2013: Qatari Emir Abdicates Throne

A bit late on this, but it’s a story which will fall under the radar despite being hugely significant so I thought I’d better mention it.  Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani* of Qatar has handed over power to his 33 year old son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.  Knowing little about Qatar, most of my information is what I’ve read from other journalists – but I’ll try to summarise why this is such an important development.

Firstly, you need to examine the context this occurs in.  The region is recovering (well, with some exceptions) from the greatest political and social upheaval since achieving independence from European colonialism.  Since 2011 four Arab dictators have been forced from power – Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gadaffi and Yemen’s Saleh – in generally violent circumstances.  This is a region in which leaders tend to grip onto power for as long as possible, where virtually every leader leaves office either through their own natural death, a coup or an uprising.  The peaceful transfer or rotation of power is rare.  Which is one reason why this story is so surprising.

Why did he make such a decision?  I’m not sure anyone really knows, yet.  Is it an attempt to quell potential discontent by presenting a younger, more in touch leader – one who it will take time for the populace to become disillusioned with?  Does he feel he could achieve more behind the scenes?  Is he simply tired?  I have no idea.  Marc Lynch discussed the issue well in this article.  But what I think is more significant is the potential impact this could have, not just upon Qatar but the region as a whole.  Qatar has played an outspoken role in supporting uprisings in Libya and Syria – it currently reportedly supplies weapons to Islamists fighting the government in Syria.  Qatar has also played a role in helping Egypt with its continuing economic crises.  The Arab Spring can therefore be seen as having been an opportunity for the small country to become a big player in the region.  While most analysts think foreign policy will remain consistent for the short term, Sheikh Tamim could take Qatar’s influence in many different directions.

Another question is whether the perhaps inevitable political liberalisation might occur under this younger leadership.  Freedomhouse’s Freedom in The World 2013 report awarded Qatar a political rating of 6/7 and a social rating of 5/7, giving it the overall rating of 5.5 and grade of ‘not free’.  While a very bad rating, this does actually make Qatar one of the freer countries in the region; Iraq, Iran the United Arab Emirates and Yemen rate 6/7,  while Saudi Arabia and Syria rate the rock-bottom score of 7/7.  It’s not an impossibility that Qatar’s regime may decide upon a slow process of liberalisation.  Since 2006 there have been plans to hold the country’s first legislative elections and while this hasn’t yet happened – and while this body would have few real legislative powers – it would be a start.

Basically, I know nothing.  Except the fact that anything could happen.

*Still working on memorising that.

Mines Advisory Group

The reason I’ve been quiet over the last couple of days is because I’ve been performing in a short play called Inch by Inch, written and produced by Susan Timmins with Freya Inkster, designed to raise money for the charity Mines Advisory Group (MAG).  It was a fascinating production; I played a trader called Steve who attends an arms convention but enters this limbo world where two Laotian mine-clearers rail against his selfish ignorance.  Steve is unaware of their presence but by the end some of the message gets through.  The outdoor stage was covered in bundles of clothes, each representing a victim from a country with existing mines or other unexploded ordinances, which the characters interacted with throughout the play.   It was a great experience which I highly enjoyed and learned from – even despite the vicious showers we had to perform in!  A local news website wrote about it here.

Photo by Roxane Permar.

If you’re unaware of their work as I was before joining the production, MAG works towards clearing areas of mines and bombs (particularly cluster bombs) left over from conflicts.  There’s generally an assumption that the humanitarian disaster ends with the war, but often it continues long afterwards.  All over the world, from Egypt to Angola to Somalia to Iraq, and particularly in Laos and Vietnam, the problem still persists.  I read a horrifying figure yesterday which stated 1 in 300 people  in Angola are missing a limb due to either the civil war or from the aftermath.  Children are especially at risk because it is difficult to teach them about the dangers and they often run through areas to play, unaware of what could happen.  It’s horrific.  They operate by a humanitarian criteria, conducting missions which will have the greatest benefit for a community rather than concentrating first on the area covered.  They also train and provide employment for locals to make a difference in their own communities.

It’s a wonderful charity – I’m humbled by their dedication and bravery, and by their constant struggle to create a better future.  My contribution has only been very small but I hope it can go some way to helping with their valiant work.

Economic Depression and Authoritarianism (Musing)

Just been musing, as one does, on the current trend in the world towards authoritarianism.  Of instability and the rise of the far-right in Europe, of defeats for freedom in Russia, Egypt, Syria, Mali, Iran, and increasing authoritarianism in countries like Venezuela, Ukraine, Turkey. I don’t know, perhaps reading this article* has just left me particularly gloomy, but there seems a tough fight ahead for democracy around the country.  I vaguely wrote about this earlier this year.  And I was wondering – this is just me musing – how much of a link there could be between economic depression and increasing authoritarianism in countries. I think there is an undeniable link between economic problems and a growth in right-wing movements, as cultural tensions increase and immigration becomes more unpopular.  But is there a link with the behaviour of the governments which are actually in power?

If we look at history, the best example would be the Great Depression in the early 1930s.  I’ve only studied Germany in great detail, but I know that the economic crisis Germany faced was a significant, if not the major reason the Nazis came into power.  They were able to exploit distrust in official establishments, offer a solution, offer hope.  Of course other factors were also important, and perhaps crucial, such as the aftermath of the First World War, Germany’s newness to democracy, etc.  However, I would presume that the growth of fascism elsewhere was also at least partly linked to the Great Depression.

If we assume that there is a link between economic depression and authoritarianism – or even just say that democracy struggles in these conditions – then we can at least agree that the impact now is less than in the 1930s.  I often remind myself of this if the world ever seems particularly hopeless – it was even worse back then, but we got through it.

Another significant reason there’s been an increase of authoritarianism that’s worth noting, in my view, is the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  Dictatorships around the world have released how real and present a threat their own people pose to them and have consequently taken action to further oppress their people.  Davies’ J Curve suggest that the most stable states are either democratic or totalitarian, so these dictatorships have taken the route of further oppression to stay in power.  This does not mean that democracy is weakening but that it is growing strong enough to absolutely terrify the few remaining dictators.  Of course, the Arab Spring was arguably a result of economic stagnation across the Middle East and North Africa, so there could be another link with economic depression.

As I said, these are just musings – I’m sure there are probably quite a few flaws in my arguments.

*That article really makes you loath Putin, doesn’t it?

Turkey Protests

Over the past five days, Turkey has been taken aback by mass protests in most of its major cities.  They were sparked by plans to redevelop Gezi Park in Istanbul, but considering protests have since erupted in Ankara, Antakya, and other cities, it is clear that this has developed into something larger.  Tens of thousands of protesters have been out on the streets, day and night, in what appears to have become general anti-government protests against Prime Minister Erdoğan, who has been in power since 2003.  Unions have also called for strikes in solidarity with the movement.

I was rather surprised when I first heard the news of this – I’d always thought Turkey to be a fairly democratic country.  Sure, mass protests do happen in democracies – just look at Greece, or Italy, or Spain – but they never seem to have quite this level of intensity, or when they do the government usually swiftly resigns.  Democratic countries also tend not to react so violently – tear gas and water cannons have been deployed, resulting in many clashes between protesters and the police in which several people have been injured and even, I think, a couple of deaths.  That said, Turkey appears to be showing some restraint – they have allowed protesters to gather inside Gezi Square, who have set up a barricade around it and now effectively govern themselves, and also the Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc has apologised for the use of excessive force.

If I understand it correctly – and I know very little about Turkey – the protestors are mainly young, liberal, secularists who oppose the creeping Islamisation of Turkey under Erdoğan, which they argue is against the principles established in the 1923 constitution when the country gained independence.  An example of this is his crackdown upon alcohol consumption.  The protests are also against his increasing authoritarian nature.  There are fears that he seeks to change the constitution to a Presidential system in order to increase his own powers, and he has also been criticised for his power over the media.  It’s no wonder he hates Twitter so much.

I’ve seen a few comparisons between Turkey and the Egypt Revolution in 2011 since the protests began, but I’m not sure how comparable the countries are.  Egypt certainly was far more authoritarian than Turkey is now, with Mubarak having led the country for three times the amount of years Erdoğan has led Turkey.  FreedomHouse gave Egypt a freedom rating of 5.5/10 in 2011, whereas Turkey in 2013 has 3.5/10 (with 7 being ‘not free’).  There may be similarities, but my guess would be that Turkey’s future will not be as dramatic as Egypt’s.

Incidentally, one of the most ironic points to come out of this is the advice Syria has given Turkey over the issue, urging Erdoğan to resign.  Turkey doesn’t seem to have taken Syria’s advice (which I can’t blame them for; Syria’s not exactly who I’d ask for advice to successfully stop protests).

It is impossible for anyone to predict how this situation will end, particularly not someone as misinformed as I.  But I think the protests will result in concessions from the government, and perhaps even Erdoğan’s resignation, though that’s not hugely likely.  He is still believed to have the majority of the country behind him.  The protests could fizzle out, but I think they will have some lasting impact upon the country.

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The Syrian Civil War: Two Years On

Arab SpringTwo years ago today, on the 15th March 2011, small-scale protests were held in the southern city of Daraa in Syria in response to the imprisonment and torture of young students for writing anti-government graffiti.  A small event in a small city which in normal circumstances would be insignificant, but, by this point, two Arab dictators had been swept from power by popular protests in Egypt and Tunisia, unrest was brewing in Yemen and Bahrain, and a civil war had broken out in Libya.  This was part of the Arab Spring revolutionary wave, a new generation’s chance to claim freedom in a region infamous for brutal dictatorships and human rights abuses; a revolution which Syria’s government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, was determined to prevent affecting his own country.

He failed.  As any thinking person could have perceived simply from the events of the last few months: oppression does not stop a popular uprising.  Perhaps Assad had hoped for a repeat of the Hama Massacre of 1982, an undocumented brutality by the Syrian regime which quelled an Islamic protest in the city of Hama, estimated to have killed tens of thousands.  In this age of the internet and mass communications truths cannot be hidden, and within days the protests had spread across the country.  The government responded, predictably, with bullets.  The protesters responded, predictably, with bullets of their own.

Syrian War Today

A crude war map of the current situation, taken from Wikipedia. Green represents government-held cities, brown those by the opposition and blue where the situation is unclear.

Two years on, what began as a peaceful protest has erupted into a full scale civil war, estimated to have claimed the lives of over 70,000 people and caused over 1 million Syrians to flee the country, in addition to 2 million who are internally displaced.  The country’s population was no more than 21 million before the war.  Unlike in Libya, where NATO had a UN mandate to intervene which brought about the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi, the international community has not become involved.  This is largely due to divisions: the West would like to see the Assad regime fall, partly because of humanitarian reasons but also due to his alliance with Iran.  However they are reluctant to do anything which could cause the situation to become anymore unstable; the horrific ethnic violence which resulted from the Iraq war is still fresh in recent memory.  A ‘Friends of Syria’ group has given the opposition political support; words and little else.  Only Qatar and Saudi Arabia are openly arming the opposition, and I highly doubt they are doing so in the name of democracy.  Furthermore, Russia and China both have strategic interests in Syria and have thus far refused attempts to take action against the Syrian government.  Their roles as permanent members on the UN Security Council has meant no resolutions against the regime can be adopted.

There is, however, a sign things are changing.  Recently both Prime Minister Cameron of the UK and President Hollande of France have suggested the possibility of arming the Syrian opposition – even if it means going against an EU arms sanction.  I can appreciate the dangers of such action, that it could cause more suffering and deaths, and that the weapons could fall into the arms of Islamic extremists.  My own personal belief is that both these things will happen anyway; the longer the stalemate goes on, the more people will die, and an Islamic group called the Al-Nusra Front has assumed massive influence in opposition-held parts of Syria – the Syrian people, abandoned by the world, have understandably turned to such groups.  The Assad regime is finished – of that there is no doubt.  Arming the rebels will bring the inevitable end to the war closer, in the long run resulting in fewer deaths and preventing Islamist groups from gaining any more influence.

Another interesting, small point to note is that the Syrian opposition, under the umbrella group ‘Syrian National Coalition’ – which has recognition from half of the world – has taken Syria’s seat in the Arab League.  The Arab League has taken a surprisingly anti-tyranny stance during the Arab Revolutions, considering its reputation as a kind of ‘Despots Club’ in the past.

I wrote in my 2013 predictions that the Assad regime would collapse this year.  This is no closer to a reality now than it was back in January and, while I am absolutely certain his government will not survive this war, he has surprised everyone by clinging onto power where others have not.  No one knows when, or how, this conflict will end.  Most analysts agree that the capture or death of Assad and the complete unraveling of his regime would probably not end the violence.  Wartime alliances would collapse – most likely the Free Syrian Army, the largest opposition armed group, would turn against the Al-Nusra Front.  The conflict already has an unsettling ethnic element, as Assad’s government is comprised largely of Alawites, whereas the rebellion has its core within Sunni Muslim groups.  Villages have turned upon each other, resulting in horrific massacres.  This could become far worse.  Syria could even collapse entirely and become a failed state like Somalia or Western Sahara.  It will be a long time before Syria sees stability once again.

The Israeli Election

Tomorrow, the people of Israel will vote for their next government.  The most significant election to happen in the region since President Morsi was elected in Egypt last June, the way the vote goes will have a profound effect on relations within the Middle East.  Israel is arguably the most democratic country in the Middle East (unless you live in Palestine) and also has the most powerful military, currently being the only country to possess nuclear weapons.

The election will be held in the context of, as ever, a country which sees itself under siege.  There is the old problem of Palestine, which will particularly be in the public mind after the occurance of what Israel terms ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’, though according to reports this is having a surprisingly small impact on the election.  Most parties appear committed to Israel’s current covert strategy of slowly absorbing the territories and denying them of sovereignty; even the opposition, Labor, has been silent on the issue.  Which is surprising, really, considering recent clashes, Palestine’s recent admission as a non-member observer state in the United Nations, and the government’s decision to build more settlements.

More significantly, the old foe Iran is perceived to be the greatest threat to Israeli security.    Expected to soon reach nuclear weapon capabilities – though this is a highly contested statement – the debate in Israel is not if action should be taken in the event of Iran coming close to acquiring nuclear weapons, but the severity of that action.  It’s no secret that Prime Minister Netanyahu, seeking re-election, would love to launch military strikes against Iran, but it’s less clear if he would do so without US support.

With things calmer on the northern border with Lebanon, Israel’s main secondary threat is now a consequence of the Arab Uprisings.  It faces an Islamist-dominated government to the south in Egypt, which although seems dedicated to peace now may not always be.  Egyptian instability has also resulted in the advancement of insurgents in the Sinai region, leading to another wall.  To the east, Israel’s traditional foe from whom it still occupies territory, Syria, is wracked in a deadly civil war.  On this issue Israel is torn; Syria is an ally of Iran so it may seem in their interests to support the rebellion, but this risks bringing radical Islamic extremists to power, who would be all but certain to oppose Israel’s very existence – at least they know where they stand with Assad.  So it’s no surprise that Israel has stayed quiet, fearful of either outcome.

The debate within the election does seem to be mostly on the issue of defence and security, rather than the typical discussions on economic policies we’re seeing in Western countries at the moment.  This election quiz by Al Jazeera, despite providing confusing results, gives an indication of which issues are being discussed in the current climate.  It’s quite terrifying.

So how will the election go?  The latest opinion poll has predicted 32% will go to Netanyahu’s coalition party Likud Beiteinu, which would make it the largest party in the Knesset despite having a combined 10% fewer votes than in 2009.  Labor is polled at 17% – 4% more than in 2009.  The ultra-nationalist, and frankly extremely dangerous ‘Jewish Home Party’ is polled at 12%.  The remaining 39% is scattered among a variety of populist, Zionist and liberal parties.  It is clear that Israel is a very divided society and no party will achieve a majority, meaning more extreme parties will play a ‘kingmaker’ role in forming coalitions.  Although I am a supporter of proportional representation, I believe there is a strong argument to introduce a plurality system in Israel, considering the current political climate.

I expect Israel to continue down its current path after this election, with few changes in the near future.

Freedom In The World 2013

Taken from Wikimedia Commons.


Green = Free 
Yellow = Partly Free 
Blue = Not Free

Yesterday, pro-democracy group FreedomHouse published their annual report, ‘Freedom in the World 2013’, which reports on the state of political and social freedom on a country-by-country basis during 2012.  I was very eager to see the results, as their reports have become something of an authority in how I view freedom in the world.  One of many sources, obviously, but by far my favourite.

As you can see from the map, when comparing it to one I wrote about a month ago, not a huge amount has changed.  Europe and the Americas are still almost completely free, Southeast Asia and central Africa not so much, etc.  However the small changes which have occurred are extremely significant.  I made some mental predictions before reading the report, which I can boast were mostly along the right lines although were at times too optimistic or pessimistic.  I’m pleased to see that Ukraine and Venezuela are still perceived to be somewhat free countries, even if only on the fringes, for instance.  Russia and most of the other former Soviet states, particularly in central Asia, have continued their descent into autocracy.  Here are the rest of the countries which made significant changes:

Egypt
For the first time, Egypt is considered a ‘Partly Free’ country, in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.  Amid fears that the revolution would be hijacked, first by the ruling military and then by the Muslim Brotherhood, it is comforting to know that Egypt has at least made marginal progress, even if its political freedom rating is precarious at best.

Libya
More reassuringly, Libya has made significant gains.  Although also only ‘Partly Free’, considering it was only recently scoring the worst possible scores a country can achieve during Colonel Gadaffi’s totalitarian rule, his ouster in the 2011 Libyan Civil War has paved the way for extraordinary political and social progress.

Tunisia
Tunisia’s rating has not changed from the ‘Partly Free’ it achieved in the 2012 Report.  While it’s comforting to see the gains made after the 2011 Tunisian Revolution have been maintained, I had hoped to see freedom extend further.  But I think I was naive to expect such fast progress.

Mali
Mali always was going to score badly after the 2012 coup and conflict though I never appreciated just how badly.  Falling down all the way from ‘Free’ to ‘Not Free’, one of Africa’s most stable democracies has, in the space of a year, completely collapsed.  Not good.

Burma
Burma has now, for the first time, been reported to be a freer state than neighbouring China.  While still marked as ‘Not Free’, it is now at the top of that range rather than at the very bottom, due to political and social reforms being passed by the ruling military.  A slow, tentative improvement, but very encouraging.

Ivory Coast
With the Second Ivorian Civil War over with and democracy cautiously restored, the country has leapt up to ‘Partly Free’, albeit at the lower end of the category.

Other Positive Changes
Other countries to see positive changes are: Lesotho, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tonga, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Mongolia and Bhutan.

Other Negative Changes
Other countries to see negative changes are: The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Kuwait, the Maldives, Rwanda, Tajikistan and Turkey.

Worst of the Worst
Countries titled ‘Worst of the Worst’, meaning they have achieved the worst possible score in both the political and social categories, are: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Overall Trend
For the 7th year in a row, FreedomHouse has reported an overall decline in democratic standards across the world.  There is not reason to despair however, as for every decline in one country is, roughly, a gain in another.  The situation is not rapidly deteriorating – many of the declines are in fact a response in authoritarian countries to the rise of pro-democracy movements elsewhere.  Their fear is not without cause.