Thursday, March 31, 2011

Salafis seek power in Egypt

Banned from politics under Hosni Mubarak, the religious movement is trying to shape Egypt's future.
Last Modified: 30 Mar 2011 20:39
For a group that has never taken part in political life, the religious Salafi movement is now emerging as a new force in Egypt.
As they establish a platform based on Islam as a system of governance, however, many secular and liberal activists fear the emergence of a religious state following their country's ousting of long-term leader Hosni Mubarak.
Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr reports from Alexandria on the ideological battle to fill the vacuum left in the wake of Egypt's revolution.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A war of Western imperialism?
Backing of Libyan rebels apparently aims to clean up West's image across the Arab world.
Last Modified: 28 Mar 2011 13:09
Bombing Gaddafi is not a humanitarian gesture, but an attempt to spread goodwill across the Arab world directed at the West, Moor says [GALLO/GETTY]
There is a lot about the Western intervention in Libya that could go wrong – and it remains to be seen whether bombing Gaddafi and his mercenaries is a good decision.
However, large numbers of people around the world appear to support the objectives of the anti-regime forces. Also, the indigenous resistance movement – which requested help – would have been annihilated in the absence of those air strikes.
George Bush’s legacy of destruction extends beyond the piles of brick, flesh and mortar that we have been tallying for a decade now in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More than any other figure in the post-war 20th century, the last American president did more to erode the gains in legitimacy made by supranational institutions and their proponents.
After the Iraq war, the United Nations began to be perceived as a US rubberstamp body – or worse – as a meaningless exercise in bureaucracy.
The UN can only function legitimately through consensus (or consensus-lite) decision-making and it was clear that the US was strong-arming weaker states in 2003.
George Bush and the neoconservatives hijacked the legitimate language of consensus-based intervention for their own ill use.
So activists are not wrong to react cynically when they hear that language today; I don’t believe that bombing Gaddafi is a humanitarian gesture.
But George Bush should not be allowed to delegitimise the mechanisms – which are distinct from the language – of global intervention in situations that offend human rights and dignity.
Today, many people agree that the situation in Libya is horrifying. Furthermore, the Libyan rebels requested aid from the outside world.
Those two conditions alone do not justify intervention but they are crucial components of a legitimate international decision to employ force. 
What is a successful intervention?
The question of what a successful intervention means is a very important one. At the very least, it means taking a back seat and supporting the rebels in the capacity that they desire.
It also means not attempting to install a new government that’s pliant and subordinate to the West. Compromise on these two principles will quickly diminish the legitimacy of the campaign against Gaddafi.
Many people have argued that the intervention is a Western imperialist project. Here, it is worth remembering that Western powers were already in control of Libya’s oil when the revolution began.
Muammar Gaddafi was as much “our guy” as Hosni Mubarak. Condoleezza Rice personally visited Libya and met with Gaddafi in 2008.
The following year Tony Blair pushed for the release of the Lockerbie bomber to secure a sweetheart deal with the Libyan regime (although it was Gordon Brown who did the releasing).
Western powers would have been much better served by backing Gaddafi if oil was their object.
There is an alternative imperialism argument: that the intervention is really a push to consolidate Western control over Libyan resources. But, without intervention the rebels would have most certainly been annihilated by Gaddafi’s superior forces.
So why back the losing horse? How can Western powers be sure they can succeed in creating a more agreeable government? Would not they go with the devil they know, especially when he is already their devil?
Finally, any government that takes shape in Libya in the future will have to address the basic issues that fueled the popular uprising there in the first place.
Gaddafi is an imperial stooge and a new imperial government will ensure that the underlying conditions will not go away.
Spreading goodwill, avoiding oil price spikes
So what’s motivating the Western powers into projecting their power into Libya? And why is the West not intervening in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or Yemen?
The potential benefit of successfully backing the rebels will be an increase in goodwill across the Arab world directed at the West. It is not clear if that is a realistic expectation, but it is one appears to motivate Western leaders.
Meanwhile, the cost of attacking Gaddafi and his mercenaries in a limited way, and supplying the rebels with arms is relatively low. It is not clear if the cost is actually low, but it’s likely that it is perceived that way since the intervention is already underway.
In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the opposite is true. The American president Barack Obama will seek reelection, so it is in his interest to prevent the global economy from stagnating then shrinking.
A successful revolution in Bahrain may destabilise Saudi Arabia which would drive the price of oil up which could cause the US economy to stall. It is just not a risk worth taking for him.
Probably, fears of an insurgent Iran – legitimate or not – play into his calculations as well. That’s because most Bahrainis are Shias.
Likewise, Yemen permits the Americans to pursue Al Qaeda affiliates in that country. That goes directly to Obama’s security credentials.
If Yemen lapses, Obama will be accused, rightly or wrongly, of permitting terrorist sympathizers to take control in yet another Middle Eastern country. And the 2012 election campaign is already underway. 
Intervention in Libya could turn out badly in a many different and unforeseen ways. And imperialism and neoliberal “reforms” – which are a problem in that country – did not arrive with the revolution; they preceded it.
We can aspire towards helping young Libyans reform their society to make it more democratic, just and anti-imperialist. But before they can do that they must survive Gaddafi’s pulverizing onslaught. And that’s something that the Western offensive gives them a chance of doing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Setback for Anwar in Malaysia sodomy trial

High Court decides to admit key DNA evidence against opposition leader, reversing earlier ruling.
Last Modified: 23 Mar 2011 05:24
Anwar Ibrahim maintains there is a political conspiracy against him [AFP]
Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian opposition leader, has suffered a setback in his sodomy trial, as a court decided to accept the key DNA evidence that had been earlier rejected as inadmissible.
The country's High Court, on Wednesday, said it would let prosecutors use the evidence in their bid to link Anwar to traces of semen found on his accuser, a 25-year-old former aide.
The surprise reversal of the decision came after an appeal by the prosecution, and after the court had heard new testimony from police.
"It is clear that [Anwar's] arrest was lawful and the detention was for a lawful purpose," judge Zabidin Mohamed Diah told a packed courtroom.
"This court has no choice but to allow these items to be tendered [as evidence]. My earlier ruling in the matter is reversed," he said, but added that the court would not compel Anwar to provide a sample of his DNA.
The court had previously ruled that DNA from a bottle, toothbrush and hand towel in Anwar's detention cell -taken without his consent - was obtained illegally, and was therefore inadmissible.
Vital evidence
The evidence is a vital part of the prosecution's effort to prove that Anwar had sex with Mohamad Saiful Bukhari Azlan, his former aide. A chemist had testified that the DNA on those items matched that of semen discovered on Saiful.
Anwar faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of sodomy, which is considered a crime in the Muslim-majority country.
Yusof Zainal Abiden, the government prosecutor, had asked the High Court to review its earlier decision about the illegality of the DNA evidence.
He urged the court to compel Anwar to provide his DNA as tests would show whether there was a match with the semen found in an internal examination on Saiful, who claims he was coerced into having sex with the politician at a Kuala Lumpur condominium in June 2008.
Anwar has refused to voluntarily provide a DNA sample because he fears authorities will tamper with it.
The opposition politician criticised the court's decision, insisting to reporters that authorities got the three items through "trickery and deception".
'Political conspiracy'
Sankara Nair, Anwar's counsel, said the judge did not take all the facts into consideration.
"We disagree with the decision because the judge says the arrest was legal but it wasn't just the issue of the arrest alone, it was also the violation of lockup rules and many other issues," he told the AFP news agency.
"There has also been no evidence given by any of the police officers at the lockup that these items were actually used by Anwar," he added.
Anwar maintains that the charges are part of a political conspiracy to remove him from politics.
He is also struggling with new allegations of sexual misconduct after a sex video depicting a man believed to resemble him was leaked under mysterious circumstances on Monday.
Anwar claims both the sodomy charge and the video were fabricated by the government to crush his political threat.
Authorities deny any conspiracy. And police said they were investigating the video, which has not been publicly circulated.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Iran warns Libyans of West's "colonial" intentions

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran warned Libyans on Sunday not to trust Western powers launching air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's troops, saying their aim was to gain neo-colonial control over the oil-rich nation.
Tehran has voiced support for the uprising against the Libyan leader, part of what it considers an "Islamic awakening" in the Arab world.
But as a long-time foe of the United States which in recent years has invaded and stationed troops in two of its neighbours, Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran expressed deep suspicion over Western military intervention in Libya.
"The records and the actions of the dominant countries in occupying oppressed countries means their intentions in such moves are always in doubt," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was quoted as saying by students' news agency ISNA.
European and U.S. forces began bombing Libyan targets after a U.N. Security Council vote endorsed intervention aimed at protecting civilians at risk from Gaddafi's violent suppression.
While Iran's position "is always to support the people and defend their legitimate demands", Mehmanparast warned Libyans against an eventual occupation by the Western countries which are claiming to protect them.
"These countries enter usually with seductive slogans of supporting the people but they follow their own interests in ruling the countries and continuing colonialism in a new form," he said.
While voicing support for demonstrators in the Arab world, and condemning government repression, Iran has crushed protests at home and jailed scores of demonstrators since 2009.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Hundreds killed in tsunami after 8.9 Japan quake

Tsunami waves swirl near a port in Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture (state) after Japan was struck by a strong earthquake off its northeastern coast Friday, AP – Tsunami waves swirl near a port in Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture (state) after Japan was struck by a strong …
TOKYO – A ferocious tsunami spawned by one of the largest earthquakes on record slammed Japan's eastern coast Friday, killing hundreds of people as it swept away ships, cars and homes while widespread fires burned out of control.
Hours later, the tsunami hit Hawaii but did not cause major damage. Warnings blanketed the Pacific, putting areas on alert as far away as South America, Canada, Alaska and the entire U.S. West coast. In northeastern Japan, the area around a nuclear power plant was evacuated after the reactor's cooling system failed.
Police said 200 to 300 bodies were found in the northeastern coastal city of Sendai, the city in Miyagi prefecture, or state, closest to the epicenter. Another 137 were confirmed killed, with 531 people missing. Police also said 627 people were injured.
The magnitude-8.9 offshore quake unleashed a 23-foot (seven-meter) tsunami and was followed for hours by more than 50 aftershocks, many of them of more than magnitude 6.0.
Dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile (2,100-kilometer) stretch of coastline were shaken by violent tremors that reached as far away as Tokyo, hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the epicenter. A large section of Kesennuma, a town of 70,000 people in Miyagi, burned furiously into the night with no apparent hope of being extinguished, public broadcaster NHK said.
"The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference.
The quake was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that struck New Zealand late last month, devastating the city of Christchurch.
"The energy radiated by this quake is nearly equal to one month's worth of energy consumption" in the United States, U.S. Geological Survey Scientist Brian Atwater told The Associated Press.
The government ordered thousands of residents near a nuclear power plant in the city of Onahama to move back at least two miles (three kilometers) from the plant. The reactor was not leaking radiation but its core remained hot even after a shutdown. The plant is 170 miles (270 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo.
Trouble was reported at two other nuclear plants as well, but there was no radiation leak at either of them.
Japan's coast guard said it was searching for 80 dock workers on a ship that was swept away from a shipyard in Miyagi.
Even for a country used to earthquakes, this one was of horrific proportions because of the tsunami that crashed ashore, swallowing everything in its path as it surged several miles (kilometers) inland before retreating. The apocalyptic images on Japanese TV of powerful, debris-filled waves, uncontrolled fires and a ship caught in a massive whirlpool resembled scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie.
Large fishing boats and other vessels rode high waves ashore, slamming against overpasses or scraping under them and snapping power lines along the way. Upturned and partially submerged cars bobbed in the water. Ships anchored in ports crashed against each other.
The tsunami roared over embankments, washing anything in its path inland before reversing directions and carrying the cars, homes and other debris out to sea. Flames shot from some of the homes, probably because of burst gas pipes.
Waves of muddy waters flowed over farmland near Sendai, carrying buildings, some of them ablaze. Drivers attempted to flee. Sendai airport was inundated with thick, muddy debris that included cars, trucks, buses and even light planes.
Highways to the worst-hit coastal areas buckled. Telephone lines snapped. Train service in northeastern Japan and in Tokyo, which normally serve 10 million people a day, were suspended, leaving untold numbers stranded in stations or roaming the streets. Tokyo's Narita airport was closed indefinitely.
President Barack Obama said the U.S. "stands ready to help" Japan.
Jesse Johnson, a native of the U.S. state of Nevada who lives in Chiba, north of Tokyo, was eating at a sushi restaurant with his wife when the quake hit.
"At first it didn't feel unusual, but then it went on and on. So I got myself and my wife under the table," he told The Associated Press. "I've lived in Japan for 10 years, and I've never felt anything like this before. The aftershocks keep coming. It's gotten to the point where I don't know whether it's me shaking or an earthquake."
NHK said more than 4 million buildings were without power in Tokyo and its suburbs.
As night fell, Tokyo's streets were jammed with cars, buses and trucks trying to get around and out of the city. Pedestrians swarmed the sidewalks to walk home, or at least find a warm place to spend the night as the temperatures dropped.
Tomoko Suzuki and her elderly mother stood on a crowded downtown corner, unable to get to their 29th-floor condominium because the elevator wasn't working. They unsuccessfully tried to hail a taxi to a relative's house and couldn't find a hotel room.
"We are so cold," said Suzuki. "We really don't know what to do."
A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in the city of Ichihara and burned out of control with 100-foot (30-meter) flames whipping into the sky.
"Our initial assessment indicates that there has already been enormous damage," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. "We will make maximum relief effort based on that assessment."
He said the Defense Ministry was sending troops to the hardest-hit region. A utility aircraft and several helicopters were on the way.
Also in Miyagi prefecture, a fire broke out in a turbine building of a nuclear power plant, but it was later extinguished, said Tohoku Electric Power Co.
A reactor area of a nearby plant was leaking water, the company said. But it was unclear if the leak was caused by the tsunami or something else. There were no reports of radioactive leaks at any of Japan's nuclear plants.
Jefferies International Ltd., a global investment banking group, estimated overall losses of about $10 billion.
Hiroshi Sato, a disaster management official in northern Iwate prefecture, said officials were having trouble getting an overall picture of the destruction.
"We don't even know the extent of damage. Roads were badly damaged and cut off as tsunami washed away debris, cars and many other things," he said.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the 2:46 p.m. quake was magnitude 8.9, the biggest to hit Japan since record-keeping began in the late 1800s and one of the biggest ever recorded in the world.
The quake struck at a depth of six miles (10 kilometers), about 80 miles (125 kilometers) off the eastern coast, the agency said. The area is 240 miles (380 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo. Several quakes hit the same region in recent days, including one measured at magnitude 7.3 on Wednesday that caused no damage.
A tsunami warning was extended to a number of areas in the Pacific, Southeast Asia and Latin America, including Japan, Russia, Indonesia, New Zealand and Chile. In the Philippines, authorities ordered an evacuation of coastal communities, but no unusual waves were reported.
Thousands fled homes in Indonesia after officials warned of a tsunami up to 6 feet (2 meters) high, but waves of only 4 inches (10 centimeters) were measured. No big waves came to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory, either.
The first waves hit Hawaii about 9 a.m. EST (1400 GMT). A tsunami about 7 feet (2.1 meters) high was recorded on Maui and a wave at least 3 feet (a meter) high was recorded on Oahu and Kauai. Officials warned that the waves would continue and could get larger.
Japan's worst previous quake was a magnitude 8.3 temblor in 1923 in Kanto that killed 143,000 people, according to USGS. A 7.2-magnitude quake in Kobe in 1996 killed 6,400 people.
Japan lies on the "Ring of Fire" — an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching around the Pacific where about 90 percent of the world's quakes occur, including the one that triggered the Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people in 12 nations. A magnitude-8.8 temblor that shook central Chile in February 2010 also generated a tsunami and killed 524 people.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Islamists ready for their close-up?

After governments fall in secular Egypt and Tunisia, Islamist parties are poised to enter the political mainstream.
Last Modified: 10 Mar 2011 16:15 GMT
Feminist Nawel el-Saadawi arguing in Tahrir Square that both sexes ought to be able to pray together in mosques [EPA]
For several weeks, a global audience has been glued to computer and television screens, fascinated by the compelling sight of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In both countries, long-ruling dictators were ultimately deposed amid cries of freedom, accountability and democracy.
This narrative of a long-suffering people finally toppling the head of the regime oppressing them is the stuff of Hollywood movie trailers, an epic billed as an irresistible story of human triumph. And Americans - even ones typically disinterested in foreign politics - certainly bought the ticket to see the show, with Facebook pages and rallies in several US cities showing that they supported protesters in Cairo and Tunis.
And then, panic. With two secular presidents deposed - Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt - who would fill the power vacuum?
The obvious answer for many seems to be, simply: The Islamists. And in the post-September 11 world, this has triggered a flopsweat of paranoia and discomfort.
Glenn Beck, a high-profile Fox network commentator, said that the success of Islamist governments would spell the end of peace in Europe and capitalism in the US.
"It is difficult to deny ... that radicals, Islamasits [sic], communists, socialists will work together against Israel, against capitalism, and they'll try to work together to overturn stability," said Beck in a broadcast in February, charging that the uprisings in North Africa were also to blame for the pro-labour protests in the state of Wisconsin.
Also, Thursday marked the start of the US House of Representatives hearing on "radicalised Islam", focusing on "theo-political" Islam. The hearing was centred on the testimony of Zuhdi Jasser, the founder of the American Islamic Forum of Democracy who told NPR on Tuesday that the real danger is "the intoxicant" that is "the supremacism of political Islam".
The Daily Mail, fretting about shuttering brothels in Tunisia, ran an article on February 26 saying that, "faster than you could scream ‘Allahu Akbar’, hundreds of Islamists raided Abdallah Guech Street armed with Molotov cocktails and knives, torching the brothels, yelling insults at the prostitutes and declaring that Tunisia was now an Islamist state."
Al-Nahda, Tunisia's leading Islamist party has issued statements distancing itself from the fringe groups targeting bordellos and the recent slaying of a Polish priest.
Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, told Al Jazeera that there are two fundamental problems with how the West views the question of potential Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia.
The first is that there is a perception that in Muslim countries, there are only two options for leadership: Dictators or radical Islamists.
"So we portray the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Nahda as radical Islamists," said Ramadan, whose grandfather, Hassan al Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood.
"The intrinsic dynamics and the trends within political Islam are not known, so we put all the people in the same box, in the same stream, and that's completely wrong. It's just to justify what has been the rhetoric of the dictators for years and accepted by the West. that, 'If it's not us, the dictators, then it's going to be them, the violent extremists.'"
The other issue is that most Westerners can't grasp that while the movements in Egypt and Tunisia weren't Islamic revolutions, many of the protesters in those countries were "mobilised as Muslims" - some of them moderate, some of them conservative.
"To be accepted in the West, we have to remove Islam from it ... this is where the West should get a better understanding of Islam," said Ramadan.
"They (Muslim) want freedom as the West wants freedom. They want dignity as the West wants dignity. They want democratisation as the West is promoting democratising."
Ed Husain, an expert on Islamist movements and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera that the US fear of Islamist states is hardly surprising, given that Washington has viewed the region through a very narrow lens for the past 30 to 35 years.
"The US, and not just media, but the policy makers and others, view the Middle East through three prisms: One is of Israel, the second is of oil and the third is of terrorism,"  said Hussein.
Then there's the question of how relatively secular societies would function under Islamist governments. There have been numerous media reports in outlets such as the Washington Post and  AFP news agency on fears that freedoms associated with secular governments will be revoked under potential Islamist rule in Tunisia and Egypt.
But what would change if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the al-Nahda party in Tunisia swept the upcoming polls in those countries? Is that really even a likely outcome? And, if so, what sort of social changes would that spell out for those societies?
These are the early days
To start with, the revolutions are far from over. In Egypt,  there are still protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square and the country is still without a constitution - while in Tunisia strikes, protests and unrest continue to unfold as the pro-democracy movement calls for the election of a constituent assembly.
"This is all still playing out in real time ... from day to day, things seem to be rather fluid," Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Al Jazeera.
 Polls: Americans and Egyptians
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll: 
*58 per cent of Americans worry Islamist governments would not back US interests.
*32 per cent feel the US should unconditionally support democracies in the Middle East.
A 2010 Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project survey  showed:
*Among Muslims in Egypt, 48 per cent felt that Islam "played a large role in their nation's political life".
* 49 per cent said "it played only a small role."
*59 per cent said they wanted a democratic form of government.
"There are risks associated with both countries falling under a strong man - it would not be surprising to see that. What I think is heartening is that we are seeing real democratic, let's call them grass roots and green shoots. But ... it's important to stress that no one saw this coming - not the Egyptian intelligence, not US intelligence. It happened spontaneously. "
Paul Salem, director of the Middle East Centre at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it's far too early to know which direction the Muslim Brotherhood will go just yet. What's clear at this point, however, is that this was not the Muslim Brotherhood's revolution.
This, he said, represents a "sea change" in the sense that "public opinion in the biggest Arab country, has stood up, and on Al Jazeera TV .. . that what they want, is a pluralist, liberal, democratic system which respects human rights, communal rights, pluralism, economic justice, accountable government - that's what they're about."
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is finding its footing in post-Mubarak era and has yet to clarify where it stands on key issues. For example, in recent weeks it has alternately said that it would dissolve Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and that it would honour it.
So it's clear that even within a single Islamist group - let alone among the many  - there is a tremendous diversity of thought, between the various gradations of the moderate and the conservative as well as between the younger and older generations.
But George Joffe, a research fellow at Cambridge University, where he specialises in the Middle East and North Africa, said that the process of participating in a democracy “domesticates ideologies”.
"Currently, the Muslim Brotherhood is a gerontology, meaning that its leadership is very old. They are primarily concerned with doctrinal issues," said Joffe.
"They don’t have a coherent project, which is why they’ve been outclassed by recent events."
He said internal divisions will prompt the Muslim Brotherhood to form a political party - where doctrine will play less of a role - and move away from being a social movement, as it is seen now.
The (secular) sky is not (yet) falling
If nothing, the recent events have shown us that while the Muslim Brotherhood is one of the most organised groups, it typically "accounts for 15 to 20 per cent of participants, no more," said Amina Elbendary, an assistant professor of Arabic and Islamic civilisations at the American University in Cairo.
"Many of us believe that when fair elections are held, the Muslim Brotherhood will win considerable seats, and will play and important role ... once political parties can freely form, we will witness a plethora of parties."
Salem figured that the odds of Islamist parties taking power in Egypt and Tunisia, particularly during the immediate transitional period are "low, although not negligible".
"I think it's low for a number of reasons. First, is that the uprisings were not Islamist uprisings, so public opinion has staked out a fairly new and broad position for itself, which is quite different from the Islamist position," said Salem, who added that this was key, as over the past 30 years, it was "assumed that the Islamist position must be the public's position."
This view has been partly reinforced with events such as Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections, when the banned Muslim Brotherhood party made major gains, as well as the elections in Gaza the following year, when the Islamist Hamas party, won majority rule.
But the Islamist parties weren't the primary driving forces in uprisings in the recent and ongoing uprisings.
 Tunisian protesters call for a secular state after the murder of a priest and verbal attacks on Jews [EPA]
"Secondly, in Egypt and in Tunisia, much of the regimes ... would favour participation in parliament and perhaps in government participation by Islamist parties, but they would not favour and would try not to allow an Islamist sweep."
In order to consolidate the gains brought about by the removal of dictatorships, Islamist parties need to be "modest, or certainly, restrained" said Salem.
Joffe suggested that an Islamist government in either North African country seems unlikey.
“I would say in the short to medium term, there’s no chance of that occurring,” said Joffe, mostly because the “level of support is not sufficient. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has less than 30 per cent support, and al-Nahda has been out of circulation for years.”
He sees much of the talk of an Islamist takeover as paranoia, and says that those who say that Islamists states are a certainty in Egypt and Tunisia have “failed to observe that Islamist movements as such played no part at all” in the uprisings in those countries, which, he said, were the “consequence of the demonisation of political Islam as a systematic and existential threat”.
But Husain said that the Muslim Brotherhood is bound to be the leading party in the short term, as it has over 80 years of history there, with the network and resources that come with it.
The party, he said, is poised to do better than others.
"There's a reason for people to be suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Mohamad Badia, a relative hardliner in the organisation, has already said that he's not interested in an Islamist government, but a civilian government," said Husain, adding that other members have also said they'd like to be part of a broader coalition.
While the Muslim Brotherhood has said that it does not see Egypt with a Western-style democracy, the organisation has said that it embraces the idea of democracy, with Islamic tenets at its core.
Why fear an Islamist state?
Within Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the al-Nahda party, was met not only with supporters at the airport in Tunis upon returning after spending 21 years in exile - he was also met with secularists, waving signs that read, "No Islamism, no theocracy, no Sharia and no stupidity!"
But Ghannouchi has compared al-Nahda to the Turkey's Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi - or AKP party - which includes an Islamic faction but is not a hardline Islamist party. He also told Al Jazeera in no uncertain terms that his party "cannot be compared to the Taliban or Iran" and that he's "no Khomeini", referring to Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
"I think this very narrow understanding of what's happening is to once again nurture a state of fear and mistrust towards all the opposition forces"
Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University
"I think that for the Muslim Brotherhood, (al-)Nahda and others, the only way for us in the West or anywhere else to deal with them is to let them be involved in the political process and then to challenge them when it comes to policy and implementation," said Ramadan, who added that just as far-right parties are tolerated in Western governments, so should Islamist parties be in Egypt and Tunisia.
"If you repress them, if you put them in jail, you are in fact nurturing the radicalisation that you don't want."
Besides, said Ramadan, al-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood hardly represent extremist Islamic thought - they are in fact considered "beytrayers" by extremist groups, because both parties are "legalists and non-violent".
Turkey is also the example both Salem and Joffe use to make the point that the idea of Islamist government does not run counter to the notion of individual rights. In fact, Joffe points out Turkey is negotiating to join the European Union, something that would be impossible without having a democracy and respecting human rights.
Even though rights groups, such as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women are on guard for any move to retrograde women's rights, Husain does not see a threat to women and minority rights in the country. He described Ghannouchi as a progressive, and said he'd sat in on meetings where the the al-Nahda leader went "out of his way to reprimand the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for its rigidity".
"Ghannouchi is a believer in a woman being a head of a state, so that's where he is, and he's years ahead of the Egyptian ... Muslim Brotherhood, who sometimes have very conservative tendencies."
Still Husain also points out that the Muslim Brotherhood has a good relationship with Egypt's Coptic Christian community, although it has said in the past that it does not support the idea of a Copt becoming president.
Joffe said that there's no chance of an Islamist party changing the status of women in Tunisia, when women's rights have made steady gains since gaining suffrage in 1956, but that Egypt is a different matter.
"Egypt is a much more conservative society - the changes there may well be due to the patriarchal nature of men rather than to the Islamist movement itself," said Joffe.
"That isn’t going to change, simply because of the nature of the political parties."
Indeed, those particpating in International Women's Day rally in Cairo on Monday were met with groups of men opposing the march, some of whom shoved women, saying their activities were un-Islamic. But Joffe doesn't seem too concerned about a dawn of new, hardline governments, mostly because the Muslim Brotherhood is factionalising and that moderate factions will not tolerate the idea of trying to suppress women through law.
Egyptian women have already started pushing back, working to find a way into the new government. And there are also reports published and broadcast in outlets such as The Los Angeles Timesand the CBCwhich point to the role of women in the Egyptian uprising as a turning point for women's rights there, empowering them to find a place in society, shoulder-to-shoulder with men.
"There is a strong civil society in Egypt, which already, even before January 25, has pushed the Muslim Brotherhood to reformulate its ideas and concepts, especially with regards to women and minorities," said Elbendary.
"It is inevitable that further pressures in the future will encourage the Muslim Brotherhood to develop their ideas and programme further."
Ramadan said that what's become clear through the haze of the ongoing revolts is that Islamist groups are "not really in touch with what is happening in the society with the young generation. So the risk of a very traditional and conservative approaches is there". However, he said that it's up to the parties themselves to show, on the ground, that they respect equal rights for men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
Schanzer too said there there are "signs that warrant optimism in both countries" and that if the people will it, they could push for constitutions that protect the rights of women and minorities while having an Islamist head of state.
Coalitions and fringe movements
The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda have said that they want to part of a coalition governments. In the case of Tunisia's al-Nahda movement, which Salem describes as a "softer" Islamic movement, this seems less contentious, as Ghannouchi's reputation is that of a progressive.
"I don't think that the twitter, Facebook, tattoo generation of young Egyptians that essentially overthrew the Mubarak regime will sit around and wait for some fundamentalist regime to appear."
Ed Husain, Council on Foreign Relations
"I think that political groups that are part of the various political Islamic movements are inevitable partners in future democratic governments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere," said Steve Clemons, the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.
"Their ability to lead a government will be based upon their deal-making skills with other parts of that political system. And most importantly, I think that to be trusted to lead, they will need to show an ability to negotiate and compromise and to respect those who are part of the political minority. But they will definitely be in the equation."
With its more conservative views and decades-long baggage, it may be hard to see how the Muslim Brotherhood could finesse being part of a coalition.
"I think we are long overdue in seeing the Muslim Brotherhood and other parts of political Islam be given the chance to participate in democratic structures," Clemons told Al Jazeera, adding that making the group "feel that they are stakeholders, hopefully diminish radicalisation of some of their followers".
Besides, the Muslim Brotherhood is well aware of how it is perceived, which, said Salem, is why they are not fielding a presidential candidate in the upcoming elections.
Taking the Turkish model into account, Salem points out that in aligning itself with Mohamed ElBaradei, himself without a strong following in Egypt, the party might succeed in increasing its base.
Husain, meanwhile, said he's concerned that once the Muslim Brotherhood has a parliamentary presence, other hardline groups will criticise them for being too moderate.
"We saw this in Bangladesh, we saw this in Pakistan, we're seeing this in Indonesia ... we will see a greater contesting of Islamists trying to out-Islam one another - you know, who's more pure, who's more Islamic."
In weighing the possibilities, Schanzer said that Egypt and Tunisia could, potentially, go in three different directions - they could revert  back to military-backed dictatorships, could form democracies or Islamist government. They could also form combinations of the above.
Hijacking a revolution
So it's not outside the scope of possibility that both Tunisia and Egypt might end up with Islamist governments. Given that the population in both countries is predominantly Muslim, would that be such a catastrophe?
Though secular, Israel is considered a Jewish state, where only a Jew could be head of state, and in the UK, only a Christian could occupy that position. So if faith can play a role in statehood, then what would make an Islamist leadership in Tunisia and Egypt so alarming?
"A lot Muslims do not want a religious-based government, let alone non-Muslims ... and in Egypt and Tunisia, one didn't get the sense of any sweeping sentiment at all, that these Muslims wanted an Islamist government," said Salem.
But within Egypt, the fear of having an Islamist take-over is seen as "rather exaggerated, and has been for a number of years," said Elbendary, adding that while both Tunisia and Egypt have a history of Islamist political organisations "which have great grassroots support", that in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is "not the only power".
Husain too said he doesn't think an Islamist government has a lasting chance in Egypt.
"I don't think that the twitter, Facebook, tattoo generation of young Egyptians that essentially overthrew the Mubarak regime will sit around and wait for some fundamentalist regime to appear," said Husain.
Schanzer is more circumspect on the issue, and said it's not clear how people would respond to the formation of a hardline Islamist government.
"It depends what kind of system emerges," said Schanzer.
"If it's a repressive system that brutalises people who come out in protest of their government, then I think it would take some time to amass the requisite forces to challenge the government again. I think it's important that we remember that the people of Egypt are both exhilarated and exhausted."
Follow dparvaz on Twitter.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Failing in Afghanistan successfully

Despite hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of troops, the US is unable to conclude its longest war.
Last Modified: 07 Mar 2011 19:06 GMT
 The recent killing of nine Afghan children has put the spotlight on the US military's new aggressive methods [AFP]
While we have been fixated on successive Arab breakthroughs and victories against tyranny and extremism, Washington is failing miserably but discreetly in Afghanistan.

The American media's one-obsession-at-a-time coverage of global affairs might have put the spotlight on President Obama's slow and poor reaction to the breathtaking developments starting in Tunisia and Egypt. But they spared him embarrassing questions about continued escalation and deaths in Afghanistan.

In spite of its international coalition, multiple strategies, hundreds of billions of dollars, and a surge of tens of thousands of troops, the US is unable to conclude its longest war yet or at least reverse its trend.

Recent "reports" from the war front have been of two kinds. Some official or analytical in nature and heavily circulated in Washington portray a war going terribly well. On the other hand, hard news from the ground tell a story of US fatigue, backtracking and tactical withdrawals or redeployments which do not bode well for defeating the Taliban or forcing them to the negotiations' table.

For example, while the US military's decision to withdraw from the Pech valley was justified on tactical need to redeploy troops for the task of "protecting the population", keen observers saw it as a humiliating retreat from what the Pentagon previously called a very strategic position and sacrificed some hundred soldiers defending it.
Likewise, strategic analysts close to the administration speak triumphantly of US surge and hi-tech firepower inflicting terrible cost on the Taliban, killing many insurgents and driving many more from their sanctuaries.
But news from the war front show the Taliban unrelenting, mounting counterattacks and escalating the war especially in areas where the US has "surged" its troops. And while the majority of the 400 Afghan districts are "calmer", they remain mostly out of Kabul's control.
What success? 
Those with relatively long memories recall the then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's claims that most of Afghanistan was secure in early 2003 and that American forces had changed their strategy from major combat operations to stabilisation and reconstruction project.
But the Taliban continued to carry daily attacks on government buildings, US positions and international organisations. Two years later, the US was to suffer the worst and deadliest year since the war began.
Today's war pundits are in the same state of denial. For all practical purpose, Washington has given up on its counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy devised under McChrystal and Petreaus.
Instead, it is pursuing a heavy handed and terribly destructive crackdown that includes special operations, assassinations, mass demolitions, air and night raids etc that have led to anything but winning the country, let alone its hearts and minds.
The killing of nine Afghan children last week - all under the age of 12 - by US attack helicopters has once again put the spotlight on the US military's new aggressive methods.
The results are so devastating for the conduct of the war and to Washington's clients, that President Karzai not only distanced himself from the US methods, but also publicly rejected Washington's apology for the killings.
Nor is the recruitment and training of the Afghan forces going well. Indeed, many seem to give up on the idea that Afghan security forces could take matters into their hands if the US withdraws in the foreseeable future.
Worse, US strategic co-operation with Pakistan - the central pillar of Obama's PakAf strategy - has cooled after the arrest of a CIA contractor for the killing of two Pakistanis even though he presumably enjoys diplomatic immunity.
Reportedly, it has also led to a "breakdown" in co-ordination between the two countries intelligence agencies, the CIA and the ISI.

But the incident is merely a symptom of a bigger problem between the two countries. A reluctant partner, the Pakistani establishment and its military are unhappy with US strategy which they reckon could destabilise their country and strengthen Afghanistan and India at their expense.
That has not deterred Washington from offering ideas and money to repair the damage. However, it has become clear that unlike in recent years, future improvement in their bilateral relations will most probably come as a result of the US edging closer to Pakistan's position, not the opposite.
All of which makes one wonder why certain Washington circles are rushing to advance the "success story".
Running out of options
The Afghan government' incapability to take on the tasks of governing or securing the country beyond the capital, and the incapacity of the Obama administration to break the Taliban's momentum does not bode well for an early conclusion of the war.
To their credit some of Obama's war and surge supporters realise that there is no military solution for Afghanistan. Clearly, their claims of battlefield successes help justify the rush to talk to the Taliban.
But it is not yet clear whether the presumably ongoing exploratory secret negotiations with the Taliban are serious at all, or will lead to comprehensive negotiations and eventually a lasting deal. The last "Taliban commander" Washington dialogued with in the fall turned out to be an impostor - a shopkeeper from Quetta!
If the Taliban does eventually accept to sit down with Obama or Karzai envoys, the US needs to explain why it fought for 10 years only to help the group back to power.
Secretary of state Hillary Clinton has begun the humiliating backtracking last month: "Now, I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace."
Facing up to the reality
The mere fact that the world's mightiest superpower cannot win over the poorly armed Taliban after a long decade of fighting, means it has already failed strategically, regardless of the final outcome.
The escalation of violence and wasting billions more cannot change that. It is history. The quicker the Obama administration recognises its misfortunes, minimises its losses and convenes a regional conference over the future of Afghanistan under UN auspices, the easier it will be to evacuate without humiliation.
Whether the US eventually loses the war and declares victory; negotiates a settlement and withdraw its troops, remains to be seen. What is incontestable is that when you fight the week for too long, you also become weak.
All of which explains the rather blunt comments made in a speech at the end of February, by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates when he said "... any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it."

Monday, March 7, 2011

Kalau tak pangkah BN, bantuan ditarik balik

02 Rabiulakhir 1432H. [MOD] -

Saya merupakan seorang warga Merlimau, Melaka yang bertugas di Sarawak. Saya sanggup pulang untuk Pilihanraya Kecil Dun Merlimau walaupun menelan belanja yang besar. Majikan saya bertanya kenapa saya perlu pulang ke Merlimau, bukankah ada undi pos? Saya jawab, “Maaf tuan, saya tidak yakin dengan undi pos.” Semangat berkobar-kobar kerana PRK tidak sama dengan PRU. Tentu banyak berubah wajah kampung saya.

Tepat telahan saya, memang berubah sama sekali! Lori keluar masuk, polis bersimpang siur di jalan raya. Kampung yang dulu aman damai kini tidak ubah seperti medan pertempuran. Bendera berkibaran sehingga menyukarkan saya untuk melihat kenderaan sebelum melintas jalan. Begitu ‘panas’ keadaan di Merlimau sehingga berkobar-kobar saya memangkah kertas undi, dengan harapan calon pilihan saya juga calon pilihan warga Merlimau.

Apabila keputusan PRK diumumkan saya jadi kecewa. Kecewa bukan kerana PAS tewas. Kecewa kerana orang kampung saya, orang Merlimau masih belum berubah, masih belum mahu berubah dan tidak mahu berubah. Pegangan saya dan keluarga tetap condong kepada PAS dan Pakatan Rakyat. Tetapi tidak dengan orang kampung saya.

Mereka terlalu selesa dengan kebendaan, terlalu mudah disogokkan dengan harta benda, dengan jalan tar sekangkang kera, dengan biskut marie sepeket dua. Mereka tidak nampak bagaimana Ketua Menteri tercinta dengan lahap rakus menelan setiap sen ringgit yang terbang di depan mata.

Saya cuma pulang untuk tiga hari, tetapi pelbagai kisah menarik yang saya dapat di kampung saya. Jiran saya seorang ibu tunggal anak 7, dengan pendapatan RM400 sebulan, disogokkan dengan jalan tar sehingga ke depan pintu rumah. Tetapi hanya ditabur dengan batu dan pasir, tar pula entah ke mana. Lain pula ceritanya dengan seorang ahli Umno totok, yang rumahnya di sebelah masjid.

Sehari sebelum mengundi, rumahnya cantik ditar setiap pelosok halaman. Yang seorang lagi bukan setakat rumah, hingga ke rumah-rumah sewanya juga siap ditar. Ibu tunggal diberi sepeket biskut marie, sekilo gula, dan sekilo tepung gandum dengan pesanan, “Kalau kau tak pangkah BN, semua bantuan ditarik balik.”

Seorang rakan saya merupakan petugas SPR yang juga pengundi, terpaksa menggunakan undi pos. Yang hairan bin ajaibnya, borang yang ditulis nama dan kad pengenalannya diarahkan supaya dimasukkan sekali dengan kertas undi. Jadi sesiapa pun boleh tahu siapa yang undi siapa. Sudah teluskah SPR?

Teringat saya dengan seorang pelakon kelahiran Merlimau yang juga penyokong BN totok. Mungkin sedang berlakon atau mungkin nak menunjuk pada anak-anak dara di sekeliling; dengan nada bongkak dia menjerit,

“Lagi-lagi sebut Allah, asyik nak minta tolong pada Allah je, bukannya nak usaha!” Na’uzubillah… bukankah segala usaha kita juga atas kehendak Allah? Semoga dia sempat bertaubat dan semoga kampung Merlimau yang saya sayangi ini tidak dilanda musibah dan mala petaka.

Banyak lagi kisah pilihanraya Dun Merlimau ini, tapi pada petugas-petugas jentera pilihanraya tentu sangat maklum. Merlimau merupakan kubu kuat BN, orang-orang Merlimau sangat setia kepada BN. Memang kami tidak meletakkan harapan yang tinggi untuk kemenangan PAS di sini.

Tapi untuk PRU13, saya berharap sesuatu boleh dilakukan kerana kami, sebagai pengundi Dun Merlimau ini amat mengharapkan perubahan. Mohon ahli-ahli Pakatan Rakyat di sini menyusun strategi untuk menghadapi PRU13. Kita perlu lakukan sesuatu untuk mengubah mentaliti pengundi bagi menjamin perubahan di masa akan datang. Insya Allah, karat BN di Dun Merlimau ini akan terhakis akhirnya.

Pengundi Dun Merlimau

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saudi Arabia bans protest rallies

Interior ministry vows to use all steps "to prevent attempts to disrupt public order" following recent Shia protests.
Last Modified: 05 Mar 2011 15:15 GMT
King Abdullah unveiled $37bn in benefits for citizens after returning from abroad last week
Saudi Arabia has banned all protests and marches following recent anti-government protests in the kingdom’s east, reports say.
State television on Saturday quoted the interior ministry as saying that security forces would use all measures to prevent any attempt to disrupt public order.
The ban on public demonstrations comes amid media reports of a huge mobilisation of Saudi troops in Shia-dominated provinces in order to quell any possible uprising.
According to The Independent, a British newspaper, 10,000 security personnel are being sent to the region by road, clogging highways into Dammam and other cities.
Shia protests
A restive Shia population has staged a series of protests in the kingdom’s east in the past weeks. Their grievances range from lack of equal economic and employment opportunities to detentions without trial.
On Saturday, small protests were held in the cities of Hofuf and Qatif.
The government of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy without an elected parliament that usually does not tolerate public dissent, denies any discrimination against the Shia community.
The authorities, however, are increasingly on edge following the anti-governmnent protests sweeping across the Arab world.
Last week, King Abdullah returned to Riyadh after a three-month medical absence and unveiled $37bn in benefits for citizens in an apparent bid to insulate the kingdom from protests.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Pakistan buries Christian leader

Pakistan buries Christian leader
Prime minister attends funeral in Islamabad of government minister killed after calling for changes to blasphemy laws.
Last Modified: 04 Mar 2011 15:45 GMT
Yusuf Raza Gilani, left, said 'I consider this day as a black day. All the minorities have lost a great leader' [AFP]
Pakistan has buried Shahbaz Bhatti, a prominent Christian government minister who was assassinated after he called for changes to the country's blasphemy laws.
Around 2,000 mourners attended the funeral at an Islamabad church on Friday, including Yusuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister.
Angry crowd had shouted "death for killers" ahead of the burial of Bhatti who was the country's only Christian minister and had challenged a law that stipulates death for insulting Islam.
The two gunmen who shot Bhatti, 42, left leaflets desribing him as a "Christian infidel" and signed "Taliban al-Qaeda Punjab".
"In Islamic sharia, the sentence for blasphemers to the prophet is just death," the pamphlet said.
Gilani said: "I consider this day as a black day. All the minorities have lost a great leader. I assure you, we will try our utmost to bring the culprits to justice."
Pakistan's blasphemy law sanctions the death penalty for insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohammed.
Human rights groups say the law has been used to persecute Christians and other minorities.
Bhatti’s killing is being seen as the latest sign of how violent religious conservatism is becoming more mainstream in Pakistan, a trend which could further destabilise the nuclear-armed US ally.
Second assassination
Bhatti's murder was the second high profile assassination this year of a politician opposing the blasphemy law.
In January, Salman Taseer, a provincial governor, was shot dead by one of his bodyguards.
In a sign of mourning, black flags fluttered above houses in Khushpur, Bhatti's mainly Christian home village, 290 km south of Islamabad. Men, women and children thronged the village cemetery for the burial.
"These terrorists must be hanged publicly to stop them from committing such brutal crimes," Hina Gill, a member of the Christian Minority Alliance, said. Many Muslims were also present at Bhatti’s burial.
"Shahbaz Bhatti has tried hard to promote inter-faith harmony but those who want to destabilise Pakistan have killed him," said Badruddin Chaudhry, a Muslim attending the funeral.
Bhatti was travelling in his official car without a security escort when the gunmen opened fire on him near his house in Islamabad. He died on the spot after sustaining at least eight bullet wounds.
A Rehman Malik, the interior minister, denounced the killing but said Bhatti himself was to blame for his death.

"I think it was his mistake," Rehman Malik said, adding that Bhatti wanted to keep a low profile. "It was his own decision."
Mosque explosion
In a separate incident, a bomb exploded in a mosque in the northwestern Pakistani town of Nowshera, killing at least nine people and wounding over 30, police and hospital officials said.
Today's explosion occurs a day after a suicide blast that killed ten people [Reuters]
The blast took place when food was being distributed to the poor after Friday prayers.
"We have received nine dead bodies and 28 injured, there is one child among the dead," Abdul Hameed Afridi, head of the Lady Reading hospital in Peshawar, the main city in the region, told the AFP news agency.
Adil Khan, a Nowshera police official, said: "Many people had left the mosque after prayers. Otherwise losses would have been higher."
Witnesses described scenes of panic, with the mosque's windows and doors blown out by the strength of the explosion and blood sprayed on the building walls.
"I was distributing rice among the devotees when suddenly a huge blast occurred and I remember seeing people running and falling in panic," Suleman Shah, a jeweller, said.
The blast follows a suicide car bombing near Peshawar on Thursday which claimed ten lives.
Pakistan has seen a wave of suicide attacks in the past three years, many in the country's northwest frontier region with Afghanistan, where the Pakistan military is battling Taliban fighters.