Qatar’s delicate balancing act

Qatar is one of the most active regional players in the Middle East and North Africa, writes Lina Khatib, pushing warring factions in several conflicts to reach settlements, and providing humanitarian assistance to win hearts and minds.

“Through this multipronged foreign policy, Qatar has been playing a dual role of ‘everybody’s friend’ while keeping within the lines of ‘good neighbor’ conventions in the Gulf, namely vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia,” she writes on the Fletcher School’s Reinventing Peace blog.

Qatar was also the lead Arab state in the international intervention against the Qaddafi regime in 2011, Khatib notes:

While some have been surprised by Qatar’s quick embrace of revolution instead of mediation in Libya, this “change” is not a dramatic one. Qatar’s playing the role of mediator happened during a time when the Middle East saw the prominence of authoritarian regimes that appeared durable. As soon as the rules of the game changed with the Arab Spring, Qatar had to quickly adapt its methods to stay ahead of the political game. One could see the origins of this adaptation in the uprisings in Egypt and Syria: in both cases, Qatar was initially hesitant in declaring a position against the prevailing regimes of Mubarak and Assad, particularly because of Qatari rapprochement with the Mubarak regime in late 2010 and with the Assad regime, but as soon as it realized that the uprisings in those countries were likely to topple those leaders, its public stance (and with it, coverage on al-Jazeera) changed.

The emirate’s reputation for punching above its weight as the little state that could is also based on its extensive support for the region’s Islamists groups.

For instance, “Qatar’s involvement in Libya also builds on its long relationship with (and subsequent perceived loyalty by) some Libyan Islamists,” notes Khatib, the head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law:

Since the 1990s, Qatar has hosted a number of Libyan Islamists, mainly from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group…….In an interview with al-Jazeera on September 7, 2011, the Emir of Qatar said “he believed radical Islamists whose views were forged under tyrannical governments could embrace participatory politics if the promise of real democracy and justice of this year’s Arab revolts is fulfilled. If so, the Qatari ruler said, ‘I believe you will see this extremism transform into civilian life and civil society’”.

Qatar has come under criticism for funding illiberal actors, including ultraconservative Salafist militants, during the Arab uprisings while suppressing fundamental freedoms at home.

“Examining Qatari foreign policy reveals a trend that points to a delicate balance that Qatar is trying to maintain: internal and regional (Gulf) stability while claiming wider political influence. Yet this is not without risks,” Khatib notes:

While reaching out to multiple parties can serve to assert Qatar’s position as a leading regional actor, maintain supported groups’ loyalty, tone down extremism, and keep insecurity at bay, it has also meant that the country risks overextending its network of co-opted and supported political actors. Already its desire to influence multiple actors, especially emerging leaders, has led to further engagement with potentially volatile parties like some Islamist rebels in Libya and in Syria.


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Dissent speaks code in China’s cyberspace

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s river-crabs refer to netizen code for China’s communist officials – bullies known for scuttling sideways

The emergence of online platforms has given Chinese citizens “an unprecedented capacity for self-publishing and communication,” write Xiao Qiang and Perry Link:

Because they speak in a heavily monitored environment, however, these “netizens” must often voice their demands for greater freedom in coded language and metaphors that allow them to avoid outright censorship. Chinese cyberspace has given rise to a surprising number of new terms for exposing, criticizing and ridiculing the Communist Party. Largely invented by young gadflies, this lively discourse has begun to spread widely. …..

Some of the new terms grow from temporary code words used in order to evade word filters. The term zhengfu (government), for example, counts as “sensitive,” and efforts to skirt it have given rise to a number of new terms. One of these is tianchao (heavenly dynasty), which, besides avoiding filters, delivers the mischievous suggestion that the government is hardly modern. In a nod to George Orwell, the Party’s Department of Propaganda is referred to as the zhenlibu (Ministry of Truth).

The ruling Communist party is cracking down on independently-minded media and on-line voices, blatantly censoring one reputable newspaper and demanding that Internet users reveal their real identities when registering. But many netizens are managing to circumvent official controls by using irreverent codes, say Xiao and Link, chief editor of China Digital Times and Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California, Riverside, respectively;

Another widespread term is hexie, which means “river crab” but is a near-homonym of the word for “harmony.” The regime of recently retired PRC President Hu Jintao, in its public rhetoric, put great stress on the idea of a hexie shehui or “harmonious society.” By recasting this official phrase to turn “harmonious society” into “river-crab society,” netizens are evoking Chinese folklore, in which the crab appears as a bully known for scuttling sideways [see dissident artist Ai Weiwei's crab installation, above]. Netizens use hexie as a verb as well as a noun. When a website is shut down or a computer screen goes blank, the victims might say “We have been river-crabbed!” or, in other words, “harmonized” into silence.

In a piece adapted from the January issue of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy, they continue:

A few years ago, a netizen with a sly sense of humor began using the terms guidang (your [honorable] party) and guiguo (your [honorable] state). ….Guiguo has for a long time been an established way of saying “your country” when people from different countries are talking to each other in a formal way. But now, in some circles on the Internet, guiguo has taken on the sarcastic meaning of “your state”—in other words, the state that belongs to you rulers, not to me.

But if netizens are putting ironic distance between themselves and “your state,” the question arises of what they do identify with at the national level. What is it, in the new day, to be Chinese? ….

Consider pimin or “fart people,” a playful tag that has come to stand in opposition to guiguo. The pimin usage comes from a notorious incident that took place on Oct. 29, 2008, when Lin Jiaxiang, a 58-year-old Communist Party official, was eating at a seafood restaurant in Shenzhen City. He asked an 11-year-old girl for directions to the men’s room, and she led him there. According to a police report, he grabbed her near the entrance; she escaped and ran to her parents. Her father confronted Mr. Lin, and an argument ensued, during which the official pointed at the father and yelled, “I was sent here by the Ministry of Transportation! My rank is the same as your mayor’s! I did grab her neck and so what? You people are farts to me! You wanna take me on? You wanna test what I can do to you?”

Unfortunately for Mr. Lin, the episode was captured by a security camera and leaked to the Internet, where it went viral. Mr. Lin eventually was fired and “fart people” became a standard term. Gradually it morphed into a term of pride. Fart people came to mean “us” netizens and ordinary people, the ones on the receiving end of abuse, the ones who have no vote, the ones who empathize and identify with one another—the ones who, in short, form the polar opposite of guiguo.


China Digital Times is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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Al-Jazeera ‘selective’ coverage of Arab unrest under scrutiny

Qatari poet Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami was sentenced to life imprisonment for insulting the emir

Al-Jazeera TV’s coverage of the Arab awakening and wider Middle East politics is likely to come under the microscope following this week’s purchase of former vice president Al Gore’s Current TV network.

“While al-Jazeera is celebrating its U.S. plans, it faces tough questions about its coverage and whether it is as independent of Qatar’s autocratic ruling monarchy as it claims to be,” writes the FT’s Michael Peel. “The broadcaster is partly funded by the government of Qatar, and the country’s increasingly prominent political role in the region’s turmoil has intensified scrutiny of al-Jazeera’s coverage.”

Qatar has come under criticism for funding illiberal actors, including ultraconservative Salafist militants, during the Arab uprisings while suppressing fundamental freedoms at home.

“With the Arab Spring, al-Jazeera’s reach and credibility have grown in the West,” said Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow in the Middle East division of Chatham House, the London-based think tank. “But certainly, it has become more criticized in the Arab world – or, at least, become seen as more politicized.”

“Although the popular revolts that swept the Arab world and brought down regimes from Tunisia to Yemen have presented al-Jazeera with an extraordinary opportunity to expand its audience, they have thrown up growing problems of perception,” notes Peel:

Critics say Islamist movements with which Qatar has tried to achieve good relations have received over-sympathetic attention, with airtime given to wild allegations that opponents of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, are agents of foreign powers. Some observers say al-Jazeera is cautious about reporting sensitive stories in Qatar, such as the fire at a Doha nursery last year that killed 13 children and six adults, although the channel denies it was slow to cover the tragedy. …The Qatari authorities sentenced a poet [above] to life imprisonment in November for insulting the emir in a widely-circulated work about the Arab Spring that criticized the “repressive elite”.

“Al-Jazeera is generally a free network, but it works within the political constraints as understood in Qatar,” said Michael Stephens, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute Qatar think tank.


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Belarus: Pulling the plug

China isn’t the only autocratic state to crack down on Internet freedom and netizens’ rights. Europe’s last dictatorship plans even tighter controls over citizens’ access to the digital world, says a new report from Index on Censorship:

Belarus has one of the most hostile media environments in the world and one of the worst records on freedom of expression. New digital technologies, in particular the internet, have provided new opportunities for freedom of expression but have also given the authoritarian regime new tools to silence free voices and track down dissent. As the internet has become an increasingly important source of information, the Belarus authorities have used a variety of different means to control it. Keeping a tight rein on information remains at the core of their policy of self-preservation.

This report explores the main challenges to digital free speech in Belarus, concentrating in particular on the ways the state authorities restrict freedom of expression online.

Firstly, it is done by applying a repressive legal framework, including draconian laws such as criminal libel, legal prosecution and the misapplication of the administrative code. Secondly, free speech is restricted by the use of new techniques, such as online surveillance, website blocking and filtering, and cyber-attacks against independent websites and content manipulation.

Our research indicates that the authorities now plan even tighter controls over citizens’ access to the digital world.

New legislation gives the authorities wide powers to censor online content, in particular on the catch-all grounds of “distribution of illegal information”, and to implement mass surveillance of citizens’ activities online. The government is spending heavily on the development of software that will allow the tracking of nearly all the activities of every internet user in the country. Western firms have been instrumental in providing equipment that has facilitated state surveillance. Since the growth in use of social networks, there have been several waves of arrests of moderators of popular online opposition groups and communities. Journalists and activists who express their opinions online have found themselves subject to criminal prosecutions for libel. Denial of service attacks have been used frequently against independent online media and opposition websites, especially on the occasion of elections and other major political events.

Index on Censorship calls on the government of Belarus to stop all disproportionate and unnecessary legal and extrajudicial practices, online and offline, that compromise freedom of expression. We call for immediate reforms to be launched to ensure free speech, as outlined in the conclusions and recommendations chapter of the report.

The European Union (EU), its member states and other European bodies, such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), should further push the Belarus government to respect human rights in general and freedom of expression in particular and call for immediate reforms to facilitate the development of Belarus as a democratic state.

“Alexander Lukashenko has significantly expanded his government’s control over the internet in the last two years. Few people in Belarus realise the level of state surveillance now being carried out by Lukashenko’s security services,” said Andrei Aliaksandrau, Index’s Belarus programme manager. “This poses a huge threat to internet activists in Belarus. The threat of a 3 year prison sentence for libel against online journalist Andrzej Poczobut shows this threat is real.”

The regime is using sophisticated digital methods to curtail free speech made possible by new technologies including:

  • Web filters: Index on Censorship tested the WiFi at locations across Belarus including the Institute of Journalism of the Belarus State University in Minsk which filtered five of the major independent websites
  • Surveillance techniques which allow the state to intercept all online traffic
  • The removal of secure access to particular websites including Facebook to potentially compromise users’ logins during election periods
  • The creation of fake versions of independent websites (,, to create ‘clone sites’ with out of date news – and DNS re-routing.

The threat to online freedom also comes from long-established methods the regime uses to chill free speech including: the restrictive media law of 2008, criminal libel laws and using unrelated laws such as ‘petty hooliganism’ to silence opinion with impunity.

The paper reports that the government of Belarus is one of the first to use distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) to collapse the servers of opposition websites such as

“State surveillance is yet another way that Lukashenko is compromising freedom of expression in Belarus,” said Mike Harris, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship. “Index calls on the government to end online surveillance, release political prisoners and support its citizens’ rights to free expression. The European Union must also act to stop the export of surveillance technology to places like Belarus.”

Read the report in full here.

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Can ‘Dispensable Nation’ still be democracy’s ‘venture capitalist’?

Is relative economic decline likely to undermine the United States’ capacity to advance democracy?

“Partly it is about resources,” says Richard N. Haass, the president of Council on Foreign Relations, and author of the forthcoming book, “Foreign Policy Begins at Home.” “But it is also about reducing your vulnerability to the machinations of currency markets and potentially hostile central bankers.”

“When we appear to be dysfunctional, as we have in recent times, it makes it hard to be the model for the democratic, capitalistic model we say we want to be in the world,” he tells The New York Times.

His views are echoed by a former aide to Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s ‘Af-Pak’ envoy who dies in 2010:

Vali Nasr, who will soon publish “The Dispensable Nation,” argues that the debt, among other economic woes, has allowed Mr. Obama and other Democrats to justify a retreat from global engagement. “It’s made it far easier to say ‘We can’t do more,’ ” said Mr. Nasr, the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “And without addressing the debt issues, it will be easier to make that argument for years to come.”

A departing senior diplomat at the State Department who requested anonymity, ruminating on the outcome of the confrontation on the fiscal crisis, said that the failure to attack the long-term debt issues would become another reason “to turn our backs on the Middle East and trim our sails on the new focus on Asia.”

Some analysts fear that the poor performance and economic decline of the world’s democracies is creating space for autocratic states to expand their global footprint and influence, not least in the embryonically transitional countries of the “Arab Spring.”

“[Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed] Morsi has played this very smart, asking the Chinese whether they are willing to invest in Egypt the way they have in Kenya or Uganda,” Nasr said. “What’s happened is that we’ve been able to hide behind the economic argument to justify why we are no longer the venture capitalist of democracy.”


Daily Beast contributor David Frum suggests that would-be Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has the credentials to join the Obama administration, citing the wise words of his 2004 Foreign Affairs article, “A Republican Foreign Policy,” including his argument that “increased funding for the National Endowment for Democracy, is a good start on an ambitious and pragmatic program for change in this region [the Arab world]. Sustainable democracy will depend on institutions that support education, women’s rights, and private-sector development.”

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