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As Easter Sunday dawns, my tenure as Director of the Rafik Hariri Center ends, along with my fulltime affiliation with the Atlantic Council. Leaving behind a Hariri Center team that personifies grace, diligence, decency, expertise, initiative, and collegiality will not be easy: it is the finest group of people with whom I have worked in nearly (oh my God) fifty years of professional life. But it is time for this superb Center to have new and, by definition, younger leadership.

When I joined the Atlantic Council and the Hariri Center in late 2012, I had no idea that I would one day be the Center’s Director. I came to work on Syria.

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Egyptians are going to the polls to vote in a presidential election for the third time since the uprisings of 2011. The act of voting for a president who could, ostensibly, be voted out was a novelty. Hosni Mubarak served five six-year terms before stepping down in February of 2011, and Egyptians were keen on taking advantage of their new rights. This election, however, is likely to see a low turnout at the polls.

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Polls opened at 9am local time on Monday, March 26th, in the first of three days of expected voting for the next president of Egypt. With Abel-Fattah El-Sisi projected to win against his only challenger, Moussa Moustafa Moussa from the al-Ghad Party, the incumbent government is pushing for the highest possible voter turnout to bolster the legitimacy of the election - Egypt’s third since its 2011 revolution. This will prove to be a challenge, however, as Sisi's victory is so safely secured that he hardly campaigned, and "it is viewed by many in Egypt as a referendum rather than an election," according to Egypt expert Mirette Mabrouk. 

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Disappointment surrounding Tunisia’s democratic transition abounds in the country, and the volatile economy adds a degree of difficulty to politicians’ agendas. Economic development is always a long and arduous process, but the current strategy is clearly inadequate. Tunisians call on the government to do more to pull the economy out of stagnation by increasing public investment, providing jobs, and undertaking infrastructure projects. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU) insist the Tunisian government pull back government subsidies and increase taxes. Tunisia must balance the need to provide economic opportunity and governmental services against the demands of the IMF. The solution is not in pursuing economic reforms alone, but also political reforms that supplement and support a healthy economy. Increased transparency, accountability, and good governance are essential in improving the economy and satisfying the population’s desire for jobs, technology, and opportunities.

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The political situation in Libya has slowly reached one of apparent paralysis while the military situation is continually evolving with frequent clashes across the country. Given the lack of any progress, the whole approach undertaken by the international community has clearly failed and desperately needs a new strategy. Political negotiation alone, without one that engages the various militias, will not yield new gains. One adjustment to the strategy could include investing in the development of local authorities at the municipal level and engaging them in the slow process of reconstructing state-society relations—an essential component of state rebuilding.

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The next Israeli confrontation with its neighbors will be markedly different from its previous encounters. Recent military escalation in Syria that resulted in the downing of an Israeli F16 in February, points to new trends that could shape future conflict between Israel and Iran.

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While women in the Middle East and North Africa still face critical challenges, it is worth noting recent progress on the occasion of international women’s day. Many countries across the Middle East have taken recent steps to codify certain rights for their female citizens. With the introduction of quotas for their legislative bodies, female representation in parliament in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia has jumped since 2011. Last year, lawmakers in Tunisia, Jordan, and Lebanon repealed provisions in their penal codes allowing rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims. Even Saudi Arabia has taken a progressive step and issued a royal decree in September 2017 allowing women to drive.

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Algeria has a problem knocking on its door: Libya. A relative powerhouse in North Africa, a combination of political and economic issues has weakened Algeria in recent years, limiting its engagement in Libya while it dealt with its more immediate concerns at home. Despite these challenges, Algeria may step up in the face of continued instability in Libya. However, after years of taking only limited action, Algeria is left with a weak hand to deal.

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Hezbollah’s power and resilience at the Lebanese level is not only derived from its military might and Tehran’s constant backing, but more importantly, from the tireless support of its Lebanese Shia Muslim community base. The allegiance of Lebanese Shia to Hezbollah is widely known to be rooted in the party’s capability to win hearts and minds through its social program and the organization’s nearly forty year struggle against Israel and more recently its “war on terror.” Yet ultimately, what makes the bond between Hezbollah and its base so strong is the feeling among many Shia, within the more popular classes, that Hezbollah’s arsenal guarantees political ascendancy and social mobility within the Lebanese system.

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As early as 2007, while serving as Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy from 2004-2007, I argued that the central government needed to pay attention to legitimate grievances to prevent constant warfare in the north and a potential secession of the south. At the time, the late president Ali Abdullah Saleh prohibited foreign diplomats from visiting the Saada region in the north, claiming that security conditions made any trip there a dangerous proposition. My colleagues and I, however, frequently visited the south.  

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