By Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor
‘Sorry ladies and gentlemen,’ the sharply dressed young man at the table behind me deadpans in French, as his female companion’s wild gesturing sweeps a bottle of wine onto the floor, ‘but we were talking about Rachid Ghannouchi.’ By bitterly invoking the name of the Islamist Ennahda party leader in a half-empty restaurant in downtown Tunis, my fellow diner neatly encapsulates the problems afflicting his country.
More than two years since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution chased autocratic president Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali from power, tourists are staying away as Tunisia experiences a dangerous power struggle between secularists and the religious.
Despite the appearance of relative normality, the country is still recovering from the gunning down in early February of left-wing opposition leader Chokri Belaid, the first political assassination since Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956. Time magazine may have recently voted liberal President Moncef Marzouki as one of the planet’s 100 most influential individuals – he’s in at no. 67 – but at a home he faces a vote of no confidence in parliament. The powerful trade union confederation, the UGTT, is at loggerheads with the Ennahda-led coalition government over the drafting of the new constitution.
By Wafa Alsayed, Research Analyst, IISS-Middle East
The trial of outspoken political activist Musallam al-Barrak seems to be galvanising Kuwait’s fragmented opposition – at least for the time being. Thousands of Kuwaitis took to the streets in protest on 15 April, after Barrak was sentenced by a lower court to a five-year jail term on charges of ‘offending the emir’. The Court of Appeal’s decision to release him on bail last Monday defused some of the tension that had built up as court proceedings were live-tweeted and otherwise disseminated over social media, but with his appeal due to resume on 13 May it remains a potential rallying point.
Barrak’s supporters say the charges against him violate the principle of free speech. They relate to comments he made at a demonstration last October that: ‘We will not allow you, your highness, to take this country into the abyss of autocracy.’ While Kuwait has one of the Middle East’s more open and democratic political systems, its constitution holds that the emir is ‘immune and inviolable’, and Barrak’s remark was said to contravene this.
The protest took place during a deepening political crisis in Kuwait, soon after the dissolution of the opposition-dominated parliament only eight months into its term. Four days later the emir announced an emergency decree amending the country’s electoral law; by reducing the number of votes per person from four to one he ended an arrangement that had benefitted Islamist, tribal and other opposition groups. Barrak’s ‘we will not allow you’ soon became the refrain of opposition rallies that followed the announcement of the emergency decree.
With the Kuwaiti government’s continued crackdown on the opposition, other political activists are facing similar charges of offending the emir. However, Barrak is a particularly popular and high-profile figure. A former MP who draws much of his support from powerful tribal constituencies, he won a seat in parliament in the February 2012 elections with 30,000 votes – a Kuwaiti first.
After his sentencing on 15 April, security forces made several unsuccessful attempts to take him into custody. A raid on his house prompted large protests, to which police responded with tear gas and stun grenades.
Such opposition solidarity comes after a period of disunity and difficulties in mobilising mass rallies of last year’s magnitude. Kuwait’s opposition consists of a remarkably diverse array of groups, bringing together liberals, civil-society groups, and trade and student unions with tribal, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated and Salafist groups. In March, Barrak spearheaded an effort to bring the opposition under one umbrella, namely the Etilaf al-Mu’aratha (the Opposition Coalition), but this alliance quickly ran into criticism as those around it called it either too radical or too weak.
Today in Kuwait the prime minister is appointed by the emir, who in turn appoints the cabinet, and one reform the Etilaf has demanded is that the parliamentary majority should have the right to form the government. One member of the former opposition majority in parliament, Al-Saifi Mubarak Al-Saifi, has said that around 17 members of that bloc found this call for elected government too drastic. By contrast, another opposition member and former MP, Obaid al-Wasmi, has criticised the Etilaf for being too ‘soft’ in its demands.
Salafis have also established their own group, the Coordination Committee of the Popular Movement, which opposes calls for elected government as well as unlicensed demonstrations.
Such divisions seem to be forgotten as the opposition rallies around al-Barrak. His case is a reminder of how government heavy-handedness can unite Kuwait’s usually disparate opposition factions. In late 2010, for example, an attack by security forces on Kuwaitis gathering in an MP’s diwaniya (traditional salon) was the catalyst for a popular mass movement that eventually forced the resignation of Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammed in November 2011.
On Thursday, the government delayed another move that was uniting the opposition against it. It put on hold its proposal to introduce strict new media laws after criticism not only from rights groups, but also from some government supporters. The ‘halting’ of the law demonstrates the opposition’s ability to get results when it unites against draconian government moves.
By Michael Elleman, Senior Fellow for Regional Security Cooperation, IISS-Middle East
Gulf leaders have long been concerned that a serious accident at the Iranian nuclear power plant at Bushehr could expose their citizens to radiation. Bushehr’s location in an area of high seismic activity adds to public anxiety over the reactor’s safety. And on Tuesday, nerves were rattled when a magnitude 6.3 earthquake centred less than 100 kilometres from Bushehr killed at least 37 people, injured hundreds and destroyed homes. The quake was felt across the Gulf in Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain.
Officials tried to reassure observers. ‘The earthquake in no way affected the normal situation at the reactor,’ the Russian company that built the Bushehr reactor, Atomstroyexport, told news agency RIA Novosti. ‘Personnel continue to work in the normal regime and radiation levels are fully within the norm.’ Mahmoud Jafari, a project manager at the plant, insisted to Iranian state media that the quake ‘didn’t create any complications’.
Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate and Project Coordinator of the IISS Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, has an article in The Diplomat analysing recent claims of chemical-weapons use in Syria.
Syria’s state news agency, SANA, made the first allegations on Tuesday when it broadcast pictures of alleged chemical-weapons victims having difficulty breathing and foaming at the mouth, in what it reported was the result of a ‘terrorist’ rocket attack near Aleppo. The Russian Foreign Ministry then released a statement confirming the opposition’s use of chemical weapons, but presented no evidence to support this claim. An opposition commander also said he had heard secondhand reports that victims were having respiratory problems in response to a chemical attack, but he said the regime was responsible.
What we actually know is patchy, says Esfandiary. Despite ‘proof’ from both sides in the form of photos and videos, there is nothing that shows the attack site, and no indication that any of the victims’ symptoms match those that would result from exposure to mustard gas, Sarin or VX – Syria’s alleged chemical-weapons arsenal – which would have more devastating effects than those reported.
If the use of chemical weapons is confirmed, it could change the character of the conflict because the US and the international community would be pressured to intervene, explains Esfandiary. The US and Europe are therefore rightly proceeding with caution. ‘But if anything, this event reiterates how little is known about the situation on the ground in Syria,’ Esfandiary argues. When the West can be sure of so little, perhaps the real debate should be whether or not it should be arming the rebels.
Emile Hokayem, IISS senior fellow for Middle East security, has a piece in Foreign Policy on the ‘grand battle for Damascus’ currently gathering in the two-year-old Syrian uprising. Hokayem admits that this isn’t the first time that rebels have attempted to wrest control of the Syrian capital from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad; there were earlier concerted efforts in July and December 2012, which were repelled or contained by the regime’s greater firepower. Nor can further ups and downs in the battle be ruled out. However, Hokayem argues, there is a lot more opposition to the Assad regime within Damascus than is generally understood, and the government will put up incredibly stiff resistance in the life-and-death battle to hold on there.
Hokayem sketches out the political geography of a city where the president can count on a large base of support from bureaucrats, others with ties to the regime, religious minorities and middle- and upper-class Sunni urbanites, but not on Christian and Alawite dissidents from the ‘suburbs’ (or the outlying towns that have been incorporated into the capital). Other areas that have not benefitted from the regime’s largesse or the growth of the previous decade – from the conservative, middle-class neighbourhoods of Barzeh and Midan to the poor Sunni area of Qaaboun – have joined the uprising.
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
He is a mad mullah after all – mad meaning angry, that is. Following the positive notes sounded by US Vice President Joe Biden and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Munich last week, it did not take long for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to quash any optimism over the next round of nuclear talks between Iran and the international community. These are scheduled to take place in Almaty on 26 February.
In a speech on 7 February, Khamenei ruled out holding bilateral talks with America on his country’s controversial nuclear programme so long as Washington continued pressure tactics. He claimed the US was proposing talks while ‘pointing a gun at Iran’, adding that: ‘Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America [but] negotiations will not solve the problems.’
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
Let’s not exaggerate. Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant is not another Chernobyl in the making. Unlike the ill-fated Ukrainian facility, Bushehr’s fuel rods are moderated and cooled by water, not flammable graphite. Bushehr also benefits from modern design improvements, including automatic control and containment systems.
Nor is Bushehr likely ever to suffer the fate of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor. The shallow Gulf waters bordering Bushehr cannot produce the kind of massive tsunamis that inundated Fukushima’s electricity and backup cooling system.
It should also be clear by now that Bushehr is not a proliferation threat. The reactor is used for electricity production and the spent fuel will be returned to Russia so the plutonium will not be available for reprocessing for weapons, if Iran were to obtain that technology. In any case, no country has ever used spent fuel from power plants for weapons purposes.
But let’s not sweep aside the environmental and safety dangers either, as Iranian officials are wont to do. Bushehr is located on an earthquake fault. The dust and heat of the local climate contributed to construction delays because of the difficulty of keeping equipment clean and cool. The grafting of a Russian-designed reactor onto the remains of an incomplete German structure and Iran’s contractual requirement for Russia to employ 35-year-old, leftover German pumps and other equipment made for other glitches.