Tag Archives: Middle East

Costing stability against freedom: The minority dilemma in Syria and Iraq

by Rhodri C. Williams

In a recent discussion with a member of Syria’s Christian minority here in Sweden, I found myself conceding the point that a majority of the population may still support the al Assad regime and that many of its opponents in the region clearly have a political axe to grind alongside their professed humanitarian motivations. It was easy enough to dismiss the notion that Assad had been seriously interested in reform, but my interlocutor’s most troubling argument was that the regime had been – and remained – the sole guarantee of her and her communities’ physical safety.

In a media world almost saturated with analysis of the Arab Spring, an increasingly historically oriented strain of thinking has begun to revive the arguments that had become too threadbare to save Mubarak and Ghaddafi – après moi le déluge: Continue reading

Week in links – Week 37/2011: Palestinian statehood and other matters

With Mahmoud Abbas’ (by all accounts rather persuasive) affirmation today that Palestine would seek full membership in the UN, the stage is set for a showdown in the most dramatic and controversial attempt to exercise the right to self-determination in some time. This development has been bemoaned by a ‘pro-Palestinian anti-statehood’ school of thought perhaps best expressed in a recent legal opinion by Oxford professor Guy Goodwin-Gill. The New York Times editorial page and other observers have also raised concerns that a vote for statehood will also derail the possibility of negotiations entirely, delaying yet further a sustainable end to the conflict. And as noted by Robert M. Danin at Foreign Affairs, the decision to seek de jure status may also lead to the abandonment of a project of de facto state building that appeared to be working:

By focusing on state-building, the PA had improved living conditions and strengthened security for Palestinians. All along, one of its aims was to create a peaceful and conducive environment for negotiations, rendering Israel’s occupation unnecessary and ultimately unjustifiable. And indeed, slowly and without fanfare, Israelis have taken steps to lift the burden of the occupation on Palestinians, opening the West Bank a little more to the movement of people and goods and allowing Palestinian security forces to expand their control over larger parts of the West Bank. The under-the-radar approach made such tangible improvements possible.

In fact, the Israeli response has been to warn of the ‘harsh and grave consequences’ of UN recognition of Palestine, fuelling speculation that this could lead to outright annexation of parts of the West Bank. And lest anyone forget the complications involved in the territorial question, David Makovsky has provided a fascinating graphic of the current proposals as an Op-Ed in the New York Times.

Meantime, perhaps the parties to the Middle East conflict may be inspired by Belgium, which has finally resolved a deadlock focused on three contested municipalities near Brussels and may get a government 15 months after elections.

In less uplifting news, the ramifications of the oil pipeline fire in a Nairobi slum that killed scores of residents continue to unfold, with competent officials passing blame back and forth. To make a long story short, it reads like the fact section in the Öneryildiz case before the European Court of Human Rights several years back, in which Turkey was held responsible for violations of the right to life and property for having failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the foreseeable explosion of a garbage dump located near a slum. Perhaps some jurisprudence for the fledgling African Court of Human and People’s Rights to consider.

Finally, the New York Times provides some timely political analysis of the land struggle currently shaking the Bajo Aguán valley in northern Honduras.

With me or against us? The Economist mourns the passing of the rugged individual right

by Rhodri C. Williams

A common problem with minority rights is that their necessity is not always self-evident for the people in the majority, who, as we all know, get to call most of the shots in a democracy. This is most problematic in situations where minorities find themselves inconveniently present in countries that have staked a good deal of their credibility on not having minorities, such as newly consolidated and politically fragile post-colonial states or France. However, it may also raise issues when well-intentioned outsiders turn up and start loudly wondering what all the fuss is about.

Before I cast any aspersions on the Economist, I might as well clear my own conscience. Minority and indigenous rights are complex and contested terrain for minority and indigenous peoples, let alone suburban white Americans. Whatever insights living as an expat in the Swedish-speaking Åland archipelago of Finland may have given me, I am still only really in an intellectual position to assess the issue not an intuitive one. This can result in misunderstandings.

In the year since TN was born for instance, I have come to realize that (1) the tag ‘indigenous groups’ may not please a readership that may include some ‘groups’ that have spent the last thirty years struggling to be recognized as ‘peoples’, and that (2) the name of the blog will be received by some right-minded Australians as a hair less offensive than calling it ‘ApartHeid’ would be to South Africans. The point being that perhaps the first duty of the well-meaning outsider is to seek to attain more than a  superficial understanding of the situation they will inevitably influence through their statements.

Sadly, I’m not really so sure that the latest Economist take on group rights meets this test. The article in question, ‘Me myself and them‘ (May 14, 2011), generates a bit more heat than light in its discussion of this complicated topic and links its conclusions somewhat debatably to the fate of the Arab Spring. To paraphrase their argument:

Continue reading

What’s in a border?

by Rhodri C. Williams

The headlines these days still have me scratching my head and I can’t imagine I’m the only one. For example, this morning I learn that the Government of Syria, having solemnly declared that an armed insurgency threatens the life of the nation yesterday, duly responded  by lifting a thirty year state of emergency today.  I guess they figured there wasn’t much point closing the barn doors once the constituency had bolted.

It all seems a bit comical at times, but of course it is deadly serious and symptomatic of the way in which the ructions we are currently witnessing are straining the normal responses states would employ against civil unrest precisely because the neighborhoods involved are not inhabited by ‘normal’ states. Instead, places like Cote d’Ivoire, Libya, Nigeria and Syria tend to be recent confections, with a territory defined by borders drawn to the convenience of some other country, a population composed of whoever happened to be living within those bounds at the time and effective control now exercised by those who managed to scramble to the top of the heap or be successfully implanted and hang on. Much of the Middle-East is still a good decade short of a century of sovereignty and I’m older than a few independent states in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Its easy to forget much of this when things are going well. Somehow, describing a country as a state and giving it a little stenciled name tag at the UN General Assembly creates all of these reassuring associations that may or may not apply. Certainly, institutions might not be perfectly democratic and economies may be shaky, but statehood implies a totality that is greater than the sum of the parts, bound up in some kind of national identity that can accommodate and eventually subsume local ethnic, sectarian and tribal loyalties. As previously noted with regard to Sudan, however, the elites that inherited these foundling post-colonial states well understood their fragility and embraced the lesser risks entailed by retaining colonial borders over the greater ones that could be triggered should the question of borders be re-opened.

Continue reading

The week in links – week 09/2011

I thought I would begin this one with a plug for a Roger Cohen column. It ostensibly focuses on the unfolding of ‘Obama-ism’ as a nascent foreign policy doctrine, but beautifully makes the point that just as 2001 was seen as interring the spirit of 1989, 2011 may signal an equally new and more hopeful turning point in human affairs. The uplifted tone invites a certain amount of skepticism, but one can also choose to simply indulge in a moment of abandoned optimism.

Events in North Africa have obscured what would otherwise be headline (well at least visible) news from other parts of Africa. Perhaps most notably, Cote d’Ivoire continues its slide toward civil war. Turtle Bay recently reported that South Africa’s contributions to the mediation efforts have been viewed with some skepticism, as it is not clear whether an effort is afoot to impose the type of power-sharing agreement that has worked so brilliantly in Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe itself, political repression by Mugabe’s paramilitaries and displacement continue apace. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has unsurprisingly upheld the country’s draconian land reforms, as reported in ASIL’s most recent ‘International Law in Brief’. Finally, returning to South Africa, the BBC reports this week on a bid by Georgia to poach  white farmers disgruntled by the far less arbitrary but ambitious and problematic land restitution program there.

A year on, BBC also provides a useful followup report on the earthquake in Chile. Although Chile’s relatively advanced state of preparedness spared it from loss of life on anything like the scale seen a month earlier in Haiti, the economic consequences were devastating. BBC points out that the cost of the damage was one-third of all costs caused by disasters worldwide in 2010 and amounted to one-fifth of Chile’s GNP. As in Haiti, the greatest challenge a year on is presented by the need to move survivors from ad hoc shelter arrangements to more sustainable housing.

Another dimension of the Arab unrest: Its the land, stupid

by Rhodri C. Williams

Having spent the last few weeks apologizing copiously for exceeding the remit of this blog every time I have written on the current Middle East turmoil (as here and here), I am now beginning to sense that I might not have been so far off base after all. It turns out that land issues – and particularly anger at decades of tenure insecurity, crooked deals and discriminatory allocations – have been one of the seeds of the current unrest.

The case of Egypt is particularly illustrative at a number of levels. First – and most practically important in a country that remains almost 60% rural – former President Mubarak presided over a quiet reversal of earlier land reforms in the 1990s with profound negative implications for rural smallholders. According to a very revealing posting in the Landesa blog, Mubarak’s predecessors had accorded former tenant farmers significant tenure security, but in a form that never extinguished the ownership rights of powerful rural landlords. The failure to complete the land reform process by according ownership rights to smallholders would ultimately be its undoing:

In 1992, with little fanfare, and the acquiescence of President Mubarak, the Egyptian legislature adopted a five-year phase out of the registered tenancy provisions of the 1952 land-reform law, beginning with an immediate tripling of rent levels. By 1997, tenants would once again be as they had been under the old monarchy: evicatable at the landlord’s pleasure, and subject to any rent the landlord wished to charge; or replaced by hired day labor.

There is no happy ending to this story. During the five years 1992-97 that is precisely what happened. Roughly one million tenant households (about six million people, or close to one in ten Egyptians) went from being secure, moderately prosperous farmers who enjoyed owner-like status and paid a low fixed rent, to being traditional insecure sharecroppers, or someone’s source of day labor.

At the same time as rural smallholders were losing their shirts, a new generation of politically connected business interests had begun to benefit from sales of peri-urban land for as little as $1 per square meter, often without competitive tenders. One of the interesting aspects of this story is the extent to which the graft underlying the ensuing real estate boom was not prominently covered in the international media despite the intense domestic resentment it generated. A comparison of two articles in the Financial Times, one from September 15, 2010 (‘Egypt’s building progress’), and the other from February 13, 2011 (‘Focus on Egypt land deal fortunes’) is instructive:

Continue reading

Libya on the edge

by Rhodri C. Williams

It remains impossible to resist commenting on the amazing cascade of democratic uprisings convulsing the Middle East right now. In all awareness that these lie far beyond the strict purview of this blog (there are undeniably land issues, but they hardly play a central role), I just can’t quite believe that I’m witnessing this type of transformation all over again.

I hear tonight that Ghaddafi’s remaining time in “office” might be a matter of hours and I’m suddenly back to the Macalester College cafeteria one morning in December 1989 when Neville Blakemore told me the Berlin Wall had fallen and I almost dropped my tray. Having at last finished David Fromkin’s Peace to End All Peace a few weeks ago, I had just begun to feel like I had finally arrived at a sound understanding of how the modern Middle East was patched together – and now the rug is gloriously being swept out from under my feet.

The situation in Libya is horrifying, but the persistence of demonstrators throughout the country is all the more inspiring for Mr. Ghaddafi’s apparently limitless brutality. And as usual, some of the most satisfying revenge seems to be occurring online from a tech savvy generation no one seems to have dreamed existed in the Middle East – not least in the form of a hilarious video by an Israeli musician (!) that skewers the dictator’s buffoonish rants.

From a human rights perspective, one of the most interesting things about the current ructions is that they may after all issue from George W. Bush’s project to transform the Middle East. On OpenDemocracy, Shadi Mokhtari points out that Bush broke a taboo surrounding human rights discussions in the region – but not through what he said but what he did. In essence, once Arab leaders found themselves forced to condemn Abu Ghraib, it was impossible to keep the spotlights averted from the other dungeons that had kept them in power for decades. Where it ends, nobody knows…