Venezuela’s opposition tries to unite against Maduro
This story was published in Arab News on Feb. 10, 2017:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Special to Arab News
BRASILIA: A divided opposition in Venezuela is trying to put their differences aside to fight the political repression of President Nicolas Maduro, attempt to stop the country’s economy from sliding even more into depression, and to lower sky-high inflation.
President Maduro, an avid socialist, and protege of the late President Hugo Chavez, who is responsible for Venezuela’s voyage down the road to allegedly become a worker’s republic, has resorted to imprisoning political opponents and protesters. On the economic front, things have not gone well. The economy has been in a downward spiral for the past few years, ever since the international price of crude oil plunged in 2014. The country is dependent on imports for most of its food and goods, and with strict price controls enforced by the government, and forced nationalizations of whole sectors, this has led to widespread shortages of everything from soap, meat, sugar to toilet paper.
Despite opposition parties winning a majority of seats in Parliament in the December 2015 elections, 112 out of 167 seats, the Maduro government refuses to share power with them or even talk with them. For his new year address to the nation, Maduro did not deliver his speech in front of Parliament as is customary, but in front of the Supreme Court which is packed with his supporters.
This has caused regular street protests against the government, and Maduro has responded by having protesters arrested. Foro Penal, an NGO of lawyers who came together to defend protesters who get arrested, estimates that between 2013 and 2016, 429 protesters were arrested, and that 106 were still in jail at the end of December 2016. It estimates that there were 2,732 detentions in Venezuela for political reasons in 2016 alone, and that from January 2014 to December 2016 there were 6,831 political detentions.
“Maduro has created a sort of revolving door, a few leave and many more come in,” said Gonzalo Himiob, one of Foro Penal’s directors, to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo last month. “The economic and social crisis is very serious and will cause many more protests,” he added.
“The government must either file formal charges and try people in open court, or release them. Indefinite holding of individuals without trial makes a mockery of the judicial system,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan historian and professor of Latin American Studies at Pomona College in California, in an interview with Arab News.
The opposition started a petition last year to have Maduro removed from office for incompetence, but despite getting the required signatures from 20 percent of registered voters, election officials stopped the petition in October 2016. A poll by Datanalisis at the time found that 90 percent of the population believed the country was going in the wrong direction, and 76 percent wanted Maduro to leave office.
In January 2017 Maduro appointed the hard line governor of Aragua, Tareck El Aissami, as his new vice president. By the end of the month he gave Aissami economic decree powers, making him one of the most powerful men in Venezuela. This caused the opposition to rethink their strategy of removing Maduro from president, since the vice president would take over in such a scenario.
Although opposition parties have formed a coalition called the Democratic Unity Roundtable, known by its Spanish acronym MUD, they have been severely divided, able at times to rouse large street protests across the country against Maduro’s rule, and at other times unable to.
“The opposition parties in Venezuela are divided, and there are calls from Maria Corina Machado and others to disband the MUD and form a new organization. Some in the opposition want a recall; while others prefer to oust Maduro through street actions, and yet others would rather confront the government in statewide elections for governor later this year. They hope that regional elections would set the stage for presidential elections where they hope to defeat Maduro,” Salas said.
Both the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Vatican have been trying to negotiate an agreement between the Maduro government and the opposition, but to no avail so far. The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, has been especially critical of Maduro’s repression of opposition protests, and pointed out in an interview to the El Observador newspaper at the end of January that there was a need to act now in Venezuela because the mediation efforts of Unasur and Vatican had been a failure.
“People have been deprived of their constitutional right to recall President Maduro, political prisoners are still incarcerated, violence is rampant, and there is widespread hunger. The international community cannot wait any longer and must act now,” Almagro said.
But Salas believes that the OAS has been sidelined in Venezuela because of its criticism of Maduro’s rule.
“The secretary of the OAS, Almagro, has engaged in sharp personal attacks on the government, while turning a blind eye to issues in other countries such as Mexico. As a result the OAS has been largely sidelined in Venezuela. The key players have been Unasur and the Catholic Church. With Ernesto Samper’s resignation as secretary general of Unasur, it is still unclear what future role the body will play in Venezuela,” said Salas.
After not having much to show for after years of street protests, the opposition MUD coalition is now planning new ways of appealing to the Venezuelan electorate.
Jesus Torrealba, the secretary general of MUD, told the Americas Quarterly that they would be doing more outreach to poorer voters this year. He said they would rotate its leadership and include civil society in its decision making.
OFW votes could give Marcos a win
This column appeared in Arab News on May 15, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
National elections in the Philippines, which took place on May 9, are producing surprising results. In the presidential race Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of Davao City, and a politician with a mouth like Donald Trump, has won the race with 15,709,136 votes, against the 9,663,869 votes of administration candidate Sen. Mar Roxas.
But it is in the race for the vice presidency where things are tight. With 95 percent of the votes already counted, Sen. Bongbong Marcos, son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was initially leading, but then on the 10th was surprised by the overtaking of Rep. Leni Robredo. At the time of this writing, Robredo leads with 14,012,780 votes against 13,797,137 votes for Marcos, a difference of only 215,643 votes. The more than 400,000 votes of Overseas Filipino Workers are just being tallied now, and Marcos is leading in that part of the poll.
As of Saturday morning, Marcos had garnered 156,123 votes from OFWs, against only 84,144 votes for Robredo. This gives Marcos an edge of 71,979 among the OFW votes. If the trend continues, this would give Marcos a comfortable margin in beating Robredo.
To a casual observer from outside the country, it may seem that the Marcos family is only now returning to power, but in reality this has been going on for many years. Bongbong’s father, Ferdinand, was an intelligent and charismatic lawyer from the north, who was elected congressman in 1949, and then re-elected three times. In 1959 he was elected to the Senate, and in 1965 was elected president of the Philippines. In 1954 he married Imelda Romualdez, a beauty queen and singer from Tacloban, who won Marcos with her beauty and lovely voice. It was she, with her relentless ambition, who encouraged and pushed her husband to steal billions from the country during their 21 years of conjugal dictatorship.
In September 1972, Ferdinand Marcos decreed martial law, suspending the constitution, closing Congress, jailing political enemies and seizing profitable businesses for himself and his cronies. Philippine Airlines, ABS-CBN television network, the Manila Electric Company and the PLDT phone company were all snatched by Marcos and his close friends. To hide this wholesale robbery, Marcos put many of these companies in the name of his allies.
Just as in the military dictatorship of 1964-1985 in Brazil, more than 300,000 Filipinos were arrested, tortured and many of them killed for opposing the dictatorship. The People Power Revolution in 1986 ended the dictatorship of the Marcoses, with the whole family fleeing to Hawaii.
But Bongbong was the first in his family to return to the Philippines in 1991 and was elected congressman. He had been deputy governor and governor of Ilocos Norte province during the dictatorship, so his return to politics was relatively easy. His mother, Imelda, soon also returned to the country and was also elected to Congress. Bongbong was elected to the Senate in 2010.
Through the massive corruption of the Marcos couple, it is estimated that a total of $10 billion was looted from the country, and the following democratic governments were able to recover only a small fraction of this stolen wealth. Nevertheless, there has always been a very solid base of Marcos supporters in the electorate. These people believe that the Marcoses did many good things for the country and its people, claiming that they built much of the modern infrastructure that the country has today.
Yet despite these hardcore Marcos supporters, there is a larger portion of the population that was and still is against the political rehabilitation of the Marcoses. But they have found the forgetfulness and willingness to forgive easily of many voters as their biggest obstacles to stopping the nation from forgetting the violent excesses committed from 1972 until 1986.
To add to the horror of the critics of the Marcoses has been the new generation of voters, those born after the end of the dictatorship. Most of these voters do not have a negative view of the Marcoses, believing that Ferdinand did much good for the country by leading it with an iron hand. Therefore a group called the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses to Malacañang recently produced a dramatic video in which young voters were filmed talking about what they thought of the dictatorship years in front of people who were tortured and raped by the regime. When these victims reveal what happened to them, the young voters are stunned and amazed, and some even break down and cry, asking for forgiveness for their mistaken ideas.
But should we hold a son responsible for the sins of his parents? The Philippine electorate will have to decide that. But from the votes coming in, it seems they are ready to forget and forgive, placing Bongbong that much closer to the presidency.
Dilma in hot water
UPDATE: The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, voted 367-137 to impeach Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Sunday, April 18, 2016.
The impeachment motion now goes to the Senate, which should decide whether to accept or not by May 10. If they do, President Dilma will be immediately suspended as president for a maximum of 180 days. The Senate will then have to vote on the measure.
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Brazilians are experiencing unprecedented political tension as the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff moves swiftly ahead. On Thursday, the Supreme Court met in a special session for eight hours to hear the government’s petition to have the impeachment stopped. The court in the end voted 8-2 to allow the process to go forward.
Speeches for and against the impeachment started being given in the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, on Friday morning. They are scheduled to run in a marathon session until Sunday morning, with only a few breaks late at night to give the 513 congressmen a chance to sleep. On Sunday, the deputies will start voting on the impeachment. If Dilma is impeached by the lower house, she will be suspended as president for 180 days, during which the Senate will have to debate and vote on the motion. Vice-president Michel Temer, who is the son of Lebanese immigrants, will immediately assume the presidency as soon as the lower house votes in favor of the impeachment. If he does make it, he will be Brazil’s first ever president of Arab descent.
According to polls taken by all the major newspapers, Dilma will lose the vote in the House of Deputies and in the Senate too. She seems to realize that she is on the way out, but in interviews this past week has vowed to fight to the last minute. The Folha de Sao Paulo counted 338 votes in favor of her impeachment in the lower house, with 123 votes against the motion, and 52 lawmakers still undecided. For the motion to pass they would need 342 votes. In the Senate, out of a total of 81 senators, the paper counts 44 senators in favor of impeachment, 19 against and 18 undecided. For the motion to pass only 41 votes are needed.
The whole impeachment process has sharply divided Brazilians along ideological lines. Poorer Brazilians and leftist intellectuals have remained strong supporters of President Dilma and her Workers’ Party, though most will not deny that she has not handled the economy well at all. Middle class and wealthier Brazilians have been leading the massive protests against the president and her party, calling on her to be impeached or for her resignation.
Both pro- and anti-impeachment groups have called for huge rallies on Sunday across the nation. Fearing that violence may break out between the opposing groups, the governor of the Federal District ordered that a 2-meter high metal be installed in the Esplanade of the Ministries, a grassy mall that runs from the central bus station to Congress in the center of Brasilia, with all of the ministries ranged on either side of the mall.
The wall is one-kilometer long and has already been dubbed the “Berlin Wall” and the “Wall of Shame” of Brasilia by locals upset at seeing their public space so sharply divided. The federal minister of justice called it a “crazy idea” in a television interview. Some observers have said they fear that violence may break out between the Movimento dos Sem Terra (Movement for the Landless) activists and the pro-impeachment crowd. The MST members are known for using violent tactics in their protests, burning tires and throwing dangerous objects at riot police.
The polarization of Brazilian society caused by this political debate has become so severe that even a Brazilian doctor recently announced she could no longer the treat the child of a Workers’ Party activist because she could not stand the ruling party. The local doctors union defended the doctor’s decision, saying she should be proud of what she did, pointing out that no doctor is obliged to provide medical treatment to someone they did not like unless it is an emergency or they were the only doctor in the area.
In the meantime, Vice President Temer has been busy having meetings with groups of politicians, all eager to get an appointment in the new government they see coming soon. President Dilma has been decimated by the departure of the PMDB party from her ruling coalition, as well as that of a slew of smaller parties, and is trying to put on a brave face by visiting the camps of her ardent supporters who have traveled to Brasilia to protest for her on Sunday.
She has been looking very tired and run down in her public appearances. A major newsweekly magazine ran a particularly unflattering cover story claiming that the president was losing her mind because of all of the stress she has been under. Her defenders slammed the publication, claiming the article was sexist and mean-spirited. But the president has long had a reputation for being a tough woman who does suffer fools easily, and who regularly blows up and shouts at her ministers and staff members during meetings.
Supporters of the government call this impeachment a “coup attempt,” and many observers have pointed out that some of the congressmen voting for the impeachment have committed worse crimes than the president has. President Dilma has been accused of mismanaging government spending accounts by using creative accounting methods to hide the growing deficit.
We will have to wait and see if Temer as president will be able to turn around the Brazilian economy, which is going through one of its worst recessions in 100 years.
My interview with Al Jazeera English about Saudi municipal elections
This is the interview I gave to Al Jazeera English on August 30, 2015, about the upcoming Saudi municipal elections:
Saudi women making their mark
This is my column that was printed in Arab News on August 30, 2015:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
This year marks 10 years since the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia restarted in 2005. It also marks 10 years since I voted for the first time in the Kingdom, hopeful that this would herald the beginning of a greater voice for citizens in the day-to-day running of our cities.
The reality was far different, with lackadaisical candidates being elected to the councils across the country, and after the initial euphoria of the elections it seemed most people promptly forgot about their local councils.
In Jeddah the municipality embarked on a super-ambitious urban planning scheme of building tunnels, flyovers and bridges to cope with the ever-growing volume of road traffic. After years of annoying and often frustrating construction detours, Jeddawis are enjoying the fruits of such planning, whizzing around the city in greater comfort.
Of course, public transportation options are still very poor but with the planned metro, things should improve immensely. Riyadh on that front is already ahead with construction of its metro well under way.
Perhaps these municipal councils may have seemed rather boring in their obsession with urban planning concerns since these have traditionally been male concerns. And although these councils did have meetings that were open to the public, engagement with the electorate was sparse and not very rewarding.
Until this year Saudi women were not allowed to vote or run as candidates in the elections, but this year they are doing so.
Already foreign commentators have tried to diminish this achievement by saying that the councils don’t really do much to begin with. But we must ignore these usual Kingdom-bashers, who will never be pleased by anything we do.
For sure the women candidates for the municipal councils will bring new concerns to the forefront of public debate, which is long overdue. Hopefully they will talk about the many Saudi women that work for slave wages, as Al-Sharq daily recently reported about the ones working in the canteens of public schools making only SR300 a month each! What kind of exploitation wage is this?
It is outrageous that anyone, whether Saudi or not, can be paid that in our country and be expected to survive on it. It is impossible. There is a great need to debate a minimum living wage for all workers in our country. By all means allow higher wages for Saudis, but have a decent minimum wage that serves for everyone, with no exceptions.
I remember interviewing a candidate for the Jeddah council in 2005. He was a well-known businessman, had studied in the United States along with his wife, and was religious. When I asked him if he could work alongside women on the council he said “no,” maintaining that a woman’s makeup and perfume would be too distracting. I was surprised by his reaction, but times have changed and these same women are now both running for office and voting too.
The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) has long had many women members active within its ranks, helping Saudi women to become entrepreneurs and offering business ideas and support for women wishing to run their businesses from home. They have proven themselves to be excellent organizers and hopefully their participation in the municipal elections will give them another avenue to make their mark in civic and governmental affairs. May the best and most qualified ones win!
Is this the end of political Islam in Egypt?
This is a translation of my column that appeared in O Globo of 12/07/2013 in Portuguese:
The danger is if the military, despite promising to hold elections, never leave power. If a Brotherhood candidate wins, will he be allowed to govern?
By RASHEED ABOU-ALSAMH
Last week I watched with alarm and sadness on television the events unfolding in Egypt’s military coup against the democratically elected government of Mohamed Mursi. And I was even more amazed at the scenes of liberal and leftist opposition Egyptians in Tahrir Square, celebrating with shouts of joy the return of the military, which they themselves had fought so energetically against in the same square only two years earlier.
Undoubtedly, Mursi proved unable to govern Egypt well, rejecting any accommodation with the opposition, intensifying the sectarian tone of his government, and appointing members of the Muslim Brotherhood to most ministries and provinces. The country’s economy has gone from bad to worse, with the ailing Egyptian pound suffering devaluations, the foreign currency deposits reaching very low levels and power outages becoming a normal thing. Politically, Mursi was also obstinate, derogating to himself constitutional powers and trying to push a new constitution onto the public that didn’t have the support of liberals and leftists.
Despite all these differences, we cannot forget that Mursi was elected with 52% of the popular vote, more than U.S. President Barack Obama got in his last election. With this popular mandate, how could he surrender to the military’s ultimatum? “Over my dead body,” Mursi allegedly told the military officers sent to demand his resignation. And the immediate result of the forced removal of Mursi power was violence, with 51 Brotherhood supporters being killed by soldiers in Cairo this week. This massacre led the group to urge a revolt against the military.
The military quickly appointed civilians to head an interim government with Adli Mansur as interim president, Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister, and Mohamed el-Baradei as vice president. Mansur has issued a constitutional declaration calling for a constituent assembly in two weeks, a referendum on a new constitution in four months, parliamentary elections in February and presidential elections six months later. Al-Beblawi already said ministerial posts will be offered to members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Brotherhood, and the Islamist Nour party. But it is unlikely that members of the Brotherhood will accept positions in the interim government responsible for toppling Mursi.
Right now Egypt is a powder keg ready to explode at any provocation. The despair and anguish that millions of Egyptians are feeling upon seeing their leader deposed by the military is understandable, and that is why politicians on both sides will have to work hard to calm people down and try to find an acceptable solution for everyone. Former senator Egyptian Mona Makramebeid said this week to Christiane Amanpour of CNN that a political accommodation would take a while. “It will take time. We have to send out positive messages. The opposition has to stop with the demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood and strive to work together. After all, they worked together in the past to overthrow the Mubarak regime,” she said.
But will the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt mark the end of political Islam? Many would say yes, but I doubt it. The French scholar Olivier Roy, who published the book “The failure of political Islam” in 1992, said in this week’s “Economist” that the Brotherhood government imploded because they did not know how to run a modern state. He said the government was trying to Islamize a society that was already very religious, and that Islam does not have the detailed prescriptions necessary to run a modern state. At this point I agree in part. Mursi was not able to build political alliances with other Islamist parties, and much less with the opposition parties, something that would be essential to the success of his government. In Turkey and Morocco, Islamist parties have had to share power with other political parties in order to stay in power.
The West has to realize that the Egyptian progressives and liberals are a minority in the country, and that most are religious and conservative. The U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson, knows this and built an American policy of trying to get closer to the Brotherhood after decades of neglect. “Anne has since her earliest days in Egypt noted that the liberal Egyptians are the favorite contacts of Washington think tanks, the U.S. Congress and the State Department. Maybe they are talented and creative, but they are not necessarily representative of the 80 million Egyptians,” said an American official to the Daily Beast website.
The danger now in Egypt is that the military, despite promising elections, may never leave power. They have not said whether they will allow Brotherhood candidates to participate in the parliamentary and presidential elections. And if a Brotherhood candidate is elected president, will the military allow him to take office? We’ve seen what happened in Algeria in 1992, when the military stopped the Islamists from coming to power despite winning democratic elections. We will have to wait at least another six months to see if the Egyptian military will honor their word or not. But I’m not betting a lot on them.
Link to original column in Portuguese: http://glo.bo/18RHmRf
The dilemma facing Islamists in the Arab world
This is a translation from the Portuguese of my column that appeared in the April 6, 2012, edition of O Globo:
From amid the chaos of the Arab Spring uprisings for over a year now, the Islamists have been emerging victorious in more than one Arab country. From Morocco to Tunisia, and now Egypt, they have won a majority of parliamentary seats in democratic and free elections. But it is at this moment of glory they are also facing an almost existential dilemma: To be conservative and rigid in their Islam, or must they be pragmatic and build alliances with other non-Islamist parties?
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is perhaps the Islamist group that feels this challenge the most. Founded in 1928, the group was banned for the first time in 1948, when it had an estimated half a million members. In 1954 it was banned again by the nationalist President Gamal Abdul Nasser, and for decades after its members were brutally suppressed by the state, arrested and tortured. Islamists of the entire Arab world has also seen with alarm the brutal killing of up to 100,000 people in Algeria after the Islamists won a majority of seats in the first round of parliamentary elections in 1991 and the subsequent cancellation of the results by the Algerian military, which could not accept the victory of the Islamists.
The case of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip since June 2007, also causes doubts in the minds of the Islamists on how much success an Islamist government an achieve in the region due to strong resistance against this type of ideology by Israel and the West. Formed as a branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1987, Hamas has always been a fundamentalist group of conservative thought and totally against any kind of peace with Israel. This has made life very difficult for Hamas, with economic and political embargoes against the group by the United States and the European Union who have classified the group as a terrorist. In contrast, the West Bank is ruled by Fatah, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has always been secular and more willing to negotiate with the Israelis and Americans. You can see that despite the many restrictions imposed by Israel in the West Bank, and numerous Jewish settlements, the area is much calmer than the Gaza Strip, and therefore its Palestinian population suffers less than their relatives in Gaza.
The model of Turkey, which has been a secular republic since 1923, but has had an Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party, since 2002, is often cited as a good example of how to unite moderate Islam with democracy. But the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, acted brutally against the Islamists, banning the veil for women in his attempt to modernize Turkey at any cost, something that never happened in an Arab country.
The professor of international relations at Tufts University in the US, Malik Mufti, recently wrote a paper on how to transform Syria into a democracy in which the nationalist-secular camp is balanced with the Islamists. For this, he says it would take some sort of agreement between the secular and Islamist forces, as happened in Turkey, with all strongly accepting a diverse and pluralistic political system, holding the people as the source of political authority, and the embracement of democratic political parties and regular elections.
I see this limits to this endeavor because the conditions under which democracy grew in Turkey were due to circumstances specific to that country. Turkey is a NATO member since 1952, made a member so as to be a bulwark against the expansion of Soviet influence in the Middle East during the Cold War. This was crucial for modernizing, training and professionalizing the Turkish armed forces, which are the second largest force in NATO after the United States. Despite having participated in at least four coups against governments that the military thought were straying from the democratic and secular path, Mufti thinks that the Turkish military will ultimately not derail democracy in Turkey.
The problem I see in applying this concept in Egypt is that its armed forces, which are currently in power through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, are unfortunately not as professional as the Turks, and do not have the confidence of a good part of the electorate, who thinks they want to stay on in power behind the scenes after a new president is elected in May.
Some members of the Brotherhood in Egypt have admitted being afraid of the dangers that can come with power. They do not want to provoke an unnecessary war with Israel or the United States, fully aware that a fight with one of these powers could cause a huge setback against the Islamists. The US and Israel, for their part, are not stupid, and seeing the size of the popular support that Islamists have garnered across he Arab world, are trying to befriend them. It remains to be seen how each side will play their cards.