Tag Archives: MENA

The Arab Spring – updated challenges and outdated responses

by Rhodri C. Williams

Just a quick Sunday morning posting inspired by two commentaries plucked out of the Swedish foreign ministry’s list of current readings. Taken together, they arguably reflect two fundamental factors at risk of being obscured by the frenetic flow of images and information constantly pumping out of the contemporary Middle East – namely the unprecedented nature of some of the underlying changes driving the unrest and the antediluvian inability of human governance institutions to react effectively.

First out is Thomas Friedman, with an NYT commentary on how the Arab Spring is driven “not only by political and economic stresses, but, less visibly, by environmental, population and climate stresses as well.” Friedman goes beyond my (and others’) observations last year that the Arab Spring was partly motivated by distributional inequalities related to land rights to observe that the productivity of land in the Middle East and North Africa is fundamentally threatened by climate change. For instance, a UN report found that persistent winter droughts wiped out 800,000 Syrian farmers in the five years leading up to the current revolt, and such trends appear to be the new rule rather than the exception.

Friedman extensively cites a report by Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington recommending a broader vision for responding to the environmental as well as the political risk factors in the Middle East:

“If climate projections stay on their current path, the drought situation in North Africa and the Middle East is going to get progressively worse, and you will end up witnessing cycle after cycle of instability that may be the impetus for future authoritarian responses,” argues Femia. “There are a few ways that the U.S. can be on the right side of history in the Arab world. One is to enthusiastically and robustly support democratic movements.” The other is to invest in climate-adaptive infrastructure and improvements in water management — to make these countries more resilient in an age of disruptive climate change.

However, a second commentary by Timothy Garton Ash demonstrates how difficult engineering such a response may be. Garton Ash alleges that Syria is being left to an “Ottoman fate” – one that is almost entirely subject to local and regional calculations of power and interest that have have little time for the suffering of ordinary civilians caught up in the violence. Garton alleges that the reason that Europe, in particular, has failed to recognize its interest in seeking a just resolution of the issue is related to its dithering over Turkey’s candidacy to the EU:

The balance of forces around Syria would be different if the historically new, shared sovereignty model of the EU had reached out to embrace Turkey, as it has been promising to do – incredibly, in both senses of the word – for nearly 50 years, since the association agreement of 1963. But it has not. Europe, as Europe, is inaudible on Syria as on so many other issues. And so the fate of that country’s brave resisters and suffering civilians depends on the old-fashioned regional competition of diverse sovereign powers.

 Garton Ash’s implication that a humanitarian intervention should be sought in Syria will be controversial, in the context of a much broader debate raging over this issue. However, his other implication – that Europe has still not learned that failure to positively engage with its periphery will ultimately bring negative consequences – is harder to dispute. This finding is particularly poignant on the 20th anniversary of Europe’s dithering over the breakup of the former Yugoslavia – and particularly worrisome in light of the new climate change-related challenges to regional and global governance that we were so blissfully unaware of back then.

Look before you legislate? The challenges facing restitution in Libya

by Rhodri C. Williams

It seems that plans are now afoot in Libya for a full-scale program of restitution of properties nationalized and appropriated under the Ghaddafi regime. Bloomberg reported yesterday that a law envisaging a two phase process will be rolled out as soon as next month:

Libya will announce a law that will return land and buildings expropriated by late ruler Muammar Qaddafi to the original landowners “within weeks,” a senior member of the Land Ownership Committee said.

“Phase one will return unused lands, empty shops, buildings and villas taken by Qaddafi’s regime and then by the rebels to the rightful owners,” said Fawzy Sheibany, legal representative for the committee, in an interview in the capital, Tripoli. “This will mean millions of dinars can be invested in construction projects and provide employment.”

Phase two of the new law involves rehousing families residing in buildings on expropriated land and could take several years to implement fully, he said. The Ministry of Justice will deal with individual cases through a civil court.

On the face of it, there is every reason to welcome this development. The Ghaddafi-era expropriations were ostensibly meant to further public purposes but became, by all accounts, an arbitrary means of both punishing enemies and rewarding those the regime favored. Moreover, the resulting legal uncertainty in property relations was cited (in 2004) by a leading Middle Eastern law firm as a key structural obstacle to legal reform efforts during the run-up to the uprising:

As a result of abolishing real property ownership for investment purposes, the commercial real estate market has been completely distorted. There exists now a private land market and a public land market with a price gap that creates considerable uncertainty for both foreign and local investors. Compounding the problem, the [1997] Foreign Investment Law is not clear as to whether real property can be used as collateral or even can be freely transferred without government approvals. The government has announced plans to reform the laws governing property and rentals, but their scope is uncertain.

Finally, perhaps the most convincing ground for pushing for quick legislative measures is the need for the National Transitional Council (NTC) to be seen to lead from the front. In the wake of Amnesty International’s widely publicized allegations of human rights abuses by ‘out of control’ militias in Libya, anything the NTC can do to stamp its legitimate authority on matters of broad public interest appears welcome. In fact, this is a particularly important issue in regard to property. Recent reports such as this one by the Guardian indicate that the militias have become part of a pattern of spontaneous restitution, often carried out by means of violent self-help.

So what, one might ask, is not to like in a bill that serves not only justice but also economic development and political consolidation? The answer is that if it is rushed through without consultation, this bill may actually have the opposite effect, generating new cycles of grievance, reducing legal certainty and even undermining the authority of government in Libya if it proves impossible to effectively and consistently implement. Perhaps the most cogent argument for a deliberative approach to restitution for the prior regime’s confiscations is that this is to some extent a constitutional decision rather than merely a legislative one. Continue reading

Forced resettlement of Bedouins

by Rhodri C. Williams

There has been a bit more in the press recently about the Israeli plan to forcibly remove the Bedouin population in the Negev desert and parts of the West Bank to planned ‘new towns’. I initially picked up this story when it was reported in the Guardian and have now seen it in the BBC as well. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Bedouins were given a sympathetic hearing in last week’s Economist. All three articles note the centrality of land issues to the Bedouin’s situation, but the Economist picks up on both the potential for regional mobilization and the fact that the Bedouin have already begun making political claims based on the explicit assertion that they are an indigenous people: Continue reading

Sweeter the second time around? Self-determination gets another chance

by Rhodri C. Williams

In reading Barack Obama’s now-famous May 19 speech on the Arab Spring, I was struck by his repeated use of the term ‘self-determination’ . Technically speaking, the right to self-determination was meant to be a one-off. When the two core global human rights conventions were adopted in 1966, self-determination was placed front and center in each with the goal of making good on the promise of decolonization set out in the UN Charter. As such, the right to self-determination was an unusual right – it was more overtly political than the rest, it was to be exercised collectively (by ‘peoples’) rather than individually, and it was implicitly a single-use right: if you were a people entrapped by colonialism, you exercised your right to self-determination, became an independent nation and never looked back.

So why are we talking about self-determination again? All the ‘peoples’ in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region punched their ticket once already right? Well, maybe not.

Continue reading

More Arab than Spring?

by Rhodri C. Williams

In skimming OpenDemocracy’s latest analysis of the Arab Spring, I came across a curious pair of coincidences. The superficial one involves ten percent, that being the percentage of the Egyptian population made up of Coptic Christians, as well as the population of a set of North African and Sahel countries centered on Libya composed of the Tuareg people. The less superficial coincidence relates to the effect of years of allowing these minorities to be used as a scapegoat.

The more obvious case is described by Nelly van Doorn-Haarder and relates to Coptic Christians, a religious minority in Egypt that have come under increasingly violent attack since the 1970s and tend to be blamed for their own misfortune: “Justifications for the attacks abounded: a village feud, two merchants fighting, Copts had raped a Muslim girl.  Attacking Christians became the new normal; somehow they deserved what happened.”

Harking back to the Economist’s plug for an Arab Spring guided strictly by individual rights of the civil and political variety last May (and my response), the Coptic Christians probably make up one of the most favourable examples for this viewpoint. They are not only a minority that has its home in Egypt (e.g., has no clear secessionist agenda), but also one that suffers from egregious discrimination in the civil and political arena.

A great deal could be done to redress their situation, in other words, through measures ensuring effective equality, e.g. without having to go as far as endorsing any group-specific rights for them. Moreover, the incentives to take such steps should exist – after the most recent rioting, the BBC reported that the violence had not only caused the biggest stock market slide since last March but could also derail parliamentary elections set for next month if it continued.

On the other hand, the Tuareg present a more complicated scenario, raising issues that the Economist’s formulation of human rights cannot necessarily answer. As a transnational ethnic and linguistic minority, the Tuareg of the Sahel are in a similar situation to the Kurds – a nation that had the same potential, in principle, as many others to form a state, but which was ultimately hit with the uti posseditis stick and ended up as a series of contiguous minorities in states dominated by others.

In a fascinating analysis in OpenDemocracy, Hugh Brody notes that this fate may explain why the Tuareg of Libya (well, some of them) have turned out to be the one group demonstrating unswerving loyalty to the Ghaddafi regime clear through to the bitter end. Citing a prescient (pre-Arab Spring) commentary on the Tuareg by Jeremy Keenan in Al-Jazeera, Brody notes that many countries in the region had found it expedient to accuse the Tuareg of Al Quaeda ties during the late, unlamented era of the Global War on Terror.

By doing so, these countries were in a position to forge valuable ties with Western security forces and simultaneously continue longstanding depredations against Tuareg land and natural resources. However, they left a legacy of bitterness that translated into an otherwise inexplicable loyalty to Colonel Ghaddafi, the only leader in the region who had seen a tactical interest in doing anything to ameliorate the Tuareg’s situation (notably through preferential economic treatment rather than any meaningful political autonomy).

In light of their situation, the Tuareg present a dilemma to the new Libyan authorities as a group, rather than as individuals, and a sustainable resolution of the conflict is likely to require guarantees of some degree of recognition of this group identity, rather than individual guarantees of equality. The last word goes to Hugh Brody, who summarizes both the nature of the problem and the nature of any meaningful solution:

Thus have the Tuareg come to be at the centre of Libyan events, for which many of them may find themselves paying a dreadful price.  They have had few friends, and may now have increased the animosity of their old enemies.  The Libyans who are taking over their country need to find the fullest and most intelligent understanding of the history that has shaped the lives and decisions of the Tuareg.  They must bring the Tuareg a new justice rather than yet another level of retribution.