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A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Yazidi women in both Syria and Iraq have suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS — but they will be caught up in Trump-era restrictions on refugees all the same. (Reuters)

There’s a neighborhood in Los Angeles, commonly known as Tehrangeles, that is home to up to a half-million Persian Americans, most of whom fled Iran after the 1979 Islamic republic or who are their second-generation children and third-generation grandchildren, all of them American citizens. 

The neighborhood runs along Westwood Boulevard, and it is home to some of the wealthiest Angelinos. But under the executive action that US president Donald Trump signed Friday afternoon, their relatives in Iran will have a much more difficult time visiting them in Los Angeles (or elsewhere in the United States). The impact of the order, over the weekend, proved far deeper than originally imagined last week when drafts of the order circulated widely in the media.

The ban attempts to accomplish at least five different actions, all of which began to take effect immediately on Friday:

  • First, the order institutes a ban for 90 days on immigrants from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya.
  • Secondly, the ban initially seemed to include even US permanent residents with valid green cards with citizenship from those seven countries (though the Department of Homeland Security was walking that back on Sunday, after reports that presidential adviser and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon initially overruled DHS objections Friday). But it also includes citizens of third countries with dual citizenship (which presents its own problems and which the White House does not seem to be walking back).
  • Third, it institutes a 120-day freeze on all refugees into the United States from anywhere across the globe and an indefinite ban for all refugees from Syria.
  • Fourth, it places a cap of 50,000 on all refugees for 2017 — that’s far less than nearly 85,000 refugees who were admitted to the United States in 2016, though it’s not markedly less than the nearly 55,000 refugees admitted in 2011 (the lowest point of the Obama administration) and it’s more than the roughly 25,000 to 30,000 refugees admitted in 2002 and 2003 during the Bush administration.
  • Fifth, and finally, when the United States once again permits refugees, it purports to prioritize admitting those refugees ‘when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.’ It’s widely assumed that this is a back-door approach to prioritizing Christian refugees. More on that below.

In practice, it’s already incredibly difficult to get a visa of any variety if you are coming from one of those countries, with a few exceptions. But formalizing the list is both overbroad (it captures mostly innocent travelers and refugees) and underbroad (it doesn’t include potential terrorists from other countries), and experts believe it will hurt US citizens, US businesses and bona fide refugees who otherwise might have expected asylum in the United States. On Sunday, many Republican leaders, including Arizona senator John McCain admitted as such:

Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism. At this very moment, American troops are fighting side-by-side with our Iraqi partners to defeat ISIL. But this executive order bans Iraqi pilots from coming to military bases in Arizona to fight our common enemies. Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred. This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.

On the campaign trail, Trump initially called for a ban on all Muslims from entering the country; when experts responded that such a broad-based religious test would be unconstitutional, Trump said he would instead extend the ban on the basis of nationality.

Friday’s executive action looks like the first step of institutionalizing the de facto Muslim ban that Trump originally promised (thought it would on its face be blatantly unconstitutional).

Of course, as many commentators have noted, the list doesn’t contain the countries that match the nationalities of the September 2001 hijackers — mostly Saudi Arabia. But it doesn’t contain Lebanon, though Hezbollah fighters have aligned with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war. It doesn’t include Egypt, which is the most populous Muslim country in north Africa and home to one of the Sept. 2001 terrorists. Nor does it include Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Nor Pakistan nor Afghanistan, where US troops fought to eradicate forms of hardline Taliban government and where US troops ultimately tracked and killed Osama bin Laden.

This isn’t a call to add more countries to the list, of course, which would be even more self-defeating as US policy. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Bannon and Trump, anticipating this criticism, will use it to justify a second round of countries.

In the meanwhile, the diplomatic fallout is only just beginning (and certainly will intensify — Monday is the first full business day after we’ve read the actual text of Friday’s executive order). Already, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, citing the obligations of international law under the Geneva Conventions, disavowed the ban. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau used it as an opportunity to showcase his country’s openness to immigration and welcomed the refugees to Canada. Even Theresa May, the British prime minister who shared a stage with Trump in Washington on Friday afternoon, distanced herself from the ban, and British foreign minister Boris Johnson called it ‘divisive.’

But the most direct impact will be felt in relations with the seven countries directly affected by the ban, and there are already indications that the United States will suffer a strategic, diplomatic and possible economic price for Trump’s hasty unilateral executive order.  Continue reading A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Is Hillary Clinton really a hawk?

Then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visits American troops in Tripoli in 2011. (US Embassy in Libya)
Then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visits American troops in Tripoli in 2011. (US Embassy in Libya)

In Vox on Tuesday, Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky argued that, as president, Hillary Clinton would be too focused on her domestic political agenda to be too bothered with foreign policy, whether she’s really a hawk or a dove or [name your bird of prey].USflag

I worry that lets Clinton off the hook for some poor policy decisions over the course of her career, both as a senator from New York and as the nation’s leading diplomat as US secretary of state. After all, it was vice president Joe Biden who proclaimed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s famous piece for The Atlantic earlier this year on the ‘Obama doctrine’ that Hillary ‘Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.’

That same profile gave us the following nugget into Clinton’s mind on international affairs:

Many people, I noted, want the president to be more forceful in confronting China, especially in the South China Sea. Hillary Clinton, for one, has been heard to say in private settings, “I don’t want my grandchildren to live in a world dominated by the Chinese.”

Suffice it to say that, as the 45th president of the United States, Clinton wouldn’t quite welcome the end of unipolarity just yet.

But I also worry for another reason, summed up in four words by former British prime minister Harold MacMillan: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ George W. Bush, until September 2001, wasn’t supposed to be a foreign policy president, either. You don’t choose your issues in the Oval Office; the issues choose you. (One reason, among many, why Donald Trump remains such a terrifying presidential nominee).

To steal a concept from Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution, who might be the only person left in the United States who’s managed to turn the 2016 general election into an exercise in intellectual growth, I’d like to engage in my own version. I’ll call it  ‘foreign policy hindsight 20/20 for me, but not for thee.’ Continue reading Is Hillary Clinton really a hawk?

Four foreign policy arguments Sanders could still deploy against Clinton

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, fresh off a win in Michigan's Democratic presidential primary, debated last night in Miami. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, fresh off a win in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary, debated last night in Miami. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

If there’s one thing we know about Bernie Sanders, he sure doesn’t like Henry Kissinger.USflag

And if there’s one fact that he likes to deploy in his foreign policy case against Hillary Clinton, it’s her vote authorizing the Iraq War 14 years ago, when Clinton was just in her second year as a senator from New York.

But aside from the Kissinger snark and some minor back-and-forth over US policy in Cuba, foreign policy played only a little role in Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, and it’s played an equally minor role throughout the entire contest. On one hand, that’s because the Sanders insurgency has zeroed in on income inequality, the growing wealth gap and the role of wealthy donors in campaign finance. But it’s also because Clinton, whether or not you trust her judgment, is the most qualified non-incumbent candidate in decades when it comes to international affairs. In addition to her service in the US senate, she also served for four years as secretary of state and eight years as first lady. It’s truly formidable.

Yet, given Clinton-Sanders dynamic, there’s still a lot of space for Sanders to make a strong foreign policy case against Clinton, and time after time, Sanders just hasn’t made that case. Maybe that’s politically wise; shifting his emphasis from Wall Street and income inequality would dilute his message with an attack based on issues that seem far less salient to Democratic primary voters.

But it’s true that Clinton’s foreign-policy instincts have always been more hawkish than those in her own party and, often, those of president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden (who, according to Jeffrey Goldberg’s amazing piece in The Atlantic about Obama’s world view, said Clinton ‘just wants to be Golda Meir’).

To some degree, the problem with challenging Clinton on foreign policy is that Sanders would largely be challenging the Obama administration, and that’s tricky when you’re trying to win the votes of an electorate that still adores Obama. But Sanders certainly hasn’t shied away from stating clear differences with the Obama administration’s approach to domestic policy.

Moreover, to the extent that Sanders made a clear and cogent case on international affairs, he could claim that his more dovish approach represents true continuity with the Obama administration (and that Clinton’s more hawkish approach shares more in common with a  potential Republican administration). There’s no doubt that Sanders is a talented politician; in one fell swoop, he could use foreign policy to drive a wedge between Clinton and the Obama legacy. That’s a very powerful tool, and it’s one that Sanders, so far, hasn’t been interested in wielding.

Fairly or unfairly, Sanders is tagged as a one-issue protest candidate, and he suffers from the perception that his candidacy’s purpose is to nudge Clinton further to the left, not to win the Oval Office. By adding a foreign policy element to his critique of the Democratic frontrunner, Sanders could bend a more skeptical media into taking him more seriously and show voters that he really can fill out what Americans expect from a president. In the 21st century, like it or not, the president is the chief policymaking official when it comes to foreign policy.

Given the stakes involved, it’s not too late for Sanders to make this case as the Democratic contest turns to larger states like Ohio, Illinois and Florida next week and, after that, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and California. If he wanted to do so, there’s a long list of areas from which Sanders could choose.

Here are four of the most salient. Continue reading Four foreign policy arguments Sanders could still deploy against Clinton

Saïd Bouteflika winning internal battle to succeed ailing brother in Algeria

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Saïd Bouteflika, the brother of Algeria’s ailing president, might emerge as the most powerful successor to lead the country if his brother resigns or dies.

When he was reelected to a dodgy fourth term in April 2014, Algerian voters knew that Abdelaziz Bouteflika, now aged 79, was ailing.Algeria_Flag_Icon

Though he easily dispatched a former prime minister, Ali Benflis, who officially won just over 12% of the vote, most of the opposition simply boycotted the last vote. During the 2011 Arab spring protests and beyond, Algerians have generally been more willing to tolerate Bouteflika’s hold on power because of the stability that his regime brought after a decade of civil war.

Aides claim the president’s faculties are intact, despite a stroke three years ago that left him unable to speak. Nevertheless, it’s clear — and has been clear for some time — that there’s an internal struggle between Bouteflika’s camp and the Algerian military about his ultimate successor.

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RELATED: Bouteflika headed for controversial fourth term

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Last year, Bouteflika sidelined Algeria’s top internal security official, Mohamed Mediene, a move widely seen as a setback to the military’s involvement in Algerian domestic politics and, accordingly, any succession after Bouteflika’s resignation or death. It was a shock at the time, considering that Mediene, also known as ‘Toufik’ and commonly referred to as the Dieu de l’Algérie, or the ‘God of Algeria,’ had been a fixture within the country’s power elite for more than two decades as the head of the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), the Algerian intelligence agency since 1990.

'General Touflik' had been at the heart of Algeria's military and intelligence services for a quarter-century until his abrupt removal last year. (Al Jazeera)
‘General Touflik’ had been at the heart of Algeria’s military and intelligence services for a quarter-century until his abrupt removal last year. (Al Jazeera)

Bouteflika’s next step came earlier this week, with his administration apparently set to reorganize the DRS altogether. If successful, Bouteflika will have dismantled one of the institutional pillars of the military’s power, thereby transferring the country’s intelligence apparatus, which plays a role in domestic as well as international affairs, from the military to the presidential camp.

With so much at stake, the Algerian military may not simply accept such a sweeping adjustment of power, and its leaders may be biding their time to strike in a post-Bouteflika struggle. But it means that Bouteflika’s camp is very serious about controlling the post-Bouteflika transition in as orderly way as possible — and in a way that leaves the presidential regime, and not military or DRS leaders, in charge.

His brother’s keeper

The most likely successor? For now, it might be Saïd Bouteflika, who will argue that he represents the most seamless transition, thereby guaranteeing Algeria’s continued stability.

So what do we know about Saïd? Continue reading Saïd Bouteflika winning internal battle to succeed ailing brother in Algeria

Why global oil prices seem likely to remain low throughout 2016

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Iran is looking forward to ‘implementation day,’ when its nuclear energy deal takes effect and global sanctions are relaxed, allowing it to export oil more easily. (Reuters)

In 2015, we saw how falling oil prices affected world politics from Alberta to Nigeria. Net exporters like Venezuela, Russia and the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries are feeling the drop in revenues, and that could accelerate political agitation as oil prices force budget cuts. USflagIran Flag Icon

As Brad Plumer wrote yesterday for Vox, explaining the fall in oil prices is simple. Supply has outstripped demand, and while global demand is still growing, it’s growing at about half the rate that it was even in mid-2015.

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RELATED: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

RELATED: Could Norway benefit from the oil price decline?

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The difference between $30 oil (about the current price level), $20 oil or $50 oil could make or break incumbents seeking reelection — lower oil prices mean fewer goodies at election time.

In 2016, that means oil prices could affect Scotland’s May regional elections by dampening the economic case for Scottish independence and, therefore, the electoral support for the Scottish National Party. It means that Russia’s September legislative elections could engender the same kind of political protests (or worse) that met the last elections in 2011. Lower oil prices are already endangering Ghanian president John Dramani Mahama’s hopes for reelection in December, given how much Mahama has staked on Ghana’s oil potential. It could even push Venezuela’s opposition, newly empowered as the majority in the National Assembly, to seek chavista president Nicolás Maduro’s recall even more quickly.

More generally, it could make life difficult for Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari. Not only will lower oil revenues hurt his capacity to deploy resources across Africa’s most populous country, but Buhari must find a way to deliver to Nigeria’s impoverished Muslim north, where Boko Haram continues to pose a security challenge, and Nigeria’s southeastern Igbo population, including Rivers state and Delta state, where much of Nigeria’s oil reserves are located. The southeastern challenge is particularly precarious, in light of the fact that Buhari defeated Goodluck Jonathan, the first president to come from Nigeria’s oil-rich southeast. A wrong step by Buhari could catalyze long-simmering demands for greater political autonomy or even secession.

On the demand side, the European Union (as a whole) imports more oil than any other country in the world — by a longshot. Lower prices could bring about the kind of truly robust economic growth that has eluded the eurozone for decades. That, in turn, could ameliorate the pressures of democratic backslide among the central European Visegrad Group, and it could goose economic activity in Mediterranean countries like Portugal, Spain and Greece, where no single political party has enough support for a majority government. That, in turn, could reduce support for radical leftist parties and bolster more moderate coalitions. It could, marginally, benefit incumbent governments in Ireland, Romania and elsewhere in 2016 and France in 2017. (The same effect, by the way, relieves a lot of pressure on faltering ‘Abenomics’ policy in Japan, too).

In his final state of the union address last night, even US president Barack Obama bragged about lower oil prices. If prices stay consistently low throughout 2016, it could marginally help Obama’s Democratic Party win the November general election.

Autocratic countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Angola, Algeria and Kazakhstan, could face popular protests.

So where are oil prices going? No one knows, but here’s what you have to believe if you think oil prices are going to rise substantially anytime in 2016: Continue reading Why global oil prices seem likely to remain low throughout 2016

One chart that explains Obama era Middle East policy

BoA ChartChart credit to Bank of America.

Within a half-century, the most important fact of the Obama administration might well be that it presided over an energy boom that de-linked, for the first time in many decades, US dependence on Middle Eastern oil and foreign policy.USflagIran Flag Icon

No other fact more explains the deal, inked with the Islamic Republic of Iran, that brings Iran ever closer into the international community — and no other fact brings together so neatly the often contradictory aspects of US president Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East today.

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RELATED: Winners and losers in the Iran nuclear deal

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With the exception of a small peak in the mid-1980s, when prices tanked after the oil shocks of the 1970s, US imports of foreign oil are lower than ever — and that’s a critical component to understanding Tuesday’s deal between the P5+1 and Iran. Thanks, in part, to the shale oil and fracking revolutions, US oil reserves are at their highest levels than at any point since 1975. Bank of America’s chart (pictured above) shows that US dependence on foreign oil — net imports as a percentage of consumption — dropped to 26.5% by the end of 2014.

Making sense of the Obama administration’s Mideast contradictions

One of the sharpest criticisms of the Obama administration is that it has no overweening strategy for the region. On the surface, the contradictions are legion. To take just three examples: Continue reading One chart that explains Obama era Middle East policy

Hagel’s exit symbolizes Obama policy shift

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The headline should have read yesterday:USflag

“US President elected to end military quagmires in the Middle East fires prominent anti-quagmire Defense Secretary, ramps up for ambiguous Middle Eastern quagmire.”

Whatever the reasons for US president Barack Obama’s decision to fire defense secretary Chuck Hagel, it’s clear that Hagel’s brand of foreign-policy realism is falling ever further out of favor, as the Obama administration moves toward a more interventionist approach to foreign policy in its final two years.

Though the decision, in superficial ways, is similar to the 2006 resignation of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which also followed a devastating midterm election for president George W. Bush, Hagel’s experience at the Pentagon had little in common with Rumsfeld’s tenure.

Hagel, his worldview forged as a squad leader in the US army infantry during the Vietnam War, was always a cautious prairie conservative. As a former US senator from Nebraska, Hagel stood up to his own Republican Party over the conduct of the US occupation of Iraq in the mid-2000s.

That skepticism seemed to be pitch-perfect for the Obama administration in earlier years, when it was taking pains to extricate the United States from internal conflicts in the Middle East.

Obama successful ended the US occupation of Iraq, he studiously avoided taking sides in the Syrian civil war (even when it meant swallowing criticism for backing away from his ‘red line’ statement about the use of chemical weapons), and he kept US military assistance to a minimum in the NATO-led effort to support anti-regime rebels in Libya.

Critics have argued that the Obama administration has pursued a disengaged approach to world affairs, thereby explaining both Libya’s disintegration into chaos and, in no small measure, the vacuum that allowed the Islamic State group (الدولة الإسلامية‎) to wreak havoc throughout traditional Mesopotamia — eastern Syria and western Iraq.

That criticism seems to have resonated with Obama and his foreign policy and national security team, and Obama’s apparent decision to make a personnel change seems more important than the fact that Hagel is out and someone new is in. Telescoping that decision comes with the real costs involved with pushing a high-profile nomination through what will be a Republican-controlled Senate in January 2015. Hagel stumbled from the beginning, starting with the Congressional hearings upon his appointment and who seemed to lack the presence for the role. But neither he nor his successor is likely to call the shots on foreign policy.

Continue reading Hagel’s exit symbolizes Obama policy shift

Tunisian election results: the (secular) empire strikes back

nidaa

Behind all the happy headlines ushering in the ‘secular victory’ in Tunisia’s Sunday parliamentary elections, there’s a darker possibility lurking.tunisia flag

Tunisia’s newly constituted secular party, Nidaa Tounes (حركة نداء تونس‎, Call of Tunisia),  narrowly defeated Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda (حركة النهضة‎) in the first regular parliamentary elections since the Arab Spring revolution that ousted former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Official results announced hours ago confirmed the victory, which gives Nidaa Tounes a plurality, but  not an outright majority, in Tunisia’s 217-member, unicameral parliament.

Under the new election law, 199 members of the assembly are elected across 33 single-member and multi-member constituencies, with 18 representatives elected from six overseas constituencies.

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The risks of Ennahda are well-known to US and European policymakers, who have long doubted that Islamist movements can also be inclusive and democratic. Though Tunisia’s Islam is mild by the standards of the Arabian peninsula, the Levant and even neighboring Libya, secular Tunisians feared that Ennahda would overreach in the same way as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in his one year as Egypt’s president, endangering the relatively liberal social climate that Tunisians enjoyed, even under the Ben Ali regime.

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RELATED: How Tunisia became the success story of the Arab Spring

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Those fears, despite a rise in violence from fundamentalist Islamists earlier this summer, were always overwrought. Ennahda, which won the first parliamentary elections to Tunisia’s post-Ben Ali constituent assembly in October 2011, has a much more mixed record in government. Tunisians are still unsatisfied about the state of the economy and, especially, unemployment three years after economic factors played a huge role in the protests that led to Ben Ali’s overthrow and kicked off the ‘Arab spring’ revolutions across the Muslim world.

But Ennahda, despite a political crisis that forced its government to resign in January 2014, nevertheless bridged Tunisia from the authoritarian Ben Ali era to the promulgation of a new constitution. In respect of Tunisia’s new democratic system, Ennahda leadership conceded victory, based on preliminary results released Monday.

Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who founded Ennahda in 1981, was a longtime champion of greater democracy in Tunisia, and he has always been painfully mindful of the political divisions that plunged neighboring Algeria into a civil war in the 1990s and the miscalculations of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the increasingly chaotic anarchy in neighboring Libya.

But in Nidaa Tounes, Tunisians have elected into government a patchwork alliance of liberals, labor unions and technocrats and officials with experience that goes back not just to the Ben Ali era, but to Tunisia’s first post-independence president, the long-serving Habib Bourguiba.

That brings another risk — that the rem ants of the Ben Ali and Bourguiba regimes could develop such a stranglehold on Tunisia’s governmental institutions that the country returns to the kind of de facto soft-authoritarian, if secular, state that preceded the spectacular January 2011 revolution that resulted in Ben Ali’s forced resignation.

Tunisian affairs tend toward moderation, among both the Islamist and secular camps. Even during the Bourguiba regime, Tunisia pushed forward with some of the most progressive rights within North Africa and the Middle East, especially as regards women’s rights. So while the prevailing sentiment after Tunisia’s elections should be relief that the vote took place with virtually no disruption, and that Ennahda quickly admitted defeat and indicated its intent to hand over power to Nidaa Tounes, there’s room for concern about the fragility of Tunisia’s nascent democracy.

essebsi

No one personifies the ties to the old regime more than Beji Caid Essebsi, the Nidaa Tounes leader, who is also the frontrunner in the Tunisian presidential election set for November 23. Essebsi (pictured above), now age 87, was an advisor to Bourguiba from the first moments of Tunisia’s independence, and he served as the head of Bourguiba’s national police, interior minister and foreign minister, and he served in Tunisia’s parliament during the Ben Ali era. Continue reading Tunisian election results: the (secular) empire strikes back

Ready or not, Libyan voters will elect a new parliament

Hiftar

Amid growing political turmoil, during which the interim General National Congress (GNC) has lost even the pretense of control, Libyans will vote for a new ‘permanent’ parliament in elections tomorrow as the country slides into ever greater insecurity.Libya_Flag_Icon

Since the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in August 2011, repeated attempts to introduce a measure of effective governance have failed, first by the National Transitional Council, and now by the GNC.  

On the eve of Libya’s elections, international observers say the voting was organized much too hastily and without adequate preparation. The risk is that, following the July 2012 elections for the GNC and the February 2014 constituent assembly elections to appoint a body to write Libya’s new constitution, a third set of botched elections could further undermine democracy. That’s especially true if voters in the eastern Libya of Cyrenaica don’t particularly bother to turn out. Just 1.5 million voters have registered to participate in the elections, down from the 2.865 million voters that registered for the 2012 vote. If those numbers hold up, turnout tomorrow will be much lower than the 1.76 million that participated in July 2012.

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RELATED: Libya hits new security low as interim prime minister resigns

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Rather than wait for a new constitution to come into effect, the GNC hastily renamed itself the ‘House of Representatives,’ and late last month announced elections for June 25 to elect 200 members to the newly formed parliament. The GNC acted under considerable pressure from militia forces loyal to former Libyan general Khalifa Hifter (pictured above), who is waging an increasingly effective campaign, chiefly in Benghazi, to eliminate Islamists and Islamist-sympathetic militias throughout the country.

Since the collapse of former prime minister Ali Zeidan’s government in March, Libyan governance has essentially crumbled. Zeidan, a liberal human rights attorney who lived in Geneva before returning to Libya after the 2011 civil war, was first elected prime minister in November 2012 after a contentious vote within a body that, from the outset, was severely divided between liberals and Islamists. Though elected with the support of liberals, Zeidan only narrowly defeated Mohammed Al-Harari, the candidate of the Islamist Justice and Construction Party (حزب العدالة والبناء), the political wing of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood. 

Over the course of his premiership, Zeidan presiding over an increasingly fractious interim government that gradually lost control of much of the country outside Tripoli. In fairness to Zeidan, it’s not clear if any government could have effectively asserted control over Libya over the past two years. As security increasingly faltered, Zeidan himself was kidnapped from a Tripoli hotel in October 2013 and held for hours in an aborted coup attempt.

The final straw for Zeidan came earlier this year when, after growing tensions with conservative militias in Benghazi, eastern rebels commandeered an oil tanker, the Morning Glory, and sailed it halfway across the Mediterranean Sea before US Navy SEALS apprehended it. Though Zeidan initially fled Libya, he returned earlier this week, claiming that he is still legally Libya’s prime minister.

His successor, former defense minister Abdullah al-Thinni, tried to step down nearly a week later as interim prime minister after an attempt on his life. The GNC’s replacement candidate, Ahmed Maiteeq, a Misrata native and businessman, was disputed, and Libya essentially had two competing potential prime ministers until the Libyan supreme court ruled on June 9 that Maiteeq’s election was invalid, thereby restoring the reluctant al-Thinni as interim prime minister.

Hifter’s rise has coincided with the political and security tumult. With significant support in western Libya, militia forces loyal to Hifter effective shut down the GNC earlier this spring, accelerating the decision to hold what amounts to snap elections for the new parliament. Today, Hifter’s leading the most notable anti-militia effort in Benghazi, after declaring himself the leader of ‘Operation Dignity’ in mid-May. Though Hifter’s offensive isn’t sanctioned by the GNC (nor by al-Thnni nor Zeidan nor Maiteeq), his efforts haven’t necessarily been unwelcome by some members of the Libyan government, notably within the interior ministry, which has struggled to implement law and order on a nationwide basis.

Critics worry, however, that Hifter has aims to become a new Gaddafi-like dictator. Hifter has expressed high regard for Egypt’s newly elected president, former army chief Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, especially regarding el-Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt. Critics worry that Hifter is launching a military offensive to win the same kind of quasi-authoritarian power that El-Sisi now enjoys in Egypt.

Intriguingly, Hifter is actually a US citizen. Once a Gaddafi partisan,  Hifter led a disastrous military campaign in the 1980s in Chad. After his defeat and his subsequent capture by Chadian forces, Hifter joined forces with the anti-Gaddafi opposition and fled to exile, living in northern Virginia between 1990 and 2011, when he returned to Libya to help lead the anti-Gaddafi rebel forces. He was initially mistrusted by other leading rebel generals, however, and he’s the subject of significant speculation that he once worked with US military or other clandestine government officials.

That means, as national voting takes place, Hifter’s forces are engaged in a dangerous showdown in Libya’s second-largest city against Ansar al-Sharia (كتيبة أنصار الشريعة), an Islamist militia that wants to adopt harsh shari’a law across Cyrenaica, the oil-rich region that’s home to Benghazi, if not the entire country.

But it’s not the only place where violence is marring the election campaign. In Sabha, the historical capital of the southern Fezzan region,  largely desert and sparsely populated, a parliamentary candidate was killed by gunmen on Tuesday.

Libya Regions

Ibrahim al-Jathran, another militia leader, who also fought to topple Gaddafi in the 2011 civil war, last summer took control of four eastern ports, thereby shutting down much of the Zeidan government’s ability to export oil. In a deal with Libya’s interim government soon after Zeidan’s ouster, Jathran permitted two of the ports to reopen, but oil production is still just around 12.5% of Gaddafi-era levels, gas stations in Tripoli are closed, and Libya remains subject to recurring power outages.

Despite some temporary progress, Jathran still advocates a much more autonomous Cyrenaica, if not outright independence. Though Cyrenaica is home to 1.6 million people (the bulk of Libya’s 5.7 million people live in Tripolitania, along Libya’s northwestern coast), much of Libya’s oil wealth is located in the eastern region.

As if that weren’t enough, US special forces last week arrested Ahmed Abu Khattala, a Benghazi-based militia leader believed to be responsible for the September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. Though Khattala’s arrest was widely hailed in the United States, Libyans have largely decried what they call the US’s violation of Libya’s national sovereignty. 

All of these issues — the standoff between Hifter and Ansar al-Sharia, Khattala’s arrest, the blockage of the country’s dwindling oil exports — threaten to dwarf this week’s election. The February elections to appoint the constitutional constituency assembly attracted just 500,000 voters. If the June 25 parliamentary elections feature similarly low turnout, it will be hard to argue that any party or group will have won much of a mandate for anything.

That’s especially true if Islamists, which have typically been the most organized forces in elections held across North Africa since the Arab Spring revolts of early 2011, win the largest share of seats in tomorrow’s vote. That could empower Islamist militias in Cyrenaica and beyond, setting the scene for a long war of attrition between Hifter’s supporters and Islamist militias.

Even before Zaidan took power, Libya has struggled in the post-Gaddafi era to form a coherent government, in no small part due to the failure of the Gaddafi regime to establish truly national institutions in Libya, where he came to power in a 1969 military coup, just 18 years after the country won full independence from British and French oversight.  Under both Ottoman rule, beginning in 1510, and Italian rule, between 1912 and 1947, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were governed as discrete provinces, with modern ‘Libya’ taking shape chiefly as a political construct in 1951. Up until independence, when the British relinquished full sovereignty over Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, the French were administering Fezzan separately.

Mahmoud Jibril, a secular liberal, served as Libya’s first interim leader, between March 2011 and October 2011 when he chaired the executive board of the National Transitional Council. He stepped down just three days after Gaddafi was captured and killed by a mob in Gaddafi’s own hometown of Sirte. Jibril leads the National Forces Alliance (تحالف القوى الوطنية‎), a very mildly Islamist, liberal group that won the largest group of seats in the GNC in the July 2012 elections. At the time, however, Jibril’s influence was at its peak, and no one expects his group to repeat the successes of the 2012 election.

Abdurrahim El-Keib was elected by the National Transitional Council in November 2011, and he guided Libya through the September 2012 election of the interim GNC.

Photo credit to Reuters / Esam Omran Al-Fetori.

Who is Federica Mogherini?

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When Matteo Renzi, the 39-year-old former Florence mayor, pushed Enrico Letta out of power in February, I questioned the timing of his decision and noted that it was an arguably anti-democratic electoral coup against a prime minister of his own party that could easily backfire on Renzi.Italy Flag Icon

But among the most eyebrow-raising choices was Renzi’s decision not to reappoint the internationally acclaimed Emma Bonino as foreign minister, allegedly against the wishes of Italian president Giorgio Napolitano.

A longtime leader of the Radicali Italiani (Italian Radicals), a group of reform-minded, good-government economic and social liberals, Bonino had a long career in Italian and international politics as an inaugural (and subsequent) member of the European Parliament,  international trade minister under center-left prime minister Romano Prodi, and European commissioner for health and consumer protection in the late 1990s. A longtime  international activist for human rights, Bonino surfaced briefly as a potential Italian presidential contender in May 2013, though the electors  ultimately decided to reappoint Napolitano.

Instead, Renzi appointed Federica Mogherini, a previously little-known international affairs expert and legislator in Renzi’s Partido Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).

Of course, youth need not prevent an official from becoming foreign minister (it hasn’t stopped Austria’s 27-year old foreign minister Sebastian Kurz). Nonetheless, it was a risk to replace such a renowned official like Bonino with an untested foreign minister like Mogherini (pictured above). Even before Bonino, the foreign ministry is a role that’s been held by some of Italy’s most senior politicians — Gianfranco Fini and Franco Frattini on the right, and Massimo D’Alema and Lamberto Dini on the left.

Mogherini, in her first trip abroad, was received by US secretary of state John Kerry yesterday, and she appeared briefly at the Brookings Institution today to share thoughts about European relations with Russia, Ukraine, North Africa and the Middle East.

Mogherini is impressive, even to those of us who regret that Bonino’s time as foreign minister was truncated to just 10 months. At her discussion at Brookings, she was more forthright and authoritative than one might expect from such an untested foreign minister.   Continue reading Who is Federica Mogherini?