Arabs overwhelmingly hope Biden parts ways with Obama legacy: poll

The survey found 40 percent thought Biden, on the campaign trail, below, would be better for the region; 12 percent felt Trump would be good for the region, while 49 percent said neither candidate would be good for the Arab world. (AFP)
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Updated 27 October 2020

Arabs overwhelmingly hope Biden parts ways with Obama legacy: poll

  • Arab News/YouGov pan-Arab survey shows lack of clarity about the implications of a Democratic election win
  • Skeptics of the Iran nuclear deal want Biden to dump his Obama-era baggage and adopt a hard line on Tehran

BEIRUT: Barack Obama, the former US president, left the Middle East in far worse shape than when he assumed office in 2009, according to about 53 percent of respondents in a pan-Arab poll conducted by YouGov for Arab News.
With this in mind, you might expect Arabs to broadly favor Republican candidate Donald Trump over his Democratic rival Joe Biden in the upcoming presidential election on Nov. 3.
Yet the Arab News/YouGov survey found Biden would be better for the region with 40 percent, against 12 percent who said Trump would be good for the region. That said, some 49 percent said neither candidate would be good for the Arab world.
However, as Obama’s vice president, some observers wonder whether a victorious Biden would simply pick up where his old boss left off. This is a particular concern for those who want to see a tough US stance on Iran.
Indeed, it was during Obama’s second term that the US signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear deal, offering Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for abandoning its ambitions to build a bomb.

Trump, who is up for re-election, withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018, reimposing a raft of crippling sanctions on Iran. With European signatories fighting to salvage the landmark accord, Biden could conceivably turn back the clock.
Some 35 percent of Arabs polled in the Arab News/YouGov survey said they believe the US withdrawal from the JCPOA had a negative impact on the Middle East. Residents of Iraq, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia were most likely to say the withdrawal and increased sanctions have made the region safer.
“There’s no question that the Iran nuclear deal failed to block the Iranian regime’s path to nuclear weapons,” said Ali Safavi, an official with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
“Indeed, the regime took the billions the JCPOA provided and propped up the criminal regime in Syria, armed and funded the terrorist Hezbollah in Lebanon, the terrorist Shiite militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen.”
For Safavi and his NCRI colleagues, the only effective policy is one that exerts “maximum pressure” on the regime in Tehran and “holds it to account for its countless human rights violations.”
It appears his skepticism is widely shared. Now critics of the JCPOA want to know whether Biden is prepared to dispense with his Obama-era baggage. “Iran is the key issue in understanding much of the Arab world’s bad aftertaste of the Obama administration,” David Romano, Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University, told Arab News.
“They know that the Obama-Biden administration gave Iran a free pass on all kinds of nefarious activities in the region in order to coax them into the nuclear agreement.”
Mindful of Tehran’s perceived malfeasance, about 58 percent of Arabs polled want Biden to distance himself from Obama’s hands-off approach to Iran and instead tackle the problem head-on.
Simultaneously, Arabs want the US to maintain its tough stance on Iran, even if they are divided over what strategy Washington should employ, according to the Arab News/YouGov survey.

READ: The methodology behind the Arab News/YouGov Pan-Arab Survey

Respondents in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which are willy-nilly intimately tied to Iran, were especially in favor of a tough line. Asked what strategy the next US president should take in future dealings with Iran, a large proportion — 53 percent in Iraq, 49 percent in Saudi Arabia and 54 percent in Yemen — favored maintaining strict sanctions and a war-like posture.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and president of the International American Council, says it is understandable that many in the region view the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency with some unease.
“A reversion to any form of acceptance of the Iranian regime’s regional policy or sending ‘plane loads of cash’ to Tehran risks undermining peace in the Middle East,” he told Arab News. “Both presidential candidates must look to build on the good work of the Abraham Accords in fighting back against this narrative.”
While the Arab world overall is split on the potential impact of the killing in January by the US of Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iran’s extraterritorial Quds Force, the geographic differences highlighted by the Arab News/YouGov survey are perhaps more significant.

People living in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were very supportive, with respectively 71, percent, 68 percent and 57 percent viewing it as a positive move for the region. In contrast, 59 percent of respondents in Lebanon and 62 percent in Qatar said it was a negative move for the region.
“The poll accurately assesses the interests of Arab states,” said Dr. John Hulsman, president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consultancy.
That said, one factor the Arab world must not underestimate, according to Hulsman, is the depth of the desire among American leaders of all political stripes to find an exit from the Middle East and pivot elsewhere.
“Oddly enough, despite Obama and Trump being the two least likely people in the world to share any commonalities at all, they do have a similar view of the Middle East, and that is ‘let’s get out,’” he told Arab News.
“We have had presidencies destroyed (over the US presence in the region) and there is no benefit to staying in. We have overestimated the importance of the region. All the risk and reward, all the future global growth — that all lies in Asia now.”
For Hulsman, the real challenge for whoever wins the election is how to disengage from the region while retaining some semblance of stability.

Significantly, Iran figures high on the list of what Arabs think are the greatest threats facing the US, according to the Arab News/YouGov survey. It occupied third place, after white nationalism and China.
Despite their concerns about Iran’s malign influence in their own neighborhood, why did not more than 9 percent feel Tehran poses a bigger threat to Washington than China? “It shows that the typical Arab is not convinced that the US is on his side when it comes to Iran,” Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Washington DC-based Arab Center, told Arab News.
Although Biden has branded Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran a failure, there are scant clues as to what line he might take should he assume office, leaving Arab leaders guessing.
This uncertainty is reflected in the Arab News/YouGov pan-Arab survey, with the largest proportion of Arab respondents rejecting both Trump and Biden. For critics such as Safavi, it makes little difference who wins unless the US is prepared to come down hard.
“Irrespective of the outcome of the election, the experience of the past four decades has made it palpably clear that no amount of political and economic concessions will result in change in the behavior of the theocracy that has ruled Iran with an iron fist,” Safavi said.

Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor



Lebanon MPs who jumped vaccine queue defend their actions

Updated 25 February 2021

Lebanon MPs who jumped vaccine queue defend their actions

  • World Bank threatens to suspend its backing for the country’s vaccination drive

BEIRUT: Lebanese lawmakers who allegedly jumped the queue and received the first shot of the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine on Tuesday are feeling pressure to defend their actions.

Eleven politicians, some of them younger than 75 years old, even had their vaccines “delivered” to Parliament.

A spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the organization in charge of monitoring the country’s vaccination plan, “was unaware that President Michel Aoun, his wife and his work team had received the vaccine on Friday, which is a violation to the terms of the national plan.”

As a result, the ethics officer of Lebanon’s vaccination committee, Dr. Talia Arawi, resigned on Wednesday.

It also prompted representatives from the World Bank, the Lebanese Health Ministry, the country’s COVID-19 vaccination committee and other commissions to meet and discuss the breach within the national vaccination plan. 

The World Bank, represented by its Beirut-based office, said it “will continue supporting Lebanon, but with respect to priority groups. If necessary, it is ready to suspend the financing for vaccines.”

Lawmakers who received the vaccine early were on the defensive Wednesday.

“How are lawmakers at fault?” Elie Ferzli, the Parliament's deputy speaker, asked. “Twenty-five lawmakers have been infected in parliament so far, along with 25 other employees. The latest infections occurred during the Procurement Law Committee’s meeting.”

Ferzli said he and other officials registered on the platform, based on the ministry’s request. Of those who registered, 27 lawmakers received approval for the vaccine, because they were 70 or older. Sixteen said they were inoculated in hospitals while the other 11 received the vaccine in Parliament.

Ferzli cited an American University of Beirut (AUB) report that said more than 50 percent of those who have received the vaccine did not register on the national platform.

He accused World Bank regional director Saroj Kumar Jha of “playing a political role”. He said: “This reflects the lack of ethics that a World Bank representative should have. If this is how the bank is planning to deal with us in financing the vaccination plan, forget about the vaccines.”

Ferzli also attacked activists on social media who criticized the lawmakers, describing them as “ridiculous” and “electronic flies.”

Ghazi Zaiter, a politician and former minister, who was summoned for questioning by the former judge leading the probe into the Beirut port explosion, also tried to defend himself. He took to social media, claiming that “he is more Lebanese than others, which gives him the right to the vaccine before the others.”

Zaiter was heavily criticized, with some even calling on him to leave the country. Using a hashtag that was trending on Twitter, online activists said he “considers himself above the law and citizens.”

The AUB called on the ministry to clarify and apologize for the alleged breach of the vaccination plan. It also suggested more transparency when it comes to publishing criteria for those who are eligible for the vaccine, the number of inoculated people in each center, who should not be included in the priority groups and why.

The country’s vaccination campaign started 11 days ago. Yet half of the 12,000 doctors who are members of the medical association have not been vaccinated, nor have 55 percent of the nursing staff.

Turkish lawyer held for ‘insulting the president’ with tweet

Updated 25 February 2021

Turkish lawyer held for ‘insulting the president’ with tweet

  • Police raided Mert Yasar’s house on Tuesday and detained the lawyer after an investigation by the Istanbul chief public prosecutor’s office

ISTANBUL: A Turkish lawyer has been arrested and charged with “insulting the president” over a controversial tweet that included sexist remarks directed at ruling Justice and Development Party MP Ozlem Zengin. 

Police raided Mert Yasar’s house on Tuesday and detained the lawyer after an investigation by the Istanbul chief public prosecutor’s office.  

Zengin sparked widespread anger recently with dismissive comments on alleged human rights violations and strip searches in Turkish prisons, ridiculing the claims of dozens of conservative women who said they had been subjected to intrusive searches in recent years. 

“An honorable woman, a woman with morals, wouldn’t wait a year (before complaining). This is an imaginary narrative,” Zengin said on Feb. 19. 

Amid public debate on the topic, Zengin said that women were falling pregnant on orders from various “illegal” groups seeking to trigger public anger over babies growing up in prisons.

“These people are having babies upon directives so that they can assert ‘there are pregnant women or women with babies in jails’,” she said on Feb. 21.

Yasar responded to this latest statement with a furious tweet, targeting the MP: “If the presidential cabinet is given the right of the first night, will Ozlem Zengin close her mouth?” he tweeted, sparking anger among women’s rights activists from all sides of politics. 

Fahrettin Altun, presidential communications director, immediately issued a statement urging the “independent Turkish judiciary to punish this creature named Mert Yaşar in the severest way possible.”

“What will the opposition do in the face of this dishonor? They will, most probably, hide their heads in the sand. We will follow it up,” he said. 

Yasar was arrested on charges of insulting the president according to Article 299 of the Turkish penal code — which critics say points to the disproportionate use of this clause since his tweet targeted an MP, not the president himself. 

Article 299 stipulates that the person who insults the president shall be punished by imprisonment from one to four years, and if the crime is committed publicly, the punishment will be increased by one to six years.

Between 2014 and 2019, about 128,872 investigations were carried out into alleged insults against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with prosecutors launching about 27,700 criminal cases.

A total of 9,556 defendants were sentenced by Turkish courts, while about 900 minors aged between 12 and 17 also appeared before the court on the same charge. 

“The politicization of the judiciary continues with unlawful arrest and false accusation,” rights activist Nesibe Kiris said. 

Several female politicians and right activists offered examples of their personal experiences with insults that failed to lead to criminal proceedings, sparking debate about the “politically motivated” implementation of such penal clauses. 

“All kinds of insults, threats, sexist attacks on me and all opposing women are free and even they provide a reason for a decision of non-prosecutions. But when it comes to an AKP politician, it becomes a reason for his arrest. It is a tailor-made judiciary. The people’s scales of conscience will weigh all of you when the day comes,” Canan Kaftancioglu, Istanbul head of the opposition Republican People’s Party tweeted. 

A group of lawyers issued a message in support of Yasar, saying that his arrest “is the continuation of the judicial practice that makes decisions under the pressure of social media and political power.”

The arrest was also attacked as being a warning against any vocal criticisms on social media.


Egypt pledges commitment to war on terror in call with US Secretary of State

Updated 25 February 2021

Egypt pledges commitment to war on terror in call with US Secretary of State

  • The call from Blinken was the first official contact Egypt had received from the new American administration of President Joe Biden

CAIRO: Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry on Wednesday pledged his country’s commitment to the war on terror during a phone conversation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The call from Blinken was the first official contact Egypt had received from the new American administration of President Joe Biden.

Shoukry told Blinken that Egypt was keen to build on the progress made over recent decades to develop cooperation between the two countries.

According to an official statement, their talks focused on regional and international issues of joint interest. They also discussed the latest developments in Libya and Palestine, and the need to continue working together to combat terrorism and other challenges and security threats facing the region.

Highlighting the historic partnership between the US and Egypt, the officials agreed to further develop political, economic, and cultural ties while promoting issues related to human rights.

US State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said that Blinken’s call to Shoukry showed the importance that America attached to its strategic partnership with Egypt, especially in the areas of security, combating terrorism, and the exchange of views on regional matters.

However, the statement said that Blinken had raised US concerns over Egypt’s potential procurement of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft.

During the call, they also discussed support for UN-led Libyan peace negotiations, the Middle East peace process, and cooperation in fighting terrorism in Sinai.

Qatar, Egypt to appoint envoys, resume work of embassies

Updated 25 February 2021

Qatar, Egypt to appoint envoys, resume work of embassies

  • Cairo and Doha thanked Kuwait for hosting the first round of talks between them

CAIRO: Qatar and Egypt have agreed to appointment envoys and reopen their embassies in the wake of the AlUla agreement to mend relations with Doha.

The resolve came after delegations from both countries held talks in Kuwait to plan the normalization of links between the nations.

“The two parties agreed to resume the work of their diplomatic missions … followed by the appointment of an Egyptian ambassador in Doha and a Qatari ambassador in Cairo,” an Egyptian diplomatic source said.

Qatar’s permanent representative to the Arab League, Ibrahim Abdul Aziz Al-Sahlawi, was expected to become Doha’s envoy in Cairo, the source added.

During the meeting in Kuwait, Egypt was said to have set out its conditions for settling relations with Qatar, which included strict demands for Doha not to interfere in Egyptian internal affairs.

The AlUla agreement, signed on Jan. 5 during the Gulf Cooperation Council summit held in the ancient city, saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt restore ties with Qatar, ending a dispute which started in 2017.

A statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: “The two sides welcomed the measures taken by both countries after signing the AlUla agreement as a step toward building confidence between the two brotherly countries.”

The meeting discussed ways to enhance joint work and bilateral relations in areas including security, stability, and economic development.

Cairo and Doha thanked Kuwait for hosting the first round of talks between them and for its efforts to heal the rift and promote Arab unity.

Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced that Cairo and Doha had exchanged two official memoranda agreeing to restore diplomatic relations and on Jan. 18 flights between Egypt and Qatar resumed after having been suspended for more than three years.

Jordan reimposes Friday curfew as virus surges

Updated 24 February 2021

Jordan reimposes Friday curfew as virus surges

  • An existing nightly curfew will begin at 10 p.m. instead of midnight
  • From Sunday a maximum of 30 percent of public-sector employees will be allowed at their workplace

AMMAN: Jordan has reimposed an all-day curfew on Fridays to stem the spread of coronavirus as cases rise, officials said Wednesday.
“Starting this week, the government is imposing a curfew throughout the kingdom from 10 p.m. (2000 GMT) Thursdays until 6 am Saturdays,” Information Minister Ali Al-Ayed said in a statement.
Walking to a mosque for Friday prayers, however, is permitted, he said.
An existing nightly curfew will begin at 10 p.m. instead of midnight, while from Sunday a maximum of 30 percent of public-sector employees will be allowed at their workplace.
The toughening of Covid-19 restrictions returns Jordan to rules imposed in March last year, and which were only eased last month.
“The kingdom has witnessed a rapid spread of Covid in recent weeks. This is why swift and strict measures are needed,” Health Minister Nazir Obeidat said.
Jordan, which began vaccinations last month, has officially recorded more than 376,000 novel coronavirus cases and over 4,600 deaths out of a population of 10.5 million people.