Sunday 27 February 2011

Game Over For Gaddafi

Just when I thought I had witnessed the most unexpected events in the Middle East, the story of Libya reveals itself to be more surprising than anything I have seen to date. The fact that the uprising that is sweeping the Middle East has reached Libya is not the surprise. Colonel Gaddafi's authoritarian style was always going to be under attack as soon as his people had sufficient support and confidence to rebel against him. What has been most shocking for me is the way in which some of Gaddafi's closest circle have rebelled against him without being pushed very hard.

First was the strange story of two Libyan Mirage fighter jets that arrived in Malta last week. We were led to understand that the pilots had defected from Libya with their planes after they were ordered to bomb protestors who had taken over Libya's second-largest city, Benghazi. Considering that pilots are regarded amongst the elite of the elite of the Libyan military and Libyan society in general, I would imagine that pilots are screened to ensure their loyalty to Gaddafi and his regime. As such, they should not necessarily have conisdered an order to bomb protestors who are threatening the overthrow of Gaddafi as being something out of the ordinary. And yet, their loyalty appeared not to be as strong as I had imagined it would be. It proved not to be any match for their feeling of revulsion at the prospect of bombing their own people.

This episode was superceded by the scenes that took place at the United Nations Security Council on Friday when Libyan ambassador Mohamed Shalgham stood up to criticise his leader and childhood friend. Earlier in the week, he had spoken out in defence of Gaddafi and against the protestors. By the end of the week, however, he could no longer defend the manner in which Gaddafi was attacking the protestors in defence of his regime. He called on the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on the Libyan regime. This must surely be a unique United Nations event, when the ambassador of a country speaks out against his own government in this international forum. The Security decided in a unanimous vote to impose sanctions on Libya, and to refer Libya to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

This was followed soon afterwards by scenes of the staff of the Libyan embassy in Washington taking down the Libyan flag, and replacing it with a flag that was in use prior to Gaddafi assuming power. Even Hollywood could not have written this script.

Amongst all the pieces of information spilling haphazardly out of Libya is the fact that Gaddafi was personally responsible for ordering the hit on Pan Am flight 103 which exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. According to a Swedish newspaper, former Libyan justic minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil said that Gaddafi personally ordered the hit on the plane. This confirms long-held suspicions that Gaddafi was personally behind this ghastly act of international terrorism.

Despite the fact that his support system is crumbling before his eyes, Gaddafi is hanging on for dear life. He is clinging on to power in Tripoli while the demonstrators have succeeded in taking control of many other cities across the country. His calls for his supporters to come out in public to show their support for him, has resulted in more violence and bloodshed. The army's support for him is wavering, and the writing is surely now on the wall Gaddafi has his supporters.

Leaders like Gaddafi are well-known for clinging onto whatever they have, and never being prepared to give up their power. This spells disaster for the people of Libya whose lives are endangered by protesting against their leader who has long overstayed his welcome. Despite the physical danger endured by the protestors, they seem to be prepared to risk their lives in favour of working to oust Gaddafi. When the situation reaches this position, there can surely be no turning back for the Libyan leader. The time has come for him to leave. The only question that remains is whether he will agree to do this without more bloodshed and loss of life. The message that he is sending, is that he will continue to fight even when the situation is hopeless.

As this revoluation blows through the Middle East, I hope that the leaders of other countries who will undoubtedly be affected, will be prepared to spare the bloodshed and violence. One of the key characteristics of being a good leader, is knowing when it is not worth fighting. Gaddafi has failed this test miserably. Is it too much to hope that other leaders in the Middle East will avoid this tragic error?

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Catastrophe in Christchurch

I was horrified to see the pictures of the effects of the devastating earthquake which took place in the New Zealand city of Christchurch earlier this week. And all this after having suffered a major earthquake only 5 months ago. In September last year, there was damage caused but no casualties. Unfortunately, this time Christchurch, has not been so lucky.

Casualties have mounted with almost 100 people reported dead and a few hundred still missing. The scenes of building collapses across the city of Christchurch are quite shocking to view, and the central feature of the cathedral of Christchurch remains barely a shadow of its former glory.

What is more shocking about these scenes, is the fact that New Zealand is a country which has paid a great deal of attention over the years to ensuring that buildings are built to special earthquake standards. The general public are trained to respond to earthquakes, and have frequent earthquake drills to prepare for moments like these. Despite this fact, the damage is widespread and there are likely to be many more deaths to add to the already mounting list. It could be said that the devastation would be much wider if these precautions had not been taken. Witness the impact on a country like Haiti, which had no earthquake preparations in place whatsoever. It lost hundreds of thousands of its citizens, and remains on its knees more than a year after the earthquake.

For me, this earthquake feels personal. I fondly remember the time that I spent in New Zealand and, particularly, my visit to Christchurch. I remember being entertained by the famous Wizard of Christchurch in the shadow of the cathedral that has now lost its steeple and its proud position of domination in the centre of the city. This was all part of a wonderful adventure that I had in New Zealand as an exchange student. Not only did I enjoy the beauty of the country, the people were so kind and welcoming and made me feel like I really belonged.

For now, the scene in Christchurch is covered by a black cloud. It is difficult to see past the death and damage which have been thrust upon this city over the past few days. I have no doubt, however, that the people of Christchurch will show a fighting spirit to overcome this tragedy, and will rebuild their city to be at least as good as it previously was. The people of New Zealand will ensure that this is achieved as soon as possible.

For now, my thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones, who have been injured and who are concerned about missing friends and relatives. May they be granted the strength and the resilience to overcome this terrible tragedy. "God defend New Zealand".

Saturday 19 February 2011

The Challenges Facing Benny Gantz

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz has now taken over as Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) after a very forgettable period in the upper echelons of the high command. He has major challenges ahead of him, both in terms of repairing damage caused over the past few month as well as confronting threats that Israel faces and will continue to face in the foreseeable future.

The very public falling-out between Minister of Defence Barak and former Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi did no favours to either of man. Although Ashkenazi was the one whose tenure was not extended by the minister of defence and he paid the price by losing his job, Ehud Barak has not come out of the incident with his reputation intact. The public holds the view that his decision to terminate Ashkenazi's term was purely personal, and did not consider the best interests of the State of Israel. In addition, the manner of doing so was unprofessional and has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the general public. Barak chose to fight his case in the public domain by using the national press to express his criticism of Ashkenazi. Despite this fact, I remain unsure exactly why Barak decided not to extend Ashkenazi's time in office. I am not alone in my confusion. It is the defence minister's right and responsibility to nominate the IDF chief of general staff, and the ultimate decision is taken together with the prime minister, and with the approval of the cabinet. This process need not take place in the eye of the general public, particularly when there seems to be a personal vendetta tied into the subject. Barak's tactics seem to me to have been flawed.

Having decided to terminate Ashkenazi, Barak then proposed Yoav Galant to be his replacement. It appears as though Barak was aware of the furore surrounding Galant's "land grab" at the time of his appointment, and this surely reflects negatively on Barak's choice. The dirty issue in question involves a dispute between Galant and the Israel Lands Authority about hundreds of square metres of land surrounding Galant's personal residence, which Galant is accused of grabbing for his own personal use when they don't belong to him. If Galant had any sense, he would have ensured that this issue was taken care of long before his appointment to succeed Ashkenazi as the head of the IDF. Instead, he allowed the problem to fester and, when it finally came out into the public domain, it prevented him from taking office. The government's attorney general and the government's comptroller both produced independent reports on the matter ruling that Galant has a case to answer for the land grab. Quite rightly, the cabinet decided to terminate Galant's appointment even before he took office. Barak is again the guy presented as having taken the incorrect option and Galant's promising career has been summarily terminated.

So now, the task of restoring the reputation of the office of the chief of general staff falls to the new man Benny Gantz who was hastily appointed after Galant was prevented from taking office. Although their names are similar, that appears to be where the similarities end. Not only does Gantz now have the enormous task of keeping Israel battle-ready in a changing world, he is also required to undertake substantial political repair work to restore reputations and working relationships. Gantz seems, for now, to be the right man for a most difficult job. He has started off on the right leg by maintaining a low profile while simply getting on with his job. He has not made any major political statements or public appearances. Instead, he has done exactly what is required of him at this time. He made his appearance at the prime minister's office to be awarded with his promotion in rank to that of Lt. General, after which he was sworn into office at a parade at the IDF high command in which he was inducted as the Israel's 20th chief of general staff. He immediately got to work without public fanfare or media interviews. He is, of course, a public figure and will inevitably appear in the media in the future. For now, however, he needs to keep his profile low and the level of his achievements high. He seems to understand this.

Gantz has taken over the command at one of the most interesting periods in Middle Eastern history. The flames of revolution are sweeping through the region at a pace that could not have been previously predicted. After uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt which have already succeeded in forcing the resignation of the rulers in those countries, protests are taking place in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Iran. Opposition forces in these countries have been encouraged by the successes witnessed, particularly in Egypt, and this is likely to begin to take hold in other countries too. It would not surprise me if this spreads to Syria, Jordan, other countries in the Emirates and even Saudi Arabia. All we can do is sit back in wonderment at the speed with which this change is taking place.

In his previous position as deputy chief of general staff, Benny Gantz was responsible for putting together the IDF's plans for 2011. With only 6 weeks of 2011 behind us, and less than a week into his new job, I wonder how relevant these plans are given the changes that are being experienced. While the successes achieved by the protestors seem good for democracy and freedom of speech, it is difficult to know exactly what types of government will replace the ones that are currently being dismantled. It is not inevitable that the new governments will be better, or more democratic, than the old ones. In the case of Egypt, the tearing down of Mubarak's government has left a dangerous vacuum that may spell more trouble than progress. The same may be the result in other countries where protests are taking place. Succession planning has not been big in the Middle East, and this creates its own set of dangers.

As Gantz gets his feet under his new desk and begins to take control of the situation, I wonder whether he might not have preferred the 2010 situation to the one that he finds in 2011. It is true that 2010 saw many hostile nations surrounding Israel with the threats that such a situation brings. But this hostility was not a moving feast. He will need to prepare himself for changing situations in many of these hostile nations, bringing the threat of more active hostility and threats to Israel rather than the simple lack of recognition, lack of diplomatic relations and public posturing and rhetoric that has characterised Israel's relations with many of these countries in the past. The hostility now runs the risk of being much more active and threatening to Israel's continued safety and survival. This is particularly true of the situation in Iran which continues with its program of constructing nuclear weapons. In the wrong hands, these could have devastating consequences for safety in the Middle East, and around the world.

Benny Gantz has a huge job on his hands. Taking over as the IDF's chief comes with massive responsibilities and challenges, even under "normal" circumstances. The particular situation which confronts Gantz comes with even greater challenges and pitfalls. It is our wish that he will succeed in carrying out his new job with much success and by bringing greater security to the State of Israel and her citizens. It is my hope that he will also be able to restore some sorely-needed pride and credibility to the political hierarchy of Israel's security establishment.

Sunday 13 February 2011

Life After Mubarak

Even though I have written twice over the past month about the uprising in Egypt, it is difficult to ignore the tumultuous events that have taken place over the past few days. Mubarak finally gave in to the will of the Egyptian people, and resigned as president late on Friday. This was only after he found the audacity to continue to cling onto power when it was clear that his position was no longer tenable. Mubarak left office as he had ruled for 30 years - thinking firstly of himself, and taking little consideration of what may be best for his people.

Now that he is gone, what happens next? Mubarak ensured that he had no logical successor, and nobody to hand control of Africa's most populous country to. He was so concerned about the possibility of his absolute rule being undermined, that he was not prepared to allow anybody to be close to him. Ultimately, he was shown that even this did not safeguard his position. More of a disaster for Egypt is that no successor or succession plan was put in place. One of the hallmarks of a true leader is that the ensure that they have succession. They should have either a person, or a process to select a person, that can replace them in the event of a disaster or through the logical flow of events. Even though leaders like Mubarak think that they are irreplaceable, cemeteries around the world bear testimony to the fact that nobody is irreplaceable.

The Egyptians are left with military rule as this was Mubarak's only option in view of the vacuum that he has left in his wake. For now, the people are happy - anything is better than Mubarak. It is clear clear, however, that military rule cannot and will not satisfy their demands and expectations in the longer term. Military rule is generally associated with a rule by decree and a distinct lack of democracy. I feel sure that the military rule in Egypt will not be any different. This will only be acceptable if the military government moves quickly to call general elections, and allows itself to be rapidly replaced by a leader and government that is chosen by a majority of the people. The protest movement has made this clear by an announcement of its intention to hold a protest each Friday in Tahrir Square until democratic elections are called.

There are times in life when people know that they don't like what they have, but have no real alternative plan that represents what they DO really want. I have the impression that this is the situation in Egypt. The protest was against Hosni Mubarak, but the protest organisers and opposition movement never came up with an alternative plan to fill the gap once they succeeded in achieving their objectives. This can be compared with protests in a country like Poland which rallied behind Lech Walesa, or in South Africa where Mandela was the man that the opposition wished to see replace the rulers. In Egypt, they had no replacement in mind to be somebody who would represent new Egypt that protesters have been dreaming of. Under these circumstances, the new Egypt may turn out to disappoint those who so fervently fought for it during nearly three weeks in Tahrir Square. People are sometimes advised to be careful what they wish for, as they may get their wishes. I believe that this may turn out to be the case in Egypt.

Democracy has not yet proved itself as a success in the Arab world. Democracy incorporates some principles which have yet to manifest themselves in this region. The main issue with democracy is that it requires those who are defeated to acknowledge that they are in the minority, and to respect the will of the majority. For residents of the Arab Middle East, this point has yet to be successfully implemented. Examples like Iraq and Lebanon come to mind, where violence and murder are the order of the day due to the fact that the minorities cannot accept the will of the majority. Ahmadinejad in Iran went to inordinate lengths to rig the most recent general election to ensure that he was returned to power. Then, he moved to silence the majority in the most brutal manner to secure his term of office. It seems like the only stable governments in the Middle East (except for Israel) are those where the rule is absolute and no opposition is tolerated. In other cases, violence and chaos reign while minority groups attempt to assert their domination. Compare this to the general election in the USA in 2000 when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by a hair's breadth. The Gore camp was not happy with the outcome, and did not agree with the supreme court's ruling which prevented a third count of the votes cast in the deciding state of Florida. The decision was, however, accepted without violence and recriminations. This is the real meaning of democracy.

As much as I know that the people of Egypt have been protesting in favour of democracy for their country, I am yet to be convinced that Egypt is ready for this. It is difficult for me to see how organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda will allow the likes of Mohamed El-Baradei or Amr Moussa to take over rule in Egypt in the event that they are democratically elected as leader. These proved to be destructive forces under the autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak, so their activities in a democratic environment are likely to be even more disruptive and destabilising.

Despite all of the negative implications of Mubarak's rule (of which there were more than a few), he did succeed in maintaining stability in Egypt for the duration of his rule. This, in turn, contributed to greater stability in the Middle East during a period which included significant lack of stability in other parts of the region and the world. The importance and significance of Egypt in the region should not be underestimated. Lack of stability in Egypt will clearly have a negative impact across the region, and possibly across the world.

For Israel, this means greater risk which manifests itself in a number of different ways. Any change on her borders, even a change that is ultimately for the better, forces Israel to make internal changes to the way that she handles her security arrangements. After becoming accustomed to certain realities and having put relevant responses in place to handle a particular situation, any change to that situation requires changes to Israel's military activities. This creates risk and uncertainty. In the case of the changes in Egypt, the risk and uncertainty is not limited only to Israel's southern border and the Camp David peace treaty. There is every prospect that the Egyptian border to the Gaza Strip will be opened, allowing free flow of weapons into the strip which presents a huge security risk to Israel. It is not inconceivable that the Egyptian uprising may reach countries such as Jordan and Syria which creates uncertainty along Israel's eastern and northern borders. While Israel is an eager support of democracy and democratic principles (as evidenced by her own system of government), she is forced to view her own security as a higher priority. Until such time as the full impact of the Egyptian revolution is digested and understood, Israel's defence establishment will be on the highest alert.

We will all be watching carefully as Egypt treads the uncertain path towards democracy. We hope that the experiment will prove to be a success, and will contribute towards greater stability in a region that desperately requires security. In particular, the Israeli government will be watching nervously as the new Egypt reveals itself.

Monday 7 February 2011

Does the Uprising in Egypt Open the Floodgates for Other Countries in the Middle East?

President Hosni Mubarak is clinging on to power in Egypt by his fingernails. But this is clearly only a temporary situation, and an attempt for him to retain some element of dignity. His political career has been brought to an abrupt end and, with it, any aspirations that his son Gamal may have had to succeed him. The rule of this modern-day Pharaoh and his family is finally over.

Mubarak's rule over Egypt for the past thirty years has been difficult to characterise. He assumed power from the assassinated Anwar Sadat soon after Egypt was practically excommunicated from the Arab world for signing a peace treaty with Israel. Mubarak had the job of stabilising Egypt after the murder of its president, while also seeking out friends to use as a leg for its foreign policy. He has maintained cordial relations with Israel which have served to preserve the peace agreement between the countries. He has engaged with the USA and other western countries which has ensured that Egypt has had trading partners, has been at the centre of peace negotiations and has been the recipient of generous military aid packages. Internally, Mubarak has chosen to rule Egypt under the constant threat of the provisions of the state of emergency, and while ensuring that all opposition to his rule has been firmly stamped out. This has brought benefits to Israel and other western countries because he has been sure to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which presents a real threat along with Al-Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist organisations.

It is my assessment that the people of Egypt have enjoyed a fairly good existence during Mubarak's rule. As long as they were prepared to toe the line and support the regime, they could have enjoyed a fairly acceptable lifestyle and standard of living. Egypt has enjoyed economic success via its policy of engaging the west. It has been the destination for millions of western tourists with the economic benefits that tourist industry brings. It has established itself as a telecommunications crossing point with many telecommunication cable systems crossing Egypt undersea and overland in a link between Europe and the Far East. The western military aid packages have served to boost the Egyptian army and, with it, the military support for Mubarak's regime. For the average Egyptian, however, it seems that even this has not been enough. Mubarak's unwillingness to provide a political environment allowing Egyptians the freedom to determine their own political destiny has directly contributed to the current uprising. It is noticeable how the demonstrations in Egypt have been spontaneous expressions of frustration by people on the street, and not driven by political opponents. Ironically, the political opposition was extremely ill-prepared for this uprising, and has been unable to capitalise upon it. The Muslim Brotherhood have been virtually invisible throughout the past two weeks of protests, and opposition figure Mohammed El-Baradei was forced to hurry back to Egypt having been away from the country when the protests began.

It is clear that the prospects of political stability and economic prosperity that may have satisfied citizens of Middle Eastern countries in the past, are no longer enough to keep their rulers in power. Engagement of the west has proved to be a double-edged sword. In exchange for the economic benefits that the west has provided, Middle Eastern rulers should have been prepared for the export of democratic ideas and principles to their citizens. Even those countries which have not engaged the west to the same extent are finding that the new Internet age has facilitated the globalisation of democracy. It is for this reason that I suggest that the uprising in Egypt is just the start of similar uprisings in other countries and across the region.

We have already seen the overthrow of the Tunisian government. Protests have been held on the streets of Sana'a in Yemen and Amman in Jordan. Syrian President Bashar El-Assad is clearly thinking about the implications for his country as he has announced that he does not believe that this uprising will reach the streets of Damascus. I think that this is more wishful thinking than firm belief. Syria is clearly a candidate country for a similar uprising in protest against Assad's autocratic rule. The Iranian government is bracing itself for possible protests in Tehran. We may recall that Mir Hossein Mousavi fairly won the previous election, but was denied the office by Ahmadinejad and his thugs. He is now regrouping the opposition parties, and they seem ready to use the current climate to renew their own attempts to assert democracy. It is difficult to rule out possible protests in the Gulf countries and in Saudi Arabia where the monarchs' rule has been absolute. Substantial economic prosperity in these countries arising from oil revenues cannot entirely rule out the possibility of an uprising against their autocratic political regimes.

Indications are that 2011 will represent a major turning point in the Middle Eastern political landscape. Rulers were once able to isolate their citizens from developments elsewhere in the world to secure their own political situation. The Internet and other globalisation tools have changed all of that. People are now able to identify what they are missing out on, and are no longer happy to accept this fact. Those who maintain that western democracy cannot simply be transplanted into all environments, especially those in the Middle East, may well be correct. It is true that many Middle Eastern countries may not be able to successfully apply these principles to their own environments. But now, it is too late for such contentions. The wheel is turning, and its momentum seems unstoppable.