By Sourajit Aiyer
This contribution has been written by Sourajit Aiyer, who will provide in the next issue of EUFAJ 3-14 which will appear in September 2014 an article about the South East Asian ASEAN countries and why they are so popular now with young professionals. The author has written many contributions to Asian economic papers and is a finance professional in India. The views expressed here are entirely personal.
Seeing the recent events across some of the Muslim countries during the last Holy Month and imagining how these events might impact their future, one is tempted to use the phrase of Barack Obama – “the audacity of hope” (made famous during his Boston Convention speech in 2004). It is said humans remember good things. But more humans remember the bad things, and recent events made this Ramadan memorable for the wrong reasons. It might be opportune to see if one can hope whether their future can be better than their present and how so – i.e. hoping if the next Ramadan might be a better memory. The text concentrates mainly on Palestine and Pakistan, but it looks at seven other Muslim countries as well.
In the Israel-Palestine conflict, or rather the Israel-Hamas conflict, the common-man in Gaza paid a price as Israel and Hamas tossed the ping-pong on who started it – Hamas for firing rockets, or Israel for its Gaza blockade and not releasing some prisoners. Israel justified with its right to defend itself. Hamas alleged that Israel’s exit from Gaza in 2005 under Ariel Sharon was a practical sham, as Israel still maintained controls around Gaza’s borders. To which Israel cited examples of weapon-smuggling secret tunnels, or the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) apprehending a Gaza-bound Iranian ship carrying missiles as evidence of Hamas’s murkier objectives. All is not well within Palestine either. Internal bickering for power, with a violent confrontation between Fatah and Hamas in 2007, left them “divided” by Palestinians themselves – Hamas in Gaza and Fatah (and Palestine Authority) in West Bank. But where does this leave Gaza’s common-man? Lives of Palestinians in West Bank might not be perfect (be it in Area A, B or C) due to limited jobs, education and movement difficulties. However, violence has been relatively lower in West Bank recently. Salman Fayyad as Prime Minister (though his appointment by Mahmoud Abbas was debated) won some kudos due to his focus on economics, infrastructure and building institutions for governance in West Bank. While Israel is partly to blame for its offensive against Gaza’s innocents, somewhere Hamas’ way of working also seems a reason aggravating violence which made basic survival for Gaza’s residents difficult. At least the Palestinians in West Bank do not live in constant fear for daily survival. Many may not agree and may choose to defend Hamas’ ideology. But the current conflict does seem more to have as much to do with Hamas’ actions, as much about Israeli high-handedness, and less about the Palestinian cause itself. After Hamas fought Fatah and seized control of Gaza in 2007, it was not just Israel that up-ed its ante. Even Egypt closed its Rafah-border at various times since 2007 as secret tunnels smuggling weapons were discovered, except during when Hamas’ ally, the Muslim Brotherhood, ruled Egypt. It is alleged that Hamas still does not see eye-to-eye on many aspects with Fatah (and Palestine Authority), and doubts persist on who is the one leader of “all” of Palestine.
How does one make the next Ramadan a better memory for Palestinians? I have no right or authority to opine on the posturings of Hamas or IDF. Each side has its own rationale. But it is high-time the common-people of Gaza decide what is good for their future. They need to resolve their own internal politics first. Either they see a progressive future under Hamas, which did win the 2007 elections. The years from 2007 to 2014 should give some colour on Hamas’ governance abilities, especially after Israel eased its blockade for non-military goods in 2010. Otherwise, if they want to relocate to West Bank, then the authorities should facilitate it. However, allegations surfaced that Hamas recently forbid residents from fleeing Gaza, effectively putting them in the path of death. While images of corpses would be excellent public-relations for Hamas to defend its ideology and elicit sympathy, it would be sheer injustice on the very people they are supposed to govern. This does not paint a positive picture of Hamas – and it might be as much to blame as Israel for the suffering of Gaza’s innocents. Such a comment on Hamas is controversial and many may disagree. But incidents since 2007 do put question-marks on Hamas’ intentions. Allegations that Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ Palestinian Prime Minister, made a fortune taking a 20% unofficial tax on goods coming through Rafah’s secret tunnels and built palatial homes for himself and some of his 13 children around Rimal while most Gaza residents remain economically backward, tarnish Hamas’s intentions to govern in an institutionalized manner. Palestinians need to put their own house in order and stabilize Fatah-Hamas relations, or else its internal politics would be disastrous. The entire world rightly sympathizes with Gaza’s plight. But they also need to decide if their sympathy is for Hamas, or for Gaza’s common people or for Gaza’s identity within a united Palestine (which the Hamas-Fatah bickering is overshadowing). Even amongst regional powers, Gaza seems just a pawn. As per media reports, Iran and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are alleged to support Hamas, while Saudi Arabia seems opposed as it remains watchful of its rival – Iran. Even oil-rich Qatar finds itself in this tussle for influence over Hamas, as it tries to garner a bigger role in regional politics as a key mediator. Hamas’ Khaled Mashaal is already residing in the Qatari capital, Doha, after he had to shift base from Syria following the civil war there.
Next, an equally critical aspect is enhancing economic opportunities for Palestinian people so that their quality of life improves. Most Palestinians are uneducated and unskilled, and capable only for blue-collared jobs. Many are shop assistants in handicraft/garment/trinket/food stalls, as per Christian pilgrim tourists who visit the historical towns of Bethlehem, Hebron and Jericho in southern West Bank. The world should understand that, despite all their sympathies, till the time all Palestinians are able to access secondary, university or vocational education, they will not progress ever. They will remain economically backward and may be susceptible to radical groups due to the lack of adequate education and income opportunities. The only way out is if they get access to education and better jobs. One solution is night-schools for working adults, as it can make them capable for higher-paying work by developing skills related to communication, arithmetic and vocations. College enrolment for the students is another, through scholarships to universities abroad. This would make them capable for higher-level of work than their parents – albeit in other countries for now until opportunities pick up in Palestine’s economy. Even then, remittance from foreign workers can be a key source of revenue – case in point being Bangladesh, India, Philippines and Pakistan. Its neighbours can offer practical support. India itself has been a destination for university students from many conflict-ridden Asian and African countries, including Palestinian students. A criticism to these suggestions is that even if Palestinians become capable for better jobs or set up own businesses, Israeli control over West Bank’s Area B and C means opportunities for Palestinian commerce to flow freely would be severely restricted. However, a practical guess is that any effort towards economic development might be welcomed by all concerned, as this would mean gainful employment for Palestinians and steady income for its government. This would make its establishment more stable and less susceptible to internal disturbances and regional influences. Such a situation might be encouraged by the world, including Israel, as it would make the region more peaceful. Economics and commerce is often the best solution, and can achieve what politics and military cannot.
Moving to economic opportunities for the government itself – income opportunities for Palestine are few. Tax receipts from Israel have been a key source – i.e. custom duties on Palestine-bound imports into Israel and taxes from Palestinians who work in Israel. But this is susceptible to sanctions, which depends on incidents of violence. Ismail Haniyeh had in the past ignored such sanctions, which raises questions if Hamas had non-legitimate income due to which the loss of tax income did not matter to him. This again raises doubts on Hamas’ intentions to govern properly. Another vital source of income for Palestine is foreign aid. According to Global Humanitarian Assistance, Palestine was amongst the Top-5 recipients of global aid in 2011, along with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Ethiopia. In fact, the Muslim world is partly to blame for Palestine’s plight here. Despite all the solidarity, actual aid from Muslim countries has actually been far less than Western nations. For instance, during the 2007 Donor Conference in Paris, Europe led with over 50% of the pledges, and USA-Canada about 11%. The Arab countries together made 20% of the pledges. Even if one contends that the West acted due to its own selfish interests, it is also true that many Arab nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are enormously prosperous on a “per capita basis” due to oil spoils. Higher commitments from them would show their solidarity for Palestine in more practical terms. Higher assistance to development projects can win goodwill, in the same way US assistance to Egypt is believed to have helped normalize Israel-Egypt relations in 1979.
Lastly, Israel needs to concentrate more on the Palestinians in Israel-Proper. The Palestinian cause has often centered around those in the Occupied Territories and abroad, and the Palestinians in Israel remained neglected. They make up 20% of Israel’s population, but still remain marginalized. It might be in Israel’s interests to assimilate them even more inclusively within their society – be it in schools, colleges, markets, offices, etc. This might help improve their standard of living and well-being, and “contented people make peaceful nations”!!! Jews have a paranoia that their community is reducing, while Palestinians have a higher reproduction rate (common in poverty-stricken communities globally where families earn lower income with inadequate healthcare, hence an ill-placed perception that larger families mean more working hands). However, as families grow prosperous and expenses increase to maintain higher standard of living, education tuition, medi-care etc, the family size reduces due to affordability concerns. One hopes the experience of Palestinians in Israel might be the same if they do become prosperous, and this might help quell the fear of population numbers that Jews have. It would also create an incentive for Palestinians and Jews to regard each other with lesser hostility. In conclusion, one cannot say if the One-State or Two-State dilemma for Israel-Palestine will ever be resolved. Tenders for Jewish housing development in West Bank settlements have increased in Benjamin Netanyahu’s current term, as compared to his earlier term or those of Sharon and Olmert earlier. This does not raise optimism on Israel’s intentions of ever eventually granting Palestinians control over West Bank in entirety. But seeing the Israel-Hamas events, it must be understood that improvement in education and income opportunities as well as resolution of internal politics is absolutely imperative for Palestine to avoid unrest and make their future brighter. Just sympathies will not do. Otherwise, they continue to stare at a bleak future, and some might become easy poaching for radical groups in case such groups are the only avenue offering them a source of income.
Amongst other Arab-Muslim nations, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria continue to struggle in the post-Arab Spring world. It is a tragedy tearing the legacies of historical cities like Damascus, Aleppo, Cairo and Baghdad to tatters. In Syria, Bashar Assad starting his 3rd term means the conflict would continue until a ceasefire is announced or till the rebels (and their foreign backers) drop their guns. Foreign aid is the only way for any normalcy ahead, given the abject destruction to homes, basic facilities and normal economic life. In Libya, opposing forces across Tripoli, Sirte and Benghazi continue to battle. Weapons have found their way in the hands of civilians, creating continued lawlessness. Some years back, Lebanon addressed its issue of civilian weapons with a scheme to replace them with free mobile phones. But mobiles were a novelty then, not so much now. Libya needs to take weapons out of civilian hands and take the people out of its cities’ battlefields by employing them, maybe in oil or infrastructure projects. Till then, Libya would burn. In Iraq, while Shia-Sunni sectarianism was always a thorn for Nouri Maliki, recent weeks saw it worsen. ISIS, the Salafi/Sunni group, increased its hold across areas of Nineveh and Anbar, including key towns like Mosul and Fallujah. Anbar has strategic importance, as the province borders Jordan and a vital access route. The future holds a long-drawn offensive. But with western armies weakened by years of fighting, mediation by regional Middle East biggies might hold some weight instead for Iraq’s future – especially those who have sway over Salafi/Wahabbi entities. Egypt might be the only one out of these four which can hope of a better Ramadan next time. After tumultuous years of civil disturbance as Hosni Mubarak’s regime and Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist government were ousted, Abdel Fattah might provide some stability. Tensions remain, given the depth of Muslim Brotherhood’s penetration into villages through its network of social services built over few decades. With an over 80 million population, Egypt is a sizable middle-income consumer market. A stable government would put Egypt back on the road to development (albeit with some foreign assistance into projects). It was seeing economic and income opportunities for its youth, if commercial developments like Smart Village near 6th of October City/Giza are any indication. Economic revival from here on should spell a better Ramadan for Egypt next time.
Amongst non-Arab Muslim nations, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia need a mention. Malaysia’s case is truly saddening. Many of its citizens lost their lives in two plane crashes, for no fault of theirs. The first crash remains a mystery. In the second, Malaysians still ask why they got caught in the Ukraine-Russia tussle. Given the nature of the incidents, its citizens did not even get a dignified death. While the memories of the lost ones would plague its next Ramadan, one hopes a swift conclusion to the investigations and apprehending of the actual culprits might offer some justice. Iran and Indonesia can look forward to some positivity. A furniture exporter turned city-mayor, Joko Widodo just became Indonesia’s President. It is the first time that someone outside the military or elite won the top office. His grassroots style of functioning by going within the people endeared him to the population. The result remains a debate due to the legal challenge filed by the opposing contender, former army-man Subianto, on the Election Commission. Nevertheless, the world’s largest Muslim nation, and world’s 4th most populous at about 250 million, can look at its future with optimism after a lackluster 2nd term under President Susilo. Indonesia’s economic potential is enormous, given its young population and vast natural resources. It has to play a bigger role among emerging-economies, and in ASEAN and G-20. Countries seeking to invest in projects in Indonesia or market their products to its growing workforce will keep a watch now on Widodo’s upcoming policies and reforms. Overall, Indonesia spells good news. Iran saw some good news under Hassan Rouhani’s leadership. After undergoing years of harsh sanctions, 2013-end saw Iran reach an interim deal with 6 super-powers to reduce some of those sanctions in return for a short-term freeze on some of its nuclear programme. The deal unlocked few billions of relief from sanctions for Iran, an economy that was in dire straits indeed. Though the 6-month deadline for the final deal had to be extended by another 4 months since the two sides could not agree on certain aspects despite negotiations ongoing through Ramadan, one hopes that some concessions would be agreed upon eventually before the November deadline. That may bode better news for Iran in the months ahead.
For Pakistan, its armed operation in North Waziristan could not have come at a worse time. There was criticism that the government delayed the offensive, but giving peace talks a chance first was also needed. While it aims to put legislations in place to address the Internally Displaced People (IDP) issue, it should look to build formal settlement colonies for them. Informal refugee camps are prone to crime and health risks. Formal colonies might be a durable long-term solution. Such colonies would ensure basic standards of living, housing and essential services to the IDPs. Of course, it presupposes that they may not want to return to the conflict areas in the near-future, as only then would the government’s investment be worth it. If the government’s resources are inadequate to fund such colony projects, it may use external assistance. Apart from the $6 billion IMF loan, $12 billion World Bank funding, $2 billion of Eurobonds, China has also agreed to invest $32 billion over the next 5-years in energy, transport and infrastructure through its EXIM Bank. This additional $52 billion is estimated to double its existing level of external debt –a worry for repayment. A portion of China’s infrastructure assistance could be utilized to develop settlement colony projects. South Asian political expert Christine Fair suggested in an interview related to her book “Fighting to the End, Pakistan Army’s Way of War” that this offensive was done simply for the country to make a case to continue receiving military assistance and support cheques from USA. This was based on US Senator Carl Levin’s proviso in the National Defense Authorization Act for financial year (FY) 2015 that suggested making further assistance contingent to an operation in TTP areas. Pakistan might try allocating some of these US cheques to fund IDP settlement projects. In any case, the time-period of displacement that the IDPs are staring at is questionable. There is criticism that many insurgents might already have crossed into the Afghan province of Khost before the offensive started, given the governments’ prior warnings. Those extremists might return to haunt Waziristan. Or else they might head for other restive regions like Xinjiang, Kashmir, Nuristan or Paktika, in which case Pakistan’s neighbours should beware. Another aspect is easing IDPs’ movements between provinces. There were allegations of Sindh restricting entry for IDPs, although it maintained its objective was to scrutinize militants passing off as IDPs. Another is of assistance to the host communities. These are the families who play host to the displaced people. They have to share their resources, often meager, with many more mouths. At such times, the government should subsidize some essential resources for the hosts. A challenge is to track the households as they are scattered, unlike in refugee camps. Another is checking if they are genuine IDPs. Full coverage of IDP registration cards would help, as well as centers in towns where IDPs are headed. Subsidizing resources for host communities might help settle the lives of the IDPs and hosts, and minimize the added burden. It is essential that Pakistan settles this conflict. Much-needed foreign/private investment will flow in only when its issue of internal security is adequately addressed. The country has a sizable workforce, intelligent graduates and natural resources, and can achieve much more than its current track-record. Its local industries will have to compete with cheap Chinese imports, as China might want access to Pakistan’s consumer base in return for its generous assistance. This might limit opportunities for local Pakistani industries and job creation. Nevertheless, even some addition to economic activity would be useful, given the gap between its supply of graduates and demand from companies. Currently, some Pakistani youth seem to find employment in aid agencies or as self-employed contractors. As the US exits Afghanistan, some aid agencies might opt to shift base to worse-hit regions like Ukraine, Syria etc, thus impacting local jobs. In short, Pakistan has no choice but to create more jobs, entrepreneurship and revitalize its local industries. Dependence on US support cheques might keep the government solvent, but it will not create adequate economic opportunities for all its educated youth, who will continue to struggle to find enough good-paying jobs unless economic activity picks up. For this, achieving sustained internal security would give a definite hope for the future.
In conclusion, the recent experiences of these nine Muslim countries discussed above have been a mixed bag during this recent Holy Month. Some seem to be on the road for a better tomorrow, while some seem quite far from it. How the next few months actually turn out is anybody’s guess. The attempt in this text was to list some of those guesses. Irrespective, the hope still remains that the next Holy Month would be memorable one for the right reasons, and would spell a better future for ALL the nations even though such a hope seems audacious now for SOME of these countries.