Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saudi Arabia Prepares to Hand Power to a Younger Generation

These are uncertain times for Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer and a key ally in the struggle against militant Islam. The conservative kingdom is balancing on the cuff of a change in leadership that threatens to introduce a period of volatility as the health of its most senior, octogenarian royals falters. At risk, is continued reform designed to curb the sharp ends of the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam and create greater economic and social prospects and opportunity.

Fuelling the uncertainty is the fact that understanding the inner workings of the ruling royal family is akin to the art of reading tea leaves. That art is in high demand with 86-year old reformist King Abdullah recuperating in New York from an operation to relieve haematoma resulting from a prolapsed disc. Abdullah’s illness is not life-threatening, but has raised the spectre of a Saudi Arabia ruled by a succession of short-lived monarchs. The king’s medical treatment comes weeks after he appointed his son as commander of the National Guard, the Bedouin force responsible for the royal family’s security, and the return to the kingdom of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States who is a consummate dealmaker. Taken together, these developments suggest that Saudi Arabia’s ruling family may be preparing for a gradual transfer of power to its next generation.

The stakes for Saudi Arabia as well as its western allies are high. Concern focuses on whether Abdullah’s reforms intended to defeat militant Islam, liberalize the economy, reduce unemployment, fight corruption, limit the power of the conservative, religious establishment and reform the judiciary have taken sufficient root to survive his rule. The reforms challenge basic tenants of the powerful clergy’s puritan interpretation of Islam that coupled with the lack of economic opportunity creates a breeding ground for religious militants. Saud Arabia’s recent announcement of the arrest of 149 primarily Saudi members of Al Qaeda and revelations that the curriculum of some 40 Saudi schools in Britain and Ireland preach hatred, racism and incitement to violence underlines the urgency of continued reform in the kingdom.

In an absolute monarchy in which passes down the line of aging sons of King Abdulaziz, the kingdom’s founder, Abdullah’s most probable immediate successors are grappling with health issues of their own. 84-year old Crown Prince and Defence Minister Prince Sultan, returned to Saudi Arabia on the eve of Abdullah’s departure from a two-year absence due to illness. Their younger brother, Prince Nayef, the 76 year-old interior minister who is third in line, may not be healthy enough to fully take over the reins of power when his time comes. Nayef, moreover, is widely viewed as a hard line and conservative, raising questions about whether he would pursue reform with the same zeal as Abdullah.

Tension between Sultan and Nayef could well erupt in a post-Abdullah Saudi Arabia as the kingdom prepares to hand the reins to the next generation, Abdulaziz’s grandsons who may not be as amenable as their elders to compromise in the competition for power. Abdullah’s creation in 2006 of an Allegiance Council made up of Abdulaziz’s surviving sons and grandsons to confirm the nomination of crown princes was intended to formally involve the next generation in the succession process. It could well serve as a platform to fuel their ambitions.

The creation of the council signalled that Saudi leaders were envisioning the day on which power would pass to their sons. Abdullah reinforced this view by in November appointing Prince Mutaib, his 57-year old son to replace him as commander of the National Guard. In a country in which senior prince’s run their ministries as family fiefdoms, the appointment was widely seen as Abdullah emphasizing that it was time to start turning over power to the next generation and possibly kick starting changes in anticipation of a changing of the guard while at the same time reducing the risk of a power struggle within the family.

In this scenario, Prince Sultan would step down as defence minister in favour of Khalid bin Sultan, his deputy and son who gained prominence as commander of Arab forces during the 1991 expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait. Critics hold Khalid responsible for tactical mistakes that caused higher than necessary Saudi casualties in fighting last year against rebels in Yemeni tribal areas bordering on the kingdom. Further change would involve the succession of ailing Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal by his brother, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence who served as ambassador to Britain and then the United States. Similarly, Prince Nayef would is likely succeeded as interior minister by Prince Mohammed, his son and deputy minister who has earned praise for his leadership in battling the Islamists.

The envisioned changes leave open the question of who will ultimately emerge as the monarch to steer Saudi Arabia through continued reform designed to eradicate the grounds on which the militants feed and ensure that the economy can compete in the 21st century. For much of the past decade, reformers and Western officials saw the 74-year old long-standing governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman, a full brother of Prince Nayef, as their preferred candidate. Recently, however, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the 69-year old governor of Mecca, an accomplished poet and painter known for his friendship with Britain’s Prince Charles and his successful administration of the province of Asir, home to several of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, appears to be emerging as a compromise candidate.

All of this amounts to little more than reading tea leaves. The good news, however, is that Saudi Arabia’s most powerful princes appear determined to reduce the risk of volatility by seeking to ensure a smooth generational transition that would allow the kingdom to push ahead with the reforms needed to create a more open, competitive economy capable of offering Saudis prospects that compete with the dire alternative put forward by Islamist militants.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Elections in Egypt to test Western commitment to democracy

By James M. Dorsey

Deutsche Welle

Egyptians head to the polls on November 28 to vote for their next parliament amid criticism of systematic repression. Will Western nations step up their support for political reform or simply stand on the sidelines?

The parliamentary elections in Egypt are shaping up to be as much an indication of US and European commitment to human rights and democracy as they are a dress rehearsal for next year's Egyptian presidential election.
Michele Dunne, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said people in Egypt and other Arab countries were watching the West closely to see to what extent they press for free and fair elections in the Arab world's most populous country.
"They will take that as a sign of whether the US and Europe are serious about these issues or whether they have relegated them to the sidelines," Dunne said.

For much of the past year, the US and the European Union have largely been quiet about the deterioration of human rights and prospects for real democracy in Egypt. These issues were glaringly absent from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's agenda when she met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit earlier this month in Washington. Similarly, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's poor human rights and democracy record has not figured prominently in recent high-level contacts between the EU and Egypt.
Crackdown on opposition

The western stance appears to have led Mubarak, in power since 1981, to conclude that he has a free hand in shaping the electoral process. For weeks, police and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition movement, have been clashing. The banned group controls a fifth of the seats in the present parliament by running candidates as independents.

According to Human Rights Watch, security forces have so far arrested over 1,300 Muslim Brotherhood members, including five candidates. The government has also shut down several independent media organizations.

"The regime is sending a message that there will be no election," said Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, the head of the Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc.
Monitors? No, thank you

The US has, however, called for free and fair elections. Earlier this week, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley appealed to Egypt to allow peaceful political gatherings, open media coverage and admit international observers to the polls. The foreign ministry in Cairo countered in a statement that this constituted meddling in Egypt's internal affairs.

"The latest positions taken by the administration toward internal Egyptian affairs is something that is absolutely unacceptable," the foreign ministry said in the statement, quoting an unnamed official. "It is as if the United States has turned into a caretaker of how Egyptian society should conduct its own politics. Whoever thinks that this is possible is deluded."
The statement said Egypt would honor the tradition of mutual respect as long as the United States did the same.

The heated discussion over the Egyptian political scene is nothing new and has been going on for some 20 years, said Adel Iskandar, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. But it was crucial for the US and Europe to foster debate about democracy and human rights.

"The regime has taken two steps forward and five steps back," Iskandar said. "Instead of focusing on how much progress has been made, the debate should revolve around how little progress has been achieved."
Weighing the pros and cons

It is a fine line, though, considering the volatile, geo-strategic part of the world. Western governments fear that taking Egypt to task for its dismal democracy and human rights record could prompt Mubarak to withdraw support for the stumbling Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Egypt also supplies valuable logistics for allied military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some analysts argue, however, that the long-term risks of the US and Europe being perceived as perpetuating authoritarian rule in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world could prove costlier than the short-term benefits of turning a blind eye to flagrant violations of human rights and democratic deficiencies.

But Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Egypt, said changes were up to the Egyptian people.

"It is not something that the US can or should dictate, but neither should we be quiet about what we believe in," Walker said. "So I think it is appropriate for the administration to review what is going on."
In addition, western powers may just have more leverage than they assume. Analysts said Egypt had a vested interest in continued support of US policy in the greater Middle East.

The Arab nation would not backtrack on support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and risk US congressional favor for its substantial annual aid package. The government in Cairo uses much of the aid to strengthen its domestic security and ability to confront opposition groups. Putting that in jeopardy could spark unrest in the military concerned that it could lose its prerogatives at a time that Egypt is gearing up for a battle over who will succeed the country's octogenarian leader.

The government is also unlikely to risk its control of all US and European democracy and human rights assistance to Egyptian non-governmental organizations. It exercises that control through an agreement with donors that they will only fund NGOs, which are officially recognized and authorized by the government.

Pivotal presidential elections next year

This month's parliamentary polls are of only moderate importance compared to the presidential elections scheduled for next year that could change Egypt's political landscape, many US and European officials believe.
Speculation is rife about whether 82-year-old Mubarak, who is in poor health, will run for a sixth six-year term or whether he will push his banker son Gamal or his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as his successor. Even if Mubarak does opt for reelection, it is unlikely that he would be able to serve another full term.

Proponents of a more assertive American and European stance said the time will then be ripe to address Egypt's human rights record and stifling of democratic development.

By publicly focusing on the issue, the US and the EU would shape debate in Egypt prior to a changing of the guard along the Nile, encourage democracy and human rights activists and alter widespread perception in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world that the United States favors authoritarian rule.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rap and Metal on Planet Islam

The booming voice of pent-up Middle Eastern anger

James M. Dorsey from the December 2010 issue of Reason Magazine

Nabyl Guennouni, 30, is a heavy metal singer and band manager in Morocco. He also sits on a jury that selects rising talents to perform at Casablanca’s annual L’Boulevard des Jeunes Musiciens, a six-day extravaganza in two soccer stadiums that has become North Africa’s largest underground music festival, with some 160,000 visitors each year. This marks a dramatic change for Guennouni. When he and 13 other black-shirted, baseball-capped, middle-class headbangers tried to organize a music festival seven years ago, the police dragged them from their homes and charged them with wooing young Moroccans into Satanism, with a bonus count of promoting prostitution. Morocco’s legal system allows a maximum sentence of three years for such attempts to convert Muslims to another faith.

Egged on by conservative Islamist politicians, who six months earlier had doubled their number of seats in parliament, prosecutors produced as evidence against Guennouni fake skeletons and skulls, plaster cobras, a latex brain, T-shirts depicting the devil, and “a collection of diabolical CDs,” which they described as “un-Islamic” and “objects that breach morality.” In cross-examination, the government attorneys asked the defendants such questions as, “Why do you cut the throats of cats and drink their blood?” Al Attajdid, a conservative daily, depicted the musicians as part of a movement that “encourages all forms of delinquency, alcohol and licentiousness which are ignored by the authorities.” One of the trial judges maintained that “normal people go to concerts wearing suits and ties” and that it was “suspicious” that some of the musicians’ lyrics had been penned in English.

During the trial, some of the defendants recited sections of the Koran to prove they were good Muslims. It didn’t work. In a verdict that divided the nation, Guennouni was sentenced to one month in jail; the others received sentences ranging from six months to a year. Outside the courthouse, protesters organized concerts, waged an Internet campaign, and criticized King Muhammad VI for presiding over a travesty of justice.

Yet as dark as that moment was for Casablancan rockers, the trial was a turning point that set Morocco on a path to becoming one of the Arab world’s more liberal societies when it comes to accepting alternative lifestyles. A month after the sentencing, prosecutors, unnerved by the degree of popular support the musicians had attracted, urged an appeals court to overturn the verdicts. The appeals court acquitted 11 of the defendants and reduced the sentences of three others. The decision constituted a rare example of successful civic protest in the Arab world.

Weeks after the appeals court decision, Casablanca was rocked by a series of Islamist suicide bombings that killed 45 people. Musicians responded with a Metal Against Terrorism concert that boosted what Moroccans call Al Nayda, the Awakening, a movement for greater cultural freedom that is topped every year by the L’Boulevard festival. “We needed to channel the aspirations and frustrations of young people in Morocco,’ ” Guennouni tells me. “Al Nayda is a community of spirit,” adds Mohammed “Momo” Merhar, co-founder of the festival. “Moroccan youth was holding its breath for 40 years. A wind of freedom is blowing now, and creativity is exploding.”

Today L’Boulevard attracts metal, rap, and jazz performers from around the globe. King Muhammad donated $250,000 to the event last year. Marie Korpe, executive director of Freemuse, a Copenhagen-based organization funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency that advocates freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide, notes that “as musicians push the boundaries of acceptable musical performance in their countries, it is clear that, wittingly or not, they are helping to open their cultures and potentially their political systems.”

With L’Boulevard, Morocco is doing something new in a part of the world where repression and censorship are the norm. The cultural awakening nonetheless operates within a narrow band in a country where human rights groups, independent media outlets, and critical artists continue to live a precarious existence. Moroccan radio stations, acting on government instructions, recently boycotted a collection of rap songs that was appropriately titled Forbidden on the Radio. Invincible Voice (I-Voice), a Beirut-based Palestinian duo that fuses hip-hop with classical Arab music, was forced to cancel an Arab world tour when Morocco and other Arab countries denied them visas. Yasin Qasem, a 21-year-old freelance sound engineer and half of I-Voice, was subsequently denied entry to lead a sound engineering workshop in Casablanca. Qasem and his partner, TNT, a.k.a. Mohammed Turk, a 20-year-old construction foreman whose songs lament the sorry state of political, cultural, and economic affairs in the Arab world, finally obtained visas for the United Arab Emirates to finish production of their upcoming album, only to be declined entry when they landed at the Dubai airport.

Across a swath of land stretching from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to the Persian Gulf, underground musicians are playing a continuous game of cat and mouse with authorities to evade harassment and arrest. Musicians in Iran endure forced haircuts, beatings in jail, and threats to their families. Egypt bans heavy metal from radio and television. Earlier this year, Islamist police stormed a crowded auditorium in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where the hip-hop musicians B Boy Gaza had just started performing. “The show is over,” the officers announced before confiscating equipment and arresting six musicians, who were eventually released after signing a pledge not to hold further performances without police permission. The rapping Emirati brothers Salem and Abdullah Dahman have had their music banned in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia because their lyrics contrast the Arab world’s multiple problems with the glorious Muslim past. Last summer, police in the Saudi capital Riyadh broke up a metal concert in a residential compound attended by 500 mostly Saudi fans.

Civilian and religious authorities across the Middle East and North Africa have accused heavy metal musicians of threatening public order, undermining Islam, and performing the devil’s music. Metalheads are also singled out because of their music’s highly charged and often politically, socially, and sexually suggestive lyrics. As a result, their music flourishes mostly in underground clubs, basements, and private homes, and only occasionally on stage when a regime decides that banning a public performance is not worth the political risk.

Underground musicians pose a challenge to Middle Eastern and North African regimes because they often reflect in their lyrics pent-up anger and frustration about unemployment, corruption, and police tyranny. “We play heavy metal ’cause our lives are heavy metal,” says Reda Zine, one of the founders of the Moroccan headbanger scene.

With the growing realization that the region’s authoritarian regimes and controlled economies are unable to offer opportunity to their predominantly young populations, metal and rap have been elevated as channels to express discontent. Their role is enhanced by the Internet and other technologies for mass distribution that make government control difficult and allow musicians and their fans to carve out autonomous spaces that shield them from intrusion by censors and other cultural scolds.

In a recent report for Freemuse, Mark LeVine argues that music plays a role in the Middle East and North Africa similar to the role rock played in the velvet revolutions that toppled regimes in Eastern Europe. LeVine has a good vantage point for studying the subject: He is both a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California at Irvine and a musician who has performed with the likes of Mick Jagger and Albert Collins. The struggle and success of underground music, he says, “reminds us of a past, and offers a model for the future, in which artists—if inadvertently at first—helped topple a seemingly impregnable system of rule.” LeVine describes underground musical communities as “avatars of change or struggles for greater social and political openness,” saying “they point out cracks in the facade of conformity that is crucial to keeping authoritarian or hierarchical and inegalitarian political systems in power.”

Nowhere is that more evident than in Iran, where all rock music is forced underground. Musicians risk harassment and imprisonment by a regime that frowns on all music and routinely tortures dissidents. In May 2009, a heavy metal concert in Shiraz was raided by an Islamist militia that arrested some 100 people on charges of consuming alcohol and worshiping the devil. Musicians are forced into exile or onto the Internet to carve out creative spaces of their own.

Coming under particular scrutiny are Iranian underground musicians who replicate American accents, indulge in obscene lyrics, and use female singers—all viewed as symbols of Western decadence by the authorities. Most CD shop owners refuse to sell underground music, fearing raids, imprisonment, and hefty fines. Concerts in private gatherings are often canceled because of threats from neighborhood vigilantes. Kalameh, an Iranian rapper, recently uploaded one of his latest songs to YouTube in response to the regime’s crackdown on the country’s reform movement: “This nation says No / Says NO to autocracy / Says NO to censorship / Says NO to sedition / Says NO to beating and killing / Says NO to injustice / Says NO to democracy / This constant pain of mine, emanates from being a human / Because one night, they stole my light of hope / If I stay silent, if I stay still / Who is gonna right? Who is gonna say? / If I leave it that way?”

Yet hip-hop’s lyrical style and heavy metal’s pounding beat may be natural fits in a world where poetry is a popular art form and praying often involves rhythm and bobbing. Some Muslim religious figures, particularly practitioners of more mystical forms of Islam, recognize an affinity with metal, even though some of the genre’s most popular forms in the region are its most extreme. “I don’t like heavy metal,” a Shiite cleric in Baghdad told LeVine. “Not because it’s irreligious or against Islam; but because I prefer other styles of music. But you know what? When we get together and pray loudly, with the drums beating fiercely, chanting and pumping our arms in the air, we’re doing heavy metal too.” Cyril Yarboudi of Lebanon’s Oath to Vanquish agrees. “You can practice your religion; you can go pray in a mosque and listen to metal,” he says. “What’s the problem?”

In a 1997 crackdown that put its stamp on much of the heavy metal scene in the Middle East and North Africa, police in Cairo arrested 100 heavy metal fans. The arrests followed publication of a photo from a metal concert allegedly showing someone carrying an upside-down cross. One newspaper reported that the house raided by the police was “filled with tattooed, devil-worshiping youths holding orgies, skinning cats, and writing their names in rats’ blood on the palace’s walls.”

Muslim and Christian clerics were up in arms. Cartoons in newspapers depicted scruffy, marijuana-smoking musicians with T-shirts emblazed with the Star of David who play guitar while being seduced by scantily dressed blond women. The musicians’ critics portrayed them as Zionist agents subverting Muslim society and blamed their emergence on a government that, in their view, was in cahoots with the Zionists in allowing Western culture to undermine Egypt’s social and religious values. Interestingly, this criticism was expressed by many in the underground music community as well. A broad segment of Egyptians, cutting across political, ideological, religious, and social fault lines, accuses the government of failing to effectively support the Palestinians, acquiescing in the Israeli control of Palestinian territories, and supporting unpopular U.S. policies in the region.

Emotions peaked when Sheikh Nasr Farid, Egypt’s mufti at the time, demanded that those arrested repent or face the death penalty for apostasy. In response, intimidated musicians and fans destroyed their guitars and shaved off their beards to avoid the worst. A decade later, many Egyptian musicians remain reluctant to publicly discuss their music or lyrics, even though government policy has become somewhat more relaxed. (The regime of President Hosni Mubarak is currently more concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood and dissident bloggers than it is about underground music.)

“You can’t get arrested for being a metalhead so easily now,” an Egyptian heavy metal fan tells me. “They can still stop you in the streets, or stop your car if you listen to very loud heavy music. But when it comes to arresting they can’t now unless you have some sort of drugs on you. It’s not that the law is more liberal now. Rather, it’s because the whole media is not so interested to know about us anymore.”

Morocco’s bow to popular pressure and Egypt’s recent shift of focus highlight a lesson most Arab regimes have yet to learn: The velvet glove is often more effective than the baton. The more mainstream underground music becomes and the less censorship it endures, the less socially and politically potent it may become.

But as long as there is discontent to be expressed, there will be musicians eager to channel it. Even if metal and hip-hop lose their bite, LeVine predicts, the “cultural avant-garde of youth culture will naturally search for other genres of music to express the anger, anxieties, and despair that originally made the music so powerful.”