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Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’

photo credit: tunisienumerique.com

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On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.

Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.

As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.

The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year,  to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.

In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.

Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.

In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.

In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.

The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.

The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.

Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.

In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.

The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.

The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.

Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.

Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.

It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.

Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.

In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.

It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.

According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.

The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.

Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.

According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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The Battle for the Soul of Islam: Will the real reformer of the faith stand up?

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Saudi and Emirati efforts to define ‘moderate’ Islam as socially more liberal while being subservient to an autocratic ruler is as much an endeavour to ensure regime survival and bolster aspirations to lead the Muslim world as it is an attempt to fend off challenges rooted in diverse strands of religious ultra-conservatism.

The Saudi and Emirati efforts to garner religious soft power have much in common even though the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates build their respective campaigns on historically different forms of Islam. The two Gulf states are, moreover, rivals in the battle for the soul of Islam, a struggle to define what strand or strands will dominate the faith in the 21st century.

The battle takes on added significance at a time that Middle Eastern rivals are attempting to dial down regional tensions by managing their disputes and conflicts rather than resolving them. The efforts put a greater emphasis on soft power rivalry rather than hard power confrontation often involving proxies.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE propagate a ‘moderate’ Islam on the back of significant social reforms in recent years that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and relegates the clergy to the status of the ruler’s clerics.

The reforms include Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving, enhancing of women’s professional and personal opportunities, curbing the powers of the religious police and introducing Western-style entertainment.

The UAE last November allowed unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosened alcohol restrictions and criminalised “honour killings,” a widely criticised religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring her family.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete in the Muslim world with Turkish and Iranian Islamist strands of the faith that are laced with nationalism.

The Gulf states’ state-led moderation of religious practices rather than of theology and Muslim jurisprudence is also challenged by some strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on the basis of which Saudi Arabia was founded.

“Wahhabism has refracted into three broad groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse of civic rights, a centre occupying official posts of state (dubbed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or the ruler’s clerics) that has put up some resistance to the loosening of their powers in the social, juridical and media spheres, and a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaeda and its focus on questions of foreign policy,” said scholar Andrew Hammond.

While Turkey and Iran pose a geopolitical danger, autocratic monarchical rule is more fundamentally threatened by the religious challenge posed by what Mr. Hammond dubs the Wahhabi left and the Wahhabi right as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the only non-state player in the battle for the soul of Islam, that advocates and practices reform of Islamic jurisprudence and unconditionally endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The arrests in recent years of Saudi scholars and preachers such as Safar al-HawaliSalman al-Awda, Sulayman al-Duwaish, Ibrahim al-Sakran, and Hasan al-Maliki suggests as much.

Implicitly drawing a distinction with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Hammond argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms amount to “defanging Wahhabism not dethroning it.”

The crown prince, since coming to office, has radically cut back on the investment of tens of billions of dollars in the propagation of religious ultra-conservatism across the globe, most effectively in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also sought to balance Wahhabism with Saudi ultra-nationalism and shave off the rough social edges of the kingdom’s austere interpretation of the faith. His subjugation of the clergy, and incarceration of adherents of the Wahhabi left and far-right, put an end to a 73-year long power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al-Saud family and the clergy.

The left has entertained concepts of a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, called for political liberalisation and civil rights and in some cases endorsed the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats.

The Wahhabi left could be joined in challenging the conservative Gulf monarchies and, simultaneously, be challenged by Nahdlatul Ulama once the group expands its activities to target the Muslim world’s grassroots beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country as well as its foremost democracy. In its first outreach to grassroots elsewhere, Nahdlatul Ulama is expected to launch an Arabic-language website before the end of the year that would target the Arab world.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of a humanitarian Islam that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration goes considerably further than proposals put forward by Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi left, perhaps better described as more liberal rather than an ideological left-wing of a fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.

The Indonesian group’s concept of Islam also contrasts starkly with the Saudi and Emirati notion of autocratic religious moderation that involves no theological or jurisprudential reform but uses ‘the ruler’s clergy’ to religiously legitimise repressive rule under which protests, political parties and petitioning of the government are banned and thought is policed.

“The state has strengthened the Wahhabi centre through neutralising the Wahhabi left and right, which have each represented a threat to state authority and legitimacy … As for the civic rights innovations of the Wahhabi left exemplified by al-Awda, it is precisely this discourse that the state wants to shut down,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to the imprisoned cleric.

The track record of proponents of autocratic religious moderation is checkered at best. While the UAE has created a society that is by and large religiously tolerant, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight a soft power battle in the Muslim world but seeks to project itself as a champion of religious tolerance, can make a similar claim.

Prince Mohammed has met Jewish and Evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, long a major vehicle to promote Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, doesn’t miss an opportunity these days to express his solidarity with other faith groups. Yet, non-Muslims remain barred in the kingdom from worshipping publicly or building their own houses of worship.

In Egypt, Patrick George Zaki, a 27-year-old student, lingers in prison since February 2020 on charges of spreading false news and rumours for publishing an article documenting incidents of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

Mr. Zaki was arrested a year after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s citadel of Islamic learning, signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Pope Francis during the two men’s visit to the UAE. The declaration advocates religious freedom and pluralism.

By contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Staquf recently told the story of Riyanto in a September 11 speech at Regent University, a bulwark of American Evangelical anti-Muslim sentiment founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. A member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s militia, Riyanto died guarding a church in Java on Christmas Eve when a bomb exploded in his arms as he removed it from a pew.

“To us in Nahdlatul Ulama, Riyanto is a martyr, and we honour his memory every Christmas Eve alongside millions of our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,” Mr. Staquf said.

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From ‘Decisive Storm’ to Secret Talks: The Journey of Saudi Conquest of Yemen

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In the last days of the spring of 2015, Saudi generals were sitting around a V-shaped table in front of a newly appointed defense minister, dwelling on the answer to the rise of Houthi rebels in Yemen which had critically threatened the security of the southern border. For decades, Saudi Arabia has been known for its wise and cagey foreign policy, often following the lead of Washington, in any regional or global military conflict but this time was different.

When the 29-year-old defense minister, Muhammad bin Salman, ordered, “Send in the F-15s,” it shocked all of them. Despite having spent only eight months heading the armies of the kingdom, he was about to shape an aggressive or rather reckless foreign policy of one of the most resourceful and conservative countries in the world.

The Unresolved Conflict

After six years of war in Yemen, 233,000 lives have been ravaged of which more than 3,000 were children, 3.3 million have been displaced from their homes, 24 million Yemenis are in dire need of humanitarian support, while 16.2 million Yemenis are on the verge of food insecurity. Now, Saudi Arabia is finally looking for a way out.

“We want the guns to fall completely silent,” remarked Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, in March, laying out the Yemen Peace Initiative. The Houthis rejected the plan as it imparted “nothing new” according to them. “We expected that Saudi Arabia would announce an end to the blockade,” stated the Houthis’ chief negotiator, Mohammad Abdulsalam, to Reuters.

Riyadh had severed diplomatic ties with Tehran in January 2016 after the Saudi embassy was stormed by the protestors angry at the execution of Sheikh Nimr, a top Shia cleric from Saudi Arabia’s eastern province—a region known for being marginalized on the sectarian basis.

Saudi Arabia and Iran held the first official talks, brokered by the Iraqi government, in Baghdad on 9th April. The Baghdad talks canvassed the Yemen conflict as well as the political and economical instability of Lebanon to evaluate whether both countries can reach a common understanding of the situation.

The Zaidiyyah Imamate

Coming to the Yemen conflict, the rugged Yemeni mountains known for their finest coffee growing regions have a thousand-year-long history of the rule of Zaidiyyah imamate carved on them.

The Zaydism Shia sect is rooted in the unsuccessful rebellion of Zayd bin Ali, the grandson of Husayn bin Ali – the direct descendent of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – against the Umayyad Caliphate in 740AD. Zaidiyyah’s theology differs from Iran’s Twelver Shiism and Ismaili branches in being far more tolerant towards early Islamic caliphs and in set qualifications for an imam to be a ruler.

The Creation of the Yemen Arab Republic

The imamate resisted the Romans and Ottomans to some extent for centuries but a revolution was brewing and the imams provided the catalyst themselves. Amid 1930’s modernism, Yemeni Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din stepped up from his conservative policy of not allowing foreign travel and authorized around forty boys to study abroad. He envisioned them as his “Famous Forty”—leaders of politics, military, and administration.

Until 1959, several hundred boys had gone through advanced studies from Iraq, Egypt, and Europe but they had envisioned something else. They laid the foundation of a progressive republican movement marked with several attempted coups and the assassination of Imam Yahya (1948) till 1962 when the last imam, al-Badr, was deposed by the revolutionary movement. This led to the emergence of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) with Abdullah Sallal as its leader and after that, Yemen was never the same.

Tracing the Root of the Saudi-Yemen Conflict

Al Saud had troubling relations with the imamate since Saudi Arabia had emerged as a kingdom in 1932. “Who is this Bedouin coming to challenge my family’s 900-year rule?” stated Imam Yahya once, which erupted the 1934 war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and ended up in the Treaty of Taif. The treaty demarcated the border and granted Jizan, Asir, and Najran to Saudi Arabia after the kingdom’s victory.

The Saudis then cultivated alliances within the bordering Yemeni tribes to erect a makeshift buffer zone during the 1960s civil war in Zaydi Imamate. Al Saud sided with Yemeni loyalists when the republican government tossed away the Treaty of Taif in 1962 and Egypt lined up 70,000 troops to assist the republic against Imam Badr’s guerrilla opposition.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, North and South Yemen struggled for coexistence and peace with continuous border clashes, including a bloody civil war in the South, which John Kifner aptly referred to as MassacrewithTea, that cost thousands of souls. Eventually, after 20 years of political and military turmoil, South Yemen’s Ali Salim al-Baidh joined with the North’s Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign the unification agreement of the two states on November 30, 1989.

Yet, while Ali Abdullah Salih was being declared as the president of a unified Yemen and the country was facing an economic collapse, something worse was brewing in the heights of northern Yemen.

The Houthis and the Saudi Construct

Feeling his unique sect threatened by the Saudi-funded proselytization through Salafist preachers, Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, a Zaydi scholar from Maran range established a seemingly political and revivalist movement, Ansar Allah (Supporters of God)to preserve the Zaidiyyah sect, followed by 40% of the Yemeni population, which turned into an aggressive armed insurgency in no time.

The point is that the current regional discord has centuries-old bad blood embedded in its roots. The Houthi movement, their substantial public support, and their military successes must be deconstructed from the local perspective, along with the regional one, to reach a better understanding of the conflict.

The Saudi-led coalition has been portraying Houthis just as an Iranian proxy, which is far from reality. In their annual policy paper, the Middle East Institute of Washington D.C stated that the current civil war of Yemen is entrenched in widespread public resentment over political marginalization, a paralyzed economy, and a corrupt and failed state.

Where Saudi Arabia’s policy of sectarian expansionism across the borderlands made the descendants of Zaidiyah Imamate, ousted from a centuries-long rule, feel more vulnerable, discrimination for Shia sects by Abdullah Saleh’s regime and corrupt practices tossed Yemen into a cycle of political upheaval and violence—all of which had nothing to with Iran.

The Houthis took arms against the Yemeni government six times from 2004-2010, a chapter remembered as the Saada Wars, long before Tehran came into the picture.

Civil War in Yemen

In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Houthi leader, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, called countrywide demonstrations to end Saleh’s 33-year rule but after Saleh resigned and declared his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the head of state in exchange of immunity, hopes rose for peace. However, Hadi, shockingly, stepped down in January 2015 and fled the country after the National Dialogue Conference failed to agree on the division of Yemen in the UN-backed transitional process and the Houthis stormed the Presidential Palace.

After the Houthis took over Sanaa in February 2015, Jamal Benomar, the UN special envoy for Yemen, went straight to Riyadh, which highlights Saudis’ concerns over the matter. On March 26, 2015, the Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm, with Saudi jets targeting the military compounds around the capital overnight.

The tactical inabilities of the coalition air force manifested to reality when three days later, Saudi warplanes accidentally bombed a refugee camp killing at least 40 and injuring 200. It was the beginning of one of the most horrible bombing campaigns, a disaster from a civilian and military perspective.

As civilian casualties mounted, the United States, concerned by the human cost of the conflict, urged Saudi Arabia to reach a negotiating position as soon as possible. Riyadh ended Operation Decisive Storm on 21 April, claiming the achievements, and rolled out Operation Renewal of Hope. But the truth was, the Saudis failed to deliver a considerable blow to the Houthis’ hold of the capital.

In May and June, the first reports came of mortar and Scud missile attacks by Houthis across the Saudi border. The Houthis proved tenacious and provoked Riyadh for a ground invasion, which worked out disastrously for the Saudi-led coalition. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Sudan, and others had deployed hundreds of ground troops by the end of the year.

Although they spawned some temporary gains in forcing the Houthis out of key southern provinces, like the vital Aden seaport in July, Zinjibar, and Al-And Airbase in August, the Houthis also inflicted heavy casualties to the coalition. In just one Houthi missile attack on a weapon depot in Marib in September 2015, 45 Emirati and Five Bahraini troops were killed.

The Kuwait Talks: A Failed Attempt at Resolving the Conflict

After a year into the war with no end in sight, reports came in March 2016 of the first Houthi delegation’s visit to Saudi Arabia, led by Mohammed Abdel-Salam, the Houthis’ senior advisor and spokesperson.

Two weeks later, the UN envoy for Yemen, Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed, stated that talks will circumvent the withdrawal and disarmament of militias and inclusive political dialogue. Kuwait’s emir and legendary peacemaker, late Sheikh Sabah, mediated talks between the delegations of the Houthis, Abdullah Saleh, and ousted president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who had returned to coalition controlled Aden in September 2015. Riyadh kept its distance from the Kuwait talks held in April  2016.

“Saudi Arabia seeks through the Kuwait talks to exonerate itself from its aggression against Yemen and to portray said aggression as a civil Yemeni war,” accused Yahya Saleh, a former general and Saleh’s nephew, after the Kuwait talks struck a stalemate over Houthis demanding a new consensual transitional regime while Hadi’s delegation insisted on a return to the current government, an out and out surrender for Houthis.

The peace talks were formally suspended in August 2016 when Houthis announced a new ten-member governing body to replace the interim Supreme Revolutionary Council, which had run the country since February 2015. The unilateral move was immediately denounced by Saudi Arabia and the United Nations. “Houthis, as well as their supporters, are making the search for a peaceful solution more difficult,” declared the statement issued by the group of G18 ambassadors of nations that backed the UN peace talks while tens of thousands of Houthi supporters rallied through Saana to show their support for the Houthis.

In all of this, a frangible ceasefire was held throughout the year with occasional skirmishes. In October 2016, a coalition double airstrike cremated a crowded funeral hall, killing around 140 mourners, adding to the domestic and international pressure on the US to review the billion dollars arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition.

Previously, The Guardian had concluded that each one in three Saudi strikes hit civilian targets but the coalition kept sweeping all of this under the rug. The Houthis also left no stone unturned to kill any hopes of negotiations when in March 2017, a Pro-Houthi court sentenced President Hadi and six other top officials to death in absentia for high treason. This was followed by the Burkan missile attack on Mecca in July 2017, although the Houthis claimed that it was aimed at the King Fahad airbase.

The United States’ Endless Support of Saudi Arabia

In August 2017, the Middle East Eye reported an email leak between UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, and a former high-level US diplomat, Martin Indyk, which revealed that the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, Muhammad bin Salman, wanted out of Yemen but Riyadh could not withdraw without ensuring the cross-border security.

On the other hand, in a striking development, the Houthi-Saleh split went real in December 2017 amid Saleh’s attempt to switch sides with the coalition and turned up in Houthis killing the former president of Yemen, who had been the sole ruler for more than three decades.

As 2018 unfolded, the international criticism for Saudi intervention and Washington’s role in the Yemeni chapter of war crimes plummeted. Houthis were no angels either as a UNHCR report published in Aug ‘18 noted coalition hitting civilian targets, it also documented blanket use of force on the civilian population in Houthi controlled areas.

“The group of experts is concerned by the alleged use by the Houthi­-Saleh forces of weapons with wide-area effect in a situation of urban warfare.” stated the report. It also stated that the Houthis were hitting women and children through shelling and snipers in their homes, fetching water at local wells, or traveling to seek medical attention.

On August 18, another coalition strike annihilated 40 boys, aged from six to eleven, in their school bus. As Bellingcat traced back the Mk-82 bomb, approved by the US Department of State, used in the attack to Lockheed Martin, it added to the criticism of the US’s unconditional support to the Saudi regime.

In June 2018, the Yemeni National Army backed by a Saudi-led alliance had launched an offensive to recapture the northwestern port city of Hodeidah, a significant economic hub and fourth-largest city. After six months of intense fighting, both parties agreed to a truce, total withdrawal from Hodeidah, and a “mutual understanding” in Taiz.

Blaming Iran

In January 2019, the Council of Foreign Relations and the Italian Institute of International Political Studies had listed Yemen in the Top Conflict Watch of the year. As Houthis scaled up their military capabilities, shooting down US MQ-9 reaper drone with Iranian assistance—according to CENTCOM—reports came of UAE pulling out from Aden, amid intensified tensions between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf.

On September 14, 2019, at 3:31 to 3:42 am in morning, the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry and the world’s largest oil processing facilities, Abqaiq and Khurais Oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, were attacked by Houthi drones, shutting down half of the kingdom’s crude output.

Despite the Houthis’ taking credit for the attack and the UN’s claims regarding the Houthis acquiring long-range drones (1200-1500km) capable of hitting Riyadh, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, the United States and Saudi Arabia asserted that the attack hadn’t stemmed from Yemen. Instead, Iran was directly behind the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” tweeted the US Secretary of State at that time, Mike Pompeo.

Tehran immediately refuted all such accusations. Despite this continuous rhetoric, US President Donald Trump’s statements had hinted that Washington would avoid any additional escalation with Iran which would have doomed global energy supplies further down the hill while markets hadn’t recovered from the previous attacks on Saudi facilities.

The Saudi-Emirati Rivalry in Yemen

On the other hand in a dramatic twist, the civil war turned multi-layered when the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) separatists seized Aden’s control from coalition-supported government forces. Few days after a joint statement was released from both Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers urging for peace talks between the Yemeni government and southern separatists, the UAE struck Hadi’s forces to aid southern separatists, killing 30 Yemeni troops as per Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

In November 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia successfully struck the Riyadh agreement, between the southern separatists and the Yemeni government, which entailed power-sharing in cabinet and the military withdrawal of all forces from Aden, Abyan, and Shabwah. The landmark deal granted the absolute authority of southern Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Later in the same month, Reuters reported indirect talks in Oman between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.

In January 2020, the Houthis claimed to seize 1,500 square miles of territory in Al-Jawf and the Marib governorate, and in March, they successfully captured the strategic city of Al Hazm. “Control of the capital of Al-Jawf could totally change the course of the war. The Houthis are changing the balance in their favor,” Majed al-Madhaji, executive director of Sanaa Centre, deciphered the situation to AFP. 

Bethan McKernan, The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent reported the same that Saudi-Emirati tussle had been dragging the conflict as Riyadh was already back channeling with Houthis through Oman while the UAE was pressing the attacks to keep the Saudi-backed Islah faction in check.

The One-sided Agreement

In April 2020, in light of the proposal sent by UN Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, the coalition announced a unilateral ceasefire amid the globally surging COVID-19 pandemic, although the coalition forces kept violating the ceasefire with at least 106 airstrikes in just a week.

The Houthis had already called it a “ploy”, demanding the lifting of air and naval blockade of Yemen which had been depriving the population of food and medicines. It seemed like the international pressure on the coalition, and the financial strain on Al Saud was dealing with, had not gone unnoticed by those controlling most of northern Yemen.

The Houthis had released their own proposal which Elana DeLozier from the Washington Institute narrated as a “wish list”, as it had thrown all the responsibility of ceasefire on the coalition with demands of demilitarization of borders and above all, war compensations and salaries in northern Yemen for a decade, but all were non-starters for Riyadh.

The Saudis kept extending the one-sided ceasefire but things only got worse. The STC separatists withdrew from the Riyadh agreement six months after signing, announcing the establishment of self-rule in southern Yemen. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government immediately denounced the declaration while the Houthis were claiming to “liberate” 95% of the Al-Jawf governorate; this left only the Marib province in the north under the control of Hadi’s forces.

The Houthis were keenly observing and seizing the fruits of coalition infighting. Separatists moved to redirect the revenues from ports, free zones, and an oil refinery to the STC accounts as reports surfaced of the Yemeni government attacking the separatists in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.

A week later, the STC president, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, landed in Riyadh to talk over the deadlock that persisted between supposedly anti-Houthi allies. The Yemeni government and STC separatists agreed to a ceasefire to begin peace talks in June 2020. In December 2020 while a freshly established cabinet of coalition-backed government arrived in Yemen after agreeing to equal power-sharing, two blasts shook Aden International Airport. With cabinet members remaining safe, 22—with most being aid workers—were killed in this fatal attack.

Coalition’s Failure in Yemen

“Incompetence, lack of unified leadership, and the absence of a military strategy by the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition played into the hands of the Houthis,” stated Nadwa Al-Dawsari from the Middle East Institute. Local tribes lacked the medium-range surface-to-air ballistic missiles and other advanced weaponry on which Houthis built their tactical achievements.

The Houthi combat units constituted 20, or even fewer men, and three trucks for higher mobility to counter the constant aerial surveillance by coalition UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and the US satellites. According to Jamestown Foundation, disregard for meritocracy and skills, the weary chain of commands, and persisting corruption in Yemeni government forces due to Saudi black-cheque strategy laid the ground for coalition failures. While perpetual imprecise bombings cost thousands of civilian lives and the worst humanitarian crisis due to the air and naval blockade, the public resentment against the coalition fueled.

In the aftermath of King Abdullah’s death in January 2015, his brother Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended to rule but being 79 with speculations of dementia and Parkinson’s enabled his most ambitious son, Muhammad bin Salman, to rise as a de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Reportedly he is named “little general” behind his back due to his craving for respect from Washington and turning down his advisers who predicted a catastrophic outcome from an all-out Yemeni offensive, including former foreign minister Saud al-Faisal. Saudi military failure in Yemen hatched from a “panicked reaction of an inexperienced prince with too much to prove” rather than from his desire to check Iranian influence and rescue Yemen, wrote Sophia Dingli, a lecturer in international relations from the University of Hull.

Besides all this, Washington has also altered its course with Joe Biden in the Oval Office. “The war in Yemen must end,” stated President Biden in his first significant foreign policy speech. A week later, the state department repealed the Houthis’ status of Specially Designated Global Terrorist Organization(SDGT) and Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) enacted a day before Donald Trump left the Oval Office.

Saltana Begum, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) advocacy manager in Yemen, voiced that at that time “We had famine warnings where 16 million people – that’s one in two Yemenis – were close to starvation.”

Setting Terms for Peace

In June this year, the Saudi-led coalition even ceased the air raids temporarily for “preparing the political ground for a peace process in Yemen,” remarked the coalition spokesperson Turki al-Malki. The gesture came as efforts ramped up for a political settlement. The US Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking had visited Riyadh in the same month where he met several government officials along with UN Envoy Martin Griffiths.

Saudi and Houthi camps have been reportedly close to a ceasefire deal. The Houthis want the end of the blockade “without impossible conditions” before a “comprehensive ceasefire”, stated Houthi’s chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam. As promising as it all might seem, and although Oman has been an excellent mediator with its impartial and carefully measured foreign policy, there are still a lot of bridges to cross and compromises to be made from both sides for a mutually beneficial post-war arrangement.

The Saudis would not just demand guarantees on border security from Oman and Iran but also a check to Iranian influence and even that won’t cater to the grievances of anti-Houthi factions battling alongside coalition forces. So, the peace process has to be inclusive for sustainable accords.

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Middle East

Turkey’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Artsakh

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The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church has recently hosted a conference on international religious freedom and peace with the blessings of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founding president of the Walk of Truth, was one of the invited guests. She spoke about genocide and her own experience in Cyprus, warning of Turkey’s religious freedom violations. Hadjitofi also called for joint legal actions against continued ethnic cleansing and destruction of Christian cultural heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and other places by the Turkish government and its regional allies including Azerbaijan.

During the two-day conference, access to places of worship in war and conflict zones, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, and preservation of cultural heritage were among the topics addressed by many distinguished speakers.  The conference paid particular attention to the situation of historic Armenian monasteries, churches, monuments, and archeological sites in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that have been under Azeri occupation since the 2020 violent war unleashed by Azerbaijan.

Hadjitofi presented about the situation of Cyprus, sharing her recent visit to the Cypriot city of Famagusta (Varoshia), making historic parallels between the de-Christianisation of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh by Turkey, and its allies such as Azerbaijan. See Hadjitofi’s full speech here.

Author of the book, The Icon Hunter, Hadjitofi spoke with passion about her recent visit to the ghost city of Famagusta, occupied by Turkey since 1974. Her visit coincided with the 47th anniversary of the occupation. She was accompanied by journalist Tim Neshintov of Spiegel and photographer Julien Busch as she made several attempts to visit her home and pray at her church of Timios Stavrou (Holy Cross).

Hadjitofi explained how her own human rights and religious freedoms, alongside the rights of tens of thousands of Cypriots, were violated when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan illegally entered her country and prayed at the newly erected mosque in her own occupied town whereas she was kneeling down in the street to pray to her icon in front of her violated Christian church. In comparison, her church was looted, mistreated and vandalized by the occupying forces.  

Hadjitofi reminded the audience of the historic facts concerning Turks discriminating against Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. They also massacred these communities or expelled them from the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey, a process of widespread persecution which culminated in the 1913-23 Christian genocide. Hadjitofi then linked those genocidal actions with what Erdogan is doing today to the Kurds in Syria, and the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Turkey’s wealthy friends such as the government of Azerbaijan.  She also noted that during her recent visit to her hometown of Famagusta, a delegation from Azerbaijan referred to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus as “Turkish land” and a “part of Greater Turkey”. This is yet another sign of Turkish-Azeri historic revisionism, and their relentless efforts for the Turkification of non-Turkish geography.

Hadjitofi called for a series of legal actions against Turkey and its allies, reminding Armenians that although they signed the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), they have not ratified it. She noted that it must be the priority of Armenians if they want to seek justice. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, neither signed or ratified the Rome Statute.

During her speech Hadjitofi also emphasized the need for unity amongst all Christians and other faiths against any evil or criminal act of destroying places of worship or evidence of their historical existence anywhere in the world. 

In line with this call, the Republic of Armenia instituted proceedings against the Republic of Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with regard to violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

In its application, Armenia stated that “[f]or decades, Azerbaijan has subjected Armenians to racial discrimination” and that, “[a]s a result of this State-sponsored policy of Armenian hatred, Armenians have been subjected to systemic discrimination, mass killings, torture and other abuse”.

Hadjitofi said that “Armenia’s lawsuit against the government of Azerbaijan is a positive move in the right direction and more legal actions should be taken against governments that systematically violate human rights and cultural heritage. I’m also in the process of meeting members of the Armenian diaspora in Athens, London, and Nicosia to discuss further joint legal actions. But the most urgent action that Armenia should take is the ratification of Rome Statute of the ICC,” she added.

Other speakers at the conference included representatives of the main Christian denominations, renowned scholars and experts from around the globe, all of whom discussed issues related to international religious freedom and the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage.

Baroness Cox, a Member of the UK House of Lords and a prominent human rights advocate, was among the participants. She has actively defended the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia through her parliamentary, charity and advocacy work.

Meanwhile, the organizing committee of the conference adopted a joint communiqué, saying, in part:

” We re-affirm the principles of the right to freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international and regional human rights treaties. We claim this right, equally, for all people, of any faith or none, and regardless of nation, history or political circumstances – including for those Armenian prisoners of war still illegally held in captivity by Azerbaijan, for whose swift release and repatriation we appeal and pray, and for the people of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh whose rights to free and peaceful assembly and association necessarily implicate the sacred character of human life.”

On September 11, the delegates of the conference were received by the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, in his palace in Yerevan where they were thanked. The guests also visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial-Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), where Hadjitofi was interviewed on Armenian national TV. She said:

“I read about the Armenian Genocide and I am glad that more countries recognize it as such but I am disappointed that politicians do not condemn actions of Turkey and its allies in their anti Christian attitude towards Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh. I see an interconnection between the genocide and the adopted politics of Azerbaijan, when the ethnic cleansing takes place, when cultural heritage is destroyed, gradually the traces of the people once living there are eliminated and that is genocide”. 

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