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Outburst of Rage or moral outrage?

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“Failure,” so goes the Chinese proverb, “is not falling down but refusing to get up.” Did the Arab Spring really fail? Ten years after it sprang up in the most inhospitable region for democracy, the jury is still out. History tells us that several “failed” revolutions made far greater impact globally than the successful ones. The Arab Spring ignited great many movements for democracy just as the two   failed revolutions—the 1848 revolution and the 1968 revolution—made even greater impact on the world.

Arab Spring’s “failure” has been fetishised. Political theorist Hannah Arendt famously said, “The point, as Marx saw it, is that dreams never come true.” But some dreams never die. The quest for dignity that the Arab Spring espoused will remain a quest. The Arab Spring didn’t become a global spring but the discontents that it typified are becoming global discontents.

 In 1848 a series of republican revolts against European monarchies took place but all ended in failure and repression. But it was also the year when Marx wrote the Manifesto, perhaps the most influential single piece of political writing. The 1968 revolution too was defeated. No one seized power and yet the world changed. The fire of 1968 may have died down but memory and legacy haven’t. Today, an array of protests across the world by the youth, students, farmers, migrants, women’s groups and climate warriors including ‘collapsologists’(those who abandon  all hope and are learning to die) is rocking the world.

When the 21st century dawned, some geopolitical sages proclaimed that future was already written and that the future had already happened. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, both the hype and hope of the 21st century are fading fast. We are still struggling to  define the contours of the present century. Is it the “age of mediocrity” or are we living in the “age of anger?” Have we ushered in a “post-truth world” or are we going through “modern primitivism?” A lot is still unfolding and there is a lot more that we don’t know than what we do know.

The spirit of the Arab Spring continues to be a potent force. In fact, a plethora of protests and movements of this decade is already overwhelming the world. As they say, every outburst legitimizes the next. Democracy remains alien to the Arab world. And yet, the region has changed. In fact, democracy may be moving in reverse gear across the world but the anger and the spirit of rebellion of the Arab Spring is pervasive.

Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice writes, “How far that little candle throws his beams!  The Arab Spring indeed threw its beams far and wide. It will be unwise to dismiss the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, Podemos and a host of protests globally as a failure. As Henry Kissinger told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1972, “The history of things that didn’t happen” has to be considered before passing a verdict on things that did happen.

The second decade began with widespread protests and closed with even wider upheavals. Even the first decade witnessed strong movements which ousted several governments in Latin America. The Piqueteros Movement in Argentina gave an innovative slogan, “Nadienos representa” (No one represents us). It was perhaps the strongest assertion of citizens’ power.

By all indications, the 21st century appears to be an age of rage. We are witnessing extraordinary wave of protests around the world against widening inequality and rising authoritarianism. It is understandable why citizens are angry. But why are political leaders angrier than the citizens? And not just Trump whom The Nation magazine calls a “Merchant of Anger.” Xi Jinping , Putin, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Modi, Orban and many others are all getting angrier by the day as the citizens refuse to bite Marie Antoinette’s cake. What is worrying is the growing trend of toxic rhetoric shaping politics. Peddlers of lies and conspiracy theorists are having a field day.

How does one explain what Raul Gallegos, political risk adviser to Fortune 250 companies, calls the “global anger pandemic”? Italian political theorist Paolo Gerbaudo says that ‘citizenism’ is the defining belief of the new wave of protests. The world is “angriest it has ever been”, according to a recent Gallup Emotions Report. Christine Lagarde, former managing director of IMF, says that anger is real. She had earlier cautioned that similar conditions preceded many wars. Thanks to the information revolution and the advent of social media, anger has become infectious. The stories and slogans on petitions websites that call for change are enraging people.

Most movements begin as campaigns. And end of campaign is not the end of revolution. Movements need not always be huge. It is not so much their national and global reach but their transformative and organic nature that make them movements. A successful movement rests on the principles of engagement and appeal.

Protest movements may not overpower the governments and regimes but they go a long way in undermining their legitimacy and support base. Not all great movements begin with clearly defined goals.  Whether women’s suffrage movement, India’s freedom movement, civil rights movement, colour revolutions, or the Arab Spring, they all began with powerful banding together against the powerful.

Most protests in recent years have been spontaneous. A notable feature of this outburst of anger is its peaceful nature. Harvard professor Erica Chenoweth describes it “a pronounced shift in the global landscape of dissent”. Though many non-violent protests are aimed at the end of a policy or a regime, a large majority of them have the objective of bringing about transformative change and influencing governmental policies. Non-violent protest movements don’t alienate anyone; they seek to bring everyone on board. They also keep the windows of opportunity open to conversation.

This is the greatest strength of the ongoing farmers’ movement in India. The Indian state has often handled the farmers’ agitation in a myopic way. Farmers were earlier dismissed as ‘kulaks’ but never as ‘Khalistanis’( a separatist religion-based movement) and ‘Naxals’(Maoist rebels). Blinded by its electoral gains, the ruling dispensation has kept pouring venom on agitating farmers even while holding talks with them. As thinker and cultural activist G N Devy says, “the nation did not create Indian farmers; the farmers created the Indian nation.” There is no idea of India without the farming community. Gandhi understood this reality when he gave a clarion call to “go to the villages, that is India, therein lives the soul of India”.

Islamophobes, supremacists  and toxic nationalists are never tired of stigmatizing the designated others—immigrants, minorities, farmers. Both market and governments promised El Dorado but provided only a Disneyesque beacon of light and fake optimism to the masses. The populists of all hues have used the economic crisis and the pandemic to grab power by perpetuating false narratives and taming the media and civil society. The sense of frustration and powerlessness among the poor and marginalized masses explains the unprecedented rage among the people.

Pankaj Mishra in his book, The Age of Anger, talks of a “global civil war” between the elites who enjoy “modernity’s choicest fruits” and the uprooted masses who have been cheated of the same fruits. He cites Nietzsche to illustrate his point that ressentiment thrives ‘where the modern promise of equality collides with massive disparities of power, education, status and property ownership’.

The epidemics of protests in all corners of the world, says political scientist Ivan Krastev, are “not against the government, but against being governed”. Citizens rage is also against the current practice of politics and managed democracy. What social psychologists would call “moral outrage,” the tsunami of protests can be explained in terms of concern for justice and fair play and a reflection of guilt of not doing enough.

 The 21st century democracy is fast becoming a democracy of rejection and a contest of power between the top and the bottom, not so much between the left and right. One thing is clear though that the citizens are no longer impressed by political leaders blessed with flawed judgment and impoverished imagination and that they are determined to take back national institutions. Protest movements for democratic rights, dignity and justice are opening new horizons. Henry A Wallace. the 33rd vice-president of the US, described the 20th century as a “century of the common man” which remained a myth. But the 21st century is turning out to be a “century of empowered citizens”, perhaps a century of “angry citizens.” As Gabriel Garcia Marquez warned us, “expect nothing from the 21st century. It is the 21st century that expects everything from you.”

Ash Narain Roy did his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies , Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He was a Visiting Scholar at El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City for over four years in the 1980s. He later worked as Assistant Editor, Hindustan Times, Delhi. He is author of several books including The Third World in the Age of Globalisation which analyses Latin America's peculiar traits which distinguishes it from Asia and Africa. He is currently Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi

Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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Middle East

First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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