Iraq Seeing Resurgence of Violence

Today, our guest blogger, Chris Chapman, returns with a new post on Iraq’s continued troubles…

Syria and Egypt garner the most press when it comes to current coverage of the Middle East. Yet, a rising tide of violence in Iraq should not be ignored.  Iraq, the country the United States spent eight years and countless dollars engaged within, is teetering on the edge of intense conflict.   Recent waves of sectarian attacks are reminding analysts of the mood in Iraq during 2006-2007 when the country nearly fell into civil war

An increase in car bombings, suicide attacks, and jailbreaks have marked a resurgence of Al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq.  But the violence is not solely being directed by Sunnis against Shiite Muslims.  Within October alone, Iraq has seen multiple attacks on Sunni and Shiite targets.  On October 15 in Kirkuk, a bomb exploded in a crowd of Sunni worshippers coming out of a mosque to celebrate Eid al-Adha and killed 12 people.  On October 13, a string of bombings across the country, many in Shiite areas, killed up to 42 civilians at commercial areas, public spaces, and a funeral. On October 12 a car bomb exploded in Samarra killing 17 people.  These are not battles such as in Syria, these are women and children being killed going about their daily lives.  Reports show that since an April crackdown by the Iraqi government on a Sunni protest camp in Hawija, over 5,000 people have died in sectarian violence.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq is creating an environment of fear and doubt.  Fear of public safety and doubt that the Shiite led government can keep the country stable are on the rise

The brazen attacks in popular community sites exemplify Al-Qaeda’s mission to destabilize the state.  And in doing so, it is pulling Iraq further away from democracy.  The al-Maliki government’s crackdown on terrorism led to a renewed emphasis on a strong internal security apparatus and consolidation of power within the government.  People found guilty of terrorism are subject to the death penalty.  In fact, last week 42 people were executed on charges of terrorism and 68 people received the death penalty in 2011.

The danger of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is real.  Already ISIS is entrenched in Syria fighting.  Reports show they are killing and kidnapping civilians.  If Iraq falls into a civil war alongside Syria expect reports of this type to be more common.  One reason for the invasion of Iraq was to foster stability in the region, but this recent evidence only points out the failings of that endeavor. 

Chris Chapman is currently a Research Intern at the NESA Center and an M.A. candidate at American University’s School of International Service

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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The Struggle between Populism and Democracy in Egypt

At this moment, the Egyptian military, under the direction of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and with the support of anti-Morsi protestors, is removing the current Egyptian president from power.  Over the coming days, many will debate the moves of the military, the effectiveness of the Morsi administration, and the realistic expectations of liberal protestors.  What is essential at this moment, however, is to recognize how serious the emerging problem is for Egyptian citizens.  A democratically elected President is in the process of being removed from power by his country’s military. 

The removal of President Morsi is supported by millions of Egyptians who oppose the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood, are fed up with the current regime’s inability to fix Egypt’s myriad of problems, or are fearful of what the religiously-guided Muslim Brotherhood will do to the country’s nascent democratic institutions.  The opposition to President Morsi has completely legitimate complaints about his administration, but there is a fear that the actions taking place today will only serve to undercut democracy and increase social tension in Egypt.

First, it is the military that once again chose to step in to solve a dispute within Egyptian society.  Not only is this pattern dangerous for democracy, but it undercuts the very notion that civilian leaders have any real power in Egypt.  Second, pro-Morsi supporters will not forget or forgive today’s actions.  The Muslim Brotherhood and other religiously-motivated groups remain powerful factions in Egyptian society.  It is entirely possible that removing Morsi from power will completely sour his constituency on the benefits of democracy and motivate them towards more radical political methodologies.  Finally, the opposition to Morsi who have seized control of Cairo’s streets in an effort to show their displeasure with the current government are not an organized force in a political sense.  If President Morsi is removed, then can this hodgepodge of forces making up the opposition put democracy on a firm footing?

In short, Egypt has a serious problem between democratic procedure and populist sentiment.     

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

No Candles Today

Every year on the 4th and 5th of June, a grim anniversary becomes the source of political theater.  These dates are the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, in which the central leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and the senior leaders of the Beijing Municipal Government ordered the pro-reform protesters to be forcibly removed from Tiananmen Square. 

For much of the world, the 1989 Tiananmen Protests have become almost myth.  Every year during the anniversary of the crackdown, thousands take to social media platforms to talk about “the Tank Man”, the “Goddess of Democracy”, and the pro-democracy message of the protestors.  It is unfortunate that much of what survived that spring in 1989 does so as image or slogan. 

The reality is that these protests started as a tribute to the death of Hu Yoabang, a CCP leader with a reformist bent.  The protest movement that emerged from this initial memorial was never about pushing for Chinese democracy.  It was a reform movement that wanted greater government transparency.

The battle for reform continues today, but instead of protestors concentrating within a national symbol, activists and netizens use the anniversary to highlight the degree by which the Chinese state continues to control information and worries about opposition.  Almost every year some bizarre action is taken in order to block discussion of the Tiananmen protests.  In 2010, foursquare, a social networking website, did not allow people to check in at Tiananmen.  This year, web searches regarding the Shanghai stock exchange are limited because it closed last year on June 6th with a loss of 64.89 (6/4/89).  Also this year, Sino Weibo, the most popular Chinese blogging platform, refuses to allow people to use the candle graphic.  The graphic is generally used in reference to death.

Most regimes around the globe lack the willingness and/or capacity to engage in information control to the same degree as the CCP in the People’s Republic.  However, every regime facing opposition acts to protect its own power and discredit the opposition.  When the opposition cannot be discredited, then isolate them as much as possible.  Perhaps this is the reason Prime Minister Erdogan criticized social media recently – such tools allow the opposition to circumvent the state’s ability to repress. 

The question, though, is this – how far must a regime go before realizing its efforts to repress are a waste of energy?  Is it really worth taking the steps the Chinese state takes in order to limit discussions of Tiananmen Square?  In the end, the population always figures out ways around them – as they did, at least temporarily, this year [link – using the giant inflatable duck from Hong Kong’s harbor in place of tanks].

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Don’t Turn That Dial

The media scene in the Middle East and North Africa is complex and shows the push and pull of new and old ideas. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions much attention was brought to new media outlets such as Facebook and the blogosphere. However, television still maintains its primacy as people’s primary method of media intake. Satellite television has opened up a whole new range of stations and ideas, of which Al Jazeera is only the most prominent example. Local stations are also heavily influential. Still, the push and pull of censorship remains and, in some cases, may be expanded. Revolutionary countries have not yet let go of state run media and many, while abandoning the editorial line of the prior regime, still act as something of a propaganda tool for the new governments.

There is no question that social media has provided a new and vibrant method for sharing information for a wide swath of Arab society. One study showed that nearly nine out of ten Egyptians and Tunisians were using social media tools to help organize protests (although this was a small sample of only 200). While there is little debate as to whether these new forms of media played a role in revolutionary movements, there is much debate as to how much of a role should be ascribed to them. Egypt, for example, managed to continue its protests through an internet blackout. Sidi Bouzid, where the Tunisian protests began, is a farming town with relatively low internet penetration. Libya was significantly more restricted in its internet access than either Tunisia or Egypt. One must be cautious of putting too much stock in the relevancy of the internet and new media in countries and regions that do not see the same level of internet penetration as more developed countries. Regardless, the advent of social media has opened a new forum for the flow of ideas in the region.

Television, on the other hand, remains of primary importance. Satellite television has made it increasingly difficult for censorship and control of the airways to be effective. During the Libyan revolution Qathafi used the state-run media outlet Al Jamahiriya to show images of his ‘adoring supporters.’ Meanwhile, home viewers were treated to images and reports on the protestors trampling on Qathafi’s face and throwing shoes at the giant screens carrying his image. The major satellite providers for news are Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, BBC Arabic, and Al Hurra.  

Al Jazeera in particular occupies a preeminent position across the region. While the Qatari-owned station might avoid discussing Qatar, it has proven to be one of the most open stations from the region, earning the ire of both regional leaders and the United States (although US enmity appears to have waned somewhat in recent years). Viewership during the Arab Spring skyrocketed. In the first two days of the Egyptian revolution livestream internet viewers of Al Jazeera increased 2,500 percent to 4 million viewers, viewership over the airwaves was likely even higher.  Al Jazeera has earned its reputation for reliability by being the first Arab station to host an Israeli official and airing guests such as dissidents, feminists, and Islamists. The main questions that arise when discussing Al Jazeera center on whether it is sympathetic to Islamist parties, whether or not it targets particular Middle Eastern regimes, and what role the Qatari state plays in its organization and methodology. While it is unlikely these questions will have a definitive answer anytime soon, the network remains possibly the most influential on the block.

Even with satellite television and internet, censorship remains a problem throughout the region. Even Al Jazeera’s Qatari connection is questioned, as mentioned above. While there was initially great hope that revolutions would have changed the game regarding the flow of information, this has not proven to be the case. Egypt, for example, is still known to arrest journalists covering demonstrations. The leadership of Al Ahram, Egypt’s leading daily, has been assigned in much the same manner as under Mubarak, with the only major difference being the Brotherhood is in charge now, resulting in little change in terms of freedom of expression.

Tunisia has also had problems. Nessma television was fined in 2012 for airing a film about the Iranian revolution, Persepolis, which includes a scene in which Allah is animated. Nessma was fined $1700 for “broadcasting a film that disturbs public order and threatens proper morals.” Vigilante justice is a concern as well. Going back to Nessma, their fine was imposed after over 300 protestors attacked the studio, attempting to set it on fire, and Nebil Karoui, the head of the station, came under siege in his own house by around one hundred protestors – the government’s response was the issuance of a call to “respect sacred things.” Clearly, the freedom of the arts is, for the moment, playing second fiddle to perceived Islamic values.

Indeed, media in the Middle East and North Africa post Arab Spring shows much continuity with what came before. Censorship is still viewed as an acceptable tool by the leadership. However, given the presence of satellites capable of receiving content beyond the control of a single state censor, people are still able to receive information that is, if not censor-free, at least censored by a different body. Social media is opening up new avenues for dissemination of information, but it is unclear yet what long-term effects this will have. Put simply, states that have not undergone change have hardly changed their media policy and those that have undergone revolutions have not overturned the apple cart either.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

What Domestic Workers Tell Us about Asia

This week Hong Kong’s highest court decided unanimously that domestic workers were not entitled to permanent residency status, regardless of any worker’s support network or length of stay.  Most Hong Kong legal residents were relieved by the decision.

The impact of this case will likely be widespread.  From a legal perspective, Hong Kong’s highest court attempted to walk a tightrope – following the traditions of common law still practiced there while simultaneously corresponding with PRC legal guidance and political preferences.  However, the decision against the permanent residence of domestic workers will continue to have legal repercussions.  Domestic workers do enjoy some legal protections – like a minimum wage – but employment laws are a constant threat to their legal status. 

On the political front, the case highlights a trend in Hong Kong whereby permanent residents seek to visibly communicate the distinctions between resident and outsider.  Hong Kong has become a more difficult place to visit for many in the developing world – a process relating to refugee issues and transnational trade (for more information please read Gordon Mathews’ fascinating work on Chungking Mansions – Ghetto at the Center of the World).  Tensions between Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese are on the rise, as waves of Mainland tourists have challenged residency laws and altered the makeup of communities.

The court decision also signifies a change in what Hong Kong means for the whole of East Asia.  The city has long served as a haven for foreign capital and had attracted hundreds of thousands of foreigners.  This case was thought by some to be a means by which to further the expansion of legal protections for foreigners and help in the development of a truly multi-ethnic Hong Kong.

Overall, this court case highlights a developing problem in Hong Kong – how to continue to be a focal point of international capital, while remaining a distinct polity.  Furthermore, Hong Kong’s struggle in defining itself is part of a larger regional process, as many states seek to find their footing in a rapidly changing East Asia.     

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.