MAS Special ReportLEVANT: Middle East and North Africa

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D.S.M. Special Report- Middle East and North Africa- December 2019

Claudiu Nebunu

I. Iran- November protests were fiercely stopped! II. The 40th summit of Gulf Cooperation Council- the start of regulating relations with Qatar? III. Algeria- a former minister, actually prime-minister for a few days, becomes president!

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. Iran- November protests were fiercely stopped!

After collecting many data on Iran’s events of midst November, Amnesty International published a report claiming that 304 people lost their lives after security forces’ brutal intervention. Are Iranians closer to a so-needed change? 2020 February elections could be the perfect occasion for that…

At least 304 people were killed by recent protests in Iran, says Amnesty International, on Monday (December 16th), accusing the security forces for “slaughtering” unarmed demonstrators. Videos from the field captured Iranian security forces opening fire on demonstrators “who were not a risk”, according to a report of human rights group. Thousands of protestors, and journalists also, human rights defenders and students were arrested.  

Philip Luther, Amnesty director for Middle East and North Africa has underlined that his information is based on “eyewitnesses’ statements”. Most of the killings were caused by head, heart and other vital organs shots, which proves security forces “wanted to kill”, says the report. Iranian authorities did not published any official estimation on deaths and casualties, accusing Amnesty for interpolation.

Many protests started on November 15th in Iran, after authorities have suddenly decided to increase gas’s price, in order to counterbalance the American sanctions. This measure, which was announced at midnight, involved finance’s justification and decrease, leading to prices’ increase by 50%. The reason behind was claiming a crowdfunding for poor citizens, but many Iranians already facing increasing inflation started to clamor the new politicians.

This movement triggered many demonstrations in Iran, drivers have abandoned their vehicles on highways and protestors blocked the streets. Tens of banks and stores were fired or destroyed.

Although there were clearly triggered by gas’s price, the protests also seem to have been determined by a larger concern on Iran’s economy, where jobs are fewer and economies are vanishing due to more than 40% inflation.

All of these happened concurrently with the 2020 February parliamentary elections. Almost 16.000 people enlisted to fight for the 290 positions. Although previous experiences are questioning the fairness and transparency of the scrutiny, it is highly important for the future Iranian regime. Elections were used by the Iranian leadership as a tool to force elites in a race and prove their loyalty on the regime and create the public support and democratic legitimacy illusion. This time also the regime is even more desperate to prove home and foreign detractors that it is representing the will of Iranian people.

Even before protests’ start, many Iranian frustrated by those they do not agree with, but also the so-called moderated, were planning to boycott the elections. Regime’s attempts to violently repress the peaceful anti-government protests have convinced many people to boycott the elections. Hence, most of the internal Iranian observers are expecting to have an extremely low presence at the February 21st elections. This will be a major concern for the regime, particularly as it faces an unpreceded pressure from the international community.

For the last four decades, the breach between the nation and the regime has slowly increased, and the Islamic Republic lost most of the support. The regime has drifted away the high classes, more Westernized, immediately after the revolution. Then, the middle classes have also drifted away - the Green Movement, which emerged after the 2009 presidential elections was a sign of middle class’s increasing complaint on country’s leaders. Since 2017, the low classes, which traditionally were the most important support of the regime, have lost their faith on the system. Every day that goes by, more Iranians realize that the regime is not representing their interests and cannot be reformed. February will prove how big the breach is between the nation and the leaders.

II. The 40th summit of Gulf Cooperation Council- the start of regulating relations with Qatar?

The 40th summit of the Gulf states have ended quickly in Saudi Arabia’s capital, thanks to good signs for the relations between the countries which participated at the blockade imposed to Qatar and this emirate. But the reconciliation process is still complicated and long-lasting.

Leaders of Gulf Cooperation Council’s member states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman) have participated, on Tuesday (December 10th), at the 40th summit of GCC, in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh.

Qatar’s Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was not present, but he sent Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani. Saudi King Salman has welcomed the Qatari prime-minister traditionally and called for regional unity to fight Iran and provide maritime channels freedom for oil transport.

It was a closed-door summit that lasted less than an hour, followed by press release highlighting the need for increased military and security cooperation in the region. There were also calls for financial and monetary unity, by 2025.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt (which is not a GCC member) cut off economic and diplomatic ties with Qatar, in June 2017, and imposed a maritime, land and air blockade due to this emirate’s terrorism support suspicions. Another diplomatic incident took place earlier in 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their diplomats, claiming that Doha supports terrorist groups. However, the border remained open.

Tensions with Qatar generally emerged due to alleged support for Islamic political movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and complaints about the Al Jazeera media network, based in Doha. These tensions worsened with the 2011 Arab Spring, when Saudi Arabia and Qatar were supposedly supporting opposing parties.

On June 7th 2017, the Saudi foreign minister asked Qatar to cease support for groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. These four countries issued a demands list that had to be met within 10 days, including relegation of diplomatic ties with Iran, cessation of military cooperation with Turkey, and closure of "Al Jazeera" media trust, in addition to stopping US and other nations supporting "terrorists" individuals and groups, and the cessation of interfering in other states’ foreign affairs. Qatar immediately rejected the requests, being subject to the blockade.

Hopes that the political and economic embargo imposed by the four Arab states will be raised or at least relaxed have not been met, but the warm welcome granted by King Salman to Qatari Prime Minister have been contrasting the tensions from previous GCC meetings. Most likely, the most important thing was the impact of May-September attacks, attributed to Iran, on maritime traffic in UAE’s coast and Saudi Arabia's oil installations. The lack of a decisive response from Trump’s administration has prompted Saudi and UAE leaders re-evaluate their regional business approach. Following the September attacks on Saudi company Aramco’s facilities, the Council organized an emergency meeting, in Riyadh, where it was agreed that an attack on a member is, in fact, an attack on the entire GCC. Qatar participated at the meeting and supported the statement on Persian Gulf’s collective security principle.  

There are also other signs that Qatari and Saudi officials have started a discreet process of resuming connections. Tamim Emir respectfully rose for Bahrain's national anthem before a handball game, in Qatar, in October, and sent a condolence message to UAE leader, Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, after his brother's death, in November. Also, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE’s withdrawal of Gulf Cup football tournament’s boycott held in Qatar is another gesture that suggests resuming relations.   

But the crisis is far from being solved ... The border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar stayed closed and involved leaders’ statements suggest that they are still working on it. The most difficult negotiations can be the quartet-format ones, particularly between Saudi Arabia and UAE, rather than the direct talks between Saudi and Qatari officials. If that happens, a direct Saudi Arabia - Qatar agreement at least for border and airspace reopening would be just the first step in a sequential and negotiating process of compromises to reach a broader political resolution. It will take a lot of time and effort to overcome the impact of the worst Gulf policy breakdown since GCC’s advent in 1981.   

III. Algeria- a former minister, actually prime-minister for a few days, becomes president!

After repeated postponements, the presidential elections were held in December, despite manifestations of young Algerians who demanded for poll participants to no longer be part of the former regime. However, a former minister and even prime minister during the former regime turned out to be the winner ... but demonstrations continued. Will the new president manage to be accepted by the streets and manage the problems Algeria is facing?

Former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune became Algeria's new president on Thursday (December 12th). 74-year-old Tebboune won the presidential ballot with 58.15% of the votes cast by voters. The turnout was just over 40%.

Tebboune's election did not come in great times for the North African country, which has been shaken by nine months of national protests, initially against Bouteflika's plans to extend his 20-year term with another term, and then against the political and military system’s representatives that dominated the country all this time.

But demonstrations did not stop. Even the day after the elections, the protesters went out on the streets again, disputing election’s results, called "a parade" due to links of the five candidates with the old guard, and reiterating their requests for the entire political regime to leave.

During a press conference, Tebboune promised to help the protest movement for a dialogue to build a new Algeria. The new president added that he would start discussions to draft a new constitution that would be subjected to voters’ approval through a referendum, and also promised to introduce reforms to reduce spending on imports.

However, the new president knows the old regime pretty well... Throughout his four-decade political career, Tebboune held several official positions, including prime minister for several months during the administration of former president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika . Tebboune's term of office, started in May 2017, ended suddenly after less than four months, due to his attempt to present himself as Bouteflika's successor during a meeting with French counterpart Edouard Philippe, in Paris, a few days before dismissal.

Close to army's influential chief, General Ahmed Gaid Saleh, Tebboune has recently been trying to distance himself from representatives of the leading oligarchy, which brought him the necessary votes to win the election. On the other hand, one of Teboune's sons was arrested, in May, for being involved, along with several Algerian officials, in a cocaine trafficking case. Tebboune's supporters say that the pre-trial detention of elected president’s son is a reason strong enough to believe his commitment to law’s independence.

Tebboune is, indeed, old regime’s man, and in order to be accepted by demonstrators, he will probably have to meet most of their demands, including political prisoners’ release, freedom of expression and even freedom of the press. But all these concessions will not have an impact on army’s role in Algerian political decisions; the influence of the military is (yet!) a red line!

Even with no questions on his elections participation legitimacy, Tebboune will experience some difficult times. Almost all Algerian state’s revenues are based on oil and gas exports, which have decreased both in price and in volume, in recent years. The government has already approved a 2020 budget, which foresees a nine percent decrease in public spending, although politically sensitive subsidies remain untouched.

Translated by Andreea Soare