Palestinians reacted skeptically, since Arab League summits have seen many munificent offers of aid to them that never materialized. Qatar has a better track record on such matters, however, and really does have the money.
Qatar has also pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to Palestinians in Gaza, to alleviate the worst effects of the Israeli blockade on its Occupied civilians.
This tendency to try to deal with the Palestinians’ problems by throwing money at them is an improvement on the military flailing about of past decades, which never produced any breakthroughs. But it is no substitute for diplomacy.
What would be really radical would be for the Arab League to recognize Israel inside 1949 borders and invite Israel to join the organization. After all, the vast majority of Israelis are either Jews who had lived in the Arab world or Palestinian-Israelis. There is a better case for Israel than for Somalia. And Egypt and Jordan already have extended that recognition, and Qatar and other states have behind the scenes perfectly correct relations with Israel.
While the Israelis are unlikely to change any policies as a result of such an offer, it would at least begin bringing them into the diplomatic system in the Middle East and would be a means of putting diplomatic pressure on them.
I know, it won’t happen soon. Maybe eventually. But it would be more practical than just promising to pour money into Palestinian areas. That won’t work because the pledges often aren’t fulfilled, and since the Palestinians are stateless, they don’t really have firm property rights, so any new property or refurbished buildings can just be usurped by the Israeli squatters at will.
Although the Gulf makes its way in life by selling petroleum, countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates don’t engage in that sordid game of the American rich, of climate-change denial. The emirs are in no doubt about its dangers to their region and the need to use their current wealth to move to renewables. Since green energy requires massive investment capital, and since these countries are very wealthy, they are, ironically, in a position to take the lead on green energy. And they have the will. Unlike big American energy corporations who pay weasels to deny the dangers of our rapidly altering climate.
the United Arab Emirates has launched the Middle East’s biggest concentrated solar power plant, with the help of Spain’s Abengoa and the French energy firm Total S.A. When fully operational, Shams-1 will generate 100 megawatts of electricity.
The project was inaugurated by UAE President, Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. It is a project of Masdar, a green energy concern backed by the UAE government and headed by Sultan al-Jaber, whom I met in February when I was given a wonderful tour of Masdar City near Abu Dhabi by the very kind genius, Hector Hernandez. (See this press release).
Kuwait has traditionally had the greatest freedom of speech of all the Gulf monarchies, as well as having the most powerful parliament. Yet, like all its Gulf neighbours, it has started to crack down on criticism of the ruler since the onset of the Arab spring.
At least 25 people have been charged with “insulting” the Emir since October 2012, and several of them, including three former MPs, have been convicted this year. But in a sign that local and international pressure may be causing the authorities to reconsider, a Kuwaiti court this week acquitted five activists of similar charges – just one day after Human Rights Watch issued a hard-hitting statement urging the Kuwaiti government to drop ”all speech-related charges against online activists and former members of parliament.”
Social media use is soaring in the Gulf, and Kuwaitis use Twitter more than any of their neighbours, with nearly one-quarter of a million Twitter users in a country of 2.8m people — the highest proportion of the population in the Arab world.
The predominantly young population, more than half of which is under 30, is attracted to social media partly because it offers freer debate than the traditional newspapers and broadcasters, though of course many use it primarily for socialising and flirting.
But this surge in the use of new, informal, internationally connected and largely unregulated forms of communication comes at a time when the Gulf ruling families have profound concerns about the impact of the Arab uprisings on their own countries, and are internally divided about how to deal with the youth activism that is growing even in the wealthier corners of the region.
Death Penalty for Blasphemy?
Kuwait’s Twitter arrests initially focused on people who had offended the more conservative authorities of neighbouring countries. In 2011, one young man, Nasser Abul, was imprisoned for “insulting” the rulers of neighbouring states Bahrain and Saudi Arabia on Twitter (charges that were eventually dropped). In 2012, another, Hamad Naqi, was imprisoned for insulting both neighbouring rulers and the Prophet Mohammed (the larger part of the sentence was for the rulers).
Meanwhile, Kuwaiti MPs were also calling for greater restrictions on freedom of speech, in the form of a draft law providing for the death penalty for those convicted of blasphemy. The Emir refused to pass it. At the same time, in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Hamza Kashgari — who wrote a few lines of poetry on his Twitter account in which he addressed the Prophet as though he was an equal — was accused of blasphemy. He then fled the country, and managed to reach Malaysia, but was deported back to Saudi, where he was imprisoned.
Conservatives on Twitter called for him to be killed, belying the comfortable myth that social media necessarily brings about a flowering of liberal youth. This divisive case exacerbated fissures in the nascent Saudi opposition movement between those that seek a more religious state and those that focus more on their desire for a constitutional monarchy. Similarly, in Kuwait, some liberals felt the Emir was protecting them from what they saw as the excesses of an elected parliament dominated by Islamist and tribal leaders.
Kuwaitis protest against new electoral law (Nov. 2012). Placard reads “The Nations Dignity” (photo by Jane Kinninmont)
Testing the Boundaries
In 2013 the number of arrests for social media “crimes” in the Gulf have become harder to count.
Kuwait has seen a slew of arrests recently for “insults” to the leadership as well as unlicenced protests. On February 3, Mohammad Eid al-Ajmi was sentenced to the maximum five years in prison for insulting the Emir (a state security offense) on Twitter.
These arrests follow tensions over last year’s early election, which was called after repeated stalemates between the elected parliament and appointed government. After numerous short-term attempts to solve the problem by dissolving the parliament and calling new elections, the Emir announced in October that the voting system would be changed. The ensuing election, in December, was boycotted by the opposition, some simply unhappy that their old system of forming alliances had been removed, and others protesting against the idea that the power to change the voting system should be in the hands of the ruler — something still being reviewed by the constitutional court.
Now, an increasingly vocal opposition outside the parliament is testing the boundaries of Kuwaiti politics — drumming up support for street protests instead of working within the parliament — and is calling for a fully elected government, though still under a constitutional monarchy. Neighbouring Gulf countries are none too pleased to see this challenge to a monarchical system in their backyard.
Meanwhile, nonaligned young people are getting caught in the middle. Not all of those arrested were activists. The tweets deemed to constitute criminal offences have even included a retweet of a line of poetry by Ahmed Matar, an Iraqi poet, who, ironically, left Iraq in the 1970s to take refuge in the more liberal environment of Kuwait.
One young tweep told me that while he disliked the opposition, on the basis that the Islamists within it had sought to bring in the restrictions on blasphemy, he now found himself marching side by side with Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood to protest against the government’s crackdown on its critics. Liberal youth find themselves caught in the middle between the Islamist ex-MPs who called for blasphemers to be executed, and a government that has been tightening its political red lines.
Freedom of Expression, Social Media and National Security
Last week, coincidentally on the day al-Ajmi was sentenced for insulting the emir on Twitter, the Euro-Gulf Centre at Kuwait University held a discussion, jointly organised with the British Embassy, on the theme of freedom of expression, social media and national security. I was one of two British participants asked to speak about international experiences with social media and freedom of speech, alongside a Kuwaiti constitutional expert, Mohammed Al Fili, and newspaper editor, Walid Al Nusf.
All of us spoke about social media as an evolving phenomenon that was testing existing assumptions and regulations, and about the need for every country to balance security concerns and political sensitivities with freedom of speech.
Walid Al Nusf said he was sad to see a young man imprisoned for his tweets, and that while the punishment was within Kuwaiti law, he felt there might be better ways to deal with dissent. Education, he argued, was a better way forward than censorship, surveillance and punishment. Mohammed Al Fili likewise noted that the constitution said the Emir was inviolable, but also spoke of the value of freedom of speech and opinion — something that many Kuwaitis see as part of their national identity, especially compared to their Gulf neighbours.
British lawyer Alasdair Gillespie described the UK regulations, which place more restrictions on free speech than those in the US where free speech is defended by the constitution. In the UK there are restrictions on inciting violence or hatred based on race, religion or sexual orientation, as well as libel laws strict enough to attract the easily offended as “libel tourists” to London, who come to file cases against publishers. But British legal precedent has established that there is no right not to be offended; that offensiveness is not enough for something to be banned.
In my comments at the Kuwait University discussion, I argued that not only are we are learning about social media, we are inventing how to use it, and are only just beginning to realise the potential of the technology to contribute to social, political and even linguistic changes. In terms of media regulation, social media users blur the line between private and public discourse – which can create conflicts when someone is essentially addressing their friends on Facebook and suddenly finds themself falling foul of laws designed for old media.
All countries are struggling to deal with it. In a famous case in the UK, a Twitter user, Paul Chambers, was convicted of sending a “menacing electronic communication” in 2010 after he tweeted a misconceived joke complaining that the snow had closed his local airport and that he was tempted to blow the whole thing up. No one at any point mistook his tweet for a real terrorist threat, and an online campaign for the charges to be dropped was formed, with thousands retweeting his tweet with the hashtag #IAmSpartacus – a reference to the film Spartacus, a symbol of the strength of a united crowd in preventing someone being singled out for punishment.
Democratising Power for Good or Ill
Meanwhile, the outrage in many Muslim countries over the controversial film about the prophet Mohammed that appeared on YouTube in 2011 may have had complex political roots, but it also highlighted genuine differences around the notion of blasphemy, which used to be a crime in many Western countries but is now often seen as an idea belonging to the past. In this case, social media’s democratising power had the negative effect of giving disproportionate attention to a badly made film that was hardly representative of mainstream Western opinion. Protests drew more attention to the film and many seemed to have the incorrect impression that this was a Hollywood production or somehow sanctioned by the US government, whereas before social media it would never have been broadcast into Muslim homes.
A more traditional side of Kuwait — Souk Mbarkiya. (photo by Jane Kinninmont)
I also argued that it is possible to overstate cultural differences here. Yes, different societies may have different traditions and norms about what constitutes acceptable discourse. But usually this is contested within each society. The notion that we all live in different cultures belies the change, contestation and ideas being shared within and between cultures, and the existence of multiple subcultures, with different views about what is “appropriate” or acceptable — something that can also change across generations. Moreover, harsh punishments for what is said on Twitter or Facebook can be deeply counterproductive, and can have precisely the opposite effect of what is intended.
Coming so soon after al-Ajmi’s sentencing, it was no simple task to discuss the issue with an audience that ranged from establishment dignitaries to furious student activists. At times like this the desire to be diplomatic can shade into self-censorship. As a Western visitor, I felt on one hand an obligation to be polite about the practices of a country I had just arrived in, and on the other hand, as the event went on, I became aware of an expectation, at least on the part of some of the students, that the Western speakers, who had no fear of arrest or retribution, should be the ones standing up for freedom of speech.
At a time when Kuwait was arresting people for what they had said on Twitter, one journalist asked why the British government was supporting such a discussion, when the local papers had recently reported that there was a new agreement between Kuwait and several British firms to co-operate on cyber security.
(Bahraini NGOs, meanwhile, have filed a complaint with the OECD about the alleged activities of British cyber-surveillance firms working for the Bahrain government, which has also imprisoned Twitter users for insulting the ruler or for calling for protests. There, Twitter and YouTube are often used by activists to document protests, broadcast political speeches and satire, and, in some cases, to take footage of local police violence to a global audience.)
Using the hashtag #Q8_expression, most of the Twitter comments directed at the Kuwait University speakers were sarcastic, and some angry:
“Will this hashtag guarantee freedom from prosecution?”
“Why doesn’t the UK just provide our rulers with a book on Constitutional Monarchy 101?”
The Kuwaiti authorities are now preparing a new law on social media. Officials say this will provide more clarity and encourage people to use social media “responsibly”, but activists are concerned by the precedent set by the UAE, which issued a sweeping new cyber crimes law in December.
That law makes it an imprisonable offence to use information technology with the intention of mocking or harming the reputation of the state or its rulers, or to advocate changing the system of governance.
In 2011, five UAE activists were imprisoned for several months for insulting the rulers after organising a petition calling for an elected parliament, and more than 90 more dissidents have been arrested since then.
Even in Qatar, which abolished its information ministry and presents itself as an enlightened advocate of freedom and debate, a poet has been imprisoned for life for a poem deemed to insult the ruler. It’s likely his poem is reaching larger audiences as a result.
Jane Kinninmont is the Senior Research Fellow on the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. Previously, she was Associate Director for Middle East and Africa at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), part of the Economist Group. Jane has a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford, Balliol College, and an MSc in International Politics with a focus on the Middle East from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Jane has published one book of poetry, ‘Seven League Stilettos’, and is currently working on a book about Bahrain for UK-based publishers IB Tauris. Follow Jane on Twitter @JaneKinninmont.
Does the United States still have the same level of control over the energy resources of theMiddle East as it once had?
The major energy-producing countries are still firmly under the control of the Western-backed dictatorships. So, actually, the progress made by the Arab Spring is limited, but it’s not insignificant. The Western-controlled dictatorial system is eroding. In fact, it’s been eroding for some time. So, for example, if you go back 50 years, the energy resources — the main concern of U.S. planners — have been mostly nationalized. There are constantly attempts to reverse that, but they have not succeeded.
Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example. To everyone except a dedicated ideologue, it was pretty obvious that we invaded Iraq not because of our love of democracy but because it’s maybe the second- or third-largest source of oil in the world, and is right in the middle of the major energy-producing region. You’re not supposed to say this. It’s considered a conspiracy theory.
The United States was seriously defeated in Iraq by Iraqi nationalism — mostly by nonviolent resistance. The United States could kill the insurgents, but they couldn’t deal with half a million people demonstrating in the streets. Step by step, Iraq was able to dismantle the controls put in place by the occupying forces. By November 2007, it was becoming pretty clear that it was going to be very hard to reach U.S. goals. And at that point, interestingly, those goals were explicitly stated. So in November 2007 the Bush II administration came out with an official declaration about what any future arrangement with Iraq would have to be. It had two major requirements: one, that the United States must be free to carry out combat operations from its military bases, which it will retain; and two, “encouraging the flow of foreign investments to Iraq, especially American investments.” In January 2008, Bush made this clear in one of his signing statements. A couple of months later, in the face of Iraqi resistance, the United States had to give that up. Control of Iraq is now disappearing before their eyes.
Iraq was an attempt to reinstitute by force something like the old system of control, but it was beaten back. In general, I think, U.S. policies remain constant, going back to the Second World War. But the capacity to implement them is declining.
Declining because of economic weakness?
Partly because the world is just becoming more diverse. It has more diverse power centers. At the end of the Second World War, the United States was absolutely at the peak of its power. It had half the world’s wealth and every one of its competitors was seriously damaged or destroyed. It had a position of unimaginable security and developed plans to essentially run the world — not unrealistically at the time.
This was called “Grand Area” planning?
Yes. Right after the Second World War, George Kennan, head of the U.S. State Department policy planning staff, and others sketched out the details, and then they were implemented. What’s happening now in the Middle East and North Africa, to an extent, and in South America substantially goes all the way back to the late 1940s. The first major successful resistance to U.S. hegemony was in 1949. That’s when an event took place, which, interestingly, is called “the loss of China.” It’s a very interesting phrase, never challenged. There was a lot of discussion about who is responsible for the loss of China. It became a huge domestic issue. But it’s a very interesting phrase. You can only lose something if you own it. It was just taken for granted: we possess China — and if they move toward independence, we’ve lost China. Later came concerns about “the loss of Latin America,” “the loss of the Middle East,” “the loss of” certain countries, all based on the premise that we own the world and anything that weakens our control is a loss to us and we wonder how to recover it.
Today, if you read, say, foreign policy journals or, in a farcical form, listen to the Republican debates, they’re asking, “How do we prevent further losses?”
Anouar Majid writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
The 2012 Olympics in London gave us a golden opportunity to assess the condition of the Arab world in its natural state. Sports is one occasion when political slogans and self-deception are useless. One either wins or loses.
The performance of Arabs reflects the dismal condition of the Arab world, as documented last decade in several Arab-authored United Nations reports. The Arab world is comprised of 22 nations, with a combined population of approximately 350 million. That’s more than the population of the United States. Yet all these nations together were not able to get more than 12 medals, mostly bronze ones (8). Only three medals were silver and one gold. One.
Small countries like Kazakhstan, Cuba, New Zealand and Jamaica did better than all the Arab nations combined. Even Iran, a nation often maligned by Sunni Arabs, did better, with 4 gold medals out of a total of 12.
How do we explain such a performance? The Arabs are as eager as anybody to see their athletes win. When they do, they wave huge flags and cheer loudly. Their weak performance, therefore, is not due to lack of interest or to defective genes. It reflects the condition of the Arab world as a whole. Arab authoritarianism went in the direction of selfish cliques and family cartels, depriving ordinary citizens of public resources such as facilities for athletic training– in contrast to Chinese authoritarianism, which still has at least some populist elements. Still, I don’t think that politics explains everything. Religion plays a role, too.
One of the issues that consumed a lot of time during the Olympics was whether the athletes should fast or not. Because the games coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, when able-bodied Muslims are required to fast from dawn to sunset, fatwas authorizing the Olympians to break the fast were issued, although not all players chose to abide by them. This dilemma exemplified the powerful place that Islam holds in the lives of many Arabs (especially those of Egyptian, Jordanian and a few other nationalities), though had the Olympics been held in Lent or on Yom Kippur similar dilemmas might have arisen for adherents of other religions.
The real problem is not personal piety but the magical thinking of the fundamentalist project. Muslim fundamentalists of various denominations are all promising reform if Islam were to be implemented correctly, yet no one has outlined a project of society or issued a document that inspires and motivates to build and innovate. There is a rush to write new constitutions, but such documents are long and legalistic; they don’t have the power of a Thomas Paine pamphlet, a Declaration of Independence, or even the leadership of a Steve Jobs. Piety alone is supposed to cure all ills and fix centuries of delays in development.
There is a general correlation between high per capita income and a nation’s Olympic performance, but those countries with high standards of living in the Arab world often come by it artificially, through hydrocarbons, the profits of which are hardly evenly distributed. Oil wealth hasn’t done much to change the condition of Arabs, except by making a handful of countries and princes supremely wealthy. Oil-rich nations may build fabulous cities and import many global treasures, including brand name museums and universities, from Europe and the United States, but they produce practically nothing, not even the simplest device used to broadcast their programs on their ubiquitous satellite television networks.
Instead, Arabs have turned into the best consumers of Western products—from oil pipelines to skyscrapers—while smugly believing that they are in possession of religious truth. In other words, the only thing left the Arab world is its conviction that Islam is better than other religions or beliefs and Sunnis are better than Shiites. Such convictions may help one feel good but they don’t help nations progress or win gold medals.
Just as political systems need to change, the Arabs’ relationship to Islam needs to be reformulated for the times if they are to move ahead. They need to make a concerted effort to keep the spheres of religion and politics wholly separate. This, however, requires active dissent from within. Muslim-majority Arab societies need heretics, people who are not cowed by the fear of hellfire and the popular condemnations of moralists to nudge their fellow coreligionists out of their paralysis. They need to instigate a cultural revolution, not just a political one, if there is ever any hope for Arabs and Muslims to have a real place in contemporary civilization. Magical thinking about reviving 7th-century Islam is not going to get them gold medals at the Olympics, a soccer world cup, give them the knowledge to invent new technologies, improve their universities, cure dangerous illnesses, overcome poverty and illiteracy, and temper the flames of extremism. Only a well-defined secular, contemporary project can get them there.
What are the big stories in the Arab world today? A newly elected parliament is being seated, and a deposed president is leaving the country. But beyond that, the remarkable thing is that there are any political stories at all. There weren’t, a year and a half ago. The political stories of today are not about the advent of paradise, but about the politics of transitions.
It was never acceptable to assert glibly in an op-ed that things have happened “Because Arabs are… ” such and such. It has the form of a racist argument. Arabs are only united, if at all, by a common language (and even it is diverse). Things happen because “Arabs do…”, because of actions they take for reasons of their social interests, not because of what they supposedly “are.”
The new Arab world created by the people power movements of 2012 is not suddenly Sweden. No one should have expected it to be. The Arab world had been stuck in a stagnating rut, of dictatorship, family cartels, embezzlement, corruption, and stagnation. Where economic growth of 5% a year began being reported, as in Tunisia or Egypt, it was either a lie or was mostly captured by a small economic elite, the Arab 1%.
What began in some of these countries in 2011 was a transition, a transition that activists hoped would be toward regular, free and fair parliamentary elections and ways for students, workers, office workers, women, religious activists, and religious minorities to have an impact on policy. None of these things would have been possible in the least under the old regimes. There was no hope. Now there is hope but no certitude.
In Tunisia and Egypt, that transition has begun. In Yemen, less stark change is afoot, but some sort of transition seems at least to be beginning. In Libya, the dictator was overthrown but elections are still some six months off. In Syria, a popular movement is still attempting to kick off the transition. In Bahrain, the movement was crushed, but village demonstrations bravely continue.
In Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan, there have been at least some reforms to forestall the outbreak of a more vigorous movement. In the oil rich states of the Gulf, the monarchs and emirs have attempted to bribe their publics into quiescence.
The transitions may fail. They involve politics, the working of social conflict among large social groups into political speeches, elections and policies. Sometimes a democratic transition begins and stalls out. Sometimes it is incomplete (one thinks of Russia). Sometimes it remains incomplete for a long time. Sometimes dictatorship returns (Ukraine?). Sometimes longstanding democracies themselves deteriorate politically (think of Italy under Silvio Berlusconi with high levels of corruption and a form of press censorship).
The success or failure of transitions depends on many things. It helps to have a wealthy country, but perhaps only Tunisia fits the bill even a little bit in the Arab region. It helps not to have strong ethnic divisions and grievances. It helps to have a strong middle class and institutions such as labor unions and chambers of commerce. Religion is probably irrelevant as an explanatory consideration.
Those who throw up their hands over the rise of Muslim religious parties in Egypt or the continued instability in Libya are not looking at what has happened as a set of processes. If anything good came out of the uprisings of 2011 it is precisely this flux, this opening toward possibilities, this politics. Because in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt or Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya there was no politics of an ordinary sort, only secret police and massive embezzlement and arbitrary arrest and torture.
If some of the transitions don’t get off the ground or if they fail, there are concrete economic and political reasons for it. Those need to be investigated and understood. The day when bigots could say that Arabs or Muslims are incapable of a certain kind of politics has passed. But the day when we can understand in detail why their politics evolves as it does is still not here.
So here are the stories of the transitions today, the stories of politics in a region formerly beset by censorship, secret police, domestic spying, and deadening silences.
1. On Monday, the newly elected lower house of parliament met. The last elected parliament, of fall, 2010, had been almost completely dominated by members of the corrupt National Democratic Party of Hosni Mubarak, and clearly all challengers to his regime had been excluded from winning seats by the police who counted the ballots. Public rage at a clearly phony electoral outcome fed into the uprising of Jan. 25-Feb. 11. The new parliament is dominated by Muslim religious parties, with the Muslim Brotherhood, at 47% of seats, the largest. It met with three other parties to choose the new speaker of the house, Mohammed al-Katatny, who is resigning from his position in the Muslim Brotherhood to take this post. That is, al-Katatny’s appointment was passed by the Wafd Party, which has a lot of Coptic Christians and secular Muslims in it, and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, as well as the Salafi Nur Party (the second-biggest). Nur and the Wafd will supply the two deputy speakers.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been attempting to become a central actor in Egyptian society and politics for many decades, so its dominance of this parliament is historic. As AP points out, they are avoiding triumphalism or extreme policies because they don’t want to provoke the kind of social conflict that occurred in Algeria in the 1990s after a Muslim religious party came to power at the polls there but was deposed by military intervention. Some 150,000 persons are said to have died in that fighting.
2. Thousands of political prisoners have been released in Tunisia, a year after dictator Zine El Abidin Ben Ali was overthrown. In addition, 122 prisoners on death row had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment by President Moncef al-Marzouqi, a human rights activist who had been exiled to France by his predecessor. He has pledged to work to abolish capital punishment.
3. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has left Yemen for Oman on his way to the United States for medical treatment. (He had been wounded in a bombing in summer, 2011). Before he departed, he gave a speech asking the people to pardon him for any mistakes committed during his three decades of rule. Saleh’s opponents have opposed the immunity from prosecution granted him by the plan of the Gulf Cooperation Council. He had said that he turned power over to his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who, however, complained that Saleh continued to interfere in the political process. On Sunday, Saleh is said to have finally relinquished all prerogatives to Hadi. Saleh says that he will return in February, as head of the General People’s Congress Party, which will contest the presidential election scheduled for that month. Hadi will be the standard bearer for the ruling party.
The Arabic press reports that on Sunday, tens of thousands of demonstrators came out at Change Square in Sanaa to demand that Saleh be tried for crimes he committed in the course of trying to put down the rallies of winter-spring, 2011.
4. Libya’s Transitional National Council is facing protests from activists in the country’s second largest city, Benghazi. That city was crucial to the movement that overthrew Qaddafi, but its residents say that they are the victims of neglect by the transitional government, which has a lot of former regime officials in it. In both Tunisia and Egypt, transitional prime ministers had to resign under pressure from democratic activists not satisfied with how much continuity there was from the old regime.
5. On Sunday, the Arab League called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down and to allow a government of national unity to guide the country to a new system. This plan sounds very much like the one adopted (or partially adopted) in Yemen. Al-Assad angrily rejected the suggestion as undue interference in Syria’s internal affairs.
It isn’t surprising that the Baath government castigated the Arab League for interfering. What is amazing is that the Arab League is attempting to suggest a way forward for Syria, out of its crises and gridlock. For decades the Arab League was a cypher. But under Secretary-General Nabil Alaraby, it has become an international organization of some importance. It called for the intervention against Qaddafi in Libya. Al-Assad has blown it off, treating it as if it was still divided and toothless, as in the past. He may be making a mistake. His strong alliance with Iran and the unsavory sight of all those sniping attacks on his own civilians has turned a lot of the Arab League against him.