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 Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme
Yesterday US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said it was likely that chemical weapons (CW) had been used on a ‘small scale’ in Syria. President Obama claimed in August that the use of CW in Syria would change his calculus on US intervention, but the intelligence must be examined carefully to assess whether his ‘red line’ on CW has actually been crossed.
On Thursday, the White House said that although it was likely the nerve gas sarin had been used, the evidence was still too thin and that it needed ‘credible and corroborated facts’. President Obama is being pilloried in some quarters for not following through on his earlier red line. But after the misuse of intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq ten years ago, the bar for concluding that Assad used chemical weapons must naturally be set high. The standard of evidence should meet at least three conditions: clear-cut evidence of use, meaningful quantity, and purposefulness.
By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate for Transnational Threats
What strikes me the most on my arrival in the city of Kano, in northern Nigeria, is the number of boys roaming the streets. Here in the heartland of the Islamist insurgency that has afflicted Nigeria for the past few years, children as young as four or five spend their days weaving among the chaotic traffic and begging for food. Sent to religious boarding schools by families too poor to properly support them, they are known as almajiris.
This word is borrowed from Arabic for someone who leaves home in search of Islamic instruction, but northern Nigeria’s almajiris live a precarious existence. Some must make ideal recruits for Muslim Boko Haram militants plotting bomb attacks against their Christian compatriots.
By William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security
Under sunny skies, the USS Freedom – the US Navy’s newest littoral combat ship (LCS) – cut a sleek silhouette as it approached Changi Naval Base last week. The warship’s arrival marked the start of an eight-month deployment to southeast Asia. Under a Singapore-United States agreement, up to four of these ships will be put on rotational deployments through Singapore.
Speaking to reporters on the deck of the USS Freedom last Thursday, US Ambassador to Singapore David Adelman said the arrival of the ship marked a ‘new chapter’ for the US Navy in the Asia-Pacific.
Indeed, the deployment of the LCS – together with the move of 60% of the US Navy’s assets to the Pacific and the deployment of 2,500 US Marines in Australia – forms part of America’s much-heralded ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to Asia.
By Jenny Nielsen, Research Analyst, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme
Acronym alert! Until 3 May, the Second Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2015 Review Conference (RevCon) of the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will be meeting at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva.
Still with us? The following alphabetical lists provides a flavour of what can be expected at this two-week gathering of states parties to the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
Unlike some previous PrepComs (e.g. 2007), this session already has one – which should avoid procedural delays.
The Arab League considered boycotting this year’s committee after the 2012 Helsinki conference on the establishment of a Middle East WMD-free zone was postponed. Arab states will now attend, but remain unhappy about the lack of progress on an MEWMDFZ.
China has clearly turned its eyes to the sea in its new defence white paper, which for the first time officially suggests ‘safeguarding maritime rights and interests’ and ‘protecting overseas interests’. The fact that Beijing followed up these words with a naval excursion in March to the James Shoal (or Zengmu Reef), the southernmost point of its extensive claim to the South China Sea, has only increased the nervousness among its neighbours as to what its increasingly dominant presence in regional waters will mean.
But, IISS Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security Christian Le Miere counsels in a new piece for the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin, China’s ‘return to the sea’ may not be all negative.
Beijing’s renewed naval focus has prompted a reorganisation of its maritime agencies, ‘merging four of the five “dragons” that have been at the forefront of its ongoing sovereignty disputes in the South and East China Seas’. With a unified command, our senior fellow argues, there is a clearer sense of who to call to ensure disagreements do not escalate. Similarly, Beijing will not be able to disavow the actions of its agencies.
Furthermore, ‘it is possible that China’s increasing strength could be directed towards beneficial outcomes’. Given its desire to ensure the security of shipping, for example, Beijing could be encouraged to assist in policing international maritime thoroughfares. Since its return to the sea is inevitable, encouraging Beijing to subscribe to current international maritime laws may be the best way forward.