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Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Quick Glance at Western Sahara

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

El-Sisi's Egypt: Stability at last, but at what price?

This is an article I wrote for the Student Center for African Research and Resolutions, a student think tank in Washington, D.C. Check them out at for more student-produced news regarding African affairs. This article can also be accessed in SCARR's blog section.

This article was originally published on July 25, 2014. 

A month ago, Egyptians headed to the polls to elect a new president after three years of instability and revolution. This time, it looks like the person elected is going to stick around. Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, a former Field Marshal in the Egyptian Army, was elected with a resounding 97 percent of the vote. Upon learning that Sisi had secured his victory, Egyptians celebrated in the same squares, including Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where they had protested in the last few years. Egypt finally seems to have suppressed the Islamist insurgency that arose in the Sinai peninsula after a coup deposed Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi. 
El-Sisi’s allies have stressed his devotion to making Egypt safe and secure again, but the long-serving soldier seems to be uninterested in establishing democracy in his country. Dozens of Al-Jazeerajournalists were detained earlier in the year and sentenced to four years in prison for “aiding the Muslim Brotherhood.” This sort of arbitrary jailing is what Moubarak did previously.

El-Sisi, however, has the ability to fundamentally change his country for the better if he wants to. Unfortunately for Egyptians, however, that may be unlikely. While Sisi has agreed to preside over parliamentary elections, he does not seem very receptive to the type of reform Egypt may find it needs.

And how long will Sisi’s popularity last? Stability is one goal, but how long will this last as well? It is still unknown whether Sisi will be an effective administrator or politician. Egypt is a rampantly corrupt country, with suffocating levels of bureaucracy.

The optimism of the Arab Spring is long gone. Of the countries where serious protests took place, only Tunisia seems to have put itself on the path to democracy. Algeria remains a military-controlled state. Libya is certainly more free than it was under Gaddafi, but lawlessness and tribal rivalries are still plaguing the country. Syria is still openly bleeding from civil war. Bahrain’s protests were suppressed by the monarchy. As of now, it’s Sisi’s choice whether he wants to make Egypt modern. Let’s just hope he changes his mind.

What's Keeping Libya Lawless?

This is an article I wrote for the Student Center for African Research and Resolutions, a student think tank in Washington, D.C. Check them out at for more student-produced news regarding African affairs. This article can also be accessed in SCARR's blog section.

This article was originally published on August 1, 2014. 

On July 26, 2014, the United States evacuated its embassy staff in Libya to next-door Tunisia, recommending that any Americans in the country also leave, citing heavy fighting between rival militias. It’s not the first time Americans have been in danger in this North African country: On the 11th anniversary of the September 11th attacks in New York and Washington, Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed as well as three other embassy staff in Benghazi, in a tragedy that is still shrouded in controversy in the United States. 
Libya, now a fledgling republic, was ruled for nearly 40 years by Muammar Gaddafi, a ruthless megalomaniac who was so infamously egotistical that British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen used him for inspiration in his movie “The Dictator.” Unfortunately, the pride and joy that came with the ousting of Gaddafi was short-lived. Since Gaddafi was ousted, the country’s weak and ineffective government has struggled to establish order.

Local militias which played a vital role in ousting Gaddafi have been trying to vie for influence since Gaddafi was ousted, paralyzing the interim government. Islamists and their liberal and nationalist rivals have been at odds since the end of Gaddafi’s regime, unable to cooperate on anything and undermining progress. Benghazi, a large city in the eastern part of the country, is hit by frequent bombings, and crime is frequent and hard to control.

It seems as if the only thing that united Libyans was hatred of Gaddafi. There’s a possibility that the country’s neighbors may help establish order, though. Tunisia, Libya’s neighbor to the west, has seemingly established a stable and progressing democracy. The Tunisian economy is stable and the presidential elections this year will serve as an important benchmark to see how far the country hasprogressed. To the east lies Egypt, and while President El-Sisi is not expected to be the most democratic of leaders, a stable Egypt may help the Libyan government establish its own authority. 

Music as a Unifying and Dividing Force in South Africa

This is an article I wrote for the Student Center for African Research and Resolutions, a student think tank in Washington, D.C. Check them out at for more student-produced news regarding African affairs. This article can also be accessed in SCARR's blog section.

This article was originally published on August 8, 2014. 

Apartheid has been gone for more than 20 years, but tensions still smolder in South Africa, and this can be seen in South African music. This is evident in the case of, Louis Andreas Pepler, an Afrikaner folk-rock musician who goes by Bok van Blerk. Van Blerk rose to fame in 2006 when he produced his own rendition of “De La Rey,” a patriotic Afrikaner song that praises the resilience and bravery of the Afrikaners, then known as Boers, under command of General Koos De La Rey in their resistance against the British in the Second Boer War.

De La Rey, De La Rey

sal jy die Boere kom lei? (will you come to lead the Boers?)
Generaal, Generaal, (General, General)
soos een man, sal ons om jou val, Generaal De La Rey 
(united we'll fall around you, General De La Rey)
Van Blerk is known for his patriotic songs such as “Ons vir jou, Suid-Afrika” (For thee, South Africa), and “Afrikanerhart,” and enjoys considerable popularity in his home country, especially among Afrikaners.
Van Blerk’s music, however, has become controversial, because of far-right Afrikaner groups in South Africa. Van Blerk’s music, particularly his song “De La Rey,” has been used by far-right groups like the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) as a call for Afrikaners to rise up against the “black majority government” and return to the “good old days” under apartheid. Sometimes, far-right groups sing it before or after “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika”, the old national anthem.

It’s important to remember that neither “De La Rey” nor “Die Stem” convey racism on their own. “Die Stem” is a hymn to South Africa that paints a picture of the country’s natural beauty and proclaims that the people will not falter when South Africa calls them to their duty. Both songs, unfortunately, are damned by context. Van Blerk does not encourage or condone the racist behavior, claiming “De La Rey” is only a song of pride in one’s people, rather than a call for revolution or a restoration of apartheid. He has stated he does not want to be associated with the old flag or other symbols of apartheid South Africa.

Of course, music can also unite people, and it most clearly does through the present South African national anthem. During his term in office, former President Nelson Mandela used music to unite his country by creating a new national anthem for his people. He merged the apartheid-era anthem Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The Call of South Africa) with Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika (God bless Africa), a song popular with anti-apartheid activists to create a rousing pentalingual hymn that is a prayer, a national showcase, and a call for unity all at once.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Rebuttal to The Nation's "Why is Washington Risking War with Russia?"

On July 30th, 2014, The Nation, a "weekly journal of opinion, featuring analysis on politics and culture founded in 1865" published an article titled "Why is Washington Risking War with Russia?", which you can read by clicking on the link. 

This article then appeared in the August 18th-25th edition of the magazine, and was written by Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen, who you can also read more about if you click on the links provided. 

In this entry I would like to provide a rebuttal to their recently published article by going through it paragraph by paragraph. From now on, the article's text is italicized, my writing is not. 

As The Nation has warned repeatedly, the unthinkable may now be rapidly unfolding in Ukraine: not just the new Cold War already under way but an actual war between US-led NATO and Russia.

First of all, there are no references or links to previous articles in this excerpt where The Nation claims they have been an active voice against further escalation of the insurgency in Ukraine. If you're going to claim that you've been warning your readers about something that could happen, it's a bit strange to then not provide those publications.  
Secondly, the pro-Russian insurgents have been steadily losing territory in Eastern Ukraine. Presently there are two rebel strongholds left: the Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukrainian troops have recently entered the city limits of Donetsk, where they are shelling, and have surrounded Luhansk, which has suffered greatly during this conflict. The premier of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" has resigned, according to ITAR-TASS, a Russian news source.

It is true that the Kremlin has been conducting larger military exercises near Ukraine's eastern border recently, but Russian military exercises near the border are not a new occurrence, so claiming the currently planned ones are an indication of escalation is ambiguous. In the previously mentioned article, NBC News claims "The West has criticized Russia for staging earlier military exercises near Ukraine."

The shoot-down of Malaysian jetliner MH17 on July 17 should have compelled the US-backed government in Kiev to declare a prolonged cease-fire in its land and air attacks on nearby cities in order to honor the 298 victims, give international investigators safe access to the crash site, and begin peace talks. Instead, Kiev, with Washington’s backing, immediately intensified its attacks on those residential areas, vowing to “liberate” them from pro-Russian “terrorists,” as it brands resisters in eastern Ukraine, killing more innocent people. In response, Moscow is reportedly preparing to send heavy weapons to the “self-defenders” of the Donbass.
I don't disagree with the desire to give respect to the victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight that was shot down over the Donbass. That is of great importance. However, that plane crashed near Torez, which, as of now, is either under rebel control or is very close to rebel-controlled territory. From Kiev's perspective, I would argue that a ceasefire would be strategically hurtful. It could give the rebels in the Donbass time to regroup, restock, and even grow in size, especially when they still hold two large cities (Donetsk's population is around 950,000, Luhansk about 420,000) in a region known for weapons production and a porous border nearby. Ukraine's army has the momentum in this fight as of now, I doubt they want to halt operations when they believe they are close to victory.   
Now, according to a story in The New York Times of July 27, the White House may give Kiev sensitive intelligence information enabling it to pinpoint and destroy such Russian equipment, thereby, the Times article also suggests, risking “escalation with Russia.” To promote this major escalation, the Obama administration is alleging, without firm evidence, that Russia is already “firing artillery from its territory into Ukraine.” Virtually unreported, however, is repeated Ukrainian shelling of Russia’s own territory, which killed a resident on July 13.

A quick google search of "Ukraine shells Russia" yields the information that this did indeed happen, in an article published by Reuters. In fact, the first sentence in the article explains that a Russian man was killed by the shell. To say this was "virtually unreported" when it was one of the first results in the search, reported by a widely cited American news agency, is misleading. Perhaps it didn't receive the coverage on television that it could have, but it was not "virtually unreported". 

In fact, Kiev has been Washington’s military proxy against Russia and its “compatriots” in eastern Ukraine for months. Since the political crisis began, Secretary of State John Kerry, CIA Director John Brennan and Vice President Joseph Biden (twice) have been in Kiev, followed by “senior US defense officials,” American military equipment and financial aid. Still more, a top US Defense Department official informed a Senate committee that the department’s “advisers” are now “embedded” in the Ukrainian defense ministry.

Indeed, Kiev cannot wage this war on its own citizens—a UN spokesperson says nearly 5,000 civilians have been killed or wounded, which may constitute war crimes—without the Obama administration’s political, economic and military support. Having also created hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees, Ukraine is bankrupt, its industrial infrastructure damaged, and it is in political disarray, using ultranationalist militias and conscripting men up to 60 years of age.
All of this is unfolding in the context of Washington’s misleading narrative, amplified by the mainstream media, that the Ukrainian crisis has been caused entirely by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “aggression.” In reality, his role has been mostly reactive:

First of all, to say "Kiev is waging a war against its own citizens" is misleading and even a bit insulting. Kiev is not waging this war to repress Ukrainian citizens, it is trying to take back control of a region that was forcibly pushed into scam independence referendums that very few in the international community recognized as legitimate and fair by violent pro-Russian rebels. Pew Research Centre indicates that a majority (70%) of Eastern Ukrainians, despite being understandably wary of the recent revolution, do not want to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia. Only 18% believed that Ukraine should allow regions to secede. 

Secondly, "aggression" and "reactive" are not mutually exclusive. Putin acted in an aggressive, reactive way, by sending Russian troops to grab de facto control of the Crimean peninsula in March and proceeding with an independence referendum that was boycotted by Crimean Tatars and again recognized by very few members of the international community. 

In November 2013, the European Union, with White House support, triggered the crisis by rejecting Putin’s offer of an EU-Moscow-US financial plan and confronting Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, with an unnecessary choice between “partnership” with Europe or with Russia. The proposal was laden with harsh financial conditions as well as “military and security” obligations. Not surprisingly, Yanukovych opted for a considerably more favorable financial offer from Putin. Imposing such a choice on the president of an already profoundly divided country was needlessly provocative.

If Yanukovych believed the union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan was more financially favorable to Ukraine as a whole, why did he tell Ukrainians that he would sign the deal with the European Union? 

By February, street protests against Yanukovych’s decision turned so violent that European foreign ministers brokered a compromise agreement tacitly supported by Putin. Yanukovych would form a coalition government; Kiev street militias would disarm; the next presidential election would be moved up to December; and Europe, Washington and Moscow would cooperate to save Ukraine from financial collapse. The agreement was overthrown by ultranationalist street violence within hours. Yanukovych fled, and a new government was formed. The White House quickly endorsed the coup.

Yes, the revolution did turn violent.  But who had the guns? Who was cheered by pro-Kremlin separatists in Crimea and by Putin supporters in Russia? Berkut (the riot police) was.

And yes, ultra-nationalists like the Svoboda (Freedom) political party and Right Sector exist in Ukraine. They're crass, anti-Russian, even Nazi-like at times and have brawled with other parliamentary factions in Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada. They do exist. But they are fringe parties in Ukraine. In the last presidential election in May, Oleh Tyhanybok of Svoboda won 1.16% of the vote and Dimitry Yarosh of Right Sector won 0.7% of the vote, despite very high turnout in Western Ukraine, which is more nationalistic than the east. 

Map of turnout in the 2014 Presidential Election (in Ukrainian). Credit to the original author Nazar.galitskyj

If any professional “intelligence” existed in Washington, Putin’s reaction was foreseeable. Decades of NATO expansion to Russia’s border, and a failed 2008 US proposal to “fast-track” Ukraine into NATO, convinced him that the new US-backed Kiev government intended to seize all of Ukraine, including Russia’s historical province of Crimea, the site of its most important naval base. In March, Putin annexed Crimea.

What is left out here is that Ukraine gave Crimea autonomy and allowed Russia to house its Black Sea Fleet there when it was under Ukrainian control. This article leaves out crucial information and conveys misleading messages.