Tag Archives: politics

Kiarostami speaks

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

I know that by now it seems that my only contribution to this blog is every second month or so when I write something about Iranian filmmakers and their political views. Again, I apologize and assure the readers that I will return with more stuff when I’m finished with my PhD thesis (which is, thank you for asking, still pulling out my teeth on a regular basis but nonetheless progressing)!

As you may recall, I’ve mentioned Bahman Ghobadi’s scathing criticism of Abbas Kiarostami, whom Ghobadi accused of not taking a stand vis-à-vis the political turmoil that erupted in Iran last summer. I followed up with a speculative comment when Kiarostami rejected an invitation to the Fajr Film Festival. Now, Kiarostami speaks :

“I don’t quite know to whom I am addressing this letter, but I do know why I’m writing it and I believe that under the circumstances it is both critical and inevitable because two Iranian filmmakers, both of whom are vital to the Iranian wave of independent cinema, have been incarcerated.

As a filmmaker of the same independent cinema, it has been years since I lost hope of ever screening my films in my country. By making my own low-budget and personal films, it has also been years since I lost all hope of receiving any kind of aid or assistance from the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic culture, the custodian of Iranian cinema.

In order to make a living, I have turned to photography and use that income to make short and low-budget films. I don’t even object to their illegal reproduction and distribution because that is my only means of communicating with my own people. For years now I have not even objected to this lack of attention from the ministry and cinema‫tic authorities‬.

Even if we choose to disregard the fact that for years now, the cinematic administrators of the country, who constitute the main cultural body of the government, have differentiated between their own filmmakers (insiders) and independent filmmakers (outsiders), I am still of the opinion that they are oblivious of Iranian independent cinema. Filmmaking is not a crime. It is our sole means of making a living and thus not a choice, but a vital necessity.

I have found my own solutions to the problem. Independent of the conventional and customary support granted to the cinematic community at large, I make my own short and independent films with hopes of gaining some credit for the people I love and a name for the country I come from. Sometimes the necessity to work calls for the making of films beyond the borders of my country, which is ultimately not out of personal choice or taste.

However, others, like Jafar Panahi, have for years tried to summon official government support, exploring the same frustrating path, only to be confronted with the same closed doors. He too has for years held hopes of obtaining public screenings for his films and receiving official aid and assistance from the relevant governmental bodies. He still believes that based on the merits of his films and the acclaim they have brought the country, he can seek legal solutions to the problem. The Ministry of Guidance and Islamic culture is directly responsible for what is happening to Jafar Panahi and his like. Any wrongdoing on his part, if there is any at all, is a direct result of the mismanagement of officials at the cinematic department of the Ministry of Guidance and it’s inadequate policies which in no way leave any choice for the filmmaker other than to resort to means that jeopardize his situation as a filmmaker. He too makes a living through cinema.

For him too, filmmaking is a vital necessity. He needs to make himself heard and has the right to expect cinematic officials to facilitate the process, rather than become the major obstacles themselves. Perhaps the officials at the ministry can not at present be of help in solving Jafar Panahi’s dilemma, but they need to know that they are and have been responsible all these years, for the dreadful consequences and unpleasant and anti-cultural reflections of such policies in the world media.

I may not be an advocate of Jafar Panahi’s radical and sensational methods but I do know that the cause for his plight is not a result of choice but an inevitable [compulsion].

He is paying for the conduct of officials who have for years closed all doors on him, leaving open small passages and dead end paths.

Jafar Panahi’s problem will eventually be solved but there are numerous young people who have chosen the art of cinema as their means of expression and careers.

This is where the duty of the government and the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic Culture, as the government’s main cultural body, becomes even more critical, for they face a large group of Iranian youth who aim to work independently and away from complicated official procedures and existing prejudices.

Jafar Panahi and Mahmoud Rasoulof are two filmmakers of the Iranian independent cinema, a cinema that for the past quarter of a century has served as an essential cultural element in expanding the name of this country across the globe. They belong to an expanded world culture, and are a part of international cinematic culture. I wish for their immediate release from prison knowing that the impossible is possible. My heartfelt wish is that artists no longer be imprisoned in this country because of their art and that the independent and young Iranian cinema no longer faces obstacles, lack of support, attention and prejudice.

This is your responsibility and the ultimate definition of your existence.

Abbas Kiarostami / 1388.12.18 [March 9, 2010] / Tehran.”

SPEAKING OF RULE OF LAW AND A GRAND MASTER PLAN

by Daniella Kuzmanovic

The current crisis will be solved within the framework of the constitutional order and the frameworks of the laws. This was the bottom line of the statement from the presidency after the crisis management meeting Thursday the 25th of February in Ankara between President Abdullah Gül, prime minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan and chief of general staff İlker Başbuğ. Considering the serious political crises and the way it has rubbed off on the financial markets, it was about high time to send the message that people in and outside Turkey must trust in the political and legal institutions of the country to be able to deal with the crisis. Needless to say that a repetition of the February 21, 2001 incident, where former president Ahmet Necdet Sezer quarreled with then prime minister Bülent Ecevit in the National Security Council  thereby more than adding to a severe financial crises Turkey if not directly setting it off, must be avoided at all costs. This is seemingly recognized by all parties in the political conflict.

 

That the statement centered round the issue of the workings of rule of law and the institutional checks and balances in Turkey should come as no surprise. Not just due to the recent historical experience of 2001. Rather one has to understand how the judiciary is for better and worse the gravity point of the crisis. The question of whose ideological outlook dominates within the judiciary is a key concern by supporters as well as adversaries of the AKP government. The former explains how the judiciary has traditionally been in alignment with the Kemalist etatist elite including the military. The rulings of the Kemalist stong-hold par excellence, the Constitutional court, serve as prime examples. The closure case against AKP and DTP in 2008, and the recent overruling / annulment in January 2010 of the reform package passed by parliament in July 2009, which would among other have allowed civilian courts to prosecute military personnel. Even though this overruling has had limited practical effects, military personnel do in fact face trial by civilian courts in the on-going Ergenekon-Sledgehammer investigations, it has been seen as a strong symbolic support to the conceptualization of some people in Turkey as being above the law in the interest of the nation-state. Hence, they argue that what is in fact going on is democratization and strengthening of rule of law in Turkey. Those adversaries with a more conservative Kemalist leaning lament, how the whole Ergenekon-Sledgehammer case is nothing but a politically initiated witch hunt on behalf of the current government, thus revealing how the AKP has succeeded in a civilian take-over of not only the bureaucracy but also the judiciary. In this context the problematic structuring of the HSYK (Supreme Board of judges and prosecutors) where the minister of justice among other has a seat is presented as one of many examples of the ways in which government can somehow pressure the judiciary.

 

The current case of prosecutor Ilhan Cihaner really shows the intricacies of these relations (intricacies which can barely be disclosed in the brief section that follows but nevertheless). In mid Feburary 2010 Cihaner was arrested and interrogated as part of the Ergenekon case. The arrest was warranted by another prosecutor, Osman Şanal, with special authorities. Cihaner had launched an investigation into an Islamic religious sect in 2007 and later in 2009 attempted to launch an investigation into the Gülen movement. These acts had put him squarely in the secular Kemalist camp who are fighting what they believe is an anti-secular AKP government. Immediately following upon the arrest the HSYK (Supreme Board of judges and prosecutors) removed the special powers of the prosecutor who had had Cihaner arrested. In the light of HSYK being seen as a Kemalist stronghold, this removal was interpreted as the secular Kemalist elite showing its muscle, an opinion among other aired by the ministry of justice. Yet the very same ministry of justice was accused by critics of intervening in order to slow down the removal of Şanal, something which gave him time to forward the investigation file on Cihaner to the courthouse. Meanwhile AKP critics also saw the detainment of Cihaner in the first place as an attempt on behalf of the government to stop any investigations relating to Islamic religious networks. The underlying assumption is of course that such investigations might hurt the ruling party since they have close relations to the Gülen movement and (excuse the expression) God only knows who else.

 

It is easy to get caught up on either side of the polarized debate. There are however also those observers in Turkey who argue for the necessity of once and for all ridding Turkish politics of the legacy of military influence, while simultaneously criticizing the AKP for replacing military tutelage with civilian tutelage. AKP may say that they are acting in the name of democratization but they are not themselves acting as true democrats. On the contrary they are using the existing rules and regulation aimed at state control with civilian politics to consolidate their own power. Upholding the 10 percent threshold in national elections is but one example of this. In this sense AKP follows in the footsteps of a long and by no democratic standards glorious political party tradition in Turkey. It is also in this context that one can hear speculations as to the extent to which government is able to affect the judiciary. Of course there are problematic areas for example regarding the HSYK. But does this simply mean that the continued politicization of the judiciary is the only reasonable explanation to everything that is going on including the arrest of military personnel, or could it be that part of the explanation has to do with circles in the judiciary who are tired of accusations of lack of independence, and tired of a reputation as somebody’s lapdog? Could it be that there are in fact people in the judiciary who act as they do because they pursue a strengthening of rule of law and the separation of powers?

 

Why is it, one may now ask, that this latter seems as such a naïve idea in a Turkish context? This I believe has partly to be explained by how the current tensions and political struggles between various elites have reasserted the prominent and popular notion that all acts are part of a larger master plan. Be it the plan of etatist elements or the AKP, the notion that acts are symbolic representations of a larger strategy and initiated by somebody for some higher purpose is by now the dominant lense through which all things must be interpreted and understood. As if there are not enough threats against the development of a democratic culture in Turkey, this is for sure one more problem to add to a long list.

Is Kiarostami taking a stand? Or is he just too busy?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Remember the whole Bahman Ghobadi / Abbas Kiarostami thing? Ghobadi, representative of a new wave of Iranian cinema, severely lambasted one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Abbas Kiarostami, for not taking a political stand during the 2009 post-election violence. Well, now he might have.

At least, that is how the Iranian ‘reformists’ have interpreted the story that Kiarostami has allegedly turned down an offer to act as jury in the state-run Fajr Film Festival in Tehran this year. JARAS, a Mousavi-affiliated website has stated that Kiarostami – who is often a jury in international film festivals and has himself received the Palme d’Or of Cannes – has turned down the offer ‘for unpublicized reasons’.

Of course, there can be a number of reasons for this. Maybe Kiarostami is simply too busy? What does, however, give JARAS’ implicit speculation of this being a sign of political protest some credence is the fact that several other prominent members of Iran’s cinema community have also turned down this offer, including Farhad Towhidi, Fatemeh Godarzi, Minoo Farshchi, Ezzatollah Entezami and Asghar Farhadi.

However, until we hear from Kiarostami himself, we cannot be sure. This may also be part of the ‘buzz’ these days in a country where even coughing can become a political tool of passive resistance.

Presidential election in Tunisia

Presidential election in Tunisia: Repetitions, news and consumerism before political engagement

by Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle.

The number 7 is printed on Tunisia’s notes. 7 is also a logo for many public authorities. And 7 is the name for one of Tunisia’s two state-run television channels. 7 stands for the date of November 7, 1987 where Tunisia’s incumbent president Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali took power. Thus, on November 7 this year Ben Ali could celebrate being in power for 22 years. That November 7 and Ben Ali’s being in power will also be celebrated the next five years was ensured a few weeks before at the presidential and parliamentary elections in October. The elections were not a display on how to develop a democracy. It did, however, elucidate a number of equally important areas of development in Tunisia.

No news in 2009 elections: Same game – same critique

According to the official results from the election, the president achieved 89,62 percent of the votes and his party Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) also won the majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies with 84 percent of the votes. In many ways, the election as well as the campaign was almost a tedious repetition of the elections in 2004 and 1999. Ben Ali held lavish election events. For example, one of these took place at the national stadium – suitably called 7th November Stadium – filled with 60,000 cheering sympathizers. The governing party had once again established what could almost be described as an election village in Tunis where arts, children’s entertainment and IT technology in big tents promoted Ben Ali and his party. Election parades were held in all greater cities and the opposition tried to keep step with its own, less pompous election meetings. Once again, the usual parties supported the president’s candidacy while the usual opposing wing complained about election fraud. Ben Ali was heavily exposed in newspapers and at the news agency while the opposition was hard to spot.

To many people, the result of 89 percent is highly unlikely. The result is often used as an ultimate proof of the election being a false maneuver set into action to proof towards EU and the USA that a domestically political process is taking place towards democracy and pluralism. However, Tunisia after the election is precisely the same as the country was prior to the election. No change towards more democracy has taken place. This view is supported by a report made by Freedom House earlier this year. The report illustrated the degree of freedom in a number of countries and placed Tunisia lowest in an Arabic context right after Saudi Arabia and Syria. In the field of Middle East research it is, however, possible to make an analysis from another point of view. Even though there are no visible results regarding the development of democracy, other changes and developments may have taken place. Seen from this point of view, the Tunisian election can be used as a starting point for understanding other important aspects that are central to Tunisia.

News in the continuities: The family takes positions

However, in the middle of the election, it was remarkable how the president’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, took over more and more of the space normally left exclusively to her husband and how she created a profile of her own. Up to now, she has played a humble role at the official scene. However, during the election campaign Leila came more and more into focus in the pictures the state controlled news agency used to illustrate the news which also increasingly was about “The First Lady Leila”. There were even news from the campaign that was solely accompanied by photos that showed Leila and not Ben Ali. She gave speeches to big congregations without her husband, initiated comprehensive charity projects and was interviewed by important European and Arabic magazines. After the announcement of the election result Ben Ali is once again the center of the attention. In explaining why Leila Ben Ali used the election to expose herself you have to look closer at the family relations in the presidential family, the liberalization that has taken place within the last decade as well as the families’ struggle to secure their power.

Shortly after his takeover in 1987, Ben Ali was separated from his first wife and married Leila Trabelsi. The fact that Ben Ali has been married more than once means that there is one additional family that tries to position itself towards power in Tunisia. With his first wife Ben Ali has three daughters who have all married into highly-placed business families. With Leila, Ben Ali has a fourth daughter who recently also married a young, active and rich business man. Finally, there is Leila’s own family, the Trabelsis, who is running some of Tunisia’s largest companies. Along with a number of prominent ministers these 5 families make up the leading élite and a close inner circle around the president. Together with the president, these are the people who really govern the country. There is a parliament but power is always named as “The Palace” referring to the president’s home in Carthage outside Tunis. On several occasions it has become obvious that these five families compete about the power and money.

When seen in this context Leila’s act during the election campaign can be viewed as taking full advantage of the possibilities the election gives her in order to achieve fame an popularity.  However, during the election she has also strengthened the Trabelsi family as well as her daughters in-laws compared to the three other families-by-marriage. This is a head start which may be used over the next 5 years to strengthen her wing of the family to be able to gain power at the next election where Ben Ali will retire as president.

Leila’s son-in-law, Mohamed Sakhr El Materi, is known as an important business man and was furthermore elected member of the Parliament for the governing party. His dynasty includes the running of Tunisia’s harbour, import of cars, production and import of food, running of an Islamic radio channel and banking. Until the mid-1990’s, all these activities were state monopolies originally established in 1956. Later, arising from the belief that an economic liberalization would lead to increased political liberalization, the West and the EU increased their pressure on a number of Arabic countries in order to make them privatize the state owned enterprises. Thus, the Tunisian state chose to sell a number of their activities. However, giving up economic power also means giving up political power. The state may very well have sold activities, but the buyers have primarily been branches of the five families surrounding the president. This way, the regime has met the demands from outside while at the same time secured that power remains within the family with no regards to future election results and any strong opposing groups.

“Economy first” and consumerism

The new economic activity has not only benefited the five families. Great changes have taken place in relation to the inhabitants of Tunisia. Improvements, as the Tunisians would call it. Supermarkets have emerged with refrigerated counters and endless rows of yoghurt, biscuits, coffee, diapers and hardware. There is now full network coverage for mobile phones, fashion shops with international brands and large furniture stores. This is what the youth wants. Furthermore, since his takeover in 1987 Ben Ali has improved the infrastructure to include electrical power, water and asphalt roads in even the smallest and most remote villages. Brick houses have been built to the many people who previously lived in poor sheds and all cities now have a part of town called November 7 with large schools and high schools. Even among the journalists, who are used to being limited in their work, optimism is expressed even though it is moderate. It seems that it is now possible to take up subjects that were previously tabooed. The new privately held radio stations have discussion programs that have never been experienced before. Journalists can now cover stories that would earlier on have been censored because they were conceived as staining the government’s image.

Thus, gaining 89 percent of the votes during the election may seem as a high number, but many of those Tunisians who went to the polls do vote for Ben Ali and the governing party. Even those who are against the party. They cannot neglect the fact that things are actually going well and that progress is taking place. It may only be small steps, but it is, however, steps in the right direction. Keep in mind, the Tunisians say, that we are a young nation which has only had two presidents within the last 60 years.

Signs of increased tensions between Saudis and Iranians

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Unfortunately, I do not have time for an in-depth analysis, but the following pieces of recent news points to an escalation of the conflict between Iran and Saudi-Arabia:

Iranian Arabic channel taken off air

“The operators of Nilesat and Arabsat cited a breach of contract according to Egypt’s MENA news agency, but al-Alam said they had not been given a reason. Analysts say some Arab governments are worried about the channel’s popularity and Iran’s growing regional influence.”

Iran warns Saudi-Arabia against continued fingerprinting of pilgrims

“Tehran has shown strong reaction to the new rules set by the Saudi officials against Iranian pilgrims.”

Yemen accuses Iranian ‘religious institutions’ of backing armed rebellion

“Yemen, the poorest Arab state and a known base for al-Qaeda, is fighting a vicious war in the northern mountains near the border with Saudi Arabia against a Shia tribal group known as the Houthis. The authorities now claim to have seized an Iranian-crewed vessel carrying anti-tank missiles off the Yemeni coast near the Houthi stronghold on Monday.”

Iran is expanding its activity in the Red Sea

“Tehran aims to turn Yemen into a regional arena for conflict, as part of its ongoing dispute with several countries in the region”

Saudi air force bombs Yemen rebels

“Arab countries allied to the US, such as predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Egypt, fear Shiite power Iran could gain influence in Yemen through the rebels.”

Yemeni Shi’ite cleric and Houthi disciple ‘Issam al-Imad: Our Leader Houthi is close to Khamene‘i

“In the interview, Al-Imad describes the religious, ideological, and political affinity that has evolved between the Yemeni Houthis and the Iranian regime, saying that the Houthis have effectively converted from Zaidi Shi‘a to Twelver Shi‘a, which is Iran’s official religion”

What to make of all this? Discuss!

EU Progress Report and Civic Culture In Turkey

by Daniella Kuzmanovic.

Wednesday, October 14th, it was once again time for the yearly assessment of Turkish efforts to meet the political and economic criteria in relation to the EU membership negotiations (http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2009/tr_rapport_2009_en.pdf). With regard to the political criteria all the usual critical issues are, as could be expected, mentioned in the report: Minority issues, the Kurdish problem, human rights, equality with regard to gender, sexual orientation and disabled people, children’s rights, labor and union rights, the role of the military in politics, administrative structural problems in the bureaucracy, anti-corruption initiatives, the structure and functioning of the judiciary, the Ergenekon case, freedom of expression, and the lack of action with regard to the Cyprus issue and the question of opening Turkish ports for Cypriotic vessels. This year, in the light of the on-going tax case against the Doğan media group, and the accompanying verbalized attacks against the group’s media and journalists from members of the ruling party, concerns regarding freedom of speech were, as could also be expected, particularly emphasized.

My attention, though, was immediately drawn to a couple of smaller sections of the assessment report (page 20) dealing with civil society. This should perhaps not come as a surprise, since civil society in Turkey has been my object of research for some years. The role of civil society and input from civil society is frequently mentioned in the report. But on page 20 there are a couple of paragraphs that deal with some of the many challenges civil society faces in Turkey. One deals with the issue of funding, another with the issue of state – civil society relations:

“Some legal provisions place an undue burden on the operations of associations. There are high fines or severe punishments for failing to comply with the Law on Associations [note 23 inserted: In the event of failure to keep the necessary records of an association, the executives of the association are liable to imprisonment of between three months and one year.] The legal obligation to notify authorities before receiving financial support from abroad places a burden on associations. Negative portrayal in certain media and at times disproportionate inspections of NGOs receiving funds from abroad, including EC funds, remain a further cause for concern.”

[…]

“There is a growing awareness in public institutions and in the public at large about the crucial role played by civil society organisations, including in the accession process. However, some difficulties encountered with the consultation procedures reflect the lack of trust between State institutions and civil society organisations. The legal framework for collection of donations and tax exemptions for NGOs needs to be strengthened, in line with EU good practice, to improve NGOs’ financial sustainability.”

To take up the latter first, for sure one of the main obstacles with regard to an enhanced role for civil society in Turkey is the lack of trust between state authorities and particular sections of civil society. That is to say those sections which have traditionally perceived themselves as being in opposition to the statist elite and the authoritarian state tradition in Turkey, and which have used the idiom of civil society to express this opposition from the mid 1980ies onwards. Having stated this, I have also stated that the lack of trust, among other, has to be understood with reference to the events of September 12, 1980 (i.e. the military coup) and the subsequent clamp down of state authorities on a range of civic political and intellectual forces, but particularly leftists. The result of the 1980 coup were also a number of highly restrictive laws with regard to associations (dernek) and foundations (vakıf), associations being more heavily controlled than foundations, though, since associations were associated with leftist activities. In addition the lack of trust must also be understood with reference to the events of February 28, 1997 (the so-called postmodern coup) particularly aimed at pro-Islamic forces. These two sections are in fact two prominent sections of that part of civil society in Turkey, which aims to influence the political developments and decision-making processes. Many of the NGO’s that have the attention of the EU are indeed part of a broader leftist tradition.

The restrictive laws on associations and foundations have in recent years finally been revised. However, building trust between state authorities and civil society takes more than legal revisions and strengthening of procedures. Yet the wording in the progress report makes it sound as if the issue of trust is a technical issue, rather than stemming from those broader historical experiences of the past decades that still influences state- civil society relations. The EU does in fact support trust-building measures with regard to state-civil society relations in Turkey, but the report fails to mention this.

The first of the quoted paragraphs touching upon the issue of funds from abroad for civic activities, deals with the way in which the influx of foreign support for civic activities is perceived in Turkey by state authorities and by “certain media”. As a matter of fact, foreign funding for civic activities is also a major issue of debate among civic activists themselves. For several reasons accepting foreign funds is viewed with suspicion by some segments of civil society, and those organizations that do receive funds from the EU, the Soros Foundations or alike thus make themselves a liable target for critique from various other segments of civil society. One of the main aspects of this critique pertains to a firm belief that funds do not come with ‘no strings attached.’ They are part of a political-ideological ambition (or plot as some would prefer) to establish ideological and economic dominance in Turkey. Not least US funding has been read with such a perspective in mind, the Soros Foundation being seen as a prominent example of how a US neo-liberal, pro-Israeli segment is gaining influence in Turkey. A book entitled ”Project democracy”: Sivil örümceğin ağında (Project democracy: In the web of the civil spider) (Ankara: Ulus Dağı Yayınları) is a prime example of such thinking. Other aspects of the critique pertain to a desire among civic activists to dissociate themselves from western values and influence more generally speaking, in order to state that their organization does not adhere to such values.

The issue taken up in this section of the progress report is in fact a complex issue pertaining yet again to the way in which various historical experiences form part of civic activism in Turkey. One pertains to the question of Turkish sovereignty, which is close to the heart of both traditional Kemalist civil society organizations that hold on to the notion of Turkey as ‘threatened’ by foreign powers, as well as to those leftists who see themselves as involved in a global anti-imperialist struggle. Another pertains to the struggle between western modernity including political values, and what not least a number of pro-Islamic organizations perceive as ‘local’ (read: authentic) forms of civic activism. That was just to mention a few of the aspects of the issue. Again the report barely hints at the variety of historical experiences, which are involved in constituting the critique in certain media and the general suspicious attitude towards foreign funds. I stress the importance of this outlook and sensitivity towards the historical experiences in play in order to underline how technical solutions aimed at transparency, alterations of legal structures and bureaucratic procedures is only one aspect of supporting civic culture in Turkey. This has also been pointed to in numerous reports on civic culture in Turkey, such as those from TÜSEV. I just wish, the sections in the EU progress report had also shown even greater sensitivity towards the issues at stake.

Thank you, Qaddafi, for the Janjaweed!

An African view of the 40th anniversary of the Libyan “revolution”

by Anders Hastrup.

This past month have seen a lot of commentaries and analyses of the 40th anniversary of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, in the wake of the extravagant celebrations in Tripoli on September 1st. Various newspapers, magazines and online journals have focused on the changing role of Libya in world politics seen from the West and the Middle East. Focus has been directed at the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing and the change of Libya’s role in sponsoring terrorism along with speculations about the end of sanctions, oil concessions and the country’s tourist potential.

Middle East commentators, such as Fred Halliday have focused on how the Qaddafi regime was seen from the Arab World and emerged inspired by Nasserism to meddle in the many different conflicts throughout the Arab world. Fred Halliday’s article is an impressive firsthand account of the direct and indirect destructive influences of the Libyan “kleptocracy” throughout the Middle East in the past 40 years and is highly recommended.

In this piece I want to move away from the Arab Middle East and shed light on the destructive influence that Qaddafi has had on the African continent, especially in the Chad-Sudan border region, the region of Darfur, where the Libyan President holds significant responsibility for creating the janjaweed militias, responsible for the mayhem and destruction of Darfur.

An analysis of Qaddafi’s role in Africa is even more pertinent since Libya gained presidency of the African Union this year. Qaddafi has always been ambitious on behalf of his country and its role in the world. After trying out a series of political experiments and half baked alliances with radical groups of almost all dispositions in the Arab World, Qaddafi has looked to some of his African neighbours as a laboratory for his dangerous ideas. Nowhere have the effects of his megalomania been more destructive than in Sudan’s Darfur region.

In order to fully comprehend Libya’s role in Darfur, one must analyse the special triangular relationship between Libya, Chad and Sudan and the way the region of Darfur has been the stage where the regional ambitions of all the three countries have been played out, often in a very violent manner.

Qaddafi and the Chadian Arabs

The Chadian Arabs have for a long time formed the core of the opposition to successive Chadian presidents. Put simply, there is a dichotomy between the North and South in Chad that in some ways resembles the historical North-South divide of Sudan. In Chad, however, the roles are reversed: A poor marginalised Arab North revolt against the Christian South who has monopolized political power in the hands of a narrow elite.

As early as 1966, the Chadian opposition group National Liberation Front for Chad, FROLINAT, was formed in Nyala, capital of South Darfur State in Sudan, starting a long tradition of the use of Darfur as base for disgruntled Chadian Muslims and Arabs. The political mobilisation of the Arab tribes of Chad in the initial FROLINAT and subsequent Chadian rebel movements can to a large degree help explain the origin of the janjaweed militia, whose gang raping, horse-riding murderers hold the responsibility for the displacement of more than 3 million people and the disintegration of an area the size of France into impunity and chaos.

The role played by Libya is crucial in understanding the origin of the janjaweed phenomenon in the region. In 1969, Muammar Qaddafi took power in the country and promoted a series of grand schemes, not only for Libya, but for the entire continent. Initially inspired by the Arab socialism of Egyptian President Gamal Abd al Nasser, Qaddafi became a radical Arab nationalist and sought to export his radical ideas on the African continent. This meant creating a new sense of Arab/Muslim identity among many Bedouins of the Sahel region who received both ideological and military training for the creation of an Arab homeland, the “Arab Belt” across the region. The Christian government of Chad quickly became the focus for Qaddafi’s struggle for “Arab supremacy”. This struggle was one of Qaddafi’s many experiments, where ideologies are utilized as ad hoc creations for colonising and obtaining the raw political control over given areas. He armed the nomadic Arab tribes with weapons and a dangerous ideology of Arab supremacy in this ethnically diverse region. His short-sighted goal was the instability of the Chadian regime. Qaddafi wanted Chad. The long- term effect was a continuing culture of impunity for the region’s Arabs, now armed with modern weapons against the villages of the African populations of Darfur and Eastern Chad.

A look to the margins

In many ways, the origins of the janjaweed can be traced to the meeting of the Arab Chadian opposition, armed by Qaddafi, with the North Darfur Abbala Arabs: The Arab Chadian opposition had arms and moved across the border to their camel herding neighbours, themselves poor landless Arabs of Darfur who were desperately seeking recognition and triggered by a new found ideology where they were the master race.

Roughly speaking, the same dangerous alliance of weapons and an ideology of racial supremacy merged in Sudan’s Darfur region. The area of Darfur and Eastern Chad has historically been the same, the same tribes, Arab and African, live on both sides of the border. Like Qaddafi used the marginalised Arabs of Chad to create a loyal “Arab Belt”, the Khartoum government used the landless Arabs of North Darfur to crack down on the emergent violent opposition. The results of this meeting between these groups can be found in the fierce and ruthless militias unleashing an unprecedented mayhem in Darfur in the first years of the new Millennium.

The most important reason for the janjaweed phenomenon is sheer poverty, marginalisation and the lack of fixed land and land rights. In Darfur, the camel herding Abbala Arabs did not have their own dar, meaning abode or homeland. They shared this lack of spatial recognition with many of the tribes of the Arab tribes of Eastern Chad.

Both Khartoum and Tripoli under the rule of Colonel Qaddafi have skilfully looked to the marginalised Arabs of the triangular region of Libya, Sudan and Chad for the creation of an often short lived loyal belt for the control of the region. The present conflict in Darfur must be seen through these regional dynamics and the inverted roles of the marginalised and the marginalising. The North Darfur and Chadian Arabs, have thus gone from servants to masters through a skilful manipulation by Colonel Qaddafi and Omar al Bashir.

The 40th anniversary of Qaddafi’s “revolution” is the anniversary of one of the most controversial, extravagant and eccentric regimes of the past generations. The flamboyant character of Muammar Qaddafi has taken Arab political kitsch to a new level. The Green Book and subsequent ideological mutations of the Tripoli regime have been the laughing stock of many analysts who have mocked the weirdness and melodramatic character of the increasingly clown-like figure of the Libyan President.

However, Muammar Qaddafi might laugh last. Not many people have made any point of commenting on his current Presidency of the African Union and the fact that he, through this, remains incredibly influential on the African continent and not just a lone, howling mad wolf. He has, undoubtedly helped many Africans who have worked in the booming oil businesses of Libya, and many of my Darfurian friends still travel to Libya there and sustain large families in Sudan by their Libyan salaries. However, the indirect economic assistance to numerous Darfurians must be viewed against Colonel Qaddafi’s  most dubious legacy in the region: he played a major role in sowing the seeds for the murderous janjaweed militias in Darfur. His Presidency of the African Union, its peacekeeping forces form the core of the international deployment in Darfur, is a scandal.

A rapper will change the Iranian elections!

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

I’m sorry, but this deserves its own post. As I’ve mentioned earlier, there were rumors of presidential candidate and 72-year old revolutionary cleric Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Karubi’s meeting with a group of pop artists recently – among them the underground rapper Sâsi Mânkan (Sasy the Model). It is now more or less confirmed. Since Khatami’s withdrawal, this is the most shocking event of the 2009 presidential elections in Iran!

No doubt, young Iranians can see through this election campaign stunt. Many will see it as a desperate attempt to curry favor with the young. Nonetheless, some will love Karubi for it. It might be a joke, but see what this blogger writes:

“Even if I didn’t vote for the Sheikh [i.e. Karubi] when he promised cash handouts of 50,000 tomân, this will surely make me vote for him! A person who will recognize a guy like Sasy Mankan can be a really fun person; even if [Karubi] did this for the sake of elections and later on states that he does not even know a person called Sasy. Say what you like!

If it becomes clear which one of Karubi’s advisors proposed this meeting, I propose he should become Karubi’s first advisor in the new government.

Yeah, Karubi, you’re so cool, yeah!”

It is also certain that Karubi will be criticized for this over the coming days and weeks. It has been reported that already at the meeting itself, clerical members of Karubi’s entourage objected to the presence of underground rappers. Nonetheless, we should thank Karubi for finally giving this election some color! By the way, Karubi has already said he does not know of any ‘Sasy the Model’ …

Too late for a reformist momentum?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

After a turbulent start, the Iranian presidential election race has entered a new phase. Now, the presidential candidates are aiming their slogans and promises at Iran’s youth. But is it too little, too late to create a reformist momentum?

Over the last two weeks, Mir-Hossein Musavi – the candidate for which Khatami stepped down a month ago – has received support from major organizations on the ‘reformist wing’. The Combatant Clerics Coalition (the main ‘reformist’ clerical body), The Participation Front (the main ‘reformist party’), The Organization of the Islamic Revolution’s Mujahedin (a key political group) and the central committee of The Third Wave (a pro-Khatami movement) have all announced that they will back Musavi in his bid for the presidency (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4). Furthermore, the ‘centrist’ Executives of Reconstruction Party – which is aligned with the powerful Ayatollah Rafsanjani – has also declared its support for Musavi (even though Rafsanjani himself has not yet voiced support for any candidate).

What may be quite important in terms of factional battles is that Musavi apparently received the blessing of most marâje‘-e taqlid (Sources of Emulation: the highest ranking Shiite clerics) during a recent trip to Qom, Iran’s religious center. According to a pro-Musavi weblog, the state-media was ‘shocked’ by this show of support, and have tried to downplay its importance. It seems as if the marâje‘-e taqlid have refused to meet Ahmadinejad as a group. The fact that they met with Musavi can thus be seen to indicate their support for change in government.

Despite the recent string of statements, the support is not unanimous. A key member from the Combatant Clerics Coalition, Mohammad-‘Ali Abtahi, has joined Musavi’s competitor, Mehdi Karubi, as an advisor. Abtahi has stated that other members of the Coalition will vote for Karubi. The Executives of Construction Party may support Musavi, but its secretary-general, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, announced his support for Karubi several months ago. In some ‘reformist’ circles there have been talk of bringing in former interior minister Abollah Nuri as a ‘real reformist’ candidate instead of Musavi. Even in the main ‘reformist’ party, Moshârekat, key members – Khatami’s brother Mohammad-Reza and leading theoretician Sa‘id Hajjariyan – had called for a new candidate, but in the end, they accepted the party’s endorsement of Musavi. In other words, the many declarations of support are not indicative of a universal consensus on the ‘reformist wing’.

In any case, this show of support is far from enough to secure a ‘reformist’ victory. Apart from the fact that the ‘reformist’ vote is split between several candidates, the major obstacle is that the young segment and the politically active students remain hesitant and unconvinced of the ‘reformist’ nature of Musavi – and his ability to change anything. Consequently, Musavi has started currying favor with this segment. A couple of weeks ago, he announced that if he were to become president, he would dismantle the so-called Guidance Patrols (gasht-e ershâd), also called religious police in Western media. These patrols enforce Islamic moral values and dress codes among young Iranians and are hugely unpopular with the less conservative youth. Recent years have seen the implementation of the ‘Social Safety Program’ under which patrols periodically launch harsh campaigns against ‘morally deprived’ young Iranians. By announcing that he will stop these patrols, Musavi is trying to win young votes. Karubi – who has also promised cash handouts to all young Iranians if he is to win – has jumped on this wagon, and announced similar promises. He has threatened to go to Khamene‘i if the patrols continue their harassment of young Iranians.

However, such promises seem like nothing but hot air. Indeed, it is – as pointed out yesterday by Iranian judicial authorities – not up to the president to make such a decision. A judiciary spokesman stated that the patrols are ‘interminable’ and the Disciplinary Forces (niru-ye entezâmi) Commander Ahmadi-Moqaddam blasted Musavi and Karubi, warning that such statements are unacceptable. Nonetheless, Musavi continues his efforts to attract young voters. He has stated that he knows the young and their trends better than any other candidate; that ‘we should trust the youth’ just as in the early years of the revolution; that confronting the young only leads to ‘pessimism’; and that instead of ‘authoritarian methods’, the state must work with cultural means to reach out to the youth.

Musavi is also playing his ‘artist card’ now. An architect and painter (you can see some of his works here), he enjoys some support among Iran’s artists (such as the famous film-maker Dariush Mehrjui), who are hoping for a more tolerant government and less censorship in the future. In a meeting yesterday, reformist politicians praised Musavi as a liberal figure who had defended artistic freedoms even in the early days of revolutionary fervor and cultural revolution. Musavi is not a man who will put up ‘barbed wire to prevent a flood’, one speaker stated, referring to the wave of cultural products flooding the globalized world and, consequently, also Iran. Such statements come at a time when Internet is more widespread and popular in Iranian society than ever; and at a time when the Revolutionary Guards have announced a cyber war on illegal websites.

Thus, Musavi is trying to cash in on the more ‘liberal’ image as an intellectual and artist. Furthermore, we will undoubtedly see more of Musavi’s wife in the coming months. Zahra Rahnavard is a scholar, writer and artist in her own right, and has recently criticized the discrimination of women in Iran.

As I have elaborated on earlier, Musavi is presenting himself as a cross-factional candidate. Since my last post on the topic, this has become even more apparent. Alongside ‘reformist’ statements such as the above on the patrols, Musavi has also stated that he will not work with anyone who tries to ‘break the framework’ of the political system; he has repeatedly stated that Iran must return to the revolutionary path; and he has avoided oppositional figures, pro-democracy student gatherings and visits with the families of political prisoners. Nonetheless, the praise for Musavi, which we have heard from some moderate conservatives the last couple of months, has yet to translate into direct support. Even if conservatives who are fed up with Ahmadinejad should actually support Musavi in his bid for president (and they might do this secretly, a ‘reformist’ has stated), this flirt with conservative forces will probably alienate an important constituency: the politically aware students.

As an example, the pro-Musavi website Qalam recently featured an article with the headline ‘Universities must take steps towards reaching the goals of pure Islam’. The article carried statements by a person identified as head secretary of Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat (The Office for Consolidating Unity), which is the main pro-democracy student body. However, this was the secretary of a breakaway pro-conservative group known as the Shiraz Branch – and not the original group that helped Khatami to power in 1997. Pro-democracy students were infuriated that Qalam brought this article and on various student blogs and websites, the conclusion was drawn that there is no difference in Musavi and Ahmadinejad.

It is the apparent similarity with Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and ideological outlook that is Musavi’s Achilles Heel. Musavi will not be able to change his image without losing that same quality that makes him more acceptable to the ruling conservative elite than Khatami. Half-baked promises of removing the religious police from the streets will not satisfy the politically aware students and young Iranians. There seems to be a feeling that Musavi is either no better or different than Ahmadinejad, or maybe afraid to speak his mind. Furthermore, when it is rumored that even such central figures as Hajjariyan doubts Musavi’s ‘reformism’, it can come as no surprise that others can have a hard time imagining Musavi as a new Khatami.

‘Reformist’ blogger Bahman recently wrote:
“In my opinion, Musavi is not a reformist, just as Karubi isn’t either. Musavi is not representative of what we have fought for and talked about for the last twelve years [since Khatami’s presidential victory in 1997]. Musavi is one of the high-ranking executives of the political system who happens to believe more than most (maybe even most of all) in the political system, who wants to protect it and who wants to make it work efficiently. He sees the political system as a popular system: not in its modern sense but rather in the sense of the Ummah, or Muslim community. That is, to him, ‘the people’ are those he imagines as the real owners of the revolution and the political system.”

Indeed, if Musavi (or Karubi) were to win – would they be able to change anything? This ubiquitous question was formulated in an interesting way recently. Akbar A‘lami – former MP for Tabriz and an outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad’s government – has questioned the ‘reformist’ label for Musavi and Karubi. A‘lami himself has announced he will run for president, but it is doubted whether the unelected vetting body, Guardian Council, will admit him into the race. During his recent campaigning, which has received little if any attention from state-run media, A‘lami has invited Musavi and Karubi to an open public debate. In this invitation, A‘lami asked each candidate what he would do if he was to become president and was faced with a ‘state decree’ from The Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i?

This question is crucial as it reveals the impotence of any president in opposing these decrees issued every now and then by the Leader. The opaque yet overshadowing and unhindered power of the Leader is indeed a core problem of the Iranian political system. It is also yet another reason why some find the outfall of the presidential elections unimportant – and thus, participation in the election process pointless.

This is not to say that the presidency is a post completely devoid of significance. The Iranian votes have proved time and again to reflect important shifts in public opinion. Constrained as he might be, the president is nonetheless Iran’s face abroad and a representative of a significant segment and interest in society. Yet it becomes increasingly difficult for voters to discern the differences between candidates’ political outlook – and correspondingly harder for Iranian politicians to persuade the population to believe in the system and the power of their votes in bringing about change.

With less than two months left before the presidential elections, something close to a miracle – or at least, a fundamental change of strategy – is needed. If not, Ahmadinejad will most probably win with a slight majority and continue into his second round as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

[more to follow ...]

UPDATE

Just to prove my point that the reformists are desperately addressing the Iranian youth these days:

Mehdi Karubi is reported to have visited a group of pop musicians, including the rapper Sâsi Mânkan (!). This unprecedented move is shocking since the hugely popular underground music, and in particular Persian Hip Hop, is effectively outlawed. As I have commented earlier, the political system sees Hip Hop as a threat to society. It will be interesting to see if state-run media will pick up on this story!

Where are Turkish swing voters to swing to?

by Daniella Kuzmanovic.

Local elections in Turkey, which were held on Sunday the 29th of March, brought about some interesting results and indications, also concerning the future national political landscape of Turkey. Many of these have already been scrutinized in detail by Turkish press, and I have no intention of repeating their insights in this comment. However, I did find one particular insight from political scientist Doğu Ergil regarding the current character of the centre-right in Turkey worth an additional comment, since it reveals one of the central problems in Turkish party politics today.

In his column ‘Lessons of the elections’ in Today’s Zaman on April 1 Ergil rightly points out that the results reflect how the AKP has become (or at least has become perceived as) a centre-right party. Hence, they stand out in the eyes of a segment of their voters as that which they have always themselves claimed to be, namely a conservative democratic party. Ergil’s analysis is backed by the observation that the right-wing nationalist party (MHP) and the conservative pro-Islamic party (SP) won back some of the more nationalist and religious conservative voters respectively from the AKP. In others words those voters further to the right went back to their roots. As furthermore rightly pointed out by Ergil, this shift must imply that the AKP now fine-tune their agenda in order to meet the expectations of the voters, which did vote for the AKP. Otherwise these votes may be lost by the next general election in 2011.

Centre-right has traditionally been significant in relation to Turkish national politics, since two thirds of Turkish voters have a tendency to vote for parties right of centre and on the far right. One naturally has to be careful with such terms as left and right of centre in Turkish politics. Here it does have some relevance, though. If one goes back to the 1990ies it created huge problems in national politics throughout the decade that the two dominant centre-right parties at the time, The right path party (DYP now DP) and the Motherland party (ANAP), were not able to cooperate, among other due to personal animosities between the respective leaders of the parties, Tansu Çiller and Mesut Yılmaz.

The two parties became hugely discredited throughout the 1990ies due to, among other, corruption and embezzlement charges, inability to carry out effective economic policies, personal animosities. The parties were among the biggest losers in the general election in 2002, when the AKP came to power. Neither DYP nor ANAP were able to pass the 10 percent threshold. Their loss was confirmed in the 2007 national election. The parties formed an election alliance in order to attract voters to the traditional centre-right, but received less than 6 percent of the votes, and were unable to enter parliament. The story of the success of the AKP is thus also the story of the decline of traditional centre-right parties.

This decline of the traditional centre-right was reaffirmed in the local elections yesterday as well. Looking at the results (http://secim2009.ntvmsnbc.com/default.htm) DP (former DYP) continued their downwards slide with regard to total number of voters (local election 2004: 9,97 %, national elections 2007: 5,42 %, local election 2009: 3,72 %). This was also the case for ANAP (local elections 2004: 2,5 %, local elections 2009: 0,76 %).

What does this then tell us, in addition to Ergil’s analysis of the shift towards MHP and SP and the consolidation of AKP as the new centre-right? As I see it, it reminds us that the Turkish voters simultaneously continue to concentrate around a limited number of dominant parties. This should come as no surprise given that the campaign budget and media exposure of parties outside parliament is limited. Never the less we should keep in mind that this voter concentration centers round the very parties, which have not only monopolized but also polarized Turkish political life throughout the past seven years.
One must hope that the level of political tension and polarization in Turkey lessens during the years to come, and that the current party in power seeks to contribute effectively to this. However, where are the centre-right voters to go if the AKP and the opposition parties do not? As seen from previous elections Turkish party politics is highly volatile. Large blocks of voters can, indeed, swing from one party to others in any given election. But with the current condition of the centre-right, and for that matter also the centre-left, in Turkey who are these voters to swing to when only currently four parties remain standing?

Turkey is, as the local elections unfortunately also revealed, still badly in need of new political parties, new political programs, and new politicians.