Author Archives: Marina Calculli

Abdalhadi Alijla – From Saleh to Hadi: Who destroyed Yemen?

Abdalhadi Alijla is a Swedish-Palestinian academic and the Regional Manager for ‘Varieties of Democracy Institute’ for the Gulf countries at Gothenburg University, Sweden. He is the executive director for the Institute for Middle East Studies, Canada (IMESC).


As the Arabian’s coalition strikes against Yemen stop, a new era starts with the question “What next?” Yemen’s crisis is not a new one. It is not even a crisis of the post-2011 demonstrations against former President Ali Abdulla Saleh. Rather it dates back to the 1960s. On many occasions, violence has been part of the atmosphere, yet it was managed through the common ground political equation and the strong informal institutions of Yemen (Tribal system). In most of the previous Yemeni crises and the current crisis, the causes have their roots in the political system, specifically the Head of the State.

In the 1960s, the Republic of Yemen in San’a fought against royal forces for about seven years. It ended with a so-called national reconciliation. After southern Yemen’s independence from Yemen in 1967, two wars between the south and the north erupted in 1972 and 1979 respectively. In 1982, the People’s Conference was established, setting its agenda as the unity of the two Yemens. As a result, a new commission and supreme council were established by the conference. A ministerial joint committee worked together until unity was achieved in 1990. They set a time period of two and a half years as a transition phase to merge institutions. The unification agreement included the decentralization of institutions, neutralization of the military, a modern electoral system, and new local governance arrangements. The two leaderships signed the agreement in Amman in February 1994. In the summer of 1994, a new war erupted between the military of the two countries and ended with a defeat for southern Yemen and its socialist party.

The historical legacy of fragmentation in each part of Yemen and the proliferation of militias based on ethnicity and tribalisms suggest that what is currently happening in the country may bring about something worse than what we could have expected.

The latest data from ‘Varieties of Democracy Institute’ shows that there is a huge crisis of the executive in Yemen. V-Dem has collected a unique database of data on democracy from 1900 until today. The aim of the project is to provide better and clearer measures of democratic development for practitioners, academics and policy-makers. Using V-Dem data, we can measure the role of the executive in undermining democracy and peace in countries such as Yemen.

In the following graphs (Graphs Nos. 1 and 2), V-Dem data show how Head of States in both South Yemen and Yemen respected the constitution from the 1950s until 2012. Surprisingly, the Head of the State (Ali Abdullah Saleh) had violated most provisions of the constitution without any legal consequences after the unification of South Yemen and Yemen. Comparing that to the pre-unification agreement in 1990, Southern Yemen had a higher ability to take legal measurements whenever the executive violated the constitution. The second graph shows the Head of the State’ s ability to propose legislation. According to V-Dem data, the Yemeni president could propose legislation in all policy areas or share this power with the legislature.

Within a society such as the Yemeni society where informal institutions, tribalism, nepotism and patrimonialism prevail over good governance and respect for laws and the constitution, the Yemeni president undermined democratic values and liquidated the constitution by appointing relatives to the military and high official posts. Not only that, but he founded and organized paramilitary troops that are loyal to him, violating the constitution signed in 1990 that states that only minister of defense manages and controls the military of the state.


Ymen_Propose legislation

More surprisingly, after the unification of the south Yemen and Yemen, the level of judicial constraints on the executives (Head of the State, Head of Government and Ministers) decreased significantly in south Yemen and by a few degrees in Yemen (Graph 3 below). This can be explained by the collapse of the unification agreement. The war in 1994 between south Yemen and Yemen (after the unification) ended with the defeat of the socialist party. After the war, the South Yemen governmental and formal institutions collapsed, and the People’s Conference took over south Yemen. After that, the unification agreement between South Yemen and Yemen ended by amending the constitutions along the lines of a presidential system (not a presidential council as the agreement stated). The new constitution gave the president complete authority over all policy areas, including judiciary and legislative ones. With corruption widespread, Yemen’s president appointed his relatives and loyalists.

YemenJudical constraints

The current Yemeni crisis is not about the Houthi or Iran’s influence in the area. Taking a look at the egalitarian index of democracy (below) for both south Yemen and Yemen, we see a huge difference between the two. The dissatisfaction among southern Yemeni increases as they were excluded from power. “The egalitarian principle of democracy addresses the distribution of political power across social groups, i.e. groups defined by religion, and ethnicity. This perspective on democracy emphasizes that a formal guarantee of political rights and civil liberties are not always sufficient for political equality. Ideally, all social groups should have approximately equal participation, representation, agenda-setting power, and protection under the law, and influence over policymaking and policy implementation. If such equality does not exist, the state ought to seek to redistribute socio-economic resources, education, and health so as to enhance political equality”. As graph No. 4 shows South Yemen had a higher egalitarian index than Yemen. However, after the unification, both countries had a significantly lower egalitarian index which reveals that some part of the population was excluded from some of their political or social rights. With increasing voices by Southern Yemeni for separation, it seems that the unification has failed, not because the population failed, but because the political system failed (1).

yemen Egalitarian

It seems that the present crisis is not a political one linked to the Houthi and political reform, rather a political, economic and societal dilemma between the Southern Yemeni and Northern Yemeni. The complexities of presidentialism in Yemen accompanied by corruption, nepotism and exclusion of the southern Yemeni led to ongoing deadlock. What is needed is a new political system, preferably power-sharing with southern Yemeni to avoid separatists increasing influence among Yemeni, which may not be a good omen for the future of Yemen.


Al-Sisi’s Egypt: vulnerability and paranoia in the ‘fierce state’

by Marina Calculli and Gennaro Gervasio

In the aftermath of the historic fall of Hosni Mubark, on 11 February 2011, nobody would have predicted that, 4 years later, Egypt would have become an autocracy led by a (harsh) military-backed regime. Since the military coup of July 2013 (backed by the Tamarrod movement), which led to the forced ousting of the elected but unpopular President Mohamed Morsi and to the Presidential elections that sanctioned the triumph of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the new President has embarked on an effort to restore the authoritarian regime. A wide-reaching quest for security and order within the State has enabled al-Sisi and his Military entourage to undertake a “corrective” adjustment to the thawra (‘revolution’), after the weak performance of the Muslim Brothers during their short stint governing the country.

Al-Sisi’s power is entrenched in the legacy of the 2011 revolution, in which he primarily sought – and partially found – his legitimacy. The Tamarrod movement, together with a huge number of anti-Brotherhood intellectuals, underpinned his ascendance to the presidency. The Military, which had embraced the revolution in 2011 (albeit reluctantly in the beginning), was again explicitly called upon to save it, and was pardoned for having attempted an authoritarian takeover just after the ousting of Mubarak.

Though al-Sisi himself likes to be compared to Gamal Abdel Nasser, his move to seize and consolidate his power looks more like a Napoleonic 18 Brumaire than the Free Officers’ Revolution of 1952, which overthrew the monarchy of Farouq. The Muslim Brothers’ bogeyman are continuously portrayed as a ‘Jacobin threat’, from which the General has to step up to save the Republic.

Many of those who supported al-Sisi in 2013 may have come to realize the intimate will of the rais and the Military. However, in al-Sisi’s Egypt there is no room for dialectics. Whilst the Muslim Brothers have been declared a terrorist group, massacred and imprisoned, by virtue of their alleged attempt to “undermine the stability of Egypt”, the main leftist and liberal activists, once hailed as the “heroes of the revolution”, are also in jail. The recent sentence against Ala Abdel Fattah, inter alia, confirms the regime’s paranoia, and its fear of the ‘revolution’ that it originally claimed to defend.

In other words, contrary to his professed will, al-Sisi, less than a year after his election as president of Egypt, has expressly cut all links with the 25 January revolution. The bloody repression of the peaceful celebration of the 4th anniversary of the revolution has just made the attempt to destroy its legacy more explicit.

At the same time, the regime is unwilling to reinvent a narrative of social reconciliation within – and with – the State.

Distrustful of society, brutally repressive, and with its clumsily handling of socio-economic issues, such as poverty and unemployment, the regime feels it has no option but to assert violent control in order to secure its power.

In other words, Al-Sisi’s Egypt has become what Nazim Ayubi called a ‘fierce state’ – a state in which a huge security apparatus is the main guarantor of regime stability. It is noteworthy that, during his 9 months in office, the President has expanded military powers through Presidential decrees.

Such a state, however, is weak and vulnerable, since its authority rests mainly on widespread fear and coercion.

Not surprisingly, al-Sisi has mainly turned towards the search for an external – rather than domestic – legitimacy.

At the regional level, al-Sisi has been strengthening his links with oil-rich countries – especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE – that have already donated more than $22 billion to the state and the military apparatus, de facto saving Egypt from going bankrupt. In an attempt to secure Saudi support, al-Sisi has embraced the Saudi regional policy of effacing the Qatari-sponsored Muslim Brothers from the Arab World.

At the international level, Egypt is trying to depict itself as the main regional pillar in the fight against Islamic terrorist organisations, especially the ‘Islamic State’. For the first time in 24 years – i.e. since the Gulf War of 1990-91 – the Egyptian Military has engaged in military operations outside its borders – notably in Libya – to fight against ISIS.

Parenthetically, the President also called for the formation of an Arab Army under Egyptian command and supervision, trying to implicitly persuade stable Arab monarchies (which called for the formation of such ‘Arab Army’ in the first place) that Egypt is the only Arab power able to protect their stability.

Moreover, al-Sisi has spoken up against extremism, which – in his words – “offends the image of God”. The rais, who has always tried to depict himself as a “good Muslim”, also urged for a reform of Islamic discourse to meet the challenges and the needs of “the modern world”, and to remove “old misconceptions”. Needless to say, in the wake of the international war against ISIS, his words resonate all over the word, leading many politicians and commentators in the West to depict him as the most modern and genuine Arab leader.

Al-Sisi has managed to gain international recognition and support, while, domestically, the Military – a huge organization, which holds more than 100 billion $ of assets, and controls virtually every sector of the economy – is more powerful than ever.

President al-Sisi is a General, coming from the Military, in line with the career of all of the presidents of Egypt, except Morsi. He has greatly contributed to expanding the political role of the Army, which is nowadays much more politically powerful than in Mubarak’s days. However, this move could jeopardise the role of the President, by turning him into a mere puppet of an immensely huge Military structure, which represents the real power in the current ‘fierce state’ of Egypt.

Yemen – President resigns amidst turmoil

There are few historical coincidences as ironic as the simultaneous occurrence, last week, of the resignation of Yemeni President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the death of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

The recent takeover of power by the Shi’a Houthi movement had been one of the major anathemas in Abdullah’s life. After the Houthi’s Ansar Allah (‘Partisans of God’) occupied the Yemeni capital Sana’a in September 2014, forcing the government to resign, their ascendance has been overwhelming. As a result, Saudi Arabia has completely lost control over its neighbouring country, after a long tradition of political indirect patronage, fuelled by personal clientelist relations. Saudi’s last residual share of influence on Yemen withered away with the resignation of President Hadi, the trustworthy man of Ryad.

President Hadi’s resignation came after it became de facto impossible for him to exert his authority, as by now the Houthis control a share of the Yemeni territory stretching from Sa’ada, at the northern border with Saudi Arabia, to the southern province of Thamar. That said, he does not lack popular support. On 24 January around 10,000 people took the streets to protest against his decision to step back, thus formally accepting the Houthis’ coup d’état.

In the meantime, some reported that the international community has already started talks with the young and charismatic leader of the movement, Abdel Malik al-Houthi. If true, this would also explain why President Hadi – once backed by US and Saudi diplomacies – has hastened his resignation. Nonetheless, the political impasse that is afflicting the country is nowhere near approaching its end. On the contrary, new and old dynamics are dangerously merging to create an explosive cocktail.

Ansar Allah’s triumph over Sana’a has been generally depicted as one of the many ‘hot’ proxy wars between the two rival Middle Eastern powers – Saudi Arabia and Iran – that are fighting a Cold War for the regional leadership. Yet, it is not a mystery that the sophisticated weapons in the hands of Ansar Allah militants are of Iranian origin, and that Teheran’s funding of the Houthis  increased tremendously after 2011 at the peak of the Saudi-Iranian Cold War. The Houthis are also depicted as a Yemeni Hezbollah, the main proxy ally of Iran in the region – although their organisation and their ambitions sharply differ from those of the Lebanese ‘Party of God’.

In the same vein, some have provided a sectarian explanation for the current political turmoil in Yemen, claiming that the current impasse is the outcome of the fitna between the Sunnis and the Shi’a in the Middle East.

President Hadi is a Sunni from the southern province of Abyan, among the most active regions of Yemen, reviving irredentist claims of secession from the north. However, it would be reductive to see southern secessionist stances as a mere reaction to Houtis’ advancement. In fact, this claim goes back to South Yemen’s ‘persistent objections’ to the unification of the country in 1990, cyclically reviving during periods of Yemen’s long-standing instability. In addition, what is further exacerbating tensions in the South is al-Qaeda’s attempt to take advantage of the unprecedented weakness of the central authority. The ambiguity of the US, and the general fear over the future of the country, has also pushed many in the Gulf to sustain some radical Sunni Islamist militias, in the hope of pushing back the Shi’a Iran-sponsored Houthis.

The elephant in the room here remains the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. In another blog post, we highlighted the pernicious role that Saleh has been playing in fostering and aggravating the current political blockage. Forced to resign from power in 2011, under the pressure of a notorious ‘informal’ US-Saudi joint effort to placate the popular uprisings, Saleh tried to take his revenge, through further destabilizing the country. In so doing, the ex-President has mainly relied on the many military and political figures – his “deep state” – that survived his departure.

Saleh’s political gambling aims at preparing the rise of his son to the presidency. Many officers and key tribal leaders, still loyal to him, still support his project. The paradox is that, in spite of the sectarian narratives, Saleh and his loyal basis have allied with the bitterest enemies (the Houthis) of their new enemies (President Hadi and his Saudi-backed political entourage). This is happening in spite of the fact the Saleh harshly repressed the Houthis during the period of his presidency.

Sectarian narratives are informing the fabric of the current Yemeni domestic conflict, and have undoubtedly played a role in galvanising militants. However, by delving deeper into the layers of a complex reality, what is once again fracturing Yemen seems to be mainly a cynical Machiavelian game, leaving little room for religiously motivated stances, while magnifying pragmatic personal interests.

Lebanon – The presidential crisis lingers on

The vacuum left by the failure of the Lebanese parliament to elect a new president after the end of the six-year term of former President Michel Suleiman on 24 May 2014 is lingering on and is unlikely to be filled anytime soon. However, in spite of the intractable lack of political agreement among the MPs on the presidency, on 5 November 2014 the parliament decided to extend its own mandate until June 2017, referring to the many “security issues in the regions”, especially concerning the Syrian war.

Only Christian MPs of the Kataeb party and the Free Patriotic Movement boycotted the vote. The presidency remains the major stronghold of Maronite Christians in the post-war power-sharing arrangement, sanctioned by the Taef agreement of 1989; not surprisingly this extension was seen by most Christians as a cheap shot at the country’s gentleman’s agreement (according to which the Head of the State must be a Christian Maronite), and – more generally – to the role of Christians in Lebanon. After the parliament’s decision, the Maronite Patriarch, Bishara Rai, hit the roof and blasted this extension as “illegal and against the constitution”.

Beyond the Maronite opposition to a bill which objectively undermines the power of Christians in Lebanon, the renewal of parliament’s term fuelled a cross-confessional rage in the country. According to recent opinion polls, only 11% of Lebanon approves parliament’s extension, while the majority calls for elections. Protesters also gathered in Nejme Square, where the Parliament is located, contesting what they termed as a “democratic disgrace”.

To ignite the political debate, in a recent interview to the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, Michel Aoun – a potential presidential candidate to the Ba’abda Palace and the main ally of the Shi’a party Hezbollah – accused the al-Mustaqbal Movement (led by the Sunni businessman Sa’ad Hariri) of blocking the current majority in the parliament, fearing a likely reduction of its share in future elections. “Where did they get the idea that parliamentary elections should not be held prior to the presidential elections? – Aoun asked. “When there is a political or national crisis in normal countries, they resort to early parliamentary elections as an option to get out of the crisis, let alone if the elections are already a year and five months late because of the previous extension[1].”

Aoun went on to say that the current presidential crisis deteriorated after his talks with Hariri broke down. According to Aoun, the rupture came after the Saudi Foreign Minster, Prince al-Faiçal, put his veto on his candidacy.

Aoun’s thesis may correspond to a real political game between the Saudi king and his Lebanese pupil Sa’ad Hariri. In his analysis, however, he conveniently forgets that even his strong ally, Hezbollah – which is in turn backed and financed by Iran – voted in favour of the parliament’s term extension.

The elephant in the room here is the failed entente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have been engaging in a cold war in the Arab Levant, using and manipulating their respective proxies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and have been unable to agree on the name of the future Lebanese president. Not for the first time, in the absence of a compromise between the two major powers in the region, any change in the political status quo is liable to lead to a further deterioration in the security situation.

Beyond this political crisis, there is no direct intention by domestic and regional actors to undermine the power of Christians in the country. However, the outcome of the dangerous geopolitical game between Saudi Arabia and Iran is anyway likely to coincide with a downgrading of the role of Maronites in Lebanon.

Looking at the evolution of the institution of the presidency in Lebanon over the country’s history, the current impasse is likely to further transform the Lebanese political system.

Born under the umbrella of a strong presidentialism, sanctioned by the mithaq al-watani (‘National Pact’) of 1943, the system was reshaped by the Taef agreements of 1989, which put an end to the longstanding Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Taef downgraded the importance of the (Maronite) president’s role to the advantage of the Council of Ministers, led by a Sunni PM, and redefined the weight of Christians and Muslims (Sunni and Shi’a) in parliament from 6:5 to 1:1[2]. Despite the reduction in its power, the president still plays a balancing role between the prime minister and the speaker of parliament.

Nonetheless, if the presidential vacuum becomes stagnant, with a fragmented parliament exerting the functions of the presidency, the role of the Head of the State will be substantially, if not formally, reduced. By showing that Lebanon can go ahead without its highest authority, however, the Lebanese political system is also proving  more than ever to be a hostage of the various feudal-like parties, and increasingly dependent on regional patrons and their respective geopolitical games.

[1] The Parliament had already extended its mandate on May 2014.

[2] Paul Salem, “Framing post‐war Lebanon: Perspectives on the constitution and the structure of power”, Mediterranean Politics 3 (1), 2007: 13-26.

Yemen – Behind Houthis’ takeover of Sana’a: former President Saleh’s attempt to return to power

The domestic power struggle between sectarian factions and political forces in Yemen seems to have shifted in favour of the Shi’a Houthis and their militia Ansar Allah (‘Partisans of God’), who have recently overrun the capital Sana’a, forcing the government to resign and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to give the go-ahead for major political concessions.

On 21 September, the government dominated by the Sunni al-Islah party stepped down. On 13 October, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi appointed Khaled Bahah as Prime Minister. Bahah was designated by the Houthis’ political bureau as the “right person” to lead the government, and his appointment came just a few days after the Shi’a movement strongly opposed the candidacy of Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak. President Hadi appeared to have no choice but to approve a rapid government reshuffle, with the aim of reaching a political compromise with Ansar Allah. On top of that, on 14 October the group sized control of the strategic Red Sea city port of Hodeida.

Whilst it is widely acknowledged that Iran has sponsored and financed Ansar Allah for years, and particularly its recent ascent, there exist widespread allegations over the role that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has played in facilitating the Houthis’ takeover of the capital. If these allegations are to be proven correct, it would rather ironically shed light on the intertwined personal interests in the region, that go far beyond the seemingly exclusively sectarian nature of relations there.

Between 2004 and 2010 the Houtis engaged in several battles with the central authority in Sana’a, and fought with Saleh’s forces. What is more, they also actively participated in the so-called Yemeni Arab Spring, which led to the toppling of the Saleh regime in 2011. During his time in office, President Saleh harshly repressed the Houthis, who were generally perceived as an obscure and insignificant group from a peripheral northern region, with no clear-cut political project. Moreover, the Houthis were traditionally held under control in order to meet the security concerns of Saudi Arabia. The Shi’a group claimed to be the protector of the Zaydi doctrinal tradition against the influence of Saudi Wahhabism; being located in the northern Saada province, at the border with Saudi Arabia, Ryad has been highly concerned about having a Shi’a Iran-sponsored militia at its frontiers.

In 2011, King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia orchestrated a power transition from President Saleh to his vice-President Hadi. However, in recent months the kingdom seems to have lost its usual capacity to coordinate the sequence of political events in the neighbouring country. This came as a result of the Muslim Brotherhood-affilaited Islah party distancing itself from the kingdom, and Ryad’s general perception of having lost all possible allies in Yemen.

Former President Saleh seems to have taken advantage of the political confusion in the Gulf and the weakness of President Hadi and his allies to try to gain influence in the country, and possibly to pave the way for his son, currently Yemen’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, to become the next President, thus reinstating his long-standing patrimonial rule.

In recent months the Houthis have surprising observers by being able to reverse the political status quo of the country and during their march towards Sana’a tribes loyal to the former President Saleh have not hindered their advancement. However, this move has ignited tensions between the Houthis and their Sunni opponents: the Ahmar family, the military wing led by Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Salafi fighters and the Islah party, and – more recently – the Yemeni-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is suspected to be behind the two suicide bombs that left nearly 70 people dead on 8 October 2014.

After President Hadi was forced to go down the road of compromising with the Houthis, and against the backdrop of the quasi civil war that is ravaging the country, he commented: “You have to know that conspiracy is beyond any imagination. We were stabbed and we were betrayed from inside Yemen and outside”. He also added: “it is a cross-border plot where many forces are allied together”.

While the Houthis’ agenda is unlikely to follow in the same footsteps of the deposed raìs, and while Iran’s backing has been crucial in making the Houthis’ gains significant, it is also likely that, by using the Houthis’ card, Saleh is trying to undermine the new political forces in order to reinstate his own loyalists. This would definitely not be surprising in a country, whose long-standing civil war has been a story of shifting alliances and compromises among domestic actors, political players and tribal groups, for the sake of personalistic short-term interests.

Lebanon – 58 days without a President

Lebanon has been without a head of state since 25 May, when the six-year mandate of the former president, Michel Suleiman, came to an end. This is because the parliament was unable to elect a new president. Even as all political parties have now formally agreed to overcome the presidential stalemate, this power vacuum is unlikely to be filled anytime soon. This crisis may affect the entire political and security equilibrium of the country and also put into question the Lebanese “consociational democracy” model.

What is especially worrying about the current presidential stalemate is that it comes on top of another major institutional crisis: the failure to elect a new parliament. The term of the previous parliament ended on 20 June 2013 but, due to disagreements over how to manage the spillover from the Syrian war, the political forces could not agree on holding fresh parliamentary elections. Instead, the parliament opted for an extra-constitutional fix by extending its own mandate until 20 November 2014, thus forgoing popular consultation. The democratic (un)suitability of this political solution was never put in question. The next parliamentary polls are scheduled in November 2014, but, as the two-month-old presidential stalemate lingers on, it seems highly unlikely that elections will be held by then. This may, in turn, entail postponing the election of a new government to replace the current interim cabinet led by Premier Tammam Salam.

With the deterioration of democratic legitimacy of the whole institutional system and an inability to overcome the political impasse, Lebanon’s already intractable problems may become impossible to manage, thus leading to a security collapse. To name but a few, these problems include: Syrian refugees in Lebanon that are expected to soon reach 1.5 million (in a country of 4 million people); car bombs every few months hitting strategic areas of the country; increasing sectarian clashes; fighting between the Army and Islamist militias along the Lebanese-Syrian borders since several months. As if this did not suffice, the general geopolitical landscape of the Arab Levant is falling apart, after the ISIL (Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant) took over Iraq and around 35% of the Syrian territory, proclaiming the birth of the Islamic caliphate.

Against this backdrop, on17 July, the former Sunni Prime Minister and leader of the al-Mustaqbal movement, Saad Hariri, giving televised speech from his residence in the Saudi city of Jeddah, outlined a road map to “preserve Lebanon’s stability”. In his speech, Hariri called for the start of consultations between the two parliamentary blocs of ‘14 March’ and ‘8 March’. However, he ended up by further dividing the two political sides. It is important to note here that, according to the National Pact – an unwritten agreement that regulates the distribution of power among the three main confessional groups— the President of Lebanon has to be a Christian Maronite, while the Prime Minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Sh’ia. But while Hariri’s roadmap has been approved by his Christian ally, the Kataeb member Samir Geagea, who is part of the ’14 March’ bloc and one of the Presidential candidates, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and member of the ‘8 March’ bloc Michel Aoun accused Hariri of discarding tout court his proposal for solving the presidential crisis. Indeed, on 30 June, Aoun had proposed amending the constitution so that the Lebanese people, thus not the parliament, could directly elect the head of state. Aoun’s proposal foresees two election rounds whereby in the first round only Christians can vote, and in the second ballot the two candidates with the most votes would face all Lebanese voters.

However, the 14 March bloc rejected Aoun’s plan, with the approval of Samir Geagea. The fear lurking in the background of these exchanges is that Aoun, who is supported by Hezbollah and the Shi’a community in Lebanon, which is the largest Lebanese community, would easily get elected president through direct polls. In other words, intra-Christian rivalry seems to further exacerbate the dispute between Sunni and Shi’a, respectively represented by the Hariri-led 14 March and the Hezbollah-dominated 8 March.

The dangerous side-effect of this intractable division among the Christians is twofold: not only could a protracted presidential vacuum continue to hinder the proper functioning of the parliament and the government, but it may also challenge the viability of the National Pact. In other words, it might jeopardize the pillar of Lebanon’s consociational system, based on a division of powers among Christians, Sunni and Shi’a. And all this is not at all to the benefit of secularism, but creates room to what seems to be more and more a zero-sum game between the Sunni and the Sh’ia in Lebanon, and in the whole Levant.

Turkey – Erdoğan announces presidential candidacy

After failing to create a sense of anticipation on a number of occasions, the ruling Islamic conservative AK Party (‘Justice and Development Party’) finally announced that the incumbent prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will be its official candidate for the forthcoming presidential election, which is expected to be held on 10 August 2014.

The announcement was made in Ankara during a gathering of more than 4,000 AKP members, who welcomed it with an emotional standing ovation. While the PM needed only 20 signatures, the decision was literally unanimous, as Mehmet Ali Şahin – former speaker of the Turkish Parliament and Erdoğan’s long-standing political ally – emphasised. Even though the AKP left the public waiting before making its announcement, the party’s internal consensus over its presidential candidate was never in question. On the contrary, this suspense served to pave the way for a triumphant display of the AKP’s strategy, which is absolutely crucial in what seems to be the most challenging period of Erdoğan’s 11 years in power.

The Gezi Taksim protests and the unprecedented corruption inquiry recently faced by the PM  may have transformed Mr Erdoğan’s international image from the author of Turkey’s economic success into an intolerant conservative  autocrat. However, all domestic attempts to undermine his legitimacy have misfired. In fact, to the dismay of the opposition – nationalists, liberals and the urban middle class who have largely failed to create a united front against him – Erdoğan came out as the big winner of local elections in May 2014.

Indeed, if Erdoğan wins the election at the first round, as most polls predict, his legitimacy will be strengthened further as this is the first time that Turkish voters, and not the Parliament, will have chosen the Head of State.

Erdoğan’s most powerful adversary, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, an Islamic intellectual chosen by the two main opposition parties, is not a strong enough to challenge the current PM, and most commentators agree that Selahattin Demirtaş, who is backed by the principal pro-Kurd New People’s Democratic Party (HDP) will fare even worse. Incidentally, in order to court the vote of the 15 million Kurds in Turkey, Erdoğan has shrewdly submitted to parliament a draft bill with the purpose of legalising the negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Excluding unlikely surprises, the August 2014 Presidential elections will make the strong man of Turkey even stronger.

Syria – Asad De-mock-racy: An election with one choice

The Syrian presidential elections held on 3 June 2014 are beyond any doubt fictional and farcical. This not just because the Syrian regime has always relied on the manipulation of rules[1] and the fabrication of popular consent, but also because of the carnage and total disarray that the on-going civil war has caused, with more the 162,000 deaths and millions forced to flee the country. The unprecedented fictional addition in these elections was the presence of two fairly unknown candidates running for the Presidency, Hassan bin Abdullah al-Nouri, a 54-year-old former MP from Damascus, and 43-year-old Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, a lawmaker from the northern city of Aleppo. They were the only two that were considered fit for the Presidential race among a group of 24 people – including a woman – that presented their candidacy. And, ultimately, even the 88.7% margin of victory, which seems to witness a loss in consensus – when compared to the 99.82% of the 2007 elections – is a sarcastic concession the regime has given to that part of the international community which attempted to delegitimize and remove him from power in the past 3 years of conflict.

Asad seems to be taking revenge of the multifarious prophesies of many prominent world leaders about his demise. For instance, in July 2011 the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that “Asad has lost his legitimacy” and is “not indispensable”, while NATO Secretary General Rasmussen wrongly predicted that Asad would have stepped down in a “maximum of 6 months”. In February 2012 the Israeli Defence Minister said that that the fall of Bashar was “a matter of months, if not weeks”; in July 2012 the former head of the UN observatory mission in Syria, Robert Mood, similarly argued that the collapse of the regime was only “a matter of time”. Ultimately, current Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced the peremptory sentence: “Asad must go”.

On 3 June 2014, not only did Asad prove that hostile regional and international players had significantly underestimated his power, but he also showed that he could keep exerting control at will over a population terrified by the pervasive societal control of the mukhabarat (intelligence services) and a pyramidal rigid power structure, refined over 43 years of al-Asad family rule. Indeed, it is very likely that many people were forced to go to the polls to vote – and to vote for Asad under direct or indirect threats.

However, three years into the conflict, the miscalculations about Asad’s resilience were also exacerbated by several external political mistakes that have strengthened, rather than weakened, the regime’s ability to persist.

The first big mistake has been the forging and fueling of an opposition in exile (now represented by Ahmad Jarba) that is out of touch with the reality on the ground and with no direct link with the internal military opposition. Not surprisingly, this one claims the right to lead a potential political transition – if it will ever come to fruition – by virtue of its being on the forefront.

The second huge mistake has been the failure to support the indigenous Syrian military opposition, composed by ex-officer deserters and young militants that rose up to fight against Asad. For several months this national bulk of resistance has demanded the imposition of a no-fly zone, in order to contain the greater advantage of the loyalist Army, i.e. the aviation. They were never heard.

As a corollary, another major miscalculation has been to allow Islamist fighters, al-Qaeda affiliated, and financed by the Gulf countries, to penetrate Syria, thus exploiting the original thawra (‘uprising’) in order to serve either their own agendas or the geopolitical interests of their funders.

For several months, the US and some European countries have tacitly approved this state of affairs in the hope that political collapse was imminent and that, then, they would have been able to pull back radical jihadists from the country, allowing room for political transition. Not only has this hope not materialised, but the anti-Asad front has been weakened and fragmented: secularist forces are falling apart, rivalry between secularists and Islamists has derailed the objectives of the revolution, and even Islamist forces are fighting one another. And finally they have strengthened Bashar al-Asad, by paradoxically and ironically providing him with incontrovertible arguments to point out the evident failure of the international community in Syria.

[1] A stunning example is the change in the Constitution that the Parliament approved overnight in 2000, after the death of Hafiz al-Asad. The change lowered the minimal age to be elected President of Syria from 40 to 34, the age of Bashar al-Asad at that time.

El-Sisi before the test of “performance legitimacy”: the new Egyptian President must deliver in order to stay in power

The triumph of Field Marshal Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in the last presidential elections in Egypt held on 26-27 May did not surprise anyone. El-Sisi’s ascent to the Presidency is the perfect finalisation of a process that started with the overthrow of former raìs Mohammed Morsi (on July 2013), and the following coup d’Etat driven by the Egyptian military. Although the public support for el-Sisi in recent months was reaching levels of national veneration, high expectations for his performance are likely to put the new raìs under a challenging test.

In fact, el-Sisi large popularity came as a mere reaction to the widespread discontentment with the awful performance of the Ikhwan al-Muslimin (Muslim Brothers), which were by and large associated with rising unemployment, high inflation rate, collapse of security and a tendentious attempt to divide the country along pro and anti Muslim Brothers. As a consequence, the Tamarrod movement that led to the ousting of Morsi paved the way to a return of the Military in power. In July 2013 the Army was in fact seen as the only force to restore public order and provide security, economic growth – the top priorities for the Egyptian people; at the same time, a general hysteria about the Brotherhood offered the perfect pretext to the post-Morsi interim government for disqualifying the Ikhwan as a terrorist group, thus blacklisting them as an illegal organization.

However, beyond the anti-Muslim Brothers identity of General el-Sisi, his capacity to re-boost economy and to neutralize low-scale terrorism that Egypt is facing now, is likely to determine the duration of his stay in power.

Even as General el-Sisi enjoyed the image of a sophisticated and intelligent man from the time in which he was the Head of the Military Mukhabarat (Intelligence services), his strategic refinement did not really emerge during his electoral campaign. On the contrary, his strategy was to stay as silent as he could, except for some public appearances and a few pre-prepared televised speeches, dressed up with populist slogans, but tremendously lacking a clear political agenda. For instance, he said that “economic success will hinge on political choices”, but he did not say a word neither about the kind of “economic success” he had in mind nor about his “political choices”.

So far, the only real growth in Egypt’s economic is the 20$ billion that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has injected in the country in order to support and strengthen the anti-Muslim Brothers wave which started in July 2013. It is not by chance that Saudi-sponsored Salafi parties and clerics have strongly supported el-Sisi candidacy and victory. This is part of a wider regional plan the Saudi King is implementing in order to prevent any form of Islamic political rule, alternative to the Saudi Wahabi kind, to emerge in the region. In so doing, the Saudi King was ready to support any political force able to do that, including the secularist Egyptian Army.

However, if King Abdallah is eager to continue supporting el-Sisi mandate, history proves that foreign aid is not sufficient to give an impulse to a stagnating economy. In fact, during the seventies, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States injected billions of dollars into the Egyptian economy, in order to finance the anti-Nasserist wave promoted by President Anwar Sadat: not only did the economic conditions not improve, but Egypt was transformed from a regional hegemony into a “international client” – as Egyptian economist Samer Soliman put it – i.e. subject to the geopolitical interests of the conservative monarchies of the Gulf, in addition to the US.

In one of his latest TV interviews, el-Sisi praised King Abdullah as the leading Arab leader: a strange statement for a president that has been compared to Gamal Abdel Nasser (the main historical challenger of the Gulf and the main champion of Arab nationalism) more than once. Rather, el-Sisi Egypt seems more similar to Sadat’s Egypt, more inclusive towards Islamists (except for the Ikhwan, of course), and compliant with the political agenda of Saudi Arabia in exchange for financial aid.

What is not yet clear however is to what extent el-Sisi is conscious about the fact that the stability of his rule depends on the performance of his government, especially for what concerns the improvement of the socio-economic conditions. If he fails, a further thawra (revolution) is likely to follow. Incidentally, el-Sisi is the third leader after Mubarak (if we include also Hussein Tantawi, the first post-Mubarak interim president, in addition to Mohammed Morsi) to enjoy a large popular support. The first two were rejected by the Square after their performance disappointed the Egyptian population. The new “power” in the new political game of Egypt is clearly the “power of the Square”, able to oust an ill-performing president. The new kind of political legitimacy that any forthcoming raìs will need to face is the “performance legitimacy”.


Algeria: New Cabinet facing growing challenges

On 5 May 2014, less than three weeks after his controversial re-election, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has reshuffled his fourth Cabinet. The newly appointed ministers are well-known figures of the so-called “old guard” – the bulk of the powerful Algerian ruling class – “Le Pouvoir” – the deep-rooted network of politicians, businessman and military figures that has dominated the country since its independence from France.

Former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal was reinstated, after he resigned expressly to become Bouteflika’s presidential campaign manager. Another pillar of his personal entourage is Amara Benyounes, who was appointed as Trade minister. The prestigious position of Energy Minister went to Youcef Yousfi, former prime minister and loyal to Bouteflika. His position is key as the government has launched a campaign to bolster national energy revenues, which are seen by Bouteflika’s supporters as the main source of national wealth.

Following a tradition of governmental reshuffles in Algeria which are aimed at preserving the status quo, the new Cabinet is likely to solidify Bouteflika’s already immense power, and it is not by chance that it occurred after a failed attempt by the prime minister to incorporate opposition figures into a coalition government.

Whilst opposition groups are very fragmented, naïve, and unlikely to significantly challenge the power of the regime, in the last months they gained visibility by first boycotting the presidential elections and then denouncing the regime of vote rigging, and more generally by refusing to cooperate with the regime. Bouteflika’s attempt to lure them into the Cabinet, regardless of its sincerity, was meant to buy legitimacy for the regime, either by co-opting opposition forces or by creating impression of openness from the side of the President.

However, what the regime is most concerned about is the crystallising alliance between opposition political forces, the civil society and the broader population, which is growing increasingly dissatisfied with the high levels of unemployment rate and poverty throughout the country. Although Bouteflika’s re-election (last 17 April 2014) was more a plebiscite than a genuinely contested election, discontent with the fourth election of the 77-year-old raìs has been particularly strong all over the country. Massive street protests in Kabylie towns of Tizi-Ouzou and Bejaia, and civil society activism, such as the Barakat! (“Enough!”) movement in Algiers, cause headache to the regime.

It is not by chance that Bouteflika emphasised the commitment of the new government to increase energy revenues for the benefit of the whole country. Minister Yousfi has already announced that he will oversee the North African OPEC nations’ efforts to bolster oil and gas production.

Despite the fact that it is very difficult to undermine Le Pouvoir in Algeria, given its pervasive political, economical and security control structure, Bouteflika knows that growing socio-economic discontent is a direct challenge to regime legitimacy.