BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for January 2011

Egypt's oligarchy determined to prevent true revolution

Mark Urban | 19:02 UK time, Monday, 31 January 2011

It is Egypt's oligarchs who will most likely decide the fate of President Hosni Mubarak.

They are the generals, businessmen, and political fixers who run the country, have prospered for decades at the expense of others, and have the most to lose from revolution.

These are the kind who told President Ben Ali of Tunisia that it was time to go (because their interests were threatened), and who to a considerable extent still wield power there, and suppress the demonstrations in Tunis that are now largely ignored by the foreign media.

By appearing with his security chiefs on TV on Sunday, Mr Mubarak sought to convince everybody that he retains the confidence of Egypt's oligarchy.

Their continued support has come at a price, including the appointment of Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief, as vice-president.

Gen Suleiman personifies Egypt's "permanent government".

As a former boss of the Mukhabarat intelligence service, he knows better than anyone what makes Egypt tick.

He played an important role in negotiating the ceasefire than ended Israel's Gaza War in 2009, and has extensive contacts with foreign diplomats, spymasters, and business leaders.

At the moment - and clearly events have been moving with great speed in the region, so this may change - Mr Mubarak is just hanging on, and the oligarchs have lined up a possible replacement in Gen Suleiman.

The army has secured key installations in Egypt's cities, and whatever support its members may feel for the country's unemployed or down trodden masses, the military has held together, without units going over en masse to the opposition.

The Egyptian army prefers to remain in this reactive role - its statement that it will not fire on the people makes plain it will not clear the streets.

If it was ordered, that task would most likely have to fall to the interior ministry's 400,000 strong paramilitary forces, who have re-emerged after spending the weekend in barracks.

So long as these forces - totalling nearly one million armed men - remain solid, the country's permanent government will not have to cede power.

They may choose a different front man; they may concede some tangible influence to a newly elected parliament; but they will prevent radical transformation of the country.

They will protect their economic privileges, and block any wholesale power grab by Islamic extremists.

If though the army, interior forces and Mukhabarat fracture, then a truly revolutionary situation may arise.

Mr Mubarak or his new vice-president might retain the support of the generals, but if the forces are placed in an untenable position - for example by having to mount a large scale violent crackdown - a revolt among middle ranking officer (such as colonels and majors) could ensue.

This was the type of change that brought radical transformation to Egypt and the wider Arab world in the 50s and 60s when "colonels' coups" spread from Cairo to Baghdad, Damascus and Tripoli, sweeping away an old elite.

Back in the 50 revolution brought a pan-Arab ideology to power: Baathism.

Today the vibrant currents of thought are Islamic, and democratic.

We can only guess whether the current events will produce a "1989 moment" in which democratic values spread out from Egypt, as they did from Berlin at the end of the Cold War, or a "1979 moment" involving an initially broad-based democratic revolution being hijacked by Islamists as it was in Iran.

But the people who would lose most from either course - the Cairo elite - will not give up easily.

Bargaining over political shibboleth of Palestinian right of return

Mark Urban | 18:03 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The latest release of the "Palestine Papers", as the Guardian is referring to the files it is publishing in co-operation with al Jazeera, concerns the refugee issue.

For many Palestinians, the right of return of those displaced by the 1948 and 1967 wars is one of the central issues of their national struggle.

Yet the papers, which are thought to have originated with the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit, show that in meetings, senior Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) officials considered options that would have allowed only a tiny minority of those spread across the Middle East to return to homes within Israel's internationally recognised borders - the so-called Green Line.

At one point, according to the documents, the Israelis proposed allowing just five thousand back. At another, the Palestinian chief negotiator appears to concede that no more than ten thousand could return.

There are more than four million Palestinians living outside Israel and the Occupied Territories who are refugees or might claim descent from them.

Those of us who have followed the negotiating process over the years have got to understand that no more than a small proportion of this diaspora could ever re-settle in Israel under a peace agreement.

I have spoken to quite a few Palestinians in Jordan or Lebanon who say they would not want to live in Israel anyway.

In the past, negotiators have hoped to deal with this issue by various formulas: financial compensation from Israel to those who could not go back; a "right of return" to the Palestinian state (rather than within the Green Line); re-settlement of those refugees who wanted it to third countries; the transfer of land within the Green Line to a future Palestinian state (and settling of some refuges on that land), and so on.

The problem for the PLO leadership is that the "right of return" has remained a political shibboleth for their movement for decades. No Palestinian leader wants to be seen selling out the refugees.

Those exposed by these leaks would of course argue that they were not selling out the refugees and that the kind of deal they were working on would have involved a package of options like those above.

The problem they face now is that many outside the Ramallah elite have never understood that the PLO was willing to negotiate on this principle, and that even those who did understand the idea of "give and take" might not have imagined that they would get such a bad deal.

In the briefings and conversations I had over the years (since the issue was first seriously discussed between Israel and the Palestinians at the Taba Talks of 10 years ago) we had heard figures of 30-100,000 refugees being allowed to go back, or of re-settlement in Canada or Australia.

We were also told that any eventual deal would be subject of a referendum in which Palestinians, including those in the camps, would have their say.

The leaked papers suggest that the number returning might be as low as 10,000, the third countries would include Chile and Argentina, and that the Palestinian chief negotiator told one European foreign minister that people in the camps would not get a vote after all.

Many questions arise from this, not least why did not Israel's centrist Kadima government that was offered these terms sign up as quickly as possible, if it was as interested in peace as it claimed to be.

Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland quips, "they didn't know how to take 'yes' for an answer".

In truth though, the Israelis are unlikely to feel the greatest heat as a result of these leaks.

The anger of many Palestinians, who have grown to expect nothing good from the Israelis, is being directed towards their own leadership for getting into such compromising terms in the first place.

Was it the leaker's intention to sweep away the PLO old guard? We simply don't know, but all they may have succeeded in doing is discrediting Palestinians who were ready to talk peace - and in surprisingly generous terms - at a time when there is no alternative leadership that believes in this type of compromise.

The legacy of North Africa's past monarchies

Mark Urban | 18:32 UK time, Monday, 17 January 2011

Looking into the history of monarchy in North Africa, I discovered that modern Tunisia has had one king, who lasted just over one year and was called, surreally given the flash in the pan nature of this reign, King Mohammad VII.

His tale and that of other monarchies in North Africa highlights why succession is such a problem.

For centuries, the Ottoman Empire ran the North African littoral through princelings known by various titles such as the Bey of Tunis or the Khedive of Egypt.

Almost all were pashas or generals and assumed the character of enforcers, collecting taxes and running affairs in return for a chance to milk their opportunity for riches.

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Since the hereditary principle had been abandoned by the Ottoman sultans (who felt that a man expecting his own son to take over might violate the will of God) their formula produced a situation that is all too familiar to many Arabs - constant intrigue, venality, power resting on armed force, and, most relevant in the light of events in Tunis, a complete uncertainty over who should take over when the old ruler disappeared.

This imperial legacy has produced one positive effect - stability in power.

Libya's leader has been at the helm since 1969 and Egypt's strongman for 30 years. Morocco, which boasts the region's last surviving monarch, has a king who has been on the throne for 11 years.

Mohammad VII of Tunisia was installed as bey by the French and then became king when the country declared independence in 1956.

Lacking the necessary support of the country's elite, he was elbowed aside by Habib Bourguiba whose strength in the independence movement and on the streets gave him the necessary clout to rule.

Mr Bourguiba was himself pushed out in 1987 by his prime minister, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The fate of these leaders gives some idea why many Tunisians were suspicious when the current prime minister declared himself "acting president" on Friday night.

He has since been superseded by the parliamentary speaker.

So far, it would appear that the key to exercising authority in Tunisia today is the support of the army. It retains greater public respect than the police or security service, both of which were seen as tools of Mr Ben Ali's repression.

Human rights groups have condemned the interim government announced today as a collection of Ben Ali placemen (including in the key security positions) with a sprinkling of opposition politicians in minor posts.

It is clear then both that nobody knows yet who will succeed Mr Ben Ali or whether the leader eventually appointed will come to power by ballot or by the ability to rally the forces necessary to suppress disorder on the streets.

And that is a reality that would have been all too familiar to the ineffectual King Mohammad VII.

Hezbollah escalate campaign against UN tribunal

Mark Urban | 16:24 UK time, Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The resignation of Hezbollah (and its principal Christian ally) from the Lebanese government has put the country on the proverbial knife edge.

It also shows how far the search for truth or justice - cherished concepts to people the world over - might lead to truly appalling consequences in this particular place.

The crisis hinges over the United Nations investigation into the assassination nearly six years ago of the then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. For months the rival factions have been bracing themselves for the results of this long inquiry, because it is widely believed that it will blame Hezbollah for killing the popular Sunni politician by detonating a truck bomb as his motorcade passed.

Hezbollah (literally the Party of God) is a real force to be reckoned with. It has representation in the Lebanese parliament, its own widely watched satellite TV station, champions the roughly one third of the population that is Shia, has a heavily armed and highly expert military force, and is Iran's principal ally in the eastern Mediterranean.

Mr Hariri's son Saad is now Prime Minister, and Hezbollah accuses him of 'mishandling' the investigation, which has been partly funded by Lebanon itself. Saad Hariri's personal position is mind boggling - after all what Hezbollah have done today is to walk out of his government because they are so angry about being accused of the assassination.

Hariri the younger now has to balance the good of the nation, including the avoidance of a possible new civil war, against his desire to see his father's murderers get their comeuppance. It has all the complexity and poignancy of a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy.

Hezbollah argues that the UN investigation has been hijacked by the Israelis who were themselves responsible for the 2005 killing. But since Wissam Eid, a Muslim Lebanese police captain, was responsible for gathering much of the key evidence, and the many Canadians, Belgians, and other sundry nationalities who carried out the investigation can hardly be accused of signing up en masse to an Israeli conspiracy, the Hezbollah line on this is not gaining much traction outside their south Beirut heartland.

Capt Eid was himself assassinated by a car bomb in 2008, and the UN is now investigating whether Hezbollah carried out that hit as well.

Many feel that the UN has dragged its heels on this investigation (started in 2007), and it's easy enough to understand the difficult moral equation of seeking justice for Rafik Hariri and the 21 others who perished with him in the blast, versus the potential of unleashing a civil war that might claim thousands of lives.

The Hague-based tribunal must now forward its dossier to a judge, who could then issue indictments against certain key individuals in the plot a few weeks later. So far, it has not been passed to the judge.

Several senior Hezbollah officials have been named in press reporting as likely candidates for charges relating to the assassination. However some sources close to the UN tribunal suggest that their evidence, a substantial amount of which relates to analysis of mobile phones used by the hit team and its controllers, does not provide the kind of hard evidence that can be used to prosecute individuals.

Whatever the shortcomings of the evidence though it is clear enough from the diplomatic dance we have seen in recent months, that major regional players from Saudi Arabia to Jordan, and Syria, are deeply worried that this crisis will set Lebanese Sunnis on a course for confrontation with the Shia community.

Lebanon's neighbours have sought, as has Prime Minister Saad Hariri himself, to get Iran to exert a moderating influence on Hezbollah.

With today's resignations, Hezbollah has escalated its political campaign against the UN tribunal. Their behaviour suggests they believe not only that the UN will accuse them, but that its charges could be detailed and credible. A new phase of this crisis has started - even if nobody has yet been publicly accused by the UN of murder.

What China stealth plane response reveals about US

Mark Urban | 15:56 UK time, Friday, 7 January 2011

It has been fascinating to see photographs of what is reported to be a new Chinese stealth fighter, the J-20.

Some US commentators have flagged it up as evidence that China is preparing to challenge American military dominance in the Pacific, and to me the treatment given to the photos overseas says more than the images themselves.

The Wall Street Journal website made the J-20 pictures their lead item a couple of days ago, and the Los Angeles Times has chosen to link the appearance of new Chinese weapons to the US defence secretary, Robert Gates' visit to that country this weekend.

It is all very reminiscent of the atmosphere in the mid-1980s, when grainy images of new Soviet weapons made front page news, and we tried to analyse what difference the new tank or plane would make to the global balance of power.

In the Cold War, releases of new data about Soviet hardware were all part and parcel of the Pentagon spending battle.

The financial implications of addressing some newly identified "capability gap", particularly when it involved ballistic missiles or bombers, could be colossal.

When it comes to the J-20 fighter, there has been some professional debate about whether the pictures depict an early test-bed or a viable technology that is about to enter service.

The US Director of Naval Intelligence this week was sanguine about the development, arguing that China is still several years away from having a production stealth fighter.

While I do not suspect a conspiracy in the appearance of these photos, I do think it is hardly a coincidence that they are receiving such prominent coverage in the same week that Mr Gates has been speaking about a $78bn cut to the Pentagon budget over the next five years.

As the budget battles turn uglier, we can expect more messages along the lines of "just look at what the Chinese are doing".

America's huge defence establishment needs purpose, and it is evident that the counter terrorist mission that provided it after the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 is fading in its potency.

Scares about Chinese military potential are not new - indeed one was touched off when an American plane was forced to land in China shortly after President George W Bush came to power.

In the 10 years since that incident, the al-Qaeda threat has dominated the scene.

Now, the increasingly fraught trading relationship with China is touching deep insecurities in the American psyche.

China's military capability, it is only fair to point out, has advanced markedly in the past decade too, with major spending increases and some impressive technological achievements.

There seems then to be a sort of glacial certainty to the Pentagon's increasing focus on China - a slow but inevitable shifting of horizons towards a new, defining, great power rivalry.

The only way that might stop now is if an even worse threat materialises, from a further 9/11 scale attack to the implosion of a state with nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan.

What does 2011 hold for the world?

Mark Urban | 17:16 UK time, Tuesday, 4 January 2011

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What does 2011 hold for the world? It's a huge question, of course. You can look at it in so many ways too - whether it's the political, military, cultural, economic, or even sporting world.

It is interesting though how far these very different streams of life intersect, as global power moves east and the world becomes more "multi-polar".

If you head for Mumbai this April for example, you will find the Cricket World Cup taking place in a city that's also famous for its movie industry, where the memory of the 2008 terrorist attacks will trigger a massive security operation - and it's happening in a country that is set to overtake China in its economic growth during the coming year.

There are other places too where the different strands of international activity will intersect, underlining the growing influence of certain key players, all of which (with the possible exception of Brazil) lie to the east of London.

Turkey will play host to talks later this month aimed at solving the Iranian nuclear stand off. That's an indicator of how they seek increasing international influence, at the same time that their economy is growing well and patterns of regional influence are changing.

One of the most salient things to emerge from the Wikileaks cables was how far the Middle East is struggling to deal with burgeoning Iranian influence.

Not only did we discover that key Gulf allies wanted the US to bomb the Iranian nuclear programme, but we also learnt of the American's inability to stop long range missiles being transferred to Hezbollah, how worried the Lebanese government is by that militant movement setting up its own shadow state with Iranian help, and that the Saudi foreign minister suggested sending an Arab brigade to Lebanon (with Nato backing!) to confront Hezbollah.

What all of this underlines is that we need to add to our traditional, "will America bomb Iran this year?" type question, one about whether Iran will use its growing influence to provoke confrontation in its own national interest.

This is one consequence of a more multi-polar world in which new actors exert their influence.

I was surprised last summer in the West Bank when one rejectionist of the American-sponsored peace process who I was talking to declared there would be no reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and the PLO leadership because Iran was using its power to prevent this.

The question of how far Iranian power can be contained through sanctions or other diplomatic means has become complicated in part because of that country's close relationship with China.

They are now major trading partners, and that limits the degree to which China will agree to any measures, for example in the United Nations Security Council, that are aimed at Iran.

It is of course the great power of the Chinese economy that provides the strongest eastwards force in world affairs.

One of the biggest questions of 2011 will be whether leaders in Beijing start to exert their influence more on the international stage.

The issue of whether their currency, the yuan, should be allowed to rise higher against the US dollar is of course primarily one of trade, but will tell us much about whether these two great nations are heading on the path to co-operation or confrontation.

China accepts in principle that the yuan needs to rise, but worries about the political as well as the economic effect of being seen to cave in to US pressure for a big alteration.

We've seen from the recent confrontation with Japan over the boarding of a fishing vessel, that China is increasingly sensitive about any kind of international humiliation.

Where does all this leave the "old powers" of the US and Europe?

Pushed out of the international driving seat more often, and, if they are not careful, surprised more often by world developments.

A more multi-polar world may seem fairer - particularly after a decade when the US was regarded as a sole "hyper-power" - but it will certainly be harder to read, and even to describe.

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