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Between Missiles and Flour: The Inside-Outside Game of Hezbollah in Lebanon

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The Hezbollah is armed. Gunfire of Hezbollah and Amal supporters became audible on Beirut’s streets on early Sunday morning on June 7, 2020 after protesters called for the realization of the UN Resolution 1559 from 2004 which requires the disarmament of all militias. Several people were wounded. Actually, the nation-wide protests which started in October 2019 due to the dramatically grave economic situation in Lebanon carried the unprecedented feature of cross-sectarian support. However, the demonstrations on June 6, 2020 were thought to be dominated by parties opposing to Hezbollah because some protesters mentioned directly the Shiite militia when they called for its disarmament.  This created a division among the demonstrators because the original aim of the protests was to overcome the sectarian system by chanting “All that mean all”, when it comes to their demand that politicians resign. By doing so, they avoided targetting certain sectarian groupings. Hezbollah and the Christian parties allied with them are getting more and more under pressure due to the economic disaster the small multireligious country is experiencing currently. The economic crisis depicts one of the biggest threats to Lebanon’s stability since the end of the civil war in 1990 and jeopardize its stability. The Lebanese pound lost more than the half of its value in exchange to the US Dollar, the unemployment rate climbed up to approximately 35% and about 45% of the population has to live now below the poverty line. The state’s budget deficit raised to more than 150% of the GDP. While the Lebanese currency remains to be in the free fall, the demonstrations against corruption and sectarianism has continued after the violent clashes of June 7, 2020.

The Inside-Game Of Supply And Demand

The pressure in Hezbollah’s game inside Lebanon is rising. Their long-term coalitions which made it possible for the Shiite militia to dominate the Lebanese political system after 2008 and especially after the elections in 2018, start to crumble. The internal pressure grows because of supply shortages of electricity and food. A blame game about responsibilities has started for example in the electricity field. Sometimes the parties even fall back on somewhat bizarre offers in order to meet the expectation within the patronage system of clientelism. Other times, oppositional parties from the Christian bloc, which were part of the current Lebanese political proportional representation as well, held Hezbollah responsible for the miserable economic situation and questioned their actions in Syria. By taking advantage of inner-sectarian struggles in the Druze community, reigniting unity against Israel among Christian or simply by paying better salaries to converted fighters, Hezbollah sought to extend their influence outside the Shia community in the past. After the 2018 elections the Shiite militia was able to gain a dominant role together with its allied parties. Although Hezbollah showed at least some resources during the Corona Crisis, the US sanctions against Iran continue to influence the budget of the Iran-supported militia. Therefore, Hezbollah’s social services like extra food or other additional subsidies for fighters had to be cut, also amid the corona pandemic. Some analysts say that Hezbollah tries to bypass the manifold crisis in Lebanon with their own parallel systems like the quasi-bank-system “Al-Qard”, an electric generator supply, and by opening towards new products like Marijuana. Moreover, Hannin Ghaddar claims that the Shiite groups seeks to get rid of Nabih Berri, the head of the partially competing and simultaneously partnering Shia party  Amal.  Protests took place in Shia dominated cities and parts of Beirut as well.

Lebanon is very dependent on food imports because, despite of the fertile Beqaa valley, the country is not able to meet the demand of its citizens and the Syrian refugees living in tents. Lebanon continued to host the largest number of refugees relative to its national population, where 1 in 6 people was a refugee (figures from 2018. Just refugees under the mandate of UNHCR, the ones under the mandate of UNRWA are not included). However, importing food with a weak domestic currency entails several obstacles, some prices have already doubled and some importers consider stopping the trading of certain imported products if no profit can be extracted from it. Hezbollah tried to step in this gap by expanding its smuggling activities between Syria and Lebanon and by substituting some imports with cheaper and tax-free imports from Iran. But the militia provides petrol and flour to their Syrian allies who are facing serious economic problems because of the sanction resulting from the US Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. New protests broke out even in as-Suwaysa, a city controlled by Assad because of exploding prices for food. Hezbollah’s Nasrallah lashed out at the USA because of the sanctions. Petrol and flour have been subsidized by the Lebanese state. Despite of that, the smuggling activities now are conducted quite more openly than before with truck convoys using the main roads and in daylight. At the verge of the economic precipice the Lebanese state’s economy is approaching the losses caused by the smuggling are immense. Just recently, talks with the IMF about a potential bailout for Lebanon have started. Hezbollah formally supported the start of talks as a member of the central government, but at the same time warned against conditions which would violate the Lebanese sovereignty.

The Outside-Game Of “Resistance”

Lebanon’s sovereignty is the reason for Hezbollah to remain the only militia after the civil war which have not been disarmed. The so-called „Resistance“ against Israel has built the ideological ground for the Shiite terroristic group since its establishment in the 1980s during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. Hence, the main source of the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s preeminent role has to be located in the field of foreign politics. Over the years the preeminent role of Hezbollah’s arms within Lebanon created a military dualism and constant power scrambling between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the militia.

The outside-struggles of Hezbollah are continuous. The so-called “resistance” against Israel experienced a peak last year. Several Israeli airstrikes in Syria and in Beirut and skirmishes at the Israeli-Lebanese border, when Hezbollah blew up an armed vehicle of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), erupted after the IDF unveiled material about a missile production place in the Beqaa valley. The Iranian efforts to equip Hezbollah with precision-guided missiles would pose a major threat to Israel’s air defence system because even if the system would shoot down 99 % of the missiles, the remaining ones would hit a target with a very high probability. This led to a serious situation close to war-like confrontations. Both sides had already climbed up the ladder of verbal escalations. Nasrallah denied the existence of such a programme and accused Israel of being aggressive, whereas Israeli officials warned Nasrallah not to put the whole Lebanon at stake by launching an attack against Israel. Since some of the targets and delivering routes from Iran to Hezbollah went through Syria, Russia had to enter the stage to calm down the heat. Though the situation has cooled down compared to the last summer, still several incidences at the border or airstrikes take place. However, both sides try to avoid casualties and thus a large-scale war. The hostility between Hezbollah and Israel is something more than a border conflict. Nasrallah’s perception of the USA and Israel as mutual agents towards each other shows that “resistance” fight is the founding base for the militia. Two regional coalitions clash with each other in Syria. Will the Israeli intelligence be able to distinct flour from weapons in convoys?

“War on Iran is war on all the axis of resistance. War on the Islamic Republic means the entire region will be set on fire.” – Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah made this deterrent vow. Israel und the USA seek to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria. Turkey wants to secure its own influence area against Assad, and it even might have comparable strategic aims against Hezbollah’s influence like Israel has. The USA, Israel and Turkey are against the Assad regime. However, Russia and Hezbollah support the Assad regime together with Iran. It should not be forgotten that the war in Syria went on despite the corona crisis. Yet, maybe Iran and Hezbollah shifted their strategies in the face of the corona pandemic and its financial consequences for Iran and Lebanon. Assad’s regime made a great step towards regaining its territories in Syria. Nonetheless, Assad’s Syria is still on war with Israel, and the US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty on the Golan Heights have not changed anything about this status and neither did Assad or Israel with negotiations, nor had Assad the resources to engage in escalation with Israel during the war in Syria. Now the two partners in the “axis of resistance” have to figure out the next steps with the Assad regime, while Syria’s economic situation is rapidly deteriorating. Israeli and American sources claimed that Iranian forces have retreated from Syria.

Hassan Nasrallah indeed declared the threat of a “great war” against Israel during the speech on the 20th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, however, he also gave the priority to the still fighting armed groups in Syria. The formal approval of talks with the IMF can be interpreted so as Hezbollah and Iran are missing the financial potential to bring up an alternative for Lebanon’s state finances. In the same announcement on TV Nasrallah addressed domestic problems inside Lebanon like for instance fighting corruption. Nevertheless, it is important to recap Hezbollah’s internal activities in Lebanon based on parallel structures partially competing with the Lebanese state which include smuggling or corruptive clientelism. These networks are challenged by the corona crisis and the devasting economic situation. Would it be surprising if Hezbollah return to its foundational ideology of “resistance” by acting out the resistance outside Lebanon instead of trying to solve structural problems inside the country Hezbollah are part of themselves? The militia’s aim is to preserve the current status quo which secures their legitimacy. It is for this reason that the group has become hostile against the protests.

Conclusion

Inside Lebanon several regional and external actors assert their influence on Lebanese politics. Among them are the two regional rivals: Iran and Saudi-Arabia. Therefore, an almost constant struggle for power balances between sectarian groups marks the Lebanese history – amongst them the two prominent ones: Iranian-supported Hezbollah and Hariri’s alliance backed by Saudi-Arabia. This is nothing new. Hezbollah is playing an inside-outside-game with Lebanon. The Shiite party and terroristic group is gambling on two fields: inside Lebanon within the government and outside Lebanon with fights against Israel and others in the face of the looming risk of war due to a single error. Polls of 2019 show, how the Lebanese people perceive the situation: on the one hand, the vast majority of them consider Israel the greatest threat; on the other hand, the three most important challenges in the eyes of the Lebanese are the economy, corruption and public services, and not foreign interference. The news of 2020 are a stand-off with Israel, an unsure situation in Syria, a devasting economic situation amid the pandemic and huge cross-sectarian protests on the streets of Lebanon. These developments challenge Hezbollah’s internal and external influence currently conducted by means of deterrence, providing services and clientelism. If these means fail, one major strategic asset will remain for Hezbollah against their competitors inside and outside of Lebanon. They are armed.

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Iraq and the ‘Blind Gordian Knot’

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After its occupation by the United States in 2003, Iraq fell into the double trap of the United States and Iran and became an insoluble problem. Similar to the legendary ‘Gordian’ knot, which Gordias, the king of Phrygia, tied so tightly that it was said that no one could untie it; Until ‘Alexander the Great’ came and cut it in half with one stroke of the sword and the knot was opened.

The trap that America set for Iraq was the constitution that it drafted for this country after the occupation. In this constitution, America removed Iraq’s Arab identity and imposed a two-thirds majority to elect the president, paving the way for the use of a ‘suspended one-third’.

At the same time, he set the conditions for amending this article and all the articles of the first chapter of the constitution so difficult that it was practically impossible to amend it. This constitution divided the power between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, as a result of which, the Iraqi society was subject to chaos and fragmentation, and the army that was created based on it collapsed in front of ISIS in Mosul. Now let’s skip the destructive role that Nouri al-Maliki had as the prime minister in this story.

But the trap that the Islamic Republic of Iran set for Iraq was that it formed armed groups affiliated with the Quds Force and gave them legitimacy under the umbrella of ‘The Popular Mobilization Forces, which resulted in the monopoly of power in the hands of the Shiites.

So far, all efforts to free Iraq from this double trap have failed. The popular revolution of 2019 in Baghdad, Karbala, and other southern cities did not reach anywhere with its anti-Iranian slogans, nor did the government of Mustafa al-Kazemi solve the problem with its patriotic government project, nor did the recent efforts of the Sadr movement under the leadership of prominent cleric Moqtada Sadr bear fruit.

The Sadr movement, which won the majority in the elections, tried to form a national majority government in an agreement with the coalition of the Sunni ruling party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the coordination framework was dependent on Iran, using the one-third weapon, defeated the efforts of the Sadr movement.

In Iraq, there is no ‘Alexander the Great’ who will rise up and open the blind Gordian knot with one stroke of the sword and save Iraq from the crisis. No random event occurs. Now, the land between the two rivers is caught in deep-rooted and growing corruption and has lost its way among various Arab, Iranian, Eastern, and Western trends. Even Moqtada’s plan for the formation of a national government, which was put forward recently with the slogan ‘Neither East, nor West”, is also facing many difficulties and obstacles.

Of course, expecting the formation of a democratic system with the management of armed sectarian parties that advance politics based on religious fatwas and the force of destructive war missiles and drones is a futile thing, and talking about a national government in which power is in the hands of religious parties affiliated with the neighboring religious government is gossip and superstition.

Apart from that, according to the current laws of Iraq, the main power is in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers, and the powers of the President are limited and few, as a result, Shiite parties and organizations, especially their larger organizations, get more privileges, and the main power is exclusive to the Shiite community.

In addition, the organization that will be called the largest and the majority based on the political Ijtihad of the Supreme Court of Iraq will actually be the same organization that the Islamic Republic of Iran creates within the Iraqi parliament, not the organization that will receive the most votes in the elections. As we saw in the last parliamentary elections, the Sadr movement won the majority of votes and tried to form a majority government in an agreement with the Sunni ruling coalition and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the groups affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran stood against it under the name of the coordination framework. And they made his efforts fruitless.

It is for this reason that it has been almost a year since the Iraqi parliamentary elections were held, but the parliament has so far been unable to form a government and elect a new president.

Of course, this is the nature of totalitarian systems. Although the Iraqi system is a democratic system according to the constitution, in reality, the ruling system in Iraq is a totalitarian system. Just like the ruling systems in the Soviet Union and China, where power rotates among the leaders of the Communist Party; Both the rulers were members of the Communist Party, and the political opponents were imprisoned or executed. Because in Iraq, all the pillars of political power are in the hands of the Shiites; Both the factions that are actually in power are the Shiites, and the factions that lead political struggles and protests as opponents are Shia parties. Even the revolution of 2019 was actually a revolution of the new generation of Shiites who had risen against the influence of Iran and America and their supporters.

The fact is that with this situation, Iraq will never be able to free itself from the American-Iranian double trap and untie the blind Gordian knot. Rather, it can only do so when all the Iraqi national and patriotic parties and groups come together under the umbrella of a democratic, national, independent, non-sectarian coalition that is not dependent on foreign countries, and form a strong national government that, while being independent, is in touch with the outside world and establish good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Arab countries, and Eastern and Western countries.

The bottom line is, when the minds that have produced destructive thoughts cannot produce liberating thoughts, Iraq needs those thinkers and new political figures who will establish a correct, solid, and independent political system in Iraq. The current situation is rooted in the incorrect political structure, the foundation of which was laid in 2003. But it is a pity that only a clear understanding of the crisis is not enough to solve it.

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The end of political Islam in Iran

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Nothing in Iran will be the same again. The uprising of the majority of big and small cities in Iran after the killing of Mahsa Amini by the “Morality Police” of the Islamic Republic of Iran has a new social structure. Because in the contemporary history of Iran, we have not witnessed such social forces that have been strongly influenced by the women’s movement.

The social structure of the uprising

During the era of Reza Shah Pahlavi, women were allowed to study in law and medical schools, or during the era of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, women were organized to implement the White Revolution ideology as soldiers. This means that at that time, women were “allowed” and “organized”, but all these freedoms were given to women based on men’s power, state power, and non-democratic methods, and the women’s movement did not play an active role in these actions. For this reason, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi said in one of his interviews: Women are schemes and evil, women have not even had first-class scientists throughout history, women may be equal to men before the law but they have not had the same abilities as men. They are not, women have not even produced a Michelangelo, Johann Sebastian Bach, or a good cook. It was not only Mohammad Reza Shah who had a misogynist view, but Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, was against giving women the right to vote and considered the entry of women into the National Assembly, municipality, and administrations as a cause of paralysis in the affairs of the country and government. In a letter to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, he requested the abolition of women’s right to vote.

It can be said that the Iranian revolution (1979) was one of the biggest revolutionary movements that was completely “made“ by a mass social movement in the history of the 20th century, and women played a very active and prominent role in it. But the women in that revolutionary movement not only for themselves and the issues of women’s rights but under the framework of Islamic and communist parties and groups such as the Tudeh Party of Iran, Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and Muslim People’s Republic Party tried to solve the problems of Iranian women. That is, in that mass revolutionary movement, various communist, Islamic and guerilla ideologies were higher, more important, and more preferable than the women themselves, and women tried to find their answers with the help of these revolutionary ideologies to solve the general problems of the country and women’s issues.

But in recent developments, women have not been “allowed” through the reforms of the Pahlavi government, nor have they been “organized” through the ideologies of the revolutionary parties before and after the victory of the Iranian revolution. Rather, in the strict sense of the word, they have become the locomotive of the revolutionary upsurge of contemporary Iran and have given “allowed” and “organization” to other social and ethnic forces in the geography of Iran. From now on, women in Iran are the creators of social and revolutionary changes based on the women’s movement.

Discourse analysis of the uprising

After the June 2009 presidential election and the protest against election fraud, large protests started in other cities, especially in Tehran. In that rebellion, we witnessed the loss of the unity of the elites, the crisis of legitimacy, and the crisis of the efficiency of the Islamic Republic regime. After those protests, the Shiite Islamist ideology of the Islamic Republic faced illegitimacy and the unity of the elites of the ruling class was lost. On the other hand, the government faced a crisis of inefficiency after those incidents and could not meet the crisis economic, cultural, political, and civil liberties, and women’s demands. Therefore, in the demonstrations of 2018, tens of thousands of people rose up against economic policies, high prices, and unemployment, and with the spread of these protests, the ideological foundations and legitimacy of the regime were protested by the demonstrators. With a 50% increase in the price of gasoline in 2019 and a 35% inflation, unemployment and an increase in the price of basic goods and food, a new wave of protests in many cities of Iran faced the government of Hassan Rouhani with a major social and economic crisis. In those protests, women played an active role and chanted against the mandatory hijab.

Contrary to all these widespread protests and social riots in Iran’s contemporary history, in the recent revolutionary uprising, the cause of the uprising is the murder of Mahsa Amini, the defense of women’s rights, and opposition to the mandatory hijab. The overwhelming majority of Iranian women have declared their separation with the slogan of “women, life, freedom” from the movement of reformers, monarchists of the Pahlavi regime, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, fundamentalists of the Islamic Republic, utopias and communist, Islamist, totalitarian, anti-woman, and false ideologies.

It is very important in the recent revolutionary uprising, the cooperation of Turks men and women in the cities of Iran with the protests. Because the Turk social-political movement did not declare solidarity with the protesters of other cities of Iran due to the neglect of the right to education in the mother tongue, the right to self-determination, and the realization of economic, political, cultural, and environmental rights in the uprisings of 2009, 2018 and 2019. The slogan of “freedom, justice, and national government” of the Turks of different cities of Iran, also shows the existence of different and yet common demands of the majority of ethnic groups living in Iran.

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Public opinion surveys challenge the image Arab leaders like to project

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Several recent public opinion surveys send a mixed message to autocratic reformers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which hosts this year’s World Cup in less than two months.

The surveys reveal contradictory attitudes among Arab youth towards religion as well as widespread rejection of notions of a moderate Islam and formal diplomatic ties with Israel.

One survey, published this week by Dubai-based public relations agency ASDA’A BCW, revealed that 41 per cent of 3,400 young Arabs in 17 Arab countries aged 18 to 24 said religion was the most important element of their identity, with nationality, family and/or tribe, Arab heritage, and gender lagging far behind. That is 7 per cent more than those surveyed in the agency’s 2021 poll.

More than half of those surveyed, 56 per cent, said their country’s legal system should be based on the Shariah or Islamic law.

Seventy per cent expressed concern about the loss of traditional values and culture. Sixty-five per cent argued that preserving their religious and cultural identity was more important than creating a globalized society.

Yet, paradoxically, 73 per cent felt that religion plays too big a role in the Middle East, while 77 per cent believed that Arab religious institutions should be reformed.

Autocratic Arab reformers will take heart from the discomfort with the role of religion and skepticism towards religious authority that stroked with earlier surveys by ASDA’A BCW, which has conducted the poll annually for the past 14 years.

Even so, the greater emphasis on religion as the core pillar of identity, concern about traditional values and culture, and the call for Islamic law cast a shadow over social reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and President Mohammed bin Zayed in the UAE.

Moreover, the poll results were published as Qatar debates how to deal with potential conduct by World Cup fans that violates Qatari law and mores, such as public intoxication and expressions of affection, pre-marital sex, and sexual diversity.

Qatar has suggested that World Cup fans caught committing minor offences such as public drunkenness would escape prosecution under plans under development by authorities.

While Saudi Arabia’s rupture with religious ultra-conservatism that long was the kingdom’s hallmark was stunning, reforms in the UAE were the most radical in their break with Islamic law that constitutionally constitutes the principal source of the country’s legislation.

Mr. Bin Salman’s reforms severely restricted the authority of the religious police, lifted the kingdom’s ban on women’s driving, enhanced women’s rights and opportunities, loosened gender segregation, and introduced western-style entertainment – all measures that are essentially not controversial in much of the Muslim world but went against the grain of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative segment of the population and clergy.

That could not be said for Mr. Bin Zayed’s equally far-reaching changes that decriminalized sexual relations out of marriage and alcohol consumption for UAE nationals and foreigners and lifted the prohibition on living together for unmarried couples.

Mr. Bin Zayed’s reforms are expected to persuade some fans to base themselves in the UAE during the World Cup and travel for matches to Qatar, which is socially more restrictive.

Even so, the ASDA’A BCW survey suggests that the reforms in the kingdom and the Emirates may not have been embraced as enthusiastically by a significant segment of the youth as the two countries would like public opinion to believe.

Separate surveys by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed that 59 per cent of those polled in the UAE, 58 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 74 per cent in Egypt, disagreed with the notion that “we should listen to those among us who are trying to interpret Islam in a more moderate, tolerant, and modern way.”

The youth’s quest for religion and traditionalism strokes with youth attitudes toward democracy and diplomatic relations with Israel.

Autocratic leaders will likely be encouraged by the fact that a whopping 82 per cent of those surveyed by ASDA’s BCW said stability was more important than democracy. At the same time, two-thirds believed democracy would never work in the Middle East.

Three quarters saw China, followed by Turkey and Russia as their allies, as opposed to only 63 per cent pointing to the United States and 12 per cent to Israel. Even so, they viewed the US as having the most influence in the Middle East, but a majority favoured US disengagement.

Yet, the United States and Europe continued to constitute preferred destinations among 45 per cent of those polled seeking to emigrate.

However, despite widespread skepticism towards democracy, leaders will also have noted that 60 per cent expressed concern about the increased role of government in their lives.

The establishment two years ago of diplomatic relations with Israel by four countries included in the ASDA’A BCW survey — the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, — and the fact that Saudi Arabia has become more public about its relations with the Jewish state and its desire to establish diplomatic ties once a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found is likely to have shaped responses in the surveys.

Aware of public hesitancy, Saudi Arabia, together with the Arab League and the European Union, this week convened a meeting in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to explore ways of dusting off the 1982 Saudi-inspired Arab peace plan.

The plan offered Israel recognition and diplomatic relations in exchange for creating a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.

For his part, Yair Lapid expressed support for a two-state solution in his address to the assembly. It was the first time Mr. Lapid backed two states since he became prime minister and the first time since 2017 that an Israeli prime minister spoke in favour of Palestinian statehood.

Nevertheless, only 14% of the Egyptians polled in the Washington Institute surveys viewed their country’s 43-year-old peace treaty with Israel and the more recent establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state by the UAE and others as positive.

In contrast to the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, where Israeli business people, tourists, and residents have been welcomed, only 11 per cent of Egyptians surveyed favoured the normalisation of people-to-people relations.

Similarly, 57 per cent of Saudis surveyed by the institute opposed the normalization of the kingdom’s relations with Israel. Still, a higher percentage in the kingdom and the UAE than in Egypt, 42 per cent, agreed that “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so.”

To sum it all up, the message is that autocratic reformers appear to be far ahead of significant segments of their populations even if public attitudes may be contradictory.

For now, keeping the lid on freedom of expression and dissent helps them maintain their grip but casts a shadow and a doubt over the image they work so hard to project.

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