16 June 2013
Iran: The New Broom?
By Gwynne Dyer
You certainly can’t say that Iranian elections are boring. In 2005, Iranians surprised everybody by electing the darkest of dark horses, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the presidency. They didn’t know much about him, but at least he seemed different from all the establishment candidates.
Well, he was different, but not in a good way. By the 2009 election Ahmadinejad’s erratic and confrontational style had turned people off, and he should have lost – but he rigged the vote and triggered mass protests that badly frightened the regime before they were crushed.
Term limits prevented Ahmadinejad from running again this year, which meant that last Friday’s election was clean. So the Iranians pulled off another surprise, electing Hassan Rouhani, the only moderate candidate among the six contenders, to the presidency in the first round. Rouhani got 50 percent of the votes; his closest rival got only 16 percent.
The foreign reaction to Rouhani’s victory was instantaneous. The United States offered to open direct talks with Tehran on Iran’s nuclear programme as well as on bilateral relations. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, by contrast, predictably warned that there should be no “wishful thinking” about Rouhani’s victory. So what is he: new broom, or another disappointment in the making?
Especially in the past week, after the “reformist” leadership decided he was the least bad alternative and threw its weight behind him, Rouhani has been saying some interesting things. “What I truly wish is for moderation to return to the country,” he told the reformist daily Sharq last Wednesday. “We have suffered many blows as a result of extremism.”
“It seems that extremists on both sides are determined to maintain the state of hostility and hatred between (the United States and Iran),” he told another newspaper on Thursday, “but logic says that there should be a change of direction.” And he repeatedly promised that both the nuclear issue and the resulting economic sanctions against Iran would be solved if he became president.
Fine words, but he said most of them AFTER the reformists lost hope for a victory themselves and gave Rouhani their support instead. But he is still really an insider, a man whose whole life has been dedicated to preserving the present political order in Iran.
On the other hand, so are Mohammad Khatemi and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the two ex-presidents who gave him their backing. They are now seen as reformers because circumstances change, and so do people’s views. All these men are still determined to preserve Iran’s unique combination of theocracy and democracy, but they understand the need to shift the balance towards democracy, and also to deliver a reasonable level of prosperity to the voters.
You might think that Rouhani’s highest priority, therefore, must be to end the sanctions that are crippling Iran’s economy and impoverishing ordinary voters. Not so: trust comes first. In order to retain credibility with the people who voted for him, he must first release Iran’s political prisoners.
There are at least 800 political prisoners in Iran. Most are people who participated in the “green” protests against the rigged election of 2009, but journalists, human rights activists, feminists and leaders of all the minority religions in Iran (Christians, Sunni Muslims and Bahai) are also in jail. Even amidst great economic hardship, that is what the crowds in the streets celebrating Rouhani’s victory were demanding most urgently.
After that, of course, he must make a deal with the Western countries that have waged a long campaign on Israel’s behalf against Iran’s alleged intention to build nuclear weapons. That is not an impossible task, for Iran is certainly not working on nuclear weapons at the moment: the US National Intelligence Estimates of 2007 and 2011 both say so, and even the Israeli intelligence chiefs agree.
The whole campaign against Iran is based not on evidence but on mistrust: the conviction in some Western quarters (and most Israeli ones) that if Iran can enrich uranium, the “mad mullahs” are bound to build and use nuclear weapons in the end. But it is Iran’s right to build nuclear reactors and enrich fuel for them under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it has signed and still observes.
Many in the West are privately uneasy about waging a campaign against Iran’s quite legal nuclear power programme when their own ally, Israel, has not signed the NPT and secretly possesses hundreds of nuclear weapons. Now that motor-mouth Ahmedinejad is gone and a saner leader is about to take the reins in Tehran, there could be a deal on the nuclear issue.
It would be a deal that preserves the country’s right to enrich uranium, but strengthens the controls against enrichment to weapons grade (90 percent). As with the question of releasing political prisoners, however, Rouhani must first get the assent of the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei, as the head of the theocratic side of the government, has the power to veto everything. On the other hand, he also wants to preserve this strange two-headed beast called the Iranian revolution, and he knows that if it does not retain popular consent it will eventually die. Western sanctions are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees, and people are really hurting. So maybe Khamenei will let Rouhani and his backers save him.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 10. (“Fine…voters”; and “There are…urgently”)
13 June 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
As I write this Nelson Mandela is still with us. He may even still be living at the end of this year. But this is his fourth hospitalisation in six months, and the prognosis for 94-year-old men with persistent lung infections is not good. How will South Africa do without him?
Wrong question, actually. In practice, South Africa has been doing without him for more than a decade already – but psychologically, it is just now getting to grips with the reality that he will soon be gone entirely.
For all its many faults and failures, post-apartheid South Africa is a miracle that few expected to happen. Although Mandela retired from the presidency in 1999, fourteen years later he is still seen as the man who made the magic work, and somehow the guarantor that it will go on working. If only in some vague and formless way, a great many people fear that his death will remove that safety net.
Just in the past two weeks, however, the tone of the discussion has begun to change. On hearing that Nelson Mandela had been admitted to hospital yet again, Andrew Mlangeni, one of his dearest friends and once a fellow-prisoner on Robben Island, said simply: “It’s time to let him go. The family must release him, so that God may have his own way with him…Once the family releases him, the people of South Africa will follow.”
That one comment opened the floodgates, for it had a strong resonance in traditional African culture, which holds that a very sick person cannot die until his family “releases” him. They have to give him “permission” to die, by reassuring him that his loved ones will be fine when he’s gone. So South Africans must now accept that they can get along without Nelson Mandela, and then he will be free to go.
It’s not that everybody really believes in this tradition, but it frames the conversation in more positive and less distressing way. People can argue about whether or not South Africa is doing as well as it should, but they can at least agree that Mandela got the country safely through the most dangerous phase of the transition, and that they can carry on with the job of building a just and democratic society without him.
Except for President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, of course. Mugabe has always deeply resented the fact that Nelson Mandela is revered as the father of his nation while he himself is seen as a vicious tyrant who has ruined his country. So he seized the opportunity of a recent high-profile interview on South African television to accuse Mandela of having failed in his duty to South Africa’s black majority: he had been too soft on the whites.
What would have particularly annoyed Mandela, if he was well enough to watch the show, was that the interviewer was Dali Tambo, the son of his oldest and most trusted ally, the late Oliver Tambo. As young lawyers, the two men co-founded South Africa’s first black-run legal office in 1952, and when Tambo became the president-in-exile of the African National Congress he made Mandela’s release from prison its highest priority.
Dali Tambo is another kettle of fish: a flamboyant man who has traded on his family name to forge a career as a TV interviewer. He has his own soft-focus interview show, “People of the South,” and recently he persuaded Robert Mugabe to give him a two-hour interview. In the course of it,
Mugabe dismissed Mandela as “too much of a saint.”
“Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of blacks,” the Zimbabwean dictator said. “That’s being too saintly, too good, too much of a saint.”
Nonsense. What Nelson Mandela and his white negotiating partner, F.W. De Klerk, were trying to avoid in the early 1990s was a South African civil war that would have killed millions and lasted for a very long time. The 20 percent white minority were heavily armed, and they had nowhere else to go. Their families, for the most part, had been in South Africa for at least a century.
Therefore, a settlement that gave South Africa a peaceful (and hopefully prosperous) democratic future had to be one in which the whites still had a future. So you either make the kind of deal that Mandela and De Klerk made, in which nobody loses too much, or you submit to a future that would make the current civil war in Syria look like a tea party.
And by the way, Mugabe was making his remarks in a country whose economy has been so devastated by his “tougher” approach that fully one-quarter of the population has fled abroad in search of work, mostly to South Africa.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, talking about Mandela’s inevitable death, said last week: “The best memorial to Nelson Mandela would be a democracy that was really up and running: a democracy in which every single person in South Africa knew that they mattered.” That is still some distance away, but Mandela has laid the foundations. He was the right man for the job: a saint who also understood realpolitik.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 13. (“What would…saint”; and “And by…Africa”)
10 June 2013
Sir Eric Griffith-Jones, the attorney-general in the British colony of Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau rebellion, was a sensitive soul who worried that the torture and murder of detainees in the prison camps where suspected Mau Mau supporters were being held was “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.” So he wrote the governor in 1957, warning him that “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.”
It stayed quiet for a long time – so quiet that many British people were able to believe that their empire had somehow been nicer than the others. But empires are tyrannies by definition, built by violence and maintained by fear, and the British empire in Africa was no exception. Half a century late, the British government has finally been forced to admit that.
The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in 1952-60 was suppressed with great brutality. The Kenya Human Rights Commission estimates that 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed in British prison camps during the “Emergency”, but nobody was ever punished for the horrors that happened there, and none of the victims ever got an apology. Until now.
By 2011, the Kenyan survivors of the camps were mostly in their 80s and dying off fast, and the few people in the British Foreign Office who even remembered that ugly episode probably assumed that the shameful details would be buried with them. But then five survivors of the camps lodged a claim against Britain for compensation, on behalf of some 6,000 victims who were still alive, and the whole can of worms was re-opened.
The British government used every legal trick in the book to avoid admitting liability. It even claimed that the victims should be seeking compensation from the Kenyan government, not from Britain, since that government inherited all of London’s legal responsibilities when Kenya got its independence in 1963. (Is there any limit to the cynicism and hypocrisy of governments bent on covering things up? Perhaps, but it has not yet been discovered.)
When that claim was rejected by the courts, the British government claimed that no fair trial was possible since it was all too long ago: there would be “irredeemable difficulties” in finding relevant witnesses and documents. We’d love to help you, but alas there are no records.
Then the lawyers for the claimants discovered that the government had been concealing the existence of an enormous secret archive, some 8,000 files from 37 former British colonies, which had been removed from the Public Records Office and stored elsewhere. It was hidden precisely because it documented the various crimes and atrocities that the British imperial authorities committed while trying to suppress various independence movements.
In the end, after a court battle so long that two of the five lead claimants died, the British government concluded that it didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. Last week it announced an out-of-court settlement that gave some 5,228 Kenyan survivors of the camps compensation of about $5,700 each. It also agreed to pay the $9 million legal costs that the claimants had run up while the government lied, stalled and stonewalled.
Foreign Secretary William Hague even said that “the British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place” – but he stressed that the British government was not admitting any legal liability for the actions of the British colonial administration in Kenya. It just felt bad about what had happened to those poor old Kenyans long ago, and wanted to make them feel better by giving them some money.
Well, no, he didn’t actually say that last sentence, but why couldn’t he bring himself to say “it was our fault and we’re really sorry for what we did”? Because there are half a dozen other claims waiting to be submitted by the victims of other atrocities during Britain’s long retreat from empire.
There are the relatives of Malaysian villagers who were massacred by British troops in 1948. There are the Greek-Cypriots who fought against British rule in the 1950s and were imprisoned without trial; they claim that many were tortured and executed in the camps. There could even be claims from Yemen, where an Amnesty International report documented torture and genital mutilation of detainees during the revolt against British rule in Aden in the 1960s.
The British government’s strategy is the same in every case: deny, dissimulate, and delay. Hague’s refusal to admit liability, even as he pays off the Kenyan claimants, is part of that larger strategy. And the Foreign Office has already said that any future claims may be dealt with under the controversial secret court system established by the new Justice and Security Act, which comes into effect next month. If you don’t like the law, change it.
It’s that magic word “security” again. So will the Russian government ever offer compensation and apologies to all the people it has illegally detained and tortured in Chechnya over the past twenty years? Will the US government ever make restitution to all the people it has held without trial in places like Bagram and Guantanamo, or handed over to its allies for more imaginative torture than it can do in its own prisons? Don’t hold your breath.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 7. (“The British…movements”)
5 June 2013
Paris 1968, Istanbul 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s certainly not another version of the “Arab Spring”; Turkey is a fully democratic country. It’s not just a Middle Eastern variant of the Occupy movement, either, although the demands of the huge crowds who have occupied the centre of Istanbul and other Turkish big cties are equally diffuse and contradictory.
It’s more like the student uprising in Paris in May, 1968, although most of the demonstrators in Turkey are neither Marxists nor students. Like the Paris demos, it began over local issues and has rapidly grown into a popular revolt against an elected government that is deeply conservative, increasingly autocratic, and deaf to all protests.
The original issue was Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s plan to destroy Istanbul’s Gezi Park in order to build a new shopping mall in a city that already has far too many. The park is the only green space in the newer part of downtown, north of the Golden Horn, and covering it over with yet more shops was bound to meet with some resistance.
Erdogan, in cahoots with the developers as usual, assumed that the plan to include a mosque in the new mall would placate his own supporters, while the plan to make the exterior of the mall a replica of an old Ottoman barracks that had once stood on the site would assuage everybody else’s unhappiness at the loss of the park. He was wrong.
At the start of the protest, on 27 May, only a few hundred people occupied the park. It might all have petered out if the police had not attacked them with clubs and tear gas last Friday night, burning their tents after they fled. The protesters came back in far larger number the next day, and the same thing happened again. By the third night, city centres were being occupied all over Turkey, and it wasn’t just about Gezi Park any more.
Prime Minister Erdogan, leaving for a tour of several Arab countries on Monday, dismissed the protests as the work of “a few looters” and “extremist elements”, and said he’d sort it out after he got back on Friday. Unruffled, you might call him – just as you would have described French President Charles De Gaulle in the first days of the 1968 revolt in France.
It’s been a week, and the protesters have not quit. Meanwhile, in Erdogan’s absence, his closest colleagues have been conciliatory. President Abdullah Gul said “the messages sent in good faith have been received,” and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said “The use of excessive force against the people who initially started this protest…was wrong.”
But what is it really about? After all, Prime Minister Erdogan has led his moderate Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AK), to three successive wins in national elections, each time with a bigger share of the vote. He has presided over a decade of high-speed economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty, and he has finally forced the army out of politics. Why don’t they love him?
Some do, but many people think he has got too big for his boots. Erdogan retains the support of the pious and deeply conservative peasants and recent immigrants to the cities who make up the bulk of his supporters, but he wouldn’t have won without the backing of secular, urban voters who saw him as the best chance to expel the army from politics and put Turkish democracy on a firm footing. He has now lost their trust.
He won it by promising that his government would not shove conservative Islamic values down everybody else’s throats, and until recently he kept his promise. But his last election victory, in which he got 50 percent of the vote in a multi-party race, has emboldened him to believe that he can ignore his erstwhile secular supporters.
He has pushed through new laws restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol. Despite the misgivings of most Turks, he enthusiastically supports the Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria, as part of a broader strategy of re-establishing the political and economic dominance that the Ottoman Empire once enjoyed in the Sunni Arab world.
He even insists on naming the proposed third bridge across the Bosphorus after the 16th century Ottoman ruler, Yavuz Sultan Selim, who is notorious for massacring tens of thousands of Turkey’s Alevi religious minority. Around a quarter of Turkey’s population are Alevis, and they have not forgotten. Once Erdogan could play public opinion like a violin; now he is arrogant and tone-deaf.
So where does this end up? Not with the overthrow of Turkey’s elected government, and probably not in a military coup either. Most likely there will be apologies, and some government concessions, and the turbulence will subside. Erdogan will not even be removed as AK party leader right away, though some of his senior colleagues now clearly see him as a liability.
The protesters in Paris in May, 1968 didn’t get what they wanted right away either. Indeed, like the protesters in Gezi Park today, they weren’t even sure exactly what they wanted. But 11 months later Charles De Gaulle resigned, and France has never since had to cope with the problem of a Strong Man in power.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 12. (“Erdogan…wrong”; “It’s been…wrong”; and “He even…deaf”)