Thursday, 13 October 2011

What does the Shalit deal mean for Hamas?

This article originally appeared in The National newspaper in the UAE. You can find the original story by clicking here

Hamas trades Shalit for a new lease on its political standing

When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York last month, he demanded the release of about 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. At the time he was riding a wave of momentum due to the bid for recognition of a Palestinian state at the world body.

Nearly three weeks later, little progress has been made towards what had been only a symbolic goal. Meanwhile, Hamas – the political rival of Mr Abbas’s Fatah party – has achieved a tremendous coup: the release of more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for the return of the captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. Just when it seemed that Hamas had been losing ground on the Palestinian political scene to Fatah, it has returned to the forefront in a move that could dramatically affect its political fortunes.
It was always unclear how the Arab awakening would affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Would there be a mass movement of Palestinians advocating change? Against what forces would it be directed? Would it turn violent?

Mass protests in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip exerted pressure for a unity government between the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority and Hamas. That led to what should have been a ground-breaking agreement in Cairo in May. But “reconciliation” has yet to be implemented in anything but name.
As a result, Hamas has continued to be excluded from the internationally recognised leadership of key Palestinian political bodies such as the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Furthermore, with the growing turmoil engulfing Syria, the base of Hamas’s political leader Khaled Meshaal, the party appeared to be pushed even further to the margins.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank there has been increasing praise and support for the economic development plan captained by Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, a favourite of donors to the Palestinian Authority, and who is viewed derisively Hamas. More recently, the decisive move by Mr Abbas to seek recognition of the state of Palestine at the UN ,with or without Israel’s permission, generated new enthusiasm. Hamas did not have much to offer except for expressions of doubt and hollow claims that its approach would lead to real results on the ground.

When the news was confirmed yesterday that a deal had been reached between Hamas and Israel to exchange Sergeant Shalit for over 1,000 prisoners, it was a dramatic boost for the party’s flagging image. Hamas will receive direct credit for the release of an estimated one-sixth of the Palestinian prison population in Israeli jails. In contrast, Mr Abbas and Fatah, despite all the years of negotiations and security coordination with Israel, cannot point to a comparable achievement.

It is also significant that the deal was mediated by the new government in Cairo. Mr Meshaal made a point of thanking Egypt and Qatar for their role in brokering the deal, demonstrating its focus on developing support beyond Damascus.

The exact list of prisoners who will be released will not be revealed until 48 hours before the initial exchange and it is likely not to include such heavyweights as Hamas militant Abdullah Barghouti, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmed Saadat, or the widely popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. Yet, there are a significant number of key Hamas militants and activists who will be released, which will bolster the ranks of its current leadership. Moreover, it is expected that many of the Palestinians who are set free will be from other political factions, further enhancing the political goodwill that Hamas will garner with the deal.
It is expected that Palestinians will finally hold presidential and legislative elections in 2012 – although this could of course change. If elections are held, Hamas will now have a very strong narrative to put forward. Not only will it claim that it is governing in the Gaza Strip and has achieved a significant milestone with the prisoner exchange, but it will also be able to demonstrate an improved relationship with Egypt.

Thus, in the year of the Arab awakening, while it seemed initially that Hamas was caught off-guard, it has since adapted to the new conditions in the region and found away to seize the initiative from its rival Fatah.
Certainly developments in the West Bank and Gaza in coming weeks will be very fluid. More importantly, depending on the outcome of the UN vote and subsequent actions on the ground in Palestinian cities, the situation could change dramatically. It is hard, however, to see how other political factions will be able to demonstrate that they are working towards ending the Israeli occupation.

Perhaps – and it remains to be seen – we will see a new guard of Palestinians in Fatah and beyond emerge to consolidate a non-violent, but anti-occupation political movement. Unless this happens, expect Hamas to exert rising influence on the Palestinian political scene for the foreseeable future.


Thursday, 6 October 2011

What if Saudi Arabia was Iran?

What if Saudi Arabia was Iran? A simple question and likely a not so simple answer. Read the previous post by following the link:

"However, in recent weeks a series of incidents have brought again to the forefront how Iran continues to suppress women's rights systematically, only allowing token promises of addressing the situation. In addition, the overall human rights situation remains dire and recent reform-protestants have been categorically dismissed and disbanded. While Russia and China have dithered on the sidelines, the United States and EU have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the state of affairs in Iran...."

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Iran rightly singled out by the West

You may have missed it but Iran recently executed a worker from Sudan for the crime of 'sorcery' which while not on the legal statutes, is punished by the more stringent religious rules that still hold primacy in the religiously-guided judiciary. It was a shocking case but one that escaped the attention of the world's media with so much turmoil in the Middle East. However, in recent weeks a series of incidents have brought again to the forefront how Iran continues to suppress women's rights systematically, only allowing token promises of addressing the situation. In addition, the overall human rights situation remains dire and recent reform-protestants have been categorically dismissed and disbanded. While Russia and China have dithered on the sidelines, the United States and EU have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the state of affairs in Iran.

Although the Arab 'spring' has put democracy at the forefront of the agenda in the Middle East, it has not swayed authorities in Iran who have stymied reform attempts to open up the political system. While there are elections for some positions, analysts insist that real power is held in fact by the Supreme Leader; that position has always been beyond a direct vote of the country's citizens. Yet more poignant is that most positions of power are held by a small coterie of individuals; what exacerbates the situation is that there is a growing economic disparity in the country, despite populist attempts by the government to address the needs of the poorer classes. A significant part of the economy in the opaque country is controlled by a small oligarchy of companies and individuals with links to the ruling class, aided in obtaining government contracts often through corruption or nepotism or a combination of both.

Dissent is simply not tolerated and censorship is commonplace. Inspired by the wider movements in the Arab world, some Iranians have taken to the streets. They have been denounced by the regime, that accuses them of serving 'foreign interests' and trying to undermine public order. These protesters -with demonstrations as recent as this week - have insisted they are simply asking for human rights. There are worries that Iran will escalate the violence it will use if there is a widening of this movement, not to mention the untold numbers of political prisoners who continue to languish in prison.

Unlike in nearby Egypt when it was under Mubarak where there were some elements of political liberalism and openness, Iran is characterized by a complete vacuum of political activities. There are no political parties. In fact it refuses to even have a parliament or hold regular elections, opting for an experimental democratic process on the municipal level. While incremental democratic development itself could be appropriate for its context, what is particularly galling is that women have thus far never voted nor stood as candidates in these contests and are not expected to do so for another four years (if then). On women's rights, not only has Iran denied them political enfranchisement, it has also - as is widely known - enforced a strict dress code. If you are fortunate to see a woman in Tehran - the country's capital - which is rare to begin with, she will likely be covered head-to-toe. In fact, she cannot even leave her house without a male guardian; nor is she allowed to legally obtain a driver's license.

Russia and China guided by geopolitical and geoeconomic interests given Iran's strategic position in the region and vast oil resources, have refrained from voicing any real criticism of the country. Fortunately the U.S., Europe and other Western countries have been vociferous in continuing to denounce and condemn Iran's human rights record repeatedly. They continue to insist on the release of political prisoners and the protection of young Iranians when demonstrating for greater rights. Hopefully the world's eyes continue to remain on Iran and ensure that the rights of all in that country are respected.