FEATURED PHOTOS AND STORIES

Tuesday:  October 27, 2014

When Will Chile's Post Office's Re-open? 

(PHOTO: Workers set up camp at Santiago's Rio Mapocho/Mason Bryan, The Santiago Times)Chile nears 1 month without mail service as postal worker protests continue. This week local branches of the 5 unions representing Correos de Chile voted on whether to continue their strike into a 2nd month, rejecting the union's offer. For a week the workers have set up camp on the banks of Santiago's Río Mapocho displaying banners outlining their demands; framing the issue as a division of the rich & the poor. The strike’s main slogan? “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos,” it reads - if it affects 1 of us, it affects all of us. (Read more at The Santiago Times)

WHO convenes emergency talks on MERS virus

 

(PHOTO: Saudi men walk to the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, east of the capital Riyadh on June 16, 2013/Fayez Nureldine)The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the enigmatic, deadly MERS virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia. The move comes amid concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to & from Saudi Arabia.  WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the MERS meeting would take place Tuesday as a telephone conference & he  told reporters it was a "proactive move".  The meeting could decide whether to label MERS an international health emergency, he added.  The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia & the number of infections has ticked up, with almost 20 per month in April, May & June taking it to 79.  (Read more at Xinhua)

LINKS TO OTHER STORIES

                                

Dreams and nightmares - Chinese leaders have come to realize the country should become a great paladin of the free market & democracy & embrace them strongly, just as the West is rejecting them because it's realizing they're backfiring. This is the "Chinese Dream" - working better than the American dream.  Or is it just too fanciful?  By Francesco Sisci

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar  - While the sweeping wins Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has projected in Sunday's by-elections haven't been confirmed, it is certain that the surging grassroots support on display has put Myanmar's military-backed ruling party on notice. By Brian McCartan

The South: Busy at the polls - South Korea's parliamentary polls will indicate how potent a national backlash is against President Lee Myung-bak's conservatism, perceived cronyism & pro-conglomerate policies, while offering insight into December's presidential vote. Desire for change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul can be seen in a proliferation of female candidates.  By Aidan Foster-Carter  

Pakistan climbs 'wind' league - Pakistan is turning to wind power to help ease its desperate shortage of energy,& the country could soon be among the world's top 20 producers. Workers & farmers, their land taken for the turbine towers, may be the last to benefit.  By Zofeen Ebrahim

Turkey cuts Iran oil imports - Turkey is to slash its Iranian oil imports as it seeks exemptions from United States penalties linked to sanctions against Tehran. Less noticed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Iranian capital last week, signed deals aimed at doubling trade between the two countries.  By Robert M. Cutler

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Entries in Libya (34)

Wednesday
Sep192012

Globalization and its Discontents (PERSPECTIVE) 

(Video: WissensWerte)

By Abdulaziz H. Al-Fahad

The recent eruption of violence in various Muslim capitals directed at the U.S. (and other Western) embassies, with tragic losses in life and property, is a predictable, if sad, consequence of globalization. The world is increasingly pulled together by the relentless push of modern technology and integrated economic systems on the one hand, and simmering conflicts periodically manifested on the cultural realm, on the other. The occasion for the latest uproar, the anti-Muslim "movie" denigrating the Prophet of Islam, is the latest chapter in an ongoing conflict that appears to become more aggravated over time, in no small measure due to growing Islamophobia in the West. The conflict is also helped now by the weakening security apparatus in the various Arab states experiencing mass uprisings, and the ability of various groups to exploit this vacuum to further their own political goals.

A few decades ago, this movie, or a preacher threatening to burn the Quran in Florida, or a cartoon published in a Danish newspaper would have passed, in all likelihood, unnoticed (at least by the offended parties), let alone cause major violent protests spanning continents. But in our globalized present, with the various tools of instant communication and social networking available to large swathes of humanity, what happens in a faraway place is immediately splashed everywhere, often with deadly results as we are witnessing today. Within this diverse yet networked humanity, where marginal figures are empowered, someone invariably takes offense at perceived insults emanating from distant lands. Despite all the energetic and well-meaning condemnations by sensible parties on both sides, it is unlikely that we will see an end to this cycle anytime soon.

(PHOTO: BSR) With its rich tradition of freedom of expression and secularization, denigration of religious figures, even when controversial, is protected speech in America. For many Muslims, in contrast, any transgressions on the cherished symbols of their beliefs have nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with a hegemonic West intent on willful and reckless disregard of Muslim sensibilities. For some in the Islamic world, this is the latest manifestation of the longstanding hostility of western Christianity reaching back to the early days of Islam, the Crusades, the colonial legacy, and the establishment of Israel in the heart of the Arab world, not to mention more recent American armed forays in various Muslim territories. This vicious circle of mutual miscomprehension is further compounded by the fixed, if inaccurate, belief within Muslim societies, that whatever happens within the western media must be at least tacitly approved by the relevant governments. In many Muslim countries, freedom of expression within the media barely exists.

Thus the conflict is viewed in starkly different, clashing perspectives. The West appears to frame the issue as a conflict between freedom of expression and censorship, whereas for many in the Islamic world it is a willful insult by a powerful West intent on maintaining its dominance in Muslim lands. If these differences continue to be viewed through these conflicting prisms, there is little hope for an accommodation to ameliorate, let alone stop, these periodic, violent flare-ups.

But Western insistence on framing the issue in terms of freedom of speech versus censorship risks missing a larger point, and borders on disingenuous. Western societies had to grapple with their own sense of balance between permissible and impermissible speech, and not all strike the same balance. While the United States maintains a robust and expansive view of such freedom through its First Amendment jurisprudence, some European societies (and Canada) have opted to carve out a "hate speech" exception criminalizing certain categories of expression. This divergence between the two approaches could be seen, for example, in the treatment of the Holocaust in their respective legal systems. While several countries would view denial of the Holocaust as a crime not protected by freedom of expression and would sanction the perpetrators, U.S. legal tradition would not allow the outright criminalization of such expression but would deal with it essentially by extralegal means, through marginalization and condemnation of transgressors and ensuring that certain matters are taboo and not acceptable in general discourse. 

(PHOTO: File/Foreign Policy) Americans remain faithful to the requirements of the First Amendment while simultaneously banishing offensive language, as determined by domestic American sensibilities, from the public sphere, and by severely delegitimizing those who resort to them and relegating them to the margins of society. In addition to Holocaust denial, the "N" word is perhaps the clearest example of the practical accommodation between free speech and curtailment of the same through non-legal means in the U.S. for the sake of social peace. No one denies anyone's right to use the racist word, but effective social mechanisms ensure that those inclined towards deployment of this offensive language are consigned to the fringe, invariably described as "lunatic."

As admirable as this western tradition of freedom of expression might be in the eyes of many Muslims, they remain unimpressed by a West that finds mocking God, Jesus, Moses or Muhammad to be protected speech but worthy at best of muted condemnation, while denigration of the Holocaust or uttering an offensive racist epithet are either criminalized or rendered into untouchable taboos. From that perspective, the West is not truly wedded to an absolute notion of freedom of expression but instead accommodates its own prejudices with regards to what is "offensive" through both legal and extralegal means. The underlying logic, of course, is grounded in specific cultures and histories, as opposed to universalist ideas, and deference to Muslim sensibilities has certainly not been part of that heritage.

Western societies have come a long way from its early days of crude prejudice and racism - except towards Muslims, one of the last frontiers of acceptable bigotry. The incessant rise in Islamophobia, not just as a fringe phenomenon but within the mainstream, belies Western claims to universalist values. The West has achieved remarkable success in combating its own demons of (anti-black) racism and anti-Semitism, to mention only two salient examples. While many in the West, like the rest of humanity, are not innocent of harboring such hateful sentiments, those who choose to display them are quickly condemned and banished from respectable circles or jailed. But when prejudice and hate is directed against Muslims, the guardians of the boundaries of acceptable speech are either absent or complicit.

Thus the outlawing of minarets in Switzerland is stamped with popular approval; the full veil is rendered into a crime in some European countries (although acknowledged to be a fringe practice, hardly deserving of any attention, let alone the full weight of the law); and opportunistic U.S. politicians hold anti-Muslim hearings and shamelessly peddle the phantom dangers of sharia, calculating that there is only an upside to the matter: classic solutions in search of actual problems. Equally disheartening, well-known Islamophobes are ensconced in mainstream institutions with influence over decision-makers, instead of being treated as outcasts. And Hollywood is still busy doing its best demonizing Muslims typically (with rare exceptions) cast as villains, stereotyping in ways it would not dare do with other groups.

(PHOTO: Tower)The permissive public atmosphere towards Islamophobia has allowed haters to spew their vitriol far and wide without paying any discernible price as would be the case if other communities were involved. A recent advertisement in an American city dubbed Muslims as savages; Muslims very well know if the identity of the target were to be changed to another community (e.g., blacks) the resulting uproar would have been substantial and free speech would have been an irrelevant argument. Inversely, until recently Aljazeera English failed to find cable distributors in the U.S. who had reportedly deferred to the wishes of the State Department.

Rightly or wrongly, there is strong suspicion in many Muslim countries that US bombings of Aljazeera's offices in Afghanistan and Baghdad were more intentional than inadvertent mistakes. It is within this overall unhealthy atmosphere that Muslims' perceptions of the West are formed and informed. The movie is not an isolated incident but a particularly vile version of what is acceptable (as opposed to free) speech in the West.

This is not to absolve Muslims who share the same sin of allowing a permissive atmosphere of intolerance towards others. The West, particularly the U.S., has been vociferously expressing views, especially since 9/11, about anti-western sentiments in the Muslim world. School curricula in many Islamic countries have been revised both in deference to a powerful West making its wishes known, and also in recognition that in an integrated world, such an atmosphere is not only wrong as a matter of principle, but decidedly dangerous. The same applies to intolerant preachers, many of whom had to go through "re-education" and many of whom were purged. No one can claim the Islamic countries work of combating such hate is done, but the trend so far has been in the positive direction, something that cannot be said about many societies in the West.

Yet notwithstanding this move in the right direction within some Islamic societies, the ethos of civil protest is still wanting, despite encouraging signs during the Arab Spring. To express outrage at actions or sayings that are offensive is one thing; to cause death and destruction has to be a red line that Muslim societies have to rigorously impose, a task that is now even more urgent with the removal of authoritarian enforcers and the advent of representative government. The unqualified reaction of condemnation by Libyan citizens (joined by the majority of political, social, and religious leaders throughout the Arab world) against those involved in the murder of personnel in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is one encouraging sign that violence has become unacceptable as a mode of expression. In contrast, Mitt Romney got it exactly wrong in his hasty denunciation of the condemnation of the "film" by the staff of the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Traditions of free expression preclude banning of speech but provocative bile should be labeled as such.

What is clear in these times is that Muslim sensibilities have not been incorporated by Western societies, and vice versa, and perhaps at this stage in history it is ambitious to expect otherwise. But in this shrinking world, indifference to the sensibilities of others comes with a price. Unfortunately, the comparison of the attacks against the Prophet, seen as deeply offensive by many Muslims, to criticisms of his Biblical counterparts, which is accepted speech in western societies, is a misdiagnosis. Most non-westerners would probably fail to understand why the Holocaust and the "N" word are more sacred and protected than God in the West and why transgressing against them is not tolerated, free speech notwithstanding. Perhaps the West could view some Muslim sensibilities as product of their own specific histories deserving of the same respect accorded to others.

The scenes we are witnessing today are horrifying. People of goodwill must draw the right lessons and work to help bring about an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect for matters that may not be readily understandable by everyone. For the West, that means the permissiveness (indeed tolerance) of Islamophobia within respectable circles should no longer be accepted. For Muslim societies, a better appreciation of free speech and the adoption of peaceful protests (including economic boycotts if need be) must replace the mob mentality characteristic of many of the responses over the last several years. The mob mentality is exploited by the more odious elements within Islamic countries who are espousing clearly dangerous and unacceptable notions of permanent war with the rest of the world, which in turn provide fodder for the Islamophobes the world over.

Alas, there is no magic wand to transform ours into a world of sufficient mutual tolerance and respect. But all people of goodwill must do what they can to bring it about where Islamophobia and unbridled anti-western sentiments, if not totally banished, are at least consigned to the margins of civilized discourse and conduct.

--This article, written by Abdulaziz H. Al-Fahad is the Principal in the Law Office of Abdulaziz H. Fahad, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and first appeared in Foreign Policy.

Tuesday
Jul312012

An African Sahel War on the Horizen? (Perspective) 

(Video: Is the Mali conflict a threat to the region? 1 month ago/AJE)

By Dr Julia Leininger

In the Sahel a war is spreading. Within three months it has overtaken the towns in an area of northern Mali larger than France. 365,000 people have taken flight within the country and across its borders into neighboring Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. But it is not the only disaster to strike northern Mali. The people are not only fleeing the violence, a reminder of the Tuareg war of 1990 to 1992: they are also trying to escape drought and famine.

Little in the way of facts and developments is leaking out to the world's public. Journalists, foreigners and most western aid organizations have left. The situation is too dangerous. At best, information is being received by telephone from the border towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. Uninhabited desert areas are isolated from modern means of communication. And yet reports on the region paint a clear picture of good and evil. Images of defiled graves in Timbuktu show how Islamist fighters and Tuareg rebels are destroying a world cultural heritage dating back centuries.

(MAP: Mali regions-Azawad consists of Gao, Kidal & Timbuktu, as well as the NE half of Mopti, claimed by & internationally recognised as part of Mali/WIKIPEDIA)The inhabitants of Timbuktu appear to have no choice but to watch helplessly as the armed and masked men go about their heartless business. In Gao, a town on Mali's border with Niger, the 'Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa' (MUJAO) is said to have taken the whole population hostage, a circle of land mines ensuring that no one escapes.

It seems to be a clear-cut case: extremist Islamists and Tuareg rebels versus the Malian state. And yet it is not quite so simple. The threatening Islamist gestures of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), MUJAO and Ansar Dine conceal a mixture of hard economic interests, disputes between old-established clans and struggles for an independent Tuareg state to be known as Azawad.

Independence from the Malian state is demanded by the Tuareg Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which began by allying itself with Ansar Dine to increase its strength. But the groups fell out over the question of religion: while the MNLA advocates a secular state, the other three are officially seeking to establish an Islamist regime in western Africa.

The Tuareg and the Islamists

Yet the lines separating the Tuareg and the Islamists seem clearer than they really are. Ansar Dine is led by the respected Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghali. He had hopes of becoming the leader of the MNLA. When they were dashed, he set up the Islamist Ansar Dine, but retained links with his Tuareg clan. He is alleged to have the backing of AQIM. AQIM emerged from an Algerian Salafist movement, is said to be composed mostly of Algerians and Mauritanians and operates across borders in the western Sahel.

(Video: Tuareg's claim independence, 3 months ago/AJE)

Behind the religiously charged scenes, all the groups that are ready to use violence - whether Tuareg, AQIM, MUJAO or Ansar Dine – have a number of things in common.  

First, they are linked to international smuggling: only in an ungoverned area like the Sahel can the lucrative movement of drugs from Latin America to Europe flourish and other smuggled goods find their way to consumers in Africa, Asia and Europe.

Second, their violence has no support in Mali's tolerant and consensus-oriented society. Nor does the introduction of a Wahabi and Salafist form of Islam find any approval in the Sufi tradition of the Malian faithful.

Third, the groups with a propensity for violence are benefiting from the collapse of the Muammar Gaddafi regime of Libya. Innumerable Tuareg who fought in the ranks of the Libyan army have returned, some of them heavily armed, to their desert homes in Mali, Niger and Chad. Trained as soldiers, they are easily recruited for the struggle in northern Mali. Their combat strength and fire power are alarming, even though the actual numbers involved remain unknown. Finally, the fighters in northern Mali are taking advantage of the power vacuum that has prevailed in the capital of the country since a military coup in March 2012.

(Video: Islamists claim victory over Tuareg's, 1 month ago/AFP)

Beside the pictures of war and famine, the coup that ousted the democratically elected President, Amadou Toumani Touré, fades into insignificance. Yet the absence of a workable government is currently preventing effective action against famine, poverty and war in the North of the country. In this former model democracy, supporters of the old regime face sections of the military and young Malians pressing for radical political change. They recall the demands that the old political elite addressed to representatives of the authoritarian regime in the early stages of Malian democracy in 1991.

The state was to ensure the unity of the nation and put an end to the ominous Tuareg rebellion (1991-1995). The old elite also stood for an end to corrupt politics and the enrichment of individuals at the expense of the Malian people. Now the civil and military opposition are also accusing the government led by Touré, who has fled to Senegal, and the constitutional transitional government of being incapable of restoring peace in the North and ensuring sustainable development for all Malians.

Popular Military Coup

In this respect many observers are surprised to find that the military coup has proved very popular with the urban population. Nor has an agreement mediated by Burkina Faso and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) done much to improve the wrangling over the leadership of the country. ECOWAS, for example, has called on the Malian transitional government to have formed a government of national unity by July 31, 2012 (which hasn't happened) and to take action to end the conflict in the North.

(Video: Meanwhile, hunger prevails/FAO)

International support is needed if a further escalation of violence in the Sahel region is to be prevented. In Africa itself the African Union, ECOWAS and Mali’s neighbors Algeria and Chad are discussing the form that engagement might take. ECOWAS has taken Algeria's place as the main negotiating power in conflicts with the Tuareg and AQIM.

The problem with ECOWAS's new role is, however, that Algeria and Chad, being non-members, are excluded. A split in political positions was also to be seen at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa mid-July. While ECOWAS is preparing to intervene with 3,000 troops, Algeria is pressing for a political dialogue with the warring parties. Chad would take military action, but not under ECOWAS's aegis.

Sustained management of the conflict in northern Mali and of the regular catastrophic droughts in the Sahel is, however, achievable only with Algeria and Chad. The integration of these countries can succeed only if Mali, the African Union and the United Nations Security Council adopt clear positions. In the Security Council France has already declared its support for military intervention, while the USA is exercising restraint in view of the forthcoming presidential election. As the Malian military is also opposed to intervention, Mali's transitional government remains incapable of taking action for the time being.

In the meantime, they expect a government of national unity to be formed in Mali and an ECOWAS mission and the UN Secretary-General to present their reports on the situation in Mali. It is to be hoped that in this way a more accurate picture of the facts and developments in the war and the emergency in northern Mali will emerge. It is only on a sound basis of this kind that the advantages and risks associated with a military intervention can be assessed.

-- Dr Julia Leininger works at German Development Institute (DIE) Department 'Governance, Statehood, Security'. She is the regional coordinator for Sub-Sahara Africa. This analysis appeared on July 16 as OpEd in DIE. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Sunday
Jun032012

Current Revolutions Will Unleash Enormous Energy (PERSPECTIVE) 

(Video: The Arab Spring, Documentary, RT)

By Khalifa Rashid Al Shaali

Youth in the Arab world inherited false values from older generation but refused to accept them. Despite the lapse of a year-and-a-half since the eruption of the popular revolutions in many Arab countries - including Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria among others - some still cast doubts that these revolutions are driven by foreign forces and are not spontaneous reactions by Arab masses, who revolted against tyrannical regimes.

These doubts are baseless and amount to conspiracy theories. They reflect disbelief in the ability of Arab masses to revolt against their autocratic regimes. Not only ordinary people but also some highly educated people believe in conspiracy theories that the Arabs’ enemy is behind these revolutions, trying to wreak havoc in the region. This theory undoubtedly belittles the Arab masses and limits their role to being mere tools in the hands of western powers, which seek to destabilize the Arab region.

(PHOTO: Flags of the Arab World/CARNEGIE)Those who cast doubts can’t believe that the young people are the ones behind mass demonstrations that have swept the Arab world, and that they are still demanding change.

But it is not surprising that the youth, who have the modern tools of communication and networking with the outside world, have managed to achieve what the older generations failed to.  

They succeeded in leading masses in many Arab countries and, moreover, they have gone beyond all our expectations.

They made the use of technology to organize street protests and address the outside world in the language it understands.

We must acknowledge the superiority of today’s generation, which inherited our false values but refused to accept them after realizing they would only lead to more humiliations.

The Arab youth sought to realize their dreams of dignity, freedom and social justice. They went further by demanding the end of their ruling regimes and a comprehensive restructuring of the old system. Most revolutions began peacefully, with the young protestors adopting a peaceful revolutionary approach and only demanding reforms. Yet, the stubbornness of ruling regimes, which denied their demands, prompted the revolutionaries to ask for more.

(PHOTO: Arab Youth make their voice heard/DAILYSTAR)There were many reasons behind the outbreak of the revolutions. The youth have been suffering from unemployment, injustice, oppression, and this led many of them to immigrate from their countries in “coffin boats”, sailing across the Mediterranean Sea to an unknown world, risking their lives in the course of the journey.

Those who were not able to immigrate tried to bring about change under the banner of reform. But their demands were denied and the prevailing political and social culture across most Arab countries prohibited them from expressing themselves in public, and engaging meaningfully in civic and political activity.

Young Arab talent has been wasted for the most part in recent history. But this is now starting to change, after people took the initiative to change their status.

The explosion of youth anger and determination to change their world were the impetus for the revolutions across the Arab world.

(PHOTO: Arab youth unemployment is some of highest in the world/BikyaMasr)The current revolutions will undoubtedly unleash enormous energy and talent that have been bottled up in the minds, bodies and spirits of the youth across the region.

Arab youth initiated this historic transformation across the Middle East because they had always carried within them the determination to break free of the constraints that their societies and their governments had imposed on them for so many decades.

(PHOTO: Young people learning technology/ASHOKAARAB)The young people are the ones who lead today’s battle and will definitely win it since they have the will and determination, while the older generations must acknowledge the superiority of the young and accept their leadership in this battle for change.

We, the older generation, should admit our mistakes and give way to the youth before it is too late and give the younger generation their right to lead Arab societies towards a better future and catch up with the modern world.

It is true that the senior generation do not have the tools and the will for change that can help advance the Arab nation. History reminds us that they earlier failed, and do not have the ability to do it now.

Hence, the older generation must pass the torch on to the youth.

--- Dr Khalifa Rashid Al Sha’ali is an Emirati writer who specialises in legal affairs. This commentary originally appeared in GulfNews.

Wednesday
Mar212012

International Organization for Migration and Partners Relocate Displaced Malians from Niger's South-western Border (Report) 

(PHOTO: The ICRC registers Mali refugees returning from Niger/ICRC)IOM, in partnership with the Government of Niger and UNHCR, has relocated more than 500 vulnerable Malian families from insanitary and overcrowded makeshift settlements in and around the south-western border village of Sinegodar to a safe site away from the volatile border region.  

The operation, which was launched on March 17, has so far succeeded in relocating 2,114 individuals from Sinegodar to Abala, some 80 kilometres to the south.     

"Some of the Malians in Sinegodar have told IOM they are reluctant to be relocated further south since they hope to return home to Mali as soon as security conditions permit," says Abibatou Wane, IOM's Chief of Mission in Niger.

"Apart from security considerations, this relocation is essential to alleviate the pressure on local populations living in food insecure areas and villages such as Sinegodar, which simply cannot meet the needs of so many newly arrived people," she adds.  

Prior to departure, IOM staff registered the departing families and ensured that everyone was fit to travel. It also provided water and high energy biscuits. IOM medics were on hand to assist vulnerable people with special needs.

Some 28,000 people, including at least 4,500 Niger nationals, have crossed the border into Niger to escape fighting in northern Mali between government forces and fighters from the Mouvement National de Libération de l'Azawad (MNLA.)  

IOM is now working with international and local partners to continue the registration of Malians who are scattered across inhospitable desert border areas and to organize their relocation further south.

Despite the assistance provided by humanitarian agencies, living conditions in the border area continue to be difficult for Malians and the local population alike. According to Niger's Early Warning System (SAP), more than six million Nigeriens are in need of food aid.

"A combination of drought, insecurity and population inflows from neighbouring Mali and Libya has further aggravated the situation in a region which is already facing severe food shortages and malnutrition. To cope with increased food prices and shortages, families are now having one meal a day. Others have sold whatever they had and migrated to urban areas in search of jobs," says Wane.

--- Find more of IOM's work at www.iom.int

Saturday
Jan142012

One year on, Tunisia and the Arab Spring (Perspective) 

Interview with Gilbert Achcar, professor of political science at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

One year after the start of a revolutionary process in Tunisia which swept through the Arab region and continues today, International Viewpoint asked Gilbert Achcar to look at the current state of play throughout the region. This interview was conducted on December 14, 2011.

We are approaching the first anniversary of the outbreak of the "Arab Spring", in Tunisia. The overthrow of Ben Ali opened the way to the mass mobilisations in Egypt and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, the mobilisations in Yemen and the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the mobilisations in the Gulf States and in Syria in favour of democracy. How can we characterise these movements?

These are effectively movements which have as their common point the demand for democracy: they take place in countries with despotic regimes and they demand a change of regime, a change in the form of government and the democratisation of political life. This dimension is common to the movements cited, and it also gives them their strength because the democratic demand allows unification of a broad mass of people of different views, when it combines with a potential for social revolt that is very strong in the region. It should not be forgotten that in Tunisia the movement began with a social explosion. Young Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself, protested against his conditions of existence and did not advance political demands. His case highlighted the problem of endemic unemployment in the countries of the region, notably youth unemployment, the economic crisis, the absence of social perspectives. These are the basic ingredients. But when they combine with the opposition to a despotic regime, it takes on considerable proportions, as we can see in the countries mentioned. In contrast, in the countries where the despotic question has not been posed with the same acuteness, or the regime is more liberal and more tolerant of political diversity — Morocco for example — we find a movement built on social questions, but which has not yet acquired the breadth rapidly attained in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

How do you see the evolution of US policy and that of the European countries in the region? Do the elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, or the military intervention in Libya, constitute a recovery of the initiative on the part of imperialism or the comprador national bourgeoisies?

In your question, there are two actors: the bourgeoisies and imperialism. These are not exactly the same thing. Moreover, this is a part of the world where those who now work in concert with the Western powers, with the US in particular, are not all governments that one could characterise as bourgeois — I am talking about the Gulf oil monarchies, which have a pre-capitalist dimension, which are rentier castes, exploiting the oil rent. In these countries, it is not the local bourgeoisie — whether comprador or not — which is in command. One should make the necessary distinctions.

As for the United States — the main imperialist force in the region — one could say that they have restored the balance a little after the very difficult situation in which the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings had put them, but to speak of a “recovery of the initiative” seems exaggerated to me. They have been able to regain a little credit by intervening in Libya, at relatively little cost for them, and by presenting themselves as being “on the side of the uprisings”. They combine this with a general discourse on democracy and — contrary to what some claim — this hypocritical discourse extends also to the Gulf monarchies, although they do not in their case combine it with any action. The US is trying to present itself as the repository of the values of liberty which they brandished as an ideological weapon for several decades, notably during the Cold War. In Syria, they do this with a certain ease, because it is a regime allied to Iran, for which they have no particular affection, any more than they had for the Libyan regime. But to say that they have recovered their hegemonic position in the region would be extremely exaggerated. In fact the events underway signal a significant decline in US hegemony. We see this in particular in the cases of Syria and of Libya.

In Libya the Western intervention was essentially an intervention from a distance, without troops on the ground. The influence that the US can have on the process underway is very limited. In fact, nobody controls the situation in this country where there are increasingly developments which are not at all to the taste of the United States, including a growing protest against the Transitional National Council and against its attempts — very timid, incidentally — to undertake a reconstruction of the state.

In Egypt, we see that Washington’s military allies still have a grip on the situation, but their rule is very much contested by the street, by a popular movement which continues — notably at the social level, where it is reflected by tough ongoing struggles. The emergence in force at the electoral level of the Islamic currents attests to a new regional factor: even if these currents do not represent a threat to US imperialism, they are not an instrument or ally as docile as the military for it. There are tensions in the alliance, in the cooperation, between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is not comparable to what the Mubarak regime was for the US.

This also explains why the US has had very extensively to redefine their policy in the region since their traditional allies have very little popular legitimacy — something on which they did not have too many illusions as the Wikileaks revelations show. Now that the affirmation of popular sovereignty is in the street, the US must find allies with a real social base. That is why they are turning to the Muslim Brotherhood, who, after having been demonised in recent years, are now presented as “moderate Muslims” in contrast to the Salafists. The Muslim Brotherhood is present in the whole region. The US needs them, as in the good old days of the alliance with them against Nasser, against Arab nationalism, against the Soviet Union and its influence in the region from the 1950s to 1980s.

The Gulf monarchies — in particular two among them who play a very significant role in the Arab world today, the Saudi kingdom and the emirate of Qatar — are also trying to retake the initiative. These two monarchies do not necessarily have the same policy, they have a tradition of rivalry with sometimes even tensions between them, but they have made common cause alongside the US in the effort to orient the events in a direction which does not threaten their own interests and which allows them to stabilise the region in the short term. Qatar, in particular has seen its influence increase considerably with the uprisings, unlike the Saudi kingdom which like the US is experiencing a decline and ebbing of its influence. The emirate of Qatar has betted for several years on its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, becoming its main financial backer, creating the satellite television channel Al-Jazeera — a political tool of considerable power, which is at the same time at the disposal of the Muslim Brotherhood, who have a significant presence among its staff. Qatar has played these cards for a long time now and the events have turned them into strategic advantages. The emirate has thus become a very valuable and significant ally for the US, with whom it has had very close relations for a long time, sheltering on its soil the main US military base in the region. But it has also for a time cultivated relations with Iran, with the Lebanese Hezbollah, and so on, to “spread the risks” — this is the mentality of the rentier consolidating their investment portfolio. Today, Qatar can fully play upon its regional influence in the eyes of the US.

All this combines also with Turkey’s regional role. There, we can speak truly of the bourgeoisie being in power, of a country where the government is certainly the expression of local capitalism above all. The Turkish government is the ally of the US — Turkey is a member of NATO — but it also intervenes with the perspective of the specific interests of Turkish capitalism, whose trade and investment offensive in the region has in the course of the years taken on a growing importance.

There are some of the big players at the state level in the region. But the biggest player today is the mass movement. Even in the countries where semi-victories have been achieved, like Tunisia or Egypt, the mass movement continues.

How do you analyse the electoral success of the Islamist parties in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt? Can these successes be interpreted as a repetition of the bringing to heel of the Iranian revolution of 1979-1981 or do they amount to another phenomenon?

It’s different according to the country. In Morocco it isn’t the same thing as in Egypt or in Tunisia. In Morocco, the success of the Islamic party is very relative, first because the elections were massively boycotted. According to the official figures, participation was less than the half of registered voters, the number of which had, moreover, curiously fallen since the previous election. This happened on the background of an energetic campaign in favour of the boycott from the forces of the real opposition grouped in the February 20th Movement. I should say, to correct the impression, that these opposition forces also include a significant Islamic component, radically opposed to the regime. The success of the Islamic party of the "loyal opposition" in Morocco is then very relative. It has probably been much welcomed, if not supported, by the monarchy with the aim of giving the impression that Morocco has thus experienced, under peaceful and constitutional forms, the same process as elsewhere. The party in question has links with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Tunisia and in Egypt, the electoral victories of the Islamic parties are more impressive, but there is nothing surprising about them. In the case of Egypt — here again we should highlight the differences between countries — these elections came after decades during which the Muslim Brotherhood were the sole mass opposition that existed, whereas the Salafists enjoyed a freedom of manœuvre because Mubarak considered them as useful to his regime, since they preached apoliticism. These two components of the Islamic movement were able to develop themselves over the years, despite the repression that the Muslim Brotherhood has had to suffer. Although they did not initiate the mass movement (they rallied to it en route), when this movement succeeded in imposing a relative democratisation of the institutions, these forces were better placed than anyone to benefit from it. It should not be forgotten that Mubarak only resigned last February, and that there were only a few months to prepare for the elections. This is not a lot of time to build an alternative force of credible opposition capable of triumphing at the electoral level. The mass movement broke the party of the regime — which was the main electoral machine in the country — but this was a broadly decentralised uprising in its form of organisation, multiple networks rather than a “leading party”. The Muslim Brotherhood was then the only organised force with material resources in the movement.

The case of Tunisia is different, because Ennahda — the Islamic party — was persecuted and banned under Ben Ali. But the repressive regime of Ben Ali also prevented the emergence of left or even democratic forces. These forces did not have the breadth that Ennahda acquired in the early 1990s before its repression, and which has allowed it to appear in the course of the years as the strongest and most radical force of opposition to Ben Ali, with the aid of Al-Jazeera notably. Ennahda again did not initiate the uprising in its country, but given the short period for the preparation of the elections, it was in a much better position than the other political forces.

The Islamic parties in Egypt and Tunisia had money, which is essential for an electoral campaign. If in the past left forces in the Arab world could benefit from the material support of the Soviet Union or of this or that nationalist regime, all that ended a long time ago. On the contrary, for the Islamic parties, we even observe a competition between their backers: Qatar, Iran, and the Saudi kingdom. The role of Qatar is very important in this respect. Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, went to Qatar before returning to Tunisia. The new Ennahda headquarter in Tunis, several stories high, is not within the normal means of an organisation emerging from decades of repression. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has not stopped opening new offices in every corner of the country, with a profusion of resources, since last February when they were legalised. We have seen the considerable funds that they have deployed during the electoral campaign. The money factor then operates fully, it adds to their symbolic capital as main force of opposition, and, in the case of Egypt, to their implantation as a religious political force which knew how to draw together a significant network by carrying out social and charity works. It is not surprising that these forces emerged as the principal winners of the elections.

In the longer term, could the Islamic parties be replaced by other forces which will build themselves?

The main problem for the moment is the absence of a credible alternative. There it is not only time which matters, but also the capacity, the existence of a credible political and organisational project. The sole force which, in my view, could counterbalance the Islamic parties in the region, is not the liberals of all stripes who have by their nature a limited social base, but the workers’ movement. In countries like Tunisia and Egypt it represents a considerable force — a force which has popular roots, unlike the liberals. The workers’ movement is the sole force capable of building an alternative to the religious fundamentalists in the countries concerned. Indeed the crucial problem is the absence of political representation of the workers’ movement.

A strong workers’ movement exists both in Tunisia and Egypt: the UGTT in Tunisia, which has been a decisive factor in the overthrow of Ben Ali, and the new Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions in Egypt. The latter is not a marginal force; it already claims a million and a half members. The EFITU was set up after the overthrow of Mubarak on the basis of the strike movement which preceded it and followed it. This strike movement played a decisive role in the overthrow of Mubarak. In a sense the EFITU resembles the opposition trade unions created against the dictatorships in Korea, Poland or Brazil.

The problem is that that there is no political representation of the workers’ movement in Tunisia and Egypt, and unhappily I must say also that the radical left in the countries concerned has not given priority to such an orientation. It thinks that by self proclamation and building itself politically it can play a major role in the events, whereas their rhythm demands a politics oriented much more directly to the promotion of the social movement itself. One can give priority to the construction of political organisations during slow periods, in the periods of crossing the desert, but when one is in situation of upheaval self-construction is not enough — I do not say that it is not necessary, but it is not sufficient. We need initiatives seeking to create a broad movement. In my opinion, in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, the classic idea of the mass workers’ party based on the trade union movement should be central, but it is unfortunately not prominent in the political thinking of the radical left in these countries.

Why do the monarchies (Morocco, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula) seem to be “holding”? For Morocco, you mentioned the elements of “tolerance” of the current regime, but this is not really the case for the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula.

Here again we need to make distinctions. I should say first that Jordan is more like Morocco than certain Gulf monarchies. It also presents a façade of “liberal despotism”, “liberal absolutism”. These are absolute monarchies where there is no popular sovereignty, but they have granted constitutions and a certain measure of political liberalism, with a political pluralism which is not illusory. There is also a social base for the monarchy, a retrograde base, rural or of rural origin that the monarchies cultivate. This is combined of course with a selective repression.

But the current social situation differs between Morocco and Jordan. In Morocco, there is a strong social movement. The February 20th Movement has succeeded in organising significant mobilisations and until now, it has shown a remarkable perseverance. This movement made a mistake, in my view, in starting on the constitutional question, on the democratic question which, in Morocco, has no great acuity, whereas the social question is very much sharper. But there has been an evolution over the months and today the social is emphasised much more. Nonetheless, in the present conditions, there could be a popular uprising in Morocco of the type of those in Tunisia or Egypt only on social questions, and not on the democratic question, because the regime is intelligent enough not to show its teeth on the latter. There has been very little repression in Morocco compared with other countries of the uprising, Ben Ali’s Tunisia or Mubarak’s Egypt, not to speak of Libya or Syria.

There are common elements between Morocco and Jordan, where the regime allows a controlled freedom, it opens the safety valve and lets the steam out. At the same time it plays on the ethnic factor. In Jordan too, there are mobilisations which are not negligible and which continue. Thus in these two countries — Morocco and Jordan — there is a real movement, even if it does not have the impressive scope of what we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, or Syria. But the highly artificial ethnic cleavage in Jordan between “native Jordanians” and Palestinians (that is people originating from the exodus from the other bank of the river Jordan) is exploited by the regime. Knowing that the Palestinians originating from the West Bank are in the majority in the country, the Jordanian monarchy cultivates a fear of “native Jordanians”, of being in the minority. It’s the classic “divide and rule” recipe.

If we turn to the Gulf monarchies, the situation is different. There have also been popular movements where it is possible. In Oman, there has been a social movement, we now see the development of a political movement in Kuwait, there have been protest movements and riots — harshly repressed — in the Saudi kingdom. And there is of course Bahrain, the only Gulf monarchy to have been confronted with an uprising of great breadth.

The exceptions have been the eminently artificial micro-states — Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — where 80 to 90% of the inhabitants are "foreigners", that is have no rights and can be deported at any time. These then are states that do not fear too much the social movements and that benefit from the direct protection of Western powers — the US, Britain or France (which has important link with the UAE in particular, notably at the military level). Everywhere else, there have been movements — even in Kuwait, where the native population is a little more significant, although here again limited.

And above all there has been the uprising in Bahrain, which the local monarchy and the Saudis have tried to present as a strictly sectarian Shiite movement — the Shiites constitute the great majority of the island’s population — against the Sunni monarchy. The sectarian dimension exists, certainly, and it is strong in the region: the Shiites are persecuted in Bahrain as well as in the Saudi kingdom (where they are a minority). The regimes in power use the most abject sectarianism to prevent the coming together of a mass movement, and cultivate in their own social base hostility against the Shiites. Of course, they also use their financial resources to buy off those who they can. In Bahrain, we have seen a considerable democratic movement, given the relationship of forces. Without external intervention, this movement would have been able to — and could still — overthrow the monarchy. The external intervention took the form of troops from the Gulf countries, above all Saudi, hurried to the island to supplement the local forces so that they could devote themselves to the repression of the movement. But the movement continues in Bahrain, and it is not ready to collapse.

Finally there is Yemen, which is not among the Gulf monarchies, but belongs to the same region. It is — with Sudan and Mauritania — one of the poorest Arab countries. Two thirds of the population there live below the poverty threshold. Yemen has experienced an absolutely extraordinary mobilisation for months. There it is the tribal factor which is exploited fully by the regime, as well as the regional factor, in such a way that the events have taken on aspects of what we could call “cold civil war” between two fractions of the population with imposing mobilisations on both sides. It is the only one of the countries concerned where the regime has succeeded in organising considerable authentic mobilisations, contrary to those which Gaddafi organised in Tripoli or which Assad organises in Syria, which are partly artificial. Yemen is a country whose situation directly affects the Saudi kingdom, and this explains why the Saudis are so directly involved there: they support Saleh, they are behind his “resignation” — which is a masquerade which fools nobody, above all not the radical opposition which continues the struggle.

The Algerian regime has not up to now been shaken by popular mobilisations, how do you explain this?

We can say the same of Iraq or Sudan, as well as Lebanon. These are countries which have known prolonged phases of civil war. In such conditions, it is understandable and natural that the people are not very inclined to destabilise the situation. There is a fear of the unknown, a fear of the resurgence of the most extremist fundamentalist forces, a fear of renewal, including by manipulation of the regime, of the dirty war that Algeria has known and for which the people have paid the price. This background is very important. It should not be forgotten that Algeria is a country which has already experienced a popular uprising in 1988, which certainly did not have the same breadth, or the same forms of organisation as what we have seen this year, but which nonetheless led to political liberalisation. The electoral rise of the Front islamique du salut (FIS - Islamic Salvation Front), which followed, was ended by the coup d’état as we know, and the civil war. It is natural and normal that the people do not wish a repetition of this scenario. This is a stumbling block in Algeria, in the absence of forces capable of organising a horizontal social convergence on a class basis, which could be the base of a new uprising. There have been attempts at mobilisation in Algeria, but they have had little resonance. The perspectives seem rather blocked for the moment. That could change if the regional movement, which began in December 2010 in Tunisia, continues to broaden. We should also take account of the fact that neighbouring Tunisia and Libya are experiencing democratisations which benefit in both cases Islamic forces resembling the former FIS, repressed in Algeria. Ultimately that can have direct consequences on the Algerian situation and that worries the ruling military.

Do you think the revolutionaries can win in Syria? And who are these revolutionaries?

The mass uprising in Syria is above all an uprising of the popular base, of which the youth are the spearhead. It is the expression of exasperation faced with a family dictatorship which has ruled for 41 years. Hafez el-Assad took power in 1970 and died in 2000, after thirty years in power and since then, for eleven years, his son Bashar, promoted to this post when he was only 34, has ruled. There is then a very understandable exasperation, all the more in that the social dimension, ever-present in the background and as part of the infrastructure of the uprisings, is very present in Syria. It is a country which has been subjected for decades to economic liberalization reforms, which have accelerated in recent years and which are reflected in a dizzying rise in the cost of living, a very difficult social situation and considerable poverty (with 30% of the population living below the poverty level). This combines with the minority, confessional character of the regime, the ruling clique belonging mainly to the Alawite minority. All this explains why, when the inspiration came from the Tunisian example, then Egypt and finally Libya — including the international intervention in the latter country, which encouraged the Syrians to enter into action, hoping that it would dissuade their regime from repressing violently — we have seen the explosion of this movement that no political force can claim to control and still less to have initiated. Youth networks in particular — as we have seen everywhere from Morocco to Syria, using the new technologies of communication (like Facebook, of which much has been said) — have initiated and organised these uprisings under the form of “local coordination committees” now federated, which continue to propel the movement. They have no political affiliation.

But there are also political forces which are coalescing so as to “represent” the movement. We have seen two forces emerge, two competing groupings. One basically includes left forces, some of whom were not in the radical opposition to the regime and have ambiguous attitudes with respect to it, after having called for dialogue with it, believing they could act as mediators between the popular uprising and the regime and convince the latter to make reforms. They have quickly seen that this would not work and since then most have rallied around the objective of overthrowing the regime.

The other includes parties which are more radical in their opposition to the regime, a variety of forces going from the Muslim Brotherhood (who, here also, play a central role) to the Democratic Peoples’ Party (originating from a split in the Syrian Communist Party), which has evolved ideologically in an “Italian” manner, but remains a left opposition to the regime, as well as the Kurdish parties. These forces have formed the Syrian National Council, which has been accepted by a good part of the rank and file of the Syrian popular movement as their representative, although this doesn’t mean that the movement is controlled by political networks. It is then a peculiar situation which is reflected in the fact that they have chosen to entrust the presidency of the SNC to Burhan Ghalioun, an independent who is rather to the left. We see him now participate increasingly in a diplomatic game led by the Muslim Brotherhood in agreement with Turkey and the USA. This is a dangerous dynamic.

Finally, there are the army dissidents. After several months of repression, what should have happened did happen. Even in the absence of an organisation capable of organising the passage of soldiers to the side of the popular revolt, the discontent of the soldiers has led to defections, initially completely unorganised. Since August they have set up a Free Syrian Army, against a backdrop of the beginnings of a civil war, with confrontations between army dissidents and the Praetorian guard of the regime.

There is then in Syria a spectrum of forces. Because the country has not known any political life for decades — although the regime here is less totalitarian than was the case in Libya — it is impossible to know what the relative weight is of one or the other. We need to await the overthrow of the regime, if it happens, and free elections to see the relative force of the organised political currents.

To return to Libya, does the fall of Gaddafi mean the end of the civil war or could we see the re-emergence of armed confrontations and if so, who are the protagonists?

First, it should be stressed that in Libya, more than forty years of totalitarian regime had suppressed any form of political life. Libya appears then an uncharted land in political terms, and nobody knows what political landscape will emerge there, or what will emerge from the elections in this country, if they take place.

If by civil war, you mean the war which culminated in the arrest and liquidation of Gaddafi, then the arrest of his son, this is essentially over for the moment. What there is currently is rather a chaotic situation, a little like Lebanon in the first years of the civil war after 1975, or, to take an extreme case, as in Somalia. There is a government, but there is no state. If we define the state first and foremost by its armed spinal column, there is no longer an army in Libya (even if there are attempts to reconstitute one): there is a plurality of militias, structured on various bases, regional, tribal, political-ideological and so on. The regional factor, in the narrowest sense — Misrata or Zintan, for example — is determinant. Each region has its own armed militias.

That testifies to the popular character of the war that brought the regime down. What we have seen in Libya is without a shadow of a doubt a popular insurrection and even a popular war, in the most classic form: civilians of all professions metamorphosised into combatants, who threw themselves into the battle against the regime.

Those who believed that the NATO intervention meant the end of the popular character of the rebellion and transformed the rebels into NATO puppets made a serious error. Besides, most of those who said this sought to justify their support for Gaddafi’s regime against the Libyan revolution. We have seen attitudes of every kind and an indescribable confusion in the international left. To believe that NATO would have control over the situation in Libya after the overthrow of Gaddafi was to entertain great illusions. The US has not succeeded in controlling Iraq with a massive deployment of troops in this country, so how could anyone believe that they can control Libya without even having troops on the ground.

The potential of popular protest liberated by the uprising against Gaddafi is still present in Libya. Witness for example the demonstrations which took place on December 12th in Benghazi against the Transitional National Council and against the fact that it seeks to co-opt personalities linked to the old regime. NATO has not ceased to advice the TNC to integrate members of the Gaddafi regime, saying that these are the lessons learned from the Iraqi fiasco. Well, that is rejected by the people; there are popular movements which oppose it. Witness also the organisation of women — for the first time in Libya, an autonomous movement of women has emerged and is mobilising whether it is on the question of rape or around the issue of political representation. There are also protests by civilians who wish to get rid of the militias. Libya is a country where the situation is exploding in all directions, where the potential awakened by the uprising is being strongly expressed.

To be sure, the perspectives there are handicapped by the absence of a left, given what the regime has been and what it has done to any form of political opposition. But there has been some small progress nonetheless — for example, the constitution of a Federation of Independent Trade Unions which has established links with its Egyptian equivalent. We shall see what will happen.

For the moment in any case, from the very fact of the uprising and the armed overthrow of the regime, and in spite of the imperialist intervention in the conflict, Libya is, of all the countries in the region, the one that has experienced the most radical change up until now. The Gaddafi regime has been radically destroyed, even if there are remnants of it which provoke popular mobilisations. But the fundamental structures of the regime have fallen — which is very different from Tunisia, Egypt, not to mention Yemen. In Egypt, still more than in Tunisia, the basic structures of the regime are still in place, and a military junta is even in power in Cairo.

Of all Arab countries, Tunisia is the one where the organisations of the workers’ movement — trades unionism — have the longest tradition and strongest organisation. But the workers’ movement was marginalised in the electoral process for the Constituent Assembly. Do you think that we are witnessing the beginning of a stabilisation, or simply an electoral interlude?

Tunisia is a country where there is a real bourgeoisie, which tolerated or profited from the regime of Ben Ali. This bourgeoisie has had recourse to the remnants of the Bourguiba regime — that is, the regime which preceded Ben Ali’s seizure of power — represented by Béji Caïd Essebsi, who was prime minister until the elections. Today, the Tunisian bourgeoisie tries to co-opt the new majority — the Ennahda party, the Congress for the Republic led by the new president Moncef Marzouki and so on. These forces are assimilable by the bourgeoisie because they do not have an anti-capitalist social or economic programme. On the contrary, they are either more or less progressive liberal democrats, like Marzouki, or an Islamic current of fundamentalist origin, Ennahda, to which the new prime minister, Hamadi Jabali, belongs, and which claims to have transcended its fundamentalist character and to have become a Tunisian equivalent of the ruling AKP party in Turkey. Just as Turkish big capital has perfectly well accommodated to the AKP party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has today even become its best representative, the Tunisian bourgeoisie seeks to co-opt Ennahda.

At the same time, the movement continues at the grassroots level. Hardly were the elections over than we saw an uprising in the Gafsa mining basin — whose struggles, in 2008 in particular, preceded the revolution which broke out in December 2010. The protest this time, as in 2008, concerned the social question, the demand for the right to work and for jobs. And this will continue, because the movement in Tunisia began around the social question and the coalition now in power has no response to this question.

So in Tunisia there is a favourable terrain for the construction of a political force based on the workers’ movement, provided that the left forces take the initiative in this direction.

How are the mobilisations in Yemen developing after the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh?

The movement continues in Yemen also. A significant part of the opposition understands perfectly that the resignation of Saleh is only an attempt to change the façade, without modifying the base.

Separatist demands are also gathering momentum in South Yemen, faced with this unconvincing compromise. It should not be forgotten that Yemen was only unified in 1994, after a long division into two states. The southern state had the only regime identifying with Marxism in the region, with a social experience which is little known, but remarkable. After a bureaucratic degeneration that was facilitated by its dependency on the Soviet Union, the regime collapsed in the wake of the collapse of its tutelary power. But we are now seeing once again a separatist movement in the South which sees itself as socially more advanced than the North where pre-capitalist, tribal and other structures are more decisive.

There is also in Yemen a sectarian war with a minority that has been the subject of attacks from the Saleh regime, and there is also Al-Qaida — Yemen is today the Arab country where the Al-Qaida network is the strongest at the military level. Yemen then is a considerable powder keg.

What do you think of the difficulty in Europe in leading solidarity campaigns with the revolutions in the Arab region?

Contrary to the implication of the question, I believe that there has been a very strong sympathy, even in the USA, with the uprising in Tunisia and still more with the uprising in Egypt.

The fact that it did not lead to mobilisations, it seems to me, is because people have not seen a particular reason to mobilise. I am not going to engage in counterfactual history, but I think that if there had been any attempt at a repressive intervention by Western governments against the revolution in Tunisia or in Egypt, a significant solidarity movement would have emerged. In the case of Libya, the Western governments intervened on the right side, in appearance at least, in the eyes of public opinion. In the Libyan case, it is generally the opposite question that is posed: why was there no mobilisation against this Western military intervention? In the case of Syria, people hear contradictory assessments, and they see that the attitude of their governments is “cautious”, a fact that does not incite them to mobilise.

I see things otherwise. The echo of the Arab uprisings is very strong among the peoples of the world. We have already seen the mobilisations of February 2011 in Wisconsin, in the US, which took Egypt as a reference point, and we have seen the big trade union demonstration in March in London, where many placards referred to Egypt, or again the movements of the indignant in Spain and Greece, then more recently the Occupy movement which has spread through the US and elsewhere. Everywhere we find references to what happened in the Arab world, and in particular to the Egyptian uprising — because there was much more significant media focus on the events in Egypt than on all the rest. People say “We will do the same as them”, “They dared to do it, we will do it”! Of course, there should be no exaggeration in the other direction. In saying that, I am perfectly aware of the limits of all this, even where the movements have taken on a considerable breadth, as in Spain. In no European country is there currently a situation similar to that in the Arab world; that is, a combination of sharp social crisis and of illegitimate despotic government. In Europe, with bourgeois democratic regimes, things do not have this sharpness, and recurrent resort to the ballot box helps dampen the level of explosiveness.

It is not so much about organising solidarity, in my view, since for the moment there is no Western intervention against the uprisings in the region — if that should take place, it would of course be necessary to mobilise against it. But for now, what is more important is to take inspiration from the regional example, which shows that a mass movement can bring about radical changes in the situation of a country. This is the lesson that is snowballing today, and what seems to me the most important

Don’t you think that in the historic, traditional left, which is quite decayed now, there is a loss of bearings which holds back mobilisations? You mentioned the movement of the indignant, but it is also a movement which says “no party, no union represents us”, which means that it does not feel itself linked to this traditional left, or at least not in the same way as in the past...

I believe, more fundamentally, that we have for some years been confronted with a historic transformation of the political forms of the left, the forms of the workers’ movement, the forms of class struggle. It seems to me that this transformation is very unevenly understood in what remains of the left. There are still too many people who continue to think within the frame of thought inherited from the 20th century. And yet the experience of the 20th century left, which has tragically ended in bankruptcy, is today completely obsolete. It is necessary to renew with conceptions of class struggle which are much more horizontal, much less vertical and centralised than the model that imposed itself within the left since the Bolshevik victory in 1917. Today the technological revolution allows much more democratic forms of organisation, more horizontal, in networks… This is what young people are doing; it is what we see at work in the movements underway in the Arab world. Without entertaining illusions though: to believe that Facebook will be the equivalent for the 21st century of the Leninist party would be to entertain big illusions. But between the two, there is room for an inventive combination of much more democratic political organisation, using these technologies, capable of linking to social and citizen networks, capable of appealing to the new generations. The new generations are practically born in these technologies, we see how they use them, how they insert them into their lives. That sketches a future, which necessitates a political, ideological, organisational rearmament of the left at the world scale. That is the challenge which is posed, as shown also by what is happening in the Arab world. This challenge had already been illustrated by the Zapatista revolt, which was a strong attempt at reinventing the forms of expression of the radical left; then with the movement for global justice and in the thinking of components of this movement; and today between the uprisings in the Arab world, the indignant, Occupy, and so on, we see an explosion of mobilisations, in particular of the youth, but not only them, who use these methods of action. The radical left needs to recharge its batteries; it is essential to try to combine the radical left’s programmatic and theoretical legacy, the Marxist legacy, with these modern forms, this radical renewal of the forms of organisation and expression, in order to build a revolutionary left of the 21st century.

----Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon and teaches political science at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. His best-selling book ’The Clash of Barbarisms’ came out in a second expanded edition in 2006, alongside a book of his dialogues with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East, “Perilous Power“. He is co-author of “The 33-Day War: Israel’s War on Hezbollah in Lebanon and Its Consequences“. His most recent book is “The Arabs and the Holocaust: the Arab-Israeli War of Narratives“, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2010. (REPRINTED FROM INTERNATIONAL VIEWPOINT MAGAZINE, January 2012)

Thursday
Jan122012

Libya for Libyans (PERSPECTIVE) 

By Michael Berube

This is the first part of a new FPIF Strategic Dialogue on the aftermath of the Libyan War, here Michael Berube argues that Libyans can now determine their own political fate. See David Gibb's more negative assessment here. 

Michael Berube

I write in late December 2011, as the United States finally withdraws combat troops from Iraq, and the likely Republican nominee for president in 2012, Mitt Romney, criticizes President Obama for his “precipitous” withdrawal. Nearly nine years in Iraq in a disastrous war of choice is apparently not enough for dead-ender hawks like Romney, who, undaunted by the long debacle, continue to insist that the United States should leave up to 30,000 troops in the country–perhaps in partial fulfillment of John McCain’s suggestion that the United States remain in Iraq for 100 years.

This much we know about Libya: for US foreign policy–and, thankfully, for Libyans–it is not, and will not be, another Iraq.

That does not mean that all is well in Libya, or that the NATO intervention is beyond reproach. On Sunday, December 18, The New York Times reported that civilian casualties are indeed higher and more grievous than NATO has acknowledged, and that NATO is determinedly incurious about the details. For Libyan civilians whose homes were destroyed and whose family members were killed or maimed, it is surely cold comfort that NATO leaves behind no occupying army for the next eight years and nine months, and that there will be no repeat of the atrocities of Abu Ghraib.

It is worth noting, however, that the Western powers appear to have learned the lessons of both Gulf Wars in one respect:  NATO’s strikes did not target electrical grids, did not degrade the water supply, did not employ cluster bombs, and did not poison the country with depleted uranium. With regard to the country’s basic infrastructure, Libyans’ recovery from the aftermath of the revolution that toppled Qaddafi will not be nearly so difficult as that of their Iraqi counterparts. Nor will they have to suffer through years of blunt and brutal sanctions.

And yet with regard to the country’s political institutions, Libyans’ recovery will be rocky.  In some respects there is much to build on: Libya had a higher Human Development Index than Egypt and retains considerable potential wealth in its oil reserves. One can be thankful that the hard left’s most hysterical predictions were wrong, and that the country has not been partitioned and plundered. I do not know if the transition from autocracy to constitutional democracy can be accomplished in a few short years (let alone a few short months), absent a party system and independent institutions of civil society. To the east, Egypt appears to be moving from the Arab spring into a winter of discontent. Let us hope that Tunisia, with its profusion of political parties and its path toward free, peaceful elections, turns out to be the model for the Libyan transition.

I realize that comparing the Libyan intervention to the Iraq War will strike some as an exceptionally low bar, spuriously justifying a questionable intervention by setting it against one of the most calamitous operations in military history. Indeed, I would not hazard the comparison had it not been offered by the antiwar left I have criticized–the people who refused, and still refuse, to admit that the Libyan intervention had a degree of international legitimacy the Iraq War did not, and that, crucially, Western forces joined a rebellion in progress in Libya and that local bodies such as the Arab League and the African Union appealed to the United Nations for support.

That appeal, as it turned out, was not unproblematic. No sooner did NATO embark on a de facto program of regime change than the Arab League and African Union complained, with some justification, that the mandate of UN Resolution 1973 had been exceeded; then again, the Arab League did not hesitate to recognize the National Transitional Council, in August 2011, as the legitimate government of Libya, and the African Union followed suit in September. 

The Arab League’s delicate negotiations thus have interesting implications for the future of U.S. foreign policy, just as China’s refusal to block Resolution 1973 in deference to the Arab League and the African Union has potential implications for the future of UN Security Council politics. On the one hand, the overthrow of Gaddafi has led Russia and China to rule out any parallel resolution with regard to Syria, so it would appear that NATO overreached and produced a Security Council backlash against any further UN intervention in regional affairs for the foreseeable future.  But on the other hand, the revolution in Libya seems to have emboldened local leaders, within the Arab League and without, to criticize Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad rather than circling the wagons and accusing Western powers of imperialism. (I refer specifically to King Abdullah of Jordan and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both of whom have called for Assad to step down, and to the Arab League’s unprecedented decision to impose sanctions on Syria.) Those who criticized the Libyan intervention on the grounds that any external support for the resistance to Gaddafi should have been the primary responsibility of Libya’s neighbors may have lost the argument on Libya but won the day in principle. If so, then the UN, NATO, and the United States will have been well and duly chastened– and more local political bodies will have been encouraged to determine the meaning of “self-determination” and to take responsibility for the “responsibility to protect.”

Those on the left who see Obama as George W. Bush’s third term will not believe that the future of U.S. foreign policy will turn on the 2012 election. And, of course, in some ways that belief will be justified: whether a Democrat or a Republican occupies the Oval Office, the Predator drone strikes in Waziristan will continue. Then again, on Middle Eastern policy the GOP aligns itself almost perfectly with Likud and has shown itself willing to play Netanyahu off Obama in a show of allegiance to the former. Had that attitude prevailed with regard to the revolution in Egypt, the United States would surely have tried to prop up Mubarak to the bitter end. 

Moreover, the GOP’s contempt for international institutions and for multilateralism suggests that a Republican administration will be considerably less concerned over whether its military interventions or its foreign policies have any international legitimacy. Last but not least, it is inconceivable, given the GOP’s domestic constituencies, that a Republican secretary of state would utter anything like Hillary Clinton’s historic speech of December 6 in Geneva, pledging to use American diplomacy and foreign aid to promote gay rights around the globe. 

On balance, the differences between America’s Democrats and Republicans will matter to the world, most likely in Iran (where Republicans cannot wait to strike) but also in places we can’t yet foresee. But one thing seems certain for now– the immediate future of Libya will be determined overwhelmingly by the Libyan people themselves. Critics of NATO’s intervention in Libya should explain whether this outcome is unacceptable to them, and if so, why.

-- Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Michael Bérubé is the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Pennsylvania State University, where he teaches cultural studies and American literature. He is the author of The Left at War, among other titles.  This work by Institute for Policy Studies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Thursday
Jan122012

Libya and the New Warmongering (PERSPECTIVE) 

This is the first part of a new FPIF Strategic Dialogue on the aftermath of the Libyan War, here David Gibbs argues that the long-term consequences of the military intervention are dire. See Michael Berube's more positive assessment here. 

The NATO intervention in Libya is likely to produce a more militarized and insecure world, and this will be its most enduring legacy. The military “success” in Libya has increased the possibility of new wars. There is a widespread perception that NATO has achieved an easy victory against Gaddafi, and the resulting sense of hubris augments the risk of future military actions against Iran, Syria, and other possible targets. Politicians in NATO countries surely welcome the public distraction that war provides, especially in the context of the world-wide economic slump, and this may prove an additional motivation for new military action.

And the Libyan success will generate heightened levels of military expenditure. The British military has already been using the intervention as an argument for more funding; the same situation will no doubt occur in France and the United States as well, where the intervention will bring political benefits to the military-industrial complexes of each country. Given limited funds, the relatively higher military budgets that result from this situation will probably reduce funds for education, health, environmental protection, and disease eradication, and also for aid to developing countries, which include Libya.

Another consequence of intervention is the erosion of international law, as indicated by NATO’s disregard of the UN Charter and also the U.S. War Powers Resolution, which were openly flouted in the course of the bombing campaign and the efforts at regime change. In previous eras, U.S. liberals might have criticized the unchecked use of executive power shown by the Obama administration. But such concerns are a thing of the past. With Libya, liberals have shown themselves to be perfectly comfortable with an “imperial presidency.”

In addition, the intervention constitutes a setback for international cooperation aimed at curbing nuclear proliferation: NATO’s decision to overthrow Gaddafi after he had agreed to give up his nuclear weapons development program will surely dissuade other countries such as North Korea from repeating Gaddafi’s mistake. The significance of the intervention will thus extend far beyond Libya itself, and it is this larger class of implications that constitutes the most dangerous implication of the intervention. No one likes to think about the long-term consequences of policy actions, especially where “victory” is involved; but these long-term consequences will remain, all the same, and international security will be compromised as a result.

Libya on the Ground

Let us now turn to the implications of NATO’s victory for Libya and its people. At this level, the outcome seems uncertain, as the facts on the ground are ambiguous. On the one hand, the National Transitional Council (NTC) has achieved full control of the country, and so far has avoided the post-Gaddafi chaos that many had feared. On the other hand, the situation remains unstable, as indicated by the frequent clashes amongrival militia groups for control of Tripoli and other areas. And the NATO intervention itself may pose problems for future stability. Achieving power with external support, the new regime is thus open to criticisms that it is the product of foreign intervention. True, the NATO powers retain some popularity among at least those Libyans that supported the Gaddafi overthrow; but that support may wear thin over time, as the traditional and deeply rooted anti-colonialism of the Libyan people reasserts itself.

Overall, there is little in Libya’s past to suggest a happy ending. The country is comprised of more than one hundred self-identified clan groups, with an additional regional divide between the eastern and western parts of the country, a split that goes back to the period of Ottoman rule. There is no significant precedent for parliamentary democracy. And the only national unity the country has achieved was largely the creation of Muammar Gaddafi.

No one should mourn the fall of Gaddafi, who (despite some accomplishments) remained at base an unsavory and megalomaniacal figure. The question is whether the new regime will prove any better – or worse -- than what came before. There are several possible outcomes. The new regime might prove to be a relatively decent and stabilizing force that provides the Libyan people a better quality of life than they had under the Gaddafi dictatorship. Perhaps they will even achieve some form of representative democracy, with impartial rule of law and respect for individual autonomy. Any reasonable person would surely hope for this outcome. But this hardly seems likely. A more plausible scenario is that the central government will fall apart, triggering a renewed civil war between the eastern and western regions. Alternatively, there may be a generalized descent into chaos, without clear battle lines, similar to what happened in Somalia in 1991, after the fall of the Siad Barre dictatorship.

Perhaps the most likely scenario would entail a weak and corrupt Libyan central government, which would nominally rule amidst regional instability, economic deterioration, and growing social misery. In an earlier time, the Western powers might have furnished a Marshall Plan-style aid program to ensure the success of the new government. However, such programs have largely gone out of fashion and seem especially unlikely at the present moment, given the austerity-minded regimes in Europe and the United States. The NATO powers surely will congratulate themselves for having financed the bombing campaign but are unlikely to find much money for reconstructing the country. Stated simply, the most likely outcome would be a Libya that ends up in even worse shape than was the case before the fall of Gaddafi.

“Humanitarian” Interventions

There is thus a real danger that the NATO intervention in Libya may end up worsening the situation for the Libyan people. Purported efforts at humanitarian intervention have certainly made things worse in the past. Consider the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which had been governed by regimes that were even more repressive than Gaddafi’s and more repulsive in a moral sense. And so, Western interventions overthrew both regimes, and they did so with the support of many of the same intellectuals who recently supported the overthrow of Gaddafi. The results were disastrous.

At the time of the 2003 Iraq invasion, Juan Cole offered the following endorsement:  “I remain convinced that, for all the concerns one might have about the aftermath, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the murderous Baath regime from power will be worth the sacrifices that are about to be made on all sides.” It is painful to read this type of rubbish now, almost a decade later, and it must raise questions about Cole’s judgment. This past endorsement of the Iraq war is also worth recalling in light of Cole’s recent writings on Libya, which once again endorsed intervention.

In general, there is a tendency to assume that interventions termed “humanitarian” must always have positive outcomes. This is indeed a widely held assumption, popularized by Samantha Power’s influential (though poorly researched) book A Problem from Hell. But there is little in the historical record to support this assumption. In fact, military interventions typically make humanitarian situations worse than before, not better, a point dramatically illustrated by the hundreds of thousands of deaths that resulted from interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And despite myths to the contrary, past interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo worsened the humanitarian crises in those areas, a point that is well documented even if little known.

First Do No Harm

In medicine, doctors must assume a stance of restraint before taking action; “first do no harm” is the operative principal. We cannot solve all problems, after all, and we should at least not make a bad situation worse by reckless or ill-considered interventions. This principal is well recognized with regard to medical interventions, so why should it not apply as well to military interventions, including those labeled “humanitarian”?

And finally, we must assess the implications of the Libya intervention for the liberal left. This intervention demonstrates liberals’ abandonment of their traditional peace position. Since the end of the Cold War, many liberals have become enamored of military force, in a way that is indistinguishable from the most retrograde and jingoistic elements of the right. Let us be frank and call things by their correct names: The movement for humanitarian intervention – with regard to Libya, Darfur, Iraq, and the Balkans – has always been a pro-war movement, for war is what we are really talking about here.

With regard to matters of tone, the liberal interventionists embody much of the ugliness that has been associated with militarist movements throughout history, including their stance of moral self-righteousness, their tendency to vilify dissent, and their reckless disregard for the risks of military action. There is also a remarkable confidence in the good intentions of military, government, and corporate officials in the intervening powers, combined with a refusal to consider the self-interested motives that these figures have for undertaking intervention. Today, war-mongering is no longer confined to political conservatives. Liberals can also enjoy the thrill and moral uplift of advocating for war–but with no sense of accountability for the consequences of their advocacy.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor David N. Gibbs is professor of history at the University of Arizona in Tucson. His latest book is First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt, 2009). 

This work by Institute for Policy Studies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Thursday
Sep082011

Will Gadaffi's Overseas Land Grabs Hold? (NEWS BRIEF)

A man in Bujumbura holds up a map of Africa. Several African countries have been victimized by lopsided land grabs by countries such as Libya. CREDIT: M Bociurkiw/HUMNEWS(HN, September 8, 2011) - Millions of dollars worth of Libyan land purchases from Ukraine to Mali are up in the air now that the Government of Colonel Gadaffi has crumbled.

Importing food is essential for Libya - almost all its food needs, including wheat and flour, is brought in to feed its 5.3 million people.

In May 2008, during a state visit to Kyiv, Gadaffi gave Ukraine an oil and gas contract in exchange for 247.000 ha of Ukrainian land to produce its own food.

A few years ago, according to Michael Muleba, Executive Director, Farmer Organisation Support Programme, Libya acquired control of 100.000 ha in the office du Niger, Mali’s main rice producing area. As part of the deal, Libya agreed to improve local infrastructure including enlarging canal and improving a road. But when it came to awarding these contracts and to finding a supplier of rice seeds, local firms were snubbed in favor of Chinese and Libyan ones.

Aside from Libya, Saudi Arabia, China and South Korea that have sought farmland abroad to guarantee food supplies and cut dependence on imports.

Africa is a prime target for foreign land grabs. Muleda describes various ways including: land purchases, long term leases, and large investments in existing farms as well as barter-type principles. The collective GRAIN argues that while African governments proclaim their commitments to food self-sufficiency, behind the backs of their people they are signing an alarming number of deals with foreign investors that give these investors control over their countries’ most important agricultural lands, including rice lands.

However, now that Gadaffi is gone, there is speculation that some of the deals may not stand up.

Even the Ukraine deal ran into trouble shortly after it was negotiated by former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is now being prosecuted for alleged corruption. After a visit to Tripoli in 2009 she defended the deal, saying "Libya is a bridge to African countries. Africa can be a great consumer of Ukrainian grain and food. We worked out a draft agreement which is to be signed."

- HUMNEWS staff

Friday
Sep022011

Migrants Terrified in Nearly-Liberated Tripoli (NEWS BRIEF)

Migrants fleeing Libya several months ago. CREDIT: UN(HN, September 3, 2011) - As rebel groups fight to liberate Tripoli, the UN and other aid agencies are receiving an increasing number of reports of migrants in need of assistance and protection.

Individual migrants say they are scared to leave their homes for fear of being arrested or killed, claiming that even documented migrants are afraid to go out and find food and water because others have done so and have not returned home. 

Part of the problem may be that some migrants are being mistaken as mercenaries employed by Libya's former leader Moammar Gadhafi - many of whom are from other African nations.

“Sub-Saharan Africans, they are either perceived to have been mercenaries or associated with mercenaries. So that is a possible reason for why they would be targeted. I’m not sure. I cannot really say that this is the case for every single story that we have heard.  But certainly it is a factor,” IOM spokesperson Jemini Pandya said at a news briefing in Geneva monitored by HUMNEWS.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), despite a slow improvement of the situation in Tripoli where there is limited access to food, potable water and fuel, the security situation nevertheless remains potentially volatile. 

Although there are no reliable figures on the existing migrant population in Tripoli and from growing number of anecdotal reports, it is clear there are a high number of very vulnerable migrants in the city. Other organizations are also alerting IOM to migrant groups they have come across and who are in need of help. 

Most of the migrants are from African countries such as Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Ghana, Niger, Mali and Ethiopia. A maid employed by one of Gadhafi's sons and tortured almost beyond recognition is Ethiopian.

Most migrants are deliberately not congregating in large numbers to avoid being conspicuous or targeted. Access to Sub-Saharan migrants is still being hampered by security issues and individually-constructed check-points or because the migrants are afraid to meet.

While many of the migrants want IOM to help them leave Libya, others don't. Among them are a group of 800 Sub-Saharan Africans stranded at a fishing port who are either too scared to return to their home countries and want asylum or who have no prospect of a livelihood upon returning. 

The significant increase in food prices and either limited or no access to funds to buy what is available means there are ever-growing numbers of migrants in need of humanitarian assistance. 

"Access to food is clearly a major issue for migrants in Tripoli. The first group of migrants IOM evacuated from Tripoli last week were really hungry. As a result we increased our food supplies on subsequent evacuations," says IOM Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Pasquale Lupoli.

Meanwhile, IOM staff in Tripoli are continuing to work to access vulnerable migrants. For those who want to leave Libya, the Organization is now working on an evacuation operation by road. 

Nearly 1,600 migrants and vulnerable Libyans have been evacuated by IOM by boat from Tripoli so far.

- IOM, HUMNEWS staff

Friday
Aug262011

Three Questions on Libya (COMMENTARY) 

Libya's 1951 Independence FlagBy Marwan Bishara 

A six month NATO-aided rebellion in Libya has advanced on the capital, Tripoli, in an effort to oust 42-year leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst, comments on three key issues.

What's next for Libya and the national council?

It is time for the Libyan people to celebrate the end of a four-decade dictatorship. Once they sober up from the jubilations of their well-deserved victory, however, they will discover this is only the beginning.

Gaddafi has undermined, marginalised or obliterated many of the state institutions, including the military, and destroyed the political parties - indeed, political life in the country. There is much to restore and more to build from scratch.

Security, reconstruction and political transition are only a few of the challenges they will face sooner rather than later. More importantly, they will need to manage expectations of those who have given their all for liberty, freedom and prosperity.

Having said that, there is no need for alarm. Not yet any way. It's easy, even clichéd, to be pessimistic, even negative, about the post-revolutionary challenge. What is needed is optimism anchored in reality.

And judging from what we have seen over the past five months, there is much to celebrate in terms of building a steering council and creating locally based revolutionary groups from the bottom up that have been well coordinated and largely disciplined.

There have been disagreements and suspicion over the past several weeks, and the full story of the assassination of Abdul Fatah Younis is yet to emerge. And yes, there have been certain violations and acts of revenge, but considering the pent-up tensions and violence after decades of dictatorship and its terribly criminal behaviour throughout the past few months, these have been the exceptions to the rule.

The revolution has been a pluralistic, all-encompassing coalition of people from all walks of life. They paid attention to local and tribal sensitivities and established an excellent coordination strategy between the local revolutionaries and the national steering committee.

Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia where pillars of the regime, notably the military, remain in power, the Libyan revolution is set to wipe the slate clean and begin anew. Democracy is its only way to success.

The transitional council must remember its role is just that – transitional - and avoid all tactics that prolong its unchecked authority.

You mentioned Egypt and Tunisia. What do the Libyan developments mean for the Arab Spring?

Libya is much smaller and relatively less developed than its neighbours Egypt and Tunisia. It also has much on its plate and will be preoccupied with its own internal affairs for years, even decades, to come. That's why one doesn't expect the new leaders in Tripoli to play any major regional role in the near future.

However, the revolutionary contagion will only accelerate after the success of the revolution in Libya. The Assad and Saleh regimes should have much more to worry about today than last week as the latest revolutionary domino falls.

Under pressure from their people, the Arab regimes are going to have to act. Yemen is next, and Syria, while more complicated, will have to follow suit.

The same is true for the rest of North Africa. As a necessary bridge between Egypt and Tunisia, oil-rich Libya could play an important role in coordinating the three countries' future reconstruction strategies and their relations with the rest of the region and with the West.

What about the Western powers - notably France, Britain and the US - where does the 'success' in Libya take them?

First and foremost Western leaders need to wipe that smug look from their faces and make sure not to gloat about doing the Arabs any favours.

Certainly the NATO aerial bombardment did help, but this was a revolutionaries' victory par excellence. The battle was won first and foremost in the hearts of the Libyans, just as with the Egyptians and Tunisians before them.

Besides, after decades of complicity with Arab dictators, Western powers have much to make up for: They inserted themselves in the Libyan revolution after Gaddafi made genocidal threats against his people, but their interference was not necessarily motivated by humanitarian ends, rather more of the same geopolitics that led to befriending Gaddafi, Ben Ali and Mubarak in the first place.

Syria is far more complicated and Britain and France will need to keep out of it militarily.

That's not to say that the Libyans should be unappreciative for the extended helping hand. Better to have Western powers on the right side of Arab history for a change. And there is much room for cooperation and coordination in the future, but it should be done on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interest, especially that of the Arabs who are in every need of affirmative action.

Western leaders must also steer away from driving a wedge between those whom they consider moderates and others deemed "Islamists", as Libya will need cooperation among all its citizens.

- Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera's senior political analyst. He was previously a professor of International Relations at the American University of Paris. An author who writes extensively on global politics, he is widely regarded as a leading authority on the Middle East and international affairs.

Originally published by Al Jazeera under Creative Commons Licensing 

Monday
Jun202011

On World Refugee Day, UNHCR Reports Highest Number of Refugees Worldwide in Fifteen Years 

(CREDIT: UNHCR, World Refugee Day 2011) (HN, June 20, 2011) - June 20th is always the United Nations globally recognized `World Refugee Day’.  But this year the day holds significance for more people on the planet than in the last 15 years. 

That’s because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that as of last year, 43.7 million people around the world have been displaced from their countries by war, conflict or persecution.  

Adding insult to injury, eighty percent of those refugees fleeing the safety of their own homes are being kept safe with food, shelter and water by some of the world’s poorest nations, and UNHCR is warning that these countries cannot continue to afford this cost alone.

This past weekend António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, spent time with the actress Angelina Jolie meeting with some of the refugees who most recently fled  Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain and other Middle East nations currently experiencing internal turmoil which has forced thousands to stream across their nations borders for other countries such as Turkey and Malta.  

(CREDIT: UNHCR, Gooodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie at a camp for Syrian refugees in the southern Turkish town of Altinozu.)In a statement reflecting `World Refugee Day’, Guterres says, “Fears about supposed floods of refugees in industrialized countries are being vastly overblown or mistakenly conflated with issues of migration. It’s poorer countries that are left having to pick up the burden.”

UNHCR’s 2010 Global Trends report, flags Pakistan, Iran and Syria as the world’s biggest hosts of refugees by amount of people who have fled there – totaling three million collectively that the countries have taken in; 1.9 million refugees are being housed in Pakistan alone.

And the world’s refugee populations are only expected to grow as predicted by UNHCR, next year and beyond.  In 2010, the refugee agency projected that 747,000 locations places were needed to resettle the global flow of refugees, and the 22 countries that accept such displaced people, led by the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden and Norway, took in only 98,000 people. In 2011, UNHCR estimates that 805,000 locations for refugees to be resettled will be needed.  

The developed nation housing the largest refugee population is Germany, hosting 594,000 people.  Guterres urged industrialized nations to increase the number of people they accept who are seeking asylum, lessening the burden on already poor and overwhelmed countries, some whom, like Syria, are going through their own internal strife and seeing its own people flee to Turkey.

Civilians fleeing the fighting in north-west Syria has picked up significantly in the last two weeks with more than 9,600 people now living in four camps managed by Turkey and the Turkish Red Crescent.

(CREDIT: IGEO, a camp for Darfur, Sudan refugees in Chad.)Not only are there more refugees in the world today but more people are staying in a `refugee state’ much longer than ever before.  Some like those in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere spend their whole life in refugee camps. 

In 2010 for instance, 7.2 million people, the highest number in ten years, had been exiled from their home countries for five years or more; mostly due to the length of the conflict they were fleeing from, which prevented people from returning to their homes. Only 197,600 refugees, were able to return to their homes in 2010, the lowest number since 1990.

UNHCR puts the official number of refugees who registered with it last year, along with the agency for Palestinian refugees at 15.4 million in 2010; with another 27.5 million people – the highest level in ten years - having been displaced by conflict within their own home countries’ borders.

--- HUMNEWS staff

Thursday
May192011

Libya's Forgotten Front Line (REPORT/BLOG) 

Photo courtesy: Al Jazeera By Mike Hanna

It is a point of conflict in recent weeks has faded from international focus.

Yet three months after the uprising began, opposition forces and those loyal to Muammer Gaddafi are still facing each other across a stretch of sandy no-man's land some 30km west of Ajdabia.  

In recent weeks the opposition forces have tightly controlled access to the frontline in the east of Libya. 

Commanders on the ground wary of the real time live coverage that at one point they believe threatened their operational security. 

An Al Jazeera team was granted access to the area at the invitation of the Az Zawiyah Brigade, which has been at the forefront of the conflict since the beginning of this revolution.

Ninety per cent of the brigade are volunteers, some retired army officers who returned to service, but the vast majority those who at the beginning of the year were civilians going about their normal lives.

Morale in the unit remains high.

We spoke to Issa Gabsi, one of the few men with real military experience. 

He has been wounded and evacuated twice, each time returning to the frontline as soon as possible. 

"It is important for those with military experience to return to the fight and help the people," he says simply.

One of the field commanders is Colonel Adil Geriani - a soft-spoken man with a ready smile and love of country music.  
He says he feels no hatred to those still supporting Gaddafi, but cannot understand why they are doing so.

"If I could just talk to them," he says gesturing across the expanse of no-mans land, "I would explain that we should all be on one side, that of Libya."

During the several hours we spent in the area there were repeated artillery barrages some 7km to the west.

Plumes of smoke discernable on the horizon, evidence that despite the threat of NATO air attacks the Gaddafi forces are still able to fire at will.

Opposition commanders tell us that they believe the Gaddafi troops are being reinforced, and new weapons are being deployed - in particular an extremely precise guided anti-tank missile they believe could be a Milan system (a sophisticated and deadly piece of weaponry).

There is among these opposition troops too a sense of deep frustration that much needed supplies are not being delivered.

There are no signs of the new communication systems and body armour that various countries had said they would provide. 

Questions here as well about the priorities of the civilian authorities back in Benghazi.

"We went to collect three new vehicles that had been earmarked for us last week," one of the commanders said. "We only got two because one had been appropriated by a National Transitional Council official."

This was placed in a stark context when we saw newly recruited volunteers arriving at the frontline on foot. There were no vehicles available to transport them from Ajdabia 10km away.

The Az Zawiyah Brigade has taken large numbers of casualties. 

Seven men were killed in a single missile strike earlier this month, among them a senior field commander, Hussein Al Awami. 

He was by all accounts not only respected, but also deeply liked by his men.

The day before he was killed he recorded a video message on a mobile phone in the field, leaping on to his vehicle he looks straight at the camera and says: "We are descendants of lions, at peace we are generous but at war we are fire and fury."

As we drive away, they are words that still seem to echo in the sands of this frontline.

- Originally published by Al Jazeera on May 18, 2011 under Creative Commons Licensing 

Tuesday
May032011

A Measure of Anger in the Libya War (OPINION/BLOG)

The Kingdom of Libya flag placed in front of a refinery in Ras Lanuf March 8, 2011.. The flag which was used when Libya gained independence from Italy in 1951, has been used as a symbol of resistance against Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi. PHOTO CREDIT:Goran Tomasevic - شبكة برق BRQNetwork/flickr.comby Mohamed Vall 

I've always felt there's some something unusual about the Nato war in Libya. A war with cool nerves? A bureaucratic war?

A sort of boring, over calculated "humanitarian" operation just like anything UN?

The Korean War was UN-mandated but US-driven. The threat of communism engulfing Asia was enough provocation.

But in Libya: no.

And there perhaps lies the secret.

Unlike even recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Western intervention in Libya lacked three vital factors that usually drive wars: anger, fear and hatred.

In Afghanistan those three elements were at play. The September 11 attacks rocked America with fear in its own usually secure cradle. The anger and hatred generated by those attacks were enough fuel for a sustained war if not a series of wars.

In fact, Iraq was part of the aftermath of that situation. But Iraq was more about fear than anger. Behind the scenes Israel was afraid of a potentially powerful Iraq. On the forefront the US was afraid Saddam might become too militarily powerful to control.

But in the case of Libya none of those factors was at play when the intervention began. Gaddafi was at his best level of friendship with the West.

He had long stopped supporting states and groups seen by the West as terrorist. To atone for previous "sins", he dismantled his nuclear weapons program and handed it over to the US. He generously compensated the victims of Lockerbie and other similar crimes which he was accused of.

He killed al-Qaeda Islamists in hordes on his own behalf and on behalf of the US. He worked hard to curb illegal migration from Africa to Western Europe. He opened the country's oil fields once again to Western companies.

His sons sponsored Western universities and allegedly even Western political leaders and pop singers.

Freakish shenanigans

Gaddafi had thus already been "rehabilitated" and "domesticated". And his freakish shenanigans were now treated with shrugs or even with amusement. He became a sort of clown in the Western political consciousness. A clown doesn't provoke fear or anger because he’s rather entertaining.

Gaddafi clearly did all of that for the sole purpose of securing his grip on power and perhaps to guarantee a smooth succession for his son and family later. In this equation of mutual interest neither the West nor Gaddafi were motivated by the real needs and rights of the Libyan people.

Ironically but also understandably it was those needs and rights of the Libyan people that have disrupted the said equation.

Libya revolted for democracy and freedom. And the level of brutality in Gaddafi's response shocked the world. Arabs for the first time put aside their differences and called on the UN for action.

Western leaders were overwhelmed and overpowered by their own public opinion. And more significantly Gaddafi seemed at those early days of the uprising as if he were about to lose his grip on power quickly and easily.

That combination of shock at his brutality and illusion of his imminent downfall have made it look tempting for Western powers not only to just passively dump him but rather to contribute with a push.

But Gaddafi turned out to be a hard nut to crack. He resisted and played war tactics successfully. And Western leaders looked inside their own hearts for the usual fuel of anger and hatred that motivates wars but could not find enough in stock.

The man was serving them and he was not posing a threat to their security or their vital interests. They thought he would vanish in a moment and save them the trouble of feeling a bit ashamed of having abandoned a friend. They thought the rebels – the Libyan people themselves - would be able to easily achieve that task.

None of that happened.

Then came the turning point. Or is it?

Gaddafi claims a Nato air strike has killed his son. His supporters attacked, looted and burned Western embassies. It's the first real provocation by the Libyan regime towards Nato members. So far Gaddafi's troops have passively absorbed Nato air raids and instead unleashed their deadly anger on their own co citizens.

They have not killed a single Western soldier or even downed a single aircraft [one US fighter jet crashed allegedly for technical reasons]. The anti-aircraft fire that lit the sky line of Tripoli by night seemed more like fireworks than real surface to air defence.

Moreover in all his speeches, aside from a few statements made for local consumption about defying the West Gaddafi remained lean and conciliatory towards the West. He begged for negotiation and pledged to make reforms. But his calls were rejected.

Now we have the first real instance of anger on both sides.

Nothing left to lose

For Gaddafi to allow the burning of Westen embassies is a sign that he lost hope of any good resulting from his diplomatic overtures. And for the first time he’s acting as though he has nothing to lose anymore.

He feels a little bit of betrayal on the part of his former friends, because since the beginning of the air campaign they made it clear his personal life is not a target. But now that illusion of immunity is gone and Gaddafi is both afraid and infuriated I'm pretty sure.

On the part of Western nations, I have noticed anger towards Gaddafi for the first time since the war started. It's clear from the body language of the UK prime minster, David Cameron, as he reacted to the embassy attacks. The UK immediately expelled the Libyan ambassador in London.

It’s the closest the two sides got to what looks like a real mood of war.

The question is how this development is going to play out and affect the pattern of Nato action in Libya. That pattern during the last few weeks began to raise suspicions that Nato was dragging its feet, and only halfheartedly engaging itself in the war effort.

Civilians continued to be killed in droves in Musrata every day and the western region of Libya.

Gaddafi was able to badly damage the port of that city and disrupt the flow of humanitarian aid to the besieged population there. The whole operation began to stagnate and lose momentum. The country is drifting into chaos and the farther it goes in that direction the more likely Al Qaeda and perhaps even foreign intelligence services are likely to find excuses and suitable ground to step in and wreak havoc in the country just as in the case of Iraq.

Will the new measure of anger and fear change the rules of the game as they stand?

It's a tough question just like any other aspect of the war in Libya.

Anger may galvanise Nato action and perhaps refocus it around the purpose of removing Gaddafi sooner than previously intended, something that Nato and the US had clearly steered away from in the past. It might help shape more clear goals and prompt their realisation.

But on the other hand it may cause rash actions such as raids that kill innocent civilians, which will be detrimental to the cause of this war. So a happy balance should be struck between the two and that has always been the essential dilemma of this war.

by Mohamed Vall - originally published by Al-Jazeera on May 2, 2011 under Creative Commons Licensing 

Friday
Apr222011

“Deployment of Solo TV News Crews to Foreign Conflict Zones Problematic” - Indeed (PERSPECTIVE)

By Maggie Padlewska

(HN, April 23, 2011) News-gathering technology is without doubt becoming more accessible, portable, and inconspicuous.

More and more journalists are trained and expected to file stories for multiple mediums (print, radio, television, and the web), once all considered independent of each other. Major networks are increasingly focused on cost-effectiveness, thus cutting back on resources and much of its “human” workforce. The obvious result: fewer people, doing more.

It is no surprise, therefore, that major networks are now toying with the idea of deploying a one-person "crew" to report from conflict zones. This was expected.

The question is: is it “too soon” or flat out “problematic”?

The risk factor involved reporting from a conflict zone is not new nor, sadly, one that is likely to diminish miraculously over time.

According to the figures collected by Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organization that fights for the rights, freedom, and protection of journalists worldwide, 25 journalists were killed in 2002, 64 in 2005, 87 in 2007, and 18 since the beginning of the year.  

So, should deep-pocketed networks deploy “Backpack Journalists” (BPJs) or 'Multi-Media Journalists' (MMJs) to report, single-handedly from conflict zones without any safeguards in place? No. Should BPJs avoid reporting from conflict zones? Not necessarily.

MMJs have been presented with a significant and unique set of opportunities: lightweight mobility, rapid field production (laptop editing and story filing via the Internet), and most importantly, as noted by Professor Stacey Woelfel during the National Association of Broadcaster panel discussion, a dramatic decrease with respect to the “intimidation factor” for interviewees. Thus, there is much to be gained from this independent form of reporting. Padlewska on the job as a MMJ in Panama

As for reaping the benefits? The key perhaps, is therefore, to strike the proper balance. There is strength (and safety!) in numbers – true.

Now apply that to independent MMJs gathering in a conflict zone…and what do we have? The best of both worlds perhaps…

Sadly, however, while “numbers” may increase the odds of safety (such as providing video journalists and photographers with additional sets of eyes to watching each others’ backs as noted by veteran news-photographer Kevin Benz), they do not guarantee safety.

The tragic loss of photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya earlier this week, is another grim and harrowing reminder of the danger and risks involved in conflict zone reporting; be it as an independent or a member of a crew.

Hence, while deploying solo MMJs to conflict zones may be tempting for major networks (highly effective and cheap), now, or later, is not the time for cutbacks that could further jeopardize the safety and security of those who, courageously and selflessly, step in harm’s way to report on the horrors of conflict without first putting much thought into the ‘real cost’ of “cost-effectiveness”.

Maggie Padlewska is an independent video journalist and founder of the One Year One World initiative; a solo journey around the globe to document and share the stories of people who lack the resources to share their views and ideas with the world (oneyearoneworld.com). She has worked as television news reporter, host, director, producer, editor and writer for both national and international networks for more than a decade. She is a fearless multilingual nomad with several degrees, a passion for storytelling, and a relentless curiosity of the world. 

Wednesday
Apr202011

As IOM Rescue Operation for Migrants Stranded in Misrata Continue, Many Thousands More Migrants Need Urgent Help Elsewhere (NEWS BRIEF)

(April 20,2011) A third IOM-chartered boat bringing more humanitarian aid into the besieged city of Misrata is due to arrive in the port later today with the aim of rescuing more stranded migrants.

The boat, the Ionian Spirit, left Benghazi on Tuesday night carrying 500 tons of food, medical supplies, hygiene kits and non-food items donated mainly by the Libyan private sector with some aid provided by Qatar and the U.A.E. Red Crescent. 

A Libyan non-governmental organization Libaid has donated the hygiene kits, medical supplies, hospital wheelchairs and four generators for hospital use.

Also on board are a team of 13 doctors with differing specializations. Two of the doctors who will relieve colleagues working in the hospital in Misrata will also refer critical but stable cases to IOM for evacuation to Benghazi.

"The presence of a large group of doctors with different specializations means greater capacity and more flexibility to assist those critically wounded or sick on board for the return journey to Benghazi," said IOM operational leader Jeremy Haslam as the boat departed.

However, the main focus of this third IOM operation to rescue stranded migrants in Misrata is to bring as many migrants as possible to safety.

In particular, the Organization is hoping to target a large number of migrants from Niger. Of the estimated 5,000 migrants around the port area, more than 3,200 are believed to be Nigeriens. 

"We don't know whether we will be able to reach them, however. If they are not close to the port, then it will be extremely hard to access them given the security conditions in the city," Haslam added. 

In two previous missions funded by the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Office (ECHO), IOM has rescued more than 2,100 people from Misrata, nearly 100 of them Libyans. 

New funding of one million Euros from the German government and £1.5 million (US$2.4m) from Britain's Department for International Development (DFID) will allow IOM to continue its rescue operations from Misrata where about 5,000 migrants are still believed to be stranded, to the eastern port city of Benghazi.

However, a critical shortage of funds means that while the migrants are brought to relative safety in Benghazi, they will remain stranded there without additional means.

"Taking the migrants out of the line of fire is life-saving, but by not being able to take them out of Libya and safely home means their plight has simply been transplanted to another location," says IOM Director of Operations and Emergencies, Mohammed Abdiker. 

"This is true for all the migrants who we need to help inside Libya and for those who have managed to cross Libya's borders with its neighbours."

More than 5,000 migrants on the Egyptian, Tunisian and Nigerien borders with Libya are still in need of evacuation to their home countries.

Among the many identified groups of migrants needing urgent evacuation from inside Libya are a group of nearly 30,000 Chadians, including women and children, marooned in Gatroun. IOM is in discussions with the Libyan and Chadian authorities on accessing the group.

It comes as the number of Chadians crossing into Chad from Libya has dramatically increased with a growing number of the migrants stranded in northern towns such as Faya and Kaliyit. The migrants are all dehydrated, extremely tired and in need of food.

An IOM transit centre at Faya, where UNHCR has provided tents to accommodate arrivals, which has a capacity of 750 people is now overflowing.  

"An airlift to Ndjamena is the only option. But again this is a costly operation," Abdiker states. "We are in a position where we have beefed up our operational presence at the Chadian border points to cope with the number of arrivals but we have no money to evacuate the migrants from these isolated desert areas to the Chadian capital."

Working with various Embassies, an IOM operation begun some weeks ago to evacuate stranded migrants in Tripoli by bus to the Tunisian border will be difficult to continue.

Only yesterday, 19 April, IOM evacuated a group of 100 Beninois migrants from the Libyan capital, including women and infants. 

IOM appealed for about US$160 million dollars for its response to the Libyan crisis with much of the funding to provide evacuation assistance from both inside and outside Libya. The Organization has received to date US$65 million, all of it except the new funding spent on operations that have helped return more than 115,000 migrants return to their home countries and evacuate many thousands from inside Libya to Egypt and Tunisia.

- Source:  International Organization for Migration