election: disillusion prevails
Last week's parliamentary elections in Algeria, which saw the regime strengthen its hold on power, have been broadly welcomed by western governments.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state,
said the elections were "a welcome step in Algeria's progress toward democratic reform", and William Hague, the British foreign secretary,
described them as "positive".
Clinton and Hague both praised the increased representation of women in the new parliament –
145 out of 462
members, though this is not so much a reflection of voters' preferences as the result of a newly-introduced quota system.
These reactions followed the usual approach
of western governments in such circumstances: to accept declarations of reformist intent until proved otherwise, and to signal
their approval of steps "in the right direction" while emphasising the need for more.
Thus, Hague added: "I hope this progress will lead to further reforms in the forthcoming discussion of constitutional change, and in the run-up to the local elections later this year and the presidential elections in 2014."
That was also echoed by Ignacio Salafranca, the head of the EU's election observer team: "We take note of a first step in the reform process which will need to be backed, after a constitutional review, by a deepening of democracy."
The election itself bucked recent trends in other Arab countries where Islamists have gained ground.
President Bouteflika's party, the FLN, which has dominated Algerian politics since the 1950s, won 220 seats – 84 more than in 2007 - while the prime minister's National Democratic Rally won 68 seats – an increase of seven.
In contrast, the Green Alliance, a new grouping of three Islamist parties, won 48 seats – 12 fewer than in 2007 when these parties contested the elections separately.
In fourth place, the secularist Front of Socialist Forces (Algeria's oldest opposition party) re-entered parliament with 21 seats after boycotting elections for more than a decade.
Close behind it, the Workers' Party won 20 seats (down six).
In addition to these, there are 19 independents and a plethora of smaller parties – all with fewer than 10 seats each. El-Watan has
more details (in French) and there is
a pie chart on the Moor Next Door's
Even before the results were announced, the Green Alliance was complaining about
"centralised fraud" – and there are indeed grounds for some suspicion.
To allay fears of ballot rigging, the government had allowed
observers. Among these, observers from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation said they had recorded no irregularities. The EU observers did not challenge the elections' overall credibility, though they had earlier complained about being denied access to the national electoral register, saying this was "was not consistent with pledges of transparency".
Regarding possible fraud, the Moor Next Door
notes that the FLN did "unbelievably well" in some areas and "in certain semi-rural areas the FLN came close to winning 100% of the vote". The MSP (the main party in the Islamist Green Alliance) also did
unexpectedly badly in Blida, one of its traditional strongholds, which the Moor Next Door says "speaks to the extent of fraud and vote buying".
That said, though, it's doubtful whether the Green Alliance would have fared significantly better without ballot-rigging. Unlike the outlawed
Islamic Salvation Front (whose success in the early 1990s led to elections being cancelled), the Alliance does not have
mass popular support. It also operates with the regime's blessing, so its appeal to potential Islamist voters is rather limited.
Regardless of whether the electoral process was fair, it's difficult to argue that the outcome is a fair reflection of opinion in Algeria. On the government's own admission, more than 57% of registered voters stayed away from the polls (and some estimates put turnout at less than half the official figure). Many others went to the polls but spoiled their ballot papers (17% of the votes were invalid,
according to the Associated
What the vote does reflect is not so much public apathy as a sense of powerlessness, and widespread disillusionment with Algeria's supposed "progress" towards democracy. There is a fin de siecle air about the regime but no real possibility of change until President Bouteflika goes – which should be in 2014 unless ill health forces him out of office earlier.
So, for now, it's a waiting game – as it was in Egypt during the last years of Mubarak. In the Egyptian elections of November 2010 (just a couple of months before the revolution) the regime became
too greedy for its own good and the resulting
"parliament of cats and dogs" undoubtedly
added to the grievances behind the popular uprising. In Algeria, though, the regime may get away with it ... for the time being.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 May 2012. Comment.
triumph in Egypt's presidential debate
Last night's presidential sparring match in Egypt proved a huge success – at least for the TV companies who managed to spin it out to four-and-a-half hours with a barrage of lucrative advertising.
As for the candidates – who knows? The debate itself began with handshakes but inevitably descended into bickering, with the contenders interrupting each other and continuing to talk off-camera.
Transcripts of the debate, in English, can be read
here (part one) and
here (part two), along with liveblogs from
the Guardian and
Amr Moussa, having served as Egypt's foreign minister under Mubarak and later as head of the Arab League, sought to present himself as a safe pair of hands – a man who understands how the world works.
Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, formerly of the Muslim Brotherhood, countered by offering a break with the past and emphasising Moussa's links with the old regime. Abul Fotouh has stronger credentials in that area, having spent five years in jail while Moussa spent 10 in his splendid office at the foreign ministry.
Moussa, in turn, suggested that a vote for Abul Fotouh would be a leap into the unknown, hinting that his first allegiance was to the Islamists rather than the nation.
Neither candidate scored a knock-out blow. Of the two, Moussa appeared slightly more presidential – which may or may not count in his favour (one comment on Twitter said he looked arrogant).
Moussa also took more risks, deploying religious scare tactics against Abu Fotouh. Whether he succeeded in scaring the voters is another matter.
Judging by the large number of Brotherhood members and Salafists elected to the People's Assembly a few months ago, they don't seem too worried about
that – though perhaps Moussa was calculating that they are
now having second thoughts.
For many viewers, though, the real point of the debate was that it signalled a new kind of politics in Egypt where elections aren't necessarily decided in advance and those who seek high office must give account of themselves.
Last night's debate was a debate with rules – rules that were visibly fair to both candidates. Each contender had two minutes to answer a question while a clock ticked away in the corner of the screen. At one minute and 50 seconds it started to beep and when the time ran out the camera cut away, whether or not the candidate had finished speaking.
Such is the indignity with which Egypt now treats its
leaders and would-be leaders. Ex-president Mubarak, if he were watching, would surely have been appalled.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 May 2012. Comment.
Arab Spring or Arab Plague?
Ahmed Ouyahia, Algerian prime
The Algerian election campaign reached a climax
(of sorts) at the weekend with a disastrously misjudged speech by prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia,
who attacked the Arab Spring as "a plague" which is sweeping the region. Its effects can be seen, he said, in "the colonisation of Iraq, the destruction of Libya, the partition of Sudan and the weakening of Egypt".
"The revolutions that engulfed brotherly and friendly countries such as Iraq, Sudan, Tunisia, Mali, Libya and Egypt are not accidental but are the work of Zionism and
continued. "The Nato countries grant visas to young people according to their objectives, to train in new technologies to create unrest ..."
Harking back to the country's independence struggle against France, he said: "The Arab Spring for me is a disaster, we don't need lessons from outside, our spring is Algerian, our revolution of November 1, 1954."
It was the kind of speech that Arab audiences used to applaud dutifully but
which today is more likely to be greeted with derision. As an Associated Press report
noted, anti-colonial rhetoric from the 1950s and early 1960s "has little resonance with the 70% of the population that is under the age of 30 and afflicted by a 20% unemployment rate". And there were probably many in Ouyahia's audience who would like nothing better than one of those sinister visas to train in new technologies – whether for the purpose of creating unrest or simply to
earn a decent living.
For ordinary Arabs who have taken risks and suffered in the battles against dictatorship elsewhere, speeches that treat them as pawns of Nato or Zionism are deeply insulting – and it's no surprise that on Monday neighbouring Libya
summoned the Algerian ambassador to complain.
For its complacency and its irrelevance, Ouyahia's speech sounded like a more sober version of Gaddafi's
"Kleenex speech" in January last year denouncing the uprising in Tunisia, or Bashar al-Assad
telling the Wall Street Journal that the Syrian regime would not make the same mistakes as Ben Ali or
It is a measure of how much has changed – even in Algeria – that such
speeches these days appeal only to the diehards, while providing others with yet one more reason to rebel.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 May 2012. Comment.
voting for what?
Election workers in Syria. Photo
posted by Lyse Doucet of the BBC (@bbclysedoucet).
To describe today's parliamentary election in Syria as "cosmetic" would probably be over-generous. Nobody expects it to change the political reality and it's unlikely to change appearances much, either.
Cosmetic elections, of which there have been plenty in the Middle East, do at least try to give the impression of advancing towards democracy. Monitors are allowed
in to observe the electoral process and opposition candidates are allowed to win significant numbers of seats – though of course not enough to upset the status quo.
The Syrian election is more than a year overdue. It was delayed while the regime prepared a new constitution, a new electoral law and a law for licensing political parties – reforms that President Assad has privately described as
Even if the Baath party is no longer officially enshrined as "the leading party in the society and the state", it will continue to dominate the parliament: as Mahmoud al-Abrash, the parliamentary speaker put it
recently: "It is mathematically impossible for any other party to win."
From a voter's perspective, there are two main changes since the 2007 election. There are more candidates, and
government-approved "independent" parties are taking part for the first time (though the main opposition forces are not represented).
This time, 7,195 candidates are competing for 250 seats, compared with 2,293 candidates in 2007. That allows voters more choice, though whether they can make informed choices is another matter: it's hard to know what – if anything – individual candidates stand for. Michael Jansen writes in the Irish
While independents and members of licensed political parties declared their candidates some time ago, the ruling Baath party and its partners in the National Progressive Front did not do so until Tuesday.
Most of those running for, and against, the Front are unknowns. They are “faces with names on posters and no programmes”, said one commentator.
One potential voter said he knew no one standing in his constituency and that, unless he found a credible candidate from one of the new parties, he would vote for his “tribe”, a figure from his ethnic community.
It's scarcely surprising if voters are bemused, trying to work out which of the "independent" candidates are genuinely independent, and which are not. Reporting from Damascus for the Financial Times, Michael Peel
A spotlight shone through the early evening Damascus sky, heralding the campaign launch of Mohammed Nabil al-Nouri, independent parliamentary candidate – and loyal supporter of Bashar al-Assad, the president.
In his thinly populated election tent, Mr Nouri said Syria’s uprising should be seen as a family crisis that had erupted only because the leader and patriarch had not been told by the mother – or government – of the problems faced by his children, the people.
“The father loves his children and he gives his life to his children,” explained Mr Nouri, a businessmen who said he had never previously been involved in politics. “And our mother is not a bad lady – but she needs some advice from her family to change the way she takes care of her children.”
Mr Nouri’s analysis – and his claim of independence from the leader he wholeheartedly backs – capture the tone of a poll ...
“All these photos of people we have never seen before,” drily noted one young Damascene professional. “It’s funny: you see a picture of an old man saying: ‘Let the youth build Syria’.”
Candidates’ literature is often striking for how it ignores or makes only oblique references to the existential crisis facing Syria. While the first campaign demand of Belal Yaseen Soulayten, a journalist from the coastal town of Latakia, is that citizens should be more involved in decision making, his second is for better e-government services.
Some Syrians are also suspicious of the way that campaign materials avoid mentioning the Ba’ath party, almost the sole source of political power and patronage during the Assad dynasty’s four-decade rule. “This is the amazing thing,” reflected one businessman. “There is no sign saying: ‘Elect me. I am from the Ba’ath party’.”
Meanwhile, the nine newly-licensed political parties have had little chance to establish themselves, even if they were actually
trying to win. Oraib al-Rantawi, of the Amman-based Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, describes them as "cartoons’ without agendas, revolving in the orbit of the regime ... they do not represent serious political forces."
Only seven of the nine new political parties are fielding candidates
and they clearly have no chance of upsetting the political apple-cart.
Drawing any firm conclusion from today's results will also be extremely difficult, even if we are charitable and assume the ballot isn't rigged. In the 2007
election, for example, the Baath party won 134 seats – just over half. Other parties that were permitted at the time (allies of the Baath under the umbrella of the National Progressive Front) added a further 35 seats, and the remaining 81 seats went to "non-partisans".
Non-partisan, in this context, doesn't necessarily mean "independent" or "opposition" – it just means they are not formally representing a political party, even if in reality they are allies of the regime.
The upshot is that the number of seats won by the Baath party itself doesn't much matter: it has more than enough "friends" in parliament to maintain control.
Turnout in the 2007 election was officially put at 56.1% (of 11.96 million eligible voters). Turnout figures in Syrian elections are rarely believed (some estimates in 2007 put the real figure as low as 10%) but it will be interesting to see what turnout figure the regime comes up with this time, given the turmoil on the streets.
Last night, a list was circulated on the internet purporting to name the winning candidates in Damascus. This may simply be opposition propaganda, intended to suggest that the outcome has been decided in advance, or – conceivably – it's a genuine leak from inside the regime. Either way, we won't have to wait long to find out.
Voting in Syria: photo from the
official news agency, Sana.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 May 2012. Comment.
Correction: An earlier version of
this post said the new parties were fielding only seven
candidates. It should have said that only seven of the nine
parties were fielding candidates.
Buddhism and an alien spaceship
The Assad regime issued an emphatic denial this morning that it is planning to invite the Dalai Lama for an official visit to Syria.
On the face of it, the idea of Assad hobnobbing with the Tibetan Buddhist leader is preposterous – not least because it would infuriate the Chinese government which up to now has been one of the Syrian regime's key supporters in the diplomatic arena. For that reason, the story sounds like disinformation cooked up by Assad's opponents – which is certainly how the official news agency is
presenting it. It quotes a foreign ministry spokesman as saying:
"These reports are baseless. The timing and content indicate that the purpose of these reports is damaging the Syrian-Chinese relations ... Syria highly appreciates the Chinese stance and undoubtedly supports the One-China policy."
It will be interesting, though, to see what steps the authorities take to track down and punish the source of this baseless story – since the source appears to be none other than President Assad himself.
Last weekend, Assad had a three-hour meeting in Damascus with Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of the World Chess Federation. Ilyumzhinov – described as "an eccentric Russian millionaire" – was officially visiting Syria to promote the teaching of chess in schools, though the New York Times noted that he had also gone to Libya last year in an effort to negotiate a settlement between the Libyan rebels and Colonel Gaddafi. The
"Although he holds no formal diplomatic position with the Russian government, his repeated visits to Arab countries in turmoil have reinforced the impression that he is serving as an informal envoy, using the chess organisation's business as a fittingly Russian ruse."
Following Ilyumzhinov's visit, the World Chess Federation
posted an account on its website which included
"During the discussion the Syrian President informed Mr. Ilyumzhinov of his intention to invite H.H. the Dalai Lama to Syria on an official visit. Ilyumzhinov said: 'President Assad said that on the Syrian territory there is one of the most ancient Buddhist temples erected about two thousand years ago. He would like to invite H.H. Dalai Lama to sanctify this temple'."
Unlikely as might sound, the story of the Buddhist temple may well be true – Syria certainly had
contact with Buddhists in ancient times:
"In 255 BCE, the Indian Mauryan emperor, Ashoka (r. 273 - 232 BCE), sent Buddhist monks as ambassadors to establish relations with Antiochus II Theos of Syria and Western Asia, Ptolemy II Philadelphos of Egypt, Magas of Cyrene, Antigone Gonatas of Macedonia, and Alexander of Corinth. Eventually, communities of Indian traders, both Hindu and Buddhist, settled in some of the major sea and river ports of Asia Minor, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. Indians of other occupations soon followed.
"The Syrian writer, Zenob Glak, wrote of an Indian community, complete with its own religious temples, on the upper Euphrates River in modern-day Turkey to the west of Lake Van in the second century BCE, and the Greek ex-patriot, Dion Chrysostom (40 – 112 CE), wrote of a similar community in Alexandria. As evidenced by archeological remains, other Buddhist settlements were south of Baghdad on the lower Euphrates River at Kufah, on the eastern Iranian coast at Zir Rah and at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden on the island of
But how did the conversation between Assad and Ilyumzhinov move from chess (and, presumably,
Russian views of the turmoil in Syria) to Buddhism and the Dalai Lama? The
answer is simple: because Ilyumzhinov himself is a Buddhist.
Besides his chess-playing activities, Ilyumzhinov spent 17 years (1993-2010) as president of Kalmykia, a republic in the Russian Federation. The ethnic Kalmyks, who make up about 53% of its population, are traditionally Buddhist
– and they revere the Dalai Lama. In fact, the Dalai Lama paid them a visit in 2004.
Given this background, it seems quite plausible that in
an exchange of pleasantries Assad did make some off-the-cuff remark about hoping the Dalai Lama would one day visit Syria too – without thinking of the impact it would have on relations with China.
The World Chess Federation's account doesn't tell us much about what else the two men discussed, though apart from religious differences they seem to have a lot in common. An article on the BBC website
describes Ilyumzhinov's rule over Kalmykia:
"Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was elected president at the age of just over 30 after promising voters $100 each, and pledging to introduce what he called an "economic dictatorship" in the republic.
"During his authoritarian 17-year rule, Mr Iyumzhinov was frequently accused of diverting the republic's resources for his own use as well as of human rights abuses and of suppressing media freedom - accusations he denied."
The article continues:
"Months before resigning, he courted controversy by claimed claiming in a TV interview that he had been abducted by aliens and taken aboard their spaceship back in 1997."
I wonder if Ilyumzhinov told Assad about his contacts with the aliens. Having the Syrian president whisked off in a spaceship is one solution to the crisis that no one seems to have thought of so far.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 May 2012. Comment.
shocking sight in Beirut
The offending article (larger version
Student Mohamad Sibai was in Hamra Street, Beirut, when he witnessed a "disturbing" sight. So disturbing, in fact, that he could scarcely believe what he had seen: "I couldn’t get that image out of my head for the whole day."
The sight that disturbed him wasn't a murder. It wasn't a robbery, or even a traffic accident. No. What Mohamad had witnessed was two men holding hands – and he decided to share his thoughts
about it with readers of the American University's newspaper, Outlook, where he is described as a staff writer.
His article is only seven paragraphs long but he manages to include all the most familiar homophobic tropes:
Homosexuality is repulsive, "whether in public or in private".
"Almost every holy religion has condemned it."
(with supporting quote from Leviticus
"According to psychologists ... homosexuality can be treated in various ways."
Gay people spread diseases – "the rate of STDs would skyrocket".
He also throws in a new one: if homosexuality is legalised, what's to stop marijuana being legalised too? (Nothing, I would hope – but that's a different issue.)
Mohamad Sibai's article is by no means unique. Similar articles appear in the Arab media from time to time (as they do elsewhere), and in more important publications than the AUB newspaper. There were some particularly inane examples in the Egyptian press around the time of the
The interesting thing in this case, though, is not the article itself but the critical response to it – which is a sign of how attitudes are slowly but surely changing. Just a few years ago, an article of this sort would have gone unchallenged, with scarcely a murmur of public dissent. That is still the case in most Arab countries but Lebanon (the first to see LGBT activism established, more than a decade ago now) is different.
In the space of just a few days since the article
appeared, there have been no fewer than 18 published responses, mostly on blogs (see list below). Some of them are anonymous but others are written by people willing to divulge their names ... and their sexuality.
In the mainstream media, the Lebanese daily, al-Akhbar, has also taken up the issue:
"AUB paper's homophobic rant sparks
Meanwhile, the editor of AUB's Outlook has
"I would like to personally apologise to the LGBTQ community and readers about the offensive nature of this article. I personally did not edit this article, and realise that it was a poor decision to publish it in its crude form. Outlook will be issuing its own formal statement in our next issue and will be publishing a spread of responses directed towards this article. Thank you all for your cooperation and consideration."
Responses to Mohamad Sibai's article:
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 May 2012. Comment.