Letter to (Some) Liberals: Israel is Here to Stay

Over in the United Kingdom, a controversy has been brewing as Ken Livingston, the former mayor of London, was suspended from the Labour Party for comments that were deemed anti-semitic. A few weeks before, a Harvard Law student was criticized for calling a visiting Israeli politician “smelly.” And before that, the University of California released a statement condemning anti-semitism in response to accusations that criticism of Israeli policy had taken on a more sinister tone. Across the United States and Europe, it appears that a minority of liberals has begun to express opposition to the very idea of Israel’s right to exist. While criticism of Israeli policies are usually completely justified, the claim that Israel has no right to exist is at odds with liberal ideology.

The recent surge in anti-zionism has its roots in liberal opposition to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Over this course of this occupation, Israel has built illegal settlements on Palestinian land, has arguably responded to Palestinian protest with excess force, has blockaded the Gaza Strip, and has enforced overtly discriminatory policies. There is widespread consensus that these actions constitute human-rights abuses. On top of it all, the current Israeli government has shown little commitment to restoring peace and dignity to the Palestinians. As a result, it is no surprise that liberals, who value equality and the respect of human rights, object to Israel’s actions. Yet channeling opposition of these policies into a hatred of Israel is a gross oversimplification of a complex conflict. Thus, while the criticism of Israel’s policies can and perhaps should be encouraged, the small group of liberals that condemns Israel’s mere existence should rethink their beliefs.

Israel was founded as a refuge for persecuted Jews. In the years following the Holocaust, it became clear that such a refuge would be a welcome addition to the world. Now, its Jewish residents have called it home for generations. Over the years, it has developed into the strongest democracy in the Middle East. It has a prosperous economy and is a beacon of stability in an unstable region. For that reason, it is a stalwart military ally of the West. It is unfortunate that such progress came at the expense of Palestinians, but to argue that Israel should be dissolved is foolish based on both strategic realities and liberal principles.

To many, it appears that Israeli Jews have switched sides. They’ve gone from the oppressed to the oppressor. And because they are the oppressor, that means that some liberals consider them the enemy. Such reasoning is incoherent. To direct one’s anger at millions of innocent Israeli Jews is an example of the same generalization and lack of empathy that many liberals take pride in loathing. While Israel certainly is oppressing Palestine, we must still remember that Israel is a nation of individuals who, like everyone else, deserve our consideration. Those who condemn Israel’s existence seem to forget that.

For this reason, criticisms of Israel should be kept within the realm of politics. We must always feel free to criticize policies and governments, but we must refrain from judging an entire country or people. It is judgements like these that we liberals hate most. This is a very complicated conflict, and we liberals owe it to both the Israelis and Palestinians to consider every facet of the issue before coming to a conclusion.

“Elections” in Equatorial Guinea: A Prediction

Equatorial Guinea has all the trappings of an African paradise. With emerald forests and frontage on the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Guinea, it is absolutely beautiful. Yet these waters hold more than just beauty. They hold oil. They hold so much oil that Equatorial Guinea has become Africa’s third largest oil producer, making it the continent’s richest country in the process. It has a GDP (PPP) per capita higher than South Korea or Spain, yet 60% of the population lives on less than one dollar per day. The government funnels the oil wealth into offshore accounts, Parisian mansions, exotic supercars, and extravagant construction projects, neglecting the people along the way. On Sunday, that government will stand for re-election. And it will win.

At the helm of Equatorial Guinea’s kleptocracy is a man named Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Having run the country since 1979, he is the longest ruling head of state in all of Africa. And despite being called a “president” who will stand in an “election,” he certainly isn’t going anywhere come Sunday. He has the Equatoguinean government firmly in his iron grip. By filling government posts with his family and clan members, he commands total loyalty from his subordinates. By funneling oil wealth into their accounts, he can stave off the possibility of internal opposition. By granting contracts to foreign corporations, his human-rights abuses are ignored by the international community. By neglecting to educate his citizens, popular unrest is unlikely. By intimidating the minuscule political opposition, any vehicle of popular unrest is squelched. With the country in such a dire state despite its valuable resources, it is not unreasonable to wonder how Obiang managed to build such a repressive political system. So how did he create such a thing? Well, he didn’t. He inherited it.

When Equatorial Guinea became independent from Spain in 1968, it had a booming timber and cacao industry. Spain helped to write a constitution and hold democratic elections. Yet years of colonial rule had taken their toll on the young country. With only a tiny educated elite, a man named Francisco Macías Nguema exploited the ethnic divisions of the uneducated majority and rose to power on a wave of xenophobic, ethnocentric nationalism. He promptly expelled Spanish citizens and harassed foreign workers. The economy collapsed, and with it came the democratic institutions. Hundreds of thousands fled the country. Macías had his opponents imprisoned or executed and filled their government posts with members of his family. One of those to benefit from this nepotism was Obiang, who is Macías’ nephew. As the country wasted away and Macías grew deaf, blind, addicted to drugs, and insane, Obiang seized his chance and staged a coup d’état. When Macías was finally captured and executed, he vowed that his spirit would come back to haunt those who had conspired to topple him.

The location of Equatorial Guinea within West Africa
The location of Equatorial Guinea within West Africa

This is history, but it is also life. As a fairly young country, thousands of today’s Equatoguineans lived through the terror and bloodshed of Macías’ rule. They lived through the promise of independence and democracy that has, to this day, not yet been fulfilled. They watched as Obiang solidified his power using the same methods that had been passed down to him from his uncle. On Sunday, they will watch as he, once again, further consolidates his power.

In elections in 2009, Obiang won 95% of the vote. The leader of the only legal opposition party, Convergencia para la Democracia Social (CPDS), came in second place with 4%. The government lavishly funds its own political party, the PDGE, while repressing the opposition. It received the lowest possible score from Freedom House, an organization that measures democracy. The organization claims that the media is dominated by the PDGE, that opposition leaders are detained arbitrarily, and the internet and press is censored. As a result, it is not difficult to predict that Obiang will be the victor in Sunday’s election. And considering his recent policy initiatives, that is truly a shame.

Recent policy initiatives, in this case, is simply a euphemism for gross mismanagement of funds. Obiang’s government recently poured millions of dollars into a resort complex outside Malabo, the country’s capital. The complex was built to host a summit of the African Union, and the government constructed 52 identical mansions to host each African leader. Now, they stand empty. Think about that for a moment. 52 abandoned mansions, each one exactly the same as the one beside it. Next, the government decided that Malabo was too vulnerable to seaborne assault. As a result, it decided to build a completely new capital city on a tract of land in the middle of the rainforest. It is expected to have shining new office towers and wide boulevards on which the president’s son, known as Teodorín, can drive his collection of supercars. Meanwhile, most of the population lives in slums without access proper education or healthcare.

Speaking of Teodorín, he is likely a much better indicator of the future of Equatorial Guinea than Sunday’s election. As Obiang’s favorite son, it is thought that he will become the leader of the country upon his father’s eventual death. Even if he doesn’t, and even in the less likely scenario of a coup d’état, the deep-seated nepotism of Equatorial Guinea all but guarantees that a member of Obiang’s family will continue to rule the country for decades to come. And as long as the oil money keeps rolling in, there is no reason to believe that the leadership will choose benevolence over corruption. Teodorín, or whoever succeeds Obiang, will continue to party in Malibu and Paris as Equatorial Guinea slowly atrophies.

So there you have it, a prediction for Sunday’s election and beyond. There is absolutely no chance that Sunday will bring an end to Obiang’s kleptocracy, and there is little chance that even his death will bring any positive change. Macías truly has come back to haunt his country. Thanks to him, Equatorial Guinea has been robbed of its potential and driven into the ground. The specter of his policies continue to plague this tiny African country to this day, turning a little slice of paradise into a twisted corner of hell.

Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea
Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea

 

South Korea’s Saenuri Party Loses its Majority Despite a Fractured Opposition

Despite expectations that Wednesday’s legislative elections in South Korea would increase the majority of the leading Saenuri party, the party suffered a shocking defeat. Not only did it lose its majority, but it also narrowly lost its title as the largest party in the National Assembly to the Minjoo party. The result of the election is a major blow to South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, who is a member of the center-right Saenuri party and has come under criticism in recent years.

South Korea is, in many ways, a miracle. Today, it is one of the richest countries in the world. But when Korea was divided following the Second World War, it was one of the poorest countries in the world. Then came the Korean War, which wreaked havoc on the country. The war caused an estimated 2.5 million casualties and destroyed Korea’s already underdeveloped infrastructure. Yet the country has been transformed since then. While North Korea continues to battle famine, South Korea has become the world’s 11th largest economy, has become one of the most technologically advanced countries on Earth, and has developed enormous cultural influence overseas. The road to such enormous success, however, has not always been an easy one.

For decades, South Korea was run by autocratic dictators. While its economy developed miraculously, the progress came at the expense of democracy. It was not until the establishment of the 6th Republic in 1987 that the country’s citizens were finally granted the freedoms associated with a democratic system of government. Despite the success of today’s political system, the ghosts of the dictatorial past continue to haunt South Korean politics to this day. Park Chung-hee, for example, is a politician whose legacy certainly shapes South Korea today. He is still loved by many due to his instrumental role in South Korea’s economic development, but he is also despised by many others for his iron-fisted disregard for democratic principles. Park Chung-hee also happens to be the father of the current president, Park Geun-hye.

As a member of Saenuri, Ms. Park has come under criticism by much of the left. She is accused of taking after her father and weakening South Korea’s democracy. Before she was even elected, a scandal occurred in which it was discovered that Korea’s National Intelligence Service posted over a million messages online in support of Ms. Park during the 2012 presidential election. The government was also criticized after forcibly dissolving a far-left political party after its members were found guilty of sympathizing with North Korea. Finally, last year, thousands of South Koreans took to the streets in protest of a law that required all history textbooks to be approved by the right-wing government.

With so much controversy surrounding Ms. Park’s government, it may come as a surprise that Saenuri was expected to triumph in Wednesday’s election. Yet the opposition was considered too divided to unite against Saenuri. The center-left Minjoo party, which is the party that won the most seats in the National Assembly, recently underwent a split. Before December of last year, it was known as the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). But it was divided when a faction of the party formed the People’s Party at the beginning of this year. The People’s Party is less left-wing than Minjoo and was formed partially due to its leader’s disdain of a system in which two parties dominate the National Assembly.

The split between Minjoo and the People’s Party explains why many analysts predicted that Saenuri would increase its majority. They assumed that the People’s Party would draw voters away from Minjoo, making both weaker. In a way, that did happen. While Minjoo is now the largest party in the National Assembly, it leads Saenuri by only one seat. Neither holds a majority thanks to the People’s Party.  Yet it is clear that the controversies surrounding Saenuri have weakened the party to the point where it could not even stand up to an onslaught from a fractured opposition. Propelled by young and urban voters, the balance of power has clearly shifted from the right to the center-left. As a result, it is unlikely that Ms. Park will be able to succeed in passing any significant initiatives during her last two years as president.

The results Wednesday’s election certainly came as a surprise to many. To the older generation that remains nostalgic of the growth under Park Chung-hee, they were a disappointment. To the younger generation that has grown tired of Park Geun-hye’s right-wing policies, they were a delight. To a People’s Party that was tired of two-party dominance, they were a success. With no party holding a majority, the People’s Party will likely be able to swing quite a few votes. That means that those votes will likely be much further to the left than they were before, but it also means that Minjoo’s place in this National Assembly will be weaker than Saenuri’s in the last.

The GNA: a Bane or a Boon for War-torn Libya?

This week has been rife with confusion in Libya as the country’s UN-backed unity government consolidated its power in the capital, Tripoli. These developments add to the complexity of the civil war in Libya, which has seen a myriad of militias and three governments vie for control of the country.

Before the current civil wore broke out in 2014, a short civil war in 2011 ousted Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s longtime dictator. Gaddafi had been Libya’s dictator for 42 years, and, during that time, the country’s oil wealth increased its standard of living to a level higher than that of any other country in Africa. Yet revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya’s neighbors to the northwest and east, caused a similar revolutionary spirit to take hold in Libya. The Arab Spring had arrived. And with it came a NATO military intervention, the death of Gaddafi, and the installation of a transitional government.

Libya's location in North Africa
Libya’s location in North Africa

In 2012, elections were held and a body called the General National Congress (GNC) took over from the unelected transitional government. While the government was unified, the country had not yet healed. The 2011 civil had been won by a collection of militant groups united in their desire to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. Once the regime had fallen, their unifying force was gone and some of them turned against each other. At first, the effect of these various militant groups was relatively small compared to what would come. Little occurred besides occasional skirmishes between rival militias. But later, when the country returned to the polls in 2014, they brought about disaster.

Turnout fell from 60% for the 2012 elections to 18% for the 2014 elections. This was mostly due to frustration with the country’s slow recovery, but security concerns also restricted voting in some locations. The elections, for a body that was to be called the Chamber of Deputies (CoD), greatly reduced the number of Islamist Muslim Brotherhood politicians in the legislature. Unwilling to cede power to the secular CoD, militias loyal to the Islamist dominated GNC drove the CoD out of Tripoli to Tobruk, a city in eastern Libya. Thus began Libya’s next civil war.

With two governments, each controlling roughly half the country, law and order broke down in Libya. The CoD in Tobruk has won the support of most western countries, but it has failed to make significant gains in Libya. The chaos of two weak governments has allowed the various militias to take control of cities across the country. A branch of ISIS (or ISIL or IS or Daesh) has carved out its own piece of Libya around the city of Sirte. The collapse of law and order has decimated the country’s oil production and has facilitated the smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean by human traffickers. Thus the international community has grown more and more concerned with the situation in Libya, fearing that the country will become a breeding ground for terrorists and human traffickers.

The UN’s attempt to solve the problem has been to support the creation of yet another government, called the Government of National Accord (GNA). This government was created as a result of a UN-brokered agreement signed in December, 2015, and it was this government that consolidated its power in Tripoli this week. Last week, the GNA and its leaders arrived in Tripoli by sea from Tunis, Tunisia. With local militias loyal to the GNC, the move can be interpreted as largely symbolic, although the GNA has taken over some government offices. In addition, a statement was released by the GNC this Tuesday stating its intention to disband in favor of the GNA. Since then, the confusion has only grown as the GNC’s prime minister has come out against the decision to cede power to the GNA. On top of it all is the fact that the Tobruk-based CoD has not yet voted to support the GNA.

It is difficult to determine whether the rise of the GNA will improve or escalate the civil war in Libya. With Islamist militias still in control of Tripoli, some fear that the arrival of the GNA will simply provoke more violence and add yet another government to the two that are already fighting for power in Libya. Yet others believe that, if the GNC follows through with its promise to cede power, the GNA has the potential to unify the country. The UN and most western countries support the GNA and see it as the key to ending the war. If the Tobruk government and the GNC both agree to support the GNA, that may well happen. But as has been made painfully clear through the events of the past few years, the actions of violent militias have held greater sway in determining the direction of the country than the actions of a handful government ministers attempting to bring about an end to a civil war through political maneuvering.

 

Htin Kyaw: The First Democratic Leader of Myanmar in Decades

Htin Kyaw was sworn in as the president of Myanmar on Wednesday. As a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), his inauguration marks an important step forward in Myanmar’s transition from a repressive military dictatorship to a democracy. It is tempting, with the ascension of a democratically elected leader, to celebrate a triumphant end to this transition. Yet the realities in Myanmar are complex, and the country still has a long way to go.

Myanmar, located in Southeast Asia and bordering Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand, is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Decades of dictatorship and economic mismanagement have left the economy in tatters, and ethnic conflict has plagued parts of the country for years. The wounds of the past went untreated until 2011, when the military junta announced that it would renounce power and transition to a civilian government. At the same time, Myanmar, which had been crippled by stringent economic sanctions, was opened to the global economy.

The Location of Myanmar in Southeast Asia
The Location of Myanmar in Southeast Asia

The roots of the decades-long political and economic stagnation lie in the military junta founded in in 1962 by Ne Win. In a military coup d’état, he established his own government and began to promote economic policies known as the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” This model, which advocated Burmese self-sufficiency, closed the country to the global economy and propelled millions into poverty. When, in 1988, failed monetary policies rendered the currency worthless, the people decided that they’d had enough. Millions took to the street in protest.

As a result of these protests, Ne Win’s dictatorship was overthrown and replaced by another military dictatorship that was based on an organization called the “State Law and Order Restoration Council.” At the same time, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s founder Aung San, returned to her country. In response to the political chaos, she founded the NLD and became an active leader of the organized pro-democracy movement. The NLD secured an electoral victory in 1990, but the results were dismissed and Ms. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. She later went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar, and today she is arguably the most powerful person in the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi

In 2011, the military junta decided to transition the leadership of the country to civilian rule. They drafted a “roadmap to democracy, freed Ms. Suu Kyi from house arrest, and held elections. Although this roadmap set Myanmar on a path to civilian rule, the military was careful to retain significant powers for itself. It drafted a new constitution in which twenty five percent of the seats in the legislature are reserved for military officials, and many powerful ministries of the executive branch are controlled by the military as well. The constitution also contained a provision that prohibited politicians whose children hold foreign passports from holding the presidency. Considering Ms. Suu Kyi has two British sons, it is generally accepted that this provision was included to prevent Ms. Suu Kyi from becoming president.

Because the NLD boycotted the 2010 elections in response to what it considered unacceptable electoral laws, it was not until last November that its popularity was tested in democratic elections. Ms. Suu Kyi led her party to a resounding victory. Winning 86 percent of the contested seats in the Hluttaw, Myanmar’s parliament, it has secured the majority that is needed to appoint the president. Not only does this represent a major victory for democratic politics in the country, but it also indicates that the people of Myanmar have rejected the dictatorship in favor of democracy.

Had Ms. Suu Kyi been allowed to become Myanmar’s president, she, not Htin Kyaw, would have been sworn in on Wednesday. But regardless of who holds the title, it is Ms. Suu Kyi who will truly be in charge of the country. She is the leader of the NLD and has already declared that any presidential appointee will answer directly to her. In fact, she promised that she would be “above the president.” The appointment of Htin Klaw, a trusted friend and loyal ally to Ms. Suu Kyi, certainly fulfills this promise. In fact, Ms. Suu Kyi has already taken considerable official power. She has become the head of four ministries, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education. Also, the Hluttaw passed a motion today that created a new position for Ms. Suu Kyi that is quite similar to that of a Prime Minister. Thus it is clear that, despite Htin Klaw’s inauguration, it is Ms. Suu Kyi who is truly in charge in Myanmar.

Yet in spite of the victory for Ms. Suu Kyi and the NLD, obstacles remain. Reluctant to renounce its power completely, the military is still an extremely influential force in Myanmar. Due to its control of twenty five percent of the Hluttaw, the military will be able to prevent the NLD from changing the constitution. The Military’s control of very powerful government ministries also poses an obstacle to the NLD administration. Thus despite the NLD’s appointment of Htin Kyaw as president, it is not in complete control of the country. Rather, it is sharing power with the military. Hence the military still has the power to make or break Myanmar’s transition to democracy and economic renewal. So while the ascension of an NLD president is a strong indication that the people of Myanmar are eager to see a democratic future, we can only hope that the military is listening.