Posted by Joshua on Sunday, December 6th, 2009
“Jordan is a model that works, whether we like it or not,” explains Rami Khouri. He is probably right and this is in the face of the king’s recent dissolution of parliament. Democracy has few real proponents in the Middle East today.
Laith Shubeilat, a moderate Islamist, described Jordan as a police state in which no real opposition was permitted. “I am an Islamist, but I have never had a platform relating to religion, only one asking for liberties, democracy,” he said, accusing the West of hypocrisy in backing a “dictatorship”. Shubeilat, jailed several times, said five men had beaten him up in October after he criticised the king’s behaviour.
Both Khouri’s and Shubeilat’s conclusions say a lot about the present state of the Middle East. I have added two articles by Patrick Seale below because, paired with Alistair Lyon’s article, they lay bare the state of play in the Levant today. One cannot but agree with Shubeilat’s conclusion about Western hypocrisy. Despite all the Washington institutions that are ostensibly designed to “promote democracy” in the Middle East, Washington has few real proponents for the reason that Khouri expresses.
Jordan king to keep democracy on back-burner
By Alistair Lyon, REUTERS
AMMAN – Jordan’s King Abdullah, having dissolved an elected, if unlamented, parliament midway through its term, will probably shy away from genuine political reform, despite promises of a clean vote next time round.
The 110-member assembly’s abrupt demise last month drew little outcry, perhaps a reflection of widespread public perceptions of malpractice in the 2007 polls that produced it.
The 47-year-old monarch, who came to the throne in 1999, has not explained why he dissolved what most Jordanians viewed as a tame lower house prone to venality and self-interest.
However, some economists suggest the assembly was removed to allow the government to push through an austerity budget to curb runaway spending and enact investor-friendly laws by decree.
Many advocates of reform expect no drastic change.
“In recent years, changes of parliament or cabinet are just part of the entertainment business in Jordan,” said Taher Kanaan, a former deputy prime minister, with a wry shrug.
The king has told the government to forge a new electoral law ahead of an election that would be a “model of transparency and justice” — a tacit admission of the frailties of the last one, which returned mostly tribal loyalists and businessmen.
Parliament, which rejected a tax reform bill in August and sought higher taxes on banking, mining and telecom sectors, might have obstructed a budget aimed at slashing the deficit to 3.9 percent of gross domestic product in 2010 from 7.3 percent.
Jordan’s six million people face a contracting economy after several boom years fuelled by an inflow of foreign investment and money transfers from Jordanians working in the Gulf Arab region. The good times tempted the government to spend freely.
“DESTABILISING THE ECONOMY”
“Now they realise they can’t go on this way and that it is destabilising the whole economy,” former finance minister Michel Marto, chairman of the Housing Bank for Trade and Finance, said.
Public debt is due to hit a record $14 billion this year, nearing a legal limit of 60 percent of GDP, as recession reduces local revenue and foreign aid. Unemployment is about 13 percent.
Still, Marto said, the economy is far healthier than in 1989 when debt reached 180-200 percent of GDP and the dinar crumbled.
That crisis sparked riots that prompted the late King Hussein to revive parliament, lifting a state of emergency in place since 1967. Islamists won 34 of the assembly’s 80 seats in the 1989 election, contested in a frenzy of political debate.
The introduction in 1993 of a new voting system, combined with carefully tailored electoral districts, ensured they never replicated their success. Representation was tilted towards rural, pro-monarchy tribal constituencies and away from mostly Palestinian-populated cities where Islamist sentiment is strong.
That bias has been kept in place, partly for fear of opposition to Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel and the kingdom’s close alignment with the United States.
“The paranoia about political Islam resulted in a setback to democracy exemplified by the electoral law, which is divisive and bases political competition more on tribal sentiments than on political programmes,” Kanaan said. “This is a bad thing.”
Islamists won only six seats in the 2007 election, down from 17 in 2003 — a decline that some analysts say reflects a loss of popularity, not just the handicaps of the electoral system.
Laith Shubeilat, a moderate Islamist, described Jordan as a police state in which no real opposition was permitted.
“I am an Islamist, but I have never had a platform relating to religion, only one asking for liberties, democracy,” he said, accusing the West of hypocrisy in backing a “dictatorship”.
Shubeilat, jailed several times, said five men had beaten him up in October after he criticised the king’s behaviour.
The government has four months to set fresh elections, but politicians say the constitution allows the king to delay them.
Nawaf Tell, a Foreign Ministry official who heads Jordan University’s Center for Strategic Studies, ruled out bold moves toward democracy as long as the Middle East conflict festers.
“Institutional political reform cannot be launched in a sustainable, consistent track unless there is real progress on the ground on the Palestinian issue,” he told Reuters.
The numerical weight of Palestinians in Jordan and their uncertain future may pose tricky problems, but Arab states have often used the conflict as a pretext to defer political reform.
Violence in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories makes Jordanians think twice before agitating for change.
Many sympathise with anti-Israeli groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, but al Qaeda suicide bombings of three Amman hotels in 2007 reinforced fears of bloodshed spilling into the kingdom.
“Now public opinion appreciates security and does not take it for granted any more,” Tell said.
If Jordanians do indeed value stability over democracy, there may be little incentive for King Abdullah to promote wrenching reforms or confront an entrenched establishment wary of modernisation that might upset its patronage networks.
“When you look around the Arab world, there are not a lot of calm, stable societies,” said Beirut-based analyst Rami Khouri. “Jordan is a model that works, whether we like it or not.”
The Palestinians Should Negotiate
by Patrick Seale, 4 Dec 2009
Israel’s 10-month partial freeze of new settlement building on occupied Palestinian territory, as announced by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu on 25 November, has been rejected by the Palestinians as a basis for peace negotiations. They want a total freeze.
This is the stated position of Mahmud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, and of his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. It must be hoped that this is not their last word.
On the morrow of Netanyahu’s announcement, Erekat declared: “Without a settlement freeze, there can be no credible negotiations and no credible peace process. Settlements are not only illegal under international law. They pose the greatest threat to the two-state solution and run counter to the formula of ‘land for peace’ on which the entire Middle East peace process is built. And without East Jerusalem as its capital, there can be no viable Palestinian state.”
At this particular moment in international affairs, is this a sound tactical position to adopt? The question must be posed whether, by rejecting talks on the basis of Netanyahu’s partial freeze, the Palestinians might not be in danger of missing an important opportunity.
If, however, the Palestinians hold to their present position, they will undoubtedly be blamed for blocking a resumption of final status talks. They also risk losing invaluable American and international goodwill. In ten months’ time, Israel will feel free to resume full-scale construction, claiming that it has no partner for peace.
In the circumstances, the Palestinians might be wiser to call Netanyahu’s bluff and announce their readiness to enter into negotiations at once, as the Obama administration is urging them to do.
Netanyahu’s partial freeze is, of course, only a temporary suspension of new construction on the West Bank. Building will proceed on some 3,000 housing units, whose foundations have already been laid. Excluded from the freeze are public buildings within existing settlements, such as schools and synagogues, as well as the Separation Wall and other security structures. Arab East Jerusalem is excluded altogether. Settlement building there is proceeding apace.
No objective observer can claim that Netanyahu’s partial freeze is anything but a cynical manoeuvre. It positively stinks of bad faith. It is aimed at easing American pressure on his government and at keeping his governing coalition intact — and it appears to have been successful on both counts, at least temporarily.
The United States has welcomed Netanyahu’s decision as a move in the right direction while, at home, no far-right faction has defected from his government, although he has faced some predictable howls of protest from diehard settlers.
But this is surely not the end of the matter. U.S. President Barack Obama may have back-tracked somewhat from his initial call for a total settlement freeze; he may have made some tactical mistakes along the way; he may have been distracted from the Middle East conflict by other pressing matters such as health reform and Afghanistan, not to mention U.S. unemployment and the world financial crisis. But it is worth remembering that he remains totally committed to a two-state solution
The U.S. position was spelled out by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on the same day as Netanyahu’s announcement, and was repeated word-for- word by Special Envoy George Mitchell when he met the press later that day. This is the key phrase in the Secretary’s statement:
“We believe that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognised borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.
“Let me say to all the people of the region and the world: Our commitment to achieving a solution with two states living side by side in peace and security is unwavering.”
It is striking that this important statement contains a reference to the 1967 borders. Mitchell, in turn, spelled out America’s position on Jerusalem. “United States policy,” he declared, “remains unaffected and unchanged. As has been stated by every previous administration which addressed this issue, the status of Jerusalem and all other permanent status issues must be resolved by the parties through negotiations.” He added that “the United States also disagrees with some Israeli actions in Jerusalem affecting Palestinians in such areas as housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes.”
The Palestinians should take heart from these statements. They should heed Mitchell’s words when he says that America’s goal is to re-launch negotiations on permanent status issues as soon as possible, beginning, he suggested, with a resolution of the issue of borders.
Mitchell spelled out that the United States has in mind multi-track negotiations: high-level direct talks between the parties; parallel talks with the U.S. about key issues; and lower-level direct talks to work out details.
The Palestinians should not remain passive. They should make the most of the emergence of Obama — an extraordinary phenomenon in American politics which is unlikely to recur anytime soon. They should grasp the U.S. initiative with both hands. At the same time, they should seek the active backing of the entire Arab world for their negotiations. The Israelis needs to be reminded on a daily basis of the tremendous benefits which would flow to them from the implementation of the Arab Peace Plan, including normalisation with all 22 Arab states.
In some significant ways, the log-jam in Israeli-Palestinian relations appears to be thawing. Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak has spoken of the need “to arrive at a process that will yield two states for two people, to bring an end to the conflict, and to establish a Palestinian state without harming our interests.” Statements of this sort suggest that there is some new thinking inside the Israeli cabinet, some realisation that Obama means business.
Meanwhile, the Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti may soon be released as part of a prison swap. He is expected to make a bid for Palestinian leadership. The Gaza leader Ismail Haniya has offered to stand down in the interest of inter-Palestinian reconciliation. Hamas has moderated its stance and seems ready to accept a permanent settlement based on the 1967 borders.
Although he is challenged by enemies on all fronts, including within his own movement, Mahmud Abbas should conquer his evident depression and act. He should announce that he is ready to start negotiations with Israel immediately, under active American sponsorship.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.
Copyright © 2009 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global
What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East?
by Patrick Seale Released: 23 Nov 2009
British journalist Brian Whitaker has written a provocative and disturbing book about the Middle East. His title is the one I have put at the head of this article. His book is not kind to the Arabs, since it exposes the profound contradictions and weaknesses in their society. But it should, nevertheless, be translated into Arabic as a matter of urgency and be required reading by Arab elites from the Atlantic to the Gulf.
His aim, he says, is to stimulate debate. If the Arab world is to catch up with the rest of the developed world, it would do well to ponder Whitaker’s conclusions and heed his recommendations.
Whitaker has travelled widely in Arab countries and was Middle East editor of the Guardian newspaper for seven years. He evidently knows the region intimately. His strength, in researching this book, is that he has not restricted himself, as most journalists do, to seeking the views of political leaders and government officials, but has instead moved outside the strictly political sphere to interview a great many thinkers, academics, students, opinion-formers, bloggers, and ordinary people in many countries across the region. He has looked beyond Arab regimes to society as a whole. That is the originality of his book.
So, in a word, what does he say is wrong with the Middle East? In chapter after chapter, he dissects the “stultifying atmosphere where change, innovation, creativity, critical thinking, questioning, problem-solving… are all discouraged.” And that is not the end of it. To this list he adds “systematic denial of rights that impinge on the lives of millions: discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality or family background; inequality of opportunity, impenetrable bureaucracies, arbitrary application of the law; and the lack of transparency in government.”
Whitaker’s first powerful chapter deals with the failure of education in the Arab world — which he says is central to the region’s problems. If change is to be meaningful, he declares, it must begin in people’s heads. He quotes the 2004 Arab Human Development Report in saying that teaching methods in the Arab world — especially rote learning — “do not permit free dialogue and active, exploratory learning and consequently do not open the doors to freedom of thought and criticism.” On the contrary, “the curricula taught in Arab countries seem to encourage submission, obedience, subordination and compliance.”
The result is a “knowledge deficit,” hampering the development of a well-educated, technically skilled workforce.
Whitaker’s recommendation is that “Arab countries need to reform their educational systems and prepare themselves for the future.” But, he adds pessimistically, “the high value placed on conformity in Arab societies is suffocating change.” His controversial conclusion is that “the Arab countries cannot develop knowledge-based societies without radical social and political change.”
Another of Whitaker’s targets is asabiyya — solidarity between members of a family, clan or tribe. Such solidarity can provide security and protection for individuals but the reverse of the coin is that (in the words of the Arab Human Development Report) it “implants submission, parasitic dependence and compliance…”
Whitaker argues that the obsession with kinship in the Arab world undermines the principles of meritocracy and equality of opportunity. Nepotism hampers economic development and places Arab countries at a disadvantage in relation to those parts of the world where such practices are less prevalent.
His conclusion is that “Arabs cannot emerge into a new era of freedom, citizenship and good governance while their society continues to be dominated by the obligations of kinship, whether at a family or tribal level…” This, he affirms, is the central challenge the Arabs face today.
Another of Whitaker’s provocative chapters deals with the relationship between citizens and their governments. The typical Arab regime, he declares, is both authoritarian and autocratic — authoritarian because it demands obedience and autocratic because power is highly centralised and concentrated around the head of state.
He acknowledges that there has been much talk of reform and modernisation in Arab countries to keep pace with the rapid world changes, but he remarks gloomily that “actual reform, as opposed to mere talk of it, has been far more limited… Much of what passes for reform is just window-dressing for the sake of international respectability.”
One of Whitaker’s most controversial chapters is entitled “The politics of God,” and deals with the tide of religious fervour that has swept across the Middle East during the last thirty or forty years. Religion, he argues, is one response to what has become known as the “Arab malaise.” For millions of believers, religion provides a comfort zone of certainty and hope in a world of doubt and despair.
He quotes his sources as suggesting that the lurch towards religion began with the Arabs overwhelming defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967. But further impetus to the trend was given by the success of the mujahideen in driving out Soviet forces from Afghanistan, and by the success of Hizbullah in driving Israel out of Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation. The idea took root that military success was achievable when inspired by religion.
Religion, Whitaker notes, provides a sense of identity, of belonging and of solidarity in the face of threats from outside. But he warns that treating religion as a badge of identity can lead to a heightened emphasis on its outward, physical aspects at the expense of spirituality and ethics.
Moreover, as the religious tide swept across the Middle East, more extreme versions of Islam gained in prominence, more rigid in their interpretations of scripture and less tolerant of alternative views. This has sometimes bred growing intolerance, and even acts of violence like the occasion when, in 1994, the 82-year old Egyptian man of letters, Naguib Mahfouz, was stabbed in the neck outside his house. He survived, but his right arm was partly paralysed.
Equal rights, Whitaker argues, cannot exist without freedom of religion. In the Arab countries, this is probably the biggest single obstacle to positive change. In his view, freedom of religion requires a state which is religiously neutral. Separation of religion and state is therefore essential, he believes, to any serious agenda for reform.
Whitaker’s book contains a lively discussion of corruption and illegal commissions in Arab society, as well as the phenomenon of wasta, that is to say the use of connections, influence or favouritism. There is also a long and well-informed section on the Arabic media, which is too rich to be summarised in a line or two.
Whitaker wants the Arabs to break free from a culture of dependence and helplessness and for westerners, in turn, to break free from their history of colonial rule and military intervention, so that both sides can set their relationship on a productive footing of inter-dependence.
This book will anger some and excite others. It is one of the most ambitious attempts in recent years by a western writer to analyse what is really wrong with the Middle East.
Eli Lake in the Wash-Times Via FLC
“… Chalabi, who cultivated neoconservatives and the George W. Bush administration when he was an exile drumming up support against Saddam Hussein, told The Washington Times that he is a big fan of Mr. Obama.
…..Mr. Chalabi also has his eyes on the wider region. In his letter to Mr. Obama, he asked for support “to develop a concordat among the modern states of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran” – a region known in Islamic geography as “al Iqleem al Rabi’i” or “the fourth territory.” Mr. Chalabi’s letter to Mr. Obama said such an alliance “will be the rock on which extremism in the Muslim world will shatter.”
ARIEL ILAN ROTH in Foreign Affairs: Associate Director of National Security Studies at the Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences
“……. Israelis know better than anyone else that the trick to developing a nuclear weapon as a small power is to drag out the process of diplomacy and inspections long enough to produce sufficient quantities of fissionable material. Israel should know: in the 1960s, it deliberately misled U.S. inspectors and repeatedly delayed site visits, providing the time to construct its Dimona reactor and reprocess enough plutonium to build a bomb. North Korea has followed a similar path, with similar results. And now, Israel suspects, Iran is doing the same, only with highly enriched uranium instead of plutonium….