Much is happening across the Arab World. Only today, for instance, many of us woke up to learn that Lebanon’s erstwhile protagonists had drawn back from the precipice by concluding an agreement in Qatar that shuns war and toils for peace.
In this article, therefore, I would like to focus briefly on five Arab countries where positive expectations as much as negative convulsions have been impacting the lives of their peoples. In a sense, what is unfolding in the Arab political mainstream today is a slow awakening – a sahwa as distinct from a nahda or renaissance – with Arab men and women daring to claim their natural rights more openly and even vocally at times. With previous forms of isms ranging from Arabism to socialism and nationalism having failed to change the underlying realities of the region, many Arab Muslims are resorting to religion as another panacea that restores their pride in themselves and defies the oppressive secular powers controlling them.
My political periscope will look first at the parliamentary elections (being contested by 19 candidates) that took place in Kuwait this week where 50 new Members of Parliament were elected over 5 electoral districts (down from the previous 25). The demographic division of the electorate consisted of 55% women and 45% of men, fielding altogether 246 male and 27 women candidates. This new thirteenth parliament will now have to work with the ruling Al-Sabbah family and also address the growing disillusionment of Kuwaiti society with the seeming inability of democracy to usher in substantive reforms.
But have you been to Kuwait recently ? It looks quite faded and tatty when contrasted with the gleaming hyper-modernity of other non-parliamentary absolute monarchies such as Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. People today are therefore wondering why democracy has not delivered the goods for this tiny, oil-rich nation of 2.6 million people. The unlikely answer being whispered is that there might in fact be too much democracy in Kuwait. Candidates interviewed over the past few weeks – whether in newspapers or on satellite televisions – have referred to a halat ihbaat (state of frustration) due to the fact that things have not moved forward and the country remains laden with a sclerotic welfare state and a fractious parliament.
The irony is that Kuwait can rightly claim to be a comparatively robust democracy within the region. For instance, there are no tensions between the majority Sunnis and minority Shi’is, and Kuwaitis of all backgrounds mix socially at diwaniyas, traditional evening gatherings where political and social gossip is shared over tea or coffee. However, many younger Kuwaitis (who took part in their own Orange revolution some two years ago, when street demonstrations helped press the government to overhaul the country’s election districting law) seem more distrustful of the benefits of democracy. Questions are already being asked about the validity and significance of democracy in Kuwait, and whether it fits into the cultural norms of the region. One popular Kuwaiti blog posted a poem lamenting the absence of real change on the political scene, ending with the lines Restart does not work / neither does Turn Off / and we can’t leave the country on Stand By.
In Yemen, few hundred miles south of Kuwait, local elections were also held this week for twenty-one governors voted in by 7000 members of local councils. The opposition boycotted those elections and the outcome was largely pre-determined in favour of the ruling party along with some independent candidates.
Over the past years, Yemen has frequently been rocked by serious armed confrontations and popular riots. Some of those riots in the coastal city of Haydadah as well as in the northern cities of Sa’adeh, Marib, Dali, Ta’az and Dhamar resulted in part from the price rises when the government tried to address its heavy debts by lifting fuel and food subsidies.
Confessional killings have not been too far from the surface either. Since 2004, some Yemenis were killed by members of the Zaida community, a branch of Shi’ism. Its Huthi fighters, named after their former commander Hussein Badr Eddin Al-Huthi who was killed in September 2004, have been trying to restore a Zaidi imamate. There have been sporadic flare-ups of violence with the torching of police stations and the arrest of politicians from the opposition Yemen Socialist Party (YSP).
But one major problem that could still ignite the spark for a concomitant unravelling of the country is the longstanding disaffection in southern Yemen – since the civil war of 1994 – about its own status. The Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has so far managed the violence, but given that the port of Aden is in the south of the country, as are much of its resources too, such armed skirmishes – for political, economic or religious reasons – could again put in jeopardy the geo-strategic stability and unity of the country. Indeed, Yemen is one of the poorest countries outside Africa, with unemployment running at 17%, and although the south is home to only one-fifth of the 22 million people, up to 80% of the oil production comes from this area which also has fisheries as well as Aden’s port and refinery. A real cleavage between the northern and southern parts of the country, as was the case before unification in 1990, could prove perilous not only for the future of Yemenis themselves but also for a volatile region bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Iraq has also been grabbing its fair share of the headlines. Today, it is facing a grave humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 1.5 million of Iraqi refugees living in deplorable and declining conditions in Syria and Jordan. A recent joint report by four members of the Board of the International Rescue Committee described how those refugees are clustered in overcrowded urban neighbourhoods and crammed into dark, squalid apartments. Many have been traumatised by extreme violence, with their savings dwindling so much that they cannot afford to pay for rent, heat and food or get proper medical care.
Those refugees face three stark alternatives : returning to Iraq, remaining in the countries they are today, or else resettling in third countries. Although it is too dangerous to go back, they will gradually become destitute if they remain where they are now, and yet only a few will be resettled in other countries since almost nobody welcomes them. Sadly though, discussions about Iraq still inevitably focus on the surge and on timelines for troop withdrawal. Missing from the discourse is any realistic assessment of the fate of those refugees who have a crucial role to play in ensuring the long-term stability of their country and region. The Assessment on Returns to Iraq carried out for UNHCR by the IPSOS market research agency in Syria last March showed that 95% of the Iraqis had fled their homeland due to direct threats or general insecurity, and that only 4% currently had plans to return to Iraq. Overall, the latest statistics show that 4.7 million Iraqis have been uprooted from Iraq since 2003, with over 2 million as refugees in neighbouring countries while 2.7 million are internally displaced persons. This underlines the fact that the Iraqi tragedy today is as much human as it is sectarian, political or even economic.
Like many other regional conflicts, solutions are not straightforward. Over the past few weeks, for example, there have been concerted military campaigns in Mosul, Basra and now Sadr City to enable the government to extend its control over areas that had heretofore been under the sway of Sunni insurgents or Shi’i militias. However, as Peter Harling from ICG surmised recently, such operations alone will not succeed in restoring law and order. Many pundits and think-tanks argue that an answer to Iraqi woes lies largely in the creation of non-sectarian, impartial and functional state institutions. The government could facilitate this orientation by organising free, fair, inclusive and safe provincial elections by 1st October 2008 as well as engaging in a broader regional political process that would yield a new national compact. In fact, the sectarian violence in Iraq that resulted in those refugees fleeing their homes for safer neighbouring countries is in large measure a by-product of the 2003 invasion and its chaotic aftermath. Yet, whilst the US has been absorbed with the military consequences of the surge, it and its allies have been altogether less than generous in their responsibility toward the refugee crisis.
Palestine, a non-state without sovereignty, is still trying to reach a peace deal with Israel – something that US President W George Bush has belatedly claimed he wants to witness before the end of his mandate. However, the odds are severely stacked against such a breakthrough. The Annapolis agreement of 29 November 2007 – much heralded as an irenic forum that would re-invigorate the peace process and help secure a sovereign state for Palestinians – has become pitiably redundant despite the fact that committees from both the Palestinian and Israeli sides are still meeting regularly to try and hammer out a deal. But the prognosis remains dim, not least because any peace deal cannot be superficial but would need to address inter alia the “core issues” of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees and final borders. Achieving such radical metamorphoses on the political scene requires equally radical thinking by Israeli politicians who would need to re-visit their political mantras and sacred taboos. They would also need to dismantle a swathe of illegal Israeli settlements, address the physical intrusion of the “separation wall” into pre-1967 Palestinian land and reverse the appropriation of water resources.
In fact, a living paradox of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians could not have been sharper this month. While Israelis celebrated the 60th anniversary of the creation of their State, Palestinians commemorated the 60th anniversary of their nakba (catastrophe) when Palestinian refugees fled their homes or were chased away by Jewish fighters during the birth of Israel. Those two anniversaries are interlocked in the psyches of both peoples, and constitute one of the haunting hurdles toward peace. So much so that the Arabic TV station Al-Jazeera has been broadcasting a month-long programme entitled Haqon Ya’ba al Nisyan (a right that refuses to be forgotten) about the plight of those Palestinian refugees.
Can the Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, weak both politically and juridically (with five investigations of fraud against him) clinch such a comprehensive deal and ensure the approval of his Cabinet let alone that of the Knesset (Parliament) members ? I believe it is quite unlikely, although his reluctant inability to do so projects a source of existential danger for Israel. Olmert, not unlike his predecessor Ariel Sharon and a coterie of politicians, is aware that time does not work in the Israeli favour. The colonisation of Palestine, through an unrelenting occupation and new facts on the ground, is rendering any contiguous and sovereign Palestinian state more impracticable and remote every passing month. Yet, if Israel does not strike a peace deal soon with the Palestinians by offering them serious concessions that are synchronous with UNSC Resolutions, this parcel of land will end up some two decades later with more Arabs than Israelis on it. Such a demographic shift would not only detract from the Jewish identity of Israel and undermine its Zionist project, it would also alter the dynamics of any solution and push toward an acceptance of a bi-national (two-state) state for Israelis and Palestinians alike. This is anathema to almost every Israeli hawk and dove alike, but it will soon become the unavoidable currency of political negotiation if Israel were not to re-assess its real long-term interests and budge from its intransigent and power-friendly positions.
Therefore, it sounds quite feeble to me when Tony Blair, the Quartet envoy, talks about economic revival in the Palestinian territories and urges investors to plough money into the Palestinian economy. After all, to achieve growth in its economy – a $2-billion investment conference to support local business plans from tourism to technology takes place in Bethlehem this week – Israel must relax its travel restrictions, reverse those closures that control Palestinian borders in the West Bank and Gaza and remove the network of hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks dotted across the whole Palestinian territory.
The additional irony is that whilst some politicians speak up the possibility of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, Gaza with its 1.5 million Palestinians is being hurled back into the dark ages with mounting unemployment, deaths resulting from a dearth of medical supplies in hospitals and blackouts from a lack of electricity and fuel supplies.
However, despite the evident gloom, the Middle East still manages to draw upon its deeper resources and ignite sparks of optimism. This is the laudable case of some youths in Israel and Palestine today who together are trying to make a small difference. Their example is the Imagine 2018 Campaign that was launched in March 2008 to engage 13-18 year olds across Israel and Palestine in visualising what the region would look like in ten years if a peace agreement were signed by the end of 2008. Their campaign, sponsored by One Voice and with supporters and volunteers from Herzliya to Gaza, aims to challenge people to step outside the debilitating and misleading assumption that the conflict is intractable.
Finally, I would like to direct my periscope toward Lebanon. After 18 months of stalemate and deadlocks, interspersed with fiery harangues and a renewed chapter of bloody violence only last week, Lebanon is today living a rare moment of truth. In fact, hope and fear are gingerly escorting the Lebanese people through the latest agreement that was concluded in Doha, Qatar, after six days of intense negotiations and arm-twisting. The three axes of the agreement stipulate the election this week of General Michel Suleiman as consensual president, the formation of a national unity government with 16 ministers from the 14th March Coalition, 11 from the 8th March (Opposition) Coalition and 3 ministers named by the new president (including a ‘neutral’ Minister of Interior) and the adoption of the Qada-based 1960 electoral law. This amended electoral law would divide the capital Beirut into three constituencies for one time only, whereby the capital would have 19 seats out of the overall 128-member parliament in the forthcoming elections of 2009.
In a nutshell, all the parties in Doha stressed that the agreement they put their signatures to was based on the formula of la ghaleb wa la maghloub (no winners or losers) and that consensual democracy replaced numerical democracy in this instance. A consensus over numbers : this might perhaps also go some way toward explaining why the majority coalition conceded al-thoulth al-dhamen / al thoulth al-mou’atel (the one-third veto power in the cabinet) to the opposition parties as one of the quid pro quos for an agreement. It is almost trite to pinpoint losers and winners, but if one overlooks for one moment the fine print and views this agreement as an overall achievement in its own right, then it might perhaps be possible to speak of guarded optimism. Interestingly enough, the price of shares in the construction firm Solidaire went up to over $31 in the international stock markets – a sure economic indicator that the Lebanese are pinning their hopes on this agreement.
One of the sanguine clauses in the agreement rejects (yanboudh) the use of arms and any resort to violence no matter the nature of the divergences inter partes. This is crucial, since Hizbullah alienated large cross-sections of the Lebanese society – Sunni, Druze and Christian – when it (alongside its Amal Shi’i allies) occupied West Beirut and exercised overpowering violence against unarmed residents. In so doing, Hizbullah reneged on its promise not to point its weapons inwards and underlined the difficulty for the movement of reconciling its nascent structures within the ambit of a fully sovereign state. Besides, its actions not only instilled fear in many Lebanese hearts, it also engendered a sustained sense of suspicion – and thereby hostility – toward it that cannot disappear merely with the removal of the protest encampments in downtown Beirut.
Moreover, this agreement would not have been reached were it not for a regional re-alignment of political forces. The recently-publicised albeit long-standing negotiations between Israel and Syria, alongside the Iraqi military campaigns in Basra, Mosul and Sadr City and the efforts to reach a hudna (a concept akin to a temporary ceasefire in Islam) between Israel and Hamas in Gaza indicate that concatenating forces are labouring to re-configure the Middle East. I am unsure of success yet, but the new president – once elected – will have to deal with the issues and parties and prove how deftly he can replace his uniform as commander of the Lebanese army with that of president of the republic in order to keep the whole country safe. The reality is that Lebanon has been given another chance for peace : but how will the Lebanese deal with it now ?
Will the Arab World succeed in moving forward in such uncertain times ? In striving to do so, Arabs should perhaps remember the Palestinian poet Ibrahim Nasrallah who wrote once, “I do not fight to win, but so that my right is not lost”. But the fight for rights is never easy, and so Nasrallah’s soliloquy sits quite well with the political convictions of the Nobel laureate novelist Doris Lessing who also wrote that one “should never be afraid to enter the fray !”
Dr Harry Hagopian, International Lawyer & Political Analyst, London (UK) © hbv-H @ April 2008
Visit his blog : www.epektasis.net