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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Yemen's Houthi Takeover: No Laughing Matter

Recently, the small state of Yemen on the southernmost end of the Arabian peninsula fell victim to a coup d'etat which saw the Houthis, a terrorist group, take control of the government in the capital of Sanaa. To put it lightly, these are not a happy bunch.

The Houthi insignia. The Arabic script reads "God is Greatest. Death to America. Death to Israel. Damn the Jews. Victory to Islam." 

Not a pleasant greeting, is it? This is the rise of a barbaric fundamentalist group like Islamic State and Boko Haram. This group has effectively taken control of the already vulnerable government and the results could be disastrous for the already-suffering Yemeni people. 

Yemen is, by several notches, the poorest country in the Middle East, owing largely to its lack of oil and underdeveloped economy. For years after unification of the traditional northern part of the country and the communist south, Yemen had been under the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh governed as an autocrat for many years, and he was eventually removed from power in the Arab Spring protests, but his replacement, Abd Mansur Mansur Hadi, had much difficulty reforming the military and keeping terrorist groups at bay. Hadi was a pro-American Sunni leader.  

Yemen's tribal differences, poverty, and strong presence of fundamentalists make it an extremely dangerous and unstable country. It certainly doesn't help that the Houthi insurgency has adopted such a menacing motto-it's reminiscent of groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It's yet to be determined if terrorist groups like the Houthis and Al-Qaeda are going to establish themselves as the rulers of Yemen and ally with these groups in other countries, and the United Nations is working to try to prevent that.

Despite these problems, Yemen has not disintegrated into total anarchy...yet. Hadi was able to resign in a relatively quiet and nonviolent manner and Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, a top aide of Hadi's was released Tuesday. 
Even though Yemen is not a very strong country in the region, it's a country that could have a very profound negative effect on the rest of the region if it descends further into anarchy. There exists considerable speculation that the Houthis are funded and supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran, as they are both subscribers to Shi'a Islam and fiercely anti-American in rhetoric.

On the northern border of Yemen lies Iran's not-so-friendly rival, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a Sunni absolute monarchy which competes with Iran for regional influence.  Saudi Arabia considers the Houthis a terrorist group and has deployed troops against then in the past. Al-Qaeda is an enemy of the Houthis as they are Sunni.

This presents a difficult conundrum for countries like the United States, who backs the recently-resigned government. The USA will likely continue to conduct drone strikes against Al-Qaeda, but it must be careful as to how it conducts itself as to the Houthis. If the US negotiates with them, relations with Saudi Arabia may sour, and if they refuse to work with the Houthis, the detente pursued with Iran by both Washington and Tehran may be hurt.

The greatest threat, however, may be the rise of other terrorist groups and what the Houthis may do in relation to Islamic State, Boko Haram. It's true that IS was just driven out of the Syrian/Kurdish border town of Kobane in a very symbolic victory, but they still control considerable territory in the Middle East. Boko Haram is taking over swaths of northern Nigeria, and part of the reason for their success is the poverty of the northern part of the country. The Houthis could amass control of Yemen quickly if they're able to fend off al-Qaeda and enemy tribes.

Yemen must act quickly and decisively if it is to avoid an all-out civil war, or at least win one should it arise. But the divided and impoverished state of this country is going to make this extremely difficult and may require international support. This in itself is a problem with the outrage over American drone strikes-and the Houthis could use this to their advantage.

There is also a separatist movement in the south which may use this upheaval to break the country in two once again-Yemen has only been a unified state since 1990.

It's sad to see this country, with its rich and somewhat unknown history, to see this violence and hardship. Yemen has long been a crossroads between Africa and the Arab world, and has many ancient cities, centers of the Ayyubid and Rashulid dynasties, where buildings remain as they were hundreds of years ago.

Further news here:

Friday, January 23, 2015

Finding Russia's Koštunica

Slobodan Milošević, Serbia's nationalist president who presided over the fall of Yugoslavia and the hellish Balkan Wars of the 1990s, was ousted by a coalition of political parties in Serbia and with the help of the grassroots, nonpartisan protest group Otpor! (Resistance!) in October of 2000.


Left: The symbol of Serbian protest organization Otpor.
Center: Otpor supporters after the Yugoslav presidential election with banners claiming "Gotov Je!" ("It's over!" or "He's (Milosevic) finished!")
Right: Vojislav Ko

His successor was the head of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, Vojislav Koštunica. Today, Serbia has continued and progressed as a democratic state, seemingly on its way to joining the European Union

Serbia's revolution was gradual, popular, and done peacefully through the power of the ballot box.

To the east, in one of Serbia's traditional allies and its "big brother", the Russian opposition is weak, fractured, and distrusted today. It's hard to believe today that not long ago (2011-2012) Russia saw considerable protests against the Putin government.

Between 2008 and 2012, Russia was ruled by President Dimitri Medvedev, who appointed his predecessor Vladimir Putin to the post of Prime Minister. Medvedev was Putin's hand-picked successor and rode Putin's high level of popularity to an easy victory in the 2008 presidential election.

Trouble started to brew in December 2011 when parliamentary election results came in. United Russia, Putin's political party, lost a considerable amount of seats but retained its majority in the Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament. The elections were considered fraudulent by both international and domestic observers, and Russians took to the streets in protest.

The protests, though considerably large and widespread throughout Russia, failed to capitalize on Putin's weakened party. Putin secured an easy victory in the 2012 presidential election.

Since then, protests in Russia have been mostly small, infrequent, and broken up by OMON. President Putin's approval rating skyrocketed when Russia annexed Crimea and has stayed high since, despite mounting economic problems.

Russia is in crisis, though, and the partiotic flourish that came with the annexation of Crimea has been replaced with uncertainty over the faltering economy.

Is Russia due for an electoral revolution in the future? And is there a Russian Koštunica waiting in the wings?

The short answer is not now. Putin's popularity among the Russian people is much too strong and the opposition too weak and fractured to remove Putin from office.

But could it happen in the near future? Could Russia have its own "Otpor!" movement? 

Of course it could, but it'd be an uphill battle for the Russian opposition. It depends very heavily on where Putin takes Russia in the next three years of his third term as president.

Vladimir Putin is up for re-election in April of 2018, with legislative elections coming in 2016. In Serbia, the legislative elections happened after the presidential election. Since Koštunica was elected before the National Assembly, his party's popularity benefited from presidential support.

This presents a challenge. The State Duma of the Russian Federation has a total of 450 seats. 238 belong to Putin's United Russia, 92 to the Communist Party, 64 to A Just Russia, and 56 to the political party formerly known as the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

The four parties that are not Putin's are not quite a real opposition to Putin as in your typical American or European democracy. It's not uncommon for the other parties to vote with United Russia unanimously.

In theory, the Russian opposition could target MPs that belong to these parties in the 2016 election. Since they are not United Russia, their MPs could be easier to campaign against.

The problem here, though, is that the Russian opposition doesn't have the resources or the influence to run multiple campaigns against the Duma establishment. When popular opposition figure Aleksei Navalny tried to run for Mayor of Moscow, it proved unsuccessful.

An alternative and more gradual way to target the Duma elections could be to to mobilize a watchdog campaign to bring corruption and irregularities to the forefront. Russians moved to speak out against their government the last time they perceived corruption in their legislative elections, and if economic problems continue to mount in Russia as a result of sanctions and capital flight,

Any organization, campaign, or initiative whose aim is to expose Putin's corruption and authoritarian rule will have to be able to deal with crackdowns from the government. It will have to be able to decentralize and make its presence felt in cities all over Russia, rather than just in Moscow or St. Petersburg. This may not shift the power in Russia overnight but it could shift the political conversation in Russia with the 2018 election approaching.

The Russian opposition is also lacking a leader. The Democratic Opposition of Serbia found Kostunica, who was able to gain credibility among liberals and nationalists (similar to the 2011-2012 protests and the unexpected coalition that developed between nationalists and liberals there, as seen with the rise of Aleksei Navalny). DOS was also a big-tent party that brought together many types of people under one banner, which helped trust grow.

Is Navalny Russia's Kostunica? Probably not. Navalny is constantly being hounded by the Kremlin and brought up on trumped up charges which most recently landed his brother Oleg in prison. Unless he was able to prove his innocence and grow his presence on television (the primary source of political media in Russia) he could have potential, but his history and brushes with the Russian authorities could be a substantial liability.

Vojislav Kostunica also scored some support with Serbia's ethnic minorities of Croats, Bosniaks, and Kosovar Albanians which, next to Milosevic, resonated with them. Russia has large ethnic minorities all over the country, and while they have considerable autonomy to run their own affairs outside the Kremlin's control, (hence the name Russian Federation-and the distinction between Russki (ethnic Russian) and Rossiski (citizen of Russia) ) Ethnic minorities could be an untapped goldmine of support for an opposition force if they're appealed to properly, and they are all over Russia.

It's also important to note that Vojislav Kostunica was not Europe's or America's ideal politician (though he was certainly a better alternative to Milosevic in the eyes of the west). He was critical of both the United States and Europe during his campaign, and this was helpful to his campaign-Milosevic was not able to paint him as a traitorous or unpatriotic politician, and Kostunica was actually able to pilfer some support from Milosevic's base of Serbian nationalists. Distrust of the United States exists in Russia just as it did (does) in Serbia, and some criticism of the US and EU would lend credibility to the opposition within Russia.

In Serbia, Otpor used the recent conflicts to mobilize discontent with the Milosevic government-Russian opposition figures can do the same.

Russia can be democratic without a Saakashvili or a Poroshenko at the helm of the Kremlin. A Kostunica, however, could be the stepping stone to long-term democracy.  

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Saudi Game of Thrones

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may be heading towards a transfer of power soon as its monarch, King Abdullah ibn Abdilaziz, is sick with pneumonia.

King Abdullah is 91 years old, though he looks considerably younger. He formally ascended the Saudi throne in August 2005 after King Fahd died from complications from a stroke. Abdullah has been the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since 1995.

Saudi Arabia has long been one of the most powerful states in the Middle East. Its vast oil reserves have made it an influential power in the world and made its people rich. The country has embarked on extravagant and ambitious building projects and is currently in the process of constructing a building that when finished will dwarf the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Artist's rendition of the planned Kingdom Tower in Jeddah. (Wikipedia) 

Saudi Arabia is also home of two of Islam's most holy cities-Mecca and Medina. Mecca is the city where faithful Muslims must travel (if they are financially able) for their Hajj (pilgrimage), one of Islam's Five Pillars. Medina is the city where the Prophet Mohammed was buried and is second only to Mecca in its holiness. The King of Saudi Arabia is known by the title Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, referencing those in Mecca and Medina. 

Muslims performing the Hajj at Mecca's Al-Masjid Al-Haram (The Sacred Mosque)

The Saudi government, unfortunately, is one of the most repressive in the world. It is an absolute monarchy where strict Sharia law is the basis for legal policy in the country. Women are badly marginalized by the Saudi government's repression, perhaps most infamously when it surfaced that they are not allowed to drive. Saudis do not enjoy many of the same civil and political rights that are taken for granted in other countries. Recently, a blogger named Raif Badawi was given a sentence of flogging and imprisonment for "insulting Islam".

Saudi Arabia's monarchy is unique in that power is not handed to the son of the outgoing monarch-it passes to the next brother of the outgoing monarch instead.

The problem that could arise in this situation is not with Abdullah, but with his successors. 
Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is next in line to Abdullah. He is 79 years old and there are speculations that he is suffering from Alzheimer's. 

If Salman does not become the next king, the next option that's been brought up is Muqrin, the former director of Saudi intelligence from 2005 to 2012. He is relatively young by Saudi monarchy standards at 69. His problem is his lineage-he was born from a Yemeni woman and could be considered unfit for the throne since she was, at a certain point in time, a servant to the Saudi royal family. 

The Saud royal family has dozens of brothers to vie for the throne, and if problems arise with the looming transfer of power, the kingdom could collapse in on itself. 

Even if the transition away from King Abdullah goes smoothly, the large amount of brothers that are close to the throne could create problems for Saudi Arabia's stability, as even though the monarchy is repressive, it is a uniting force and has been for many decades. Tribalism, which is largely kept under wraps by the current government, could emerge as a force to destroy what unity exists in Saudi Arabia. 

This does not mean Saudi Arabia's going to descend into anarchy as soon as King Abdullah dies, nor does it mean that western-style democracy is right around the corner. The United Arab Emirates operates smoothly despite stark tribal differences by way of a decentralized and autonomy-rich system where tribal heads exercise substantial power rather than the national government. The government in Riyadh was able to quickly and decisively stop protests from developing in the country while the Arab Spring spread like wildfire to other Middle Eastern countries. 

The best avenue for Saudi Arabia to ensure a smooth transfer of power is likely to slowly move more power to the Consultative Assembly, increase female representation and work towards gender equality, and introduce reforms to the strict code of Sharia law the country passes. The country would also benefit from extensive economic reform, as its planned economy, currently dominated by oil, will last much longer if it is diversified and expanded through the market and different industries. 

The strict policy against Islamism in Saudi Arabia is odd, considering the country's extensive use of Sharia law to govern. Religious conservatism is likely going to continue to play a role in Saudi Arabia in the years to come even if the government does change for the future-and this may not be a bad thing for the Saudi people, who are quite religious, but the religious police that work in Saudi Arabia are a liability and a problem, and some degree of separation between religious and state affairs may open Saudi Arabia up culturally. 

Further Reading: