Old Wine in Older Skins

Lebanon Elects Another Parliament

by Heiko Wimmen | published June 3, 2009

On June 8, when all votes are cast and counted between the glitzy urban quarters of Beirut and the dusty hamlets of the Bekaa valley, the Lebanese elections will have produced one certain winner: the local advertising industry. Despite a newly imposed cap on campaign spending, candidates have been falling over each other to plaster the billboards along the roads and highways of this miniscule country with their oversized likenesses and airy slogans.

The Shi‘a of Saudi Arabia at a Crossroads

by Toby Matthiesen | published May 6, 2009

Deep in the morass of YouTube lies a disturbing video clip recorded in late February at the cemetery of al-Baqi‘ and on surrounding streets in Medina, Saudi Arabia. An initial caption promises images of “desecration of graves.” Al-Baqi‘, located next to the mosque of the prophet Muhammad in the second holiest city of Islam, is believed to be the final resting place of four men revered by Shi‘i Muslims as imams or successors to the prophet: Hasan ibn ‘Ali, ‘Ali ibn Husayn, Muhammad ibn ‘Ali and Ja‘afar ibn Muhammad. The prophet’s wives, as well as many of his relatives and close associates, are also said to be buried here, making the ground hallowed for Sunni Muslims as well.

Pakistan’s Troubled “Paradise on Earth”

by Kamran Asdar Ali | published April 29, 2009

Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in areas of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) as the army has launched ground operations and air raids to “eliminate and expel” the Islamist militant groups commonly known as the Tehreek-e Taliban or the Taliban in Pakistan (TIP). The targeted districts border Swat, a well-watered mountain vale described as “paradise on earth” in Pakistani tourist brochures, where the provincial government tried to placate the Taliban by agreeing to implement Islamic law (sharia). The February agreement, the Nizam-e Adal regulation, was approved by the lower house of the Pakistani parliament on April 12 and signed into law soon afterward by the president, Asif Zardari.

The Reawakened Specter of Iraqi Civil War

by Michael Wahid Hanna | published April 17, 2009

April has already been a cruel month in Iraq. A spate of bombings aimed at Shi‘i civilians in Baghdad has raised fears that the grim sectarian logic that led the capital to civil war in 2005-2007 will reassert itself. On April 6, a string of six car bombs killed at least 37 people; the next day, shortly after President Barack Obama landed in Baghdad, another car bomb killed eight; and on the morrow, still another bomb blew up close to the historic Shi‘i shrine in Kadhimiyya just northwest of the capital’s central districts, taking an additional seven civilian lives.

Bouteflika’s Triumph and Algeria’s Tragedy

by Jacob Mundy | published April 10, 2009

Shoes and pants soaked with rain, I tagged along with a journalist from the popular Arabic daily Echorouk—his paper my umbrella—while he visited polling stations in the Belcourt neighborhood of Algiers on the day of local elections in November 2007. At the first site, disgruntled party officials quickly ejected us. We did not have the right papers, they said, and the police who looked on bored were inclined to agree. At the second station, we kept our distance. Watching for half an hour, we could count the voters who entered on two hands. Next to us stood four youths, escaping the rain under a shop awning. They laughed at us when we asked if they were going to vote. Down the road we saw an older gentleman on his way back from voting.

Introducing Algeria’s President-for-Life

by Ahmed Aghrout , Yahia Zoubir | published April 1, 2009

Across nearly the breadth of North Africa, the head of state enjoys a lifetime appointment. Morocco has a king. In Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, president since 1987, pushed for a constitutional amendment removing term limits and has now announced a bid for a fifth term in office. President Husni Mubarak of Egypt, who assumed office in 1981, is already serving his fifth term. Libyan strongman Mu‘ammar Qaddafi, in power since September 1969, has never permitted a meaningful election.

The Hazy Path Forward in Sudan

by Sarah Washburne | published March 24, 2009

On the day after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the wanted man addressed a pre-planned rally of thousands in front of the presidential palace in Khartoum. Bashir was defiant, denouncing the warrant as “neo-colonialism,” and praising his supporters in Martyrs’ Square as “grandsons of the mujahideen,” a reference to the participants in the Mahdiyya uprising against Anglo-Egyptian rule in 1885. The atmosphere was almost one of jubilation; one might have mistaken the crowds for soccer fans celebrating a win.

Bring In the Dead

Martyr Burials and Election Politics in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling | published March 19, 2009

Beating their chests and wearing black, a procession of young men and women filed toward the gates of Tehran’s Amir Kabir Polytechnic University on February 23. The mourners -- drawn primarily from the ranks of the Basij militia and unaffiliated hardline Islamist vigilantes -- were carrying the remains of five unknown soldiers, martyred during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, to campus, where they intended to rebury them. Inside the gates, a gathering of angry students had assembled to protest what they saw as a blatant show of state force, and when the procession crossed onto campus, a confrontation ensued. Students claimed the fight pitted 1,500 protesters against a smaller group of mourners, most of whom were armed with clubs, knives and martial arts weapons.

Assessing Italy's Grande Gesto to Libya

by Claudia Gazzini | published March 16, 2009

Under a tent in Benghazi on August 30, 2008, Silvio Berlusconi bowed symbolically before the son of ‘Umar al-Mukhtar, hero of the Libyan resistance to Italian colonial rule. “It is my duty to express to you, in the name of the Italian people, our regret and apologies for the deep wounds that we have caused you,” said the Italian premier. [1] Eastern Libya was the site of the bulk of the armed resistance to the Italian occupation, which lasted from 1911 to 1943. More than 100,000 Libyans are believed to have died in the counterinsurgency campaign, many in desert prison camps and in southern Italian penal colonies.

The Song Does Not Remain the Same

by Ramin Sadighi , Sohrab Mahdavi | published March 12, 2009

Starting in the late 1990s, and especially following two stories by CNN's chief international correspondent, the British-Iranian Christiane Amanpour, Westerners were treated to a slew of articles and broadcast reports aiming to “lift the veil” on Iran. Amanpour’s second story revolved around “youth and the party scene.” She visited the house of another hyphenated Iranian to show a group reveling in youthful abandon, toasting each other with alcoholic drinks to the tune of playful music, and so consuming two illegal items of consequence in the Islamic Republic. With youth, it seemed, came merriment and rebelliousness.

Wanted: Omar al-Bashir -- and Peace in Sudan

by Khalid Mustafa Medani | published March 5, 2009

For the first time, the international community has indicted a sitting president of a sovereign state. Omar al-Bashir of Sudan stands accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague of “crimes against humanity and war crimes” committed in the course of the Khartoum regime’s brutal suppression of the revolt in the country’s far western province of Darfur. Having indicted two other figures associated with the regime in 2007, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo began building a case against the man at the top, and on March 4, the court issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest.

A Litmus Test for Iraq

by Reidar Visser | published January 30, 2009

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari arrived in Basra on January 24. His mission in the southern oil port was to stump for his Reformist Front, a breakaway faction of the Da‘wa Party of the current premier, Nouri al-Maliki, ahead of Iraq’s January 31 provincial elections. His itinerary included visits to the Five Miles area -- often described as a stronghold of the movement loyal to the young Shi‘i leader Muqtada al-Sadr -- as well as a rally at a sports stadium. Only days earlier, he had been preceded by Maliki himself, and in the first days of 2009 numerous other national politicians trooped to Basra as well.

The Continuity of Obama's Change

by Mouin Rabbani , Chris Toensing | published January 27, 2009

President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge that his administration would begin working for peace in the Middle East from its first day in office is one that he almost met. On January 21, a mere 24 hours after his inauguration, Obama placed phone calls from the Oval Office to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and Jordanian King ‘Abdallah II. The next day, together with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he visited the State Department to announce the appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell as the new special envoy for the Middle East.

Birth Pangs of a New Palestine

by Mouin Rabbani | published January 7, 2009

Shortly after 11:30 am on December 27, 2008, at the height of the midday bustle on the first day of the Gazan week and with multitudes of schoolchildren returning home from the morning shift, close to 90 Israeli warplanes launched over 100 tons of explosives at some 100 targets throughout the 139 square miles of the Gaza Strip. Within minutes, the near simultaneous air raids killed more than 225 and wounded at least 700, more than 200 of them critically. These initial attacks alone produced dozens more dead than any other day in the West Bank and Gaza combined since Israel’s occupation of those lands commenced in June 1967.

Dangerous Liaisons

Pakistan, India and Lashkar-e Taiba

by Graham Usher | published December 31, 2008

The day after Christmas, the wires buzzed with reports that Pakistan was moving 20,000 troops from its western border with Afghanistan to locations near the eastern border with India. The redeployment, said Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Qureshi, came in response to “certain developments” on the Indian side of the boundary, one reportedly being that New Delhi might be considering military strikes on militant bases inside Pakistan. Pakistani security officials stressed that these moves were “minimum defensive measures”: No soldiers had been taken away from the theater of counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, only from “snowbound areas” where the army sits idle.