Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Conflict, development and security

Two recent articles do a good job of highlighting the link between confict an underdevelopment. Poverty alone is not enough to push large numbers of people towards extremism or militancy, but poverty combined with political marginalization are potent recruiters for conflict and violenct.

Both articles have a similar message: When governments treat political issues as security and military issues they exacerbate the problems.

The first is an article in the Christian Science Monitor about the Lebanese government's stated desire to start addressing the horrendous situation in the country's Palestinian refugee camps. The camps have long suffered from neglect and outright ostracization by the government and many Lebanese.

AIN AL-HILWEH, LEBANON – After decades of uneasy relations, Lebanon and its
Palestinian population are set to embark on a ground-breaking dialogue to improve conditions in the Palestinian refugee camps and curb uncontrolled armed groups.

For Ibrahim Khalil, that could mean an end to the knee-deep sewage that pours into his home during winter rains.

"Our homes are all damp and humid and not fit to live in. When it rains, my home is flooded with sewage because the drains can't take it. And this is the good part of the camp," says the Palestinian resident of this squalid refugee camp on the outskirts of the southern Lebanese town of Sidon.

During a recent trip to Lebanon I met a lot of skeptics of the new government's promise to address Palestinian needs in the camp, but one long time Palestinian social activist was impressed when Layla Mouwad, Lebanon's new Minister of Social Affairs, opened a meeting with Palestinian representatives saying, "The treatment of Palestinians in Lebanon is a gross violation of human rights." That was perhaps the first time a Lebanese government official spoke in such blunt terms about the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Similarly, the article quotes Sultan Aynayn, head of Fatah in Lebanon as saying:

"This is a major turning point," says Sultan Abul Aynayn, the head of the Fatah movement in Lebanon. "The Lebanese have moved from treating the Palestinians as a security concern to a humanitarian concern."

But a high level representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine I met in February was much less optimistic. He said that Lebanese Prime Minister Sinora said there is nothing more the government can give the Palestinians right now than, "to open an office in Beirut." Curiously, the CSM article mentions that the new hopes are pinned on the opening of a new PLO office in the Lebanese capital.

The second article, from the New York Times highlights the plight of Egypt's Sinai Beduin, and looks at how government neglect and marginalization as well as the breakdown of traditional social values left many young people frustrated and susceptible to Wahhabism. With seasonal unemployment near 90% and anger high over the situation in Palestine and Iraq, some residents of the Sinai find little reason to support the government.

In the jumble of crumbling public housing clumped along unpaved, sandy lots, there is a burning resentment of the central government, in particular the security services, which have made mass arrests through the region, and there is a conviction that the people here have been ignored for too long. People are furious that they must use salt water to brush their teeth, wash their clothes and cook with because that is what comes out of their taps at home.

Again, the Egyptian government's approach is similar to the Lebanese approach to Palestinians, as a security issue.

The modern Egyptian state has dealt with the Sinai and its people the way it has confronted most domestic problems, as a security issue. Local officials, for the most part, are not from the area, and no one is allowed to own land because the entire area is considered a military zone, officials here said.

As for Jordan, the oasis of security in the Middle East, what implications does that have?

After the terrorist bombings here in Jordan in November 2005, I asked a conflict specialist here his opinion on what the government should do. The first thing he said was that the government shouldn't overreact with a "security" response to the bombings by squeezing either the Muslim Brotherhood or extremist groups harder than it already did, but that it should instead accelerate it's efforts at political development in the country.

Jordanian Prime Minister Bakhit, the head of the "security" government established after the bombings is fond of saying that "Democracy without security is chaos, while security is democracy is oppression," but so far there is little concrete change to show for the National Agenda and country's new Ministry of Political Development.

Jordan is more free and open than it's neighbors, and still has a window to address the poverty and political frustrations of many of its people, but it is only a matter of time until these two frustrations come home to roost here too. What the Prime Minister says is correct. The question is, will the government actually deliver on this little piece of wisdom before it is too late?


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