Posts by James M. Dorsey.:
- Southeast Asia has benefitted from the fact that it does not have the equivalent of Saudi Arabia, an arch-conservative absolute monarchy with regional hegemonic ambitions whose ruling family will not shy away from anything to ensure its survival;
- Southeast Asia further had the advantage that it is not wracked by regional rivalries like those between Saudi Arabia and Iran or Iran and Turkey and is not populated by countries whose ambition is to dominate others. Equally important is that no country in Southeast Asia had the kind of revolutionary ambition that Iran, Egypt, Libya or Algeria had at given times in their more recent history;
- Differences between Southeast Asian nations are not fought on the battlefield and Southeast Asians do not employ militant and violent proxies to influence events in other countries. With other words, there is no equivalent in Southeast Asia to Hezbollah, Hamas or the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units nor is there a pattern of support by any one Southeast Asian nation for restless ethnic or religious in another country in the region such as Saudi support for restless Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan or Baluchis in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province.
By James M. Dorsey.
US President Donald J. Trump’s vow to defeat what he terms radical Islamic terrorism forces the United States to manoeuvre the Middle East and North Africa’s murky world of ever shifting alliances and labyrinth of power struggles within power struggles.
The pitfalls are complex and multiple. They range from differences within the 68-member, anti-Islamic State (IS) alliance over what constitutes terrorism to diverging political priorities to varying degrees of willingness to tacitly employ jihadists to pursue geopolitical goals. The pitfalls are most evident in Yemen and Syria and involve two long-standing US allies, NATO ally Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson travels to Turkey this week as US and Russian troops create separate buffers in Syria to prevent a Turkish assault on the northern town of Manbij. Manbij, located 40 kilometres from the Turkish border, is controlled by Kurdish forces, viewed by the US as a key ground force in the fight with the Islamic State.
Until a series of devastating IS suicide bombings in Turkish cities, Turkish forces appeared to concentrate on weakening the Kurds rather than the jihadists in Syria. Stepped-up Turkish action against IS has not weakened Turkey’s resolve to prevent Kurds from emerging as one of the victors in the Syrian conflict.
At the heart of US-Turkish differences over the Kurds is the age-old-adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s liberation fighter. The US has a long history of empathy towards Kurdish cultural and national rights and enabled the emergence of a Kurdish state in waiting in northern Iraq. The differences also go to an equally large elephant in the room: the question whether Syria, Yemen and Iraq will survive as nation states in a post-war era.
That may be the real issue at the core of US-Turkish differences. Many Turks hark back in their suspicion that foreign powers are bent on breaking up the Turkish state to the 1920 Treaty of Sevre that called for a referendum in which Kurds would determine their future.
Visionary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. He mandated a unified Turkish identity that superseded identities of a nation whose population was to a large degree made up of refugees from far flung parts of the former empire and ethnic and religious minorities.
Turkey charges that Syrian Kurdish fighters are aligned with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurdish group that has been fighting for Kurdish rights for more than three decades and has been designated terrorist by Turkey, the United States and Europe.
US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Abkar met in the southern Turkish city of Antalya in advance of Mr. Tillerson’s visit to lower tensions that threaten planned efforts to capture Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital.
In many ways, the pitfalls are similar in Yemen, where Mr. Trump has stepped up support for Saudi Arabia’s devastating intervention that this month entered its third year and has increased attacks on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) viewed as one of Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliates.
It took Al Qaeda attacks inside the kingdom in 2003-4 and jihadist operations since as well as growing international suggestions of an ideological affinity between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and jihadism for the kingdom to view Islamic militants on par with Iran, which Saudis see as an existential threat.
Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia, despite a litany of denials, has seen militant Islamists as useful tools in its proxy wars with Iran in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Sunni ultra-conservatives are frequently at the forefront of Saudi-led efforts to dislodge the Yemeni Houthis from their strongholds.
Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen has in fact given AQAP a new lease on life. Prior to the war, AQAP had been driven to near irrelevance by the rise of IS and security crackdowns. In a report in February, the International Crisis Group (ICG) concluded that AQAP was “stronger than it has ever been.”
The group “appears ever more embedded in the fabric of opposition to the Houthi/Saleh alliance …that is fighting the internationally recognised, Saudi-backed interim government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi,” the report said. It was referring to Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who are aligned with former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.
AQAP’s resurgence is as much a result of Saudi Arabia’s single-minded focus on the Iranian threat posed in the kingdom’s perception by the Houthis as it is potentially related to a murky web of indirect or tacit relationships with the group.
“In prosecuting the war, the Saudi-led coalition has relegated confronting AQAP and IS to a second-tier priority… Saudi-led coalition statements that fighting the group is a top priority and announcements of military victories against AQAP in the south are belied by events,” the ICG said.
The kingdom’s willingness to cooperate with Islamists such as Yemen’s Islah party, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, and unclear attitude towards AQAP has sparked strains within the anti-Houthi coalition, particularly with the staunchly anti-Islamist UAE.
AQAP has been able to rearm itself through the indirect acquisition of weapons from the Saudi-led coalition as well as raids on Yemeni military camps. AQAP is believed to have received advance notice and to have coordinated with the Saudis its withdrawal from the crucial port of Mukalla before an assault by UAE and Yemeni forces, according to the ICG.
Saudi Arabia was conspicuously low key when in January a US Navy Seal died in a raid on AQAP in which the US military seized information that this month prompted the Trump administration and Britain to ban carry-on electronics aboard U.S. and London-bound flights from select airports in North Africa and the Middle East, including two in Saudi Arabia.
Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s leading English-language newspaper, this week quoted Saudi officials as saying that AQAP, widely believed to be well advanced in its ability to target aircraft with explosives smuggled on board, had lost its capability to operate overseas.
The officials said that Saudi Arabia, which has cozied up to the Trump administration and endorsed the president’s ban on travel to the US from six Muslim majority countries, was concerned about IS and Shiite militants rather than AQAP. “They (AQAP) don’t have the power to export their activities,” Arab news quoted Abdullah Al-Shehri, a senior Saudi interior ministry official, as saying.
The ministry’s spokesman, Mansour Al-Turki, noted that ´ “Qaeda actually has not been involved in any real kind of terrorism-related incident in Saudi Arabia for three years. Most of the incidents came from Daesh (the Arab acronym for IS) or militant groups related to Shiites in the eastern province.”
The United States and some of its key allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, may be able to paper over differences that allow for short-term advances against IS. But in the longer term, it could be the failure to address those differences head on that will create new breeding grounds for militancy. It’s the kind of trade-off that in the past has produced short-term results only to create even greater problems down the road.
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By James Dorsey.
Pakistan is emerging as an important military player in the Gulf as its struggles to balance complex relations with regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran and diverging approaches by different branches of its government.
Pakistan’s military engagement with the Gulf goes far beyond increased involvement in a Saudi-led, 41-nation military alliance that officially was established to counter terrorism, but is widely suspected to also be a bid to garner support for the kingdom’s troubled intervention in Yemen and create an anti-Iranian Sunni Muslim grouping.
As it discusses the deployment of troops to the Saudi-Yemeni border and a senior, recently retired Pakistani military commander appears poised to take command of the Riyadh-based alliance, Pakistan alongside Turkey and China is also emerging as a more cost-effective supplier of military hardware to a region that is home to the world’s largest arms importers.
“You can’t afford having these very expensive contracts with western companies and contractors, so what (the Gulf) will do is go toward cheaper contractors, so that’s why they are looking towards China, towards Pakistan, towards Turkey – it’s just the natural move.,” Andreas Krieg, a professor at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom’s Joint Command and Staff College, told The National.
Pakistani engagement in terms of troops may be most advanced with Saudi Arabia, while Qatar appears focused on cooperation in development and production of hardware. “Over the last two years the Qataris have really turned their backs towards the West and looked toward the East, as all the Gulf countries are doing right now,” Mr. Krieg said.
Qatar is discussing with Turkey and Pakistan joint production of new defence systems, including Turkey’s T-129 attack and reconnaissance helicopter. Qatar has also expressed interest in the fifth generation JF-17 fighter jet which Pakistan developed with China. Pakistani pilots of the JF-17 last year demonstrated their skills in a display in Qatar. The Pakistan Ordnance Factory, moreover, recently opened a marketing and sales office in Dubai.
Qatar is further discussing the possibility of Pakistani forces providing security during the 2022 World Cup.
Similarly, Turkey last year deployed 3,000 ground troops as well as air and naval units, military trainers and special operations forces to a newly created base in Qatar.
Pakistani engagement in the Middle East has a long and storied history. It dispatched pilots in 1969 to fly Saudi air force Lightning jets that repulsed a South Yemeni incursion into the kingdom’s southern border. In the preceding years, Pakistan had helped the kingdom attempt to build its first war warplanes and trained Saudi pilots. Pakistani pilots again flew missions during the 1973 Middle East War in defense of Saudi Arabia’s borders.
Pakistan bolstered its position over the following years with military missions in 22 countries, training facilities for the region and by becoming the world’s largest exporter of military personnel. Pakistanis currently provide training to armed forces in various Gulf countries and thousands serve in Gulf uniforms in many of the region’s militaries, including entire battalions of Pakistanis in the Saudi military.
Historically, Pakistan’s largest contingent of 20,000 soldier was initially based in the 1970s in the triangle where the borders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel bump up against each other. Pakistani combat troops were also dispatched to the kingdom after a group of religious Saudi militants attacked the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979.
By the mid-1980s, most Pakistani units had shifted to the predominantly Shiite Eastern Province, home to the kingdom’s oil fields. Pakistani Air Force units were stationed on the northern Gulf coast to shield the fields from a fallout from the Iran-Iraq war.
More Pakistani troops were dispatched in 1990 to ostensibly protect the Muslim holy cities in the kingdom as part of the Pakistani military’s circumvention of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s inclination to include a Pakistani contingent in the US-led coalition assembled to roll back the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.
Ironically it is Mr. Sharif who 25 years later appears to be circumventing. This time it would be to circumvent a refusal by parliament in 2015 to contribute troops to the Saudi war in Yemen despite Pakistan being the world’s foremost beneficiary of Saudi largesse and its dependency on remittances from Pakistani workers in the kingdom.
Ironically, Mr. Sharif’s willingness in 2015 to comply with the Saudi request was opposed by Pakistani corps commanders, including Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa. That was before General Bajwa succeeded General Raheel Sharif (no relative of the prime minister) as commander-in-chief. In contrast to General Bajwa, General Sharif is believed to have favoured deploying troops in support of Saudi Arabia.
“Yemen was hotly debated within the military. Ultimately the military feared that there would be a sectarian backlash within the military itself if it got involved in the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen,” said Abdullah Gul, the son of former Islamist ISI chief, Hamid Gul, who maintains close ties to the command of Pakistan’s armed forces.
Those concerns appear to have been abandoned with the likelihood of a Pakistani combat brigade being sent to areas of the Saudi-Yemeni border vulnerable to attack by the anti-Saudi Houthis as well as jihadi groups. The deployment would not violate the Pakistani parliament resolution as long as Pakistani troops remain on the Saudi side of the border.
General Sharif may be rewarded for his support of the Saudis by taking over the command of the Riyadh-based military alliance, dubbed the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism.
General Raheel’s appointment would give the alliance credibility it needs: a non-Arab commander from one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries who commanded not only one of the Muslim world’s largest militaries, but also one that possesses nuclear weapons.
Yet, accepting the command risks putting Pakistan more firmly than ever in the camp of Saudi-led confrontation with Iran that Saudi political and religious leaders as well as their militant Pakistani allies often frame not only in geopolitical but also sectarian terms.
Pakistani Shiite leaders as well as some Sunni politicians have warned that General Raheel’s appointment would put an end to Pakistan’s ability to walk a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan borders on Iran and is home to the world’s largest Shiite minority.
General Raheel has reportedly told his Saudi counterparts that he would seek to involve Iran in the alliance. Similarly, General Bajwa appeared to be hedging his bets by declaring that “enhanced Pakistan-Iran military-to-military cooperation will have a positive impact on regional peace and stability.”
Saudi conditions for a reconciliation with Iran appear to all but rule out any effort by General Raheel and complicate General Bajwa’s balancing act.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, in a speech last month’s Munich Security Conference, charged that “Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran has as part of its constitution the principle of exporting the revolution. Iran does not believe in the principle of citizenship. It believes that the Shiite, the ‘dispossessed’, as Iran calls them, all belong to Iran and not to their countries of origin. And this is unacceptable for us in the kingdom, for our allies in the Gulf and for any country in the world.”
Mr. Al-Jubeir stipulated that “until and unless Iran changes its behaviour, and changes its outlook, and changes the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with a country like this.”
The possible deployment of troops and General Raheel’s appointment comes as the Pakistani parliament is forging closer relations with its Iranian counterpart in an effort to nurture economic and political cooperation.
It also comes in the wake of the deportation by Saudi Arabia of 39,000 Pakistanis as part of a crackdown on militants and the arrest and alleged torture of Pakistani transgenders in the kingdom.
Transgenders may not garner significant public empathy in conservative Pakistan but workers’ rights do, particularly at a time of reduced remittances. “The government and the military are walking a tightrope that is dangerously balanced both in terms of domestic as well as in terms of geopolitics,” said one Pakistani political analyst.
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By James M. Dorsey.
As Riyadh and Beijing nurture grandiose plans for military bases, New Delhi fears the archipelago could become a breeding ground for the terrorist group
Saudi King Salman welcomes the Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom to Riyadh in 2016. Photo: AFP
Saudi King Salman’s stop in the Maldives on his month-long tour of Asia brings into focus how this tiny archipelago – best known for high-end tourism and an existential battle against climate change – has emerged as a key player in a regional struggle for influence.
Both Riyadh and Beijing are currying favour with the strategically located 820km-long chain of Indian Ocean atolls, in efforts analysts believe are aimed at gaining concessions for military bases.
China sees the islands as a node in its “string of pearls” – a row of ports on key trade and oil routes linking the Middle Kingdom to the Middle East – while for Saudi Arabia, the atolls have the added advantage of lying a straight three-hour shot from the coast of regional rival and arch-foe, Iran.
The possible building of Chinese and/or Saudi military bases here would also complement the independent development of both nations’ military outposts in Djibouti, an East African nation on a key energy export route at the mouth of the Red Sea.
Exiled former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, speaks at a climate roundtable at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo: AFP
Exiled former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, who lost power in 2012 following protests over rising commodity prices and the nation’s poor economy, has no doubt regarding Chinese and Saudi intentions.
They “want to have a base in the Maldives that would safeguard trade routes – their oil routes – to their new markets. To have strategic installations, infrastructure,” Climate Change News quoted Nasheed as saying.
Increased military cooperation
The heightened Saudi and Chinese interest in the Maldives comes against a backdrop of increased military cooperation between the two nations.
“China is willing to push military relations with Saudi Arabia to a new level,” Chinese defence minister Chang Wanquan (常萬全) told his visiting Saudi counterpart, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, last August. Months later, in October, counterterrorism forces from the two countries held the first ever joint exercise between the Chinese military and an Arab armed force.
King Salman’s visit also comes as the kingdom negotiates the US$10 billion development, if not wholesale acquisition, of Faafu, 19 low-lying islands 120km south of the Maldivian capital of Male. That project would involve building seaports, airports, high-end housing and resorts and the creation of special economic zones.
Legal experts suggest Saudi Arabia will probably be granted a freehold on the land if 70 per cent of the project is executed on reclaimed ground.
President of the Republic of Maldives Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom meets Saudi King Salman in Riyadh. Photo: AFP
Transparency Maldives, the local branch of Transparency International, has called on the government to publish its plans for Faafu amid protests against the proposed Saudi investment and allegations of widespread corruption.
Critics claim the Saudis have gone out of their way to silence opponents by greasing their palms. In one incident, journalists reporting on the potential deal were handed cash-filled envelopes during an event at the Saudi embassy in Male.
Saudi Arabia, to lay the ground for the investment, has in recent years funded religious institutions in the Maldives and offered scholarships for students wanting to pursue religious studies at the kingdom’s ultra-conservative universities in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The funding has pushed the Maldives, a popular high-end tourist destination, towards greater intolerance and public piety. Public partying, mixed dancing and Western beach garb have become acceptable only within expensive tourist resorts.
The Saudis “have had a good run of propagating their world view to the people of the Maldives and they’ve done that for the last three decades. They’ve now, I think, come to the view that they have enough sympathy to get a foothold,” Nasheed said.
Riyadh sees its soft power in the Maldives as a way of convincing China it is Saudi Arabia – and not its regional rival, Iran – that is the key link in Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative to link Eurasia to the Middle Kingdom through Chinese-funded infrastructure.
Chinese President Xi Jinping at his welcoming ceremony at the Republic Square in Male in 2014. Photo: AFP
King Salman’s visit follows a 2014 trip to the Maldives by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) during which Beijing announced the construction of a US$210 million Friendship Bridge that would connect Male’s eastern edge to the western corner of the island of Hulhule, where the international airport is located.
China also agreed to build a new airport runway as well as a port in Laamu, an atoll south of Faafu. That port would be a “pearl” in China’s string alongside those it has already established in Djibouti, Pakistan’s Gwadar, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and its US$10.7 billion development of an industrial city next to the Omani port of Duqm.
But while recent focus has been on the military bases Beijing and Riyadh may want to build, another regional player, New Delhi, fears the archipelago could become a base of a very different kind.
Indian intelligence sources claim hundreds of Maldivians have joined the ranks of Islamic State in Syria – raising the worrying prospect of a hub for the terror group just off the sub-continental mainland.
Nasheed, the former president who now lives in London, has long railed that climate change will lead to the Maldives sinking and vanishing into the Indian Ocean. That concern has been replaced by worries that the atolls will become mired in mounting regional rivalry and stymied by ultra-conservatism that ultimately could threaten grandiose Saudi and Chinese plans.
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By James M. Dorsey.
Source: Daily Mail
Troubled ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, envisioned as part of China’s string of pearls linking the Eurasian heartland to the Middle Kingdom, exemplify political pitfalls that threaten Beijing’s ambitious One Belt, One Road project.
Political violence over the past decade has stopped Pakistan’s Gwadar port from emerging as a major trans-shipment hub in Chinese trade and energy supplies while turmoil in Sri Lanka threatens to dissuade Chinese investors from sinking billions into the country’s struggling Hambantota port and planned economic hub.
The problems of the two ports serve as pointers to simmering discontent and potential resistance to China’s ploy for dominance through cross-continental infrastructure linkage across a swath of land that is restive and ripe for political change.
Chinese, Pakistani and Russian officials warned in December that militant groups in Afghanistan, including the Islamic State (IS) had stepped up operations in Afghanistan. IS in cooperation with the Pakistani Taliban launched two months later a wave of attacks that has targeted government, law enforcement, the military and minorities and has killed hundreds of people.
China is investing $51 billion in Pakistan infrastructure and energy, including Gwadar port in the troubled province of Balochistan that is struggling to attract business nine years after it was initially inaugurated. The government announced this week that it had deployed 15,000 troops to protect China’s investment in Pakistan, a massive project dubbed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
For Gwadar to become truly viable, Pakistan will have to not only address Baluch grievances that have prompted militancy and calls for greater self-rule, if not independence, but also ensure that Baluchistan does not become a playground in the bitter struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
To do so, Pakistan will have to either crackdown on militant Afghan groups with the Taliban in the lead who operate with official acquiescence out of the Baluch capital of Quetta or successfully facilitate an end to conflict in Afghanistan itself.
That is a tall order which in effect would require changes in longstanding Pakistani policies. Gwadar’s record so far bears this out. Phase II of Gwadar was completed in 2008, yet few ships anchor there and little freight is handled.
Success would also require a break with long-standing Chinese foreign and defence policy that propagates non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. China has pledged $70 million in military aid to Afghanistan, is training its police force, and has proposed a four-nation security bloc that would include Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
A mere 70 kilometres further west of Gwadar lies Iran’s southernmost port city of Chabahar that has become the focal point of Indian efforts to circumvent Pakistan in its access to energy-rich Central Asia and serve as India’s Eurasian hub by linking it to a north-south corridor that would connect Iran and Russia. Investment in Chabahar is turning it into Iran’s major deep water port outside the Strait of Hormuz that is populated by Gulf states hostile to the Islamic republic. Chabahar would also allow Afghanistan to break Pakistan’s regional maritime monopoly.
Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa warned Chinese officials in December that public protests would erupt if plans proceeded to build in Hambantota a 6,000-hectare economic zone that would buffet a $1.5 billion-deep sea port, a $209-million international airport, a world-class cricket stadium, a convention centre, and new roads. Protests a month later against the zone turned violent. Similar protests against Chinese investment have also erupted in recent years in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
In Sri Lanka, the government has delayed the signing of agreements with China on the port and the economic zone after the protests catapulted the controversy onto the national agenda with opposition politicians and trade unions railing against them. A Sri Lankan opposition member of parliament moreover initiated legal proceedings to stop a debt-for-equity deal with China.
China’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Yi Xianliang warned that the protests and opposition could persuade Chinese companies to walk away from the $5 billion project. “We either go ahead or we stop here,” Yi said.
“The Hambantota fiasco is sending a clear message to Beijing: showing up with bags of money alone is not enough to win a new Silk Road,” commented Wade Shepard, author of a forthcoming book on China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.
Adding to China’s problems is its apparent willingness to at times persuade its partners to circumvent or flout international standards of doing business. A European Union investigation into a Chinese-funded $2.9 billion rail link between the Hungarian capital of Budapest and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, could punch a hole into Chinese plans to extend its planned Asian transportation network into Europe. The investigation is looking at whether the deal seemingly granted to Chinese companies violated EU laws stipulating that contracts for large transportation projects must be awarded through public tenders.
The sum total of problems China is encountering across Eurasia highlight a disconnect between grandiose promises of development and improved standards of living and the core of Chinese policy: an insistence that economics offer solutions to deep-seated conflicts, local aspirations, and a narrowing of the gap between often mutually exclusive worldviews. It also suggests that China believes that it can bend, if not rewrite rules, when it serves its purpose.
To be sure, protests in Sri Lanka and Central Asia are as much about China as they are expressions of domestic political rivalries that at times are fought at China’s expense. Even so, they suggest that for China to succeed, it will not only have to engage with local populations, but also become a player rather than position itself as an economic sugar daddy that hides behind the principle of non-interference and a flawed economic win-win proposition.
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By James M. Dorsey.
Controversy and uncertainty over the possible appointment of a Pakistani general as commander of a 40-nation, Saudi-led, anti-Iranian military alliance dubbed the Muslim world’s NATO goes to the core of a struggle for Pakistan’s soul as the country reels from a week of stepped up political violence.
It also constitutes a defining moment in Saudi relations with Pakistan, historically one of the Gulf state’s staunchest allies and a country where the kingdom is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution. Finally, whether the general accepts the post or not is likely to be a bellwether of the Muslim world’s ability to free itself of the devastating impact of Saudi-like Sunni ultra-conservatism and bridge rather than exasperate sectarian divides.
Retired Pakistani military chief of staff General Raheel Sharif’s acceptance of the command of the alliance, the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, would kill several birds with one stone. The alliance, created in 2015 to bolster Saudi Arabia’s two-year old, flailing intervention in Yemen and counter Iran, has so far largely been a paper tiger.
The alliance has staged military exercises that appeared to target Iran but has not yet established a joint command or command infrastructure. The appointment of General Shareef could potentially help the alliance evolve into a force that is credible, assuming that he can overcome widespread hesitancy towards it across the Muslim world.
In personal terms, the appointment would award Mr. Sharif for opposing the Pakistani parliament rejection in 2015 of a Saudi request for military support in Yemen.
The decision took Saudi Arabia by surprise given that Pakistan has been one of the world’s foremost beneficiaries, if not the largest, of Saudi government and non-governmental largess and its dependency on remittances from Pakistani workers in the kingdom.
The appointment of General Sharif would have also been a favour to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a politician and businessman with close ties to the kingdom who like the general favoured Pakistani military support in Yemen. It would remove the popular general as a potential political rival of the prime minister. Namesakes, Messrs Sharif are not related to one another.
The uncertainty about General Raheel’s appointment that has been lingering since it was first announced two months ago, and then been called into question is indicative of strains in relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, once the closest of nations in the Muslim world.
In a telling tale of the times, remittances to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia dropped 5.8 percent over the last seven months while cheaper and better trained Indians and Bangladeshis have begun to replace Pakistani manpower. Moreover, Saudi Arabia hasdeported 39,000 Pakistanis since October as part of its crackdown on militants.
Abdullah Ghulzar Khan, a Pakistani national who lived in Saudi Arabia for 12 years, last year blew himself up in a parking lot near the US consulate in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. Fifteen Pakistanis have since been arrested on suspicion of being militants. Two of them were believed to be part of a plot to attack the city’s Al-Jawhara Stadium with a truck carrying 400 kg of explosives during a Saudi Arabia-UAE soccer match that was attended by 60,000 spectators.
The arrests like the story of Tashfeen Malik, the Pakistani woman who together with her American-Pakistani husband, gunned down 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015, tell a much bigger tale about the risks inherent in Saudi backing at home and abroad, including Pakistan, of puritan, supremacist interpretations of Islam.
Ms. Malik moved with her parents to Saudi Arabia when she was a toddler to escape sectarian skirmishes and family disputes. In the kingdom, the family turned its back on its Sufi and Barelvi traditions that included visiting shrines, honouring saints and enjoying Sufi trance music, practices rejected by the kingdom’s austere Wahhabi form of Islam. The change sparked tensions with relatives in Pakistan, whom the Maliks accused in Wahhabi fashion of rejecting the oneness of God by revering saints.
Ms. Malik turned even more conservative when she returned to Pakistan in 2009 to study pharmacology. She started attending religion classes at a branch of Al-Huda (The Correct Path) International Welfare Foundation, a controversial academy that has made significant inroads into Pakistan’s upper and middle classes, and propagates an ideology akin to that of Saudi Arabia.
In a statement after the San Bernardino attack, Al Huda described itself as “a non-political, non-sectarian and non-profit organisation which is tirelessly serving humanity by promoting education along with numerous welfare programmes for the needy and destitute.” It said that it “does not have links to any extremist regime and stands to promote peaceful message of Islam and denounces extremism, violence and terrorism of all kinds.” The institution said that it could not be held responsible for “personal acts “of its students.
To be sure, Al Huda like Sunni ultra-conservatism in its various guises does not breed violence by definition. Yet, like any inward-looking, intolerant and supremacist ideology it creates potential breeding grounds in a given set of circumstances. Similarly, as in the case of the Islamic State (IS) or Al Qaeda, the shared basic tenets of ultra-conservatism has lead to the formation of groups that have turned on Saudi Arabia itself.
A newly formed alliance of IS and Pakistani Taliban that strives to impose strict Islamic law was responsible for the series of attacks in the last week that killed 83 people at a Sufi shrine in southern Punjab and targeted the Punjabi parliament, military outposts, a Samaa TV crew, and a provincial police station.
Complicating Pakistan’s struggle with militancy is the fact that massive, decades-long backing of ultra-conservativism by successive Pakistani political, military and intelligence leaders and Saudi Arabia has made it part of the fabric of significant segments of Pakistani society and education as well as key branches of the government and arms of the state.
That coupled with geopolitics and Pakistan’s increasingly troubled relationship with its religious and ethnic minorities is precisely what makes the proposed appointment of General Raheel so problematic.
Pakistan, a country with a long border with Iran and the world’s largest Shiite minority, has long been a major frontline in Saudi Arabia’s almost four-decade long covert proxy war with the Islamic republic, dating back to the 1979 Islamic revolution. Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with the Pakistani military and intelligence as well as senior government officials, has long backed militant sectarian groups that have helped push Pakistan towards Sunni ultra-conservatism and are responsible for a large number of deaths among Shiites, Ahmadis, Sufis and others.
General Raheel’s appointment would bring the chicken home to roost. By taking the command, General Raheel would give the alliance the credibility it needs: a non-Arab commander from one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries who commanded not only one of the Muslim world’s largest militaries, but also one that possesses nuclear weapons. The appointment would build on decades of Pakistani military support of Saudi Arabia dating back to war in Yemen in the late 1960s.
Yet, accepting the command would put Pakistan more firmly than ever in the camp of Saudi-led confrontation with Iran that Saudi political and religious leaders as well as their militant Pakistani allies often frame not only in geopolitical but also sectarian terms. Ultimately, it was that step that the Pakistani parliament rejected in 2015 when it refused to send troops to Yemen. Acceptance of the command by General Raheel would fly in the face of parliament’s decision.
Pakistani Shiite leaders as well as some Sunni politicians have warned that General Raheel’s appointment would put an end to Pakistan’s ability to walk a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It could raise the stakes in Balochistan, the province bordering Iran where separatists are agitating for independence and China has invested billions of dollars as part of its One Belt, One Road initiative.
Pakistani news reports suggest that General Raheel has sought to alleviate the risk by setting conditions that are unlikely to be acceptable to Saudi Arabia, including that Iran be invited to join the alliance and that he be the mediator in disputes among alliance members with no need to report to a higher i.e. Saudi authority. Iran reportedly advised Pakistan that it would work with General Raheel if he took the command to reach a negotiated resolution of the Yemen war.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, in a speech last weekend to the Munich Security Conference, laid out a vision that rules out General Raheel’s thinking. “Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran has as part of its constitution the principle of exporting the revolution. Iran does not believe in the principle of citizenship. It believes that the Shiite, the ‘dispossessed’, as Iran calls them, all belong to Iran and not to their countries of origin. And this is unacceptable for us in the kingdom, for our allies in the Gulf and for any country in the world… So, until and unless Iran changes its behaviour, and changes its outlook, and changes the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with a country like this.,” Mr. Al-Jubeir said.
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By James M. Dorsey.
A militant faction associated with the Pakistani Taliban has put Pakistani authorities, already under pressure from the United States and an Asian money laundering watchdog, at a crossroads in their hitherto half-hearted efforts to crack down on violent groups, some of which maintain close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar earlier this week fired its first shots in a new offensive that aims at Pakistan government, military and civilian targets with a suicide attack on the Punjabi parliament. Fifteen people were killed in the attack. The group also attacked three military outposts in the Pakistani tribal agency of Mohmand.
The offensive dubbed Operation Ghazi came as Pakistan sought to fend off potential steps against Pakistan, including inclusion on a possible revision of President Donald J. Trump’s embattled list of countries whose nationals are temporarily banned from travel to the United States, and punitive steps by the Bangkok-based Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG). APG has been looking into Pakistani financial transaction of internationally banned groups that continue to operate with Pakistani acquiescence.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar demonstrated its ability to force Pakistan to act against militants, no matter how half-heartedly, with its December 2014 attack on a public military school in which 141 people, including 132 school children, were killed.
The attack sparked public outrage and forced the government to announce a national action plan to crack down on militants and political violence. The plan has largely proven to be a paper tiger.
With its announcement on February 10 of Operation Ghazi and this month’s attacks, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar could force Pakistan’s government and security establishment to again review its counterterrorism strategy, employment of militant proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and implementation of the action plan. The operation was named after Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a leader of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, who was killed in clashes in 2007 with the military.
While any review is likely to amount in the short term to finetuning rather than a fundamental revision of Pakistani policies, it would probably nudge Pakistan one step closer to realizing that its strategy is backfiring and increasingly proving too costly. Pakistan has long denied supporting militant groups and has repeatedly charged that Jamaat-ul-Ahrar was a creation of Indian intelligence.
Pakistan last month put one of the world’s most wanted men, Hafez Muhammad Saeed, a leader of the banned group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and its alleged front, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), under house arrest. Although internationally listed as a globally designated terrorist, Mr. Saeed was restricted in his freedom of movement rather than incarcerated while his movement has started operations under a new name, Tehrik-e-Azadi Jammu o Kashmir.
Earlier, Pakistan’s State Bank, the country’s monetary authority announced the freezing of accounts of 2,000 militants that militants and analysts said did not hold the bulk of the militants’ assets.
Projecting himself as a key figure in radical Islamist opposition to the state, Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz, the brother of Mr. Ghazi and current head of the Red Mosque, a notorious militant nerve centre, spelled out the philosophy of the militants in a recent interview. Sporting a white wild growth beard as he sat cross-legged on a mattress on the floor of a booklined room in a rundown compound that houses the mosque’s seminary, Mr. Abdul Aziz rejected the Pakistani government’s authority.
“These corrupt rulers are not fit to rule. They don’t have moral authority. They live in wealth while the people live in abject poverty. If the state is not within the boundaries of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, we have no right to recognize its authority. Pakistan is not a Muslim country. We still have the law of the colonial power. We disagree with those who believe in democracy,” Mr. Abdul Aziz said with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eye.
The International Crisis Group warned in a just released report that “ethno-political and sectarian interests and competition, intensified by internal migration, jihadist influx and unchecked movement of weapons, drugs and black money, have created an explosive mix” in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. The report said the city was a pressure cooker as a result of a failure of government policy, lack of action against militant and criminal groups, and “a heavy-handed, politicised crackdown by paramilitary Rangers.”
The report noted that “anti-India outfits like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa (LeT/JD) and Jaish-e-Mohammed continue to operate madrasas and charity fronts with scant reaction from the Rangers or police.”
The ICG called on federal and local government to “replace selective counter-terrorism with an approach that targets jihadist groups using violence within or from Pakistani territory; regulate the madrasa sector; and act comprehensively against those with jihadist links.”
Pakistan has a vast number of uncontrolled madrassas or religious seminaries that are run by militant groups, many with close ties to Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative religious establishment, that teach an intolerant, supremacist, often sectarian interpretation of Islam. Complicating any government effort to supervise madrassas, is the fact that the government has no reliable data on how many seminaries exist.
A military campaign in 2009 against the Pakistani Taliban in the country’s tribal areas prompted the group to set up shop in Karachi. Its estimated 8,000 operatives in the city heightened tension and increased levels of violence.
“Karachi thus changed from a city in which jihadist combatants mainly rested and recuperated from fighting elsewhere to one that also generated vital funding. TTP (Pakistani Taliban)-run extortion rackets, for instance, targeted marble factory owners in strongholds such as Manghopir, while kidnapping for ransom and robberies generated additional revenue. The police were regularly attacked, bans were enforced on ‘immoral activities’ and ‘peace committees’ (mobile courts and jirgas – councils of elders) were established to win over constituents and consolidate local authority,” the ICG report said.
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By James M. Dorsey.
China, at the behest of Pakistan, has prevented the United Nations from listing a prominent Pakistani militant as a globally designated terrorist. China’s protection of Masood Azhar, who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military, raises questions about the sincerity of a Pakistani crackdown on militants as well as China’s willingness to use its influence to persuade Pakistan to put an end to the use of militants as proxies.
The United States, Britain, France and India have long wanted the United Nations Security Council Sanctions Committee to designate Mr. Azhar on the grounds that his organization, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), has already been proscribed by Pakistan as well as the international body.
Mr. Azhar, a fighter in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for an attack last year on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station. The militants, dressed in Indian military uniforms fought a 14-hour battle against Indian security forces that only ended when the last attacker was killed. Mr. Azhar was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.
Mr. Azhar, who was freed from Indian prison in 1999 in exchange for the release of passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines flight, is also believed to be responsible for an attack in 2001 on the Indian parliament in New Delhi that brought Pakistan and India to the brink of war.
JeM despite being banned continues to publicly raise funds and recruit fighters in mosques.Indian journalist Praveen Swami quoted Mufti Abdul Rauf Asghar, Mr. Azhar’s elder brother, as telling worshippers gathered in a mosque in Punjab in late January to commemorate a militant who had been killed in India: “Islam is a world power and cannot be destroyed. Whoever tries to destroy it will be destroyed himself. Jihad is the most important obligation of our faith.”
Pakistani indulgence of JeM and Chinese connivance in preventing Mr. Azhar, a portly bespectacled son of a Bahawalpur religious studies teacher and author of a four-volume treatise on jihad as well as books with titles like Forty Diseases of the Jews, from being designated has raised eyebrows in both Pakistani and Chinese policy circles.
Opening a window on apparent differences between civilian and military branches of government, Pakistani Foreign Minister Aizaz Chaudhry last year reportedly warned a gathering of political, military and intelligence leaders that Pakistan risked international isolation if it failed to crack down on militant groups. Mr. Chaudhry noted that Pakistan’s closest ally, China with its massive $46 billion investment in Pakistani infrastructure as part of its One Belt, One Road initiative, was increasingly questioning the wisdom of protecting Mr. Azhar at Pakistan’s behest.
Chinese vice foreign minister Li Baodong last year defended his country’s repeated shielding of Mr. Azhar by suggesting that attempts to designate the JeM amounted to using counter-terrorism for political goals. “China is opposed to all forms of terrorism. There should be no double standards on counter-terrorism. Nor should one pursue own political gains in the name of counter-terrorism,” Mr. Li said.
Chinese policy analysts with close government ties squirm when asked about China’s repeated veto of efforts to designate Mr. Azhar. The analysts suggest that the Pakistani military and intelligence’s use of proxies like Mr. Azhar in their dispute with India over Kashmir has sparked debate about the wisdom of sinking $46 billion into Pakistan.
China’s hopes that the investment in infrastructure would persuade the Pakistani military and intelligence to seriously back away from using militant proxies have so far remain unfulfilled.
The investment is part of China’s larger effort to link Eurasia to China through infrastructure. It expects that the linkage will spur economic development both in Pakistan and China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang where China’s harsh measures against the cultural practices of the Uighurs have sought to pre-empt Islamist violence.
Responding to the civilian government’s effort to crackdown on Jaish-e-Mohammad, including last year’s freezing of its accounts by the State Bank of Pakistan, Mr. Azhar defended the group’s contribution to Pakistan’s defence of Kashmir as well as the jihadist movement at large.
“When we entered the tent of the jihadist movement. it had no branch in Kashmir, nor was there lightning in Iraq or Syria. There were just two fronts, in Afghanistan and Palestine, one of them active and one of them shut. We have watched as the jihad we befriended grew from a glowing ember into the sun; from a small spring into a river, and now, as it is about to become a great ocean,” Mr. Azhar wrote in the group’s magazine.
A BBC investigative documentary last year traced jihadist thinking in Britain to a month-long visit to Britain in 1993 by Mr. Azhar, who at the time headed Pakistani militant group Harakat ul Mujahideen.
Mr. Azhar gave 40 lectures during his fund-raising and recruitment tour and was feted by Islamic scholars from Britain’s largest mosque network. More and more scholars joined his entourage as he toured the country before moving on to Saudi Arabia. A passionate and emotive speaker, women reportedly took off their jewellery and handed it to Azhar after listening to his speeches.
“It was Azhar, a Pakistani cleric, who was the first to spread the seeds of modern jihadist militancy in Britain – and it was through South Asian mosques belonging to the Deobandi movement that he did it,” says BBC reporter Innes Bowen.
Indian analysts believe that shielding Mr. Azhar serves China’s purpose of keeping India preoccupied with the threat of political violence. China’s is moreover grateful for successful Pakistani efforts to stop the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (IOC) that groups 57 Muslim nations from criticizing Chinese policy in Xinjiang. Finally, the analysts say, shielding Mr. Azhar constitutes retaliation for India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama.
In defending Mr. Azhar with one eye on India, China is walking a fine line that threatens to undermine its massively funded policy objectives in Pakistan, a country that for years has been reeling from militancy that has fuelled sectarianism at home and created militant groups that at times have turned on their Pakistani masters.
By doing so, China risks allowing militancy to further fester in a country where militancy is not confined to small groups but has been woven into the fabric of significant segments of society. Attempting to heal what is an open wound requires not only economic development but also a Pakistani and Chinese counter-terrorism strategy that refrains from making politically opportunistic compromises.
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By James M. Dorsey.
The Trump administration risks fuelling sectarianism across the Muslim world and exacerbating multiple conflicts that are ripping the Middle East and North Africa apart by singling out Iran rather than tackling root causes.
Iran moved into President Donald J. Trump’s firing line when his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, an anti-Iran hawk, put the Islamic republic “on notice” for testing a ballistic missile. The test was likely a provocative probing of US policy towards Iran, one of seven countries whose nationals are temporarily banned from travel to the United States. Mr. Trump has repeatedly denounced the nuclear agreement concluded by the United States and other world powers with Iran as a bad deal.
It remains unclear what Mr. Flynn’s notification entails. A resolution circulated in the House of Representatives before Mr. Trump’s inauguration would authorize US military action against Iran if the president believes it is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Most analysts, including supporters of Mr. Trump, believe that Iran has largely honoured the international agreement curbing the Islamic republic’s nuclear program, making an immediate military response to the missile test unlikely.
Gulf states alongside Israel have moreover urged Mr. Trump to adopt a tough approach towards what they see as belligerent Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries and support for terrorism, but to stop short of annulling the agreement. Mr. Trump is expected to move away from his campaign pledges to tear up the agreement, but with Mr. Flynn’s warning appears to be adopting the advice of US allies.
A Saudi read out of a phone conversation last weekend between King Salman and Mr. Trump said the two leaders agreed to counter “those who seek to undermine security and stability in the region and interfere in the affairs of other states.” The White House said the they also had a meeting of the minds on the “importance of rigorously enforcing” the nuclear deal.
The consensus notwithstanding, Mr. Trump’s travel ban, despite including Iran, puts King Salman in a bind, as he balances the kingdom’s foreign policy objectives with its self-proclaimed leadership of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has so far refrained from commenting on the ban despite pressure from some of its allies to do so.
Saudi Arabia’s predicament and it’s welcoming of the rise of Mr. Trump in the expectation that he will fight some of the kingdom’s battles creates the opportunity for the new president to put disruption to constructive use.
It could allow Mr. Trump to tackle not only Iran but also Saudi Arabia on a fundamental issue that drives volatility, sectarianism and political violence in the Muslim world in general and Iranian and Saudi policies specifically: the rise of supremacist, intolerant, anti-pluralistic ultra-conservatism.
Supporters of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have already hinted at the opportunity. “Iran has every interest in reducing tension with Saudi Arabia at a time when the Trump presidency in the United States is creating new uncertainties,” said an editorial in the pro-Rouhani Entekhab daily.
The opportunity that arises is not limited to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Leaving aside the ethics of banning travel on the basis of religion or nationality, Mr. Trump’s ban as well as his intention to focus US counter-terrorism exclusively on Islam rather than on all forms of political extremism, including far-right supremacism, would also allow him to pressure other countries where divisive ultra-conservatism has been allowed to fester.
That is evident in efforts by the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia to stay out of Mr. Trump’s firing line by refraining from criticizing the ban. Both Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, have witnessed the rise of ultra-conservative intolerance towards non-Muslim and Muslim minorities such as Shiites and Ahmadis, a sect widely viewed by conservative followers of the faith as heretics, that are informed by Saudi-backed puritan interpretations of Islam
There is little to suggest that Mr. Trump recognizes the opportunity. A failure to exploit the opportunity and exclusively target Iran is however likely to backfire, embolden Saudi policies that create problems rather than offer solutions, and fuel sectarian and other cycles of violence.
While Iran has refrained from promoting a supremacist world view of its own, there is little doubt that it implements its ultra-conservatism with the application of medieval, punitive measures of Islamic law, including amputation and stoning. It has also reshaped the politics as well as the very integrity of Arab countries like Lebanon where it supports Shiite militia Hezbollah, Syria that has been torn apart by a vicious civil war, the creation of Shiite militias in Iraq, and Yemen where Iran has come to the aid of the Houthis. The problem is that so have Saudi Arabia and its allies or in other words: there are no nice guys in this fight.
A four-decade long, $100 billion global Saudi effort to box in, if not undermine, a post-1979 revolution Iranian system of government that it sees as an existential threat to the autocratic rule of the Al Saud family by funding ultra-conservative political and religious groups has contributed to the rise of supremacism, intolerance and anti-pluralism across the Muslim world and created potential breeding grounds of extremism.
The rise of ultra-conservatism has fuelled sectarianism and violence against Shiites and Ahmadis; hardened attitudes towards women and alternative lifestyles; and curbed fundamental freedoms under the guise of blasphemy.
Iranian interference in the affairs of other countries stems as much from long-fading revolutionary zeal in the wake of the 1979 revolution as it constitutes a response to the Saudi-led Sunni campaign that involved not only support for non-violent, ultra-conservative groups, but also the funding of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s devastating eight-year long war against Iran in the 1980s as well as virulently anti-Shiite and anti-Ahmadi forces in Pakistan that are responsible for the deaths of thousands, and militant groups in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.
At the bottom line, Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been locked into a struggle for dominance in the Muslim world that has fuelled violence, created breeding grounds for extremism, and brought the Middle East and North Africa to the edge of an abyss. Tackling symptoms or only specific players rather than root causes threatens to fuel the fire rather than extinguish it.
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By James M. Dorsey.
Pakistan has put one of the world’s most wanted men under house arrest in a half-hearted crackdown on a militant group with close ties to the military and intelligence in a bid to persuade President Donald J. Trump from adding the country to those whose citizens were last week banned from travelling to the United States.
Pakistani media reports and analysts said the move against Hafez Muhammad Saeed, a leader of the banned group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its alleged front, Jamaat-ud-Din (JuD), came after US officials days before the inauguration of Mr. Trump gave Pakistan until January 31 to respond to complaints by the Bangkok-based Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG) about various JuD financial transactions.
Mr. Saeed is believed to be among others responsible for the 2008 attacks on 12 targets in Mumbai, including the Taj Mahal Hotel, a train station, a café and a Jewish centre. Some 164 people were killed and more than 300 wounded. The US government has a bounty of $10 million on Mr. Saeed for information leading to his capture.
Writing in The News, Pakistani investigative reporter Azaz Syed said US officials had told Pakistan’s ambassador in a meeting on January 11 that “if the objections raised in the report were not addressed, the US may put Pakistan in the blacklist of the countries in the International Cooperative Review Group (ICRG).”
Apparently pre-warned that action may be taken against him, Mr. Saeed suggested during a press conference in Islamabad three days later that JuD may start operating under a new name, a practice frequently adopted by militant groups with government acquiescence. Mr. Saeed hinted that the new name would be Tehreek-e-Azadi-e-Kashmir (Kashmir Freedom Movement).
Mr. Syed, in a telephone interview alongside other analysts, said the move against Mr. Saeed, several other JuD leaders, and the group itself, were cosmetic. The symbolism was evident in the fact that Mr. Saeed was confined to his home in Lahore that was declared a sub-jail rather than carted off to prison.
The symbolism was also reflected in public displays such as the removal of JuD flags from streets and the hoisting of Pakistani flags at the group’s 81-hectar headquarters in Muridke, a city of two and three-storey pillboxes famous for its fruits and vegetables 22 kilometres north of Lahore. The International Crisis Group has reported that the complex which contains an ultra-conservative religious school and housing for 3,000 students and staff was built in 1998 with Saudi funding.
Mr. Saeed has had long standing links to Saudi Arabia and the kingdom-backed Ahle-Hadith movement, a group whose ultra-conservative religious views are most closely aligned with Saudi-supported forms of Wahhabism and Salafis. A graduate of an Ahle-Hadith madrassa and King Saud University in Riyadh, Mr. Saeed, backed by Saudi money founded Islamic schools in which potential jihadis not only studied Islam but also acquired computer and communication skills.
Mr. Saeed was appointed in the 1980s by General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq as a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory body of clerics and scholars established to assist the Pakistani government in bringing laws in line with the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Mohammed. He has long left that post.
Mr. Saeed reportedly met while studying in Saudi Arabia with Saudi scholars involved in the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It was those scholars who launched him in his career as a militant. Abdullah Azam, the Palestinian scholar who taught in Saudi Arabia, before founding the precursor to Al Qaeda is believed to have been one of LeT’s original inspirations.
Analysts and journalists compared the moves against Mr. Saeed and JuD to an announcement in October by the State Bank of Pakistan that it had frozen the accounts of more than 2,000 people associated with political violence. Major groups like JuD, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), and Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM), who mainly focus on Kashmir were not included in the list.
“Nothing has changed,” one analyst said.
The degree of official protection Mr. Saeed and his group have enjoyed over the years has long been an issue of concern to the United States.
US Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer noted in a cable in 2009 in the wake of the Mumbai attacks published by Wikileaks that JuD “is still operating in multiple locations in Pakistan, and that the group continues to openly raise funds. It is unclear what, if any, steps the GOP (Government of Pakistan) has taken to freeze JUD’s assets or otherwise implement UN 1267 sanctions, which include an asset freeze, travel ban, and arms embargo.”
An earlier cable warned that charities connected to Let and JeM that had been funded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had increased the local population’s dependence on extremist groups and undermined the influence of moderate Sufi religious leaders.
Mr. Saaed was in recent years a familiar figure in the news and in the public eye. He attended in December alongside other prominent militants such as HuM founder Fazlur Khalil Rehman a solidarity rally in the Pakistani Kashmir capital of Muzaffarabad.
Mr. Rehman is a specially designated terrorist on the US Treasury Department’s list who counts a Saudi among his wives. He operates a madrassah guarded by AK-47 toting guards on the outskirts of Islamabad. Mr. Rehman, a signatory of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa declaring the International Front Against Jews and Crusaders, has leveraged his close ties to the Pakistani world of militancy, his advocacy of armed struggle in Kashmir and his well-established connections to the Pakistani military and intelligence to position himself as a go-between.
Mr. Saeed was accorded VIP treatment two weeks after the Muzaffarabad rally on board a state-owned Pakistan International Airways flight to the Baloch capital of Quetta where he gave a news conference together with Shahzain Bugti, the government-backed grandson of killed Baloch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti.
Months earlier, Mr. Saeed headed a pro-Kashmir Azadi or Freedom caravan of buses, trucks, and cars from Lahore to Islamabad that stretched for kilometres along the Grand Trunk road that connects the two cities. The caravan swelled as it travelled the 270-kilometre-long road under the slogan: “The cure to India is nothing but jihad,” participants shouted.
In another twist of irony, Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority has tasked an institute run by a former JuD official who left the group because of a labour dispute rather than ideological differences with research on reform of madrassas, the religious schools many of which are suspected of being breeding grounds for political violence. The issue may be one of only appearance given that the institute’s researchers make a serious impression in interviews. It nonetheless raises questions.
Cracking down on JuD may solve Pakistan’s most immediate potential issue with the United States. It does however little to tackle the fundamental problem represented by JuD: a belief in key branches of the state that militant groups can serve a geopolitical purpose without endangering the fabric of society, a fabric that has already been infused by ultra-conservative strands of Islam many of which are akin to Saudi Arabia’s puritan interpretation of Islam.
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By James Dorsey.
By James M. Dorsey
US president Donald J. Trump’s fuelling of Islamophobia with his newly imposed travel ban as well as his war on the mainstream media feed an increasing trend towards supremacism and intolerance as well as restrictions on freedom of expression, media and religion across the Muslim world.
In doing so, the president’s moves complicate rather than fortify efforts to counter political violence by giving credence to ultra-conservative and jihadist narratives of war being waged by the West on Islam. The moves strengthen forces that propagate supremacist interpretations of the faith that are intolerant of non-Muslims and alternative Islamic worldviews.
The ultra-conservative alliance buoyed by Mr. Trump’s policies includes Saudi-backed ultra-conservative ideologies and governments that are beneficiaries of Saudi largess and opportunistically play politics with religion as well as anti-Saudi jihadists.
Saudi largesseis part of a massively funded, decades long soft power play by the kingdom designed to box in Iran by globally promoting an ultra-conservative, supremacist, intolerant strand of Islam. Mr. Trump and Saudi King Salman discussed on Sunday the need to counter “Iran’s destabilizing regional activities.” A Saudi readout of the call said the two men had identical views on the fight against terrorism.
Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism as well as Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and sectarian groups elsewhere in the Middle East has fuelled widespread sectarianism, intolerance towards Muslim and non-Muslim minorities, and conservative rejection of alternative lifestyles and basic freedoms. The trend sparks a turn towards ultra-conservative piety among the discontented and elites alike in various Sunni Muslim majority countries.
Moreover, Mr. Trump’s effort to create an alternative reality and the advice to the media of his far-right, strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, to “shut up,” beyond feeding the narrative of a Western war on Islam, reinforces efforts by the Saudis and others to restrict unfettered debate, particularly about sensitive religious issues, a cornerstone of any attempt to counter radicalism.
As a result, Mr. Trump is lending, perhaps unwittingly, greater credence to increasingly influential long-standing notions propagated by Saudi Arabia and other Muslim governments as well as militant jihadist and non-jihadist groups that seek to criminalize blasphemy.
The fallout is evident in Saudi Arabia as well as elsewhere in the Muslim world. The kingdom imposes severe penalties on those that question its narrow interpretation of Islam. Secular bloggers in Bangladesh risk being hacked to death while jihadists slaughter those they think have deviated from the true path. The governor of the Indonesian capital Jakarta, a Christian of Chinese descent, has been charged with blasphemy for allegedly misquoting the Qur’an. Malaysia has banned distribution of Shiite texts.
The electronic media regulator in Pakistan took two television shows of the air last year during Ramadan for discussing the country’s draconic blasphemy laws as well as the persecution of Ahmadis, a Muslim sect widely viewed as heretics. Writing in Dawn newspaper, Pakistani researcher Nazish Brohi warned that “the issue of blasphemy is destroying whatever strands of pluralism remain.”
The Saudi-backed effort to influence laws governing blasphemy and freedom of expression and religion in individual countries, has culminated in a campaign by Saudi Arabia other Muslim nations have long sought to criminalize blasphemy in international law.
In the process, the effort has become part of the kingdom’s response to rising anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia in the wake of attacks organized or inspired by the Islamic State in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and the United States as well as mounting criticism of Saudi Arabia’s austere interpretation of Islam and massive violations of human rights.
The success of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism that feeds on like-minded worldviews such as Deobandism in South Asia and the opportunism of politicians and government is evident in the degree to which its core pillars of intolerance have become part of the fabric of key branches of government and the state in various Muslim nations.
The recent disappearance of five Pakistani social media activists, including a Singapore-based Pakistani IT worker on a visit home, is a case in point. The five, despite government denials, were widely believed to have been abducted with at least the connivance elements of the state. The abductions were the latest blasphemy-related incidents to rock Pakistan in recent years.
The abductions’ relationship to elements of government was seemingly confirmed when two of the five phoned home in recent days to say that they were in good health and that the police could be contacted for more details. One of the five, activist, poet and university lecturer Salman Haider, was released a day later with no details about where and by whom he had been held. “The disappearances themselves were not unusual – the net has been widening for a while and unreported, hushed-up incidents tend to lead to more. The disappeared who return become the silenced,” quipped prominent Pakistani columnist Cyril Almeida in an op-ed in Dawn.
Al Jazeera reported that Ahmed Raza Naseer, one of the activists, was sitting with his brother at their shop in a small village just outside the central Pakistani town of Nankana Sahib, when a nondescript man holding a mobile phone to his ear walked in. He spent some time looking at their wares – mobile phones – before asking the brothers their names. After they answered, he asked which of them used a particular mobile phone number. When Ahmed replied that he did, he was told to stand up. The 27-year-old struggled to his feet – he has had polio in his right leg since he was a boy. “The man tells him to take his phone and come and sit in the car outside, where a sahab (important man] is sitting who wants to ask you some questions,” his younger brother Tahir, who was ordered to stay inside, told Al Jazeera. That was the last time his family saw Ahmed.
Ahmed and the four others have since been accused by TV show hosts with close ties to intelligence and the military, pro-military and intelligence activists, and ultra-conservative Islamic scholars of having committed blasphemy.
Abdullah Cheema, an activist who identified himself as a member of a banned group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, spokesperson for a group calling itself Civil Society of Pakistan, and an associate of Pakistan Defence, a pro-military and intelligence Facebook page that with 7.5 million followers advertises itself as an “authoritative platform for Pakistan Military and international defense,” associated the disappeared with another Facebook page, Bhensa, that he asserted had published blasphemous materials.
A group calling itself the Elite Cyber Force of Pakistan has since taken control of the page, saying that “all blasphemous and offensive material has been removed.” Civil Society of Pakistan chairman Muhammed Tahir filed blasphemy charges against the five after they had been abducted.
Citing Pakistan Defence as the source of the blasphemy charges, Mr. Cheema was supported on Neo News by Orya Maqbool Jan, a former government official, conservative talk show host, Urdu-language columnist, and director of United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) projects for children’s’ rights and women’s development. “These (Facebook) pages … are extremely insulting to the Prophet, the Quran, Allah and Islam. They have made a joke out of this… Speaking in support of such criminals is a crime in itself,” Mr. Cheema said on Mr. Jan’s show.
Speaking to The Pakistan Daily, Mr. Cheema asserted that “we firmly believe in freedom of expression but these blasphemous pages did not intend to initiate intellectual dialogues but deliberately posted hate and abuse against the prophet Muhammad.” His words were echoed by Muslim scholar Khadim Hussain Rizvi, wearing a black turban that identifies him as a descendant of the Prophet, in a sermon uploaded on You Tube on which he cited from a Qur’an lying in front of him.
“The bloggers’ disappearance is its own issue. They should definitely be produced, but no one should try and hide their crimes, and their crimes are so heinous that no one should … say that they suffered injustice,” added Aamir Liaquat, one of Pakistan’s most well-known talk show hosts.
Pakistan’s media regulator, in a display of apparent contradictory trends within the Pakistan government, has since banned Mr. Liaqat on charges of “hate speech” and “incitement to violence.”
The regulator’s action, however, constitutes a needle in a hay stack in a world in which the likes of Mr. Trump and far-right European politicians fuel Islamophobia to the benefit of Saudi-backed ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam as well as their anti-Saudi jihadist offshoots. Even if silenced, the activists who were abducted bear witness to a vicious circle that aggravates rather than solves problems both in the West and across the Muslim world.
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By James M. Dorsey.
2016 was not a good year for Saudi Arabia. Sharply lower oil prices sparked a domestic financial crisis that is forcing the country to restructure its economy. Saud Arabia’s bitter struggle with Iran for regional hegemony has embroiled it in wars and political conflicts it has been unable to win, leaving it no alternative but to admit failure or compromise. If 2016 was bad, 2017 threatens to be worse.
Saudi Arabia closed out 2016 with a ceasefire in Syria and prospects for peace talks orchestrated by Russia and Turkey that significantly weakened Saudi-backed rebel groups and strengthened Iran’s key Middle East ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Saudi Arabia’s only hope of influencing events in Syria is if either the rebels, jihadists who are not part of the ceasefire, or Mr. Al-Assad sabotage it for their own reasons. But even then, the fall of Aleppo, the rebel’s last major urban holdout, threatens to reduce the anti-Assad resistance to a largely rural insurgency.
Adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia, unable to block a candidate from becoming president of Lebanon who was supported by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that helped Mr. Al-Assad regain the upper hand in the Syrian civil war, was forced to strike a deal. It tacitly agreed to the appointment of Michel Aoun, a close Hezbollah ally, and quickly invited him to visit the kingdom early in the new year.
Mr. Aoun, as part of the deal, appointed Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, the prime minister and Lebanese-Saudi businessman who was murdered in 2005 allegedly by Hezbollah operatives, as his head of government. Mr. Hariri, whose family conglomerate in the kingdom was hit badly by the financial crisis and needed to be bailed out, is beholden to the Saudi government. The deal ended a more than two-year long standoff between Iranian and Saudi-backed forces that left the presidency vacant.
Sensitive to any challenge to its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia’s role is in the spotlight as it negotiates modalities with some 80 countries for the 2017 haj. Saudi Arabia and Iran failed to reach an agreement for the 2016 pilgrimage, leaving the Islamic republic without a quote for pilgrims and the kingdom’s management of the haj challenged.
An almost two-year long military campaign in Yemen, that was supposed to be cakewalk has turned into a quagmire for the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is looking for a face-saving exit strategy from a neighbour that its military has devastated without removing its enemies, the Iranian-backed Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, from power in much of the country, including the capital Sana’a. The campaign has sparked widespread anti-Saudi sentiment among significant numbers of Yemenis.
The campaign has moreover cast a shadow over the capabilities of a country that ranks as the world’s second largest importer of military equipment. The United States late last year halted the sale of air-dropped and precision-guided munitions until it has better trained Saudi forces in their targeting and use of the weapons. The Saudi air force’s repeated targeting by design or default of civilian targets in Yemen in which large numbers of innocent people were killed has opened the kingdom to assertions of war crimes.
Saudi Arabia’s inability to claim either political or military benefit from the Yemen war threatens to put on the line the credibility of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan, the powerful son of King Salman, who is also in charge of turning the kingdom’s economy around. Many believe that King Salman is grooming Prince Mohammed as his successor despite objections from factions within the Al Saud family.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s use of its political and financial muscle to bring Egyptian-general-turned president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to power in a military coup in 2013 and stabilize Egypt’s deteriorating economy has failed to achieve a return. Instead, Saudi Arabia and the Arab world’s most populous nation are at loggerheads over Iran, Syria and various other issues.
Saudi Arabia suspended in October a $23 billion agreement to supply Egypt with 700,000 tons of petroleum products every month after Egypt supported a Russian resolution on Syria in the United Nations Security Council. The sanctions and cooling of relations have done little to make Mr. Al-Sisi more empathetic to Saudi concerns.
Finally, on the foreign police and defence front, this month’s inauguration of Donald J. Trump could prove to be a mixed bag that may aggravate Saudi Arabia’s problems. Mr. Trump has suggested that he may back away from US support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria and focus in cooperation with Moscow on defeating the Islamic State. That effectively would strengthen the free hand Iran, Russia and Mr. Al-Assad already have in Syria.
The President-elect has also hinted that he may scrap the international community’s nuclear agreement with Iran. Saudi Arabia has called on Mr. Trump not to cancel the agreement but to hold Iran to the fire over its support for proxies in Arab countries. A cancellation of the agreement could force Saudi Arabia into a nuclear arms race with Iran.
Mr. Trump’s suggestions that he may be more sympathetic to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank threatens to put the kingdom on the spot at a time that it has found common ground with Israel in seeking to halt Iranian regional advances. Mr. Trump’s pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his nominee as ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who describes Jerusalem as the “eternal capital of the Jewish state” could further strain already trouble relations with the United States. Possible widespread protests against relocation of the embassy could move Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, to break off diplomatic relations with the United States and/or take other retaliatory steps.
Saudi Arabia is betting that Mr. Trump, the president, will rely on the experience of Mr. Trump, the businessman, to cut deals. The president-elect, however, has suggested that he could stop oil imports from the kingdom in his bid to make the United Sates energy independent. At one point, during the election campaign, he also blamed Saudi Arabia for the 9/11 attacks.
Uncertainty in its relationship with the US could not come at a worse moment for the kingdom. The Saudi government, beyond its foreign policy and military setbacks, has begun to unilaterally rewrite the social contract that underwrites it. The rewriting constitutes the end of a bargain involving a cradle-to-grave welfare system in exchange for surrender of political rights and adherence to Wahhabi social mores.
Cutbacks on subsidies, increased utility prices, reduced spending on education and social services, and streamlining of the bureaucracy in a country in which the state employs two thirds of the citizenry is a tricky business. It’s even trickier in an environment in which the country’s basic power structure, a power sharing agreement between the ruling Al Saud family and the country’s religious establishment, is being challenged by the demands of economic and social change and increasing international association of Wahhabism with Islamic militancy.
King Salman and Prince Mohammed have a full plate for 2017. For them and the Al Sauds the core issue is survival. With no credible alternative to the Al Sauds and the Middle East and North Africa’s recent experience of popular protest producing civil wars, jihadism and increased repression, Saudis are unlikely to revolt. They will however demand a greater say and greater accountability, concepts the government has so far countered with increased suppression and authoritarianism.
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By James M Dorsey.
A new Russian-led, China-backed Eurasia-centred world order may be in the making against the backdrop of alleged Russian cyber warfare against the US and Europe. Analysts see a pattern in Russian moves that could serve China’s interests should US president-elect Donald Trump adopt a more confrontational approach towards Beijing.
SUGGESTIONS THAT Russian President Vladimir Putin is bent on creating a new Russia-led and China-backed Eurasia-centred world order by undermining Western democratic institutions may be a crackpot conspiracy theory. Yet that may not be so far-fetched against the backdrop of US allegations of Russia’s waging cyber warfare against the US, German intelligence sounding the alarm bell, East European leaders having their fears confirmed and Moscow and Beijing reaching out to Western supporters of the idea.
Whether conspiracy theory or not, western intelligence agencies and many analysts see a pattern in Russian moves that would serve Chinese interests, particularly if US president-elect Donald J Trump adopts a more confrontational approach towards Beijing. The analysts believe that the sum total of Russian activity amounts to an attempt to undermine trust in democratic structures and manipulate elections.
Turkish Approach to Eurasia
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly subscribed to conspiracy theories alleging Western backing for the failed coup attempt in July against his government and a mysterious international financial cabal seeking to undermine the Turkish economy. In response, Erdogan has applied for Turkish membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) that groups Central Asian states with China and Russia.
Bent on enhancing his personal power, Erdogan is not about to fully rupture relations with the West but is happy to play both ends against the middle by publicly aligning himself with concepts of Russian-backed Eurasianists.
A left-wing secularist, Dogu Perincek, who spent six years in prison for allegedly being part of a military-led cabal to stage a military coup, was long a fringe voice calling on Erdogan to break ties with the West and align himself with Russia and China. Perincek’s worldview — one that envisions an alliance between Russia, China and Turkey that would replace the US-led international order — is gaining currency in Ankara, Moscow and Beijing, according to a prominent Turkish intellectual, Mustafa Akyol and other well-known pundits.
The rise of Perincek’s Homeland Party, dubbed the Russian lobby by Akyol in an article in Al-Monitor, comes on the back of its ability to backchannel a reconciliation with Russia following a rupture in relations and a crippling Russian economic boycott in the wake of Turkey’s downing in 2015 of a Russian warplane.
Perincek, together with deputy Homeland leader Ismail Hakki Pekin, a former head of Turkish military intelligence with extensive contacts in Moscow including Putin’s foreign policy advisor Alexander Dugin, mediated the reconciliation with Erdogan’s tacit approval. They were supported by Turkish businessmen close to the president who were severely affected by the boycott, and ultra-nationalist Eurasianist military officers.
Several factors have worked in favour of the Eurasianist idea. The first is the increasingly strained relations between Turkey and the West over the latter’s perceived lack of support following this summer’s failed military attempt to topple Erdogan. The second is a Western refusal to crack down on the Hizmet movement led by exiled imam Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey holds responsible for the unsuccessful coup. The third is Western criticism of Erdogan’s wholesale crackdown on his critics. Differences over Syria have intensified the pro-Eurasianist thinking.
Erdogan’s purported alignment with the Eurasianists fits neatly into an apparently larger Russian effort to fuel populist and right wing sentiment in the West and interfere in the affairs of former Soviet states. Together with China, whose One Belt, One Road initiative seeks to tie Eurasia together through infrastructure and trade, Russia seeks to reach out to Western intellectuals and politicians whose views stroke with Moscow’s ambition.
Outgoing US President Barack Obama has blamed Putin personally for hacking into Democratic Party computers to undermine Hilary Clinton’s presidential bid. A New York Times investigation concluded that Russian cyberwar had played a key role in defeating Democratic candidates in local races for the House of Representatives.
Germany’s head of foreign intelligence Bruno Kahl warned last month that Russia might try to undermine Chancellor Angela Merkel in upcoming elections. “We have evidence that cyber attacks are taking place that have no purpose other than to elicit political uncertainty. The perpetrators are interested in delegitimising the democratic process as such, regardless of who that ends up helping. We have indications that (the attacks) comes from the Russian region,” Kahl told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
German media reported earlier this year that the Russian embassy in Berlin had co-funded a security policy seminar hosted by the Alternative for Germany party that is riding a populist wave with its anti-immigrant and anti-European Union positions. In France, National Front leader Marine Le Pen, a frontrunner in presidential elections, stands accused of being beholden to Moscow because of a US$10.2 million Russian loan to her party.
Speaking to the Financial Times, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek warned that Russia was pursuing a “divide and conquer” policy in Europe by trying to boost Eurosceptic populists. Officials of former Soviet states say their long-standing warnings of subversive Russian activity were ignored by the Obama administration.
To be sure the US and the West too have a long history of waging disinformation and destabilisation campaigns. As a result this may be a case of the pot calling the kettle black, yet one wrong doesn’t justify another.
For their part Moscow and Beijing have been reaching out to Western intellectuals and journalists who have been charting Eurasianist advances. Prominent Turkish journalist Murat Yelkin warned recently that Perincek’s group was exploiting its “close access to Erdogan” to promote an “elaborate plan” that would rupture Turkey’s relations with the EU. This it would do by reintroducing the death penalty, something the Turkish leader has advocated, and reversing restrictive EU regulations adopted by Turkey.
None of this amounts to incontrovertible evidence of a Russian-Chinese plot. The West however risks ignoring at its peril what could be a pattern rather than a string of unrelated incidents that foreshadows a new world order that ranges across the Eurasian mega continent.
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By James M. Dorsey.
President-elect Donald J. Trump’s clearest indication yet of his policy approach towards the Middle East and North Africa was tucked into a recent thank-you speech in Cincinnati. It is a transaction-based return to support of autocracy that is likely to tie him into knots and reinforce drivers of militancy and political violence.
IN A little-noticed thank you speech in Cincinnati, a stop on his tour of battleground states that secured his electoral victory, President-elect Donald J. Trump recently vowed to break with past United States efforts to “topple regimes and overthrow governments” in the Middle East and North Africa. Trump was likely referring to costly US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq that toppled the Taliban and Saddam Hussein but failed to produce stable regimes while giving half-hearted US support for democracy and the strengthening of civil society.
“Our goal is stability not chaos… We will partner with any nation that is willing to join us in the effort to defeat ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism… In our dealings with other countries, we will seek shared interest wherever possible and pursue a new era of peace, understanding and goodwill,” Trump said. In effect, the president-elect was reiterating long standing US policy without the lip service past US presidents paid to US values such as democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
It was a policy that backfired with traumatic consequences for the US. President George W. Bush, in a rare recognition of the pitfalls of decades of US policy in the Middle East and North Africa, acknowledged within weeks of the 9/11 attacks that support for autocratic regimes that squashed all expressions of dissent had created the feeding ground for jihadist groups focused on striking at Western targets.
That was no more true then than it is today with significantly stepped-up repression across the Middle East fuelling civil strife, humanitarian catastrophes, and the swelling the ranks of militant and jihadist groups.
If anything, Trump’s seemingly status quo-based, transactional approach to the Middle East and North Africa risks exacerbating the drivers of violence and militancy in the region and threatens to enmesh his administration in a labyrinth of contradictory pressures.
One lesson that emerges from post-World War Two North Africa and the Middle East is that the region will go to any length to ensure that it is a focus of attention. US administrations come to office with lofty goals and ambitions, only to see their agenda driven by acts on the ground in the region. The Trump administration is unlikely to fare any better.
The pitfalls are multiple, as follows:
• Syria: Backed by Russia and Iran, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad may be gaining the upper hand in the country’s brutal six-year war, but that is likely to prove a pyrrhic victory. The likelihood of Syria returning territorially and politically to the pre-war status quo ante is nil. Al-Assad’s Alawites like Syrian Kurds will not see their safety and security guaranteed by a Syrian state dominated by remnants of the old-regime.
Al-Assad, with a long list of scores to settle, moreover will be damaged goods for whom the knives will be out once the guns fall silent. And that silence will at best be temporary with foreign forces covertly and overtly continuing to intervene. Not to mention the fallout of an angry, disillusioned generation that has known nothing but brutality, violence and despair and has nothing to lose.
• Russia: A partnership with Russia may initially reshape Syria but will be troubled by radically different views of Iran. While Russia backs Iran, Trump has promised to take a harder line towards the Islamic republic even if he stops short of terminating the nuclear agreement concluded by the Obama administration and the international community.
• Islamic State: Bringing Russia on board in a concerted allied effort to destroy IS will contribute to depriving the jihadist group of its territorial base in Iraq and Syria but will do little to help put the two countries back together as nation states. Nor will it address underlying drivers of jihadist violence fuelled by disenfranchisement, marginalisation, repression, regimes that fail to deliver economic and social goods, and the unilateral re-writing of social contracts.
• Egypt: Blinded by a focus on the fight against jihadism, support for general-turned-president Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, one of the country’s most repressive rulers, could prove to be an example of the pitfalls of uncritical backing of autocracy as dissatisfaction mounts with failed economic and social policies.
• Israel and Palestine: A policy that is less critical of Israeli policy towards the West Bank and Gaza and that moves away from support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state will complicate relations with the Arab and Muslim world. It will also further undermine the pro-peace faction led by President Mahmoud Abbas and strengthen Islamist groups such as Hamas.
In many ways, Trump represents a quintessential approach towards foreign policy expressed by a US diplomat 40 years ago as he defended autonomy agreed at the time by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as the response to Palestinian aspirations. Questioned about the viability of the concept, the diplomat said with no consideration of the consequences and cost of failure: “We Americans are very pragmatic. We keep on trying. If one thing doesn’t work, we try something else.”
To be sure, Trump has yet to articulate a cohesive Middle East policy. The president-elect has nonetheless promised “a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past.”
In many ways, Trump’s statements hold out the promise of harking back to a policy that was first seriously dented by the 9/11 attacks and ultimately punctured by the popular Arab revolts of 2011 and their aftermath.
Trump’s foreign policy and national security line-up raises the spectre of an approach to the Middle East and North Africa that will further stir the region’s demons and set the scene for an administration policy that is driven by events on the ground rather than a cohesive, thought-out strategy.
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By James M. Dorsey.
An unpublished survey of aspirations of young Saudi men suggests that garnering enthusiasm for Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud’s vision of the kingdom’s social and economic future, let alone a buy in, is likely to meet resistance without a hitherto lacking effort to win support.
Obstacles to get broad-based acceptance of social changes involved in Vision 2030, the prince’s masterplan for the future published in April, are rooted in the cloaking of ultra-conservative tribal mores in Islamic legitimization by the kingdom’s religious scholars. They also stem from a flawed education system that fails to impart critical thinking and analytical skills.
“People were not interested in political change or reform. They wanted social change but they pull back when they realize this has consequences for their sisters. Their analytical ability and critical thinking is limited,… If you look at Twitter, people don’t know how to argue. They don’t have the patience for discussion. They live in a bubble… If people would do what they talk about on Twitter, angels would shake their hands. They talk about an ideal world…but reality is totally different,” said Saudi scholar Abdul Al Lily, author of a recent book on rules that govern Saudi culture. Mr. Al Lily surveyed 100 Saudi men all of who were approximately 20 years old.
Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest Twitter penetrations and features ultra-conservative religious scholars with millions of followers. Twitter constitutes a relatively less controlled arena in a country in which all physical and virtual public space is tightly controlled. Saudi Arabia this month announced efforts on the Internet “to protect the social and economic system of the country… (and) the society from any violations on the security and mental levels.”
Saudi Arabia’s Shura or Advisory Council, in another setback to potential reform, this month rejected initiating a review of the kingdom’s ban on women’s driving.
Some 50 percent of those surveyed by Mr. Al Lily said they wanted to have fun, go on a date, enjoy mixed gender parties, dress freely, and be able to drive fast, Mr. Al Lily said. He said issues of political violence, racism, international interests or the dragged out Saudi war in neighbouring Yemen did not figure in their answers.
The young men’s aspirations challenged the core culture of a country that enforces strict gender segregation and dress codes and struggles with concepts of fun. Ultra-conservatives and militant Islamists see fun as a potential threat to political and social control. That is particularly true with regard to youth who in the words sociologists Asef Bayat and Linda Herrera have “a greater tendency for experimentation, adventurism, idealism, drive for autonomy, mobility, and change.”
Bayat noted separately that “whereas the elderly poor can afford simple, traditional, and contained diversions, the globalized and affluent youth tend to embrace more spontaneous, erotically charged, and commodified pleasures. This might help explain why globalizing youngsters more than others cause fear and fury among Islamist (and non-Islamist) anti-fun adversaries, especially when much of what these youths practice is informed by Western technologies of fun and is framed in terms of Western cultural import… In other words, at stake is not necessarily the disruption of the moral order, as often claimed, but rather the undermining of the hegemony, the regime of power on which certain strands of moral and political authority rest.”
It is these fundamental attitudes, that Prince Mohammed, in a bid to upgrade Saudi autocracy and bring it into the 21st century, is seeking to tweak.” We are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents, nor are they in harmony with our prosperous economy. It is why we will support the efforts of regions, governorates, non-profit and private sectors to organize cultural events,” Vision 2030 said.
Prince Mohammed may have been jumping the gun when he recently greeted journalist and author Karen Elliott House with the words “Welcome to the new Saudi Arabia” as they watched the LED-lit bodies of New York dancers gyrating on a Riyadh arena stage to deafening hip-hop music. Some 1,300 Saudis of all ages—robed men and abaya-covered women sat side by side whooping their approval.
Mr. Al Lily’s interviewees however pulled back when confronted with the notion that liberties they wanted would also apply to their womenfolk. “People ended up not doing anything when confronted with the idea that someone might want to go on a date with their sister. They pulled back when they realized the consequences,” Mr. Al Lily said.
A recent Saudi television cultural show mocked the attitude of young Saudi men demanding greater freedoms. It portrayed two young men who told their wife and sister that they were going to Mecca although they had bought airline tickets to Cairo for a few days of fun. When the two women detected their menfolk’s deception, they decided to follow them. Sitting in a nightclub in Cairo, the two men poked fun at two women who entered fully covered from top to bottom. “They must be Saudis. How did their brothers let them travel?” said one of the men to the other, not realizing that they were looking at their sister and wife.
Mr. Al Lily argues that to succeed, Prince Mohammed will have to sell Vision 2030 to the youth of a country in which Under-21s account for an estimated 60 percent of the population. Few of those interviewed by Mr. Ali as well as many of his academic colleagues had read the document.
“The issue is how Saudis perceive change,” Mr. Al Lily said. He likened Vision 2030 to the wind in a Saudi proverb that says: “If there is a door that might bring wind, close the door.”
Saudi attitudes towards change are in Mr. Al Lily’s view stand-offish. “People don’t believe in change… The government doesn’t have a plan to sell Vision 2030. In addition, it has at least partially been drafted by foreigners. All of this is important. Implementing it will not be easy,” Mr. Al Lily said.
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By James M. Dorsey.
Two high-level meetings in recent months involving senior military commanders and intelligence officials and/or top-level government representatives spotlight Pakistan’s difficulty in coming to grips with domestic and regional political violence resulting from decades of support of militant Islamist and jihadist groups for foreign policy and ideological reasons. Overcoming those difficulties could determine Pakistan’s future, the nature of its society and its place in the world.
The first of those meeting was a gathering in August of Pakistani military commanders in the wake of a massive bombing in Quetta that killed some 70 people and wiped out a generation of lawyers in the province of Baluchistan. The commanders concluded that the attack constituted a sinister foreign-inspired plot that aimed to thwart their effort to root out political violence. Their analysis stroked with their selective military campaign aimed at confronting specific groups like the Pakistani Taliban and the Sunni-Muslim Lashkar-e-Jhangvi rather than any organization that engages in political violence and/or targets minorities.
The commanders’ approach failed to acknowledge the real lesson of Quetta: decades of Pakistani military and intelligence support underwritten by funding from Saudi Arabia for sectarian and ultra-conservative groups and religious schools in Pakistan that has divided the country almost irreversibly. Generations of religious students have their critical faculties stymied by rote learning and curricula dominated by memorization of exclusionary beliefs and prejudice resulting in bigotry and misogyny woven into the fabric of Pakistani society.
“The enemy within is not a fringe… Large sections of society sympathize with these groups. They fund them, directly and indirectly. They provide them recruits. They reject the Constitution and the system. They don’t just live in the ‘bad lands’ but could be our neighbours. The forces have not only to operate in areas in the periphery, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but have also to operate in the cities where hundreds, perhaps thousands form sleeper cells, awaiting orders or planning to strike,” said Pakistani columnist Ejaz Haider in a recent commentary.
Top Pakistani political leaders echoed Mr. Haider’s sentiment in a second meeting in October that gathered the country’s civilian and military leadership around the table. Reporting in Dawn, Pakistan’s foremost English-language newspaper, on differences between the civilian and military components of the state, united politicians and officers in their denials of differences and prompted a government investigation into what it alleged was a false and inaccurate story.
Dawn, standing by the accuracy of its story, reported that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other government ministers had warned their military and intelligence counterparts that key elements of the country’s two-year old national action plan to eradicate political violence and sectarianism, including enforcing bans on designated groups, reforming madrassas, and empowering the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) had not been implemented. The 20-point plan was adopted after militants had attacked a military school in Peshawar in December 2014, killing 141 people, including 132 students.
In a blunt statement during the meeting, Foreign Minister Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry charged, according to Dawn, that Pakistan risked international isolation if it failed to crack down on militant groups, including Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba; and the Haqqani network – all designated as terrorist groups by the United Nations. Mr. Chaudhry noted that Pakistan’s closest ally, China, with its massive $46 billion investment in Pakistani infrastructure, continued to block UN sanctioning of Jaish-i-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar, but was increasingly questioning the wisdom of doing so.
The State Bank of Pakistan announced barely two weeks after the meeting announced that it was freezing the accounts of more than 2,000 people associated with political violence, including the leaders of anti-Shiite and anti-Ahmadi groups supported by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s military and intelligence agency. Not mentioned in the bank’s list of targeted people were those associated with groups such as Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), and Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM), whose main focus is Kashmir.
The absence of those groups signalled the military and intelligence’s ability to safeguard the fundamentals of their strategic support of militant groups and the inability of the civilian government to impose its will. The government moreover is divided with some ministers being more supportive of links to militants. And even if there were a unified will to crack down on militants, the bank’s measure would at best be a drop in a bucket. Most of the funds available to militant groups are either not in bank deposits or, if they are, not in accounts belonging to the groups’ leaders.
In many ways, Mr. Sharif’s effort to force the military and intelligence’s hand has a sense of déjà vu. A similar attempt by Mr. Sharif when he was prime minister in the late 1990s ended with his overthrow in a coup, initial imprisonment and ultimate exile for a decade. Mr. Sharif in cohorts with his loyal intelligence chief, Lieutenant General Khawaja Ziauddin, tried to convince Taliban leader Mullah Omar to handover Osama Bin Laden and stop Saudi-backed anti-Shiite militants of Sipah-e-Sabaha from attacking the minority in Pakistan from Afghan territory without consulting the military.
In response, Chief of Staff General Mohammed Aziz Khan and Islamist politician Fazl ur Rahman held separate talks with Omar in which they made clear to the Taliban leader who controlled the Pakistani levers of power and persuaded him to ignore Mr, Sharif’s request. Mr. Sharif’s effort was one reason for the 1999 military coup that led to his initial imprisonment and subsequent decade-long exile.
Leaders of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, the latest guise of Sipah after it was nominally banned, in a rare set of lengthy interviews prior to the bank’s announcement, had little compunction about detailing their close ties to Pakistani state institutions and Saudi Arabia. They were also happy to discuss the fact that both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were pushing them to repackage their sectarian policies in a public relations effort rather than a fundamental shift that would steer Pakistan towards a more tolerant, inclusive society.
“The Saudis sent huge amounts often through Pakistani tycoons who had a long-standing presence in Saudi Arabia as well as operations in the UK and Canada and maintained close relations with the Al Saud family and the Saudi business community. One of them gave 100 million rupees a year. We had so much money, it didn’t matter what things cost,” said a co-founder of Sipah.
Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat leader Ahmad Ludhyvani, a meticulously dressed Muslim scholar whose accounts are among those blocked, speaking in his headquarters protected by Pakistani security forces in the city of Jhang, noted that Sipah as the group is still commonly referred to and Saudi Arabia both opposed Shiite Muslim proselytization even if Sipah served Pakistani rather than Saudi national interests.
“Some things are natural. It’s like when two Pakistanis meet abroad or someone from Jhang meets another person from Jhang in Karachi. It’s natural to be closest to the people with whom we have similarities… We are the biggest anti-Shia movement in Pakistan. We don’t see Saudi Arabia interfering in Pakistan,” Ludhyvani said over a lunch of chicken, vegetables and rice.
The soft-spoken politician defended his group’s efforts in Parliament to get a law passed that would uphold the dignity of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions. The law would effectively serve as a stepping stone for institutionalization of anti-Shiite sentiment much like a Saudi-inspired Pakistani constitutional amendment in 1974 that declared Ahmadis non-Muslim. As a result, all applicants for a Pakistani passport are forced to sign an anti-Ahmadi oath.
Sipah officials said a Pakistani cleric resident in Makkah who heads the international arm of Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat (AMTKN), a militant anti-Ahmadi Pakistan-based group, closely affiliated with Sipah, acts as a major fundraiser for the group.
Sipah put Pakistani and Saudi support on public display when it last year hosted a dinner in Islamabad’s prestigious Marriot Hotel for Abdallah Ben Abdel Mohsen Al-Turki, a former Saudi religious affairs minister and general secretary of the Muslim World League, a major Saudi vehicle for the funding of ultra-conservative and militant groups. Hundreds of guests, including Pakistani ministers and religious leaders designated as terrorists by the United States attended the event at the expense of the Saudi embassy in the Pakistani capital.
The corrosive impact of such support for groups preaching intolerance and sectarian hatred is mirrored in recent controversy over the Council of Islamic Ideology, whose offices are ironically located on Islamabad’s Ataturk Avenue, that was created to ensure that Pakistani legislation complies with Islamic Law. The Council has condemned co-education in a country whose non-religious public education system fails to impose mandatory school attendance and produces uncritical minds similar to those emerging from thousands of madrasahs run by ultra-conservatives and those advocating jihadist thinking.
The Council declared in 2014 that a man did not need his wife’s consent to marry a second, third or fourth wife and that DNA of a rape victim did not constitute conclusive evidence. This year, it defended the right of a husband to “lightly beat” his wife. It also forced the withdrawal of a proposal to ban child marriages, declaring the draft bill un-Islamic and blasphemous.
Continued official acquiescence and open support for intolerance, misogyny and sectarianism calls into question the sincerity of government and military efforts to curb without exception intolerance and political violence. The result is a country whose social fabric and tradition of tolerance is being fundamentally altered in ways that could take a generation to reverse.
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By James M Dorsey.
A lethal attack on a Pakistani police academy in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan, highlights the country’s power struggle over policy towards militant Saudi-backed Islamist groups nurtured by the Pakistan military and intelligence service. It also spotlights China’s willingness to accommodate Pakistani ambivalence towards militants.
THE OCTOBER attack on a police academy in Quetta that killed 61 cadets and wounded some 170 others, the worst such incident since an assault in December 2014 on a military school in Peshawar, has exacerbated tensions between the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the military, and the country’s intelligence service, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI).
The attack occurred barely two months after a bombing virtually wiped out Baluchistan’s legal elite and less than two weeks after senior government officials, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, clashed with military commanders and intelligence leaders over counterterrorism policy. Sharif and his ministers warned their military and intelligence counterparts that Pakistan risked international isolation if it failed to implement a national counterterrorism action plan adopted in the wake of the attack in Peshawar two years ago. The civilians’ warning included the fact that the military and intelligence service’s selective crackdown on militants puts US$46 billion in Chinese infrastructure investments at risk.
Crucial Chinese Link
Pakistan constitutes a crucial link in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative designed to link the Eurasian land mass through infrastructure, transportation and telecommunications. The Baluch port of Gwadar is key to the maritime and land links China is trying to create that would give it geopolitical advantage, theoretically more secure routes for the import of badly needed resources and export of Chinese goods, and help Beijing develop economically the strategic but restive north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Baluchistan is also crucial because it borders on Iran and constitutes a potential battleground for proxies of Saudi Arabia and Iran in their bitter struggle for regional hegemony. This province is also historically a key territorial conduit for the opposing forces in Afghanistan and their respective insurgency campaigns.
In a blunt statement during the meeting of civilian and military leaders leaked to Dawn newspaper, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry noted that Pakistan’s closest ally, China continued to block, at the request of the Pakistani military and the ISI, sanctioning by the United Nations of Masood Azhar, a leader of UN-designated Jaish-e-Mohammad, but Beijing was increasingly questioning the wisdom of doing so. Jaish-e-Mohammed has long served as a proxy in Pakistan’s dispute with India over Kashmir.
Azhar was arrested in the aftermath of the Peshawar attack but released in April 2016. Azhar was long held in Indian prison on charges of kidnapping foreigners in Kashmir but was freed in 1999 in exchange for passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines flight. Jaish-e-Mohammed was responsible for a 2001 attack on the Indian parliament among other incidents. The group was however conspicuously absent from a list of groups, issued earlier this month by the State Bank of Pakistan, whose accounts were frozen as part of the government’s selective crackdown on militants.
Among those accounts was Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the group the government blames for the latest attack in Quetta. A Lashkar spokesman told The Wall Street Journal that the group had aided the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility. Analysts doubt whether the freezing of accounts will have much effect. They note that most of the funds available to militant groups are either not in bank deposits or, if they are, not in accounts belonging to the groups’ leaders.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is an offshoot of Sipah-e-Sabaha, a Saudi and Pakistani-backed Sunni supremacist, anti-Shiite group. Like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sabaha is banned but is allowed to operate under a different name, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. In interviews, Sipah-e-Sabaha leaders said the military and intelligence was advising them in the framework of the national action plan to tone down their inflammatory anti-Shiite language but to maintain their basic policy.
Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat leader Ahmad Ludhyvani, a meticulously dressed Muslim scholar whose accounts are among those blocked, speaking in his headquarters in the city of Jhang, amid protection by Pakistani security forces, noted that Sipah, as the group is still commonly referred to, and Saudi Arabia both opposed Shiite Muslim proselytisation even if Sipah served Pakistani rather than Saudi national interests.
“Some things are natural. It’s like when two Pakistanis meet abroad or someone from Jhang meets another person from Jhang in Karachi. It’s natural to be closest to the people with whom we have similarities… We are the biggest anti-Shiite movement in Pakistan. We don’t see Saudi Arabia interfering in Pakistan,” Ludhyvani said to the author of this Commentary over a lunch of chicken, vegetables and rice.
The freezing of accounts is the latest incentive for Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to strike out. Much of the group’s leadership has been killed in what the government called encounters with security forces and independent analysts assert were executions.
Between A Rock and A Hard Place
The latest Quetta attack was likely also designed to exacerbate the differences between Pakistan’s government and its military and intelligence as well as within Sipah itself between those who favour following the government’s advice to tone down its anti-Shiite language and more militant factions.
The violence in Quetta puts Pakistan’s military and intelligence as well as Saudi Arabia between a rock and hard place. The Pakistani military sees militants as a key part of its anti-India policy while Saudi Arabia finds them useful in its struggle with Iran. Those interests are now bouncing up against both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia’s need to ensure that Chinese interests are not threatened by their various shadow wars as well as their need to distance themselves from assertions of involvement in political violence.
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By James M. Dorsey.
Faced with a drop in popularity, intermittent protests against rising prices, and calls for a mass anti-government demonstration, Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, is seeking to appease the country’s youth, soccer fans and activists with promises of change.
Mr. Al-Sisi’s efforts that include a one-time lifting of a ban on spectators attending soccer matches and promises of revisions of Egypt’s draconic anti-protest law as well as a review of the cases of youth detained without trial and monthly meetings with young people to follow up on resolutions of a national youth conference held earlier this month have however provoked sharp criticism even before they got off the ground.
An Egyptian poll reported this month that Mr. Al-Sisi’s popularity had dropped 14 percent.
Writing in Al Masry Al Youm newspaper, journalist Omar Hadi rejected Mr. Al-Sisi’s addressing youth as his sons and daughters, insisting that the country’s youth were citizens with duties and rights. As the government-organized conference opened, a highlight in Mr. Al-Sisi’s declaration of 2016 as the year of the youth, Twitter lit up with youth organizing their own virtual gathering.
Mr. Hadi’s rejection and the counter-conference constituted far more than rejection of Mr. Al-Sisi’s brutal repression of dissent and widespread disillusion with the president’s promise of a bright future of social and economic opportunity.
Against the backdrop of severe economic deterioration since Mr. Al-Sisi came to power in a military coup three years ago and the prospect of severe austerity as part of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bail-out program, Mr. Hadi and the counter conference’s rejection of being sons and daughters amounted to a rejection of neo-patriarchism, the fundament of Arab autocratic rule.
A phrase coined by American-Palestinian scholar Hisham Sharabi, neo-patriarchism involves projection of the autocratic leader as a father figure. Autocratic Arab society, according to Mr. Sharabi, was built on the dominance of the father, a patriarch around which the national as well as the nuclear family were organized. Between ruler and ruled as between father and child maintain vertical relations. In both settings, the paternal will is absolute, mediated in society as well as the family by a forced consensus based on ritual and coercion. At the top of the pyramid, resides the country’s leader as the father of all fathers.
The virtual conference raised the very issues the official conference that included sessions on topic such as ‘the relation between public freedom and political engagement of youth’ and ‘the study of the causes of violence in football stadiums and the methods of retaining spectators’ sought to control.
Under the hashtag #Where_Have_All_the_Young_Ones_Gone? #الشباب_فين, it focused on the detention of tens of thousands, the disappearance of scores of others, lack of basic freedoms, and the continued closure of stadiums to a soccer-crazy public. A later hashtag, ‘why we should have another revolution,’ leapfrogged to the number one trend on Egyptian social media.
“If Sisi held the #National_Youth_Conference in Prison, there would have been a larger attendance than Sharm El-Sheikh,” the resort town in the Sinai, quipped tweeterNaga7_Jan25, an avatar that refers to the date in 2011 on which mass protests erupted in which militant, street battle-hardened soccer fans played a key role that led to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in office.
“Where else are they going to be? They are either going to be buried in the ground, or imprisoned above ground or thrown off the grounds completely,” added Adel Emaldelden.
Mr. Al-Sisi told the official conference that “the government, in coordination with the relevant state parties, will study the suggestions and proposals to amend the protest law … and include them in the set of proposed legislation to be presented to parliament during the current session.”
It was not only youth that Mr. Al-Sisi appeared to having difficulty in convincing. Egyptian businessmen warned that raids on sugar factories and traders accused of hoarding the commodity amid a severe shortage would undermine confidence of foreign investors at a time that they are crucial in helping Egypt dig itself out of its economic hole.
With the Egyptian armed forces opening outlets and military trucks roaming the country selling cheap groceries to compensate for shortages and rising prices, Mr. Al-Sisi, has promised to reduce the enormous stake of the armed forces in the economy in the next three years.
Mr. Al-Sisi suffered a further setback when Saudi Arabia announced it was stopping oil shipments to Egypt. Mr. Al-Sisi has irritated the kingdom by refusing despite massive Saudi financial support to support Saudi Arabian policy towards Iran, Syria and Yemen.
As part of Mr. Al-Sisi’s fledgling efforts that also included various failed attempts in the past to either repress or co-opt soccer fans, the government announced that 75,000 spectators would be allowed to attend a 2018 World Cup qualifier on November 13 in Alexandria’s Borg El-Arab Stadium.
The announcement followed the admission of 70,000 people to a match between storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, whose militant Ultras White Knights (UWK) fans, have a long history of anti-government protest, and South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns FC.
While far smaller numbers have until now been granted entry to stadiums where international matches were being played, pitches have been closed to the public for much of the past five years for all domestic premier league games.
The closure was designed to prevent stadiums from again emerging as platforms for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration.
That anger and frustration has been boiling at the surface in recent weeks with a new group, the Ghalaba Movement or Movement of the Marginalised, calling for mass protests on November 11 against subsidy cuts, rising prices and increasing shortages of basic goods.
Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, Mr. Al-Sisi’s promises notwithstanding, has warned that Egypt’s widely despised security forces would not permit “a repeat of previous attempts at sabotage and social unrest in Egypt.” In a statement on Facebook, Mr. Abdel Ghaffar said that security measures were being tightened to “protect citizens and establishments.”
Nevertheless, the publication in Egypt’s tightly controlled media of several incidents of individual protest has prompted speculation that some within the military were sending their former top commander a message that he needs to get a grip on discontent that could spiral out of hand.
The incidents included an Egyptian taxi driver, in an act like the one that sparked the popular revolt in Tunisia almost six years ago and the subsequent uprising elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, set himself alight earlier this month to protest rising prices and deteriorating living conditions.
An Egyptian television station broadcast an outburst by a tuk tuk driver who vented his fury at Egypt’s economic plight. The video clip garnered some 10 million hits on the television station’s website before it was taken down as well as on social media where it remains accessible.
Large numbers in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, the scene in 2012 of the worst, politically-loaded incident in Egyptian sporting history in which 72 militant fans were killed, took to the streets earlier this month to protest the rising cost of housing.
It remains an open question whether mushrooming discontent that is spilling into the open amounts to the makings of renewed mass protests. Many Egyptians look at the horrendous state of post-2011 popular revolt countries wracked by wars and violence such as Libya, Yemen and Syria and don’t want to see their country travel that road. Nonetheless, economic hardship and repression appear to be reaching a point at which an increasing number of Egyptians are no longer willing to remain silent.
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By James M. Dorsey.
This week’s decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to delay ruling on an appeal in the country’s most notorious blasphemy case and the thousands of security personnel deployed in its capital, Islamabad, in anticipation of a verdict, lay bare the degree to which Saudi supported ultra-conservative worldviews abetted by successive Pakistani governments have changed the very nature of Pakistani society.
At stake in the court case is more than only the life of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian mother of five who has been on death row since 2010 when she was convicted of insulting the prophet Mohammed in a bad-tempered argument with Muslim women.
The court has yet to set a new date for the appeal, but ultimately its decision on Ms. Bibi’s fate will serve as an indication of Pakistan’s willingness and ability to reverse more than four decades of Saudi-backed policies, including support for militant Islamist and jihadist groups that have woven ultra-conservative worldviews into the fabric of Pakistani society and key institutions of the state.
In an ironic twist, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with his close ties to Saudi Arabia is groping with a dilemma similar to that of the kingdom: how to roll back associations with puritan, intolerant, non-pluralistic interpretations of Islam that hinder domestic economic and social progress and threaten to isolate his country internationally.
It’s a tall order for both countries. Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family founded the modern day kingdom by forging a power sharing agreement with ultra-conservative followers of 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The Al Sauds constitute the only Gulf rulers who cloak their rule in religious legitimacy granted by the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment. Losing that legitimacy could endanger their survival.
Successive Pakistani governments benefitted and abetted almost half a century of massive Saudi funding of ultra-conservative thinking in a bid to enhance Saudi soft power and counter more nationalist, revolutionary and liberal worldviews. Pakistani and Saudi interests long jelled in the support of militant Islamist and jihadist groups that targeted Muslim minorities viewed as heretics by ultra-conservatives, confronted with US backing Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan, nurtured the rise of the Taliban, and served Pakistan in confronting India in its dispute over Kashmir.
In doing so, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan unleashed a genie that no longer can be put back in a bottle. It has pervaded Pakistani society and branches of government in ways that could take a generation to reverse.
The timing of the delay of the court ruling may have been coincidental but it came days after the Sharif government took a first step in seeking to change course.
Pakistan’s civilian, military and intelligence leaders had gathered three days earlier for an emergency meeting in which Sharif and his ministers warned that key elements of the country’s two-year old national action plan to eradicate political violence and sectarianism, including enforcing bans on designated groups, reforming madrassas, and empowering the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) had not been implemented. The 20-point plan was adopted after militants had attacked a military school in Peshawar in December 2014, killing 141 people, including 132 students.
In a blunt statement during the meeting, Foreign Minister Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry charged that Pakistan risked international isolation if it failed to crack down on militant groups, including Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba; and the Haqqani network – all designated as terrorist groups by the United Nations. Mr. Chaudhry noted that Pakistan’s closest ally, China, with its massive $46 billion investment in Pakistani infrastructure, continued to block UN sanctioning of Jaish-i-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar, but was increasingly questioning the wisdom of doing so.
The court delayed its ruling after one of the judges recused himself because of his involvement in legal proceedings related to the 2011 assassination of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer by Mumtaz Qadri, a former elite police force commando. Taseer was a vocal opponent of Pakistan’s draconic blasphemy laws and supported Ms. Bibi.
Mr. Qadri became a hero despite being sentenced to death. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of Islamabad to honour him after he was executed earlier this year. Authorities feared that a court ruling in favour of Ms. Bibi would spark mass protests. The delay in the court ruling simply postpones a potential confrontation.
It is a confrontation that was long coming. Pakistan’s blasphemy law fits decades-long Saudi use of its political clout and financial muscle to promote anti-blasphemy laws and curtailing of freedom of expression and the media beyond its borders.
The Saudi effort benefitted in the post 9/11 era from a global trend in democracies and autocracies alike to curb free speech. “The issue of blasphemy is destroying whatever strands of pluralism remain,” warned Pakistani researcher Nazish Brohi.
Notions of blasphemy propagated by the Saudi Arabia have led the kingdom to execute those that refuse to publicly subscribe to its narrow interpretation of Islam. In Bangladesh, secular bloggers risk being hacked to death while jihadists slaughter those they think have insulted their faith in an effort to stymie all debate. Pakistan’s electronic media regulator this year took two television shows off the air during Ramadan for discussing the country’s blasphemy laws as well as the persecution of Ahmadis, a Muslim sect viewed by ultra-conservatives as non-Muslim.
A proposal in recent years by Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations to criminalize blasphemy in international law legitimizes curbs on free speech and growing Muslim intolerance towards any open discussion of their faith. The proposal was the culmination of years in which the kingdom pressured countries to criminalize blasphemy and any criticism of the Prophet Mohammed.
Increasingly, the pressure constituted the kingdom’s response to mounting anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia in the wake of attacks by the Islamic State in European and Middle Eastern nations, including Paris, Ankara and Beirut, and the October 2015 downing of a Russian airliner, and mounting criticism of Saudi Arabia’s austere interpretation of Islam and massive violations of human rights.
The criminalization of blasphemy and the notion of mob justice resembles campaigns on Western university campuses for the right not to be offended. Both propagate restrictions on free speech and arbitrary policing of what can and cannot be said.
In a lengthy article in a Nigerian newspaper, Murtada Muhammad Gusau, chief imam of two mosques in Nigeria’s Okene Kogi State debunked the Saudi-inspired crackdown on alleged blasphemists citing multiple verses from the Qur’an that advocate patience and tolerance and reject the killing of those that curse or berate the Prophet Mohammed.
Saudi anti-blasphemy activism and efforts to curb press freedom date back to 1980 when the government wielded a financial carrot and the stick of a possible rupture in diplomatic relations in an unsuccessful bid to prevent the airing on British television of Death of a Princess, the true story of a Saudi princess and the son of a general who were publicly executed for committing adultery.
Saudi Arabia forced Britain to recall its then ambassador, James Craig, in protest against what it called “the British Government’s negative attitude toward the screening of the shameful film.” In addition, the kingdom imposed limitations on visas extended to executives of British companies while US construction companies were asked not to subcontract British firms.
Saudi Arabia further banned British Airways from flying its Concorde from London to Singapore through the kingdom’s air space. The ban together with a similar one by Lebanon forced BA to chart a longer route for the supersonic flight, which wiped out its profit margin.
Scholars Thomas White and Gladys Ganley argued that “the film was perceived by Saudis as a violation of privacy since it represented a first look behind a closely drawn curtain into Islamic law as applied in Saudi Arabia, into Saudi culture, and, perhaps most devastating, into the behaviour of members of the ruling regime… Much of Saudi criticism of the film was directed towards what was called its portrayal of Islam as a harsh, insensitive religion, since the princess was depicted as having been summarily executed without a confession or a trial. The severity of punishment and the speed with which the princess was executed put doubts in the minds of viewers as to the fairness of Koranic justice.”
Concepts of justice as well as of freedom of expression are at the core of Asia Bibi’s case. So is the question of the kind of state and society Pakistan should be. It is an issue both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are grappling with as they realize that what long was a politically convenient strategy in their various geopolitical struggles is becoming a political and international liability. The problem for both is that reversing course is easier said than done and involves travelling down a volatile, perilous road.
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By James M. Dorsey.
A gathering of prominent Sunni Muslim leaders in the Chechen capital of Grozny that appeared to have effectively excommunicated Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism potentially opens not only a theological but also a geopolitical rift in the Muslim world. The conference, sponsored and attended by some of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies, suggests that Saudi funding of ultra-conservative worldviews may be meeting its match in more liberal interpretations of Islam backed by the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
CHECHEN STRONGMAN Ramzan Kadyrov, an Islamist with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, recently convened some of Islam’s most prominent leaders to determine the theologically and politically explosive question of who is a Sunni Muslim. Professing to be a Sufi, a more mystical interpretation of Islam, Kadyrov lacks the religious credentials beyond his native Chechnya where he was recently re-elected with 98 percent of the vote.
Kadyrov’s ability to bring together an illustrious group of Muslim scholars highlights successful behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by the United Arab Emirates to counter Salafism despite the UAE’s close collaboration with Saudi Arabia as a member of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and in the war in Yemen. It also shines a light on Russian efforts to cultivate Muslim religious leaders.
A Frontal Assault
Participating in the Grozny conference were, among others, the imam of the Al-Azhar Grand Mosque in Cairo, Ahmed El- Tayeb; Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawki Allam; former Egyptian Grand Mufti and Sufi authority Ali Gomaa, a strident supporter of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi; Al Sisi’s religious affairs advisor, Usama al-Azhari; the mufti of Damascus Abdul Fattah al-Bizm, a close confidante of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and influential Yemeni cleric Habib Ali Jifri, head of the Abu Dhabi-based Islamic Tabah Foundation who has close ties to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed ibn Zayed al-Nahyan.
In a frontal assault on Saudi-backed ultra-conservative movements such as Wahhabism, Salafism and Deobandism, the conference charged that the label Sunni had been hijacked by heretics whose deviant practices distorted Islam. In defining Sunni Islam, the conference explicitly excluded Wahhabism, the Saudi state’s adopted version of Islam, as well as Salafism and Deobandism from its definition. The assault is all the more significant given that Saudi Arabia has over the last four decades invested tens of billions of dollars into promoting globally ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam.
The conference suggests that the UAE, together with Russia, is succeeding in countering the Saudi effort that has enabled ultra-conservatism to make significant inroads into Muslim communities across the globe. The heavy Egyptian presence suggests further that the UAE, which together with Saudi Arabia is Egypt’s foremost financier, has effectively driven a wedge between the kingdom and the Arab world’s most populous state.
It also serves as evidence that Russian efforts to woo mainstream Muslim as well as Islamist leaders have begun to pay off despite Moscow’s support of the Assad regime in Syria. In a political fete, Russia managed to gather four years ago leaders of a host of Islamist stripes, including Saudi-backed Salafists, Muslim Brothers and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah at one table. Russian officials have stressed that conservative Russian Orthodox values are similar if not identical to puritan Islamic ones.
The Grozny conference was co-organised by the Tabah Foundation, the sponsor of the Senior Scholars Council, a group that aims to recapture Islamic discourse that many non-Salafis assert has been hijacked by Saudi largesse. The Council was also created to counter the Doha-based International Union of Muslim Scholars, headed by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, widely viewed as a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
UAE backing for anti-Salafi initiatives and opposition to the Brotherhood, even though it does not adhere to Salafi ideology, is rooted in Prince Mohammed’s deep-seated aversion to political Islam. The crown prince is credited with having persuaded the late Saudi King Abdullah to ban the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.
Prince Mohammed has been troubled by suggestions that King Salman since acceding to the throne may be less strident in his opposition to the Brotherhood. Mohammed also differs with King Salman’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on the conduct of the war in Yemen and tacit cooperation on the ground in Yemen with groups associated with Al Qaeda.
The participation in Grozny of Egypt’s Sheikh El-Tayeb suggests that substantial Saudi funding of large numbers of Al Azhar’s scholars as well as the kingdom’s multi-billion dollar backing of Al Sisi since his toppling in a military coup in 2013 of Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected leader, has not bought the kingdom the kind of religious and political loyalty it expected.
A prominent Islamic legal scholar, who rejected a nomination for Saudi Arabia’s prestigious King Faisal International Prize, recalls El-Tayeb effusively thanking the kingdom during panels in recent years for its numerous donations to Al Azhar. Al Azhar scholars were said to have competed “frantically” for sabbaticals in the kingdom that could last anywhere from one to 20 years, paid substantially better, and raised a scholar’s status.
“Many of my friends and family praise Abdul Wahab in their writing,” the scholar said referring to Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, the 18th century religious leader whose puritan interpretation of Islam became the basis for the power sharing agreement between the ruling Al Saud family and the country’s religious establishment. “They shrug their shoulders when I ask them privately if they are serious… When I asked El-Tayeb why Al Azhar was not seeing changes and avoidance of dogma, he said: ‘my hands are tied.’
To illustrate Saudi inroads, the scholar recalled being present when several years ago Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, a former grand mufti and predecessor of El-Tayeb as imam of the Al Azhar mosque, was interviewed about Saudi funding. “What’s wrong with that?” the scholar recalls Tantawy as saying. Irritated by the question, he pulled a check for US$100,000 from a drawer and slapped it against his forehead. “Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God), they are our brothers,” the scholar quoted Tantawy as saying.
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Book launch Lost in Transition: Comparative Political Transitions in Southeast Asia and the Middle EastSeptember 3rd, 2016
By James Dorsey.
Political transitions are processes, not momentary events. They can take a quarter of century if not more.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is as much an expression of a global trend driven by economic, political and geopolitical uncertainty and security and safety fears that produces lack of confidence in the system and existing leadership as are Donal Trump, the 2011 Arab popular revolts; the rise of the far right in Europe; tensions between concepts of freedom, privacy and security; and the wind in the sails of democratically elected, illiberal leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Benyamin Netanyahu in Israel and Narendra Modi in India.
Nonetheless, there are specific reasons why the transition process has moved forward in Southeast Asia despite the military coup in Thailand and the corruption and governance issues that Malaysia is confronting whereas the process in the Middle East is far more torturous, volatile and violent. Three of those reasons stand out:
Geopolitics aside, there are some fundamental lessons to be learnt from the Southeast Asian experience:
First and foremost, there is no successful transition without the participation of at least a significant faction of the military that sees the preservation of its vested interests in change rather than maintenance of the status quo. In Myanmar, the military took the lead, in Indonesia and the Philippines, a faction of the military reached out to civil society groups. And it was that alliance that pushed the process of toppling an autocrat forward.
No military or faction of a military in the Middle East and North Africa saw or sees the preservation of its interests best served by a transition from autocratic or military rule to a more liberal, more democratic civilian rule. On the contrary, autocrats and militaries in the Middle East and North Africa have worked out a number of models to sustain autocratic rule that gives militaries a vested interest in the status quo.
Protesters in Egypt in 2011 chanted the military and the people are one when the military refused to step in to crush the revolt. The transition in Egypt however was initially one from autocratic rule in which the military and the security forces were the dominant players to outright military rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. A brief democratic transition was brutally ended with a military coup that was backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The explanation for the differences in attitude between Southeast Asian militaries and militaries in the Middle East and North Africa lies for a large part in differences in the relationship between autocrats and militaries. It also lies in different approaches to the two regions by international donors, particularly the United States, towards the militaries and civil society.
Western donors worked with Southeast Asian militaries on issues such as civil-military relations and human rights. They also were able to give relatively unfettered support to civil society groups. The result was greater differentiated thinking within Southeast Asian militaries and the existence of a civil society that was able to rise to the occasion. In a study of civil military relations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)) concluded that there was ample opportunity for serious work on civil military relations in the Philippines. Despite at times rocky relations with former President Suharto in Indonesia, the US also had programs on civil military relations for the Indonesian military.
The study constituted a rare US look at the potential for similar programs in the Middle East and North Africa. Its conclusion for that region was radically different. The study said flat out that the Middle East and North Africa was not ripe for concepts of civil-military relations. The conclusion was in line with US policy that saw autocracy rather than transition as the guarantor of regional stability. As a result, the United States allowed Middle Eastern and North African autocrats like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to decide which civil society groups could receive US support and which ones could not. Hardly, a recipe for development of a robust and independent civil society.
The alliance between the military and civil society in Southeast Asia produced one other key ingredient for relative success: the ability of the street to better evaluate when best to surrender the protest site and move from contentious to more conventional politics and the ability to manage post-revolt expectations.
Civil society was effectively locked out of the transition process once Mubarak resigned on the 11th of February 2011. Its power was significantly diminished with the evacuation of Tahrir Square even if mass protests continued for another nine months with an ever rising number of casualties. The military coup two years later was made possible of course by the missteps of Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.
It was however also made possible by dashed social and economic expectations that the revolt would produce immediate and tangible social and economic benefits strengthened by a manipulative military and security service.
None of these Southeast Asian lessons provide quick fixes for the multiple crises in the Middle East. What it does however demonstrate is that even if popular revolts are often in and of themselves spontaneous events, the run-up to watershed protests are as much a process as is the post-revolt transition. In sum, the Middle East and North Africa has much to learn from the Southeast Asian experience even if Southeast Asia’s path was in some ways easier because it did not have to contend with some of the Middle East and North Africa’s complicating factors.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored withDr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario
Remarks by Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario at the Asian Research Institute on 30 August 2016
In November 2015 when we submitted the final manuscript, the overall tone of the book was upbeat for Southeast Asia. Except for Thailand, the countries in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines, seemed poised to complete their democratic transition, rebuild institutions founded on the principles of democratic governance, and enshrine the principles and practices of open participatory systems. The one bright light in the Middle East/North Africa is Tunisia whose Quartet for Democracy had just won a Nobel Peace Prize for its role in the democratic transition.
In the past two months, since the Philippine electorate gave a whopping mandate to Rodrigo Duterte, some 2000 Filipinos have died, mostly on allegations of drug use/abuse, none of them having had the opportunity to seek redress through the judicial system. Rule of law seems to have been usurped by executioners-on-motorcycles. He has gone to war with a female Senator who wants to investigate extrajudicial killings, as well as the female Supreme Court chief justice with whom he is also in a war of words over warrantless arrests. He is threatening to pull out of the UN.
Similarly, In a very recent cabinet reshuffle in Indonesia, former General Wiranto who “is among senior officers indicted by UN prosecutors over gross human rights abuses during the 24-year occupation of East Timor” as quoted in the Straits Times of 27 July 2016, (http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/indonesia-names-controversial-ex-general-as-security-minister), was appointed to the sensitive post of security minister. “Activists have called it a step backwards for human rights,” quoting again from The Straits Times.
This, then, raises the question about Southeast Asia: are we seeing a democratic rollback? In the book’s introduction, we referred to two authors who asked the same questions. Erik Paul’s book Obstacles to Democratization concluded that the ASEAN nation-states are a “passing phenomenon” caught up in superpower contests mainly between the US and China, and citizens are swallowed up and gobbled up by the forces of global capitalism, international financial institutions, and geopolitical players who compete militarily in their struggle for global hegemony.”
Mely Anthony-Caballero, in her edited book Political Change, Democratic Transition, and Security in Southeast Asia, echoed the same disappointment over the failure of democratic consolidation in Southeast Asia after the euphoria of the first wave of democratization in the 1980s that began in the Philippines. Several country case studies in Caballero’s book point towards the entrenchment of patronage politics, the lack of attitudinal requirements among the citizenry to embrace democratic ethos, and the preference for stability and material prosperity rather than the mess and the noise of rambunctious participatory politics.
Thailand remains the foremost example for an authoritarian resurgence in this century, not once, but twice, when military coups in 2006 and 2014 effectively ended the legitimately-elected governments of Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra respectively.
Surely, these gripes and grievances are not without merit, but the scenarios are not altogether grim.
Civil society remains a vibrant pro-democracy force in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines, where civil society and public participation have been enshrined in their respective constitutions. A very active and robust human rights community in Cambodia undertakes a variety of rights-related campaigns, ranging from land grabs to anti-trafficking. In Myanmar, 180 CSOs signed a petition o parliament to reject four proposed bills by a Buddhist organization called the Association for the protection of Race and Religion. Civil society activists view these bills as potentially “inciting hatred, discrimination, conflict and tension.”
Malaysia’s Bersih (literally means clean) continues to be at the forefront of collective mobilization for a variety of social causes despite the Internal Security Act of 1960. As Prime Minister Najib Razak fights for regime survival, the wide entanglement with CSOs in this particular instance is a display of Southeast Asia’s ability for political engagement, regardless of formal restrictions and limitations.
But the most striking feature of Southeast Asia’s transition is the decline of mass atrocities, what Alex Bellamy terms “the other Asian miracle.” It is a region that, in the last four decades, has enjoyed a more “peaceful present,” leaving behind a violent past. Unlike the Iraq or Syria, there are no overt conflicts within and among nation states, nor are there border disputes that would pit nation states against each other. Sovereignty claims are, by and large, respected even after the “invasion” of Sabah in 2013 by the forces of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, one of the claimants from the Sulu Sultanate in the southern Philippines to Sabah in Malaysia. According to The Economist, the invasion, as amphibious assaults go, was “admittedly tame.”
The Greater Mekong Sub region, a predominantly economic sub-regional program encompassing five Southeast Asian countries, once the backyard of intense conflict and violence now hosts The East–West Corridor, a massive infrastructure program that consists of a road, railway, and energy network has established “connectivity” among the five countries and has stimulated trade among them. The battlefields of the 1960s and 1970s has been transformed into a vibrant competitive marketplace, with formal and informal institutions to mediate and facilitate interregional relationships.
It is a truism today that the so-called “peace dividend” in Southeast Asia has converted past warriors into entrepreneurs and consumers, and where current generations engage in the competition for market share rather than the struggle for military supremacy and territorial conquest.
It is perhaps these features of the other Asian miracle that constitute the starkest contrast between Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
One primary lesson from this comparative study is that civil society is indispensable in building the necessary “political constituency for democracy. New democracies are beleaguered by old regime forces. Civil society participation is even more necessary during such period to prevent the forces of authoritarianism from subverting gains and preserve newly-opened hence fragile spaces of civic life. Newly-installed democratic regimes, on the other hand, should be even more reliant on their partnership with civil society organizations during these precarious transition periods.
And then a second valuable lesson. In the morning-after situation when the protest sites have been emptied, the activists need to heed the call of the “politics of the boardroom” where several hundred decision-makers rather than millions of street protesters undertake the tasks of creating, allocating, and distributing public goods and services. These require joining the executive branch of the government particularly its messy tangle of bureaucratic offices and agencies. Hold-overs from the old regime are bound to interact with the new appointees.
The ability to seek common ground and to prevent bureaucracy from being held hostage by competing forces so that ordinary citizens can rely on continuous and uninterrupted services is a task that requires different leadership skills. In addition, new entrants need to learn very quickly the mechanics of managing large organizations, steering them towards the accomplishment of concrete goals, and marshalling the human and other material resources to fulfil socio-economic objectives.
No matter the political or ideological colour, or one’s confessional affiliation, garbage needs to be collected, revenues raised, water and electricity services provided. Former activists in Indonesia and the Philippines have joined and pursued long-term careers in governments. They run and manage ministries and public commissions on national budgets, education, anti-poverty and human rights; they attend legislative hearings and negotiate with donors; they create committees to decide on projects; and they work with the media and academics to ensure that the message of government services reaches the public. The same is happening in Myanmar today. Joining government is not a straightforward process. The path of transition is littered with uneasy compromises.
Professor Randy David at the University of the Philippines who was one of the original “people power warriors” in 1986, wrote an op-ed in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 28 August. In Ulaanbaatar he exchanged views among fellow activists and intellectuals on democratic transitions. He wrote of his own pessimism regarding the Philippines before he left for Ulaanbaatar. But while there, in dialogue with fellow people power activists from Fiji, Nepal, Mongolia, and Myanmar, he wrote:
“The Ulaanbaatar forum left me with more questions than answers. But I came away from the discussions feeling renewed and hopeful. For once I understood what the sociologist Niklas Luhmann meant when he referred to democracy as “an evolutionary achievement of society.” A nation must grow into democracy. Unlike us Filipinos, the Mongolians who spent centuries defending their land against their powerful neighbours know only too well how long it will take them still to complete their own democratic transition.”
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