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Christopher Ahl, Play the Game: "An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football


Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A microcosm of Iran’s domestic problems, port city bears brunt of crackdown



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.


The Iranian port city of Bandar-e-Mahshahr has emerged as the scene of some of the worst violence in Iran’s brutal crackdown on recent anti-government protests.

Located in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, home to the country’s restive ethnic Arab minority, the protests in Bandar-e-Mahshahr strengthened Iran in its belief that the anti-government outburst was yet another effort to destabilize the Islamic republic by the United States, Saudi Arabia and/or Israel.

Iranian state television reported that security forces had confronted a separatist group in the city that was armed with “semi-heavy” weapons. It claimed the armed rioters had fought with security personnel for hours.

Iranian exiles in contact with family and friends in Bandar-e-Mahshahr said protesters blocked off a road leading from the city, that is home to Iran’s largest petrochemical complex, to the village of Koora.

In contrast to past protests in the province, the protesters chanted slogans against Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani rather than Arab nationalist phrases.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ 3rd Marine Force Division, based on the outskirts of the city, intervened with armoured vehicles after police failed to disperse the protesters. The exiles said the Guards opened fire on protesters trying to escape into nearby marshlands.

An unconfirmed video purportedly documenting the killing of up to 100 people shows armoured vehicles driving down a road as multiple rounds are fired and men are heard shouting. “They simply mowed them down,” said one of the exiles who studied in Bandar-e-Mahshahr and has relatives in the city.

In many ways, the protests in Bandar-e-Mahshahr and multiple other Iranian cities fit a global pattern; a specific issue sparks anti-government demonstrations that quickly evolve into a mass movement demanding a complete overhaul of a political system that has failed to cater to the aspirations of major segments of the population.

In Hong Kong the spark was a law that would enable extraditions to mainland China, in Santiago de Chile it was public transportation price hikes and in Iran it was a surprise increase of petrol prices.

Struggling under the yoke of harsh US economic sanctions imposed after the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal in 2018 from the international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian leaders failed to recognize that long-standing mismanagement of the economy and widespread corruption was undermining their legitimacy.

The notion of a US-Saudi-Israeli conspiracy to stoke unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities in a bid to destabilize the regime was reinforced by statements in recent years by American, Saudi and Israeli officials and a series of violent incidents in Khuzestan as well as the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan and Kurdish regions of Iran.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s insistence that the Iranian protests constituted a ‘dangerous conspiracy’ by the United States was hardly surprising.

The protests erupted after weeks in which demonstrators in Iraq denounced Iranian influence in their country and attacked the Islamic republic’s consulates in Basra and Najaf. Similarly, Lebanon, home to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, has been paralyzed for the past two months by anti-sectarian protesters.

The conviction that Iran’s enemies were tightening the noose around its neck may well have some grounding in reality even if the Islamic republic’s most recent regional setbacks as well as the outburst of deep-seated anger at home cannot be reduced to foreign conspiracies.

The brutality with which the regime cracked down on protesters as well as its drastic decision to shut down the Internet for four days suggests that Iran has little faith in indications that Saudi Arabia is groping for ways to dial down tension with its arch-rival or Omani efforts to mediate.

It also explains why the squashing of the protests in Bandar-e-Mahshahr may have been particularly harsh.

The Ahvaz National Resistance, an Iranian Arab separatist group, claimed responsibility in September 2018 for an attack on a Revolutionary Guards parade in the Khuzestan capital of Ahwaz in which 29 people were killed and 70 others wounded.


Shot dead on a street in The Hague, Mr. Mola Nissi died the violent life he was alleged to have lived.

A 52-year-old refugee living in the Netherlands since 2005, Mr. Mola Nissi was believed to have been responsible for attacks in Khuzestan in 2005, 2006 and 2013 on oil facilities, the office of the Khuzestan governor, other government offices, and banks.

Mr. Mola Nissi focussed in his most recent years on media activities and fund raising, at times creating footage of alleged attacks involving gas cylinder explosions to attract Saudi funding, according to Iranian activists.

Mr. Mola Nissi was killed as he was preparing to establish a television station backed by Saudi-trained personnel and funding that would target Khuzestan.

Protests in Khuzestan have focussed in recent years on identity, environmental degradation, and social issues.

International human rights groups have long accused Iran of discriminating against Iranian Arabs even though a majority are Shiite rather than Sunni Muslims. Dozens of protesters were reportedly killed during demonstrations in Ahwaz in 2011 that were inspired by the popular Arab revolts.

“Despite Khuzestan's natural resource wealth, its ethnic Arab population, which is believed to constitute a majority in the province, has long complained about the lack of socio-economic development in the region. They also allege that the Iranian government has engaged in systematic discrimination against them, particularly in the areas of employment, housing, and civil and political rights,” Human Rights Watch said at the time.

That was in 2011. Like in the rest of Iran, things have only gotten worse in Khuzestan since

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Standing up to China: Czech mayor sets a high bar



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

A Czech mayor’s refusal to endorse Beijing’s One China policy potentially sets a high bar as Western powers grapple with how to respond to allegations of excessive use of violence by police against Hong Kong protesters and the implications of leaked documents detailing a brutal crackdown in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang.

Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib rejected a sister city agreement between the Czech capital and Beijing in late October because it included a clause endorsing the One China policy, which implicitly recognizes China's sovereignty over Taiwan, as well as Hong Kong and Tibet.

Mr. Hrib argued that the agreement was a cultural arrangement and not designed to address foreign policy issues that were the prerogative of the national government.

The mayor’s stance has since taken on added significance against the backdrop of US President Donald J. Trump’s signing of legislation that allows for the sanctioning of Hong Kong officials, embarrassing Communist party leaks that document repression in Xinjiang, the election of a new Sri Lankan government that intends to adopt a tougher policy towards China, and simmering anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia and beyond.

Mr. Hrib’s rejection was in fact a reflection of anti-Chinese sentiment in the Czech Republic as well as opposition to the pro-China policy adopted by Czech president Milos Zeman.

To be sure, Mr. Hrib, a 38-year old medical doctor who interned in Taiwan, was shouldering little political or economic risk given Czech public anger at China’s failure to fulfil promises of significant investment in the country.

On the contrary, Mr. Hrib, since becoming mayor in mid-2018, appears to have made it his pastime to put Mr. Zeman on the spot by poking a finger at China.

Mr. Hrib visited Taiwan in the first six months of his mayorship, flew the Tibetan flag over Prague’s city hall, and rejected a request by the Chinese ambassador at a meeting with foreign diplomats to send Taiwanese representatives out of the room.

Beijing’s cancellation of a tour of China by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra in response to Mr. Hrib’s provocations forced Mr. Zeman to describe the Chinese retaliation as “excessive” and his  foreign minister, Tomas Petricek, to declare that "diplomacy is not conducted with threats."

Perhaps more importantly, M. Hrib was taking a stand based on principles and values rather than interests. In doing so, he was challenging the new normal of world leaders flagrantly ignoring international law to operate on the principle of might is right.

"Our conscience is not for sale," said Michaela Krausova, a leading member of the governing Pirate Party of the Prague city council. Ms. Krausova and Mr. Hrib’s party was founded to shake up Czech politics with its insistence on the safeguarding of civil liberties and political accountability and transparency.

While couched in terms of principle, Mr. Hrib’s stand strokes with newly installed Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intention to wrest back control from China of the island’s strategic Hambantota port that serves key shipping lanes between Europe and Asia.

Hambantota became a symbol of what some critics have charged is Chinese debt trap diplomacy after Sri Lanka was forced to hand over the port to China in 2017 on a 99-year lease because the government was unable to repay loans taken to build it.

"I believe that the Sri Lankan government must have control of all strategically important projects like Hambantota. The next generation will curse our generation for giving away precious assets otherwise," Mr. Rajapaksa said.

Fears of a debt trap coupled with the crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which targets not only Uighurs, but also groups that trace their roots to Central Asian countries, have fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

“Given that China is likely to continue to expand its presence, further irritating local publics, the temptation of opposition groups to exploit such anger will only grow. If that happens…the anti-Chinese demonstrations that have taken place to date will be only the prelude to a situation that could easily spiral out of control, ethnicizing politics in these countries still further,” said Central Asia scholar Paul Goble.

Beyond Xinjiang, anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia is fuelled by some of the same drivers that inform Czech attitudes towards China.

The shared drivers include unfulfilled promises, idle incomplete Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, widespread corruption associated with Chinese funding, and the influx of Chinese labour and materials at the expense of the local work force and manufacturers.

Beyond Xinjiang, Central Asians worry about potential debt traps. The Washington-based Center for Global Development listed last year two Central Asian nations, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as risking China-related “debt distress.”

Warned China and Central Asia scholar Ayjaz Wani: “Chinese principles in Central Asia are hegemonic. China has always interacted with Central Asian states without regarding their cultural identities, but according to its own vested interests… However, the ongoing anti-China sentiments may be coming to a tipping point.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Global Turmoil: Ethics offer a way out of the crisis



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

Rarely is out-of-the-box thinking needed more than in this era of geopolitical, political and economic turmoil.

The stakes couldn't be higher in a world in which civilizationalist leaders risk shepherding in an era of even greater political violence, disenfranchisement and marginalisation, and mass migration.

The risks are magnified by the fact that players that traditionally stood up for at least a modicum of basic economic, social, political and minority rights have either joined the civilisationalists or are too tied up in their own knots.

The United States, long a proponent of human rights, even if it was selective in determining when to adhere to its principles and when to conveniently look the other way, has abandoned all pretence under President Donald J. Trump.

Europe is too weak and fighting its own battles, whether finding its place in a world in which the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance is in doubt, Brexit or the rise of civilizationalist leaders within its own ranks.

The long and short of this is that civil society’s reliance on traditional strategies and tactics to exert political pressure serves to fly the rights flag but is unlikely to produce results.

The same is true for traditional often heavy-handed and violent government attempts to quell protests.

In some ways, this weekend’s landslide vote for pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong lays down a gauntlet for the governments of the city and China.

“Even if the current wave of protests recedes, the instability will very likely persist for some time and may even become a permanent situation… because the problems that cause the protests appear unresolvable by means of the current political and economic system,” said Israeli journalist Ofri Ilany.

Mr. Ilany put his finger on the pulse. This decade’s global breakdown in confidence in political systems and leaders not only spotlights the problem but may also create opportunities for out-of-the-box thinking.
The key lies in the fact that protesters across the globe in Santiago de Chile, La Paz, Bogota, Port-au-Prince, Quito, Paris, Barcelona, Moscow, Tbilisi, Algiers, Cairo, Khartoum, Beirut, Amman, Tehran, Jakarta, and Hong Kong as well as movements like the Extinction Rebellion essentially want the same thing: a more transparent, accountable and more economically equitable world.

The Middle East and North Africa, the one part of the world that exasperates the most, also represents the worst and the best of responses to the global clamour for change.

While Egypt under general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is almost a textbook example of what drives global protest, Tunisia and Kuwait, offer lessons to be learnt. So do some of the world’s longer standing success stories such as Singapore.

Tunisia has emerged as the one country that experienced a successful revolt in 2011 and was able to safeguard its achievements because its leaders, much like Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, saw power as a tool to secure national rather than personal interests and at a time of crisis worked with civil society to engineer a national dialogue that crafted a way forward.

Similarly, Kuwait, a constitutional semi-democratic anomaly in a region governed by secretive autocrats, recently opted for a more transparent competitive approach towards politics.

As a result, Kuwait saw this month its ruling family take its internal differences and disputes public. The differences forced the government to resign as members of the ruling family accused each other of embezzlement in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for next year and a possible succession in which the assembly would have a say.

Achieving protesters’ goal of more equitable and accountable political and economic systems involves not only adherence to the rule of law, including the implementation of international law, and application of the principle of equality before the law of not only individuals and organizations but also states.

It further involves the need to make principles of right and wrong and of respect of human dignity the moral and ethical underpinnings of the architecture of a new world order by which all ranging from an individual to a state are judged.

That is the fundamental message of protests across the globe that denounce a world in which financial or economic benefit justifies violations of rights and civilisationalists have abandoned any pretence of adherence to international law.

Heeding the protesters’ message means ensuring that at least international law provides an effective mechanism to hold accountable security forces that use lethal force against largely peaceful protesters as well as politically responsible officials that authorize unjustified brutality in what often amounts to mass killings.


The need for morals and ethics is gaining momentum with hardline realist proponents of the projection of power as well as some leaders raising the alarm bell.

The rise of artificial intelligence persuaded former US secretary of state and national security advisor Henry A. Kissinger, a symbol of realpolitik and the wielding of power, to recognize the importance of morals and ethics.

Writing in The Atlantic, Mr. Kissinger warned that the consequence of artificial intelligence “may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.”

Threats resulting from the abandonment of international law and the lack of moral and ethical yardsticks were evident in this month’s unilateral recognition by the Trump administration of the legality of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory long viewed by jurists and the international community as illegal.

The move highlighted the link between protecting individual rights and freedoms and national security.

Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad warned that the administration’s move meant that “we are no longer safe. If a country wants to enter our country and build their settlements, that is legal. We cannot do anything,”

Mr. Mahathir was projecting onto states a sentiment of vulnerability among protesters and minorities across the globe that results from the random, unrestricted employment of power by those in positions of authority.

Similarly, Singapore’s Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon warned last month that "countries increasingly adopt a zero-sum mentality in eschewing multilateral agreements as shackles on sovereignty and a burden on economic growth."

Mr. Menon’s words must have been music in the ears of Norway’s successful US$1 trillion rainy-day oil fund that has proven that growth and profitability are achievable without abandoning norms of moral and ethical investment.

Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund returned three percent or US$28.5 billion to the country’s pension pot during in the second quarter of 2019.

Guided by Norway’s Council of Ethics, which monitors the fund’s investments, GPFG recently

Said New York Times columnist David Brooks: “The world is unsteady and ready to blow… The big job ahead for leaders…is this: Write a new social contract that gives both the educated urban elites and the heartland working classes a piece of what they want most.”

To achieve the kind of social and economic justice as well as live-and-let live environment that Mr. Brooks advocates, leaders, governments and civil society will have to rediscover and readopt the moral and ethical values that are embedded in the world’s multiple cultures and common to much of mankind.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Mending Gulf fences could weaken support for US sanctions against Iran



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

Saudi efforts to negotiate an end to the Yemen war in a bid to open a dialogue with Iran could call into question continued Gulf support for US President Donald J. Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against the Islamic republic.

Saudi officials hope that talks mediated by Oman and Britain between the kingdom and Houthi rebels will lead to a revival of stalled talks between the Yemeni insurgents and the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has tasked his younger brother and Saudi deputy defense minister, Khalid bin Salman, with engineering an end to the Yemeni war as part of a broader revamp of Saudi foreign policy.

The revamp involves a return to a more cautious foreign and defense policy that embraces multilateralism after several years in which the kingdom adopted an assertive and robust go-it alone approach that produced several fiascos, including the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen 4.5 years ago.


The kingdom’s return to a more cautious approach is also intended to allow Saudi Arabia to project itself in 2020 as president of the Group of 20 (G20) and repair its image tarnished by the Yemen War, the killing last year of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and a domestic crackdown on dissent. The G20 groups the world’s twenty largest economies.

Mr. Trump’s response to the September drone and missile attacks for which the Houthis claimed responsibility was the latest, and in some ways clearest indication, that Gulf states may not be able to count on the United States in times of crisis even though the Trump administration insisted that Iran rather than the rebels was to blame for the incident.

That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them. If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully,” Mr. Trump said at the time, adopting a transactional attitude towards Gulf security.

A US official involved in Gulf policy said more recently that “the attacks made the Saudis and other Gulf states realize that escalation of US-Iranian tensions would make them targets in an environment in which the United States may not wholeheartedly come to their rescue.”

Another US official suggested that the Saudis’ “prime objective now is to lessen their involvement in Yemen, to get the Houthis to stop being some version of a proxy, so they (the Saudis) can deal directly with Iran.”

United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told the UN Security Council this week that the number of air attacks by the Saudi-led coalition had dropped by nearly 80 percent in the last two weeks.

We call this de-escalation, a reduction in the tempo of the war, and perhaps a move towards an overall ceasefire in Yemen," Mr. Griffiths said. He held out the hope that a negotiated end to the war could be achieved early next year.

Saudi efforts to end the war as well as gestures towards Iran in recent months by the United Arab Emirates did not stop senior Saudi and UAE officials from adopting a hard line at this week’s Manama Dialogue.

“Appeasement simply cannot work with Iran. We hold Iran responsible for the attack on Abqaiq. We do not want war, but Iran needs to be held accountable. The question is whether Iran can abandon its ambition to propagate the revolution and respect sovereignty,” Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir told the Bahrain gathering. By mentioning Abqaiq, Mr. Al-Jubeir was referring to one of the two Saudi oil facilities targeted in September.

Mr. Al-Jubeir’s UAE counterpart, Anwar Gargash, added: “Germany under Hitler, the Soviet Union, Iran today: revisionist states threaten international order. The key to stability is deterrence, and steadfast resolve by the international community that Iran must change. If not, sanctions must be increased, not loosened.”

The US Treasury, expanding harsh sanctions that aim to force Iran to re-negotiate on American terms the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program, sanctioned this week Iranian communications minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi for blocking access to the Internet as part of a bid to squash anti-government protests.

The blockage made it difficult for protesters to post videos on social media, generate support for their rejection of recent fuel price hikes, and obtain reliable reports on the extent of the unrest. Amnesty International said more than 100 protesters had so far been killed by security forces.

Mr. Al-Jubeir and Mr. Gargash’s tough remarks notwithstanding, winds in the Gulf appear to be blowing in the direction of reduced tension on all fronts, including the 2.5-year old Saudi-UAE-led boycott of Qatar.

Inevitably, reducing tension will only prove sustainable if US-Iranian friction is dialled back.

Sustainability moreover will depend on some sort of regional understanding on non-aggression that would involve Iran and create the basis for a more multilateral security architecture that would embed rather than replace the regional US defence umbrella.

Bahraini foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa appeared to anticipate a more multilateral approach in his remarks at the Manama Dialogue. Rejecting an Iranian call for a security architecture that would exclusively involve regional states, Mr. Al Khalifa asserted that “Iran's regional security proposals are fundamentally flawed, especially because they do not include external powers.”

A series of Saudi and UAE gestures in recent months, beyond the Saudi-Houthi talks, signal moves towards reducing tensions not only on the Yemeni but also the Iranian and Qatari fronts.

In the latest indication, Khaled Al Jarallah, deputy foreign minister of Kuwait, the official mediator in the dispute with Qatar, said a decision this month by the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini national soccer teams to compete in the Gulf Cup in Qatar, despite their boycott of the Gulf state, “provides a clear indication that a breakthrough has taken place.”

Similarly, a Saudi official, in a rare gesture, told reporters in Washington earlier this month that Qatar had taken a step towards resolving the crisis by passing an anti-terrorism funding law, a key demand of the boycotting countries.

Besides withdrawing forces from Yemen, the UAE refrained from blaming Iran for the attacks on the Saudi installations and earlier explosions on vessels off the Emirati coast and sent officials to Iran to discuss maritime security.

Saudi and UAE support for the US’ maximum pressure campaign is certain to weaken if Gulf efforts to reduce tensions progress, particularly with regards to Iran. A peace process in Yemen and a Gulf dialogue with Iran would be significant steps in that direction.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Middle Eastern protests: A tug of war over who has the longer breath



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

Mass anti-government protests in several Arab countries are turning into competitions to determine who has the longer breath, the protesters or the government.

In Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, countries in which the leader was either forced to resign or has agreed to step down, authorities appear to be dragging their feet on handovers of power or agreed transitional power sharing arrangements in the hope that protesters, determined to hold on to their street power until a political transition process is firmly in place, either lose their momentum or are racked by internal differences.

So far, protesters are holding their ground, having learnt the lesson that their achievements are likely to be rolled back if they vacate the street before having cemented an agreement on the rules of the transitional game and process.

Algerians remain on the streets, seven months after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced to step down, in demand of a complete change of the political system.

Scores of recent arrests on charges that include “harming national unity” and “undermining the morale of the army” have failed to deter Algerians who refuse to accept the military’s proposed December 12 date for elections.

Lebanon enters its second months of protests with the government going through the motions but ultimately failing to respond to demands for a technocratic government, a new non-sectarian electoral law and early elections.

An effort to replace prime minister Saad Hariri with another member of the elite, Mohammad Safadi, a billionaire businessman and former finance minister, was rejected by the protesters.

"We are staying here. We don't know how long - maybe one or two months or one or two years. Maybe it will take 10 years to get the state we are dreaming of, but everything starts with a first step." said filmmaker Perla Joe Maalouli.

Weeks after agreeing to resign in response to popular pressure, Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul Mehdi appears to be increasingly firm in his saddle.

Much like what prompted US President George H.W.. Bush to first call in 1991 for a popular revolt against Saddam Hussein and then give the Iraqi strongman the tools to crush the uprising, Mr. Mehdi is holding on to power in the absence of a credible candidate acceptable to the political elite to replace him.

Mr. Mehdi’s position is strengthened by the fact that neither the United States nor Iran wants a power vacuum to emerge in Baghdad.

Backtracking on Mr. Mehdi’s resignation and refraining from appointing a prime minister who credibly holds out the promise of real change is likely to harden the battle lines between the protesters and the government.

The tugs of war highlight the pitfalls protesters and governments need to manoeuvre in what amounts to a complex game with governments seeking to pacify demonstrators by seemingly entertaining their demands yet plotting to maintain fundamental political structures that anti-government activists want to uproot.

The risk of a tug of war is that protests turn violent as happened in Hong Kong or in Lebanon where cars of parliamentarians were attacked as they drove this week towards the assembly.

Meeting protesters’ demands and aspirations that drive the demonstrations and figure across the Middle East and North Africa, irrespective of whether grievances have spilled into streets, is what makes economic and social reform tricky business for the region’s autocrats.

Its where what is needed for sustainable reforms bounces up against ever more repressive security states intent on exercising increasingly tight control.

Sustainable reform requires capable and effective institutions rather than bloated, bureaucratic job banks and decentralisation with greater authorities granted to municipalities and regions.

Altering social contracts by introducing or increasing taxes, reducing subsidies for basic goods and narrowing opportunities for government employment will have to be buffered by greater transparency that provides the public insight into how the government ensures that it benefits from the still evolving new social contract. 

To many protesters, Sudan has validated protesters’ resolve to retain street power until transitional arrangements are put in place.

It took five months after the toppling of president Omar al-Bashir and a short-lived security force crackdown in which some 100 people were killed before the military, the protesters and political groups agreed and put in place a transitional power-sharing process.

The process involved the creation of a sovereign council made up of civilians and military officers that is governing the country and managing its democratic transition.

Even so, transitional experiences have yet to prove their mettle. Protesters may have learnt lessons from the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Yet, this time round, protesters lack the broad-based international empathy that 2011 uprisings enjoyed and are up against more than domestic forces backed by conservative Gulf states.

Powers like Russia and China make no bones about their rejection of protest as an expression of popular political will.

So has Iran that has much at stake in Iraq and Lebanon, countries where anti-sectarian sentiment is strong among protesters, even if the Islamic republic was born in one of the 20th century’s epic popular revolts and is confronting protests of its own against fuel price hikes.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture