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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?


Peace Prizes, Russia

A Yemeni woman is one of three recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.  BBC News reports that Tawakul Karman was awarded the prize for her work in advancing the right’s of women and her courageous efforts to bring peace and democracy to Yemen during the Arab spring. A splice of the article:

Speaking to the BBC in April 2011 in Change Square in Sanaa, the heart of the popular demonstrations against Mr Saleh, Ms Karman said she was astonished at the protests: “I could never imagine this. In Yemen, women are not allowed out of the house after 7pm, now they are sleeping here. This goes beyond the wildest dream I have ever dreamt, I am so proud of our women.”

She is a member of Yemen’s leading Islamist opposition party, the Islah – a conservative, religious movement that calls for reform in accordance with Islamic principles.

She has campaigned to raise the minimum age at which women can marry in Yemen.

She has been jailed several times for her activism, pilloried in the official media and attacked. Unusually for a woman in Yemen, Ms Kamran wears a headscarf not a full face veil.

I sort of stopped paying attention to the Nobel Peace Prize when President Obama won one for giving a good speech, but I feel good about this one.  (And don’t get me started on the Nobel Prize for Literature)

In other news, Russia’s President Medvedev spoke about his state’s use of its veto on a Security Council resolution aimed to put pressure on the Syrians.  Al Arabiya explains that Medvedev is critical of the Syrian government, but does not want change to be externally applied.  It also notes that

The Kremlin chief had previously accused some in the Syrian opposition of having ties to “terrorists” in comments underscoring the extent of Russia’s divide with the West in the closing months of his term.

which is something that I had not heard before.  Certainly, the outcome of Russia’s acquiescence to the Libya resolution, which has now transformed into proactive war to achieve regime change, makes Russia incredibly reluctant to allow the same types of resolutions to pass against Syria.


It was a busy day around the region.

  • Israeli settlers vandalized and burned a mosque, an action that Netanyahu has condemned
  • US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reaffirmed the US commitment to maintaining a militarily superior Israel, although he questioned Israel’s diplomatic isolation
  • Israel has signaled that it is willing to return to negotiations sponsored by the US, UN, EU, and Russia, although Palestinians are skeptical that any progress can be made
  • In Egypt, the country’s military leadership has agreed to amendments to the election laws, changes called for and endorsed by the country’s anti-Mubarak political elements
  •  Libyan transnational government forces (we’re calling them that instead of rebels now I guess) are pressing in on pro-Gaddafi forces in Sirte, one of a few strongholds of Gaddafi remaining
  • In ongoing upheavals, Bahrain has sentenced participants in protests to lengthy jail terms, Syria has been rounding up thousands of citizens to quell protests, and Yemeni youth don’t just want Saleh out as president, but want criminal charges pressed against him as well
  • There was a terrifying attack in Iraq, in which Sunni insurgents took hostages at a police station.  Several hostages and a police chief were killed before Iraqi forces recaptured the building, killing the militants.  This bit of ties to the piece from Dean Hill from yesterday, as he brought up the matter of Sunni insurgents, whose funding, objectives, and strategy are harder to pin down than their Sunni counterparts
So, there is a lot happening, although I don’t know if any of it can be considered as a major development.  I guess that for me the most interesting thing is Panetta’s statements, and the context of the attack in Iraq.

Two developments in Yemen

The United States killed two Americans in Yemen, both of whom had joined Al Qaeda, according to the New York Times.  One was Anwar al-Awlaki, a major Al Qaeda figurehead/leader/cleric in Yemen that the US has been aiming to kill for some time now.  This strike comes despite the upheaval in Yemen, and the absence of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In early September, the Obama administration’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, said recent cooperation with Yemen was better than it has ever been despite the prolonged absence of Mr. Saleh, who returned recently after four months in Saudi Arabia recovering from wounds he suffered in a bomb attack on his presidential palace.

The article goes on to indicates that America’s interests in Yemen are almost entirely motivated by a desire to track down and kill Al Qaeda, and that so long as Saleh is a partner in that mission, the US will avoid putting any heavy pressure on Saleh to leave office.  The article also suggests that since al-Awlaki is an English speaker who aims his messages toward Muslims in the West, he had little influence on the course of protests and political developments in Yemen.

Meanwhile, the entrenched President Saleh has put out some new demands for leaving office, according to Al Jazeera.

In an exclusive interview on Thursday, the embattled leader told Time magazine and The Washington Post that a power transfer deal crafted by his Gulf neighbours calls for “all the elements” causing tension in Yemen to be removed and warned of a civil war if that did not occur.

Saleh was referring to dissident General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who has joined ranks with a populist uprising that began early this year, and the powerful al-Ahmar tribe, not related to the general.

“If we transfer power and they are there, this will mean that we have given in to a coup,” Saleh said in his first interview since returning home on Friday from a stay in Saudi Arabia to recover from injuries sustained during a June attack on his palace.

“If we transfer power, and they are in their positions, and they are still decision makers, this will be very dangerous. This will lead to civil war.”

In the interview, Saleh insisted he remained committed to the GCC initiative, denying claims he was seeking delays to hold on to power and putting the blame on the opposition’s inflexibility.

“This is a misunderstanding. We are willing within the next hours and next days to sign it, if the JMP [Joint Meetings Party] comes closer” to reaching an agreement, Saleh said about the Joint Meetings Party opposition coalition.

This all has sparked another round of protests and violence in Sanaa and Taiz.  Perhaps US involvement could break the deadlock.  Perhaps greater GCC pressure is what’s called for.  At the moment I’d say both sides seem firmly committed to staying their course, so some unforeseen development is needed before any breakthrough occurs.

Yemen – Still not Better

Al Jazeera is reporting on violence across Yemen.  Honestly, if less than five people die in a single day there, no one seems to notice.  Yemen’s part in the Arab Spring reached a climax when the GCC states and the United States collectively called for Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down from the presidency, and he appeared prepared to do so before surprisingly reneging.  Now, it feels like stalemate.  Saleh himself is still in a hospital in Saudi Arabia.  The article points out that

UN human rights officials gave warning on Tuesday of an impending civil war unless the political deadlock was resolved.

Civil War in Yemen would be disastrous, first because of the tangled tribal relations that would make lines of alliances at least as complicated as the Civil War that rocked Lebanon for years, and second because there is an Al Qaeda presence in Yemen that would benefit from the chaos, especially in that it would gain operating space.

So today’s big question is, from the United States perspective, what is the best thing we can do to bring stability?  A few options are to do nothing, to back Saleh, or to back those calling for his ouster.  If we back one party, does that equate to supportive speeches, to sending supplies, or to arming a faction?  How aggressively can we pursue Al Qaeda in Yemen as this deadlock continues?

Some other news, in case you missed it:  David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy are visiting Tripoli, but the New York Times is concerned about Islamist’s growing sway in Libya.  In Jordan a million man march is planned against the Israeli embassy, so Israel is pulling its diplomats as a precautionary measure.  Finally, we are nearing the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN, and Ban Ki-moon (who was here in Denver a few weeks ago) hopes that the bid at least spurs a meaningful dialogue.


Yemen air strikes

Our last post (a few days ago, sorry for the lack of posts, but we are in finals week) discussed Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s reluctance to move forward to a transition of power in Yemen.  Today there was another negative development: according to Al Jazeera, Yemeni jets and helicopters launched a strike at the Hashid tribe’s military camp.

Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the tribal chief, said on Friday that there was a truce between his fighters and security forces in Sanaa, but he was ready for war if the embattled president wants one.

“There is a truce between us and [President] Ali Abdullah Saleh” for mediation to take place, said Ahmar at a funeral for 30 of his fighters killed in clashes with Saleh’s security forces in the capital which began on Monday.

“If the Saleh regime wants a peaceful revolution, we are ready for that. If he chooses war, we will fight him,” Ahmar said.

Certainly, the last thing the world needs in another Libya, but presently it seems possible that events are heading in that direction.

Yemeni president balks

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has once again declined to sign the GCC engineered deal for him to step down from power in exchange for immunity for anything he may have done during his time as president.  Al Jazeera reports:

Saleh refused twice before to sign the agreement. But this weekend it had appeared he was finally relenting, under intense pressure from his allies, the United States and Gulf Arab countries that mediated the accord.

The opposition parties signed the accord on Saturday, and the Yemeni president grudgingly promised he would sign the following day.

Saleh said afterward he would not do so unless opposition leaders come to the palace and sign it as well in public, not “behind closed doors”.

“If they don’t comply, they are dragging us to a civil war, and they will have to hold responsibility for the bloodshed in the past and the blood which will be spilled later on because of their stupidity,” Saleh warned in an address on state TV.

All of the states that worked to broker this deal are, not surprisingly, upset.  It is fair to say Saleh now has no one in his corner.  Hopefully this situation can be resolved quickly.