The Middle East Channel

A series of deadly attacks sweep Iraq

Over 20 bombs exploded throughout Iraq, killing at least 36 people and injuring over 100, raising fears of a new wave of increased sectarian strife. In primarily Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, three car bombs, two roadside bombs, and one suicide car bomb killed 15 people and wounded 61. Other attacks took place in Kirkut, Ramadi, Baquba, Samarra, Dibis, and Tajj. The seemingly coordinated attacks mainly targeted security forces. One bomb hit a convoy which included Iraqi Health Minister Majeed Hamad Amid. Amid was not harmed in this blast, but two civilians died and at least four of Amid's guards were wounded. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, however officials believe they resemble the prior workings of al Qaeda. According to Baghdad military command spokesman Col Dhia al-Wakeel, "They want to send a message that they can target the stability that has been achieved recently." However, others criticize the government for failing to curb the violence from militant groups. Ali Al-Haidari, an Iraqi security expert said, "They are saying they are changing security plans, they are redeploying troops, but it is like they are changing the decorations only."

Syria

In a letter to the United Nations Security Council, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said Syria is "failing to keep to [the] truce" and the government has yet to send a "clear signal" that it is committed to ending over 13 months of violence. He added that the Syrian regime had yet to implement nearly all aspects of Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, failing to adhere to its obligations to withdraw troops and release political prisoners. "Violent incidents and reports of causalities have escalated again in recent days, with reports of shelling of civilian areas and abuses by government forces," he stated. The government refused to allow the advance group of U.N. monitors to visit the restive city of Homs. However, the observers witnessed forces shooting at protesters in the Arbeen suburb of Damascus during which 20 civilians were injured and a U.N. vehicle was damaged. However, the U.N. group could not be certain who was responsible for the firing. Despite the weakened ceasefire, the United Nations has proposed expanding its observer mission to 300 monitors to be deployed to Syria for three months. But, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said 250 observers was a "reasonable number." The U.N. Security Council will discuss the mission in New York on Thursday. Meanwhile, foreign ministers including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet with the "Friends of Syria" in Paris to discuss the peace plan and further options to end the conflict.

Headlines  

  • A petrol-bomb delayed the Force India team vehicle ahead of Bahrain's Formula One Grand Prix, causing some teams to begin leaving out of security concerns.
  • The United Arab Emirates has forced out foreign NGOs that promote political reform in part of a trend to quell dissent.
  • According to Iranian state media, Iran has arrested 15 foreigners and nationals for participating in an alleged "Zionist-regime-linked" plot to assassinate a nuclear expert.

Arguments & Analysis

Syria Street, Lebanon (Alia Brahimi, Al Jazeera English)

"If the Sunni politicians of the March 14 alliance tend to espouse (predictably) militant anti-Assad views, then there is more nuance to be found among the wider Sunni population, who are similarly anxious about the aftermath of Assad's departure. "There's a reason why many Lebanese, including the westernised ones, are not out rallying for the downfall of Assad," explained Adra. "They look at Iraq and Libya and say 'no thank you'. If we're getting the [confessional] problems we're seeing in Egypt, imagine what would happen in Syria, where we would have destroyed the army."... However, because of the ongoing weakness of the Lebanese state, Lebanon's patchwork social fabric and the sharp (often Syrian-sponsored) cleavages between and among the clans who have seized most of Lebanon's political space, Lebanon appears uniquely vulnerable to what happens across its borders. After 30 years of direct political and military involvement in Lebanon, Syria isn't just any neighbour: events there can be expected to have a determining influence. In fact, Lebanon's continued fragility was perhaps itself formulated as policy many years ago in Damascus."

Iraq and the Kurds: The High-Stakes Hydrocarbons Gambit (International Crisis Group)

"A simmering conflict over territories and resources in northern Iraq is slowly coming to a boil. In early April 2012, the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) suspended its supply of oil for export through the national Iraqi pipeline, claiming Baghdad had not fully repaid operating costs to producing companies. The federal government responded by threatening to deduct what the oil would have generated in sales from the KRG's annual budget allocation, potentially halving it. This latest flare-up in perennially tense Erbil-Baghdad relations has highlighted the troubling fact that not only have the two sides failed to resolve their differences but also that, by striking out on unilateral courses, they have deepened them to the point that a solution appears more remote than ever. It is late already, but the best way forward is a deal between Baghdad and Erbil, centred on a federal hydrocarbons law and a compromise on disputed territories. International actors - the UN with its technical expertise, the U.S. given its unique responsibility as well as strategic interest in keeping things on an even keel - should launch a new initiative to bring the two back to the table."

Broadcast News Networks Misrepresent Intelligence On Iranian Nuclear Issues, (Rob Savillo, Media Maters)

"Many in the media have long since repudiated their failures in the lead-up to the Iraq War, acknowledging that they were too quick to accept the false notion that Iraq possessed a sizable and dangerous cache of weapons of mass destruction. The question today is whether they have learned from those mistakes...But fast forward to today, and the media's coverage of Iran's nuclear program suggests that some outlets have not learned from Iraq reporting failures and risk repeating history. Media Matters reviewed transcripts of ABC's World News, CBS' Evening News, and NBC's Nightly News between November 8, 2011 and March 31, 2012. The examination reveals that once again the media is frequently misrepresenting the expert opinion of the intelligence community."


--Mary Casey & Jennifer Parker

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

A second chance for Algeria's Islamists

Algeria has thus far kept a relatively low profile amidst sweeping regional change in the Middle East and North Africa. The oil-rich country, often characterized as "untouched" by the Arab Spring, saw no Tahrir Square or Avenue Habib Bourguiba, and, accordingly, has drawn minimal attention from international media. Although Algerians do not loath Bouteflika like Libyans did Qaddafi or Egyptians did Mubarak, they do have similar grievances -- high unemployment, inadequate housing, and a dearth of social services. A recent increase in protests across the country that have resulted in clashes with security forces reflect growing social anxiety, and a number of attempted self-immolations, including one just over a week ago in the Tiaret governorate, reveal that Algerians are actively interested in effectuating change. A cursory look at the situation might therefore suggest, as has some recent analysis, that revolution looms; a closer examination reveals that, at least for the moment, this is probably not in the cards. But while an increasing trend of social discontent will likely not yield drastic change from below, it may motivate Algerians, who have a history of abstention, to turn out in greater numbers in the legislative elections to be held next month, hoping to cast their votes for a party that will address their demands.

As transitioning North African countries are increasingly impacted by a rise of political Islam and bourgeoning democratic consciousness, Algerian authorities are preparing for the country's legislative elections and hedging their bets against a similar fate. Like its neighboring (fallen) regimes, whose distaste for religion translated to authoritarian secularism, Abdelaziz Bouteflika's government is haunted by the memory of the tragedie nationale, and, dominated by the National Liberation Front (FLN), promotes a staunchly anti-Islamic leadership. The highly secretive political and military elite, known as Le Pouvoir (the powers-that-be), has been referred to as dubiously democratic, and most recently passed a series of laws that, superficially, could signal an opening of sorts for the political spectrum and progress towards more transparent governance. Now passed, these reforms, which Bouteflika promised last April as an attempt to prevent upheaval, serve as the framework under which the legislative elections will occur.

Historically of course, Le Pouvoir's democratic gestures have hardly been a boon for opposition parties. When, in 1989, the political system expanded from a one-party rule, dominated by the FLN, to a multiparty system, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) emerged and garnered enough support to win the first round of elections. Rather than respect the electoral results, however, the military intervened, cancelling the second round. While the regime attributes the decade of violence that followed solely to the FIS and the Armed Islamic Movement (MIA) that it spawned, the suffocation of a nascent democratic process was unambiguous. The FIS' brief entry into politics therefore marks an important landmark in the country's history and provides insight into both the regime's hardline approach to opposition parties and a population wary of political change; it would be naïve to let either regional transformations or Algeria's domestic reforms overshadow the reality of Le Pouvoir's stern grip on power.

Western officials have lauded Bouteflika's "reforms," praising Algerian authorities for taking initiative towards democracy. Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mourad Medelci paid visits to international leaders, showcasing the reform process as another monumental Arab Spring moment. But beneath new laws that "impressed" French Minister of the Interior Claude Guéant and that Hillary Clinton called "very significant" are highly restrictive texts, both regarding political parties and members of civil society. A new law pertaining to political parties bars former FIS members from political participation, and bans anyone "responsible for manipulating religion in directing the national tragedy" from running in parliamentary, legislative, or presidential elections. Despite these blatantly anti-democratic undertones, the party law was still liberal enough to drastically open the political landscape, granting approval to numerous parties for the first time in decades, many of which are Islamist. This seemingly generous gestures may well be a deliberate attempt to disperse Islamist parties, mitigating their chances for success.

But some Islamist parties are catching on to Le Pouvoir's agenda. The Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP), an Islamist party and, up until recently, a member of the presidential alliance, decided to withdraw from the coalition. Upon withdrawal, party leader Bouguerra Soltani called on other Islamist parties to coalesce, and the resulting Green Alliance, which unites the MSP, al Islah and al Nahda, could give religious parties greater weight come May. Although the moderate MSP has traditionally been perceived to be a puppet of the regime, its withdrawal, attributed to the president's insufficient reforms, may give it a new, autonomous edge. The party, an offshoot of the Muslim Broterhood which supported  Bouteflika's bid for reelection in 2009, is now energized by Islamist victories in Tunisia and Morocco and empowered to divorce itself from the majority.

As Algeria's Islamist camp gears up for the election, the majority, ardently secular FLN continues to disintegrate, plagued by internal disagreements between the party's young members and its old guard. Over a week ago, the party's central committee declared a vote of no confidence in FLN secretary general Abdelaziz Belkhadem, and the reform movement within the party, known as the redresseurs, announced their intention to present independent candidate lists in May. The next day, a statement from the meeting not only cemented the party's instability heading into the elections, but revealed that, if the reform movement does succeed in gaining sufficient autonomy to present independent candidate lists, it will seek to change the party's trajectory entirely, which will only impede its ability to organize a coherent campaign platform.

While party authorizations in Algeria can hardly be likened to the empowerment of individual political choice that emerged in post-revolutionary Tunisia, Algerian voters, already distanced from the political process, may nonetheless find it possible to find their views expressed in a slowly evolving political environment. If Islamist parties are proactive and campaign aggressively -- like Ennahda did last fall in Tunisia -- the fragile FLN could find itself trailing behind, unraveled by internal rancor and regional trends that bode well for Islamists. If Algeria's Islamists follow Ennahda's strategy and couch their victory as a top-down, well-organized approach to regenerate Algeria's cultural values, they may succeed in energizing a voter base that might otherwise abstain.

The moderate MSP's role in forming the Green Alliance would also help the party frame political Islam as a source of policy, untangling its association with violence, the tragedie nationale, and the MIA that dismissed democratic governance. The alliance would have to be transparent in presenting a consistent platform, so as not to be associated with the FIS's internal fragmentation and opposing internal factions that ultimately led to its demise. Most importantly, the MSP's inherent organizational advantage over newly established parties, against the backdrop of a dissolving FLN, makes it well-poised entering the campaign period.

It must be said that the preceding analysis only matters in a world where elections are fair and transparent according to reasonable standards. Bouteflika's decision to invite international observers and establish a national monitoring commission hints at changes from previous elections which were rife with fraud. But political parties are still skeptical, and pre-election assessment missions from organizations like the National Democratic Institute reveal that, less than a month before election day, numerous electoral provisions and regulations remain undetermined. These scenarios also hinge upon citizen engagement: despite recent attempts from the Interior Ministry to encourage turnout, such as an SMS campaign urging participation, Algerians seem unenthused. Though the meager 36 percent turnout in 2007 in the country's last elections does not bode well for a likely mobilization this time around, the outcome of the May elections remain anyone's guess. The complete scarcity of credible public opinion surveys in a society as opaque as Algeria's makes forming predictions about voter intentions difficult.

These caveats considered, the elections could present an opportunity to shift the political landscape. While Islamist parties may not obtain a majority of seats, they may obtain a plurality. Such a performance, however, would require campaign strategies crafted to attract and energize Algerians skeptical of ties to the regime as well as those still shaken by the bloodbath they associate with political change.

Karina Piser is a Masters' student in International Security at Sciences Po in Paris, France.

AFP/Getty images