June 23, 2007

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On the move

June 15, 2007

Dear reader,

Tinyplanet has packed its bags and its moving to a new domain. Come and visit at

Abandon hope

June 14, 2007

The Palestinian civil war has put paid to hopes for a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict.

The more moderate Fatah movement has been over-run in the Gaza Strip, with the Islamist Hamas taking key security posts all across the region. It has now captured Fatah headquarters in Gaza.

The image of the green Hamas flag flying above the building is possibly the most defining of the day.

All too late, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has ordered his presidential guard to strike back. Yesterday, Fatah officials said there had been confusion: were they allowed to fight back or not?

Their resistance has crumbled; I have a feeling the claims of confusion were a desperate attempt to explain away just how easily Hamas has crushed its rivals.

“We are telling our people that the past era has ended and will not return, ” Islam Shahawan, a spokesman for Hamas’ militia, told Hamas radio. “The era of justice and Islamic rule have arrived.” (AP)

Given that Hamas is apparently executing Fatah policemen the definition of “justice” seems rather elastic, wouldn’t you say?

There is no hope for a negotiated solution between Hamas and Israel. Fatah’s decline, which began with an election drubbing fueled by a widespread perception of corruption and inefficiency, is complete (at least in the Gaza Strip).

The ambition had been for a two-state solution in the Middle East. The Palestinian state would consist of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, both of which are fenced off from Israel.

The only viable way for such a split Palestinian state would be a highway crossing Israel; this was planned but there is no way Israel will allow militants such easy access to its territory.

And it must be pointed out that not all Palestinians back either Hamas or Fatah. One wrote to al-Jazeera earlier today: “Hamas and Fatah should go to hell and leave the Palestinian people alone.”

Hamas is unlikely to repeat its success in the larger and more populous West Bank, where Fatah is taking the initiative. I actually laughed when I read an AP report saying Abbas was considering withdrawing from the ruling coalition with Hamas. Strikes me as the first thing he should have done this morning.

The likelihood of an Israeli incursion into Gaza, which it evacuated in 2005, has soared. Hamas are not going to sit back on their Gazan victory, they will press an attack on Israel. It does not recognise the nation’s right to exist and has been firing rockets over the border for some time.

We now face the possibility of separate Hamas and Fatah states. EU humanitarian aid has been suspended. The UN can not distribute the aid which so many Palestinian people rely on. Egypt should be bracing itself for a flood of refugees and the formation of an Islamist nation on its northeastern border.

The dream of peace which was fostered by the 1993 Oslo Accords is shattered. All hope is lost.

Out and about

June 2, 2007

Egypt has freed a blogger who was detained more than a month ago for being a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, who is also a correspondent for British-based Arabic television channel al-Hewar, had not officially been charged. He had been detained along with 23 others, who were also set free.

Human rights group the El Nadim Center has claimed Mahmoud was taken into custody because of “the role he played in exposing crimes committed by the Ministry of the Interior through his blog, where he called for the release of detainees”.

The organisation also points out that Mahmoud took part in media activities arranged by Amnesty International after that group released a report documenting torture in Egyptian police stations.

The Muslim Brotherhood advocates an Islamic state — and let me state quite clearly that I support complete separation of clergy and state — but with democratic reforms Egypt needs.

For example, Egyptian presidents, with whom almost all power rests, have typically been elected in single-candidate votes since the country became a republic in the 1950s. September 2005 saw the first multi-party presidential vote; however, candidates were screened by an electoral commission which only allowed 10 of the 30 applicants to run. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has the broadest support of the opposition groups, had no candidate.

Unsurprisingly, Hosni Mubarack was re-elected.

A March 2007 referendum — which Amnesty International said represented the biggest erosion of human rights since 1981, when emergency laws were introduced following the assassination of Anwar Sadat — gave the president the power to dissolve parliament.

It also prohibited parties using religion as a basis of political activity, ended judicial supervision of elections and allowed for civilians to be tried by military courts in terrorism cases.

Isn’t politics fun?

Anthology of a slain journalist

May 31, 2007

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev has helped launch a collection of articles by Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead outside her home last year.

A fierce critic of corruption and abuses within Russia, she died in an apparent contract killing last October. Politkovskaya was special correspondent for independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which has produced the 980-page book.

At the launch, Gorbachev, who is co-owner of the newspaper, joined her colleagues and family in urging the crime be solved. The IHT quotes him as saying the case was especially important because much of Russian society thinks that law enforcement officials were involved in her killing.

Gorbachev held a copy of the book and suggested that while her writing was painful for some to read – it often accused government officials, soldiers and police officers of crimes – it was ultimately helpful to the Russian state. “It is bitter,” he said. “But it is a medicine.”

Kremlin officials boycotted the event, although they were invited to speak. The launch was not covered by any official news services.

Does the punishment fit the crime?

May 29, 2007

China has sentenced the former head of its food and drug safety agency to death. He had pleaded guilty to corruption and accepting bribes.

According to Xinhua, Zheng Xiaoyu, aged 62, was accused of taking about E630,000 in bribes in exchange for approving drug-production licences. The court said the sentence was appropriate given the “huge amount of bribes involved and the great damage inflicted on the country and the public by Zheng’s dereliction of duty”.

However, the International Herald Tribune quite rightly points out that this impending execution comes amid outcry over China’s food safety. Earlier this year, two Chinese firms were accused of shipping contaminated pet food ingredients to the US, leading to the deaths of animals across the country and subsequently a massive recall.

Meanwhile, a chemical used to make antifreeze made it into cough medicine and toothpaste exported to Central America. More than 100 people died last year in Panama after taking cough medicine containing diethylene glycol, which left China marked “glycerin”. Last week, the same ingredient was found in toothpaste in Panama, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.

That China has a shoddy record when it comes to food and drug safety is putting it mildly. Counterfeit medication is rampant and mass food poisonings are common. However, I can’t shake the feeling that Zheng is taking the heat for a wider problem in the nation. His actions — if indeed he did what he has been accused of — have led to the suffering of many and the deaths of some from sub-standard medicine.

But I have to ask you: does Zheng’s punishment fit his crime?

The political Gulf

May 28, 2007

The US and Iran have agreed a broad policy on Iraq.

The consensus, which must be reviewed in Washington and Tehran, calls for a “trilateral security mechanism” consisting of the three nations, and depends on the Iranians ending support for militants.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the talks could lead to future meetings, but only if Washington admits its Middle East policy has been unsuccessful.

Iran and the US have been at odds for years, but things have intensified because of the Iranian nuclear programme. Adding to the tension were the recent American naval exercises in the Gulf, which has resulted in an increased US build-up in the region. However, the face-to-face talks between US ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iranian ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi — which focused solely on Iraq — do mark a slight thawing in relations.

It’s just too bad that people on both sides are looking for an armed conflict.

Steven Clemons reports that Dick Cheney is busy undermining diplomatic initiatives toward the Islamic Republic. It is a complex move on several fronts: elements within the Department of Defence and national intelligence are readying for conflict in a bid to convince Iran that it could be attacked, while Cheney and his cohorts want to persuade Bush that the military option is viable.

This runs contrary to the diplomatic efforts of Condi Rice, which are backed by the Pentagon, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and CIA Director Michael Hayden.


The thinking on Cheney’s team is to collude with Israel, nudging Israel at some key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran’s nuclear activities and international frustration over this to mount a small-scale conventional strike against Natanz using cruise missiles (i.e., not ballistic missiles) .

This would provoke an Iranian military response and force Bush to abandon diplomacy in favour of another war.

Clemons has derived his information from a Cheney aide, who has been doing the rounds in Washington in a bid to drum up support for hawkish maneouvres against Iran. This official has apparently been saying words to the effect that:

Cheney believes that Bush can not be counted on to make the “right decision” when it comes to dealing with Iran and thus Cheney believes that he must tie the President’s hands.

A scary thought.

On the other side are Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard. War would suit them down to the ground as it would give both a major boost in domestic support. Like the Cheney brigade, these actors are not necessarily advocating an out-and-out conflict, but manoeuvering so it becomes a viable, even preferential option.

Who would win such a conflict? That depends on the definition of victory. Ousting Ahmadinejad and implementing a more favourable regime (which would, quite incidentally, allow the US greater access to Iranian oil reserves) is one such definition. On the Iranian side, simply not being conquered would be enough. Repelling a US invasion — should it come to such a drastic measure — would be PR gold.

Anything the US has learned in Iraq would be practically useless in Iran. The US and its allies have had enough trouble subjucating Iraq, and Iran dwarfs its neighbour, as this Wikipedia map shows (click for larger view):


It is also a mountainous country, which would slow down any military advance and allow Iranian forces to conduct a successful guerilla war. It is unlikely the likes of Pakistan, Afghanistan or Turkey would allow the staging of an invasion.

But that said any war would most likely take the form (initially at least) of airstrikes on key infrastructure in a bid to bring the country to its economic knees. This was the pattern followed in Serbia during the Kosovan conflict and in Iraq prior to the invasion. It also offers the best PR strategy for the US, as its military can be seen as winning while risking very few of its members.

Both Cheney and Ahmadinejad are playing a dangerous game. A chaotic Iraq has already threatened to destabilise the region; a chaotic Iran would only add to this. Whether it would unlease further sectarian strife is a subject for wiser heads than mine. But there would be no happy ending to such a story.