Sunday, February 27, 2011

Daily Sun, February 26th., 2011

Bangladesh foreign policy in the Middle East: Time to reflect on realities
M. Serajul Islam
It is just not that we are ignored by the media in the Middle East. Even in the process of recruitment and payment of salaries and other privileges, our workers get an unfair deal compared to workers from other countries. The general perception among our workers in the Middle East is that for the same type of work they do, workers from India, Pakistan and the Philippines get substantially more pay and perks

A friend who travels frequently to UAE raised a provocative issue in a private discussion recently. He said that one of his biggest disappointments is when he reads the UAE English dailies. These papers devote pages to news from the countries from where the expatriates come to the country. There are two pages in these papers devoted to India and the same number to Pakistan. Even the Philippines have a page. Sadly, Bangladesh is ignored except for isolated news about the country and that too, with a negative twist. The same treatment is given to Bangladesh in the media of the other countries in the region.

Yet 5 million of our people give their hearts and souls for the betterment of life and living of the citizens of these oil rich Middle East countries. We are perhaps the only country among those whose people work in such large numbers in the Middle East to have included in its Constitution a pledge to “preserve, consolidate and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries.”

It is just not that we are ignored by the media in the Middle East. Even in the process of recruitment and payment of salaries and other privileges, our workers get an unfair deal compared to workers from other countries. The general perception among our workers in the Middle East is that for the same type of work they do, workers from India, Pakistan and the Philippines get substantially more pay and perks.

The expatriates blamed the BNP while in power and have done the same with the AL in office now. Both have dismissed such complaint forcefully. They have both described Bangladesh’s relations with the countries in the Middle East as a major focus of the country’s foreign policy and have claimed that such a policy in the region has been successful.

There is something seriously amiss here because the claim of the BNP and the AL can be true only when the public perception is incorrect. Unfortunately, there is truth in the public perception, not entirely but substantially. Recently, the Chairman of Bangladesh Human Rights Commission raised the issue of human rights in the context of Bangladesh Embassies. He was no doubt referring to the sufferings of our expatriates in the ME when they seek relief from miseries in their places of work from the Embassies.

In recent times, we are also hearing disturbing news that some of the ME countries are sending back Bangladeshis home and not recruiting new manpower from Bangladesh. These developments have already caused a perceptible decline of flow of remittance. The decline in flow of remittance has been partly the cause of the global recession that has hit these countries badly. However, the demand for the type of manpower we send to these countries has not been affected by global recession. In fact, in Saudi Arabia, such a demand has increased and yet our manpower is not being favoured.

Two issues in our politics have caused wrong perception in these countries about Islam in Bangladesh that have led them to pause on recruiting our manpower. These issues are the trial of the war criminals and the move to ban religious based parties. These have led these countries to conclude that there is a move against Islam in Bangladesh. When Sheikh Hasina had visited Saudi Arabia in April 2009, the issues had come up in her discussions with the Saudi Government. At that time, there were statements from official sources in Bangladesh that the Saudi Government would relax on the issue of ‘Ikema’ that made it illegal for expatriates to change jobs to bring respite to nearly 2 hundred thousand Bangladeshis who were running from Saudi authorities for violating the ‘Ikema’. That has not yet happened that would no doubt suggest that the Saudi Government is not convinced on its concerns about Islam in Bangladesh.

The issue of trial of war criminals and banning of religion based parties are Bangladesh’s internal matters and thus should be of no concern of these countries. Nevertheless, Islam as a religion is as much a matter of concern of these countries as it is ours. The problem is our failure to explain in pursuing these two extremely important national objectives, we are not doing anything against Islam which is the religion of the overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis. We have failed to do that. In fact, we have not seen any serious initiative by the Government in this regard apart from the visits by the Prime Minister to Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that have not succeeded in re-opening our manpower market. In the meantime, the demands for the trials of the war criminals and secularism have become louder with unfortunately little to show in terms of achievement.

It is in the context of the above, with the future of millions of Bangladeshis in the region and future export of manpower at stake that we need to take a serious look at our foreign policy initiative in the Middle East. We must go ahead with the war trials and revive secularism. We must do the first because it is what the overwhelming majority of our people want. We must do the latter because that is a directive from the Supreme Court. However, if we value our relations with the ME and feel we need to protect the interests of the expatriates and the country, we also need to keep these governments informed on what we are doing with these issues. Of course, there must be diplomatic efforts being carried out by our Government but if these have been carried out through our Ambassadors as it appears to be, then I am afraid they are not expected to be treated by the hosts as much more than routine diplomatic efforts.

It is high time for us to do more. We should send to these countries special envoys from the Prime Minister. In fact, such envoys should have been sent long ago. Former President Ershad, who is a part of this Government, has great acceptance in Saudi Arabia and UAE and could be the perfect Special envoy to explain the Bangladesh views on the issues bothering these countries. If the issue is opening door in the region at the highest level, then the Government has the best man available and should make use of him.

The issue of Bangladesh in the media in the Middle East has gone by default for two reasons. Bangladeshis in the region lack the clout that the Indians and the Pakistanis have who play important roles in the media and business and both have a negative attitude towards Bangladesh. Nevertheless, our ME policy has to be revisited to serve the interests of our unfortunate expatriates and also in the context of the upheaval the region is now witnessing. Although, the upheaval may lead to loss of the Libyan market for our manpower export, the other oil rich ME countries where we send the bulk of our manpower are not likely to suffer any immediate impact. Diplomatic contacts with them at this critical juncture at a very high level may bring Bangladesh a rich harvest of economic benefits in the future.

Writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Independent, February 26th., 2011

On a politically committed bureaucracy
M. Serajul Islam

During my tenure as an Ambassador in Japan, I had an interesting conversation one day with a senior official of JETRO. A current debate in our politics on our civil bureaucracy reminded me of the conversation. Before coming to this, let me put the conversation in perspective.

Japan has a very strong bureaucracy. Its politics is also developed and matured. The period I am talking about was the time when Japan was government by the Liberal Democratic Party that had been then in power for over 5 decades except for a brief period in 1993. The JETRO official in reference was once posted in Dhaka and that was his reason for meeting me in my office. That was also the time when then Prime Minister of Japan Mr. Junichiro Koizumi had called for an early election that many even in his own party expected him to lose badly. Japan was showing the signs of coming out of one party to a two-party political system.

Mr. Koizumi was quite a character; loved passionately by many and disliked by many with equal passion. That is the essence of democracy because a leader can be only passionately loved where people have no choice. This JETRO official was one of those who did not like Mr. Koizumi. Soon we were talking politics and the prospect of Japan emerging as a two-party democratic political system. This gentleman thought the LDP would lose and was extremely critical of the Prime Minister. I was curious about the way he was criticizing Mr. Koizumi and I expressed my curiosity to him, reminding him that Mr. Koizumi was still the Prime Minister. The JETRO official was quite firm when he told me that since the Prime Minister was again seeking his vote; it was his democratic right to express his views about him and his party. Then he told me equally firmly that if Mr. Koizumi returned, he would serve him as loyally as those who were cheering him because that is the way the Japanese bureaucracy was supposed to be under the law, neutral but 100% committed to the elected leadership.

In Bangladesh and rest of South Asia, the bureaucracy is based on the British model where political neutrality is its soul and substance. One need not look beyond India’s development to evaluate the contribution that its politically neutral bureaucracy has made to India’s emergence as a major world power. In fact, when Pandit Nehru was giving shape to his vision of India immediately after independence, he turned for nation building to the very ICS officers who were instruments of India’s colonolization. Neither Pandit Nehru nor India regretted this because the ISC officers served their Indian leaders as faithfully as their British masters because they were trained to leave politics to the politicians.

In recent times, leaders of this government are talking about the bureaucracy in a manner that is a worrying one. These leaders are calling for a politically committed bureaucracy to translate the policies of the political party in power. In other words, they are suggesting that the bureaucracy must follow the dictates of the political party in power. One Minister has suggested that the top level of the bureaucracy should come and go with every new government and those below them should be retired after 10/15 years in service. In making the suggestion, the Minister has given the US example, perhaps referring to their so-called “spoils system”. That however does not explain why senior civil servants should retire after 10 to15 years nor does it properly reflect the US system.

Such a perception about the bureaucracy is laden with very serious consequences for a number of reasons. First, it conflicts with the basic principle upon which the present bureaucracy is based, namely political neutrality that had encouraged Pandit Nehru to depend on the ICS. In fact, this is the principle upon which bureaucracies in all democracies are based. Second, it upholds the principle of supremacy of the political party over government; a principle that is followed only in communist regimes as China or regimes that have no opposition political party. In other words, the principle of a politically committed bureaucracy is a contradiction of democracy. The bureaucracy is there to uphold the policies of the political party in power as well as those of those who lost the election to make the government national.

In the context of Bangladesh, the principle of a politically committed bureaucracy is a prescription for suffocating it. Politics divides the country half and half everywhere into those who support the Awami League and those who oppose it. The bureaucracy is no exception. Further, the nature of politics the parties represent is conflict prone and negative. Notwithstanding this, the bureaucracy has served the country well but only when Governments respected their political neutrality. The bureaucracy’s ability to deliver deteriorated when the BNP politicized it in their last term and has worsened with the AL doing a better job of it in this term.

The USA had at one time politicized the civil bureaucracy under the “spoils system”. After Mr. Andrew Jackson became President in 1829, he removed 919 civil bureaucrats and placed in their places, those whom he had promised positions for political support. That was 10% of the civil bureaucracy’s strength those days. Successive Presidents carried on with the spoils system till the Pendleton Act of 1883 that mandated recruitment to federal jobs based on merit and not political connections. The Hatch Act of 1939 further diluted the spoils system by prohibiting civil servants from engaging in partisan political activities. Nevertheless, the spoils system has remained in a much scaled down manner and these days restricted to a few very senior civil service appointments but hardly in the manner that is being advocated for Bangladesh.

Thus what Bangladesh government leaders are advocating does not exist in any democratic country. The concept is also a self contradictory if our belief is in democracy as it must be. If the AL Government was to implement the concept, all officers serving in senior positions would have to toe the political line of the party. In other words, they would have to be political activists of the party. Given the nature of conflict prone politics in the country, it is not hard to imagine what would happen with so many AL activists in Government.

Likewise if the AL lost the next election, all the senior bureaucrats left by a departing AL Government would have to be asked to leave because they would all be self-acclaimed AL activists. Where would the BNP find such a large number of senior bureaucrats to fill the positions? Retiring all officers after 10 to 15 years would mean that the Government would leave a large number of trained civil servants without jobs at an age where they would find it almost impossible to get jobs elsewhere. And would a civil bureaucracy with a career span is only 10-15 years attract worthwhile talent?

The questions defy logical explanation. The concept of a politicized bureaucracy is one out of tune with time as well as democracy. It is better for everybody and most of all for the country that we reassert the policy of a politically neutral bureaucracy. Otherwise, we will only succeed in paralyzing a bureaucracy that is close to such a predicament because of this misplaced preference for a politicized bureaucracy.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to the Government.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Egypt: The battle is won not the war

Published in Daily Sun, February 20th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The successful overthrow of President Hosne Mubarak by people’s power was a historic event that neither USA nor Israel anticipated. In fact, Israel did not even welcome it when the movement showed the signs of succeeding. Israel cautioned its allies, particularly the US, while the revolution was being enacted in Egypt about power going to the Muslim Brotherhood. International politics makes even stranger bedfellows than politics itself and Egypt underscored that very effectively. Israel and Saudi Arabia voiced the same concern over the ouster of President Mubarak and the dismantling of his 3 decades old dictatorship.

The United States however was quick to see the events in Egypt better than Israel or Saudi Arabia. It quickly changed sides and forgot completely its long 30 years association with the regime of former President Mubarak. It also ignored the fact that it had revamped the coffers of Mr. Hosne Mubarak and his military with a new US 1.3 billion dollars loan only recently. It looked the other way when his regime flaunted all democratic norms to assure a ridiculous absolute victory to the ruling National Democratic Party in parliamentary elections held in November-December last year as a prelude for a new five years term for Mr. Mubarak or to pass the mantle to his son.

The US cannot be faulted on issue of realism. When President Bush found there was no WMD in Iraq, he did not lose any time to change course and claim that he had taken his country to Iraq for sake of democracy. In Egypt, when President Obama saw the people’s uprising there coming in the wake of successful toppling of Mr. Ben Ali in Tunisia, it took him no time to ask Mr. Mubarak to start packing. That message was strengthened by the President’s aide who advised the former President to start packing “from yesterday”!

The ouster of President Mubarak has been no more than winning a battle. Winning the war is still not even in sight because the path to establishment of democracy has to be through unchartered waters. The final success of the movement was largely the result of the phenomenal strength of networking through the Facebook, Twitter and the mobile technology. . There was the face of youth, the driving force in jelling the people against the regime, but there was no organized leadership, leader or political party involved in the movement, the ingredients necessary for establishing a democratic government in Egypt.

The movement has removed Mr. Hosne Mubarak. Power still remains in the hands of the very military whose loyalty had helped the former dictator consolidate and sustain his absolute power through state terror. The military was repaid by privileges that made it a stakeholder in the oppressive system that Mr. Mubarak built as President of Egypt. Although the military is generally held in respect in Egyptian society, that respect goes for the entire military and not the top brass who have been as guilty of building and sustaining the repressive regime of Mr. Hosne Mubarak as the former President himself.

The Supreme Military Council has since dissolved the parliament and has announced new elections in 6 months time. That is a long time and in between, many things could happen. Left to itself, it would be too much to expect that the military leadership will pave the way for democracy

in Egypt. History itself is against it. Therefore, it is time that those who have influence on the military of Egypt move fast and decisively to play a historic role that the youth of Egypt has not just given the country but to the region.

Two countries are crucial to guide Egypt at this critical juncture, the United States and Israel. While the US has played its opening hand positively in favour of the revolution; Israel has done so negatively. The US’ role in the exit of Mr. Mubarak was vital for it must have been the United States that encouraged Mr. Mubarak’s Generals to desert their patron and ask him to resign that he could not ignore. The US now must use the undeniable influence it has over the country’s military to ensure they keep democracy and the nation’s interest ahead of their personal and institutional ones..

Israel’s role is in a way as important as that of the United States. Israel has been smug under pseudo-democracy and autocratic rule in the region. The rulers in such systems have all these years paid lip service to the cause of Palestine while behind the scene; they have toed the line dictated to them by the United States that has always ensured that it was Israel’s interest that was served first and last.

Although Israel has always made a big issue of its democracy, in fact it has been to Israel’s benefit that democracy has so far not touched the region. Democratic governments in the region have the potential to bring peoples and governments together and when that happens, Israel would have find it very difficult to deny the just rights to Palestine.

The events in Egypt have woken Israel out of that smugness. It is the new reality to which Israel must adjust both for itself and the region. In a way it is also a great opportunity for Israel because the new generation that has spearheaded the democratic revolution is more interested in their future, in jobs and opportunities. It would nevertheless be a major mistake to believe that the new generation would push aside the question of Palestine and pursue just their interests.. They can nevertheless be won over for sustainable peace for Israel if Israel makes moves towards a just and fair solution of the Palestinian problem. It is time that Israel to take note that the new generation is a far stronger force than what they have been used to deal with in denying the Palestinians their rights.

The events in Egypt have given President Obama the opportunity to bring foreign policy into reckoning in his bid for re-election. Surely, voters will be encouraged to vote for him if his administration takes the leading role in ushering democracy in Egypt and the region. It has the power, influence and whatever else is needed for the purpose. Egypt has opened for President Obama not just a better chance for re-election but also to leave his legacy as a statesman and prove that he is truly worth the Nobel Peace Prize given to him , that many had questioned. The US should with wasting time influence the formation of an interim civilian government to keep the military in place.

Most of all the United States must convince Israel that their best bet for peace is in a Middle East where democracy rules and not dictators and autocrats. That peace which is crucial to complete the process of the democratic revolution that Egypt has opened for itself and the region can be established with US and Israel working together for a just solution to the Palestinian problem.

Writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to Egypt and Japan.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Foreign Service Years: More on Washington

Published in The Independent, February 16th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Washington is different as a diplomatic post for a variety of reasons. In other stations, diplomats feel important because the hosts give them certain privileges. In Washington, everything is business where little is given on any other considerations.

Soon after I arrived in Washington in the middle of 1990, our tax exemption cards were taken away because we were told that in Dhaka we did not provide these exemptions to US diplomats. We were surprised that Dhaka in its right mind would deny the US diplomats any privilege they were entitled to under diplomatic privileges and immunities. In any case, the oversight or lapse or whatever on Dhaka’s part was resolved as soon as we flagged the case. The needful was done in Dhaka and we were returned our tax exemption cards.

The exemption cards did not give us much relief but made us feel a bit privileged and we were happy to get the cards back. As a post, Washington brings diplomats to the ground who may otherwise have starry impression about themselves. Diplomats are evaluated and dealt in Washington by the hosts mainly on the weight of the country they represent. I learnt very soon upon arrival in Washington that being a diplomat did not mean much. In fact, sometimes the hosts unilaterally make the point that we are not special even when we do not ourselves seek any extra privilege as a diplomat.

I still remember a few incidents on this issue with amusement now that it means nothing at all. One was when Abul Ahsan took over as Ambassador. He wanted to have a credit card as in the United States, life is worthless unless one has a few of these cards in his/her wallet. He applied for one and was denied as quickly as he had filed it. The reason was simple. He had no credit rating and being an Ambassador really meant nothing. He was however given a credit card through the Bank where he had his account. By the time he was there a few months, his problem was refusing the companies who were issuing him such cards even without asking!

On a serious note, one way to raise the stakes for one’s country for which the United States has little interest except the usual diplomatic one which means little is to use whatever means is available locally. The system of lobbying is one of the means available to raise the stakes. There was then and still now a lot of misconception in Bangladesh about US lobbyists. In Washington, the lobby firms open doors for Ambassadors to places and people of power and influence, like the Congress for instance.

In one of our attempts as diplomats to build contacts for the Embassy in the Congress, a colleague and I had gone to see the Staff Director of Senator Jessie Helms, who was then the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She told us bluntly that her Chairman had little time even for our President and when he was in town, not to call them for appointment for if they wanted one, they would call us! Lobbyists and lobby firms break such arrogant attitude in Congress for these lobbyists and lobby firms are owned and manned by those close to the politicians in power in Washington. A country like Bangladesh not just needs a lobbyist in Washington; it should have one where money should be the last of the considerations. Appointing a good lobby firm could bring benefits for the country that is not coming without one.

For President Ershad, in whose term a lobbyist was appointed but only briefly, the benefits were there for us those who served then in the Washington Embassy to see. Even when his public standing in the country was sinking, at the Embassy we were under constant pressure to see that harm did not come his way! It is not that a lobbyist is necessary because an Ambassador is not worthy. Lobbyist is necessary to make a worthy Ambassador achieve more for his country. During Ershad’s time, Mr. Obaidullah Khan was Ambassador in Washington whose intellect easily put him among the best of his peers when he served there. Yet, his achievements were far less because he was pulled back by the country he represented. In the midst of their busy schedules, people of power had little time for him. He was one who could have achieved far greater than what he did if he was assisted by a lobby firm of repute.

Sometimes luck plays a very important role in the performance of an Ambassador in his post. Such luck blessed Ambassador Ataul Karim soon after the elected BNP Government assumed office in Dhaka. After the devastating cyclones of April, 1991 had visited Bangladesh, the Ambassador received a SOS from Dhaka to request the US Government for assistance, particularly with helicopters. The Ambassador contacted the State Department and the Sub-Committee for South Asia for a hearing on the Bangladesh request. At the hearing chaired by Congressman Stephen Solarz, the Bangladesh request was considered but with not much enthusiasm. The State Department recommended a few helicopters to be sent from some US base located in the seas close to Bangladesh.

The hearing was on a Thursday and we at the Embassy had our fingers crossed about the helicopters. Over the weekend though, President Bush had seen graphic images of the disaster on TV while at Camp David. He ordered the US amphibious task force that was returning home after the first Gulf War to go to Bangladesh. That force, consisting of 2,500 soldiers and 15 ships carried out one of the biggest military disaster relief operation nicknamed Operation Sea Angel, in history. Unfortunately, by then the die was cast for Ambassador Karim and he was unable to translate his good luck to his advantage. He had to make way for Ambassador Ahsan as the next Bangladesh Ambassador to Washington soon afterwards.

Although Ambassador Karim stayed at his post for a few months after the fall of President Ershad, the Permanent Representative in New York Ambassador AHG Mohiuddin was relieved of his responsibilities almost immediately after the change in Dhaka. His connection with the former President as his brother-in-law was the reason why he had to leave. In his place, our High Commissioner in Ottawa Ambassador M. Mohsin who was an ex-PFS officer of the same batch as Ambassador Abul Ahsan given additional charge as the Permanent Representative. The change in New York was not just bad news for Ambassador AHG Mohiuddin; it was also not good news for the diplomats there. With Ambassador Mohiuddin there, the Mission New York was a power unto itself. They could really get anything they wanted those days with the Foreign Ministry powerless. The Mission controlled all transfers to the Mission and out of it.

Thus when Ambassador M. Mohsin was given additional charge of New York, there was restlessness among the officers there. One of them who knew I was close to Ambassador Mohsin at the headquarters called me for a few tips on how to deal with him. I told him that as far as Ambassador Mohsin was concerned, there was no need to be concerned about their days under Ambassador AGH Mohiuddin because he would deal with them without being influenced by what they did when AGH was the Ambassador. Later, the friend confirmed what I told him. He and his other colleagues found Ambassador Mohsin to be a true professional and a gentleman.

Ambassador Mohsin held charge of the New York mission only briefly till Ambassador Humayun Kabir assumed office as the Permanent Representative. For a brief period, Ottawa, New York and Washington had a Head of Mission of the same ex-PFS batch as Ambassador M. Mohsin, Ambassador Humayun Kabir and Ambassador Abul Ahsan all belonged to the 1961 batch. They were the best in their batch and all there were placed among the first 10 on all-Pakistan basis with Ambassador Ahsan as the topper of the batch. Of the three, Ambassador Humayun Kabir who later succeeded Ambassador Abul Ahsan in Washington was given an extension. Sadly, Ambassador Humayun Kabir died soon after his retirement and Ambassador Abul Ahsan a little over two years ago.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a former Secretary to the Government.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fall of President Mubarak: Is Middle East moving towards democracy?

Published in Daily Sun, February 13th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Great events are unfolding in the Middle East showing early potentials of changing the conflict prone region to better times. It is also a time that calls for vision of all who could nurture these potentials and ensure that they bring positive results. Mr. Mubarak’s resignation on Friday last and his fellow dictator Mr. Ben Ali’s unceremonious exit earlier in the face of people’s power, are truly historical events. The resignation of Mr. Mubarak who was not expected to go so soon is a prelude to the buildup of a tsunami like wave in the region that is very likely to end by helping people win their political rights against dictators in pseudo-democratic regimes and autocratic regimes.

At such a historical juncture, there are other events at play in the region’s politics and society that could help the democratic wave. There is a belief in the West that both Middle East and Islam are not fertile grounds for democratic ideas and ideals to take root. In fact many in the West argue that Islam and democracy are not compatible. In the context of the region, they argue that in the type of society in the Middle East, historically, power is destined to be yielded by few. In other words, those who argue in these lines feel that any investment in bringing democracy in the Middle East is bad investment.

Thus over the years, the United States and other nations in the West, while paying lip service to democracy, have courted, supported and sustained dictators in the countries in the region that did not have monarchy. The United States and western countries also supported the hereditary rulers of the region to the tilt. In fact, one of the biggest US base in the region is in Qatar.

A lot has been written about the US-led invasion of Iraq. President Bush has been criticised severely both in his country and in rest of the world for this intervention. The President has been blamed after his administration was caught with its pants down on the reason to attack Iraq in the first place which was to destroy weapons of mass destruction. When the US occupation forces failed to find any WMD, the Bush administration changed stance and claimed that it attacked Iraq to force Mr. Saddam Hussein out and establish democracy in the country.

Suicide attacks, fighting among the various ethnic and religious groups and against the US forces led many to dismiss the claim of the Bush administration that it went to Iraq for the sake of democracy. In fact, the conflicts inside Iraq after the fall of Mr. Saddam Hussein encouraged the critics of President Bush’s decision to attack Iraq to state that Iraq would not see democracy because a Muslim Middle East country cannot be democratic.

However, after the US has pumped close to a trillion US $, sacrificed lives of over 4,000 of its servicemen and women and two parliamentary elections, Iraq today shows early signs that a democratic political system is in the process of being established in the country. The fighting ethnic and religious groups have realised that they can achieve better results for their groups through the elections than they can by bullets and suicide bombs.

In Iran, the three decade old conflict between the clergy and liberal democratic forces came to a head during and after the last Presidential elections, 2009. The conflict has now entered a new phase where many among the clergy are supporting democratic change. This clearly perceptible change in Iran where conservative Islam is slowly accepting western democratic ideas is sadly being missed out because of the west’s abiding interest above everything else against allowing Iran to build what it thinks the nuclear bomb. Iran is predominantly Shiite while the rest of the Middle East and North African Muslim countries are predominantly Sunnis. The Shiias are organised in the religious sense much better at all levels of the society and the country. There is no such organisation among the Sunnis; in fact the Sunnis have no such order for comparison with the Shiia religious order.

The difference notwithstanding, both among the Sunnis and Shiias, western liberal and democratic have clearly been established, a point that can also be perceived among Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. In the midst of the current upheaval there, the lingering fear in the western media is a takeover of Egypt by the MB and the dangerous fall out of such a takeover in the region. In this MB phobia, the western media is failing to recognise that the democratic ideas and ideals that have touched both the Sunni and Shiia masses in the region have also influenced the MB itself to change. In 2007, the MB that has been banned as a political party but has been present in the society in a number of other ways, has made public a document that suggests basic changes in their way of thinking about politics, society and the region. Even on Israel, a MB spokesman has said that MB would respect Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel if “Israel showed real progress on improving the lot of the Palestinians.”

The MB is now focused on the opportunity before it not in an Egypt that they wanted to establish through violence and extremism but an Egypt in which they could share power by democratic elections. The successful movement in the street against President Mubarak has opened this possibility. It is this possibility upon which the US should focus and see that elections are held in Egypt in the quickest possible time and power is allowed to be exercised by the winning party or the coalition even if the MB is a winner. A democratic government in Egypt and Tunisia could guide the fair wind of democracy blowing in the region towards establishment of sustainable democracy in the other countries of the region. Even countries under hereditary rule would find it difficult to resist the wave towards people’s rights.

Egypt today holds world attention. Egyptians have shown the depth of people’s power by remaining calm against provocation and in the end winning victory by non-violence that would have made Mahatma Gandhi proud. The military has done the right thing by withdrawing support from President Mubarak to force his resignation. It now has a bigger role to transfer power to a truly elected government. The US that has great influence over the Egyptian military must work with it to ensure free and fair elections.

The US must also send strong message to the other dictators and hereditary monarchs in the region that it would no longer support the likes of President Mubarak anymore. At the same time, the US must redouble its efforts for a just solution of the Palestinian problem to complete the process of change towards democracy as a result of defining events in Egypt and Tunisia. The solution of the Palestine problem justly and fairly would remove the need for the US to support and sustain dictators and autocratic rulers in the region anymore.

Writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt and Japan and a former Secretary to the Government.

Friday, February 11, 2011

On land purchase, acquisition and distribution

The Independent, February 12th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The show of people’s power over the acquisition of land at Arial Beel for a new international airport and the government’s decision to bow to people’s will are welcome signs for democracy in the country. This notwithstanding, the issue that is becoming a serious one for the country is land acquisition both legally and other means through which agricultural land and land for domestic use are being transferred a small number of rich people of the country. The Independent in a recent issue has carried a picture in the front page showing people of Rajshahi town gathered in a foul mood, some armed with indigenous lethal weapons, protesting the take-over of agricultural land for a housing project.

Land-people ratio in Bangladesh is the worst in the world. Hence, the demand for land will continue to increase as it has done since independence. In the last few years, this rush to buy, acquire and grab land has acquired irrational proportion. A small section of the people who have become fabulously rich are purchasing land as investment; for their own personal aggrandizement and for a variety of other reasons that only reflect their personal interests and little of the country.

On a recent visit to my village home near the Dhoom Ghat Bridge on the Feni side, I was shocked to see sign boards on very fertile agricultural land. Most of these signboards are for some factory or industry. I could not believe why people would buy agricultural land where there are no roads nor any other physical infrastructure for building factory or industry. I was told by the villagers that such land has been purchased and more are being purchased every day and very few if any at all of the new owners of the land have any intention of building any industry or factory on such land.

The spree to purchase agricultural land has been spurred by the fact that their owners are selling such land for economic hardship at prices set by the buyers although given the scarcity of such land, it should be the other way round. The buyers are buying such land just as investment. This process of transfer of ownership of agricultural land from farmers to investors in land has embedded in it dangerous consequences for the future. In case of my own village through which the four lane Dhaka-Chittagong highway has been planned, the price of land will rise by astronomical proportion very soon and land will no doubt be lost to agriculture for good. The poor sellers will see how these investors turn their land into gold mines!

A lot of agricultural land has already been lost and more would be lost in future throughout the country with improvement of the roads infrastructure to investors and speculators in land. If such transfers were to lead to transformation of Bangladesh from an agricultural to an industrial country, then the country and the people will benefit. Unfortunately that is not going to happen because transformation into an industrialized country is much more than mere transfer of agricultural land. Many of those who have bought the agricultural land and are buying more are not industrialists or potential industrialists but speculators in land who have made huge amount of money by both legal and illegal means and are greedy to make more profit by investment in land. These investors are just not taking away vital agricultural land to satisfy their greed; they are pushing the economy towards a bubble burst that could bring the economy down.

The rush to buy, acquire and grab agricultural land has already started to affect the country’s vital agricultural sector. The adverse impact has the potential also affect both society and politics in Bangladesh. In fact, the news headline in The Independent is loaded with hints of a disastrous future unless corrective measures are taken quickly. The transfer of land from farmers to the few and new rich people of the country is not taking place in any fair manner. The poor farmers are being dispossessed of their ownership of their land for a pittance. As these disposed farmers see the price of land they once possessed rise to unbelievable levels, they will feel cheated. As the number of such people swell, it will only need a catalyst of any sort to unite them to create disturbances to threaten the stability of the country, a preview of which we saw in Arial Beel and Rajshahi.

There is a different type of land purchase that is now a fashion among the rich people in Dhaka. They are buying land both agricultural land and land in domestic use in short distance from Dhaka in areas such as Savar, Gazipur, etc to build their farm houses. In a country where land is in such short supply, these individuals are buying many acres of individual holdings with ponds, recreational and entertainment facilities that can only be fantasy for all in the country except these few individuals.

There is of course no harm in anyone owning such farm houses. The problem, however, is the same as with the agricultural land being lost by the poor farmers to the land investors. These farm houses are built on land owned by the less fortunate in society. Their luxury holdings are already beginning to look like eyesores as these are surrounded by ancestral homes of people less fortunate many of whose relatives or neighbours have sold their land to these new rich of the society. These rich individuals have agents who are out to ensure that those who are holding to their land are lured to sell their land for more luxurious farm houses.

There is of course no clear law against acquiring agricultural land for purposes other than agriculture. An environmental group however has filed a case against the Army Housing Scheme for acquiring land for housing on agriculture land in Rupgang. The group has argued that the constitution guarantees right of life and livelihood for all and taking away agriculture land from farmers is tantamount to taking away their right to livelihood.

Rupgang is just one instance where a case has been made of agricultural land being lost to the newly rich in the country because it is taking away people’s livelihood from the sector that employs the highest number of the country’s workforce. The need for agriculture to support the country’s huge and growing population that is growing is also being seriously hampered by this dangerous loss of agricultural land. The most dangerous consequence on this land transfer by sale, acquisition and other means is the fact that it is placing the majority poor and the few rich on road to conflict that could tear the country apart.

The government must therefore enact laws immediately to prohibit selling agricultural land for use in any others sector. The Government must further enact laws to restrict land holdings so that there is a maximum amount that an individual would be able to buy to avoid clashes and conflicts between the small number of new land owners and those who are being forced to sell their land that is their livelihood and their ancestral holdings for economic reasons.

The Prime Minister’s decision on Arial Beel and the move by environmentalists against the Army Housing Scheme in Rupgang are steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, it does not seem likely that those who are indulging in the mindless acquisition of agricultural and domestic land by purchase, acquisition, etc would be encouraged to follow the Prime Minister’s lead or listen to the environmentalists. To stop incidents of people’s power shown in Arial Beel or Rajshahi spreading to the rest of the country with the potential to take the country apart, the legal system must be brought into the loop against mindless land acquisition by individuals for their personal aggrandizement.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a former Secretary to the Government.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On balanced national development

The Independent, February 5th; 2011
M. Serajul Islam

With February in our midst, the country is now focused on issues of history, language, independence and democracy. There will be excitement in the air and with it, pride at what we have achieved as a nation over the last four decades. Patriotism will be at the core of all the excitement and emotions.

There is no harm for a nation to be set in such a mode. But then like all things of life, there is a flip side of all these emotions, excitement and the rest that we seldom if at all care to look at. It is true that our freedom and independence have opened for us possibilities where the sky is the limit. But in the midst of our excitement and emotions for events and issues that are now mostly history, we fail to look at present and into the future. We fail to consider that the independence that gave the nation such hopes for a great future is not leading us to the heights that we should have reached long ago. There are some serious imbalances in our development efforts.

It was at the time of our independence that Dr. Henry Kissinger had said that Bangladesh would emerge as a “basket case”. That “basket case” today is a nation whose GDP is US$ 104 billion (2010 estimates) that should make the rest of the world take note of us as a country of considerable strength. More than 7 million Bangladeshis now live abroad and collectively they send home over US$ 10 billion annually as remittance to the country. Bangladesh was twice a member of the UN Security Council and has held or holding membership of leading international organizations. Bangladesh is a key nation in UN Peace Keeping operations. In Sierra Leone, Bangladeshi peacekeepers have done so well that in that country that Bangladesh has emerged as a nation held in the highest respect. Our RMG exporters now compete with giants like the China and India and manage to remain competitive in markets in USA and Europe.

Yet in the midst of all these good news and indicators, there are a lot of things that are amiss. A slight digression towards Dhaka University could help us understand what is amiss a bit better. In the 50s and the 60s, Dhaka University was a microcosm of what was happening in the larger canvas of the country. Today, a look at Dhaka University in a different way would also tell us what is wrong with the country. Recently, a friend who was an inter-wing scholar from Punjab to Dhaka University in the 1960s visited Bangladesh. He had gone to SM Hall where he was a resident student. He could not hold his tears at the plight of the Hall. When he entered the Hall Mosque, he was amazed to find mosquito nets, beddings, etc as it has been taken over, or a great part of it by the students! That is the reality in all Dhaka University dormitories.

Recently too, my wife was at the alumni event of a women dormitory of Dhaka University. She and her friends were shocked to see the inside of the rooms in this dormitory that were overcrowded and in run-down condition. The same is the case in most public institutions and buildings where age and lack of maintenance have made such places look dilapidated and not fit for use. If we look beyond Dhaka University and into the city and compare with what Dhaka was before we became independent, the case I am trying to make will be clear. It is accepted that Dhaka has grown many times since 1971 but the city has been allowed to degenerate where living in it is becoming a nightmare. Thus where independence should have made Dhaka University a better and cleaner institution; public buildings look better and Dhaka, the pride of the nation, things are going the wrong way in all these places.

If we look at the vitally important communications sector, we will see in what pathetic condition our railway system is. Most of the trains on the railway track would be sent to dump yard in another country. True, road links have been established between Dhaka and the rest of the country that was not there before independence and big bridges like the Jamuna Bangabandhu Bridge have been constructed. Yet, we still have a single lane track between Dhaka and Chittagong that is literally a death trap. When Japan built its roads infrastructure after the devastation of the Second World War, it was a poor country. Yet, those roads have served Japan over the last 6 decades because when they were built; they were built looking decades into the future. We connected Dhaka to the rest of the country but the roads were built looking into the past and not the future.

There are lots of examples in many key areas of our national life where we have moved in the wrong directions in our efforts to develop as a nation. In education, that is the backbone of any nation, we have divided the country into the rich, powerful and affluent and the poor and disadvantaged. In the name of giving education to all, we have weakened the institutions from where students from the less affluent section not only used to come into national life but in a lot of cases dominate. While a section of the society has become fabulously rich, the rest of the country has not kept pace with them, enhancing the rich-poor divide. It is mainly the US$ 11 billion that comes in remittance and goes to the less affluent section of the country that is keeping the rich-poor contrast from exploding.

The economic stability in Bangladesh comes from its exports where the RMG holds the centre stage and employs a large number of people; foreign remittance that helps the poor from getting poorer; and the agricultural sector. The first two sectors are fragile. The RMG driven export growth is literally perilously placed on the issue of wage where any further demand for wage enhancement would take away a major edge that Bangladesh enjoys in its steep competition with other RMG exporting countries. Manpower export is on the decline. Any major negative impact on either or both that is not very unlikely could bring down Bangladesh’s economy and with it, its politics crumbling down like a pack of cards.

Time is fast running out for the country and its leaders to correct the imbalances and dangers in its development process. The flip side of Bangladesh’s imbalanced development shows the possibility of gaining upper hand. When that happens, the excitement about patriotism, language and history would not help us much. Additionally, our politics is becoming increasingly confrontational that is another danger facing the nation. Thus while we get ready for another season of excitement, emotions and patriotic fervour , let us also spare ourselves a moment and consider the necessity of balanced development and the dangers if we do not.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to Government.

In a post Mubarak Egypt USA must not repeat its mistakes

Daily Sun, February 7th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

While President Hosne Mubarak is facing the heat as the movement to oust him gets stronger, the United States too is facing tense moments with the uncertain future of a President who has been the lynch pin in its foreign policy in the region. The US has backed President Mubarak to the tilt and has looked the other way when his regime violated human rights at will to deal with political opposition.

Egypt has been too crucial to the United States for a variety of reasons to concern it with President Mubarak’s treatment of political opposition. Egypt is the most populous Arab state that controls the Suez Canal through which the west’s oil passes from the oil fields in the Middle East. The US needs Egypt for the ME peace process and in the past, has used Egypt’s land and airspace to launch attacks against Iraq during both the Gulf Wars. Egypt loathes Iran that draws it closer to the USA and it has recognized the closest ally of the US in the region, Israel. Finally, Egypt is a major military power in the region that makes friendship with it a strategic necessity for the United States.

The United States thus simply cannot even think of a government in Egypt in a post-Mubarak era that would not extend to it the same unqualified backing and support for its policies and priorities in the region as President Mubarak has done. In fact, President Obama thought it necessary to re-define the importance of Egypt and President Mubarak immediately after becoming the President, conscious that his predecessor had rubbed President Mubarak the wrong way. On a visit to Cairo just after the 2005 Presidential election, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made very critical comments that had angered President Mubarak a great deal. She did not stop at the critical comments but went ahead and met the opposition leader who contested against President Mubarak to rub salt to the President’s wounds.

Therefore it was no coincidence that President Obama had chosen Cairo as the capital from where to send his administration’s message of friendship to the Muslim world. The choice of Cairo was also meant to bring President Mubarak back as an old and trusted friend. The Obama administration has also continued to give Egypt extra attention in the context of military and economic aid. In fact, in the foreign policy priority of the Obama administration both for the region and the Muslim world, Egypt has been given a very major focus. Thus, even when the regime of President Mubarak grossly interfered in the last parliamentary elections to give the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) a walk-over victory, the United States did not have even a word of criticism.

The current political turmoil in Egypt and in the region therefore is a matter of serious concern for the United States together with the wave of popular dissatisfaction against regimes that the US has supported and sustained. In Tunisia, suicide by immolation of a frustrated youth was enough to sweep President Ben Ali from power after 23 years of absolute rule. Since the Tunisian uprising, the same wave of popular uprising against dictators has spread across the Middle East and neighbouring Muslim countries. Hence when popular uprising against President Mubarak spilled into the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, it did not surprise anyone. In Egypt, as in Tunisia, harsh economic conditions are bringing people to the streets but it is people’s wrath for 30 years of ruthless dictatorship that is acting as the driving force to encourage Egyptians to fight to overthrow President Mubarak.

Although President Mubarak is tenuously holding on to the strings of power and trying one desperate move after another, the die is cast for him. That notwithstanding, his exit will not be immediate as many in Egypt and abroad hope and expect. By bringing the military into power sharing, President Mubarak has played cleverly his otherwise weak hand because the military as an institution is held in Egypt with respect. The fact that the military so far has sided with the protesters has gone to President Mubarak’s advantage to buy him time. His address to the nation where he said he would like to stay on till the next presidential election in September has not gone down well with the protesters who want him out immediately. However, the protests have no leadership or the momentum to force immediate victory. A lot thus will depend on what pressures are brought upon the President by the United States and western powers.

The US on its part has abandoned President Mubarak totally with President Obama telling him to start packing and the European leaders backing the US President. The clashes of President Mubarak’s supporters who have very little support have further worried President Mubarak’s one time friends in the west because such clashes would not extend President Mubarak’s regime but could push Egypt and the region into the hands of Islamic fundamentalist forces. There are supporters of such forces in the middle and lower levels of the military that could align with such forces in law and order breaks down completely as a result of clashes between the protesters and the supporters of President Mubarak.

For the US, the stakes are very high because these dictators and regimes facing ouster are important elements of its foreign policy. It must therefore ensure that the new regimes that come in these countries are friendly. More importantly, it must also try to ensure that these dictatorships are not replaced by the Islamic fundamentalists because if the fundamentalists come to power, the region could face an upheaval where US interests would suffer the most.

Egypt offers the US the best bet to bring peace to the region and stop the fundamentalist Islamic forces from gaining political power. Egypt is a secular society with 10% of its people, Christians. President Mubarak has nurtured and strengthened the inherent secular character of Egyptian society. In Egypt, the girl in a modern dress and the other in Hijab can walk in downtown Cairo or for that matter in any part of the country without any eyebrow raised. Therefore, there is no in-built societal support in Egypt for fundamentalist forces as the MB.

The US should also utilize to its advantage the good standing of the military in Egypt. Its first task should be to see that President Mubarak leaves quickly and without pushing the country into internal conflict. It should then work with the military, encourage the formation of an interim government perhaps under someone like Dr. ElBaradei and then ensure a free and fair election as soon as possible. It should encourage the military to dismantle the old political system and reform it so that a democratic system could function. The huge military aid USA gives Egypt should be a strong incentive for the military to follow the US line with the same commitment given by President Mubarak. USA must not repeat the mistakes it made with the Mubarak regime and must do everything to establish a democratic Egypt to protect its interests in the region.

A democratic Egypt is the key to peace not just in Egypt itself but in the Middle East. USA must acknowledge it past mistakes of playing favorites with dictators and stand by the people of the region if not for anything else, for its own interests. It could start doing that by making Egypt as an example.

The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to Egypt

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Twilight days for President Mubarak→


Daily Sun, February 2nd., 2011
M Serajul Islam

After 30 years of absolute power, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak is fighting for his political life. The effects of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia that ended with his fellow dictator Mr Ben Ali fleeing to Saudi Arabia after 23 years of dictatorial rule has now reached Egypt where more than a 100 demonstrators have been killed with the disturbances in the streets getting stronger.

In panic moves, the President has reached out to the military and intelligence to help him tide over the predicament into which he has now fallen. He dismissed the Government and named former Air Chief General Ahmad Shafiq as the new Prime Minister. He followed this by naming General Omar Suleiman, a close confidant and chief of intelligence, as the Vice-President. General Suleiman had persuaded President Mubarak to travel in an armoured car on a visit to Ethiopia in 1995 that saved his life as the car in which he was supposed to travel was riddled with bullets.

Only a few months ago, the President was in full control to do pretty much what he liked with the politics of the country. In the parliamentary elections, his intelligence and security services ensured that the ruling National Democratic Party did not have any opposition. By intimidation and outright fraudulent means, the NDP returned to power with 420 or 81 percent of the seats with 68 going to independent candidates. The Muslim Brotherhood and Wafd Party that had chances of winning some seats were forced out of the election process.

The President and his intelligence and security forces indulged in more than the usual arm twisting tactics in the last elections as he had in mind the desire of passing the mantle of power within the family. The chosen successor was Mr Gamal Nasser, the President’s younger son whom he had carefully nurtured for the post by placing him at key posts in the party over the last decade and more. Unlike his predecessors who had a Vice-President as the heir-apparent, President Mubarak dispensed with the post upon becoming President. In fact, he was able to become the President without any questions asked because he was President Sadat’s Vice-President at the time the latter was assassinated in 1981.

President Mubarak’s decision to name General Omar Suleiman as the Vice-President after refusing one for the last 30 years reflects a few realities. First, his situation is desperate as he attempts to save himself from the fate that has befallen former Tunisian President Ben Ali. Second, it has ruled out the possibility of President Mubarak handing power to his son who has since left the country, overtly on some official errand but in reality to safety. It has also underscored the fact that politically he and his regime have long since lost the people’s support and confidence. The NDP that is supposed to have support across the country having won the last elections so overwhelmingly has simply vanished. Even the police have reportedly joined sides with the demonstrators.

Thirty years of systematic and ruthless subjugation of political opposition has left Egypt without any political party or organised political force to lead the country once the regime of Mubarak is toppled. Some quarters have therefore expressed the apprehension that the banned Muslim Brotherhood that has organised itself outside politics in professional and other bodies would seize power and lead Egypt towards Islamic fundamentalism. In Cairo’s Tahreer Square, where the demonstrators assembled, the members of the Brotherhood were clearly visible in quite a significant number together with women clad in the veil and praying. However, the majority of the demonstrators as seen on TV coverage are young people together with people of other ages representing Egypt’s largely secular population.

The entry of Noble Laureate Dr Mohamed ElBaradei to lead the people’s upsurge is encouraging. In an interview to CNN, Dr ElBaradei has said that he is leading all groups in Egyptian society. He added that the aim of the movement is to bring down the dictatorial regime and hold elections soon afterwards to bring to office a government that is truly the people’s choice. Since expressing his intention for contesting the next Presidential election from which he was subsequently technically ruled out, Dr ElBaradei has captured the attention of many Egy-¬ptians as their hope of ending dictatorship in the country.

For the moment though it is the military that is holding the power and the public seems to be accepting it although the presence of General Suleiman is not something that they like because he led the oppressive security forces with which the regime has subjugated political opposition over the years. This notwithstanding, there is apprehension that if the demonstrations spread further or the military is compelled to shoot and kill, there could be pressures from the middle and lower ranks of the military that are conservative with Islamic preferences unlike the upper brass which is largely secular and pro-west.

The next few days will be crucial for Egypt. If the military succeeds in holding on to power without the need to kill any more demonstrators and could blame the earlier killings on the security forces, then there is chance that they could oversee a peaceful transition out of the present impasse. A breakdown of military authority leading to further chaos and bloodshed could set the stage for a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood with their social organisation already in place and with their banned political leaders waiting in the wings to come out and take charge with the security forces on the defensive. The chances of Dr ElBaradei gaining power as head of an interim government and oversee a democratic election is also possible because the United Sates and the western powers could very well negotiate with Egypt’s military to put him as the head of an interim government to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from making a bid for political power.

In any of the above possibilities, President Muba-rak’s best option seems to hope for a safe exit for himself and his family. In General Suleiman; General Ahmad Shafiq and two other Generals who hold behind-the-stage power in Egypt today, namely Defence Minister Moham-med Hussein Tantawi who controls the Republican Guards and Lt General Sami Anan, chief of staff of the armed forces, he has his trusted Generals and allies to give him that exit if they themselves can hold on to power.

President Hosni Mub-arak for all practical purposes is now in the twilight days of his 30-year-long stranglehold on political power of Egypt.

The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt and a former secretary.