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Transition in the Middle East: Transition to what?

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Transition is the name of the game in the Middle East and North Africa. The question is transition to what?

Dominating the answer is an Arab autocratic push for a Saudi-led regional order that would be based on an upgraded 21st century version of autocracy designed to fortify absolute rule. To achieve that autocrats have embraced economic reform accompanied by necessary social change that would allow them to efficiently deliver public goods and services. It is an approach that rejects recognition of basic freedoms and political rights and is likely to produce more open and inclusive political systems that ensure that all segments of society have a stake.

At the core of the volatile and often brutal and bloody battle that could take up to a quarter of a century to play out is the determination of Arab autocrats to guarantee their survival at whatever cost. Geopolitics play a major role in Arabic autocratic ambition. To compensate for their inherent weakness and lack of the building blocks needed for sustainable regional dominance, Arab autocrats except for Egypt, the one Arab state with the potential of being a dominant, long-term regional player, need to contain first and foremost Iran, and to a lesser degree Turkey.

It is a geopolitical struggle, dominated by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that has enveloped the Middle East and North Africa for almost four decades and progressively undermined regional stability; fuelled the rise of extremism and jihadism; encouraged supremacist, intolerant and anti-pluralistic tendencies far beyond its borders in countries like Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia; and turned it into the most volatile, repressive, and bloody part of the world.

Littered with the bodies of the dead and the dying, countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen have been scarred for generations to come and are struggling to ensure territorial integrity against potential secessionist ethnic, regional and religious challenges. Possible US-backed Saudi efforts to destabilize Iran with attempts to stir ethnic unrest risk the Islamic republic and Pakistan becoming the next victims. Countries such as Lebanon teeter on the brink.

Restive populations meanwhile hang in the balance, hoping that their continued surrender of political rights in new social contracts unilaterally drafted by autocratic leaders will bring them greater economic opportunity. In some countries like Egypt expectations have been dashed, in others such as Saudi Arabia expectations are unrealistic and poorly, if at all, managed.

The successful and brutal Saudi and UAE-led counterrevolution has killed hopes and popular energy that exploded onto the streets of the Arab cities during the revolts of 2011 and produced tyrants and mayhem. For now, it has all but erased popular will to risk challenging autocratic rule that has failed to deliver or that has created expectations that may prove difficult to meet.

That is not to say that like in the period prior to the 2011 revolts, popular anger and frustration is not simmering. Like in the walk-up to the uprisings, popular sentiment remains ignored or unrecognized by officials, scholars and pundits, who, if it explodes are likely to be caught by surprise. No one knows whether it will explode and, if so, in what form and what might spark an explosion.

It was the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Tunisia in late 2010 that set the Middle East and North Africa alight. While history may not repeat itself literally, events six years later in the Rif, a rebellious region of northern Morocco, sparked by the death of Mouchine Frikri, an unemployed street merchant, suggest the writing may be on the wall. 

Mr. Fikri was crushed to death in a trash compactor while trying to retrieve fish confiscated by the authorities. A year of protests since Mr. Fikri’s death suggests that the effectiveness of King Mohammed VI’s constitutional reforms in an initially successful bid to co-opt the demonstrators as well his support for the Rif’s indigenous Berber culture and promises of state investment that would turn the region into a manufacturing hub have either run their course or fallen short.

Nasser Zefzafi, a 39-year-old unemployed man with an understanding of the power of social media, has despite the government’s use of security forces, succeeded with online videos and fiery speeches denouncing corruption and dictatorship, to not only keep the protests alive but also encourage their intermittent spread to other parts of the country. The Moroccan capital of Rabat witnessed in June its largest anti-government protest since the 2011 revolts.

“Regimes have closed off channels for political expression, and responded to popular protests with increasing brutality. The governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and, to some extent, Morocco, epitomize Arab regimes’ seeming inability to escape the autocracy trap – even as current circumstances suggest that another popular awakening is imminent,” said Moroccan-born former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

Mr. Ben-Ami’s timeline may be optimistic, but the underlying message remains valid. Regime survival-driven, government-controlled economic reform that seeks to ensure that private enterprise remains dependent on the public sector, limited social reforms, exclusionary rather than inclusionary policies, and rejection of political change may buy time, but ultimately will not do the trick.

Autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa are, for now, riding high buffeted by the ability to divert public attention with promises of economic change, the spectre of Iran as a foreign threat, US support for regional autocrats and containment of Iran, and the fuelling of ethnic and sectarian tension.

At best, that buys Arab autocrats time. The risk is festering and new wounds that are likely to come to haunt them. Four decades of global Saudi propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservativism to counter what initially was Iranian revolutionary zeal but later transformed into Iranian strategy in a long-standing covert war has turned Arab Shiites and their militias into potent political and military forces. The spectre of the Houthis organizing themselves on the border of Saudi Arabia on the model of Lebanon’s Hezbollah is but the latest example.

Autocratic self-preservation and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, coupled with disastrous US policies, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, have wracked countries across the region and fostered a generation of Syrians and Yemenis that is likely to be consumed by anger and frustration with their human suffering and what is likely to be a slow rebuilding of their shattered countries, whose existence in their current form and borders is at best uncertain.

In short, transition, in the Middle East and North Africa has deteriorated into a battle for retention of political control. It constitutes a struggle for the future of a region that with near certainty will produce more conflict as well as black swans that could create even more havoc long before it yields sustainable solutions that ensure equitable economic development and transparent and accountable rule of law.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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