MERIP Blog

Operation Decisive Storm and the Expanding Counter-Revolution

by John M. Willis | published March 30, 2015 - 10:46am

On the night of March 25 one hundred Saudi warplanes bombed strategic targets inside Yemen under the control of the Houthi rebels. A number of countries—the other Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) members minus Oman, as well as Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Morocco and Pakistan—joined the effort either directly or in support capacities. Although the Houthis have been in control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa and the central government since September 2014, it was the flight of president ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to Aden and the subsequent Houthi attack on the southern city that constituted the breaking point for Saudi Arabia and the GCC. Thus began what Riyadh has dubbed Operation Decisive Storm (‘Asifat al-Hazm), a military assault that has already caused considerable destruction in Sanaa and elsewhere, and incurred dozens of casualties both military and civilian.

Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubair described the air campaign as defending the legitimate Yemeni government led by Hadi, who replaced president ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih as part of GCC-brokered political arrangement in 2011. Hadi’s government, Jubair contended, “has agreed to a process that is supported by the international community, that is enshrined in several United Nations Security Council resolutions that calls for all Yemeni parties to take a certain path that would lead them from where they were to a new state with a new constitution and elections and checks and balances and so forth.” He referred to the Houthis as “spoilers” of this process, who refused to “become legitimate players in Yemeni politics,” and who will not be allowed to take over the country. Jubair’s remarks on the legitimacy of the government were remarkable for several reasons, not least of which was the absence of any mention of the Yemeni people.

The Houthis’ refusal to negotiate a political settlement in Riyadh has indeed disrupted the kingdom’s attempt to revive the original and problematic GCC initiative and National Dialogue Conference that was to resolve Yemen’s deep political divisions. As Stacey Philbrick Yadav and Sheila Carapico have argued, “given the GCC monarchies’ interest in stability in the most restive quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, the agreement contained a number of provisions to undermine populist demands for a democratic transition.” It is no wonder then that the Houthis saw little possibility of addressing their concerns in a Saudi-sponsored conference that seemed to have as its goal the restoration of the political status quo.

Yet Operation Decisive Storm is not merely about Yemen’s internal politics. It is emblematic of a broader political transformation—one that has both historical parallels and is strikingly new. For many, the assault raises the specter of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, executed by a coalition of Sunni states and Iran’s Shi‘i proxies. Indeed, the forces aligned against the Houthis are Sunni-majority countries. As many analysts have noted, however, sectarianism obfuscates the political context of the Yemeni crisis rather than clarifying it. For those with longer historical memories, this military campaign suggests a previous proxy war between Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and Saudi Arabia, when both countries intervened in the Yemeni civil war (1962-1967) to support the Yemeni republicans, on the one hand, and the Yemeni monarchy, on the other. In that conflict, the Saudis backed the deposed Zaydi imam while Egyptian troops fought on the side of the “free officers.” Although the republican officers prevailed, Egypt suffered a kind of defeat, and Saudi Arabia ultimately extended its hegemony over what was then North Yemen.

A closer historical analogy might be the Iranian, Jordanian and British intervention in Oman against the rebellion of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO) in the 1960s and 1970s. In that case an alliance of conservative monarchies joined forces to support the Omani sultanate against popular forces that had threatened to spread into the greater Persian Gulf. While the Houthis in no way resemble the leftist PFLO in ideology or revolutionary practice, the forces gathered against them have a great deal in common. Namely, they are all part of a counter-revolutionary front that has expanded beyond the GCC to include other authoritarian regimes. While not all these countries share the Saudi and GCC paranoia regarding Iran, they do, to varying degrees, fear the spread of ISIS or popular democratic forces. To these regimes, the Houthis represent one of many forces that threaten to undermine the regional order.

The coalition also shares a reliance on Saudi and GCC political and economic support. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE have supported the regime of ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi politically and financially since he formalized power in 2014. Collectively, they provided Egypt with an estimated $23 billion in grants, loans, petroleum products and investment in 2014 and a pledge for $12 billion more in 2015. Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, met with King Salman in October 2014 as part of a general rapprochement between the two countries that led to an unspecified aid package from Saudi Arabia. Both Jordan and Morocco were briefly in discussions to enter the GCC as a part a post-Arab uprising defense strategy intended to ensure dynastic stability in the face of increasing domestic opposition. Although they were ultimately not invited to join, the two monarchies still enjoy the financial support of GCC countries and share a similar commitment to combating the influence of ISIS.

The role of Pakistan is slightly more complex. Beyond the long history of military ties between the two countries, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif owes his political life to Saudi intervention. The kingdom gave him a comfortable exile in 2000 and again in 2007 (including financing his establishment of a steel mill in Jidda). Since Sharif’s election in 2013, the Saudis have continued their support, most recently in April 2014 with an injection of $1.5 billion in loans into the Pakistani economy to shore up its foreign reserves. In return, the Pakistani military has actively supported the Gulf monarchies: The recruitment of Pakistani mercenaries for Bahrain’s security forces during the height of opposition demonstrations in 2011 was organized by private security firms with close ties to the Pakistani military.

Despite Saudi or even US assertions to the contrary, Operation Decisive Storm has nothing to do with supporting the legitimacy of a political process in Yemen. Its goal is instead to maintain the continuity of authoritarian governance in the region by actively repressing the forces that threaten to undo the status quo. That this coalition has indiscriminately lumped together ISIS, Iran and the popular democratic movements of the Arab uprisings of 2011 should indicate both its broader strategic goals and, equally, the dangers to positive political and social change it represents.

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Beinin, Beers and Israel-Palestine in Cleveland

by Joshua Stacher | published March 18, 2015 - 4:20pm

MERIP contributing editor Joel Beinin came to Cleveland in early March to discuss the popular struggle against Israeli occupation in the West Bank as well as what was at stake in yesterday’s Israeli elections. His host was the Northeast Ohio Consortium on Middle East Studies (NOCMES). Beinin’s visit included an hour-long interview on “The Sound of Ideas” on WCPN, the local NPR affiliate in Cleveland, and lectures at Case Western Reserve and Kent State Universities. Then, as is becoming NOCMES custom, Beinin appeared at The Happy Dog, a bar featuring live music and public education events about international affairs. Attendees learned about the Middle East while sipping an IPA, a porter or a stout underneath a poster of Joe Strummer.

At The Happy Dog, Beinin covered everything from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to Congress to the summer 2011 protests in Israel over economic inequality. He argued, among other things, that Netanyahu’s rhetoric conflating Zionism with Judaism could lead Israel toward self-destruction. Video of his talk is here.

Two MERIP editors, Pete Moore and Joshua Stacher, founded NOCMES in 2010 to bring the best of Middle East studies to Cleveland and environs. The consortium now includes six universities, with about a dozen civic partners including the City Club of Cleveland and the Cleveland Council of World Affairs. NOCMES has invited over 35 speakers on such topics as the Arab uprisings, oil and Saudi Arabia, women and religion, ISIS, the global war on terror and policing in the US, the Iranian revolution, public opinion and comic books. Lectures are held at Cleveland-area universities, Islamic centers, churches, high schools and public libraries, as well as prestigious venues such as the City Club. Previous speakers at The Happy Dog include Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Jillian Schwedler, Laleh Khalili and Hugh Roberts. For more information and video of many previous events, see the NOCMES website.

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Fuel Subsidy Policy and Popular Mobilization in Syria

by Zachary Cuyler | published March 16, 2015 - 1:17pm

On February 17, Syrian Minister of Oil Muhammad al-Lahham warned Parliament that the price of fuel would have to increase. This announcement came just one month after the government raised the official price of diesel by more than 50 percent to 125 Syrian pounds (70 cents) per liter, the largest single hike since the uprising of 2011 and an eightfold increase since May of that year. As economic conditions continue to deteriorate for Syrians in government-held territory, the regime risks popular backlash by abandoning its long-standing guarantee of cheap energy -- one of the last traces of the old Baathist populist commitment to Syrians’ economic welfare.

The Syrian regime faces simultaneous fiscal and energy crises. Its foreign exchange reserves totaled $17.4 billion in mid-2011. These funds were rapidly depleted by military operations, rising imports that replaced vanishing domestic products and falling revenues. The reserves nevertheless allowed the regime to stay afloat as it halted investment activities, received contributions from loyalist businessmen and displaced much of the population it had once supported. In July 2013 government also received an emergency $3.6 billion in credit from Iran, but that amount has likely been spent. Both Iran and Russia may be reluctant to provide additional aid given their decreased oil revenues.

Government-held areas also face severe fuel shortages, as Iranian oil deliveries have become less reliable and supplies from wells held by ISIS have dried up following coalition air strikes. The little oil that does arrive is refined in facilities operating at around 10 percent capacity, while demand for fuel has increased due to power outages that have forced Syrians to use diesel generators.

The Syrian government is the primary distributor of this fuel. It purchases crude oil, refines it and sells the resulting fuel domestically below market prices in what amounts to a de facto government subsidy of energy. But given the present fuel shortage, below-market official prices feed a black market that thrives at government expense. The regime hopes to bring this illicit trade under control by raising prices, eventually, to market levels.

Though this idea makes fiscal sense, it carries significant political risks. Sudden fuel price increases have previously helped to catalyze unrest by undermining what Raymond Hinnebusch calls the Asad regime’s “tacit social contract” with Syria’s population, in which “political acquiescence [is] bought through state delivery of a minimum level of economic opportunity and welfare.” To be sure, this “contract” frayed under President Bashar al-Asad’s liberalization campaign in the 2000s, and became increasingly irrelevant from 2011 onward, as the regime devolved into a patchwork of half-functioning state institutions and parasitic militias. Nonetheless, vestiges of the “contract” endure in the form of subsidized food and energy.

Syria began producing oil in quantity in the mid-1970s. Crude exports provided government revenue, and the state shared the wealth by selling petroleum products domestically below market prices. Besides benefiting consumers, this policy lowered the cost of agricultural and industrial inputs. Syrians’ standard of living improved substantially in the 1970s as the government invested oil wealth in industry and provided cheap energy.

The regime violated this portion of its “contract” in the early 1980s, and the consequences were severe. When crude exports dropped as Syria’s first oil wells struggled to keep up with rapidly growing consumption, the government raised fuel prices drastically. By 1982, the price of fuel oil -- used mainly in industry -- rose to more than 15 times the 1977 level. The government also quadrupled the price of kerosene and almost doubled the price of diesel between 1980 and 1982. These price increases exacerbated the strain on small manufacturers caused by a decade of state support for large-scale industry. They also increased hardship for farmers and consumers who depended upon cheap diesel, with consumers relying on kerosene as well. Nationwide, economic hardship gave additional momentum to a Muslim Brother-led insurgency. In Hama, home to small-scale industry and a hardline faction of the Brothers, price hikes intensified economic strain and helped catalyze a revolt that ended in that city’s destruction.

For the next three decades, the regime benefited from rebounding crude exports and attempted to correct for poor economic planning in the 1970s by liberalizing the economy. Liberalization ate away at the gains made by ordinary Syrians in the 1970s, but the regime remained committed to providing cheap energy. Fixed fuel prices lagged behind inflation as Hafiz avoided the rapid price hikes that contributed to the events of 1982.

When Bashar assumed control in 2000, rising domestic fuel consumption and diminishing crude reserves had begun to drain Syria’s oil revenues once again. Implicit fuel subsidies accounted for almost 11 percent of GDP in 2004, and rising global oil prices, declining Syrian crude exports, rampant fuel smuggling and growing fuel imports created strong incentives to raise prices. Upon the International Monetary Fund’s recommendation, Bashar did exactly that after declaring a liberalized “social market economy” in 2005. The price of fuel oil increased by a factor of seven between 2005 and 2008, and the price of diesel nearly tripled between 2007 and 2008.

It was a severe and sudden breach of the regime’s distributive commitments to consumers, agriculture and industry, all of which were suffering in the late 2000s. Domestic demand for manufactured goods had collapsed, and the Syrian textile industry went into a steep decline exacerbated by the rapid increase in fuel oil prices. According to Hinnebusch, higher fuel costs, together with government corruption and neglect, “combined with the terrible drought of 2007-2010 [and] led to agricultural decline.” High diesel prices compounded the effects of the drought, which had made farmers more dependent upon diesel-fueled irrigation pumps. For consumers, price increases worsened an already bad economic situation: Poverty grew by 10 percent in the late 2000s, and public-sector wages failed to keep pace with inflation.

In early 2011, the government announced its intention to bring fuel prices to market level by mid-decade. It raised the price of fuel oil by 50 percent that January, straining the country’s already ravaged industrial sector, and promised to bring all fuel prices to market level by 2015. Though this measure certainly did not cause the 2011 uprising, it coincided with deteriorating economic conditions in Syria and mass demonstrations across the Arab world. Recognizing its misstep, the government lowered diesel prices in May, but Syria’s uprising had already begun.

Syria’s government still aims to bring fuel prices to market levels, and may yet do so. But wartime shortages and high black market prices have made it more difficult. The government remains responsible for distributing fuel to most of the Syrian market, and sets national prices that do not reflect wide variations in supply and demand across its territory. Raising official prices will increase strain on those who buy on the formal market, fail to address local variations and encourage profiteers to raise their own prices. To prevent profiteering, Syria’s cabinet and provincial governments have issued warnings to merchants who sell above official rates, and the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection has fined and closed fuel stations.

As Oil Minister Lahham warned, the government will likely continue raising prices. Meanwhile, Syrians living in government-held territory will continue to struggle with rapid inflation, high unemployment and shortages of basic goods. How the regime paces further price increases -- and how the increasingly desperate population reacts -- bears watching.

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Yemeni Political Dialogue in Riyadh?

by Gabriele vom Bruck | published March 16, 2015 - 10:27am

On March 10, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) invited rival Yemeni factions to hold peace talks in Riyadh, the Saudi Royal Court announced.

The Saudis know only too well that the leadership of Ansar Allah, or the Houthi movement, will be reticent about taking part in negotiations with President-in-waiting ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and other Yemeni politicians in their capital -- not least because Saudi Arabian forces killed dozens of Houthi-affiliated civilians and their neighbors in air raids across the border in 2009-2010. The kingdom has declared Ansar Allah a terrorist organization. When the Houthis left the interim government in Sanaa no choice but to resign, Riyadh suspended payments on its huge aid package to Yemen. Until recently talks between the Saudis and the Houthis happened through indirect channels. Such contacts have existed since the ceasefire agreement of 2010 but Ansar Allah’s leader ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi officially acknowledged them only on March 15. It is not clear whether the Saudis’ redirection of “aid” to certain political stakeholders in Aden -- designated by the Gulf states as Yemen’s interim capital -- means that they have also stopped paying the Houthis to police the border.

Saudi Arabia has sponsored salafi institutions that have labeled the Zaydi Shi‘a of Yemen as heretics since the 1970s. Its state-run media have attacked the Houthis, a Zaydi movement, on a daily basis. The House of Sa‘ud hardly qualifies as a bona fide negotiator. It sees its mission in Yemen as kingmaker rather than facilitator of talks between opposing factions. Saudi Arabia is not interested in guaranteeing the Houthis a fair share of power in a future government. Let’s not forget that the so-called GCC initiative was designed to keep the “revolutionary youth” and the Houthis out of the political process following the departure of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih from the presidency.

The Omani capital of Muscat would be a more appropriate venue for talks between the Houthis and opposition groups that formed a new national alliance on March 14. This alliance is to replace the Joint Meeting Parties that aimed to overthrow Salih. Oman has no record of direct interference in Yemeni affairs, and has good relations with all the political factions there, as well as with Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

The Saudis’ proposal to hold talks in Riyadh might be a strategic ploy enabling them to blame the Houthis for rejecting a political settlement in the event of wide-ranging hostilities. April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group appears to believe that the Saudis themselves may not even be interested in peace. She recently argued at the Council on Foreign Relations that “it [Saudi Arabia] is aggressive in attempts to diplomatically isolate the Houthis and supports groups that will confront them militarily. It looks like Saudi Arabia is on the warpath.” By arming the Houthis’ rivals, whose weapons might fall into the hands of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia seems to envision a scenario akin to Syria and Iraq, where its enemies are fighting each other. Greater instability and civil war in Yemen may not work in the Saudis’ favor, however. The visit of a delegation carrying a letter from King Salman to Ansar Allah’s leader, shortly after the Houthis held military exercises near the Saudi Arabian border on March 11, suggests that the Saudis have reached this conclusion themselves.

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One Society of Muslim Brothers in Jordan or Two?

by Curtis Ryan | published March 5, 2015 - 9:58am

Jordan’s government this week approved an application to make the Society of Muslim Brothers a licensed, local charity, paving the way for a break between the Jordanian branch of the Brothers and the regional organization based in Egypt. The move was resisted, however, not by the Jordanian government, but by the Brothers’ own leadership, the Shura Council. The Council rejected the decision and condemned what it viewed as government interference in the affairs of Jordan’s largest Islamist movement -- underscoring a deepening divide between the movement and the state, and also within the movement itself.

The move toward licensing the Brothers as a Jordanian domestic organization, rather than a pan-Islamic organization under the umbrella of the Egyptian group, was led by former Brother leader ‘Abd al-Majid Thunaybat and other self-described “reformers.” Many of these men are associated with an initiative known as Zamzam, led by (relative) moderates such as Ruhayl Ghurayba, which has attempted to shift the focus of Jordanian Islamists toward what it regards as Jordanian rather than regional matters. But Jordan’s Shura Council has consistently opposed these changes, and even expelled many top officials (including Thunaybat and Ghurayba) for their efforts with Zamzam.

The Shura Council argues that the reformers are undermining the Islamist movement in Jordan, while Zamzam’s supporters feel that they are actually saving it -- perhaps from itself. The stakes are high, even existential, for both factions. But the rift is not entirely new. For years the Islamist movement has been seen as divided between hawks and doves. The former, more hardline in policy, more internationalist in outlook, are keen on solidarity with Palestine and the Brothers’ links to Hamas; the latter, more moderate, more domestic in orientation, are concerned that ties with Hamas erode the Brothers’ standing inside Jordan. These divisions are made more complicated by Jordanian identity politics, with many Jordanians with Palestinian roots identifying with the hawks, and many East Jordanian Islamists considering themselves doves. This aspect should not be over-emphasized, but it is real, and all too often it lends itself to exploitation by the movement’s many opponents. (Islamist activists themselves, for example, routinely argue that Jordan’s intelligence services or mukhabarat are at least partly responsible for creating the identity-based rifts.)

Jordan’s Society of Muslim Brothers is as old as the independent state of Jordan -- both emerged in 1946. The Brothers began in Jordan as an Egypt-linked charity. In 1953 the group was given the legal designation of an “Islamic society” and years later, in 1992, it added a political party, the Islamic Action Front, to its organizational structure. But the regional backlash against the Muslim Brothers since the downfall of the Muhammad Mursi presidency in Egypt has shaken the organization to its foundations, with the current fissures but the latest manifestation.

In international affairs, Jordan has shifted ever closer toward an inter-Arab alignment that includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with each regime decrying militant Islamism. The latter three governments, however, have also outlawed the Muslim Brothers, with corresponding pressure on Jordan to do the same. So far, Jordan has resisted the temptation. For all its internal rifts and other problems, the Muslim Brothers remain the largest and best-organized opposition force within the kingdom. For those in the regime that want to balance opposition groups against one another, the Brothers serve as a counter to other opposition forces from secular leftists to growing salafi trends. Still, relations between the regime and the Brothers are frosty at best.

Reformers within the Islamist movement fear that unless they act now, they will give the regime an excuse to follow the lead of its main Arab allies in banning the group. Reformers are therefore using language similar to that of the government -- emphasizing their Jordanian roots and focus -- in an attempt to preserve the Islamist movement, and to cut ties with both Hamas and the Brothers’ branches in Egypt and the Gulf.

Jordanian Islamists may be on the defensive, but they are not defunct. The long-term question remains the relationship between the Muslim Brothers and the state. But in the interim, it is the short-term question that is more pressing: What kind of organization does the Society of Muslim Brothers want to be? How will it address the regional and domestic pressures, and the challenge from fellow Islamists? Until the movement can provide coherent and unified answers to these questions, it will appear to be -- at least temporarily -- not one movement, but two.

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Why Isn't the "Swing Producer" Swinging?

by Karen Pfeifer | published March 3, 2015 - 9:28am

The price of oil is hovering around $50 per barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude, and $60 per barrel of Brent crude, the lowest levels since the global economic downturn of 2008-2009. Until the end of February, when they rebounded slightly, oil prices had been dropping since the middle of last summer.

In the past, Saudi Arabia has cut its oil output to halt this sort of freefall. As the “swing producer,” the country with the largest and most easily extracted reserves, the desert kingdom can afford to reduce supply in the short run to steady price levels in the long run. This time, however, the Saudis ordered their rigs to keep pumping as usual, doing nothing to stop the downward spiral. Why?

Saudi Arabia’s government has been pushing development plans to diversify the economy away from dependence on hydrocarbon exports for the last two decades. While oil exports were still 90 percent of total export revenues as of 2014, and still accounted for 80 percent of government revenues, “diversification” has resulted in reducing hydrocarbon production to 45 percent of the domestic economy, and the “non-oil” sector of the economy has generally grown faster than the oil sector since the 2008-2009 crisis.

There are two caveats to this rosy picture of “non-oil” growth. First, much of the diversification and employment, even in the private sector, is financed out of export-dependent government revenues funneled through development programs for infrastructure such as transportation, including light rail networks for the main cities and expansion of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz International Airport, power plants (including a solar project), housing, financial services and consumer products. Second, much of the “non-oil” sector is actually dependent on hydrocarbon production for domestic energy and feedstock, for example for petrochemicals, fertilizer, plastics, construction materials and aluminum.

The Saudi regime’s ability to finance this ambitious and complex development program could be undermined in the long run by a steep and lasting fall in oil prices and export revenues, a reality driven home by the crisis of 2008-2009, with its plunge in oil revenues and financial returns, that made the drive to diversify the domestic economy more urgent than ever. But the regime is calculating that it can hold out longer in the short and medium terms than can other exporters to the global hydrocarbon market, and that it would have more to lose from cutting production now than it would have from staying fully in the competition for the long haul.

The long-haul calculation has two aspects, the immediate oil market dynamics and the larger global economic realm. At present, the Saudis are determined to hold on to their share of the global oil market, even if prices fall further, while their competitors falter and drop out. Saudi Arabia and other well-endowed Gulf producers Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE can hold out longer because they are the lowest-cost producers per barrel in the world. Falling prices have already led to the decommissioning of more than 500 oil rigs in the United States since the beginning of December 2014, down to a total of about 1,000 by the end of February, announcements by Shell and Chevron that they are cutting $50 billion from their exploration budgets, and an unplanned stockpiling of the glut of crude oil in the United States.

For the long run, the Saudi regime projects (along with the international financial institutions) that a spell of relatively low oil and gas prices will eventually stimulate increasing demand for their exports along with higher growth overall in both developed and emerging economies. Saudi Arabia sells about two thirds of its exports to East and South Asia, where the fastest growth is taking place, anyway. In addition, the Saudi riyal, like other GCC currencies, is linked to the value of the US dollar. At least for the next year or so, as Europe and Japanese central banks engage in quantitative easing to stimulate their economies while the US Federal Reserve tightens up on its money supply to avert inflation, the US dollar will continue to strengthen relative to the euro and yen. (Quantitative easing is a policy used by central banks to help bring an economy out of recession and reduce unemployment. The central bank increases the money supply and reduces interest rates in order to encourage more bank lending and induce new business investment and consumer borrowing. The increased lending and borrowing for productive activity increases aggregate demand for expanding output and stimulates overall economic growth and job creation.) The riyal will strengthen, too, giving Saudi Arabia a break on relative prices of imported food and productive inputs and slowing the downward pressure on its current account, even as hydrocarbon revenues fall, plateau and then recover with the global economic recovery.

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The Humble Tomato

by Tessa Farmer | published January 16, 2015 - 12:52pm

In early February 2011, shortly after the beginning of the January 25 revolution that toppled Husni Mubarak, I made a phone call to a friend in an informal area of Cairo. I wanted to check on her wellbeing, and was interested to hear her perspective on reports that some of the thugs hired by the government to harass protesters in Tahrir Square were coming from her neighborhood. The first thing my friend wanted to talk about, however, was the dramatic rise in the price of tomatoes. “Twelve pounds a kilo! Can you imagine?”

Twelve Egyptian pounds, roughly $2 at the time, was indeed a steep hike over the normal price, which is generally in the range of 1-3 pounds per kilo. But the inflation was not, in fact, difficult for me to imagine, as prices had soared to similar heights six months earlier while I was living in Cairo. Neither was it difficult to imagine the impact on the diets and daily lives of poor families in Egypt. The average Egyptian household spends 40.6 percent of its income on food, a share that increases to more than 50 percent in the poorest households, according to a report published by the UN World Food Program and the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. In the conversation with my friend, the tomato functioned as shorthand for the difficulties of life at an uncertain moment, a kind of low-tech economic indicator of precarity.

A common joke uses tomato sauce as a reference point for the country’s political difficulties as well. “Law nahr al-Nil ba’a salsa, mish haykaffi al-kusa illi fiki ya Masr (Even if the Nile became tomato sauce, it wouldn’t be enough for all the zucchini in Egypt).” Zucchini, or kusa, is often made into mahshi, stuffed with rice and cooked in tomato sauce, a popular meal for those who work hard to stretch their food budgets. Kusa is also a gloss for nepotism and corruption, the joke being that the problem is so endemic that a river of tomato sauce could not cover it up.

Over the last several years, tomatoes have frequently figured as mediums of Egyptian political sentiment as one dynasty folded and others struggle to be born. There was the kerfuffle in 2012 over a Facebook post by a salafi group warning that the tomato is a Christian fruit because, when cut in half, its insides resemble a cross. It was another nail in the coffin of rational thought among the religiously oriented, or so argued those opposed to the rise of the Muslim Brothers and other religious parties. “These people,” it was said, even cast sectarian aspersions on the prosaic tomato! Then there were the rumors that Israeli tomatoes in the Egyptian market were poisoned with high concentrations of solanine, a naturally occurring glycoalkaloid in plants in the nightshade family. The story started, it seems, with the idea that genetically modified seeds from Israel were being smuggled in through Gaza. Last, but certainly not least, were the tomatoes and shoes thrown at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her summer 2012 visit to Egypt by people who blamed the US for supporting the Muslim Brothers during their short and contentious time in power. Clinton brushed aside the intentions behind those tomatoes and instead lamented the waste of food. The humble tomato sure gets around.

Price fluctuations predate the January 25 revolution and had a hand in creating its conditions of possibility. At the end of Mubarak’s reign, the regime was tinkering with the Egyptian economy, with the mastermind thought to be heir apparent Gamal Mubarak, who was shifting away from the caution of his father’s long-time cronies. Food price increases were part and parcel of the new economic plan, which had precarity for the poor at its neoliberal heart. There were fewer and fewer crumbs falling from rich tables to keep the poor quiescent. A series of crises, reports the World Food Program’s Egypt representative, GianPietro Bordignon, made it more difficult for households to find sufficient food starting in 2005. The percentage of Egyptian households facing food insecurity rose from 14 percent in 2009 to 17 percent in 2011.

Nowadays, President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi is working hard to solidify his own power, and doing that means feeding a whole new system of loyalty. Even if the wealthy players are more or less the same, the object of their devotion is new, so there’s a lot of money going around for building and contracting projects for the military and its affiliated businessmen. While the big players are eating so voraciously, there just aren’t enough crumbs for the poor. So, for the time being, it’s going to be harder for my friend and her neighbors to afford a mahshi dinner.

Image: Making mahshi (Tessa Farmer).

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Palestine and the ICC

by The Editors | published January 8, 2015 - 5:29pm

At the close of 2014, Mahmoud ‘Abbas, head of the Ramallah wing of the Palestinian Authority (PA), announced that he would sign the Rome Statute, the 2002 treaty establishing the International Criminal Court based in The Hague. This move opens the possibility that the Palestinians could ask the Court to investigate Israeli military operations and/or occupation practices as violations of international law. ‘Abbas accepted Court jurisdiction retroactive to June 13, 2014, when Israel began the raids that developed into Operation Protective Edge, the seven-week bombardment and invasion of Gaza. The meaning and efficacy of the PA’s maneuver are subjects of considerable debate. We asked five legal scholars and Palestine watchers for their views on the matter.

 

Mazen Masri

Finally, after years of consultations and endless statements, the Palestine Liberation Organization (or the Palestinian Authority, or the State of Palestine as it calls itself now) has joined the International Criminal Court. Mahmoud ‘Abbas has played his trump card, hoping to force Israel to negotiate in good faith. He is trying to send a message to Israeli leaders: It’s either the negotiating table, with results in the near future, or a cell in The Hague. While it is a welcome step, I suspect that the high expectations built up by the PA over the past few years will soon start to fade.

Legal questions arising from the possibility of taking Israeli leaders to the ICC have been widely discussed among academics and in the blogosphere. While optimists believe that joining the ICC can bring about justice, Israel apologists maintain the line that “Israel can do no wrong,” and that even if it did, the ICC could not deal with the wrongs. There are a lot of gray areas, and the debates about them are fraught with politics. Despite its characterization as a court, the ICC is essentially a political institution, and international criminal justice is essentially a contested political framework. Blind faith in international law, with no attention to its origins and history, is a dangerous kind of naiveté.

Does this mean that the Palestinians should abandon legal routes? Of course not. International law is part of the fabric of international relations, and to ignore it would be to forfeit a potentially useful tool. At the same time, a national liberation struggle cannot be fought only in the ICC and the UN. It is useful to turn to this phrase, which has grounded the Palestinian cause at its high points, to parse the limits of the ICC-as-strategy.

  • National. The Palestinian struggle is an anti-colonial struggle of a nation, and without a mobilized nation, struggle is impossible. Since the beginning of the Oslo process, however, the Palestinian leadership has neglected Palestinian refugees and frozen the PLO institutions that represent them, contributing to the demobilization of the displaced. In the West Bank, years of failed PA policies designed mainly to impress the West with “how civilized” Palestinians are (which generally meant imprisoning, torturing and sometimes killing those engaged in armed struggle, silencing and intimidating anyone who disagrees with the official line, and hyper-neoliberal economics) have left the Palestinians more fragmented and demobilized than ever.
  • Liberation. The PA has replaced this goal with repeated talk of “President Bush’s vision of a two-state solution,” as laid out in the 2003 “road map” that was to have led to Palestinian statehood within two years. Such ideas are expressed with great fanfare, but many questions are left without satisfying answers, especially with regard to the right of return of Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948. In other areas, such as democracy and human rights, if the past actions of the PA are a sign of what the future state will look like, there is much left to be desired.
  • Struggle is a very broad category. On the spectrum of tactics, the Palestinian leadership sticks to those that make the most noise but the smallest impact, such as the failed attempt in December to persuade the UN Security Council to grant Palestinian statehood by 2017. Other tactics, such as boycott, divestment and sanctions, are not on the leadership’s agenda, illustrating their ideas about grassroots struggle and representational structure.

Neither joining the ICC nor acrobatics in the Security Council will yield significant results as long as the leadership suffers from crippling myopia about the options for resistance and as long as the main constituency is demobilized and unsure of the ultimate goal. Only after revisiting all of these points and developing a truly national strategy can the potential of international law be explored. Law and legal tactics cannot replace strategy, but they can play a role in a strategy -- one that enjoys a high level of support, mobilizes the grassroots, employs a range of tools and is guided by a clear vision.

 

Noura Erakat

Can the International Criminal Court deliver the justice Palestinians have struggled to realize for well over a century? The pursuit of accountability at the ICC is one venue for this struggle. But any sustainable vision of Palestinian liberation must account for the confines of the courtroom and, more broadly, international law. As should be clear to all observers of international law, the odds are stacked against Palestinians in that courtroom. The challenge ahead is to innovate not simply litigation strategies but to put them in conversation with radical popular mobilization.

The State of Palestine has now committed itself to the Rome Statute’s provisions, making the entirety of the situation in Palestine subject to potential review. This development is positive in that it opens Israel’s structural violations, and not simply its engagement in armed conflict, to scrutiny. It also means that the ICC can investigate Palestinian armed groups. The Palestinians are at several disadvantages in all scenarios.

The most difficult crimes to investigate are those committed in wartime because their legal character is not self-evident. The ICC would have to examine each Israeli attack on Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, for example, to determine whether the harm caused outweighed the military advantage gained. If so, the attack is considered a war crime; if not, it is an unfortunate example of war’s cruelty. To make such determinations, the Court would need access to military intelligence that both Israel and Palestinian armed groups would be loath to make available.

Moreover, as a matter of law, the behavior of Palestinian groups is simpler to decipher. Their rockets lack the capacity to distinguish between military and civilian installations, making them ipso facto illegal. In contrast, Israel insists that it seeks to avoid civilian casualties. Although Israel has provided no compelling evidence to this effect, should it choose to participate in ICC proceedings it will be eligible to make a case. The Palestinians will not.

A further disadvantage: Article 17 of the Rome Statute says that the ICC has no jurisdiction over a “situation” (in the Court’s parlance) that is “being investigated or prosecuted by a state that has jurisdiction over it, unless the state is unwilling or unable to genuinely carry out the investigation or prosecution.” Palestine cannot claim such independent jurisdiction. In contrast, should Palestine refer a situation to the ICC and should Israel not boycott, Israel can make a case that with the five criminal investigations it has opened into Operation Protective Edge, for example, it is making a genuine effort to police itself. While Israel’s dismal investigations of Operation Cast Lead put the adequacy of such claims into question, demonstrating that inadequacy involves a separate and lengthy legal process. The principle of complementarity would at worst shield Israel from investigation and at best delay the process so severely as to thwart justice.

The ICC, finally, could simply choose to avoid the political landmines of the Palestinian-Israel conflict. The Office of the Prosecutor exercises significant discretion in deciding which cases to investigate. Should the Prosecutor find that a criminal investigation would not serve “the interests of justice” because it would hamper an ongoing political process or fail to satisfy any party, thus exacerbating conflict, she could simply delay the review process again and again, or as Kevin Jon Heller puts it, “slow-walk the preliminary investigation into oblivion.”

At present, Palestine has not referred a situation to the Office of the Prosecutor. It would not be unwise if Palestine goes no further. Such a holding position is forward-looking and serves as a deterrent to any future attack Israel may launch against the Gaza Strip. If, however, Palestine chooses to refer a situation, then it is best to refer the situation in the West Bank where the focus would be of structural substance, such as settlements. This move is in contrast to referring the entire situation of Palestine, which would take years, or the latest war on Gaza, which exposes the effort to the vulnerabilities discussed.

In order to maximize the ICC’s benefit, Palestine must be prepared to wage a multi-faceted campaign outside the court aimed at leveraging popular and diplomatic support for its cause. The extra-legal strategy includes seeking diplomatic partners to resist and withstand US sanctions, as well as turning to civil society, primarily but not exclusively the global BDS campaign. It also necessitates achieving a more realistic unity government with Hamas -- one that envisions the possibility of ICC prosecution against Palestinian groups and prepares for the attendant fallout. This approach is a fundamental pivot away from the Palestinian strategy of undue, and exclusive, faith, in the US-led peace process.

Submitting a case for review to the ICC should serve as a catalyst for reorienting the Palestinian liberation movement: to rehabilitate the Palestinian national body; to extricate the Palestinian leadership from the debilitating terms of Oslo; and to seek new diplomatic alliances. The worst-case scenarios are abundant, while the best-case scenarios require diligence, resourcefulness and a tremendous amount of good fortune. Most of all they require the PA to turn away from its limited pursuit of self-interest. Such a dramatic shift among the Palestinian leadership offers much more promise for the pursuit of justice than any court could deliver.

(See the full version of Erakat’s commentary, “Who Is Afraid of the International Criminal Court?” now at Jadaliyya.)

 

Raja Khalidi

Just when skeptics (including me) thought we had seen the last of the Palestinian Authority’s “Ending the Occupation, Building the State” program, launched by Salam Fayyad in 2009, its proponents have proven us wrong in thinking it had become a relic.

As the PA failed to achieve both of those goals promised under its liberal economic program and iron-fisted internal security policy, Palestinians have been wondering what comes next. If PA good governance certificates issued by the international community, three devastating wars against Gaza and daily confrontations with expanding colonization in the West Bank and Jerusalem are not enough, what do the Palestinian people have to do to be able to exercise their right to national self-determination, as guaranteed by the (in)famous international legitimacy to which they so stubbornly cling? Surely 30 years of armed struggle, and 20 years of peace negotiations and soft diplomacy since 1994, not to mention the last years of economic peace and institution building, should have been able to undo the ravages of what in most twentieth-century colonized countries took a few decades, at most, to reverse. But no, apparently not. Enter the PLO’s latest and perhaps ultimate weapon -- lawfare.

The critique of Palestinian neoliberal state building that Sobhi Samour and I elaborated in the winter 2011 Journal of Palestine Studies focused partly on the perils of adopting liberal economic policies in a situation of colonial dependency, thereby undermining strategic development prospects. Of no less concern to us was the manner in which the free-market, state-building agenda as espoused by the PA inevitably and necessarily detracts from the potential for, and practicality of, the struggle for decolonization, self-determination and sovereignty. In the glare and bounty of the Ramallah good life, it is sometimes hard to remember that this daily struggle of the Palestinian people has yet to be concluded or to see that the fruits of economic peace have been unequally distributed.

Beyond its usefulness as a training exercise for future sovereign government, the PA’s steady acquisition of the trappings of statehood amounts to little more than biding time until a political settlement may be possible, entrenching its own legitimacy and power, and allowing capital to move freely across the borders that economic peace has so adeptly erased. While the PLO has adopted the label “State of Palestine” since 2012, it has done nothing to assert the sovereignty of that state in the economic, legal or security domains. If anything, for all the good intentions of those responsible for recent PLO policy, conditions on the ground mean that the establishment of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state is a more improbable prospect today than in 2007, when PA reform efforts accelerated, or in 2002 when the UN Security Council first affirmed the right of the Palestinian people to an independent state.

PLO diplomats have embarked since 2014 on a not dissimilar strategy of declaring adherence to international conventions on the assumption that the world will ultimately deal with it as the government of an occupied state and intervene to ensure its liberation. If the UN Security Council rejection of the Palestinian statehood bid was not clear enough, then likely Israeli (and US) sanctions, especially financial, against the indebted, subservient PA will test the resolve of the PLO to pursue a strategy whose success depends more on the good will of strangers than on realities on the ground and the balance of power, which is deeply skewed to the advantage of the colonial power and the dictates of its old and new allies, from Europe to the Americas and Oceania, even to Africa.

The past decade has been largely one of doing everything possible to limit direct confrontation on the ground with the occupation, not only in the areas under PA jurisdiction, but equally in those areas under Israeli control like Area C and Jerusalem. Consequently, the Palestinian national liberation movement has lost some of the opportunities and wiggle room it had retained in previous incarnations -- in terms of its path of economic development, its political independence and national security. It remains to be seen how the swell of diplomatic and public support for the Palestinian cause in the wake of the latest Gaza war may be exploited to enable the PLO to withstand punitive measures, not to mention enforcing the state. This will become clearer if the PLO actually tries to wield the legal instruments it has begun to amass, in particular if it chooses to pursue Israel at the ICC after April 1 when adherence to the Rome Statute takes effect.

Furthermore, the implications have yet to be comprehended of today’s non-sovereign State of Palestine actually trying to implement any of the several dozen conventions to which it has already adhered, not to mention being held accountable for their application in areas under its jurisdiction. Israeli officials have been swift to remind the PLO that its leaders and institutions will also be fair targets for international lawfare, if that is to be the name of the game. So, it is hard to see how the advantages of adherence to the Rome Statute amount in the geopolitical balance of power to much more than imparting a sense of international legal correctness to the eventual state of Palestine.

However limited the outcomes of the PLO diplo-legal strategy might be, in truth the PA should not be criticized for pursuing this “doomsday option,” especially since many of its left-liberal critics and NGOs worldwide have bemoaned its delay in acting in this arena. But nor should great expectations be held as to the feasibility of evicting Israel from the Occupied Territories through legal instruments or by asking nicely and at no cost. And it can only be hoped that the efforts to be engaged in this battle will deliver more in terms of actual liberation of long-suffering Palestinians than the past years of building a phantom state that is there in all respects except reality, all the while keeping the peace with and for Israel.

 

Darryl Li

The decision to join the International Criminal Court may represent a desperate attempt by the Palestinian leadership to salvage some of its tattered credibility. Ironically, it has done so by gambling on a project with its own uncertain legitimacy -- post-Cold War international criminal law.

Since the early 1990s, liberal interventionists in the West have strongly supported the establishment of international courts for mass atrocities, invoking the legacy of the post-World War II Nürnberg trials as a moment of accountability in the service of reconciliation, while promising to eliminate the unseemly one-sidedness and procedural short cuts of “victors’ justice.” The record has been mixed.

Successfully concluded international criminal trials over the past two decades have always depended on Western military intervention, as with special courts for ex-Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, or been conducted in support of sitting regimes, as with the ad hoc tribunal for Rwanda or the ICC’s two convictions to date, both of rebels from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The accusation that the ICC unfairly singles out Africans -- all of its active cases at the moment arise from the continent -- is correct but also obscures the fact that it is often African states themselves that are using the Court to extend and bolster their own authority against opposition forces, such as Uganda’s request that the ICC investigate Joseph Kony’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army. As for governing elites, the ICC has so far failed to bring any to account on its own. In recent months, prosecutor Fatou Bensouda “hibernate[d] investigative activities” against the Sudanese president, Omar Bashir, for atrocities in Darfur and formally dropped charges against the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, after witnesses withdrew or recanted their testimony. Without a strong political mandate -- provided either by a local consensus or dominant external players -- international criminal trials are essentially a non-starter. The hapless Special Tribunal for Lebanon shows that insofar as international courts are toys of the West, they are expensive, slow-moving ones whose masters tire of them rather easily.

Trials, however, are not the only metric for assessing the ICC’s performance. Recognizing its limited powers, the Office of the Prosecutor has instead launched prolonged inquiries – “preliminary examinations” that must precede opening formal investigations -- in a broader set of situations outside Africa, including the conduct of British forces in Iraq and the situation in Afghanistan, which potentially includes the US military. Critics decry the slow pace as foot dragging, but the Prosecutor probably regards keeping these inquests open as a way of prodding powerful states to mitigate their behavior -- threatening them not so much with actual criminal trials (which would never happen), but with the prospect of embarrassment.

The Prosecutor is likely to treat Israel in a similar fashion, to drag out proceedings as a way of showing that the Court is not focused solely on Africa and pressuring Israel to investigate crimes by its own forces. (The previous prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, basically did just that by taking his time to decide whether to investigate the 2008-2009 assault on Gaza.) But once Israel gets over its (racialized) outrage at the prospect of being grouped with African dictatorships rather than regarded as an upstanding member of Western civilization, it may eventually realize that the ICC is no sword of Damocles after all and call the Prosecutor’s bluff. Absent an effective mobilization by the Palestinian national movement and its allies, the Prosecutor will then be stuck with an unenviable choice -- either to let the case languish as yet another victim of the global double standard against weak African states, or to go ahead and issue indictments that will likely go unheeded, antagonizing the United States in the process. Either way, the Court’s credibility will suffer further. Mahmoud ‘Abbas will have reluctantly given over many of his chips to a player holding an empty hand.

 

Mouin Rabbani

Within the past fortnight the Palestinian leadership has undertaken several initiatives that, taken together, could spell the beginning of the end of Palestinian participation in the Oslo framework.

The most important of these is the apparently successful application to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The combination of Israeli, American and perhaps European retaliatory measures will, in the absence of energetic Arab support that is unlikely to materialize, paralyze the ability of the Palestinian Authority to manage indefinite occupation on Israel’s behalf and may lead it to collapse altogether. Alternatively, Israel may either conclude that the PA has outlived its usefulness and engineer its implosion or, in the wake of the upcoming Israeli parliamentary elections, offer the PA some of the powers revoked since 2000 and a new diplomatic initiative in exchange for a moratorium on internationalization.

Under normal circumstances, it would be reasonable to conclude that the Palestinians are finally emerging from the persistent vegetative state that has been the hallmark of the ‘Abbas era and are slowly but surely retaking the initiative.

These, however, are not normal circumstances. The Palestinian national movement no longer exists. What remains of the political system is hopelessly divided, fragmented and either in conflict with or entirely dependent upon its erstwhile allies. Perhaps most importantly, there is no strategy -- not even a bad one -- for reaping the minimum benefits of these initiatives. Under such circumstances, recent Palestinian moves in the international arena are more likely to be used as a battering ram by enemies of Palestinian self-determination than instrumentalized by Palestinians to weaken the stranglehold of occupation.

To be sure, anything that undermines Oslo and continued Palestinian participation in the occupation of Palestine is an absolute and unambiguous good. But in the absence of credible and unified leadership, a coherent national movement, and a dynamic and effective national strategy it is going to pose greater challenges than experienced heretofore.

The means of dealing with this conundrum and overcoming the potentially existential risks lurking around the corner are no different today than yesterday. As an absolute priority, Palestinians must compel their various leaders to commence the long-overdue process of national reconciliation. Absent that, it is difficult to be optimistic, or to take any of what is transpiring seriously.

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Turkey’s AKP and Public Morality

by Evren Savcı | published December 26, 2014 - 7:49pm

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey is known for his strong pro-natalist sentiments. In 2012 his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, by the Turkish acronym) passed a law to constrain women’s choice to give birth by Caesarean section -- “nothing more than a procedure to restrict and square a nation’s population,” says the AKP leader, since a woman who undergoes it usually cannot have another baby. Erdoğan exhorts every Turkish family to have three children, just like he does. Last week he compared birth control to treason. And he repeatedly equates abortion with murder, once going so far as to declare that “every abortion is an Uludere,” a reference to a Turkish airstrike that (mistakenly, the government claims) killed 34 Kurdish villagers. Despite such bombast, and AKP attempts at a ban, abortion is still legal in Turkey up to ten weeks after conception, as it has been since 1983. But the president’s denunciations have resulted in unofficial social controls: Numerous hospitals are reported to have turned away patients seeking abortions, variously claiming the procedure to be illegal or allowable only with spousal consent.

Turkey has now been under one form or another of Erdoğan’s rule for a long decade -- he was prime minister from 2003-2014 before stepping down to become president. Some critics suggest that Erdoğan’s proclamations on gender and sexuality-related issues are mere diversions to shift the public eye away from the AKP’s increasingly authoritarian style of governance, economic liberalization program and corruption scandals, as well as the hunger strikes of imprisoned Kurds and other manifestations of growing dissent in the country. In fact, the AKP government’s pronouncements on public morality (ahlak) are central to a larger project of social engineering. This project, as the abortion example shows, relies not on ordinary politics but on biopolitics -- the process by which people are understood and governed as populations measurable by birth rates, death rates, longevity and so forth, all of which makes regulation of sexuality central to governance.

Erdoğan’s pro-natalist statements draw on a long-standing narrative of aspirations for national growth in the face of those who supposedly seek Turkey’s “erasure from the world stage.” The desire to forestall that dystopian scenario helps to explain the AKP’s gestures at other bans -- on alcohol, cigarettes, tattoos -- in the name of a nation whose citizens (assuming they are not targets of anti-terror campaigns) are to lead healthy, reproductive lives. The government’s rhetoric of ahlak effectively divides the citizenry into respectable and unrespectable subjects. The Family Ministry has even sought to label unmarried people who live on their own as self-absorbed drains on national resources.

The interconnected nature of the AKP’s political, economic and moral projects became visible during the Gezi protests of May-June 2013. These protests started with objections to plans to replace a park in the heart of Istanbul with a shopping mall. But, as the police crackdown intensified, the demonstrations grew, attracting opponents of not only neoliberal restructuring, but also the ethno-sectarian violence and the sexual and moral conservatism of the government. The protesters themselves made the connections between the various forms of AKP authoritarianism.

Erdoğan disparaged the Gezi protesters in moral terms, as a handful of drunken plunderers, and threatened to unleash his “50 percent” voter base upon them in addition to the police. He did so not necessarily because AKP voters want a new shopping mall to be erected at Taksim Square but in order to cast the masses in the streets as dangerous to the moral uprightness that the AKP government believes it represents. Indeed, the AKP government’s biggest success has been to craft moral conservatism as a national quality, allowing the ruling party to position itself as simply expressing what the people want.

Thus the AKP’s gender and sexuality politics is neither a coincidence nor a cloak for other, more important agendas. When the AKP government’s talk turns to abortion, C-sections and co-ed student housing, it is not to distract Turkish citizens from real matters, but it is because these are the very real matters of the nation today.

Turkey needs to build social movements that can counter the AKP’s public morality campaigns. It is a major undertaking, one that cannot be achieved merely by drawing different borders around what is acceptable when it comes to gender and sexuality. Such a redrawing would paint the AKP as extreme and instead propose more “reasonable” moral perimeters that would nonetheless be part of a system of biopolitical control. What is necessary is criticism of the concept of ahlak itself as a social ill. In this regard, Turkish citizens have the LGBT and feminist movements’ slogans questioning the very notion of public morality to look to as models. “If oppression and violence are morality,” one of them goes, “then we have none.”

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Killing the Ambulance Man

by Susanne Dahlgren | published December 17, 2014 - 10:04am

Sad news came on December 15 from Aden, the port on the southern coast of Yemen. The city had awakened to a day of civil disobedience, called to speed up what Adenis and other southerners hope will be their independence from the central government in Sanaa. As the day’s protests gathered steam, government troops shot and killed Khalid al-Junaydi, popularly known by his Facebook name, Khaled Aden.

As on all mornings of civil disobedience, Khalid had come with his car to Crater, the old part of town, where unarmed activists regularly challenge the troops trying to enter the areas taken over by the peaceful revolution. He always brought his car so that he could use it to transport injured demonstrators to a local clinic. There is no functioning ambulance service in Aden. (See my article in the last issue of Middle East Report for more about Khalid’s role in the protests.)

Stopped by masked soldiers, Khalid was dragged out of his car and taken to an unknown location where he was shot point blank in chest. The troops then drove him to a hospital in another part of town, and dumped his bleeding body at the door. He died there. Amnesty International says the “shocking, deliberate killing appears to be an extrajudicial execution prompted by his peaceful activism.” The London-based human rights organization calls for a full investigation, but thus far in the southerners’ struggle the Yemeni authorities have yet to order such an inquiry in a single case where unarmed demonstrators have been shot.

December 15 was a day of general strike. All schools, markets and places of business in the southern governorates were closed. Aden was filled with tear gas as the troops forced their way into the protesters’ midst.

The declaration of general strike was made at a joint meeting of the recently reestablished southern trade union confederation and groups affiliated with the Southern Movement or hirak. Khalid posted the declaration on Facebook only hours before he was killed.

The purposeful killing of the volunteer ambulance driver poses the question of how brutal the government repression will get. The activist youth, for their part, do not believe that violence will vanquish the hirak. In the words of a short poem that another activist posted on Facebook after Khalid’s death: “It is better once to die a martyr than to have a long life as the living dead!”

At the 2012 G-8 meeting and subsequently, President Barack Obama has suggested that a “Yemen model” of peaceful transfer of power can apply in Syria. Is killing unarmed protesters part of this model, or is it that the world simply does not know what is happening in southern Yemen? Time to wake up, in any case.

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