RT Crossfire Advanced Questions and Talking Points

We filmed an episode of Crosstalk today, so I thought I would share my talking points in advance of the show being aired on Monday.  Not everything here was said, but the questions they sent in advance will give you a broad sense of what was said on the show.

Is the term Arab Spring or Arab Awakening appropriate anymore? Do we
need to invent a new and different term to describe what is happening
in the Arab Middle East today?
It was never appropriate in the beginning.  When you spoke to protesters in the individual countries they would always refer to their countries “revolutions”.  I think our best method of looking at the phenomenon in the region, is to keep referring to them in this manner.  This helps us keep on track of the fact that whilst there was a “demonstration” effect that helped them spread across the region, all the revolutions were country specific.  It is safer to refer to the “revolutions” occurring through the region.  This is also particularly the case, as we don’t, and have never known, the directions these revolutions will take.  Spring and Awakening suggests a transition process to democracy, and it is far from guaranteed that this will be the case.
What to the countries of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria have in
common today (if any thing beyond being Arab Muslim countries)?
These countries still have a lot in common beyond being Arab Muslim countries. They have deeply troubled economies, high youth unemployment, a disproportionately high youth demographic, deep troubles with rule of law and security.  These are in fact the same conditions that led to the uprisings in the first place.  They differ in many of the problems they face, but broadly speaking the underlined causes of the revolutions are still there.  
Over two years ago many in the west (and their proxies on the ground
in the Arab Middle East) talked of democracy and western values in a
region in the hands of dictators for decades. Where does democracy
stand today in the region?
Any one who has studied democracy in the Arab world over decades will tell you that the region always takes one step forward, and two steps back.  But the Arab spring demonstrates that there is popular demand for rights, dignity and freedom.  The revolutions are a major leap forward for democracy in the region, and the genie has been let out of the bottle.  There is less willingness to accept the security guarantee of dictators, as the people in the region see that this hasn’t provided them with the basic things they need in their daily lives.  Of course, the situation on the ground differs across each of the countries, and some are moving forward more rapidly with what look like basic democratic institutions than others.  But overall, democratisation is a long process, and we certainly stand in a place where democracy looks more plausible today than it did in 2010.
To what degree have events in Syria been a “game changer” for the region?
Events in Syria are very important, and have important regional repercussions.  But overall, what happens in Syria is going to have little effect on the domestic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  We also have an important example of a more successful transition in Yemen, which shouldn’t be forgotten.  The problem with Syria has to do with the nature of the state structure.  The security forces are tied to the regime itself, which wasn’t the case in Tunisia and Egypt, and NATO intervention in Libya cancelled that particular dynamic out.  Are there going to be serious security problems in Syria for the forceable future, that will impact Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon?  They certainly will, but alternative trajectories are in place for the countries already undergoing revolutions.
Has western overt and/or covert involvement been a plus or minus in
the region over the past two years?
There was a period when US and EU involvement in the region was particularly high – throughout 2011-2012.  There was a greater emphasis on trying to promote democracy, and on helping successful democratic transitions to take place.  The September 11 embassy attacks, however, have lowered the willingness of the US to focus on this, and return to a more traditional “security and interests” focus.  So post-2012 the US has pulled back its presence in the region, and missed important opportunities.  Because of the problems with the way EU foreign policy is conducted and made, they have followed in the US foot steps.  

The show airs on Monday, so any feed back is welcome on here or twitter @ozhassan.

Postscript:  Link to Youtube show


What does the Kidnap and release of Ali Zeidan tells us about Libya?

The kidnap and release of Ali Zeidan tells us what we already knew about the current situation in Libya.  The security situation in the country is deeply precarious and “revolutionary” militias are ultimately in power.  They out number, by size and firepower, the official police and army, and have a limited and tenuous loyalty to the countries institutions. This is a serious problem, which combined with the presence of terrorist organisations like AQIM in the country, raises serious challenges for North African, European, and the American government.

The revolutionary group that kidnapped Zeidan argued that because the Libyan government agreed to the US violation of sovereignty, when they captured Abu Anas al-Liby on Saturday, they were acting as an “Anti-crime agency” against a PM they regard as violating the law.  The fact that they could take him from the Corinthia Hotel, which is supposed to be one of the most secure locations in the country is deeply problematic and tells us who really has power.  This is not a government capable of protecting itself, never mind maintaing security and law and order across the country.

I was asked earlier today to comment on Channel NewsAsia, about what this means for foreigners in the country, who Zeidan is now seeking to reassure.  This is deeply problematic as it sends a clear signal that the security situation post-Bengazi attacks has not improved.  (I’ve been told foreigners can get around the country for the most part, but low profile is the way forward).  For details on how to build Libya’s security sector, people should see Frederic Wehrey and Peter Cole’s policy outlook here.

I’ve also been asked by a lot of media outlets about the prospects for democracy in the country.  The thing people need to have in mind is that; when a revolution and international intervention remove a government they leave a political and security space open within that country.  As a new government fills this space the international community asks them to do two opposing things 1) centralise power to form a new state; 2) move towards democracy.  This is asking them to centralise and decentralise power at the same time, and this is all in a scenario where there is no security.  Therefore to move to democracy, first steps need to be centralising state power and the maintenance of security across the country.  This should be done in conjunction with a truth and reconciliation dialogue initiative.  It is only by both securing and reconstructing the state and coming to terms with the past and forming a consensus on the future that progress on deepening democratic institutions can be made.

Suez Concerns leads to US crude oil topping $100

The political uncertainty in Egypt is has having a direct effect on the global economy.  Concern that the flow of oil tankers through the Suez Canal could be disrupted has led to the price of US crude oil reaching $100 a barrel – the highest level in more than a year.  This comes as a direct result of the Suez Canal being a key choke point in the global oil trade.  Indeed, 5% of the seaborne crude, along with 14% of seaborne liquified natural gas flows through the canal.

Within this context, the canal is a pivotal point for the global economy, and therefore a key target for protesters to damage the Egyptian government. Disrupting the flow of traffic is therefore a key strategy for anti-govenment protesters, which was evident in February when the canal had to close, and in March when speedboats were released in the canal to create obstacles for maritime traffic.

Notably, this comes on top of disrupted supplies from Libya from armed militias and terrorist organisations like AQIM (see my interview in the Sunday Express).  Indeed, as reported in the FT, “Antoine Halff, the influential head of the International Energy Agency’s oil markets division has warned of a delayed impact of the Arab Spring on oil production, and the IEA is now forecasting no net growth in oil output from Africa’s four Opec members over the next five years.”

This clearly provides a new strategic landscape for both the US and EU to navigate as they try to overcome the consequences of the 2008 economic fall out.

The Suez Canal crosses the Suez isthmus

The Suez Canal crosses the Suez isthmus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)