Sunday, 30 January 2011

Mubarak and Friends in Denial about the Revolution

At around 1 a.m. Friday night, the modern-day Pharaoh arose in Egypt from his slumber to belatedly deliver a message to his country, the wider region, and indeed the world in response to what was an unprecedented day of protests. Dressed in a sharp black suit, with his jet-black hair combed back in slick fashion, President Hosni Mubarak proclaimed: "I address you today not only as the President of the Republic but as an Egyptian citizen." As he wavered between the words of stability and democracy, at one point he claimed: "I will always be taking the side of the poor in Egypt." Then at the very tail end of his speech, he announced that he would be dissolving the government and appointing a new Prime Minister on Saturday. And then he left the stage.

Only several minutes passed before hundreds of Egyptians, late into the night, began reemerging on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere in the North African country. Mubarak had failed. In the eyes of most of his countrymen, he may have been an Egyptian citizen, but he was certainly not welcome anymore as the 'President of the Republic.' What became clear Friday, January 28 - and later on Saturday when the appointment of Omar Suleiman as Vice President and Ahmed Shafiq as Prime Minister barely caused a ripple - was that the Egyptian people were not calling for a change of government but wholesale regime change. It also became apparent from the drizzle of cautious statements by Western leaders and the deafening silence from Arab Kings, Sheikhs, Princes, and Rulers, that everyone is still living in Denial (and I ain't just talking about a river in Egypt).

What exactly unfolded in the last several days? What does it mean and what is yet to come? It would be difficult to answer all of these questions, especially because the situation in Egypt and across the region is rapidly changing hour-by-hour and even minute-by-minute. Let's start with the regional context. There are 22 countries in the Arab League representing over 300 million people, of which none are free and open democracies. To be fair Comoros and Mauritania have recently had somewhat electoral transitions of power, but they are on the periphery of the Arab world. Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, have had active political contestation and even elections; each of these, however, are incomplete examples, simply because of their own unique circumstances. Palestine is not yet even a country, mind being a territory split in two and under occupation. Lebanon has perhaps six dictators rather than one, given its sectarian system. Iraq is Iraq and still in a soft-state of conflict.

In 2002, the cover was finally lifted on this absence of freedom and development in the Arab world, where most people had become accustomed to dynasties, autocracies, and dictatorships, in an official UN publication, the Arab Human Development Report. In addition, the advent of regional satellite media led by Al Jazeera primarily, ushered in a new sense of openness, fostering a new wave of critical reflection. It was in the early years of the 2000s when the internet also started to have wider penetration in the Arab world. Then in Turkey, which for the last half century if not more, was an unseen player in the wider Middle East that looked West, had a seismic shift in its politics. The AK Party, which consisted of a Muslim-oriented group of politicians, won an election in 2002 and provided a new paradigm for democratic rule that also embraced the wider region's heritage and religion.

Unfortunately, 2003 saw President Bush's misguided democracy by neo-imperialism approach take root, with a famed speech at the National Endowment for Democracy as well as of course the infamous invasion of Iraq. Democracy, freedom, and elections became euphemisms for invasion, occupation, and chaos. The regimes of the region used this to chill domestic change-makers. At the same time, the American administration was still pushing for reform. That was until two elections. The first was the 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt, which saw the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement espousing political Islam (with the slogan 'Islam is the Solution'), win 88 of 454 seats through a campaign of independent candidates (as the party was officially banned). The second was the 2006 parliamentary election in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which saw the rise of Hamas to power, defeating the incumbent Fatah movement, and entrenching a hostile entity to the West in the governance of a strategic area.

When President Obama came to power in 2009, the aspirations for democracy in the Arab world were jaded, deferred, and declining. The President also wanted to distance himself and the administration from the focus on democracy in the region, which it saw as tainted by the Iraq war. Thus President Obama, in fact, chose the Egyptian capital Cairo, under the auspices of President Hosni Mubarak, as the place to launch his new partnership with the worldwide Muslim community. There was an acquiescence to the status quo. From the outside, in a region that was a tinderbox that could export tensions globally and where insecurity could jeopardize global energy security, the stability of existing regimes had come back into favor in Western capitals. Within Arab society, there had been a resignation to the status quo since the overturning of the Hamas government in 2007 and the fear of chaos that reigned in Iraq, and it was hard to see any momentum for change. Simply look at the task that would be at hand. Entering 2011, regime structures had been in place for over fifty years in most cases, with a number of individual rulers having been in place for decades. Jordan. Libya. Saudi Arabia. Egypt. Tunisia. Morocco. Syria. Kuwait. Bahrain. Oman. Yemen. The list goes on.

Yet in 2011, the context is changed. In the Arab world, 60% of people are under the age of 25, with around 100 million just between the ages of 15-29. That means that in many societies, like in Egypt, the majority of the population had only known one ruler - and all the corruption, antipathy, and suffocation that could be associated with that. With the right amount of unemployment, which hovers officially around 15% in most Arab countries, but is more likely to be near 20-30%, not to mention underemployment, this was a fire ready to burn. However, the region needed a match. Perhaps it would have been the 2011 Egyptian presidential election. After all, Egypt is an influential player in the Arab world, partially because it is by far the largest country by population; it is also a strong cultural and political leader. Pan-Arabism, a movement that dominated the politics of the 1950s and 1960s, drew its strength from President Gamal Abdelnasser of Egypt. Pan-Islamism, which grew stronger in the late 1970s until today, grew out in many ways from the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement founded in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna in1928.

Egypt, the influential country of 80 million strong, saw parliamentary elections in 2010 where the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) received 81% of the total seats. A constitutional provision in the country meant that no other parties could contest the 2011 presidential election, because they did not reach the 5% threshold of votes in parliamentary elections to qualify to nominate a candidate. Thus, there was this expectation that the next pitched battle for democratic reform in the region would be September 2011 during the Egyptian presidential election; even the former IAEA President and Nobel Laureate, Mohamed el-Baradei, was returning to contest the election, providing a real alternative to the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power since October 7, 1981.

Thus entering 2011, the youth cohort in the region was due to peak and unemployment was rising especially compounded by the global crisis. Additionally, Turkey in the wider region had emerged with a strong government - nine years on from the AK Party's rise to power -  and could be seen as an example of a moderate democratic force, showing that there was a liberal political alternative to autocratic regimes that could provide stability. And then, instead of waiting until September, Tunisia, the forgotten North African country came alive, because one man, pushed to desperation, physically lit himself on fire to show that he had enough. His name was Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year-old street vendor, who had his produce and other items confiscated by a 45 year-old bureaucrat assisted by two thugs from the security apparatus. He petitioned the municipal administration for a reprieve, especially because he had gone $200 into debt to buy the goods he was selling. It was to no avail. In his town of Sidi Bouzid, the spark of the new revolution started.

What happened in Tunisia and how the protests accelerated over the course of several weeks is fodder for a much longer post. Tunisia, had been an autocratic secular dictatorship ruled with an iron fist. President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali had been in power since 1987 and had succeeded Habib Bourguiba who had ruled for 30 years. Ben Ali, in recent years, however, had not had the same economic success of his predecessor. It's hard to ascertain fully what happened in Tunisia, but each day after Bouazizi set himself alight on December 17 and then when he finally succumbed to his injuries on January 4, 2011, the protests and demonstrations grew stronger. While the Arab world had seen its share of coups, bloodless and most often by the military, it had yet to see popular protests amount to much. When the demonstrations showed no signs of abating, and after Bouazizi's death, President Ben Ali tried to be conciliatory telling the Tunisian people he understands them and would respond to their concerns. The protests went on and the Arab satellite channels, especially Al Jazeera broadcast them. Still the Arab world watched, not thinking it would amount to much. Ben Ali came back on television and announced he would not stand again in 2014 for re-election, a key and noticeable concession. Something had changed, the protestors felt it and they did not relent until on January 14, President Ben Ali fled the country, facilitated by Libya, with his wife Leila Trabelsi - who was the subject of much scorn because of her family involvement in using state power to facilitate their businesses - taking $50 million of gold bars with her to Saudi Arabia for exile. It was the end of a 74 year-old's rule.

That day I was at a talk at the American University of Beirut on an unrelated topic. We followed what was going on by reading twitter on our mobile phones. 700 people were in the auditorium and as it became apparent as to what had happened, the convener of the event - a discussion on the Arab-Israeli conflict - took the microphone, and belted in Arabic - "Today Tunisia, tomorrow Libya, and then Egypt, and then Saudi Arabia, and then every capital in the Arab world!" Yet, within a few days, the euphoria had died down. Tunisia was said to be different. It was not in the heart of the Arab world and had been under the radar. It was not a key interest to the West. Egypt is a very different country. It has 80 million people to Tunisia's 10 million. The population is relatively apathetic. From January 14 to January 25, there were a number of protests throughout the Arab world. In Jordan. In Yemen. In Algeria. To a lesser degree, in Oman and Libya and elsewhere. Egypt, however, was still waiting to erupt. What Tunisia did was break the zero-sum culture of impossibility. It showed that it was possible - to change the country, to protest the ruler, to force a regime change from the street.

So while, Egypt took a couple of weeks to fully react to Tunisia, activists and bloggers and others were organizing. Twitter and Facebook and the internet helped facilitate on January 25 a Day of Rage, organized by loose groups of activists. Like in Tunisia, the Egyptian demonstrations were not led by any one group, mind the traditional opposition, the so-called Islamists. On January 25, the Muslim Brotherhood stayed largely on the sidelines. Millions of Egyptians already infected by the spirit of Tunisia now had an avenue to channel this spirit. Friday prayers, as always, provided the perfect avenue for a wider uprising. Strategically diverse locations (i.e. mosques) in every city across the country would be the barracks of this non-violent civil disobedience. Hundreds of thousands of people - at least - would be automatically mobilized. It was clear by Wednesday and then Thursday, that Friday, January 28 would be an explosion. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to placate "both sides" calling for "restraint" while supporting both the government and the people. What was clear, was that Friday would be a battle, a blow would be struck and everyone would wait to see how the Egyptian government would absorb the hit.

In trying to preempt the protests, the government of Egypt had about 80 ISPs go offline at around 12:30am local time. That meant the country was relatively without internet (except for dial-up through foreign numbers). Then they asked Vodafone and other carriers to halt mobile phone access in selected areas. When people awoke on Friday morning, they could not coordinate by mobile phone, or by email, or by Twitter, or by Facebook; all they knew, was that they could go to the mosques for afternoon prayers and see - Friday prayers being the weekly prayer and the first day of the weekend in Egypt. While Tunisia opened the door and lit the flame, was on Friday in Egypt when it turned into a fire. There was no fear. But there was also no coordinated plan. Yet, people confronted the police forces, pushing them back in many cases, and eventually over-taking them. In Suez. In Mansoura. In Alexandria. Across the country and of course in the heart of Cairo. By nightfall, the headquarters of the NDP was on fire. The police and security apparatus was forced to retreat. When the military came on the streets, the soldiers were welcomed with chants of Allah Akbar, a typical slogan of exuberance.

At 1 a.m. President Mubarak finally came to the podium to address the nation. He did not resign. He did not give in to even appointing a government of national unity or holding dialogue with the opposition. He simply restated his old game-plan. The people on the streets of Cairo in fact surged in their numbers on Saturday, into the tens of thousands if not more, finally overtaking the main square - Liberation or Tahrir Square - in the heart of Cairo. All this under the watchful eyes of the military. The Egyptians respect the military and view it as distinct from the security apparatus of the regime that was used to oppress the population over the last three (or even five) decades. Moreover, in Tunisia, while it was the population that raised the stakes and challenged the government, Ben Ali stepped down when it became clear the military would not side with the President against the people, and would not fire upon demonstrators. The Egyptian population is expecting the same. Of course, it is unclear, as to now, which way the military will turn. Even the US is awaiting the events that will unfold over the next week. However, it would be loathe to be seen as supporting Mubarak over the Egyptian people, and that could be a catastrophic failure in public relations in the Arab world. Thus President Obama gave a stern warning to Mubarak last night:
"When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech. And I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise."
That is where Egypt finds itself now. President Mubarak is no longer trying to placate the people or even the US, but instead trying to curry favor with the military to ensure that they remain on his side. If the military shows an allegiance to the people or an emerging consolidated opposition movement, then that is the end of Mubarak. The police are now largely absent from the streets. Police stations have been torched across the country. Even traffic cops are not to be found in busy Cairo. Security is in the hands of the army, who thus far, have not clashed with protestors, and instead have focused on protecting key facilities like the State TV building, ministerial offices, and the National Museum. President Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman as Vice President, a post that had remained vacant since he came to office (in fact the last Vice President in Egypt was Hosni Mubarak). Suleiman is the Director of Intelligence in the country and a known figure to the Israelis and the Americans, as well as the enforcer-in-chief inside Egypt. Mubarak then appointed in his new government, Ahmed Shafiq as the Prime Minister. Shafiq is a former commander of the Air Force; coincidentally so was Mubarak many years ago. Thus Mubarak has been sending signals to the military and one cannot forget that he himself was a military man. He is hoping that they will not support a transitional government or a national unity-figure like El-Baredei (the Muslim Brotherhood and Ayman Nour are not real options in this role at this point).

Sunday, marks the beginning of the work-week in Egypt and the Arab world. Will the demonstrators be able to keep up the momentum, especially through to the next weekend and possibly another surge after next Friday's prayers? There is hope evident in Mubarak's tactics and Obama's stern but cautious reaction, that the regime will stabilize, the protests will dissipate, the army will consolidate security back within the regime's control, and a deliberate but slow process of reform will continue. If this was 2010, it might have worked. On Saturday, the King of Saudi Arabia called Hosni Mubarak and said the following:
"Egypt is a country of Arabism and Islam. No Arab and Muslim human being can bear that some infiltrators in the name of freedom of expression, have infiltrated into the brotherly people of Egypt to destabilize its security and stability and they have been exploited to spew out their hatred in destruction, intimidation, burning, looting and inciting a malicious sedition."
Yet, the spark of Tunisia cannot be extinguished. The fire that raged on Friday in Egypt has already spread in both symbol and substance. The bogeyman of Islamism of course will not dissipate. The Muslim Brotherhood will remain under suspicion. However, people like El Baradei show that alternatives exist beyond the proverbial monster in the closet. Thus when King Abdullah and the other Arab leaders in the region offer solidarity to Mubarak they are themselves playing with fire. Each country is susceptible to what happened and is happening in Egypt. At the same time, there is no need to romanticize this revolution. It may end up being bloody. There may end up being chaos. There may not be a clear succession or plan for the day after in Egypt or if it spreads, in Algeria, or Jordan, or Yemen, each country in which there are already thousands of demonstrators. In fact, the situation on the streets of Egypt remain dire. There are reports of random looting. Civilians have formed common neighborhood defense committees to protect against vandals and gangs. Moreover, there is the real and distinct possibility that extremists groups may step into the vacuum.

Nevertheless, in 2011, the Arab world's people have woken up. To believe that they will be lulled back to sleep is a fruitless endeavor. It does not mean that every regime will be toppled and that there will be protests in every country until that happens. It does mean, however, that the old social contract between rulers and their subjects has been torn to shreds. Economically, socially, and politically, leaders will have to provide new - substantively changed - direction. Or else. More of the same will not placate this new desire for effective and open governance.

There is a new playbook in town, and Obama, Mubarak, and the rest of the friends in the region better start reading it fast, or they'll get run off the field. That is the new reality.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

It's Deja Vu All Over Again in Lebanon

This week is a momentous time for the Middle East, especially with the recent ouster of President Ben Ali from Tunisia. I will be commenting on these different events and what they mean for the future of the Arab world and beyond. Please find below an initial commentary on the situation in Lebanon published on the Huffington Post. 

It's Deja Vu in Lebanon All Over Again

As my Emirates flight from Dubai touched down Thursday evening in Beirut, I had the feeling of returning to a land where deja vu is a fact of daily life. The same names persisting for two decades or three or even more. Gemayal. Hariri. Nasrallah. Jumblatt. Aoun. Geagea. Berri. Recycled speeches and words. One about resistance another about sovereignty. Each accusing the other of cow-towing to foreign powers. As I made my way into the city centre, the taxi driver -- from Ba'albek -- managed to go on a tirade against theyuhud (Jews) and the haramiyin (bastards a.k.a. politicians), within a few minutes of us leaving the airport. Soon I was amongst friends discussing what would happen next.
This past week was quite eventful for Lebanon. Within a span of almost 24 hours, Christian opposition figure Michel Aoun announced the failure of the Saudi-Syrian initiative and the Hezbollah-led opposition group withdrew from the unity government, effectively collapsing it just as Prime Minister Saad Hariri wasmeeting President Obama at the White House. Somewhere out there, Robert Fisk is snickering to himself -Pity the Nation.
Yet, is anyone surprised? The only surprise is that the walkout of the 10 opposition ministers (and one minister allied with President Michael Suleiman) did not happen sooner; that the facade of an elusive compromise persisted for so long. Syria and Saudi Arabia had been working behind the scenes to try to bring about a deal to address the ramifications of a possible indictment of Hezbollah by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in the coming days. Yet, just like the Doha Agreement of 2008, even if there was a breakthrough it would likely be a transient one. Why? As always, Lebanon finds itself in the same tug-of-war, the same sects, the same zuama' (leaders), the same 'foreign powers' or as Jumblatt calls them 'dark forces' -- the same ***t.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. If by some miracle, Saad Hariri is reappointed as the Prime Minister (he is the caretaker PM until the crisis is resolved), or if a consensus candidate emerges (such as the likes of Muhammad Safadi or others from the Sunni-strongholds of the North) it will only be to defer the next inevitable crisis by a few months, to simply be precipitated again by the STL releasing its findings, or the next parliamentary elections, or by an errant rocket towards Israel, or someone sneezing etc. Lebanon may be in crisis today, but it is in permanent paralysis. That paralysis experiences a convulsion frequently, but that only masks the underlying condition. Lebanon is still frozen. Frozen since its last census conducted in 1932. Frozen since the unwritten Shari'a that is the National Pact, agreed to in 1943 and carried out religiously ever since. Frozen despite civil conflict on repeated occasions, including a 15-year brutal war from 1975-1990.
Despite being frozen, the leaders will warmly wait for directives and indications from abroad. Walid Jumblatt is on his way to pay homage to his once foresworn enemy -- who he vowed in typical Jumblatt-will-do-the-opposite-soon fashion he would never meet (including once to me) - President Bashar al-Assad. PM Saad Hariri racked up frequent flyer miles on his return DC, stopping in Paris and Istanbul to consult with the leadership. There will be a flurry of activity by political leaders in a rush to the different embassies in Beirut.
Then, Friday night sees a speech by Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah (likely by the time this article is posted) and there will be more to come. It is still March 8 versus March 14. Again. Again Again. Five years on and still the same fight, around nearly the same issues (or at least borne from the same tree). And it won't change. Not yet. Here's why:
-- The United States is still uncomfortable with Hezbollah in a Lebanese government; 
-- The United States needs Lebanon to remain in Hariri or Hariri-allied hands prior to any confrontation, military or otherwise, with Iran
-- The United States and Israel view the STL as a way to hold Hezbollah accountable under international law and target the group
-- Iran is dedicated to seeing Hezbollah lead the government in Lebanon to angle for positioning vis-a-vis the West
-- Israel will continue to threaten Lebanon to ensure it remains unstable and because it has unfinished business with Hezbollah
-- Hezbollah does not trust Hariri and his allies in March 14 because they view them as hostile to the resistance and pseudo-collaborators with Israel in 2006
-- The Future Party and others fear that a government with Hezbollah gives the group both the state projection of power in addition to their power as a militia
-- The constant convulsions of crisis provide the political leaders with a purpose and position, rather than have to answer to the daily concerns of citizens
-- The permanent paralysis maintains the grip on power of political leaders and avoidance of political transition that would undermine the system of patronage and nepotism that is now pervasive.
Solve the above and Lebanon will calm down and fade from the newspaper headlines. Until then, pity the nation. 

Friday, 14 January 2011

Revolution-tainment - the curious case of social change in the Middle East

The Arab League consists of 22 countries around the Middle East and North Africa regions. There are 22 governments with vested control over their populations. What diversity in societies and populations within the same bloc. Morocco and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia and Algeria. Lebanon and Egypt. Jordan and Palestine. Ok, scratch the last one. But you get the point. Each country has a uniqueness in its people, heritage, economy, size and more. Even when you look at the regimes in power you find diversity. Kings. Sheikhs. Emirs. Presidents. Sultans. Or in Libya's case, Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution. Over 300 million subjects - almost all without substantive input (mostly) in their governance. So when a corner or pocket of the proverbial Arab world reverberates with revolutionary fervor, the international media tries to ignore it, the local media will pretend like it's not happening, and the regional media will overdose. Tunisia and Algeria in January have ushered us into Revolution-tainment: the Arab world edition 2011; it's likely only going to be the appetizer this year.

When you think of the Arab world you likely might not be thinking of the Afro-Arab states of Mauritania and Comoros. You may think of Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. More likely you might also include of Iraq (always a fan favorite). Out of the 22 countries in the Arab League, these five have had an electoral transition of the government. First off the Palestinian Authority is not really a country. It also failed in its transition (from Fatah to Hamas in 2006) as the non-country somehow split into two, with PM Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza and a Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad in the West Bank. However, the Palestinians have an ethic of democracy, which is supported by everyone unless it doesn't suit them (the latter case being the case quite frequently). Take then Lebanon. Most recently in 2009, the March 14 movement and its allies confirmed their hold on government in parliamentary elections. Yet it's not clear how democratic Lebanon is with the same names rotating power amongst themselves, and where the real power is held by the zuama or political leaders, which are their own absolute masters of their domain. How about Iraq? Elections under military occupation cannot yet count (i.e. 2005), but seemingly with the U.S. announcing its exit, Iraq held an open vote, there was a confirmation of Prime Minister Maliki; actually there wasn't, but after a short time of 'negotiations' (short time being 9 months, I guess pregnancy being taken as the benchmark) a government was formed in late December.

Then there is Comoros and Mauritania. Combined population of 4 million. So what about Mauritania? In 2007, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdullahi won the election for the Presidency. In 2008 he was deposed in a military coup. The coup leader just won the recent elections last year. I'd have to say Comoros is really the hope. The small island nation had elections in 2006 and a new President was just elected (results verified yesterday). Lead the way Comoros!

Today, however, leading the way in the news is Tunisia. The sandwiched North African state (between Algeria and Libya, or the so-called Atlanta bloc (ATL - I made that up, but it works), was considered a very secure, autocratic secular state. In fact, the opposition was relatively non-existent in parliament and the media tightly controlled. Somehow, between mid-December and now, a trader in the market selling fruits and vegetables who was prevented by authorities from earning his livelihood, self-immolated sparking a month of demonstrations culminating in President Ben Ali's speech yesterday that he will step down - in 2014. YouTube videos (a must in any real or pseudo-revolution) have been circulating. Facebook is abuzz with black Tunisian flags (instead of the normal red) passing off as profile pics. The only thing missing is Tunisians to be given a color for their demonstrations (green is already taken by Iran, orange by Ukraine, rose by Georgia, velvet by the Czechs, cedar by the Lebanese, tulip by the Kyrgyz and so forth).

Meanwhile, neighboring Algeria, is also having some not-so-silent protests, mainly against unemployment. Is that what the Tunisian demonstrations signal? The start of a wider movement? Across North Africa? Across the Arab world? Is that even the best thing for the region? I called this article Revolution-tainment, because until now, this is what the movement has represented. The pent-up frustration in a suffocating political climate in much of the Arab world means that the movement in Tunisia and elsewhere are welcome reprieves; they provide escapes. Yet, until now, they are often movements without leaders. Causes without ideas. Diffuse not unified. In fact many Arab populations would not want to trade stability for what the revolution-tainers have to offer. Do people want to be what President Bush used to call 'free'? Sure, but freedom is a fickle thing. Are you free when you feel insecure leaving your home? Are you free when you vote, but your government is under the tutelage of a foreign power? Are you free when you can say what you want, but you don't have enough food on the table?

Yet, there is a hope that is held in large swaths of the region, for change. The revolution-tainers in Tunisia are at least doing something, bringing about something new - and people are excited, intrigued. It is not about the change of leaders - that's secondary in most places (well depending on what country). It is about a change in ideas. A change in governance. A change in the relationship between those governing and those governed. Tunisia has started 2011 with some food for thought, but the year will end with more. Perhaps in Egypt. Perhaps in Palestine. Perhaps elsewhere, but assuredly somewhere. Long live...

Friday, 7 January 2011

A Fresh Start for the UAE and Canada

This article was originally published in The Mark, Canada's leading online political news magazine. The original link can be found here:

If Canada doesn't rebuild its once-strong relationship with the UAE, we will suffer lasting economic and political consequences.

I often note that Vancouver – where I was born and raised – and Dubai – where I live today – are on opposite ends of the globe. Flying between them is a full-day journey that can easily cost several thousand dollars. For the 25,000 Canadians living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a direct flight to Vancouver from Dubai and additional flights to other Canadian cities would be a welcome prospect. Yet, after six years of negotiations, Transport Canada refused to alter the agreement on landing rights the two countries signed in 1999, which set in motion the chain of events we witnessed in the last few months, culminating in the closure of a key military facility and new visa requirements for Canadians.
Following the deterioration of what previously appeared to be a strong partnership between the two countries, opposition figures have called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reassess his approach, with Liberal MP Dan McTeague being quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying it’s “highly embarrassing.” Conversely, the newspaper from Harper’s own backyard, the Calgary Herald, led instead with the headline, “UAE acting like a spoiled child.” The PM himself seemed unperturbed by the situation in his recent year-end interview on CTV. In reality, the Canadian government’s “new” relationship with the UAE is part and parcel of an inert, insular approach towards the Middle East that ignores both regional dynamics and the fundamental nature of emerging economies. Moreover, without heavy lifting – even if from behind the scenes – the relationship will suffer further and have lasting economic and political consequences for Canada.
Historically, Canada has enjoyed a special relationship with the UAE. Iconic companies such as Fairmont and Bombardier have benefitted from the open nature of the economy. There are thousands of Canadians who have jobs in the UAE, many of them employed by government-linked entities; tens of thousands more use Dubai as a commercial hub to do business in the Middle East. In fact, the UAE is Canada’s largest market for exported goods (i.e. merchandise) in the region. This is not to mention annual investment flows from the UAE to Canada, which are thought to amount to close to $15 billion (unofficial estimates).
Beyond economics, Canada’s presence is much deeper. All things Canadian have strong connotations of quality, such as the Canadian Specialist Hospital in Dubai. The Terry Fox Run is held across several emirates of the UAE, with a legacy going back to the early 1990s. Even Nelly Furtado was in fine form singing to a throng of thousands in Abu Dhabi in November. On the geopolitical level, since the war in Afghanistan commenced in 2001, the Canadian Armed Forces were using – rent-free – a forward-logistics base called Camp Mirage just outside Dubai, and cooperating with the UAE in Afghanistan itself.
The issue of landing rights for the UAE-based carriers Emirates and Etihad was part of a long-standing negotiation; each time the UAE presented a new analysis of the economic benefits of new routes, particularly for Canadian consumers, it was summarily rejected. In retrospect, the Harper government took its relationship with the UAE for granted. In an ideal world, issues would be delinked from one other. Yet, when House Leader John Baird claims hyperbolically that tens of thousands of jobs would be in jeopardy with a few more Emirates routes, it brings to the forefront the full nature of the relationship and who exactly is benefitting.
Overall, a good bilateral relationship has a mix of elements, with both sides giving and taking; in this relationship, however, it became clear that Canada would be the only one doing the taking. Was it petty of the UAE to bar Defence Minister Peter McKay from flying through its airspace? Definitely. But that does not relieve the Harper government of responsibility for irresponsible policy-making. The world has changed. Developed economies such as Canada’s are accustomed to visa-less arrivals, cost-free military bases, and open commercial access in emerging markets. The UAE has simply put the policy of reciprocity on the table.
Unfortunately, the wounds from the last few months are still fresh on both sides. It is difficult to see any dramatic changes in the short term. However, it is vital that practical steps be taken to rebuild a strong relationship between the UAE and Canada in the long term. That means having open channels of communication and seriously considering new flight routes. For Canada, it also means developing a more coherent approach to comprehensive relationships with countries in the Middle East and other emerging areas. It is not enough to trade on the currency of the past and adhere to bygone dynamics of international relations – a lesson learned during Canada’s unsuccessful bid for a UN Security Council seat last year.
The UAE-Canada relationship is one worth saving and strengthening, but it will take a sincere and sustained effort, especially from the Conservative government.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Guest Post- Sympathy for the Devil: Salman Taseer, My Governor!

My good friend Ali Gibran posted the following note on his Facebook regarding the recent assassination of the Governor of Punjab in Pakistan Salman Taseer, who was killed by one of his own guards apparently motivated by religious fervor as Taseer had previously called for a rethinking of Pakistan's blasphemy laws in response to the death sentence given to Pakistani Christian Aasia Bibi.

I have decided to republish the note here as I think it is more than well worth the read.

Sympathy for the Devil: Salman Taseer, My Governor!
Ali Gibran

I write from a world, which mimics closely a general perception of Dystopia, something straight out of Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I write from a time which essentially is present but is shrouded by prehistoric mindset of a barbaric hunter gatherer society. The news before me is on the fringes of sanity because I live in times of logic and laws but not humanity. Perverse and heinous are the proceedings of the incident and it stands to ridicule the very fabric of our society.

There is nothing divine about killing someone, be it a self proclaimed Prophet, Satan’s spawn or an ordinary mortal of devious religious inclinations. Today, we have the Governor of Punjab Mr. Salman Taseer who was executed by his own guard for the sole reason that he championed the case of a Christian woman alleged to have committed blasphemy. This act earned him a place, a special place in the heart of some Pakistanis, a place where most of us would not like to be. That place is the “hit list” of fundamentalist Muslims. The pious muslim bodyguard of the Governor acted with the help of the divine and successfully executed a fellow muslim.

Mr. Taseer had been around in the political arena for over three decades but the only reason that he had a place in my universe was because of his witty outspoken outbursts of rational and liberal thought in public discourses. Liberalism is something which is an increasingly rare commodity in the present day Pakistan and he was amongst the last of the influential liberals of Pakistan. His public persona was quite interesting especially when it came to enjoying the finer things in life. He owned a newspaper and every week in the Sunday edition of the paper there would be pictures of him and his parties. He was a man of wealth and taste. But it did not come easy to him; he was put in jail many times as a political prisoner. He had the honor of being taken to the basement of the Lahore fort, famous for its tortures of political dissidents. But it was not all sour for him, the sweet in the form of wealth, influence and style were certainly a part of his personality.

Two months ago, during the case of Aasia bibi, he was perhaps the only Government Functionary who vehemently supported a complete pardon for the poor soul. Thus committing a crime for which he was executed today. Aasia Bibi was a Christian accused of blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam which entitled her to capital punishment in Pakistan under the Article 295 section C of Pakistan Penal Code. So far it was customary to only award the punishment to those who were directly alleged for blaspheming but this is the first time that it has been awarded to a person who committed blasphemy against the blasphemy act. (

The debate about Blasphemy and Free Speech is almost non-existent in Pakistani context. The concept of free speech is probably considered to be something vulgar in a hypocritical state of affairs that we are in. The articles 295-B, 295-C, 298-A, 298-B and 298-C are generally referred to as Blasphemy Laws (the others being 295 and 295-A). Even a quick look at them for any student (not of Law in particular rather just any person who can reason) will introduce them to the tyranny wreaked by such insult to common sense. By the very definition of 295-C, a strong case can be built against all the non-Muslims in Pakistan who do not believe in the veracity of the divine claim of the Holy Prophet thus rendering the laws redundant and out of line with pluralism-friendly interpretations of Islam. But that would happen in a free country where free and fair judiciary is permitted to operate. Here, the very sense of rationality is probably derived from what is considered to be irrational by most scientists of our age. Mr. Salman Taseer had the courage and the audacity to call these laws BLACK LAWS which is something totally unheard of in our political and public discourse. He was brave or more appropriately insane enough to reveal it to the public and the media that these laws are man made and may not be representation of Divine Will as is generally believed. Now he lies in the grave, a true martyr for a just cause. Poor fellow if he was in a country of mildly conscientious beings, in time they would have erected statues to honor him, built schools, colleges and hospitals in his names but in Pakistan his memory will be tarnished and he will be soon forgotten just like so few (sic!) others before him.

At the moment, what is even more distasteful is the lack of outspoken condemnation of the incident by our political and religious figures. Yes, they are condemning the incident, but unfortunately in the same breath all of them add their views about the holiness of Blasphemy Laws and how Mr. Taseer should not have called them black. Then there is something which is absolutely sinister: the short text messages circulating on the cell phones congratulating the nation of good riddance from such Fitna.

It appears that all our leaders are scared for their life for now they are playing a character in Fight Club. Tyler Durden is telling them “We cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances, we guard you while you sleep. Do not fuck with us” and they are frightened because here instead of Brad Pitt playing the role of Tyler, every other bearded muslim cleric is a potential candidate for role of Mr. Durden. Today our leaders have displayed fear and cowardice for they were unable to denounce the injustice and atrocity with the courage of their conviction instead they chose to beat about the bush but that will be the surviving legacy of Mr. Taseer who had the guts to condemn inhumanity and injustice like a brave man, in the time when it mattered the most.

I like to believe that the inability of our leaders is due to fear but that is an assumption. In case if this assumption is not true and our leaders truly believe that Mr. Taseer should not have expressed his views about the Black Laws, then my dear friends Pakistan is gone case already. And if on top of that this act was divinely ordained, then the fate of this universe is a gone case too … and I denounce such divinity. We are now a generation of degenerates and ideologically crippled and Mr. Taseer was lucky enough to escape just in time.

Farewell Mr. Taseer. You were a brave man!