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Arab Spring

The controversial rule that benefited the Justice and Development Party now diminishes its chances to quickly form a government

The controversial rule that benefited the Justice and Development Party now diminishes its chances to quickly form a government

Turkey’s democracy has had many pitfalls since the early days of the modern republic. The ruling elite, initially from the military and recently from the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), have tweaked the rules of the game to exclude others and preserve their stay in power. Since 2002, Turkey’s powerful AKP politicians benefited from the rule that required political parties to win at least 10% of the votes to send representative to the parliament. Kurdish politicians, especially, were marginalized forcing them to compete for elections only as independents, increasing the chances of the more powerful parties, in this case the AKP, to artificially inflate their share of seats. If the 10% rule were not in place, and more political parties were represented this time around, AKP would have an easier time finding a coalition partner that had won just 17 seats–not 80.
For the first time, the pro-Kurdish party known as Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) has surpassed the 10% threshold and will be sending about 81 highly disciplined members to the parliament. This victory is not only good for the Kurdish people, it is also good for Turkish democracy. It deprived the increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from a chance to amend the constitution and give himself more powers. It solidified political pluralism. And it added a voice to minority voices in a political landscape dominated by a single party for nearly two decades.

Now that the chances of changing the political system into a presidential system are significantly reduced, Turkish politicians should amend the constitution to strengthen their democracy, limit the power of demagogues, and usher in an era of cooperation. For this to happen, the terms of forming a coalition government, be it with the AKP or without AKP, must include their agreement to significantly reduce the 10% threshold. 
In reducing this absurdly high bar, more political parties will be able to take part in the democratic process and it will be easier for political parties to form coalition governments and work together instead of calling for new costly elections that rarely change the circumstances. Should this happen, Turkey will be able to escape the cult-of-personality politics that dominated public life in that country for so long. Then, Turkey can play a constructive role in a region deeply in need of stability, institutional governance, and peaceful transfer of power.
Key Stats (not official):
AKP now has 259 seats, 276 seats are needed to form a government; 367 seats are needed to change the constitution directly; 330 seats to call a referendum to change the system.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Will the rulers of Saudi Arabia, and perhaps other GCC, fall and why?

Will the rulers of Saudi Arabia, and perhaps other GCC, fall and why?

Saudi rulers use war on Yemen to remain relevant

The war on Yemen removed the last fig leaf and exposed the tools and advantages the rulers of Saudi Arabia have used for nearly a century to control its population and project power and influence outside the kingdom’s border. The first tool is the strategic alliance with the United States that shielded it from any criticism in international forums and protected it against foreign threats in return for steady flow of cheap energy. The second tool is a brand of interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, which allowed the rulers to enjoy absolute power over the institutions of the state as long as Wahhabism was allowed to use the instruments of the state to project itself as the purest form of Sunni Islam.

Saudi Arabia, despite its abhorrent human rights record enjoyed diplomatic, political, economic, and military cover that shielded it from any criticism or sanctions. In fact, Western countries often referred to Saudi Arabia and the few Arab countries that fell under the direct influence of the kingdom as the axes of moderation. The marginalization of ethnic minorities, diminutive attitudes towards groups belonging to different sects, abuse of foreign laborers, domination of women, selective application of cruel punishments, political corruption, blatant nepotism, and flagrant interference in internal affairs of other countries all went unexposed—beyond the reach of media and even academic scholarship.

The rulers of Saudi Arabia used its wealth-acquired clean image to build religious centers in Western countries and madrasas and mosques in poor Muslim countries and staff these institutions with administrators and imams who were indoctrinated in Wahhabism—albeit under the name of Sunni Islam. In addition to this soft form of proselytizing, the rulers of Saudi Arabia have supplied its global allies with hardened zealots who were ready to fight and die for whatever cause they were able to manufacture. Often times, the interests of Western governments and the ambitions of the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance intersected as was the case in Afghanistan in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In this particular case, Western governments, especially U.S. administrations, embraced the so-called mujahidin and they worked together to counter the real or perceived threats posed by the Soviet Union. The same alliance was revived in Syria in the last four years to counter the real or perceived threats posed by Iran and Russia. Saudi Arabia wanted to use this alliance in Yemen as well but the Obama administration hesitated. There are signs however, that this freakishly strange union between the U.S. and the Saudi-Wahhabi cabal is about to expire.

First, the so-called Arab Spring uprisings has forced Western governments in general, and this U.S. administration in particular, to realize that the business of protecting unpopular regimes has become very risky. The sudden fall of two “moderate” Arab leaders in Tunisia and Egypt almost left Western countries on the wrong side of history. They were forced to retroactively overreact calling these former friends and allies dictators. The breaking of the wall of fear that kept Arab masses under check for so long produced a level of political unpredictability never seen before. The Obama administration reaffirmed this reality when it warned the rulers of GCC that their real threat is from their own people not from outside. In other words, U.S. administrations will no longer protect regimes that do not enjoy a popular mandate. They remain, however, interested in protecting countries, especially the ones with clear commitment to representative governance like Tunisia. This distinction between regimes and countries and lack of commitment to protect specific regimes kept four out of the six rulers of the GCC out of the summit at Camp David. Interestingly, the Obama administration also extended NATO’s protection to Tunisia after it denied it to GCC States.

On May 12, the self-declared caliph and leader of the “Islamic State,” al-Baghdadi, declared the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance nulland void. In a 34 minute long rant, he accused Aal Salul (the group’s diminutive label for the Saudi family) of attempting to regain its standing as the protector of Sunni Muslims by launching “Operation Fancy” in Yemen. He called on Saudi Sunni Muslims not to fall for this trick. He explicitly asked them to rise up against the rulers of the kingdom and join the “Islamic State,” which is, in his determination, the true representative of pure Islam and the real “protector” of Sunni Muslims. The fall of GCC regimes will be internal. Specifically, it will come on the hands of the adherents to the brand of Islam they manufactured over the past eighty years: Wahhabism.

Importantly, al-Baghdadi’s statements confirm what some scholars have been saying about the link between Saudi Arabia and ISIL. Al-Baghdadi reaffirmed that his version of Islam was in fact inspired by the same Islam preached and practiced in Saudi Arabia. The difference, however, is that he and his “Islamic State” are living the true faith and practice, whereas the Saudi ruling family support it only in name and form.

These two important developments, the downgraded Saudi-Western alliance and the rise of the Islamic State as the exemplar of Sunni Islam, are terrifying for the Saudi ruling family. The ruling family’s precious investment in religious extremism—as an ideology—and dependence on Western governments—as a national security strategy—are spent. Wahhabism, the brainchild of the family of Saud, has now outgrown its masters and has established its own political and military entity: the “Islamic State.” Western countries are no longer dependent on Saudi oil. Preserving regimes that are rejected by the peoples they are supposed to represent is now very risky. For the rulers of GCC, as it has become for most Arab rulers, the options are very limited: reform or perish.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Saudi Arabia’s attempt to create a Sunni-Shia sectarian war hinges on fragile alliances and a retrograde worldview

Saudi Arabia’s attempt to create a Sunni-Shia sectarian war hinges on fragile alliances and a retrograde worldview

What is happening in Yemen and why?

In the post-Arab Spring Middle East, the rulers of Saudi Arabia see no place for neutrality. Their default position has become that declared by President Bush after 9/11: You are either with us or against us. Even the winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, Tawakkol Karman, who is also a leading figure in Yemen’s Islah party, flew to Riyadh to join Abd Rabuh Hadi and bless the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Yemen, which killed thus far over 1000 people, including children and women. Indeed, neutrality is not an option when it comes to loss of life, but those who are inviting a foreign country to bomb their own people are siding with aggression.

Although the Saudi rulers started moving its military closer to the border with Yemen, it reassured the world community that the military buildup was for “protecting our borders only.” Suddenly, the kingdom did attack Yemen and without any provocation or threat to its territory. It did so under the umbrella of a coalition consisting of ten Arab and Muslim countries. This coalition empowered a 34 year old Saudi prince, the youngest defense minister in the world—and that is not a complement, to use all the military hardware his kingdom has accumulated over the years to bomb the Houthis and their allies to submission. The declared goals and justifications of this brutal war are: restore the legitimate government in all of Yemen and disarm the Houthis and their allies.

The said coalition is now shrinking forcing the rulers of the Gulf States to resort to intimidation and threats. For instance, when Pakistani lawmakers, reflecting the wish of the people who elected them, voted to stay neutral, Gulf States’ officials derogatorily branded Pakistan a “media ally.” After providing Egypt with billions of dollars to support the regime that overthrew Morsi, Saudi Arabia and UAE have pressured Sisi’s government to take a more visible role in the bombing campaign against Yemen.

As for legitimacy, it might suffice to quote an Arabic proverb that states: faqid al-shay’ la yu`tih [one cannot give that which one does not have]. Countries led by rulers who lack legitimacy lack the authority to bomb another country that is attempting to build its own representative government. Despite the Saudi claim, Hadi, like his predecessor and all other Arab rulers prior to the Arab Spring, does not represent a legitimate government in Yemen. However, the same way the Gulf States had supported Saleh, they are now supporting Hadi despite the fact that his term as interim president had expired February 27, 2014.

The social uprisings that forced the Tunisian dictator to escape disturbed the rulers of Saudi Arabia. They offered him a home even though he was accused of killing hundreds of Tunisians. Saudi Arabia’s rulers did not like the uprising that replaced Egypt’s Housni Mubarak with an elected president either. They spent billions to undo the “damage” brought by the revolution and were happy that a second “revolution sent an elected president to prison and reinstated a new authoritarian regime in Egypt. Saudi Arabia’s rulers worked hard to contain the spreading wave of protest in Yemen and impose a compromise meant to preserve its influence over its southern neighbor. However, the Saudi and Qatari rulers used the same wave of protest to overthrow or attempt to overthrow Arab governments that did not succumb to their influence like the Libyan and the Syrian governments.

The so-called Arab Spring protest movements provided influential rich Arab rulers with serious challenges and enticing opportunities. The crisis in Yemen represents both challenges and opportunities, forcing to the forefront a flawed logic and bringing together an alliance that is fraught with contradictions. 

First, the rulers of Qatar still consider Mohamed Morsi the legitimate president and that country’s satellite television channel, Aljazeera, continues to call anti-Sisi opposition “the supporters of legitimacy.” The Turkish government, too, refuses to normalize relations with Egypt unless Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood members are released from prison. Sisi’s government responded to these requests last week by issuing death sentences against a number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders. This did not bother the backbone of this alliance, Saudi Arabia, which, albeit under the leadership of the previous king, branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization

Second, in 2012, then under the sway of Qatar, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership and recognized the Syrian Coalition as the “sole legitimate representative” of that country. This year, the Coalition was not even invited to attend the yearly meeting that was held in Egypt. 

Third, Saudi rulers reckon that a magnified fear of Shias would minimize the conflict among Sunni countries and, at least temporarily, unite them against the Iranian imagined threat. This strategy is more dangerous than productive. It exposed the Saudi rulers’ disdain to minority social groups and latent racism. It cannot be embraced by other Muslim countries, like Pakistan and Turkey, who have significant minorities and whose leaders gain power through the ballet, not the sword. With these contradictions aside, let’s examine the Saudi claim that its war on Yemen is for the purpose of restoring legitimacy.

After months of peaceful demonstrations, the Saudi rulers convinced then Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom they supported for decades, to resign and transfer his powers to his deputy, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, ahead of an early election and receive immunity from prosecution in return. Hadi was expected to form a national unity government and call for early presidential elections within 90 days, which he did and easily won since his name was the only one on the ballot. This process in itself was illegal since Yemen’s constitution (article 107) requires a minimum of two candidates competing for the presidency. 

Nonetheless, this transition agreement which was engineered by Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies in 2011, set a two-year time limit on Hadi’s presidency starting from the date of his inauguration, which took place on 27 February 2012. This agreement, which was later endorsed by the UN, also stipulated that a new president be elected under a new constitution. Such constitution never saw the light of the day allowing Hadi to remain in power despite the expiry of his term. 

Frustrated by delays, Houthis and their political and tribal allies, including former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, pushed for establishing a presidential council to replace Hadi and form a unity government to oversee the transition. Although Saleh was barred by the terms of the agreement from returning to power, he continued to exert influence and was hopeful that his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, will be the next president. When the Houthis and their allies overran Sana`a in September 2014, Hadi reigned. After escaping to the southern city of Aden, then to Riyadh, he withdrew his resignation, providing a political, but not necessarily a legal, cover for Saudi Arabia to start its military campaign.

If it were not for their greed and disdain for the poor, the rulers of the Gulf States could have provided themselves with an actual legal basis for intervention in Yemen had they made that country part of the GCC. However, Yemen was excluded from the club of rich Arab nations despite the 1,100 miles of shared borders. After the Arab Spring, shamelessly, Saudi Arabia reached out to Morocco, which is thousands of miles away, and Jordan and invited (invitation was later revoked) them to join the GCC–but not Yemen. Yet, after allowing that country to fall into abject poverty, they now claim that the stability and welfare of Yemen are important enough to wage a destructive war on this impoverished yet proud country.

The Saudi intervention in Yemen is dangerous for the region and for the world and it is unprecedented. It is dangerous because the Saudi bombardment is creating the kind of environment (failed states) in which groups like al-Qaeda thrive. Curiously, after two weeks of intense bombardment, not a single bomb has fallen on al-Qaeda fighters who used this opportunity to solidify their control over Shibwa and expand their control over Yemen’s largest province, Hadramawt.

Hadi’s legitimacy aside, no country shall intervene militarily in another sovereign country without legal authority. Had Yemen been invaded by a foreign country, theoretically, Hadi could have asked for outside help. However, that is not the case here: Even the Saudi rulers admit that the Houthis are part of the Yemeni society –making the conflict an internal one. The Saudi rulers began their attack on Yemen and then asked the Arab League and the UNSC for legal authority

The so-called alliance is falling apart as the number of civilian casualties rises and the cost of destruction increases. The old adage, you break you own it, will apply here. Pakistan and Sudan cannot afford to be weighed down by the cost of war in and rebuilding of another country when their own peoples are struggling with poverty. Pakistan has already made its decision to stay out of this conflict. More countries will peel off as the human and financial costs of the war continue to climb, reducing the anti-Houthi coalition to Gulf States minus Oman and several other countries with debt owed to the rich Arab club of nations.

At home, the Gulf States are marketing their military campaign as a firm stance against the aggressive Shia neighbor, Iran, accusing it of supplying Houthiswith weapons. The Saudi Grand Mufti issued a call for mandatory draft to train and arm Saudis to protect “religion and nation.” This rhetoric is consistent with the internal Saudi discourse, which is sectarian in nature. Instead of facing their own internal problems and dealing with their chronic failure to embrace representative governance, the rulers of the Gulf States continue to blame foreign countries and inflame sectarian tensions.

There is another reason why Saudi Arabia launched its war on Yemen when it did: the Iranian-P5+1 preliminary nuclear agreement will transform the geopolitics of the Middle East. With Iran freed from being blamed for all the Middle Eastern problems, the politics of fear will be replaced with contesting ideas and expressing desire for open governance, which would expose the Gulf States’ retrograde ideology, political repression, and hateful sectarianism.

The post-Arab Spring Middle East is not the same as the pre-Arab Spring Middle East. The Saudi rulers want to preserve the old order and continue to privilege genocidal rhetoric. That is a failed strategy. As President Obama suggested in a recent interview, Saudi Arabia’s rulers fear not a Houthis’ takeover of Yemen on behalf of Iran, they fear most a new paradigm: an independent and democratic Yemen where leaders are elected by the people, not appointed by the head of the clan.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

The rulers of the Gulf States are bent on destroying countries that refuse or escape their influence

The rulers of the Gulf States are bent on destroying countries that refuse or escape their influence

Saudi Arabia and Yemen
by Ahmed Souaiaia
During the early days of the so-called Arab Spring, nervous for their own continued rule, the rulers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by the King of Saudi Arabia, proposed the expansion of the GCC to include Jordan and Morocco—but not Yemen. Yemen shares borders with two GCC member states yet it was excluded from this club of rich Arab countries. Yemen is not a good candidate because, despite poverty and political corruption, its people actually have a genuine desire to move towards representative governance. That is a non-starter for the Guff States. They prefer countries with similar governing tradition: exclusive family or clan rule and no prospects for democratic rule. That is why Jordan and Morocco were good candidates but not Yemen.

Now that the Houthis are controlling half the country, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and its proxies decided to preserve their control over the other half. To do so, they helped a former interim president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, escape to the southern city of Yemen, Aden, and moved their embassies out of the capital Sana`a. Today, Hadi declared Sana`a “occupied capital”.

The Gulf States are playing a dangerous game similar to the one they played in Syria. They are likely to use proxy groups, mostly salafi fighters, as a counterweight to the Houthis. Should they do that, and should these ISIL-like fighters become strong enough, such groups will not just attack Sana`a, they will claim Riyadh as they march north to meet their allies who would be marching south from Iraq and Syria.

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