Category: Middle East

Iran: Rouhani’s election

Iran’s Guardian Council confirmed the reelection of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani on 30 May. Elections were held on 10 May, with Rouhani receiving 57% of the vote, beating the conservative Ebrahim Raisi – the ayatollah’s pick – who received 38.5%. The contentious campaign period, which included extraordinary remarks by Rouhani as well as criticism by Ayatollah Khamenei, indicate that ultra-conservative factions remain strongly opposed to Rouhani’s reelection, as well as the policies he presents, the most important of which is the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Hardliners called for an investigation following the polls, citing alleged voting irregularities, however, this tactic is now moot following the Guardian Council decision on 30 May. Despite Rouhani’s popular mandate, it is unclear whether the 2nd term win will allow greater room for manoeuvre and reform: ultra-conservative elements are expected to significantly increase their opposition to Ruhani and his reform policies. Powerful factional rivalries are emerging as groups seek placement ahead of succession negotiations which will follow the death of ailing Supreme Leader Ali  Khamenei, now 77. The electoral win marks an important yet incipient step in the internal balance of power against hardline influence within the state, and society at large. However, structural factors, namely the entrenched power of the revolutionary elite, including the subjection of policy changes to the Supreme Leader for approval, who takes into consideration the vested interests of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), will limit Rouhani’s freedom of movement in actualising much-needed reform. Thorough economic and political patronage networks underpin the regime, the most powerful organs of which include the office of the Supreme Leader, the executive council and the IRGC, whose business interests control an estimated 30% of the overall economy. Rouhani essentially owes his position to this regime; however, his apparent liberal bent is a hedged bet on the long-term outlook for the country, which includes a gradual opening up of Iranian society.  The IRGC fear that liberalisation and foreign investments will threaten their vested commercial and political interests, built out of and in the isolation of the post-1979 Islamic Republic. Rouhani will retain considerable political influence in the meantime, due to his centrist coalition’s majority in parliament, and is expected to primarily pursue economic liberalisation as a means to leverage political and social reforms, supported by a grassroots majority that indicated in the recent polls that the revolutionary era has outlived its usefulness. This ground level change rooted in Iran’s youthful demography threatens the revolutionary-conservative consensus but is also driving a gradual liberalisation of the political sphere, as evidenced by the comprehensive victory of reformist candidates during city council elections, including in Tehran and in Mashhad – Raisi’s hometown. In the long run, the IRGC is expected to retain the upper hand due to its increasing institutional penetration, allied with hardline conservative factions. Furthermore, the election of Donald Trump, along with inflammatory remarks against the Islamic Republic will give the hardliners the ammunition needed to take aim at Rouhani, and the nuclear deal which promised greater economic rewards through the lifting of investment barring sanctions, in exchange for limitations on Iran’s nuclear program – rewards which have thus far been disappointing. The IRGC have returned Trump’s bellicose remarks by engaging in provocative actions in recent months. This includes both ballistic missile tests which violate UN resolutions, and the harassment of maritime vessels in the Persian Gulf. These actions compromise the detente with the West advocated by Rouhani, which may undermine the president and his reform agenda.

A quick talk with Joel Wing @ MusingsOnIraq

What are Sunni – Shia relations in the country like today?

Relations between the sects in Iraq are complicated as ever. The Sunni community has suffered from deep divisions ever since the 2003 U.S. invasion. The Sunni provincial politicians are largely siding with the Shiite led government in Baghdad because they are on the frontline against the Islamic State. The main Sunni party Mutahidun in Baghdad is unwilling to compromise with the Shiite coalition the National Alliance on things like the National Guard bill even though it would help their constituency. The tribes are all over the place. Some have sided with the Islamic State, some are with Baghdad, and some are sitting on the fence. On the Shiite side there is a lot of suspicion about Sunnis being IS sympathizers. Populations in cities like Mosul have been written off, and the huge number of displaced from places like Anbar are seen as potential threats as well. Ironically, what the two communities have in common is that they both feel like they are victims. The difference is that they blame each other for their plight.

What is the extent of U.S. involvement in Iraq today?

The U.S. has a number of different programs going on in Iraq. Besides the much publicized air strikes it also has a training program going on which is focused upon both the Iraqi Security Forces and some tribal fighters in Anbar. It also has joint command centers to help strategize against the Islamic State. Finally, Washington is providing military material like anti-tank missiles, fighter jets, etc. There is talk that it might increase its involvement with more targeted raids as well. There is a lot of criticism of the U.S. commitment, but it is in line with the Obama administration’s plan to contain the insurgency.

What role does Iran play in the country?

Iran is doing a lot for Iraq. Its pilots are flying Iraqi attack jets, it’s provided a huge amount of equipment from rockets to tanks to guns and ammunition. It has deployed frontline advisers and has its own joint command center with the Iraqi forces. It is funding the pro-Tehran Hashd groups. When the Islamic State first took Mosul Iran offered Baghdad a blank check because Iraq was an ally and the militants were a threat to Tehran as well. At the same time, Iran is trying to copy its Syrian policy in Iraq, which is based upon building up its allied forces in the Hashd which are loosely connected to the state, dominate strategy, and promote itself as the protector of the Shiite. They have been very successful so far as seen by the ubiquitous presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force Commander Gen. Suleimani at major battles and in social media.

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How representative of all major groups is the government in Baghdad today?

Every government in Iraq since 2003 has been a national unity one, meaning every party that wins a seat in parliament is given a position in the administration. This is codified in an ethnosectarian quota system that dolls out all the top spots to the various communities and political parties. That’s a huge source of weakness as parties that both support and oppose the government are all in office leading to general deadlock on most major issues.

  is the author of the excellent Musings On Iraq (http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.co.uk/) which was started in 2008 to explain the political, economic, security and cultural situation in Iraq via original articles and interviews. He has written for the Jamestown Foundation, Tom Ricks’ Best Defense at Foreign Policy and the Daily Beast, and was responsible for a chapter in the book Volatile Landscape: Iraq And Its Insurgent Movements. His work has been published in Iraq via AK News, Al-Mada, Sotaliraq, All Iraq News, and Ur News. He was interviewed on CCTV, and have appeared in CNN, the Christian Science Monitor, The National, Columbia Journalism Review, Mother Jones, PBS’ Frontline, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Institute for the Study of War, Radio Free Iraq, and others and has also been cited in Iraq From war To A New Authoritarianism by Toby Dodge, Imagining the Nation Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-Political Conflict in Iraq by Harith al-Qarawee, ISIS Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassahn, The Rise of the Islamic State by Patrick Cocburn, and others.

Elections in Egypt

“We don’t know anything about these candidates so I’m not going to give my vote to someone who doesn’t deserve it”,  19 year old Michael Bassili from Alexandria.

Egypt has just completed its first round of parliamentary elections since the main chamber was dissolved in 2012. Voter turnout was expectedly low, with one newspaper calling it an “election without voters”, reflecting a lack of confidence in the new electoral system. Young voters who make up the majority of Egypt’s population were largely absent. This may be a challenge for President Sisi who has been counting on a strong turnout to legitimize the push for reforms needed to stabilize both the political sphere and the economy in order to attract new investments and reduce dependence on financial aid from Gulf states.

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The past 4 years have been a period of political turmoil as many of the gains following the 2011 ousting of former president Mubarak have been reversed via legal and military means. Mubarak’s resignation was followed by the country’s first democratic elections leading to Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leader Muhammed Morsi becoming president in June 2012. In the same month the Supreme Constitutional Court declared the then electoral laws unconstitutional and ordered the dissolution of parliament then dominated by the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party. Protests followed against Morsi’s ‘Islamist’ policies resulting in military intervention and the arrest of the president in July 2013. An interim presidency under Adly Mansour followed; a new constitution was approved in Jan 2014; and presidential elections held which saw General Sisi swapping his uniform for a suit, winning 96% of the vote.

The first round of parliamentary elections were held on October 18-19 in 14 of Egypt’s 27 governorates. Round two is scheduled for November 22-23 in the rest of the country including Cairo and the troubled Sinai peninsula. The new parliamentary law of 2014 establishes a mixed electoral system and increases the number of representatives to 596. Of these seats, 20% are for candidates from party-lists, 5% appointed by the president, and 75% for individual candidates – meant to minimise the strength of opposition blocs in the new parliament according to critics. “There are very few fierce regime critics who are participating in the electoral process and so clearly they have managed this election in such a way that is not going to be a representative parliament with a fully empowered opposition that is seeking to challenge the government.” said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

‘For the Love of Egypt’, a pro-government coalition of loyalist parties, politicians and wealthy businessmen and coordinated by former intelligence officer Sameh Seif El-Yazal, won all 60 seats allocated for party-based lists in the first round.  Al Nour, having lost much support after endorsing Morsi’s overthrow, failed to win seats in the initial poll but gained 10 seats in the run -off.  273 candidates have secured seats in the upcoming parliament thus far.

Critics of the new electoral laws call it a “selective process of elite reconfiguration” – a way of maximising the probability of a desired outcome i.e. no ‘Islamists’ or powerful regime opposition groupings. Support for Sisi is generally rooted in the entrenched role of the military in Egyptian society, and the fact that security concerns have produced “a reactionary movement…quieting the impulse for change”. The new parliament is widely seen as unlikely to challenge the executive and is expected to endorse decrees made by Sisi since he assumed power, including a number of draconian measures meant to deal with security threats affecting the country, from the insurgency in the Sinai province to disruptions caused by regular street demonstrations by the MB and other opposition figures.