Friday, 16 August 2013

U.S.: NSA & New Report

With each new publication of documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the scope of the United States' spying system becomes ever clearer. And each piece of the puzzle reveals yet more lies and half-truths that those who are supposed to be providing oversight for the NSA have used to defend the practices.

New revelations published on Friday in the Washington Post make clear that the legal controls intended as checks and balances for this surveillance system are, at best, ineffective. And the power that NSA analysts have to monitor Internet and telephone data according to whim is enormous. At the same time, intelligence workers take significant efforts not to overburden supervisory authorities with too much information.

"I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal e-mail," Snowden told the Guardian in an interview published in June. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said of Snowden's assertion, "He's lying. It's impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do."

But the new documents show that Snowden wasn't lying, and it was Rogers who had it wrong. Whether Rogers did so knowingly or because the Congressman had been deceived by the intelligence service must still be clarified.

Some 2,776 "incidents" are listed in the classified quarterly report from 2012 that the Washington Post has published in its entirety, with the exception of a few areas that have been blacked out. The report encompasses incidents from the previous 12 months. The report only covers incidents involving NSA facilities in the Washington DC area; the actual global figure could be considerably higher. The "incidents" referred to data for which the NSA does not have authorization to collect, store or analyze.

The only information collection that is not permitted is that of American citizens, but the report shows that their data often lands in the NSA's digital dragnet as by-catch. Each "incident" means that e-mails have been read, contact networks have been mapped and communications have been intercepted. In some cases such data has even been passed on to other US government agencies, like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

"The majority of incidents in all authorities were database query incidents due to human error," the report, written by the director of oversight and compliance for the NSA's Signals Intelligence Directorate, states. The systems most often involved in those incidents are powerful spying tools like XKeyscore and the NSA's Pinwale database, which can save large quantities of Internet communications data for years.

Among the most common causes given for the unauthorized surveillance is "lack of due diligence," as well as issues like typographical errors, using the wrong search parameters or overly broad syntax in searches. In some cases, data collection continues even though the related order to intercept it has long since expired.

A breakdown of the causes of the errors shows that NSA analysts do in fact decide to use the powerful tools at their disposal to conduct surveillance on the people or entitites they want, just as Snowden described. And if they punch in the wrong name or an incorrect email address, then they will also be snooping on the wrong person. The automated systems used to conduct this spying do not appear to have built-in safeguards or controls to prevent unauthorized spying.

A further document published by the Washington Post shows that reporting is required for certain "incidents" and that in those cases, collection must be stopped "immediately." One example given is that of an analyst deliberately targeting a foreign entity who regularly corresponds with a certain person inside the United States with the sole purpose of gathering information about the American citizen. But in other cases, the breaches are not even required to be reported internally. When, for example, a legitimate foreign entity is monitored and communications "to/from/about a US person" are also captured, it is considered "incidental" and does not require reporting.

A further document states that, "While we do want to provide our FAA overseers with the information they need, we DO NOT want to give them any extraneous information." The FAA is a reference to the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, a US intelligence law designed to control electronic surveillance. It is followed by detailed examples of the kind of information the person doing the reporting should not provide, including, for example, "proof of your analytical judgement" that the monitoring is actually appropriate and necessary.

At times, the new report shows, the NSA doesn't even consider it necessary to inform its own regulatory overseers. The Washington Post reports on how the NSA accidentally intercepted a "large number" of calls placed from Washington in 2008 when a programming error confused the US area code 202 for 20, the international dialling code for Egypt.

The NSA deemed it did not have to report the error, according to a secret memo from March 2013 cited by the paper. The memo's author determined there were "no defects to report" because "the issue pertained to metadata only" -- in other words, telephone numbers, times calls took place and their duration.

Reggie Walton, the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the secret court charged with critical oversight of the government's vast spying programs, issued a written statement to the Washington Post in which he wrote: "The FISC does not have the capacity to investigate issues of non-compliance, and in that respect the FISC is in the same position as any other court when it comes to enforcing (government) compliance with its orders." In addition to providing oversight of the NSA, FISC must also approve many of its activities.

In June, after the first revelations from Snowden were published, President Obama said federal judges had been put in place for the job "who are not subject to political pressure. They've got lifetime tenure as federal judges, and they're empowered to look over our shoulder at the executive branch to make sure that these programs aren't being abused."

The Washington Post also quotes a senior NSA official stating: "We're a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line." The unnamed official added that if the errors are viewed as a percentage of the NSA's total activity, then the figures are relatively small.

But in absolute terms, a small percentage of the NSA's total activity is still vast. Even larger, though, is the number of NSA targets affected who are not US citizens. And they enjoy no protections at all.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit AFP-NSA headquarter

GERMANY: German election & EU's issues

Germany's federal elections are scheduled on September 22, 2013 and Chancellor Angela Merkel has finally hit the campaign trail in earnest on Wednesday, when she held her first large rally of this campaign, one of 56 such gatherings on her schedule between now and the vote.

Germany’s economy is performing well, particularly when compared with the rest of the European Union. So there is no real mood to change a winning team. And, when it comes to European issues, there does not even seem to be a real choice. All major parties in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, have given their support to Angela Merkel’s verdict that ‘there is no alternative’ to her government’s euro rescue operations.

But the election outcome is still unclear. If Germany had a simple majority-voting, first-past-the-post system like the UK and the US, the family of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister Christian Social Union (CSU) would win around 90 per cent of the electoral districts.
But as seats in parliament are strictly allocated by proportions of the votes, above a five per cent threshold, the CDU/CSU will not be able to rule without a partner.

The present centre-right coalition partner, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), seemed unlikely to end up above the five per cent but it has recently recovered. However, if the FDP remained below the threshold, the CDU/CSU could form another coalition with the Social Democrats or, in a rather daring move to both of its constituencies, even test a ‘black-green’ coalition with the strong Green party.

Finally, political observers still see a 10 per cent probability that a left-green-far left government could form - if the FDP does not make it into parliament and if the SPD, Greens and the radical post-communist ‘Linke’, a blend of communists in the former East Germany and left-wing social democrats, were able and willing to form a three-party coalition.

There is one more party of European interest, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), . This is the only party advocating a ‘regular resolution of the eurozone’ and an end of what it sees as illegal bailouts.

The AfD is unlikely to attract much public and media attention during campaigning as memories of the eurocrisis loom in peoples’ minds and more topical or straightforward issues, such as spying by America’s National Security Agency (NSA), mismanagement of the Euro Hawk drone programme, taxing the rich, financing renewable energy and education, are more likely to dominate debates.

There are four parties with real chances to be part of a future German government.

When it comes to a further mutualisation of Eurozone debt, the present centre-right coalition takes a firm stand against eurobonds and against what one might call a ‘light version’ of mutualisation of debt in the form of a ‘debt redemption fund’ - as proposed by the German governments’ own Council of Economic Advisors.

Technicalities aside, this would imply that substantial parts of eurozone sovereign debt would be refinanced collectively against commitments to redeem them in a given period of 20 to 25 years.
Here, a left-green coalition would be much more willing to grant these forms of debt mutualisation.

When it comes to the future use of bailout-money via the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), a similar centre-right (governing) vs. centre-left (opposition) divide can be detected. Loans and guarantees to struggling eurozone members have to be given on strict terms of conditionality and a quid pro quo basis for the CDU/CSU.

The FDP would like to see the ESM phased out as a rescue mechanism over a limited time-horizon. In contrast, the green and red parties would like to loosen the strings of conditionality and austerity and use the ESM as a European solidarity pool and an investment tool according to their ideological priorities.

When it comes to banking union, arguably the essential missing piece in the present governance of the eurozone crisis, the parties seem to agree on its general need, but disagree on important detail.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP- German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Thursday, 15 August 2013

U.S.-E.U.-ASIA: The Rating Agencies' flaws

If the market is god, ratings agencies are its high priests. For a while it seemed as though rating agencies had fallen from this grace. The US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission called them “key enablers” of the financial crisis and “cogs in the wheel of financial destruction.” If it weren’t for lack of funding, European leaders would have replaced them with an institutional equivalent.

Most criticism concerns how the agencies did their business: the fact that they were part of a collusive oligopoly and corrupt insofar as they were funded by the very companies they were meant to be rating. New EU legislation aiming to make ratings less frequent, more transparent, and agencies culpable for their judgments concerns itself with, and only with, these flaws.

But these changes will not allow agencies to foresee the next crisis, nor to rate more intelligently in the future if the economic system to which they subscribe is not better at doing so. The rating agencies’ key flaw is an intellectual one: they share – and must inevitably share – the same set of economic dogma as those they regulate. It is the kind of corruption that occurs when everybody thinks the same way.

In order to understand how rating agencies could get it so wrong, we need to look beyond the failures of single institutions and at the political economy at large. The 90s and 2000s are the story of a Republic where Philosopher-Kings like Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that “history had ended” and their main man, Alan Greenspan, saw the ever more unfathomable complexities of financial products “as signs of a flexible, efficient, and resilient financial system.”

Before 2008, it was common sense that the mathematical models used by the financial sector to create, rate, and secure financial products were perfect, that the system was basically incapable of failing and that real bubbles were a thing of the past. This allowed the total amount of capital that was in unregulated Credit Default Swaps (to just mention one financial product) to exceed that of the Global GDP.

In hindsight we know better and feel that ratings agencies should have been held to a higher standard. There is outrage that Moody’s, for example, put its triple-A stamp of approval on 30 mortgage-backed securities (MBSes) every working day when in reality they were basically worthless. But from where was this “higher standard” or different approach to come? Other forms of “less perfect” economics such as industrial Keynesian economics had even been banished from most economics faculties. There was no infrastructure of ideas to fall back on when “perfect” economics failed. The second problem of this outrage is a definitional one: its notion of “reality” is unclear. MBSes are securities, not pencils.

Financial capitalism is inherently removed from the creation of real wealth. The value of its products is the value that the market dictates. The high prices of the early 2000s therefore reflect the real as well as the perceived value of these securities. When the bubble burst in 2008, the real value of these securities fell drastically and Moody’s downgraded 83% of triple-A rated mortgage related securities that year.

AAA is of course a laughable figure for anything but US government bonds, but this gross exaggeration is a matter of grade inflation (which also happens in conservative schools). Anyone that believes there is a solution as simple as a choice between a “loose” and a “conservative” way of doing the rating agency business should note that grade inflation has reappeared.

In a financial word of massive uncertainty, complexity and the constant threat of destructive shocks, ratings agencies have the assigned function of what Jacques Lacan would call “The Other that Knows.” Unfortunately recent history has proven us wrong; they do not.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit-Reuters

EGYPT: Unrest in Egypt affects Hamas

The smuggling tunnels in Sinai are essential for the economy of the Gaza Strip. But since the unrest broke out in Egypt, they have been closed off -- plunging the ruling Hamas party into financial crisis.

It has only been a month and some few weeks since the Egyptian military ousted its president, Mohammed Morsi -- moving him to an undisclosed location where he remains. On Tuesday, the same day a new round of Middle East peace talks kicked off in Washington, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton payed an unprecedented visit to the deposed president and reported back that he is doing "well."

But since Morsi's removal, Egypt has threatened to descend into chaos, pulling the Gaza Strip with it into the abyss. That's because Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, is dependent on Egypt. It smuggles food, building materials -- and also weapons -- through underground tunnels into the Palestinian Territories.  Since the outbreak of unrest in neighboring Egypt, smuggling activity has come to almost a complete standstill.

Terrorist attacks by Islamist groups, which had long been a regular occurrence in northern Sinai on the border with the Gaza Strip, began increasing in frequency after Morsi's ousting. Islamist leaders threatened to seek vengeance for the military coup. After several attacks on army and police posts, Egypt sealed off the border indefinitely.

The government in Cairo has long feared that extremists could cross the border into the country. Since 2007, when the radical Islamic Hamas came to power in Gaza, the regular border crossing has been mostly closed. In 2011, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi is a member, opened the passage at times for the transport of goods and people, but not to the extent that Hamas had hoped. That's why Hamas is intensely dependent on the approximately 800 tunnels through which goods are smuggled into the country. Normally, the Egyptian army tolerates the smuggling -- but not in times of crisis like these.

The extent to which Hamas relies on the smuggling tunnels is evident in an internal report made public by the Al-Monitor news site. It shows that Gaza gets most of its goods through the tunnels, and not through the official border crossing from Israel or Egypt. In the first quarter of 2013, for example, the tunnels provided 65 percent of flour, 98 percent of sugar and 100 percent of steel and cement deliveries.

If the delivery of goods via the tunnels is discontinued, a lack of supplies will not be the only problem. It will also spell financial disaster for Hamas, since taxes on goods delivered via Israel are pocketed not by Hamas but by the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah. Only taxes on smuggled goods end up in the Islamists' coffers. And these takings account for 40 percent of the government's entire revenue and are used by Hamas to pay the salaries of over 45,000 civil servants.

In recent months, Hamas has been earning some €6 million ($8 million) in taxes with smuggled fuel alone, and also levies a tax of about €4 on every ton of cement. An average of 70,000 tons of cement are smuggled into Gaza every month.

Hamas Economy Minister Alaa al-Rafati has expressed concern about the current situation. "The Gaza Strip has lost around $225 million (€170,000) during the past month due to the halt of imports, namely, fuel and crude materials for construction, such as cement, gravel and steel," he said.

He also stressed that the move has implications for the labor market, pointing out that some 20,000 Palestinian construction workers have lost their jobs in the wake of the building material shortage. For the time being, Hamas is taking out bank loans to pay civil servants, who are having to wait for their wages. "There is a risk that unemployment will emerge again, which greatly affects the local purchase activity," Rafati concluded.

It isn't the only financial blow the organization has suffered this year. Iran has been funding Hamas for years, but put a stop to most of its support several months ago. International organizations estimate that in the past, this aid consisted of €15 million a month. Middle East experts have often suggested that the network of radical Islamists would have collapsed long ago, had it not been for Tehran's funding. Only recently, Iran also openly admitted that it also provided Hamas with military support.

But Iran has reduced its financial aid because Hamas sympathizes with the rebels in the Syrian civil war. It's a position that has angered the mullahs, who cultivate close ties with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

But now things will get even worse for Hamas in Gaza Strip. Egyptian authorities have also closed the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip "indefinitely" for security reasons after a day of deadly violence nationwide.

Hundreds of Palestinian travellers were left stranded on both sides of the crossing, the only gateway into the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory that bypasses Israel. The measure follows widespread unrest in Egypt on Wednesday after a bloody crackdown by security forces on loyalists of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit: AFP-The Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

EUROPE: Recession & Growth

After the longest recession since the common currency's inception, the euro-zone economy is showing signs of new life. The euro zone's economy has finally begun to grow again, thanks largely to strong second-quarter performances by both Germany and France.
 
The euro-zone economy has had a difficult year and a half. For six quarters in a row, economic output declined, marking the longest recession in the history of the European common currency area. But on Tuesday, the European Union statistics office Eurostat announced that growth has returned.
 
According to the agency, the combined economies of the 17 euro-zone member-states showed seasonally adjusted growth of 0.3 percent in the second quarter. It marks the first quarter-on-quarter expansion in the single currency area since the final quarter of 2011.

Much of the boost was driven by the euro zone's two largest economies, Germany and France. After limping weakly though a stagnant first quarter, Germany saw growth of 0.7 percent from April to the end of June, according to the German Federal Statistics Office on Wednesday. France, meanwhile, saw a surprising boost of 0.5 percent, according to that country's statistics office. It was the strongest quarterly boost seen in France in nearly two years.

Companies in the euro zone are more optimistic now than they have been for the last year and a half. In July, the London-based Markit purchasing managers' index rose from 48.7 to 50.5 points, taking it above the threshold marking growth. In addition to business owners, consumers in the currency union are also getting more optimistic. Consumer confidence rose in July for the eighth consecutive month.

Some encouraging signs are also coming from the Southern European crisis countries. Prior to the economic growth just announced, Portugal, as well as Spain, has been able to report a drop in unemployment for the first time in two years. Both countries significantly reduced their unit labor costs and increased their exports. Even Greece increased its exports and succeeded in reducing new government borrowing by more than half. The country's economy shrank by 4.6 percent, according to Greece's national statistics office -- but worse had been feared. No growth had been expected by Eurostat for Greece or Ireland.

But the European economy, despite the good news, remains fragile. But not as fragile as it has been. Spain's economy dropped by just 0.1 percent in the second quarter, which is a sign of improvement for the stricken country, and the Italian economy likewise only shrunk modestly, at minus 0.2 percent. Bailout recipient Portugal showed the strongest growth in the entire euro zone, at 1.1 percent.

The state of the global economy remains uncertain. According to the latest World Economic Climate survey, the mood has improved significantly in Europe and particularly in the United States. But in Asia, it deteriorated again after a strong improvement in the second quarter.

The current uncertainty could be pegged to worsening forecasts for China. The government in Beijing has signalled that it may embark on economic stimulus programs in order to defend its planned growth of 7 percent. At the same time, though, it has only just begun to tighten regulations for financial markets that are overheated in many areas.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit AFP-

EGYPT: Military crackdown on Protesters

At least 30 people are believed to have been killed in a violent crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Egypt on Wednesday. European officials are calling for an end to the violence and a return to talks.

In a dramatic escalation of tensions in Cairo, Egyptian security forces killed at least 30 people during a violent crackdown on sit-in protests conducted by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi on Wednesday morning.

Security forces showered protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, according to reports by several journalists who witnessed the altercations. They also reported the sound of gunfire, saying soldiers with machine guns fired on protesters using live ammunition. Army helicopters could also be seen flying over the Rabaa al-Adawiya square sit-in in Nasr City in eastern Cairo and over the Nahda Square sit-in near Giza in the western part of the city. Thick smoke lingered over the camps and television images showed masked security forces firing at the crowd from rooftops.

Protesters threw stones and shot fireworks at approaching troops. And Islamist clerics and Muslim Brotherhood leaders called on their supporters in the camps to resist and to die as martyrs if they had to. One Muslim Brother standing at Rabaa al-Adawiya square called out to the army, "We are Egyptians, not Israelis. We are your brothers and sisters. Don't kills us!" They also called on all Egyptians to take to the streets to protest the army's actions.

In response to calls for protests, the government announced it would suspend train services across the country in what appeared to be an attempt prevent additional Muslim Brotherhood supporters from traveling to Cairo.

By late morning, both sit-in camps had been surrounded by security forces and at least one -- at Nahda Square -- was completely cleared. Some reporters on the ground claimed that access to the camps by medics had been hindered and that some journalists had been temporarily detained. One Reuters reporter claimed on Twitter that the content of journalists' cameras had been deleted by security forces.

News broadcaster Al-Jazeera reported that the Egyptian Interior Ministry has stated that at least seven people, including three members of the security forces, have been killed and that 78 have been injured. It also confirmed that 200 arrests had been made. But reports on the dead and injured differ widely. Arab news channel Al-Jazeera is estimating 40 based on its sources. The Muslim Brotherhood is claiming that 300 people have been killed and more than 5,000 injured -- figures that could not be independently verified.

Wednesday's developments are worrying because they mark an escalation in the power struggle between Egypt's military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Backers of the Muslim Brotherhood have been protesting since the putsch against President Morsi on July 3 and had barricaded themselves inside the two squares. They are demanding that Morsi be put back in power.

In recent weeks, the army and the interim government had repeatedly warned protesters to clear the squares. The Muslim Brothers rejected such calls, and efforts to mediate by the United States and the European Union failed. Nevertheless, officials in the West are admonishing powerful Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to renounce violence.

In Brussels, officials with the European Union called for restraint by the Egyptian authorities. "The reports of deaths and injuries are extremely worrying," Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said, according to the Associated Press. "We reiterate that violence won't lead to any solution and we urge the Egyptian authorities to proceed with utmost restraint," he said.

In recent days, the Egyptian government has been split over how best to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood protests. Some have been calling for forceful action to clear the sit-ins, while others have urged more peaceful methods, like cutting off access to water, electricity or food. On Wednesday, it appeared those pushing for a hard-line approach prevailed.

By Jennifer Birich
AFP's blogger
Paris-France

MIDDLE-EAST-U.S.: Let's re-start Peace Talks...

In the Middle East, the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians have been marred by minor steps forward and major ones back. Now, the two sides are talking again for the first time in three years.

Negotiators are due to convene with little fanfare later on today in Jerusalem, the holy city at the heart of the decades-old conflict of turf and faith. The envoys held first talks in Washington last month, ending a three-year stand-off. Paving the way for the continuation of negotiations, Israel released an initial number of Palestinians serving long jail terms, many for deadly attacks on Israelis, bussing them in the dead of night to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The fact that bringing the parties back to where they were three years ago is considered a breakthrough is a sign of just how low the bar has dropped. Moreover, while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may have succeeded in getting the parties into negotiations it is far less clear that he can keep them there, much less get them out with an agreement.

The two biggest "elephants" in the room relate to the nature of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships themselves. On the one hand, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presides over what may be the most pro-settlement government in Israel's history, several of whose members openly oppose the creation of Palestinian state. The Israeli government basically ideologically would find it difficult to give the compromises necessary for a two-state solution.

The Palestinians on the other side are not convinced that they will get any solution that would be acceptable by the people. And nothing does more to undermine the Palestinian leadership's domestic credibility than continuing to engage in a negotiation process while Israel persists in colonizing Palestinian land -- which brings us to Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.

Far from the "state in waiting" many Palestinians had once hoped it would be, today's PA is financially bankrupt, has no functioning parliament, and continues to suffer from a debilitating split between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The notion that such a divided and dysfunctional leadership, which lacks either electoral or consensual legitimacy, would have a mandate to negotiate the sort of wide-ranging compromises that a peace deal with Israel would require is fanciful at best.

Any negotiation process that ignores these two corrosive issues is virtually assured of failure. And failure always comes with a cost. On that score, the playing field is anything but equal. Whereas U.S. and Israeli leaders would likely live to fight another day, the same cannot be said of the current Palestinian leadership. While expectations on all sides remain palpably low, the Palestinians by and large have come to see the peace process as little more than a fig leaf for Israeli settlement expansion and other forms of unilateralism.

Not surprisingly, Palestinian leaders have been reluctant to openly embrace the announcement of imminent negotiations. The prospect of Abbas returning to the negotiations in the face of continued settlement expansion and at a time of unprecedented national disunity is likely to further erode his credibility in the eyes of Palestinians while handing his Hamas opponents some easy ammunition to use against him.

If there is one lesson to be gleaned from the past two decades of failed negotiations it is that trying and failing can do more damage than not trying at all. Whereas the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000 led directly to several years of violence during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, another failed peace process could spell the end of the current Palestinian leadership as well as the prospect of a two state solution. This does not mean negotiations should be put off indefinitely, as many hardliners now seek, only that they be conducted under conditions that are more conducive to success.

If new negotiations are to have any chance of success, the United States must break with the failed policies of the past, including the continued neglect of Israel's ever-expanding settlement enterprise and the ongoing Palestinian division. Short of this, Kerry can only look forward to the same outcome as his predecessors.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit AFP-

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

YEMEN-U.S.: Al-Qaida & Last Week Buzz

The new warning last week of possible imminent attacks by al-Qaida fueled fears far beyond America's borders. But the movement founded by Osama bin Laden has long since shifted from mass international attacks to local battles -- with success.
 
Osama bin Laden didn't make telephone calls. During his years in Abbottabad, Pakistan, he avoided anything that might have put intelligence agencies on his track, communicating only via messengers. But reports published last week by two journalists at the US news website The Daily Beast suggests that al-Qaida's current leadership has abandoned such precautionary measures.

It appears the reason for the closing of 21 American embassies from Yemen to Pakistan was an intercepted online conference call among the terrorist organization's Top 20. According to the article, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri took this opportunity to name Nasir al-Wuhayshi, head of the organization's Yemen branch, as his official second-in-command. Also participating in the call were al-Qaida leaders from Iraq, North Africa and Uzbekistan, as well as Pakistan's Taliban, Nigerian group Boko Haram and a representative of the emerging al-Qaida group in the Sinai Peninsula.

"This was like a meeting of the Legion of Doom," one of three US intelligence officers interviewed by The Daily Beast told the site. During the virtual meeting, the article continued, the al-Qaida operatives also discussed future targets for attack and mentioned that one or several teams were already in place for such attacks.

For the world's most wanted terrorists to meet for an online briefing precisely at the same time as the NSA scandal would seem to amount to a break with all the rules to which someone like al-Zawahiri owes his survival after two decades of being sought by US intelligence agencies. But there was also some astonishment over the US government's announcement it would close so many embassies. "It's crazy pants," former State Department counterterrorism adviser Will McCants told reporters. The US government, meanwhile, declined to comment.

The article also presents a further inconsistency by assuming that al-Qaida remains a centrally run organization -- and al-Zawahiri a leader everyone obeys -- despite internal tensions and the pressures of being wanted by intelligence agencies.

In reality, the portrayal contradicts developments observed in recent years, including an August 7 United Nations analysis of al-Qaida and its associates -- the 14th report of its kind to be released. It states that "Al-Qaida's decimated core has seen no revival of its fortunes over the past six months. A degraded senior leadership based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region continues to issue statements, but demonstrates little ability to direct operations through centralized command and control."

Al-Zawahiri, the report continues, "has demonstrated little capability to unify or lead al-Qaida affiliates." In fact, it says, more of a threat is posed by individuals who commit attacks after self-radicalizing through online terrorist propaganda, such as the two Chechens who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon this spring. An additional danger, says the report, is that al-Qaida will take advantage of new conflicts such as the current war in Syria, which has given the terrorist organization "a significant boost."

European intelligence services take the same view. Syria has become the preferred destination for jihadists, who have arrived in the war-torn country by the thousands over the last 12 months. These fighters are the only ones coming to rebels' aid against the military machinery of the regime, which gives them devastating power.

And no one seems to want to stop them. On domestic flights to Hatay, in southern Turkey, bearded passengers from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Russia's Caucasus republics sit side by side. They travel into Turkey unchallenged, then meet with comrades who bring them over the nearby border into Syria. Meanwhile, similar figures are lined up at Hatay's departure gates, carrying little luggage and often with the red dirt of northern Syria still clinging to their shoes.

Turkish authorities seem unbothered by these jihad tourists. At the border crossings, smugglers openly advertise their services. It's certainly strange in a way, a former Syrian follower of "Emir" Asadullah al-Shishani said in June from the jihadist stronghold of Atmeh, near the Turkish border. "A month ago, a dozen Chechens flew back home from Hatay unchallenged, even though they'd told us they were all wanted by Interpol."

Al-Qaida's diffuse ideology of perpetual warfare gives the organization the tactical advantage of being able to be present at various conflicts simultaneously. Its individual branches feed like parasites off a variety of opponents.

In Yemen, they fight against the government's army and the United States; in Syria against Bashar Assad's Alawite dictatorship and the Kurds; in Mali against the government and the Tuareg; in Iraq primarily against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government. Bin Laden's one-time maxim of meeting the "distant enemy" in the United States and Europe has been replaced by the principle of appropriating local conflicts of many different kinds.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former Iraqi al-Qaida leader who has since been killed, recognized this sectarian war against the Shiites as a convenient opportunity to turn an already smoldering conflict to his own goals. At the time, bin Laden tried to stop him, but today the terrorist organization is once again on the rise in Iraq, benefitting from the prime minister's policy of systematically pushing Sunnis out of important posts in favor of supporters from his Shiite power base.

The "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) has become al-Qaida's most powerful branch, gradually taking over fighters and bases belonging to the Al-Nusra Front, which once served as a gathering place for jihadists in Syria. Here, though, al-Qaida's leaders have little say. "The unsuccessful attempts of … al-Zawahiri to mediate internal conflicts between al-Qaida and (the Nusra Front) point to the limits of al-Zawahiri's authority," the UN report suggests.

Al-Zawahiri's weak leadership position led Washington Post writer Max Fisher to develop an entirely new speculation as to why al-Qaida's leader would talk so openly during the purported conference call. "For Zawahiri, merely the appearance of ordering a big operation could help him with internal al-Qaeda politics," he wrote.

Washington's hectic reaction to the intercepted call -- half a dozen drone attacks in Yemen and a global travel warning for Americans -- must have pleased al-Zawahiri, seeing as it showed he had achieved the effect he intended. Assuming, that is, that the story of the conference call is true.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP-Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

MALI: '' New President''-Keita's Litmus Test

Former Malian finance minister Soumaila Cisse conceded defeat on Monday before even the results were announced. ''I went to see him to congratulate and wish him good luck for Mali,'' he said.

Electoral and security sources claimed earlier on Monday that Keita had pulled ahead with two-thirds of votes counted after Sunday's second round of the election. Keita-widely known as ''IBK'', faced Cisse in the election run-off, which is to provide a fresh start for the west African nation following more than a year of political turmoil, including a military coup and war. The government has until Friday to make public the result on the run-off, called after none of the 27 candidates in the first round, on July 28 secured an outright majority.

The election, the first since 2007, was seen as crucial for unlocking more than $14 billion in aid promised by international donors who halted contributions in the wake of last year's coup that ignited an Islamist insurgency and a French military intervention.

On Saturday, the last day of campaign, Keita had promised to restore the honor of Mali after its collapse into civil war in 2012, during which Tuareg separatists and Islamists seized the north of the country, necessitating an intervention by France this January. It has worked for him. Many Malians believe that Ibrahim Boubacar Keita-IBK- is the right man to lead Mali to post-conflict reconciliation.

Keita may soon have to turn his rhetoric into practical policymaking. His emphasis on national honor could be a durable rallying cry for reconciliation—or a source of friction both inside Mali and with external players, including United Nations peacekeepers tasked with helping extend the government’s authority. U.N. missions elsewhere in Africa, including those in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, have struggled to maintain good ties with the governments they came to support, becoming entangled in fights over human rights, corruption and sovereignty.

For now, there are reasons for cautious optimism about Mali. The fact that the run-off passed without notable violence is a huge relief to the U.N. mission. Known by its French acronym MINUSMA, the force began operating in July but is still well short of its planned strength of more than 12,000 troops and police officers.The lack of violence during the elections suggests that the Islamists have yet to recover from their defeat by the French. MINUSMA personnel have reportedly built good relationships with communities in formerly rebel-held areas.

As president, Keita might be the partner the U.N. needs. He is close to both France, which still has a significant military presence in Mali, and the Malian army, which mounted a coup in March 2012 and retains the potential to cause instability. He has also secured support from Muslim leaders. He was a player in Malian politics in the 1990s and 2000s, when the country was a widely praised democracy. Although his primary support comes from the south, the largest Tuareg separatist group in the north—the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA—has indicated that ''IBK''  is a man that it could do business with.

But questions remain about how Keita’s invocations of Mali’s honor may influence his decisions. There are two fundamental issues over which his appeal to national pride could come to fuel divisive policies: military reform and the post-war political settlement in the north. His ties with the army may facilitate its cooperation with MINUSMA and a smaller European Union operation tasked with military training. But Mali’s army officers will surely want to maintain their political clout, putting pressure on Keita to resist or undercut any reforms that seriously curtail their leverage.

There is also liable to be opposition in the south to political concessions to northern separatist groups, although the government is committed to launching a national dialogue as part of a deal with the MNLA that paved the way for the elections. The MNLA still wants autonomy for the north, and Keita’s handling of the dialogue could be a litmus test for his commitment to reconciliation. In the short term, the Malian authorities have little choice but to engage in serious talks—or at least be perceived as doing so. France, which wants to avoid a costly open-ended commitment, will put pressure on all parties to play along.

The risk for the U.N. may be that, over the longer term, MINUSMA will find itself dealing with an increasingly uncooperative government, especially as France cuts back its presence. Mali’s leaders could cite the country’s “honor” as a recurrent reason for refusing to implement unwelcome reforms backed by the U.N., arguing that fighting international interference is necessary to defend their national pride.

Other U.N. operations have seen their political capital diminished by governments that accuse the organization of undermining their sovereignty. The cases of DRC and South Sudan, where the U.N. and governments are now deeply at odds over human rights, aid money and corruption, could easily be repeated in Mali. But Mali also has deep problems, including criminal trafficking networks that penetrate the political class and army. As MINUSMA consolidates its operation in Mali, its leaders will have to decide if and how to address these underlying problems.

If U.N. officials are to raise hard questions about issues such as military reform and reconciliation, they must find ways to do so that cannot be easily dismissed as insults to national pride. If Keita wishes to rebuild Mali, he must note that states cannot thrive on the basis of honor alone: The details of good governance really do matter after all.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit: AFP-Mali's newly elected President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, casting his vote on Sunday.

Monday, 12 August 2013

CHINA: China's Peacekeeping role

Earlier this month, Albert Gerard Koenders, the UN Special Representative for Mali, praised China for the contributions its peacekeeping forces made in helping to ensure a smooth presidential election in Mali. ''The UN Secretary-General said that China and its peacekeeping role in Mali were very important, but now I would have to say, China's important work has exceeded expectations,'' Koenders said.

The mission to Mali represented a major shift in China’s peacekeeping operations. Specifically, whereas early missions had involved only logistical and medical personnel, in Mali China dispatched actual security forces to help maintain the peace. It is indeed a major breakthrough in China's participation in peacekeeping.

China has long faced criticism from the international community over its peacekeeping operations. Although China has stepped up its participation in peacekeeping missions since 2002, the international community has continued to demand more from Beijing in terms of peacekeeping.

But considering China’s low-profile diplomatic policy and the impact of the China threat theory in recent years, China has to handle this issue delicately. Besides adhering to the two principles underpinning traditional peacekeeping operations—gaining the consent of the host country and using force only in self-defense— China has been keen to gain the support of regional organizations before it will participate in its peacekeeping missions.

Domestic politics have also hindered the role China plays in peacekeeping. For instance, the Foreign and Defense Ministries have often been at odds in defining China’s proper international role. Whereas the Foreign Ministry places a high level of importance on improving China’s image on the world stage, the Defense Ministry has been less interested in whether the rest of the world sees China as being a “responsible stakeholder,” as some have termed it.

But China has become more flexible in its peacekeeping role as a result of it taking broader view of its security interests. In China today, for instance, more and more people are aware of the importance of the country’s participation in peacekeeping missions. Deploying China’s first-ever security peacekeeping forces to Mali nicely illustrates China’s newfound adaptability, and it has likely set a precedent that will be heeded in future missions.

So far, more than 2,000 Chinese peacekeepers have been in peacekeeping operations in nine different mission zones. China has also provided the most peacekeepers among all permanent members of the UN Security Council, and will soon be the sixth largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget. According to the Permanent Mission of the PRC to the UN, China's contribution to the UN peacekeeping budget will increase from just over 3 percent of the total budget today, to more than 6 percent by 2015.

While Chinese peacekeepers have a positive influence on China’s international image, many believe that Beijing can get more “bang for its buck” when participating in peacekeeping missions. China’s peacekeeping program should focus not only on increasing the quantity of its contributions, but also on improving the quality as well. To do this China should not only participate as an ordinary participant, but also help shape the nature of how and what peacekeeping missions are performed by the international community.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit-UN-Female members of Chinese peacekeeping force for Liberia

SPAIN-BRITAIN: The Gibraltar border conflict

Britain said on Monday it may take legal action against Spain for imposing tighter controls at Spain's border with Gibraltar, a historic bone of contention between the two nations. Britain has also dispatched warships to the coast of Gibraltar -- for an exercise.

Britain warned Spain on Monday it might take legal action against Madrid's imposition of tighter controls at the border with Gibraltar, the contested British enclave at the southern tip of Spain.

Underlining the tensions, Britain is dispatching warships to Gibraltar. The frigate HMS Westminister is due to set sail on Tuesday and three other vessels left on Monday. The British government played down the move as being part of a long-planned military exercise. But Spanish media said the plan for HMS Westminster to stop at Gibraltar was an intimidating move by Britain.

Britain's Europe Minister David Lidington said, "Britain and Spain matter to each other. We are NATO allies, key trading partners and millions of Brits travel to Spain every year. But our good friendship with Spain does not mean we will turn a blind eye when the people of Gibraltar are threatened or put under pressure."

A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said the Spanish border checks, introduced after Gibraltar created an artificial reef that Spain said was blocking its fishing vessels, were "disproportionate" and "politically motivated." Legal action would be "an unprecedented step," he added.

Gibraltar is outraged that Spanish customs officers have started checking every vehicle at the border, causing long queues. Madrid argues that Gibraltar doesn't belong to Europe's Schengen zone of passport-free travel and that the checks are a legal and proportionate step to prevent money laundering and smuggling of tobacco and other products from Gibraltar.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he aims to reach an agreement with Cameron but would not abandon the tigher border controls.

Madrid is also considering imposing a border crossing fee and banning planes using its airspace to reach Gibraltar. The government on Monday reiterated that it was thinking about what international forum it could use to press its claim to Gibraltar. This could take place at the UN General Assembly or the International Court of Justice, and Madrid is also seeking support from current UN Security Council president Argentina in its dispute with Britain. Both countries have similar complaints about Britain, with government officials in Buenos Aires currently seeking to reclaim the British-controlled Falkland Islands.

The 6.8 square kilometer (2.62 square miles) territory has been a source of tension between Britain and Spain ever since 1713 when Spain ceded it in the Treaty of Utrecht.

By Jennifer Birich
AFP's Blogger
Paris-France

Photo-Credit: AFP-Gibraltar Port entry with Spain..

IRAN-RUSSIA: Russia's interests & Influence

Many countries have welcomed the election of Iran's newly inaugurated president, Hassan Rohani, while remaining cautious about the prospects for major shifts in Iranian policy as a result of his victory. The visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin on August 12-13 should sound some alarm bells in the capitals of the Western world.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin is paying a historic visit today to Iran to re-launch the stalled nuclear talks and give new dynamics to bilateral ties. President Putin becomes the first foreign leader to visit Tehran after the inauguration of Iran's newly elected President Hassan Rohani, on August 3. It is also the first ever bilateral visit by a Russian leader to Iran President. Putin visited Iran in 2007 for an international conference on the Caspian Sea and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin visited Tehran in 1943 for a World War Two summit among the allies, Soviet Union, United States and Britain.

This time around, President Putin is expected to discuss Iran's controversial nuclear programme, construction of new reactors at Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant built with Russian assistance, and new arms deal. President Putin will offer to replace the cancelled shipment of Iran S-300PMU-1 surface-to-air missiles with similar long-range air defence system VM Antey-2500, also known as S-300VM. Russia scrapped the deal in 2010 after the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran

Moscow has six core goals regarding Iran: supporting nonproliferation, preventing war or regime change, maintaining regional security, minimizing sanctions, ensuring diplomatic leverage, and advancing energy and economic cooperation. However, the relative priority of these objectives depends on the situation.

Russian officials oppose Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, but not because they fear a near-term Iranian attack. Rather, they are concerned for the health of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime at a time when many potential proliferators can be found near Russia. Additionally, NATO countries cite Iran’s nuclear and missile activities to justify their missile defense programs, which Moscow perceives as undermining its nuclear deterrent capability.

They also worry that Israel and the United States will use military force against Iran should the nuclear issue not be resolved diplomatically. A major war could encourage Islamist extremism in the Caucasus and lead to unpredictable regime change in Tehran. This could result in a more radical or a more pro-Western Iranian government, either of which could harm Moscow’s interests. A conflict would likely boost Russian oil and gas prices, generating windfall profits, but Russian territory is uncomfortably close to Iran. Russians might also fear that Iranian nuclear material could find its way into the hands of Islamist terrorists in the event of conflict or regime destabilization in Iran.

More broadly, the Kremlin wants some of Iran’s policies to change but not its regime. Russian officials would prefer that Tehran’s anti-Western policies continue, not necessarily because Moscow favors Iran’s positions, but because Iranian-Western frictions leave Russia—and China—as Iran’s main great power partners. The tensions also dampen Iranian support for Western-sponsored trans-Caspian energy pipelines and boost world energy prices by limiting Iran’s oil and gas exports.

Since the Soviet breakup, Russia and Iran have cooperated on important regional security matters. During the 1990s, the two countries worked together to end the civil war in Tajikistan, support opponents of the Afghan Taliban and counter Turkey’s influence in Central Asia. In addition, Tehran refused to support Muslim guerrillas in Chechnya or the armed Islamist movements fighting in other parts of Russia. At present, Russia and Iran are the Syrian government’s primary backers. In future, Russian and Iranian security interests could overlap in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

It is true that, since the revelations a decade ago of Iran’s massive covert nuclear program, the Russian government has applied pressure to constrain Iran’s nuclear activities, including by deliberately delaying construction of Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr and backing several United Nations resolutions sanctioning Tehran. However, Russian officials have opposed “crippling” sanctions, claiming such measures would be counterproductive and that moderating Iranian nuclear ambitions requires making Tehran’s external environment less threatening.

Instead of more sanctions, they call for enhanced dialogue between Washington and Tehran as well as other cooperative measures to moderate Iranian behavior. Although Russian officials cite humanitarian and tactical considerations, they also want to avoid harming Russian business interests in Iran.

Economic ties between Russia and Iran are marginal given the size of the two countries’ economies. However, two influential groups, Russian nuclear and defense firms, profit considerably from Iran’s purchase of Russia’s nuclear technology and weapons. Meanwhile, Russian firms benefit from Iran’s alienation from Western markets. These narrow interests can sometimes outweigh Russia’s general interests in nonproliferation and good relations with the West.   

Russian diplomats also need to maintain ties with Tehran to position Moscow as a mediator between Iran and the West, thereby encouraging both Western and Iranian officials to curry favor with Moscow through concessions on other issues. Both the Bush and Obama administrations characterized Russia as a possible partner in controlling Iran’s nuclear activities. Nevertheless, Russia has refrained from joining the Obama administration in any joint initiative to pressure Iran, in part because doing so would underscore Moscow’s limited influence in Tehran.

In fact, Moscow has found it as difficult as anyone else to deal with the clerical regime. Ideological differences, historical animosities and lack of trust in each other’s commitments combine to make neither party fully comfortable relying on the other. Iranians decry Russia’s limited support for Iranian nuclear ambitions, seen in the lengthy delays in the construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor; Russians’ reluctance to supply Iran with modern weapons, as highlighted by the cancellation of a contract for S-300 advanced air defense missile systems; and past instances when Moscow sacrificed Iranian interests in perceived pursuit of Russia’s agenda in Europe. Russians are annoyed that their past opposition to sanctions has not induced more Iranian gratitude.

Seeking to make the best of this situation, the Russian government exploits this distrust to keep Iranians cautious about overly annoying Moscow. Supporting some sanctions also sends the message that Russia could make Iranians’ lives more difficult if necessary. While Russians publicly denounce sanctions imposed unilaterally by Western governments above and beyond U.N. sanctions, they might privately welcome them since they enhance Moscow’s leverage. Russian diplomats can say they saved Iran from more serious sanctions but might not be able to do so for long if Tehran does not moderate its behavior.

Most Russian policymakers probably join other countries’ officials in rejoicing at Ahmadinejad’s departure. His policies strained Russian-Iranian ties, and his domestic unpopularity and extremist rhetoric complicated Russia’s mediation efforts. Yet, Rouhani’s desire to reduce Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation could lead to reconciliation between Tehran and Washington. For all the reasons outlined above, that is something that Moscow would not welcome.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: Reuters- Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah al-Khamenei (center) gives his endorsement to newly elected President Hassan Rohani (right).

Friday, 9 August 2013

ZIMBABWE: Mugabe-Seven time lucky...

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe will serve a seventh term in office, having reportedly won 61 percent of the vote in Zimbabwe’s general elections last week, compared to 34 percent of the vote for Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, despite charges of electoral fraud.

South African President Jacob Zuma extended his congratulations to Mugabe, while the United States and the United Kingdom expressed concerns about the integrity of the vote, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying the outcome failed to “represent a credible expression of the people.”

The African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) both sent election monitors to observe Zimbabwe’s elections and then endorsed the outcome. But the basic problem is that democratic values are not embedded in either body, and to expect them to insist upon free and fair elections is to put the cart before the horse.

The contrast between the African and Western responses to the Zimbabwe elections is striking but not unexpected. The West has traditionally relied upon South Africa to press for democratic change in Zimbabwe, but  South Africa is firmly with Zimbabwe and has prioritized liberation solidarity over democracy.

Thus, the political makeup of Africa disadvantages the MDC, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party led by Tsvangirai. The AU and SADC have long supported ZANU-PF over the MDC for reasons including liberation solidarity in southern Africa and traditions of noninterference.

They have also uncritically bought into the Mugabe narrative that he is upholding African nationalism against colonial encroachment and that the MDC is an instrument of the imperialists. Thus AU monitors and SADC monitors applied a light touch to their monitoring and chose to view a violence-free election as synonymous with a fair one.

Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party is back in power, secure that international actors are unlikely to try to dislodge it. And although Mugabe is now 89, the MDC would be “foolish” to expect any successor to yield power easily. Zimbabwe has a ZANU problem, not simply a Mugabe one.

This raises the question of why the MDC and Tsvangirai in particular have invested such faith in the electoral route given the repeated pattern of ZANU retaining power through unfair elections. Yet the MDC faces a dilemma, as engaging in violence could mean forfeiting Western support and consolidating African support for Mugabe.

ZANU-PF’s most recent victory has thrown the MDC into crisis, and may call into question the party’s previous strategy of trying to attain power through elections. The conclusion is irresistible now: ZANU-PF will not allow itself to be dislodged via the ballot box.

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission said nearly 3.5 million people cast their ballots in the July 31 polls, which extended Mugabe's 33-year rule and ended a unity government formed in 2009 in which Tsvangirai was prime minister. The commission's statistics showed the largest number of voters - 64,483 - were turned away in the capital Harare.

Regular voters were reportedly turned away because their names were missing from the voters' roll, they were registered in another ward or they did not have adequate identification. The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) said over 750,000 urban voters were missing from the electoral list, in what they described as "a systematic effort to disenfranchise an estimated million voters".

Rights groups say police forced some people they believed to be opposition supporters to feign illiteracy and seek the assistance of police officers or polling officials, with their votes going to Mugabe.

Given all this, combined with Zimbabwe’s ongoing harassment of civil society activists and NGOs as well as its lack of an independent media, there is now no prospect of a free and fair election in Zimbabwe, and elections are increasingly charades paying lip service to democracy.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert

LEBANON: Hezbollah's Israel card

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah briefly emerged from his underground lair last Friday and delivered his first public speech in years urging his enemies to stop fretting over his involvement in the Syrian war and worry instead about the Jews. “Call us terrorists, criminals, try to kill us,” he said, “we Shiites will never abandon Palestine.”

But they have abandoned Palestine—for now, anyway—and are fighting instead to save their collective backside in Syria. If Bashar al-Assad falls to the Free Syrian Army, Hezbollah will lose its weapons supply link with Iran and find itself cut off and encircles by enemies. Hezbollah needs the Israel card now more than ever. It has worked in the past, and never before in its history has the so-called Party of God faced so much internal pressure.

On the same day Nasrallah made his speech, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the de-facto leader of Lebanon’s Sunnis, reiterated that he is against the formation of a government that legitimizes Hezbollah's weapons. This by itself isn’t surprising. Hariri has always been opposed to Hezbollah. Not only are they ideological opposites, and not only have their two communities been in an on-again off-again state of war for more than 1000 years, according to a United Nations indictment, Hezbollah murdered Hariri’s own father. But just one day earlier, President Michel Suleiman, for the first time ever, publicly announced he can no longer sanction Hezbollah’s existence as an armed militia in Lebanon.

Hezbollah desperately needs the Israel card, but it won’t work this time unless Israel invades Lebanon. Yet Israel won’t invade Lebanon unless Hezbollah starts something. And Hezbollah wouldn’t dare start something now while it’s busy in Syria. The last thing it needs is open-ended conflict on two fronts at once. Hezbollah isn’t a superpower. It only has a few thousand fighters.

It’s obvious to just about everyone now that Nasrallah needs a distraction, but the truth is that his relentless war against Israel has always been partially a distraction. His hatred of Israel is real, no doubt, but it serves a dual purpose. It papers over the dangerous rift between Sunni and Shia Muslims that has led to so many wars, the majority of which the Shia lost.

Hezbollah is and always has been more worried about Sunnis than Israelis and Jews. Of course that’s the case. Various Sunni-Shia wars have killed orders of magnitude more people during my lifetime—over a million—than the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Sunni-Shia conflict is more than 1300 years old, the Arab-Israeli conflict less than 100. And the Shia only joined the Arab-Israeli conflict 34 years ago. In the 1970s, and even into the 1980s, Middle Eastern Shias were Israel’s allies. It’s a bizarre, but it’s true.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to evict Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization in West Beirut and along the border with Israel, Lebanon’s Shias all but unanimously hailed the Israelis as liberators from Palestinian (Sunni) oppression. Not until the Israelis overstayed their welcome, and not until Iranian Revolutionary Guard units stepped into Lebanon and created Hezbollah—which is effectively their Lebanese branch—did the attitudes of Lebanon’s Shias begin to change.

“Resistance” against Israel was the great Sunni cause at the time, and Lebanese civil war was the context. By adopting the Sunni cause as their own, Lebanon’s Shias, via Iran and Hezbollah, bought themselves protection from the Sunnis with guns and respect.

A similar dynamic is at work in Tehran, where the idea of Hezbollah was hatched in the first place.
Jews have lived among Persians for thousands of years. The two haven’t always gotten along famously, but they’ve never been at each other’s throats the way Jews and Arabs have been, especially lately. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran was Israel’s ally. It made sense for both parties. Israel needs whatever friends it can get in the region, and most Persians, like the Kurds, aren’t interested in aligning with their ancient Arab enemies against Jews or anyone else. The Arab-Israeli conflict is called the Arab-Israeli conflict for a reason. And until 1979, it was strictly a Sunni Arab-Israeli conflict.

Khomeini did his worst to change this, partly because he did really did hate Israel, but also because it served his strategic interests. Iran can’t very well become the hegemon of the Levant and the Persian Gulf regions if the entire Arab world is against it. But if the ancient ethnic and sectarian squabbles could be set aside in favor of a united front against Israel, Iran could, at least theoretically, become dominant.

Hezbollah leaders know perfectly well that Israel is not going to randomly invade Lebanon one day just for the hell of it. They tell their constituents and say Hezbollah’s military capabilities deter the Israelis, but it’s a lie and they know it’s a lie. On the contrary, the threat from Hezbollah is a magnet for Israeli invasions. Nasrallah is likewise pulling a fast one when he tells his fellow Lebanese to focus on Israel while he’s ignoring Israel and fighting in Syria. It’s not going to work.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP-Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah

Thursday, 8 August 2013

ENGLAND: Church of England & Loan Sharks

The UK's thriving payday loan sector is in hot holy water. The new head of the Church of England, an 11-year oil-industry veteran, is hoping to undercut the business by forging ties with credit unions to offer better interest rates to the poor.

The Church of England has made a former oil industry executive its new leader. He now aims to defuse the conflicts between religion and the financial world. The working meal in mid-July wasn't exactly exemplary for a "church for the poor." The menu consisted of swordfish carpaccio, pasta with prawns, tuna steak, semifreddo, fresh fruit and coffee. Nevertheless, the two church leaders, who had taken office within only two days of each other, quickly came to an agreement.

Anglicans and Catholics alike, said Pope Francis, should give "a voice to the cry of the poor, so that they are not abandoned to the laws of an economy that seems at times to treat people as mere consumers."

This well-intentioned statement could have also come from his counterpart, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, since March the head of the Church of England and supreme spiritual leader of about 80 million Anglicans worldwide. Welby, 57, has addressed issues of justice in capitalism ever since he was a theology student, and he rewrote his doctoral thesis into a treatise that poses the question: "Can Companies Sin?"

Of course they can. Unlike his predecessors, Welby can draw on his own experience to answer such questions. Before beginning his church career, Welby worked for 11 years as a financial manager in the oil industry: five years at Elf Aquitaine in France, followed by six years in London and, most recently, with Enterprise Oil, a production company that is now part of the Shell conglomerate.

The archbishop doesn't shy away from naming the sinners in the world of business. In the same week in which Pope Francis, speaking in Rio de Janeiro, sharply criticized the "cult of money," Welby took aim at an industry that is currently doing very well in the United Kingdom, where wages are falling and social services have been slashed: the shady business of payday loans.

Payday lenders like Wonga, Speedy Cash and Quick Quid are increasingly lending small sums of money for a few days or weeks at interest rates that, when extrapolated onto a full year, can exceed 5,000 percent. Welby calls the practice "sinful" and "immoral."

In a meeting in late July with the head of one of the money-lending companies, Errol Damelin of Wonga, Welby reportedly said: "We're trying to compete you out of existence. "It's the kind of language that is understood in the financial world of London. Some 2,000 years after Jesus drove moneychangers and lenders out of the temple, Bishop Welby is inviting them back in. The Church of England, says Welby, has "16,000 branches in 9,000 communities," which he wants to open up to credit unions so that they can issue short-term loans to the needy at far more moderate interest rates.

Cutthroat payday lenders like Wonga are unlikely to be overly daunted by bankers in the vestry. The formula for success at the controversial companies is that they can provide a credit decision within minutes after combing through all the information about the applicant that can be found online.

Credit unions aren't nearly as fast. In 2011, the payday-lending industry lent the equivalent of €2.5 billion ($3.3 billion) -- in some cases to customers who could no longer qualify for credit with regular banks. Still, less than 10 percent of borrowers defaulted on the loans.

In contrast, British credit unions, which have traditionally been the banks of the poor, have only lent about £605 million (€700 million or $930 million) to their customers. Most suffer from a cumbersome bureaucracy and laws limiting the maximum interest rate on short-term loans to 26.8 percent. As large as this number sounds, even Bishop Welby admits that credit unions would have to charge rates of 70 to 80 percent for these types of loans so that high processing costs wouldn't eliminate their profits.

Now members of the coalition government want to examine how they can "work together to ensure credit unions can provide strong competition and a viable alternative to payday lenders," said British Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Vince Cable.

The proposal to tie the credit unions to the church is only Welby's most recent attempt to defuse the natural conflict between God and Mammon, the New Testament personification of greed, as well as to influence the reform of the British banking sector. Welby was also a member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards and helped develop its recommendations. Under those recommendations, bankers could go to prison for "grossly negligent behavior," and financial managers would have to wait up to 10 years for their bonuses to ensure that they had truly earned them.

But the financial angels in the Anglican Church are also not infallible. Less than 24 hours after Welby's declaration of war against loan sharks, the Financial Times revealed that the church's pension fund had a small amount of money, £75,000, indirectly invested in Wonga.

By Jennifer Birich
AFP's blogger

Photo-Credit: The Guardian-Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

VATICAN: Pope Francis's decree

Pope Francis intensified the fight against corruption in the Vatican on Thursday, strengthening the law to counter "money laundering, the financing of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

The short "Motu Proprio", a decree of Francis's own initiative, strengthens the supervision of financial transactions "in response to a recommendation of the Moneyval Committee," the European watchdog which carried out a review of the Vatican bank last year.

It includes the creation of a new Financial Security Committee to help increase vigilance and coordinate efforts in countering corruption. It also extends laws which previously only applied to the tiny state to the "institutes and entities dependent on the Holy See, as well as to nonprofit organisations" -- such as the Caritas International humanitarian organisation.

The decree is just the latest in a series of bold moves on the part of the pontiff to clean up the institution's murky financial image. "It is a means of ensuring the road (towards transparency) continues," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a press conference. "In today's world, it is all about resisting increasingly insidious forms of financial criminality. We have to be equal to the challenges in order to protect legality, and not be left behind," he said.

The Vatican is attempting to reform its finances to get onto a "white list" of states that respect international fraud rules. What has been hailed as a potential revolution by many religious watchers began with the appointment mid-June of one of the pope's trusted allies to oversee management of the Institute for Religious Works (IOR) -- as the bank is known.

The 76-year-old pontiff followed this by installing a special five-member commission tasked with investigating the bank and reporting their findings directly back to him personally. The commission's first report is expected in October, and may spark wider reforms of the murky institute.

A US consultancy firm, Promontory Financial Group, has also been tasked with conducting an external review of the bank's rules on money laundering.

The IOR, which does not lend money, handles funds for Vatican departments, Catholic charities and congregations as well as priests and nuns living and working around the world, and has a troubled history. It was the main shareholder of the Banco Ambrosiano, which collapsed in 1982 amid accusations of laundering money for the Sicilian mafia.

The chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, Roberto Calvi -- dubbed "God's Banker" in the press -- was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London that year in a suspected murder by mobsters.

Francis, and Benedict XVI before him, moved to act after a string of scandals and reports in Italian media about anonymous accounts at the bank being used by organised crime figures and fraudsters.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP-Pope Francis

EGYPT: Polarization endangers Stability

Amid renewed turbulence, Egyptian politics are at a critical turning point. With opposing movements at loggerheads over the country's next government, much is at stake for future generations.

It is now more than 18 months since Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood joined forces with liberals and leftists on Tahrir Square, bringing down the military-backed, authoritarian region of then President Hosni Mubarak. A democratic conflict to win the favor of Egyptians ensued. Peace, justice and jobs were at the forefront, while religion seemingly played only a secondary role.

The Muslim Brotherhood seemed to be on the path to becoming a "normal" party, liberated from its early tendencies to engage in fundamental opposition. In June 2012, The Muslim Brotherhood had won the runoff election, and Morsi became Egypt's first democratically elected president. The West applauded. The military remained in its barracks, and the divided liberal forces initially accepted the fundamentalist Morsi as president.

At his inauguration, Morsi promised to be the "president of all Egyptians," and yet what followed was a disaster. He had an Islamic constitution drafted, his supporters temporarily blocked the country's independent Supreme Constitutional Court, and journalists critical of the Morsi government were persecuted. His opponents likened his behavior to that of a modern-day pharaoh. Most of all, however, he destroyed the country's already deeply ailing economy through sheer incompetence.

Popular opposition began to take shape. On the anniversary of Morsi's presidency, hundreds of thousands flooded into public squares in Egypt's major cities, and 22 million people signed a petition by the Tamarod grassroots movement calling for Morsi to resign, which he ignored. On July 3, the military removed the failed elected president from office and placed him under house arrest in an undisclosed location.

Currently, the only decisive question in Egyptian politics revolves around who is capable of bringing the largest number of people into the streets. The crowds supporting one side seek to shout down the crowds supporting the other, creating a conflict that is little more than a village brawl devoid of content, a form of government the Twitter community is called "Streetocracy."

And, once again, it is apparent that free elections or the right of assembly are not the primary elements of a democracy, but rather the checks and balances among functioning institutions. Erudite, worldly thinkers like ElBaradei hope that they will be able to send the soldiers back to their barracks, and the constitution promised by the generals has awakened cautious hope. But skepticism is very much in order.

To defuse the situation, both the army and the Islamists would have to be willing to accept compromises. But the Islamists believe that Islam ( with Morsi reinstated) is the solution, while the military sees itself as the solution. Egypt's armed forces are traditionally interested in only one thing: maintaining stability in the country, by whatever means necessary, to ensure that they can continue to pursue their business interests. Interim President Adly Mansour declared on Wednesday that international diplomatic efforts had failed to resolve the political crisis and the government warned Muslim Brotherhood activists to leave the protest camps, saying the decision to remove them was final.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, is more of a state outside the state. Its members are not permitted to hold positions in the military or the police force, both traditionally secular institutions. Most have probably never truly accepted democracy and are now refusing to back away from their unbending demand that Morsi be reinstated. Islamist supporters of Egypt's deposed president held a festive rally for the Eid al Fitr holiday on Thursday to demand his restoration after the military led-authorities that removed him held off from a threat to break up protest sit-ins.

But it is impossible to run a country on the totalitarian principle that Islam ( With Morsi) is the answer to all questions, and that anyone who thinks otherwise must toe the party line. Seen in this light, religion and democracy are truly incompatible, as are military rule and democracy.

Secular and leftist groups have also called for mass demonstrations and public prayers across Egypt to support what they see as a popular revolution that led to the overthrow of Morsi by the military after just a year in office.

But one thing is clear: most of the demonstrators in Egypt, regardless of which side they are on, are opposed to Western intervention. They are citizens of a deeply divided, polarized nation, either devoted fans of the Muslim Brotherhood or its hate-filled opponents.

Since July 03rd, more than 250 fanatics on both sides have been killed. On the other side liberals, in a strange alliance with the military, are not much more realistic when they dream of a flourishing economy, new jobs and a better future. Whether the government will manage to prevent further escalation remains unclear.

Egypt, the most important country in the Arab world, is at a critical turning point, as it faces the question of whether the military, radical religious forces or liberals will gain the upper hand and assume control of the country. But for future generations in Egypt, there is much more at stake.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

U.S.: Obama scraps Moscow summit with Putin

US President Barack Obama on Wednesday scrapped a Moscow summit with Russia's Vladimir Putin, with the White House citing a lack of progress in relations and 'disappointment' over the Edward Snowden affair.

The rare decision to cancel the talks set for next month came after Obama accused the Russians of slipping back "into a Cold War mentality," in an interview aired late Tuesday. Washington however did not slam the door on cooperation with Russia, noting that a meeting of foreign and defense ministers scheduled for later this week would go ahead as planned in the US capital.

In Moscow, the Kremlin said it was "disappointed" with the decision, saying Washington was not ready to build ties with Russia on an "equal basis," and insisted the invitation to Obama still stands.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that while the United States valued what had been accomplished with Russia in Obama's first term, especially on Afghanistan and North Korea, there had not been enough progress to warrant a summit in early September.

"Given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last twelve months, we have informed the Russian government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda," Carney said. "Russia's disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship,' he said.

The White House had for weeks hinted that the summit on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Saint Petersburg was in doubt, as ties with Russia deteriorated. Moscow last week granted a year's temporary asylum to Snowden, a former US intelligence contractor who revealed the existence of US electronic surveillance programs that scoop phone and Internet data on a global scale.

Snowden -- who is facing espionage charges in the United States and whose passport has been revoked -- was last week allowed to relocate to a secret safe house after being marooned in Moscow's airport for five weeks.

Other troublesome issues in the US-Russia relationship include Moscow's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a split over how to deal with Iran over its nuclear program. The White House said Obama still planned to attend the G20 summit on September 5-6, and announced he would visit Stockholm before heading to Russia. "Sweden is a close friend and partner to the United States," the White House said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will still meet with their Russian counterparts in Washington on Friday "to discuss how we can best make progress moving forward on the full range of issues in our bilateral relationship," the White House said.

In an interview on Tuesday with late-night talk show Jay Leno, Obama said Moscow was still being helpful on Afghanistan and counter-terrorism, but spoke of "underlying challenges" in the relationship. "There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality," Obama said. "What I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is that's the past, and we've got to think about the future, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to cooperate more effectively than we do."

In Moscow, Putin's top foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov told reporters it was clear that the Snowden asylum decision had tipped the scales. "This problem emphasizes that the United States, as before, is not ready to build relations on an equal basis," Ushakov said, accusing the United States of thwarting the signing of a bilateral extradition agreement. "We are ready to work further with the American partners on all key questions on the bilateral and multilateral agenda," he added.

The cancellation of the summit, while rare, was hardly surprising. The Americans just didn't see the value of a summit meeting in terms of moving the ball forward on big issues. It's a serious bump on the road, but the fact that the administration is saying 'let's go ahead and have the ministers meet' -- my impression is that they're ready to cooperate where cooperation is possible.

Rarely since the end of the Cold War have relations between Moscow and Washington been as frosty as they are right now. A considerable amount of that is attributable to President Barack Obama's manic attempt to persuade Putin to extradite NSA expert and whistleblower Snowden.

Now that US president commits the error of playing the role of the offended prima donna, Putin would respond kindly and accordingly too. That, in turn, would be disastrous for the flashpoints in this world -- regardless whether it will be Syria, Iran or the withdrawal of troops form Afghanistan, these crisis regions will all become even more incalculable without a minimum of Russian-American cooperation. Right now, Washington needs Moscow more than Moscow needs Washington.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist