendered, so that it becomes important to know whether one is dealing with a male or a female).
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