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Caught in geopolitical crossfire: Al-Azhar struggles to balance politics and tradition

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Pope Francis I visited Egypt in 2017 to stimulate inter-faith dialogue he walked into a religious and geopolitical minefield at the heart of which was Al-Azhar, one of the world’s oldest and foremost seats of Islamic learning. The pope’s visit took on added significance with Al-Azhar standing accused of promoting the kind of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam that potentially creates an environment conducive to breeding extremism.

The pope’s visit came as Al-Azhar, long a preserve of Egyptian government and ultra-conservative Saudi religious influence, had become a battleground for broader regional struggles to harness Islam in support of autocracy.

At the same time, Al-Azhar was struggling to compete with institutions of Islamic learning in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan as well at prestigious Western universities.

The battleground’s lay of the land has changed in recent years with the United Arab Emirates as a new entrant, a sharper Saudi focus on the kind of ultra-conservatism it seeks to promote, and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s efforts since 2015 to impose control and force Al-Azhar to revise its allegedly conservative and antiquated curriculum that critics charge informs extremism.

Ordained by God

Addressing a peace conference at Al-Azhar, the pope urged his audience to “say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.”

In doing so, the pope was shining a spotlight on multiple complex battles for the soul of Islam as well as the survival of autocracy in the Middle East and North Africa. These battles include Saudi efforts to distance ultra-conservatism from its more militant, jihadist offshoots; resistance to reform by ultra-conservatives who no longer are dependent on support of the kingdom; and differences between Saudi Arabia and some of its closest Arab allies, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, in their approaches towards ultra-conservatism and opposition to extremism.

Mr. Al-Sisi, referring to assertions that Al-Azhar’s curriculum creates a potential breeding ground for extremism, charged at the outset of his campaign that “it is impossible that this kind of thinking drive the entire world to become a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction to the extent that we antagonize the whole world. It’s unconceivable that 1.5 billion Muslims will kill the whole 7 billion in the world so that they alone can rule.”

Mr. Al-Sisi, often prone to hyperbole and self-aggrandisement, threatened the university’s scholars in 2015 that he would complain to God if they failed to act on his demand for reform. “Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.,” Mr. Al-Sisi said.

Speaking months later to a German Egyptian community, Mr. Al-Sisi, an observant Muslim who in a 2006 paper argued that democracy cannot be understood without a grasp of the concept of the caliphate, asserted that “God made me a doctor to diagnose the problem, he made me like this so I could see and understand the true state of affairs. It’s a blessing from God.”

Mr. Al-Sisi’s assault on Al-Azhar was sparked by multiple factors: the Islamic State’s extreme violence; pressure by the United Arab Emirates that more recently joined the fray of those seeking to shape Islam in their mould, and the experiences of Egyptian intelligence officers with militants.

Hatred and bloodshed are backed up by curricula…that are approved by Islamic scholars, the ones that wear turbans… When I interrogated the extremists and talked to the Azhari scholars, I reached the conclusion that extremism comes primarily from the ancient books of Islamic jurisprudence which we’ve turned into sacred texts. These texts could have been forgotten long ago had it not been for those wearing the turbans,” said former Egyptian intelligence officer and lawyer Ahmad Abdou Maher, a strident critic of Al-Azhar.

Islam al-Bahiri, another Al-Azhar critic, who was jailed for his views and later pardoned by Mr. Al-Sisi charged that “Al-Azhar is part of the problem, not the solution. It cannot reform itself because if it does reform itself it would lose all authority. Al-Azhar is fighting for its own survival and not for the religion itself… They want you to follow religion as they understand it.”

Ironically, Mr. Al-Sisi has himself to blame for Al-Azhar’s ability to fend off the president’s effort. In attempting to not only tighten state control of Al-Azhar, Mr. Al-Sisi overreached by trying to fundamentally alter its power structure.

Legislation introduced in parliament would have limited the tenure of the grand imam, create a committee that could investigate the imam if he were accused of misconduct, broadened the base that elects the imam, included laymen in the Body of Senior Scholars that supervises Al-Azhar, and added presidential appointees to the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s overreach enabled Al-Azhar, in a rare example of successful opposition to his policies, to mobilize its supporters in and outside of parliament and defeat the legislation. It also allowed Al-Azhar to reject out of hand of Mr. Al-Sisi’s demand that it rewrites the rules governing divorce to make it more difficult for husbands to walk away.

The proposed legislation nonetheless sent a message that was heard loud and clear in Al-Azhar. In response to Mr. Al-Sisi’s assault, the leadership of Al-Azhar has sought to curb anti-pluralistic and intolerant statements by some members the faculty, set up an online monitoring centre to track militant statements on social media, and paid lip service to the need to alter religious discourse. It has, however, stopped short of developing a roadmap for reform of the institution and its curriculum.

Differences of opinion between ultra-conservatives among the Al-Azhar faculty and those more willing to accommodate demands for reform surface regularly.

Soaad Saleh, an Islamic law scholar and former head of Al-Azhar’s fatwa committee, last year publicly criticized a ruling by grand mufti Shawki Allam that exempted Egypt’s national team from fasting during Ramadan in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup.

Ms. Saleh argued that only those travelling for reasons that please God such as earning money to feed the family, study or to spread the word of God were exempted from fasting. Soccer did not fall in that category, the scholar said.

Ms. Saleh earlier asserted that Muslims who conquered non-Muslims were entitled to sex slaves. “If we [Egyptians] fought Israel and won, we have the right to enslave and enjoy sexually the Israeli women that we would capture in the war,” Ms. Saleh said.

Ms. Saleh remains a member of the Al-Azhar faculty. So is Masmooa Abo Taleb, a former dean of men’s Islamic studies who argued several years ago that Al-Azhar had endorsed the principle that Muslims who intentionally miss Friday prayer could be killed.

Combatting extremism

Al-Azhar nevertheless asserts that it has reviewed its curriculum and was working with the education ministry to revise school textbooks. It rejects suggestions that the revisions are primarily cosmetic.

“We have done a number of corrective as well as preventive measures to respond to this urgent call about reforming Islamic religious discourse. We have revisited a number of religious fatwas that were authored in the past; fatwas that unfortunately have given rise to a number of wrong behaviours,” said Ibrahim al-Najm, a senior scholar at Dar al-Iftar, the Al-Azhar unit responsible for legal interpretations.”

Mr. Al Najm pointed to a revision of a fatwa that authorized female genital mutilation as well as Al-Azhar Facebook pages with millions of followers that refute jihadist teaching such as those of the Islamic State. A recent online textbook says in the introduction: “We present this scientific content to our sons and daughters and ask God that he bless them with tolerance and moderate thought … and for them to show the right picture of Islam to people.”

Yet, scholars of the university struggle when confronted with an Al-Azhar secondary school textbook, a 2016 reprint of a book first written hundreds of years ago that employs the same arguments used by jihadists. The book defines jihad exclusively as an armed struggle rather than the struggle to improve oneself and contains a disputed saying of the Prophet according to which God had commanded Mohammed to fight the whole world until all have converted to Islam.

Scholars argued that such texts were part of history lessons that teach Islamic law, including the rules of engagement in war in times past. They assert that students are taught that interpretations of the law in historic texts may have been valid when the books were written but are not applicable to the modern-day world.

They further stress that the concept of jihad an-nafs, the struggle for improvement of oneself, was taught extensively in classes on ethics and morals. Al-Azhar has nonetheless advised faculty that they should not allow students to read old texts without supervision. Panels have been created to review books to ensure that they do not advocate extremist positions.

Al-Azhar’s critics charge that it is plagued by the same literalism and puritanical adherence to historic texts that radicals thrive on and that feeds intolerance and discrimination. Al-Azhar has lent credibility to those charges through various positions that it adopted. Those include, for example, demanding closing down a TV show that advocated the purge of canonical texts that promote violence against and hatred of non-Muslims and the suspension of a professor for promoting atheism by using books authored by liberals.

Al-Azhar’s huge library that provides teaching materials is a target too. It contains volumes of interpretations of the Qur’an and the sayings of the prophet written over the centuries, some of which preach militant attitudes such as a ban on Muslims congratulating Christians on their holidays, a Muslim’s duty to fight infidels, the imposition of the death penalty on those who abandon Islam, and harsh punishments for homosexuals.

The blurring of the lines

Complicating the effort to reform Islam is a dichotomy shared by both Al-Azhar and Mr. Al-Sisi. Both accept the notion of a nation state and see themselves as guardians of Islamic Orthodoxy, witness the crackdowns for example on LGBT, as well as Mr. Al-Sisi’s failure to make good on his promise to counter discrimination of Egypt’s Coptic minority and widespread bigotry among the Muslim majority.

Al-Azhar and Mr. Al-Sisi also both embrace the civilizational concept of the ummah, the community of the faithful that knows no borders. Their efforts to counter extremism are moreover not fundamentally rooted in values that embrace tolerance and pluralism despite the adoption of the lingo but as defenders of Muslim conservatism against extremism and jihadism, trends they deem to be heretical.

In a study written in 2006 at the US War College, Mr. Al-Sisi, a deeply religious man whose wife and daughter are veiled, pushed the notion that democracy in the Middle East needed to be informed by the ‘concept of El Kalafa,’ the earliest period of Islam that was guided by the Prophet Muhammad and the Four Righteous Caliphs who succeeded him. “The Kalafa, involving obedience to a ruler who consults his subjects, needed to be the goal of any government in the Middle East and North Africa,” Mr. Al-Sisi wrote.

Resistance within Al-Azhar to Mr. Al-Sisi’s calls for fundamental reform is nonetheless deeply engrained. It has been boosted by a history of fending off attempts to undermine its independence, a deeply embedded animosity towards government interference and its definition of itself as the protector of Islamic tradition.

It has also been undergirded by decades of Saudi influence that was long abetted by Mr. Al-Sisi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, and Mr. Al-Sisi’s high-handed approach.

The resistance within Al-Azhar to Mr. Al-Sisi’s campaign is further informed by the fact that although still revered, Al-Azhar no longer holds a near monopoly on Islamic learning. Beyond the competition from Saudi, Jordanian and Turkish institutions, Al-Azhar is also challenged by Islamic studies at European and North American institutes such as Leiden University, Oxford University, London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) the University of Chicago and McGill University.

Yet, those institutions too are not immune to producing ultra-conservatives. Take for example, Farhat Naseem Hashmi, a charismatic, 60-year old Pakistani Islamic scholar and cultural entrepreneur who graduated from the University of Glasgow. Ms. Hashmi has become a powerful ultra-conservative force among Pakistan’s upper middle class. Or Malaysian students in the Egypt, UK and elsewhere who were introduced to political Islam by Muslim Brotherhood activists at their universities.

Muhammed Azam of the Kuala Lumpur-based International Institute of Islamic Studies notes that the Malaysian government no longer funds students that want to go to Al-Azhar. “If they go (to Al-Azhar), it is self-funded,” Mr. Azam said. He noted further that Saudi Arabia had stepped in to offer hundreds of scholarships at institutions in the kingdom. “Because of the financial constraints, people to go to whatever country has got sponsorship,” Mr. Azzam said.

At the same time, Mr. Azzam said more Malaysians were heading to Jordan. “There is a shift. Malay parents now send their kids to Jordan to further their studies either in Islamic studies or Sharia or one specific subject matter or banking and finance… They have a different curriculum. They have the Islamic and the secular curriculum and that has given a different result for the graduates who come back,” he said.

A grinding, long drawn out battle

The upshot of all of this is that the struggle for Al-Azhar is likely to be grinding and drawn out rather than swift and decisive. It is a political, geopolitical and religious battle in which Mr. Al-Sisi, backed by his Gulf allies sees religious reform as one key to countering perceived security threats and extremism.

His nemesis, a Sorbonne-educated imam of the Al-Azhar Grand Mosque, Ahmed El- Tayeb, pays lip service to the notion of reform but insists that textual fidelity is a sign of piety, expertise and righteousness, not obscurantism. Reform in Mr. El-Tayeb’s view cannot entail abandoning unambiguous Koranic texts or authentic sayings of the Prophet or hadiths.

Mr. Al-Sisi appears to also have learnt a lesson from his failed effort to bend Al-Azhar to his will. His religious endowments ministry has laid the groundwork for male and female imams to be trained at a newly-inaugurated International Awqaf Academy, which is attached to the presidency, rather than Al-Azhar. The ministry has drafted the curriculum to include not only religious subjects but also politics, psychology and sociology.

Built on an area of 11,000 square meters, the academy boasts a high-tech infrastructure with foreign language and computer labs.  Sheikh Abdul Latif al-Sheikh, the Saudi Islamic affairs minister, attended the inauguration and promised that the Saudi Institute of Imams and Preachers would work closely with the academy. Select Al-Azhar faculty have been invited to teach at the academy. Training courses last six months.

The academy competes with the just opened Al-Azhar International Academy that in contrast to the government’s academy focuses exclusively on religious subjects. The Al-Azhar initiative builds on the institution’s international outreach in recent years that was designed to combat extremism and project Al-Azhar as independent and separate from the Egyptian government.

Parallel to the inauguration of the government academy, Mr. Al-Sisi, in an effort to curtail Al-Azhar’s activity decreed that senior officials including Mr. El-Tayeb would need to seek prior approval from the president or the prime minister before travelling abroad.

As part of his effort to micro-manage every aspect of Egyptian life and frustrated at Al-Azhar’s refusal to bow to his demands, Mr. Al-Sisi, moreover, ignoring Al-Azhar objections, instructed his religious affairs ministry to write standardized sermons for all mosque preachers.

While resisting Mr. Al-Sisi’s attempts to interfere in what Al-Azhar sees as its independence and theological prerogatives, it has been careful not to challenge the state’s authority on non-religious issues. This was evident in Al-Azhar’s acquiescence in the arrest in 2015 of some 100 Uyghurs, many of them students at Al-Azhar, who at China’s request were deported to the People’s Republic.

Convoluted geopolitics

The pope’s interlocutors at Al-Azhar meanwhile tell the story of the institution’s convoluted geopolitics.

They included former Egyptian grand mufti Ali Gomaa, an advocate of a Saudi-propagated depoliticized form of Islam that pledges absolute obedience to the ruler, an opponent of popular sovereignty, and a symbol of the tension involved in adhering to both Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism that serves the interests of the Saudi state, and being loyal to the government of his own country.

A prominent backer of Mr. Al-Sisi’s grab for power, Mr. Gomaa frequently espouses views that reflect traditional Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism rather than the form projected by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In an interview with MBC, a Saudi-owned media conglomerate, Mr. Gomaa asserted in 2015 that women did not have the strength to become heart surgeons, serve in the military, or engage in sports likes soccer, body building, wrestling and weightlifting. A year later, Mr. Gomaa issued a fatwa declaring writer Sherif El-Shobashy an infidel for urging others to respect a woman’s choice on whether or not to wear the veil.

Prince Mohammed has since 2015 significantly enhanced women’s professional and sporting opportunities although he has not specifically spoken about the sectors and disciplines Mr. Gomaa singled out.

Pope Francis’ interlocutors in Cairo also included Mr. El-Tayeb, the imam of the Grand Mosque. A prominent Islamic legal scholar, who opposes ultra-conservatism and rejected a nomination for Saudi Arabia’s prestigious King Faisal International Prize, recalls Mr. El-Tayeb effusively thanking the kingdom during panels in recent years for its numerous donations to Al-Azhar. Al-Azhar scholars, the legal scholar said, compete “frantically” for sabbaticals in the kingdom that could last anywhere from one to 20 years, paid substantially better, and raised a scholar’s status.

“Many of my friends and family praise Abdul Wahab in their writing,” the scholar said referring to Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, the 18th century religious leader whose puritan interpretation of Islam became the basis for the power sharing agreement between the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family and its religious establishment. “They shrug their shoulders when I ask them privately if they are serious… When I asked El-Tayeb why Al-Azhar was not seeing changes and avoidance of dogma, he said: ‘my hands are tied.’

To illustrate Saudi inroads, the scholar recalled being present when several years ago Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, a former grand mufti and predecessor of Mr. El-Tayeb as imam of the Al-Azhar mosque, was interviewed about Saudi funding. “What’s wrong with that?” the scholar recalls Mr. Tantawy as saying. Irritated by the question, he pulled a check for US$100,000 from a drawer and slapped it against his forehead. “Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God), they are our brothers,” the scholar quoted Mr. Tantawy, who was widely seen as a liberal reformer despite misogynist and anti-Semitic remarks attributed to him, as saying.

Separating the wheat from the chafe at Al-Azhar is complicated by the fact that leaders of the institution although wary of Salafi influence have long sought to neutralize ultra-conservatives by appeasing rather than confronting them head on.

The Al-Azhar scholars believed they could find common ground on the grounds that they and the ultra-conservatives each had something the other wanted. Beyond gaining influence in a hollowed institution, ultra-conservatives wanted to benefit from its credibility while Al-Azhar hoped to capture some of the ultra-conservatives’ popularity on Muslim streets. That popularity would help justify Al-Azhar’s long-standing support for Egyptian and Arab autocracy.

Absolute obedience

Saudi Arabia, since the rise of King Salman and his powerful son, Prince Mohammed, has, at least in the greater Middle East including Al-Azhar, largely focused on the promotion of a specific strand of Salafism, Madkhalism.

Led by octogenarian Saudi Salafi leader, Sheikh Rabi Ibn Hadi Umair al-Madkhali, a former dean of the study of the Prophet Mohammed’s deeds and sayings at the Islamic University of Medina, Madkhalists seek to marginalize more political Salafists critical of Saudi Arabia by projecting themselves as preachers of the authentic message in a world of false prophets and moral decay.

They propagate absolute obedience to the ruler and abstention from politics, the reason why toppled Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi tolerated them during his rule and why they constitute a significant segment of both Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) as well as forces under the command of the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli.

Madkhalists often are a divisive force in Muslim communities. They frequently blacklist and seek to isolate or repress those they accuse of deviating from the true faith. Mr. Al-Madkhali and his followers position Saudi Arabi as the ideal place for those who seek a pure Islam that has not been compromised by non-Muslim cultural practices and secularism.

The promotion of Madkhalism falls on fertile ground in Al-Azhar. It was part of what prompted conservative Al-Azhar clerics to call on Egyptians not to join the 2011 mass protests on the grounds that Islam commands Muslims to obey their ruler even if he is unjust because it could lead to civil strife.

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born Qatari-based scholar with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, unsuccessfully sought to counter Al-Azhar’s call by developing an alternative strand of legal thought that he described as fiqh al-thawra or jurisprudence of the revolution.

Mr. Al-Qaradawi argued that protests were legitimate if they sought to achieve a legitimate end such as implementation of Islamic law, the release of wrongly incarcerated prisoners, stopping military trials of civilians or ensuring access to basic goods.

Mr. Al-Qaradawi’s argument failed to gain currency among the Al-Azhar establishment. Moreover, more critical thinking like that of Mr. Al-Qaradawi barely survived, if at all, in private study circles organized by more liberal and activist scholars associated with Al-Azhar because of the risks involved in Mr. Al-Sisi’s tightly controlled Egypt.

A new kid on the block

If Saudi money was a persuasive factor in shaping Al-Azhar’s politics and to some degree its teaching, the kingdom has more recently met its financial match. Ironically, the challenge comes from one its closest allies, the United Arab Emirates, which promotes an equally quietist, statist interpretation of Islam but opposes the kind of ultra-conservatism traditionally embraced by Saudi Arabia. The UAE has scored initial significant successes even if its attempts to persuade Al-Azhar to open a branch in the Emirates have so far gone unheeded.

Mr. Al-Sisi demonstrated his backing of the UAE approach by not only acquiescing in the participation of Messrs. Gomaa and El-Tayeb but also sending his religious affairs advisor, Usama al-Azhari, to attend a UAE and Russian-backed conference in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 2016 that condemned ultra-conservatism as deviant and excluded it from its definition of Sunni Muslim Islam.

The UAE scored a further significant success with the first ever papal visit to the Emirates in February by Francis during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Mr. Al-Tayeb.

The pope, perhaps unwittingly, acknowledged the UAE’s greater influence, when in a public address, he thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Mr. Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration. “Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al-Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist with close ties to key players in Al-Azhar and the UAE.

The UAE’s increasing involvement in Al-Azhar is part of a broader strategy to counter political Islam in general and more specifically Qatari support for it. The Grozny conference was co-organised by the Tabah Foundation, the sponsor of the Senior Scholars Council, a group that aims to recapture Islamic discourse that many non-Salafis assert has been hijacked by Saudi largesse. The Council was also created to counter the Doha-based International Union of Muslim Scholars, headed by Mr. Al-Qaradawi.

There’s a big, wide world out there

Mr. Al-Sisi’s efforts to gain control or establish alternative structures and competing UAE and Saudi moves to influence what Al-Azhar advocates and teaches notwithstanding, it remains difficult to assess what happens in informal study groups. Those groups are often not only dependent on the inclinations of the group leader but also influenced by unease among segments of the student body with what many see as a politicization of the curriculum by a repressive regime and its autocratic backers that are hostile to them.

Islamist and Brotherhood soccer fans, many of whom studied at Al-Azhar, were the backbone of student protests against the Al-Sisi regime in the first 18 months after the 2013 military coup.

Unease among the student body is fuelled by the turning of Al-Azhar and other universities into fortresses and an awareness that students, and particularly ones enrolled in religious studies, are viewed by security forces as suspicious by definition, monitored and regularly stopped for checks.

“The majority of students at Akl Azhar are suspect. They lean towards extremism and are easily drafted into terrorist groups,” said an Egyptian security official. Foreign students wearing identifiable Islamic garb complain about regularly being stopped by police and finding it increasingly difficult to get their student visas extended.

A walk through the maze of alleyways around the Al-Azhar mosque that is home to numerous bookshops suggests that there is a market not only for mainstream texts but also works of more radical thinkers such as Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, the 13th century theologist and jurisconsult, whose thinking informs militants and jihadists and Sheikh Abdel-Hamid Kishk, a graduate of Al-Azhar known for his popular sermons, rejection of music, propagation of polygamy, and tirades against injustice and oppression.

Works of Sayyid Qutb, the influential Muslim Brother, whose writings are widely seen as having fathered modern-day jihadism, are sold under the table despite the government’s banning of the Brotherhood.

Caught in the crossfire

Caught in the crossfire of ambitious geopolitical players, Al-Azhar struggles to chart a course that will guarantee it a measure of independence while retaining its position as the guardian of Islamic tradition.

So far, Al-Azhar has been able to fend off attempts by Mr. Al-Sisi to assert control but has been less successful in curtailing the influence of Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE that increasingly are pursuing separate agendas.

In addition, Al-Azhar is facing stiff competition from a newly established Egyptian government facility for the training of imams as well as institutions of Islamic learning elsewhere in the Muslim world and Islamic studies programs at Western universities.

Al-Azhar’s struggles are complicated by the driving underground of alternative voices as a result of an excessive clampdown in Egypt, unease among segments of the student body and faculty at perceived politicization of the university’s curriculum and the blurring of ideological lines that divide the protagonists.

They are also complicated by inconsistencies in Al-Azhar’s matching of words with deeds. The institution has taken numerous steps to counter extremism and bring its teachings into line with the requirements of a 21st century knowledge-driven society. Too often however, those measures appear to be superficial rather than structural.

The up-shot is that redefining Al-Azhar’s definition of itself and the way it translates that into its teachings and activities is likely to be a long-drawn-out struggle.

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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Middle East

Arab Spring and Third Wave of Democratisation: The case of Egypt

Janakan Muthukumar

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Professor Huntington introduced the concept of the third wave of democratization in five phases. They are the emergence of reformers, acquiring powers, failure of liberalization, backward legitimacy and co-opting opposition. The third wave of democratization further focused through the lenses of modernization, social equality, mass mobilization and elite pact approach. According to Huntington, the third wave of democratization occurs with the emergent of opposition groups and indigenous sources against local power’s enforcement, particularly when there is a military regime, a one-party system, or an autocratic dictatorship. In these contexts, this essay examines Huntington’s five phases in the context of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Further, this essay examines whether what happened in Egypt can be considered as a common structure of the third wave of democratization by comparing the exploration of revolution in Syria.

Reviewing the brief history, the exploration of the Arab Spring kicked off in Tunisia following the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi. The existential crisis resonated with the revolution. Protesters marched with the slogan “The people want the fall of the regime,”to build democratic societies, all the way to Egypt to finally in Syria. In the case of Egypt, the brutal death of Khaled Said by the autocratic government of Hosni Mubarak instigated reformists to rebel against the government.

According to Huntington, the first phase is the emergence of reformers. Reformers demand change from an autocratic, tyrannical regime to a democratic, transparent government. This phase encourages the public to voice for their rights through protests, which will lead toa revolution against the existing government. Revolution instigated on January 25, 2011, in Egypt subsequently evolved to overthrow the government, which was in power since 1952. The autocratic government indicted for the enactment of Emergency Law, which extended the police power, further suspended constitutional rights, including the abolishment of habeas corpus. These acts severely condemned the validity of political subjectivity and the rule of law.

The report from the U.S. State Department in Human Rights pointed out the Ministry of Interior, State Security Investigative Service (SSIS)of Egypt and the police employed torture to extract information. According to the report, police brutality shut down all civilian protection mechanisms, led to massive human rights violations. It deterred the significance of individualism, individual autonomy and social control in the name of absolute state sovereignty.

However, it is worthy to note that the former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan comments, the state sovereignty should be the relationship of an individual to the state regarding being responsible as well as responsive. That means the sovereignty is not about the state interest, but about the interest of the individuals against state actors. Schumpeter notes that the idea of sovereignty is connected with representative governance, determined by the votes of the people by fair elections (Schumpeter, 1970). In the case of Egypt, the protestors claimed that no fair election conducted in the country since 1952. The Guardian addresses that the manipulation of election results swung in every election, while the international election monitoring groups noted the high level of corruption and coercion. Blaydes articulated that “competitive electoral authoritarianism” was in place in Egypt since Mubarak comes to power.

Cook argues the parliamentary election 2010 was the initial provocation for the protest in 2011. The opposition to the Mubarak’s government claimed that the government intervened in the electoral process and restricted the opposition party to participate in the election ,both caused political illegitimacy. The action of the president to dismiss the shadow parliament further instigated the protest, with the demands for fundamental freedom and fair and transparent election. Protesters also assembled in large numbers against the excess amount of unemployment, inequality economic status, political corruption, particularly through the Ministry of Interior, and on the monopolized steel industry.

The second phase of democratization occurs when the reformers acquire power. Huntington argues that this can happen in three formats. The first format is when the autocratic dictator dies, and the successor becomes in control with more democratic indications. For example, in Libya,the Arab spring overturned the dictatorship of Gadhafi in 2011, opened an opportunity for the first parliamentary election and to draft a new democratic constitution to be approved by referendum. The second format is the power acquisition, from dictatorial ruler through a procedural based transition, where the autocratic leader asserts the transition to avoid revolution by reformed oppositions like Portillo’s concession of power to De la Madrid in Mexico. The third format would be the transition caused by the pressure from the reformers to the existing autocratic leader, eventually, cause to resign. In Egypt, the dictatorship government of Mubarak brought up to the end through the occurrence of the third way of acquiring power. Although in the last phase of the revolution, Mubarak transferred his power to the Military Council, ordered to follow his instruction, he was driven to resign in eighteen days due to the protest by the Egyptian people. The protest indicated the strong desire of the public for the change of regime and his decision prevented further insurrection.

Following his abdication, until the new government formed through a democratic election, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces governed Egypt. However, it is worthy to note, that according to Rabau, the role of the Supreme Council was an uncertain one. He noted that, although the people of Egypt accepted the newly drafted constitution in March 2011, there was a legitimate fear among the public of the role of the Supreme Council, whether it might have influenced the democratic election. Further, vagueness towards the role of the military, particularly after the election, brought further challenges in the democratization process in Egypt. That means the transition did not get accomplished the second phase of democratization, ‘acquisition of power by reformist.’

The third phase of democratization, according to Huntington, is the failure of liberalization. That means the existing government would make minor, temporary, superficial reforms towards liberalization to respond to the demand by international and domestic actors against economic stagnation or political autonomy. Saudi Arabia is a good example, where the existing government has conceded to give political rights to women by allowing them to vote in the elections in 2011, which was then seen as a minor reform to avoid uprisings in Saudi Arabia. Note, this approach is entirely different from the ideal theory of liberalization, genuinely anticipated by Gorbachev to save the Soviet Union from economic stagnation through glasnost and perestroika reforms.

In the context of Egypt, Mubarak developed the liberalization through economic and political reforms. In the economy, the establishment of a foreign exchange market lifted formal and informal restrictions on access to foreign exchange. It encouraged the private sector to involve in the economy and decreased the level of customs duties. Further, the introduction of the new Tax Law Act reduced personal and corporate taxes. These reforms increased the economic growth by7 % between the years 2006-2008 and Egypt was honoured as the ‘top reformers’ in the world in 2007.

Despite economic growth, these reforms did not raise the standard of living of ordinary people. The absolute poverty increased from 16.7% to 20% of the entire population. Further, 20% survived with less than $2 per day increased as 44% in 2009.The inflation rate rose to 11.49%, and the unemployment rate was over 20% in 2009. On the other hand, the illiteracy rate was 27% and the rate of underemployment of youth between the ages of 15-24, still at 24.8%.These indicate that the reforms were just superficial and benefited only the high-class people.

Political reforms also did not make any qualitative change in governance or the political system. The First Amendment of Article 76 of the Constitution was enacted to allow multi-candidates for the presidential election. Although the Amendment legally allowed other candidates to participate in the election, in reality, due to the autocratic power, no candidates were free to challenge Mubarak. Banning of Muslim Brotherhood from nominating a presidential candidate and the rejection of Talaat Sadat from participating in the election ultimately resulted in the seventh victory of Mubarak with 88.6%.

Second, the announcement about the removal of party restrictions to increase party independence was considered as another liberalization of reform. Nevertheless, in reality, the Political Parties Committee (PPC) was formed to decide the eligibility of every party to participate in the election and interestingly, the General Secretary of the National Democratic Party head by Mubarak appointed as the head of the PPC.

Third, Mubarak promised in the campaign 2005 to re-elect him, for restricting presidential power, power devolution to the parliament, for the judicial reformation and independency. Sharp mentions, it was seen as a real possibility to change the entire regime among Egyptian people; however, unsurprisingly, Mubarak was persistent in keeping the power himself after the victory. He further jailed his opponent, Ayman Nour. That election in 2005 made many criticisms at home and abroad. Larry Diamond points out that “Arab autocrats adopt the language of political reform to avoid reality.”Addressing the third phase, in reality, none of the reforms made by Mubarak attempted for real democracy in Egypt. Nevertheless, unexpectedly, they motivated the opposition to demand liberal improvement with greater desperation, ultimately reasoned for the ‘uprising’ of Egyptians.

The backward legitimacy and co-opting opposition worktogether in the third wave of democratization. The reformers invoke when they texture difficulty on rebel against the existing leadership. They then attempt to damage the legitimacy of the autocratic leader by co-opting their opposition by working together against the dictatorship. The collaboration could be taken place among political leaders, social groups, civil societies or military who wanted to reform the democratic government.

The demonstration was the initial stage to damage the legitimacy of Mubarak’s administration, conducted by the reformist. It questioned the validity of the existing government domestically but also rooted for severe policy changes and distinct perceptions against Mubarak’s administration internationally. President Barak Obama addressed on February 1, 2011, that “relinquishing power was the right decision, but the transition to a new government must begin now” clearly indicated the policy deviation since the protest had begun.

Protestors sought support from International Organisations as well as the Western States, including NATO alliances. Hillary Clinton, in her book, Hard Choices mentioned that she was consistently more cautious on taking the side of protestors based on their promise for an uncertain future over the autocratic in Egypt, but “swept away by idealism and approached swiftly to usher the regime of Mubarak.”The reformers then associated with the Egyptian military to takeover Mubarak’s regime by pointing out that the Mubarak cannot provide good governance for the country. This initiative ultimately offered no choice in Mubarak’s hand, forced him to resign after eighteen days of protest.

The above- analysis shows how Huntington’s five phases of democratization were put forward with the understanding of what has happened in the Arab Spring. However, the question arises that are these phases typical in every revolution, particularly in other Arab Springs. To examine this section of the essay compares the revolution in Egypt with the uprising in Syria. The purpose of this comparison is to understand common structures and virtual differences, which may lead to the conception of pseudo- democratization.

Mubarak received support from domestic and international actors throughout his regime until the reformist started to protest for the liberalization of reform. He maintained excellent economic and political relationships with regional powers and others, including Israel and the United States of America. Tony Karon comments, along with the falls of Mubarak, “a central pillar of U.S. regional strategy has become an untenable ruler.” However, after the revolution, those states were pushed to turn against Mubarak, particularly after they understood the fall of the Mubarak regime is inevitable. Although the marginal group supported the government of Mubarak to protect their prime economic, social and political positions, the religious groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, supported the revolution. It found lately that the support of the Muslim Brotherhood was not to build a democratic Egypt, but for a Sharia Egypt.

On the other hand, although the military helped the revolution, their view was to build a powerful Egypt through the powerful army – not to transfer the power to the civil government. This complexity in priority created an unbalanced situation in Egypt for the democratic transition. Further, the external actors who played a critical role in the revolution, including the United States and European Union adopted, “wait and see” approach, headed an unlikely situation for an emergent of democracy in Egypt in the near future.

Considering the situation in Syria, Assad gained support from the same kind of groups who supported Mubarak. However, the situation varied in Syria since the military throughout the process of uprising supported the Assad regime like the military supported the government of Gadhafi in Libya. Further, the reformers in Syria were not the majorities as in Egyptian insurgency; they are middle class, oppressed Kurds. Professor Humphrey articulates the war in Syria is a “proxy war” in the default position. He addressed the proxy war undermined the diplomatic approaches, and the events turned from humanitarianism towards international security when Syria used chemical weapons.

On the other hand, although international democratic actors called Assad for resignation, they could not intervene or support the reformers directly as they have occurred in Libya due to the failure of the United Nations Security Council resolution and diplomacy. Hence, the only options that were available for the international community were to bring up international economic and travel sanctions against Syria. Assad’s step down would have been possible only if the military supported the reformers. However, even if Assad would have stepped down, such an event exclusively would not have provided a solid ground to the rising of democracy if the transition period could have been long enough to open for new conflicts as in Egypt. Such events would have led Syria to get in another civil war, rather than turning into democracy.

It brings to the conclusion that although the reformers fight against autocratic governments such as in Egypt, for sustainable democratic governance, finding the root for the anti-democratic system in the past, the expansion and the institutional transformation in political and economic arenas are significant. The individual freedom, transparent election, competitive political parties and vigorous civil societies are the backbones to democratization, thus for a democratic society, ensuring such fundamentals are significant. Huntington’s five phases of democracy might be the start-up to think and evaluate the third wave of democratization in countries like Egypt and Syria. However, that cannot be the only tool to evaluate every democratization that occurred since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

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A microcosm of Iran’s domestic problems, port city bears brunt of crackdown

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The Iranian port city of Bandar-e-Mahshahr has emerged as the scene of some of the worst violence in Iran’s brutal crackdown on recent anti-government protests.

Located in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, home to the country’s restive ethnic Arab minority, the protests in Bandar-e-Mahshahr strengthened Iran in its belief that the anti-government outburst was yet another effort to destabilize the Islamic republic by the United States, Saudi Arabia and/or Israel.

Iranian state television reported that security forces had confronted a separatist group in the city that was armed with “semi-heavy” weapons. It claimed the armed rioters had fought with security personnel for hours.

Iranian exiles in contact with family and friends in Bandar-e-Mahshahr said protesters blocked off a road leading from the city, that is home to Iran’s largest petrochemical complex, to the village of Koora.

In contrast to past protests in the province, the protesters chanted slogans against Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani rather than Arab nationalist phrases.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ 3rd Marine Force Division, based on the outskirts of the city, intervened with armoured vehicles after police failed to disperse the protesters. The exiles said the Guards opened fire on protesters trying to escape into nearby marshlands.

An unconfirmed video purportedly documenting the killing of up to 100 people shows armoured vehicles driving down a road as multiple rounds are fired and men are heard shouting. “They simply mowed them down,” said one of the exiles who studied in Bandar-e-Mahshahr and has relatives in the city.

In many ways, the protests in Bandar-e-Mahshahr and multiple other Iranian cities fit a global pattern; a specific issue sparks anti-government demonstrations that quickly evolve into a mass movement demanding a complete overhaul of a political system that has failed to cater to the aspirations of major segments of the population.

In Hong Kong the spark was a law that would enable extraditions to mainland China, in Santiago de Chile it was public transportation price hikes and in Iran it was a surprise increase of petrol prices.

Struggling under the yoke of harsh US economic sanctions imposed after the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal in 2018 from the international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian leaders failed to recognize that long-standing mismanagement of the economy and widespread corruption was undermining their legitimacy.

The notion of a US-Saudi-Israeli conspiracy to stoke unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities in a bid to destabilize the regime was reinforced by statements in recent years by American, Saudi and Israeli officials and a series of violent incidents in Khuzestan as well as the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan and Kurdish regions of Iran.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s insistence that the Iranian protests constituted a ‘dangerous conspiracy’ by the United States was hardly surprising.

The protests erupted after weeks in which demonstrators in Iraq denounced Iranian influence in their country and attacked the Islamic republic’s consulates in Basra and Najaf. Similarly, Lebanon, home to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, has been paralyzed for the past two months by anti-sectarian protesters.

The conviction that Iran’s enemies were tightening the noose around its neck may well have some grounding in reality even if the Islamic republic’s most recent regional setbacks as well as the outburst of deep-seated anger at home cannot be reduced to foreign conspiracies.

The brutality with which the regime cracked down on protesters as well as its drastic decision to shut down the Internet for four days suggests that Iran has little faith in indications that Saudi Arabia is groping for ways to dial down tension with its arch-rival or Omani efforts to mediate.

It also explains why the squashing of the protests in Bandar-e-Mahshahr may have been particularly harsh.

The Ahvaz National Resistance, an Iranian Arab separatist group, claimed responsibility in September 2018 for an attack on a Revolutionary Guards parade in the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz in which 29 people were killed and 70 others wounded.

Unidentified gunmen in the Netherlands killed Ahmad Mola Nissi, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), in November 2017.

Shot dead on a street in The Hague, Mr. Mola Nissi died the violent life he was alleged to have lived.

A 52-year-old refugee living in the Netherlands since 2005, Mr. Mola Nissi was believed to have been responsible for attacks in Khuzestan in 2005, 2006 and 2013 on oil facilities, the office of the Khuzestan governor, other government offices, and banks.

Mr. Mola Nissi focussed in his most recent years on media activities and fund raising, at times creating footage of alleged attacks involving gas cylinder explosions to attract Saudi funding, according to Iranian activists.

Mr. Mola Nissi was killed as he was preparing to establish a television station backed by Saudi-trained personnel and funding that would target Khuzestan.

Protests in Khuzestan have focussed in recent years on identity, environmental degradation, and social issues.

International human rights groups have long accused Iran of discriminating against Iranian Arabs even though a majority are Shiite rather than Sunni Muslims. Dozens of protesters were reportedly killed during demonstrations in Ahwaz in 2011 that were inspired by the popular Arab revolts.

“Despite Khuzestan’s natural resource wealth, its ethnic Arab population, which is believed to constitute a majority in the province, has long complained about the lack of socio-economic development in the region. They also allege that the Iranian government has engaged in systematic discrimination against them, particularly in the areas of employment, housing, and civil and political rights,” Human Rights Watch said at the time.

That was in 2011. Like in the rest of Iran, things have only gotten worse in Khuzestan since

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Foreign policy background of the Iranian crisis

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Despite all the complexity and ambiguity of the situation now exiting in the world, the summer and fall of 2019 saw a certain degree of success, achieved by Iran’s Middle East policy both in the region and inside the country itself.

Tehran’s foreign policy achievements have also helped strengthen the “Shiite belt” spanning Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Tehran’s influence remains very strong. However, the events of the past few weeks have shown that this belt is starting to “snap.”

Iraqis have for more than a month been holding rallies against the authorities, accusing the government of corruption and demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Many are chanting anti-Iranian slogans, because they believe that the government is getting a great deal of support from Tehran. In Karbala, considered a holy city for Shi’ite Muslims, protesters set ablaze the Iranian consulate, crying “Iran, go away!” in a violent flare-up that left more than 300 people dead.  The Iraqis blamed the killings down on members of the pro-Iranian militia.

The picture in neighboring Lebanon is much the same with the Lebanese actively protesting not only against corruption and low living standards, but also against the Iranian influence in the country, namely the Hezbollah, an Iranian creation, which plays an important role in Lebanon. According to observers, it is against this backdrop of anti-Iranian sentiment that Hezbollah has gradually been losing control of the situation there.

In Syria – this main link of the Shiite arc – the situation is equally alarming for Tehran, but this is a separate story that deserves a separate analysis.

What makes the situation so noteworthy though is that Iran is in various degrees influencing the domestic political situation in all these three Arab countries, with Iraq, Lebanon, and especially Syria each being an Iranian enclave in the Arab world.

However, it is precisely in these countries that initial “shocks” – the harbingers of serious upheavals for Iranian politics in this region – are being felt now. Moreover, these shocks dangerously resonate with the political situation in Iran proper, which has seen a recent wave of mass protests flaring up on November 15, 2019, sparked by an increase in gasoline prices.

Historical analogies

Over the 40 years of its existence, the Islamic Republic of Iran has seen a number of social disturbances, but they were usually of a local nature, caused by local problems and limited to rallies and strikes at individual enterprises. However, in the last decade, waves of mass discontent, already on a national scope, have risen repeatedly.

The first nationwide anti-government protests in post-revolutionary Iran happened in 2009, caused by alleged voting fraud and irregularities in presidential elections that resulted in a surprise win for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those protests are known as the Green Revolution.

The protests took place in several major Iranian cities, with middle-aged people, representatives of the intellectual elite and political opposition predominantly taking to the streets. At the height of the tensions, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the streets and squares of the relatively liberal Tehran, where the protests originated. The sole demand was to cancel the results of the 2009 presidential election, won by Ahmadinejad.  Presidential hopefuls Mehdi Karrubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi formally spearheaded the protests which, heated as they were, still remained within the framework of the political system of the Islamic Republic.

A distinctive feature of those protests was that Iranians used social networks not only to coordinate their actions, but also to let the rest of the world know what was going on in their country.

The second powerful wave of protests rocked Iran in late 2017 – early 2018, this time caused by a spike in food prices. The protests flared up in one of Iran’s most conservative cities – Mashhad – and almost simultaneously in more than 50 cities and numerous villages (where people traditionally support the government), and were much bigger in scope than the previous ones. Most of the protesters were young people with the rallies attended by representatives of various social and political backgrounds. What started as a purely economic protest, quickly acquired a political nature directed against the country’s leadership. The fundamental difference that set the second wave of protests apart from the previous one is that the protesters demanded a reform of the country political system and even the elimination of the principles of the Islamic Republic. The Iranian protest was rather chaotic too. as there were no single leaders and common demands being made to the powers-that-be. Another important feature of those events was that at a certain stage all Internet access was blocked. While in 2009 there were around 1 million Internet users in Iran, in 2017-2018 their number had jumped to 48 million, and this is in a country of 82 million people! The list of those detained during those protests included the country’s ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Events of November 2019

On November 15, 2019, Iran encountered a third wave of civil protests after the government of Hassan Rouhani announced that it was raising gasoline prices by as much as 200 percent.

Protests against this decision engulfed the entire nation, flaring up in Tehran and then spreading to about 100 towns and villages elsewhere in the country, involving more than 100,000 people. Maybe not much for a country of 82 million, as previous protests were much bigger in scope, but certainly more radical. In a number of places, more than 100 bank offices, including those of the Central Bank, were set on fire, and 900 branches and 3,000 ATMs were damaged.

The protesting crowds attacked police officers, gas stations and public offices, with economic slogans quickly making way for demands for a new government.

The protesters also want Tehran to stop sponsoring Islamic movements abroad because they believe that it is exactly where the money from the gasoline price hikes will go, instead of helping the poor. “Not Gaza and not Lebanon – I sacrifice my life for Iran,” protesters chanted. Another demand is to change the country’s foreign policy, which, according to the protesters, is turning Iran into a rogue country, suffering under heavy economic sanctions.

Iran’s leaders put the blame for the social unrest on a mix of enemies, including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as groups like the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, the Kurdistan Free Life Party, the Islamic State (banned in Russia), and now also the clan of the ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and, above all, his son – heir to the throne Reza Cyrus Pahlavi.

I believe that although the countries opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran, did of course provide moral and media support for the civil protest against the existing regime, they could still hardly be able to organize such anti-government rallies inside the country. As for Reza Cyrus Pahlavi, living in the United States, he often makes political forecasts and comments, but always avoids political activity. He has no ambitions to restore the monarchy, saying only that he would like to see Iran without theocracy. The current protests in Iran apparently stem from domestic, primarily social and economic, problems.

Economic background of the crisis

On November 15, the Iranian government announced an increase in retail gasoline prices. While motorists were previously allowed to buy 250 liters of fuel per month at a price of 10,000 rials (19.14 rubles), now they have to pay 15,000 rials (28.71 rubles) with the fuel quota reduced to 60 liters (up to 400 liters for taxi drivers). Iranians are now supposed to pay 30,000 rials (57.42 rubles) for every additional liter in excess of the quota at a price of 30 thousand rials (57.42 rubles). This is exactly what triggered much of the mass-scale protests.

Here are the three main points that need to be highlighted and emphasized:

First, Iran’s economy is in a very bad state now. And not only because of the US sanctions. According to Gholamhossein Shafei, President of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines & Agriculture (ICCIMA), the Iranian economy suffers from two key problems: corruption and stagnation …  Economists describe stagnation as a derivative of an ineffective  management, lack of financial discipline, and exhaustion of the existing model as a whole. According to some experts, this could eventually ruin the country’s entire political system.

Second, the aggressive financial and economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by the United States have cost the country tens of billions of dollars and contributed to its economic woes.

According to the IMF, as a result of a combination of multiple factors, Iran’s GDP this year is projected to decrease by 9.5 percent – the worst indicator since 1984. Annual inflation will exceed 35 percent (according to other sources, it could climb to 52 percent). Food prices are up almost 60 percent, and price increases for many non-food products exceed 80 percent.

Since January, the national currency, the rial, has lost 70 percent of its value against the US dollar. People and businesses have turned to the black market for currency and, as a result, the rial’s exchange rate finally detached from the official one. When the rial’s fixed exchange rate was introduced in April 2018, one US dollar bought about 60,000 rials. By July, the unofficial rate had jumped to 112,000 thousand rials, and by early September – to 145,000 rials. A year later, the “street” rate rebounded a bit to about 115,000 rials for one US dollar, but the gap with the official exchange rate, frozen at 42,000 rials per dollar, remains huge nonetheless.

Overall, the damage inflicted on the Iranian economy by the new US sanctions and the sixth-month devaluation-inflation spiral was officially estimated at 4.9 percent of the country’s GDP.

Meanwhile, employers are massively switching to short-term contracts, which adds to the sense of anxiety among the people.

According to the Statistical Center of Iran, a government agency controlled by the country’s president, the official unemployment rate in 2018 reached 27 percent among young Iranians, and 40 percent among university graduates.

Third, under the circumstances, the government had no other choice than to jack up fuel prices, because even though the IMF hadn’t discussed such a raise with the Iranian authorities, it had still advised Tehran to cut fuel subsidies, which means raising fuel prices. According to the Iranian government, fuel subsidies cost the state $2.5 billion a year and are an incentive for smuggling.

Indeed, the price of gasoline in Iran was one of the lowest around (about $0.3 or 19 rubles). And this provided fertile ground for large-scale smuggling of gasoline to Afghanistan (where it costs $0.65 or 41.5 rubles) and, to a greater extent, to Turkey (where the price of gasoline is $1.2, or 77 rubles.)

So, according to a report by the Iranian parliament’s research center, as a result of the economic downturn, caused by multiple reasons, objective and subjective, as well as external and internal, the living standards of the Iranian people keep falling.

Amid last month’s social unrest, on November 18, the Iranian government, in an effort to reduce tensions, announced additional payments to the poorest segments of the population, hit the hardest by the rising gasoline prices. They were promised up to 2 million riyals in the first week, followed by subsidies to be provided on a monthly basis. By the end of the first week of protests, the government had managed to somewhat dampen the tensions and restore a semblance of normalcy.

Conclusions

While analyzing the current situation in Iran, we should single out the following points:

Iran has over the past three years going through an internal systemic economic and political crisis, as the pace of development of the model of managing economic and social processes is falling behind the requirements of our time.

The past two years have seen a notable rise in social tensions, caused by the people’s general unhappiness about their socio-economic situation, the government’s foreign and domestic policy and certain fatigue from the framework of Islamic demands.

The mass protests of November 15-22 were not so much the result of ramped up gasoline prices, but rather of a consistent rise in the degree of general popular discontent. The gasoline price hike was merely a spark, which ignited the flames of protest.

The protests happened without concrete leaders steering them as both Internet and mobile phone communications were blocked by the authorities. Therefore, the protest actions were spontaneous and apparently not coordinated by external forces.

The protests did not and could not lead to a breakdown of the country’s Islamic statehood because, for all the flaws in the existing model of governance, the ruling elite and the specific state structure it has established still enjoy a margin of strength due to the balance of checks and balances.

The protests further undermined the positions of President Hassan Rouhani and his team. Trying to make the most of the situation, the radical conservative opposition accuses the president of inability to bring the situation and the whole country under control. Simultaneously, supporters of liberal reforms blame the president for being unable to create conditions for implementing these reforms, which would result in a lifting of international sanctions imposed on the country.

The events of the fall of 2019 will factor in very heavily in the outcome of the 2020 parliamentary elections as well as the presidential elections in 2021. Because it is unlikely that supporters of the liberal (by IRI standards) Hassan Rouhani will gain legislative and executive power, this will result in a toughening of Iran’s policy across the board, which in turn would complicate the country’s external and domestic situation and possibly exacerbate internal contradictions.

The protests of November 2019 demonstrated once again that the crisis-hit Islamic Republic of Iran needs radical reforms in almost every sphere of life.

From our partner International Affairs

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