Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Saga of Bangladesh Test Cricket: So near yet so far

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Independent, March 27th, 2010

The saga continues. Bangladesh’s search for that illusive victory over a full strength international test side that would signal the coming of age of its Test cricket slipped away in Dhaka when with some common sense and cricketing sense, we could have at least earned a very convincing draw . This test, the second one against England, was a strange one in many ways. The Test brought to the surface for cricket analysts that Bangladesh is not short in talent but it also revealed at the same time for everyone to see that in terms of common sense and cricketing sense, Bangladesh has still some way to go.

The test started, thanks to Tamim Iqbal, as a 20/20 game. With more than 45 minutes to go in the morning session of the first day, he was more than assured to become the 5th Test cricketer in history and the first since 1976 when Majid Khan of Pakistan achieved the feat, to score a test century before lunch on the opening day. That Saturday, the first day of the test, I woke up at 10 in the morning with the Test starring at 9:30. I switched my TV and did not believe what I saw on live telecast of the Test. Bangladesh was past the 50 mark and Tamim at 35. By the time I finished breakfast and came back to watch again, there was more wonder. The game was just over an hour and Tamim had crossed 70 and the commentators themselves did not seem to believe what they were saying. Tamim was set to complete his century well before lunch. But like all fairy tales that have an ending, Tamim was out at 85 doing what he does best; hit out at whatever is bowled at him, only this shot did not reach the boundary but went up for the wicket keeper to take a dolly catch.

Common sense should have dictated him to check his shots and go for singles and then he would have easily created history. He would have been in the company of Trumper, McCartney and Bradman. The Captain and the Coach should have sent him a message to do so. The Captain, whose talent as an all rounder is now world class also lacks the same common sense and cricketing sense of Tamim. At 96 not out sometime after lunch with Bangladesh lead more than 200 on the final day when his stay for an hour more would have assured Bangladesh not such his century but also its first well deserved draw, he chose to dance down the pitch to score a 100 with a six only to succumb and hand England a very comfortable 9 wickets victory on a platter. Three of Saquib’s team mates who could have helped him ensure the draw also went down the same insensible way as their Captain, playing 20/20 shots.

A draw would have been a moral victory for Bangladesh in every way because for most of the Test, except the lasts session of the penultimate day and the two final sessions of the final day, Bangladesh Team was the front runner. In fact, Bangladesh team had the English team so demoralized that even night watchman Shafiul hammered a fifty out of the English attack and England looked as the under dogs and Bangladesh well and truly the champions! . The English batted like a team possessed by fear for which they opted for amnesia by forgetting to play shots to occupy the crease and ensure against defeat. If the three horrendous umpiring decisions had gone Bangladesh’s way, England would have been on its knees with Bangladesh the dominating team.

The way the Bangladesh captain led in the second innings was also another example of immaturity and lack of common sense and cricketing sense. The Captain should have known, if not on his own then with guidance from the Coach, that the only way to stop England from winning was to attack and get early wickets so that England would play for the draw. Instead, the captain went on the defensive and brought himself, the team’s leading bowler, when the England openers had merrily charted for themselves 40 runs with almost 4 runs an over. In the end, the English team scored the 209 runs with 9 wickets and many overs to spare that was a victory by a very big margin.

In retrospect, Bangladesh could have easily saved the match if their batsmen had scored runs in test style instead of 20/20 style. By scoring runs too fast they gave England in the end the time to score the required runs. The pitch was just too flat and easy for England to be bowled twice. With just one spinner in Saquib with class, the Bangladesh team should have known that in the Mirpur pitch; only a miracle could have helped them to win the match, even if those three umpiring decisions had gone in their favour. In the second innings, after England had managed a nearly 100 runs lead, and with less than two days left of the match, Tamim again started the innings in the same 20/20 style; gave 3 very easy chances and was eventually out without occupying the crease for the length of time required to draw. On the 5th day, with the odds heavily in favour of England, with the Captain on 25 not out and 4 wickets remaining and a lead less than 100, Saquib and his team-mates again chose to attack! It is a matter of luck and Saquib’s batting skill, he was able to be there but his team mates perished, playing strokes, like their target was victory in a limited overs game. Instead, if the Captain had opted on occupation of the crease, the remaining four batsmen could have stayed long enough to frustrate England and earn a draw.

The series against England has left a good number of plus points for Bangladesh. The batsmen have shown class. But they have to change gears between Test matches and limited overs games. In case of Tamim, it may not be possible to rein his rashness because he is a natural stroke-maker. The Bangladesh team may make one exception in his case and allow him to play as Sewag plays for the Indian team. Bangladesh Team management should make Hanif Mohammad the model for the rest of the batsmen because without learning to occupy the crease, in the end they will always give the opposition the time to score the runs that they would be accumulating in 20/20 style because it does not have the bowlers to take the advantage any other team would have by scoring fast runs. It is good to scores 4s and 6s but in Test cricket, singles and twos are more important. Bangladesh Team must know that to play sensible Test cricket.

The Bangladesh team and more so its batsmen will soon face completely different wickets in England where pace and swing could play havoc with their stroke-making style. Without sound defensive batsman ship, they could find making runs extremely difficult than in the placid pitches of Bangladesh where weather conditions do not allow the ball any natural movements of the pitch. As a Captain, Saquib needs a lot of guidance because his immaturity has shown large chinks in the Bangladesh armor. His leadership in the final two sessions of the Dhaka Test was very disappointing where even his body language was unacceptable. The way Cook and Petersen scored the runs for victory made it look like the England team was playing cricket against a team of novice that was not the case on at least the first three days of the Dhaka test and for a large measure in the Chittagong Test; in Dhaka, Bangladesh for some time was in fact in the driver’s seat.

The President of Bangladesh Cricket Board recently said in an interview about the need of the Bangladesh Team for psychological support because the players are very young. He has a very important point here because the Bangladesh cricket Team lost the two tests and the limited over series more in their minds that on cricketing ability. The bottom line has been stressed by the English spinner Swann who said that Bangladesh Cricket Team is no long a pushover.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Friday, March 26, 2010

East Jerusalem and Netanyahu's crass disregard for norms

US' preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan has, to some extent, stood in the way of the administration of President Obama from focusing fully on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In fact, there have been no Palestine-Israel talks for more than a year. Although President Obama appointed former Senator George Mitchell as his Middle East Envoy to carry forward US initiated peace negotiations, there has not been progress through his efforts even after the Senator visited the region and talked with all conflicting groups, except Hammas. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu has also not shown much interest towards peace either.

No one, of course, expected Netanyahu to be interested in peace initiative and he has not disappointed his admirers. It has, however, been a disappointment that the US that has the maximum leverage on the Israeli Government has not shown more enthusiasm than it has to nudge the government of Netanyahu from its complacency. In fact, Netanyahu has been so complacent that his Government announced on March 12th plans to build 1600 new settlements in East Jerusalem right when Vice President Joe Biden was on a visit to Israel to restart the proximity talks for resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is considered by the United States both a provocation and an embarrassment timed deliberately by Israel to derail US efforts to start proximity talks on resolution of Israel-Palestine conflict.

East Jerusalem was annexed by the Israelis after the 1967 war. It is outside the legal competence of the Government of Israel to build any new settlement there. Further, the Palestinians who had control over East Jerusalem till Israel occupied it want this part of Jerusalem to be the capital of the independent state of Palestine. The Israelis of course claim the entire Jerusalem as the capital of their country. The intention of the Palestinians as well as the fact that this land was forcibly taken away from them and occupied through war does not bother the Israelis at all.

The US raised serious objection to the decision of Israel to build the settlements in East Jerusalem. Not only did it come during Biden's Israel visit, it also came before Hillary Clinton went to Moscow for an international meeting on Middle East and bilateral meetings with Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. In Moscow, the US, the UN, the EU and Russia issued a joint statement condemning the Israeli decision. In the statement, the four powers known as the quartet said that they would be closely monitoring the situation in Israel over its government's decision in East Jerusalem and added that they would also consider taking additional steps to address the situation.

The decision to build the settlements drew flak within Israel. The Kadima party, known for its moderate views, called it “a new record for diplomatic stupidity”. Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the move “unwarranted”. These criticisms notwithstanding, Netanyahu went ahead and asserted that every Government in Israel reserves the right over East Jerusalem because the entire Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel.

Hillary Clinton did not retain her anger for long. After a telephone conversation with the Israeli Prime Minister upon returning from Moscow, she said her discussions with him were “useful”. She, however, did not divulge the contents of her conversation or what made her conclude it was “useful”. It is also surprising why she was so upbeat after expressing such anger at the Israeli decision before. It also did not clearly explain the anger that the US had expressed when the announcement was made. Biden who was the immediate recipient of Israel's provocative and embarrassing decision in a written statement, said: “the substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of the proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”

There was also a sideshow to the row between the US and Israel over the settlement issue. The brother of Netanyahu's wife, by calling Obama an anti-Semite, added spice to the brew that Israel cooked for the US at a time when it was preparing to launch the proximity talks. Although the Prime Minister quickly distanced himself from his brother-in-law and called his views that of an extremist Jew, it nevertheless left a bad taste in the mouth, particularly because apart from talking over the phone the Israeli prime Minister did precious little. The Palestinians were naturally as angry as they could be and called upon the US to respond to this provocation with “effective measures”.

However, the latest act by Israel was neither accidental nor coincidental. The Israeli Prime Minister told Biden that he “is a true friend of Israel” and the declaration was in no way meant to embarrass him. However, a Jerusalem City Council member spilled the beans. The member said that the timing was deliberate. The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs of Israel, Eli Yishai, who made the announcement, chose to do so to derail Netanyahu's recent move to start peace negotiations with Palestine. The City Council member said that “the fact that Yishai can't wait a few more days till Biden leaves proves that his goal was to give the American administration a slap in the face.”

One reason why Clinton was so easily led to term his conversation with Netanyahu as “useful” where the latter made no amends for offending the United States could be the visit of the Israeli Prime Minister. Even on the eve of going on this visit, Netanyahu has reiterated that “building in East Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv”. Netanyahu's continued intransigence has left analysts wondering what Clinton found in her conversation with the Israeli prime Minister “useful”. It also underscores the fact that when it comes to Israel, they are a power unto themselves. Even the world's only remaining super power is virtually powerless before the power of the Israeli lobbies in the US that largely supports the hard-line stance of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The latest action of Israel not only highlights this reality, it also exposes the utterly disadvantaged position of the Palestinians. Even with the righteousness of its cause, with scores of UN resolutions and international law behind it the United States, with Obama at the helm, cannot find the strength and resolve to do the right thing in Palestine. President Shimon Peres who has influence over the conservative Netanyahu is trying to diffuse the current impasse but Netanyahu is also under pressure from the extremists in his government to go ahead with the construction in East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the Palestinian peace initiative stands suspended.

Published in The Daily Star, March 27, 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bangladesh entrapped in vicious circle of negative politics

M. serajul Islam
Published in The Independent's National Day Supplement
March 25th , 2010

It is now the talk everywhere. The abuse and name calling in which the MPs indulged recently in the sessions of the parliament shown live on TV disappointed the nation and led people to believe that politics in the country is moving in the opposite direction for establishing democracy. The Speaker whose well meaning and no nonsense intervention after he was pushed to the limits restored some level of decency but there is no reason to believe that such intervention will improve the quality of performance in the parliament. Bangladesh is entrapped in a cobweb of negative politics that is not only being reflected in the parliament; it can be seen in all aspects of public life that is not allowing the country to develop to its potentials.

The way the two mainstream political parties have done politics since the fall of Ershad’s military government has developed a dynamics of its own. The dynamics has been driven by just one force and that is negativity. The underpinning theme in this negativity is the almost total absence of bipartisan approach to any national issue. Each has opposed the other just for the sake of opposing. When one has won the election, the other has turned away and invariably accused the winner as cheat despite the fact all four elections since Ershad’s fall have been attested by international and national observers as free and fair. When one has gone to the parliament as the ruling party, the other has stayed away. There has been practically no known instance where the two parties have cooperated on any issue of importance to the country. When the Prime Minister recently returned from her state visit to India, her own party gave her full marks. The opposition accused her of selling the country.

In recent exchanges between the two parties, their negative mindset hit a new nadir. The BNP has been abstaining from the parliament for a long time. Every right thinking citizen of the country wanted the opposition to come back to the parliament for they knew that without an opposition, the parliament cannot function democratically. Unfortunately, when they came back, the exchanges between the two parties were unbelievable. They reacted to each other as if they were looking for the opportunity to show the nation their accomplishment in abusing national leaders. It is not just that the language used was grossly unfit for any civilized gathering, let alone a body like the national parliament. Even the body language was mean and nasty. Both the parties have tens of millions of followers. When one leader was abused in the language that was used, tens of millions of people across the country were deeply hurt. Even then, these parliamentarians carried on with their abusive language because they believed that against those tens of millions whose feelings they hurt, there were tens of millions of their own supporters who cheered when they abused the national leaders.

The members of the parliament, unfortunately, wrongly assessed the public who did not react the way they expected. Many of their own supporters outside the parliament have felt ashamed that those whom they elected behaved that way. In fact, the majority of the people, even those with party affiliations, responded positively to the tough stand taken by the Speaker. It is inconceivable that these members failed to even consider the fact that their behaviour was being shown live to the nation and that no sensible person would but negatively react to such offensive behaviour. What was also equally inconceivable was the fact that while a member of parliament took the floor to abuse a national leader, his party members, including the women members, saw nothing wrong in such abuse and were seen on live telecast encouraging and urging the member speaking to carry on with his/her speech. That was negative politics in its worst manifestation.

The MPs are educated and sensible. It is difficult therefore to understand why they behave this way and why none of their peers in the party correct their behaviour. The negative political culture that the two mainstream parties have helped create has the answer embedded in it. No one doubts anymore that Bangladesh has been able to establish one of the most democratic systems of election for transfer of power. Yet the two mainstream parties left us without any doubt by the way they “elected” their party executives or in the manner they have taken decisions in their respective council sessions that there has been much there to gladden the hearts of the supporters of democracy. Today in the AL, the Prime Minister has both the first and the last words in every major decision of the party. Likewise, in the BNP, it is Khaleda Zia who plays exactly the same role. As a consequence of such lack of democracy within the party, it does not need much common sense to conclude how rest of the party leaders would behave. All members of the AL, before they utter a word in public, ensure that what they say would please the Prime Minister. The BNP members do likewise with sycophantic zeal towards Khaleda Zia. In fact, there is an element of competitive sycophancy in both the BNP and the AL to please their respective leaders.

It is difficult to believe that the two leaders who have each been Prime Minister two times through elections would subscribe to the behaviour that their members have recently shown in parliament. Yet it is in all likelihood that these members are behaving the way they are behaving because they believe that such behaviour would please them. The ball is thus squarely in the courts of the two leaders. While the Speaker’s reprimand has been correct though belated, it will have no sustainable impact upon the members unless the Prime Minister takes a stand against such abusive behaviour of her party members and Khaleda Zia does likewise. The two leaders do not even have to use any of the harsh words that the Speaker has; they just have to make it known that they would be unhappy if their party members abuse national leaders in the parliament. The irony is the task of ending such a negative aspect of the working of the parliament is as easy as that.

On the broader canvas of the nation, politics is equally negative where the two leaders again hold the key to unlock the nation’s future. In the BNP’s last term of office, the AL criticized them on issues of corruption, politicization of the bureaucracy; harassing political opponents; law and order situation and on the Prime Minister’s son exercising political influence. The people accepted these criticisms and gave the AL a 3/4th majority to win the last elections. In the year and 3 months it has been in power, the AL is following on the footsteps of the BNP and fine tuning what it did. In negative mindset, the two parties are thus eerily the same. Instead, if in 2002, the BNP had not indulged in corruption, or not allowed the Prime Minister’s son undue influence in government or politicized the bureaucracy or gone after their political opponents, the people who had looked so favorably upon them in 2002 elections would not have rejected them so comprehensively in the 2008 elections. While the future can only be a matter of speculation, the trend by the AL to continue with the negative elements of our political culture can only make their chances of winning the next elections in 2014 that much harder. In the midst of such negative politics, it is the nation that suffers.

Instead, what would happen if from tomorrow, the AL would let the opposition speak freely in the parliament and even if they continued with their negative mindset, not be provoked? If the government decided not to go after them for political reasons and by the same token of positive politics, allow the bureaucracy not be subjected to political influence as it is legally bound to, and refrain from doing all other negative things that it had accused the BNP of doing in its last term of office, who do you think would benefit? Common sense should dictate to conclude that such steps would enhance the standing, popularity and stature of the Prime Minister manifold and establish the AL as a proactive and positive political party. If the BNP would continue to remain in the groove of negative politics in the face of AL’s positive and proactive politics, it would only sound its own death knell. If the BNP had done all the above in its last term, its predicament in the last elections would not have been as pathetic as it was.

If again henceforth, both parties would come out of their negative politics together, the doors of Bangladesh to achieve the level of development it should have achieved long ago would not be very far away. But if both continue to remain inside the cobweb of negative politics, then Bangladesh would continue to have the 5-6% economic growth rate it achieved over last two decades because of the vibrant private sector but would not make that break to launch itself into a middle income country and beyond for which a growth rate near to 10% is crucial. Ironically it is not economics but politics that is keeping the country back; economics is waiting and praying for politics to catch up. The key to Bangladesh’s future to let politics take charge is firmly in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The rest of the leadership in both parties is incapable to bring that change. It is high time that they should come forward to break the cobweb of negative politics for the sake of Bangladesh’s future.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Billboards or Angels of Death?

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Independent, March 21st. 2010

Recently Dhaka earned the dubious distinction of being the second worst city of the world, courtesy the prestigious Economist Intelligence Unit. However, in recent years, we all knew that we were living in a city that has some of the worst credentials as a livable city. It is just not the traffic jam that is getting worse by the day while successive governments, the present one included, have set their sights for the state of the art traffic system for the city. The city’s water and power situation should shame those in charge of assuring these.

The British are no longer ruling us. We have sent the Pakistanis packing. Who do we blame for Dhaka’s ever increasing misfortunes? The incident that occurred in Gulshan Avenue a few days ago when a billboard fell on parked cars and killed two is a stark reminder about the uncertainty and dangers of Dhaka life. Unbelievable information has come to press about the billboards. The smiling faces of models on billboards are in fact angels of death. A Dhaka City Corporation official has told the media that there are several thousand billboards across the city of which 90% have been illegally launched. Most of them are literally hanging there by the thread in the face of a storm.

And who do you think has facilitated these illegal billboards? If you have not read it in the newspapers, you would never be able to guess it. According to newspaper reports, these illegal billboards have been facilitated by a ruling of the High Court that in 2007 while hearing a case prohibited the DCC and the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartipakkha, the regulatory authorities for these billboards in Dhaka city, not to tear down billboards until further orders. Unscrupulous billboard operators have taken advantage of this order and have launched billboards at will without caring for even the minimum safety requirements. One would like to know whether that case is still unsettled or whether that case was settled against the regulators. Going by the large number of illegal billboards that have been constructed after 2007, both seems likely; that the case may still be unsettled or that the ruling in the case was against the regulators.

The citizens of Dhaka would be looking towards the High Court for clarification in the matter and urgently. The sad incident on Gulshan Avenue happened in seconds because the nature of the nor’westers is such that it can and does create such massacre in no time at all. Thus all the thousands of illegal billboards, in the face of nor’westers are there ready to fall upon the passersby to kill more. Till a clarification comes out of the High Court, the deaths on Gulshan Avenue would be on the conscience of the High Court. The regulators, the billboard owners and the owners of the building also cannot absolve themselves of their responsibility in the deaths. If the High Court stay order is in fact the reason for new billboards to have come up illegally, the regulators should have sensitized the public about the dangers. In fact, they need now to clearly tell the public about the dangers of such billboards during storms; the precaution they need to take; and if the High Court ruling stands in the way to deal with these illegal billboards, take legal steps to resolve the matter. There is no reason to believe that the High Court would not do the right thing if the regulators are up to their task.

The incident on Gulshan Avenue should force us not just to take this extremely seriously but also to look at how many other things are happening around us that are illegal and hazardous with the authorities oblivious about these . Looking at the Gulshan Avenue, the hub of the rich of the city, one can see flouting of the laws of the city right, left and centre. This was originally planned to be a residential area. It was not necessity but greed that has turned the big and once beautiful avenue into a nightmare for the residents of the area. I live on one end of Gulshan Avenue. During day time, it takes me sometimes an hour by car to reach the other end, a distance that I travel at night in less than 5 minutes! The reason for turning a dream into a nightmare is the criminal indifference and I would say, connivance, of regulatory authorities, realtors and those “lucky” few who own land on the avenue to build high rises , some the headquarters of financial and telecommunication giants of the country, without any provision for adequate parking and connected facilities. As a consequence, the adjacent roads of the avenue inside the residential area have been turned into parking lots for the clients of these big business houses on the avenue. Some new high rises being constructed on the avenue have taken over the footpath, exposing the pedestrians using the avenue into life threatening hazards.

Some newspapers and the civil society had taken the very noble initiative to expose the illegal activities of some of Dhaka’s rich and powerful and how they have occupied parts of the Gulshan Lake that is ecologically dangerous for the area and Dhaka city. Only fear of the emergency authorities had forced some of these people to give back some of the land they had grabbed. Thanks to the return of democratic government, these powerful people are again back to what they do best, illegally grab land. While we have seen Rangs knocked down, “thanks” again to the detestable emergency period where a road that would bring some relief to Dhaka horrendous traffic system is being built, the BGMEA stands “proudly” now that democratic government has been installed as if to say damn to the citizens of Dhaka. This Government’s efforts to recover the rivers around Dhaka, started by the Caretaker Government are now not progressing as well as had been expected. There are a few other buildings around this city where institutions with great reputation stand on land that have been acquired by doubtful means but these buildings cannot be touched because the occupants appear to be over and above the law.

Dhaka’s rich and powerful is the city’s problem. The “builders” and “developers” have acquired land around Dhaka; land that was once part of the city’s natural wetlands and drainage system. They have also acquired whatever else was available legally from not well to do owners to build so-called satellite cities. There was news in the paper recently that many of these so-called satellite towns have not been officially approved. These novae riche are also acquiring land in very large quantity outside Dhaka, some even in natural forests, for building farm houses/resorts which are taking away land from marginal farmers and widening the rich and poor divide. While our socio-economic thinkers and planners are focused on what is now becoming a cliché, namely tackling poverty alleviation, the widening of the rich- poor divide could become a huge and explosive issue that could tear Bangladesh apart. Already people who were lured to sell their land on the eastern side of Baridhara across the Biswa Road divide are beginning to see how some developers and land agents have turned their poor holdings of yester years into gold mines for profit.

Newspaper reports suggest that suddenly the DCC has woken to the billboard issue for tearing down the illegal ones although their attempt before Shahabag was aborted by the police deployed to assist to bring these down!. A citizen who owns business in the building where the ill-fated billboard in Gulshan was launched has filed a case of murder against the building’s owners. The citizens of Dhaka would like to fervently hope that DCC would bring down the thousands of billboards or “angels of death”. However, there is just too much milk and honey in the billboard business for the building owners, the advertisers and others concerned to let the law stand in the way. In this second worst livable city in the world, money, power and greed are always on top!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

Friday, March 19, 2010

Will Iraq's election bring peace and democracy?

BY Iraqi standard, the second general election since the US intervention held on March 8th ended peacefully. Voter turnout, though lower at 62% than 76% in the previous one, was significant. However, with the US committed to withdraw its combat troops of 50,000 by August and the rest by end of next year, the election was held to take Iraq into comfort zone politically and from security point of view, given the fact that in recent times Iraq has made significant strides on both counts. The US has not so far seen any negative elements in the elections and has reiterated its commitment to withdraw. However, analysts are expressing apprehensions.

The elections have been fought by a number of electoral alliances where the Shias who are 60% of the population have organized themselves effectively. The Shia parties have come together under the State of Law Coalition (SLC) led by incumbent Prime Minister Nur Kamal Al-Maliki. SLC is dominated by his historically militant Shia Dawa party that broke off from the major Shia coalition the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) after the UIA had won the 2005 elections with 47% seats. The SLC has brought into the alliance smaller Shia and Sunni parties to give it secular credentials; to overtly distance it from Iran; and to gain acceptance among neighbours as an Iraqi national party. The second major coalition is the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) comprising Shia parties known for their anti-American; pro-Iran and militant views with leaders like Moqtada al-Sadr and Amar al Hakimi, leader of Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, among its ranks. It had fought the 2005 elections as the United Iraqi Alliance and had won 47% of the votes but disintegrated before it could assume power. A third major coalition is the Iraqia led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi that includes both Shia and Sunni parties with secular credentials that had contested the 2005 elections under Iraqi List and Iraqi Consensus and had won a quarter of the seats. The major Sunni coalition is the Iraqi Accord which is the remnant of the 2005 Iraqi Accord Front that had polled 16% of the seats. The Kurds have come together mainly under Kurdistan Alliance led by Jalal Talabani, Iraq's President.

Final results to be announced by the High Electoral Commission would not be known till the end of March. However, the presence of a good number of coalitions that lack cohesion suggests that there would be a lot of horse trading among themselves and parties before a government is in place. Last time, it took 5 months and the period was marked by serious violence and conflict. Many analysts are predicting something similar this time also. Under the Iraqi constitution, the leader of the coalition that wins the majority will be the next Prime Minister. However, going by the 2005 elections, smaller parties in the coalitions could switch between coalitions specially when there could be lures of political offices and other perks of power, making the outcome in choosing a Prime Minister a lengthy process. Nevertheless, the fight for Premiership is going to be between Maliki and a former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi going by indications at this stage. Maliki, following three massive terrorist attacks in Baghdad in August, October and December last year , seemed out of the race but has rallied strongly using his office and those of his Ministers who are all members of SLC, to distribute favours. At the time of writing this piece, ALC leads comfortably across southern Iraq, oil rich Basra and Baghdad. Allawi's coalition is winning the votes in predominantly Sunni Al-Anbar province and Kirkuk, inhabited by Arabs and Kurds. The militant Shiite INA appears early losers; losing even in predominantly Shia dominated Najaf and Babil to the SLC.

The United States would be leaving Iraq to its fate but not before spending a humungous sum of money and sacrificing the lives of over 4000 of men and women in uniform. If the lives of Iraqi men, women and children who have died in violence are taken into consideration, that number would be in hundreds of thousands. Additionally, US efforts in Vietnam War had cost it 686 billion in inflation adjusted US dollars. By April of last year, the US had spent US$ 696 billion in Iraq. The US would thus be hoping that its efforts in Iraq would not meet the same fate as in Vietnam that ended in conceding victory to the enemy, the Viet Cong. In Iraq the US would be leaving with the satisfaction that it has ended the tenure of Saddam Hussein and would not be leaving the country in the hands of the enemy. Unfortunately, it would not have the same feeling in terms of the country coming together under a government on which it could have total confidence for achieving peace and democracy.

Iraq remains as factionalized today as it was when the US invaded it to destroy WMDs that it never had, forcing the US to change its reason for the invasion to establishing democracy. Although violence has de-escalated, the conditions for re-escalation still remains and there is no guarantee that the country would not recede back into the same conditions that had existed before the US invasion; conditions such as ethnic/religious/regional divides that have encouraged dictatorships of which the one of Saddam Hussein was the worst. The latest elections may have in fact reinforced these divides. Iraq could be the proverbial dog's tail; straight as long as the US troops remain but become crooked again once they leave.

Iraq is, to use a cliché, at a historical cross road. If the incumbent Prime Minister returns with his coalition in which he has been able to bring representation of the other ethnic/religious groups, however small, on a non-secular platform, he would have the advantage of experience and control over the security forces that his administration and the US have painstakingly put together and trained. However, that good news could be bad news for peace in Iraq because SLC's gains would be at the expense of the INA that could encourage them towards violence to recoup their electoral losses. Nevertheless, the best chances of achieving peace and democracy in Iran lie with the SLC. If the Iraqia coalition wins the majority and Allawi becomes the Prime Minister, the Saudis would be pleased as they are unhappy with Maliki by the way he cornered Sunnis while in power. The Iranians, who have a big stake in Iraq, would in contrast be unhappy because they back Maliki ahead of Allawi as they dislike Allawi's secular credentials and alignment with Sunnis, in the event their favourite INA is out of contention. Everything is complicated at the moment. The elections could push Iraq towards more uncertain times, much to the discomfort of the US and its commitment to withdraw.

Published in The Daily Star, March 19th., 2010

My Foreign Office Years, 1986-1990: AKH Morshed departs after 4 months in office

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Independent, March 19th., 2010

When AKH Morshed was made the Foreign Secretary, he had less than 4 months left to go on leave preparatory to retirement (LPR). We all expected for very obvious reasons that he would be given an extension. Otherwise, the President’s decision to make him the Foreign Secretary would not have made any sense at all.

The President, of course, had other ideas. Even in that short period he was the Foreign Secretary, AKH Morshed did not get the respect from the President that he so richly deserved. In fact, looking back, one incident comes to my mind about that time that made me bitter at the way the President treated the Foreign Secretary. It involved the visit of a Special Envoy from the President of Philippines who had come to Dhaka with the letter of invitation for President Ershad to undertake a state visit. The Special Envoy had previously served as Ambassador of the Philippines to Bangladesh and during that tenure, had befriended President Ershad in the Golf Course of Kurmitola. President Ershad was an avid golfer and a good number of Ambassadors were quite chummy with him as golf-mates. When the Special Envoy arrived in Dhaka, there was a diplomatic faux pas at the airport. The Foreign Ministry failed to receive the Special Envoy at the airport. There was of course no problem for the Special Envoy in terms of his reception at the airport because his Embassy staff, including the Ambassador of the Philippines, was there at the VIP lounge to welcome him.

The Special Envoy took serious offense at not being received by the Foreign Ministry at the airport. He reached the President, some said at the Golf Course that afternoon, others said over the phone, and complained about the lapse by the Foreign Ministry. There as a Cabinet Meeting that evening. According to established procedure, a Secretary to the Government is required to be present at a cabinet meeting if there is an item in the agenda retaining to his/her Ministry. That day, there was no item in the agenda concerning the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Secretary was nevertheless called to the Cabinet Meeting that evening; in fact asked to come while he was attending a private dinner. He was made to sit without any questions asked while the President gave the Foreign Ministry a dressing down. AKH Morshed had no clue as to reasons for the President’s anger because he did not know about the incident concerning the Special Envoy earlier that day. The next day, the Foreign Secretary expressed his sadness to me over the incident because he felt and rightly so , humiliated, because the incident should have been handled in a more civilized way instead of the Foreign Secretary being called to a Cabinet Meeting and given a one sided lecture without even the right to speak on the issue. The failure to receive the Special Enjoy at the airport was a failure of the Protocol Wing of the Foreign Ministry where a Brigadier was the Chief of Protocol. The issue of airport reception is such a routine protocol issue that a Foreign Secretary is informed of such matters only as routine information with no reason to give any decision or direction. In the instance that made the President so angry, the Foreign Secretary was totally oblivious to what the President knew when he gave that “lecture” in the Cabinet Meeting and slighted him for no good reason at all.

It was not just that the Foreign Secretary had to face such a predicament; the same was the story with everyone who served in the Ministry or the Missions those days. No one was sure when the rulers in uniform would make their displeasure known. Their way of making such displeasure known was sometimes very humiliating. It was again during AKH Morshed’s short tenure when one incident occurred that we who knew of it were insulted beyond words of expression. In one of the many written submissions that the Foreign Ministry used to make routinely, there was one where there were a few typographical errors. Those were also the days when the Foreign Ministry did not have the benefit of the computer and software such as MS Word where after a document is prepared, the programme itself fixes all the spelling errors! That particular document fell into the hands of one of the officers at the President’s office in uniform who made the “corrections” and brought the “mistakes” to the attention of the President. The document had the signature of the Foreign Secretary. The President took great interest to ridicule the Foreign Ministry for its mistakes by highlighting the brilliance of the officer and the lack of it in the Foreign Ministry. To us that was humiliation at its worst. My own conclusion was different. The incident made it clear to me that the President had personal reasons to dislike the Foreign Ministry for reasons that had little to do with the Foreign Minister’s professional competence. Otherwise, he would not have chosen to ridicule the Foreign Ministry on the issue of competence in English with AKH Morshed as the Foreign Secretary because on that issue he stood in a class of his own among his peers in the civil service at that time!

I had already served over three years as a Director in the office of the Foreign Secretary by the time AKH Morshed had assumed the office. He was my fourth Foreign Secretary. These days, an officer does not serve in that post even half the length of time that I eventually served that was close to 4 years. The other unusual aspect of my tenure as Director (Foreign Secretary’s Office) was the number of Foreign Secretaries that I served that totaled five in all. I had no complaints about either of those unusual aspects of my tenure because it allowed me exposure to serve in the nerve centre of the process of foreign policy formulation and implementation. My experience also allowed me to gain the experience and confidence that helped me later in my career as a senior officer in the Embassies and in the Ministry and eventually in my assignments as an Ambassador. At the same time, those years as Director (FSO) also exposed me to the weakness in the process of foreign policy formulation and implementation in Bangladesh. It astonished me then and in retrospect it makes me sad now when I reflect that our foreign policy, except for that short period when Bangabandhu was in office and for a while when President Ziaur Rahman was the President, has not been handled professionally. The Foreign Ministry has never been in charge because at the level of the Head of Government and in other Ministries of the Government, there have been very few who were/are willing to accept the role of the Foreign Ministry as central and crucial to the process of foreign policy formulation and implementation. While in the office of the Foreign Secretary and watching closely how the Foreign Ministry was by passed on foreign policy matters by the President’s Office and the other Ministries, I was often left wondering over the contrast in India where the Ministry of External Affairs is the Ministry without whose initiative or concurrence noting happened in that country in the area of foreign relations based upon my posting in New Delhi prior to my posting as Director (FSO).

Recently, Ambassador Farooq Sobhan who was a High Commissioner to India narrated an experience he had while in India in a seminar organized by the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies. He said that a senior Minister of the Indian Government had to call him after all arrangements for his visit to Bangladesh was finalized, to postpone his visit. The Minister explained to the High Commissioner that the Joint Secretary for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives in the Ministry of External Affairs of India had asked for the cancellation because his Ministry was not consulted in arranging the visit. The Minister had to oblige. In Bangladesh context, it would seem like a fairy tale to think that the Director-General (South Asia) in our Foreign Ministry, the counterpart of JS (BSM) in Bangladesh could play a role even remotely close to the latter. Sadly, the Foreign Ministry in all governments around the world play the same role the Ministry of External Affairs plays in India in foreign relations. Bangladesh is perhaps the lone exception where the Foreign Ministry has to share the function of foreign relations with many other Ministries, without even a coordinating role. The process of marginalization of the Foreign Ministry was institutionalized during the tenure of General HM Ershad. Unfortunately, successive democratic governments followed the trend that was set during the era of military rule. In the age of globalization, this is inconceivable if the objective of our foreign policy is to further our national interests.

AKH Morshed did not last long. The extension that we expected he would be given was denied. The way he left was another sad episode of my stint at the office of the Foreign Secretary. That, however, will be the subject of the forthcoming piece.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Row Over Women's Quota in Indian Parliament

An interesting development in Indian politics coincided with the international women’s day; in fact contrasted with the spirit of holding the day celebrated worldwide for emancipation of women and empowering them. The Upper House of the Indian parliament, the Rajyashaba, passed a bill that could lead to a change in the Indian constitution to give the women 1/3 reserved seats in the national parliament as well as the state legislatures.

Although India enjoys the credential of being the largest democracy in the world, historically and traditionally its women have been most disadvantaged. Caste, religion, poverty and a host of related factors have combined to make a girl child not such a happy addition to a family across the length and breadth of India. In political circles, the civil society and academia, the unfortunate predicament of women in India has always been very seriously acknowledged. In politics, since the 1990s, there has been move to increase the representation of women in legislatures across the country so that they could have a major role in legislation to help improve their status and standing in the society.

The move in the Upper House where the bill was passed last Tuesday was immediately received with serious objection from the upper caste based political parties , some coalition partners of the ruling Congress. These parties have threatened to withdraw their support from the Congress that could reduce its parliamentary majority in the crucial Lower House or Lok Shaba to single digit at a time when a comfortable majority is extremely important with the national budget to be tabled in parliament soon.

Muslims are also apprehensive with the Bill and for good reasons. They are also seriously disadvantaged. They feel that increasing the quota of women legislators will affect their already fragile position in legislatures across the country and in the centre. On behalf of the Muslims, former member of the national parliament and a former diplomat Shahabuddin has written a letter to the President expressing the concerns of the Muslims. Trinamool Congress, a Congress ally, with strong base in West Bengal was also not happy with the passage of the bill.. They backed the apprehension of the Muslims on simple political expediency. There are significant Muslim voters in West Bengal.

Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose party opposed the bill, used rhetoric based on popular appeal. He said that instead of increasing women’s quota on the ground they are disadvantaged, the government should think of the poor of India. He said “90% of the population of India is deprived”. In addition to these arguments, those who oppose the bill also argue that the move would only benefit the upper caste women of India, women who are wives, daughters or sisters of powerful men. Together these groups have vowed to fight what they said was “government dictatorship” to establish a law that would be “anti-Muslim” and “anti-Dalit”.

The opposition views bring to surface the difficulty in India to balance between the demands of caste, religion, poverty and gender and achieve consensus that does not run contrary to its deep rooted democratic beliefs. Even having one of the most powerful women politicians the world has ever seen in Indira Gandhi, it has not been possible for India to overcome these obstacles to help improve the lot of women who are under privileged in every way in the Indian society. International moves such as holding world conferences for improving the lot of women have not helped much either in the context of women in India that now has in Sonia Gandhi the 3rd most powerful women in Asia as the head of the ruling Congress.

As far as representation of women in legislatures all over the world goes, the fate of women is depressing. Only one parliament in the world has a women majority in Rwanda where 45 of its 80 members are women. Rwanda is just the only honoruable exception. An Inter Parliamentary Union survey has reported that only 19% of lower house of national parliaments worldwide are women. In India that figure is half. Bangladesh figures ahead of India at 18%. In South Asia, Nepal figures ahead of all its regional neighbours at 33.2%.

The bill passed in the Rajyashaba has some way to go before being enacted into a law that would also need amendment to the Indian Constitution. It must now be considered in the Lok Shaba and be passed there. Given the opposition from the caste based parties and the Muslims, and its likely adverse impact on the coalition that the Congress leads, the latter would now be cautious to proceed with the Bill in the Lower House. The fact that these small parties have threatened to leave the coalition would make the Congress resolve on the Bill weaker for reasons of politics. Then the next hurdle would be for the Bill to be passed in half of the state legislatures. The final hurdle would be for the President to put his signature to the Bill that may be the least difficult given the fact that the Indian President is more titular in the exercise of his powers.

The opposition to the Bill from the Muslims and the caste based parties and the dubbing of the bill by these groups as “anti-Muslim” and anti-Dalit” is not rhetoric; there is a great deal of substance in their opposition. If the Bill is enacted and the Indian Constitution is amended, it will directly affect adversely the Muslim and Dalit representation in the Indian Parliament and state legislatures where they are already, like the women of India, disadvantaged. The majority Hindus of India and upper class Hindus at that would only be marginally affected; in fact very little at all because the benefit that would go to the women of India through the amendment of the constitution would in fact go to upper caste Hindu women of India. Unfortunately, they would get this benefit at the expense of lower caste Hindu and Muslim men!

A look at the Inter parliamentary Union’s report on “women in national parliaments” (that the reader may see by visiting the IPU’s website at reveals certain interesting facts that countries like India where the ethnic/religious/rich-poor divide are important issues should be better advised to consider before proceeding on increasing quota of women in the legislature. Rwanda’s majority of women in parliament do not reflect that women enjoy the same status in society. Likewise, the US figures at number 74 in the list of 187 countries t with only 17% women representation in the House of Representatives. This in no way reflects that the women in USA are in anyway disadvantaged and in no way to that proportion. In fact, the list is so messed up that any conclusion on the status of women in a country based on the percentage of women representation in parliament would be incorrect, except one. Developed countries that are based on rule of law where discrimination against any group is non-existent, have high percentage of women in their respective parliaments as a normal phenomenon leading one to conclude that the objective of any country that wants to enhance the status of its disadvantaged groups, including women, should be to establish the rule of law because artificial means such as quotas may improve the status of one disadvantaged group at the expense of another disadvantaged group/s as is the case in India in the context of the issue we are discussing.

One would be watching with considerable interest to the Bill on women representation in India. There are many in Bangladesh, particularly its women groups, who would like to be encouraged by the move in India. For these groups, it would be better to inquire how women in the parliament who have enjoyed a better percentage at 18% than women in the US House of Representatives have preformed over the time they have been given the special quota. In Bangladesh, it is more important that we should do so because over the last 2 decades we have had as Prime Ministers, two women who have while in office, exercised almost unrestrained power; in fact the present Prime Minister is still doing so. There is no question that both in India and in Bangladesh, in India more so, the women are disadvantaged, very seriously in fact. But quotas often work in ways that run contrary to the reasons for which it is introduced. Our experience with quotas has hardly been encouraging. The way to women empowerment in the true sense of the term is to educate women by giving them equal opportunities as available to men and establishing the rule of law where discrimination in any form and against any group would be totally unacceptable.

Published in The Independent, March 13th., 2010

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Significance of Sheikh Hasina's PRC Visit

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Daily Star, March 13th , 2010

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's official visit to China is scheduled to start from March 17th. During her last term, she had undertaken an official visit to China within two months of taking office which was also her first official overseas visit. Whether this delay reflects any displeasure the Chinese have with Bangladesh can only be a subject of speculation. Nevertheless, under the BNP's last term of office and in the one year and a little more of the AL tenure, the Chinese have not seen much from the Bangladesh side to warm their hearts or to reflect their strategic value to Bangladesh.

The BNP led government's decision to allow Taiwan to open a trade office in Dhaka in 2005 without taking China into confidence caused a deep scar in Bangladesh-China relations. It also offended the Chinese earlier by cancelling the Di-Ammonium Phosphate (DAP 1) fertilizer project soon after coming to office. The agreement for DAP 1 fertilizer plant was signed with the Chinese and DAP 11 with the Japanese by the AL Government just before its term of office ended in 2002. Although the DAP projects were later activated by the BNP government after both the governments had made their displeasure known in no uncertain terms, to the Chinese it left a question mark about Bangladesh's dependability. This Government's unilateral decision to change the Bangladesh-China Friendship Conference Centre that was built with Chinese grant to hold the aborted NAM Summit in Dhaka has also not pleased the Chinese. During the Bangladesh-China Joint Commission held in Beijing in July last year, the Bangladesh delegation placed before the Chinese projects worth US$ 5.14 billion. The Chinese showed interest in 5 out of 28 projects amounting to US$ 1 billion. In the Beijing meeting, the Chinese expressed unhappiness over slow project implementation by Bangladesh. The outcome of the Beijing Joint Commission did not leave any doubt that the Chinese are not exactly happy with Bangladesh, an unhappiness that has developed over some time now.

China is one of those few countries that did not support Bangladesh's war of liberation. In fact, China had then backed Pakistan that was acting as the conduit in the Ping-Pong diplomacy that led to the historical thawing of relations between USA and China. After change of government in Bangladesh in August, 1975, Bangladesh and China established diplomatic relations that was built in the backdrop of cold war politics. By establishing diplomatic relations with China, Bangladesh moved into the USA-China axis and away from the Indo-Soviet axis. China was at that time not the China it is today.

In contemporary international politics, China is close to establishing itself in the position that Soviet Union lost. Between 1975 and the end of Awami League's first term, Bangladesh had extremely friendly relations with China; excellence to which the military rulers, the BNP and the AL contributed equally. One reason among many that influenced China to treat Bangladesh as a special friend was Bangladesh's access to the Bay of Bengal. Another was a feeling in Beijing that Bangladesh, following the change in August, 1975, moved away from India with which China then and still has very deep rooted bilateral problems. They are also vying with each other for regional dominance. Unfortunately just around the period China emerged as the giant in international politics and our friendship with China had withstood the test of time, the BNP for reasons that only they can explain, chose to get on its wrong side.

The AL led government has also not stemmed that tide; not yet at least. In fact, inadvertently or otherwise, this government may have given China more cause for concern. It has not really appreciated the complexity of Indo-China relations. Sino-India relations have not been progressing well; in fact over Arunachal Pradesh, Aksai Chin, and other disputed border areas, relations are tense. Sheikh Hasina's decision to choose China ahead of other countries, including India, to undertake an official visit during her last term in office was appreciated in China. In that term, Bangladesh-China relations were warm and grew overall. China offered and built the conference centre that Bangladesh needed badly to hold the NAM Summit on grant. Although Bangladesh-India relations also progressed, it was not to the extent to worry China.

Sheikh Hasina's recently concluded state visit to India has seen a paradigm shift in Bangladesh's posture towards India. The 56 paragraph Joint Declaration includes many issues that have brought to the surface Bangladesh's willingness to help India on issues whose resolution are not developments that China would be too happy to see. Although China have no reason to complain on these issues, it can nevertheless see in the Declaration elements to conclude that in the context of Sino-India relations, China could not count on Bangladesh as it had been accustomed to count in the past. The commitment in the JS to support India unequivocally for a permanent seat in an expanded UN Security Council was the crucial paragraph that gave Bangladesh's hand away to the Chinese. The Foreign Ministry said that in doing so, the AL led government followed the BNP that had supported Japan for a seat in the expanded UN Security Council during then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's visit to Tokyo in 2005 in the Joint Statement issued at that time. The two cases are not similar. Japan contributes US$ 300 million a year in grants and aids to Bangladesh and the Chinese do not see the Japanese candidature the way they see the Indian one. Further, in 2005, the issue of an expanded Security Council was a major issue in international politics and Bangladesh was under pressure from Japan for support. An expanded Security Council is not an issue now and Bangladesh was therefore under no pressure to explicitly support India. It should have been well advised to support India without reflecting it so pointedly in the JS. Meanwhile, Myanmar today offers China better geo-political advantages such as access to the Bay of Bengal that was in the past a major card in Bangladesh's hand to attract China.

The forthcoming visit of the Prime Minister will therefore be one where she would need to show considerable diplomatic skills to re-kindle the warmth on Bangladesh-China relations. She would be visiting China at a time when Bangladesh has not done much to make Beijing await her visit eagerly except perhaps her role in the Copenhagen Climate Summit where she took up China's cause together with those of the USA and China and played a key role in helping adopt US/India/China document as the non-binding Copenhagen Declaration. It is to be seen how much value the Chinese give to that role. According to reliable sources, Bangladesh would seek from China primarily economic support worth US $ 3 billion and Chinese investment in Bangladesh to offset the trade imbalance between the two countries which is worse than Bangladesh's trade imbalance with India. There is good chance that some of the projects not considered at the Joint Commission meeting could find favour during the visit. It is, however, unlikely that the visit would lead to any significant rise in Chinese investment in Bangladesh. In fact, whether the Prime Minister has a successful visit to China would depend on how much she would be able to convince China that Bangladesh remains as good a friend of China as it had been in the past. That would be a very hard task no doubt.

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Dr. ElBaradei and Egypt's Presidency

EGYPT, a country unaccustomed to tolerating political opposition, could be getting ready for a change finally. Nobel Laureate and former Chief of the IAEA, Dr. Mohammad ElBaradei, who is the most well known Egyptian internationally in contemporary times, was given a rousing welcome when he arrived in Cairo recently; a reception that was motivated by politics as many Egyptians are beginning to see him as their man of destiny. He is viewed as one who could transform Egypt into a working democracy based no doubt upon his fame for winning the Nobel Peace Prize and handling the crisis in Iraq over presence of WMD as Chief of IAEA and his impeccable record on corruption, a rare commodity in the politics of Egypt.

Egypt saw the downfall of monarchy when King Farook was quietly sent on exile by a group of army officers led by Lieutenant General Mohammed Najeeb in 1952. However, the real power behind the move by the disaffected army officers called the “free officers” was Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser who set aside General Najeeb and assumed power. Initially Egyptians were unsure about him but his stars rose dramatically when he nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. It helped him ride the wave of popularity not in just Egypt but also in the Arab world for placating pan-Arabism and Arab socialism. Nasser ruled as arbitrarily as all Egyptian rulers in history but he had Vice Presidents while he governed with Anwar Sadat, the last of his many Vice Presidents. As President, Anwar Sadat took General Hosne Mubarak as Vice President who became President when he was assassinated in 1981.

Nasser's sudden death and Sadat's sudden assassination did not create any problem in succession as a Vice president was already in place who was in due course elected President through Egypt's system of referendum. Already 81, in failing health and the next presidential election due next year, the issue of transition from Mubarak has emerged as a major political issue in Egypt's politics because Mubarak has ruthlessly subordinated the opposition and did not take a Vice President. He has not overtly groomed any successor but gave enough power and influence to the younger of his two sons Gamal Mubarak not to leave much doubt in the public mind that he wanted him to “inherit” the Presidency. In fact, the father has more than ensured the son the Presidency because of his absolute control over the military and the intelligence that virtually control and rule Arab world's most populous nation. Perhaps with this succession by “inheritance” in mind, President Mubarak never took a Vice-President. However, where all the past Presidents, including Mubarak, have been from the military, Gamal Mubarak is a civilian. With President Mubarak still in firm control, there seems to be no one else in the wings to contest Gamal's claim but that situation could change dramatically if anything happens to the President between now and the election.

Egypt is the hub of politics in the Middle East. Its history and geopolitical location gives it a place of pre-eminence not just in regional affairs but also in international politics. In a region that is a hotbed of crisis of all sorts, the United States and its allies have always sought Egypt's assistance to seek their resolution. The United States provides Egypt with the largest quantum of assistance that totalled US$ 28 billion between 1975 and 2005. Unfortunately, while the United States has gone to Iraq and other places of the world to bring about democracy, in Egypt it has backed Hosne Mubarak to the tilt although his rule has been anything but democratic. Mubarak was re-elected in 1987, 1993 and 1999 through referendum. In 2005, after a change in the constitution that allowed parties to directly contest an incumbent President, Mubarak was again re-elected by a massive majority but the result has been contested both at home and abroad on issue of fairness. Mubarak has thus ruled by force of military and intelligence backed power rather than with the people behind him. He also lacked the charisma of his predecessors, particularly Nasser, and did not enjoy the popularity to support his long hold on power. He has thus not been able to play a role in international politics as effectively as a popularly backed Egyptian leader could have.

Dr. ElBaradei has thus landed in Cairo in the backdrop of an interesting and exciting political scenario. Dr. ElBaradei who retired from his IAEA position after 12 years in November last year remained abroad from where he gave interviews to the media indicating his intention to contest the next Presidential election but subject to a few conditions. The wide range of people who greeted Dr. ElBaradei at Cairo airport is revealing. It did not just included people with known opposition links; there were people from all regions and walks of life, many with no political links, who came to show their support for someone they thought had the potentials to change Egypt's political system known to be inefficient and corrupt. An independent group called “ElBaradei for Presidency” that has 65,000 members on Facebook has already started campaigning actively and they claim representation in all the cities across Egypt.

Some people are also wary whether a former diplomat who has lived most of his life abroad and out of touch with Egypt's politics would be able to lead Egypt if he wins the presidency. However, more serious issues must first be resolved before going to that stage. For one, whether Dr. ElBaradei would be allowed by an authoritarian regime determined in favour of the incumbent President's son to contest the election is yet to be settled because he does not fulfil the requirement of heading a political party for at least a year to become a candidate. Then there is the military and intelligence who would like their candidate to win and win handsomely and they have many a trick up their sleeves. Dr. ElBaradei has also set conditions like assurance of a free and fair election, independent judicial review, international oversight, and equal opportunity for media coverage. These are big issues and President Mubarak could agree to meet these conditions only by putting his son's succession in jeopardy. In his negotiations with Iran as IAEA Chief, the US thought he was soft on Iran and that could become an issue against him as Egyptians are not known to be pro-Iran.

However, all the above factors notwithstanding, Egyptians are agog with the prospect of a change from the absolute rule that Dr. Elbaradei's candidature has caused across a wide spectrum of reglious, regional and other issues that divide Egyptians. President Mubarak will not find it easy to hand over power to his son; that in itself is a victory for democracy. In Egypt's stereo-typed politics Dr. Elbardei's entry, even if it is not successful, has injected a breath of fresh air and an element of hope for change.

Published in The Daily Star, March 6, 2010

Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Foreign Affairs Days, 1986-1990: AKH Morshed becomes the new Foreign Secretary

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Independent, March 5th , 2010

There was a rumour in the corridors on the Foreign Ministry in early 1989 that our Alternate Permanent Representative to the United Nations AHG Mohiuddin would not be a candidate for the post of Assistant Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). At the Ministry, those aware of the news were happy at the prospect that he could leave. It must nevertheless be said that although the Ministry was none too happy at the influence AHG had in the affairs of the Foreign Ministry, he generally used it to help those who appealed for his blessings, although there were a few instances where due to him, officers were prematurely transferred out of the New York Mission.

AHG informed the Ministry that he was not interested to be a candidate for the OIC post with less three weeks left for countries to convey the name of heir candidate to the Secretary General of the OIC who eventually made the appointment. The Foreign Secretary was chosen by the Government to become the candidate. Once nominated, the Foreign Secretary ran a campaign that had to be seen to be admired. Mohammad Mohsin concluded that if he had a chance of winning, he had to take charge himself and not leave to his Director-General for International Affairs, late Ambassador Abdul Quayyum upon whom he did not have confidence. The Foreign Secretary instead dealt with the Director. In that short span of time, they left no country or avenue untapped. The Maldivian Foreign Secretary who was at that time vacationing in Singapore was reached there for the support of his Government.

Still, like all such appointments to key positions in international bodies, nothing was certain till the final result was announced. At that time, AKM Farooq was on deputation to the OIC and he was following the appointment from the OIC Headquarter. His regular feedback was positive. The Foreign Secretary was waiting at his table for a call from AMK Farooq on the day of the election. It was late in coming and he had to go for his Johar prayers. I was waiting by the phone for the expected call from AKM Farooq while the Foreign Secretary went to pray in a corner of his office. When I picked up the phone, I could sense good news at the other end from the voice of AKM Farooq who was excitedly asking for the Foreign Secretary. I could sense that the FS’s attention was divided between the Almighty and the phone call. He was soon before me and as I gave him the phone, I just uttered the words, congratulations!

Mohammad Mohsin was a good Foreign Secretary and if he had been around for a while longer instead of the just one year he was in the office, between him and the Foreign Minister, they could have achieved a great deal for the Foreign Ministry than otherwise was the case. At the OIC, Mohammad Mohsin proved his abilities and served the OIC for two terms. In retrospect, he could have been a good candidate to help us with our botched attempt to win the OIC Secretary General’s post in 2004. That Mohammad Mohsin would be leaving was known in various circles of Dhaka even before it was known to everyone in the Foreign Ministry and the Missions. There was also no logical contender to fill up the post, not at least in the eyes of those who mattered, particularly the President and people at the President’s Office.

It was a pity though that no one saw AKH Morshed who was already in the Ministry as the logical choice. AKH Morshed was one of the brightest diplomats to have joined service under the Government of Pakistan in that country’s elite Foreign Service. He did not simply join the ex-PFS cadre as a officer of the 1957 batch; in fact he topped it, in a batch where the illustrious late AZM Obaidullah Khan had come second. It was also unfortunate that ex-CSP officers of the batch of AKH Morshed and even many in a few batches junior to him had already been made Secretary when AKH Morshed was still an Additional Foreign Secretary. For some reasons that must have been strange, AKH Morshed was, to use a cliché, cornered when I started my stint as a Director (FSO) with Fakhruddin Ahmed in 1986. He was then Additional Foreign Secretary in charge of Multilateral Wing with Ambassador Harun-ur-Rashid in charge of the bilateral wing. He was always kept at an arm’s length by the Foreign Minister. In 1986 or perhaps a little earlier, Fakhruddin Ahmed took the initiative and succeeded in sending him to the former German Democratic Republic as an Ambassador , perhaps with the intention that he could retire from that post peacefully and escape the humiliations that he was facing at home.

That did not happen and AKH Morshed was back at the Foreign Ministry before long , this time to be made an Officer on Special Duty, a nomenclature evolved in our civil bureaucracy for some very odd reasons where the word “Special” is a great misnomer. Mohammad Mohsin’s successful attempt to become the Assistant Secretary General also imposed upon him a problem of sorts; to find a successor for his post. He could not leave without a Foreign Secretary in place. By that time, Mohammad Mohsin had built quite good rapport with the President and his men at the PO, also including the military outfit there. The new Foreign Minister Anisul Islam Mahmud was also a very positive man, who also had his extremely good equation with the President and he liked AKH Morshed. Between them, they worked on the President but it was not an easy effort to get the President’s concurrence to naming AKH Morshed as the new Foreign Secretary. The President’s reservations on AKH Morshed were based on hearsay, one contributed by an army official who had accompanied AK Morshed on an official visit to Myanmar before he was sent to GDR as Ambassador. The army officer gave an extremely negative report of AKH Morshed that the President received without caring to check facts objectively. In the end, a General very close to the President, also talked with him to finally make him relent and agree to make AKH Morshed the new Foreign Secretary.

The efforts of Anisul Islam Mahmud and Mohammad Mohsin were extremely welcome for the cadre officers of the Foreign Ministry because while the two were trying to put AKH Morshed in office as Foreign Secreteray, a few ex-CSP officers, aware of the situation, and close to the President were trying to put one of their own in the Foreign Ministry. In the end, in June, 1989, AKH Morshed eventually became the Foreign Secretary with less than 4 months to go for his leave preparatory to retirement. It was one of the most unbelievable things to happen in the history of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that there had to be such a struggle to make AKH Morshed the Foreign Secretary. Many years later, when I was Ambassador in Japan, I came to know Ambassador Iguchi who was Japan’s Ambassador to Bangladesh. Ambassador Iguchi was a Director dealing with Bangladesh affairs in 1971 and one of those many friends we made at that time based on our heroic struggle who loved Bangladesh from the depth of their hearts. Ambassador Iguchi, one of Japan’s leading experts on the Law of the Sea, and AKH Morshed had studied in Oxford together; AKH Morshed for a BCL degree. Whenever we met in Tokyo, one common subject of discussion with him was about his friend AKH Morshed and he would tell me about his outstanding intellectual qualities. There were many such admirers of AKH Morshed but unfortunately none who held the reins of power those days.

AKH Morshed’s stint was too short to make any meaning out of his appointment. Although he was so talented, for some strange reasons he was hesitant in taking decisions. Some would say he was nervous. He took charge at a time when the Ministry’s senior officers were outstanding officers. Mustafizur Rahman, later to become Foreign Secretary was one of the two Additional Foreign Secretaries, the other one being M. Mohsin. Reaz Rahman, who had been an Additional Foreign Secretary (current charge) before he left in the early 80s to be Ambassador in Rome, was also in the Ministry as a Director-General in charge of UN. The officers at the senior level just needed to be encouraged to work for our foreign policy goals. Sadly, that was hardly the case because foreign policy then as it is now, was initiated and conducted without institutional emphasis where strangely the Foreign Ministry was considered to be the most dispensable.

One incident made us who worked at that period in the Foreign Ministry rudely aware of the Ministry’s standing in the government. During the tenure of AKH Morshed, President Ershad went on a state visit to Philippines. The night before the departure , there was a storm in Manila. The Bangladesh Biman parked at the airport was swayed away from its moorings and was damaged when it hit another parked aircraft that delayed the President's departure. When the President heard of the incident, his instant remark was to ask angrily what the Foreign Ministry was doing!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan