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.

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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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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.