Friday, 28 January 2011

Misrepresenting Saeb Erekat

I think this post goes a long way to demonstrate my not-very-positive opinions of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Revelations in the "Palestine Papers" that Washington "wouldn't stand for" (not a direct quote - the quotation marks are to indicate the outrageousness of it dictating this kind of thing) any change in the PA leadership, democratic or not, further point to its rising status as yet another US-backed police state in the region. I'll also say that I'm more or less a fan of Al-Jazeera, and the Guardian is my daily paper. AJ and the Guardian published the papers, and have played a major role in spinning them. A lot of their spin is justified - in particular regarding the jaw-dropping pro-Israeli bias of US figures, even including Obama and George Mitchell.

However I do think that Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has been rather unfairly portrayed in some of this coverage. In particular, it's been widely reported that Erekat privately promised to recognise Israel as  a Jewish state while publicly vociferously rejecting such demands. I may not be on totally solid ground here, but from my understanding is that this is far from accurate.

Firstly this shouldn't be confused with the fact that Netanyahu and the Israelis have recently been pushing the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state now, as a precondition for talks or Israeli "concessions" (ie international legal and Roadmap obligations, such as freezing settlements). Neither Erekat nor anyone else in the PA have ever made that concession (which would be meaningless unless it was a public one).

As for claims that he privately agreed to recognise Israel as a Jewish state as part of a peace deal, these seem to rest on two sources. The first is a transcript of a November 2007 discussion in which Erekat said  "If you want to call your state the Jewish state of Israel you can call it what you want." As far as I can tell, the document containing this quote hasn't been posted yet, so there is no evidence that Erekat is doing anything beyond saying it was none of the PA's business what Israel defined itself as.This isn't at all inconsistent with what Erekat and co have been saying publicly. Here is Abbas saying in July last year, six months before the release of the Palestine Papers, that "Israel can call itself whatever it wants. We don't have to recognize those definitions." The other document cited is this one, notes of an internal PA negotiating unit meeting, in which Erekat says in response to a warning that the US will back Israel on the matter: "This is a non-issue. I dare the Israelis to write to the UN and change their name to the 'Great Eternal Historic State of Israel'. This is their issue, not mine." Again, there is nothing here to indicate that Erekat is promising the Israelis anything, as opposed to simply refusing to engage Israel on the issue or be drawn on it, on the basis that it's not a matter for Palestinians to decide; and this meeting was an internal one, and involved no promises to the Israelis or the US. Loathe as I am to agree with the vile Tony Blair, I think he was right today to say that at least in this case semi-flippant remarks for private consumption have been taken entirely out of context. And again it's not inconsistent with what PA figures have said in public, as far as I can see. Any comments or information that would shed further light on this is welcome.

Mubarak pulls a Ben Pahlavi?

Update: Al Jazeera reporting on Saturday morning that at least 23 people have been killed in Alexandria and 15 people in Suez, and another correspondent saw 15 bodies with bullet wounds in one Cairo morgue alone. Unfortunately it's a bloodbath after all.

Obviously the Egyptian regime is in massive, massive trouble. I've been watching pundits on Al Jazeera predict all day that Mubarak is finished. The burning of the ruling party headquarters makes it look particularly screwed.

All of that said, regional governments have survived significantly worse unrest. Possibly three million people took to the streets of Tehran  in 2009 (vastly more than Egypt, on both an absolute and per capita basis), and around 500 people died in riots in Algeria in 1988; in both cases the government survived. Numerous regimes saw out enormous bread riots in the 1960s and 1970s.

Furthermore I thought until a few hours ago that the Egyptian regime was largely doing - from its own point of view - the smart thing if it wanted to stay in power. It seemed to be avoiding the mistakes of Ben Ali, who as a few commentators have pointed out looked in turn to be doing his best to emulate the mistakes of the Shah of Iran in 1979 - in particular enraging people by killing large numbers of protestors early on, and then going into full retreat mode, encouraging demonstrators with each successive concession. The Egyptians on the other hand appeared to be both trying to avoid a bloodbath (using brutal but mostly non-lethal force like tear gas to break up protests, though putting the army on the streets will makeit harder to avoid massacres) while standing firm and dismissing opposition demands.

When Mubarak went on TV an hour or so ago, at first I was more confident still that he had a shot at seeing this through, especially as the delays in his appearance had been sparking growing rumours that he'd already fled. He didn't look a picture of health, to be sure (except maybe for a vampire), but for an 82 year-old supposedly suffering from cancer and facing a potential imminent Ceaucasecu moment, just weeks after his pro-Western anti-Islamist tourist-dependent oil-poor homologue a few hundred miles away had to flee in panic, I thought he seemed remarkably composed and confident.

But as his speech went on, he sounded increasingly like he'd be racking up the frequent flier miles in the very near future. Some of his words sounded very like, if not identical to, the "I have heard the voice of your revolution" statements that Ben Ali and Pahlavi came out with shortly before they also felt its kick in the goolies. More importantly, firing the government hit the mega-jackpot of looking both desperate and out of touch at the same time; noone really cares about the cabinet, but sacking it will only embolden demonstrators.

So is Mubarak toast? I'm still not entirely sure (and of course we'll know soon enough, but futurology can be fun). It will depend on things like how much he's prepared himself and the likes of the security forces leaders for this kind of thing, and whether or not they panic in the face of events. A military commander gave a TV interview that suggested the military remained behind the regime. Simply being united and prepared to wait things out goes a long way - protests can't go on for ever, as Iran in 2009 showed. Mubarak didn't look quite as desperate as Ben Ali (yet) - he didn't promise to step down soon or call early elections. But he looks a lot more like seeing out his days as a tax exile than he did just a few hours ago.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Where were the Tunisian Islamists? Hint: in jail

A lot of commentators have been highlighting - often approvingly - the absence of a significant Islamist role in the Tunisian protests so far. See for example here, here and here. Many of them have been arguing that, thanks to the repression of political Islam in Tunisia, its high rates of education and the large middle class, political Islam is not and will not become a significant political force in the country, and that this is a positive thing as Islamism is a bad thing and/or inhibits democratic development, whether because Islamists are undemocratic or anti-Islamist foreign powers interfere to block democratically-elected Islamist governments.

I don't want to get into the argument of whether this would necessarily be a good or bad thing in this post. However, I will argue that it's much too soon to count Tunisia's Islamists out. No, they don't seem to have played a major role in the protests, though it's not really clear that any party or major organisation did either. The UGTT trades union was fairly prominent, but then the UGTT trades union, unlike the main Islamist movement Ennahda, wasn't banned under Ben Ali, and its members weren't largely in jail, exile or under constant police surveillance. From what I understand the largest component of the thousands of Tunisian political prisoners under Ben Ali were Islamists; I'm not sure why he would have gone to the bother of repressing and jailing them if they were a marginal force.

Leila Ouardani argues that the 1989 elections - the most free in recent decades - demonstrates the lack of support for Islamism in Tunisia because Ennahda only won 14% of the votes cast. I'm not sure how relevant elections from over 20 years ago are to the situation today, but I would argue that the 1989 results looked at in their full context suggest,  if anything, that the Tunisian Islamists were at least at that time a serious force to contend with. Firstly, the elections may have been the fairest in some time but they were still held under conditions that greatly benefited the RCD while disadvantaging opposition parties (see Chapter 2 of Christopher Alexander's recent book for more details), suggesting that the opposition parties' vote would have been higher in fair elections. Secondly, the Islamists were particularly at a particular disadvantage, as Ben Ali refused to legalise their party before the elections, meaning they had to run as independents.

Despite this significant additional disadvantage,which undoubtedly damaged their ability to campaign and organise, the Islamists still won vastly more votes than any other party than the RCD; the next most successful party took 4% of the vote. At the very least they were the most important opposition force by far, and possibly the most popular political force in the country.

Of course, having been so comprehensively repressed in the years since, they're starting from a much weaker positions than movements with intact organisational structures. Still though, from what Prime Minister Ghannoushi is saying, they may have six months to organise a campaign for the parliamentary elections (they've said they won't put forward a candidate in the Presidential elections), and they are much less tainted by involvement in the Ben Ali system than most established parties in movements; many of the legal "opposition" parties effectively acquiesced in its rule, and often defended it from criticism, as the price for being allowed legal status and occasionally a few token seats in parliament. Furthermore, if there's one thing that Islamists have demonstrated across the Middle East and North Africa, it's that they often tend to be the best organised and most highly motivated of all parties and movements, and that they have the ability to massively outperform expectations and win crushing surprise victories (eg Hamas in 2006), sometimes seemingly out of nowhere (most notably the Front Islamique du Salut in the 1990 elections in Algeria). Those who argue that Tunisia is too "middle class" to vote Islamist might want to look to Turkey for example, where the AKP derives much of its support from a newish commercial middle class, sometimes termed the "Islamist bourgeoisie."

I don't mean to argue that the Islamists will inevitably win, or even do particularly well, in any free and fair Tunisian elections, should they take place (a big if). If there's one thing that people (and above all professional commentators) should take home from the events of Tunisia, it's that noone knew what is that Tunisians want. Prior to Ben Ali's overthrow it was a truism that Tunisians were willing to trade off their civil and political freedoms in return for prosperity and stability (again see Tunisia specialist Christopher Alexander's book, in which he makes this argument), something that in my view clearly turned out to be untrue. While some commentators and journalists have suggested that the bargain was real but went sour because of recent economic troubles, these haven't been anywhere near drastic enough to prompt a sudden about-turn in the national mood; despite all the commentary the economy about inflation and a lack of jobs, the econoymhas continued to grow in recent times, including in per capita terms, while inflation and unemployment aren't particularly high by either regional or recent historical Tunisian standards, meaning they fail to explain why such a turn of events should have happened in Tunisia now. Rather, the clear explanation is the the "bargain" explanation was wrong all along, that Ben Ali and his family have been widely despised for some time and that people were simply too afraid to articulate their feelings until a sort of tipping point occurred.

So I don't pretend to know what Tunisians really want; noone can know what millions of people want and believe without solid research and evidence in the form of things like reliable opinion polls, which don't yet exist in Tunisia. But given the evidence of Tunisian history and regional precedent, counting the Islamists out of Tunisia's future at this juncture is seriously premature, and the predictions based on doing so should be taken with a large dose of scepticism.

As one corrupt Western-backed dictatorship falls...

Aisling Byrne describes the rise of a Western-built police state in the West Bank.

Anyone spot any topical parallels? A pro-Western Arab dictatorship led by an uncharismatic successor to an iconic nationalist leader? Family cronies? Blocking Islamist opponents, if they're not actually in jail, from living every day lives? Absurdly high numbers of police and internal security forces and a marginalised/non-existent military? I just can't put my finger on it...