Don’t Forget Me

And, sir, it is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion”, (William Shakespeare, Coriolanus).

This is my last blog post for The Next Century Foundation. During my time at the NCF, I addressed several hot issues, speaking about different situations and topics, even very controversial ones, which have sometimes generated harsh reactions. I suppose it is inevitable if you are speaking about politics, human rights, dictators, victims or perpetrators. These social fabrications give us a social identity and lead us to often take on conflicting and controversial positions, dictated by interests, simple visions or specific goals. In such circumstances, the “political animal” inside each of us reveals itself trying to impose its own point of view.

However, in spite of the ideas and values that humans can have, every person is made up of feelings and emotions. Before being classified as political animals, humans are sentient beings, with emotions and feelings which define us and make us unique. The same sort of emotions and feelings that are gradually being extinguished with the frenetic and uncontrolled evolution of this world. And today, I want to talk about this. Today I want to talk about who we are. Today, I want to write about the emotions, hopes and feelings that define us and how this world is changing them. And I will do it by speaking through the lense of one of the generations that, more than any other, is experiencing this change in full; a generation that particularly expresses the contradictions of our society but also the dreams and the betrayed hopes: my generation, that of the Millennials.

We live in strange times. Times of great uncertainties, immense fears, incessant and fast changes. I am the son of a generation that has been living through the golden years of development, where entrepreneurs would invest in the job market and believed in the value of their employees. Years where politicians would constantly strive to find new ways to improve people’s lives. The high level of births, the prolific job market, the certainty of the future, the first and the second car, big savings, the summer holidays by the sea or in the mountains. And then the great investments, the incentives to progress, research and development, the high general morale, the man on the moon, the hope for a future of well-being for everyone.

But sometimes expectations about the future are bigger than what reality has to offer and, just like a bubble that swells excessively, sooner or later reality explodes right in your face. And here, all of a sudden, we have a system where the excessive well-being and the immeasurable potential of the third industrial revolution clashes with the individual economic interest. The big industries and multinationals come into play and alter the balance. Human greed grows stronger and stronger while the big multinationals knock on the doors of politics for some “boosts”. And there you go; the first agreements born to maximize profits by damaging workers’ rights; national factories shutting down to re-open in those countries where labor costs 1$ a day, or renegotiating workers’ union achievements with politicians in exchange for a few bribes or support during election campaigns; the high transnational finance getting hold of large company shares and becoming the main protagonist of a new global perverse game. The cost of labor for multinational companies drops dramatically while working hours increase. As a consequence, the price of produced goods decreases. Small and medium-sized businesses close or fail for they cannot compete with similar standards, whereas those able to make it through are the big names of industry or those entrepreneurs who, through criminal support, have managed to reach out to and influence politicians to get some extra procurement contracts or personal favors. The West becomes the center of unbridled capitalism, with no rules, with no ethics or respect. Everyone for themselves. It is against this backdrop that my generation, the Millennials, is born. The first true generation without any clue about its future.

The final blow comes with 2000 and all its technological capacity. It started with the first mobile phones and laptops on a large scale, up to smartphones and tablets. Technology moves; the great giants of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon develop; technological power becomes incredibly significant. And here’s Black Friday, the purchases with a click, the ads in every corner of the city, superfast transportation and trains in the underground every minute. The illusion of a world as a global, super-technological and limitless village is born. A sense that all this frantic lifestyle is necessary and inevitable emerges.

The savings of our parents are spent in this super-technological world while employment becomes more and more an urban legend. The new contemporary frontier of slavery 2.0 is born. Jobs poorly paid with meal vouchers; fixed-term contracts; easier layoffs; unbearable working hours. The prediction of Charlie Chaplin in his movie, Modern Times, comes true. Man becomes a productive factor with no rights, little money and a need to spend money without worrying too much about the future. It is the betrayal of the dream of a global Californication that we all expected: a happy world with more freedom and less problems to think about; a world where everyone can work and build a better and sustainable future.

But man’s greediness has shattered this dream. The betrayal from a global political class of spineless servants of high finance and powerful world lobbies has sanctioned the end of this dream. And while constitutions drown in an ocean of decay, my question is, what is left of all this?

On the one hand, there is an army of clueless kids, educated in the best prep schools which are financed by international magnates, who repeat as robots notions of economic and political theories aired on televisions and published in newspapers by those same people responsible for such a global delirium. Those same theories that legitimized the unbridled capitalism that is crushing us; theories such as those of the great industrialization or those that ultimately justified the plundering of the marvelous African countries or wars of interest such as those in Iraq or Libya.

On the other hand, there are people who live in the moment, who believe in what the World tells them to believe, only able to find their own identity in the television culture of the Big Brother, phony talk shows or in the trashy pop-porn culture spread throughout the day by MTV. George Orwell’s predictions have never been so true, huh?

And then, what remains is a people of perfect strangers.

I turn around every day, in the train, on the bus, down the street, and I see hundreds of people far away. People with a blank look on their face, lost in the void or on the screen of their smartphones. Lonely, sad, aloof people, with not much of humanity left; people walking quickly through the streets remorselessly hitting whomever is in their path because they are too intent on continuing their virtual conversation with someone miles away; people unable to express emotions or feelings; people too busy masking their loneliness behind the perfect image of their virtually perfect life on Instagram; depressed people no longer connected to reality; people who get together and break up through a telephone because they are incapable and afraid of meeting or knowing each other in a normal, real, natural way. And finally, people unable to associate, to connect, to unite and resist the power, or to oppose unjust decisions.

So what is left of feelings, of humanity, of us being people? For some reason, I’ve always been afraid to answer this question. Particularly, in the last period of my life.

During my time at The Next Century Foundation, I have been able to reflect a lot on politics, religion, people and the complicated relationships that bind us to each other and that bind us to society. I have not really ever considered anything I am writing right now. Not because I did not think about it but rather because this complex machine of intertwined relations, politics, economy, religion and power is difficult to fully understand and, above all, to make it work. And in this sense, in the end you end up accepting it because you understand that things are almost always impossible to change, peace will always be difficult to establish, power will always preserve itself and religion will always be used as a political tool to manipulate the masses. So, almost passively, you end up accepting the status quo of things. Almost like a condition of the universe, immovable and immanent. Everything has always been this way and it will always be this way.

At least until this World decides you are the next target and this status quo affects you in person, lashing out at you with all its strength. And then everything changes. You withdraw, let yourself down, look for explanations, seek yourself and your role in the world. You frantically turn around to find yourself, unsuccessfully. And you cannot help but compare your situation to that of the contemporary world, that of a world that perhaps will never change; and that of the Millennials, that of a simple person surrounded by lonely individuals, unable to sense or feel emotions in one of the largest cities in the world. You wonder if maybe it is just the natural order of things that you eventually have to accept, because perhaps that is how it works, because it has always been and will always be like this. In the last few months of my life, I have been looking for an answer to this question, without luck.

Until something happens; that deus ex machina you need to get you out of trouble. And here comes the answer to your questions. Something that helps you to understand; something like a trip to Holland, a beer with a trusted friend, an exhibition of an artist or walking in the rain in the streets of London without a destination. And it is at that precise moment that when you look into people’s eyes – those you’ve been so reluctant about or that you’ve lost hope in – you suddenly see something different, something you’ve never seen before, something that changes your perspective. And you can suddenly feel a vibe, a feeling, a sparkle that leads you through their eyes. And, like a flash in a pan, you are able to feel all the power and the emotions that each of them has locked within and that can be conveyed through their story or personality. Pure energy, pure emotions, pure humanity. The people’s smiling faces at the Tulip market in Amsterdam; the encouraging wink of a friend down at the pub that – around a pint and some good indie-rock in the background – shows you the right way of looking at things; the power of humanity in the symbolic life scenes of Banksy’s works that lead you to reflect on the true nature of people and humanity; the feeling of the rain falling on your skin in the gray of London’s streets that brings you back to life and connects you to reality again. Your prospects start to change and now you can see things differently. Suddenly you can find an answer to that question in that stream of people and things around you.

And, like a flashback, everything suddenly made sense.

During my time at the Next Century Foundation, I met ambassadors, Lords, religious leaders; I even spoke to the World for 2 minutes before the UN Human Rights Council. All exceptional experiences. However, I now understand that none of these experiences would have made sense without a particular detail that each of them has in common, the confrontation with people. Before the NCF I had not realized how even simply talking with people is essential; how much people can express through their words, their looks or their smiles. And, above all, I had not realized how effective it is to be able to talk with them to try to solve problems.

This is exactly what humanity is. Humanity is talking, confronting each other, solving problems together, uniting different and opposite perspectives. When you can achieve that; when you can take your eyes off your smartphone for a moment and you turn around; when you abandon the social and political fabrications for a moment and drop the mask they gave you, it is only then that you see potential and opportunities in those stranger’s faces rather than indifference and solitude. In that precise moment, you can hear the flow I was talking about earlier. And you understand that that potential is unimaginable and terrifies governments and institutions, and shakes the establishment. Just like the stories I tried to tell you about so far in my articles. And whether it is the Christmas truce or the international mass mobilization for the death of a young man in Egypt, you realise it is all about looking at the world from another perspective. If some people managed to refuse to fight, to kill and be killed, on European soil a little less than a century ago, destroying the socio-political fabrication of wars; if some people managed to get together to protest against a fierce dictator in Egypt without being afraid of the consequences; if one man could revolutionize his country after being imprisoned for 27 years, upsetting the entire institutional set-up based on violence, lies and terror; if other great men like Martin Luther King or Gandhi or so many others have managed to mobilize millions of people around an idea of peace, justice or freedom, then we too can change this mad world.

It is all about being able to channel those vibes into positive, collective paths. And you can only do it through dialogue, confrontation and associationism. Talking and dealing with people, precisely. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that the only way to resist power in a positive and constructive way is through the democratic instrument that starts from the bottom, by means of associationism from the municipal level, from small realities.

People are the solution to the world’s illnesses. And the positive dialogue that you can have with them. Social Capital. It is so simple. The greatest evils of our generation come from this absurd lifestyle that is offered to us in the form of well-being, technology and comfort. Loneliness, depression, indifference, hatred and division are all the fruit of a society that tends to divide us and speculate on our collective incapacity to react, associate and confront each other. It is that simple, and we are the cure.

It is possible. And you can find the proof around you. Turn off the TV, put down your smartphone for a moment. Go down the street, talk to people, listen to what they have to say. Take a hike in the park, maybe in the pouring rain. Try to feel something. Go to the pub, read a newspaper and comment on the news with bystanders. Have a coffee or a beer with them. Ask them how they are and give them a smile. Everything will change, everything will be different.

And speaking of smiles.

Once, a bearded man told me that if you try to smile while walking down the street, this will positively influence your attitude towards others and, above all, your self-confidence. I will never forget those words. I recently tried to do it often and, I’ll tell you something, it worked. If you try to walk down the street smiling at the people you meet, most of them will reply with a smile. And you will feel different as well, more secure, more positive towards others and the world. It’s all about that. Those emotions and feelings I was talking about before. They can come out, if triggered.

We only have to reconsider our values, our priorities for a moment. What we want from life and what we are looking for. And above all, remember who we are and where we come from, always. Love every single rise and fall and take them as an opportunity to grow and improve yourself and the world around you. I think this is the solution, the cure for the ills of mankind. Creating a community of people based on diversity and dialogue. Only then can we overcome all this. And we, Millennials, have boundless potential to do so.

By the way, I have gone too far. And now it’s time to conclude this post.

My time at the NCF gave me a lot. I grew up a lot professionally but mostly as a person. I owe you a lot, William and Veronica, to your kindness and warm welcome. I was welcomed and treated like a son. You gave me a lot to think about and work on. You gave me a smile in tough times and support when needed. And for this, thank you.

Then there is you, Rory, William and Yousef. Some young minds full of passion and desire to change things. You are fantastic. Every day, I saw in your eyes that power and passion of which I spoke about right above, waiting just to be fully exploited. And I know you’ll find a way to do it, it’s just a matter of time.

You were my second family here, in this gigantic crazy world of sharks. I’ll never forget that. And I’d like to conclude this blog post with this thought, while sipping my double espresso in some coffee shop somewhere in London and listening to these fantastic notes of Redemption Song, one of Marley’s masterpieces. He succeeded! He succeeded in uniting people around words of peace and hope. Like Hendrix’s solo or Mercury’s unique voice or even the Boss playing a piano version of Thunder Road. This is the right time, the perfect moment.

Ciao NCF, a presto!

Luctor et Emergo ex Flammis Orior, Per Aspera ad Astra

#lastblogpost #peoplehavethepower #believe #change #ciaoncf

 

Ruminations of a Sufi Master

Sufism is a means of focussing away from the commonplace, and the temporal, and transcending oneself as a means of encountering unity with God.

The absolute otherness of God is central to the Sufi approach. While humankind may perceive, comprehend and aspire to the attributes of God; such as Justice, Truth, Love and Mercy, the Essence of God is unknowable through the usual human means of knowing. This unknowability is the realm which Sufis endeavour to inhabit; the way of mystery and wonder. For Sufis the material world is a manifestation of God therefore all nature is imbued with the Divine while having its own temporal existence. God is the Prime Mover, the Progenitor and yet transcends space and time.  This is far from being a cause for humanity feeling abandoned by God in creation, rather a spur to search for the means by which we may glimpse the essence of the Creator through devotional practice, study and opening the heart and mind to a higher level of enlightenment. Such a life committed to seeking God is of necessity all-consuming. Religious language, practice and ethics draw us near to the Divine but the way of the Sufi is beyond traditional confessional faith structures and institutions; it is the way of the mystic, the spiritual pilgrim who is longing and striving to experience God is a way beyond knowing.

This God, who is the beginning and the end of all existence, is also the author of all existence so we, as humankind, are ourselves manifestations of God. Such an elevated view of humanity is a source of hope for a human universalism; if all could recognise our essential oneness with each other all ethnic, gender, religious or ideological differences would melt away. The Sufi is in this sense the vanguard of a New Humanity.

All world religions are subject to the limitations of their projections of God and God’s purposes. These projections are often based upon fear rather than love hence the tendency to binary opposites: Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, Sinner and Saved etc.  These are well meant but are misconceptions; they detract from the Ultimate search for God and leave us in half-way state of comprehension and understanding. The Sufi pursues the essence of God and conceives it obliquely through the Beautiful and the Good; all that is life giving and life enhancing in the world. The Sufi is a practitioner of love in this world as their identity rests not upon any human esteem but on the deep understanding that they are loved by God in a reciprocal relationship of lover and loved.

“Soul, if you want to learn secrets, your heart must forget about shame and dignity. You are God’s lover…” Rumi

The above reflections on Sufism were penned by Rev Larry Wright, Convenor of the Religious Affairs Advisory Group, following an evening in discussion with Ayatollah Safavi, a man who radiates the calm, intelligent, enlightened personae of a dedicated and seasoned devotee. As a Sufi master he commands the respect and admiration not only of his followers but of people of good will from other faiths and none. As an Iranian he embodies the traditions of Persian and Shia Islamic culture with their poetic imagination and natural wonder.

Safavi shared his discourse  on the Sufi approach to The Divine, the Ultimate Cause;  God for some, Allah for others.  He began with a meditative chant or mantra which is part of his daily practice for centring his being and mind upon God.  Such practice is indication of the highly prayerful and mystical nature of Sufism.

Press Freedom in Bahrain

The following is a written intervention by the NCF to the United Nations in Geneva:

Freedom of Expression is one of the greatest freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 19 of which states “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

It is sad to see that the Kingdom of Bahrain has fallen to 164th position in the ranking of the 175 nations assessed for the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. This index ranks Bahrain slightly above Sudan, Syria and Saudi Arabia but below all other Arab nations.

The reform program introduced by His Majesty the King of Bahrain has, by and large, been exemplary. The King expressed a particular interest in promoting freedom of expression in Bahrain. It was with the active encouragement of His Majesty the King that Al-Wasat Newspaper was established in Bahrain.

The establishment of Al-Wasat widened freedom of expression, in part by encouraging the people of Bahrain to express their own views in what had thus become a diverse media spectrum.

Many of the interlocutors in the current Universal Periodic Review of the Kingdom of Bahrain have expressed a desire to encourage greater press freedom in Bahrain. Countries making reference to the issue include Montenegro / Slovenia / United Kingdom / Denmark / France / Spain / Mexico / New Zealand / Switzerland / United States of America / Canada / Estonia / Cyprus / State of Palestine / Germany / Iceland / Italy / Lebanon / Australia / Lithuania / Luxemburg / Austria.

We would like to join our voice to theirs. It is sad to note that Al-Wasat Newspaper was closed down by the Government of the Kingdom of Bahrain on 4th June 2017. Whatever the reasons for this action, were this action to be reversed it would be of great benefit to democratic progress in Bahrain, and give the Kingdom of Bahrain a far better image in the eyes of the world at large.

Bahrain was once regarded by some as the best country in the Gulf with regard to freedom of media. It would be to the benefit of all of the nations of the Gulf were Bahrain to maintain the high standards of press freedom for which it was once noted. Bahrain can and should be an example to the region. To allow Al-Wasat Newspaper to again run its presses would be a gracious and positive gesture and one worthy of international acknowledgement.

Zimbabwe: Change is the Word

When Robert Mugabe sacked Vice-President Mnangagwa on the 16th November 2017, he probably did not expect that doing so would lead to his downfall. Designed to pave the way forward for his wife Grace to become president, its outcome was instead to prompt the army to intervene. Mugabe was placed under house arrest, the ruling Zanu-PF expelled Grace from the party while also removing him as party leader, with the situation culminating in his resignation on the 21st November. So how will the situation unfold?

Zimbabwe has a new president; ‘the Crocodile’ Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose nickname is owed to his reputation for ruthlessness, cunning and being politically astute; as-well as his major role as a guerrilla commander in Zimbabwe’s war for independence. Having filled a number of core government positions, from security minister to party treasurer and eventually vice-president, Mnangagwa is very much a major establishment politician. His long-term association with Mugabe, and the alleged implication of his involvement in the Matabeleland massacres of the 1980s while head of the intelligence services, confirms him as a man to be reckoned with. Zimbabweans will not forget his past and there is an understandable degree of scepticism as to how different things can and will now be.

There are several important questions that are yet to be answered. In what political direction will the new president take the country? The aspirations, and ultimately expectations, are for free and fair elections. Zimbabwe must put its dictatorial past behind it and move towards more open and genuine democracy. A national vote in 2018 will be a true test of Mr Mnangagwa’s vision for reform. Monitoring of the polls by neutral parties, such as the United Nations, would play a useful role both for providing (additional) legitimacy to a free and fair vote, and potentially discouraging any attempts at underhanded electoral manipulation. Anticipation of a more inclusive government appears to have been dashed, however, with the president’s 22-person cabinet formed entirely of Zanu-PF politicians, replacing allies of Grace Mugabe and her G40 faction and failing to include members of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. You would be hard-pressed to argue that this represents a break from the past. Is history merely repeating itself?

The challenge facing Zimbabwe remains significant. A major, widespread and thorough anti-corruption drive across all sectors is desperately needed. A Transparency International report published in 2016 estimated that over $1 billion was lost to corruption annually. If indeed this is correct, this is money that could otherwise be invested in areas such as job creation, infrastructure, education and health. Of course, corruption is not an issue that uniquely affects Zimbabwe but given its state of economic malaise and the animosity such corruption creates, it is an issue of fundamental importance. Tackling it head-on should be a serious priority.

Can President Mnangagwa also save the economy? Zimbabwe has suffered for years as a result of mismanagement and stymied growth. 2016 saw economic growth of a meagre 0.5% and queues for cash outside banks are commonplace. Mr Mugabe’s 2009 indigenisation law requiring foreign-owned companies to be majority-owned by local Zimbabweans – under a 51%:49% share stake – has scared off investment and made business unprofitable for international firms. There are reports that a review of the law will take place, if so this is both sensible and encouraging. Land reform in 2000, which led to the often intimidating and violent confiscation of farmland from predominantly white farmers, triggered a collapse in the agriculture sector and with it the economy. Settling property rights and providing compensation for confiscated land could produce rapid agricultural recovery.

Another approach is for Zimbabwe to receive a substantial injection of hard currency. Due to massive hyperinflation of the Zimbabwean dollar, to a rate of 231,000,000% in 2008, the U.S. dollar was adopted in an attempt to stabilise the situation. Nevertheless, a flawed trade policy emphasising imports over exports has contributed to major shortages of dollars, which for an economy based around them, is not conducive to growth. Financial assistance, particularly from the International Monetary Fund, should be conditional upon evidence of positive and genuine political change. This may indeed appear as a strong incentive for economic reform, but it places the onus further on President Mnangagwa to adopt an effective approach which can deliver both short and long-term solutions. Failure to deliver politically risks driving the economy into a deeper hole.

And what future role will the armed forces have to play? Zimbabweans may laud the army for their action in removing Mugabe from power several weeks ago, and for arresting other former ministers allied to the ex-President. Yet their intervention in politics should now end. If not it risks continuing a dangerous precedent of military meddling in state affairs. Evidence of their disentanglement from politics and a less partisan approach would be very reassuring. Glancing at President Mnangagwa’s new cabinet proves this is wishful thinking. The appointment of Major General Sibusiso Moyo as minister of foreign affairs gives a key government department to a military man. Air Marshal Perence Shiri’s appointment as minister of lands, agriculture and rural resettlement (the man who led the infamous Fifth Brigade which committed the Gukurahundi massacres, in which more than 20,000 people were killed) is also particularly concerning. It is perhaps not surprising that those who helped Mr Mnangagwa into power have subsequently been rewarded for their support. Their appointments ultimately reflect a continuing affirmation of a strong military-state relationship.

One final question remains. What becomes of the Mugabes? Amid reports of a resignation deal totalling $10 million and immunity from prosecution, the atmosphere of excitement has been somewhat tempered. The secretary general of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change has outwardly criticised the deal as blatant bribery. The threat of a Grace Mugabe presidency has been removed at least. Her husband, however, while devoid of actual power, remains an influential figure and may still have an advisory role to play. Zimbabweans may rightly disagree with this, keen on keeping Robert Mugabe out of a post-Mugabe era. The extent of his influence will become clear in time.

There is much left unknown about the future of Zimbabwe. On one hand, there is great anticipation of a new beginning. On the other, there is immense doubt over whether Mnangagwa will produce the change he has promised. With his ascension to the presidency on the 24th November, the hopes and dreams of a nation were placed firmly on the shoulders of President Mnangagwa. Early signs show that those hopes and dreams, at least politically, may go largely unfulfilled.

 

Love

God made this universe from love,
For Him to be the father of,
What duty more exquisite is,
Than loving with a love like His?
A better task no one can ever ask.

Rahman Baba, Peshawar

Syria: An up to date assessment of the current status of the conflict

During President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Russian airbase in Syria this week, he delivered a speech thanking Russian military forces for their “efforts against terrorism” in the war-torn country. He declared “mission accomplished” in terms of the campaign to defeat ISIS, whilst announcing that he would begin withdrawing “a significant part” of Russia’s military contingent from Syria. However, the Russian airbase in Latakia and the Naval Base in Tartous would remain “permanently”.

There is certainly an element of truth in Mr. Putin’s words. ISIS has lost over 95% of the territory it controlled in Syria, including all of the major cities: Raqqa, al-Bab, Deir Hafer, Deir Ezzor, Palmyra, al-Qaryatain, al-Bukamal, and others. Gas and oil fields previously controlled by Daesh (ISIS) have all been retaken. In addition to the territory they have lost, ISIS has also suffered grave losses of military equipment, logistical damage, and now lacks access to basic resources. Tens of thousands of fighters have been neutralised.

Yet some ISIS pockets remain, notably the Yarmouk Refugee Camp, as well as a group of villages to the north of Hama, and some districts to the east of the Euphrates River. To rightfully claim a total victory, the remaining pockets must be cleared.

Moreover, the Russian military intervention in support of Syrian government forces began on the 30th of September 2015, with the stated objective of defeating all those considered ‘terrorists’ by Moscow. Al-Nusra front, formerly the official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, maintains a strong presence in the country. It is the dominant force in the northern province of Idlib (which is entirely in rebel hands), still has an enclave near Daraa City, and is closely intertwined with other rebel groups in the area directly to the north of the government-held city of Aleppo.

Ahrar al-Sham, another group designated a terrorist organization in Russia, and indeed in most of the world, is virtually omnipresent in Syria. They are the second-largest rebel group, they control much of the territory in Idlib, they have fighters in East Ghouta, they are with al-Nusra and the Zinki faction in northern Aleppo, and they were until very recently in Western Ghouta, an area now completely in government hands. Jaysh al-Islam, also a terrorist group from the perspective of the Russian government, continues to fire rockets into residential districts of Damascus from their positions in Duma and Erbin, two of the most important towns in East Ghouta. Although the percentage of East Ghouta district held by rebels has been significantly reduced since the Syrian army’s offensive in the spring of 2016, Jaysh al-Islam remains in control of the western parts of that rural suburb adjacent to the capital.

Therefore, by Russia’s own standards, a true victory against ‘terrorism’ is still a little way off. A near-complete victory against the terrorist group ISIS is perhaps a better way of putting it. But Russian airpower has been crucial in turning the tide of the war in President Assad’s favour, since they first intervened with airstrikes back in the autumn of 2015.

Prior to October 2015, the situation on the ground was drastically different. We saw a weak and disorganized military, retreating on multiple fronts and conceding large swathes of land to ISIS in the east, to Nusra in the north, and to other rebel units in the south. Latakia was in serious danger, Damascus was barely holding on, Aleppo was the rebel stronghold, Hama was about to fall, Daraa was entirely under rebel control, Western Ghouta was a Nusra safehouse, and the collapse of the state seemed imminent. Russia’s entry changed the game. Today, Aleppo has been recaptured by Syrian military forces, Latakia is entirely under government control, much of Hama’s northern countryside has been retaken, Palmyra was liberated from Daesh, Deir Ezzor has been freed, Syrian troops have entered Daraa City, they control a large portion of East Ghouta, 100% of Western Ghouta, and are now preparing to storm Idlib.

The Syrian state has been preserved, the government of Bashar al-Assad stabilised, and the Syrian army discernibly strengthened.

The general international optimism surrounding the Geneva Peace Process has faded away as the negotiations themselves have been stalled. The Syrian government’s delegation, led by Dr Bashar al-Jaafari, walked out of the meeting in frustration. In a televised interview, Mr Jaafari stated that the opposition’s insistence on President Assad’s immediate departure as a precondition was a “non-starting point which could only reach a dead end”. Political analysts have suggested that the government’s decision to withdraw their delegation was an embarrassment to Moscow, who had spent months organizing the event and persuading the government side to attend.

Meanwhile, there are several new reports alleging that US President Donald Trump has abandoned previous US attempts to oust the Syrian leader, deciding instead that he could remain in office until 2021. Whether he expects Bashar Assad to resign then, or whether he would tolerate him running for a new term, remains unconfirmed.

#syria #russia

Time for a fresh approach to Human Rights in Syria – and everywhere

This week Vladimir Putin visited Bashar al-Assad in Syria. This is also the very week on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Because of which, the Next Century Foundation would like to reiterate some of the values and principles it believes in and the significance of Human Rights to all peoples of this world.

The Human Rights issue affects the entire global population. Rather than transient national glory, the pursuit of Human Rights is an achievement of which the entire human race can be rightfully proud. Every human being, regardless of their race, sex, religious belief, nationality, language, birth, property or other status, is inherently entitled to inalienable rights and those rights are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By standing up for Human Rights we defeng the principle of human dignity, and recognise the equal moral worth of every individual.

Whilst we certainly believe in the symbolic importance of marking this occasion, concrete measures must be taken to uphold human rights where they are constantly and flagrantly violated. Abuses of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic have made headlines for almost seven years now, with international reports condemning what many regard as the indiscriminate ruthlessness of the Syrian military and the Mukhabarat’s oppressive methods, ranging from torture to alleged mass prisoner executions. Similarly many are horrified by the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by opposition insurgent groups.

The barbarism of Daesh and the Nusra Front is well known, and their crimes are well documented. Groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, deemed ‘moderates’ by Arab and western governments,  have also resorted to terrorism and caused civilian deaths on numerous occasions.

Human Rights mustn’t be used as a political tool. As long as we pick and choose who to punish and who to pardon, human rights will not be firmly upheld and respected anywhere.

On the Syrian dossier, we call on the UN to condemn all violators of human rights in a balanced and proportionate way. The Syrian authorities have often complained, with some justification, about what they consider to be impartial or biased UN reports. If both sides are scrutinized fairly, President Assad’s government may feel reassured, and the Syrian government could potentially soften their position on allowing UN monitors greater access. A United Nations which protects human rights without political considerations, and slams those who abuse them, whoever they may be, would gain the trust and confidence of all parties to any conflict.

Human Rights can be upheld more effectively without resort to the traditional method of imposing economic sanctions. In the vast majority of cases, sanctioning a country has devastating impact on the civilian population as opposed to the political authorities. This is the case in Syria today. It is the Syrian people who pay the price for the alleged sins of the government. In Russia, sanctions have barely impacted Russian President Vladimir Putin or his inner circle, whilst simultaneously rallying more Russians behind their leadership who, as statistics indicate, have grown to despise the West more than ever before. We support a different approach to encouraging respect for human rights. It is our conviction that greater liaison between governments called into question and the international community can ensure that human rights abuses no longer go unchecked.

#syria #humanrights #russia

 

Systemic corruption does not deserve our tacit consent

The 19th century British politician, Lord Acton, averred that ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Over the last 150 or so years, this axiom on the link between power and corruption has proven time and again to be a highly perceptive comment on the darker side of human nature. From Nixon to Castro to Mugabe, there are countless instances of world leaders who subordinated the well-being of their people to the fulfilment their own self-interest. And while corruption is a widespread phenomenon, ranging from public service to private enterprise, from an individual to an international scale, it is at its most indefensible when committed by those acting in an official capacity for personal gain. Fostering a lack of accountability, transparency and good faith in government, corruption represents one of the single biggest threats to the well-being of a country.

When corruption is systemic, and corrupt practices are rewarded with wealth, power and impunity, then people are drawn into public service for the wrong reasons. Indeed, if there is a culture of impunity, then corruption represents a low-risk, high-reward means of advancing both you career standing and your personal fortune.

The numbers bear witness to the predominance of corruption throughout the world. Some sixty countries in the world are plagued by systemic corruption.  China and India, countries with populations of over a billion, are constantly battling systemic corruption.

Corruption is so inexcusable that it ought to be addressed head-on with comprehensive reform. And governments recognise that. And that is far less likely to be forthcoming if the common man and woman think that the personal motives of ruling officials are being prioritised over their own wellbeing. Which explains why it is very common for countries to task specialised anti-corruption committees with addressing the issue. However, when the problem is so entrenched and all-pervasive, these committees often merely act as a smokescreen. Take the example of Russian whistle-blower Sergei Rodchenkov, the former head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, who admitted having run a state-sponsored doping program for Russian athletes. Or Mishan Al-Jabourri, the head of the Iraqi anti-corruption committee, who brazenly admitted in February of last year that ‘everybody is corrupt, from the top to the bottom, including me’. It is disheartening that those tasked with rooting out corruption are engaged in the very same malpractices. Further, it shows that governments are often content with merely being seen to address corruption, rather than doing so in practice.

So what can realistically be done? It is plainly clear that this is a deeply rooted and highly complex problem, a problem whose exact character varies from country to country, but whose defining traits are universal. Effective reforms are reliant on political will. It is imperative that key political actors display credible intent to attack corruption at a systemic level. Those very same people who have acquired power and money in an imperfect system must be willing to use their influence to foster a new, meritocratic culture from the top down. On the other hand, there is the risk that the powerful in society, those with an incentive to maintain the status quo, will mobilise powerful forces to protect their own vested interests. Indeed, countless reformers with the most honourable intentions have failed out of an inability to neutralise resistance. Investigative bodies must be entirely independent and free from interference by the government or the judiciary system.

Corruption is something about which we cannot afford, in good conscience, to be defeatist. Corruption runs contrary to all that is humanly decent. It undermines democracy, it precludes meritocracy and it allows the few to steal from the many. Any attempt to fight corruption, however imperfect, is better than none.

A Recipe for a United Iraq?

‘Iraq is like a glass of water. Once you break the glass, how do you collect the water again?’ The words are those of a young girl from Mosul, a survivor of that city’s period under the control of so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS). For the past three decades, Iraq has experienced every form of armed conflict you could think of, leaving state institutions weak and dysfunctional and large areas of the country in ruins. Since the 2003 Iraq war, and the ensuing years of unrest culminating in the three-year struggle against ISIS, Iraq has not seen a moment of peace.

As ISIS is being driven out of Iraq’s towns and villages, the country still faces challenges not dissimilar to those that contributed to the creation of ISIS in the first place. These include:

  • The ethno-sectarian adversarial relationship between Iraq’s central government and Kurdistan’s regional government, and between that selfsame predominantly Shi’a government, with its ideologically motivated Shi’a militias, and the disenfranchised Sunni population.
  • The extreme lack of transparency that helps rank Iraq among the world’s top five for corruption.
  • Conflicting external pressures from the US and the various regional players, foremost amongst which is Iran.

These three lingering interconnected challenges have created fertile soil for terrorist groups to flourish, and remain an obstacle to any dream of a united Iraq.

Claims of victory over ISIS should not be exaggerated. The country has been here before. Triumphalist policies employed by then Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, from 2006 onward, in his attempt to defeat Al Qaeda (AQ) in Iraq, proved counterproductive and led to the rebirth of Al Qaeda as ISIS. Although the persistence of the challenge does not necessarily mean that history will repeat itself, in order to avoid another catastrophic situation, it is crucial to approach this challenge in a different and more constructive manner.

A high price was paid for the defeat of ISIS, particularly in majority Sunni areas, but this victory has also brought hope and has created a space in which the Iraqi people could yet unite. The challenges run deep, however. The 2018 national elections are approaching, the outcome of which depends on these interconnected challenges and will determine the stability of Iraq over the coming decade. The political landscape of Iraq today is dominated by two camps: those who support Iran, and the self-styled Iraqi nationalists.

Rival to the current Prime Minister in the upcoming elections is the former Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki, who still retains strong support among Shi’a segments of society and most certainly falls into the pro-Iran camp. In Iraq, most of the blame for the destructive period that saw the creation and rapid growth of ISIS should be pinned on Al Maliki; whereas, much of the credit for the victory over ISIS should be given to Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi. That said Al Abadi and his Iraq Army couldn’t have done it without the help of the Popular Mobilization Force and their allies the Iranian Quds Force, the US Air Force and the array of coalition warplanes that took to the skies at their side, and the Kurds.

The Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), a coalition of some sixty predominantly Shi’a militias, many of whom are Iran backed, has become the dominant fighting force in the country, largely due to its role in the battle against ISIS. Some of the Shi’a militias are Iraqi nationalists, but most of the powerful ones are openly pro-Iran and have a documented record of sectarian violence, which was arguably one of the main elements fueling the rise of ISIS in the first place. Qasem Sulaimani, Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces, was the first to declare the defeat of ISIS and he did so in a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This move underscores the hold Iran has over Iraq, and highlights Iran’s intention to maintain and to further this influence.

In an attempt to contain the PMF, Iraq’s parliament passed a law in late 2016 allowing the inclusion of the PMF as part of Iraq’s regular armed forces. However, the militias’ ethnosectarian base, their evident loyalty to Iran and their recent emboldening will arguably undermine the democratic process in Iraq.

The major Shi’a militias, including the Badr Organisation as well as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), have announced their intention to create a unified bloc in the coming elections. Although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has banned militia leaders from running for both parliamentary and provincial office, a number of PMF political affiliates have registered for the elections.

Prime Minister Al Abadi’s move to restrain the militias represents just one dimension in his struggle to tackle sectarianism, repression and corruption as well as Iraq’s vulnerability to external influence.

A new anti-corruption campaign has been launched which could arguably be as much of a challenge as the fight against ISIS. The Prime Minister had the backing of Iraq’s highest religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in his earlier attempt to tackle corruption in 2016.  Since the formation of the PMF was fuelled by a religious edict (Fatwa) from Ayatollah al-Sistani in 2014, perhaps another Fatwa could foster the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of militia members. That would be a strong step towards reestablishing national unity but would require the right circumstances.

Because of the commitment of Prime Minister Al Abadi to the union of the country, there may yet be hope to establish a strongly nationalist Iraq government that includes Shi’as, Sunnis, Kurds and other minority groups. The greatest counterweight to the challenges facing Iraq today is to enhance the Iraq national identity.

And there is every chance to do just that given the set of  circumstances that are now in place.

The Kurds have been forced to work for a fair power-sharing arrangement. Although the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) took control over much of the disputed territories after the 2003 US invasion, and subsequently during the battle against ISIS, they have now lost all of their gains in the aftermath of their abortive bid for independence. The KRG has had to fall back on a campaign to promote stronger and more effective federalism. This new approach is reflected in:

  1. Their effective acceptance of the court’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of the recent independence referendum and,
  2. Their retreat when faced with the PMF’s advance into the disputed territories after the referendum.

The Sunnis in Iraq are exhausted and every sectarian Sunni card has been exploited and played. After the 2003 US invasion, despite a promising start under Iyad Allawi’s premiership, the subsequent rise to power of Nouri Al Maliki heralded what became, from a Sunni perspective, a repressive Shi’a government. Ordinary Sunnis were ready to welcome anyone as a savior. So ISIS took control, then when the people learned of ISIS’s true intentions, it was too late for them to do anything about it.

The success of the Global Coalition against ISIS depended on a decisive force, destroying and killing everything that stood in its way. The fight against ISIS took the status of the Sunni majority areas from zero to negative, to a political no-man’s land. Sunnis in Iraq are moving toward what is called new Sunni realism. In this dire situation, Sunnis won’t give up their identity, but their hope is for a better future for themselves, their children and their country as a nation.

It is not only the Sunnis and the Kurds who want a united Iraq. The Shi’a population is also suffering from the lack of goods and services under the rule of  a supposedly Shi’a-dominated government. Rates of poverty and unemployment are at their highest in majority Shi’a provinces just as they are everywhere else. Between 2003 and 2013, mostly Nouri Al Maliki’s tenure, not a single new hospital or power plant was built despite the spending of $500 billion in public funds. A number of prominent Shi’a clerics have blamed the enduring failure of state institutions on corruption and the damaging influence of external powers, particularly Iran. Iraqi Shi’a cleric Muqtada al Sadr,  an Iraqi nationalist who opposes Iran’s meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, inspired a number of protests by Shi’a groups in Baghdad last year.

So, back to the question; if you break the glass, how do you collect the water? Iraq needs a functional, transparent, and inclusive government.  And the international community, particularly the Global Coalition against ISIS, has to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq with the same enthusiasm as it did in the fight against ISIS. As Dr. William Morris, Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation stated, it is a moral and honorable obligation to at least ‘divert Western aid money to post-conflict Iraq and to specifically use it to construct social housing in areas we [the West] have bombed in the past two to three years.’ A stable, prosperous, and, more importantly, united Iraq, is in the interest of the region and the world.

How about Loving Yemen?

And then there was Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at this time.

And who fights this war? From the air, it is the Gulf Arab states. From the ground it is, additionally, mercenaries from Pakistan and Sudan, plus a very few Yemenis still loyal to the remnant of the internationally recognised government of Yemen that ran away.

And on the other side? A Houthi-led band of assorted Yemeni rebels in the North, and (quite separately and not allied to the first band) Al-Qaida in the South. Admittedly an oversimplification, but that’s basically it.

And the internationally recognised, Saudi-backed government has retreated to Saudi Arabia and lost credibility. And the way forward? Peace talks. But the Saudi Arabian-led coalition of Gulf states seems reluctant to engage in peace talks that do not result in the surrender of their enemies.

That said, the Houthis are not invariably a pleasant bunch. They chant obscenities like “Death to the USA. Death to Israel”, from their mosques. They do not sound like the kind of guys you’d want to have go out with your daughter.

So the answer for Yemen, in my view, is partition. The North took over the South through conquest. In my own lifetime Yemen has been two countries: North Yemen and South Yemen. And these fiercely independent and warlike people were easier to get on with as two separate nations.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia should give up its dreams of hegemony over North Yemen. Let it go. It’s not worth it. Let her breathe. Give her a chance to grow up on her own.

The Saudis should be content with taking over South Yemen as a puppet state. Bring prosperity to South Yemen. Take it into the G.C.C. (the Gulf Cooperation Council).

This is a war of attrition. You can never defeat them. Best to leave them alone.

Poor Egypt and poor Sinai

Poor Egypt. Can you imagine it? Prices of goods have gone through the roof, including the price of basic foodstuffs. These are harsh times.

Meanwhile, even the elite suffer, with the introduction of more draconian taxes.

However, President Sisi remains moderately popular. America still continues to provide huge financial support to the Egyptian army. And there is still some Gulf money coming in, though less than there once was. And nobody wants more revolution and counter revolution. So, for now, Egyptians are patient. They have no choice. Indeed, many are fiercely loyal to President Sisi.

The one source of income that truly filters through to the people in Egypt is tourism. But this is an industry that limps along at best. What, then, can be done?

Peace in the Sinai would make such a difference. Each time there is trouble from the Arabs of the Sinai, its sets Egyptian tourism back on its heels.

Of course, it’s not just that. Each time there is an attack on a Coptic church. Each time there is a killing of any kind like the killing of the Italian PHD student, Giulio Regeni in 2016, tourism is knocked back severely.

The thing is that Egypt has never quite got the knack of dealing with its social, political and ethnic minorities, like the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Copts, the Sinai Arabs and the Nubians. But they are Egypt. All of them. Egypt is a mosaic.

And the best starting point in sorting out the conundrum that is Egypt would be to deal with the Sinai Arabs. And to deal with them in a spirit of brotherly love.

All that is needed is one major industrial project in the unhappy town of Al Arish, Sinai’s de facto capital. A steelworks or something. It would change the mood of the people of Sinai, and potentially mark the beginning of the end for extremism in Egypt.

Both Sudan and South Sudan in aching need of a little brotherly love

Sudan was once the largest country in Africa at a million square miles. Then the British ripped it into two using the pretext of a referendum on a rigged ballot in which South Sudanese refugees and those displaced to the North were denied the vote. All this “for the good of Sudan”.

It is way past time for us to stop “playing the Great Game”. We are not good at it and we were never good at it.

And now the North is riven by war, and South Sudan is riven by war. And come the day they solve that, they will probably start fighting each other.

Unless, that is, we start seeing a little brotherly love.

And the easiest conflict to solve is the worst of conflicts, that in the South Sudan between Southerners backing the President and Southerners backing the exiled Vice President.

President of South Sudan, the war leader Salva Kiir, sits in Juba, the capital. The exiled vice president, his political rival Reik Machar, sits in South Africa. And church leaders go back and forth between them. Which doesn’t work.

What is needed is a conference for representatives of both sides to come together. And not in South Sudan. Nor in South Africa. Nor in any other Arab or African country, all of which will be regarded as parti-pris.

No, it should be in Britain. After all, we were the ones who created the mess in the first place.

And why not go for the whole deal while we are about it. A conference on all the issues of the South and the North, as all the issues are interrelated, with Northerners fighting for factions in the South and vice-versa. Indeed, with everyone fighting each other.

Worth a shot wouldn’t you say? Perhaps we’ll try it. Somebody should.