Tens of thousands of protesters from the Bersih reform movement went back to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, where they were greeted with riot police, tear gas, and more than 500 arrests. And Mr. Najib's approval rating took a hit after the last crackdown on protesters from the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih.
Now, two days after the street battles in Kuala Lumpur, Najib's government has made a major gesture toward political popularity. For May Day, he announced Malaysia will institute its first ever minimum wage: A monthly salary of 900 ringgit ($300). A pay raise for Malaysia's poorest isn't what Bersih is after, but Najib is betting it will prove popular at the ballot box. Najib said when making the announcement that a government survey had found one-third of Malaysia's workers earn less than 700 ringgit a month.
The trouble appeared to start after protesters pushed through barriers erected to keep them out of Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) in the capital, and the riot police responded with force.
The rally was a platform for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to speak to vast crowds expressing dissatisfaction with Malaysia's tightly controlled political process, amid indications the country might hold early elections in June.
The coalition is now demanding an overhaul of Malaysian electoral rules they say have given Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) a lock on political control since independence and the creation of the modern state in 1963 and led to a feudal brand of politics, with spoils sharing among the ethnic parties that back the organization. The country maintains a long-standing policy of economically favoring ethnic Malays over the country's sizable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
Rising living standards
Malaysia has achieved stunning economic growth since independence, and steadily rising living standards for its people.
But while elections have been dutifully held (the next general elections will be Malaysia's 13th), the government has long had control over the outcomes, with tight controls on the press, independent political organization, and the counting of the ballots themselves.
Malaysia ranks 122 out of 179 nations on Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index (just behind Venezuela and Zimbabwe). The country has seen rampant gerrymandering of electoral districts and allegations in the 2008 elections that the National Front might be voting the cemetery given the electoral rolls had more than 9,000 people over 100 on them.
Ahead of the last elections, Human Rights Watch charged that "the authorities’ manipulation of the electoral process appears aimed to ensure that the ruling coalition maintains its two-thirds parliamentary majority." It also charges that "police have repeatedly blocked attempts by opposition parties to hold election rallies by refusing to issue the permits required for any gathering of four or more people."
Bersih, then as now, was calling for electoral reform ahead of the election. But the movement had largely gone dormant until the Arab uprisings that began in early 2011 caught the imagination of the Malaysian public.
The National Front is an umbrella for a group of ethnically and regionally-focused parties, with the United Malays National Orginization (UMNO) chief among them, with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress its principal partners.
But Malaysia's growing middle class has increasingly strained the old ways of doing political business in the former British colony.
In the last elections in 2008, the National Front won 63 percent of the seats. That was a 58 seat decline from the previous election, and marked the first time that the Front hadn't won two-thirds of the seats since the '60s.
Almost all of the lost seats went to the People's Alliance, an amalgam of three opposition groups that will almost certainly be led at the next election by Anwar, a former UMNO stalwart who fell out with the party in the late 1990s and spent six years in jail on sodomy charges for his pains.
Anwar is a far more charismatic political figure than Najib, and the government is clearly worried. Members of UMNO declared that Anwar had "hijacked" Bersih for his own political ends, and that it was his presence at the event that stirred the violence over the weekend. The pro-government New Straits Times has carried headlines in the past few days like "MCA Youth: Anwar, Azmin should own up to turning gathering into a riot," and "A show of hooliganism." Azmin Ali is the deputy leader of Anwar's People's Justice Party (PKR).
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In Rupert Murdoch's appearances before the British parliamentary inquiry into allegations of illegal phone hacking and bribery of public officials by two of his UK newspapers, his strategy has been a simple one: Claim he had no knowledge of the extent of the problem, complain that he was misled by subordinates, and promise to fix the culture of his company going forward.
In the damning report News International and Phone-Hacking, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee has now responded by saying, in effect, that if Mr. Murdoch is taken at his word then he should no longer be running his $49 billion News Corporation. Both Murdoch and his son James told recent parliament hearings that they were misled by executives Tom Crone and Colin Myler about the extent of phone hacking at News International's papers. The committee found that Mr. Crone and Mr. Myler misled them about what they knew, and when they knew it, but also argued that at minimum the Murdochs should have known more themselves. News International is the News Corp. subsidiary for its UK print holdings.
IN PICTURES: Rupert Murdoch's empire
On the basis of the facts and evidence before the Committee, we conclude that, if at all relevant times Rupert Murdoch did not take steps to become fully informed about phone-hacking, he turned a blind eye and exhibited willful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications."
"This culture, we consider, permeated from the top throughout the organisation and speaks volumes about the lack of effective corporate governance at News Corporation and News International. We conclude, therefore, that Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.
The finding doesn't carry any legal weight on his own – the UK has no power to remove Murdoch from his positions at the multinational he built from after inheriting a daily newspaper in Adelaide, Australia, from his father in 1952. But UK government regulators have been considering News Corp.'s ownership of satellite station BskyB. The company now owns 39 percent of the company and had hoped to make a $13 billion bid for the full company until that effort was dropped last year as the Murdoch companies became embroiled in scandal. It's possible that the 39 percent stake may come under scrutiny.
Ofcom, the UK's broadcast regulator, requires owners of television licenses to be deemed "fit and proper" for that public responsibility. The hacking scandal, which began at the since-shuttered News of the World weekly tabloid but has now spread to its daily sister publication, The Sun, has already forced Murdoch to abandon a bid for full control of BskyB, which has broadcast rights to Premier League soccer and other sporting events and brought in $715 million of profit in the first half of its current fiscal year. With a parliament committee already declaring Murdoch an enabler of a malfeasance at his companies, Ofcom may take another look at News Corp's ownership stake in BskyB.
The elder Murdoch's reputation is very much in tatters. More than 20 current and former employees have been arrested in the series of scandals that emerged after the discovery last year that NotW reporters hacked into the cellphone of Millie Dowler in 2002, after the 13-year-old girl was abducted. She was later found murdered.
But NotW employees had broken into her cellphone and deleted messages in her full inbox, hoping they'd be able to eavesdrop on future messages left by her worried family. Those deletions gave the Dowler's false hope that their daughter was still alive. As the story came out, the British public and members of parliament were outraged.
To be sure, investors don't appear worried about the prospect of News Corp. losing some or all of its stake in BskyB. News Corps shares were up 1.5 percent in mid-morning trading, following the release of the report. A forced sale of part or all of the BskyB stake is still a dim possibility, and since it's worth about $4.5 billion and there would be plenty of willing suitors, there would be a lot of cash to help News Corp move on.
The report was issued over the objections of all of four voting Conservatives on the committee, arrayed against five Labour MPs and one Liberal Democrat who voted in favor. The committee will seek an endorsement of its findings from the full House of Commons in the next week or so.
In the full house, the Conservatives control 305 seats against 253 for Labour and 57 for the Liberal Democrats. Bloomberg quotes one of the dissenting Conservatives on the committee, Philip Davies, as saying: “Rupert Murdoch clearly is a fit and proper person to run an international company ... he’s been running businesses since before I was born. We’ve seen absolutely no evidence to suggest that Rupert Murdoch was aware these things were going on.”
The report charges that Les Hinton, who is one of Murdoch's most trusted lieutenants and was put in charge of Dow Jones & Co. (which owns the Wall Street Journal) after News Corp's takeover in 2007, "misled the committee about the extent of his knowledge of allegations that phone-hacking extended beyond Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire to others at News of the World." Mr. Hinton stepped down last summer as the scandal unfolded.
Mr. Goodman was NotW's royal correspondent, and he and Mr. Mulcaire, a private investigator employed by the paper, were caught hacking into the phone messages of people connected to the British royal family. After that scandal, Hinton and other Murdoch employees insisted that it was an isolated incident.
The report clearly is a result of the frustration of its drafters over what it paints as a pattern of half-truths and concealment in testimony over the years and details how members of the committee itself have occasionally been put under surveillance by phone hacking and the hiring of private investigators by News International employees as far back as 2001.
Corporately, the News of the World and News International misled the Committee about the true nature and extent of the internal investigations they professed to have carried out in relation to phone hackings; by making statements they would have known were not fully truthful; and by failing to disclose documents which would have helped expose the truth.
In failing to investigate properly and by ignoring evidence of widespread wrongdoing, News International, and its parent News Corporation exhibited willful blindness, for which the companies directors – including Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch – should ultimately be prepared to take responsibility.
Nearly 11 years ago, Osama bin Laden was on a high. His tight-knit band of terrorists wreaked havoc on the United States, taking down the twin icons of America's financial might in New York, striking at the main symbol of America's military power in Washington, and killing more than 3,000 people on American soil in the process.
In the years after Al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Saudi Arabian jihadi could hardly believe his luck. His video messages of threats and bluster were broadcast around the world, and the US was soon drawn into a ruinous war in Iraq.
The conflict proved a recruiting magnet for his ideology, bringing hundreds of fighters from across the Arab world to a country in turmoil on the doorstep of his ultimate objective: Saudi Arabia, and its monarchy that he had come to despise.
IN PICTURES: Ayman al-Zawahiri: Al Qaeda's new leader
He made gleeful predictions that the US "empire" would collapse, just as the Soviet Union had (jihadis like bin Laden liked to tell themselves that the war they helped wage against the Soviets in Afghanistan, not a bankrupt political system, is what caused the superpower to unravel) and that it was only a matter of time before the House of Saud would fall too, heralding the rise of the caliphate of his dreams.
Approval slips from 60-70 percent to 20-30 percent
But then it all went wrong, and badly. The unprecedented international security cooperation spawned by Al Qaeda attacks in the early and mid-2000s had led to the arrest and killing of lieutenant after lieutenant.
Bin Laden's acolytes in Iraq, with an almost nihilistic string of attacks on schools, on ambulances, and on Iraqis sleeping in their beds whose only crime was not sharing Al Qaeda's extreme vision for the world's future caused most of the Muslim world to recoil in horror. His redoubt in Afghanistan was lost, hundreds of his supporters were killed in airstrikes, and he was pushed into living in Pakistan, with the acquiescence of elements of that country's security services.
In the corners of the Muslim world where Al Qaeda had wrested control – parts of Iraq's Anbar province during the height of the war there, or in Afghanistan, or in spots in Yemen – they alienated local residents with arrogance and aggressive attempts to suppress the local tribal cultures.
And while the Arab uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere have threatened a regional order that bin Laden despised, the vast majority of regional citizens have rallied for a democratic voice, not for a medieval caliphate. Islamists will certainly be empowered by real democratic change in the region, but they will be those of the Muslim Brotherhood's brand, a group he despised.
It has now been almost six years since a major attack has been successfully carried out by his organization outside Iraq or Afghanistan (the November 2005 attacks on hotels in Amman, Jordan, that murdered about 60 people). And while there are fellow travelers under the Al Qaeda brand name in places like Yemen, their ability to operate outside their areas remains as yet unproven. Bin Laden's optimism that the Muslim world would flock to his banner was proven foolish.
Polling tells the tale of his failure. Before the Al Qaeda attacks in Amman in 2005, 61 percent of Jordan's citizens told Pew pollsters that bin Laden was a positive force in world affairs. The following year, after the murders in their capital, that number dropped to 24 percent. By 2011, that number had declined further to 13 percent.
It's a similar story elsewhere. In Indonesia in 2003, 59 percent had confidence in him. By last year, that number was 26 percent. In the Palestinian territories, his approval dropped from 72 percent in 2003 to 34 percent last year. And in Pakistan, he fell from 46 percent to 21 percent.
'He confessed to "disaster after disaster" '
In short, while the murderous ideology of Al Qaeda lives on, organizationally it is in tatters. And it already was by the time bin Laden was finally killed. What his successor, the dour Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, will be able to do about it is unclear. Mr. Zawahiri lacks the charisma or stature of his former boss.
John Brennan, President Obama's counterterrorism adviser, said yesterday that Al Qaeda was already teetering by the time its inspirational figurehead was tracked to his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Mr. Brennan said documents recovered from that compound during the US raid indicated that bin Laden was well aware how much trouble his group was in.
"He confessed to 'disaster after disaster'" in his writings, Brennan said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Under intense pressure in the tribal regions of Pakistan, they have fewer places to train and groom the next generation of operatives, they're struggling to attract new recruits... morale is low." Brennan said bin Laden had considered a name change for the group in desperation. "For the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the Al Qaeda core is simply no longer relevant," he concluded.
To be sure, Brennan works for Obama, who is headed into a tough reelection fight. And officials overstating the security successes of sitting administrations is a time honored tradition in American politics. But it's hard to look at the work against Al Qaeda over the past decade under two administrations, one Republican and the other Democrat, and not see major successes.
IN PICTURES: Ayman al-Zawahiri: Al Qaeda's new leader
The Al Qaeda of Sept. 11 has failed
Will jihadis inspired by Al Qaeda's ideology successfully strike out at the US or other international targets again? Probably.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group's offshoot in Yemen, has some potency. The war in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad appears to have attracted Al Qaeda-style jihadis, judging by reports of suicide bombings there, and when that conflict ends they may fan out. And in Mali, an Al Qaeda-style group appears to have taken some territory thanks to the recent coup and chaos there.
But Al Qaeda as it was understood after Sept. 11 has failed. The groups followers only have a strong presence in exceedingly weak states like Yemen, or Somalia, and are further away from their quixotic dream of conquering the world in the name of a regressive version of Islam than they were 10 years ago.
When Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said in February that it wouldn't be "wise" for Israel to attack Iran and said that the "Iranian regime is a rational actor" that can be negotiated with and pressured via sanctions, he received a withering attack from the hawkish American right and criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported then that Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak told US officials privately that General Dempsey's comments "served Iran's interests" and that an unnamed senior Israeli official complained "the Iranians see there's controversy between the United States and Israel, and that the Americans object to a military act. That reduces the pressure on them."
Well, now Dempsey has been joined by a number of other security experts who appear to share his point of view on a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran. They are Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel's international spy service; Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, the country's domestic intelligence service; (Ret.) Gen. Gabi Askhenazi, a former head of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF); and Gen. Benny Gantz, the current head of the IDF.
Showing how raw emotions are, and how split the Israeli establishment is on war with Iran and other issues, former premier Ehud Olmert spoke out against a rush to war with Iran in a speech in New York sponsored by The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. According to the New York Times, Mr. Olmert cautioned against war with Iran, said Netanyahu was disinterested in making the compromises required for peace with the Palestinians, and warned Israel against alienating the Obama Administration. Of Obama, Olmert said: "You have to respect him.... He is the president of the most powerful nation on Earth, and happens to be a friend of Israel."
That comment drew boos from the largely Jewish-American crowd, and at other moments audience members shouted out "Neville Chamberlain" (the UK prime minister who sought to make peace with Hitler) and "naive."
Israel is turning towards elections that must be held by the end of next year, but that many in the country now speculate will be moved up to this fall, ahead of the US presidential election. At the moment, Mr. Netanyahu and his coalition partners look well positioned to retain the government, but the public squabbling can't be helping.
Israeli politicians are known for their very public disagreements, but differences between security officials past and present and Israel's sitting government – especially on a topic as critical as this – are rare. Israel's generals have far more sway over policy in Israel than US ones do, at least historically, and in the case of the war posturing over Iran's nuclear program the simple message of their public comments appears to be: Don't.
But the debate is also a sign of how much Israel's political culture is changing. Allies of Netanyahu have been whispering that Mr. Diskin and Mr. Dagan are merely angry that they didn't retain senior posts and are lashing out in a fit of pique.
More generally, Israel's political order has been transformed in recent decades. The views of men like Netanyahu were once to the far right of Israeli public opinion. They are now firmly in the center, and the centrist and cautious views of many in the older cadre of senior officers have shifted from the center, to what might now be called the left.
Diskin's comments were the most striking, even shocking. A career internal security man, much of his climb through the ranks was in dealing with terrorist attacks emanating from the West Bank. He declared both Netanyahu and Mr. Barak unfit to lead Israel, accused them of "misleading the public on the Iran issue," and said that contrary to their position that military action would deter Iran "many experts say that an Israeli attack would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race."
"My major problem is that I have no faith in the current leadership, which must lead us in an event on the scale of war with Iran or a regional war. I don't believe in either the prime minister or the defense minister. I don't believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings," Diskin told a political meeting. "Believe me, I have observed them from up close.... They are not people who I, on a personal level, trust to lead Israel to an event on that scale and carry it off. These are not people who I would want to have holding the wheel in such an event."
Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer said Diskin's warning that an Israeli strike could harden an Iranian desire for the bomb is striking. "While it is true that many experts have expressed this opinion, this is the first time that a central figure who was so recently within the innermost security circles has said such a thing."
The logic of Diskin's point is simple. Though Iran insists publicly that it doesn't want a bomb, it can see the example of the NATO bombing campaign that helped drive Libya's Qaddafi from power (a few years after he gave up his nuclear program) on the one hand, and the freedom from external military interference of North Korea on the other. Israel's war planners believe a successful strike on Iran could knock its nuclear efforts back a few years, but not wipe it out entirely. Perhaps it will reason in the aftermath of such a strike that the best way to guarantee its security is to get the bomb, after all.
General Gantz said last week that he deems Iran rational, and that though he's deeply concerned that Iran is advancing towards the place where it could get a bomb, if it so chose, that it isn't committed to taking the final step yet. He said:
"If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don't think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous."
This is a very different position from that of Netanyahu and Barak, who have insisted repeatedly that the time for action is nearly at hand, and that negotiations will go nowhere.
Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, a member of Netanyahu's Likud, and Dagan also went at in in New York over the weekend. Dagan said he agreed with Diskin's position, to which Mr. Erdan responded that Diskin was simply bitter he'd been passed over for a senior position. To that, Dagan responded, "You're a liar." Erdan also said that "Mossad chiefs [shouldn't] sabotage Netanyahu's efforts to garner the world's support against Iran."
What to make of it all? Simply, that there are major splits within Israel on the right course of action going forward. A healthy debate is being had on that question, right out in the open.
Last week, Egypt's state-owned newspaper Al Ahram helped kick up an international storm with a bit of dodgy journalism: It ran an opinion piece by Amr Abdel Samea, a former loyalist of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, that stated that Mervat el-Tallawy, the head of Egypt's National Council for Women, had complained that Egypt's parliament was considering a piece of legislation sponsored by Islamists to allow men to have sex with their wives after their death.
The story was translated into English by Al Arabiya, and was quickly picked up by outlets like the Huffington Post and the sensationalist British tabloid The Daily Mail, which distorted the original claim from a proposal to a done deal: "Egyptian husbands will soon be legally allowed to have sex with their dead wives," the tabloid claimed, apparently having misunderstood the original Arabiya translation. The story buzzed around the world, held up in blogs as evidence of the immorality of Islamist politicians. The current version of the Wikipedia article on necrophilia even has a section devoted to the claim.
The problem is that there was never any such proposal, at any stage of consideration, in the Egyptian parliament. Ms. Tallawy issued a statement today that says she's concerned about legislation that may harm the position of women in Egypt, but that there was never any "sex after death law" under consideration, let alone one she complained about. Arabiya followed up as well, quoting Parliament Secretary Sami Mahran as saying no such piece of legislation ever existed.
This is hardly surprising. Anyone who knew Egypt didn't believe it in the first place, since sex with the dead is a laughably extreme position that no Egyptian Islamist group has ever espoused but is exactly the kind of overheated scare-mongering that can be potentially useful for opponents of Islamist politicians as Egypt's presidential campaign heats up.
In the presidential campaign, former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa (who served as Mubarak's foreign minister for a decade) is the old establishment's preferred candidate. His main rivals are former Muslim Brotherhood executive Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh and current Brotherhood member, Mohammed Morsi.
Ahram's reporting should be seen within its traditional framework – serving the interests of those in power. That was Mr. Mubarak for decades. Now, it's the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta that has run Egypt since Mubarak's ouster last February.
Ahram under Mubarak was much like Pravda in the old Soviet Union. Consider the former president's September 2010 visit to Washington for Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. A photographer captured Mubarak, President Obama, Jordanian King Abdullah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walking the red carpet together. Mubarak trailed the whole group, just behind Mr. Netanyahu.
Ahram judged this not befitting a leader of Mubarak's stature, so photo-shopped the image to put the former president in the center of the frame, in front of the other world leaders. It was probably no coincidence that this came just ahead of parliamentary elections and at a time when many Egyptians were speculating about the aging leader's health, and his plans to install his son Gamal Mubarak as his successor.
NPR devoted a segment of its program "On the Media" in February 2011 to the role of Ahram in bolstering Mubarak's power, with the host explaining that "in the past five years, under the editorship of Mubarak crony Osama Saraya, Al Ahram has developed into a propaganda machine, devoting hagiographic and occasionally utterly fabricated coverage to the former president and his regime."
The paper says it has changed since Mubarak's fall, but appears to continue to serve the interests of those in power. After days of criticism of last week's necrophilia hoax, the paper sought to shift blame to others. In a news article it reported that a "number of newspapers and websites" had speculated about such a law, and cited a Daily Mail story in which the Mail quoted an Egyptian diplomat in London as saying that the claims were false. Ahram's story – soon pulled from its website – made no mention that all the reports of the claim originated directly and specifically with its story.
"Reporting the controversy" is an old journalistic trick. If there's some salacious story in a tabloid that the quality press wants to report, but doesn't want to be accused of amplifying, it reports the claim has "stirred controversy" and then reports reaction to whatever the claim is, notwithstanding the truth value of the claim. But a "reporting the controversy" approach when the false story originates with yourself? That's a new innovation.
Last week Ahram carried another false report that cast Islamists in a bad light. The paper reported that the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) had tabled a law in parliament that would severely curtail Internet freedom in Egypt. The trouble? The FJP immediately denied seeking to advance any such legislation, and as a number of Egyptian reporters and activists pointed out, the draft law published in Ahram appeared to be a straight cut and paste of a piece of Saudi Arabian legislation; the word "Kingdom" was even left in Ahram's version of the story where "Republic" would have been used by an Egyptian.
There is plenty to worry about when it comes to women's rights and Egypt's Islamists. So far, the parliament is a paper tiger, with a new constitution to be written and most powers of government in the hands of the executive. And if the Muslim Brotherhood ever manages to translate its dominance of parliament into the power to actually legislate, I would expect legislation under the guise of protecting against pornography, or blasphemy, or "the dignity of women" to emerge that would be harmful to basic rights. The salafi sect, currently the junior partner in parliament, are particularly hostile to the position of women, and would probably favor laws mandating head scarves for women.
But speculation about the future is a long way from things that are actually happening in the present. Though much has changed in Egypt, it looks increasingly like Al Ahram has largely remained the same.
Jordanian Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh stepped down from his post yesterday amid a controversy about a proposed new election law that has roiled the kingdom, with supporters of the old way of doing things squaring off against those demanding a move towards democracy.
Mr. Khasawneh, a long time adviser to Jordan's royal family, who helped negotiate the country's peace deal with Israel in 1994, was appointed to his post last October in an attempt to mollify growing street protests demanding an opening of the political system.
The election law he's been working on was intended to deliver that opening. But he's been hemmed in on two sides: one, by tribal leaders close to the court and the security services worried that it would end up delivering power into the hands of Jordan's opposition. And two, by the opposition, which has complained loudly that the new law doesn't go far enough.
The law has stalled. And now Khasawneh, who reached out to Islamist politicians, started corruption investigations against high officials, and promised a fairer election law soon after taking office, is gone.
Marc Lynch wrote of Khasawneh's resignation that "the last straw, it appears, was the disappointing new election law which failed to respond to long-standing complaints by political activists, parties, and outside analysts... The sudden resignation of the respected jurist should draw renewed attention to Jordan's political stability – and raise important questions about its willingness and ability to reform."
Curtis Ryan, a political scientist at Appalachian State and author of two books on modern Jordanian politics, wrote an in-depth piece in Foreign Policy about the reform wrangling in the country before Khasawneh resigned. He points to splits between Jordan's Palestinian and East Bank communities (the East Bankers, the "native" Jordanians, are over-represented in the current parliament thanks to existing electoral rules), lawmakers that have appeared mostly interested in preserving their own privilege, and anger from Islamists that the new rules are being designed to limit their possible power.
As much debate as the new law has triggered amongst Jordan's many pro-reform constituencies, political opposition in Jordan has taken a major turn in the last few years by moving beyond just the perennial new electoral law debates. The electoral law matters, to be sure. But opposition forces have rallied over a diverse set of demands that may seem disparate or even muddled to less democratically minded forces in the kingdom, but in actuality represent a fairly clear program. Pro-democracy and pro-reform activists in parliament have at various times called for more checks and balances between the legislature and executive authority (often arguing for a more constitutional monarchy), a more independent judiciary, the release of activists jailed in demonstrations, a reduced role for the (secret police) in daily life, and an end to corrupt governmental and business practices in the context of the country's longstanding economic privatization program.
The stakes are high regarding all these issues -- and of course regarding the electoral law as well -- since the new rules will set the stage for new elections and a new parliament, and opposition forces hope (for the first time in modern Jordanian history) to see future governments drawn from parliamentary majorities, rather than by royal appointment.
Ryan and others point out that if accommodations aren't made, there are risks ahead for Jordan, with a population that was riveted by the uprising in nearby Egypt and now watching in horror the war in Syria, with refugees from that conflict already streaming into their country.
The fast, wrenching change that descended on Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya last year, sparked the ongoing Syrian civil war, and led to the current hostile and occasionally bloody standoff between Bahrain's rulers and its people, may seem to have come out of nowhere. But the one thing these different countries – and other Arab nations that have not been touched as much by turmoil – have in common is that they failed at the trick of opening up enough to head off eventual disaster while still retaining control.
That trick is what is usually meant when the word "reform" is tossed about. Bend, before you break. Create political institutions that give a dissatisfied populace a voice in the system before they take to the streets. It may be later than you think.
Egypt is a case in point. For over a decade, US officials in first the Bush administration and later Obama's, consistently told Hosni Mubarak and the courtiers around him to act before it was too late. He acceded to the US demands occasionally, usually when it looked like Egyptian aid was on the line, but never took the message to heart. His regime was strong, he reasoned, and knew what was best for the country. And if worst came to worst, he was an indispensable regional partner for the US, with its concerns about Islamist militancy and the security of Israel, and he would be saved.
Then the storm broke and the rest, as they say, is history.
Well, the Jordan of King Abdullah, and of his father King Hussein before him, has some similarities to the Egypt of Mubarak. The only other Arab state to make peace with Israel is another friend of the US, an important partner in America's regional ambitions, and home to a restive population. With an eye on not being the next domino to fall, Abdullah made steps towards a political opening last year. But now, it seems, change may be stalling.
Jordan's monarchy has proven very effective over the years at facing down challenges, both the bloody, as its defeat of the Black September movement in 1970 and '71, in which King Hussein faced down a potential takeover of Jordan by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the peaceful, as the democratic reform process enacted in 1989 in response to street protests has shown.
But the Jordanian people have been glued to satellite television and the Internet the past year, watching rolling, partially successful demands for change elsewhere. The country is stable for now, but as Egypt and other neighbors show, pressure can build up for years along political fault-lines before erupting into an earthquake.
Update: Further research showed there was no validity to the claim that Egypt was considering a "sex after death" law. I followed up with a piece on April 30.
Today, Egypt's state-owned Al Ahram newspaper published an opinion piece by Amr Abdul Samea, a past stalwart supporter of the deposed Hosni Mubarak, that contained a bombshell: Egypt's parliament is considering passing a law that would allow husbands to have sex with their wives after death.
It was soon mentioned in an English language version of Al-Arabiya and immediately started zipping around social-networking sites. By this afternoon it had set news sites and the rest of the Internet on fire. It has every thing: The yuck factor, "those creepy Muslims" factor, the lulz factor for those with a sick sense of humor. The non-fact-checked Daily Mail picked it up and reported it as fact. Then Andrew Sullivan, who has a highly influential blog but is frequently lax about fact-checking, gave it a boost with an uncritical take. The Huffington Post went there, too.
There's of course one problem: The chances of any such piece of legislation being considered by the Egyptian parliament for a vote is zero. And the chance of it ever passing is less than that. In fact, color me highly skeptical that anyone is even trying to advance a piece of legislation like this through Egypt's parliament. I'm willing to be proven wrong. It's possible that there's one or two lawmakers completely out of step with the rest of parliament. Maybe.
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But extreme, not to mention inflammatory claims, need at minimum some evidence (and I've read my share of utter nonsense in Al Ahram over the years). The evidence right now? Zero.
There was a Moroccan cleric a few years back who apparently did issue a religious ruling saying that husbands remained married to their wives in the first six hours after death and, so, well, you know. But that guy is far, far out on the nutty fringe. How fringe? He also ruled that pregnant women can drink alcohol. Remember, alcohol is considered haram, forbidden, by the vast majority of the world's Muslim scholars. Putting an unborn child at risk to get drunk? No, that's just not what they do. Whatever the mainstream's unpalatable beliefs (there are plenty from my perspective) this isn't one of them.
It's important to remember that the structure of the Muslim clergy is, by and large, like that of a number of Protestant Christian sects. Anyone can put out a shingle and declare themselves a preacher. The ones to pay attention to are the ones with large followings, or attachment to major institutions of Islamic learning. The preacher in Morocco is like the preacher in Florida who spent so much time and energy publicizing the burning of Qurans.
Stories like this are a reminder of the downside of the Internet. It makes fact-checking and monitoring easier. But the proliferation of aggregation sites, newsy blog sites, and the general erosion of editorial standards (and on-the-ground reporters to do the heavy lifting) also spreads silliness faster than it ever could before.
The Israeli government followed through on a promise to authorize three illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank, in a move designed to mollify Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's settler constituency. It seems certain to make the prospects for meaningful peace talks with the Palestinians recede even further into the distance.
The settler outposts of Rekhelim, Sansana, and Brukhin, which have existed without government authorization on the West Bank since the 1990s, were all given official approval, though they remain illegal under international law. Education Minister Gideon Saar from the prime minister's Likud Party said Netanyahu "gave 1,200 people and the people of Israel a holiday gift," a reference to Israeli independence celebrations this week.
Ben Lynfield wrote about the pending approvals for the Monitor a few weeks ago and said that the decision "would make them among the first new settlements authorized since the early days of the peace process in 1995 and could pave the way for further legalizations among the 96 outposts in the West Bank."
He wrote that the legalizations, along with a government promise to legally challenge court orders to evacuate smaller settlements, "amount to a significant strengthening of Israel's hold in the West Bank, the biblically resonant territory occupied in 1967, which Palestinians claim as the heartland of their future state. For Netanyahu, who heads a right-wing coalition with a strong pro-settler contingent, it was a delicate dance of one small step back and six larger steps forward for settlements."
The government has also this month authorized the construction of 980 more housing units in territory occupied since the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Israeli officials have insisted during recent trips to the US that claims of settlement expansion under Mr. Netanyahu is exaggerated. But the view from Israel and the occupied West Bank tells a different story.
Netanyahu's government is also fighting an Israeli Supreme Court decision calling for the destruction of six government-subsidized apartment buildings in the illegal outpost of Ulpana. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is expected to lodge an appeal of the court decision before next week, when the evacuation of the homes is currently scheduled.
The expanding de facto annexation of the West Bank, has a growing number of influential people both among the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas and from Israel, questioning the feasibility of the "two-state" solution to the conflict. Last week Mr. Abbas sent a letter to Netanyahu demanding an end to settlement expansion and an Israeli acceptance of pre-1967 borders as the basis of a settlement as preconditions for peace talks. Those conditions are similar to the position of both the Obama Administration and past US governments.
Israel dismissed the letter, reiterating that talks should have no preconditions attached. Now, the relationship between PA President Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who appears to favor a tougher line, appears to be breaking down. The US State Department has responded to the new settlements as "not helpful."
How moribund is the so-called peace process? Yossi Beilin, an Israeli negotiator who was one of the lead negotiators of the 1993 Oslo Accords that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority, and of the Geneva Initiative that held so much promise of peace almost nine years ago, appears to have lost faith. In a piece for this paper almost exactly a year ago, Mr. Beilin was still full of hope. His article was titled "The Geneva Accord: a breakthrough model" and he wrote:
With pre-1967 lines (the Green Line) as our starting point, we devised a series of agreed-upon, minor land swaps on a reciprocal, one-to-one basis, according to a formula that would require Israel to evacuate the smallest number of settlements while granting Palestinians the greatest part of the land.The result is a model that would create a Palestinian state on nearly 98 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with the shortfall compensated for by territories inside the Green Line.... The key to our success in reaching a comprehensive agreement was not in the specific solution we offered to each issue – although there was also a lot of creative thinking there, too – but rather in the concurrence of the solutions we offered... My colleagues and I – both Israeli and Palestinian – have pledged to work together and within our respective communities to turn Geneva into reality. We hope that people of goodwill around the world will join us in our pursuit of a just and lasting peace between our two peoples, so that we may live side by side in freedom and security as equal neighbors.
Because there have never been serious negotiations with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the last three years, and because you did not want to perpetuate the myth that a meaningful dialogue existed, you have been sorely tempted to declare the death of the "peace process" -- but the American president urged you to maintain the status quo. It is a mistake to agree to Obama's request, and you can rectify this... The Oslo Accords were a tremendous victory for the peace camps on both sides. And this agreement did not fail. It was thwarted. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Palestinian terrorism, and the political victories of the opponents of the agreement -- both on the Palestinian side and on the Israeli side -- have turned the agreement into a device that has allowed the parties to block a two-state solution...
Dissolving the Palestinian Authority and returning daily control to Israel would be an action nobody could ignore... Do not hesitate for a moment! Do not accept the request of President Obama, who merely wants to be left undisturbed before election day. Do not let Prime Minister Netanyahu hide behind the fig leaf of the Palestinian Authority -- impose upon him, once again, the responsibility for the fate of 4 million Palestinians. Remain as the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which will give you the authority to lead the political negotiations if and when they resume. But for the sake of your own people, and for the sake of peace, you cannot let this farce continue.
The Egyptian Adel Imam is the Arab world's most beloved comic actor. Yet now in his 70s, at the end of a glittering career, he's faced trial for "insulting Islam" in a number of his film roles.
He's now 1 for 2 in court cases against him. An appeals court this week upheld a three-month jail sentence given to Mr. Imam in February 2011, shortly after Hosni Mubarak was pushed out of office, while another court found him and a number of other movie figures not guilty on a separate set of similar charges yesterday. He hasn't appeared at any of the hearings against him, and it's hard to imagine him going to jail while senior regime figures, among them Hosni Mubarak, remain free.
Imam, with his elastic face that can simultaneously seem mournful and ridiculous, has been a bumbling Arab everyman in more than 50 films down the years. Though many of them have been forgettable slapstick romps, a few are considered modern Egyptian classics. Like an Egyptian Bill Murray, he's played more serious roles as he's gotten older, most famously "The Yacoubian Building" in 2006, where he appears as the central character, an aging womanizer in a movie about corruption and the disappointments of Egypt since the 1952 revolution.
The cases against him can in some ways be seen as Islamist versions of nuisance suits. Amnesty International points out that a long-standing article in Egypt's penal code allows charges to be brought against "whoever exploits religion in words or writing or any other methods to promote extremist ideologies, with a view of stirring up sedition, disparaging or contempt of any divine religion or its adherents, or prejudicing national unity and social peace.”
That language is wide enough to drive a truck through, and the so-called blasphemy law has been unevenly enforced over the years. Last year, a lawsuit brought against the politically active tycoon Naguib Sawiris, after he posted a picture of Minnie Mouse wearing a Muslim veil on Twitter, was tossed out of court.
In the final decade of Mubarak's rule, there were at least a dozen blasphemy actions, from court cases against religious figures to the banning of books to the withdrawal of publishing licenses from magazines that produced fiction depicting Islam.
So while Egypt's Islamists – generally not fans of free speech when it comes to matters of faith and social mores – are on the rise politically, it's worth keeping in mind that such actions were frequent under the presumably secular Mubarak regime. Still, the fact remains that Islamist political power is going to be increasingly expressed in the years ahead, and that's something for the country's actors and writers to keep an eye on. Egypt's salafists, whose version of Islam is severe and limiting when it comes to free speech and the role of women, have become major political players with about 25 percent of the seats in parliament.
Both cases against Imam were brought by a salafist lawyer from Alexandria and though conviction carries a jail sentence, they're considered misdemeanor crimes under Egyptian law. An Amnesty International researcher following the case said that the lawyer told her he brought two actions simply because he felt that would bring him a better chance of success.
Imam's original sentence, the one that was upheld, was tied to his performances in movies like "Terrorism and Kebab," a 1992 satire about the country's Kafkaesque bureaucracy, in which Imam's character accidentally takes a major government administrative building hostage after losing his temper with incompetent government officials and then demands take-out food. In other films, he depicted an Islamist militant and corrupt regional autocrat.
The "dangerous" Adel Imam orders takeout after taking over a government building in "Terrorism and Kebab."
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The Florida Senator, whose parents immigrated to the US from Cuba in 1956, a few years before the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, focused on US foreign policy more broadly, not touching on Cuba. While pundits and watchers of US politics generally deemed Romney's potential running mate as not overly hawkish (here's a roundup of opinion), I see plenty of evidence he favors more military intervention abroad in his speech, at least when I focus on the areas I know best.
His first point was to complain that the US didn't play a "more active role" in the NATO air campaign in Libya that helped bring down Muammar Qaddafi last year. It's true that the Obama Administration stressed that it was part of a broad group of actors in the effort, which involved seven months of sorties in aid of the Libyan uprising against government forces (in deed, if not in word, going far beyond their UN Security Council mandate only to protect civilians).
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But if the unstated goal was regime change, it's hard to imagine more bang for the US buck than Libya. The total cost to the US was under $1 billion. There were no US (or any other foreign) casualties, and the mission wrapped up in less than a year. Could Qaddafi have been toppled a few months faster if the US was more active? Perhaps. Would that have also led to more civilian casualties at the hand of US airpower? Also perhaps. The Iraq war, a much more ambitious undertaking, will ultimately cost the US taxpayer about $4 trillion when replacement of equipment and total medical claims for veterans are factored in.
Senator Rubio would also appear to favor military action against Iran, and perhaps in Syria. "The goal of preventing a dominant Iran is so important that every regional policy we adopt should be crafted with that overriding goal in mind," he said. "The current situation in Syria is an example of such an approach. The fall of Assad would be a significant blow to Iran’s ambitions. On those grounds alone, we should be seeking to help the people of Syria bring him down."
He continues: "But on the Foreign Relations Committee, I’ve noticed that some members are so concerned about the challenges of a post-Assad Syria that they’ve lost sight of the advantages of it. First, Iran would lose its ally and see its influence and ability to cause trouble in the region would be correspondingly reduced, but Hezbollah would lose its most important ally too along with its weapons supplier. And the prospects for a more stable, peaceful, and freer Lebanon would improve."
Well, that's one possibility. But skeptics of arming Syria's rebellion, or of direct US military involvement, are worried about unintended consequences. The sectarian powder in Syria is as dry and ripe for ignition as it was in Iraq. The country has been ruled by the minority Alawite sect (an offshoot of Shiism) for decades, and there's a history of militant Islamism amongst the country's Sunni Arab majority. Israel is worried about a flood of Alawite and Syrian Christian refugees if Assad falls, as is Lebanon. That country's own troubled sectarian history has been fed by refugee waves in the past, most notably of Palestinians, and Hezbollah remains Lebanon's most dominant military force.
So there's also the chance of a much less stable, peaceful Syria in the wake of Assad's fall. That's just one of the factors that gives many policy makers pause as they weigh the undoubted savagery of Syria's Baathist dictatorship against the question of what comes next.
He also said he's been "relying heavily" on Robert Kagan's book "The World America Made," in arguing "how good a strong and engaged America has been for the world." It's hard to argue that the US had a major, and generally positive influence on world affairs after WWII (the central point of Mr. Kagan's book). But Kagan is a militarist who favors extensive US direct intervention in global affairs. A full-throated supporter of the Iraq war, he continues to insist that war was a good idea. He told Salon in April that the Iraq war "probably" led to the Arab uprisings that began at the start of 2011. "There were repeated free elections in Iraq and that undoubtedly had some effect on how neighboring people views their government. I think Egyptians said. ‘If the Iraqis can have elections, why can’t we have elections?’”
I covered the Iraq war for about half of the time between 2003-2008 and spent the rest of my time living in Egypt. My personal experiences then, conversations with hundreds of people in the region over the years from senior politicians to shopkeepers, and later experience covering the uprisings in Libya and Egypt last spring, convinced me that the Iraq war, if anything, only slowed the inevitable uprisings against those aging authoritarian regimes.
The first major Egyptian protest for years, against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, was in many ways the spark of a protest wave that bred the new generation of political activists who formed the core of the protest movement that toppled Mubarak last year. Across the region, there was revulsion at the invasion, the human costs (at least 200,000 Iraqis died in the ensuing war), and disgust for the sectarian civil war that raged from 2005-2008 in Iraq.
To be sure, President Obama has also professed admiration for Kagan's book, as have many other policy makers on both sides of the aisle. But his pronouncements and recommendations on the Iraq war over the years have been consistently wrong. In 2004, he and Bill Kristol pronounced the new Iraqi Constitution would guarantee the rights of women and minorities in that country (in practice, the position of Christians and women in Iraq have worsened as a consequence of the war), and wrote that "while no sensible person would claim that Iraqis are safely and irrevocably on a course to liberal democracy, the honest and rather remarkable truth is that they have made remarkable strides in that direction."
They went on to complain the "perpetually sour American media focus on the tensions between Shiites and Kurds" but that "the difficult negotiations leading up to the signing, and the continuing debates over the terms of a final constitution, have in fact demonstrated something remarkable in Iraq: a willingness on the part of the diverse ethnic and religious groups to disagree – peacefully – and then to compromise." Even then the country was sliding into pit of sectarian warfare.
Today? The Kurds complain the Constitution has been ignored by the central government and some of their politicians are muttering about independence; the Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi is in exile, hiding from a politically motivated arrest warrant. And Shiite Islamist Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to accrue more power, frightening his ethnic and confessional opponents.
As someone who lived the Iraq war, I find high praise for Kagan's wisdom in foreign affairs troubling.
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