Democrats and dissidents in Syria

A good video here on the recent crackdown on the democratic opposition in Syria. In particular there is the focus on the arrest of teenage blogger Tal al-Mallohi who was sentenced to 5 years in prison this week. Whatever the validity of the alleged spying charges, the timing of the sentencing to coincide with the popular revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia is no accident. The regime may welcome the fall of pro-western governments elsewhere in the region, but this harsh sentence on a young blogger is a clear warning shot to anyone thinking of replicating protests at home and challenging Baathist rule.

It could backfire however. Many bloggers and tweeters both inside and outside Syria seem to be focusing on the al-Mallohi case as a rallying point against the government. Though it is unlikely to spark a rebellion on its own, the harshness of the sentence may just add to the growing disillusionment with Bashar al-Assad’s ability to move Syria away from the oppressive police state established by his father.

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Libya’s golden boy is no black sheep

Here’s a piece i wrote for the Guardian on Saif al-Islam al Gadaffi back in 2008. It is still relevant today given the attrocities currently taking place in Libya…

“He may present himself as the ‘un-Gadafy’, but when the time comes, the colonel’s son will revert to type

Like one of its leader’s flamboyant costumes, Muammar Gadafy’s Libya likes to stand out from its Arab neighbours. While his contemporaries are labelled president, the colonel takes the title “Brotherly leader and guide of the revolution”. Rather than ruling a republic after seizing power in 1969, Gadafy created his own word – the Jamahiriya – to describe the system of councils and committees that veils his dictatorship. Now Tripoli seems to be defying another regional trend – set by Syria and emulated by Egypt – of lining up long-serving rulers’ sons for succession in a hereditary republic. Gadafy’s son, Saif al-Islam, announced this week that he has no intention of becoming leader and is retiring from politicsat the age of 36.

Saif’s denial that he’s being groomed to succeed is not surprising. He and his father have been quick to highlight Gadafy’s unique role as “revolutionary leader”, a position that will neither be inherited nor, according to the colonel, needed once he is gone. More incongruous is Saif’s decision to “retire”, given that he has nothing to officially retire from.

Over the past few years, Gadafy’s son has charmed his way around European capitals, speaking of a deep desire to reform his country – a doctorate from the LSE in one hand, and oil concessions for sale in the other. However, the colonel’s second son has never held a position in the Libyan government, instead creating the Gadafy International Foundation for Charity Associations – an organisation whose public role is as ambiguous and unspecified as that of its founder.

In carefully orchestrated press conferences, Saif has presented himselfas “the un-Gadafy”. He is good-looking, speaks perfect English and has shown a willingness to criticise his father’s regime, though stopping short of attacking Gadafy himself. He has encouraged western investment, while simultaneously rehabilitating Libya’s image in the international community. From embracing the free market and internet democracy to fighting climate change, Saif has been saying almost everything Libya’s critics have wanted to hear, making himself what George Joffe, of Cambridge University, calls “the most likely potential leader”.

Yet, for all his reformist rhetoric, Saif’s only true power emanates from his father, making him at best the friendly moderating face of the established dictatorial order. While he might have had successes persuading his father of the benefits of the market, repairing relations with the west and abandoning WMD, any suggestions of political reform have been met with fierce resistance by the colonel. Gadafy has called upon his allies to “kill enemies” who dared to suggest reforming his Jamahiriya. Consequently Saif, while deriding the “sea of dictatorships” in the Middle East, has simultaneously dismissed any suggestion that his father’s power should be curbed.

Might these limitations explain his withdrawal from politics? Saif’s official explanation was that his messianic mission was done, with Libya now having the systems and institutions it lacked in the pre-Saif era. Yet a few economic improvements aside, the Jamahiriya dictatorship remains steadfastly in place, and reformists such as ex-prime minister Shukri Ghanem have been sidelined, making this statement look either false or delusional. Alternatively, insiders have suggested that Saif has grown frustrated at the slow pace of reform and retired amid a rift with his father.

Yet why bite the hand that feeds? It’s clear that both the colonel and Saif benefit from each other: the son is given limited power to play high-profile reformist, while the father can put a young western face on his decrepit regime. Whatever disagreement has prompted Saif’s retirement it is almost certainly a temporary blip, or even a cleverly planned publicity stunt in his slow ascendancy to power. No doubt he will soon be back in the spotlight. With two local newspapers, both owned by Saif, begging him to reverse his decision, don’t be surprised to see the prodigal son return to the political fold by popular demand in the near future.

Though Gadafy is still only 69, and holds a position that will no doubt be discontinued when he does leave the scene, all signs still point to Saif eventually assuming the role of de facto leader. His retirement and protests to the contrary fool few. Similar noises were made by Bashar al-Asad in the months before his father’s death propelled him to the Syrian presidency in 2000, and you can be sure that Gamal Mubarak will say likewise right up until his appointment as Egypt’s next ruler. For all its desire to appear unique, Libya’s succession is looking awfully familiar.”

Racheed Ghannouchi returns to Tunis

The Majalla recently posted this article on the return of Islamist and leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party Racheed Ghannouchi to Tunis and asked me for my comments, published here. Here is a more extended version of my thoughts:

Gannouchi’s return, and the thousands of people who greeted him at Tunis airport, is significant for the immediate future of Tunisia in numerous ways. Firstly, his very return is a clear indication from the new regime – if we can yet call it such – that things are to be done differently than prior to the Revolution. Gannouchi was condemned in absentia by Ben Ali’s regime to lifetime imprisonment, a sentence that officially has still not been lifted. Allowing him to return unmolested is an indication that the new interim government seeks to satisfy demonstrators’ demands of a break from the political intolerance of the previous regime.

The second observation is that, whilst Gannouchi’s return has sparked joy amongst his supporters, it has also mobilized secularists. Small groups were at Tunis airport to demonstrate against Ennahda, and a march by secular women against Gannouchi was organized on Saturday. Whilst it is still early days in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, these secular versus Islamist battle lines might form the key political divisions in the months to come. Remember that Tunisia’s founding father Habib Bourgiba modeled his state on Attaturk’s secular reforms in post-Ottoman Turkey. Were a more Islamic leaning to gain popular support, it would not be totally surprising for a similar ‘Kemalist’ secular party to emerge in defence of these values.

That said, the final significant point about Gannouchi’s return is his reconciling and moderate tone. He was quick to dismiss comparisons with Ayatollah Khomeini and expressed keenness to emulate the democratic and pluralist AK Party in Turkey rather than autocratic Islamists such as Hamas. Moreover he stated a desire to cooperate with all opposition groups including secularists.  He said his Ennahda party would not field a candidate in any forthcoming presidential election, allowing a consensus figure to be Tunisia’s first elected leader, but would contest seats in parliament. It must be recalled that Gannouchi and his party played little part in the street-led revolution that allowed for his return and he cannot lay much claim to it. His spirit of cooperation and moderation is therefore unsurprising as he is currently in no position to make grand claims about plans for power even if he wished to.