The real cost of detaining migrants

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. November 2014 - 8:18

Several years after being rushed out of Tinsley House immigration removal centre near London Gatwick airport, one man still lies hospitalised, unable to move, reliant on the staff to keep him alive. 

A few years ago I visited an extremely vulnerable man in Tinsley House. Weeks later I received a phone call saying that he had thrown himself against a wall and broken his own neck. When I read that sentence back again it still shocks me and brings back memories that I wish I did not have. The next time I saw this man, who I will call John, it was in East Surrey Hospital, a few miles from Gatwick Airport, where I found him lying paralysed in a hospital bed. Today he still lies paralysed, requiring 24 hour care, and he will of course never recover. While this is an extreme example of what can happen to people when they are locked up indefinitely, it shows what is possible in these circumstances, and shines a light on how the system of immigration detention in the UK is failing those who are most vulnerable to its effects.

Tinsley House is often considered to be one of the better immigration removal centres in the UK. Successive reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons are largely positive, there have been no deaths at the centre, unlike at many others, nor have there been any major disturbances. Many of those we work with who have experienced life in more than one centre tell us Tinsley is better than most, and certainly far better than its bigger sister at Gatwick, Brook House. My experience of visiting there on many occasions over the last seven years is that many of the staff who work there are caring and compassionate, and see their job very much as making the stays of those held there are bearable as possible. And yet incidents like the one that happened with John still occur. The underlying problem, therefore, lies not in the conditions, nor the quality of the staff, nor the regime, though all of these are important and affect how many people deal with their detention. The problem is with a system which says it is OK to lock people up for the convenience of the state, while they make what is often very slow progress in resolving each person’s case, often with seemingly scant regard for the risks that this may pose to each individual, nor any effective way of ensuring that each person is not damaged to the extent that suicide seems like the only way out.

Tinsley House. Photo: Corporate Watch

John was quite clearly struggling in detention when I saw him, and I was very concerned that he was seriously mentally unwell. He had been in Tinsley House for a few weeks, and in another immigration removal centre before that. I remember him telling me how desperate he was to return back to his home country where his wife and children had returned a few months earlier. He told me all he wanted was to go back home, but that there was a conspiracy by the Home Office to keep him locked up forever. He was paranoid, angry and desperate. I found out later that John had suffered from mental health problems since childhood. I had never seen anyone in such a condition before, and was so worried about his mental state that I informed the centre’s medical staff about my concerns, which is something I have only done on a handful of occasions before or since. While some action was taken by the staff at the centre, unfortunately they were unable to prevent the tragedy that unfolded a few days later. At a hearing many years later, the Judge found that negligence on behalf of both individuals at the centre and by the security firm who ran the centre were contributing factors; but he also found that John was so highly disturbed by that stage that nothing they could have done within the centre could have stopped him from doing what he did.

What does this say about our system of detention? Does it say that it is OK to lock up a man who did not even want to stay in the UK for months on end, simply for bureaucratic convenience, and even while his mental health deteriorated so severely and so clearly that when I got the call to say that he had broken his own neck it did not come as a great surprise to me?

My own experience of visiting and supporting hundreds of people in immigration detention over the years is that many, particularly the most vulnerable, of which John was undoubtedly one, are kept locked up for reasons that are very hard to fathom. The usual arguments of risk of absconding and risk of reoffending frequently make little sense when put under the spotlight; people who have committed documents offences or who have been caught working illegally being regarded as a potential risk to the public, men who have never failed to miss a ‘reporting date’ being considered a high risk of absconding. The people who make these decisions have often never met those whose immediate fate they hold in their hands, have little information to go on when making decisions about whether to detain or release, and when it comes to vulnerabilities and the ongoing harm being caused by detention there is often no information at all. The futility of detaining people for no discernible reason, for periods of time that often stretch into months and sometimes into years and on the basis of information that is incomplete at best, is clear to anyone who works with detainees. But not, it seems, to the Home Office, who continue to detain more and more people each year, and this year for the first time broke the 5,000 bed spaces mark, across IRCs, short-term holding facilities and prisons.

There has to be a better way. To treat vulnerable people with seemingly little regard for the damage that is being inflicted upon them is at best immoral, at worst inhuman. I have witnessed torture survivors being seriously re-traumatised by their detention, people so mentally ill that they had little idea of where they were and no idea of what was happening to them, and I have lost count of the number of people who tell me they could see no way out other than suicide.

While of course this is not the fate of the vast majority, that does not mean that we can just assume that they will probably be OK in the end. Assessing someone’s mental health is extremely difficult, and I am by no means a clinician, but you do not have to be a psychiatrist to know if a person sitting opposite you in the visits room is suffering beyond what is reasonable. Our immigration control system cannot be based on compassion alone, but it can be more understanding of those who are most vulnerable, and it can be much better at identifying those who are being unreasonably harmed by being locked up. Better decisions are possible.

'Whisper' by M. Photo: Detention Action

The Vulnerable People Working Group of the Detention Forum, a network of 30 NGOs seeking to reform immigration detention in the UK, are calling for the development of a vulnerability assessment tool. This is based on other systems that are currently in use by the Scottish Refugee Council among others, albeit in a non-detention setting. This not only gives a much more rounded approach to vulnerability, bringing in a range of factors not currently considered, but is also able to track how this changes over time. We are calling on the government to investigate this as a matter of urgency. The right tool will benefit everyone. The Home Office will waste far less money detaining those who are most vulnerable, who often end up being released, and who often end up successfully taking them to court for unlawful detention. The benefits for those whose lives risk being shattered by detention need no explanation. Ample evidence is given on the pages of this Unlocking Detention series on openDemocracy.

Today John once again lies in a bed in a care home. Another day passes him by, unable to move, reliant on the staff to keep him alive. This is the real cost of detention.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Extraordinary things: visiting the women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre Death at Yarl’s Wood: Women in mourning, women in fear The lonely death of Jimmy Mubenga Immigration detention: a most un-British phenomenon Not a minor offence: the unlawful detention of unaccompanied children Helping the Other: particular experiences, universal outlooks Interrupting the implacable: fighting the Detained Fast Track Animals or slaves? Memories of a migrant detention centre Is there an alternative to locking up migrants in the UK? Justice in the UK: back to the 1930s? The national shame that is healthcare in UK immigration detention Immigration detention: time for a time limit Immigration detention in the media: anarchy and ambivalence Detained at the UK border: mould, cat calls and barbed wire A crisis of harm in immigration detention Migrant vs non-migrant: two tier policing Migrant lives in the UK: the deprivation of liberty Country or region:  UK City:  London
Categories: les flux rss

On #ric2014 and strategy for Scotland's New Left

Open Democracy News Analysis - 23. November 2014 - 18:52

The vast Radical Independence Conference shows the potential power of Scotland's radicals - if they can play their cards right.

picture - @williamsonkev

Being “radical” implies two things. First, that you want the change not just some policies, but the whole system – from the root, to take the word to its, erm, root. The second implication is that you stand outside the mainstream.

The Radical Independence Conference yesterday only really qualified for the first of those meanings. Because when you can get almost one in a thousand voters in a room together for a day, it's hard to continue to argue that the ideas they espouse are not within the mainstream of Scottish politics.

It would be easy to reflect on how wonderful the conference was: the extraordinary moment when Tariq Ali said he had never seen anything of this sort on this scale; the fact that there were experienced, practiced speakers able to articulate questions of strategy in clear, passionate ways despite only being in their early twenties; the seriousness with which people approached their task of continuing to change Scotland (for, make no mistake, the Radical Independence Campaign has already changed Scotland).

But if you want that sort of reflection, I suggest having a look at the #ric2014 hashtag, and see how those there responded to what must have been the biggest political conference in Scotland in my lifetime. Because, in a sense what matters is a different question. What next?

As I see it, politics can be divided into three arenas: electoralism, work place organising and organising in the community. Much of the discussion behind the scenes was about the former of these. And, in a sense, the detail here didn't match the rhetoric.

Because whilst everyone was convivial (that was remarkable two years ago. Now, it's become the norm) and whilst there were many calls for unity, there was no agreement about what people should unite behind. For those in the SNP, it's them. The Scottish Socialist Party has called for an electoral pact for Westminster between the three main yes supporting parties. Greens sit between the two – having been open to discussions about collaboration, but not wanting to lose the ability to hold the SNP to account on issues like TTIP and fracking, where their positions are less than progressive.

In a sense, though, this question is moot. The SNP seemed open to such conversations shortly after the referendum – at a time when it looked like they could challenge perhaps 20-25 seats in Scotland, why wouldn't they be happy to give newly resurgent Socialist and Green parties a descent chance at a couple of the seats they weren't targeting? Now the polls put them in contention in almost every seat in Scotland, the maths is different – why would they give away seats they could win? At their conference, the SNP passed policy allowing non-party activists to stand under their banner – in effect, ruling out activists from other parties standing under some joint banner.

The SNP decision doesn't close the door to co-operation between other groups and parties though. And this is worth considering. As Tariq Ali pointed out, the political forces in the room on Saturday have the capacity, if they get organised, to replace a dying Scottish Labour as the opposition in Scotland. If you support independence, then this is a thrilling prospect. If Scotland finds itself in a position where most of its political debate takes place between two parties which both support independence, that will have much more impact on the likelihood of a future yes vote than the SNP securing an ever tighter grip on the country. For those who support radical politics, the prospect of serious parliamentary power is thrilling.

It is yet to be seen what that means – the spectrum seems to me to run from, at one end, people uniting behind the Greens as the only currently credible electoral grouping to, at the other, loose pacts between the various parties (this has already in effect happened once – SSP leader Colin Fox stood aside for the Scottish Greens in this year's European elections; and the people involved in the new Scottish Left Project (who largely organise RIC) in effect did so too). Along the middle ground between these poles sit a number of potentially creative options, and it will be a test of character for everyone involved if they can work out an option which offers voters a single platform in 2016 which can appeal to the breadth of Scotland's radical coalition of voters and get the maximum number of MSPs elected.

But power doesn't only lie in parliament. And it's worth pausing for a moment to reflect on what all of this means for Scotland's trade unions. This is something I've been wondering for a few weeks now – ever since a tweet from the SNP Trade Union Group revealed their membership had passed 12,000. It is, in other words, almost certainly larger – likely significantly larger – than the Scottish Labour Party.

I spoke to their activists outside the conference, and found they (the people I chatted with) didn't want to seek affiliations to the SNP. Rather, they said, they thought trade unions should support candidates in elections on a case by case basis. Inside the auditorium, the first speaker was Suki Sanga, a member of the STUC council. One of the biggest cheers of the day came when she said trade union funding for the Labour party must end. All of this comes in a context in which there are rumours of ongoing serious tensions between the leadership trade union movement and Labour in Scotland, and it's worth remembering the STUC's main intervention in the referendum campaign was to say that Better Together were “disappointing”.

But disassociation from Labour leaves a vacuum. And it seems clear that, in a Scotland with an increasingly dominant SNP, it would be disastrous if the natural party of government at Holyrood also got control of the trades unions in the way that Labour currently has had its fingers around their throats when they have been in government in the past. And so it seems that there is a clear and urgent task among RIC activists in taking Scotland's labour movement away from the two relatively centrist parties, and back to their radical roots.

There are bigger reasons than electoral politics why this matters, but the potential consequences on elections are significant. If trades unions in Scotland do pull the plug on the Labour party, then its major source of funding will be gone. If they back candidates on a case by case basis, then that's a potentially huge source of funding, activists, support and credibility for the sorts of people who were at the conference this weekend.

The final arena in which radical supporters of independence can act is in their communities. As in the UK, civil society in the country which invented the term (thanks Adam Ferguson) has largely been gutted. As across the UK, more and more of it was given state funding to run public services, and didn't notice it had eroded its political teeth as it suckled on this magnetic teet. As across the UK, there is a desperate need rebuild.

In the discussion of strategy at the start of the conference, Jonathon Shafi, its organiser, said that he doesn't expect a referendum in the next five years, and that activists should involve themselves in other struggles in order to both retain the momentum, and to start building the Scotland they want to see. After all, a hugely politicised country is a much more fertile terrain for change than the relatively arid land it was five years ago.

I think he's right, but I'd go a step further. People shouldn't just throw themselves into whatever issues emerge. They should establish or get involved in and help to shape organisations. Again, if you're interested in independence, this is going to be vital. Civil society was said to be key to securing the Scottish Parliament. The fact that it didn't feel able (despite remarkable agreement across the third sector) to come out for a yes vote while corporations were lining up behind no, was a big problem – named organisations which people trust carry weight.

And perhaps more importantly, it's vital for a whole load of other resions too. Huge austerity is coming Scotland's way. There's ever more drive to asset strip Britain, auctioning off public services and natural resources to keep the British economy momentarily afloat. The global crises we are all familiar with are accelerating by the day. All of these require radical solutions, and Scotland, which was key to inventing modern industrial capitalism, has as much duty as ever to show that another world is possible. Crucially, a social movement now exists in Scotland in a way it does in few other Western countries which has the power to genuinely confront these issues. Breaking up the British State will, one day, be a huge contribution to global justice, but in the mean time, Scotland's new radical left can have a vital role in making that state regret ever winning the referendum.

Categories: les flux rss

Twenty-five years since first election of a black US governor, L Douglas Wilder

Open Democracy News Analysis - 23. November 2014 - 18:24

Progress has been slow. Other than Wilder, only one other African American – Deval Patrick of Massachusetts – has been elected governor of any state. 

Douglas Wilder, mayor of Richmond, June, 2007. Holley St.Germain/Flickr. Some rights reserved.On 7 November 1989, Lawrence Douglas Wilder was elected the 66th governor of Virginia. He differed from the previous sixty-five Virginian governors and every other governor ever elected in any US state: he was black. Today, as we look back at fifty years of civil rights campaigning, Wilder’s candidacy is generally regarded as marking the advent of a new form of black politics to the United States, one which operated outside of majority-black areas and competed with white opponents for white votes.

Virginia was an unlikely setting to be the first state in the nation to elect a black governor. A generation earlier, public schools had been closed by a governor who vowed to cut off his arm before he would allow black children to be educated with whites. The state song was still a hymn which praised the goodness of ‘old massa’ to ‘old darkey’.  In the year of Wilder’s election, one quarter of Southerners told pollsters that they would not vote for a qualified African American for president.

Born in 1931, the grandson of slaves, Wilder was raised in Richmond’s predominantly black Church Hill neighbourhood, two miles from the state capitol. In the city which had once been the capital of the Confederacy and the largest slave-trading city in America, Wilder described his proximity to the legislature as ‘a short distance to walk but a mighty, mighty mountain to climb’.

Martinsville Seven: ”legal lynching”, 1947. Flickr/Dan.H. Some rights reserved.Throughout Wilder’s youth and into his adulthood, the city was almost entirely segregated. Schools, libraries, public toilets, bus station waiting rooms, train station ticket windows, drinking fountains, trams, buses, and lunch counters were all divided by colour. The city had two downtowns: one for whites and one for blacks. Any racial mixing was prohibited by law, convention, and at times violence. In 1951, when Wilder was twenty, Virginia infamously executed seven young black men accused of raping a white woman in an act described by historians as a ‘legal lynching’.

John Marshall hotel, where Wilder served all-white patrons as a young man. Flickr/Holley St.Germain. Some rights reserved.Barred from attending the state’s great public universities, Wilder instead attended the all-black Virginia Union University in Richmond, founded by the Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War for newly emancipated slaves. Later, Wilder would attend Howard University Law School in Washington. Between undergraduate and postgraduate education, Wilder was drafted as an army private to fight in the Korean War. Serving with distinction, Wilder was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism.

After law school, Wilder returned to Richmond where he began his practice, representing clients who would eventually make him a very wealthy man. During the 1960s, Wilder was supportive of the civil rights movement but not identified with it. He later reflected, ‘Of course, everybody says they marched on Washington now. I was not there. I didn’t even participate in the pickets in Richmond, but I felt I made my contributions in other ways. I wanted to be the best lawyer I could be so that when I walked into the courtroom people would listen and I could get results’.

In 1969, Wilder was elected to the Virginia state Senate, becoming the first black state senator since Reconstruction. Soon after, Wilder attempted to change the state song, which he considered racially insensitive. The reaction was not positive. Wilder told an interviewer, ‘You would have thought I touched the atom bomb. All hell broke loose. I got letters from all over the world: Go home. Keep your mouth shut. Why don’t you carry your ass back to Africa…’.

Not one to be intimidated, after sixteen years in the state Senate, Wilder decided to run for lieutenant governor.  Concerned about his electability, some Democrats offered him the chairship of the state party if he stepped aside. He refused. After winning, becoming the first African American in the twentieth century elected to statewide office in the South, Wilder celebrated his victory in the Richmond hotel where had waited tables as a young adult. In the same room where white patrons had once called Wilder ‘boy’, they would now call him ‘Lieutenant Governor’.

Virginia State Capitol,2007 .Flickr/ Holley St.Germain. Some rights reserved.Four years later, Wilder had proven himself a capable candidate to do the unthinkable: he was going to run for governor. He was under no illusions of the difficulty of the task. He explained, ‘It is not only important for the black candidate to be as qualified as his white counterpart, but… in most cases you have to be twice as good as your white competitor if you hope to stand a chance’.

While Wilder did not – and could not -- ignore race, it was not the organising theme of his policy agenda. The key issue of the campaign was the right to an abortion, which had recently faced a Supreme Court challenge in Webster v Reproductive Health Services. Wilder’s opponent Marshall Coleman had previously declared his opposition to abortion under any circumstances, a position which Wilder mercilessly used against Coleman to paint him as an extremist.

While abortion provided the explicit rationale for Wilder’s slogan ‘the New Mainstream’, it was not difficult for voters to interpret the wider significance of the message.

The result was the closest in state history. Wilder edged out his opponent by fewer than 7,000 votes out of more than 1.7 million cast. His margin of victory was less than half a percent. It was built on a coalition which has proven useful for Democrats subsequently: high turnout from solidly supportive African Americans, as well as support from white women and young people.

While Wilder could not have won without the resolute support of African Americans, two-thirds of his total votes were cast by whites. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia explains, ‘a vote for Wilder became a badge of honour – objective proof that they were not racist’. The late Paul Duke, a long-time Richmond reporter, described a vote for Wilder as ‘a redemptive act’.

In the quarter of a century since Wilder was elected, there are signs of progress. This month saw the election of the first black Republican woman to Congress, Mia Love. Tim Scott’s election in South Carolina was the first time an African American was popularly elected to the Senate from the South. Yet, in aggregate, progress has been slow. Other than Wilder, only one other African American – Deval Patrick of Massachusetts – has been elected governor of any state.

Speaking to an audience in Petersburg, Virginia during his historic campaign, Wilder insisted, ‘You and I have the responsibility to make certain that what happens on November 7 isn’t something that can happen once in a lifetime but something that should be expected’. The responsibility continues today. Electoral progress for African Americans still remains all too exceptional.

Sideboxes Related stories:  For jobs and freedom, 50 years on: the struggle for racial equality in the age of Obama Country or region:  United States Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Equality International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Towards a psychology of war

Open Democracy News Analysis - 23. November 2014 - 17:24

Women may participate in war, but in our social imaginary, war is still man’s business. The few women who fight have not undone the dominant symbolic association of passive receptivity with femininity or of masculinity with domination.

Female PKK soldier near the Turkish border. Demotix/Eddie Gerald. All rights reserved.Psychology as an academic discipline in the modern research university tends toward ‘intrapsychic’ formulations, that is, study of the subject as if he or she were isolated in a laboratory.  Sigmund Freud himself was a Hobbesian, committed to the belief that society was a war of all against all.  His aim was to discover how this self-serving, feral beast could be tamed and incorporated into a more pacific body politic.

In the Hobbesian and Freudian scheme, a Leviathan was necessary: the sovereign state, which secured peace against human predispositions.  Human nature was, like nature itself, a dangerous and chaotic force, calling for domestication and ‘civilization’.  Freud interiorized this drama for individuals as a set of competing psychic phantoms: instinctual drive, ego, and superego.  The instinctual drive was ‘the wolf’, the animal appetites.  The ego was the I­-ness, the enclosed sense of self that appeared after Descartes, which bargained between the instinctual drives and the superego.  The superego was the conscience, that interiorized cop, the ‘forum internum’ that the church had invented for its members in the thirteenth century to make them self­-policing citizens of the ‘societas perfecta’.

“Men are not gentle, friendly creatures,” wrote Freud, “wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but…a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment...Homo homini lupus.”

Jessica Benjamin criticizes Freud’s model of psychic life as fundamentally asocial, between a subject and objects.  Her approach is between subjects and subjects.  Benjamin’s ‘intersubjective’ approach assumes that each person inevitably develops within social relations.  Benjamin is concerned with the problem of domination, and she identifies gender as the key terrain, especially during childhood development, for the exploration of domination.

The term ‘aggression’ is commonly used in intrapsychic psychology, as an internal drive.  ‘Domination’ assumes a relation.  Benjamin believes that gender is almost always associated with the ways in which domination emerges in our culture.  This is especially true about war.

Warfare is gendered. There is no doubt that women have committed violent acts.  Nor is there any doubt that women can participate and have participated in armed combat, but this is a vulgar argument against the gendered-ness of war.

Sex and power

Gender is a system that, among other things, divides power between men and women.  ‘Masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are symbolically attached to sexual dimorphism, but not identical with it.  Various cultures give rise to variable conceptions of masculinity and femininity, so it is possible to use the plural: masculinities and femininities.  Yet, while masculinities and femininities have multiplied over time and space, one transhistorical phenomenon has always been gendered ‘masculine’, and that is war.

Women may participate in war, but in our social imaginary, war is still man’s business. Women may fight, but fighting is still considered a ‘masculine’ virtue.  The few women who fight have not undone the dominant symbolic association of passive receptivity with femininity or of masculinity with domination.

We all know what is meant when someone says, “I'm going to make you my bitch.”  This language associates submission with women and ‘masculine’ sex with hostility, an association that serves as an artesian spring of misogyny.

“The point of departure,” writes Benjamin in The Bonds of Love, “is…that woman functions as man’s primary other, his opposite – playing nature to his reason, immanence to his transcendence, primordial oneness to his individuated separateness, and object to his subject…gender polarity underlies such familiar dualisms as autonomy and dependency, and thus establishes the coordinates for the position of master and slave.”

Recognition and submission

Human beings need ‘recognition’: in Benjamin this is akin to validation or love. We need other people to be recognized by them as well as to grant recognition.  Recognition is mutual.  Both of us need to do it at once.  For you to recognize me, I need to acknowledge you as a subject like myself, and vice versa, for mutuality to happen.  Research with mothers and infants shows that this mutuality begins very early.  The child is not merely an appetite aimed at a breast.  Child and mother recognize one another.  They take pleasure in one another’s presence.  In mutuality, psychic boundaries are permeable.

Mutuality is simultaneously vulnerability and self­-assertion in tension with one another.  When that tension is broken by the polarization of self­-assertion, mutuality gives itself over to a power struggle.  “[T]he inability to sustain paradox,” says Benjamin, “convert[s] the exchange of recognition into domination and submission.”  Referring to Hegel, Benjamin summarizes this paradox as “the simultaneous need for the independence and dependence of the self­-conscious.”  In Hegel, this is a struggle to the death that leads to a master-slave relation, because in Hegel, as in Freud and Hobbes, mutuality is foreclosed by a view of the person as pure self-assertion.  (In all three, this person is male.)

Part of the ‘tension’ in Benjamin’s thesis is the fact that the other person is held in my mind in a way that never completely accords with the other person’s own experience of existence. In a sense, the other person must continually be ‘destroyed’ in my mind then observed to have survived that destruction in order for me to reassure myself of her existence, an existence that makes recognition possible.  Her independence is necessary for her to recognize me, subject to subject.  Yet I know that she is independent by challenging her independence through my own self­-assertion.

When this dynamic involves a ready state of forgiving invitation, power is negotiable. When one has to prevail and one submit, the domination-­submission dynamic replaces mutuality.  The submissive desires revenge. The dominator loses recognition, because his objectification of the other out of a desire for omnipotence has erased the subjectivity necessary for mutual recognition.

If one asserts her will, however, ‘destroying’ the other in her mind, and the other survives without becoming combative, without pitting the two persons against one another, then rapprochement is possible. Serial experiences of rapprochement lead to ‘attunement’, and the earliest experiences of attunement, usually between mother and child, are bound to the development and experience of the erotic – a psychosomatic sense of deep attachment, not simply sexual feeling, and an experience of oneness – a permeability of boundaries.

Masculinity is indoctrinated – especially in its martial forms – as a highly policed psychic boundary, one which – like a military perimeter – is fortified against all vulnerability.

Masculinity constructed as domination eroticizes violence.  The tragic paradox is that women in a society where masculinity is constructed as domination are indoctrinated to find dominance in men sexually attractive, which makes Benjamin’s study of the domination-submission dynamic, as opposed to simply domination, so important.  Yet men, too, are imbricated into this polarized structure.  In war, where domination masculinity is given its freest reign, there is an extreme submission to authority, a fear and adoration of dominant figures. This might be anything from an admired infantry squad leader to the Fuhrer.

Origin myths

In Freud, the origins of domination are understood as an imaginary oedipal conflict. The son overthrows the father, but the son’s fear of the lawlessness of his own son compels him to replicate the repressions of the father. This was the basis, according to Freud (and of Hegel and Hobbes, without specific references to Oedipus), of civilization. Freud rightly introduced the idea that early precognitive experience influences the rest of our lives, but his specific account of that experience was European, bourgeois, and male.

“Analyzing the oedipal model in Freud’s original formulations and in the work of later psychoanalysts,” Benjamin explains, “we find the common thread: the idea of the father as protector, or even savior, from a mother who would pull us back into the ‘limitless narcissism’ of infancy.”  Freud was an enabler of domination-masculinity.  His intraspychic approach could not penetrate the cultural origin of masculinity wherein boys, who are indoctrinated into the idea that dependency is a threat to their selfhood as a male, will turn against all women as a deleterious influence. They will close the border.

“Why is the border closed between the genders?” asks Benjamin. “Feminist theory concludes that the derogation of the female side of the polarity leads to a hardening of the opposition between male and female individuality as they are now constructed.”  The search for recognition is transformed into a struggle for omnipotence, understood as a flight from dependency, not by the intrapsychic drama, but by the cultural constructions of masculinity.  Because boys generally form their first and deepest attachment to their mothers, this is a painful process of separation which can contribute to deep confusion, as well as resentment towards and irrational desire for revenge against women. You make me dependent! You threaten my boundaries with feminine vulnerability!

A society dedicated to war will promote a form of masculinity that celebrates violence.  But as Benjamin shows, the predisposition for the domination that violence accomplishes originates as “the derogation of the female side of the polarity leads to a hardening of the opposition between male and female.”

“Power,” says Nancy Hartsock, “irreducibly involves questions of eros.” The association between eros, hostility, and domination, learned during a man’s earliest formative years, is not incidental to domination in the other spheres of life.  It is vital for the reproduction of conquest­-masculinity; and the normalization of conquest­-masculinity is vital for a society organized by war.

“To the extent that either sexual relations or other relations are structured by a dynamic of domination/submission,” says Benjamin, “the others as well will operate along these dimensions, and in consequence, the community as a whole will be structured by domination.”

Benjamin unmasks the gendered “genesis of the psychic structure in which one person plays subject and the other must serve as object.” The invulnerable male is a fighting male. And in militaristic societies, the ultimate proof of masculinity is against enemies in war.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Challenging militarized masculinities Topics:  Conflict Culture Ideas
Categories: les flux rss

Minister Boschi, South Tyrol is autonomous and rightly so

Open Democracy News Analysis - 22. November 2014 - 20:44

The Italian minister publicly claimed she would personally get rid of the country’s self-governing regions – an ill-informed, controversy-stirring populist claim.

Elena Boschi (second from right). Flickr/Palazzo Chigi. Some rights reserved.

Maria Elena Boschi has recently caused a stir: the Italian minister for constitutional reforms publicly claimed that Italy should get rid of its autonomous regions (4) and provinces (2) with a special statute. South Tyrol is one of them. The others are Trentino, Aosta Valley, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sicily and Sardinia.

As we all know Italy is facing troubling times. Besides, such regions are seen by the rest of the country as enjoying unjustified privileges, was the subtext. Money gets syphoned off by corrupted functionaries, so they say. Over the years, successive governors of the Veneto – a region with ordinary status – complained vehemently about the supposed unfairness, i.e. the arbitrary splitting between normal and special regions. Public debate there has been reignited by the Northern League’s secession campaigning. A disparaging scenario, highlighting the complete lack of cohesiveness Italy is yet again facing.

Boschi’s was a telling episode born out of a certain environment and culture. Let’s take a look into this. Most weeks Italy gets devastated by storms and floods. The resulting deaths, injuries and damage make for an extremely distressing sight. The landslides are also the metaphor of a country that is crumbling economically, socially – there’s hardly any intergenerational empathy left – and, most importantly, politically.

A significant part of Italian citizens feel abandoned; they don’t believe in any institutions any more. Any whatsoever. Consider this. The inhabitants of Tor Sapienza – a chronically neglected neighbourhood in Rome – told some Five Star Movement activists to get out: politicians are not welcome. Despite the new movement having worked so hard to present itself in a different light: they are not politicians, they are neither left nor right, they say, they represent a new political order, closer to ordinary people, making old-school politicians accountable. Many people don’t believe that any longer (back in 2012 many seemed to, instead).

One thing is certain, in Italy there have been decades of wild, unregulated building. Nature and the outdoors have been literally trampled on in many places, from Liguria to Sardinia, from Milan and the Po Valley to many areas in the south. “In Genoa we should just call in the bulldozers and tear down entire neighbourhoods,” claims Fabio Luino, a geologist from the CNR Institute for hydrogeological protection. And so on.

Since the sixties, over 3,000 Italians have died as a result of floods, landslides and mismanaged ambitious hydrological projects such as those in Stava and Vajont in the northeast, a section of the country that is often showcased as being at the forefront of land management – even there atrocities have occurred. Over such a period of time, half a million individuals have been displaced. And this is in a country that’s supposed to be amongst the most developed in the world, a member of the G7, a co-founder of the EU, a key Eurozone market. It all sounds grotesquely incongruous. It also sounds a bit like post-1949 China: mad developments, no regulatory plans, try to concrete over as much as you can. Build, build, build. Make money. (Although Mao’s and Deng’s country was supposed to be entirely and purely communist and equal – it clearly wasn’t and Italy, in all fairness, never pretended to be).

Now Italy needs to develop a long-term programme to rebuild half of itself. No joking. Prime minister Matteo Renzi appears to be floundering. He started off by accusing the regions of never having implemented proper land development planning. This is business as usual. When things don’t work, the state blames the regions and vice versa.

A chronic malaise. Each to their own and each looking after their own. In a country that’s been long divided, cooperation is now needed among its various entities. Badly. Proper federalism should be the corner stone propping Italy up. Germany, with its similar past of territorial fragmentation, is today a federalist nation. A country of thousands of dialects, like Italy, it’s managed to reabsorb Eastern Germany and mop up the Elbe last year in no time. Surely that’s something to do with proper administrative and political organising. No condoning geared towards electoral gain, but more vision for what the common good means and more awareness as to how to debate decently and work shoulder to shoulder to find feasible, reasonable compromise. Surely that’s nothing to do with embezzlement of public money, misuse of public office and prima donna politicos.

Italy never managed to establish itself as a federal country the way Germany did. The northern neighbour has a lot to show for its Länder quasi independence. Italy’s autonomous regions are nothing but a botched federalist agenda, one that never fully developed. Central governments were historically cautious handing out power. Perhaps due to the fear of unwittingly promoting further corruption and supporting organised crime. For too long Rome thought it could single-handedly keep everything and everybody in check. Eventually it was organised crime who made it to Rome, as the much acclaimed Sicilian novelist and playwright Leonardo Sciascia recounted in The Day of the Owl (1961).

Senator Francesco Palermo has tried to minimize the impact of minister Boschi’s words. He said these were uttered at a Partito Democratico (PD) gathering and that the PD-led government has no official plans of attacking special statutes. Palermo also said that there’s been much ado about nothing. Well, when a minister speaks publicly and the media are invited to listen and report, then it just becomes like any other stage. Words can just as easily become inflammatory. It’s naive at best and misleading at worst to claim the opposite.

Whilst Palermo’s comments on the one hand have a calming effect with the view, maybe, of building a constructive, thoughtful debate about Italy’s federalism, on the other his attempt to hush polemics by saying that Boschi’s affirmations are not newsworthy sounds somehow suspicious. Let’s not forget, however, that Palermo holds a PhD in comparative constitutional law, is an expert in federalism and minorities’ rights and has been a university professor in the US, Germany, Switzerland as well as Italy. A force to be reckoned with, by any means: Palermo is quite possibly the most clued-up one on the topic in his country. So why minimise Boschi’s unwise and untimely affirmations then?

South Tyrol’s self-government – for after a longish premise we are here to focus on this particular case – is fully legitimate. Its legitimacy – aside from all political and juridical pacts, their detailing here would require room we don’t have – is essentially a moral one. One that goes beyond the 1915 Treaty of London, a secret pact between the Triple Entente and Italy. Its purpose was to get Italy to oppose its former German-speaking allies. South Tyrol was the reward for Italy’s change of sides. Sheer opportunism. Sidney Sonnino’s Italy was hungry for new land. In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin referred to Italy’s imperialistic ambitions as a “colonialism of misers”.

History is full of things like that. To rectify its disastrous outcome – snatching a chunk of a proper German-speaking territory from its Austrian motherland, i.e. from the core of a defeated empire, not one of its remote provinces that spoke Ukrainian, Rumanian or Italian. An exception to the rule that has caused so much controversy. A due reminder.

A self-governing status is thus only fair. Boschi should have quickly acknowledged that her remarks didn’t include South Tyrol. Not so difficult to remember, after all. How many other parts of Italy are further away from the sea and speak a foreign language, the language of Germany and Austria? Certainly more conspicuous than the proverbial fly in the ointment. The fact she didn’t, goes to show how far this province of just over half-a-million people is from Rome’s thoughts. That is until it becomes too late to apologise (Boschi later on succinctly retracted what she’d boldly claimed as pressure had obviously mounted from within PD). “Get rid of them” is a sweeping populist remark – these special regions are all different from one another; some of their statutes are more justified than others. A bit of tinkering is required, but generalisations are unhelpful.

Landslides – which do occur in the very mountainous South Tyrol, but are never devastating because they are almost invariably professionally and timely contained – symbolise both the astonishing lack of ability to focus on what’s what and the widespread use of a vicious blaming culture that’s so typical of the Italian establishment. From there it ensues a moral high-ground from where you can conveniently escape the literal deluge all round. A high-ground that is in theory as much moral as it is in practice smug. Rome’s government can’t micromanage, can’t even contemplate beginning to do so. It can’t afford to. The appropriate administrative tools have not been sharpened regularly. As it stands, today, they are blunt; totally ineffective. And it just shows.

Regions have a role and can’t be wiped out. Regions made up Italy long before Rome did (the country had two other capitals before the Eternal city). Rome is there as a halfway relay in between north and south; a bridge of sorts. A romanticised and emotionally charged icon. But the country needs to be managed locally by raising tax locally to be used there and then. In Italy, tax payers’ money is moved around the country like crazy with people unable to see – with reason – why they should help others’ mismanaged regions. Italy as a whole is a vision shared only by a few; most think it’s a faulty system.

No wonder there’s still on-going, creeping stigma and racism within the country itself, among Italians themselves. A horrible and highly derogatory word like terrone is now heard everywhere, used nonchalantly among friends, on social media, in clubs and associations, in the press, on the radio and in films (it’s an offensive term against southern Italians). It’s fun using it, apparently. It’s like outdoing a taboo. It’s like being modern. Haha. Dictionaries say the term is occasionally used with a hint of humour… Well, it’s mostly not the case. And where’s the humour anyway in implying that somebody is lazy and retrograde because they are from the south? Crass. Attitudes like that contribute to weakening the base of Italy’s civil society, playing into the hands of intolerant, factional, clannish, bigoted politicians.

An insult that’s in reality an obvious and a sad sign of no cohesion (football grounds’ racist and sectarian chanting has liberated its widespread use, propagated by the ubiquitous, twenty-four-seven televised matches). Or worse, it perhaps represents the unwillingness to search yet again for cohesion, after so much time spent without finding any (see for instance the case of the doomed Cassa del mezzogiorno, the Aid for Southern Italy).

Italians have given up on it – cohesion? Who cares now. Resources are badly redistributed because the mechanism that should be in charge of promoting cohesion and sharing – the glue of a country – doesn’t function. Proper federalism is required. The alternative is a useless pointing the finger at others. Or cancerous envy.

Therefore, sweeping statements like blaming the floods on regions, or the regions are Italy’s evil and should be dismantled, is tantamount to cheap demonizing that doesn’t help the thoughtful and serious debate which Italians badly need. Now, more than ever.

The debate in question ought to be on how to rebuild the country: materially and politically. Which of the two aspects comes first is a question of the chicken and egg. They should go hand in hand, proceed shoulder to shoulder, like two oxen labouring hard in a field, going backwards and forwards. The economy is the plough, it follows suit.

A former chunk of Austria that has lent itself to a Mediterranean folk could be the lighthouse in a foggy bay. However, on the proviso that its legitimate autonomy is not questioned as being amoral, but observed very closely instead to see what’s in it that Italy could benefit from. Maybe it’s all in a number. Ninety. The ninety per cent of locally raised tax revenue that as a region you should keep for yourself. Rome will manage just fine with the remaining ten. It’ll have to.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Arrivederci, Veneto? Fighting for self-determination in South Tyrol Country or region:  Italy
Categories: les flux rss

Endgame: the United States and Iran

Open Democracy News Analysis - 22. November 2014 - 13:01

What stands in the way of Iran and the US cooperating openly to meet twin threats of Sunni extremism and state failure is any failure to resolve the nuclear deadlock. 

Iranian President Rouhani speaks at New America event in New York City. Nancy Siesal/Demotix. All rights reserved.As the deadline of November 24 for the completion of the talks between Iran and the P5+1 looms before us much more is at stake than just the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

The outcome of these negotiations is likely to determine, above all, the trajectory of US-Iran relations over the next several decades. This is why US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, both of whom have invested a great deal in the success of the current negotiations met recently in Oman in the company of Catherine Ashton to try and work out the outlines of a deal that could be ratified at the next round of formal negotiations in Vienna.

Little is known authoritatively about the substance of the Oman meeting although speculations in the press have given a negative spin to the outcome of these talks. However, recent reports that Iran has agreed to ship out much of its already enriched uranium to Russia to be turned into fuel rods that cannot be used for weapons purposes indicate that Tehran is willing to be flexible in meeting some of the western demands.

Both the United States and Iran recognize that the failure of this crucial round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program will provide the opponents of a US-Iran deal with ample ammunition to scuttle these talks and lock the two countries into a confrontational mode for decades to come. This is why the Obama administration and the Rouhani government have tried their best to improve the atmospherics surrounding the negotiations and have desisted from acrimonious exchanges in public.

Nonetheless, the forces arrayed against a positive outcome in both countries are very formidable. The Republican-controlled US Congress is spoiling for a fight on this issue with the President to demonstrate that Obama has gone soft both on Iran and on nuclear non-proliferation issues in general. The Republicans hope to capitalize on the media-fed negative image of Iran harbored by large segments of the American public whose understanding of the complexity of Iran-US relations is minimal if not non-existent.

The formidable Israel lobby in the United States is also arrayed against any compromise solution regarding the Iranian nuclear program. The lobby takes its cue from the Netanyahu government, whose rhetoric portrays Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel and insists that Tehran should be left with no nuclear enrichment capability at all lest it covertly use it to develop nuclear weapons. This stand flies in the face of the assurances given to non-nuclear states by the NPT regarding their right to nuclear enrichment for civilian purposes.

More important, such a position, which the United States wisely jettisoned a long time ago, will never be acceptable to Iran and is, therefore, certain to scuttle the negotiations. It is the breakdown of the negotiating process that is Israel’s real objective since it fears that its success will mark the beginning of an American-Iranian rapprochement that is likely to reduce Israel’s strategic value to the United States and reduce Tel Aviv’s clout in Washington on issues related to the moribund Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”.

The “rejectionists” on the Iranian side are no less formidable. They include elements of the Revolutionary Guard as well as hardline clerical and non-clerical factions that do not trust that President Rouhani and, especially, his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who is the leading Iranian negotiator, are committed to or capable of protecting Iranian national interests especially in the nuclear arena. They believe that the Rouhani-Zarif team is likely to sacrifice Iran’s long-term goals at the altar of a short-term deal with the P5+1 that could add to their popularity at home.

Some of these forces are driven by a genuine commitment to the objective of protecting Iran’s capability to manufacture nuclear weapons some time in the future for security as well as prestige reasons. Others are propelled by more base motives of factional rivalry and the struggle for influence and power in the sphere of domestic politics.

Leaders of several rejectionist factions have the ear of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, although the latter has so far prevented them from scuttling the negotiations as a part of his wait and see policy. If, however, the end result of the negotiations, especially on the issues of enrichment capacity permitted to Iran and the timing and sequence according to which sanctions will be lifted, does not meet his expectations, he may use these forces to justify bringing the negotiating process to an end.

In sum the success of these negotiations is not a foregone conclusion but neither is their failure. The Iranian leadership is interested in the speedy lifting of the sanctions in order to give momentum to the Iranian economy especially since oil prices have shown a distinct downward trend in the past few months.

Equally important, the legitimacy of the regime has become tied to the lifting of sanctions in the eyes of the Iranian population. If the negotiations fail, the regime will have to pay a heavy price for it domestically with spontaneous eruptions of public unrest very possible.

The Obama administration mired as it is in unwinnable conflicts in Iraq and Syria is desperately seeking a foreign policy success that the achievement of a nuclear deal with Iran, especially if it can be sold as preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capacity, may be able to provide. Moreover, the more discerning members of the administration recognize that the United States can neither neutralize the threat posed by ISIS nor stabilize the situation in Iraq and Syria without Iran’s help. This is the case because Iran is the most influential external player in Iraq and the principal backer of the Assad regime. It is also the regional power most capable of training and advising local forces to fight ISIS and has excess trained manpower capacity in the form of the Revolutionary Guards, and especially its elite Quds force that can be mobilized to directly confront ISIS.

Above all, the realization seems to be beginning to dawn on official circles in Washington that it is Sunni extremism nurtured above all by the Saudi regime and its antediluvian ideology that poses the greatest threat to American interests in the Middle East and not Shia Iran and its proxies in the region, some of which such as the Iraqi regime happen to be America’s friends as well. In other words, Iranian and American interests in the Middle East are more congruent with each other than the leadership on either side is willing to admit publicly.

What stands in the way of Iran and the US cooperating openly to meet the twin threats of Sunni extremism and state failure – and the two are inextricably linked with each other  – is the failure to resolve the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program. Seen in this light, it becomes imperative for both Washington and Tehran to resolve their differences on the nuclear issue in a reasonable manner that is acceptable to both sides and that can pave the way for Iranian-American cooperation to tackle the major security threats facing the region. One hopes that this can be achieved before the November 24 deadline.

Country or region:  United States Iran Topics:  Conflict International politics
Categories: les flux rss

The geostrategic consequences of the Arab Spring

Open Democracy News Analysis - 22. November 2014 - 12:02

The Arab awakening is creating a new socio-political and economic reality in the region, transforming the balance of power, not because states have become stronger, but rather because states have become weak and fragile.

Tahrir Square during February 2011. Mona/wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

A region in transformation 

After three years since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the emerging political order in the Middle East is marked by considerable changes within each state at national level in a vital region in the global geostrategic configuration.

The exceptionality of the Arab world has come to an end. The structures and balances of emerging powers in the late 1970s, mutating since the end of the Cold War, are being transformed. [1]  Since the Gulf War ended, security threats and tensions have increased among the states in the Middle East. Sometimes these tensions have resulted in a direct or indirect conflict threatening their socio-political and economic security. The threat of interstate aggression has manifested in new, more dangerous ways in the context of the Arab Spring, at a sub-state level, but with very important implications for regional stability and international security. In other words, the Middle East is undergoing the emergence of a new security order and regional reconfiguration. 

The Arab uprisings have unleashed internal dynamics of protest and political change in most of the states of the region, its impact transcending national systems, and affecting the political order in the Arab world. The region is at a crossroads, facing various security challenges both from neighbouring countries such as Israel, Turkey and Iran, and in their socioeconomic dynamics and national policies. Depending on the answers to these challenges, the result will range between everything from stability and regional cooperation, to disintegrative conflict in the Middle East.

Rebalancing of multipolar powers

The Arab Spring exploded amid a deep structural transformation in the Middle East, with its three non-Arab centres of power: Israel, Iran and Turkey. [2] At first, the Arab awakening looked to break the old false authoritarian paradigm, built by Arab leaders out of 'raison d’état', establishing a new system based on social justice. Soon, these first impressions clashed with the geopolitical realities of the Arab regional system as enshrined over time. [3] The main demands of the Arab revolts focused on domestic freedoms, good governance and social justice, foreign policy being kept on the back-burner. The revolts have led to a change of status for Arab populations as effective and active agencies in the political landscape, where formerly they were considered the missing equation in power relations, with a legitimacy usurped by Arab dictators and authoritarian regimes all set to maintain dependency relations. The shift of power to the people is manifest in the fact that they are now conscious of their ability to mobilize, rebel, and - finally - vote, and that they supposed that this would lead to change and bring improvement in the power and capacity of Arab societies. [4]

These transitions in the Arab countries have political, socioeconomic and geostrategic implications. They pose profound challenges. Within this new logic, the challenges that these states face can introduce several alternative versions of a new regional order, or the promotion of division by individual states may continue. In short, the common interest would be best served by developing an architecture of cooperative security to manage the latent threats and tensions in the region in this tumultuous transition, but to do so in a way very open to different evolutionary strategies. However, the behaviours of the current Arab states demonstrate their inability to offer such a unique common framework or paradigm in the situation in which the Middle East finds itself.[5]

The configuration of power has shifted in the Middle East over the past three years, through three main strategic trends:

-  The power of the people and internal discontent against authoritarian regimes (Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen);

-  The proliferation of civil wars caused by weak states (Libya and Syria);

  • -  Rivalry between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey spiralling downwards into a zero sum ​​game.

The sum of these three trends will shape the geostrategic vision for the region in the years ahead. 

Down with the Dictators futuremap/ Some rights reservedParadigm of the power of people

The political scene in the Arab awakening is dominated by the sociopolitical forces of the middle classes looking for a new socio-political system, one that is more just and free. Populations that undertook a peaceful struggle created a new model of change that involved the mobilization of populations through mass protests in the streets and the city neurological centres, headed by young people using the internet and social media as a new tool of political activism. They relied on the synergy of the masses to confront repression, and brought down the most entrenched authoritarian regimes in the region, Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia. 

Along with the spontaneous nature of the demonstrations, one of the most striking factors of the Arab Spring, is that there was no dominant political or organizational force. The old powers were trying to take back control of the situation without offering any new actors. The new distribution of power that emerged from this included the legalization of Islamist movements which were until then repressed and marginalized.[6]Most important, the Arab Spring marks the end of Arab exceptionalism and proves that the Arab people are also able to initiate change and democratic transformation. The feeling Al shaab yurid (the people want) has spread across the region.[7]

Revolution and violence in Egypt and Tunisia

The environment of hope and euphoria of the Arab uprisings has declined after the diversion of the Egyptian transition over three years. However, the orientation of the Tunisian transition has been quieter, facing the challenge of reaching a national consensus through the drafting of the constitution and the rule of the Al-Nahda Party. But the emergence of a new Salafist movement is a fundamental challenge to Tunisian civil society. After months of confrontation, fear and uncertainty, political assassinations and ideological polarization, the main actors of public life have managed to agree on a formula of coexistence, codified in a constitution that has been described as "the most liberal in the Arab world."

It is proven that the Arab states which possess competent institutions and a considerable middle class, have the potential for a safer political transition without violence, tracing a peaceful revolutionary paradigm. Violence was not an element in the revolutionary imagination of the people. The masses confronted authoritarianism and repression by demanding “bread, freedom, social justice and dignity”. In this context, the monarchies of Morocco and Jordan introduced political and economic reforms, anticipating this popular discontent.

But generally, the gradual decomposition of the old regimes and their inability to construct a new socio-political system for their societies, have opened the gate to the Islamization and radicalization of the population, becoming a real challenge for the state and Arab civil societies, which are proliferating the polarization between moderate and radical Islam. 

If we take Egypt as an example, "the greatest rivalry could be emerging between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists transnational networks driven by Saudi Wahhabis",[8] with the total rejection by jihadist Salafism of democracy and its principles. However, from the perspective of a Jihadist Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Al-Nahda Party in Tunisia, are a deviation from the straight path of Islam, its religious and socio-political thought.

In Egypt, the Salafist movement remains strong. After years in prison, the Salafi jihadist groups continue to maintain strong links with Al-Qaeda and have obtained funding from the rich oil states. A significant example of the proliferation of terrorism is in the Sinai region, where the absence of central authority, the general feeling of marginalization and discrimination, and the lack of integration plans and structuring among its population, has radicalized the population, leading to the securitization of territorial-based politics in the Sinai Peninsula. This affects relations between Egypt and Israel in a way that could destabilize the rest of the region.

Paradigm of civil war

The Libyan civil war is considered another paradigm, in which the Libyan people rose in an armed conflict against the Gaddafi regime that masked the fragility of a middle class without any civil society or state institutions.

Libya is in a post-war scenario which nurtures two main threats. First, the emergence of radical Islamist groups, which both create instability and attempt to decentralize power away from state institutions, scattering it between different Islamist groups and the state. The second threat is the proliferation of arms trafficking, including the trafficking of advanced anti-aircraft rockets.

After the fall of the Gaddafi regime, military bases passed into the hands of rebel fighters and Libyan mercenaries during a civil war that swiftly created a geopolitical tension zone. Weapons were supplied to the National Movement of Azawad, the Touareg Movement (in North of Mali) forming the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Ansar-Dine. These groups were able to extend their control and to form a black hole in the Sahel that causes instability and tensions among different international actors such as Mauritania and Morocco, Mali and Mauritania, Libya and Niger. Their influence also extends to the West African region. Gaza and Sinai were the first recipients of all kinds of light and heavy weapons as a direct result.

The weak structure of the Libyan state after the civil war and the failure to rebuild their institutions, especially in the security sector, produced a vacuum which materializes also in continuous clashes and fighting in the capital. Therefore, the transformation to the new Libyan paradigm has created a weak state with fragile socio-political forces, which are opening the door to geopolitical chaos.

Sectarian violence and the Syrian civil war 

The Syrian uprising began as a peaceful protest movement demanding political reforms and social justice and ended in a sectarian civil war, mainly instigated by the Assad regime using excessive force to suppress the popular uprising, which has spread throughout the country. The massive use of force by the government has led to the radicalization and militarization of the opposition. The confessionalization of the Syrian civil war has led to a circular conflict, based on the sectarian polarization between Sunni and Shia, between multiple fractions, groups and Katibas (combat units).

The complexity of the Syrian conflict emanates from the logic of sectarian violence in the context of a proxy war of world powers (US and Russia) and regional powers (Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia), in fourth generation warfare (4GW) that repeats the Iraqi and Afghan scenario.

Syria has become a geopolitical scenario for regional and international powers like Lebanon and Iraq. However, the Syrian regime has shown its strength in trying to regain control of the country. Probably, this country is entering a lost decade, with the slow decline of the regime, accompanied by the militarization of the opposition, the disintegration of public order and security. With thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, the wholesale destruction of industrial infrastructure and its historical patrimony, Syria is the main victim of this confrontation. It will take years to rebuild political and economic order and security.

Charles Eugène Perron/ Some rights reserved

The great game of the Middle East

The geostrategic competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran has triggered power struggles throughout the Middle East (Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Syria) and converted the region into one geopolitical Great Game.[9]This rivalry is manifest in several aspects. This rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran stems from a sectarian identity conflict arising from a time prior to Islam.[10]In fact, the roots of the conflict date back to a rivalry between Arabs and Persians, which continues to this day. The sectarian issue sets a parameter to this rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran, with tensions between Sunnis and Shiites that give shape to this competition. The official Islamic belief of Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, does not accept Shia Muslims as true believers. Religion is a neurological issue for both states that grant political and religious legitimacy in Riyadh and Tehran. This legitimacy is necessary for the concentration of power, for internal hegemony and is configured as an argument for their regional hegemonic aspirations. These two countries Saudi Arabia and Iran, both face strong internal challenges from a population increasingly divided and depressed. Given the importance for both states representing the religious factor, Islam is translated into terms of a competition for the leadership of the Umma, which lends legitimacy to a conflict characterised in zero-sum terms.

The other determining factor in this rivalry is geostrategy which is determined by sectarian agendas. The geopolitical dimension of the conflict crystallizes in the Iranian and Saudi regional security strategies. The first of these international actors is Iran, in favor of a centralized security approach in the Gulf, in contrast to Saudi Arabia who looks to external actors, particularly the United States, to guarantee its national and regional security. This crossover in terms of national interest, plunges the entire region into a power game. Moreover, Iranian financial support to Shiite groups in Arab countries, increases tensions with Saudi Arabia, which in reply, encourages Iranian ethnic minorities to destabilize the Iranian regime. [11]

Iraq after 2003 

The decomposition of the Iraqi regime as a regional power after the US invasion in 2003, was received by Riyadh and Tehran as an opportunity to extend its hegemony over the Gulf. Previously, Saddam Hussein had played a balance of regional powers game, but his defeat created a vacuum of power that has triggered these movements in the regional dynamics for successive decades. Saudi Arabia and Iran both try to fill this gap by operating beyond their own borders. In the post-Saddam period, Iran has provided financial and military support through Sepah-e Pasdaran (Iran’s Revolutionary Guard) groups and Shiite factions in Iraq. By contrast, the performance of Saudi Arabia in Iraq is more difficult to discern, often financing and supporting Iraqi Sunni groups. Iran is losing its influence and soft power in the Levant region as a consequence of the Arab Spring on account of its support for the Syrian regime, although in Lebanon it still has a strong position.[12]

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf

The growing role of non-state actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanese politics, pose a serious challenge to Saudi Arabia. While Iran provided support for Hezbollah, when it made its appearance in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia is reluctant to offer support to the group, with its Shiite beliefs and close ties to Iran. Tensions between Hezbollah and the Council of the Gulf Cooperation are increasing with the Syrian civil war, caused by the participation of Hezbollah in the conflict with the Syrian army, supporting Assad to repress and massacre the Sunni majority.

Saudi Arabia's position against the popular uprisings was shaped by their own geopolitical objectives: to isolate the kingdom from the winds of change, protect the survival of monarchical regimes and undermine Iran's power in the region. Saudi Arabia used its military power, political influence and financial generosity to contain the effects of the revolts in the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Bahrain, Yemen and Oman. Equally, Riyadh extended its financial assistance to strengthen Morocco and Jordan against popular reformist mobilization. [13]

The Arab uprisings have also altered the systematic roles of Qatar and Turkey in the region. Both states abandoned their old pragmatic positions and proclaimed a new regional role after the Arab Spring. Qatar used its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the political and financial cooperation with Islamist parties that took power in some countries to strengthen its geopolitical position. Perhaps, Qatari hyperactivism is the biggest winner in the Arab Spring. Its Al Jazeera TV channel has played a significant role in the Arab revolts. In addition, its diplomacy was a key to pushing the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League to take some measures on the Syrian crisis.

Turkey also has emerged in this period as a power that creates balance between Arab countries, standing between Sunnis and Shiites. Turkey appears to have reached its limits. Ankara's power was clearly growing in the region before the Arab spring due largely to the foreign policy of 'zero problems'.[14] This initiative was based on the expansion of Turkish influence in the region, playing a constructive role in regional conflicts.[15] But Turkey's role in this region has changed after the uprisings. Its posture vis-à-vis Syria in particular has mutated through three phases, first as an ally of the regime, then mediator and lastly in opposition to sectarian violence against Syrian citizens. 

The Gulf Cooperation Council was shaken by the uprising in Bahrain and agitated into action and assertiveness. Bahrain is still an open wound and the most vulnerable part of the organization, but the Gulf Cooperation Council has demonstrated its military muscle and political ambitions with its intervention in Bahrain. The Council has reaffirmed its vocation to protect the monarchical status quo against the pro-democracy or pro-republics movements, rejecting any attempt by Iran to project its power in the zone. The rising ambitions of the Gulf Cooperation Council are reflected in the offer of membership to Jordan and Morocco, in order to promote a Sunni geostrategic alliance, mediating the transition in Yemen, supporting military intervention in Libya, and seeking greater unity within the Council. 

Israel remains a source of geostrategic threat to Arab security in various different dimensions. It is the neighbour who possesses nuclear weapons, creating serious military imbalance between Israel and the Arab states. The apparent absence of Israeli will to resolve the Palestinian issue, by establishing an independent Palestinian state according to UN resolutions and implement the roadmap also creates instability. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is losing some prominence in the actual geopolitics of a region confronted by all the other issues arising from the Arab Spring, issues that create greater concern among Arab states who appear much more focused on internal tremors and the national policies required to deal with them, than on this conflict.


The Middle East before the Arab uprisings seemed like a heterogeneous security system. These parameters were inherited from the colonial powers and the Cold War. The Arab revolutions untied the internal dynamics of protest and political change in most of the states of the region, affecting the whole political order.

There are three fundamental geostrategic implications shaping the future of the balance of power in the Middle East. The first geostrategic consequence of the Arab Spring is the appearance of people as the main catalyst for these nations' internal dynamics. The popular uprisings in the Arab world were caused by a combination of economic, political and social deficits. While there are similar conditions in several Arab countries, the responses of the regimes were dissimilar, creating different models of conflict. The results of citizen protest differ from state to state, depending on its ability to maintain its monopoly on the use of force, which in some cases has led to a democratic transition from the bottom up (Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen). In other cases, the result is gradual reforms from the top down (Morocco, Jordan and the Gulf Cooperation Council). The third group of countries are countries with a government crackdown against the protesters or even a disintegration of the state (Libya, Syria).

The second geostrategic consequence is the proliferation of weak states. First, the monopoly of force has been questioned and weakened in several Arab countries, with increasing violence at sub-state level. The new governments or those who managed to stay in power cannot reconcile themselves with their highly mobilized societies, and have failed to reach a national consensus to calm the sociopolitical upheavals. They also cannot reform and rebuild their security apparatus and they cannot regain control over the peripheral zones within their sovereign territories, especially in the Sahel region, the Sinai Peninsula and South of Yemen.

The third consequence is the densification of geopolitical disputes crystallized in latent conflicts. The implications will have a great impact on the relations and power structure in the Middle East. It is crucial to recognise the rivalry and the power struggle among Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, which will shape the region in the coming years. The main features of this rivalry are:

  1. The manipulation of sectarianism to achieve realistic geopolitical objectives, by Saudi Arabia and Iran, which may trigger a regional recoil effect.
  2. The strong divisions within the Sunni world, a particular example arising between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
  3. Turkish power. The country has been regarded as an example of political and economic success in many countries. However, this does not translate into a Turkish domain or a neo-Ottoman order in the region. On the contrary, Turkey has lost some of its soft power in this scenario. However,  it did exert influence through its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, and may have a particularly strong influence on post-Assad Syria.
  4. Iran has possibly reached the limits of an expanding influence, and its ability to contribute constructively to the security of the region can be curtailed. Its nuclear program has added relevance to Iran, raising concerns among its Arab neighbours in the Gulf. The Arab Spring led indirectly to the weakening of Iran in the region as a result of civil war in Syria.
  5. The old geopolitical epicentres of the region (Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad) are experiencing complicated transitions (Egypt), civil war (Syria) and ethnic and sectarian division (Iraq, Lebanon and Syria). This has allowed the conservative monarchies of the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to attempt to fill the geopolitical vacuum. 

On a systemic level, the Arab awakening is creating a new socio-political and economic reality in the region, transforming the balance of power, not because some states have become stronger, but rather because other states have become weaker and more fragile.


[1] ÜLGEN, S., et al., Emerging Order in the Middle East. Washington, D.C, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012.

[2] RÓZSA, E., Geo-Strategic Consequences of the Arab Spring. Barcelona, European Institute of the Mediterranean, 2013.

[3] SALLOUKH, B., “The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East”. Roma, The International Spectator. Italian Journal of International Affairs, 2013.

[4] ÜLGEN, S., op. cit, p 3.

[5] SALEM, P., The Middle East: Evolution of a Broken Regional Order. Washington, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, D.C, 2008.

[6] RÓZSA, E., op. cit, p. 6

[7] RÓZSA, E., op. cit, p 11.

[8] YOUNGS, R., El nuevo viejo paradigma de seguridad en Oriente Medio. Madrid, FRIDE, 2013.

[9] MABON, S., “The Middle Eastern Great Game”. Zürich, ISN-ETH, International Relations and Security Network, 2013, p 2.

[10] MABON, S. op, cit. p 4.

[11] BRADLEY, J., “Iran’s Ethnic Tinderbox”. Washington D. C, the Washington Quarterly. Vol. 30, 2007.

[12] RÓZSA, E., op. cit, p. 18.

[13] SALLOUKH, B., op. cit.

[14] DAVUTOĞLU, A., "Turkey’s zero-problems foreign policy." Washington, D.C Foreign Policy, 2010.

[15] BALOGH, I., “The Middle Eastern Balance of Power in 2012 And Its Implications for the Future” en ONDREJCSÁK, R., et al. Panorama of Global Security Environment. Bratislava. CENAA, 2012.



Sideboxes Related stories:  Arab Spring: political islam or democracy? Arab Gulf states: the Iran complex Syria and Libya, a slow meltdown Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government International politics
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Qatar: diplomats return but differences remain

Open Democracy News Analysis - 22. November 2014 - 10:45

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have ambassadors returning to Qatar after a nearly year-long absence, a boost for a Gulf state that could do with positive media coverage.

West Bay Skyline in Doha, Qatar. Heidi Donat/wikimedia. Some rights reserved

Between shopping malls and the financing of terrorism

The narrative about Qatar has gone from being one of huge gas reserves, glittering shopping malls and a staggering GDP per capita figure (according to the World Bank currently at $93,352), to being one of corruption, labour concerns and accusations of funding terrorism.

One recent Reuters report even referred to foreign diplomats remarking on cars with Islamic State markings in Qatar’s West Bay area, where many foreign embassies are located. In fact those vehicles have not been independently verified – journalists based in Doha, contacted for this article, have been sceptical and were unable to confirm such sightings.

In the United Kingdom, The Telegraph newspaper has published a steady stream of stories on Qatar’s alleged role in financing terrorist groups. The Guardian has published fewer stories, but focused on labour rights concerns – the conditions of construction workers building the facilities for the 2022 World Cup, the hosting of which Qatar also faces questions over.

Neighbourhood policy in the Gulf

Against that backdrop, the political dispute between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours has been running at least since March when Saudi, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, accusing Qatar of undermining their security by continuing to support the Muslim Brotherhood and other aligned groups.

The return of the ambassadors – in which Kuwait appears to have played a mediating role – comes ahead of the 35th summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), due to be held in Doha between 9 and 10 December. When Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatar’s emir, delivered a public invitation on 11 November to GCC members to attend the summit, it was assumed by some observers that Qatar feared the meeting was about to be moved elsewhere. As a consequence, the announcement about the ambassadors was unexpected. Should it have been? Recent months have seen an alignment of sorts between the GCC members. Mostly that has been against the Islamic State, whose fighters have taken over parts of Iraq and Syria.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar. Chuck Hagel/wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

United against IS, divided over the Muslim Brotherhood

The Gulf States are all, to a greater or lesser extent, taking part in United States-led air strikes on Islamic State fighters. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are involved in the air strikes in northern Syria, while Kuwait and Oman are playing less military roles.

But while this marks an improvement in relations that have been fractious for most of the year, there is still a way to go before the divisions between Qatar and the other GCC members are healed. Qatar has never properly withdrawn its support for its favoured Islamist groups, although it did make a show of turfing out some Brotherhood members in September, asking individuals such as Amr Darrag and Hamza Zobaa to leave the country. 

 Darrag and Zobaa were among the members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who fled to Doha when the Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in July, 2013. Darrag served as Morsi’s planning minister and Zobaa was a spokesman for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). But Qatar has long been sympathetic to the Brotherhood. The frequently outspoken Brotherhood cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has lived there for most of the last 40 years and is unlikely to be asked to leave.

Meanwhile, on 16 November, the United Arab Emirates released a list of designated terrorist organisations, which includes (alongside Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and Boko Haram) the Muslim Brotherhood in the Emirates and a number of Islamic charities in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Their inclusion is hardly surprising given the Emirate’s crackdown in recent years on Muslim Brotherhood members and domestic Islamist groups, but the list’s release a day ahead of announcing the return of the Emirate’s ambassador to Qatar indicates that reopening its embassy is in no way an acceptance of Qatar’s foreign policy outlook.

Remaining differences between the Emirates and Qatar 

While Qatar’s fall from grace this year is partly of its own making, it is also in part due to efforts by the United Arab Emirates, which has hired teams of lawyers and lobbyists both to burnish its own image abroad, and to brief against Qatar.

In the United States those efforts appear to have included hiring the Camstoll Group, a US consultancy with former government staff on its payroll. An article in The New York Times observed that a number of journalists who met the Camstoll Group went on to write unflattering portrayals of Qatar.

In September, Qatar’s arrest (and later release) of two human rights researchers from the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD) was widely reported, as were observations that GNRD had links to the United Arab Emirates. Despite the Emirates ambassador’s return to Qatar – along with that of his Saudi and Bahraini counterparts – the Gulf States appear to remain fundamentally at odds over the region’s political future.


Sideboxes Related stories:  Workers' rights in Qatar Qatar: FIFA must act Qatar in change Country or region:  Qatar Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government International politics
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Erdoğan and Putin: unalike likeness

Open Democracy News Analysis - 22. November 2014 - 0:40

The leaders of Turkey and Russia are often compared. But their differences are more instructive than their similarities.

Strongmen are in high demand across Europe’s fringes these days. Hungary’s prime minister Victor Orbán hit a raw nerve when, addressing a crowd of admirers in neighbouring Romania in July 2014, he declared that the era of liberal democracy was over. Orbán, the bête noire of many a Europhile, vowed to lead the Hungarian nation with a firm grip and to protect its vital interests against foreign encroachments. Amongst the examples he cited as inspiring this resolve were Russia and Turkey.

Orbán was not the first, nor will he be the last, to put Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the same basket. Turkey’s combative prime minister (now president) raised cries of “Putinisation" from his opponents as early as September 2009, when he despatched the tax authorities to impose a $3.8 million fine on Doğan Holding, a powerful media group. 

There were differences: the streetwise businessman turned media mogul Aydın Doğan was treated far less roughly than had been Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his Yukos company.  Erdoğan's personal feud, on this occasion at least, sent no one to prison - and Doğan Holding is still around.

Yet the tax-violation case did echo the painfully familiar Russian maxim: “druzyam - vsyo, vragam - zakon” (“friends get everything, enemies get the law"). The selective application of the law showed who was the boss in Turkey. Soon the spectre of “Putinisation”  would overshadow previous concerns that Erdoğan's Justice & Development Party (AKP) was seeking the Islamisation of society and the state. Turkey, it was said, was turning not into the Islamic Republic of Iran but into a second Russia.  

By 2013, with Erdoğan’s security clampdown on the civic protests around Istanbul's Gezi Park - and his enthronement as a sultan-like president a year later - the parallel with the Kremlin's master was becoming even more salient. After all, Putin himself had reoccupied the presidency in 2012 in the wake of the protest rallies at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, having proved adept - again like Erdoğan - at exploiting the anger and frustration of a disenchanted urban middle class that had benefited from a decade of robust economic growth but was now feeling less secure.

Their responses to the protests were similar in style if different in detail. Putin spied a plot to export a "colour revolution", Erdoğan a conspiracy fomented by the global “interest-rate lobby” to thwart Turkey’s inexorable rise. In each case the leader's rhetorical and, latterly real, wars paid off. Putin annexed Crimea and detached parts of eastern Ukraine, in the process showing how foreign policy can be used to consolidate domestic support. Erdoğan had already bolstered his popularity via virulent attacks on Israel as well as the United States, and deployed the same fiery nationalist discourse over the conflict in Syria. 

In both cases too, relations with the European Union have been poisoned amid Moscow and Istanbul's frequent recriminations and complaints of unfair treatment. Rejection by Europe has brought the two supposed "rising powers" closer, an embrace helped by the good personal chemistry between Erdoğan and Putin (notwithstanding the indirect clash over Syria, where they back opposing sides). Turkey, a longstanding Nato member, has declined to join western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine; bilateral trade is booming (partly fuelled by the Turkish economy's need for gas); Turkey’s construction companies earn lucrative contracts from Sochi to Moscow; and millions of Russian tourists flock to Turkey's Mediterranean resorts.

Power and its constraints

It is to be expected, then, that some analysts see Erdoğan and Putin as two sides of the same coin. Natalie Nougayrède, writing in the Guardian, speaks of “the two angry men on Europe’s borders” who ruthlessly pursue power, exploit historical traumas and myths of victimhood, and mix nationalism and anti-liberal traditionalism to pose a fundamental challenge to European values. Others refer to an "axis of the excluded”.

There is certainly a grain of truth in these views. Both Turkey's illiberal system and Russia's autocratic regime snub the model projected by the west - and the European Union in particular; both leaders seek inspiration in past empires (Ottoman and Tsarist-Soviet) rather than Brussels’ EU-topia. They are a poignant reminder that liberal democracy with its insistence on the rule of law, pluralism and deliberation is not the only game in town. The alternative they represent - the omnipresent and venerated state, the strong-willed and charismatic leader, the direct appeal to the masses through the skilful use of media, the staunch belief in sovereignty, and the reluctance to delegate or share power (either domestically or in the context of international institutions) - is a radical contrast to the EU’s narrative.

Yet differences between the two strongmen and their political tactics may outweigh similarities. First, the mismatch between Erdoğan’s anti-western rhetoric and his far more restrained actions is notable. The regional crisis has underscored Turkey’s continued dependence on the west. Erdoğan's anger with the US - over its aid to the Syrian Kurds fighting Islamic State jihadis in Kobane, and its refusal to intervene forcefully against Bashar al-Assad in Damascus - exposes Turkey's continued military dependency: it needs Nato’s Patriot missiles to be deployed along its porous border with Syria, and even more US "boots on the ground" to help address Turkey's vulnerability.

By contrast, Putin’s grudge is that the the US and EU are meddling in what he sees as Russia's privileged sphere of influence; thus the incursion into Ukraine to expunge western influence away from the post-Soviet space and control Kyiv’s choices by way of creating a new "frozen conflict".

Second, there are divergences in domestic politics. In Putin’s authoritarian system, elections are a mere sideshow and the Duma rubber-stamps the Kremlin's decisions; under Erdoğan and the AKP, electoral legitimacy matters, and political authority is a function of it. Turkey's polarised society generates a political system, which, for all its flaws, is more competitive than Russia's. It shares and benefits from a longer tradition of (albeit imperfect) democracy. While Putin’s regime is about creating and sustaining fake opposition parties and staging elections, in Turkey ballots do count. Erdoğan’s choice to run for the presidency was conditioned by the AKP's strong showing in the municipal polls of 31 March. 

Looking ahead, the legislative elections of 2015 will be critical for the government as they will decide whether AKP will win enough seats to adopt a new constitutional draft and bring in a presidential system. Again, this confirms the importance of elections and institutions do matter in Turkey compared to Russia. After all, Erdoğan is an electoral politician who worked his way up from the streets of Istanbul to the peak of power; Putin is a security operative whose roots lie in the state's repressive apparatus.

The roots of difference

If the outcome in Turkey were highly personalised rule where one individual grabs all levers of power and suppresses dissent, such distinctions might seem irelevant. Here it is important to note that key parts of the AKP pro-democracy narrative of the early 2000s - when the party acted as a champion of Europeanisation, human and minority rights - remain in place. The Kurdish peace (or solution) process has been dealth a heavy blow by Ankara’s alignment with IS and unwillingness to come to the rescue of the Syrian Kurds, yet it survives. Erdoğan, together with the jailed head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, remains at the forefront of efforts to heal a scar that has torn Turkey’s polity for decades. Whether Turkey’s president delivers or not on the promise to settle the conflict will determine the final judgment on his reign.

Furthermore, Erdoğan and Putin relate in dissimilar ways to tradition and religious identity.  The war in Ukraine has exposed the heterogeneous and tenuous nature of the Kremlin’s ideological message, which combines references to Orthodoxy with glorification of the Soviet past. Putin's bid to undermine western ideological hegemony has also seen him join forces with both Europe's far left and the extreme right; in ways reminiscent of Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia, communist-era apparatchiks and security-service types (siloviki) have co-opted culture and faith - and consulted PR experts - to concoct a postmodern pastiche whose sole purpose is legitimising autocracy.

Again by contrast, the AKP and Erdoğan draw on a longer organic tradition of political Islam whose roots lie in the 1960s (if not earlier). Its central preoccupation is the question of whether and how religious values and modernity can be reconciled. Erdoğan's image as an “authentic“ conservative - as opposed to self-seeking politician using tradition as a mere tool - might be questioned; but it is central to the identity of the AKP’s cohesive party base and its dense grassroots networks. And it's worth recalling that Erdoğan was educated at a religious seminary (imam hatip)  - a far cry from the Soviet schools attended by Putin, following by KGB training.

Empire vs nation-state

The best way to see this relationship might be in terms of two dissimilar post-imperial situations. Putin is a product of the Soviet empire as well of its collapse in the 1980s-90s. His objective is to restore its power and prestige. Russia, unlike Turkey, never underwent a process of nation-state homogenisation; empire is a vivid reality even in its present confines, rather than a historical artefact and resource of memory (Russia is home to a large Muslim population, Turkey has very few non-Muslims left).

Erdoğan springs from a distinctively nation-state context, one where key parts of the Ottoman legacy were suppressed. He chose to reinvent Turkey’s identity, pushing (Sunni) Islam and the Ottomans to the forefront to refight a struggle against Kemalists. Rather than redrawing borders, his quasi-imperial mission abroad envisages establishing Turkey as a political and economic model for the Middle East and north Africa.

But in fairness, the much vaunted bonds between Turkey and its neighbours (cultural, linguistic, migratory) are nowhere near those that connect Russia to its "near abroad". Millions across the ex-Soviet Union, regardless of their ethnicity, have direct access to Putin’s message through the medium of Russian as a lingua franca. Putin’s neighbourhood policy is alive and kicking: the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is officially launched on 1 January 2015; Erdoğan’s, after so much effort to harness Ottoman nostalgia, crashed with Syria's war, the military coup in Egypt, and Iraq’s implosion.

That does not give Putin has an easier ride than Erdoğan. The Kremlin oscillates between inclusive schemes of Eurasian unification where economic integration renews political bonds across the Soviet Union and ethnocentric phantasms of a Russkii Mir (Russian world). Its imperial ambitons are constrained by a xenophobic public opinion in Russia, where a minority of thugs is ever ready to lash out at immigrants from central Asia and the Caucasus. The dilution of borders in the EEU might prove a hard sell, which has not been the case in Turkey’s dealings with its neighbours. Tensions between parochial and exclusionary nationalism and imperial expansionism are a formidable challenge to Putin’s regime.

Comparing Putin and Erdoğan is an interesting exercise. Juxtaposing them is even more fruitful. For all the commonalities, it is the differences between the two leaders that provide most insight into today’s Turkey and Russia.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

European Institute, LSE

South East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX)


European Council on Foreign Relations

Turkey's Illiberal Turn (ECFR, 2014

Country or region:  Turkey Russia Topics:  Democracy and government International politics Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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WTF Tony Blair?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 22. November 2014 - 0:00

The former British Prime Minister is parading around the world acting as a spin doctor for murderous regimes and a salesman of Saudi oil.

Tony Blair/Wikimedia

It has recently been revealed that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair earnt £41,000 per month from a Saudi oil company, as well as 2% commission on any deal he helped them secure. Blair has also been making extra cash through providing PR tips to dictators who have recently killed off protestors in return for around £7 million.

His exploitation of questionable political regimes doesn’t stop here though. He’s also working with BP and the Azerbaijini government to help the construction of a pipeline run smoothly in the face of opposition. Many of his activities as a consultant seem to revolve around subverting democracy and manipulating public perceptions through offering PR counsel to rogue regimes (whatever pays the bills!).

Tony Blair’s ‘business’ and ‘charity’ dealings are shrouded in mystery and as Seamus Milne said in the Guardian the former leader now ‘embodies corruption and war’. Tony Blair Associates, his consultancy company, appears to be more about getting rich off propping up dictatorships than any strong political agenda. Human Rights Watch, commenting on his relationship with the Kazakh regime described Blair as ‘shameless’ Yet, he rarely receives the criticism or scrutiny he deserves. There are odd pieces in big publications, such as this in The New York Times, but generally speaking the majority of people don’t really care what New Labour’s former darling is up to in his spare time. Other than from firebrands on the left, there aren’t widespread calls for him to be held accountable for his actions. Nor is his wealth widely scrutinized.

Since leaving office he has gotten rich by presenting himself as a ‘globe-trotting-do-gooder’ when in reality he is a bit more of a globe-trotting-hustler using the political connections he amassed as a politician to gain a huge personal fortune and embed himself with some of the world’s most corrupt (but also rich) regimes. He counts amongst his friends the questionable leader of Rwanda Paul Kagame who is implicated in war crimes during the Rwandan Genocide and more recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has also undoubtedly used his role as Middle Eastern envoy to push his business agenda and personally profit.

Can we really be surprised though? Blair wasn’t much better when he was in power. He was responsible for the scandal involving LSE and Gadaffi. He also used to enjoy luxurious family holidays in Egypt for free courtesy of Hosni Mubarak. Blair was never a model of democratic values or justice that he presented himself (few modern leaders- if any- are). Let us not forget the illegal war he started in Iraq…

What we can take from this is clear. Many people get into politics clearly keep an eye on their second coming after they leave office. We see this on a huge scale with politicians who aren’t even at the same level of profile as Tony Blair who leave public office and trip over each other in a rush to join the private sector and gain a big pay day.

Politics is a dirty old game and few come dirtier than Blair whose actions almost border on illegality. Were he a former rule of an African state and these allegations had arisen there would be public outcry. ‘Liberal’ members of the media and the House of Parliament would be tripping over each other to condemn the acts of this rogue politician. But, few in Parliament question the motives or actions of Tony Blair. Why? Much of it is to do with the fact that many of them will follow suit and similarly look to exploit their connections. Blair has just done this on a huge scale, possibly the hugest scale of any former British politician. In many respects his career has just begun since leaving office as he gets richer and richer and delves even deeper into murkier moral territory. The latter doesn’t seem to bother him as long as the former is good.

Blair, like many members of the establishment, is concerned with profit above all else. He has been incredibly successful in amassing a personal fortune since leaving office and will continue to do so unchecked. He is now unaccountable and whilst many people in the UK dislike him few are calling for his head, not only should he be held accountable for the war in Iraq but he should also be unable to prop up foreign dictatorships and profit off of this. Tony Blair is someone who should be in prison, not utilizing his expertise at circumventing international law to get rich. The sooner people like him are weeded out of politics the better. The silence of current Westminster politician though, suggests that we have a long way to go at changing the nature of British politics, which like politics anywhere is about profit not morals. With Blair though, there exists gross double standard that he is allowed to behave in such a manner, when any politician from outside of Western Europe who was behaving in the same way would be vilified and probably hauled up in front of The Hague. Although to be fair, Italy are more progressive than Britain, having put Silvio Berlusconi behind bars for four years. This is a sorry state of affairs.

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Iran’s hidden prisoners

Open Democracy News Analysis - 21. November 2014 - 16:22

Those arrested in Iran after the presidential election of June 2009 join the detainees from earlier moments of repression. The blogger and openDemocracy author Hossein Derakhshan is one of the latter. The anniversary of his incarceration is being marked by efforts to publicise his case, reports David Hayes.

(This article was first published on 30 October 2009. Hossein Derakhshan was released from prison on 19 November 2014)

Hossein Derakshan, Iranian-Canadian journalist and blogger, 2004. Flickr/Joi Ito. Some rights reserved.The wave of arrests in Iran that followed the presidential election of 12 June 2009 means that many more Iranians are now experiencing the brutal treatment already endured by thousands of their fellow citizens. For the repressive response to the civic uprising that followed the shocking declaration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory has many precedents in the thirty-year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran (as of its imperial predecessor).

The capacity of the Iranian regime to render its prisoners invisible and voiceless is one of its most potent weapons. In turn, the dissemination of reliable information on individual cases is a hugely valuable resource for those on the outside - the families, colleagues and friends of those incarcerated, and the justice and human-rights groups working to make Iran a state of law.

David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy

Among his articles on openDemocracy:

" Iran between revolution and democracy" (10 April 2005)

" William Wallace and reinventing Scotland" (22 August 2005)

" The world's American election: a conversation" (4 November 2008)

" The politics of ME, ME, ME" (9 January 2009) - with Keith Kahn-Harris

" Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009) - with Sanam Vakil

" Cambodia: a patient waiting" (15 May 2009) - with Michel Thieren

" Somalia: between violence and hope" (15 July 2009) - with Harun Hassan

Iranian citizens with western connections can often be among the most vulnerable to sudden detention, usually in times of internal political crisis and/or tension between Iran and the west (especially the United States). For example, Iranians who have dual citizenship or who work for foreign broadcasters or think-tanks have been a favoured target. At the same time, such connections also mean an opportunity to organise publicity about their fate and campaign for their freedom (see Reza Fiyouzat, "Saberi is free: How about all the others?", OnlineJournal, 12 May 2009).

This has in recent times been the experience of, for example, the scholar Haleh Esfandiari; the journalist Parnaz Azima; the journalist Roxana Saberi; the businessman and peace activist Ali Shakeri; the diplomatic aide Hossein Rassam; and the Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari. The current haul of detainees includes the scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, whose case is an instructive example of the psychology animating Iran's hardline core (see Karim Sadjadpour, "The New Hostage Crisis", Foreign Policy, 23 October 2009).

The pioneering blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who was arrested in Tehran on 2 November 2008, also belongs to this melancholy pattern; though, as do all the above examples, his case has its unique and individual characteristics.

A singular journey

Hossein Derakhshan (widely known as "Hoder") earned a place in internet as well as Iranian history when - by combining Unicode with's tools to enable Persian characters - he created the first Persian-language blog in Canada in September 2001. He had moved there from Iran in 2000 after writing about technology and the internet for two newspapers: Asr-e Azadegan, and Hatay-e No (for which he wrote a column, Panjere-i roo be hayaat [A Window to the Yard]).

His early blog soon gained a large following; at its high-point, and until Iran's cyberpolice was able in 2004 to jam it, it received 35,000 page-views per day. Editor: Myself was in time supplemented by an English-language version, allowing him to reach an audience eager for insight about Iran via a new medium of exciting potential.

Hoder's writing extended to other media, including (in 2004-06) five articles for openDemocracy. He became involved in Stop Censoring Us, a record of internet censorship in Iran. He made two visits to Israel in 2006-07, and in 2007 registered for a master's degree at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas).

Hoder returned to Iran in October 2008, and reputedly was positive about his early experiences there. The news of his arrest on 2 November could not be confirmed for several weeks; but on 30 December 2008, a week before Hoder's 34th birthday, Ali Reza Jamshidi - spokesman of the revolutionary court, which oversees cases related to national security - announced at a news conference in Tehran that he was being charged with "insulting religious figures".

The accusation, a variant of the familiar range of post-facto off-the-shelf charges in the authoritarian's litany, was not supported by any known evidence; and almost a year on, there is no sign that any progress in actually examining it or bringing it to court has been made. Instead, Hoder is confined in Tehran's Evin prison - a place almost always qualified by the term "notorious" - from where only the most meagre reports of what he is going through have emerged.

The respected collective known as Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA) published a brief account of Hoder's incarceration on 17 October 2009. It says:

"HRA has received reports which suggest that the blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, who was arrested on 2 November 2008, has spent the first eight months of his detention in solitary confinement and different wards of the Evin prison upon his return to Iran. During that time he has been subjected to various physical and psychological pressure tactics and multiple transfers.

Hossein Derakhshan's articles for openDemocracy:

"Censor this: Iran's web of lies" (22 January 2004)

"Wiki-ocracy" (2 August 2005)

"Blogging Iran's wired election" (11 May 2005)

"Iran's young reformers" (4 July 2005)

"Ramin Jahanbegloo: the courage to change" (3 September 2006)

He has been beaten repeatedly and has been forced to do squats in cold showers. His interrogators have threatened to arrest his father and his sister unless he confessed to espionage charges.

With the start of the massive arrests after the presidential election, and as a result of cell shortages in Evin prison, Derakhshan was transferred to Ward 2A of the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] prison, where he shared his cell with newly arrested people.

Derakhshan has been given false promises of his release on multiple occasions: during the Fajr celebrations and Nowrooz. Despite all the promises he is still being held on a temporary detention-order. His detention-order has been renewed several times, the last of which expired on 10 October 2009. Derakhshan reportedly intended to start a hunger-strike if his situation remained unchanged after this date. HRA has no information as to whether he has started the hunger-strike.

During his detention, Derakhshan has been pressured by his interrogators to collaborate and confess to the charges brought up against him. In September 2009 he was taken to court to sign documents granting permission to his lawyer to represent him. He told the judge that all his confessions had come under pressure. According to the reports received by HRA, Derakhshan had agreed to televised confessions under pressure, but the matter was cancelled after one recording."

A family matter

The lack of hard information about what had happened to Hossein Derakhshan after his return to Iran meant that the attention to his case was more limited than to other comparable situations. The fact that an unusual intellectual-political trajectory had seen him gradually express a degree of support for the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - and vehement criticism of some of its Iranian critics in the west - probably also contributed to this relatively low-key response.

But as awareness of his arrest spread, several initiatives calling for Hoder's release began to appear. They include the strong letter from a group of Iranian bloggers; the "free Hoder" blog and a Facebook group; and efforts by several media organisations and networks (such as Internet Sans Frontières) to highlight his ordeal and keep it in the public eye.

The approaching anniversary of his detention has now led his family in Iran to take the decision to speak out on his behalf. His younger brother Hamed, in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), criticised the Canadian authorities for their inaction in the case, said that his parents had been able to see Hossein only twice during his incarceration, and explained why the family was only at this stage seeking to draw attention to the case. "My father believed it was better to use the connections, prove that he is loyal to them, work within the system" (see John Nicol, "Iranian-Canadian blogger's family pleads for help", CBC News, 29 October 2009).

Hossein's father has written a letter to Ayatollah Amoli Larijani, the head of Iran's judiciary department, which the reformist newspaper Salaam published on its website on 21 October 2009. The California-based journalist, Cyrus Farivar, provides an English translation of the letter on his blog:

"To the Presence of Ayatollah Amoli Larijani, the Respected Head of the Judiciary:

Greetings and respect to you. One year has passed since the day that my son was arrested.

In all these months, days, and hours, my family, my wife and I were hoping that in the arms of Islamic law and the mercy of the Islamic judiciary, Hossein's case will be dealt with in the way it deserves.

There is no need to mention the numerous times that we refused the requests of foreign media to explain Hossein's situation.

Even when we heard the worst gossip about his treatment in semi-official media, we were silent and in fact, no government organisation has ever denied this worrisome news, not just to calm our very worried hearts down, but at least to respect the independence of judiciary about this case.

During this entire time, our son has had just two short meetings with us for only a few minutes. Please imagine that for every six months we just saw him for very few minutes. We have no information about his legal situation.

No court has been held yet and we don't even know which institution or security organisation Hossein is under the control of. Many times, from many different ways, we tried to get some precision about his situation, but we couldn't. Does a detainee's dignified manner deserve such treatment?

Many times, my son admitted in his writings and conversations that he would love to serve his country. And he came back to Iran on his own to answer his accusations. Does such a person who has come back to his country and his beliefs, deserve such a welcome?

Our complaint is not because you are exercising the law, but to the contrary, because of its suspension, lack of information and disrespecting of the law. The accused have rights, the family of the accused has some rights, and we know that the ruler of society has some rights as well, and that rules and regulations are valuable.

We are certain that you'd agree that one year of a brutal arrest of a person who has come voluntarily and on his own to the bosom of Iran and dear Islam, is not an appropriate welcome.

I, my wife and our family are still looking forward to your just treatment.

With respect,

Hassan Derakhshan".

A case to answer

The cycle of arrests, show-trials, incarcerations and violations in Iran continues. The state's internal-security apparatus, emboldened by its ability to contain and then beat back the challenge to its rule following the stolen election, remains unbending.

But there is multiple evidence too that the regime's behaviour since the election has resulted in a critical loss of legitimacy in the eyes of Iran's people. Their resourceful search for new and creative forms of opposition is vividly conveyed in a number of openDemocracy articles (see Asef Bayat, "Iran: a green wave for life and liberty" [7 July 2009], and R Tousi, "Iran's ocean of dissent" [28 October 2009]).

Those imprisoned in Iran on account of their peaceful protest, their criticism of the authorities, or merely because they represent a convenient target to unaccountable power, need to be freed in order that they can resume their lives and speak in their own voices. An end to their confinement will be the beginning of the new era of respect for human rights and civic freedoms that Iranians more than ever deserve.

Also in openDemocracy on Iranian prisoners and human rights:

Masoud Behnoud, "Akbar Ganji in the prison of Iran" (17 July 2005)

openDemocracy, "Free Akbar Ganji: an appeal to Iran" (19 July 2005)

Nazila Fathi, "Akbar Ganji's moment" (6 April 2006)

Rasool Nafisi, "The meaning of Ramin Jahanbegloo's arrest" (16 May 2006)

openDemocracy, "Ramin Jahanbegloo: an open letter to Iran's president" (23 May 2006)

Rasool Nafisi, "Ramin Jahanbegloo: a repressive release" (1 September 2006)

Danny Postel, "Ramin Jahanbegloo, Hossein Derakhshan and openDemocracy" (21 September 2006)

Nazenin Ansari, "An ayatollah under siege - in Tehran" (3 October 2006)

Rasool Nafisi, "Haleh Esfandiari: Iran's cultural prison" (16 May 2007)

Akbar Ganji, "Iran's future: an open letter" (24 September 2007)

R Tousi, "Iran's ocean of dissent" (28 October 2009)

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Free Hoder

Facebook - Free Hossein Derakhshan

Human Rights Activists in Iran - Hossein Derakhshan (17 October 2009)

International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran

Karim Sadjadpour, "The New Hostage Crisis" (Foreign Policy, 23 October 2009)

Cyrus Farivar

Nasrin Alavi, We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs (Portobello Books, 2005)

Global Voices Online

BBC - Iran crisis

Iran Political Prisoners Association 

Tehran Bureau

Human Rights Watch - Iran

Ali Gheissari & Vali Nasr, Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Ali Ansari, Confronting Iran (Basic Books, 2006)

Ray Takeyh, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic (CFR, 2006)



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