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 Dina Esfandiary, Research Analyst and Project Coordinator, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
The international community was panic-stricken earlier this month when a spokesperson from Syria’s Foreign Ministry announced, ‘No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used… inside Syria. All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.’
This statement was notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it was the first time a Syrian official acknowledged what the world has long known - that Syria has stockpiled chemical weapons (CW). Secondly, because everyone’s worst fear – the possibility of their use – was not only mentioned but also confirmed, at least in reaction to a foreign intervention. Furthermore, besides the statement itself, Syria’s state of civil war inevitably leads to fears that the regime will lose control of its chemical weapon stockpiles. This scenario is all the more troubling given the alleged presence of al-Qaeda linked fighters in the country. Read the rest of this entry »
Despite Saudi Arabia’s push for it, a Gulf union was a ‘non-starter’ in the near future, Professor
F. Gregory Gause said this week at the IISS-US. In a speech entitled ‘Prospects for a Gulf Cooperation Council Union’, Gause was doubtful that all Gulf states shared the Saudi king’s vision of a closer Arab world. Even a smaller union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain was unlikely, Gause, the chair of political science at the University of Vermont, suggested.
Gause noted that the proposal for a Gulf Union and the invitation to extend GCC membership to Morocco and Jordan were personal initiatives of Saudi’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who saw the Arab Spring as both a domestic threat and as a regional risk because of the potential for Iranian influence.
Saudi Arabia was interested in preserving its leading status in the region and the king saw himself as ‘the last dam against the spread of Iranian influence in the Arab world’. Other GCC member states were more concerned with the ensuing loss of sovereignty concomitant with greater integration. These states did not see Iran as a geopolitical threat and were more concerned with their domestic political conditions following the Arab Spring.
Gause said that a GCC union would have been better received in early 2011, right after the Arab Spring, as the GCC states tended to put aside differences in the face of an external threat. However, when threat perceptions were low, there was a greater emphasis on sovereignty and less incentive for cooperation. This proposal for a GCC union was a ‘hiccup’ that was not indicative of a fundamental change in GCC relations, Gause claimed.
Gause also said a union between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia would be highly controversial, facing opposition from Bahraini Shi’a and the Iranians.
Despite democratic transformations in a few states, the problems that led to the Arab Spring largely remain unresolved, Dr Toby Dodge, IISS Consulting Senior Fellow for the Middle East, told an audience in Manama on 29 May 2012. In his talk, ‘Drivers of Instability: Reflections on the Arab Spring’, Dodge pointed to short- and medium-term factors such as rising food prices and demographic bulges, as well as the broader failed policies of Arab authoritarianism, as some of the causes of the Arab revolutions.
Yet unemployment remained high in the region more than one year after a street vendor in Tunisia set himself alight and a wave of protests began. Many of the youth who spearheaded the uprisings had not been integrated into post-revolutionary transitions.
Dodge said that several factors determined how each country fared during the uprisings. The outcome varied according to the state’s capacity to co-opt, repress or buy off protesters agitating for reform; the ruling elite’s cohesion; and the domestic opposition’s ability to sustain popular mobilisation.
By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East
No one expected Egypt’s first ever free presidential election to be boring, but it has turned out to be much more eventful than anyone would have expected. A little more than a month before the first round, Egypt is in major political turmoil. The fate of the revolution and the trajectory of the country are far from certain.
Contrary to what it first announced, the Muslim Brotherhood will field a candidate for the presidency, Khairat al-Shater. The movement’s top strategist and a successful businessman, al-Shater has already launched his campaign, deploying the awesome political machine that has turned the Freedom and Justice Party into the country’s key political player. However, reneging on a major promise after a series of other reversals has made the Brotherhood the target of widespread secular criticism. Al-Shater has reportedly offered clerics an oversight role on legislation which has only deepened concerns about the Brotherhood’s real intentions. Read the rest of this entry »
In his attic study in Warsaw, the late, great Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski used to have a ripped-out newspaper headline posted on a ceiling beam that read, slightly ungrammatically: ‘World is very big trouble.’ It’s a sentiment the IISS team often shares when preparing our annual Chart of Conflict – perhaps no more so than last year, when we had to map and list the unexpected events of the Arab Spring.
In this, our 2012 map of the world’s most dangerous countries, large swathes of Libya are emblazoned in red for the first time since the map was first published in 1998. Parts of Tunisia were still unsettled, and Syrian cities were already in revolt, when the chart went to press earlier this year, before the Assad regime’s horrendous onslaught on Homs and Idlib. There’s a timeline of the key events of the Arab uprisings, and graphs of regional socio-economic indicators.
By Virginia Comolli, Research Analyst
‘This can be Africa’s century,’ Ghanaian presidential candidate Nana Akufo-Addo told the audience at the fifth IISS Oppenheimer Lecture. A former Ghanaian attorney general and foreign minister, he was speaking on the future of democracy in Africa and the impact of the Arab Spring. But he also took the time to point out that the continent had the world’s second fastest economic growth after Asia, and that strengthening trade and ties across the continent could assist Africa’s self-empowerment.
By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare
In her short but outspoken briefing to the UN General Assembly this week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay (pictured) said the Security Council’s failure to ‘agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian Government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force’. She described the suffering and potential humanitarian crisis resulting from escalating regime attacks on Homs. Since the conflict began a year ago, she said, ‘crimes against humanity are likely to have been committed’.
The Arab League has now withdrawn its observer mission to Syria, and at a meeting in Cairo on Sunday passed a resolution asking the Security Council to authorise a joint UN–Arab peacekeeping mission. However, the resolution did not make clear whether that would involve armed troops; it could well be an unarmed observer mission.
This seems to be the sound of failed UN diplomacy: the Baba Amr district of the city of Homs under fire days after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution calling on President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power and allow for free elections. With much criticism of Russia’s veto, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has just arrived in Damascus, in the hope of launching a new Russian diplomatic initiative to stem the violence.
‘After being hammered so much by so many other countries, they [the Russians] need to regain some of their lustre, and … prove they aren’t whitewashing Assad’s crimes and oppression,’ IISS Middle East Senior Fellow Emile Hokayem, tells today’s Wall Street Journal.
However, at a discussion meeting at Arundel House yesterday, our Mideast analyst said that Russia had lost credibility among the Syrian opposition and there were doubts about whether it could broker a deal. He added that there were ‘big questions about what kind of message’ the Russians were going to have for the Syrian government. ‘If you’re very cynical you think that the Russians are going to tell them: “Do it as quickly as you can, use as much firepower as you need, and be done with this.”
‘But I assume even Russian intelligence estimates are that Assad is on very shaky ground. … More probably the Russians will ask Assad to give them something so that they can tell the world that Russia can deliver – it’s not all [about] obstruction at the Security Council, it’s also able to leverage its own influence with Assad to obtain some of those domestic reforms; we’re talking about a few constitutional changes, the promise of elections, new political parties law and so on.’
Meanwhile, Ankara has announced its own diplomatic initiative ‘with those countries who stand by the Syrian people, not the regime’.
‘Whether the Turks are confident with that role, and how overt or covert it is, are key considerations,’ Hokayem said.
The Gulf States will play a more important role in Syria in the coming months, but their lack of knowledge of the Syrian opposition will prevent them from acting in unison. This was one of the messages to emerge from a talk by Middle East expert Emile Hokayem at IISS-US, which you can watch above.
Focusing on the Arab world’s perception of the Syrian uprising, Hokayem suggested that Gulf nations have few relations with important minorities in the country, such as the Kurds. He admitted there was an undeniable sectarian narrative on Syria in the Sunni-dominated Gulf States and that this had driven a Gulf media war against President Assad’s Alawite regime.
Each Gulf country ‘had their favourites’, he added. ‘If you’re Qatar, you’ve dealt for years with the Assad regime so you’ve developed relationships with senior businessmen’. They also ‘have good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood…but also with key independent opposition figures’. Saudi Arabia by contrast has closer links with tribes and former regime figures.