Elements of Analysis of the Lebanese Political Crisis

By Camille Germanos

This Middle East Insight (no. 3) is also available for download: Insight 3

Lebanon is experiencing severe political upheaval fuelled by a changing geopolitical landscape. The latest tumult began when Hizballah, the armed but participatory opposition party led by Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, took preemptive action against forthcoming STL indictments (Special Tribunal for Lebanon), widely believed to place blame for the 2005 assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on members of its own party. Hizballah’s cabinet coalition prompted the sudden collapse of Mr. Saad Hariri’s government. Days later, the now former opposition garnered a parliamentary majority with a sympathetic Lebanese tycoon, namely Mr. Najib Miqati, securing the post of Prime Minister.

The pace of events and the extent of the shift in Lebanon have alarmed the United States, Israel and the United Nations, all of whom favor Mr. Hariri and his Future Party who now constitute the opposition. This dramatic re-distribution along the political spectrum has strengthened the Syrian and Iranian axis in Beirut, while leaks in the press depicting Mr. Hariri calling Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef assafah, meaning “killer”  jeopardized Hariri’s relationship with his main backer, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Mr. Hariri has been weakened by the unprecedented mass protests in several parts of the Arab world shaking his traditional allies.

Despite the foregone nature of the parliamentary transition, this confluence of events puts forward several uncertainties. Perhaps most pressing, will PM Miqati rescind Lebanese backing for the STL as forcefully requested by Hizballah, and how will opposing forces react in the case that he does or does not?

What future can one foresee for the Lebanese Republic, microcosm of the region’s politics, with masses clamoring for regime changes in the Middle East? Already readying for international sanctions and looming hostilities with Israel, is Hizballah looking south to Egypt, preparing the ground for political entente with the Muslim Brotherhood?

Internally, Hizballah catalyzed the fall of PM Hariri, the leading political figure of Lebanon’s Sunnite community, by garnering enough support to concoct the resignation of ten cabinet ministers and thereby the collapse of the government on 12 January. Four days earlier, the General Secretary of Hizballah, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, anticipated the failure of the Saudi-Syrian initiative aiming to neutralize the STL within Lebanon. He presumed that it was obstructed by American pressure over the Saudis. Rejecting the STL as a political tool against his organization, Sayed Nasrallah asked the government to halt financial support and withdraw the Lebanese judges from the Tribunal. Further, he advocated revoking the act of agreement signed with the United Nations, delegitimized by a false witness file at the STL and the disappearance from the state’s coffers of $11 billion.

In the following week, Lebanon lived tensely under political uncertainty until MP Walid Junblat dissolved his “Democratic Gathering”, and backed the premiership of the Hizballah coalition through his new bloc renamed “National Struggle Front.” Such a dramatic political shift raised questions about the legitimacy of the new majority, as it suggested that Junblat made this decision under threat. But the Druze leader declared that his switch to the side of Syria and the Resistance served to preserve Lebanon’s stability. Further, he accused his old ally Mr. Hariri of misunderstanding the complex political landscape in Lebanon.

Binding consultations with neutral and mutually agreeable President Michel Suleiman on 25 January secured 68 votes for Hizballah-backed Najib Miqati against 60 votes for the outgoing caretaker PM Saad Hariri. Mr. Miqati’s nomination triggered spontaneous clashes in Sunnite regions, especially in Tripoli, where some of the secular and religious movements are closer to Hizballah. Meanwhile Mr. Hariri accused Hizballah of seizing power illegitimately and called for a ‘day of rage.’ The civil demonstrations of discontent that followed remained relatively contained and civil peace was preserved. In the meantime, both sides agreed to condemn the growing hatred expressed in some political speeches.

Having avoided the worst, namely total civil unrest, new challenges emerged and turned political again. Mr. Miqati, who presented himself as a candidate of unity and dialogue, has not yet managed to convince the Hariri coalition to join his government. It is obvious that he does not wish to claim full power and therefore is striving to reach consensus among all parties. His Christian interlocutors from the increasingly fragmented ‘March 14’ (anti-Syrian, pro-Hariri) coalition, however, seem more prepared to make concessions than the Hariri camp. If they can secure enough cabinet seats to veto major government decisions and if the STL is maintained, then they may abdicate from two hotly contested but lately dormant files: the disarmament of Hizballah and its merger with the army, and the possession of weapons inside Palestinian refugee camps.

No matter how the political balance might bend, political customs remain unchanged in Lebanon and internal deadlines tend to correspond with international timelines. As such, Mr. Miqati will wait for two lingering questions to be answered before composing his cabinet: the destiny of President Mubarak in Egypt, and the long-awaited public hearing of the indictments on 7 February. Also, he will not want to reveal his strategy yet to avoid clashes on 14 February, the sensitive anniversary of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and, for many, the commemoration of his martyrdom. But Miqati’s cabinet composition will reflect his overall political agenda. Can his ministerial composition strike a balance between adherence to international law and a revocation of the protocol of agreement with the UN? One option for Miqati is to compose a cabinet of technocrats and delineate a technical policy approach in which all points of contention can be handled at a negotiating table in the future.

Adding fuel to the Lebanese fire, authoritarian Western-backed regimes in the region are themselves feeling the heat. Last month, the flight of the Tunisian president in the face of a popular uprising triggered a series of demonstrations in Algeria, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere. The Egyptian people’s uprising has reached a standoff, as the people tenaciously demand President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation while he tries to hold his grip and loses allies and credibility in the international community. In Jordan, protesters gathered across the country until Parliament was dissolved and the Prime Minister Samir Rifaii stepped down. Syria has shut down the Facebook website and reversed some recent austerity measures. Even in Saudi Arabia, some bold demonstrators are demanding economic concessions from their government. As Lebanon’s usual Sunnite allies and peace-brokers (Syria and Saudi Arabia) face their own major political challenges, Mr. Hariri will only be isolated further.

Meanwhile, the weakening of Hariri’s regional support contrasts with a strengthened axis on Hizballah’s side that is benefiting from rising opposition in the Arab countries. For instance, Hizballah and Iran are readying for a strengthened Muslim Brotherhood; after a three-way meeting on 1 February with Jamaa Islamiya, they declared their unity in fighting the same Zionist enemy. This bond was corroborated by the expanded Iranian naval presence in the region.

On the international level, these dramatic developments have sent tremors through Israeli and American diplomatic circles. Earlier this week, Israel warned that a Lebanese government closer to the Hizballah might face international sanctions, while the Israeli press is clearly concerned about the political shifts in their neighborhood. Although PM Miqati hasn’t yet made any statements relating to the STL, Washington has emphasized the right of the Lebanese people to choose both justice and political stability.

From Davos, the General Secretary of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon emphasized the duty of the Lebanese Republic not to question the agreement with the UN. International restrictions or armed intervention are not impossible to envisage. As the STL is classified under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, the Security Council can make recommendations or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42 of the UN Charter to maintain or restore peace and security.

After the Appeals Chamber public hearing on 7 February, Judge Daniel Fransen is expected to study the file and issue extradition warrants in the following few weeks. While it is possible that the pre-trial judges will ask for an extension for further interpretation of the Lebanese penal code, an official accusation will soon be made. What happens if the Lebanese government refuses to comply with any request for assistance by the STL or to arrest and transfer the indicted to the Tribunal? Some sources believe that Washington intends to have the trial proceed in-absentia, thereby establishing a precedent for trying other fugitive leaders of Islamic organizations. In addition to this potentiality, Lebanon remains exposed to international isolation and potential UN sanctions.

As always, the Lebanese political scene is perhaps best compared with some of these trades that are best understood in hindsight. Yet everyone playing a role in this drama has taken a stance at this point, except one conspicuously absent player: President Obama. He is being described as the President who lost Egypt; will he also be the President who lost Lebanon?

Camille Germanos is a research associate at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed here are her own.



Middle East 2008: The Year in Review

For internal circulation

19 December 2008

By Susan Macdougall

Summary of 2008

Attempting to summarize the entire year of 2008 over the span of the entire Middle East is no small task. That said, the Middle East boasts some perennially confounding and attention-grabbing conflicts, and those issues have been the reason for enough spilled ink this year to fill this section easily.

The peace process in Israel and Palestine continues to confound. The Annapolis conference, held in late November of 2007, provided a framework for the Bush administration’s efforts in the region throughout 2008, but the intractable divisions between Hamas and Fatah, Israel’s consistent expansion of settlements in the West Bank, the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, and the struggle to resolve questions like the right of return, Arab Israelis, and Jerusalem mean that Barack Obama will begin his presidency with a peace process further along that it was last year at this time, but not by a lot.

Libya is officially, fully back in the good graces of the United States government after normalizing ties with the United States government in 2006: the first US Ambassador to Libya in 36 years, Gene Cretz, was confirmed last month.

Syria’s government, along with Iran’s, took on a sort of litmus quality during the presidential election debates on whether to engage Bashar al Asad (and more importantly, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) by way of diplomatic channels. The blustering seems a bit silly given that Israel and Syria have been engaged in indirect talks over the Golan Heights throughout the latter half of 2008 (although as of now the talks have been suspended pending the results of Israel’s upcoming elections in February).

Saudi Arabia continues to suppress human rights; a Saudi-style public demonstration (a hunger strike that took place in the protestors’ homes) this fall prompted further crackdowns on the part of the state. The Saudi’s counterterrorism efforts, however, received some positive attention from the New York Times and TIME magazine. The preference to rehabilitate jihadis, rather than simply let them rot in jail until they are released even angrier after several years, has at least not offended other governments; there are no longer any Saudi prisoners in Guantanamo.

This makes a sharp contrast with Yemen, whose management of those imprisoned for terrorism is sufficiently poor to justify keeping most of the Yemenis in Cuba for the time being. (Salim Ahmed Hamdan is not one of them – he was returned this November). The United States Embassy in Yemen was also attacked, or in the vicinity of attacks, twice this spring.

Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon each have their own blogs under FPA; detailed summaries of the events in those countries are better found there.

A favorite topic for human interest journalism this fall was soliciting Arab and Middle Eastern opinions on the American presidential election and president-elect, Barack Obama. Obama enjoys popularity everywhere at the point, largely because he isn’t George Bush, but the Middle Eastern voices that join the global welcoming chorus express a little more cynicism with respect to his ability – or will – to make any meaningful changes in policy, particularly with respect to the Palestinian cause. His selection of Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff raised eyebrows across the region because of Emmanuel’s Israeli origins. Silly? If Obama manages to solve the puzzle that is Palestine, then it will certainly be considered so. As long as that wound remains open and festering, things of this seemingly trivial nature will continue to ruffle feathers.

Impact of the Global Recession

Unfortunately, we don’t yet know how broadly or how deeply the global recession will impact the entire Middle East. It does not take a psychic to project that it will impact the poor across the region in an ugly way and the rich in a less painful fashion. The dramatic rise in oil prices midyear saw soaring revenues going to work in the Gulf countries, where new universities, cultural centers, hotels, and god knows what else seemed to be growing from the desert like rice from irrigated fields. Now, investors for those properties and initiatives are nervous about the anticipated demand drying up and leaving their investments worthless. Construction in the Emirates will certainly slow down; it remains to be seen how this will impact those projects, like Qatar’s Education City and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Riyadh, that are designed with a long-term presence in mind. (Which is not to say that hotels can be easily dissembled, but education and health are generally considered more recession-resistant than luxury commodities like hotels).

Beyond the wealthy areas of the Gulf, though, the drop in oil prices will hurt the Middle East. Many Arabs from less wealthy countries work in the Gulf doing menial tasks such as construction or working on oil rigs, and their salaries return to their home economies in the form of remittances and keep their families in bread and chickens. As oil revenues drop and production falls, which it certainly will, especially given the massive cut in production – OPEC’s largest ever – announced this week, families across the region will feel the impact of the global recession.

There is a trend among some pundits writing on the Middle East to see the global recession as an opportunity to break the cycle of rentierism in the Gulf and inspire creativity and opportunism in other, smaller and more protected economies like Egypt’s – I blogged about this trend here and here. I said in those two posts and will reiterate here that I think that “thinking positively” and “seeing this as an opportunity” is a little naive, and more than a little insensitive to the reality of poverty levels in many Middle Eastern countries. If the wealthy Emirati sheikhs have to forego building new hotels, then the Shia in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia will also suffer, and in a manner that could hardly be called “creative”. That said, to refuse to laud or recognize creative developments in this period would be equally counterproductive, and I hope that as the global economy scrambles to recover that Middle Eastern triumphs will occur frequently and be covered extensively in the news media. I’ll certainly do my part here.

Which event in the Middle East in 2008 deserved more coverage than it got?

I have always imagined that trying to report on the Middle East is a little like choosing volunteers from an auditorium full of kindegarteners. There are substantially more volunteers than are needed to fill whatever space is available onstage, and the best way to manage that fact is to simply choose the pushiest ones day after day. These are typically anything Palestine/Israel, anything about Iraq, anything about al Qaeda, and on Fridays, anything about women and the veil – these issues dominate front pages everywhere. Those events typically given short shrift are human rights issues, like the treatment of domestic workers from South Asia across the Middle East, or the lifestyles of minority communities like Copts in Egypt, Chaldean Christians in Iraq, or Shia in Saudi Arabia.  All of these issues are important, and deserve more coverage.

Commonly held misconceptions about the Middle East include …

… the tendency to see all the Arab countries as a unit, with the same culture and the same political environment and the same history. All of the Arab countries do have Islam in common, and many of them are arid … and they all have governments that are at least some degree of authoritarian, but that is where the blanket similarities stop. Therefore, when writing about trends in the Middle East, such as the Islamic revival or the rise of fundamentalism, or the impact of rising oil prices, one certainly runs the risk of attributing qualities to some countries that are not necessarily true or of failing to identify the source of the changes appropriately and mistakenly calling something a Middle Eastern trend when it is more accurately termed either a global trend or an Islamic trend. For example, Morocco and Yemen will not benefit – nor will the suffer – from oil price fluctuations in nearly the same way as will the UAE and Saudi Arabia. And Europe’s problem with Islamic fundamentalism is similar to Pakistan’s problem with it as is Egypt’s problem with it. So, concisely, be skeptical of any analysis that uses ‘the Middle East’ as its unit. (Including this blog!)

Forecast for 2009

If I had the power to make predictions for 2009 in the Middle East with any certainty, then I would not be writing here for free and giving them away! This is a region that perpetually shocks and surprises. However, there are certain trends that we can anticipate continuing: as the global economic crisis continues, there will be destabilization in those countries where the government maintains its legitimacy through giving handouts to its citizens. (Ahem, Saudi Arabia/UAE, followed by the GCC). Those countries that are too poor to maintain their legitimacy by giving handouts to their citizens and who also have credible Islamist oppositions, Egypt being a prime example, Morocco, and perhaps Jordan (although Jordan’s economy is probably secure as long as the United States remains in Iraq) will probably also experience destabilization as a result of the economic turmoil as the opposition groups consolidate their dominance in the social services arena.

I would also anticipate a very un-radical approach by Barack Obama to Middle East diplomacy at the outset of his administration, and moderation – and its necessary maintenance of the status quo with respect to Israel and Palestine as well as a host of other issues, will lead to rapid disillusionment, if that has not taken place already.

Foreign Policy Association, New York – 18 Dec 08

The credit crunch and the Dubai model

For internal circulation
7 November 08
Christopher Davidson

The credit crunch is moving around the world, claiming new scalps every week. Toxicity has spread from mature US financials to Europe and Britain and now it is the turn of the developing world. When the crunch hits a region, confidence rapidly falls, banks are jeopardized and credit dries up. The western extractive states have been able to rescue their financial sectors by part-nationalizing banks and injecting liquidity. These are abilities that weaker states do not have.

Thus far, the Gulf states have remained fairly isolated from the impact of the crunch, partly due to the cushioning effect of surplus liquidity in their immediate neighborhood and the unspoken guarantee that massive sovereign wealth can be used to shore up any domestic collapse. Indeed, up until a few months ago the mood had been one of optimism, with many stakeholders in these economies contending that the region is impervious to the West’s problems and that it is has successfully decoupled from any global recession. Rightly, it has been argued that even plummeting oil prices are not a problem, as the annualized returns from the various overseas investment funds in many cases exceed total oil revenues.

This view does not however appreciate the heterogeneity of Gulf states’ economies.
Certainly, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE’s Abu Dhabi are in very good shape: they have massive oil and gas exports and the largest sovereign wealth assets in the world. They also have relatively small national populations to distribute their wealth to. But in contrast, the more resource-scarce Gulf states, notably Bahrain, Oman and the UAE’s Dubai are now highly exposed to the credit crunch.

Since the 1990s, these economies have sought to diversify their economies away from hydrocarbon exports and heavy, energy-reliant industries, often by building up new sectors such as real estate and tourism. On paper this diversification has been successful: other, associated sectors such as construction have boomed, and in Dubai’s case the non-oil share of the emirate’s GDP has grown to over 90 percent. Moreover, the rapid economic liberalization required to kick-start these new sectors and the many lavish projects they have involved have won these countries international recognition and praise.

The year 2008 will, however, expose the fundamental flaws in these new post-oil economies. They have been built on a wave of global boom, relying on excess liquidity in their oil-rich neighbors and massive and uninterrupted foreign direct investment from further afield, often from the West. Indeed, they have never been put to the test as they have yet to really experience a true boom-bust cycle. The sectors that have been developed are particularly sensitive to a global downswing, indeed are prime examples of “peripheral economies” that have to respond in a dependent fashion to circumstances and retrenchment decision-making in the world’s “core economies”.

The biggest victim is likely to be Dubai,
as real estate and tourism (and by extension construction) have been allowed to develop into the key pillars of the economy. No moratorium has been placed on the expansion of these sectors and the city state has grown wildly in the last few years, with growth rates that would normally be associated with an overheating economy and rampant, unrestrained speculation. Furthermore, few sustainable economic activities have been introduced and attempts to build a vibrant knowledge economy have remained stalled.

International financial observers and realtors have now begun to identify worrying trends: rapidly declining house prices, a stagnant resale market, the inability of off-plan property investors to keep up with their payment schedules, a marked decline in hotel occupancy rates and wage and hiring freezes in property companies. To make matters worse, they have highlighted the government’s indebtedness: Dubai has borrowed heavily in recent years to finance all of the physical infrastructure needed to support and connect these new economic sectors. Thus, if the situation should deteriorate further–as it may well be doing given that large mortgage lenders have already had to be merged–there is a question mark as to whether the government can step in and come to the rescue.

But in some ways, the true merits or demerits of the Dubai model may never come to light, as the UAE brand is likely to be resurrected should Abu Dhabi intervene and bail out its close neighbor. – Published 6/11/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Christopher Davidson is a fellow of the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies at Durham University. He is the author of Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success and The United Arab Emirates: A Study in Survival.

Lebanese enigmas
Michel Nehme

Einstein once noted that problems cannot be solved with the same mentality that created them. This is the state of affairs now prevailing in the Middle East. More conflict and less cooperation are still predominant in the democracy-resistant Arab world. Yet this stubborn mentality is challenged by the changing material and organizational conditions that stem from the trends of both regionalization and globalization.

The big question is how to perceive the Middle East in the forthcoming decade. Today, the world’s biggest issues are global and governments are losing relevance because economic interdependence, balance of power standards, technological issues, financial stability and demographic and cultural realities disregard borders and idiosyncratic sensitivities.

The challenges in the Middle East are multifaceted. Here, from a Lebanese perspective, we deal with five of them.

First, sectarian divisions are reflective of the entire Middle East arena. This time they are taking a form that is unprecedented in Lebanon. It replicates the division that prevails in Iraq and the Gulf at large between the two opposing major branches of Islam, Sunni and Shi’ite. The tension between these two sectarian communities is indeed quite sharp in Lebanon. The old Arab-Israel balance of power is no longer the same. Iran as a Shi’ite Islamic power is very much at the core of the new multi-polar Middle Eastern system; Turkey is a de-facto contender with the potential to be a major player in the near future, supported by the US.

In an effort to shield itself from potential Arab threats against it and to avoid a replay of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Iran has resorted to pan-Islamic rhetoric and has been outbidding all Arab regimes in anti-Israeli speechmaking, including provocative stances on the Holocaust, just to play the Arabs against Israel and keep them busy on that front. Tehran is also building up a protective shield in the form of a network of alliances that goes beyond the Shi’ite realm. Thus, Hizballah is keen on not appearing as a purely sectarian force. It has an alliance with Michel Aoun, who is a major force among Lebanese Christians, and is trying to cozy up to certain Sunni forces, including Lebanese Sunni Islamic fundamentalists and any other allies it can find outside the Shi’ite community.

Then there is American policy in the region. The United States continues to wield an iron fist to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions and to encourage continued dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The capture of Baghdad by the Shi’ites and the ethnic cleansing of most Sunnis from it have set the stage for a big Sunni-Shi’ite battle in Iraq that could potentially lead to all-out sectarian hostilities in the region. Yet calm is absolutely essential to Gulf security and to American energy security; Saudi Arabia and Iran must not be drawn into a devastating Sunni-Shi’ite proxy war. Maintaining close contact with each other and with Iraqis of the other sects is the best way for them to avoid a replay of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

The US government will also continue to be serious about the threat of terrorism. Congress will probably expand funding for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Its researchers analyze the writings and activities of the Salafeyien Jihadeyien and project how best to combat them in order to undermine the threat of al-Qaeda, which is likely to remain with us for some time in the future.

With the election of a new American president, the US is bound to find itself mediating the Israeli siege of Gaza. That siege will continue to be used as an element of pressure until a breakthrough on the Syrian track is realized. Learning from the past and projecting to the future on the Palestinian track, it is one of the multiple ironies of the Middle East that when the US pushes hard on one door, another one opens instead. Meanwhile, sponsoring Israeli-Syrian negotiations does not require the US to drop any of its other concerns, from maintaining the independence of Lebanon to pressing Damascus to end its human rights abuses and sponsorship of terrorist organizations.

Yet unless something drastic happens, Syria will cling to its involvement in Lebanon. This is also one of the problems projected by Hizballah’s strategy: its links with Syria. Indeed, most of the Lebanese opposition is pro-Syrian. One of the critical points for the future is the ability of Syria and its allies to block the international tribunal on Rafiq Hariri’s assassination (Hariri was killed on February 14, 2005 by a car bomb for which the Syrian security services have been implicated) that Washington is pushing through the UN in order to use as a tool to exert pressure on Damascus.

Suffice it to mention as a concluding statement that despite or alongside its current despair, the Middle East stands right at the center of the developing world. Threats such as terrorists, insurgents and radical Islamists in the Middle East are the tip of an iceberg concealing a much deeper and wider movement for world change. They merit the attention of the major western powers. – Published 6/11/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Michel G. Nehme is director of Exchange and Partnership at Notre Dame University in Lebanon.

Little shop of horrors
Mark Perry

I once asked one of my Palestinian friends what he thought the United States should do to help the peoples of the Middle East. He was incredulous: “Haven’t you done enough?” In retrospect that pained reply seems the perfect answer to my presumption: I’m from America and I’m here to help.

Sadly, the self-congratulation attendant on Barack Obama’s election has seemingly revived this tradition of selfless altruism. As a former Clinton administration official told me several weeks ago: “We’re going back into the Middle East, but this time we’re going to get it right.” That it did not occur to this official that we aren’t exactly “out” of the Middle East is a testament to American optimism–and amnesia. “Really,” he added, “our capacity for doing good is limitless.”

Spare me.

When asked recently to list the five goals of his presidency, then-candidate Obama ticked them off: improving the economy, working for energy independence, providing affordable health care to all Americans, cleaning up the environment and improving education. The Middle East did not make the list. For good reason: it appears that we’ve “done enough.” And for those who claim, with Colin Powell, that “if you break the china, you own it” here’s a bit of news–no we don’t. America is busy dog-paddling its way out of Iraq, is looking for someone to negotiate with in Afghanistan, has so offended the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia that we are barely on speaking terms and has abandoned the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. We are leaving the china shop in a shambles, but too bad. You don’t “own it” if you can’t pay for it. And we can’t.

That the new Obama administration will reengage in the Middle East is not in question. It will. But, in the wake of the failed “war on terrorism” (the definition of a “terrorist” has been broadened, apparently, to include anyone who’s not a Republican), the Bush administration’s dream of spreading democracy (so long as you are not Hamas or live in Pakistan) and the galactically stupid war in Iraq (whose purpose is yet to be determined), America will be focused more on–as one of my colleagues described it–“doing politics.” Which is to say: after nearly 2,500 years of bumbling interventions (from Alexander the Great to Anthony Eden to George Bush), the future of the region is finally in the hands of the people who live there. The challenge for them is simply stated: they have to determine what they want.

On May 17, 2005, George Bush told the International Republican Institute that sixty years of American diplomacy in the Middle East had yielded sixty years of failure. The fault, he said, was America’s–because it had failed to promote democracy. “If the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation and resentment and violence ready for export.”

While Americans now doubt that democracy can be “promoted” and have turned against the policies (and leaders) that, in the name of democracy, cost tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, this does not obviate his statement’s essential truth: all of the region’s issues fade to insignificance, so long as the solutions to them remain in the hands of single party thugs, ruling cliques and family kleptocracies. The single most important issue facing the region is whether that will continue.

Unfortunately (or blessedly), the people of the Middle East will not have Americans attempting to “help” them in their search for democracy. We’re leaving your shop, shattered china and all, because our shop is on fire. By the way, it was arson.- Published 6/11/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Perry is a director of the Washington and Beirut-based Conflicts Forum and the author of Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace.

The decline of religious fundamentalism in Iran
Sadegh Zibakalam

During the past three decades the rise of militant Islam has in many ways dominated political events in the region. The consequences of Iranian religious radicalism can be observed in the Persian Gulf region, in the Arab-Israel conflict, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Although Iranian Islamic militancy appears to be as dominant as ever, this may not be the case during the next decade.

The main reason for this conjuncture lies with the present Iranian government headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, who came to power in July 2005. Ahmadinezhad’s rise to power was indeed a watershed in post-Islamic revolution Iran. His presidency marked a new political configuration in the Islamic republic. Hitherto, although the Iranian regime was described as radical and Islamic, it was far from a united political group. It consisted of diverse currents that all described themselves as Islamist. They included hardline conservatives on the “right”, the “left”, the pragmatists headed by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the moderates and those who with some qualification could even be described as “liberal”. During the reign of the late Imam Khomeini the left had the upper hand. After his death, the pragmatists headed by Hashemi Rafsanjani held the center stage; then it was the turn of the moderate-liberal currents headed by the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. No matter who had been elected as Iran’s president, all the other currents were, albeit to various degrees, present in the government.

The elections of July 2005 and the rise of Ahmadinezhad to power changed that political complexion. The conservative hardliners purged almost all the other currents from power. For the first time since the emergence of the Islamic republic in 1979, one particular political group dominated the main three branches of the Iranian political establishment.

This group, which with some justification has become known as the hardliners, has tried to change much of Iranian domestic as well as foreign policy. At the international level, Iran’s stand on its nuclear program has become much more uncompromising. The Islamic regime’s anti-western and anti-American attitude has intensified, as has its anti-Israel approach. Instead, Tehran has tried to establish ties with anti-American regimes in South America and elsewhere. Internally, the hardliners have intensified the state’s role in the economy and curtailed political freedom and have tried to expand the country’s military capabilities.

We come now to the main point of our thesis: the anticipated demise of militant Islam during the next decade. Given the widespread grip on power that the hardliners have maintained since 2005, why should their power decline in the future? The short answer lies with the performance of the hardliners since they came to power three years ago. They have alienated much of the country’s intelligentsia. Students, university graduates, professionals, intellectuals, writers, journalists, artists and many similar social groups have turned increasingly critical of the hardliners’ overall policies during the past three years. Civil servants, the urban middle class and the politically powerful bazaar merchants have increasingly turned against the hardliner government of Ahmadinezhad.

Politically, too, the hardliners have been in retreat. The reformists, the left, the so-called liberal-religious nationalist groups such as “nehzat azadi”, Hashemi Rafsanjani and his influential political groups, all now oppose the hardliner government. In fact, Ahmadinezhad’s policies have turned many conservatives as well as more moderate and pragmatist hardliners against his government. There is yet another powerful and influential group that has become openly critical of the hardliner president and some of his decisions: during the past two years, a number of senior clerical leaders have voiced their opposition to some of Ahmadinezhad’s decisions.

Last but by no means least is the Iranian parliament, or Majlis. The 300-member assembly that was inaugurated in July 2008 elected Ali Larijani by a large majority as its speaker. Since the conservatives have a considerable majority in the present majlis, Larijani’s election was an implicit message of defiance to President Ahmadinezhad. Larijani was until last April head of the High Council of Security Affairs, a powerful body that is responsible for the country’s military and security issues, including conducting negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Larijani was critical of Ahmadinezhad’s radical approach regarding Iran’s nuclear program. He preferred a more moderate stand, searching for compromise with the West on the nuclear issue. Ahmadinezhad dismissed Larijani, thereby eventually paving the way for Iran to adopt a more militant and confrontational approach vis-a-vis its nuclear program.

Here we must address two important questions about the hardline government of Iran. First, given his formidable internal opposition, where does Ahmadinezhad get the support to survive and even to contemplate another term? Second, what are the reasons for so much opposition?

The bulk of Ahmadinezhad’s support comes from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the various institutions he leads,
including the powerful Revolutionary Guards, the Baseej, the national Iranian Radio and Television and government-run newspapers, as well as a number of religious and political leaders close to him. The widespread opposition stems from Ahmadinezhad’s overall poor performance. The country suffers from rampant inflation; unemployment hasn’t come down, nor has endemic corruption and the country’s brain drain continues–witness the queue of Iranian professionals outside western embassies in Tehran, seeking to emigrate in spite of the fact that the country’s oil revenues have quadrupled during the past three years.

It was against this irony that Hashemi Rafsanjani, the leading moderate Iranian leader, warned last month that the failure of the present government would not simply constitute the defeat of a particular political group but rather would be interpreted as the failure in practice of radical Islam when it had all the power at its disposal.- Published 6/11/2008 © bitterlemons-international

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of Iranian studies at Tehran University.

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