Tag Archives: Political Transitions

Demystifying Yemen’s Conflict

Yemeni brandishing a jambiya traditional dagger at  a Houthi demonstration in 2014

Yemeni brandishing a jambiya traditional dagger at a Houthi demonstration in 2014

The conflict in Yemen today is incredibly complex and multifaceted, even by the regional standards of the Middle East. The poorest country in the Middle East with a population of 26 million, Yemen has unfortunately found itself at the crossroads of key local and international threats. Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the oldest and most dangerous franchise of Al Qaida is alive and well while in many other countries the organization has relatively declined. Furthermore, the Houthi capture and consolidation of power in the capital Sanaa pushing out Hadi loyalists and the growing southern secessionist movement are both pulling the country in separate directions. Add to that external actors including, but not limited to, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States, and you get the basics of current situation in Yemen.

Map of control, late January 2014

Map of control, late January 2015

Yemen as we know it today was formed by the unification of two separate states in 1990, though internal friction has persisted intermittently since the merger. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the President of North Yemen from 1978 until 1990, continued as President of Yemen after being accepted via agreement with the South. Nonetheless, South Yemen attempted to secede in 1994, causing a brief civil war that was quashed by the north. Saleh retained power until he was overthrown in 2012 and replaced by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Grievances continued until renewed demonstrations for independence began in 2007 led by the Southern Movement. The southern secessionists have intermittently clashed with security forces and recently have gained more traction due in part to instability in the rest of the country and the success of the Houthis.

The Houthi movement, a Zaidi Shia opposition group stemming from the northern areas of Yemen took control of the capital city from government forces in late 2014. On January 22nd, 2015, President Hadi yielded to Houthi demands and resigned. Composing 35%-40% of the country, the Houthis are if nothing else pragmatic, vowing to work with rival groups and international actors including the United States. Important to note, the Houthis have a unique connection with their Shia counterparts in Iran, receiving significant media backing and alleged arms support. It is also worth pointing out that the Zaidi Shiites, also known as Fivers, differ in belief from the majority of Shiites (Twelvers) in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. Both Shia branches are distinct from Sunni Islam, from which AQAP ascribes to a bastardized version of known as Salafi Jihadism.

Current de facto leader of Yemen, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi

Current de facto leader of Yemen, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi

AQAP, also known as Ansar al Sharia within Yemen, has been linked to a number of high profile international terrorist incidents including the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in which 17 Americans were killed, the failed “Underwear Bomber” attack in 2009, and the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper shooting of 2015 in which 12 were killed. The group has been the target of one of the longest and most intensive US drone campaigns, behind the drone strike campaign in the AfPak tribal regions. Though both the Houthi and Hadi factions oppose the terrorist group, they’ve been able to launch frequent attacks on Yemeni security forces, notably seizing military bases. It is evident that AQAP has thrived in the unstable environment of Yemen and will continue to persist.

The manner in which the Houthis assumed power has prompted the Gulf Cooperation Council to declare their action as a coup, further underscoring regional obstacles in the road ahead. Soon after, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the takeover in a resolution and called for the Houthis to immediately relinquish control, but the Houthis thus far have remained defiant. If military action is undertaken by GCC or outside forces, the situation will almost certainly devolve into even further chaos. Right now, the future of Yemen rests primarily on the new Houthi leadership in Sanaa and de facto President Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. The Hadi political leadership and their supporters still maintain a significant amount of influence, though any and all negotiations with the new Houthi group in charge are guaranteed to come with tensions and the threat of further violence. AQAP will continue to be a threat regardless of who is in power, and secessionist sentiments will multiply if southerners are excluded or marginalized from the political process.  Ideally, any ruling authority would represent the interests of Hadi and Houthi elements, though the balance within any shared agreement will undoubtedly be questioned. Attempting to facilitate a peaceful political transition to a new government is in the best interests of the region, international community, and Yemeni people, yet to say it is a difficult objective would be an understatement.

 

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Thailand Quietly Slipping Back into Military Rule

Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk demonstrating in opposition to the May 22nd military coup

Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk demonstrating in opposition to the May 22nd military coup

Thailand has once again fallen victim to a military coup with the ouster of democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22nd. This is the latest of well over a dozen coups the country has experienced since the abolishment of its absolute Monarchy in 1932, and the ruling interim authority set up by the military, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has already taken harsh steps to preventing any dissent. Hundreds of political figures and activists have been arrested, martial law has been instituted, and a gathering of as few as five people can be sentenced to at least a year in prison for illegal assembly. Human Rights Watch has called for an end to civilians facing military trials and arbitrary arrests, warning that the sweeping measures adopted by the interim NPCO authority are setting the groundwork for a military dictatorship.

Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests in Bangkok in February

Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests in Bangkok in February

The coup has come after over seven months of ongoing political crisis that so far has claimed the lives of over two dozen people due to interspersed faction violence. The political divide in Thailand falls largely between the ‘yellow shirts,’ (the People’s Alliance for Democracy) who are primarily urban upper class and pro-Monarchist, and the mostly rural and urban lower class ‘red shirts’ (the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship). The conflict between these two sides of society has only been worsened by the intervention of the military and their actions which have included the suspension of the constitution. Additionally, the NCPO has closed border crossings to Laos and Cambodia, imposed curfews, and General Prayuth Chan-ocha has declared himself acting Prime Minister of the country.

In supporting ex-Prime Minister Yingluck, the red shirts have protested against the rampant interference in the political process after opposition yellow shirts blocked enough polling stations for the courts to declare the preliminary general elections invalid earlier this year. The yellow shirts opposed Yingluck and her brother and predecessor as Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, for alleged corruption. Thaksin has lived outside of the country in exile since he was removed in a military coup in 2006. The yellow shirts thus sought reform and the immediate removal of Prime Minister Yingluck rather than scheduled elections. Now that the military junta has stepped in, the yellow shirts have won in regards to Yingluck’s ouster while the red shirts have further been marginalized and have vowed to continue to fight for their right to vote.

The King of Thailand, the longest ruling Monarch still in power today, still holds some important powers including his position as the leader of the armed forces and the head of state. The King’s official recognition of the NCPO and its leader General Prayuth, lent legitimacy to the coup and further complicated the process towards a representative government. Revered especially by the yellow shirts, King Adulyadej at age 86 is the symbol of consistency that many fear cause a chasm if his ailing health continues to worsen. Without the King, as encroaching military authority will have little trouble in solidifying its own interests at the expense of both political groups as has been seen by their actions so far. While the red shirts have been directly disenfranchised, the yellow shirts who are tacitly supporting this military takeover are assuredly feeling much less threatened. Nonetheless, the relationship between the yellow shirts and military will be very interesting to follow as it develops over time.

General Prayuth, acting Prime Minister of Thailand

General Prayuth, acting Prime Minister of Thailand

The actions of the armed forces and the protesters who both sides that took up violence or intimidation tactics to push their agendas has culminated in a government in the hands of a few highly connected military officers. If flashing the ‘Hunger Games’ salute can put you in jeopardy of going to prison, the outlook for the future for Thailand is not bright at the moment. The NPCO says it is acting in the interest of Thailand’s stability, and while creeping violence was previously an issue the ironfisted approach of removing Yingluck and clamping down on dissent has spun the country backwards. Curfews in key tourist locales have since been lifted by the military after tourism crashed in the country following the coup, but the authoritarian laws on the opposition groups are likely to stay for much longer.

Thailand as noted above is no stranger to military takeovers. While in the past the military has stepped back after time to allow governments to form again, all signs indicate that as soon as the elected leadership crosses a line with the armed forces or begins to threaten their authority, they jump back to take charge again. The denial of fair elections for the people of Thailand, notably the red shirts, underscores the difficulty the country will have in moving forward. Opposing authoritarian measures such as the limits on assembly and peaceful protest must continue to delegitimize the ruling military authority. Internationally support of the Thai people who seek democratic reform, regardless of their political affiliation, can expose the nature of the military junta and facilitate further pressure to reform more quickly. The red shirts demanded the right to vote and were denied, so now it is time to see if the reform the yellow shirts pressed for will actually take place.

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President Sisi, Egypt’s Next Autocrat?

Egypt1Egyptians celebrated a tremendous achievement when the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was toppled on February 11th, 2011. Unfortunately, that victory was short-lived because the subsequent leader, Mohammed Morsi, fell far short in delivering on the people’s goals of “bread, freedom and social justice.” Now a year after Morsi’s leadership abruptly ended, the military official who announced the coup to depose Morsi, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is going to be elected the next President of Egypt. Sisi is expected to usher in a reversion to many of the same autocratic policies and practices of the Mubarak era that Egyptians fought so hard against in the first place.

A defining hope early on in the Arab Spring was that with the downfall of autocratic leaders like Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, a new and promising future would be on the horizon for the region. However, with perhaps the exception of Tunisia, the aforementioned countries are still facing daily challenges in managing the difficult transitional period toward finding a new and stable government. Egypt as the largest nation in terms of economic size, population, and regional influence is once again facing oppressive military encroachment that will severely limit the potential of its people.

After Mubarak was overthrown, the power vacuum was filled by the most organized institution outside of the formal state apparatus: the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, narrowly defeated the military’s contender in June of 2012. When Morsi became president he consolidated power to his own office until his controversial ouster via military coup on July 3rd, 2013. Morsi’s creeping Islamism in politics divided the country and resulted in sporadic deadly clashes on the streets.  Conflict between the Brotherhood and the military apparatus that has persisted in tensions across the country and led to greater pessimism toward the future.

Although Morsi was elected democratically, he turned his back on the majority of the Egyptian people by failing to implement the reforms expected of a new leader. The Brotherhood was banned by the current interim regime and nearly 700 people were sentenced to death by a court for their role in the violence on behalf of the Brotherhood though the decision is not yet final. The court ruling is shocking both in terms of scale and in terms of brutality, and has served to reduce the Brotherhood to a shell of what it once was. Originally a leader in informal community development and social projects across the country, the jump into the political realm for the Brotherhood backfired incredibly.

Though Mohammed Morsi was responsible for mismanagement during his term as president, the planned execution of hundreds, persecution of hundreds more, and declaration by Sisi that the group would be wiped out are reminiscent of the Mubarak’s brutal repression tactics from when he was in power. Already the United States, which held an ambivalent stance towards the Morsi ouster, has warmed to the prospect of Sisi taking the reins in Egypt. After reducing military exports to Egypt, the US has begun sending Apache attack helicopters again in order to combat extremist violence in the Sinai peninsula.

General Sisi announcing the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi

General Sisi announcing the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi

On June 5th it is widely expected that Sisi will be announced as the next president of the country. Sisi has manipulated his image to be a symbol of stability and opposition to Morsi, though it is clear that his military allegiances will not disappear once he takes the leadership role. “Sisi-mania” took the country by storm when General Sisi stepped up to declare Morsi as unfit in the military coup, and ever since he has been destined for the top spot and crafted as a reluctant but beloved leader.

After more than four decades in the military, there is little question that Sisi will not deviate from the military interference in institutions and businesses that has kept them so entrenched in Egyptian society and politics. His reaction to the Brotherhood has suggested that opposition to his rule will be met with an iron fist, and the cult of personality that has been created around him marginalizes those who disagree with the direction he will take the country. What Egypt really needs is a more representative government that includes the real revolutionaries and liberals who ousted Mubarak, however those groups have been scattered and disorganized especially in contrast with the hierarchy of the military. Furthermore, eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood only pushes moderate religious Egyptians away from the state and gives the more extreme Islamic groups, such as the Salafis more legitimacy in their grievances.

The reality is that Sisi will be the next leader of Egypt, and the future does not look bright in terms of his promises to moving Egypt forward. The liberal revolutionaries that hoped for a freer, more accountable, and less corrupt Egypt have in many ways been co-opted by the old military elites with a new veneer. The military apparatus in Egypt has successfully capitalized on the disappointment that came with Morsi’s presidency and Sisi’s camp has presented him as the only option left. The United States has already decided to play ball with Sisi, and the majority of the Egyptian people have begrudgingly accepted the reality before them though once he is in the limelight the dissatisfaction with the military may return. Hopefully slowly but surely, the aspirations that led to Mubarak’s fall may once again permeate into Egyptian politics to direct the country through positive development for the people. Sisi has made sweeping promises to alleviate poverty and interestingly says he will step down if the people rise up against him, but I for one wouldn’t bet on it just yet.

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The Biggest Election in World History

Narendra Modi, leading opposition candidate for the prime minister of India

Narendra Modi, leading opposition candidate for the prime minister of India

The largest democratic election to ever take place is currently underway, but there’s a fair chance you have heard little about it. The Indian general elections to determine the next prime minister of the country as well as the composition of the lower house of parliament (called the Lok Sabha) began on April 7th, will continue until the 12th of May, and the winners will be announced on May 16th. In total there are more than 814 million eligible voters, which is over three times the amount of people eligible to vote in the United States’ 2012 presidential elections. Yet despite the scale and significance of these elections, they have attracted little attention outside of India itself.

Opposition candidate for prime minister Narendra Modi of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) may very well topple Rahul Gandhi, the candidate of the ruling Indian National Congress (commonly referred to as the Congress) which has been in power for the majority of India’s democratic history. Regardless of the results, huge changes are expected for the second most populous country in the world because of the swift rise of the BJP and Modi in contrast to the drop in popularity of the ruling coalition and Rahul Gandhi. The next prime minister’s term of five years will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact outside of India, though it has been largely overlooked thus far by Western media with the exception of the possible impact on financial markets.

The BJP is a Hindu-nationalist party and the more conservative of the two competing factions, contrasted with the liberal nationalist Congress which has been the largest and leading party of the ruling coalition since 2009. In fact, the Nehru-Gandhi family to which Rahul Gandhi belongs has dominated India’s political scene since independence in 1947, though popular discontent with the status quo and the lack of the party’s ability to improve their ruling image has eroded some of their support. Rahul Gandhi, referred to as ‘the reluctant prince,’ until recently played a back seat in politics and has been overshadowed by his family’s image and history.

Modi on the other hand, is a dynamic and controversial figure who has been praised for his economic growth as Chief Minister of the Gujarat state, but criticized for his handling of key events and lack of human rights development. During the 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat that led to the deaths of hundreds via communal violence, Modi was lambasted for failing to curb the conflict and subsequently faced a special investigation. Though Modi was not convicted of any willful wrongdoing he was condemned internationally by countries like the US, UK and Pakistan. Despite these issues, Pakistan surprisingly endorsed him in the current election because they consider him a ‘strong leader,’ and Western countries have showed a willingness to work with Modi if he does indeed win.

Rahul Gandhi, Congress candidate for prime minister of India

Rahul Gandhi, Indian National Congress candidate for prime minister

Thus, the elections have been framed as being between a status quo and party line follower in Rahul Gandhi, or the riskier but economically savvy Narendra Modi. Modi on the world stage will almost assuredly be a more divisive figure in comparison to Gandhi or the outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Nonetheless, perhaps a greater foray onto the world stage could positively pay off for the country set to be the world’s most populous by 2028.

This election should not be forgotten as soon as the winner is announced. Indian politicians spent approximately $5 billion total on their campaigns, making it the second most expensive election of all time after the 2012 US presidential elections. The volatile relationship between India and Pakistan is a critical issue the next Indian leader in power must grapple with, as is managing the growth of one of the top ten largest economies in the world. India pursues a non-aligned and self-focused agenda, but its worldwide impact will continue to grow regardless of these goals.

There will be a new prime minister for 1.2 billion people on May 16th, though the US and West should not wait until then to start planning future cooperation with India. Preemptively strengthening  ties and adapting to the new leadership early on are much more favorable actions that should be taken in order to avoid being caught flat-footed when issues may arise. India may not be the most active in terms of foreign affairs, but there are huge benefits to greater economic collaboration and human rights development possible in the years ahead.

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Frozen Revolution in Ukraine

Ukrainian protester in front of riot police

Ukrainian protester in front of riot police

In recent months the Ukrainian people have increasingly demonstrated against their government over the repression of basic rights, rampant corruption and the economic direction of the country. Recently the clashes between riot police and protesters turned fatal when at least three were killed in the capital of Kiev, the primary locus of the conflict. The protests initially erupted on November 21st of last year when the government rejected key bills for a trade agreement with the EU in a shocking surprise and they have come to be labelled as the EuroMaidan movement. It is important to note that the controversy of moving towards greater European integration or returning to the Russian sphere of influence is secondary to the frustration and anger at the current administration of Victor Yanukovych and direction of the country as a whole. The quick implementation of harsher anti-demonstration laws have only added fuel to the fire, escalating the stakes between the increasingly detested government and protesters. It is apparent that the Ukrainian government cannot subdue the popular opposition with force alone, and if they refuse to make real concessions the conflict is likely to escalate further.

In response to the heightened tensions, Yanukovych has promised to review the anti-protesting laws and reshuffle elements of his government. Token concessions will not likely sway his critics, however, as they are demanding an end to the power structure that has been deepening its control over the political and economic affairs of the country since Yanukovych took office in 2010.

Examples of some of the provisions that were signed into law on January 17 include:

1. Gathering and sharing information on the Berkut (special security forces) or judges carries a penalty of up to a year in jail

2. Blocking access to government buildings and residential buildings carries a penalty of up to five and six years in jail, respectively

3. Participation in peaceful demonstrations while wearing a mask, scarf, helmet or another means of protecting or concealing one’s face or head carries a penalty of up to ten days in jail

Further provisions allow for broad interpretation and implementation of censorship on the internet and ‘extremist activities’ in general. These measures have been overwhelmingly criticized both domestically and internationally; some have described the laws as moves towards dictatorship in the country.

The controversy of the ‘hijacking’ of the opposition by extremist factions is reminiscent of the rhetoric used by Bashar al-Assad to decry and generalize the Syrian opposition as foreign terrorist elements. Svoboda is the most significant far-right party actively participating in the protests and there are smaller fringe groups that are attempting to push more radical agendas against the state. It would be naive to paint the opposition as free of extremist actors but it is clear that they are a minority. The majority of Ukrainians are not extremists bent on dismantling the state but rather wish for an end to a government not representative of the people that they see as creeping away from democracy.

Although the contexts and scale are completely different, similar to in Syria the opposition needs to be cognizant of itself presenting a representative voice in pursuing their demands, else they will face internal conflict and have a tougher time presenting themselves as legitimate. Extremist elements who promote and carry out unprovoked violence against the police need to be isolated and disavowed from the majority opposition. The goal of the opposition should not be to influence change in the government structure via violent force, but rather mass demonstration and civil disobedience to the unjust laws that limit basic freedoms.

Yanukovych and the security forces should realize the more brutal they act, the less credibility they will have to the rest of the world and the further the situation is likely to devolve. Political changes are imperative, and in order to reach a settlement the government must be willing to give up more power than it is currently comfortable with. Yanukovych should make it clear he is willing to make significant reforms to the power structure he has been building and the opposition should support a negotiated solution and take measures to prevent escalating the bloodshed which can be done without abandoning their cause or diminishing their impact.

The Ukrainian people are demanding reform and they are not going to back down easily. If they can brave the subzero temperatures for days on end to make a statement, then perhaps their government should listen.

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Syria at an Impasse

Syria3For more background information on the Syrian Civil War check out this post, or read my latest piece on Syria

The Syrian Civil War is approaching its 33rd month, over 126,000 have now been killed in the conflict thus far, and neither side is gaining significant ground. Experts predicting the imminent collapse of the Assad regime or a routing of the opposition are few and far between as it appears increasingly unlikely that either side will be able to secure outright victory through military means alone in the foreseeable future. 

The two key dates on the horizon are January 22nd, 2014, the proposed date for the Geneva II peace talks, and mid-2014, the expected date of destruction for all Syrian chemical weapons. The expectations attached to both suggest that the status quo of continual fighting is unfortunately not likely to change.

The Geneva II talks hopes to bring together the opposition and regime with American and Russian diplomats to initiate discussion with the primary goal of ending the violence and setting the groundwork for a transitional Syria.

The negotiations at Geneva are the best chance for a breakthrough in the conflict since little is changing on the battlefield. However, there have already been significant issues that make the Geneva prospects look less than promising. The talks have been pushed back multiple times, and while the regime says Assad stepping down is out of the question, the opposition has reiterated time and time again a Syria without Assad is their top demand moving forward.

While both Assad and the Syrian National Coalition have skeptically agreed to attend the Geneva II talks, unless they can set aside the leadership issue it is tough to imagine anything productive may be accomplished at all. Small steps towards reducing violence, such as the safe passage of refugees and the protection of civilians should take precedence over future political settlements in the negotiations.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission to remove all chemical weapons from Syria is on track thus far, having destroyed all the means of production. However they have set a goal of mid-2014 to eliminate all weapons which implies that even the international powers who signed on to their mission don’t expect the conflict to end for at least another half a year.

While strategic towns and supply lines continue to exchange hands back and forth between the regime and the opposition, neither side is making serious progress against the other. Instead the war is spilling over further into Lebanon and the death toll continues to rise. Recently, the lack of medical care has become so disastrous cases of polio have reemerged after the disease was eradicated from Syria more than ten years prior.

All this proves that the political settlement should take a backseat to basic humanitarian concerns. At this point, even if Assad were to suddenly disappear from the scene and the regime were to immediately collapse, the result would be further jockeying for power among the opposition groups. On one hand, Assad should recognize that he will never preside over a stable Syria again and change his tactics accordingly to consider a future without him at the top. On the other, the opposition should realize that their efforts thus far at trying to defeat Assad outright have fallen short. If they cannot present themselves as a legitimate opposition and minimize the extremist factions also countering the regime, their alternative Syria isn’t assuredly better than one with Assad.

The US, Russia, and Syrian actors involved should focus Geneva II on the critical needs of civilians first. Reducing the fighting is paramount, and advantageous to the rebels especially. A basic framework, excluding contentious issues like Assad’s role, should be sought, because focusing too much on the deeper political future of Syria could derail the discussion completely. If the opposition really is serious about a Syria without Assad, they should begin preparing for it constructively outside of the battlefield.

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Why is Spain Afraid of Scotland?

Scotland will hold an official referendum for independence from the UK on September 18th, 2014

Scotland will hold an official referendum for independence from the UK on September 18th, 2014

The title of this article may sound like the start of a bad joke, but secessionist movements are very serious, involve huge political ramifications, and in many cases (the Kurds, Kosovo, and South Ossetia, to name a few) have resulted in armed conflict. While it is rather unlikely that the Royal Scots Army is going to invade the beaches of Barcelona, Spain and especially Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy aren’t too keen on the idea of new countries breaking off from old ones.

In a recent statement to the European Union, Rajoy diplomatically noted that if any state were to secede from an existing member state of the European Union, they would have to apply from the outside in order to rejoin the EU, reiterating the official EU stance. For any new country to be admitted to the EU, a unanimous vote from all 28 member states for approval is required. Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and head of the Scotland National Party (SNP) which has spearheaded the Scottish independence movement, implied that Scotland would seek to join the EU “from within” in contrast with Rajoy’s statement.

Scotland still has a considerable amount of time before its official vote for independence will be held on September 18th, 2014, but why is this prospect stirring concern for Spain already?

Countries like Spain, Russia, and China have all had significant issues with their own secessionist movements (Catalonia, Chechnya, and Tibet, respectively), and consequently get nervous anytime a new country seeks to officially become a UN member state against their own political interests. Whether it be for preserving political stability, the economic benefits at stake, or just maintaining state legitimacy, the aforementioned countries are hesitant to allow others to join the prestigious ‘country’ club because they fear losing a chunk of their territory to a new state as well.  

Over a million people in Catalonia demonstrated for independence in 2012, and the movement remains strong, but so does the opposition. A proposed referendum asking for a vote on Catalan independence was shot down by Prime Minister Rajoy earlier in September. The Spanish government has strongly opposed the secession, in part because of economic dependence on the region but also because Catalonia breaking away could also empower smaller secessionist movements (like the Basque) to seek an even greater level of autonomy.

It is still uncertain whether the Scottish independence vote will actually pass in the first place, and the implications for Scotland and the UK will require a lot of ironing out before Salmond’s proposed independence date of March 2016 ever becomes reality. Nonetheless, the political and symbolic outcome of the Scottish referendum will definitely have an effect on the future of Catalonia, the European Union, and secessionist ambitions abroad. If Scotland does gain its independence, one thing you can definitely count on is that bagpipes will be involved.

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Turkey’s Difficult Balancing Act

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Within the modern Middle East, there are two non-Arab regional leaders. Iran continues to play a major role in the Syrian Civil War, has a population of roughly 75 million, and is 99% Muslim. Turkey also plays a major role in the Syrian Civil War, has a population of roughly 75 million and is 99% Muslim. Unfortunately, the more you read about the Middle East, the more you learn that such generalized simplifications can be just as misleading as they are meant to be informative; Turkey and Iran couldn’t be further from the same.

Iran has garnered significant attention over its nuclear controversy and the succession of President Ahmadinejad with Hassan Rouhani. Turkey, on the other hand, has largely been on the backburner of mainstream media coverage in comparison. At present Turkey is finding itself stuck in the middle of many issues, globally, regionally and domestically. An insight into these issues will give a better understanding of where Turkey stands and the complexities they will face as the situations develop.

Turkey’s decision to opt for a $3.4 billion missile defense system from a Chinese weapons firm over American and European alternatives alarmed the US and the rest of NATO (Turkey has been a member of NATO for over 60 years). The deal has not been signed yet and Turkey insists it is not a political move, but it’s hard to ignore the crossroads Turkey has placed itself  squarely in between its traditional Western allies and a rising power in the east. The possible deal itself isn’t as significant as the symbolic and independent move to act outside of NATO’s interests.

On the Iranian nuclear issue, Turkey adamantly opposes an Iran with nuclear weapons, but it doesn’t want to contradict itself and limit future options in building its own nuclear power infrastructure by condemning all Iranian nuclear pursuits. Turkey wants to be able to work with Russia, Iran and China while simultaneously maintaining its strong relationships with the US and NATO.

Regionally, specifically regarding the Syrian issue, Turkey has tried to walk a tightrope between aiding the opposition and avoiding becoming directly involved in the fighting. Turkish citizens have been killed by border skirmishes, and Turkey has shot down a Syrian helicopter that strayed too far into into Turkish territory. Recently, Turkey extended a motion allowing it to send troops to Syria if needed, although this caused significant controversy between the ruling and opposition political parties in Ankara. Turkey has been crucial in humanitarian initiatives but has faced difficulties in controlling the border. Turkey has the right to defend its borders, but it doesn’t want to incite further violence by lending too much support to the opposition or becoming directly involved. All in all, there’s no easy route for Turkey to take in the Syrian conflict, and thus it should keep its options open while addressing the humanitarian crisis as much as possible.

Internally, protests have persisted since the Gezi Park demonstrations in  late May over discontent with the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has been in power since 2003. Turkey is officially secular and has no state religion, and Erdogan has found himself in the precarious position of trying to initiate reforms that have fallen far short of expectations. Erdogan and the AKP have been rightfully criticized for their repression of the freedom of assembly and controlling the media, and the concessions they have given in response have been minimal.  Protests have continued and are likely to continue so long as police repression persists. Erdogan may not be immune to negotiations, but the accusations of growing authoritarianism are hard to ignore.

The results of the Balyoz “Sledgehammer” and Ergenekon coup trials, in which top ranking military leaders were convicted of plotting to overthrow the government further highlights the internal conflict within Turkey. Modern Turkish history is rife with military coups, and the recent trials, as controversial as they have been, serves to show that such an era may be over. If Erdogan and the AKP wish to remain as the legitimate leaders of Turkey, they need to find the balance between prosecuting those who threaten to undermine the state and attacking perceived political opponents.That balance is incredibly difficult, but listening to the masses and conceding faults would be a solid starting point.

Turkey independently has own prerogatives and its own problems. The rest of the world also needs to find a balance when dealing with Turkey. A middle ground should be pursued to constructively criticize Turkey for its shortcomings and offering to work with them against regional threats. If this can be successfully achieved, Turkey may be influenced to move towards more democratic reforms and be a powerful partner in resolving conflict in the region.

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Tunisia Today and Hope for Tomorrow

Tunisia1

It has been nearly three years since Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, an incident that sparked the mass demonstrations that led to the Arab Spring. It’s clear that the Arab Spring has irreversibly changed the region, but it is difficult to predict what the long-term result of the revolutions will be. Nonetheless, recent developments in Tunisia highlight the fact that progress is possible, as the country is now undergoing the first peaceful transition of power since the Arab Spring began.

In January of 2011, amid tremendous pressure Tunisian President Ben Ali stepped down from power, the first of a series of authoritarian leaders across the region to relinquish or lose authority after decades of oppressive rule. Since then, Tunisia is the only country to successfully emerge from regime change without the same level of violence and conflict that continues to plague Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. What then makes the Tunisia of today unique, and what is in store for the Tunisia of tomorrow?

Tunisia is a relatively modern and stable economy not reliant on oil and it has traditionally enjoyed a large amount of Western investment. Unlike Syria, there are no regional or international powers fighting for their affiliate group to win. Furthermore, compared with the countries listed previously, Tunisia is the most homogeneous. Around 98% of the country is ethnically Arab-Berber, and religiously Tunisians are almost exclusively Sunni Muslim. These factors suggest Tunisia has a relatively easier path towards political stability in comparison to its regional neighbors.

Tunisia has gradually made moves towards becoming a more inclusive democracy, but the transition has not been without incident. The largest setback occurred when two prominent politicians of the opposition Popular Front party were assassinated earlier this year, and the ruling Ennahda party drew significant criticism for responding inadequately to the situation. The moderate Islamist Ennahda party has been accused of bowing too much to hard-line Islamist demands, though Ennahda notably rejected Sharia law and has worked with the secular opposition moving forward. Furthermore, discontent over the inability of Ennahda to construct a viable constitution or properly address the country’s economic woes have caused its popularity to drop over time.

As a result of such pressure, Ennahda recently agreed to share power with the opposition led by the secular National Salvation Front via an interim government. This move is incredibly significant, because although it came at the behest of public outcry and opposition pressure, it signals the first transition of power in a peaceful manner of its kind in wake of the Arab Spring.

Political competition in general is healthy, and Ennahda’s realization that it may better serve the country and pursue its own agenda as an opposition party signals that the system is progressing in the right direction. So long as there is balance between the various political and religious interests in the stake of Tunisia’s future, compromise can occur and move the country forward.

Every party in power thinks that it knows what is best for its country, however, the realization that not every citizen shares exactly the same goals is crucial in a representative government. If Tunisians can hold their government accountable and force them to reform when needed, then there is hope for the future of the Arab Spring.

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