Political Comment (21 May 2012)
If the Syrian regime is looking shaky, the opposition is looking downright chaotic. Talk of greater integration amongst the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council has elicited an angry response in Tehran. Syria has given an unconventional account of the results of its recent parliamentary election, while Algerians have returned the FLN to power. Iraq is pressing ahead with the trial in absentia of Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi.
Syrian Opposition Splinters
The three-day meeting of the Syrian National Council (SNC) – the fractious opposition umbrella group set up last August – which began in Rome on 12 May was intended to demonstrate the SNC's cohesion and credibility, but ended up doing the opposite. First off the group announced on 14 May that it would not participate in a meeting organized by the Arab League in Cairo on 16-17 May because, according to SNC executive council member Ahmad Ramadan, the Arab League "has not invited the group as an official body but as in- dividual members." However, according to an SNC statement, the group rejected the Cairo talks because it believed they were aimed at encouraging negotiations with the Asad regime, and "no negotiations can be held properly unless their aim is the end of the dictatorship and moving the country to democratic rule." Next, after the SNC's secretariat reelected Burhan Ghalioun for a further three-month term as president on 15 May, prominent liberal dissident Fawaz Tillo announced his resignation from the group because of its failure to introduce democratic reforms and unify the opposition. "I left Syria three months ago to help the council be servant of the revolution and transform it into a democratic model," Mr Tillo said in a statement. "But the efforts that I and others have been making have been thwarted by the personal ambitions of those holding the reins of the council." The SNC then hit back at Mr Tillo on 16 May by claiming that he had never been a member of the group, saying in a statement that "after reviewing its membership list" it had concluded that "Tillo is not a member of the council and had not attended any of its meetings." And to cap it all, Mr Ghalioun himself offered to step down on 17 May when he said that "I declare my resignation as soon as a replacement is found through elections or consensus…I am not ready to be a cause for division. The revolution is above personalities."
GCC Integration And Iran
The further political, economic and military integration of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman – was on the agenda of the GCC summit in Ri- yadh on 14 May, a proposal widely seen as part of a Saudi campaign to counter Iran's growing influence and discontent among Arab Shi'as on the southern shore of the Gulf (and particularly in Bahrain). However, the leaders were apparently unable to agree on anything specific and instead resorted to the time-honored mechanism of referring the issue to a committee, with the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Sa'ud al-Faisal, an- nouncing that the summit had "approved the call for a commission to continue studying in order to present final results" to the next summit in Bahrain in December. Prince Sa'ud also scotched reports that Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were on the verge of uniting, saying that "there was no step to have a special relationship between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, although both countries would welcome closer association." However that did not head off angry reactions in Tehran – which only relinquished a claim to Bahrain in 1970 – where parliament speaker Ali Larijani said on 14 May that "if Bahrain is supposed to be integrated into another country, it must be Iran and not Saudi Arabia" and Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast suggested that the solution to Bahrain's problems was to meet the legitimate demands of its people and that any "foreign intervention or non-normative plans...will only deepen the wounds." Unsurprisingly Bahrain's foreign ministry replied on 15 May that "these statements represent a flagrant interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom and a gross violation of its sovereignty and independence (and) constitute completely unacceptable conduct."
Syrian Election "Results"
The head of the body that oversaw Syria's 7 May parliamentary election, Khalaf al-'Azzawi, declared on 15 May that "the election took place with full transparency, democracy, integrity, supervised and monitored by independent judicial councils which were not pressured by any side." He also claimed that there had been a voter turnout of 51.3% of the electorate and that "the election gave the people the broadest possible representation" in the 250-seat assembly, a claim it was impossible to verify since Mr 'Azzawi failed to announce the vote shares of individual parties (if any) and instead merely read a list of the successful candidates. The odds are, therefore, that the new assembly, which is to meet within the next two weeks, will be as subservient to President Bashar al-Asad's Ba'th party as its predecessor.
Algeria Reelects FLN
Unlike in Syria, Algeria's 10 May election was given a clean bill of health by the head of an EU observer mission, who said on 12 May that although there were shortcomings in some technical aspects of the election, there were ''as many positive points as there were weak points" and that "this election constitutes a first step on the path to reform which should lead to a deepening of democracy and human rights." Nonetheless, the election was a curiously lackluster affair, with the National Liberation Front (FLN) – the party that has ruled Algeria since independence in 1962 – winning 220 of the assembly's 462 seats, followed, as in the preceding parliament, by Prime Minister Ahmad Ouyahyia's National Democratic Rally (RND) with 68. The moderate Islamists of the Green Algeria alliance were in third place with 48 seats, while the country's oldest opposition party, Hocine Ait Ahmed's Socialist Forces Front (FFS), ended a decade of election boycotts to come in fourth with 21 seats. So whatever changes may be taking place elsewhere in North Africa and the Arab world, the Algerian electorate, or at least the 43% of it that actually turned out to vote, prefers continuity to change, which is perhaps not surprising in a country where a botched election won by Islamists in 1991 led to a civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people died.
Hashimi Trial Opens In Baghdad
After two postponements, the trial of Iraq's Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashimi, on charges of organizing death squads to murder political opponents opened in Baghdad on 15 May. Mr Hashimi, who maintains that the case against him is politically motivated and legally invalid, is currently in Turkey, which has refused to extradite him, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's decision to proceed against him in absentia
will do little to improve Mr Maliki's already strained relations with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. More pertinently, perhaps, the trial is likely to inflame sectarian tensions both within Iraq's coalition government and in the country as a whole.
© Copyright MEES 2012.