Assault on Iraqi writers

Assault on Iraqi writers

Fear is hanging over secular Iraqi intellectuals following a militia raid on the Writers Union building in Baghdad, writes Salah Nasrawi

Last week’s attack on the offices of the Iraqi Union of Writers has led to fears that the country is turning into a nation ruled by fundamentalist militias and vigilante groups known for their bigotry and use of violence.

The dramatic rise of the self-styled religious extremist groups has been connected to growing pressure from the government and political groups on the media to show public support for the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces which are battling the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

On 17 June about 50 black-clad gunmen stormed the headquarters of the Writers Union in downtown Baghdad. They beat up staff and guards and destroyed the offices of an organisation that has long taken pride in its secularism and defied rising sectarian extremism and religious fundamentalism.

The rampage shocked the intelligentsia of a nation that has been living in dread of a sectarian war since IS seized large parts of Iraq last summer. The attack by gunmen dressed in military uniforms triggered an outpouring of public anger at home and expressions of solidarity from around the world.

In a statement, the Union said that dozens of armed men attacked its offices and briefly held its guards and staff hostage. The assailants, who used SUVs without licence plates, set up temporary roadblocks to divert traffic in the area during the raid, the statement said.

It said the attackers seized identity cards, money and personal mobile phones from the Union’s employees and security guards and smashed furniture in offices before leaving.

Union President Fadel Thamir described the attack as an attempt to “turn Iraq into an extremist religious state like [Taliban-controlled] Afghanistan.” Thamir, a well-known literary critic, urged the government to “bring the perpetrators to justice and stop violations against writers.”

Said Thamir, “This aggression underscores the dangers to the lives and safety of all those who work in literature and cultural organisations.” The Shia-led government had no immediate reaction to the attack, but Baghdad’s chief of security promised an investigation.

Iraqi President Fouad Masum, a Kurd whose post is ceremonial and has no executive power, said the assault “undermines both the state and the rule of law.” He called on the authorities to provide protection to the Union and other organisations.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack, but from the little information available it seems clear that it was planned by an organised Shia-fundamentalist network, probably targeting a social club and bar on the premises.

The religiosity of society in Iraq has grown since the overthrow of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s secular regime in the US-led invasion in 2003. It is not unusual for hardline groups, sometimes working closely with the security forces, to raid alcohol shops, bars and nightclubs in Baghdad.

They step up their vigilante activities during Ramadan to ensure the Islamic fasting month is not tainted. Ramadan this year started on 18 June, a day before the raid on the Union building, but there were no reports of members or guests having been caught drinking alcohol during the raid.

Union member have been harassed by Shia fundamentalist vigilantes on many occasions before. In 2012, security forces stormed the social club in the building and forced all those who were there to leave under threat of violence.

Volunteer groups claiming to “promote virtue and prevent vice” on the streets have been chastising and, in some cases, physically assaulting and arresting people they consider to be sinful or behaving improperly.

In July, two dozen women and two men in an alleged brothel in Baghdad were murdered by gunmen who stormed the place. Scores of young people whose behaviour is perceived to be unconventional have been murdered in recent years.

There have been no investigations into these and other cases to determine the perpetrators, but many Iraqis believe it is clear who is responsible. They say the killings have been carried out by members of local militia or religious groups.

The attack against the Writers Union, however, raises broader questions about the Shia-led government’s policy toward culture in view of the increasing hostility to secular and moderate intellectuals in Iraq.

Following the fall of Saddam’s dictatorship, Iraqi writers, journalists and artists hoped that the country’s new rulers would make commitments to changes underpinned in the new constitution to build a participatory and inclusive democratic culture.

Unfortunately, the worst fears of the intelligentsia in the Arab part of Iraq have come true: Shia fundamentalist groups who came to power after Saddam’s fall have begun to impose their religious ideology and conservative lifestyle.

In Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region, which is under the rule of a heavy-handed political coalition government, free speech and political and intellectual dissent are hardly tolerated.

Today, Iraq lacks a national cultural policy with clear values and priorities able to promote democracy and diversity, sustain the country as a richly creative society and ultimately be the best hope for stability in what is now a dangerously unstable nation.

Post-Saddam Iraq has had no ministers of culture who were interested in their portfolio or took their jobs seriously. All the posts in the Ministry of Culture are now filled with political appointees or cronies with little or no cultural background or activities.

Under a chequebook reward system, thousands of carefully selected writers, journalists and artists receive financial support from the ministry each year.

But no philosophy or goals to affirm the centrality of culture and the arts to Iraq’s national identity and to ensure their role in strengthening national unity have been set. Individual creativity is rarely recognised or encouraged.

Threatened and frustrated, Iraqi intellectuals rarely form groups to oppose the government. Rather, individual intellectuals or groups of intellectuals ally themselves with cliques within the government to lend their support to the policies of the ruling groups.

Many Iraqi writers, artists and intellectuals have left Iraq for lives in exile out of fears of harassment, or because they have been deprived of jobs or opportunities. Those who have stayed and want to make a living in Iraq have had to cooperate with the state’s or ruling groups’ institutions, or resort to self-censorship.

Iraqi journalists have also been the targets of campaigns by the government or the ruling political class to stifle the media or buy their silence. Hundreds of media workers have been killed or murdered in violence since 2003, and independent journalists remain subject to intimidation, harassment and exclusion.

During the last 12 years, bit by bit, the Iraqi media has fallen into full compliance with the structures of power, most notably the government and those of the ruling cliques. The majority of the media outlets in Iraq are now either institutionally embedded with or submissive to the ruling groups. Almost all media owners or bosses are people who have nothing to do with journalism.

Iraqi journalists are subjected to sectarian polarisation in their daily practices. Acrimonious infighting, selective engagement in public causes and a lack of professionalism are common. As a result of cunning operations by both the government and complicit media organisations, Iraq now has a toothless mainstream media that lacks efficiency and influence, and is not trusted by the general public.

The country’s national media organisation, the Iraqi Media Network, has fallen under the total control of the state, as journalists who served in party propaganda machines or loyal bureaucrats with little or no knowledge of journalism and carefully chosen by the prime minister’s office have been appointed to key positions.

The Iraqi Journalists Syndicate is seen to be cozying up to the government and the political elite in return for protection and profits such as financial rewards, pensions and land.

The absence of objective and professional coverage has led to the widespread reporting of government propaganda, something that is sadly familiar to Iraqis from Saddam’s decades in power.

Since IS’s advances last summer, the government has increased its pressure on the media to make journalists follow the official propaganda line on the war against the terror group. Criticism or “negative reporting” are often labelled as treason or even denounced as betrayals of the Islamic creed.

Last week, local media reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has formed a “War Media Cell” to oversee and coordinate news reporting on the fighting with IS.

They said the main duty of the group will be to feed the media with the government’s narrative of the war and circulate news of the “successes” of the security forces and the Popular Mobilisation Force. It will also monitor local and international coverage of the war, the media said.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on June 26, 2015

Shia-Sunni schism deepens

Shia Sunni schism deepens

If we have any sense of history, the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are sectarian in essence, writes Salah Nasraw

Like the summer heat, the fear of impending sectarian clashes is weighing on the Middle East these days. Compared with previous catastrophic wars, a sectarian flare-up looks much worse and could have profound implications for our time. Even Ramadan, Islam’s most sacred month, doesn’t seem immune from the gloom.

From wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, a government crisis in Lebanon, and the bombings in Saudi Arabia, the perception that the region is sinking into deep sectarian conflicts is becoming a reality. Fierce rivalry between a Sunni camp led by Saudi Arabia and a Shia conglomerate led by Iran is heightening sectarian tensions, even in conflicts that are primarily political.

A key factor behind the tension is the rise of Shia Islam that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and fears that the newly empowered Shia will try to carve out political space for themselves in a Sunni-dominated region. The turmoil that marred the region in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, which trigged a tectonic shift in the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape, has also increased regional sectarian tensions.

In Iraq, the rise of the Shia upset the sectarian balance in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country and reinforced the historic conflict between Islam’s two main sects. The Shia-led government failed to build a consensus democracy following the overthrow of the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein. This gave rise to Sunni radicalisation and mobilisation to fight back against what Sunnis perceived as exclusion and marginalisation.

The culmination of the Sunni insurgency in the Islamic State (IS) group’s onslaught last year and its seizure of vast chunks of territory has sharpened the sectarian divide as Shia militias moved quickly to fight for what they saw as their survival against the militants. Sectarian violence and atrocities committed by both sides have deepened the intercommunal strife and taken the region’s historic Shia-Sunni split to a potentially explosive level.

The popular uprising against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria soon turned into another regional sectarian flashpoint when Iran and the rest of the Shia in the Middle East backed the Alawite-dominated regime, while Sunni Arabs supported the country’s Sunni majority. The war has engulfed the residents of Alawite and Sunni villages and towns in massive atrocities and in many cases revealed vengeful tendencies towards sectarian point-scoring.

In a recent interview with the Al-Jazeera television network, Abu Mohamed Al-Golani, head of the radical Al-Nusra Front, warned that his Al-Qaeda-affiliated group did not only want Syrian Alawites to disavow Al-Assad and drop their arms, but also to “correct their doctrinal mistakes and embrace Islam.” Al-Golani vowed to fight Iran, which he described as a “non-Islamic” and “Persian” state hostile to the Arabs.

EXTENSION OF THE CONFLICT: The war in Syria has spilled over into neighbouring Lebanon, with the Shia group Hizbullah siding with Al-Assad and many of the Sunni faithful in Lebanon openly supporting Syrian rebels. Over the past few weeks, clashes have roiled the borders with Syria as Hizbullah carried out its most intense operations against Sunni militants who have taken up positions in the porous mountainous region.

Hizbullah’s offensive has increased Shia-Sunni tensions in a country that has its own turbulent history of religious and sectarian struggles. Many expect that in a post-Al-Assad Syria dominated by Sunnis, their co-religionists in Lebanon will take heart and demand a greater role and more power. If Al-Assad, or the Alawite minority, stays in power, or if Syria falls apart into ethnic mini-states, Lebanon could easily follow suit, but only after another bloody war.

The crisis in Yemen, where competing forces are also fighting for control, has further galvanised the region. Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of Gulf Arab nations in the fight against Shia Houthis who now control large swathes of land in the impoverished but strategically important country. The Saudi-led intervention has turned what was mostly seen as a political and tribal power struggle into a sectarian conflict between the Houthi minority and Yemen’s Sunni majority.

In all these countries the conflicts between the Shia and Sunni communities are seen as part of the larger regional geopolitical struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia. The sectarian alignment, crystallised in the war in Yemen with Saudi Arabia assembling a coalition of Sunni nations against the pro-Iranian Shia Houthi rebels, is a clear sign of how sectarianism is snowballing.

Given the intensity and scale of the Shia-Sunni conflict in the region and its dynamics, Saudi Arabia itself is not immune to the sectarian competition. Saudi Arabia’s Shia, who comprise about 15 per cent of the population, have been struggling for greater political and economic rights and especially equal treatment by the country’s dominant Wahhabi establishment, which considers them as heretics.

Last month, attacks in the Shia-dominated eastern province of the country, where dozens of Shia worshipers were killed by IS suicide bombers, were an indication of how rising tension in the region is penetrating the kingdom itself, feeding a bloody sectarian struggle. Following the deadly attacks, messages posted on social media in the kingdom were rife with anti-Shia rhetoric, with some calling for the killing of the “impure” Shia infidels and the destruction of their “temples.”

Frightened and feeling betrayed, Shia in the eastern province sought to take matters into their own hands and create self-protection committees to guard against IS attacks. That was immediately rejected by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef, also deputy premier and minister of the interior, who warned that the government “will confront those who try to undermine its security and stability with an iron fist.”

Other Middle Eastern Muslim countries where Shia are small minorities, such as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan, have not been spared the spiralling sectarian tension raging in the region.

In Egypt, a report by the Cairo-based Regional Centre for Strategic Studies cautioned against the “repercussions of Shia political and religious activity” in Egypt after the 25 January Revolution in 2011. The report said the “reactions of the Egyptian Shia sect to Operation Decisive Storm have gained a lot of attention and raised questions about the extent of the presence of the Shia in Egypt.”

In April, a new Salafi group was formed to combat Shia activism in Egypt. The announced launch of the Coalition for the Defence of the Prophet’s Companions followed increased Shia-Sunni polarisation over the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Security crackdowns on the Shia in Egypt, including closing down their offices and questioning their leaders, have also increased.

FIRE UNDER THE ASHES: The modern Shia-Sunni struggle dates back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and its aftermath, when conservative Sunni countries in the Middle East, faced with Shia Iran’s claim to lead Muslims worldwide, responded by challenging the Islamic credentials of the Shia ayatollahs who had become Iran’s new rulers. The Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s opened a new chapter in the sectarian schism, as most of the Arab countries supported Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime against Shia Iran.

The animosity gained new impetus with the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which empowered the majority Iraqi Shia at the expense of the Arab Sunni minority that had ruled Iraq since independence in the 1920s. The prospect of a Shia-led Iraq triggered alarms bell among many Sunni regimes of the danger of a geopolitical shift in the region, one in which Shia Arabs could ally themselves with Shia Iran.

Many Sunni Arab leaders started warning of a Shia Crescent, the crescent-shaped region of the Middle East where the majority population is Shia, or where there is a strong Shia minority in the population. The idea was that a shared faith could lead to potential cooperation between Iran, Iraqi Shia, Alawite-dominated Syria, and the politically powerful Shia Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Sunni militant groups, such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which were born in the upheaval that following, took anti-Shia zeal to new heights. The rivalry reached genocidal levels with the resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), an Al-Qaeda offshoot, after civil war erupted in Syria in 2011. The group, which later declared itself as a caliphate and came to be known as the Islamic State, refuses to recognise the Shia as Muslims and has given them a grim choice of conversion or death.

ROOTS OF DIVISION: The Sunni and the Shia are the two main sects of Islam. Followers of both sects believe Allah is God, that Mohamed was his last prophet, and that the Qur’an is the holy book of Islam.

Unlike the different denominations of Christianity, the division between Muslim Shia and Sunnis is not defined by doctrine. They share most of the same Islamic tenets, but have some differences in their interpretation of the religious texts and the Prophet Mohamed’s traditions.

However, there are also differences between the two groups in the way they govern themselves and how they view political leadership within Islam. These variations stem from a disagreement over who was the legitimate leader to succeed the Prophet Mohamed after his death in 632 CE.

Some of his companions argued that the new leader should be chosen by them, while others claimed the role should stay within the Prophet’s immediate family. Those who supported the idea of “selection” won, and Abu Bakr Al-Sidiq, a close companion of the Prophet, was installed as the caliph (successor) or chief Muslim civil and religious ruler.

Muslims who felt that the leadership should stay within Mohamed’s clan rejected Abu Bakr and his successors and instead supported Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. This row has led to two main branches within Islam: the Sunni and the Shia. While supporters of giving rule to the Prophet’s descendants took on the name of Shiat-Ali (“the party of Ali”), commonly shortened to Shia, the others were called Sunni, meaning those who follow the traditions of the Prophet.

Today, Sunnis account for some 90 per cent of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide and have been the dominant branch in the Middle East for centuries. Although the Shia are spread across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, they constitute a majority only in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain. Hundreds of thousands of Shia also live in the United States and other Western nations, and they, like their Sunni counterparts, are primed for sectarian sentiments.

Despite its historic roots, however, the split within Islam has not been this deep or bloody for centuries. It is only in recent years that it has emerged as the biggest fault line in the struggle for dominance in the Middle East and beyond.

The geopolitical conflicts raging between the Sunnis and Shia are shaking the Middle East today. Sectarianism is being instrumentalised in various ways to advance geopolitical aims, including justifying extremism and employing religiously oriented propaganda in conflicts.

As if to underscore the antagonistic nature of these conflicts, the warring parties have showed no willingness for a pause during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which started last week. The United Nations has asked for a halt in the fighting in Yemen during Ramadan, a time of fasting, spiritual reflection and worship, yet the fighting has not abated neither in Yemen nor in other countries.

Consequently, with so much blood being spilled and chaos spreading, the most pressing question being asked now is whether rising sectarianism in the Middle East reflects real religious differences between Islam’s two main branches or is merely politics.

For those who believe sectarianism is the work of the colonial powers, the phenomenon was not such an issue before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and its growth is a result of the struggle for wealth, power and territory in the region.

A careful and in-depth analysis of the modern history of the Middle East shows that the rise of sectarianism is not spontaneous, though religious, sectarian and ethnic divisions after the independence of the Arab countries from the Ottomans and Western colonial powers seemed less pronounced. The recent turmoil may just have been the catalyst that exposed long-hidden sectarian prejudice and biases.

In their heyday, during the immediate post-colonial era, the focus of the region’s founding fathers was on establishing a common pan-Arab and national identity in the face of religious and ethnic identities. But sectarianism has revealed not only the fragility of the modern Arab nation-state, but also the deep religious hatred that seems to be the sole preserve of one sect group or the other.

For now, sectarianism continues to exacerbate regional conflicts. For many people, the fear is that the vicious Shia-Sunni division that has been poisoning Islam for 1,400 years may become even get worse.

This article appeared first in Al-Ahram Weekly on June 26, 2015

Iraq’s odd anti-graft drive

Iraq’s odd anti-graft drive

The war against corruption in Iraq is being waged by an unexpected warrior, writes Salah Nasrawi

As Iraq’s war against the Islamic State (IS) group remains under the international spotlight, an anti-graft war in Baghdad has gone largely unnoticed. But while the war against IS could reshape Iraq’s future, the war against corruption seems to be the latest twist in the spat between Iraq’s competing politicians and rival groups.

For months, a Facebook account profiling Ahmed Chalabi, one of Iraq’s most controversial politicians and a high-level Shia official, has been trying to harness popular anger against corruption in the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abbadi by releasing horrendous accounts of graft cases online.

Allegations of political corruption in Iraq have made their way onto the social networks before, but the new revelations are particularly significant because they are coming from Chalabi, who also serves as the head of the country’s Parliamentary Finance Committee.

Efforts made to reach Chalabi were unsuccessful, and messages copied to a second Facebook profile using Chalabi’s name to confirm the two pages’ authenticity went unanswered. However, an in-depth search has showed that although Chalabi has dismissed one posting in a statement, he has not asked to remove the Facebook account, which also carries the subtitle “community” with his name.

For many Iraq watchers the ambiguity behind the two Facebook pages will be deliberate in order to make the embarrassment go away. To them, the accounts and documents that detail the corruption cases can hardly be disputed and indicate reliable sourcing.

Few Iraqi officials named in the corruption episodes on Chalabi’s Facebook page sought to respond to the allegations or refute their authenticity, they note.

Why Chalabi, in the light of the watchers’ theory that the Facebook account is associated with him would want to wash the Shia-led government’s dirty linen in public remains unclear. But his anti-corruption drive has raised both doubts and speculation. While few Iraqis believe their political leaders are capable or willing to tackle the endemic graft problem in the country, many perceive Chalabi’s campaign as underlining a deep rift within the ruling Shia alliance.

Chalabi’s background sheds light on the aim behind his surprising anti-graft campaign. This former banker turned politician was a prominent figure in the Iraqi opposition that sought to oust former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein following the Gulf War in 1991.

Chalabi’s falsified reports about Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction circulated by the mainstream US media were used as a pretext by the Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2003 and topple Saddam.

Chalabi, who became the darling of the Bush administration, was favoured by the Pentagon to succeed the former Iraqi dictator before he was found to be lacking public support inside Iraq. He was sidelined after he failed to receive a parliamentary seat in the first post-Saddam elections in 2005.

But the most striking aspect of his political career remains his involvement in a bank scam in Jordan, a scandal which is believed to have undermined his chances to run the country after Saddam. In 1992 a court in Jordan sentenced Chalabi to 22 years in prison in absentia and ordered the repayment of $30 million of the bank’s money it said he had embezzled.

Chalabi has always maintained the charges against him were politically motivated. But reports compiled by investigators for the international media have described how millions of dollars of depositors’ money was transferred to other parts of the Chalabi family empire in Switzerland, Lebanon and London and not repaid.

This seems like a dubious career for an anti-corruption campaigner and makes sceptics doubt his motivation. The disclosure also offers a rare insight into Iraq’s secret world of political corruption.

Chalabi, or those who run the Facebook page in his name, began posting tales of the horribly corrupt Iraqi government a few months ago. To ramp up public expectations he has been using “For a Better Iraq” as a slogan for his campaign.

Chalabi does not shy away from admitting that the US-led invasion, which he backed and pressed for more than 12 years ago, has been the main culprit in the massive corruption that has plagued Iraq since then.

For example, he cites two ministers appointed by the US-installed Coalition Provisional Authority who spirited away millions of dollars in graft before disappearing. Former minister of electricity Ayham Al-Samaraie was even helped out of a Baghdad jail by American security men who flew him out of Iraq.

“That is how it all started,” Chalabi said on his Facebook timeline. He said that the incident had set a precedent for the “smuggling” of prison inmates, even terrorists, to become routine in post-Saddam Iraq.

“This is how the blood of the Iraqis has become so cheap,” he wrote.

According to Chalabi’s narrative, corruption went viral throughout the two terms of former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s rule in 2006-2014. After taking over from Al-Maliki, Al-Abbadi has not only failed to fulfill election promises to curb corruption but has also let the epidemic phenomena continue and grow.

One of the main reasons for government corruption to continue, in Chalabi’s view, is because Al-Abbadi still “relies on the same ignorant advisers and corrupt bureaucrats” as before. In a post this week, Chalabi wrote that one of Al-Abbadi’s advisers was a former butcher who had not obtained an education certificate.

“We will not stay silent, when we see you leaving the country in ruins,” Chalabi wrote. “You will lose local and international support, and you will not be able to continue your four-year term in office,” he warned Al-Abbadi.

A recurrent theme in Chalabi’s anti-graft postings is Iraq’s Independent Elections Commission. He cites several cases of corruption by commissioners, including profiteering and taking advantage of their posts to appoint relatives.

One commissioner, Chalabi wrote, had hired his brother who had presented a forged certificate. Another member, he wrote, was using a villa confiscated from a Saddam regime senior official as a residence without paying rent. A third, he said, received 12 million dinars monthly salary in addition to 20 million dinars for security while he spent most of his time abroad.

Another target of the Chalabi campaign is the Iraqi Central Bank (ICB). He has made scathing criticisms of the ICB governor, Ali Al-Allak, who he has blamed for the recent sharp depreciation of the local currency.

According to Chalabi, Al-Allak has no previous experience in banking or finance and was living on welfare in Canada before he was made Al-Maliki’s chief of staff. “He did not even work as an accountant in a grocery store,” Chalabi wrote.

Chalabi ranted in one posting at the government department responsible for displaced Iraqis. While millions of Iraqis have been seeking refuge from violence in other towns or live in dusty tent cities facing the summer heat and shortages of water and electricity, millions of dollars in government and foreign aid have disappeared.

Chalabi’s list of corruption is long and includes allegations of bribery to release imprisoned terrorists, money-laundering and racketeering by officials and journalists.

The response to Chalabi’s Facebook tirades have not been entirely positive. They have even sparked a backlash on the social network, with many users pointing out that Chalabi has failed to carry out his duties as an MP and head of the Parliamentary Finance Commission to take legal and constitutional action to pursue corrupt officials.

“Be brave and unveil all the corruption cases and take offenders to court,” wrote one user. “This is good, but you are head of the Finance Committee, so why don’t you question them in parliament,” responded another.

“One seat and one voice wield no influence inside the parliament,” came the answer to the comments on the timeline.

Instead of stoking up publicity, exposing corruption scandals in Iraqi on social media has proved to be more of a political blood sport than a call for a reckoning. Corruption has become deeply entrenched in the bureaucratic and political system of the country, and few Iraqis believe their political leaders are capable or willing to tackle the endemic graft problem.

Most of Iraq’s political class are believed to be involved in one type of corruption of another, manipulating the country’s rich resources in order to create rents they can use to secure control of the government.

Corruption in Iraq is not only widespread and endemic, but also systematic and institutionalised. It includes bribery, embezzlement, money-trafficking and laundering, extortion, patronage, cronyism, fraud, legal plunder, nepotism and plutocracy.

In 2014, the international NGO Transparency International said Iraq was the fifth most corrupt country in the world out of the 175 countries surveyed.

This article appeared first in Al- Ahram Weekly on June 18, 2015

Can IS survive to 2023?

Can IS survive to 2023?

The Islamic State terror group may continue to thrive for the time being, but over the longer term it is doomed to fail, writes Salah Nasrawi

When the Islamic State (IS) group declared itself to be a caliphate, with its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, setting himself up as a ruler “by order of God” following the group’s advances last summer, sympathisers quickly cheered the pronouncement as a heaven-sent victory.

The group’s spokesman Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani even boasted that “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations has become null and void by the expansion of the caliphate’s authority and the arrival of its troops in their areas.”

In order to further establish the status of its jihadist state, IS removed the boundaries between two Arab countries and began issuing passports to its “citizens”.

A growing number of zealots from around the world, including Americans and Europeans, have flocked to the Islamic State’s territories, which once run from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyalah on the borders with Iran.

But as followers and sympathisers celebrated, detractors dismissed the declaration of the Muslim “holy state” as nothing more than propaganda. The phenomenon, they argued, was just “a response to the chaos” that has spread in Iraq and Syria. Time, they said, would prove that establishing a worldwide Muslim movement and mobilising a broad coalition of supporters is simply over-hyped optimism.

Yet, regardless of whether the global Islamic caliphate will be accepted in the international and regional arenas or not, the question remains of whether the IS-led insurgency in Iraq and Syria that has become a synonym for fear and bloodshed is sustainable.

It is true that the dramatic fall of the city of Ramadi to IS last month gave control of virtually all of Anbar province to the militants, pushing them to the edge of Baghdad. IS has also made significant gains in Syria, including the capture of the key city of Palmyra and some other towns in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

But the new onslaughts may also have exposed how the IS insurgency in Iraq and Syria has neared its limits.

In order to maintain its gains, IS needs to pursue two sets of goals. First, it needs to win over the Sunni population in the areas under its control by striking a delicate balance between its radical religious programme and their traditional Arab nationalism.

Second, it has to subdue the Shia in Iraq and the Alawites and other non-Muslim minorities in Syria by either forcing them to convert to its extremist ideology or to flee and leave their areas to its control.

Neither of these two goals will be easy to achieve.

Though IS has relied heavily on local Sunnis, including former Baathists in Iraq and Arab tribes who felt marginalised after years of Alawite rule in Syria, there is an ongoing debate about whether this is a tactical alliance or a more strategic one.

Unlike the Taliban and the Hizbi Islami of Gulbaddin Hekmetyar in Afghanistan that created national mujahideen organisations with broad-based Pashtun appeal, IS has showed no inclination to transform itself into a nationalist Sunni Arab insurgency.

A similar transformation also occurred in Kashmir where the nationalist insurgency for independence from India turned Islamist under the influence of rising jihadist movements in Pakistan.

Baathists in Iraq and pan-Arab nationalists in Syria have also collaborated with IS in the war against Baghdad and Damascus, but in order to achieve its long-term objectives IS will need to invent a new approach and build new relationships that can fuse its religious ideology with the more secular Arab nationalism among Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis.

On a broader level, IS has ruled vast Sunni areas since June last year, and there has not been much for the local population to admire. The jihadi group is harsh, narrow-minded and intolerant of dissent. Its fighters act like barbaric psychopaths willing to engage in the most brutal forms of violence in order to slaughter their way into controlling Sunni areas.

Millions of people in Sunni towns captured by IS in Iraq and Syria have left their homes. Many prefer to live in miserable conditions in camps in neighbouring countries, or brave the Mediterranean Sea to seek refuge in Europe and refuse to return. Others are taking up arms to fight IS in the name of Iraqi and Syrian nationalism.

IS’s expansion in many other Arab countries, including Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia, and its endeavour to win supporters in other places has begun to pose a serious threat to regional security and stability.

As for the other goal of subduing Shia and Alawites to its ideology and rule, that seems far-fetched. The Shia, who consider IS an existential threat, do not seem interested in a compromise with the group’s militants. This takfiri group, which considers Shia and Alawites to be infidels and is bent on their annihilation, remains their biggest challenge.

The Iraqi state they control enjoys legitimacy and support among a large number of the world’s nations. The Iraqi Shia have been quick to mobilise hundreds of thousands of men and militias on the front line, and they have overwhelming firepower and motivation in the fight against IS.

A substantial number of Iranian Revolutionary Guards units and Iraqi Shia militiamen are already fighting on the side of the Al-Assad regime in Syria.

IS may be able to survive setbacks and will probably be able to engineer new advances, but its ability to sustain a self-styled caliphate or even victory in the war remains very much in doubt.

In recent weeks, the group has been seen to be losing ground in many parts of Iraq and Syria, and the tide is beginning to turn against IS. According to many military estimates, it faces a grim future and its defeat is militarily certain but probably not until it plunges the Middle East into further chaos.

One of the main consequences of the raising of the black banners of IS over an area from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean Sea is that the group has been able to change the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East. While its scourges have deepened the sectarian schism in the region to a point of no return, the territorial dimensions of its onslaughts have showed that it can result in changing the region’s political map.

In many ways, the success of IS in breaking up Iraq and Syria will create a new regional order in which ethno-and sectarian-based new countries will emerge. The emerging nations of Arabs, Kurds, Shia, Sunni and Alawites, among other ethnicities, will be pitted against each other while trying to consolidate their new national identities and boundaries.

Many believe that IS’s stunning rise over the last few months has been a catalyst for what has been widely expected since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The tragic domino effect that followed left the Middle East in turmoil amidst the threat of yet another regional conflagration along sectarian lines.

According to this theory, IS, which was empowered by the same US-led invasion, is part of an ill-conceived patchwork geo-strategy to re-draw the map of the Middle East, which was defined by the European powers and established in several international agreements following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

A different map, professed by US journalist Robin Wright in a famous article in The New York Times on 28 September 2013,  “would be a strategic game-changer for just about everybody, potentially reconfiguring alliances, security challenges, and trade and energy flows for much of the world, too.”

For many Middle East watchers that moment is fast approaching. In their view, the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 which established the century-old national boundaries of modern Turkey and remnants of the former Ottoman Empire, such as Iraq and Syria, will expire, or perhaps be up for review, on its hundredth anniversary in 2023.

Whether the new mapping will happen in keeping with secret articles in the treaty, as advocates believe, or whether it will be the consequences of the tectonic shift triggered by the Iraq invasion, the Middle East could wake up one day in the next few years with different border lines for many of its countries.

Until now, Iraq and Syria have resisted falling apart. In both countries IS is receiving significant setbacks, and its fighters are losing ground. The results of this week’s elections in Turkey, which saw a sharp decline in votes for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), will also have an impact on Turkey’s regional policies that have helped in IS’s rise.

At its worst, IS may prove that it was only an instrument used by outsiders who have long “gamed the Middle East,” and at its best it may be the force that destroys in order to create the future.

Whatever the results of these conflicts of historical magnitude may be, IS, with its brutality and murderous ideology, seems to have no place in the new Middle East.

This article appeared first in The Al- Ahram Weekly on June 11, 2015

Egypt takes the lead on Syria

Egypt takes the lead on Syria

Egypt should take a leading role in ending the Syrian conflict even if there can be few hopes for a quick fix to the country’s problems, writes Salah Nasrawi

With Islamist rebels, including the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front group, continuing their advance on government-controlled towns in Syria, Egypt is stepping up diplomatic efforts to help moderate opposition forces to work together for a political settlement to the four-year old civil war in the country.
But like all world and regional powers that have been trying to mediate in the Syrian crisis, Egypt faces daunting challenges. While several opposition groups welcomed Cairo’s decision to play a leading role in resolving the ongoing civil war in Syria, scepticism remains rife about forging a united and plausible alternative to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Cairo’s bid to unite the anti-Al-Assad opposition groups is also being challenged by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are leading efforts to overthrow Al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime by backing the predominantly Sunni insurgency.
Nevertheless, Cairo’s invitation to some 200 Syrian activists seeking a political resolution to the inter-communal war in their country demonstrates Egypt’s resurgence as a key player in the Middle East where several other regional powerhouses are also vying for influence.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said that Syrian opposition delegates, nearly half of them from inside Syria, will meet in Cairo on 8 and 9 June to discuss how to form a united opposition front to resolve Syria’s vicious civil war and form a democratic transitional government.
Top Egyptian diplomats have met several times over the last few weeks with senior Syrian opposition representatives in Cairo to prepare for the meeting, dubbed the National Conference of the Opposition Forces for a Political Solution in Syria.
Egyptian officials said the conference would be hosted by the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations, a think tank associated with the Foreign Ministry, which will provide facilities but will not take part in the two-day discussions.
According to various sources, the conference is expected to come up with a strategy based on a UN-backed roadmap to end the Syrian conflict. The six-point plan was agreed at an international peace conference on Syria in June 2012 intended to stop the violence and move the government and opposition groups towards a political settlement.
The framework, known as the Geneva Communiqué, calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body that will “exercise full executive powers” in Syria. It states that the body could include “members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent”.
While next week’s meeting is expected to reaffirm the need for a political settlement to the conflict based on the Geneva formula, participants are also expected to lay out a broader framework for what they call a united, sovereign and democratic Syria in the post Al-Assad era.
Such a formula, they hope, will create the conditions for the emergence of a new Syrian state that is pluralistic, inclusive, and capable of governing the entire country.
Among other main objectives of the framework is to restructure Syria’s army and security forces following the establishment of the transitional authority in order to avoid their dissolution which would create a security vacuum.
Realising the threats posed by IS and Al-Nusra Front militants who control vast amounts of territory in Syria, the participants will also seek international support to isolate the two groups, including a UN Security Council resolution penalising travel by foreign combatants to Syria.
In order to underline their differences with other groups seeking Al-Assad’s ouster, the organisers of the Cairo meeting have said a policy statement to be endorsed by the conference will call for talks with the regime “if it shows its preparedness to transfer all civil and military powers to a transitional government.”
However, the anti-Al-Assad opposition remains deeply split, and previous efforts to unite the rebel groups have faltered. Though the organisers of the Cairo conference insist that there are no plans to form a new political movement, other opposition groups remain sceptical.
It is unlikely that the Syrian National Coalition, Syria’s main opposition group which receives generous funding from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will send delegates to the Cairo conference. Some coalition leaders have even accused Egypt of “sympathising” with the Al-Assad regime.
After more than four years of a brutal conflict that has killed some 200,000 people, wounded thousands of others and forced 9.5 million people, more than a third of Syria’s population, from their homes, the Syrians themselves remain sharply divided.
In recent weeks the conflict has reached alarming levels, with hundreds of people perishing in fighting or in government bombing of rebel-controlled areas. Vast amounts of territory, including strategic cities and border crossings, have fallen to the rebels.
Turkey, backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, has recently increased its military intervention in Syria amid speculation that it is pushing hard to establish an air-exclusion zone inside Syria which could later be used to carve out an area under its control in the north of the country.
The civil war in Syria began in 2011 when some opposition groups began an armed rebellion against Al-Assad’s government during the Arab Spring. By 2014, large chunks of Syria had fallen under the control of militants from IS and the Al-Nusra Front.
The Cairo meeting signals Egypt’s determination to reassert itself on the regional stage more than four years after the popular uprising which toppled the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak and set Egypt into political turmoil.
Last month, Egypt hosted meetings for Libyan and Yemeni political and tribal groups in similar bids to broker solutions to the conflicts in the two beleaguered Arab countries.
Egypt fears that the collapse of the Syrian state could trigger wider regional destabilisation and allow IS, which has established an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and the Al-Nusra Front to expand their influence in the region, compromising a central part of its strategy to contain the Islamists.
But Egypt’s resolve to reconfigure the post-uprisings shift in the regional balance of power in its favour seems to be unwelcome to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are converging on an aggressive strategy to topple Al-Assad.
While Egypt’s relationships with Qatar and Turkey remain strained over a host of issues, including the two countries’ support for the banned Muslim Brotherhood group, a disagreement over Syria could translate into a test for Cairo’s relations with Riyadh.
On Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir made a quick stop in Cairo for talks with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on regional conflicts including Syria. While Al-Jubeir denied any “discord” over Syria, there have been few indications that Egypt has changed its position on pushing for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
“The meeting dealt with regional issues, in particular Syria, Yemen and Libya. There was agreement on the importance of reaching political solutions to the conflicts in these countries which will stop the bloodshed, protect their territorial integrity, and preserve their national institutions,” said a statement from the Egyptian presidency following Al-Jubeir’s meeting with Al-Sisi.
But diplomatic words alone cannot paper over the ambiguity or even contradictory messages in the statement. A meticulous reading of the text shows that Egypt is standing by its position that any solution to the Syrian crisis must ensure the unity of the country and keep its state apparatus and army intact.
In this regard the Saudi stance on Syria is not close to that of Egypt, which also says Al-Assad should be part of a negotiated settlement. Egypt’s stance, deeply suspicious of the Islamist movements throughout the region, fears that Syria’s descent into chaos will give extremists, such as IS and the Al-Nusra Front, a chance to fill the vacuum following Al-Assad’s fall.
That is not what Saudi Arabia believes or wants. Indeed, Riyadh is hosting its own conference for the Syrian opposition groups, with radical Islamist groups including the Al-Nusra Front reportedly invited, later this month in order to discuss plans to escalate military operations against Damascus and prepare for the post Al-Assad era.
Egypt might not succeed in its ultimate goal in its mediation to resolve such a complex situation, but its invitation to the Syrian groups to come to Cairo signals its determination to pursue a more proactive foreign policy, while carefully seeking to avoid any immediate confrontation, particularly with a key financial backer like Saudi Arabia.
Because of the threat that IS and the Al-Nusra Front terrorist groups may be the alternative to the Al-Assad regime, Syria is a matter of national security for Egypt. If Egypt does not act now, who will.

This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on June 4, 2015