This week's editor


Adam Ramsay is co-editor of OurKingdom.

A Georgian appeal: open letter to the west

My dear friends, colleagues and partners,

The condition of Georgia is grave, and change in the governance of my country is essential. In a time of great political momentum, I would like to address you - friends of Georgia living in free and democratic Nino Burdzhanadze is a leading Georgian politician who served as speaker of the parliament in Tbilisi from November 2001 to June 2008. 

She is chair of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia political party
societies - in search of hope and understanding. Amid intense weeks of political protest in the streets of Tbilisi, and after extensive communication with the international community, I believe that there in a need to make even clearer both my personal position and the motivation of the current peaceful struggle of the Georgian people.

What is happening now in Georgia can be understood as the attempt to answer a question that has dominated our lives since the break-up of the Soviet empire: how can nations that emerged from under it build an indigenous, independent and democratic society?  

My own political biography has been a long engagement with this question. On two occasions I have been the speaker of the Georgian parliament and acting president of the country, I was among three leaders of the Rose Revolution of 2003 who supported the commitment of the Georgian people to create a better country.

During the five and a half years since then, I have discussed and explored many issues central to Georgia's future: the need for reform and for political unity, the importance of state-building, territorial problems, confrontation with aggression, and dozens of daily priorities. In a number of cases I made choices that harmed my political career, including compromises that seemed to show me to be indecisive and unprincipled; but all these decisions were aimed at one ultimate goal - maintaining the stability of Georgia. 

This is the experience that has brought me to my latest political stance and commitment.

The ground of protest

The view has been much heard from those working in international institutions that current political processes in Georgia have become too "radicalised" and are unhelpful in securing the country's stability - and that I am personally  to blame for that. It's healthy then to remember that only a few decades ago, during the Soviet regime, Georgia enjoyed an incomparable level of stability. There were no problems of territorial integrity, snap elections, conflict with neighbours, and the like.

This shows that stability alone is far from enough to guarantee the foundation of modern, civilised relations: democracy. After all, it was an illusive stability that led us all to the tragic events of August 2008, which vividly exposed the reality that there is neither democracy nor stability in Georgia.

Georgian society has learned a serious lesson since January 2008, when people and parties across the spectrum - and the international democratic community - chose stability to the detriment of democracy. There is no stability without democracy and there cannot be any.

At that time, I exhausted all my efforts as speaker of the Georgian legislative body in the effort to strengthen democratic institutions and "checks and balances". But when political processes started to move entirely in the opposite direction from true "democracy-building", I made the decision to break from the governmental team.  

This led me to the present point where, based on my experience and as one of the oppositon leaders, I carry on a peaceful political struggle for democracy in Georgia. I strongly believe that democracy first and "democracy today" - which is also the motto of my political party - is both the only path for overcoming the current political crisis, and the only guarantee of long-term stability in my country. 

Today, when the flashes of hope for a democratic future that were lit in 2003 have become dim, I - together with my political colleagues - protest against Georgia's authoritarian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and in favour of a stable and democratic Georgia.

Most of us protesting in the streets of Tbilisi about what is happening in Georgia were at one time supporters and allies of Mikheil Saakashvili. But this man has in the course of his presidency become tainted by power, narrowing gradually the constitutional rights and freedoms of Georgia's people in pursuit of a façade democracy in which power is wielded against the very people who are the source of his democratic mandate.

The grounds for our protest include the following six key points:

* The protest is not a matter of personalities; it is directed against the attempt to remodel Georgia's already authoritarian state and create an even more uncertain future. The essential requirement in response is to establish real democratic and pluralist institutions and processes, and accountability for political leaders. 

* The state's institutions are deprived of decision-making authority; all the decisions are made in a non-transparent way by a small coterie around president. This high level of concentration of power must change.

* The fraudulent conduct of elections is in violation of all international democratic norms and standards, and of Georgia's own constitution. President Saakashvili's fraudulent elections have led to the disqualification of Georgia from the category of "electoral democracies" cited by the respected international organisation Freedom House. This must end.

* The control of the interior ministry and security service gives the president total control over the public broadcaster as well as other national TV channels. This centralised mechanism for promulgating ideological propaganda is a denial of rights to the free flow of information and ideas. The place of Georgia in the "press freedom index" of Reporters Sans Frontieres has declined from 78 in 2003 to 120 in 2008.

* The control of the judicial system through the office of the prosecutor-general has allowed violation of the human rights of peaceful protestors, including many cases of police violence. There have also been even more serious incidents involving the murder of innocent people, which remain uninvestigated.

* The president's losing battle cost the lives of hundreds of Georgia's citizens and military personnel, victims of the president's fanatical ambition of obtaining a victory over the Russian army. This worthless military confrontation resulted in the loss of 20% of the Georgian territories, three new Russian bases on Georgian soil, tens of thousands of internally-displaced people (IDPs), and crucial damage to vital infrastructure. The war significantly dented Georgia's pro-western and Euro-Atlantic ambitions, split Georgian society, and lost the president the trust of Georgia's people. Such a political leader is unable to secure the future of Georgia, internally or internationally.

The reality-check

Again, I have been led to these judgments and my current position by personal and political experience. Perhaps until as late as April 2008 the parliament of Georgia had a real chance to become stronger as an institution and more independent of the executive branch - a body to which the members of government could be accountable and where if necessary the impeachment of the president could take place. But President Saakashvili, fully aware of this possible threat to his reign, did his utmost not to allow the parliament - and myself as speaker - to become a balancing authority to his totalitarian ambitions. 

This is a reality which, I believe, is not properly understood by some of you, Georgia's western friends. Perhaps this is because for so long in the post-2003 period, Georgia was deemed to be a democracy success-story. But when, for example, some western friends call on the Georgian opposition (including myself) to launch a dialogue with the government in one or other institution, it is clear that our partners may not grasp that there are no democratic institutions in Georgia and no state institution which are willing or able to protect the constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens. This is a country which has reached a dead-end for democracy.  

The failure to apprehend this reality, and the support that Mikheil Saakashvili still enjoys in the Euro-Atlantic community, is a source of increasing frustration among the Georgian population. Here, Georgia's friends need to look beyond the messages and signals that they are receiving from the government in Tbilisi and become aware of the flow of misinformation (and even worse, lying) of which they too, as well as Georgia's people, are victims. It is very important that they do so; for otherwise, this alarming tendency of frustration with the west may lead to drastic and regrettable changes in Georgia's political orientation, affecting the entire region as a result.

The historic choice

The Georgian people deserve to live in a free and democratic society. We must then realise that our country today is in this respect at a crossroads. We all - representatives of Georgian society and its political spectrum, as well as the international community - face a historic choice: accept the façade democracy which conceals a state of power and cannot ensure the country's stability, or support a decisive campaign for freedom and real democracy in Georgia. 

Along with my colleagues in opposition, aware of Georgia's political dynamics and the nature of Mikheil Saakashvili's methods and principles of running the state, I have come to believe that to engage in a peaceful, political battle for the future of the country is the only answer. Georgia will not be a stable country under undemocratic rule; the current president is taking the country in a dangerous direction; his removal is the precondition for the arduous process of creating a democratic order founded on the rule of law, good governance, an independent judiciary, a free media, responsible and accountable institutions, and free and fair elections.

We believe that our struggle cannot be left unheard by the international democratic community. As a result, in the midst of an intensive and often brutal political standoff, I appeal to you: look more closely at what is happening in Georgia, maintain your most valuable engagement is securing our national independence and territorial integrity, and continue to work for freedom and democracy in our country. 

With the shared hope of a better future,

Nino Burdzhanadze

Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics, including the war with Russia in August 2008:

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvii's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 May 2008)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia: the politics of recovery" (24 October 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: the aftermath" (16 November 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: a region in pieces" (8 January 2009)

Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia, again" (30 January 2009)

Tedo Japaridze, "A Georgian chalk circle: open letter to the west" (12 May 2009)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia on the brink - again" (20 May 2009)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section publishes articles, reports, and debates on Georgia and Russia

Lebanon's elections: reading the signs

A national election is usually an occasion for reviewing the performance of a governing party, endorsing it for another term or (in the event of a change) announcing an emergent movement endorsed by popular legitimacy. Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based paper al-Hayat

Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy include:
"Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2008)

"Lebanon's election, no solution" (20 June 2005)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

"How the European left supports Lebanon" (14 August 2006)

"Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

"The Arab defeat" (11 June 2007)

"Lebanon's ‘14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)
Such a turning-point is at once a judgment of past policies, an affirmation of the future, and a dissolver of myths. At its democratic best there is a sense of completion about the whole process.

Lebanon's parliamentary election of 7 June 2009 - whose result (against many expectations) confirmed the ruling "March 14" coalition in office, and  left the militant Hizbollah group in opposition - was a successful case-study of this kind. The whole experience was even more remarkable given the flawed pre-election record of the March 14 forces and the fact that Hizbollah's guns overshadowed the electoral process. For elections to take place in the shadow of illegal weapons is rare enough; for the party fighting these weapons to win is an exceptional event that deserves an honoured place in the annals of democracy and electoral processes.

The falling myths

The election was a healthy exercise too in the way that the majority of the Lebanese were able to deconstruct and move beyond many of the political myths that had grown up around them since the astonishing year of 2005 - when (on 14 February) their former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, the "cedar revolution" was born (with a huge demonstration on 14 March giving birth to the political movement of that name), Syrian troops (in March-April) withdrew from the country, and (in May-June) the general election awarded the new movement victory.  

Among the myths that arose then and can be now be discarded are these four:

* that the electoral result in 2005 was "an emotional reaction" to Rafiq Hariri's killing (allegedly by agents of Syria), without any other political and independence-related content

* that the 2005 outcome was the result of a Syria-imposed electoral law, producing a parliamentary majority "stolen" by March 14's "quadripartite alliance"

* that most Lebanese view their prime minister since July 2005, Fouad Siniora, as inadequate, stupid or through the lens of anger at his economic policies (Siniora's victory in the city of Saida is symbolic in this respect)

* that most Lebanese are content with Hizbollah and its suspension of the country's economic life.

Indeed, what the election reveals about Lebanese attitudes to Hizbollah is crucial. Most of the Lebanese do not feel comfortable with the weapons of the ‘‘resistance'', but rather fear them. They don't consider the war with Israel of  July-August 2006 a "divine victory" nor Hizbollah's military advance on 7 May 2008 "a glorious day". This lazy discourse, and the alleged consensus around the ‘‘resistance", also fell with a deafening crash in the 7 June 2009 election.

The next chapter  

The elections have also revealed about the Christians of Lebanon, whose core regions have in recent years witnessed the fiercest political battles. Two trends stand out. First, their disillusion with the emptiness of their elites had led many of them to transfer their support to General Michel Aoun as their primary leader. That this process is now in reverse is reflected in the failure of the main figures of the pro-Aoun Tayyar (Issam Abu Jamra, Jubran Bassil) and the Takattul political bloc (Elie Skaff) - as well as in the tight contests even in most of the districts where the "Aounists" eventually won. True, Michel Aoun won in areas such as Kesserwan, but his losses in Beirut I and Zahleh and the reduction of Zghorta to a northern redoubt are equally important. Since Michel Aoun played a dramatic role as a Christian who provided political "cover" for Hizbollah, the downward trend of his support reduces this current. 

Second, there is more emphasis on a sort of "traditionalist" view of Lebanon. This traditionalism is hardly congenial to anyone aiming for a democratic, plural and secular society; but it is assuredly better than turning the country into a launch-pad for small rockets and a welcome-mat for bigger rockets.

But even a peaceful and myth-breaking election leaves ambiguity in its wake. The democratic announcement by the majority of Lebanese of their opinion and convictions is one thing - the ability to take power in their own hands is another. Now, more than ever, democracy and ‘‘resistance'' seem to be at opposite ends. Most Lebanese will continue to feel that no matter what they decide, the weapons will remain pointed at them. The next chapter in their life will be dominated by how they deal with this issue and its regional complexities.

Also in openDemocracy on Lebanon's travails:

Roger Scruton, "Lebanon: the missing perspective" (20 July 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: war takes root" (3 August 2006)

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon" (22 August 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: the war after the war" (12 October 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Lebanon: slices of life" (31 October 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award" (13 February 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh" (11 May 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "Washington in Lebanon and Palestine: fatal manipulation" (6 August 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon divided" (7 August 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon at the crossroads" (5 June 2009)

Lahore to Peshawar: the trophy-target war

Pakistan's cites are under assault. A series of bomb-attacks on spectacular or otherwise high-profile targets in Islamabad (the Marriott Hotel, in September 2008) and Lahore (the Sri Lankan cricket team and a police academy, in March 2009) has now been followed by the destruction of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar on 9 June. The campaign, part of the country's rooted political and security crises, can also be understood in symbolic terms.

Razi Ahmed studied politics and economics at the University of Chicago, and now works in Lahore. He writes frequently in Dawn Lahore's Queen's Road is a place of dense urban agglomeration. It starts from the city's bustling electronics wholesale market, passes a Salvation Army school, the pre-partition Ganga Ram hospital, the British visa office, a concentration of media and law offices, a popular cinema, relics of Hindu architecture, and the Red Cross office, before rounding off at Charing Cross, a site of popular protests and rallies opposite the Punjab Legislative Hall.

Here too lies the intended target of the gun-and-suicide attack of 27 May 2009 - the office of Pakistan's flagship intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The agency's building is adjacent to a police-station and the police's emergency-response centre, which were ultimately the locations hit. The incident left twenty-six people dead and over 250 wounded, debris, charred buildings, damaged hospitals, and many mangled cars, rickshaws, and electric poles.

The perpetrators of this and similar strikes deep into the urban maze of Lahore's city-centre are a nexus of al-Qaida, Pakistani Taliban, and local Punjabi militants who have adopted a "punishment" strategy designed - in an echo of powerful states's air-campaigns - to "(harm) enemy civilians in order to lower their morale and motivate them to force their governments to end the war." The militants' targets in this urban campaign of terror include key units of state and society, law-enforcement agencies, mosques, hotels, and individual political figures.

The arc of influence of these militants extends from the core Taliban badlands of North and South Waziristan to Lahore and Quetta; it is increasingly exerted through the group's proxies, such as the Punjab-based Lashkar-i-Taiba. The urban heartlands of Lahore, Islamabad, and Peshawar have become "trophy-targets" of militants seeking to punish the Pakistani state for its newfound resolve against terror. These cities represent the heart of national commerce and culture, as well as the key nodes of law-enforcement. This makes them all the more tempting to the militants.

The brutal assault on the Frontier region's sole deluxe hotel in Peshawar's busy Sadder district, executed in the same gun-and-suicide bombing pattern as Lahore's, inflicted a death-toll of eighteen, including United Nations officials, plus sixty injured. It too is part of this emerging pattern of multi-pronged attacks on state and society, in the service of pitiless urban punishment. The strategy is self-evidently "successful" in achieving its short-term objective of spreading chaos, but insofar as it is hardening the resolve of both state and citizens to protect their interests and livelihoods, it is ultimately self-defeating.

The blast-waves reaching across Lahore and Peshawar represent the spreading urbanisation of an internal war for so long fought in the militants' mountainous hideouts. But these are already landscapes of conflict, whose people have the resources to make sense of it and defy those who would intimidate them. Lahore's first suicide-bombing in January 2008 can also be seen as one moment of a history marked by invasions, the turmoil around partition, sporadic religious violence and national wars. Lahore, my city too, has always recovered.

Peshawar has had tougher luck. This conservative city served as the advance base for the United States-sponsored Afghan mujahideen operations against Soviet forces in the 1980s; once concluded with the Red Army's withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988-89, it remained a locus of jihadist ideology and fulmination, and has found a new role with the coming of another Afghan war in 2001. But this time round, the deep penetration of militants inside the city and across the Frontier make this latest protracted conflict both indigenous and more bloody.

There is no sign of the militant campaign on Pakistan's cities abating. It is crucial that the effort to sever the circuits of terror, intended to transform Pakistan's urban nodes into places of permanent insecurity, continues. Lahore and Peshawar can also resist by taking refuge in their legacy and identity as cities, rejecting violence in the name of shared public life.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan:

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamadad" (4 June 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan"  (24 July 2007)

Saskia Sassen, "Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

Irfan Husain. "Pervez Musharraf: the commando who couldn't" (19 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: the new frontline" (18 September 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war" (25 November 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "Mumbai: Pakistan's moment of opportunity" (3 December 2008)

Paul Rogers, "The AfPak war: three options" (25 February 2009)

Paul Rogers, "A three-front war: Iraq, AfPak...Washington" (20 March 2009)

Nadeem Ul Haque, "How to solve Pakistan's problem" (24 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: sources of turmoil" (30 April 2009)

Anatol Lieven, "Pakistan's American problem" (6 May 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan's war on civilians" (28 May 2009)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan and the ‘AfPak' strategy" (28 May 2008)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "The road from hell" (9 June 2009)

The trouble with guns: Sri Lanka, South Africa, Ireland

Jacob Zuma's inauguration as South Africa's new president on 9 May 2009 opened a new phase in the country's politics, following the victory of the African National Congress (ANC) in the national elections on 22 April. But there is also continuity in the use of some of the classic symbols and icons of the ANC during its rise to power - prominent among them, the gun.Martin Shaw is professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. A historical sociologist of war and global politics, his books include War and Genocide (Polity, 2003), The New Western Way of War (Polity, 2005), and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). He is editor of the global site

Also by Martin Shaw in openDemocracy:

"The myth of progressive war" (11 October 2006)

"Genocide: rethinking the concept" (1 February 2007)

"The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)

"The genocide file: reply to Anthony Dworkin"  (6 March 2007)

"My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice" (16 March 2008)

"Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

"Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

"Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision" (11 March 2009)

"The Kosovo war: between two eras" (31 March 2009)

"A century of genocide, 1915-2009" (23 April 2009)

The combination of a political leadership that draws at least part of its historic legitimacy from a past commitment to "armed struggle" raises a number of questions, among them the effect of violence (in South Africa or elsewhere) on campaigns for emancipation. The topicality of the question is further highlighted by the end of the decades-long military campaign by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers / LTTE) in Sri Lanka; and the spasm of violent attacks by "dissident" paramilitary groups and sectarian thugs in Northern Ireland.

Beyond the gates

Jacob Zuma's political campaigning strongly features his "signature" song, Umshini wami - rendered from Zulu as "bring me my machine-gun". In the days of the "armed struggle" under South Africa's apartheid regime, Zuma was indeed once a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation / MK) - the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC).

If there is a problem here, it is less that Zuma has no reputation as an actual fighter than that the MK's exiled leadership and the military operations it organised inside South Africa did not play a decisive role in ending apartheid and bringing the ANC to power. Rather the opposite: it was because the ANC prioritised democratic movements inside the country over the approach represented by the MK that they could achieve a commanding political hegemony. 

For its part, members of Umkhonto we Sizwe acquired notoriety for human-rights abuses committed in training-camps run by the ANC where exiled South Africans were based. Some of these were admitted to South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Moreover, the period in which ANC members most often reached for their weapons was the early 1990s, during the conflict with Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (in, as it happens, Jacob Zuma's home province of KwaZulu Natal). The effects were disastrous, and it is hard to argue that the internecine war advanced the "freedom struggle".

This historical record seems to make little dent in the tendency of many ANC supporters to romanticise the "armed struggle". In this, they are hardly alone. A cult of arms (symbolised most prominently by Che Guevara) survives among sections of the left, middle-aged and comfortable as well as young and less secure, in London, New York and Paris; as well as in South Africa's townships and other marginalised communities n the global south. The University of Sussex, where I work, even has a "Che-Leila Society" - an "anti-imperialist" society named after Guevara and Leila Khaled, the Palestinian militant involved in a spectacular hijacking incident in 1969) - which plasters the campus with stickers showing a silhouetted figure with a gun.

A similar romanticism surrounds Islamist fighters involved in jihadi campaigns around the world. It is fuelled by an underworld of publications, websites, images and the hothouse emotionalism of sections of the alienated young. Most of those who subscribe to the cult of arms might be horrified by a close encounter with a bomb or machine-gun, yet they indulge the idea that such men (and Leila Khaled notwithstanding, they are almost all men) play crucial roles in the fight for freedom.

Inside the struggle

The ignominious defeat of the Tamil Tigers - one of the world's longest-running guerrilla campaigns - is a further confirmation of the problems that arise when "armed struggle" takes priority over democratic forms of resisting power.

The result of twenty-six years of organised violence against the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan state and army and in favour of an independent "Tamil Eelam" homeland has been misery for hundreds of thousands of the Tamil minority on whose behalf the struggle was waged. In the aftermath of the war, many of those who had been corralled into the last sliver of Tiger-controlled territory and bombarded by the Sri Lankan military are now interned in government-controlled detention camps; some are at the mercy of anti-Tamil paramilitaries.

In its last phase alone the Sri Lankan war caused many more deaths than (for example) the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009. There is a need now to protest the horrors that the state continues to inflict on the Tamil population and to bring to justice the perpetrators of anti-civilian violence on both sides (see Luther Uthayakumaran, "Sri Lanka: after war, justice", 21 May 2009).

But the LTTE must take a major responsibility both for the war's denoument and for all the consequences of its long-term substitution of violence for politics in the campaign it waged ostensibly on behalf of justice for the Tamil people. Tamils in the diaspora as well as in Sri Lanka must overcome the false communal solidarity which glosses over the LTTE's crimes, and face up to the Tigers' responsibility in this situation (see Nirmala Rajasingham, "The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities" (17 April 2009).

Also in openDemocracy on violent legacies in divided societies:

Fred Hallday, "Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

Roger Southall, "South Africa's election: a tainted victory" (7 April 2009)

Nirmala Rajasingam, "The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities" (17 April 2009)

Luther Uthayakumaran, "Sri Lanka: after war, justice" (21 May 2009)

Rohan Gunaratna, "Sri Lanka's challenge: winning the peace" (27 May 2009)

Tom Lodge, "Northern Ireland: between peace and reconciliation" (3 June 2009)
As Nirmala Rajasingham points out: "It is striking ... that in all the demonstrations [in solidarity with the threatened Tamils] not a single cry, slogan or placard [demanded] that the Tigers should let the civilians go or cease their own assaults on them. The silence of the diaspora community on this issue is deafening." Now that the war is over and the suffering of the civilians in the camps is beginning to be exposed, it is important that the Sri Lankan government should not be able to dismiss the world's protests as pro-Tiger propaganda.

The double damage

The forms of blind or at best one-eyed "solidarity" evident in relation to Sri Lanka echo the evasions of some anti-apartheid campaigners to crimes committed under the banner of the ANC or of Irish Republicans to crimes of the Provisional IRA during the Northern Ireland "troubles". They may serve the "manifest" function of proclaiming the need to compete with the armed enemy in an "asymmetrical" fight, but what they miss is the latent function of arms - which is to enable the armed (whoever they are, and whatever the imagined justice of their cause) to exert power over the unarmed.

What happens in armed conflict - as Peter Beaumont, war correspondent of the Observer argues - is that "societies are reordered into sharply defined new hierarchies: into those who have weapons and those who have not. A man with a gun can walk to the front of the bread or petrol queue. With his militia friends he can take over a petrol station if he likes and reorganise the distribution while skimming money off the top. With a rifle you can order a woman to have sex. Weapons redistribute wealth through ‘taxes', protection rackets and straight theft. Scores can be settled, under the cover of generalised violence" (see Peter Beaumont, The Secret Life of War [Random House, 2009]). 

The various justifications for "armed struggle" remain largely untouched by such considerations - even though each is flawed:

* the moral - that the violence of those in power requires an equivalent response (but violence only trades with power in its most debased currency)

* the political - that violent acts create a powerful symbolic divide between power and its opponents (the effects of violence on civilians undermine the symbolic difference between radicals and the power they contest) 

* the strategic - that oppressive regimes can only be defeated with armed force (but authoritarian regimes have crumbled as often in the face of non-violent protest as from armed resistance).

There is too often a double damage in the way that "armed struggle" both  inflicts harm on innocent civilians - even, as in the case of the LTTE, the people it claims to be fighting for - and pushes its enemies towards more extreme repression. A regime which crushes peaceful protest will use even greater and less discriminate force against armed opposition. It is symptomatic here that the adjective most commonly applied to counterinsurgency is "brutal"; and that counterinsurgency probably turns genocidal - as in Rwanda and Darfur - more often than any other type of war.

The historic shift

Many armed movements do see a political point in "exposing" the violent and repressive character of the states they are fighting against. The problem with this argument is that it is the "armed struggle" itself which makes this character evident or reinforces it - meaning that it becomes a property of the armed conflict as much as or more than the state. The armed movement which initiated the conflict must then take a great share of responsibility for all the violence that ensues.

A cycle of this kind was apparent in the political dynamic that led small groups on the fringes of the student and anti-Vietnam War movements in western societies in the 1960s-70s towards violence that escalated to assassination and bombing - designed to "expose" the violence of the state. But the actions of the Red Army Faction in West Germany both produced a more authoritarian state than had previously existed (and might otherwise have existed); and weakened the peaceful protest movements from which they had emerged, since any sympathy for radical goals enabled media and state to smear these entire movements as supportive of violence.

It is clear that there are big differences between (say) violent provocations in street protests, terrorist bombing campaigns of the kind seen in Pakistan's cities, and the sustained armed struggles of groups like the LTTE. It is also important to note that the violence that state forces have employed in such situations - baton-wielding by police, assassination squads (as in Spain or Turkey), prolonged counterinsurgency - routinely outweighs the scale of the original threat.

But violence waged against oppression must be judged in its own terms and against its own proclaimed standards and objectives; and all the above forms of opposition share the substitution of the violence of the few for the protest of the many. In all cases radical violence both provokes greater state violence and coerces the wider movement or population on whose behalf the violent elite claims to act.

The larger story here is the fate of "revolution" - and in particular the decisive shift in the character of radical movements that resulted from the identification of revolution with armed struggle. This shift - which began with Mao Zedong's Chinese communists in the 1920s - made it possible for radicalism to be conscripted in the service of authoritarian and indeed totalitarian interests, the very opposite of democratic struggle by the oppressed.

Sri Lanka's Tamils are only one group that continues to suffer as a result of this embrace of violence as a tool of radical change. In South Africa, Jacob Zuma's celebration of the "machine-gun" may be symbolic, but points to a residual problem in the political and social culture. Northern Ireland's season of armed killings and sectarian murder expose another unresolved legacy.

There is a lesson here too for elements of the global left that still romanticise or indulge the "armed struggle" of (usually) far-away others. The politics of violence are a path to failure and regression. The trouble with guns is that they make the road to real progress so much longer and more painful.

‘Wahhabi’ village in Dagestan

There's plenty of news coming out of Dagestan these days, but none of it's  good. There's never a quiet moment. ‘Counterterrorist' operations end up destroying whole houses. Helicopters fire away into mountain gorges. There are explosions in the streets. Finding unexploded bombs has become a routine event. The other day, the Dagestan Minister of Internal Affairs, Adilgirei Magomedtagirov was killed by a sniper. They say he was killed by his Wahhabi enemies. But who are those ‘Wahhabis'?

Few people really understand what is happening there. It is hard to get an objective picture of events in such a complex place, home to more than 30 different ethnic groups speaking many different languages. In fact, it is all but impossible, even more so when the media propagate myths that are often completely absurd. 

Gudben - the myth

Gudben, a village in the Karabudakhkent District, has something of a reputation. People outside and inside Dagestan say that it is a ‘wahhabi' village. They'll tell you all sorts of stories about what goes on there. You get the idea that the village has been completely taken over by Islamic radicals, that they've more or less imposed sharia law there, as they did in the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi before the outbreak of the second Chechen war. They say that the women are all hidden behind veils and girls do not go to school, while the boys study in the Koranic school, where they are turned into future martyrs for Islam. At any rate, they're supposedly ready to take to the forests. Indeed, they say that Islamic fundamentalism has got such a foothold in Gudben that the doors of people's houses have two handles - one for men and one for women. It's not for nothing that a counterterrorist operation has been underway there since March.  

Islam does indeed play an important part in the life of Gudben. It is as an old village with deep-rooted religious traditions. Even during the Soviet years, local people stubbornly defended their right to believe and pray openly. The Dagestani authorities complained to Moscow that, "in the village of Gudben, in 1956, a group of religious fanatics, acting without permission, opened a mosque", and that "it is very hard to stamp out the relics of the past in people's minds and lives: the religious authorities forbid the young people from joining the komsomol and constantly undermine the communist ideology". (

People from Gudben were among the first Russian Muslims to make the hajj in the early 1990s. Salafist preachers were active in the village, and it certainly had its share of aggressive fundamentalists, though there can't have been too many of them, because when Shamil Basayev invaded Dagestan, they were swiftly dealt with by their own fellow villagers. The villagers gave them a beating, kicked them out of the madresa and made them promise that they would not under any circumstances help Basayev and his friends. In other words, the radicals were not the dominant force in the village. 

So how is it that 10 years later there is no secular education and even door handles are segregated according to sex? Or is this just hearsay?


Gudben - the reality

It's hard to say who thought up the story about the door handles. The doors in Gudben are extremely ordinary, with just one handle. As for the women, they are not hidden behind burqas, but wear long dresses and cover their hair with a scarf thrown over the shoulder. You don't see anyone smoking in the streets, and you certainly don't see anyone drunk. People here are serious about their religion, they stick to the rules, and pray five times a day.

There are over 12,000 people living in the village, and the locals say that four villagers have gone to join the insurgents in the forest. Just four, not hundreds or even dozens. When the ‘counterterrorist' operation began in March, the security forces, worried by the news that Gudben had been taken over by wahhabi fundamentalists, began picking out families who were not sending their children to school. They came up with a total of around 30 children who were not receiving any secular education. This is not a good thing of course. But to put it in perspective, Gudben is a big village, the families all have many children, and 30 children is a drop in the ocean.

As for the question of education, the real problem is not that there are children who don't go to school, but that even those who do go to school have no chance of getting a decent education. The teachers are recent graduates of the very same local school with precious little experience. They speak to the children in Dargin, but the textbooks are in Russian. The children learn to read out the syllables, but they don't actually understand what they're reading. They learn basic arithmetic, and that is about as far it goes.

The better-off families try and send their boys, especially their older sons, to boarding school or to relatives in the towns of Makhachkala, Buinak and Kaspiisk. If the boys have certificates proving that they've had nine years of schooling, schools in the towns usually reluctantly accept them into the sixth year and try to help them catch up, though they are probably more like third year students. Village families don't send their daughters away to study. There is not enough money to go around, and they need helping hands at home. While this is certainly sad, the same is true of many villages in the North Caucasus. 

Gudben is an ordinary village, old, with narrow winding streets that not every car can manage. But the streets here were not designed for cars. It has picturesque stone houses and a huge cemetery on the hill, from where you get an excellent view of the mosque, the same mosque that Gudben's fearless rebels built against Soviet atheism in the late 1950s. The village women and girls look exotic to urban-dwelling outsiders with their colourful headscarves and traditional clothes. It is a picturesque Dargin village high up in the mountains, a place with its own customs. The local life is full of interest. It would be good to make a documentary about it, to be able to show the daily lives of these people who want only to be left in peace to follow their traditions without the upset caused by endless ‘special operations'. 

Beard = wahhabi

"Young men with beards can't show their faces here", said a strongly-built man of around 40, shaking his head. "The security people, if they see a beard, that's it - they're taken into custody straight away. They don't touch the old people, but the young ones... best not to go out. People here prayed during the Soviet years. They prayed in secret, but they kept the religion alive. After the old regime collapsed, we started travelling all around Dagestan, preaching Islam, teaching Muslims who'd lost their knowledge. We had up to 400 people during the holy Ramadan month. We found mosques that had been turned into storehouses, cleaned them, and people began coming to them again...

"Later, at the end of the 1990s, this talk of ‘wahhabis' began, some sort of enemy. People became afraid of receiving us. Now life's become impossible. I get called a wahhabi, but I've not held a gun since I was in the Soviet army. I simply want to follow my beliefs. Yes, I practise pure Islam. Muslims need nothing except what the Prophet God sent and what's written in the books. But here we have fundamentalists like me, and traditionalists who follow the sheikhs. We all pray together, all go to the same mosque. It's shameful to say, but I don't wear a beard, though I should.  I should be setting an example. But the security people would only cause me grief. Look what happened to Saihadji Saihadjiev. He's the same age as me, not even a young man, and now he's left seven children behind. Who is going to bring them up? Two others were killed along with him. And me, I want to raise my children..."  

On October 21, 2008, just 10 kilometres away from Gudben, there was a clash between the insurgents and security forces. Five police officers, including a local policeman from Gudben, were wounded. The security forces surrounded the village and over the next four days detained about 40 local people. They were then sent to police stations in Kaspiisk and Makhachkala. There, they were questioned about the insurgents. Many were beaten, threatened, but they were released fairly quickly.

The villagers thought the incident was over. But on October 27, three Gudben residents, Saihadji Saihadjiev, Nustap Aburakhmanov, and Akhmed Hadjimagomedov, ‘disappeared'. Forty-four year-old Saihadjiev went that evening to pray at the mosque and never came home. Hadjimagomedov collected his daughter from school, then went to the mosque, and disappeared too. Abdurakhmanov was in Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, at the time. He was abducted there. In all three cases relatives soon found eyewitnesses to confirm that the three men were taken away by law enforcement officials. On October 28, the families were told that the three men were killed during a ‘special operation' in Dagestan's Sergokalinsk district, while putting up resistance to law enforcement officers. The families' requests for the bodies to be handed back to them were rejected at first. Under Russian law, terrorists' bodies are not handed over to relatives. But Saihadjiev's father turned out to have connections in high places and after two difficult days, he and the other two families were able to get back their sons' bodies. They could see that they had been subjected to torture. 

Magomed Saihadjiev is 76. Taking his guests up to the second storey of his house he sits down, upright, his silver-white beard neatly combed. His wife Kistoman sits on the stairs, watching attentively, not saying a word, only shedding silent tears from time to time, shyly covering her eyes with the edge of her white headscarf.   

"My son left the house and drove to the mosque", Magomed says. "He entered the mosque. There was a white car waiting beside the mosque. When he came out again, the law enforcement people took him away. There were witnesses. We didn't have a clue about what was going on. There was just this report on the news, this special operation, three insurgents killed, and Saihadji among them. If it hadn't been for my connections we'd never have got his body back. He would've been buried somewhere and we'd never have known what happened. But they ended up having to hand over his body. When I saw what they'd done to my son... One of my relatives, Abdula Rasudlov, is a doctor. We called him, got him to examine the body and explain what he saw, and we filmed it all on video. I'll put it on for you to watch now..."

Magomed put on the recording. The screen showed a horribly tortured body accompanied by the doctor's calm and even voice. Broken bones, burns, bruising...

"We went to the prosecutors. We have a lawyer too... But there's no hope here. Our lawyer says that if we take the case to the European Court of Human Rights we would definitely win, because we have all the proof. But I heard this would take a long time... Do you know how long we'd have to wait, a year, two years? What, five whole years? Isn't there any way to speed things up? Please try to do something. You saw yourselves what they did to him? And for what? Saihadji spent his whole life doing nothing but good for others. He never caused anyone any harm. And then there was this shootout with the police, our local policeman got caught in it too. Then they came and took him and the two others away by way of punishment... Innocent people! He's left four sons behind. How are they going to manage now?" 

Saihadji's youngest son is two years and eight months old. His relatives say that the boy spends whole days sitting on the windowsill, waiting for his father, asking when papa will come home.

On the village outskirts, the big cemetery on the hill offers a wonderful view of the mosque, that same mosque which the villagers opened without permission more than fifty years ago. Saihadji is buried near the cemetery fence. His mother often visits the grave with her little grandson. While his grandmother prays, the little boy runs around, hiding behind the white stone gravestones.

He doesn't yet understand the meaning of death.

Pakistan: the road from hell

Pakistan's future is uncertain. But a few things can be said with something approaching certainty about what will not happen. The country will not break up; there will not be another military coup; the Taliban will not seize the presidency; Pakistan's nuclear weapons will not go astray; and the Islamic sharia will not become the law of the land.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan

This is an edited version of an article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (June 2009)

Also by Pervez Hoodbhoy on openDemocracy:

"Bizarre new world" (17 September 2001)

"Were we hijacked on 9/11?" (10 September 2002)

"Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet" (3 March 2004)

"The nuclear complex: America, the bomb, and Osama bin Laden" (16 February 2006) - with Zia Mian

"Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)
That's the good news. It conflicts with opinions in the establishment media in some western countries, as well as with some in the Barack Obama administration. David Kilcullen, a top adviser to General David Petraeus, said in March 2009 that state collapse could occur within six months. This was and remains highly improbable.

Now, the bad news: the clouds over the future of Pakistan's state and society are getting darker. The speed of social decline has accelerated, surprising even many who have long warned that religious extremism is devouring the country.

The path to Islamabad

Here is how it happened. The United States invasion of Afghanistan devastated the Taliban. Many fighters were products of madrasas in Pakistan, and their trauma was in part shared by their erstwhile benefactors in Pakistan's military and intelligence. The army, recognising that this force would remain important for maintaining Pakistani influence in Afghanistan - and to keep the low-intensity war in Kashmir going - secretly welcomed them onto Pakistani soil. The process of rebuilding and rearming was quick, especially as after initial success the US campaign in Afghanistan went awry. The then president Pervez Musharraf's strategy of playing both sides against each other worked for a time. But Washington's demands to dump the Taliban became more insistent, and the Taliban also grew angry at this double-game. As the army's goals and tactics lost coherence, the Taliban advanced.

In 2007, the movement of Pakistani Taliban - Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - formally announced its existence. The movement's blitzkrieg of merciless beheadings of soldiers and suicide-bombings drove out the army from much of the frontier province. By early 2009, it held about 10% of Pakistan's territory.

Even then, few Pakistanis saw the Taliban as the enemy. There were even many apologists for the Taliban, for example among opinion-forming local TV anchors that whitewashed their atrocities and and insisted that they shouldn't be resisted by force. Others supported them as fighters against US imperial might. The government, beset by ideological confusion and with no effective  propaganda response, had no cogent response to the claim that Pakistan was made for Islam and that the Taliban were Islamic fighters.

An immense price was paid for the government's prevarication. A cowardly state allowed fanatics to devastate hitherto peaceful Swat, once an idyllic tourist-friendly valley. Citizens were deprived of their fundamental rights. Women were lashed in public, hundreds of girls' schools were blown up, non-Muslims had to pay a special tax (jizya), and every form of art and music was forbidden. Policemen deserted en masse, and institutions of the state crumbled. The Taliban, thrilled by their success, violated the Nizam-e-Adl regulation in April 2009 only days after it was negotiated. They quickly moved to capture more territory in the adjacent area of Buner - barely 120 kilometres from Islamabad. The movement's spokesman, Muslim Khan, boasted that the capital would be captured soon. The army and government still dithered, while the public remained largely opposed to the use of military force.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan:

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamadad" (4 June 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Saskia Sassen, "Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

Irfan Husain. "Pervez Musharraf: the commando who couldn't" (19 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: the new frontline" (18 September 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war" (25 November 2008)

Shaun Gregory, "Mumbai: Pakistan's moment of opportunity" (3 December 2008)

Paul Rogers, "The AfPak war: three options" (25 February 2009)

Paul Rogers, "A three-front war: Iraq, AfPak...Washington" (20 March 2009)

Nadeem Ul Haque, "How to solve Pakistan's problem" (24 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: sources of turmoil" (30 April 2009)

Anatol Lieven, "Pakistan's American problem" (6 May 2009)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan and the ‘AfPak' strategy" (28 May 2008)
At this point, a miracle of sorts happened. Sufi Mohammed, the illiterate and aging leader of the Swat sharia movement, lost his good sense to excessive exuberance. While addressing a huge victory rally in early May, he declared that democracy and Islam were incompatible; rejected Pakistan's Islamic constitution and courts; and accused Pakistan's fanatically right-wing Islamic parties of mild heresy. Mohammed's comments - even for a Pakistani public enamoured by the call to sharia - were a bit too much. The army, now with public support for the first time since the birth of the insurgency, finally mustered the will to fight.

The Taliban's game

Today, that fight is on. A major displacement of population, estimated at 3 million, is in process. This tragedy could have been avoided if the army hadn't nurtured extremists earlier. For the moment, the Taliban are retreating - and even being assailed by local tribesmen in parts of the Upper Dir district. But it will be a long haul to eliminate them from the complex mountainous terrain of Swat and Malakand. To wrest North and South Waziristan from their grasp will cost even more. Army actions in the tribal areas, and retaliatory suicide-bombings by the Taliban in the cities, are likely to extend into the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the cancerous offshoots of extremist ideology continue to spread. Another TTP has established itself - Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab. That could mean major conflict eventually shifting from Pakistan's tribal peripheries to the heartland: southern Punjab. Indeed, the Punjabi Taliban are busy increasing their operations, including an attack on the police and intelligence headquarters in Lahore on 27 May.

What exactly do the Pakistani Taliban want? They share with their Afghan counterparts the goal of fighting the United States. But still more important is the wish to replace secular and traditional law and customs in Pakistan's tribal areas with their version of the sharia. The logic of this aim (shared with religious political parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami) is a total transformation of society. It entails the elimination of music, art, entertainment, and all manifestations of modernity and westernism. The accessory goals include destroying the Shi'a - whom the Sunni Taliban regard as heretics - and expelling the few surviving native Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus from the frontier province. While extremist leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah derive support from excluded social groups, they don't demand employment, land-reform, better healthcare, or more social services. This isn't a liberation movement by a long shot, although some marginalised Pakistani leftists embrace this delusion.

It is impossible for tribal insurgents to overrun Islamabad and Pakistan's main cities, which are protected by thousands of heavily armed military and paramilitary troops. But rogue elements within the military and intelligence agencies have instigated or organised suicide-attacks against their own colleagues. Now, dazed by the brutality of these attacks, the officer-corps appears at last to be moving away from its earlier sympathy and support for extremism. This makes a seizure of the nuclear arsenal improbable. But Pakistan's "urban Taliban", rather than illiterate tribal fighters, do pose a nuclear risk. There are indeed more than a few scientists and engineers in the nuclear establishment with extreme religious views.

While they aspire to state power, the Taliban have been able to achieve considerable success without it. Through terror tactics and suicide-bombings they have made fear ubiquitous. Women are being forced into burqas, and anxious private employers and government departments have advised their male employees in Peshawar and other cities to wear shalwar-kameez rather than trousers. Co-educational schools across Pakistan are increasingly fearful of attacks; some are converting to girls-only or boys-only schools. Video-shops are going out of business, and native musicians and dancers have fled or changed their profession. A sterile Saudi-style Wahhabism is beginning to impact upon Pakistan's once-vibrant culture and society.

It could be far worse. If, for example, General Ashfaq Kayani were overthrown in a coup by radical Islamist officers who seize control of the country's nuclear weapons, making intervention by outside forces impossible; and if jihad for liberating Kashmir is subsequently declared as Pakistan's highest priority and earlier policies for crossing the "line of control" (LoC) are revived; if Shi'a are expelled to Iran, and Hindus forced into India; if ethnic and religious minorities in the northern areas flee Pashtun invaders; if anti-Taliban forces such as the ethnic Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Baluch (Baloch) nationalists are decisively crushed by Islamists; and if sharia is declared across the country. All this still seems improbable - as long as the army stays together.

The way forward

What can the United States, which is still the world's pre-eminent power, do to turn the situation around? Amazingly little.

In spite of being on US life-support, Pakistan is probably the most anti-American country in the world. It has a long litany of grievances. Some are pan-Islamic, but others derive from its bitter experiences of being a US ally in the 1980s. Pakistan, once at the cutting-edge of the US-organised jihad against the Soviet Union, was dumped once the war was over and left to deal with numerous toxic consequences.

The festering resentments in Pakistan produced a paranoid mindset that blames Washington for all of Pakistan's ills - old and new. A meeting of young people that I addressed in Islamabad recently included many who thought that the Taliban are composed of US agents paid to create instability so that Pakistan's nuclear weapons could be seized by Washington. Other such absurd conspiracy theories also enjoy huge currency.

Nevertheless, the United States isn't powerless. The chances of engaging with Pakistan positively have improved under the Barack Obama administration. Any real progress toward a Palestinian state and dealing with Muslims globally would have enormous resonance in Pakistan. The US president's speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009, announcing a "new beginning" with the Muslim world, is a promising step in this regard.

Pakistan's financial support must not be cut, or economic collapse (and certain Taliban victory) would follow in a matter of months. The government and army must be kept afloat until Pakistan is fully ready to take on extremism by itself (although better financial monitoring is needed). The United States also should initiate a conference that brings Iran, India, and China together. Each of these countries must recognise that extremism represents a regional as well as global danger, and they must formulate an action-plan aimed at squeezing the extremists.

Pakistan's political leadership and army have a key responsibility in all this. They must face the extremist threat, accept the United States and India as partners rather than adversaries, enact major reforms in income and land distribution, revamp the education and legal systems, and address the real needs of citizens. Most important, Pakistan will have to clamp down on the fiery mullahs who spout hatred from mosques, and stop suicide-bomber production in madrasas. For better or for worse, it will be for Pakistanis alone to figure out how.

The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices

A visit by an American president to the Arab world might not in normal circumstances be of great importance to the majority of people in the region. There is still much suspicion towards the United States in the middle east, and this tends to be reflected in indifference to the appearance of a head of state of the country in its midst.

Karim Kasim is a researcher in development and political science at the American University in Cairo (AUC). He has been working on ICT for development in Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere in the middle east. He is involved in a number of local initiatives, including youth work, activism, volunteer work and intercultural learning

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004)

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (8 May 2007)

"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

"Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)
But these are not normal times. President Barack Obama's persona had already engaged great interest among Arabs, but his address in Cairo on 4 June 2009 on the Muslim world and the "new beginning" he seeks to forge with it has captivated them. In more concrete terms, Obama's visit has reinforced what has been evident for some time: a feeling of hope that a president with his background will tilt American policy in favour of popular will and against oppression in Palestine, Iraq and the region as a whole. 

There is widespread agreement that the speech is unlikely to be followed by sudden changes; and indeed that no single individual - even the president - can decisively shift American policy. But a space has opened, and - as this brief article shows - Arab Muslims (as well those elsewhere) are filling it with their ideas.


In the days before the speech, Cairo residents were more concerned by the draconian security measures they were sure would be imposed on 4 June. As a result, many opted to stay at home. Yet even then, Obama's message - its timing, substance and likely reception - were very much on people's minds. 

"Turkey did not work, so he is trying Egypt", said Ashraf Qadah, a philosophy graduate. "I am afraid that it is going to be a speech that starts and ends in Cairo. Obama's address will be a public-relations matter that will go nowhere after Obama leaves the city", he added. 

Aseel, a young Iraqi, expressed little hope that things would change as a result of the visit and speech. Her logic was in part that "(Obama) chose to give his speech in Egypt, which is under the thumb of an aging autocrat who embodies the antithesis of hope and change".

Many Egyptians posed a question that reflected Aseel's concerns: namely which Muslim world is Obama going to speak to - Arab Muslim regimes, Muslim societies at large, or opposition political parties (especially those with Islamic inclinations)? Others were unnerved by the fact that the impending message was directed specifically towards Muslims - which set the target audience apart from the many religious minorities that exist throughout the Islamic world, many of whom share Muslims' animosity towards US policies.  This point is underlined by the event's location: Egypt is home to the largest Christian community in the Arab world.

But Adel El Zaim, a Lebanese-Canadian living in Cairo, insisted that the visit itself was a source of hope. The president "has not waited until the end of his mandate to launch a peace initiative, like George W Bush", he said. "The visit is also a milestone in the relationship between the United States and the Arab Muslim world. It will help build the lost trust between the two sides - a first step that must be followed by several others."

There is indeed some surprise at such an early move toward the Muslim world. "I know Obama's attitude towards the region has been quite positive - more so than I expected" said Maha Bali, a technologist at the American University in Cairo. Kismet El-Husseiny, an economics graduate, was more sceptical: for Obama it is an opportunity to make "small promises that are not too hard to keep, but will be delivered in a way that makes them impressive."


Barack Obama's speech was broadcast live on dozens of channels throughout the middle east (and was reprinted in full in many newspapers the day after). Life went on: streets across the region were as ever filled with people, and traffic doesn't stop in Arab capitals. But large numbers did listen to or watch the broadcast, often grouped together in cafes or conference rooms. The event brought Arabs from Morocco to Iraq together and captured their attention in a way that is usually reserved for major sporting events - or the start of a war.

The reaction, more uniform than the anticipation, was greatly positive - though with questions about how much change Obama could really deliver. Abdullah, an academic in a Lebanese university, expressed the view that Obama's speech "is a historical opportunity for the Arab region. I wish that Arabs would take an initiative of their own to seize the opportunities that Obama is presenting. What he said is in line with our way of thinking and the initiatives he announced were inspiring." 

On the US president's efforts to build bridges between western and Islamic civilisations, Abdullah added that "Obama gave more credit to Arab and Islamic contributions than Arabs themselves do. He also delivered an important blow to Islamic fundamentalists: whereas previously many Arabs and Muslims were convinced that the west was no ally to them, Obama showed them that in him they have a friend". 

Yasmine, an employee of an international organisation in Beirut, was less impressed by the substance of the speech than by the fact that a president of the United States shared many of her own views and ideas. "We've heard all this before, but not from a president", she said.

What little criticism there was focused on the Israeli-Arab peace process. "He didn't call for the settlements [in the Palestinian territories] to be dismantled. He merely said that construction must stop. How can a Palestinian state be established if the settlements that are already there remain?" asked Hani, a Syrian economics graduate. "Obama has no leeway with the Israelis. They will force him to backtrack", said Samir, a Lebanese resident of Saudi Arabia. 

There is substantive agreement between Barack Obama himself and most of the Arab public that the true test of the speech is whether specific changes in US policy with regard to Palestine and the rest of the Arab Muslim world follow - including the commitments over Iraq. Abbas, a public official in Iraq, sums up the mood of the moment: "Obama's achievement for now is to have opened the door for much-needed change, and to contribute to the efforts of many in the Arab and Islamic worlds to encourage tolerance and understanding". 

What will these Arab voices think in six months' time? We hope to ask them and report on our findings.

Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

Kanishk Tharoor, "Obama's speech in Cairo: live blog" (4 June 2009)

Lebanon at the crossroads

Lebanon's parliamentary elections on 7 June 2009 find the country at a point where its (and especially Beirut's) confessional system both tear and temper its complex reality. The campaign has been dominated by the sharp divide between the Hizbollah-led, "March 8" pro-Iranian opposition and the pro-United States "March 14" side.

Mindanao: poverty on the frontlines

The Filipina economist Solita Collas-Monsod delivered a grim warning last month when she revealed that the number of people living in poverty in the Philippines is growing, despite sustained economic growth and a rising GDP. Growing economic inequality looks all the starker in the midst of the world's second longest running internal conflict, the ongoing violence in the south of the country. The seemingly intractable internecine war, centred on the southern island of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, stems from a variety of historical grievances and modern injustices. It is anchored in centuries old religious conflict and yet hampered by the government's total failure to improve the lives of those most likely to be driven into the embrace of insurgency.

In the past fifty years, more than 100,000 people have lost their lives and more than two million have been displaced as separatist Muslim moros ("moors") of the southern Philippines waged a war of attrition - in their various organisational guises - against the post-colonial Philippines government. The roots of the conflict are deep. Islam gained a foothold in the southern Philippines long before proselytising Spanish Jesuits arrived in the 16th century, yet where the Spanish failed to subdue the troublesome southern islands, American imperialists of the late 19th century succeeded, sowing the seeds of a conflict as destructive as those in Northern Ireland and the middle east, yet one that has seldom made it into the spotlight of international scrutiny. Also on Mindanao in openDemocracy:

Ron May
"The quest for peace"
22 August 2007

Abhoud Syed M. Linga
"Determining factors"
13 July 2007

The "next Afghanistan"

It was during the turbulent years of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship when peaceful demands for independence snowballed into a fully fledged, bloody separatist war. The infamous summary execution of 28 Muslim military trainees in 1968 was the first catalyst, followed by the regime's declaration of martial law in 1972. The Tripoli Agreement, signed in 1976 between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the government, was meant to build a satisfactory peace, but splinter groups soon emerged, first the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), then in 1991 the Abu Sayyaf group, founded by a former Afghan-Soviet war mujahideen and officially condemned by both MNLF and MILF. Its bloody campaign began in the early 1990s, with numerous attacks against Christian targets, including a cathedral in Davao in 1993. 

After the second "people power" revolution in fifteen years ousted Joseph Estrada in 2001, Gloria Macagapal Arroyo became the latest dynastic "trapos" (traditional politician) to head southeast Asia's oligarchic system sans pareil. Her government maintains a "search and destroy" policy against Abu Sayyaf while officially seeking peace with MILF.

It is backed by renewed US interest in the Philippines, historically an important piece for Washington on the Pacific's geopolitical chessboard. Post 9/11, that interest has taken on whole new dimensions. In 2002, it was revealed that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed - the suspected mastermind of 9/11, with links to numerous other high profile attacks - had lived, and according to Philippine police, planned attacks in Manila. Economic and military assistance focused on the southern islands of Mindanao and Sulu as the wider region became part of the second front in the "war on terror"; links between the MNLF, MILF, Abu Sayyaf and the Indonesian-founded Jemaah Islamayiah and al-Qaeda were probed; the United States Institute of Peace was drafted in to facilitate the peace process; and, in 2005, the region was labelled the "next Afghanistan" by a US embassy official in Manila. 

The years since 2003 have been peppered by on-off fighting and stalling peace talks, in limbo at present with little hope of a meaningful resolution before Arroyo's term expires in 2011. Chief among many sticking points is the contentious Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) on ancestral domain, a treaty which would cede territory, governance, distinction as a separate community and international recognition to the Bangsamoro (Moro homeland), yet has been ruled unconstitutional by a 2008 supreme court ruling. On top of that lie continual disagreements over the shifting composition of the "peace panel", allegations from the Philippine government of an overly sympathetic stance towards the Moros from international mediator Malaysia, continuing fighting between government and renegade MILF forces in central Mindanao, and the return to prominence of Abu Sayyaf with their capture of three Red Cross workers in January this year.  

Material considerations

Amidst the manifold problems that dog the peace process - from primordial claims of ethno-religious difference, to suppressed Moro identity and sovereignty, and continual wrangling over the MoA - one potent mixer, a recognized catalyst of conflict, is relatively sidelined: chronic poverty. 

In the 1950s, the Philippines was the most "advanced" capitalist country in southeast Asia. On its accession to the newly-formed ASEAN in 1967, its strong economy and industrial sector led many to see the country as a model for fellow members; by the 1980s, fifty percent of total income was in the hands of the top five percent. Gross inequality had grown engrained in the country, and little has changed since.

More than thirty percent of Filipinos currently live below the poverty threshold at which they cannot afford food combined with the essentials for life, with international estimates suggesting 44 percent earn less than $2 a day. Notably, last year's Social Protection Index produced by the Asian Development Bank saw the Philippines lag behind many of its neighbours, the bank stating that it had done "little in the way of major pro-poor targeted programs". Mark Dearn has written and researched for the Independent, Chunichi Shimbun and the Tokyo Shimbun.

He focuses on southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific, with particular interest in separatist conflicts, minority rights issues and Islamist groups.

Bottom of the pile

At the bottom of the poverty pile lies Minadano, known as the country's "food basket", though wracked with hunger and want: it has been the poorest of the Philippines' three major island groups for almost a decade, with fifty per cent below the poverty line; all five regions of the island are in the ten poorest regions in the entire country; and within the island itself, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM - the area created by the MoA) ranks as one of the two poorest regions.  

The Philippine Development Forum describes the rise in poverty in the ARMM between 1988 and 2006 as "alarming", going on to argue that "while income poverty alone does not automatically result in social unrest, international experiences have shown that an explosive political situation is created when poverty is combined with deprivation and injustice". Visiting head of the Delegation of the European Commission to the Philippines, Alistair MacDonald, told the Philippines National Enquirer last year that poverty, above religion and secessionism, is the root of the conflict: "When you look at some of the human development indicators for parts of Mindanao, things like health, nutrition, education, the Philippines should be ashamed to have such low levels of basic social indicators".

No peace without development?

Yet he, along with Arroyo, has taken the stance of "no development without peace": talking to the country in her 2008 State of the Nation Address, Arroyo laid blame for the failure to eradicate poverty in Mindanao on the conflict itself. MacDonald, while recommending the implementation of more government-led projects in Mindanao, argued that "without peace, development can't happen."  

None the less, with conflict and concomitant humanitarian disaster currently unfolding in central Mindanao, the US Agency for International Development's nobley-named "Growth with Equity in Mindanao" project has earmarked a $190 million aid budget, administered by the World Bank, for the five years to 2012. The EU has coughed up 10.5 million euros on Mindanao since October 2008 and 110 million euros in the past decade, while International Crisis Group reports that 40 aid projects focusing on conflict-affected communities are underway, backed by a wide array of funders, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Japan.  

The possibility of development in conflict zones may be doubted by some in power, but a government spokesman did acknowledge in 2007 that poverty in Mindanao provides fertile recruiting grounds. Little wonder then at the success of the MILF's targeting of the unemployed with an instant payment of P20,000 (about $420) and the promise - whether kept or not - of further monthly remuneration. Nor the ability of Abu Sayyaf to continue to survive and recruit disillusioned young teenagers trapped in the cycle of poverty. 

While a record GDP growth of more than 7 percent in 2007 should have raised hope for the prospect of lifting millions out of poverty, impoverishment has only increased. And last month's pronouncements by Monsod, an economist with intimate knowledge of the Philippines' economic prospects, offer little hope within the current financial climate of a record 41 per cent year-on-year drop in merchandise export earnings, increasing food prices and projected rises in unemployment for the next three years. 

The Philippines government maintains that peace in Mindanao remains a priority for Arroyo, but others - from NGO workers to scholars - have expressed grave doubts, pointing to an ostensible lack of political will and Arroyo's own crumbling credibility after allegations of corruption and the outrageous "Hello Garci" electoral fraud scandal of 2005. If there really is a lack of political will, the portents are ominous. No development without peace, claims Arroyo, yet she lacks the political will to bring about peace, and thus no political will to alleviate the endemic, chronic poverty that besets Mindanao.

Northern Ireland: between peace and reconciliation

Two years since the establishment of its power-sharing executive following the March 2007 elections to the Northern Ireland assembly, the peace process in the territory appears firmly entrenched.

Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope

President Barack Obama is expected to address the Arab world by delivering a speech on 4 June 2009 in the most populous Arab state, Egypt. The event is important for the United States in two main ways: as a continuation of the slow work (begun to a degree in the president's visit to Turkey on 6-7 April) of rehabilitating the American image in the middle east, and as an attempt to give renewed momentum to the search for a peace agreement in Israel-Palestine that can win regional consent.

Robert G Rabil is associate professor of middle-east politics and director of graduate studies in the political-science department at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon (Lynne Rienner, 2003) and Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Praeger, 2006)

Also by Robert G Rabil in openDemocracy:

"Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh" (11 May 2007)

"Lebanon divided" (7 August 2007)

"Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008)

The signals may be better than some analysts fear. The meeting between the US president and Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu on 18 May may have ended without any expression of support by Netanyahu for a Palestinian state, but it did hold out the prospect that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations would resume.

What happened behind the scenes, however, was even more significant. This included Washington's message that it would establish a timetable for talks with Iran, and (confirmed in a message delivered from Israel to the Central Intelligence Agency chief Leon Panetta before Netanyahu's arrival at the White House) Israel's promise not to attack Iran's nuclear plants while the US was engaging with Tehran.

These developments suggest that the Obama administration is laying the ground for a comprehensive and ambitious middle-east policy that attempts to link the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict to a response to Iran's alleged nuclear-weapons efforts. This ambitious and complex agenda raises the question of whether crucial regional realities will allow the administration to set such a course before the policy can take a definite shape.

The Iran-Israel knot

The matter of Iran is crucial. Washington's concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions and its rejectionist middle-east policy long predated Barack Obama's arrival in the White House, but the president's nowrooz (Iranian new-year) message to Tehran on 19 March 2009 is clear indication of his belief that the predecessor administration's policy of "containment without engagement" was not working. Thus, Obama has been paving the ground for direct talks with Tehran following Iran's presidential elections, whose first round is held on 12 June 2009.

Besides attempting to engage Iran, the administration also looks to Syria as a potential vehicle in helping to reduce Iran's support of its proxies Hizbollah and Hamas, and thus neutralise Tehran's influence in the Levant. In line with this broad objective - and reflecting its inclusive policy outlook - the Obama administration has already considered a practical approach toward Syria premised on the objective of weaning Damascus from the Iranian-Hizbollah axis and resuming Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. 

Jeffrey Feltman (assistant secretary of state for near-east affairs) and Daniel Shapiro (senior director of the National Security Council) have visited Syria twice to probe whether Damascus would play a constructive regional role on a range of issues: curbing the power of Hizbollah and Hamas, restoring political stability to Lebanon, checking jihadi infiltration into Iraq, and resuming peace negotiations with Israel. Washington, in return, would be prepared to mediate the peace negotiations and support a security mechanism under which Israel would relinquish the Golan heights to Syria. Washington would also play a role in supporting Syria's economic development.

Meanwhile, President Obama has been privately trying to build a momentum for peace by embracing an updated version of the Saudi-inspired Arab peace initiative, proposed initially in the Arab League summit in Beirut in March 2002. This could involve support for King Abdullah of Jordan's idea of formulating a comprehensive plan in which the Muslim world would recognise Israel - an initiative Netanyahu may find hard to resist if pressed by Obama to force a two-state solution on his government.

The regional challenge

The contours of the United States's emerging middle-east plan reflect impressive ambition. The plan may also appear, on closer examination, unrealistic - especially because the security concerns of some Arab countries are not yet fully accommodated.

Egypt, for example, strongly feels that the Obama administration should formulate a policy in concert with them to contain rather than engage Iran. In Egypt's view, Iran and its proxy Hizbollah have already made a key move by threatening Cairo's national security in its effort to sway regional politics in the direction of "resistance" against Israel and western influence in the region. In the wake of the arrest of a Hizbollah cell in Egypt that may (according to the Egyptian government) have been trying to carry out terror acts on its soil, Cairo has waged a furious and unprecedented propaganda campaign against Iran and Hizbollah. It's inconceivable that Egypt would genuinely support Obama's plan if its concerns about Iran are not addressed.

Syria too has its own strategic concerns, and Damascus's reluctance to sever its relationship with Iran or Hizbollah makes the idea of weaning Syria from either highly unlikely. Each link offers Syria a strategic depth in the region that was lost in the aftermath of the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 and the fall of the Ba'ath regime in Iraq in 2003. In consequence, it is impractical to expect that Damascus might be able either to check Hizbollah's power in Lebanon or its regional reach.

What Damascus would prefer to do is to persuade Washington to engage Hizbollah (and Hamas) in addition to Iran, and act as a mediator among the three parties. In fact, this approach has been gaining traction in Europe among other circles. For example, Britain may list Hizbollah as a terrorist organisation, but this did not stop a Hizbollah parliamentary deputy from being invited to address members of the House of Commons in April 2009. 

The unintended consequence of generic engagement will no doubt alienate Binyamin Netanyahu's government, for its agenda goes against the grist of engaging Hizbollah or Hamas - neither of whom recognises Israel.

It is no less important for President Obama to repair Washington's strained relations with the Arab world than to unequivocally support human rights and civil-society organs there. Even more so how to mobilise the Arab world to bridge the divide between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Palestinian Authority-led West Bank.

The diplomatic test

The tense political landscape of the middle east means that the Barack Obama administration needs to formulate its comprehensive middle-east policy based less on a hopeful "grand plan" than on practical measures whose effect is positive and accumulative across the region. The idea of engaging Iran is sensible, but this should include a timetable with benchmarks that assess Tehran's intentions - in part to prevent what might otherwise become a crisis with Egypt, the Europeans and Israel over defining when "soft diplomacy" has run its course.

In the same way it is prudent to engage with Syria, but the Palestinian-Israeli track should have priority. For in contrast to the recent past, the resolution of the Israeli-Syrian conflict now goes beyond the Golan heights; it now involves Damascus's relationship with Hizbollah, Lebanon, Hamas and Iran. Israel, for its part, is more interested in neutralising the immediate threat from Hizbollah on its northern border by having Syria cut off the overland arms-supply route from Iran to the group's Lebanese heartlands.

President Obama faces a daunting challenge in helping to bring peace and stability to the middle east. The urgency of progress is - or should be - clear to all. The combination of the US president's leadership and communication skills and his practical policies could yet prove the difference between success and even greater regression. 

openDemocracy authors analyse the middle-east kaleidoscope:

Carsten Wieland, "The Syria-Israel talks: old themes, new setting" (27 May 2008)

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Godfrey Hodgson, "Change?" (2 December 2008)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Carsten Wieland, "The Gaza war and the Syria-Israel front" (5 February 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)

What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt

President Barack Obama will deliver a long-awaited speech on relations between the United States and the Muslim world in Egypt on 4 June 2009.  From the outset, the venue has been subject to speculation and debate. Muslim pro-democracy activists were hoping that Obama would deliver his talk in Jakarta instead of Cairo, partly in support of recent gains for democracy in the world's largest Muslim nation but also as a rebuke to authoritarian regimes which would (it was felt) register a public-relations victory by hosting the new American president. Now that the site of the speech has been decided, there are three things that Obama must do in order to persuade a deeply sceptical Muslim audience. Nader Hashemi is an assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies (Oxford University Press, 2009)

First, Obama must during his trip to Egypt hold a townhall-style meeting with everyday Egyptian citizens. Ideally, this meeting should take place not at the American University of Cairo (an elite institution where the rich and famous send their kids) but at Cairo University or perhaps at a local mosque, where attendees are more representative of the Egyptian mainstream. Critically, guarantees must be given that the exchange will be open and uncensored and that those who might ask difficult questions will not be persecuted by the security forces when cameras are turned off. 

The symbolic value of such an event cannot be overstated. The sight of an American president, in open and uncensored dialogue with ordinary Muslims, will go a long way towards demonstrating respect for the Islamic world.  A major grievance that Muslims have is that senior US officials meet only with the ruling elites, and rarely with representatives of more popular forces.  If President Obama is genuinely interested in bridging the chasm between the US and Muslim societies then he must meet and speak directly with the Muslim mainstream, not solely with the dictators who rule over them.

Second, Obama must in his speech address the central identity issue in the Arab-Islamic world today: the question of Palestine. No topic has generated more resentment and more separated the United States from Muslims over the past sixty years than this issue. It is vital that Obama acknowledge in unambiguous terms that the Palestinian people have the same human and national rights as Israelis, including the right to live in peace and security.

Muslims well remember Obama's statement in the Israeli town of Sderot in July 2008: that is, if his daughters were subject to daily rocket-fire he would do everything in his power to stop it. This expression of sympathy for Israeli policy on Gaza begged a question - if the president's daughters were living permanently as refugees in one of the most densely populated areas of the globe, and subject to an ongoing siege, would Obama also do everything in his power to alleviate their suffering?

In this light, the prospects of Obama's initiative to reach out to the Muslim world depends on his ability to speak in moral terms about the plight of the Palestinians and to clarify his plans to bring this conflict to a just conclusion. Anything less will be a massive setback.

Words and deeds

Third, Obama must be prepared to offend - albeit indirectly - his Egyptian hosts. There is a pungency in the leader of the "free world" delivering a major speech to Muslims in one of the least free parts of the world. Hosni Mubarak is one of the most despised as well as one of the longest-standing dictators in the Arab world - a status owed to a mix of his close alliance with the United States, his security forces' internal repression and his collusion with Israel in maintaining the siege of Gaza.

The contradictions between Barack Obama's many speeches that are rooted in the ideals of freedom and democracy, and the reality of US policy in the region, were best expressed by Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany when he observed: "Our admiration for Mr. Obama is grounded in what he represents: fairness. He is the product of a just, democratic system that respects equal opportunity for education and work. This system allowed a black man, after centuries of racial discrimination, to become president. This fairness is precisely what we are missing in Egypt" (see "Why the Muslim World Can't Hear Obama", New York Times, 7 February 2009).

In his speech Obama cannot avoid the question of democracy and human rights, but he must also address the linkage between US policy and the persistence of authoritarian regimes. If he speaks honestly on this topic, his words will resonate with Muslims and face up to another core grievance that alienates the Islamic world from the west.

In this context it is imperative that Obama avoid another "Condoleezza Rice moment." This refers to a widely reported speech made in Cairo in June 2005 by the then US secretary of state which called for free elections and a rollback of authoritarianism. She criticised previous US policy of supporting "stability at the price of liberty", and strongly hinted that this was about to change. It never did.

What Arabs and Muslims are looking for is a genuine, not a cosmetic change in US policy: one that will tie US economic and diplomatic support to meaningful steps in democratisation. They have heard nice sounding speeches before; what they will be looking for on 4 June 2009 is serious words followed by real deeds.

openDemocracy authors write on the Arab and Islamic world:

Carsten Wieland, "The Syria-Israel talks: old themes, new setting" (27 May 2008)

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Godfrey Hodgson, "Change?" (2 December 2008)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Carsten Wieland, "The Gaza war and the Syria-Israel front" (5 February 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

"Comrades, your enemy is yourselves!"

It feels like a very long time ago. Between a then and a now walls have been built. Not just one but many. The walls have also become higher, uglier, thicker and today the walls seem impossible to destroy.

Then, four years ago, we told each other that it couldn't get worse. The suffering couldn't become deeper. It was dark and bullets killed, young soldiers became murderers and family members disappeared.

And during this time of constant darkness and humiliation the Palestinian fractions gathered in mid-December 2004 to discuss a common future. At a conference hotel in the ghetto of Gaza the political leaders sat lined up like school boys to listen to Yvette Lillian Myakayaka-Manzini (Mavivi), vice president of the ANC women's department. Listen and discuss something important, the struggle against apartheid.

ANC speaker addresses Palestinian leaders and family men, Gaza 2004

They were all family fathers and Gaza residents. They were all confined behind high walls and accustomed to being humiliated by young boys and girls dressed in green from all the corners of the world.

They met in the hotel lobby, hugged each other and kissed each other on the cheek. This particular morning they congratulated each other on having successfully blown up a guard tower at the border crossing to Egypt.

But it soon became worse. What couldn't happen, the impossible, was possible. The next time we arranged a similar meeting the different fractions could no longer meet, they had become enemies. The international community had said no. The coalition government had sunk into civil war.


But first there was the presidential election after President Yasser Arafat. Abu Mazen became the new Palestinian leader.

Soon thereafter the world forced a democratic parliamentary election on the Palestinians in which everyone would participate, even Hamas. Palestine would finally become democratic and many Western countries helped finance the costs of the election process. In Ramallah the Fatah leadership tried to prevent Hamas' participation. But the world wanted something else. Bush had made up his mind. Democracy would be created at any price under the device that even a forced democracy is a democracy.Mats Svensson, a former Swedish diplomat working on the staff of SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, lives in the Occupied Territories.

Jimmy Carter and Carl Bildt were election observers. Carter spoke about a victory for democracy. Carter held a press conference with Bildt by his side. Bildt looked like a school boy beside Carter. He silently sat beside the ex-President and looked with admiration in his eyes at one of the world's most famous peace brokers.

But soon we got flies in the beaker and the dream about a two state solution translated into a de facto three state reality: Gaza, West Bank and Israel. The world had spoken. Carter and Bildt raised their voices but very few heard their calls...

But back to the meeting between Mavivi and a collection of family fathers from Gaza.

It was a day when one had agreed not to talk about Israel. Not speak about what the occupier had done in Jenin or what had happened in the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. No, it really became a special day when everyone instead talked about South Africa, the struggle against apartheid and simultaneously linked it to what just happened or didn't happen in Gaza. Gaza was in the center.

Mavivi told the group that during the battle against white oppression in South Africa one had decided not to use violence against civilians. Civilians died, said Mavivi, but each time it was seen as a failure. The reason that we didn't use a strategy that was directed against civilians was simple, Mavivi continued. The ANC sought support from the surrounding world, wanted to break the isolation. "We were also seen as terrorists," said Mavivi. "The question we kept asking ourselves was how to break the isolation?"

"We soon reached an understanding of the outside world," said Mavivi, "that was based on the following thought. If a taxi driver in Stockholm doesn't understand the idea behind a suicide bomber then the Swedish government doesn't either. If an elementary school teacher in Paris doesn't understand it then the French government doesn't either. We had to gain an understanding from people all around the world, we needed their support. We could only get support if the taxi driver and the teacher understood and could stand behind our actions. The governments in Sweden and France were expressions of the people's wishes. We thought support comes from below and becomes a power only when one can unite behind it."

Mavivi, woman from South Africa, when the issue of suicide bombers comes up on the agenda, has already spoken for an hour. The conversation has flown, the fractions are open to each other and participated intensively. One had also spoken about the need for leadership and Ariel Sharon was compared to De Klerk and Yasser Arafat with Mandela. Other points on the agenda included the need to compromise and the truth and reconciliation commission that was established in South Africa, to forgive your enemy. To forgive your enemy led to intensive discussions. One nevertheless agreed that a peace agreement was necessary before one could begin to forgive. That two signatures were required before one could begin hugging and kissing on stage.

But it was when Mavivi brought up the strategic thinking behind suicide bombers that the discussion slowed down. One could discern a difference of opinion between the fractions.

The participant was silent when Mavivi as her last point spoke about the struggle in southern Africa and the need for unity, and unity behind a strategy. To work towards a common goal. ANC's struggle, the resistance, needed to be clear, visible and effective when the enemy was stronger, both financially and militarily.

Mavivi explained that "during apartheid in South Africa we were forced to work so closely to our enemy as if he or she was our brother or sister. We were forced to get to know our enemy, know what he thought. We needed to understand how he thought and above all know when our brother or sister, our enemy, changed his or her strategy. We always had to be one step ahead. To manage this we had to work, be close to him."

"And we succeeded," Mavivi continued. "We succeeded because throughout the struggle we maintained a high sense of morale. Our morale soon gave us wide international support. First came the support from the Scandinavian countries. Soon other countries followed and the white minority regime in Pretoria became increasingly isolated."

But equally important was the internal debate within the ANC. The debate had as its starting point to create unity behind the strategy. "Compromise therefore became an important guiding principle within the ANC. A strategy without unity was for us within the ANC a meaningless strategy that would only have benefited the oppressors," said Mavivi. "We strove to get everyone on the same boat, we made a common journey."

"We constantly faced difficult choices. Our leadership was spread across many countries. Moreover, many of our major leaders were in prison. But the debate was alive. The debate that was being held on Robben Island was also being held in study centers in Sweden, in Tanzania, in Kenya, in Namibia, everywhere. The island outside Cape Town was closed, the security high, but no one could shut out Mandela's message, his message about unity."

"Young and old had to unify, women and men soon created a common front. Communists, social democrats, liberals and conservatives signed onto a common platform. Equally important was that Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindus united in the struggle against the oppressors. Everyone was included in the common battle against evil. Soon came the condemnation from the world's powerful leaders, and then the UN could also comply."

"The leadership was decisive in this drawn out struggle. We had a unique situation with a leader who stood for high morals, unity and long term thinking. Many of our leaders had been imprisoned for decades. They had been locked up for a complete life, many counted on dying behind high walls on an isolated island."

Mavivi was very clear during the whole conversation. She did not have any pointers. She just told her own story, South Africa's story. A story about struggle, about resistance, about a strategy, about unity. "I don't know," said Mavivi, "what is right in Palestine, I only know what was right for us. We listened to our friends. Our friends gave us good advice but our actions, our actions were our own. Had we listened to all the advice and followed them we would never have become free. The struggle against apartheid was our struggle."

She had finished speaking. I thought the conversation was over. I was wrong. Mavivi now turned to the highly placed Hamas representative and asked him to tell her about their strategy. Tell her about their strategy in the same way that she had told them about the ANC's.

But he was silent. The other leaders did not have anything to add either. Even Fatah's representative was silent. There was no common strategy. There was no common goal. At that time, creating unity in Palestine felt distant.

Mavivi, woman from South Africa, now says with a clear voice, "Comrades, you don't seem to have an enemy. Comrades, your enemy is yourselves and comrades, your struggle has not yet begun."

The Hamas representative remained silent for a while. His gaze was fixed and he gravely looked at Mavivi. Then he slowly and with a high voice said, "We will never forget the one who came to us in a time of deepest despair. Mavivi, when can you come back?"


We don't know if we should stay. Late afternoon on the beach in Bat Jam south of Tel Aviv. There is a cool breeze. Just a few middle aged men dare to take a swim. A couple play tennis on the beach. Dogs are being walked. The seafood tastes wonderful and with that a full white wine. It is fantastic to be here on a Sunday afternoon.

Sunset on Tel Aviv beach 7

Then we hear the sound of choppers. Three helicopters slowly approach us from the north. We see the couple playing beach tennis stop briefly. They look up at the three large birds. They say something but continue playing before the birds have passed over their heads. Shortly thereafter come two more. Now no one reacts. Five helicopters carrying heavy rockets. Five rockets that are already aimed towards the south, to a small strip south of Tel Aviv, Gaza.

I have experienced this before, a few years ago. We were four people from Sida who sat on the beach. Four persons who had just arrived in Israel. We sat on the beach as the sun was setting. That time we also tasted the white wine while the helicopters began going in a kind of shuttle traffic towards Gaza with heavy weapons hanging underneath. Later we could read that one of the largest operations was being carried out against Gaza. At that time everything was new for us. Everything was unreal. Something happened within us when the sunset, the beautiful yellow and red horizon was traversed by heavily loaded helicopters.

Much has happened between these two occasions on the beach in Tel Aviv. Arafat is gone and Sharon is no longer the leader in Israel. Blair has completed his period as prime minister and Bush has been replaced. Hamas won the 2006 elections but soon had to leave Ramallah. We are speaking of a completely new political landscape in Israel, Palestine, the UK and the USA. Even Sweden has gone through large political changes and today finally has a foreign minister with a lot of knowledge about the Middle East.

But independently of the political landscape the helicopters have continued. There, nothing has changed, time has stood still. The most sophisticated weapons against a confined people who retaliate with suicide bombers and homemade rockets. The helicopter borne missiles almost always hit their target, the homemade ones almost never. Statistics from Israeli B'Tselem confirm this. But independently of weapon type, fear, sleepless nights and urgings of revenge are created.

The couple playing beach tennis nonchalantly looked up at the fighter helicopters. They were used to seeing helicopters carrying missiles. Here, a few miles from Gaza they temporarily felt safe, despite an uncertain future. Because neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli collective is supported by safety. The fear, the everyday presence of fear, or the more long-term future of fear is constantly there. One waits for a power, somebody who will have the ability to do the unexpected, the different. The power is sought in Israel, in the West Bank, Gaza or somewhere in another country. But today we do not see the slightest hint of this. Everything is predictable. The actors playing in this historic play know their parts. Refine them over time but within clearly defined borders. The unexpected move that everyone awaits does not come. No one dares or has the ability. The same applies to the international community. Governments fumble, foreign ministers fumble and everyone with responsibility today exhibit an enormous weakness and lack of initiative.

All we see are the meaningless fights. Walls of all kinds multiply, becoming higher and higher, and the costs in dollars, human lives, lost hope and psychological wrecks are countless. On a daily basis the newspapers have pictures from Gaza of masses of people who follow their relatives into the simple grave. The only thing we know is that soon the ground offensive will start again. Every freely thinking fellow being knows that this is a wrong and criminal act.

At the same time, we sit in the first stalls, on the beach as the sun sets in the distance. We eat our calamari and sip our wine. We are at a sufficient distance when something we do not understand zooms past. Something that moves between two points. We do not participate but we try to understand. We feel but do not know whether we feel the right thing. We do not know what to say, what to tell. We do not know how to make our friends understand. We do not understand ourselves. We do not know whether we should stay or leave.

Moldova: the Twitter Revolution that wasn’t

Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, has spent a rare few weeks in the news after violent protests erupted on 7 April in the capital Chisinau

The violence broke out following the ruling Communist Party's apparently clear-cut victory in the nation's April 5 parliamentary elections. This gave the Communists just under fifty percent of the popular vote, and 60 deputies in the 101 seat Moldovan parliament. The result was sufficient to elect the speaker and the government, but was one vote short of the 61 seats required to choose the country's next president. 

Three centre-right opposition parties each won 10-15 percent of the vote. After taking into account the distribution of seats for parties that didn't cross the threshold, they gained a total of 41 seats in the new parliament.  Bitter at their failure to dislodge the Communist Party (formally the PCRM - Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova) from its ruling position and angered by the regime's harsh treatment of the youthful demonstrators, opposition parties in the new parliament have so far refused to cooperate with the Communists. This has resulted in a deadlock that could lead to yet another round of elections.

The ongoing crisis in Moldova demands dialogue and reconciliation rather than further militancy and polarisation.  Many outside observers (and a number of interested participants) portrayed the recent events in Moldova as a democratic "colour" (what hue is twitter?) revolution mounted by pro-western political parties and youth against the electoral machinations of a repressive old-line communist regime operating under Moscow's tutelage and support.  However, it would be a serious mistake to view Moldova through a simplistic East-West prism.  Many of the country's ruling communist party aspire to European Union membership and claim to be building "a leftist party of the European type."  Whether one believes the hype, the communists clearly have a solid base of at least 30 to 40 percent of the electorate, making them by far the largest and most powerful political party in the country.  Yet the vast majority of Moldovans, even those who support the communists, are unhappy with their lot and pessimistic about their prospects.

The protests were largely spontaneous, growing out of a rally organised by some opposition figures and fed by tweeting and text-messaging.  These protests reflected increasingly widespread discontent and disillusionment, especially among Moldova's young people, after almost a decade of communist rule.  Although basic economic statistics in Moldova have been good over much of the past decade, this is because the Moldovan economy is largely supported by remittances from hundreds of thousands of Moldovans working abroad.  In 2007-2008 over 35 percent of the country's GDP came from foreign remittances.  For most Moldovans of working age there are no jobs at home; for most young Moldovans there is no future in their native land.

The government's goal - European integration

Given their bleak economic prospects, most Moldovans have fastened upon European integration as the way to ensure their country's future.  Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and his communist colleagues were initially elected on a pro-Russian platform in 2001. But after his 2003 rejection of the Russian attempt to broker a political settlement with Moldova's breakaway Transnistrian region, Euro-integration (with eventual EU membership) has been the official policy of the Moldovan government and the PCRM.  Voronin campaigned on a pro-EU platform for the 2005 parliamentary elections. He signed an Action Plan with the EU in 2005, and late that year together with Ukraine he accepted an EU Border Assistance Mission to improve efforts against smuggling and trafficking in the region, in particular around Transnistria.

However, despite the Moldovan Communists' promises and repeated professions in favour of European integration, visible progress and tangible benefits have been disappointing for most Moldovan citizens.  The steady increase in remittances spurred a boom in retail trade and construction in Chisinau, the capital city of about 750,000. But the countryside remains desperately poor, without jobs, and increasingly depopulated.  An estimated 600,000 or more of Moldova's 4 million people now live and work outside the country, in Russia, Turkey, the Middle East, Romania, Italy, Portugal, and other European countries.  Despite massive international assistance efforts over the past decade, in per capita terms Moldova continues to be the largest source country in Europe of trafficked persons.

Moldova's police, correctional, and judicial systems were never adequately reformed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and since 1991 have been a source of continuing human rights abuses, meticulously chronicled by domestic and foreign experts.  However, during the 1990s Moldova developed both relatively free (though not particularly professional) broadcast and print media and small but promising elements of an independent civil society.  Most important, from the very start of post-Soviet independence, Moldova maintained a commendable record of political pluralism, consistently holding free and fair elections and respecting the results.

Moldova's   progress and consolidation as an independent state during the 1990s were beset by two major problems.  First, government management of the economic transition was both corrupt and not particularly competent.  Agricultural land was privatised in small holdings, not successfully converted to profitable economic activity.  A protective, cronyist business culture and absence of rule of law discouraged foreign direct investment, slowing Moldova's attempts at development.  Second, the unresolved Transnistrian separatist question left the country divided, and the lack of overall central governance opened opportunities for organised crime on both sides of the Nistru River.  The presence of Russian troops and support from Moscow for the Tiraspol separatists also kept alive linguistic, ethnic, and national passions on the right bank and hindered development of a clear national identity for the fledgling Moldovan state.

While communist rule since 2001 produced increased prosperity in Moldova's urban areas, paradoxically it did not increase social or economic opportunity in the country.  Paying lip service to market principles and European integration, communist authorities generally acted to consolidate control in major sectors and enterprises among the old-line party faithful, their friends, and relatives.  Independent media have been consistently under attack since 2001 from the ruling party; broadcast media in particular have been increasingly under pressure to support the party in power.  Elements of the unreformed Ministry of the Interior - that is, the police - and security services have been used by the administration in power to intimidate their most significant political opponents, by either threatening investigations or bringing criminal cases for real or imagined offenses.

Why the protest?

The 2009 parliamentary election campaign in Moldova was arguably not noticeably worse than the 2005 national election or the 2003 and 2007 municipal and local election campaigns.  In all of these contests international observers noted the misuse of government institutions and administrative resources by the administration in power. But they ended up judging that the abuses were not sufficiently severe to disqualify the results of the voting. As for the disorganised, inaccurate electoral rolls, OSCE election observation missions since the early 1990s have been warning Moldovans that their electoral lists are out-of-date, inaccurate, incomplete, and/or incomprehensible.  After every election Moldovan authorities have duly promised to correct these deficiencies; they have yet to do so.  Therefore many of the inconsistencies and inaccuracies noted by the opposition in the 2009 voting in Moldova have been present for more than a decade. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine with certainty whether the ruling party this time took greater unfair advantage of these flaws than did other candidates and administrations in earlier elections.

Several factors in the 2009 campaign made the communist victory much harder for the opposition to swallow than in previous elections.  Firstly, after the PCRM won an absolute majority in the 2001 vote, its percentage of the electorate shrank steadily in the 2003, 2005, and especially 2007 Chisinau elections.  Opposition activists and supporters, especially among the young, expected this trend would continue. 

Secondly, President Voronin and his party have loudly proclaimed a policy of European integration for Moldova since 2003. But tangible results of this policy have been disappointing.  The apparent victory of the PCRM was thus taken by many in the opposition to signify that this chasm between stated goals and real progress in Moldova might continue indefinitely. 

Third, as a result of the global economic crisis, remittances to Moldova from workers abroad have been declining and an undetermined number of Moldovans of prime working age have been returning to Moldova.  There are no accurate statistics yet for the scale of this phenomenon, but these Moldovans return to a country with no jobs for them and - after the elections - little apparent prospect for fundamental political change.

Spontaneous protest, excessive response

The demonstration and protests following the April 5 elections seem to have been largely unplanned and undirected.  Judging by the police presence in the capital on April 7, Moldovan authorities clearly did not expect serious trouble.  In fact, over the past fifteen years, Moldova has a history of intermittent but fairly regular political protests that have rarely if ever involved violence of any sort.  However, government and opposition responses and follow-up to the protests have hastened and deepened polarisation of the country's major political forces.

The response of government authorities after the violence on April 7 has clearly been excessive.  There are numerous, detailed, and credible allegations of serious violations of basic human rights by police, prison, and security authorities.  Despite the generally poor record of Moldova's police, prison, and court authorities since the fall of communism, the behavior of security and Interior Ministry forces after the elections has pretty clearly descended below the lamentably low level observed in Moldova over the past decade and a half.  These abuses need to be investigated for their own sake and as part of Moldova's living up to its commitments to the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Identifiable culprits on all sides need to be brought to justice, and the structural factors that lead to such abuses need at long last to be addressed and corrected.

Romanian destabilisation?

Reactions of many Moldovan and external actors have been unhelpful.  President Voronin blamed provocateurs from Romania - inter alia - for inciting the violence, an allegation gleefully echoed by separatist authorities in Tiraspol and some of their supporters in Moscow.  While generally refusing to rise to Voronin's bait, Romanian authorities have unhelpfully offered to expand and speed up issuance of Romanian passports to as many as a million Moldovan citizens.  Some observers have tried to cast events in Moldova as yet another "colour" revolution, similar to those in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. This allegation was bolstered by Voronin's tactical appeal during the election campaign to Russophone and pro-Russian segments of the Moldovan population.

Voronin's recent flirtation with Moscow and Moldova's internal political disputes have highlighted Romania's ambivalent relationship with its eastern neighbor and former territory.  Romanian President Traian Basescu recently likened the division of Moldova from Romania to the two Germanies - East and West - before reunification.  Such statements exacerbate existing paranoia in Chisinau's ruling circles about possible Romanian territorial designs.  These fears are exacerbated by careless statements by some prominent officials in Bucharest, such as public speculation by a sitting parliamentarian and former foreign minister that Moldova might be better off (i.e. more inclined to reunification with Romania) without the Russian-dominated Transnistrian region.  Moldovan mistrust of Romanian intentions has also been stoked by Bucharest's reluctance to sign a formal treaty with Moldova on their mutual border.  Basescu says such a pact is unnecessary; Voronin interprets this as a threat to Moldova's independence.

Moldovan authorities also interpret recent changes in Romanian citizenship and passport policy in a sinister light.  While almost all recent polls indicate that only a small minority of Moldovans would actually wish to join with Romania, the tightening of border controls after Bucharest's entry into the EU led many Moldovans to seek a Romanian passport as a means of ensuring access to European travel.  During most of the past decade, Romania maintained a very restrictive policy on granting citizenship to Moldovan residents.  However, with political relations deteriorating and an increasing swell of Moldovan applications (as many as 800,000 by some estimates), authorities in Bucharest, including President Basescu, have implied an easing of passport issuance.  Moldovan authorities in turn have clamped down on Romanian consular activity in the country, and there are no reliable public statistics on how many passports have actually been distributed.  However, any visitor to Chisinau will see every day a mob of passport applicants outside the Romanian mission, as Moldovan residents seek to preserve an avenue of escape to western Europe.

Issues of national identity

It would be a serious mistake to blame either Bucharest or Moscow for the recent events in Moldova, or to view the situation there as simply another east-west confrontation.  Surveys and elections since 1993 have consistently shown that some 90 percent of Moldovans prefer independence and are not ready to sacrifice their sovereignty simply to gain access to the European Union. 

The same might be said of Moldova's attitude toward Russia.  Romanian and Russian speakers in Moldova actually get along remarkably well, even if the leaders in Bucharest, Chisinau, and Moscow do not.  While many Moldovans are willing to have good relations with Russia, they wish to be ruled from Chisinau, not Moscow, a fact not always well understood in the Kremlin.  Pro-Russian elements, particularly in breakaway Transnistria, use pro-Romanian sentiment on Moldova's right bank as a red herring to justify their separatist agenda.

Most worrying, the recent elections and ensuing violence provide evidence of increasingly deep, serious political, economic, linguistic, and especially generational divisions in Moldova that prevent the country from addressing  its real existential questions - developing a broadly accepted national identity in its ethnically and linguistically diverse population, building a viable economy that can end outmigration and brain drain, and restoring the country's territorial and political integrity through a lasting political settlement in Transnistria.  Moldova lies on the fault line between the Slavic and Mediterranean worlds, and attempts to make the country wholly "western" or "eastern" will most likely tear it apart.  For centuries the territory of the modern-day Republic of Moldova has been multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.  Attempts to achieve or ensure domination for one segment of this diverse population are recipes for failure.

Time for reconciliation

The crucial task now for Moldova if it is to have a European future - indeed any future at all - is to overcome the country's internal divisions through determined efforts at reconciliation and cooperation.  Moldova desperately needs a broad process of dialogue and reconciliation between the ruling communist party, the major opposition parties, and their supporters in Moldovan civil society.  Major European figures, such as EU President and Czech Prime Minister Topolanek, EU High Representative Solana, and Council of Europe General Secretary Davis have visited Moldova to assess the situation and encourage such a process, but these efforts so far lack organisation and focus.  In addition, while the State Department and U.S. Embassy have issued laudable statements, the U.S. has so far been largely absent, in part due to key personnel positions yet to be filled.

Without cooperation between the ruling party and opposition, Moldova is likely to repeat the experience of April, 2009, with similar results.  As the new Parliament convened on May 5, PCRM leaders forged ahead with the process of choosing new officers, heedless of opposition wishes and sensibilities.  The communist party elected outgoing President Vladimir Voronin as Speaker of the new legislative body, and nominated former Prime Minister Zinaida Grecianii as their presidential candidate.  According to a 2000 amendment of the constitution making Moldova a parliamentary republic, the legislature has two attempts to choose a head of state.  If no candidate obtains the required sixty percent of the vote (61 deputies out of the 101 in the parliament), new national elections are required.

The three opposition parties in Parliament announced they will boycott election of a new President in the legislative body.  If they persist and succeed in forcing repeat parliamentary elections, there is little prospect of a different or better result the next time. On May 20 all 41 opposition deputies absented themselves from the first round of balloting for president, in which Grecianii received all 60 votes from the PCRM deputies present.  A second vote is scheduled for May 28; opposition leaders vow to continue their boycott.  If the Moldovan parliament fails to elect a chief of state, Voronin (as Speaker) will remain acting president, and new national legislative elections must be held sometime this summer.  Such a vote would take place in a nation already deeply polarised by recent events, with the poorest economy in Europe increasingly beset by the effects of the global economic crisis.  Apart from dedicated opposition activists, many observers expect a new election to produce no substantial change in the distribution of power in Moldova, thus simply deepening the country's political polarization and economic woes.

A role for outside parties

The U.S., the EU, and other European institutions such as the Council and Europe and OSCE should work in concert to establish a comprehensive reconciliation process in Moldova.  They should insist that the ruling communist party and the opposition participate without reservations in this process.  For example, there should be real reform of the police, security organs, and courts - no empty promises and no excuses.  Similarly, opposition activists need to work with the ruling party to develop mutually-acceptable programs and accept the result if they are outvoted legitimately in legislative bodies.  With major assistance in the works from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the U.S. may have some fairly effective leverage at this time with all sides in Chisinau.

Without national reconciliation, fundamental political reform, and economic development, Moldova faces a future of providing the region and wider Europe with an increasing flow of migrants and trafficking victims, while increasingly offering a safe haven for smugglers and criminals of all sorts.  The resultant poverty, instability, and possible conflict will cause ripple effects that can spread far beyond the immediate region.  At some point, instability in Moldova could become more than just a footnote in the dialogue between Washington and Moscow.  However, U.S. involvement, with relatively limited resources, can help Europeans address, avert, and resolve the problems facing Moldova.  The key is to direct the U.S. effort at resolving Moldova's real internal problems and promoting genuine reform and tangible economic development, rather than simply seeking the will of the wisp of another colour revolution that never was.

William H. Hill, currently Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College, served two terms as Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova.  David J. Kramer, currently a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, served in several senior positions at the U.S. State Department, including as Deputy Assistant Secretary responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, in the George W. Bush Administration.  The opinions expressed are entirely their own.

Pakistan and the “AfPak” strategy

The shape of the United States's new "AfPak" strategy is now clear. For Washington, the most serious problems posed by Afghanistan and Pakistan - the Taliban, al-Qaida, and associated tribal militants - arise from the Pashtun regions of both countries. Behind the rhetoric, the decision has therefore been taken to contain the violence to these areas. Shaun Gregory is professor in the department of peace studies at the University of Bradford, northern England, and head of the Pakistan Security Research Unit there. He is the author of Pakistan: Securing the Insecure State (Routledge, 2008)

Also by Shaun Gregory in openDemocracy:

"Pakistan on edge" (25 September 2006)

"Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

"Musharraf: the fateful moment" (16 November 2007)

"Pakistan's political turmoil: Musharraf and beyond" (27 August 2008)

"The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war" (25 November 2008)

"Mumbai: Pakistan's moment of opportunity" (3 December 2008)

The car-bombing targeted against police and intelligence headquarters in Lahore on 27 May 2009 which killed at least twenty-four people - the latest in a series of attacks on the city, including on Sri Lanka's cricket-team and a police academy in March - shows how difficult the task will be. This larger strategic effort in turn has three parts:

* using military force to push back and weaken the insurgents to the point they can be contained by the Afghan and Pakistan armies

* stepping up nation-building efforts to win the battle for people's hearts and minds

* empowering the respective state structures to manage their own affairs consistent with western interests. 

On the Afghan side of the border the implementation of this policy is led by the United States. The combination of the military "surge" by Nato and the International Security Assistance force (Isaf), and the estimated 500,000 foreigners present in Afghanistan in nation-building roles, holds out the prospect of meaningful progress.

On the Pakistan side, however, the United States exists at one remove. The endemic insecurity revealed by the Lahore bomb (responsibility for which is claimed by Hakimullah Mehsud of the "Pakistan Taliban") indicates the scale of its task. Washington is reliant on implementing policy through the blunt tool of the Pakistan army - an army which does not share the US or Nato's strategic objectives for Afghanistan. On the contrary: for Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban remain the only players in the region able to advance its objectives: realising the end of the Hamid Karzai regime, forcing a significantly pro-Pakistan element into the Afghan government, and reversing (and in due course eliminating) growing Indian influence in Afghanistan.

The United States has therefore applied huge economic and military-aid pressure to push Pakistan's president (Asif Ali Zardari) and its chief-of-army-staff  (General Ashfaq Kiyani) towards meaningful military operations in Pakistan's Pashtun areas - operations Zardari and Kiyani are now selling as an unambiguous commitment to rooting out the terrorists and militants. The central question which consequently arises is whether this does signal the decisive shift in Pakistani thinking that the US and western governments have been pressing for. 

The lesson of Bajaur

A part of the answer to this can be found in the ruins of Bajaur, the northernmost agency of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In the wake of the Marriott Hotel bomb-attack in Islamabad in September 2008, the Pakistani army launched military operations in Bajaur: the first serious and large-scale operations in the FATA.

The army, fearing casualties and uncertain of the loyalties of some of its soldiers, used air-strikes, helicopter-gunships, and artillery to pound militants' positions and to raze many villages and towns to the ground. In late February 2009, after more than five months of fighting, Major-General Tariq Khan helicoptered journalists to one such flattened town; there he declared that the Taliban had been defeated in Bajaur and that the rest of the FATA would be in Pakistan's hands by the end of 2009. Western diplomats, anxious to support Pakistani actions, heralded the holding of Bajaur as an important signal to militants elsewhere in the FATA and as a base from which the Pakistan army could expand operations against militant strongholds elsewhere in the agency (see "Has AfPak strategy led to civil war in Pakistan?", Times of India, 24 May 2009).

By late May 2009, three months later, the Pakistan military, from a few heavily fortified bases, continues to claim that it is winning its campaign. But in reality the army has not taken the offensive into other parts of the FATA; it has singularly failed to hold Bajaur; and the Taliban is back in de facto control of the agency.

The real measure of what has been achieved is the hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced from the region by the fighting. They have paid the price of this army "success" with the destruction of their homes, businesses, schools and clinics; as a result many of them feel as much antipathy to the Pakistan army as they do to the Taliban. Moreover, in these three months Mullah Fazlullah's Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammedi (TNSM, a core part of the Pakistan Taliban) has consolidated its hold of the Swat district in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP); forced a "peace deal" with the Zardari government; and moved outwards from Swat into the Buner and Dir districts, thus moving closer to Islamabad and to the strategically important Karakoram highway (see Patrick Cockburn, "Where the Taliban roam", Independent, 6 May 2009).   Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan:

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamadad" (4 June 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan"  (24 July 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

Irfan Husain. "Pervez Musharraf: the commando who couldn't" (19 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: the new frontline" (18 September 2008)

Paul Rogers, "The AfPak war: three options" (25 February 2009)

Paul Rogers, "A three-front war: Iraq, AfPak...Washington" (20 March 2009)

Nadeem Ul Haque, "How to solve Pakistan's problem" (24 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: sources of turmoil" (30 April 2009)

Anatol Lieven, "Pakistan's American problem" (6 May 2009)

These developments - an affront to the Pakistani state, and a threat to Chinese interests which flow along the Karakoram, and the source of intense US pressure - combined to force Islamabad once again to act. The military operations now unfolding in Buner, Dir and Swat bear all the hallmarks of the Bajaur operation: air-strikes, helicopter-gunships and artillery dominate; villages and towns are being destroyed; and the United Nations estimates that more than 1.3 million people are fleeing the violence.

When taken together with all those previously displaced in the FATA and NWFP, at least 2 million internally-displaced persons (IDPs) may be in search of shelter, clean water and food. A relatively small number of inadequate camps has been put together by the Pakistani state and the UN to deal with them; much more is needed.

Two key decisions

Against this background Pakistan is steadily approaching two critical moments of decision.

The first is that President Zardari has committed Pakistan to extending these military operations into the FATA. In particular this will mean incursions into North and South Waziristan, the stronghold of Baitullah Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP, another section of the Pakistan Taliban) and the base of Jalalluddin's Haqqani's "Afghan Taliban" network. This is also the area widely considered as "Al-Qaida Central". If this happens, it would signal a seismic shift in Pakistan's role in the "war on terror" and an equally seismic shift in its relationship with the Afghan Taliban (see "The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war", 25 November 2008). 

In conducting large-scale military operations against the TTP and al-Qaida and its associates in North and South Waziristan, the Pakistan army would be making a move it has singularly failed to make in the eight years of the "war on terror". It would also confound the widely disseminated view that the army has neither the capability nor the motivation to act against these groups. This notion has, arguably, already been punctured by the air-lifting of Pakistani commandos to the Peochar valley in Swat, reportedly to surround the leadership of Mullah Fazlullah's TNSM.

Many analysts of Pakistan have been dumbfounded to see confirmation that the Pakistan army and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency both knows exactly where these leaders are, and also has the means - without extensive US counterinsurgency training or re-equipment, which are not yet in place - to move against these groups. It begs the question why they did not do so years earlier. 

Perhaps even more important, Pakistani army/ISI operations in the "Waziris" will inevitably mean confrontation with the Haqqani network - the Afghan Taliban group widely understood to have the closest links with the Pakistan army through the ISI. It is also known to be the group - in the person of Jalalluddin's son Sirajuddin - which carried out the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul on 7 July 2008. The Pakistani military cannot engage this group without the volte-face revision of its Afghan strategy. 

The second critical (and interrelated) decision Pakistan faces - now being played out behind the scenes - is Pakistan's delayed private answer to the request being made by the United States to expand the US's unmanned "drone" operations into the Pashtun areas of northern Balochistan (to the south of the FATA and the NWFP). This area serves as a refuge for the Haqqani network, the TTP, and perhaps al-Qaida - a place of retreat in the event of any potential operations in the Waziris; but northern Balochistan is also the route of one of Nato's key logistic supply-lines.

Even more significant, the region is also the base of Mullah Omar and the Quetta shura - the "safe haven" from which Omar and the Afghan Taliban leadership have planned and organised the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan (with the tolerance or support of the Pakistan army and ISI, depending on the interpretation of the evidence).

A decision to expand the drone strikes into northern Balochistan (from where, at the CIA base at Shamsi, the drones in fact already mainly operate) would in effect give the United States freedom of the skies over the region. This would directly imperil the Quetta shura and the Afghan Taliban, who presently operate with impunity from this area.

Thus, if the Pakistanis do grant the US the right to extend the range of the drone strikes - even after allowing for the civilian casualties that often ensue, and the danger that the move would be widely seen as a further capitulation of Pakistani sovereignty to the United States - the results could be significant:  enhancing US military effectiveness, allowing Nato to better protect its supply-lines, and weakening the Afghan Taliban (though, again, at the cost of Pakistan's own Afghan strategy).

In a vice

Pakistan cannot postpone indefinitely the two "crunch" moments: it must decide whether to expand its military operations into the rest of the FATA (above all in to the Waziris) and whether to allow the expansion of US drone operations into northern Balochistan. In this sense the dynamics unfolding in Buner, Dir and Swat - where things are not all going the Pakistan army's way despite its up-beat rhetoric - are simply the overture to the main performance the United States has come to require of the Pakistanis as their contribution to the "AfPak" strategy (see Anatol Lieven, "Pakistan's American problem", 6 May 2009). 

This is undoubtedly a difficult period for the Pakistan army and ISI (whose own building felt the effects of the Lahore blast on 27 May). The Taliban's return to strength in Afghanistan, a weakening in Nato's resolve, and the element of desperation in the US "surge" strategy (in the sense that there will be few options if it fails) together have huge implications for the Pakistani army's calculus: the thinking in army headquarters must be that Pakistani objectives in Afghanistan are within reach only if US pressure can be borne, the Afghan Taliban can be protected, and the Pakistan Taliban contained. 

In this tight position, the Pakistani army may - just - glimpse open sea. If the humanitarian situation were to deteriorate too severely in the FATA/NWFP, and international pressure for a cessation of the Pakistani assault grew as a result, this could provide a context for Pakistan to argue that it can no longer prosecute the war. This could in turn allowing it to ease the pressure from the US and abandon the commitment to an assault on North and South Waziristan.

Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistani army could face unpopularity for precipitating a deeper humanitarian crisis in the FATA/NWFP at the US's behest - but this very situation could create space for them to continue to decline the expansion of US drone-strikes into northern Balochistan. The more the fragile political agreement in Pakistan in support of counterinsurgency operations frays, the more likely would be such an outcome. The Lahore bombing is another grenade launched into this delicate political and security picture. Pakistan's state will continue to play its reduced hand amid urgent and pressing circumstances.


Sri Lanka’s challenge: winning the peace

The military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers / LTTE) on 18 May 2009 has brought the twenty-six-year-old Sri Lankan conflict to an end. The immediate legacy is a huge humanitarian problem in parts of the north involving the care and resettlement of displaced people, their reintegration into local communities, and the provision of resources for them to begin to reconstruct their lives. Rohan Gunaratna is head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, and professor of security studies, at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Among his books is Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (Columbia University Press, 2002)

Beyond that, the victory over the LTTE poses a long-term political challenge to Sri Lanka's government. If it is to "win" the hard-won peace and rebuild the country, an essential requirement will be its willingness and ability to rebuild bridges with the Tamil community.

The LTTE legacy

It will not be easy, in part because of the nature of internal Tamil politics after long domination by the LTTE. This group under its now deceased leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran aspired to be the sole representative of the Tamil-speaking people, and sought as a result to eliminate any rivals or anyone thought to pose a potential threat. This included Tamil intellectuals and politicians including Prabhakaran's childhood friend and deputy Ajith Mahendrarajah (alias Mahattaya). The pursuit of a mono-ethnic Tamil state also led the group to ethnically cleanse Sri Lanka's northeast of Sinhalese and Muslims. But the war brought disaster to the Tamil people: over a million emigrated, 300,000 were internally displaced and nearly 70,000 people died in the fighting on all sides (including 15,000 Sri Lankan troops).

The LTTE fought both the Indian and the Sri Lankan militaries in the 1980s and graduated from a terrorist to a guerrilla and a semi-conventional force in the 1990s. The group's female and male suicide-bombers killed two heads of government - Rajiv Gandhi (former prime minister of India, in 1991) and Ranasinghe Premadasa (the president of Sri Lanka, 1989-93). It also wounded Chandrika Kumaratunga (president, 1994-2005), and killed a number of the country's politicians: either by suicide-bomb (Gamini Dissanayake, a presidential candidate) and Ranjan Wijeratne (deputy defence minister, in 1991) or gun (Lalith Athulathmudali, former minister and opposition politician, in 1993) and Lakshman Kadirgamar (foreign minister, in 2005). The fact that Kadiragamar was himself a Tamil made him a special target; the LTTE also killed over 200 other Tamil political leaders. No country had lost so many high-quality leaders in such a short period of time.

The LTTE became in these decades one of the most creative and innovative terrorist groups, introducing sea-borne suicide-operations and the suicide body-suit to the world. Today, both these technologies are adopted by a range of terrorist groups worldwide, including al-Qaida.

Moreover, by harnessing the presence of Sri Lankan Tamils overseas, the LTTE built a state-of-the-art propaganda machine. It infiltrated Tamil community organisations and made them instruments of its fundraising cause; used its influence to pressure western nations to stop selling weapons to Sri Lanka; campaigned against international aid, tourism and investment in the country; and established a network of political influence in north America, Europe and Asia. Also in openDemocracy on Sri Lanka's war and politics:

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka's election choice" (17 November 2005)

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka: between peace and war" (14 May 2006)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Sri Lanka: the politics of purity" (17 November 2006)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Multiculturalism: a view from Sri Lanka" (30 May 2007)

Sumantra Bose, "Sri Lanka's stalemated conflict" (12 June 2007)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka under siege" (30 January 2009)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka's displaced: the political vice" (8 April 2009)

Nirmala Rajasingam, "The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities" (17 April 2009)

Luther Uthayakumaran, "Sri Lanka: after war, justice" (21 May 2009)

At its peak the LTTE enjoyed a numerical strength of 15,000 members - comparable to the strength of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia / Farc) or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines. Yet the Sri Lankan conflict is one of the few cases where such a powerful group with semi-conventional as well as guerrilla capabilities has been defeated.

The closing stages of the war in particular suggests that the LTTE in the end overestimated its own power and underestimated the resilience of the Sri Lankan state. It also missed the declining influence of the west in global politics; in this respect the Sri Lankan government's key partnerships - with Pakistan, China, Russia and India - were assets in prosecuting the war.

The road to defeat

Three further elements of the Colombo government's military and political strategy were important in its eventual victory.

The first was the moment when Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (alias Karuna) - the former LTTE commander of the Eastern Province - was co-opted by the government in 2004. The LTTE as a result lost overnight 6,000 fighters, half of its fighting force. The east had been the principal recruitment- ground of the LTTE. Some northern Tamils considered the eastern Tamils second-class citizens, but the east provided the bulk of the resources - funds, paddy and other necessities - for the LTTE war-machine.

Karuna's defection was a direct result of his realisation that the LTTE had lost touch with everyday citizens. When the LTTE lost territory, it also lost its ability to replenish its fighters. Instead of seeking volunteers, the LTTE started to conscript members from each family - earning anger in return. In March 2009, Karuna was appointed Sri Lanka's minister of national integration.

The second element was that the Sri Lankan navy monitored, detected and intercepted the LTTE ships and disrupted the flow of weapons and other equipment to the LTTE's land and maritime organs. The strategy adopted by Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, a committed and creative navy chief, was to go after the LTTE fleet while replenishing his own side's material losses. Karannagoda, unlike any previous commander, took his fleet to international waters to sink the rogue fleet in 2006-07. The leadership qualities of Admiral Karannagoda and his ability to work together with international and domestic partners enabled him to develop the intelligence to destroy LTTE ships supplying the killing-machine in Sri Lanka.

The third element was that the Sri Lankan army expanded its numerical strength in 2006-07. General Sarath Fonseka (the army chief) and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (defence secretary and a former frontline officer, as well as the brother of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa) understood the need to fight on multiple fronts. The army, supported by the other branches of the military, gradually weakened the LTTE's fighting strength, in part by using trained elite teams operating behind the frontlines.

The road to rebuild

The military victory leaves Sri Lanka facing three tasks of political reconstruction.

The first is that the government must develop an ambitious development-plan to rebuild a country that has suffered almost three decades of conflict - with an especial focus on the northeast. The fighting army should transform into a peace army dedicated to development. It should together with civilians work to rebuild the devastated northeast by building roads, schools, industry, farms and agricultural projects. The nations most concerned about Sri Lanka in the recent past (including Japan, Sri Lanka's largest donor) should be asked to provide assistance to rebuild the northeast. The expatriate community could also be a precious resources for reconstruction efforts.

The second task is good governance, especially the rule of law - the key to economic development, as well as the best weapon against extremism. Here, the state should prosecute the corrupt and sack the incompetent: ministers and officials should both be honest and appear honest in their conduct. The drive to eradicate corruption should start from the top.

The third task is if anything the hardest: to encourage the peoples of Sri Lanka - Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers - to think and act "Sri Lankan". Sri Lanka belongs to all its inhabitants. If a minority of the Sinhalese wrongly claim that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese, then the Tamils will claim the north and Muslims the east. If the government can (for example) invest in programmes to teach Tamil in the south and to teach Sinhalese in the north, the next generation will be Sri Lankans. As the majority, the Sinhalese must be more generous to its minorities. Today, any majority community will be respected by the way it treats its minorities. Sri Lanka lost a great opportunity before; now it should devolve power from the centre. The appointment as prime minister of the current social-services minister (and a Tamil), Douglas Devananda, would be a start.

Misguided nationalists, both Sinhalese and Tamils, came close to destroying the country. A lesson is that religion, language and caste should never again be used to build political strength. All Sri Lankans have an obligation to rebuild the broken bridges between the different communities, and resist ethnic and religious entrepreneurs who seek to divide people on the basis of their ethnicity or faith.

If the government gives way to ultra-Sinhala nationalists, who advocate treating the Tamils as second-class citizens, there will never be a united Sri Lanka. A government that has defeated the armed Tamil fanatics must now contain ultra-Sinhala nationalism and build a truly united and equal Sri Lanka. It will be tough, and call for different tools than war-fighting; but it is the only way to heal the terrible wounds of war.


How Do We Cope?

Gaza City. Our economic and political progress has hovered in the balance as Israel decrees that the crossings will remain closed until guarantees are given that their captive corporal, Gilad Shalit, is safe and sound. But since Hamas started insisting on what it calls ‘national demands' even that balance seems no longer on offer. As an independent Gazan who has lived through harrowing experiences, I confess that successive waves of Palestinians who fled to Gaza from Israel in the 1948 and 1967 wars have been met with nothing but abject failure on all sides. Israel has failed to provide for its legitimate security needs by allowing the emergence of a viable Gazan economy; Hamas has failed to deliver the better life it promised would be ours once it combined its anti-corruption stance with toughness on Israel; and Fatah has completely failed to create the prototype for a Palestinian state. Many Gazans like myself, not aligned to any political faction, can only conclude that on all sides we are the victims of politics.

© by Sameh A.HabeebAs daily life in Gaza steadily deteriorates, it seems inadequate to depict our conditions in a few lines on a page. A little more than two months after the Operation Cast Lead offensive launched throughout the Gaza Strip on Dec 27 2008 left some 1,300 Gazans killed and many more injured, nearly everything is worse than it was. Gazans are now facing an even tighter Israeli security cordon that has increasingly restricted exports since their ‘withdrawal'. Tons of vegetables and fruit are now rotting before reaching market. Many factories in core industries have ground to a halt. Israel is still stopping Gaza's fishermen from fishing off their coast. Gaza is not only cut off economically, but physically and socially.

Fadi N. Skaik is a 25-year-old student with a BA in English from the University of Palestine and a translation diploma from Al-Azhar University, both based in Gaza. He writes for local magazines, blogs and websites such as, and has founded three English language clubs since 2005.Meanwhile, the crisis festers and deepens. Notwithstanding the poverty induced by Israel's stringent blockade, Gazans are trying to make a living by any means they can muster. We are inventing ingenious ways of overcoming fuel shortages, for example: some old workshops are now repairing old kerosene stoves made of yellow copper, so that the residents can once again have cooked food. The 69-year-old Saleh Al-Astal who lives in Khanyounis in southern Gaza Strip and repairs these stoves, used to run his workshop once a week: but a roaring trade since the start of the blockade now prevents him from closing even at lunchtime. And when Gazans run out of kerosene, they will still have a plentiful supply of lamps, heaters and stoves. Others have tunnelled underground to survive; they smuggle heavy diesel into Gaza from Egypt, and three litres of diesel with a small spoon of salt will keep the kerosene stoves burning very effectively. This combination was discovered by our neighbour, Hamdi Al-Sousi, proud owner of a popular restaurant. Bakeries have also been using Hamdi's technique to circumvent the lack of cooking gas and flour invariably turned back at the Israeli border with Gaza. Other bakeries are using the traditional wood-fire. Tunnels are now considered as the main source of supply for animals, flowers and shoes, despite the high death rate among tunnel construction workers killed by tunnel collapses or jetfighters. There is no alternative.

I have a retail outfit for shoes in the Al-Sheikh Redwan neighbourhood of Gaza city. Daily, I receive visits from tunnel merchants who are total strangers: they became merchants overnight when many of them lost their entire livelihoods. But, they tell me, they now have a chance to make a much more decent living. Since they know nothing about the art of marketing products, they tend to make up for it by telling anecdotes about the latest hair-raising situations in the tunnels.

© by Sameh A.HabeebChildren are also doing their bit for their families. One 11-year-old boy, Ibrahim Morad, whose father is jobless due to the blockade, has started burning the candle at both ends. After five hours at school, he goes to a certain factory in Gaza for two or three packets of chocolate and biscuits that are cheaper than in the supermarkets to sell on the streets. I used to stop him for my chocolate bars and eventually I gave him 2 shekels, "around $0.5" to add to his savings. He told me: "My life is packed! Every day I go to school from 7:00 am till midday, and then I make for crowded areas to sell to until it is 7:00 pm. After that, I do my homework and go and get my beauty sleep!"

Coping with devastation leaves people in the Gaza Strip relatively unconcerned about the shortage of cooking gas: they heat tea and milk on wood-burning stoves instead. But in the chilly weather it gets more difficult. Carpets have been too pricey, so people resort to rugs or mats to keep warm. When dairies and other factories have been flattened, and refrigerators fail due to electricity cuts, people start salting foods for longer storage periods. Housewives are busy rediscovering old fermentation methods that will keep their households in dairy produce.

Such primitive ways and means are far from permanently sustainable, however, since the frequent disruption of the supply of electricity and fuel undermines medical devices, refrigeration, operating-room lighting and other essential systems directly. Despite Hamas' daily calls and cautions given to any merchants who might be tempted to exploit such dilemmas for their own profit, the blockade and the siege have led to rising prices in Gaza. Hamas has set up emergency freefone numbers for people who find themselves being fleeced by profiteers to report them. However, Gazans complain that the practice is spreading day by day. They bitterly protest at shortages and rising prices in the supply of common commodities such as gasoline, salt, sugar, baby milk, cigarettes, coffee, butter, clothes, electronics and other basic life requirements. And they call for stricter measures to be taken against the ‘black marketeers'. Hamas say they are maintaining a zero tolerance approach to practices that are against Islam and its laws.

© by Sameh A.HabeebRecently, something surprising happened on my way home. It's a common assumption here that taxi drivers know Gaza's every lane like the back of their hand. However, the man I stopped didn't recognise my destination. He just muttered "Itlaa", "get in'. As we drove off, he asked me for directions. He explained that he was not originally a taxi driver but was now obliged to take on a shift with his cousin's car. He had been working as an employee in the Palestinian National Authority since 1998. Since then, he hasn't been able to access his regular salary. So, his cousin forced him to take a decision, "to be a taxi driver or not to be a taxi driver?" "I gave in," he said in disgust.

Caught between two governments, one in the Gaza Strip headed by Mr. Ismail Haneya and another in the West Bank headed by Mr. Salam Fayyad, Gazans who are on the payroll of the West Bank simply don't get paid if there is a budget deficit. Other Gazans, however, fall victim between the two governments; they live in complete penury without any aid since Israel only allows limited amounts of aid to enter the territories.

In the last days of the Egyptian-brokered-negotiations, when it seems the Islamists had hardened their stance and made extreme demands, Israel's outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the Jewish state would not accept any terms Hamas could offer for a prisoner swap. In response to that, Ezzedine Al-Qassam, Hamas' military wing warned Israel in a statement, "We place the entire responsibility for blocking a deal on the enemy government". This only escalated the tension and led to the capture of some more high-ranking Hamas officials in the West Bank, adding yet more insult to injury. After John Ging, director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, expressed alarmed at the shortage of basic food commodities resulting from the closure of the Karni commercial crossing by the Israeli authorities, generous donations again began to flow in from European and Arab donors. Summit follows summit in Qatar or Sharm el-Sheikh. But still Israel insists on a halt to reconstruction, and the ongoing rift between Hamas and Fatah only adds to the delay. Gazans are bewildered, living from one day to the next without knowing what will happen.


Photographs by Sameh A. Habeeb

Barack Obama: Israel's true friend

It's already clear: the United States president is a great friend of Israel. If Barack Obama continues what he started in his meeting with Binyamin Netanyahu on 18 May 2009, he might prove to be the friendliest president to Israel ever. Richard M Nixon saved Israel from the Arab states in 1973, and Obama is about to save Israel from itself. Nixon sent Israel arms and ammunition at a critical time, and Obama is sending - at a time no less critical - the substance of a complete peace plan, a plan that would save Israel.

Gideon Levy is a journalist with the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretzAll that remains is whether Obama stays determined and decisive as he was in the White House summit. In one moment he changed Washington's madness and the attitude toward the Israeli occupation. Now it will be seen if he succeeds in altering the same madness in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It's a long road, and Obama began well.

In a single move he shrank the fear-mongering of Netanyahu and his mouthpieces on Iran to its proper size. In a single move he put the centrifuges of occupation - the real existential threat to Israel - at the top of the agenda. He fended off Netanyahu's attempts to divert attention from substantial issues, and blocked all efforts to waste more precious time on Iran and impose ridiculous preconditions on the Palestinians. He also blocked all efforts to distract Israel with committees, promises for negotiations, formulas, declarations and empty words. These are Israel's best tricks and games; anything to evade responsibility for the main issue - the end of the occupation.

Obama understands that now is the time for an end to petty words, impotent negotiations and a hollow peace process; now is the time for big deeds and a courageous leap over the abyss.

The one opportunity

Israel's "friends" in Washington have all suddenly shed their skin. They, too, sense a rare opportunity in the middle east. They, too, are tired of what Binyamin Netanyahu has tried to peddle. They, too, understand that the Yitzhar settlement in the West Bank must precede Iran's nuclear reactor in Bushehr. How pathetic and heartrending was the sight of the Israeli prime minister sitting tense and sweaty, next to the new American president, confident, stylish, and impressive; without all the jokes and back-patting of Ehud Olmert and George W Bush. The latter was in fact the least friendly president to Israel - one who allowed it to carry out all its violent madness.

How pathetic was the sight, yet how encouraging. Perhaps Netanyahu learned something during his short and dramatic visit, notable for the way that Obama tore off the mask of so-called peace-loving Israel. If Netanyahu really feared for the fate of the country he would have immediately agreed, in the Oval Office, to all the ideas put forth by this fantastic president. If Israel does not respond, then the Israelis, the US president and the entire world will know that Israel does not want peace.

An Israeli refusal of Obama's efforts will reveal that there is no peace partner in the middle east (see Akiva Eldar, "The United States and Israel: moment of truth", 18 May 2009). The absent partner is an Israel which announces: no to peace with fifty-seven countries, no to a move that will neutralise the threat of the Iranian bomb, and no to two states now. This is not only a "no" to peace but also a "no" to a chance to end the war over Israel's establishment with a major victory. This would mean that Israel's greatest strategic asset ever, its alliance with the United States, would be destroyed. Binyamin Netanyahu may now endanger Israel even more than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (see Aluf Benn, "Netanyahu bringing Israel closer to war with Iran", Ha'aretz, 26 May 2009).

Israel must be thankful to Barack Obama. A mere four months after taking office, he is trying to rescue Israel, the middle east, and basically the entire world, whose most dangerous conflict is this one. The threats are many; first and foremost refusals by Israel; a loss of interest by Obama himself; and Palestinian divisions. The ball is in Netanyahu's court. If he ends the occupation, he'll get peace and security; if he doesn't, he won't. It's not about another minor deal, but about the future of the Zionist enterprise. Such an opportunity will not return. Yes, we can. Obama has proved it; now it's Israel's turn.


Among openDemocracy's many articles on Israel and the Palestinians:

Karabakh: is war inevitable?

In a time of shooting wars, it is easy to lose sight of wars waiting to happen. This is dangerous, especially for a new US administration with an ample international agenda. Serious attention is required on Nagorno Karabakh, the simmering dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The danger of another open war in the Caucasus - one much worse than the August conflict between Russia and Georgia - is all too real. Frustration in Azerbaijan with a seemingly endless multilateral mediation effort has led opposition factions and, more recently, even the government to speak openly of a military option to restore Karabakh to Azeri sovereignty. The country's oil and gas earnings have reequipped its military, although with untested results. Russia recently sent a massive arms shipment to Armenia, while the Karabakh Armenians reportedly interpret the failure of Georgia's military last August as proof that Azerbaijan's army would fare no better in an assault on Karabakh or in a preventive war launched by the Armenian side. These views are dangerous and are riddled with error. The prevention needed is diplomatic, from Washington and Moscow working in tandem.

The apparent reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey announced on April 23, while very positive in itself, has largely ground to a halt. Ankara is unwilling, and politically unable, to move substantively in its ties with Yerevan without at least the appearance of movement on Karabakh. Unfortunately, the positive atmospherics of the meeting of the Armenian and Azeri presidents in Prague May 7 quickly dissipated in mutual accusations of bad faith. Experienced observers have seen this on-again, off-again process many times. Without progress on Karabakh, progress between Turkey and Armenia will be limited to symbolism at best.

Unsuccessful mediation

This is not the place to review the origins or grim chronicle of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict (Thomas de Waal's "Black Garden" of 2003 is the best and most objective study in English). The problem is that the fifteen-year no-war-no-peace standoff is increasingly fragile, and its failure would entail huge costs for the two countries, for the broader region and for the interests of the United States.

The Karabakh dispute has territorial, ethnic, and confessional content, but is also a product of Stalinist divide-and-rule nationality policy which produced open war when the Soviet system collapsed. The three-year war was by no means one sided, but its outcome was. The 1994 ceasefire left Armenians in control not only of Nagorno (mountain) Karabakh but of large surrounding territories and a secure corridor to Armenia. Beyond the claims to Karabakh itself, the fate of the lowlands and their former Azeri residents - refugees for almost a generation - are key to any settlement.

Mediation and working-level diplomats have not been lacking. The so-called Minsk Group co-chairs (the United States, France, and Russia) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have several times produced a draft peace framework. In each case, the political environment in the warring countries was unfavorable. Occasional political-level interventions by one or more Minsk Group capital also could not achieve the transition from negotiation to realization.

An inherent deficiency of the Minsk Group is that the three are not neutral mediators; they are themselves interested parties and at times partisan. In different ways, Washington, Paris and Moscow all tilt in their domestic politics toward Armenia. Their economic interests tilt toward Azerbaijan. To oversimplify, Armenia has an effective diaspora, while Azerbaijan has oil and gas. In Washington, the Congress loves Armenia but the Pentagon loves Azerbaijan. At the outset of the Minsk Group, Washington and Moscow had roughly common agendas, but in recent years have increasingly operated at cross purposes.

The alternative to multilateral mediation is direct negotiation, which in truth has proceeded episodically all along. Leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia (though not of Armenian Karabakh) have met repeatedly under a variety of auspices, and more than once were near an agreement. The obstacle was the same as for the Minsk Group: any workable deal is anathema to much of the population and political establishment of each.

Doomed hopes of settlement

The outlines of a settlement have been clear for fifteen years and reflect both the realities of war and the needs of peace. These realities transcend the standard rhetoric of "sovereignty and territorial integrity" as well as that of "national self-determination". In a settlement, Armenia will get Karabakh and a land corridor to Armenia, while Azerbaijan gets back the lowland surrounding territories. This is not about justice, nor right and wrong, but is the inescapable and necessary formula for peace. To be sure, there are a multitude of details (where the devil always lurks) and implementation problems (where the costs for outside powers will be substantial). The alternative is war, which is far worse and more costly.

Clearly, the greater burden of compromise is on Azerbaijan, whose people must confront truths about diplomacy and war at odds with their hopes and expectations. Diplomacy - even that of great powers - is not itself a force in international affairs but a mechanism. Diplomacy formalises and even rationalises reality, but does not alter basic reality. Diplomacy can promulgate peace and avoid war, which are its prime goals. However, diplomacy ratifies the battlefield, it does not reverse the battlefield. In any competition between war and diplomacy, war wins.

In history there have been a few instances when concerted great power diplomacy compelled a victorious smaller power to give up its battlefield gains for the broader interests of the great powers. In the case of Karabakh, such an outcome would require the United States, Russia, Europe (basically France), Turkey and perhaps even Iran to combine against Armenia in favor of Azerbaijan. The chances of this happening are nil. America and France have powerful domestic Armenian lobbies, Russia has a centuries' long strategic partnership with Armenia, and Iran has much better ties with its Armenian neighbour than with Shi'ia, but Turkic, Azerbaijan. Of the relevant outside parties, only Turkey is clearly on the side of Azerbaijan, and Turkey is wholly unable to reverse the policies of Washington, Paris, Moscow and Tehran to conform to its own. Thus, Azeri hopes that outside diplomacy will compel Armenia to give up its wartime victory are a chimera. The Azeri people need to taste this bitter cup.

Warning to Azerbaijan

Unfortunately, in Azerbaijan the tendency has been toward resumption of the sword rather than acceptance of an unpalatable peace. In the increasingly bellicose rhetoric across much of the political spectrum, a significant detail is missing. In a renewed war, Azerbaijan would almost certainly again lose, and with even worse consequences than its defeat in 1994. How can this be true, they ask in Baku, when we have shiny new weapons purchased with our gas exports? To begin with, if money equated to military capability, neither Saudi Arabia nor the Gulf Arab states would require the military protection of the United States.

To retake Karabakh by military means, Azerbaijani forces would need to overcome five objective factors which give the Karabakh Armenians immense defensive strength in depth. First is ground or terrain, in that Karabakh is a natural highland fortress currently surrounded by the wide depth of field of the occupied territories. Second is firepower, in a man-made fortress of multiple overlapping fields of fire, employing the heavily-mined occupied territories as killing zones before any attacker could reach the edge of Karabakh itself. Third is reserves of ample weaponry and munitions so the attackers would run out of young men before the defenders would run out of ammunition, while Karabakh can call on extensive manpower reinforcement from Armenia. Fourth is operational art in which the Karabakh Armenians have a clear record of superiority they would exercise in the inherently advantageous role of defenders of a skilfully prepared position. Fifth is strategic depth in Russia, which in a showdown would support its permanent security partner, while the American military would no more come to the aid of a failing Azeri offensive than it did in Georgia.

This panoply of obstacles should persuade any rational Azeri not to resort to war. Even the most favourable battlefield outcome would leave Azerbaijan immeasurably worse off than before. Beyond the toll in blood, the country's export pipelines and foreign revenues would be cut.

Indeed, it is not out of the question that the existence of an Azeri state could hang in the balance, as in a major renewed war it might be in the combined interests of Armenia, Russia and Iran to redraw the map of the eastern Caucasus. Unlikely, but history is replete with precedents.

Warning to Armenia

Caution should also be the watchword for Armenia and its cousins in Karabakh. Even a successful war would be pyrrhic and leave Armenia immeasurably worse off than before, while victory is often a bitterly relative term. Karabakh and its people would doubtless suffer greatly from modern Azeri long-range bombardment weaponry, and there is some evidence that Karabakh's edge in operational skills has eroded. In both instances, the price would be paid in blood.

In addition, Armenia's prospects for economic development would be retarded by years if not decades, its border with Turkey even more effectively closed than now, and its Metsamor nuclear power station a potential target of enraged Azeri bombing. Thus, Armenia proper might pay a greater long-term price for a Karabakh victory than would Karabakh itself.

After another war, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis could abandon any prospects their children will live better or their countries enjoy greater rule of law or participatory government. War would empower the worst sort of people in the politics of both countries. The opportunity costs for both nations would endure for generations, with real peace a lasting casualty.

Alternatives to war

What are the alternatives? Most obvious is continuation of the status quo, along the lines of Cyprus or Kashmir (neither much of a recommendation). Karabakh remains a small garrison state. Armenia remains critically limited by its landlocked geography and closed frontiers to west and east. Azerbaijan remains a kleptocracy with its finite oil and gas wealth dissipated in corruption and malfeasance. Talented young people migrate if they can or retreat into alienation from the tasks of building attractive modern societies. These prospects are pretty much what is currently on offer on both sides. Surely, there is something better?

There is, it is acceptance of peace. Peace requires compromise, in an environment where both terms are spoken on both sides with revulsion. Azerbaijan must accept the consequences of defeat in war, while Armenia must abandon expansive territorial ambitions. Partisans will argue that a return to arms somehow "cannot be worse" than giving up national aspirations and "rights". They are wrong. A renewed war will be worse than the most distasteful compromise.

Historians have judged that halfway through the First World War all the contending parties would have been better off accepting the peace demands of the opposing side than by continuing the struggle. That is certainly true for Armenia and Azerbaijan. A renewed war would be Verdun in the Caucasus.

Great power collusion needed

As noted above, the basics of a peace settlement have been on the table for years. Peace will reflect the outcome of the war, as peace almost always does. The solution will involve de facto and ultimately de jure redrawing of international borders, the resettlement of many but not all refugees, compensation where resettlement is not an option, assistance in the returned territories for extensive de-mining and rebuilding, and an international peacekeeping force of indefinite duration.

The peacekeeping effort will be a major challenge. The manpower and money will need to come principally from North American, European and Eurasian governments. The job will not be easy. In addition to difficult logistics, there will certainly be vengeful violence when the returnees see the condition of their former homes. Lasting peace will be long in coming, but the international effort is far preferable to the current illusory stability of no-war-no-peace.

What is needed is old-fashioned great power collusion by Washington and Moscow. Mediation is not enough. Armenian and Azeri political leaders will need outsiders to blame for giving up the "national dream" and accepting reality. Even if the two great powers cannot entirely impose a peace, they can certainly move the parties away from the status quo decisively in favour of compromise and settlement.

Washington and Moscow today have far too few mutual interests; their relationship is often zero sum, in that Russian diplomacy succeeds where American fails, and vice versa. There are people in both capitals who view Karabakh as zero sum. With a thoughtful and disciplined approach by the new US Administration, this need not be the case. Washington can accomplish nothing - nothing - on this issue without Moscow, so true partnership is both a necessity and a benefit in its own right. Karabakh could be a success story not just for peace in the Caucasus but for renewed great power co-operation between America and Russia.

Danger signs in the Caucasus include an escalating arms race, mutual misperceptions of intentions, a belief on each side that time is on its side, and dreams that renewed war would "solve" the dispute. Great power diplomacy is never easy, but the benefits in this case justify the effort. It is time for the outside powers and the combatants in the Karabakh dispute to give peace a chance.

Sri Lanka: after war, justice

The long war in Sri Lanka is, it seems, finally at an end. But for many Sri Lankans, even those who have longed for this day - and for whom the last few weeks have been especially intense - it has not ended in the way that we would have wanted. The prolonged siege in the northeast pocket, the shelling, the further loss of life, the vanquishing of the enemy - all this means that the conclusion of this twenty-six-year war is likely to be defined in terms of military victory alone, with no reference to a political solution and the return of democracy. This too is a tragedy.

Luther Uthayakumaran is a Sri Lankan Australian writer. An earlier version of this article was published in Lines magazine

There is a great responsibility now to make sure that Sri Lanka's future is not defined by the way the war has ended - and that the questions of democracy, justice and accountability are addressed fully in its aftermath. This article is a modest first contribution to that agenda.

The post-war search

There are many ways to view the terrible conflict that has sundered the island since 1983. When the war turned in the 1990s-2000s into a binary battle between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE / Tamil Tigers), it was ever clearer that for both sides thought and acted solely in terms of the aspirations of states, nationalisms and counter-nationalisms; and that in consequence they regarded the lives of civilians were becoming less and less important. Some of us responded by seeking to establish a position that placed the rights of the individual citizen at the centre of concern.

This outlook had but one result: to see the war as a series of horrendous injustices committed against the citizens of Sri Lanka. This perspective is highly relevant to the war's end: for it suggests that the country and its people cannot - and must not attempt to - recover from the collective trauma without addressing and (where possible) redressing these injustices.

However, there is a good chance that this is precisely what will happen. Soon, the focus will shift to matters of administration, reconstruction, and political "normalisation". The thrust - aided, no doubt, by the decline in international media attention - is the need to "move on", with the implication that progress beyond conflict requires forgetting the past.

Also in openDemocracy on Sri Lanka's war and politics:

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka's election choice" (17 November 2005)

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka: between peace and war" (14 May 2006)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Sri Lanka: the politics of purity" (17 November 2006)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Multiculturalism: a view from Sri Lanka" (30 May 2007)

Sumantra Bose, "Sri Lanka's stalemated conflict" (12 June 2007)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka under siege" (30 January 2009)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka's displaced: the political vice" (8 April 2009)

Nirmala Rajasingam, "The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities" (17 April 2009)

This pragmatic view has the merit of warning against imprisonment in the past, which itself is a prime source of conflict. But it is also the case that confronting the past - as seen from the examples of Germany and South Africa, among others - is also an essential part of "moving on", and ensuring that the worst experiences will never again recur. In any event, there is a moral imperative in facing what has been perpetrated and experienced; is it right that (for example) a father who saw his 2-year old daughter blown apart by an army shell, or a mother who saw her infant hacked by the LTTE, be told that what happened to them should now be forgotten as the nation needs to "move on"? And could such an attitude, if institutionalised, create the foundation for a peaceful future?

There are thus compelling moral and practical reasons why Sri Lanka should frame what has happened in terms of the wholesale injustices done to its people, and to face them openly in a shared, collective process.

Here, however, a problem arises. Where to look for redress: international war-crime tribunals, local post-war mechanisms, truth commissions...? The fact that the war has ended via the military defeat of the LTTE, it is likely that the primary focus now will be on the crimes of this group. There must proper legal process in this respect: everyone, including the leaders of the LTTE, is entitled to a fair trial (indeed, fair trials are a crucial mechanism of recognition and redress). But the military conclusion to the war means that it is the government side that will pose the greater problem. The members of victorious armies are hardly ever prosecuted for war crimes. This makes it likely that the crimes committed by the Sri Lankan state will now be forgotten, and necessary that a process is established to ensure that they are not.

Two paths to justice

In order to create a sound starting-point for such a process, it may be worth learning from two developments elsewhere in the world.

The first is the attempt by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Sudanese government forces in Darfur (see Martin Shaw, "Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision", 11 March 2009).

The fact that Omar al-Bashir is the first sitting president to be charged by the ICC makes the case interesting and relevant. Yet he remains free, and able with impunity to travel to selected countries (such as other member-states of the African Union). In his own way he is presenting a defence - but in the international media rather than in court (see Zeinab Badawi, Hardtalk/BBC interview, 14 May 2009).

The arguments of Sudan's president are not dissimilar to those put forth by the Sri Lankan government when it too is accused by western governments of human-rights violations and war crimes. Colombo's response focuses on the issue of sovereignty (the state has a right to territorial control and to defend itself from internal rebellion) and seeks to shift the blame (it is the rebels who have used terrorist tactics, used civilians as human shields, and employed child-soldiers). Yet the very fact that an effort to prosecute al-Bashir exists and that he feels the need to justify himself are positive trends in the evolution of international justice.

The second international development is the decision of Barack Obama's administration to release the memos written by officials within the United States department of justice during George W Bush's period in office, providing brutal interrogation techniques (that is, torture) with legal sanction. The publication of the "torture memos" was immediately followed by calls for prosecutions of their authors - which President Obama initially resisted, only to relent under pressure. There are legal and other hurdles still to be overcome, but an acknowledgement has been made that prosecutions are at least a possibility.

The US's overall relationship with international law (particularly the ICC) has in recent years been ambiguous at best and abrasive at worst. It is plausible to see the pressure being exerted on the Obama administration as coming lessfrom any reverence for international law and more from a particular democratic tradition within the US. The principle argument seems to be (in Philip Gourevitch's words) "...what all this [the use of torture] has done to who we are?" Amy Davidson echoes the point in outlining the "one defense...against the charge that we are a nation of torturers", namely "our common, native outrage at these crimes."

The next journey

If it is difficult to see how these two processes will unfold in the weeks and months ahead, it is easier to recognise the different traditions that seem to be driving them. The momentum of the first - from the Nuremberg trials to the Rome statute which set up the ICC - is the desire to extend the scope of international justice, to refine international responses to war crimes, and to establish international jurisdictions. The momentum of the second is more an appeal to a particular internal tradition of right conduct appropriate to American ideals.

These parallel processes offer an interesting sidelight on how Sri Lanka might deal with the painful injustices of its long war. On one side, appeals are already being made for international investigations into war crimes in the country; on the other,  the question arises as to whether the society as a whole can summon a collective sense of "native outrage" over the crimes of the last three decades.

Can Sri Lankans now find something within ourselves - a shared set of internal resources and traditions - as a basis for examining the crimes committed by Sri Lankans against Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka? Or has the effect of this devastating and divisive war been to destroy even the possibility of a single, collective moral voice? The answer to these questions will help to shape Sri Lanka's post-war journey.

Also in openDemocracy on conflict and international justice:

Eóin Murray, "'Tear down that wall!' The world court and Israel" (29 July 2004)

Anthony Dworkin, "The Hague tribunal after Milosevic" (14 March 2006)

William Schabas, "The enigma of the International Criminal Court's success" (17 February 2006)

Nick Grono & David Mozersky, "Sudan and the ICC: a question of accountability" (31 January 2007)

Anthony Dworkin, "The law and genocide: Bosnia, Serbia, and justice" (2 March 2007)

Ben Kiernan, "Blood and soil: the global history of genocide" (11 October 2007)

Nick Grono, "The International Criminal Court: success or failure?" (9 June 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Sudan in a fix" (26 June 2008)

Alex de Waal, "Sudan and the International Criminal Court: a guide to the controversy" (14 July 2008)

Victor Peskin, "The Omar al-Bashir indictment: the ICC and the Darfur crisis" (15 July 2008)

Marlies Glasius, "What is global justice and who is it for? The ICC's first five years" (21 July 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Sudan's Omar al-Bashir: a useful war criminal" (15 October 2008)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza, and international law", 21 January 2009)

Eyal Weizman, "Lawfare in Gaza: legislative attack" (1 March 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision" (11 March 2009)

Marlies Glasius, "The ICC and the Gaza war: legal limits, symbolic politics" (25 March 2009)  

Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide

On 8 May 2008, hours after the beginning of Lebanon's latest civil war, a storm swept into the capital from the seas. At first it threatened Beirut's coastline with streaking bolts of lightning; then, as the fighting intensified in the city, went on to rampage through its streets with such merciless ferocity that fighters were forced to seek shelter and atheists feared the wrath of God.  

Earlier that evening, shooting and bombings could be heard in the majority of Beirut's districts, including in prosperous Verdun. But who was being targeted: Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament and one of the Islamist movement Hizbollah's strongest allies - or one of Saad Hariri's men? Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jõrg Fedtke, to be published in 2009.

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles in openDemocracy:

"What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

"Lebanon on the brink - but of what?" (18 December 2006)

"Iraqis in freefall" (21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (7 May 2007)

"Iraq: the lost generation" (7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections" (23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)                           "Lebanon's pre-election hangover" (27 May 2005)                        

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?" (16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere" (14 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination" (21 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (26 October 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal" (19 January 2007)

"Lebanon's Palestinian shame" (19 June 2007)

Some fighting occurred within the hallways of the famed and imposing Yacoubian building in the Caracas district. A shot was fired at a group of opposition supporters near Hamra Street, killing its intended target. The victim's comrades wasted no time grieving; within minutes they forced their enemies to abandon their positions. The sound of shots and bombs echoed against multi-storey buildings throughout the city, amid widespread confusion as to who was shooting and who was being targeted. Makeshift roadblocks sprung up everywhere.  

Beirut's citizens were once again caught in the middle of a battle that they had very little to gain from. As the storm brought a moment's respite, many reflected that the hatred again tearing their city apart was as much the result of a contrived and outdated constitutional framework and of regional and international powers that was pushing the country to war. The consequences of what was about to happen also weighed heavily on their minds. The Lebanese have seen many conflicts over the past few decades - most destructively the civil war of 1975-90 - but what type would this one be? Would there be snipers on every rooftop? Would gangs control the streets, burst into buildings, murder and steal at random?  

The divide

Lebanon's political spectrum has since 2005 been split sharply into two rival camps. The "March 14" camp - named after what is perhaps the largest demonstration in Lebanese history, held a month after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005 - is led by the Future Movement, an archetypal oligarchical party headed by Rafiq's son, Saad.

Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's prime minister since July 2005, is one of the Hariri family's closest confidants. He was minister of finance during a large part of the 1990s, a period when Lebanon's sovereign debt increased at a crippling pace (indeed, almost unprecedented in international finance, and matched perhaps only by the spectacular increase in Hariri's personal fortune).

The March 14 movement also includes former militias that are remembered mostly for their brutal behaviour during the country's fifteen-year civil war. Most of its components were at one point or another allies of Syria; but in late 2004, a converging of interests permitted them to cement an anti-Syrian coalition. March 14 obtained a majority of seats in the elections of May-June 2005, and dominated the new government.  

The "March 8" alliance, named after a rival massive demonstration, is led by Hizbollah - a movement defined by its desire to see all Lebanese lands liberated from Israeli occupation and by its deep and apparently sincere Shi'a Muslim religiosity. Until 2005, Hizbollah had enjoyed a reputation in the wider Arab world as arguably the most efficient guerrilla army in the world. Its allies include the country's largest Christian party as well as former militias that are mostly associated with cheap thuggery.  

Lebanese politics in the 2005-09 period been defined by the division between these two camps. There has been some discussion of policy issues, especially in relation to rampant corruption (blamed mostly on March 14); but the division is fuelled mostly by their respective choice of allies. 

Syria's military withdrawal from the country in 2005, was followed by a monumental if near-inevitable mistake on the part of March 14, when the movement forged an alliance with the George W Bush administration. Most Arabs blame the United States for the destruction of Palestine and Iraq, so they could barely stomach the sight of Fouad Siniora kissing Condoleezza Rice on both cheeks when she arrived in Beirut after Israel's devastating onslaught against Lebanon in July-August 2006. 

Saad Hariri has regularly touted his relationship with Washington and even expressed admiration for the democratic process in Iraq. Moreover, after one of his many meetings with senior level officials in Washington, Walid Jumblatt, a leading figure in March 14, told journalists that he was seeking "military and political assistance against Syria's indirect occupation of Lebanon". 

In the event, very little such assistance would be forthcoming; but the message to Hizbollah could not have been clearer. By so allying itself with Washington, March 14 succeeded in alienating a large segment of Lebanon without obtaining anything substantial in return. At the same time, the Bush administration and March 14 leaders were seemingly determined to snub some of the more obvious lessons of recent history: in particular, that comfortable and corrupt elites without any real motive other than greed can never defeat a young and armed movement that is motivated by revolutionary fervour.

For its part, March 14 pointed to Hizbollah's persistently cozy relationship with Syria, the hated former occupier which had stifled freedom of expression and assembly in Lebanon for years. Damascus had also played a central role in reinforcing Lebanon's corrupt form of government and appropriating the state's wealth. In addition, after the Syrians finally retreated from the country in 2005, and as the steady stream of assassinations of major figures within March 14 continued, Hizbollah was intermittently accused of participating directly or indirectly in the execution of these crimes.  

It is also no secret that Hizbollah submits to the Iranian ideology of wilaya al-faqih, which provides religious jurisprudents with authority over many key affairs of the state. In a 1997 interview, Hizbollah's secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah explained that although the group's day-to-day matters were managed by the local leadership in Lebanon, "the decision of peace and war is in the hands of the jurisconsult - not the intellectuals, researchers, scientists, and regular politicians, depending on the circumstances". The idea that a religious scholar in Iran has the power to decide whether Lebanon should engage in a war with Israel is reason enough to make many Lebanese, including many Shi'a, turn blue in the face.  

The breakdown

This divide between the two political blocs eventually led to a breakdown of state and of economy alike. This was assisted by Lebanon's outdated constitution. The text helped to crystallise the hierarchy between the country's various religious groups and to establish a modus vivendi between them. A further agreement in 1943 - the "national pact" - allocated the respective leading positions in government, and constitutional prerogatives, in rough proportion to each group's then demographic weight.

The entire arrangement was a source of great tension from the start. As the country's Shi'a population near-quadrupled in the thirty years following 1943, and no provision was made to redress the economic and political bias against them, the injustice inherent in the system became unmistakable.  Large segments of society sought to redress the framework but were confronted by their rivals' determination to defend their entrenched rights.  

A similar, equally violent struggle devastated South Africa; the eventual result after the overthrow of the apartheid system was the constitution of 1996, which established a more just and free society. The end of Lebanon's civil war saw no such transformation. Some adjustments were made to the constitutional arrangement in 1989; but the fundamentals, which reinforce divisions between society more than anything else, remain firmly in place to this day.

The divide between March 14 and March 8 did not originally stem from religious differences, but the country's underlying framework ensures that every political dispute is coloured with a sectarian brush.

openDemocracy writers analyse Lebanon's politics and conflicts:                         
Hazem Saghieh, "Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2005)                                                 Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria" (9 March 2005)                                       Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's election, no solution" (20 June 2005)                              Paul Rogers, "Lebanon in the wider war" (25 July 2006)                                                Paul Rogers, "A pheonix from Lebanon's ruins" (17 August 2006)                                    
Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon" (22 August 2006)                              Paul Rogers, "Lebanon on the edge" (31 August 2006)                          
Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: the war after the war" (12 October 2006)
Alex Klaushofer, "Lebanon's two futures" (11 December 2006)                              Roger Scruton, "Lebanon: the missing perspective" (20 July 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award" (13 February 2007)
Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)                                          Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "Washington in Lebanon and Palestine: fatal manipulation" (6 August 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon divided" (7 August 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)                                       Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's '14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)                                     Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008)                                      Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "The Israel-Hizbollah prisoner-deal" (14 July 2008)

It was the war with Israel in July 2006 that initiated the breakdown in the relationship between the two camps, which itself led to the breakdown of the state itself. Soon after the war ended, March 14 accused Hizbollah of having unnecessarily provided Israel with a pretext to launch its onslaught, and argued in favour of the group's disarmament. Hizbollah countered that Israel's disproportionate attack was pre-planned, and even accused some Lebanese politicians of treachery. In December 2006, it withdrew from government to bring an end to a regime that it said prioritised western interests over anything else.   

Hizbollah argued that the constitution requires that the state must represent all sects, and noting that all Shi'a ministers had withdrawn from government, Hizbollah insisted on the government's constitutional illegitimacy and refused to recognise any of its decisions. The then president, Emile Lahoud - a staunch Hizbollah ally - agreed and refused to sign off on any orders or decrees. The parliament's speaker also declined to call the chamber into session for over two years. Hizbollah demanded that a new government of "national unity" be formed and that March 8 should be granted a third of the ministries in that government. In December 2006, it launched an open-ended sit-in which practically surrounded the governmental district. Neither side backed down, even when violent demonstrations pushed the country dangerously close to the precipice.  

By summer 2007, the crisis in Nahr El-Bared brought another round of mutual accusations. March 14 claimed that Fatah el-Islam, the terrorist organisation behind the fighting, was a creature of Syria and that it had recently been unleashed on Lebanon to destabilise the government even further. March 8 touched upon a more sensitive concern. Since 2005, there had been talk (supported by an investigative report from Seymour Hersh),that the Future Movement was forming a Sunni militia, supposedly with the support of the Saudi Arabian and United States governments. It was said that office-space and hotels were being converted into arms-caches and observation-posts. In that context, many accused March 14 of having financed and armed Fatah el-Islam itself, with the intent of creating a Sunni bulwark against Hizbollah's Shi'a forces.  That group was eventually decimated by the Lebanese army but rumours that young men were being armed in Beirut itself persisted.  

Yet another constitutional crisis emerged when the tenure of Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, neared its end. In Lebanon, presidents are indirectly elected by parliament, usually by consensus. By 2007, all trust between the two major camps had evaporated, and there was no agreement as to who should replace Lahoud, or even what process should be followed to elect his successor. On 23 November 2007, when the deadline for deciding on a replacement came and passed, the president's powers were transferred to the government by virtue of the constitution and until the vacuum was filled. Various initiatives were launched in the ensuing months to find some common ground.

Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese armed forces, was the only candidate that both sides could agree upon. The general enjoyed a strong reputation for heading what was probably the country's only institution that remained detached from both sides. The crisis remained unresolved however as March 8 insisted that a government of national unity be formed immediately after the new president's election, whereas March 14 preferred to leave that matter until a later date.  

Month after month, with each failure to resolve the crisis, the country inched closer to anarchy. Gangs from rival camps could be seen fighting increasingly often, at first with their bare fists, then with stones, then sticks, and eventually with guns. A video broadcast on al-Jazeera showed the shocking levels of brutality that each side was leveling at the other during the street-battles. The army intervened to separate the fighters, but it could not counter the deep sense of gloom and hatred that had settled in Beirut.  

By March 2008, the country had no president; the parliament had not been in session for more than a year; the government was not recognised by around half the country; a sit-in blocked access to the governmental district; and daily street-fights were growing increasingly violent. Sunni homeowners were even refusing to sell their property to Shi'a buyers, and vice-versa. A major conflagration between March 14 and March 8 seemed inevitable.  

The declaration of war

In May 2008, March 14 perpetrated yet another major - and this time fatal - blunder. Before 2005, Hizbollah had remained detached from Lebanon's political system and concentrated almost all of its efforts on defending and liberating the country's sovereign territory from Israeli occupation and aggression. However, as the Syrians ended their unpopular occupation at the start of 2005, the balance of power in the middle east shifted sharply.

The United States had just won the battles for Fallujah and Najaf in Iraq, and a growing number of voices were clamouring for regime change in Damascus itself. Hizbollah adapted its modus operandi accordingly. The party accepted having representatives in government for the first time as a means to counter the growing tide against it and its Syrian allies.  

After its electoral success in 2005, March 14 could smell blood; it went on to seek to change in Syria with the help of Washington and some European allies. After the war in 2006, the rhetoric against Hizbollah's weapons became insistent, but March 14 failed to appreciate that by then the tide of forces had shifted away from them. After Iraq's collapse and Israel's failure against Hizbollah in 2006, American and Israeli power in the region appeared toothless. Washington's enemies were now in the ascendant and would not be shy in flexing their muscles.  

On the morning of 6 May 2008, the tension between the two camps reached breaking-point. The Lebanese government issued two decisions, which together represented the first occasion since the end of the country's civil war that a Lebanese institution, party, or group had taken positive action to curb Hizbollah's military activities. By virtue of its first decree, the government announced that it would be shutting down Hizbollah's closed-circuit communication lines (which the group has consistently claimed is a vital part of its military infrastructure).The second decree provided that the government was relieving the chief of security at the airport; this came after it had been discovered that Hizbollah had installed surveillance cameras in the area, and was designed to cut one source of Hizbollah's weapons, some of which allegedly arrived through the airport.  

The decrees - even though the government had no way of implementing them - represented a real departure from the previously accepted canon that the resistance was untouchable. Hizbollah's senior leadership decided right away that escalation was the only possible response. On the morning of 7 May, it launched a civil-disobedience campaign. The capital's major arteries were cut off with burning tires or mounds of dirt; offices and shops were closed; the airport was made inaccessible, forcing the cancellation of a number of flights.  Most people stayed at home, expecting to get back to work the next day.  

But at 20.00 that evening, the opposition's sit-in in the downtown area suddenly militarised and expanded. What in the morning had been apparently peaceful protesters were now armed militants. They moved, unopposed, into Laazarieh, a complex of buildings that included some government offices adjacent to the sit-in. They brought with them a large cache of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, ammunition, mattresses, televisions, and food, and blocked the entrances with their cars. They were now less than 200 metres away from the government district. The country was heading towards war. 

On 8 May 2008, Lebanon awoke to learn that all major roads as well as the airport were still closed. How long would this continue; and for what purpose? The answer would come later that afternoon, when it was announced that Nasrallah would speak at 15.00 and that Hariri would respond at 19.00.  Everyone tuned in, and the full gravity of the situation immediately weighed down on them. The Hizbollah leader was frank: the government's two decisions were "a declaration of war", and any party that sought to interfere with the armed resistance against Israel would "have its hand cut off".  Nasrallah meant his words to be interpreted literally.  

It was obvious that the only way in which a conflict could be avoided would be for Saad Hariri to announce that the government had reversed its two decrees. The country remained transfixed. Every television at hand was tuned in, the streets were empty and all listened intently. Hariri appeared; his tone too was defiant. An unequivocal reversal of the decisions would not be forthcoming. The army would be allowed to decide on the matter, he said. It would not be enough to stave off disaster.

As Hariri ended his broadcast, the transition from peace to war took place within minutes. Militants descended onto the streets and blocked roads with cars, rubbish-cans, whatever they could. Before anyone could come to terms with what was happening, the bombing started. Residents rushed down to the lower floors of their buildings for fear of being crushed by collapsing rooftops.  Ordinary civilians expected the worst. Some barricaded themselves inside their homes, often relying on the protective measures that had been installed during the civil war that ended in 1990.   

That evening, a violent thunderstorm unexpectedly engulfed Beirut. For the next few hours, tanks roared along the Corniche in a frantic attempt to keep fighters from engaging each other. The situation was surreal, and many perhaps hoped that the strong winds would remind the warring factions of their fallibility and send them back home. It was not to be.  

The takeover 

The fighting that took place in the Hamra district in west Beirut was characteristic of most of what happened during those fateful days. As saad Hariri ended his television address, armed members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party -  usually referred to in Lebanon as the Qawmiyeen ("nationalists"), and staunch Hizbollah allies, descended onto the streets of Hamra. This was the moment that they had been waiting for. The Qawmiyeen have a unique history in Lebanese history. Since the 1930s, they have advocated for a union between Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Cyprus and Iraq. Their stated modus operandi was armed revolt, exemplified in a large number of assassinations and security threats.

Although a relatively small party, they have strong local support in a number of areas, including in Hamra, where many of their militants continue to live.  It was there that they carried out Beirut's first act of resistance against Israel's occupation in 1982. During the 1990s, they had taken sides in favor of the Syrian occupation; when the Syrians were finally forced to leave in 2005, many of Qawmiyeen's old strongholds in Hamra were taken over by the Hariri family.  

From 2005-08, the Qawmiyeen watched as Hamra's main street was lined with posters and flags of the Future Movement. One day, they even woke up to discover that the plaque commemorating their act of resistance against the Israeli occupation had been splashed with blue paint, leaving no doubt as to who the culprits were (blue is the Future Movement's official colour). They watched as Saad Hariri acquired more and more property and installed sophisticated security networks in the neighbourhood. They studied how Hamra's many security guards were being replaced with young men from impoverished Sunni areas. In the event of a future conflict, the Qawmiyeen were in no doubt as to the exact individuals that would be their enemies.  

On 8 May 2008, they re-emerged in Hamra with a vengeance. Hariri's men were woefully inexperienced and were never going to be able to resist longer than a few moments. On the morning of 9 May, there was a preliminary skirmish: after both sides took a few casualties, Hariri's men dropped their weapons and either surrendered or ran. The Qawmiyeen then broke into several groups and coordinated their movements in the manner of a seasoned platoon of fighters. They went from street to street, building to building, and apartment to apartment, picking up the people that they were looking for, one by one. Some resisted, only to be met with a torrent of gunfire; others surrendered immediately on the condition that they be unharmed, a promise that was (for the most part) kept.  

As the Qawmiyeen moved through the streets, residents quickly mobilised and communicated by mobile-phone to alert each other as to what direction they were headed. They could see groups of armed men strolling calmly along what are normally congested streets. Some bystanders crossed paths with the Qawmiyeen and were quick to remark that they did not interfere in anyone's affairs. Many residents were also shocked to see some of their neighbours mobilising to provide the fighters with whatever support they could. Young men, including local shopkeepers, were seen speeding through Hamra on scooters. What were they doing? Delivering sandwiches and refreshments to the gunmen. The result of a genuine political affinity or an effort to gain favour with what was likely to be the districts' new masters?  

During the afternoon of 10 May, the Qawmiyeen made their way to Jeanne d'Arc Street, in the centre of Hamra. Before Saad Hariri's takeover in 2005, the Qawmiyeen had for years occupied an abandoned office-building there, which was sometimes even referred to as the "Qawmiyeen's base". When the Syrian occupation ended in 2005, Hariri acquired the building and had the Qawmiyeen evicted by force. Although it was perfectly legal, the evictees were less than pleased. In May 2008, the building had just been renovated and was a slick piece of work. The Qawmiyeen were aware of all the details, even the name of the security guard that lived in the building.

On 10 May, a group of six fighters positioned themselves across the street. "Ya Helou!" they shouted. "Come down now if you know what's good for you!"  They were in a bind, because the building now boasted a new steel gate that they wouldn't be able to break through. "We're telling you to come down now!" they shouted again. Someone yelled a few words from one of the top floors. No one on the ground could make out what he said, but it was clear that he wasn't ready to give himself up. The Qawmiyeen didn't hesitate: they pointed their rifles in the building's general direction and assailed it continuously. The few bystanders that were on the street ran for cover. The building's new glass façade was totally destroyed. "We'll be back, ya Helou!" they shouted, and moved on to their next target.  

Soon after, a group of residents and shopkeepers gazed upon the scarred glass in disbelief, and wondered if the hapless security guard had survived the assault. A young man suddenly ran towards them, yelling frantically: "The Qawmiyeen have their jeeps on front of the Crown Plaza! They're loading all of them onto their trucks!" Some had been wondering what was to become of the prisoners that the fighters had assembled over the past few days. They rushed to Hamra Street and saw that it was now lined with jeeps with Qawmiyeen fighters at the helm and Hariri's men sitting sheepishly at the back before being driven away. Ominous scenes, but most assumed that at least the fighting was over.  

They were mistaken. One enemy remained, and several groups of fighters could be seen converging to the east simultaneously. Civilians began calling each other frantically. "Stay away from Clemenceau! They're coming!" Walid Jumblatt, one of March 14's most important leaders, owns one of the most imposing properties in all of Beirut in Clemenceau, an area adjacent to Hamra. By virtue of his position, the Lebanese army afforded him its full protection, which meant that he was off-limits. The Qawmiyeen seemed to think otherwise. They surrounded his home, as well as the soldiers, and began firing into the air, almost certainly with the intention of intimidating their intended target. It seemed to work, as Jumblatt appeared on television a few minutes after the shooting started, frantically demanding to negotiate a settlement.  

The transformation

By late afternoon on 10 May, there was no one left to fight. Residents ventured out into the streets and were shocked by the extent to which Hamra had been transformed. Even the Future Movement's ribbons had been removed from street signs. In their place were the Qawmiyeen's flags and graffiti. At the epicentre was an abandoned petrol-station. During the country's civil war, it had been one of the Qawmiyeen's many bases and they were now back to reclaim their old territory. They stood there together, their weapons in plain view, just as they did in the 1980s. They were also present on Hamra's main crossing- points. They sat, their rifles spread across their laps, with full confidence that they were sovereign. They searched no one, and didn't ask any questions. On 11 May, when the Lebanese army declared that it would no longer tolerate the presence of armed civilians in the streets, the Qawmiyeen merely covered their weapons with a large blanket.  

The fighting in other neighbourhoods was equally swift and decisive, but was led by different groups depending on the area. By the afternoon of 11 May, groups of Amal militia fighters (Nabih Berri's outfit) drove their scooters through the abandoned streets of the Verdun district, honking their horns in unison (something akin to the Lebanese equivalent of Germans marching under the Eiffel tower). In the elite Tallat el-Khayat, muscular militants tied the Future Movement's flag to their feet and walked together in the middle of wide avenues. During the evening, they sat in plain view on the main crossing-points, the roads littered with spent shells. Residents peered numbly upon the new reality from their windows.    

During those fateful days, the Lebanese security forces had clearly defined rules of engagement, which were not to interfere in the fighting for fear that sectarian affiliation would get the better of their men and split the army apart.  They had also committed to protecting all senior politicians from both sides and all major state institutions. The result was palpable. As the Qawmiyeen strolled through Hamra, they sometimes crossed paths with groups of soldiers. Often, they bought snacks from the same vendors. The rule that they should not interfere with each other was religiously observed.     

The fighting in the capital was completely over by 11 May, though it moved on to other areas including the Chouf mountains in the next few days. The Chouf is a predominantly Druze area which overlooks many Shi'a towns in the south and east of the country - a fact that Hizbollah has long been wary of. Hizbollah and its allies took the fight to them on 11 May; the locals quickly lost control over a number of major arms caches, but their ability to mobilise and to defend themselves against the advancing forces has become a source of pride amongst pro-government forces. Walid Jumblatt however, still helplessly locked into his Beirut home, was reduced to requesting that his Druze rival and Hizbollah ally Talal Arslan negotiate a settlement with the Lebanese army.  A brave decision that served to avoid a bloodbath, some said.  A humiliation without precedent, others retorted.  

The resolution

As the fighting progressed, the Arab League quickly mobilised, calling on all sides to negotiate a settlement in Doha under the auspices of the Qatari government. The ensuing negotiations from 16-21 May resulted in a deal that saw March 14 concede in relation to almost all of the demands that the opposition had been making since 2006. The Lebanese government resigned, to be replaced by a government of national unity in which the opposition would be granted a blocking minority. The Free Patriotic Movement, the only major political party that has consistently been in opposition since the end of the civil war, would now be represented in government for the first time; and Michel Sleiman was to be elected president. 

As soon as the deal was announced, it was obvious to all that the crisis was over. The tents in the central area of Beirut were lifted within hours and the Lamborghinis that had been in their place prior to 2006 were now back. Restaurants wasted no time in reopening their doors and the people rushed to breathe life back into the heart of the city. Elsewhere, teenagers who two weeks before had been begging their parents to save them from their fear were now driving oversized SUVs at high speeds and laughing at pedestrians with utter contempt and in complete disregard for traffic police, who have long accepted that they are powerless to impose order. It was time to return to the kingdom, and in Lebanon every man is sovereign.  

For many, it seemed that everything had returned to the way it had been just a few weeks earlier; but to those who wanted to remember what the purpose of the fighting was, the writing was on the wall. During the weeks following May 2008, the streets of Hamra were lined with posters and banners, belonging either to the Qawmiyeen or to the Amal movement (also a Hizbollah ally but totally foreign to Hamra). The purpose was to remind residents who really exercised control.   

The future

Lebanon is now enjoying a moment of peace, which is exhibited both by a rebounding private sector and a much higher level of activity in the parliament and government. There is no question however that the next crisis is just around the corner. The Doha agreement served to defuse some of the tension but it did nothing to reconcile the two sides' respective political visions. The parliamentary elections on 7 June 2009 are being hotly contested, but are unlikely to produce any major changes as all of the parties that are currently in power will no doubt continue to dominate the political scene in the next parliament.  

It can be assumed that no party will deliberately pursue the path of mutual destruction. But there is still urgent need for a reconciliation process which must involve an effort to clarify what truly separates political parties from one other, and what their political disputes are truly about. A certain number of constants will not vary in Lebanon, particularly in relation to foreign policy; but these issues tend to be the ones that poison the air throughout the country.They can be summarised as follows.

Whichever camp controls Beirut, Lebanon has no choice but to maintain good official relations with Syria, its only neighbour apart from Israel, and one of its only major economic arteries. There will be no de facto or de jure union with Syria regardless of anything. The prospects of Palestinian groups reopening a front against Israel from Lebanon are extremely remote. There is no possibility of a long-term peace agreement with Israel. Hizbollah will remain armed no matter who controls the government. 

Although no serious observer or policy-maker in Lebanon will challenge these certainties in private, they are constantly debated in public to the exclusion of anything else. This too has long contributed to the tension between the country's principal rivals.  

The air in Lebanon needs to be cleared to make way for a serious debate about real issues. After more than thirty years of war and occupation, that is what its impoverished population needs. Instead, the debate is and remains about who controls the state, the parliament, the presidency, the airwaves, even individual streets. Lebanon is stuck; it needs to find a way to move.

Georgia on the brink - again

A bizarre standoff between the Georgian government and the country's increasingly desperate extra-parliamentary opposition continues. It began on 9 April 2009 - a national holiday, commemorating the killing of twenty pro-independence demonstrators by Soviet special troops on this date in 1989. So far, there is precious little evidence of either side backing down. There are, it is true, signs of division within the opposition ranks; but most of the key leaders are still insisting that the only possible subject of negotiation with Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is his resignation. Since he appears increasingly confident that he can outlast them, there is little chance that he will comply.

But where does that leave Georgia?    Robert Parsons is international editor of France 24. He earned a doctorate at Glasgow University for a thesis on the origins of Georgian nationalism. He was the BBC's Moscow correspondent (1993-2002), and worked at RFE/RL as director of its Georgian service, senior correspondent and chief producer for multimedia projects

Also by Robert Parsons in openDemocracy:

"Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)

"Georgia: progress, interrupted" (16 November 2007)

"Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008)

"Mikheil Saakashvii's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)

"Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)

"Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 May 2008)

"Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

"Georgia: the politics of recovery" (24 October 2008)

It is clear that the opposition has failed dismally in its stated aim. On 9 April, thousands of people (estimates range from 20,000-60,000) rallied to their cause in the centre of the capital, Tbilisi. It was a respectable crowd, though nowhere near big enough to sweep the government away. Since then its momentum has ebbed not grown, in part because the police have chosen to keep a discreet distance. Some lessons, it seems, have been learned: in November 2007, Saakashvili turned a protest that was on the point of exhaustion into a steamroller by letting loose his riot police on a dwindling crowd (see "Georgia: progress, interrupted", 16 November 2007).

Today, the opposition brings out a couple of thousand supporters every day - not much, but enough to embarrass the government and disrupt economic activity in the centre of Tbilisi. More dangerously, their daily presence ensures that the city remains a cauldron of tension. People are being forced to find alternative routes to work, some parents have stopped sending their children to school, rubbish collection is  being impeded. As nerves inevitably fray, the fear is that one small spark could be enough to start a conflagration.

The Tbilisi tinderbox

If anyone doubted the danger of the current moment, the violence that briefly erupted outside Tbilisi's main police station on 6 May is a warning.    

At public television, where the opposition has organised a "picket of shame" for staff members accused of pro-government bias, the anger has been palpable. Journalists turning up for work have run a gauntlet of spittle and insults.  When one responded aggressively to the taunts, a crowd of opposition supporters beat him and set off in pursuit when he tried to flee. The incident was shown in all its detail on the privately-owned Rustavi 2 TV station.

In the tinderbox that Tbilisi has now become, the incident brought Tbilisi to the edge of communal violence. When three men were detained at the city's main police-station in connection with the assault, an opposition crowd was encouraged by its leaders to march on the station to secure their release. The enraged crowd tried to batter down the fence surrounding the station, only to be beaten back with truncheons.

Within minutes, rumours were flying around the city. The police were torturing the three men; Saakashvili had ordered a state of emergency; the police were firing into the crowd. None of these seems to have been true - although there is a suspicion that some rubber-bullets may have been fired.

Peter Semneby, the European Union's special representative for the southern Caucasus, accused the opposition leaders of "irresponsibility" and urged both sides to open a dialogue without preconditions.  

The spectre of civil war - no stranger to Georgia in the years since the country regained its independence in 1991 - has begun to concentrate minds, and on both sides of the political divide.

For his part, Mikheil Saakashvili - opposition claims to the contrary notwithstanding - is offering a dialogue, and on issues of genuine concern and importance to the majority of Georgians. These include constitutional reform (and with it the prospect of shifting from a presidential to a more parliamentary form of democracy); electoral reform (with the accent on a new electoral code); judicial reform; and continuing media reform.   

The fact that the president  is making these proposals at all is in part a reflection of the pressure from the opposition. The number of demonstrators on the street may not be large, but they represent an influential part of Tbilisi society and - through inventive use of the media - have ensured that their views are widely and constantly aired throughout the country. (This fact itself rather belies their endlessly repeated claim that there is no democracy and no freedom of speech in Georgia.)  

Saakashvili's strategy this time round appears to be to exhaust rather than confront his opponents and try to detach the moderates from the radicals.    There is some evidence that this is working. As it becomes clear that the rolling demonstrations in Tbilisi - now well into their second month - are not likely to precipitate nationwide disobedience, the weariness is almost palpable. It may be that Georgians are at last beginning to develop a healthy distaste for street-politics.

The opposition's flaws

The opposition faces five problems. First, there is little indication that society as a whole wants Saakashvili to go. It is not that the Georgian president has a high approval rating; it is merely higher than that of his main rivals. Most most people undoubtedly hold him responsible for allowing Georgia to be dragged into the disastrous August 2008 war with Russia, and many are disenchanted at the country's drift in 2007-09 towards a more authoritarian style of government. His use of the riot police in November 2007 to attack a largely peaceful demonstration was disastrous in public-relations terms as well as counterproductive.

Second, the opposition's claim that it now represents the voice of the people is absurd. There is simply no evidence for this. Several opposition leaders who have claimed to speak on the people's behalf have themselves failed to win more than a few percentage points of the vote in national or local elections. In fact, the lukewarm reaction of the public to the opposition's appeal for mass demonstrations suggests that most Georgians would rather the opposition focused on dialogue with Saakashvili than confrontation. Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Georgian politics, including the war with Russia in August 2008:

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: the aftermath" (16 November 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: a region in pieces" (8 January 2009)

Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia, again" (30 January 2009)

Tedo Japaridze, "A Georgian chalk circle: open letter to the west" (12 May 2009)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports

Third, the ferocity - and indeed vulgarity - of some of their attacks on Saakashvili almost certainly do not help their cause. The demagogic calls by some opposition leaders for their supporters to (for example) march on the police station alarm Georgians as much as the do nervous foreign diplomats stationed in Tbilisi.

Fourth, it may be too that the opposition's fixation with the demand that Saakashvili resign reflects most of all its leaders' inability to agree on anything else. As a whole, the opposition has still to put forward anything resembling a coherent programme for political and economic reform.

Fifth, there is the question of leadership. None of its leaders have yet succeeded in establishing a profile as a genuine presidential contender. The expectation that Nino Burdzhanadze, who defected from Saakashvili's ranks just before the parliamentary elections in May 2008, would give the opposition new drive hasn't happened. Somewhat surprisingly, given her past reputation for moderation and calm, she has metamorphosed into one of the country's most radical politicians and categorically rules out negotiations with Saakashvili.

Burdzhanadze's own self-perception speaks volumes about how far she has moved across the political spectrum. For example, she told the pro-opposition Kavkasia TV station on 13 May: "My statements aren't radical, they're moderate. If I were a radical, I'd be calling for Saakashvili to be hanged".

The longer this struggle goes on, the wider the fissures within the opposition are growing. It is clear that some are not happy at the direction in which the more radical groups are moving. Irakli Alasania, the young former diplomat who leads the Alliance for Georgia, was disturbed enough by the attack on the police station to welcome Saakashvili's offer of negotiations; several others, too, are worried by plans to cut the country's main east-west transit arteries. The consequences of such action could be devastating to an already fragile economy.

The case for sanity

The meeting between the opposition and Saakashvili held on 11 May 2009 broke up without agreement, though the fact that it was held at all may be the first sign of a move towards compromise. Perhaps more importantly for the long term, the talks opened a breach in opposition ranks. Irakli Alasania has emerged as the most outspoken proponent of compromise. He is backed by two other figures: Davit Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party and (more surprisingly, given his past record) Levan Gachechiladze, who ran second to Saakashvili in the presidential election of January 2008.   

Those who are now categorically against even talking to Saakashvili - on the issue of his resignation excepted - are Nino Burdzhanadze, Davit Gamqrelidze of the Akhali Memarjveneebi (New Rights Party), Salome Zurabishvili (the former French diplomat and Georgian foreign minister, now leader of the marginal Georgian Way party), and Kakha Kukava, co-leader of the Sakartvelos Konservatiuli Partia (Georgian Conservative Party).

If Burdzhanadze appears now to believe that anything goes bar hanging the president, and Zurabishvili has come to consider him "insane", Berdzenishvili is saying that an "all-or-nothing approach" is bad politics and unlikely to help solve the crisis. Alasania reinforced this view in an interview on the BBC's Hardtalk programme (13 May 2009), saying that there is still room for negotiation with Saakashvili.  But the reality is more murk than clean lines, and it would be premature to suggest that sanity is returning to Georgian politics.

The trajectory of Alasania is a case in point. When he returned from his post as Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations, many saw him as the great hope of the opposition. Thus far, however, he has mostly demonstrated his political inexperience. With no organisational base of his own, he is struggling to break free of an opposition that no longer reflects his own views on what the crisis demands. Hence Alasania's repeated insistence that the rumours of a rift in opposition ranks are not true; and Salome Zurabishvili's references to his naivety. (The problem, she told a rally in Tbilisi on 14 May, is that Alasania "does not yet believe what nadziralebi [scum] ‘they' are".)     

Alasania's calculation must almost certainly be that if he wants to sustain and build on his reputation as an emerging star in the Georgian political firmament, he must avoid becoming a prisoner of the opposition radicals.

The politics of stalemate

In these difficult and polarised circumstances, what chance does Georgia have of extricating itself from its impasse? The former president Eduard Shevardnadze - replaced by Mikheil Saakashvili in the "rose revolution" of 2003-04 - has voiced his support for a key demand of the opposition: the only way out, he has said, is for Saakashvili to go (see Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia, again", 30 January 2009).  

The case for this hinges mostly on the president's failure to prevent the war with Russia in August 2008; but also on the rupture within Georgian society, for which, as president and leader of the largest party (the United National Movement), Saakashvili must take his share of responsibility. At the heart of the problem lies the arrogance of the new ruling elite ‐ and a contempt for alternative opinion (strengthened by the weakness of the opposition and crushing victories at the polls). These attitudes have alienated a large part of the Tbilisi intelligentsia, and more widely generations of Georgians raised and educated long before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That said, the opposition's case against Saakashvili has very little to do with the August war as such. Its demands ‐ including the insistence on the president's resignation ‐ predate the conflict by at least a year; they led directly to the street-battles of November 2007 that in turn precipitated the snap presidential and parliamentary elections of January and May 2008.    

In the former, Saakashvili was re-elected president after a ballot that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) commended at the time as the most well-conducted in Georgia's history. His United National Movement then went on to win a crushing victory in the parliamentary elections that most felt were another step forward compared to past experiences.

True, neither election was completely fair: the presidential campaign, in particular, was heavily weighted in Saakashvili's favour by his use of administrative resources (see "Mikhail Saakashvili's bitter victory", 11 January 2008). But both elections did show that Georgia's institutions and democratic procedures were improving. A great deal more needs to be done but progress has been and is being made: certainly in comparative terms, as a glance at Georgia's experience with electoral practice in relation to neighbouring Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia will show.  

The opposition's argument that the conduct of the parliamentary election has given them no choice but to boycott parliament and take their case to the street is self-serving nonsense and a betrayal of their own electorate. Its logical conclusion is the theatre of the absurd now playing on Tbilisi's streets and the political chaos that threatens to destroy Georgia's undoubted achievements of the last decade.

In any event, if Saakashvili were to go there is no guarantee of improvement in Georgia's political circumstances. Nino Burdzhanadze declares that she would stop short of hanging Saakashvili but there is little chance that Georgia's democratic development would benefit. Yet another victory of the street over political institutions in Georgia would suggest an unbreakable habit and further weaken the state at a time when it is already shaky.

The opposition is such a disparate alliance that, after another regime-change launched from the street, it is hard to imagine it maintaining cohesion in power for very long. The already evident rivalries could very soon tear a new government apart, and there is no guarantee that it would accelerate the course of reform. Indeed, the aggression of some opposition leaders towards the media suggests things could get worse.

That said, it is part of Georgia's crisis that the present standoff clearly cannot continue for very much longer. The opposition is not strong enough to force Saakashvili to go and he is (this time) wary of using the state's coercive power for fear of provoking just the sort of popular response that the opposition craves. In this condition, frustration is growing on all sides - including among those who themselves are not politically engaged.   

The path from crisis

What now? There are five possible scenarios:

* The street-protests gain in momentum, the provinces lend their weight to the opposition, the demonstrations bring the country to a standstill. The government orders the police to clear the streets, but both the police and army refuse to get involved. Mikheil Saakashvili is left with no choice but to resign.   For the reasons given above, this seems an extremely unlikely scenario at present, not least because the police and army have been among the prime beneficiaries of Saakashvili's reforms

* The street-protests gain in momentum, the police crack down hard, arrests are made. A state of emergency is declared, the media are taken under "temporary" state control; political reform comes to an end. Georgia's western friends express dismay, Georgia will lose all hope of joining Nato, the massive international aid promised in 2008 will be put on hold - and Russian observers will collapse in a fit of giggles

* Exhaustion sets in and the street-protests gradually die out. The government regains control of central Tbilisi, the extra-parliamentary opposition is marginalised, and the government is left with few friends or potential partners.  Saakashvili refuses to concede on the demand for early parliamentary or presidential elections. The less radical members of the opposition begin the long process of building up a nationwide political base. The real winners of this scenario could be those opposition parties that did not take part in the street-protests - in particular the K’ristianul-demokratiuli modzraoba (Christian Democratic Movement), led by Giorgi Targamadze, whose ratings have soared in the last few months, and Shalva Natelashvili's Sakartvelos Leoboristuli Partia (Georgian Labour Party)

* Negotiations between Saakashvili and the opposition gain traction. The opposition splits, with the Alasania, Berdzenishvili, and (perhaps) Gachechiladze group prepared to talk in return for evidence of commitment from the government to serious reform of the constitution, judiciary, electoral code and media. A number of key opposition figures are put in charge of the commissions set up to oversee the reform process. This will earn both sides international support and praise, and the gratitude of most Georgians. The street- protests will gradually fizzle out

* Negotiations get underway but Saakashvili acts in bad faith. The reform process drags on endlessly with little sign of progress. The European Union and the Council of Europe express their exasperation (not for the first time); and the opposition leaders abandon the commissions; the street-protests begun in April 2009 resume, but with far more vigour. Everyone's patience with the government is exhausted.

The good news is that the fourth and most positive scenario - of negotiations leading to cross-party operation on meaningful reform - appears to have some chance of success. But several high barriers would need to be surmounted for it to be realised. Saakashvili says - and indeed has been saying for several weeks already - that he is ready for a dialogue without conditions on all issues. But what the opposition is prepared to negotiate about is still not clear, even if there are signs that a significant part of its leadership is moving away from its previous dogmatic and zero-sum approach. A key sticking-point may yet turn out to be early elections: at the very least, the opposition want parliamentary elections by the end of 2009.

The alternatives to negotiations look bleak, although the growing popularity of the Christian Democratic Movement suggests a deeper popular urge for constructive and peaceful change. Georgians want - and badly need - a strong opposition; but they seem to prefer the parliamentary to the street variety. The electorate may be growing up faster than its politicians.

Three questions press on Georgia's wounded polity:

* Is Saakashvili prepared to concede on the issue of early parliamentary elections - elections that his party might well win and that could help heal the wounds opened in the Georgian body politic since 2007?

* Is at least a part of the extra-parliamentary opposition prepared to abandon the street and accept the result of fresh elections, whatever their outcome?

* Even if there is no agreement on early elections, could a consensus nevertheless take shape around a new tranche of political and judicial reforms?

Georgia's survival may depend on the answers. There is little time left to find them.

The state of Israel: key to peace

Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, met Barack Obama at the White House on 18 May 2009 without making any visible concession over the political future of the Palestinians. For Netanyahu, any recognition of Palestinian statehood (if he is prepared to conceive this at all) is conditional on the Palestinians' willingness to recognise Israel as a "Jewish state".

Gershon Baskin is the co-chair of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information (IPCRI)

This view is widely shared across the Israeli political spectrum: then foreign minister Tzipi Livni made the same demand prior to the Annapolis summit in November 2007. The parties at that gathering could not reach an acceptable formula regarding the definition of the state of Israel. The impasse was in its way acknowledged in President George W Bush's words: "This settlement will establish Palestine as the Palestinian homeland, just as Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people." Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, gave similar voice to the problem when he said:  "It is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic - it is none of my business."

This issue has a much longer history. Yasser Arafat's letter to Israel's then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the time of the signing of the Oslo accords of 1993 declared: "The PLO recognises the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security." But once again, the exact character of the state was left undefined.

Most Israeli critics of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process state that the Palestinians have never really accepted Israel's right to exist because they refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. There was, interestingly, no such demand made to Egypt or to Jordan when they signed peace agreements with Israel. The Israel-Jordan peace treaty (26 October 1994) and the Israel-Egypt peace treaty (26 March 1979) use identical words in committing each side to "recognise and respect each other's sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence". In neither case is there explicit mention of a "Jewish state".

An old confusion

There are two substantive reasons why the Palestinians refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. The first is that Palestinians have not received from Israel any clear answer regarding the status of more than one million Palestinians in Israel, in the event of their recognising Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians fear they would be paving a road that would be used by Israel to transfer the Palestinian citizens of Israel to the Palestinian state. That fear is substantiated by the stated policies of Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and the plans that he has outlined for moving the border between the two "states" in areas (such as Umm el-Fahem) where there are large clusters of Palestinian-Israeli citizens (see Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move", 19 April 2007).

The second substantive reason for Palestinians' refusal is that in their view, recognition will a priori remove the discussion of the rights of Palestinian refugees from the negotiation-table even before they have the chance to raise their claims and demands.

The United Nations resolution which provided international legitimacy for the creation of both the state of Israel and the Palestinian state. UN Resolution 181 of 27 November 1947, does refer to a Jewish state: "Independent Arab and Jewish States ... shall come into existence in Palestine..." The Palestinian declaration of independence made in Algiers on 15 November 1988 calls on this very same international legitimacy for the founding of the Palestinian state: "...UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947), which partitioned Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish, ...provides those conditions of international legitimacy that ensure the right of the Palestinian Arab people to sovereignty."

The definition of Israel as a Jewish state is found in Israel's own declaration of independence on 14 May 1948: "...hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel." The declaration has no official status in Israeli law. The reference to the Jewish state in Israeli law is in "the Basic Law: The Knesset" (1958) which declares that political parties or individuals who do not recognise Israel as "a Jewish and democratic state" cannot run in elections.

A new foundation

In practice and reality, Israel defines itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The character of the state is a secular-nationalistic definition and not a religious one. Israel is the state of the Jewish people in the same way that France is the state of the French people and not as Iran is an Islamic republic, but as Iran is the nation-state of the Iranian people. It is true that the definition of Judaism encompasses both religion and nationhood, but in international political relations between states, it is the secular definition and character which is in the forefront.

There should be a basic law in Israel which defines the character of the state of Israel. That law must come to terms with the 20% of the citizens of the country who were born here and who must be recognised as having a stake in the country. I am quite certain that if the law in Israel defined Israel as "the state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens", the Palestinian leadership would be able to recognise Israel as such; and that most Jewish Israelis could live with this as well. The current lack of definition enables Israel's Palestinian citizens to feel estranged from the state and allows the state to view those citizens as less than full citizens.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Israel and the Palestinians:

Eyal Weizman, "The politics of verticality" - in eleven parts (April-May 2002)

Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation" - in three parts (September 2003)

Eric Silver, "Israel's political map is redrawn" (November 2005)                                          

Jim Lederman, "Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy" (12 January 2006)

Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move" (19 April 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Beyond peace: Israel, the Arab world, and Europe" (22 January 2008)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall' revisited" (8 May 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

                                                                                                                            Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)

Carsten Wieland, "The Gaza war and the Syria-Israel front" (5 February 2009)

Prince Hassan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Israel: how things fell apart" (13 February 2009)

Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present" (13 February 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "The United States and Israel: moment of truth" (18 May 2009)

The United States and Israel: moment of truth

On the eve of his summit at the White House with Barack Obama on 18 May 2009, Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a distinctive claim: that although three Israeli prime ministers had supported a two-state solution, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had continued and, if anything, worsened.Akiva Eldar is an award-winning Israeli journalist

This article was first published in the newspaper Ha'aretz

Netanyahu better not try this argument with the United States president. Obama's conduct and the pre-summit messages sent by his aides demonstrate that the lesson they draw from the failure of the process launched in 1993 is completely different from the lesson Netanyahu learned. The current US administration, unlike Netanyahu, does not put the entire blame on the Palestinians. At best (from Netanyahu's perspective), the administration blames both sides equally. Obama should conclude that it would be wrong to waste time seeking a new solution to the conflict. It's much better to look for new ways to implement the old one; that is, to find better means of cajoling and enforcing than those used by previous US administrations.

But the conversation between the two men on 18 May could produce a much worse outcome: an agreement to set up "task forces" to "prepare the ground to renew negotiations" based on a two-state solution. This would allow the next Israeli prime minister to say that this miserable formula has guided four Israeli prime ministers and three American presidents. If Obama strives to develop mechanisms like the "roadmap", the Annapolis declaration and "task-forces", he might go down in history as the American president who put the final nail in the coffin of the Oslo process. The fifteen years of  the"peace process" have, after all, served as an alibi to build more than 100 new settlements and outposts in the West Bank; and to enlarge the settler population from 110,000 to nearly 300,000, excluding east Jerusalem.

Even if Binyamin Netanyahu and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, spend the rest of their days negotiating the final settlement, the lack of an active mediator presenting a detailed plan might make Obama's two-state solution turn out very much like George W Bush's Palestinian-state vision. Without an American leader equipped with both carrots and sticks, the president's initiative will be forgotten, just like the Bush-instigated United Nations decision to establish a Palestinian state. Without all this, Iran will mock the peace plan sold to Obama by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

To convince both Palestinians and Israelis that the rules of the game have changed, Obama must demand that Netanyahu carry out his part of an agreement he actually signed with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat: the Wye River Memorandum of October 1998. A reminder: at Wye river, Netanyahu promised to change the status of 1% of Area C (under Israeli civilian and military control) to Area A (complete Palestinian control), and 12% to Area B (Israeli military and Palestinian civilian control). He also committed to resume negotiations immediately on the territories' permanent status, and to avoid any changes to the territories' current status.

Netanyahu will probably claim that his honouring of the agreement was what brought down his first government (June 1996-July 1999). However, Netanyahu's cabinet secretary and negotiator Dani Naveh revealed in a memoir that at the height of the Wye summit, an unpublished survey showed that 46% of Jewish Israelis supported Netanyahu, while 37% supported Ehud Barak (the overall Israeli population at the time was split 41%-37% in Netanyahu's favour).

Despite this support, Netanyahu avoided implementing the agreement, missed a chance to set up a national-unity government, bowed down to the radical right, lost the American president's trust, and eventually lost the prime minister's chair as well. A Ha'aretz-Dialog poll published on 15 May 2009 finds that most of the Israeli population supports an agreement with the Palestinians on a two-state basis. Now, as then, Netanyahu's fate rests in the United States president's hands.

Also in openDemocracy on Israeli politics and the Palestinians:

Eyal Weizman, "The politics of verticality" - in eleven parts (April-May 2002)

Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation" - in three parts (September 2003)

Eric Silver, "Israel's political map is redrawn" (November 2005)

Jim Lederman, "Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy" (12 January 2006)

Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move" (19 April 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Beyond peace: Israel, the Arab world, and Europe" (22 January 2008)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall' revisited" (8 May 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)

Carsten Wieland, "The Gaza war and the Syria-Israel front" (5 February 2009)

Prince Hassan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Israel: how things fell apart" (13 February 2009)

Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present" (13 February 2009)

Al-Qaida today: a movement at the crossroads

If you wonder what has happened to al-Qaida, follow the trail of Arab and Muslim public opinion, and you'll get a clear picture of its massive crisis of authority and legitimacy.

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