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Tunisia, Israel, and Syria – varying degrees of progress

Our resident Tunisia expert, Rob Prince, posted on his blog a few days ago about the Tunisian elections.  If you haven’t already read it, you need to stop and do so!

Meanwhile, Israel continues to ignore international consensus on the matter of settlements, and is going to put more in East Jerusalem.  Given past statements from Obama condemning further settlements, these actions by Israel can also be viewed as a failure of the US president to control an ally.  So much for good momentum toward peace following the Shalid swap.

Also, apparently the Arab League and Syria reached an agreement on how to wind down the violence in Syria.  Personally, I’m cynical that this matters.  The experience of Ali Abdullah Saleh in working with the GCC makes me skeptical that anything positive will come from working with the even more entrenched Assad.  From the New York Times article:

The Arab League called on Mr. Assad to withdraw security forces from the streets, release prisoners who had been detained since February and allow Arab monitors to enter the country. The initiative also calls for Syria to negotiate with the opposition, though terms of the talks remain unclear. Syria has resisted negotiating outside Damascus, its capital, fearing that a foreign locale will give the opposition more credibility.

And questions persist over precisely what opposition it would recognize — figures it has cultivated within the country who have stopped short of calling for Mr. Assad’s fall, or an exiled opposition that has claimed to speak on behalf of the uprising.

“Bashar al-Assad’s comments suggest that he is against the Arab proposal,” said Samir Nachar, a prominent figure with the exiled opposition. “Until now all the indications are negative. I think this is an attempt to buy time on behalf of the regime.”

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Tunisia, Saudi Arabia

The vote is complete in Tunisia!  While the actual results are not yet known, the election was completed with high voter participation and few suggestions of cheating or fraud.  This Al Jazeera article is a good primer for when the actual percentages of votes are announced.  Essentially, Ennahda is going to be the big winner, as was expected by the time voting began.  However the scale of the victory, as well as the results of which other parties did well, will be critical in understanding what the commission that will be tasked with creating a new constitution, temporary governance, and holding presidential and parliamentary elections will look like.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has an interesting article posted on the potential new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.  An excerpt:

“Nayef is widely seen as a hard-line conservative who at best is lukewarm to King Abdullah’s reform initiatives,” said an October 2009 American diplomatic cable that was obtained via WikiLeaks. “However, it would be more accurate to describe him as a conservative pragmatist convinced that security and stability are imperative to preserve Al Saud rule and ensure prosperity for Saudi citizens.” The cable goes on to describe his multifaceted personality as “elusive, ambiguous, pragmatic, unimaginative, shrewd and outspoken.”

The article discusses how, in his position as Interior Minister, Prince Nayef has played an instrumental role in political arrests and enforcing Saudi crackdowns.  There wasn’t much in the article about his relationship with America though, except that back in 2001 Prince Nayef bought in to the conspiracy theory that 9/11 was a plot orchestrated by either the Muslim Brotherhood or Israel.

A Busy Weekend and Tunisian elections

A lot has been happening over the past few days around the region.  Obviously, Muammar al-Qaddafi was killed in Libya several days ago, which will have major ramifications for that state.  Iran has once again had to defend itself against international allegations, this time for supposedly conducting secret executions without adequate judicial proceedings.  Violence continues to accompany protests and unrest in both Syria (although Damascus and Aleppo still stand with the regime) and Yemen (where the UN has once again called for President Saleh’s ouster).  Turkey has been rocked by an earthquake; the details of which are still coming out.

Today is also the Tunisian elections, where voter turnout topped 90% according to Al Arabiya.  Remember, this election is to create a commission that will rewrite the constitution, set up an interim government, and set election dates for the President and Parliament.  Tomorrow we will be able to discuss the outcome, but today consider this New York Times article which details financing leading up to the election.  The favorite to win in the elections is the Ennahda party, which is described as being moderate Islamist.

Ennahda, which had a long history of opposition here before Mr. Ben Ali eviscerated it a decade ago, is widely expected to fare the best, and no one pretends that it owes its popularity only to its financial clout. Its moderate and modern brand of Islamic politics has struck a chord with many Tunisians.

But for months, it has been at the center of attacks from liberal rivals and liberal-leaning election officials who accuse it of taking foreign money, mainly from the Persian Gulf. Islamist groups from Egypt to Lebanon are widely believed to rely on such support from the wealthier and more conservative gulf nations, but the charges have resonated especially loudly in Tunisia, in part because regulators have sought to stamp it out.

The article goes on to express that a difficulty in regulating party financing is that Ennahda is not only a political organization but a social one.  They receive donations from the Gulf that are spent on charitable causes (which may be beneficial politically) as well as financing that is spent on campaigning.  This duel nature makes pinning down financial regulations difficult, especially for a country that is having is first (hopefully) legitimate election.

So with all that news, any thoughts?  Can Tunisia be a beacon for democracy for the region?

Jordan and Tunisia

According to Al Jazeera, in Jordan King Abdullah has changed his country’s prime minister following a vote that revealed the majority of the parliament wanted the change.  The parliment is frustrated by the slowness of the reforms that the prime minister is responsible for administering.  Next up is Awn Khaswaneh.

Khaswaneh, 61, who has been a member of the International Court of Justice since 2000, is a former chief of the royal court and legal adviser to Jordan’s team that negotiated a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

Al Jazeera has also posted an opinion piece regarding the public mood in Tunisia as its first major election approaches.  The author writes

The optimism I witnessed in January, immediately following Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s fall, has faded into a jaded scepticism. The disappointing performance of the interim government has not helped matters. Made up largely of the same ageing bureaucrats who ruled the country through decades of dictatorship, and are accustomed to regarding people as mere subjects rather than citizens.

and also that

After decades of silence, the sight of armies of volunteers distributing leaflets, knocking on doors and papering the walls with posters is a beautiful one to behold. Having long lived in a seasoned democracy in which the right to vote is taking for granted, it is utterly thrilling to experience democracy anew, to see it as if for the first time and truly understand its fundamental significance. The very act of choosing is giving Tunisians the chance to experience what they had risked their lives for – a sense of dignity and self-respect.

The election will be held on October 23rd.

Tunisia’s Islamist party causes concern

The New York Times reports that when Tunisians go to the polls on July 24th, the outcome may favor conservative Islamists.  Islamists played a very minor role in the country’s disposal of former President Ben Ali, however since then the party has seen a resurgence.  Now, they looked poised to possibly score an electoral victory.  This is leaving some Tunisians worried:

Despite repeated assurances of their tolerance and moderation, their rise has touched off frenzied rumors of attacks on unveiled women and artists, of bars and brothels sacked by party goons, of plots to turn the country into a caliphate.

Still, it must be said that the party’s rising popularity does signify that there are Tunisians who favor the conservative party and the Islamist policies that it could bring.  The article suggests that it is a matter of liberal, Westernized coastal Tunisia versus the poorer, more conservative interior.  That characterization lacks nuance, and in the case of this article proof, but if it is true then the upcoming months should be fascinating.

Quick bits and pieces of news

A lot of things that deserve mention, but nothing that strikes me as deserving its own post,  so we will go through them quickly.

In Libya, a NATO leader is asking for more planes.  The New York Times is writing that interrelationships in NATO are strained.

In Yemen, the protesters who were mulling over the GCC deal have decided instead to simply demand Saleh step down within two weeks, according to Al Jazeera.

In Tunisia and Egypt, efforts are underway to hold Ben Ali and Mubarak legally accountable for their despotic rule in some regard.

In Syria, protests have spread to Aleppo (the second largest city).  Now Assad has formed a new government.

The UN this week announced that the Palestinians appear ready to govern themselves, which will hopefully add momentum to an eventual settlement to the conflict with Israel.

Finally, in Bahrain, the government is working to disband the Shi’a opposition parties, according to BBC News.  This is probably the key step to ending the unrest in that state, a negative in the eyes of many as no substantial change has yet occurred.

As Tunisia Rebuilds, Hope is Ever-Present

As a civil war rages next door and as protests and clashes in Bahrain and Yemen gobble up media attention, news from Tunisia – the originator of the Middle East reform movements – has been scarce of late. But this article from The Washington Post sheds some light on what life on the ground is like in a post-revolutionary state. It seems to be a strange mixture of fear, giddiness, anxiety and euphoria as citizens try to determine what shape the country will take now that the regime of strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is over. But whatever the emotion, there appears to be a steely resolve to ensure reform efforts are no pyrrhic victory. Perhaps the most illuminating comment in this respect is this:

After watching their uprising spark similar ones across North Africa and the Middle East, many Tunisians want to make their post-revolution restructuring just as exemplary