Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bangladesh,  Olympics and national pride
Daily Sun
August 26, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The Prime Minister’s feelings of national passion when she saw the small contingent of Bangladeshi athletes walk into the stadium touched a sympathetic chord in a lot of people in the country. In a TV Talk Show, participants were in consensus in expressing that like the Prime Minister, their hearts too fluttered when they saw the Bangladesh team in the stadium flying the Bangladesh flag. 

With the risk of offending some of the readers, the expression of national passion over the small contingent of Bangladeshi athletes in London was misplaced. The cliché that it is more important to take part in a game than to win  does not reflect the frustration that is there that we should acknowledge. We have never won a medal in the Olympics and the way things are, our national passion notwithstanding, we will perhaps not win one in the lifetime of many of us. 

There was a story that made its run on the internet on Yahoo! Sports page on this frustration. The story was captioned “Bangladesh is the largest nation in the world to never win a medal but it has four athletes in London.” The story went on to mention that Bangladesh is the eighth biggest country in the world “but its Olympic futility is so bad it makes one wonder if a statistical mistake has been made.” 

When the hearts of the Prime Minister and many Bangladeshis in the country and abroad beat faster with national pride, perhaps they did not know that since 1984 when Bangladesh first started sending participants to the Games, not one was allowed to participate based on merit. They were all there, including the 4 in this year’s games, because of the wild card system that allows some countries to send participants who have not qualified on merit. 

The Yahoo story mentioned that the gymnast who represented Bangladesh had dual American and Bangladeshi citizenships who entered the games because an Indian gymnast was unable to participate because of improper paperwork on part of the Indian authorities. The story nevertheless states that this gymnast from Bangladesh, Syque Caesar, is an athlete with potentials “having won an NCAA teams title at the University of Michigan and won parallel bars gold at the Central South Asian Championships.” 

Bangladesh has close to 8 million people living abroad. Of this number, many have made countries like USA and Great Britain their home. It is in these places that there may be hope for Bangladesh that someone like Syque Caesar would end the drought for Bangladesh and give the 8th largest country in the world its first medal. The hope of a Bangladeshi born and raised in Bangladesh winning an Olympic medal seems a forlorn one. The Yahoo story’s pitch was also in the fact that despite its huge population, Bangladesh is hardly a sporting nation and the game that is the national passion, namely cricket, is not an Olympic game. Even in cricket, the story goes on to underpin the fact that Bangladesh is “ranked 9th out of the 9 teams that play the game at the highest level.” 

Therefore, sad as it is, our participation in the Olympics should not be a subject for arousing national pride. As a nation, we may not be much in terms of winning a medal in the Olympics. However, we have a lot to be proud in many things we have achieved. A nation that has won independence the way we have, we need not un-necessarily bring such issues as Olympics to make a show of our pride as a nation. In 1971, pitched against the world, Bangladesh achieved freedom by coming together as a nation. The call of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman united the people of Bangladesh in such a way that not even threat of death and genocide of the Pakistani military forces could deter them from their fight for liberation and independence. 

In recent times, we have seen the government using national pride to get the people behind the government without unfortunately uniting the nation. At least two choices are before us to make an assessment of its use of national pride and whether this is helping the government and the country. The Prime Minister has used Bangla for this purpose; in her attempt at making it an official language of the United Nations. Then again when the World Bank cancelled the loan for the Padma Bridge, the government fell on national pride to get the people behind it. 

The Prime Minister must be felicitated for choosing to speak in Bangla at the United Nations during her statements at the UNGA sessions. Her father also did the same. In fact it is his precedence that she has been following. However, the Prime Minister has gone ahead and demanded that Bengali should be made an official language of the United Nations based on the fact that it is spoken by almost 160 million people of Bangladesh and 130 million in West Bengal or Paschim Bangla.

The demand can hardly be faulted on emotions. Nor can it be faulted on numbers. However if numbers and emotions were to guide decisions in international relations then we would have quite a different world than the one we are living in.   In demanding that Bangla be made an official UN  language, important issues have not been considered as emotion was allowed to precede reason. Bangladesh is still one of the world’s most impoverished nations where in current international relations, it is a minnow. Then, in taking Paschim Bangla on board, there have been no consultations with them. Yet they have been taken for granted! 

With the Padma Bridge loan too, the government has tried to use national pride for people’s support after messing negotiations with the World Bank.  Its insistence not to remove 3 officials including a Minister against whom the Bank had reasons of suspicion of corruption led to the mess up. Strangely, the three were eventually removed but by then the World Bank’s confidence on the nation was gone. The government’s attempt to arouse national passion after the WB cancellation failed to take on board half the nation that does not support the ruling party. The Finance Minister’s   attempts to placate the WB to reactivate it; the Communication Minister’s negotiations with Malaysia for loan and the Prime Minister’s call to the nation to build the Bridge from domestic resources gave the picture of a government lost in a mess it created itself. 

National pride based  a cause in which the nation believes as one is a very strong force  to stand against the greatest of odds.  The Prime Minister and her colleagues should spare themselves some time and consider why they have failed to carry the nation with them on the PB, the move to make Bangla a UN language and on even the Prime Minister’s passion on the Olympics. Since becoming the Prime Minister, she has made every attempt to write the opposition off by all the means available to the government forgetting that they carry half the nation with them. At the same time, the causes she has taken to unite the nations up have also been poor ones.  

The Prime Minister has failed in arousing national pride primarily because she carries, thanks to her own choice, not the nation but the supporters of her own party which unfortunately for her, is half the nation or at this fag end of the her party’s AL rule, perhaps much less.

The writer is a  retired carrier diplomat and Ambassador  to Japan.

Former President Ershad’s intriguing trip to New Delhi
As I see it
The Independent
August 25, 2012
M. Serajul Islam


President HM Ershad’s recent visit to New Delhi was an intriguing one. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs explained that the visit has been undertaken by the former President as part of the Indian government’s “ongoing engagement with a democratic and multi-party policy of Bangladesh.”  On the face of it, the MEA’s explanation seems perfectly in line with the democratic credentials of India. Yet, the explanation somehow also leaves a lot unexplained in the context in which India has conducted relations with Bangladesh’s political parties in the past. 

For instance, the Indians did not show such democratic finesse when then Indian Finance Minister and now the President of India Pranab Mukherjee  visited Bangladesh as a Special Envoy of Prime Minister Manmohon Singh soon after the AL had taken office in January, 2009. They turned down a request from the BNP for a meeting of the Leader of the Opposition with him on the ground that his tight schedule did not permit him to accept the request. Pranab Mukherjee who was on a one day trip nevertheless found time to meet General Moyeen U Ahmed, then the outgoing Army Chief and also to open a new building in Dhaka University that the Indian had funded!

Historically, the Congress and the Awami League have special relations based on the events of 1971. The relations have withstood the test of time and whether in power or out of it, the two political parties have had the best of relations over the years. Thus when the AL came to office with a massive majority in January, 2009 and the Congress also in office in New Delhi, the stars of Bangladesh-India relations came into perfect alignment for a paradigm shift in the stagnant relations between the two neighbours.  

In fact, it was Sheikh Hasina who made the first move. She offered to India total commitment to its security concerns. She not only vowed not to allow Indian terrorists/extremists to use Bangladesh as a  sanctuary and springboard for its terrorist activities in Assam and other northeastern states, she delivered to the Indian security 7 top ULFA terrorists that has broken the back of the decades old ULFA insurgency in Assam. Bangladesh also granted India trial run of land transit, for long an Indian dream. Sheikh Hasina granted these concessions to India without even being requested and without seeking anything from India. 

The Indians reciprocated by upgrading  Sheikh Hasina’s   visit  India to a “state visit”  by a breach of protocol because such a visit is extended only to a head of state and not  to a head of government. In that visit, in a 56 paragraph Joint Declaration, the Indians promised a lot of concessions to Bangladesh on key issues of interest to Bangladesh, namely water, trade and border related ones. Indians also offered Bangladesh a US$1 billion soft loan to be spent mostly for development of infrastructure to implement the land transit.  

That was the honeymoon period of Bangladesh-India relations that lasted till the return visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September, 2011. In that period, there was a flurry of visits of Bangladesh Ministers to New Delhi hinting at great moments to come in Bangladesh-India relations. The Foreign Minister and two of Prime Ministers Advisers helped build up great expectations in Bangladesh that India would turn the country into the regional economic hub where a great economic future awaited it. In that honeymoon period, the Indians were not bothered about the “multi-party polity” in Bangladesh led by the BNP that was concerned that the government was handing over critical concessions to India without any reciprocity. India was concerned that any overtures to the opposition would offend the Awami League and put at jeopardy realization of its interests. 

The Indians failed to live up to its part for the paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations that Sheikh Hasina initiated. During the visit of Manmohon Singh to Dhaka, the Indians were unable to sign the Teesta water sharing deal because of Mamata Banarjee’s objection. At the same time, the Indians also failed to meet Bangladesh’s concerns on Tippaimukh Dam and the killings on the border by the BSF. In retaliation, Bangladesh withdrew the offer of land transit that just needed an exchange of letters for final and complete implementation. The Indians subsequently also failed to ratify the  land boundary agreement that was projected as a major positive outcome of the Indian PM’s visit to Dhaka because of the BJP’s objections. 

The disappointing Dhaka visit of Manmohon Singh signaled a change of attitude in the Bangladesh Government that came under severe pressure from the opposition BNP. In fact, sniffing a potential political advantage, President Ershad also started talking in the media in the same vein as the BNP. In fact, the BNP’s rhetoric was more toned down than that of the Jatiya party. The Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister’s two Advisers also went to the background and were no longer placating the great advantages that Bangladesh would receive from India’s cooperation in transforming the country into a regional economic hub. The Prime Minister on a number of occasions went public in expressing disappointment at India’s failure to deliver on commitments. The Bangladesh Government was no longer showing the same obliging attitude towards India as was there up to Manmohon Singh’s visit to Dhaka. 

Unfortunately for the AL led government, the declining trend in Banagladesh-India relations also coincided with the mess that it made of governance, a lot of which has been self-inflicted.  On the issues of Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the WB, the Government annoyed its traditional allies in high places and positions un-necessarily. On issues of human rights, it also annoyed friends in Europe and elsewhere.  On domestic issues, it failed to deliver on election promises on electricity, food prices; corruption and law and order that have all but withered off the massive popularity with which it came to office.  In addition to all the above, the AL set the country on a collision course by the 15th amendment under which it intended to hold the next general elections with Sheikh Hasina as the Interim Prime Minister. 

The Indians need time to keep their commitments and promises to Bangladesh. In fact, for New Delhi, the spanner from MB was unexpected. If she had not objected at literally the 11th hour, the Teesta agreement would have been signed during Manmohon Singh’s Dhaka visit. The Indians are themselves concerned for their failure because they have seen in Bangladesh a genuine commitment to better relations with India not just in the AL but also in the BNP that has publicly acknowledged the benefits of good relations based on reciprocity. India needs continued security commitment from Bangladesh and land transit to integrate in fragile northeast with the mainland. Unfortunately, they now see that AL is no longer in control in Bangladesh and thus not in a position to continue to give to India, these two needs vital to its national interests. 

Thus the Indians are looking beyond the AL for securing their long term interests in Bangladesh. Of course their best option is still the AL.  Unfortunately they now are not confident in the AL any longer and thus making overtures towards the “multi-party polity” of Bangladesh. Pranab Mukherjee’s meeting with Khaleda Zia in May this year and his comment thereafter that India wants relations with Bangladesh (and not with a political party) is therefore very significant.  It is also significant that when Bangladesh was under pressure from the United States and the World Bank, India neither offered to help nor did Bangladesh go to India seeking help concerning its problems although India has considerable influence with both.

It is in this context that India’s recently stated policy that it wants relations with the “multi-party polity of Bangladesh” and the invitation to HM Ershad makes sense. The Indians have of course another reason to have invited him despite his virulent anti-India campaign in recent times; to send a message to the Awami League that it should put its politics and foreign relations in order to continue to receive the same level of support that they have given it traditionally and historically. In fact, President Pranab Mukherjee gave this message loud and clear when he told HM Ershad that it is a free, fair and neutral election that India wants in Bangladesh; a clear rejection of the Prime Minister’s insistence to hold the next elections with her as the head of the interim government. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt




Hard Talk and hard facts
As I see it
The Indepndent
August 18, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The Prime Minister’s aides/advisers should have advised her against the interviews on Hard Talk and the BBC Bengali programme. Stephen Succor had her where he wanted and exposed the chinks in her armour on issues of Bangladesh’s domestic politics; Dr. Mohammad Yunus/Grameen Bank and foreign affairs. On Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the comment of “blood sucker”, the Prime Minister’s response was astonishing. She said she never mentioned him by name that brought a response of disbelief from the interviewer! On the World Bank letters, those who read the interview of the World Bank Country Director would know better whether her response was truthful.  One the interest rates of Grameen Bank, the latter corrected her the day after the interview. 

The questions at Hard Talk no doubt were uncomfortable for the Prime Minister. However to her credit, she carried on with Stephen Succor’s questions and queries and gave her supporters the same encouragement she had when she dealt with the World Bank; a never say die attitude. She remained undaunted even when forced to give incorrect answers.  Nevertheless, the Prime Minister’s interview in Hard Talk revealed her mindset on Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank; that she is determined to grind both to the dust without caring for the consequences. Clearly she was not amused with the critical questions or the praises that Stephen Succor showered on the Noble Laureate and the GB.


Immediately upon return from London, she asked authorities to inquire whether the salaries/perks Dr. Yunus enjoyed after he should have retired on completion of 60 years should be declared illegally taken and returned to the government. The Cabinet also decided to strip the Grameen Bank Board members of their powers, members who have risen through poverty, to their positions and place these powers to a government appointed Chairman. The government’s latest actions against Dr. Yunus and GB brought reactions of disbelief in the country. Leading members of the civil society have demanded an explanation from the government. The US State Department has also expressed deep concerns about these latest moves.


In was however the Prime Minister’s comment in her/BBC, Bangla interview about the next elections  under a “Small Interim Government” to which she invited the BNP that has created widespread interest in Bangladesh. Many analysts have seen this as a softening in the position of the Prime Minister. They feel that she is inching towards accommodating the wishes of the opposition. Previously, she had insisted that the 15th amendment did not leave her with any leeway to hold the next elections in any other manner but under an interim government to be headed by her and with Ministers that she alone would choose. She had also insisted that the elections would be held three months from the date of the last day of the current parliament’s tenure during which the members of the parliament would not be required to resign.


Either politicians have short memories or they take the public for fools. They keep on changing stances and contradicting themselves forgetting that people have memories too. Take for instance the Prime Minister’s suddenly contrived “new formula” under which she has offered the BNP to join the interim government. Earlier, she has said many times in parliament and outside it that after the 15th amendment of the constitution, there is no scope for her to do anything. Suranjit Sen who was co-chair of the committee for the 15th amendment made it appear like it would be easier to change the scriptures than the constitution of Bangladesh. 

The same sacrosanct constitution now appears to be an instrument that the Prime Minister can change at will. Furthermore, the AL today is denying the BNP the same that it demanded of it in 1994-96; an interim government where BNP would not be a part. The BNP had offered the AL to hold elections under an interim government that would have 5 members from the ruling party and five from the AL with Khaleda Zia as the outgoing Prime Minister in charge of the interim government. The AL rejected that offer with contempt and its members of parliament resigned forcing the BNP to go ahead and hold the farcical elections of February, 1996 that the AL did not participate. One good thing nevertheless came out of that February, 1996 elections. It allowed the BNP to give the country the Caretaker Government through a constitutional amendment that the AL demanded and that brought the AL to power. 

This time too, the BNP has rejected the Prime Minister’s offer precisely for the same reason for which the AL had rejected its offer in 1994-96. The AL had rejected the BNP’s offer on the element of trust. It felt that it was simply inconceivable for AL to participate in an election where the interim government would be headed by Khaleda Zia. That trust element has deteriorated many times over since then. Therefore it was for the obvious reasons the BNP has rejected the offer to join the “Small Interim Government” and has reiterated its demand for a “neutral, non-party government.”  . Some analysts have however seen in the Prime Minister’s offer, a slight shift towards a resolution of the political impasse despite the clear hints from the ruling party that Sheikh Hasina’s position as head of the “Small Interim Government” is not negotiable. 

If the Prime Minister would spare herself a moment and reflected at history or her aides had the courage to flag it for her, she would see how strongly she has encouraged the BNP to tread the same path that she had led her party in 1994-96; to go out to the streets and fight for its demands. It does not need a crystal ball to predict the outcome of pushing the opposition to such a path. Only, this time the political situation in the country is more volatile than it was in 1994-1996. At that time the country had just come out of a decade long dictatorship and the whole nation was eager for the two political parties to settle their discords democratically.  

In the last two decades or a little less, the two mainstream parties have made politics more confrontational. The people have lost faith in their ability to lead a democratic government. In fact, the situation towards which the Prime Minister is leading the country could again bring the extra constitutional forces as it did in 2007. This time, however, a step in politics by these forces could spell disaster for the country. The threat of death now hangs over those who make an extra-constitutional bid for power. The armed forces would thus be putting their lives on the line if they enter politics either by scheming or due to the failure of the politicians. They could thus act more unpredictably and dangerously than they have with their past interventions.

The Prime Minister’s interviews on Hard Talk and BBC Bengali Service have hinted at dark clouds in the political horizon of Bangladesh. When she is in such a mood, her aides spin it out of control. A senior leader of the AL was thus quick to react to his leader’s mood. He said either the BNP accepts the terms of the Prime Minister or they could leave the country!  However, as has become AL’s political style in recent times of switching/contradicting  positions at will, the  AL acting General Secretary has said that” the door is open for negotiations. You will see development in this regard soon.” 

The New York Times and the Economist, at the height of the conflict between Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank and the Government had identified the Noble Laureate’s potential to become a political rival as one of the two reasons for the Prime Minister’s dislike for him. Ironically, the Prime Minister may be pushing the Noble Laureate to play the role that she suspected.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan



Saturday, August 11, 2012

Whither Egypt’s Unfinished revolution?
Published in The Daily Sun
August 12th., 2012

The Egyptian revolution, that had attracted attention worldwide when all eyes were focused on Tahrir Square for the dawning of democracy not just in Egypt but in the region, is stuck between the hard rock and the sea or so it appears.  An elected President, Mohammed Masri, is in office. He has also appointed a Prime Minister and a Cabinet. However, a parliament elected democratically in January this year has been dissolved by the military and the judges backed it on technicality. 

Today, the military operating collectively as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) holds most of the state powers to suggest that Egypt is yet quite a distance from winning its democratic credentials. Many outside Egypt who watched the revolution unfurl in Tahrir Square that brought down President’s Mubarak’s 3 decades long hold on power in less than 3 weeks time are puzzled by the present political situation in Egypt.  

Egypt democratic transition has now become a cat and mouse game between the SCAF and the deeply divided civilian parties/groups where the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has emerged in the dominant position. The revolution at Tahrir Square as a part of the Arab Spring was a movement of the youth who had passion but not vision; nor organization. The movement achieved its “critical mass” only after the MB lent support to it. Nevertheless it was only after the military backed away from President Mubarak that one of the most powerful and longest serving dictators in modern history was compelled to hand power in such quick time. 

The cat and mouse game the MB is now playing with the SCAF is a strategic one in which it is showing the maturity and experience it has achieved in its 84 years of existence. During most of this period till it formed the Freedom and Justice Party after the ouster of President Mubarak, it was a banned organization because of its fundamentalism and acts of terrorism that included an attempt to kill President Nasser. Nevertheless, in those many decades, the MB never lost the confidence that someday it would dominate Egypt’s politics. It built a strong base and network among the people, becoming deeply involved in the social and humanitarian works and services.

In dealing with the SCAF, the MB is working within the parameters of the new realities in Egyptian politics today. First, it is conscious of Egypt’s multi-cultural foundations; that although it is the largest and dominant political party, yet there is a substantial part of the Egyptian society that is secular and liberal who together with the 10% Christians in the country, have still serious reservations about the MB.  Second, the military in Egypt has tentacles deep in society, security and politics that have not been touched by the Egyptian revolution, not yet.  Third, the secular and Christian forces look upon the military as a balance to the MB and its fundamentalist politics. Finally, Egyptians are proud of their military for the wars it fought against Israel. It was the dreaded security forces created under President Mubarak’s direct control and supervision, and not the military that Egyptians feared and hated. 

The MB is confident that its time will come eventually to win the political powers usurped by the military and is in no hurry to confront the SCAF. MB Parliamentarian Osama Suleiman put across the view succinctly when he said: “The army is owned by the people. Civilian oversight of the military is popular will and nobody can stop popular will.”   In deciding to go slow, the MB is conscious of the Algerian experience. It does not want to give the military the excuse to crack down violently and derail the revolution. 

It thus has so far placated the SCAF by showing patience when the latter was taking its own time to hold the parliamentary elections last year and the pro-revolution forces were getting impatient. Instead, it used the time to join the nationalist Wafd party to form the Democratic Alliance with 40 other political parties. The alliance broke when the MB insisted on 40% seats for the parliamentary elections but by the time it broke, the MB had established itself as the leading political party. As a consequence, it went on to win 47% of the seats in the elections to the lower house of the Egyptian parliament. In early June, the SCAF dissolved the lower house and the courts upheld the action on technicality. Yet the MB remained silent.  

When the SCAF announced a constitutional declaration days before the Presidential election that was viewed by everyone as a subtle military coup and even a counter-revolution, the MB did not protest.  By the declaration, the SCAF turned the Presidency powerless and took over the powers of writing the constitution. The MB, confident of winning the presidency, did not want to give the military an excuse to delay or postpone the election and hence remained quiet over the “military coup.”.  It just wanted to win the presidency and the parliament through democratic elections and wait for appropriate time to wrest powers for both the institutions from the SCAF.  

Its strategy worked. After holding the country in suspense, the SCAF accepted the election of the MB candidate Mohammed Morsi as the elected President of a post-revolution Egypt by a thin margin of 51.7% against 47.3% votes won by General Ahmed Shafik that the SCAF and liberal/Christian forces in the country backed. The MB at first announced that the new President would take oath in Parliament to show contempt for the SCAF’s decision to dissolve the lower house or the People’s Council. Later it appeased the SCAF and the judges by taking oath before the Supreme Constitutional Court. The MB then focused on choosing the Cabinet to placate the political forces. It agreed at first to take 30% of the cabinet posts but later enhanced it 40%. The MB also agreed to nominate a Vice President each from among the women and Christians respectively. It appointed as Prime Minister who is not a member of the MB. 

In each of the steps the MB has taken so far ; its strategy has been to push from the top its 82 years of hard work in the Egyptian society to connect the power structure to its base. It achieving this connectivity, the MB’s objective is to widen its acceptance among the civilian forces that are apprehensive of its fundamentalist base. Towards that, the MB is also shedding a lot of its fundamentalist edges. For instance, the MB has compromised on the public sale of alcohol which is unimaginable in an Islamic state in view its importance to the critical tourist industry. Nevertheless, in reaching out among the political groups, the MB is also keenly aware of keeping its dominance. Even where it has placed a Ministry under a non-MB Minister, it has appointed a junior MB Minister to keep control. 

The next round in the cat and mouse game between the MB and the SCAF would be played when the constitution is written.  The Generals have made it clear about their intention to engrave into the constitution, a role for the military to their liking. The MB while trying to get greater acceptance among the people would be fighting the SPCA on the constitution and powers for the presidency and parliament till “civilian oversight of the military” is established. The game is going to be a long and protracted one but most Egyptians are happy that the MB and the SCAF have avoided confrontation mainly because of the matured handling of politics by the MB. 

Nothing dramatic is thus expected to happen in Egypt’s politics in the immediate future.  Nevertheless, the military forces will find it increasingly difficult to have their ways without questions asked and without accountability as the MB spreads its influence over the main political institutions.  In the MB, Egypt’s military has met more than its match that is reaching out to the people democratically to build its credibility and legitimacy. With such a cool and calculated approach , the military is bound to be shed most of the powers that it has assumed un-democratically. When it does is a matter of time. 

At the time of filing this piece, President Morsi has exercised his presidential powers by dismissing intelligence chief General Muwafi and Governor of North Sinai province together with major intelligence shakeup over clashes between the military and extremists in Sinai that left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead. General Muwafi  appeared to be emerging into the footsteps of General Omar Suleiman, the charismatic former intelligence chief of President Mubarak, and had the confidence of the US and Israel. The President and the SCAF came together in dismissing General Muwafi as a fall guy for the deaths of the soldiers in Sinai that angered Egyptians. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Time for Dr. Mohammad Yunus to make the hard choice
Holiday, Agust 10th., 2012
M. Serajul Islam

Stephen Succor has done both Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank harm, albeit unwittingly. If he had not hosted the Prime Minister on Hard Talk, then she would not have been reminded before a worldwide audience how much the world respects the Noble Laureate and feels angry and upset at the way he is being treated by the government in his own country.  Nor would the respect that the Grameen Bank commands in the world outside Bangladesh been flagged to her. 

Upon her return from London, both have been again put under the spanner. The cabinet has passed an order stripping the Grameen Bank stakeholders of their powers that they were exercising through the Board of Directors where most of the members are ordinary Grameen Bank members who have risen through poverty and discrimination to sit on the Board of an institution that has won the Noble Prize and is held in the highest esteem around the world. The Board’s powers will now be exercised by a government appointed Chairman! As for Dr. Yunus, the authorities will hold an inquiry whether he should return to the government his salary and perks that he has taken from the institution beyond the age of sixty as under the rules, he should have retired from the Bank at that age! 

In her Hard Talk interview, the Prime Minister said that she has nothing personal against the Noble Laureate. When asked why she called him a blood sucker of the poor, the Prime Minister’s response was quick. She retorted:  “How could he (Dr. Yunus) say I said it? Did I mention him? I didn’t. I said someone.” Therefore, if we are to believe the Prime Minister, the decisions of the cabinet must have been inspired by its desire to uphold the law that does not distinguish between a Noble Laureate and an ordinary citizen of the country. One just wishes that the cabinet would show the same courage on all that is happening around it and not just on Dr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank to show their concern and respect for the law. If they would have, then Bangladesh’s perennial concerns about good governance that is standing between it and threats of failing as a state, would be over. 

The latest initiatives regarding Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank no doubt point at the government’s intention to make both the Noble Laureate and the GB succumb to the complete domination of the authorities. Dr. Yunus’ reaction was to issue a statement in which he has appealed to the people to stand behind him and stop the government from destroying the institution for the poor. He said in his statement: “I am very disheartened to see that the poor is being deprived of the ownership of the bank they run and of the power to exercise their ownership.” The Noble Laureate seems to have submitted himself to his destiny. 

The Prime Minister and members of the government and the ruling party have said repeatedly that Dr. Yunus has turned the United States and the World Bank against Bangladesh. The fact is, as was clear at the Hard Talk, it is not just the United States that is surprised and concerned at what has been happening to the Noble Laureate and the GB, the rest of the world is equally surprised and worried. Nevertheless, as for Dr. Yunus and GB, the worries and the concerns of the world are simply not helping. The government is getting more and more determined to grind both to the dust and winning. In fact, praises at the world stage for Dr. Yunus and the Bank are encouraging the government towards punitive and destructive actions against both. 

Therefore it would not do Dr. Yunus much good, in fact any at all, by appealing to the people in the country or abroad to come to his and GB’s assistance. It is time that Dr. Yunus is reminded about the truth in the saying that God helps those who help themselves. It is time for him to stand up and fight. Of course, he would not be able to make any headway if he stood alone and tried to fight the government. Fighting the government would in fact be fighting the ruling party and would have to be a political choice that the Noble Laureate must make.  

His major mistake in the past has been his intention and announcement to form a political party before the emergency in 2007 and then to quickly retract on that intention after the emergency. He missed a major opportunity at that time by his lack of focus and perhaps by his disinclination to make the hard choice for himself and the country. That ill conceived intention has also been one major reason for his current woes and those of the Grameen Bank. 

Times have changed. When he had expressed his intention to float his party, there was widespread disenchantment among the people with both the mainstream political parties. Dr. Yunus was then heading the Grameen Bank that had 8 million members spread all over Bangladesh. Had he carried through his intention to form the political party to fight the mainstream parties, he could have made an impact. He could have used his GB network to reach the people. Civil society groups who were desperately seeking a third force in politics would also have joined his efforts in politics. Because of his failure to make the hard choice, that chance was lost.. Today he finds himself just an individual, albeit a famous one but in any case without any institutional support. 

It is time for him to build that support if he wants to save himself and his institution for no matter what the Government says about the Grameen Bank, at the level of the people, no one has any doubt that the institution is his creation and he has been unfairly thrown out of it. For Dr. Yunus, it is time to touch base with reality; the reality of Bangladesh’s politics. Wittingly or otherwise, he had challenged both the mainstream parties by his desire to form a political party and incurred the displeasure of one of them that now forms the government. If he wants to clear his name and claim his creation, he has to fight it out politically. He should take heart at the outcry in his favour after the latest government actions against him and the GB that have been articulated by Dr. Kamal Hossain, Dr. Mirza Aziz and Dr. Hossain Zillur Rahman who have demanded an explanation from the Government. 

His first step should be to reach out to the civil society. It is good to see that he has been coming out into the open recently and the media is no longer afraid to cover him.  In fact, he should make good use of the media with a clearly thought out policy. He would be surprised to find that there is tremendous amount of goodwill for him among the people. The government’s efforts to humiliate him notwithstanding, the people are proud of him. He has to turn that goodwill for political gains. The only way to turn that goodwill for good purpose is to enter politics formally. 

Of course, it is too late for him to form his own political party. He of course cannot join the Awami League because the party would not want him anyway, not as long as the Prime Minister is heading the party. It would also not be appropriate for him to join the BNP given the realities of the politics of the country. He could of course join one of the many parties that are around that have none of the baggage that the two mainstream parties are carrying at the moment. 

That would give him the platform to talk of politics of the country that is hardly going the way the people would like. The frustration that people suffered under the last caretaker government has returned with the discussion everywhere for a third force in politics. In such discussions, no one really sees the possibility of such a force in politics emerging to challenge either of the two mainstream parties and going to power on its own. Nevertheless, with a third force with Dr. Mohammad Yunus in it could emerge as the party to hold the balance between the two mainstream parties and create the pressure upon both to mend their ways. 

Such a force could negotiate with either of the mainstream parties its own agenda of clean and people oriented politics and be a part of the one that accepts its agenda to contest the next elections. In her Hard Talk programme, the Prime Minister has sent the message to Dr. Mohammad Yunus. She has asked him, unwittingly though, to show what he is worth, not to the outside world but to the people of Bangladesh. It is time he made his hard choice and took up the Prime Minister’s challenge. His greatest asset is his charm and his ability to reach out to the people at level of world leaders as well as the ordinary folks trying to break the shackles of poverty. 

Dr. Mohammad Yunus may be surprised to find that his greatest reaching out could still be awaiting him, among the people of Bangladesh. He may not become the next Prime Minister of Bangladesh but by making the hard choice, he may gain the political power necessary to save his image, the Grameen Bank and in the bargain, bring some positive changes in the politics of Bangladesh that the country desperately needs.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and former Ambassador

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Swing states could return President Obama to the White House
Daily Sun
August 5th., 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

The fight for the White House is becoming more and more intense with just 100 days or so left for the Presidential election on November 6th. The President is still ahead in most of the country’s opinion polls but only by a whisker. The President and his re-election team are therefore very worried. The economy is their main concern. The 2nd quarter GDP growth rate released last week was 1.5% which is not good enough to bring down unemployment rate from the 8.2% which is bad news for President Obama. There is little chance of the economy improving between now and Election Day for assuring President Obama to return to the White House for another term.  

There is no debate in the USA that it is the economy that will determine whether it would be President Obama or his challenger Governor Mitt Romney who would win on 6th November. In other words, “it is the economy, stupid” that will decide who the next President of the United Sates would be. In respect of the economy, the voters are most concerned with the unemployment figure which is high for a victory for President Obama. In fact, if the figure stands at that on or around November 6th, President Obama would be in real danger of losing the reelection bid. 

However, in the complex equation of numbers that determine outcome of a presidential election in the United States, there is a concept that explains its electoral politics like it does in no other country.  Each of the fifty states is granted electoral votes based on its population to form with the other states, the Electoral College that elects a US President. The voters in each state votes for the candidates and the candidate who wins by a simple majority, takes all the electoral votes of that state in a “winner takes all” system. The candidate who can bag 270 of the 538 electoral votes becomes the President.  

In the United States, the majority of the states are traditionally either Republican or Democrat; in other words either conservative (Republican) or liberal (Democrat).  For instance, the southern states such as Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina are conservative and thus vote Republican. Then there are liberal states such as California, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island that vote traditionally for the Democrat. In the 2000 presidential election, journalist Tim Russert used the Red for the Republican Party and Blue for the Democrats and since then, the colours have been used to divide the US electoral map. Presidential candidates take these states for granted where they spend comparatively less time campaigning as they know they would win or lose in these in states anyway based on their colours. 

Outside these states, there are states where voters are not committed to either of the two main parties based on their conservative or liberal leanings. These are the swing states where the candidates spend most of their time campaigning. These swing states are in the end the states whose Electoral College votes eventually determine which of the candidates go to the White House. These are also the states where the candidates spend most of their time campaigning to win the White House. Often these states are also called the battle ground states. 

There are 12 states that are the swing states for this year’s election.  These are Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Michigan, Nevada, Colorado and North Carolina. It is in these swing states that the election team of President Obama is seeing a glimmer of hope against the gloomy national picture of the economy. In seven of these swing states- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Iowa-, the unemployment figure is below the national average. In Virginia and New Mexico, the unemployment figure is a full 1% less than the national figure. The June unemployment figure in New Hampshire, Virginia and Iowa was just 6%. In Ohio that is a major swing state and where the economy has taken a battering due to the collapse of the manufacturing sector, unemployment figure is at 7.2%, one percentage lower than the national figure. In 4 of the 12 swing states where unemployment figure is over the national figure, the trend is one of decline. 

No candidate has made it to the White House in the last few presidential elections without winning at least 2 of the three swing states, Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio.  There is more good news for the President from these 3 key states. The national economic gloom notwithstanding, a CBS/NTY/Quinnipiac University poll conducted last week gives President Obama a clear lead in these swing states. "If today were Nov. 6, President Barack Obama would sweep the key swing states," said Peter Brown, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. 

President Obama had entered the White House with a promise of change that encouraged Americans who were frustrated by 8 years of President Bush when the country was dragged to wars overseas at great human and financial costs that ruined the economy, to vote for him. He had also captured the imagination of the world who expected that he would eventually emerge as a President in the mould of John F Kennedy. The Muslim world expected that he would bring the Muslim and the western worlds closer and would focus seriously on the Palestinian sufferings.  

The President’s only major success in his first term has been in foreign policy but that too partially. He ended US military involvement in Iraq and has set the road map for bringing US troops from Afghanistan, home. He has also delivered to Americans the scalp of OBL and the top Al Qaeda leadership. Unfortunately, foreign policy is not playing any major part in the election and his good work in Iraq and Afghanistan is not going to be of much help to give him a second term. He has also failed to do very little to the Muslim world. On Palestine, he allowed his administration to be dictated by the Israelis. 

His promise to Americans of a better economic future failed although for this he has his predecessor and events outside his hands in Europe to blame. Surprisingly, however,, he failed to hold the  President Bush responsible in a major way for USA’s current economic gloom.  He entered the White House with Abraham Lincoln as his hero. Instead of blaming his predecessor, he extended his arms towards the Republicans trying to build bipartisanship for his administration. Unfortunately, the Republicans hounded him in the most partisan way possible. He had not just won the White House convincingly; he also started his administration with a Democratic majority in both House of the Congress. Under relentless attacks of the Republican, the President wavered in pushing forcefully his election promises to Americans. In the midterm elections for the US Congress in his second year in office; the Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives. Many who voted him to power on his promise of change became disenchanted with him. The President had only himself to blame. Americans do not like a wavering President. 

Recently, President Obama’s health care policy has been given the green signal by the Supreme Court. This will also help his candidature as a large number of hitherto uninsured Americans (nearly 50 million) would be expected to get affordable healthcare under its purview. However without the economy on his side, neither this health care policy nor his successes in foreign affairs can guarantee his return to the White House. 

Therefore the favourable signs in the economy in the swing states, particularly in the context of the unemployment figures, could eventually help President Obama return again to the White House provided the current trend  moves in the right direction for him. Nevertheless, the outcome at this stage is still too close for call. Apart from the economy, the national debates in which the candidates would be locked closer to the election date would also have a major impact on the outcome.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

On US Ambassador’s timely warnings
"As I See It"
The Independent
August 4th., 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The US Ambassador Dan Mozena is becoming increasingly vocal in the context of Bangladesh’s domestic politics. He has recently made comments on Bangladesh’s RMG sector on a visit to the office of local daily that seems to have displeased the government He said that a “perfect storm” is gathering in the horizon that could sweep Bangladesh’s successful RMG sector off its feet and land it in deep trouble.  He said that the huge out flow of RMG business from China due to the increase of labour and other costs there could easily come to Bangladesh. Unfortunately, not only would the Chinese business not come to Dhaka; even the US buyers could leave the country due to Bangladesh’s failure at address human rights and labour issues related to the RMG sector. 

The US Ambassador is unlike most of his fellow Ambassadors in Dhaka in his comments on Bangladesh.  He speaks about Bangladesh as a well wisher of the country where most of his fellow Ambassadors express views about the country in a manner that are sometimes offensive. He belongs to a group of foreign diplomats who see the country beyond the conflict prone politics and love it for its people; its strong cultural base and its potentials, etc.  He was in Bangladesh before as a political officer at the US Embassy before returning as his country’s Ambassador. 

That Ambassador Dan Mozena is a true friend of Bangladesh was more than evident when he spoke in Washington recently in the Heritage Foundation on Bangladesh. In an hour long presentation that was titled “USA-Bangladesh: A Promising Partnership”, the Ambassador touched upon  a wide array of areas  in Bangladesh-US bilateral relations such as his country’s support for human rights, democracy, security, and disaster management. He praised the policies of the government that have placed Bangladesh on road to becoming a middle income country within the next decade. 

 He spoke optimistically of the potentials of Bangladesh. He also underlined the importance of holding the next elections in a free and fair manner where the opposition would participate to ensure realization of these potentials. In fact, he said that he had the feeling that the ruling party and the opposition are already in contact over finding a way out of the impasse over the system under which the next elections would be held.  

Therefore, it would be a mistake for the Government to take umbrage with what Ambassador Mozena has said about the RMG sector in his meeting in the office of the English daily or the views he is expressing regularly these days on Bangladesh in other forums. The fear of the “perfect storm” over the RMG sector is not something that Ambassador Mozena has imagined. Just very recently, 19 brand name buyers of Bangladeshi RMG products gathered in Dhaka and sent a SOS to the Prime Minister to convey their deep concerns about the continuing unrest in the RMG sector. Among the 19 buyers were the hugely important ones, Wal-Mart, JC Penny and Gap. They were also deeply concerned about the condition of labour welfare in the RMG sector. 

In fact what Ambassador Dan Mozena articulated in his meeting at the office of the Dhaka daily was not something that should have come as a surprise to the Government. Not too long ago, the RMG sector had a very close brush with real disaster when over 300 RMG factories were shut down over labour unrest in Ashulia. The government can sidetrack the concerns expressed by the 19 importers and the labour unrest in Ashulia last month and those flagged by the Ambassador only at the peril of the RMG sector.                                                                           

Therefore, the Government would do itself and the country a great service if it looked at the points made by Ambassador Mozena while visiting the English daily and at other forums seriously instead of expressing displeasure over what he said. He raised four issues that he thought joined together to create the “perfect storm.” Of these, he named the death of the labour leader Aminul Islam who worked for the Bangladesh Center for Labour Solidarity that is affiliated to the very powerful ALF-CIO of the United States as the first major concern. He named the petition of the AFL-CIO lodged with the US Government against Bangladesh receiving privileges duty free access under GSP while at the same time failing to meet the necessary labour standards as another reason for the storm facing the Bangladesh RMG sector. The petition has been pending since 2007. The third reason for the pending storm according to the Ambassador is the failure of Bangladesh to sign the Ticfa. The Americans have been interested that Bangladesh’s signs this Ticfa agreement for quite some time without success. 

The AFL-CIO is an extremely powerful labour group in the United States. Aminul Islam was a member of an organization affiliated with it. Therefore the investigations of his murder needed to be transparent and satisfactory to the group. In fact, since his disappearance and death in April, 11 human rights group in USA wrote to the Prime Minister seeking a comprehensive and impartial investigation that has not come. Likewise, the AFL-CIO’s concern on labour conditions in the RMG sector tabled by it with the US government has also not been handled seriously and is still pending. It seems like the government is not fully aware of the power and influence of this group in the United States. 

The attitude of self-righteousness and underscoring that in the media were the major mistakes that this government made with the WB and incurring the displeasure of the US State department over Dr. Yunus that has cost Bangladesh a great deal in the context of its national interests.  It fact, this self-righteousness in its handing with its international partners has been so far a fundamental problem of this government in foreign relations. The AFL-CIO may not have the patience of the WB or the US Department of State and could very well pressure its Government and succeed over the GSP issue against Bangladesh. The US Government itself also has no reason to be patient with this Government. 

Dan Mozena has also said in the media that good relations with the USA is necessary for its government to be soft on Bangladesh’s needs on RMG exports to USA no doubt alluding to this government’s rather ill-advised row with the US Government over Dr. Mohammad Yunus. It is advisable that the Bangladesh Government would stop using the media as a strategy for is diplomatic negotiations. Unfortunately, the Foreign Secretary has already gone to the media stating that Ticfa has been delayed due to the US side. The Minister for Expat Affairs has also answered the criticisms of the Ambassador on the RMG sector in the media defending the government’s position in the usual self-righteousness manner. 

It would also be in the interest of the Government to pay heed to the other major issue that the Ambassador raised, namely that of holding elections in a manner that would be acceptable to all and make it fair and credible. It is interesting that in Bangladesh, the political parties go to the Ambassadors of the developed countries while in the opposition for support against the Government. The same party in power shuns these Ambassadors and looks upon them as opposition activists. What these parties fail to see is that when they shun these Ambassadors while in power, it is they who pay the price and ensure they lose power. That is the well established pattern.  

All the above notwithstanding, the Government could still have an issue with the US and his fellow Ambassadors in Dhaka but in a different context. The Ambassadors are still in violation of diplomatic norms that make it incumbent upon them not to interfere in the domestic politics of their host countries. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt