North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Monday, January 31, 2011

Revolutionary crossroads

With the escalation of Egypt's unrest in the past week - surging after Friday's day of special prayer called Salat AlJumu'ah - the future of Mubarak's government was increasingly called into question. The future direction could be a positive one where the issues of freedom of thought and expression are recognized, or negative, where extremist forces use the current unrest to bolster their positions. Across the Arab world, Egypt's uncertainty has highlighted most nations' relatively harsh and elitist control of their populations and the dangers of creating these pressure cooker dynamics.

Muslims at Salat AlJumu'ah, Friday's regular day for prayer and for listening to sermons on the topic of the day

From one journalist's reporting, "In Egypt's capital, Cairo, tens of thousands took to the streets after Friday prayers in protests never before seen during Mr Mubarak’s rule. At a large mosque in the wealthy neighbourhood of Mohandisseen, demonstrators leapt to their feet with signs and banners minutes after prayers were over. Inspired by a sermon endorsing their right to assemble peacefully, they marched several kilometres to the banks of the Nile, where phalanxes of black-clad riot police blocked their attempts to reach Tahrir Square and the state TV building, a goal listed in an e-mail distributed by protest organisers a day earlier.

The drama of a population's protest against its government.

As the unprecedented protests raged into [the weekend,] there were no signs that the protesters were coalescing around any group of leaders, let alone a single one. Many protesters are young men. Two thirds of Egypt’s 80 million people are below the age of 30 and many have no jobs, while about 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

Mohamed El Baradei returned to Cairo late on Thursday amid some expectation that he might emerge as a focal point of the opposition. The Nobel Peace Laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was briefly penned in by police after he prayed at a mosque in the Giza area but he later took part in a peaceful march with supporters. Later he was reported to be under house arrest.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition group, including at least eight senior officials, were rounded up overnight on Thursday/Friday. The government has accused the Brotherhood of planning to exploit the youth protests. It says that it is being made a scapegoat.

The events continued to pose a quandary for the United States, which has encouraged democracy in the Middle East but at the same values its relationship with Mr Mubarak. It gives his government at least $3 billion a year in military aid. A day after the US president Barack Obama said social and political reforms in Egypt were “absolutely critical”, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, urged the Egyptian government last night “do everything in its power” to hold back the security forces who are battling protesters."

The Egyptian military presence included tanks on the streets and jet fighters circling in the air.

By Sunday, police forces across Egypt's cities were apparently withdrawn or minimized, while army units were increasingly visible. Over 100 deaths have been reported by Monday, January 31, while Mubarak continues to struggle to retain power, dismissing his cabinet to replace it with another, and appointing a Vice President, the first in his 30 years as President. It appears that the future will hinge on whether his political moves will satisfy enough of the public to ease their frustrations, as well as whether the armed forces remain loyal to Mubarak's governance.

Elsewhere, unrest continues in Tunisia though at a reduced level. The Islamist leader in exile, Rachid Ghanouchi, 69, and about 70 other exiled members of Ennahdha, or Renaissance, flew home from Britain two weeks after the autocratic president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was forced from power by violent protests.

Islamist leader Ghanouchi hugged by his daughter, upon returning to Tunisia from Great Britain.

Mr Ghanouchi rejected any comparison to more radical figures, including the hardline father of the Iranian revolution. ''Some Western media portray me like [Ayatollah] Khomeini, but that's not me,'' he said. While Ennahdha was branded an Islamic terrorist group by Mr Ben Ali, it is considered moderate by scholars. Experts say Mr Ben Ali used a fear of Islamists to seduce Western allies keen for a bulwark against terrorism in a volatile region, and win their blessing despite widespread repression.

The Iranian revolution of the late 1970s seems to loom over the current state of unrest. A U.S. backed Shah in Iran ruled with a strong fist, was secular and thus allowed freedoms more in line with western democratic values than what Islamic rule would provide, but in the end did not interact with the resistance and frustration building up around him. He was replaced by relative religious and secular moderates in an attempt to compromise with hardliners, but those were replaced quickly with what turned out to be a harsh Islamic theocracy. In the past 30 years, this theocracy has aspired to become the region's leading power, gain nuclear expertise if not weapons, and showed no regrets in crushing a reformist protest movement just two years ago - which had received tepid words of support by Western nations.

It is this pattern that is feared in Egypt, and elsewhere.

Iran's 2009 widespread protest against its hardline government was dubbed its Green Revolution.

A fleeting hero of Iran's protests in 2009, her name was Neda Soltai, killed in street protests.

Neda dying in the street after being shot by Iranian militia. This image was captured on a cell phone camera.

Iran's revolution in the late 1970s and its path of governance and influence in the Middle East to today is a feared outcome by many of Egypt's current crisis.

Where have Arab nations addressed their population's needs and desires in a better light? Jordan, for one has invested heavily in its rural areas the past decade, and thus, while experiencing some unrest in the past weeks, has not seen a critical mass emerge to challenge the current government's rule.

Jordan's arid Eastern and Southern regions have been the focus of government investment in an effort to address rural pastoral poverty.

In Western Morocco, its government has also quietly invested a significant amount of its revenues into positive institutions, in this case, education, and thus has provided hope and expectations for its population.
Morocco, on the Western edge of the Arab world, has apparently avoided the latest eruption of unrest.

Moroccan schoolroom - clean, comfortable, and valued.

Morocco is across the strait of Gibralter from European Spain.

Casablanca - a Moroccan city made famous in the Western World by Hollywood. In the foreground is Mosque Hassan II Casablanca

Tajine, the Moroccan national dish, is a stew cooked in an earthenware bowl and made with vegetables and either meat, chicken or fish.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Suddenly (finally?) Egypt and Yemen become embroiled in social unrest

Tunisia's unrest, which decisively shook, then removed an autocratic leadership, was clearly noticed around the Arab world. Within days, Egypt now finds itself in protracted unrest, something most analysts found rather unprecedented considering the iron hand shown going all the way back to Egyptian independence. (Gamal Nasser from the late 40s to 1970, Anwar Sadat's relatively brief reign from 1970 till his assassination in 1981, and now the current President Mubarak's 30 year reign.)

Street protests continue in Egypt despite a well equipped and experienced police force familiar with clamping down harshly when called upon.

Egypt, as the largest Arab country in the middle east, has always been viewed as a leader of Arab sentiment (excluding its separate peace with Israel), and that it could suddenly be on shaky ground has implications for many other Arab countries, Syria, Saudi Arabia and for that matter Libya, Western Morocco, Eritrea, and Yemen, which we'll focus on below.

Above, the regional bloc of countries that can loosely be classified as the "Arab world." Below, the broader collection of Muslim majority nations - religious character, not Arab ethnicity - includes Turkey, Iran, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the other 'stans we've covered in the past.

Two dynamics emerge: One, many Arab states can be viewed as nationalistic though autocratic entities where corruption and elitism leave little room for political expression, and two, Islamist states where religious absolutism reigns, though political and social repression is also the result.

The challenge we're seeing in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen follow this first path, with nervous observers most notably being Syria,and Saudi Arabia. The Islamist/religious challenge is seen in Lebanon most recently, the Palestinian discord between Fatah and Hamas, the long civil war in Sudan and its referendum, and in Iran (non-Arab, but Muslim). Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan can also be sorted through these two prisms, but are heavily distorted by western military intervention. At this point only Turkey, Indonesia, and Jordan seem to have resonated with their populations well enough to avoid strong challenges (and two of those are non-Arab, though Muslim).

Lots of smaller Arab or Muslim nations could be sorted through the prism of reasonable governance vs corruption or Islamist challenges but we'll run out of space - Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, etc. Somalia deserves mention however, because it represents a corrupted leadership tolerated and supported because of Western geopolitics from the 60s till the 90s when it collapsed. Then, in a worst case scenario, a failed-state haven for Islamist extremists emerged (along with a commercial arm in the form of piracy).

Focusing a bit now, while the average Westerner knows at least a little about Egypt - pyramids, tourism, a warm social population, accomplished world citizens, and immigrants well dispersed throughout the world, what about Yemen? A quick overview of Yemen begins with its strategic location at the southern end of the Red Sea, and its recognized jurisdiction over over 200 islands along its shore. Wikipedia describes Yemen as one of the poorest and least developed countries in the Arab World, with a 65% employment rate (35% formally unemployed), dwindling natural resources, and a young and increasing population growth (approaching 30 million). Yemen's economy is weak compared to most countries in the Middle-East, mainly due to Yemen possessing very small quantities of oil, though the government depends heavily on the oil it produces for its revenue.

Yemen on the Southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, across the Red Sea from Somalia, and generally out of world sight.

Most foreign observers agree that rampant corruption is a prime obstacle to development in the country, limiting local re-investments and driving away regional and international capital. In the last 5-6 years, an Islamist movement has taken advantage of the general stagnation and desperateness to embed itself in the mountains.

Street protests in Yemen's capital Sanna, are initially focusing on the autocratic reign of their President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ruler for more than 30 years.

The most notorious Islamist hiding somewhere in Yemen is the American born Anwar Al-'Awlaki. He emerged to the world's general awareness because of his role as the prime confidante of Major Nidal Hasan, the Muslim psychiatrist and US Army soldier who carried out November 2009's deadly shootings of thirteen individuals at Fort Hood Texas. Al-Alwaki is on the crosshairs (if one may still use the phrase, though in this case, this blogger believes it is literally true) of US anti-terrorist forces and officially of the Yemeni government.

Sheikh Al Alwaki and his shooting protege, US Army Major Nidal Hasan

At any rate, the tens of thousands of protesters in Yemeni's capital, Sanaa, are a microcosm of unrest elsewhere. They've had it with corruption and lack of hope, they suffer from poverty and lack of freedoms, and they want to get rid of their leadership, which has often found tacit support from the West in return for measured cooperation and stability. In the wings lies an Islamist movement and a lack of a history of measured responsible opposition that could govern alternatively.

The Arab world in 2011 is suddenly looking much more fluid. The protests legitimately target a stifling and corrupted governance, but the alternatives can easily go either well or strikingly worse.

Striking Yemeni architecture

Shibam, Yemen - population around 7000 (also known as the "Manhattan of the Desert"). Shibam owes its fame to its distinct architecture, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The houses of Shibam are all made out of mud brick but about 500 of them are tower houses, which rise 5 to 11 stories high, with each floor having one or two apartments (the tallest mud buildings in the world). In order to protect the buildings from rain and erosion, the façades are thickly coated and must be routinely maintained.

Monday, January 24, 2011

January pause...

It looks like catch-up time ... so in rapid order:

Gbagbo is still squirreled away in the Ivory Coast, the African Union is collectively contemplating its next moves, while the new Ivory Coast leader imposes a month long ban on cocoa exports ...
Recognized Ivory Coast leader Alassane-Outarra hopes an export ban on his country's leading source of foreign exchange will put further pressure on Gbagbo's financial resources.

Tunisia still restive, old regime leadership leaving one by one under continued protests.
Street protests continue in Tunisian cities, pressuring for a more thorough change of regime than simply the ousting of former President Ben Ali.

Lebanese crisis smoulders - Lebanese telecommunications tycoon Najib Mikati, who is backed by Hezbollah and its allies, moved into position on Monday to lead a new government after winning support from Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Byzantine negotiations and political jockeying continues ...
The man, Mikati, looks nice enough, like a mild-mannered grandfather...

A long awaited Israeli commission's findings on the fatal Gaza blockade incident have finally been released. The Commission found that the blockade was internationally legal as was its enforcement, referring to the incident in the fall of 2010 when several aid ships were boarded, and 9 Turkish activists were killed in one violent confrontation on one of the boats. Turkey quickly rejected the findings, and news reports are that two more flotillas will attempt to break Israel's blockade of Gaza later this spring.
A weathered Israeli flag with a ship in the background symbolizes the brewing tensions over inspecting and monitoring shipments by sea to the Gaza strip in order to intercept smuggled arms.

Egypt's government has blamed a Gaza-based group for the New Year's Eve church bombing that killed 24 Coptic Christians in Alexandria. Interior minister Habib al-Adly said on Sunday that "conclusive evidence" proved the Army of Islam planned and executed the attack on al-Kidiseen Church, which also left scores wounded. The group, based in Gaza, quickly denied responsibility, while expressing support for the bombing. The naming of foreigners as the culprit may help Egyptian authorities in easing escalating tensions between Muslims and Copts, who make up about 10% of the nation's population. Adly also stated however, that the Army of Islam recruited Egyptians in planning the bombing in Alexandria. Cairo has long accused militants in Gaza of using the Palestinian territory to plot attacks across the border to upset Egypt's tourism industry and inflame religious mistrust.

In the aftermath of the church bombing, Egyptian security forces collect evidence on site.

North - South Korea tensions, while remaining high, may witness a step towards peace. South Korea said Thursday it accepted a North Korean proposal to hold high-level defence talks a day after the leaders of the U.S. and China called for better communication between the two Koreas. The talks could prove significant if Seoul and Pyongyang can put aside military and political tensions that soared to their worst level in years in 2010. While agreeing to talks, South Korea continued to display a higher profile of military readiness and willingness to protect its citizens around the world. Most recently, South Korean marines successfully stormed a ship off the Somali coast, killing several pirates, detaining others, and freeing a South Korean tanker and crew.

In 2010, South Koreans volunteered in great numbers for positions in its military forces including a surge of women. These are young female officers at a recent graduation ceremony.

The picture above seems incongruous to this blogger. Feminine young women serving in military positions. But if one takes a broad look at equality for women in societies, this is probably another positive aspect (albeit in a very mysterious calculation considering so many other roles are in need).

Where else do feminine warriors show a presence? Wikipedia notes that from the beginning of the 1970s, most Western armies began to admit women, though only a few permit women to fill active combat roles, including New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Israel, Serbia, Sweden and Switzerland. Other nations allow female soldiers to serve in certain Combat Arms positions, such as the United Kingdom, which allows women to serve in Artillery roles, while still excluding them from units with a dedicated Infantry role. The United States allows women in most combat flying positions, and both the UK and the US now allow women to serve on submarines.

Women first broke into the Western military world in significant and sanctioned numbers through nursing the wounded.
Women nurses on the field in World War II

The renowned cooking personality Julia Childs was linked to clandestine intelligence gathering during WWII

Women as a critical new workforce segment during the war accelerated a reforming of traditional roles.

Israeli women's egalitarian and crucial role in the defense of their homeland was especially significant in shaping Western nations expansion of women in the military in general. Here, IDF soldiers taking a break at what appears to be a pharmacy.

Chinese women were involved in Mao's insurgency forces in the 1930s and 40s, which has led to today's significant inclusions. In most communist movements or nations, women participated in military units in one way or another.

Pakistan has women in its internal military policing structure - something not uncommon in Muslim nations including Algeria, Iran, and Bahrain. Turkey uses female officers in combat flying (bombardment) missions over Northern Iraq and in ISAF patrol missions in Kabul, Afghanistan, a phenomenon surely opposed by traditional Islamists, though who are not opposed to female suicide bombers of their own.

Kenyan women serve in its armed forces.

The US is pushing the envelope with significant numbers of women Marines in combat roles.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lebanon once again on the edge

The fragile government of Lebanon is again in a state of collapse as 2011 begins. The troubled country, historically divided along a number of sectarian lines as well as dominated by its neighbor Syria, has over the past decade faced the rise of another brutal faction - the Hezbollah. As a result of this group's influence and current stance, the country is now staring at either a return to civil war or partition.

History - very abbreviated, and very simplified

Lebanon is a small nation to the north of Israel, with varied climate and geography, and a bewildering array of religious and sectarian factions. The region was part of the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years.
Prince Bashir II "the Great" was Emir of Mt. Lebanon from 1788 until 1840. (Nice beard and red fez)

During WW1, the area became a part of the French Mandate, and in 1926, France formed the Lebanese Republic. At the time, Lebanon was a largely Christian (mainly Maronite) enclave but also included areas containing many Muslims (including Druze). Lebanon gained independence in 1943, while France was occupied by Germany. The United Kingdom sent its army into Syria and Lebanon to fill the power vacuum, however, and kept the region under control until the end of World War II.

Lebanon's unwritten understanding among its factions since independence provides that its president be Maronite Christian, its speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim, its prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the deputy speaker of Parliament a Greek Orthodox. Lebanon's varied population has historically been represented in government with various posts distributed to each group.

Lebanon's history since independence has been marked by alternating periods of political stability and turmoil interspersed with prosperity built on Beirut's position as a regional center for finance and trade.

Beirut, Lebanon's capitol

Lebanon was on the side of other Arab nations fighting Israel when it became a nation in 1948. Palestinians fleeing the conflict were sent to Lebanese refugee camps, but when Israel successfully fought off Arab armies, they remained festering in the camps, growing in size (now 400,000+). A generation later, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) working out of the camps, was one major factor in fanning a 15-year Lebanese civil war from 1975-1990.

Today (very abbreviated, very simplified).

The immediate crisis can be traced back to 2005, when a popular Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, credited with providing significant leadership in ending the civil war, died when a massive blast ripped through his motorcade in central Beirut.
Popular Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, shown with Lebanese flag - Cedar tree in the middle of two red horizontal stripes - was assassinated in 2005.

In a UN-led investigation into his assassination, a tribunal sitting at The Hague, in its early stages implicated top-level Syrian security officials. But as its investigation moved on, the tribunal's conclusions led down another path, and is about to indict members of the powerful Lebanese Shia political and militant movement - Hezbollah.

The scene of the Hariri assassination by car bomb still reverberates in the region's outlook for peace and stability.

Hezbollah is legitimately based in its Lebanese Shia population, no question. But it has quickly grown into a major militant force due to its generous and focused support from Iran, the major Shia power in the region. Underscoring its militancy and power, Hezbollah instigated a brief conflict with Israel in 2006, then in May 2008 Hezbollah and its allies, sparked by a government declaration that Hezbollah's communications network was illegal, seized western Beirut in Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war. At least 62 people died in the resulting clashes between pro-government and opposition militias before all major parties signed an agreement which ended the fighting. The agreement was a victory for Hezbollah forces who received concessions regarding the composition of the cabinet, filling several positions with its hardliners.

Hezbollah denies any role in the 2005 Hariri assassination and has called on the current Lebanon leader Saad al Hariri (son of Rafik ...) to withdraw Lebanon's funding for the tribunal, stop all co-operation, and denounce the court's findings even before they are released - demands Hariri rejected. In January, 11 Hezbollah-affiliated ministers resigned, bringing down the hard-won coalition government.

The two major protagonists - Recognized coalition government Prime Minister Saad Hariri (right), and hardline Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (left)

Hezbollah has its own flag, and appears intent on establishing its control over all of Lebanon.

The regional importance of Lebanese stability - now very much in question between a national sovereignty represented by the historical coalition government, and that of the Iranian backed militant Hezbollah - is underscored by very public attempts by other Arab nations to mediate the current crisis. Saudi Arabia - a Sunni Muslim nation - tried to mediate in the past few days, but failed. Now attempting to create an atmosphere for negotiations are two moderate countries, Qatar and Turkey.

Saudi Sunni negotiator (left) bows out, Turkish negotiator (right) with Qatari assistance steps in. None of these countries wants to see an Iranian proxy - Hezbollah - establishing itself as new Lebanese government.

It creates a headache to read and understand Lebanon's chaotic history of the past 6 decades, and it is even more of a headache to watch another dark and violent chapter apparently being written.

Hezbollah armed forces were recently being characterized as a state within a state, but a power play for full control may be underway.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tunisia unrest results in new government

Tunisia is a small African nation bordering the Mediterranean sea, and neighbor to Libya and Algeria. Tunisia is an export-oriented country in the process of liberalizing and privatizing an economy that has averaged 5% GDP growth since the early 1990s. Its wealth comes from a diverse economy, ranging from agriculture, mining, manufacturing (clothing and footwear manufacturing, production of car parts, and electric machinery), petroleum products and tourism.

Tunis, the Tunisian capital, is a popular tourist attraction

Tunisia has close relations with both the European Union - France in particular - and the Arab world. Tunisia is a member of the Arab League and the African Union, and its "moderate and even-handed approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict" has also made it an important intermediary in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

None of these positive aspects of the country was strong enough to prevent in the past few days, what is referred to as the Jasmine revolution, named after the country's national flower. The authoritarian government led by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who had governed from 1987 to 2011, collapsed after several weeks of unrest that had continued to spread.

Jasmine, the Tunisian national flower, and the name of this revolution

The unrest began in December, 2010, when Tunisian youths clashed with police, in riots sparked by anger over unemployment in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid. The nightly disturbances started after an unemployed graduate set himself alight in a protest against police officers who confiscated fruit and vegetable he was selling from a market stall. Then further clashes occurred when youth held protests to demand the release of dozens of people arrested earlier.

Unrest started in the provinces, but soon reached the capital Tunis, where in this photo, a market burns.

Pent-up anger at unemployment and at a leadership many see as controlling and corrupt, spread to other provinces, and finally reached the capital this past week. Three people were shot to death and six others injured by police in clashes in the working class northern suburb of Kram, according to an employee at the Khereddine Hospital.

Crowds blame Ben Ali for the harsh crackdown which only fueled further violence.

In the centre of the capital, a protester was fatally shot and a journalist was hit in the leg by police gunfire as rioters hurled stones at trams and government buildings while the smell of tear gas filled the air. Police fired on protesters with bullets, two witnesses said and one protester was hit by a sniper on the balcony of a building overlooking the violence. All in all, up to 66 deaths have been reported, though 42 of those were from a prison fire where inmates were rioting over related government repression.

Fire takes hold at a seaside villa in the chic Mediterranean resort of Hammamet which is popular with Europeans and the country's ruling class. The building is said to belong to a member of the Tunisian president's inner circle

The 72-year old President, Ben Ali, at one point tried to sooth the population with calls to roll back food and gas prices, but in the end, resigned and fled to Saudi Arabia for refuge. Parliamentary Speaker Foued Mebazaa took over as acting president. He said he had asked Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to form a national unity government. "All Tunisians without exception and exclusion must be associated in the political process," Mr Mebazaa said in a televised address.

Ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and First Lady, Liela Ben Ali

Prime Minister Ghannouchi (left) speaking with Interim Leader, Mebazaa (right)

Talks between the interim administration and political parties are due to resume on Sunday. Under the constitution a new presidential election must be held within 60 days. However, an exiled Islamist party leader has notified the new government that he will return for talks to become part of a new unity government, and at this point, observers do not know whether protests will quiet down or whether Islamists will play a constructive or destructive role in this tense period.

Tourism includes visiting famous spice markets, such as the Gabès spice market, where highly inventive yet tradition laded Tunisian cooking combines mutton or fish with assorted vegetables and flavoring them with coriander, caraway, anise or cumin - not to mention lemon, olive oil and harissa.