Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ali Baba gone, but what about the 40 thieves?

The flight of Tunisia’s longtime president leaves the small country he ruled and robbed in upheaval. Its Arab neighbours wonder whether it’s the start of a trend.

“TUNISIA now lives in fear,” Libya’s ruler, Muammar Qaddafi, told his people. “Families could be raided and slaughtered in their bedrooms and the citizens in the street killed as if it was the Bolshevik or the American revolution.”

Others seem less sure what caused Tunisia’s upheaval, where it will go or even what to call it. Some have labelled it the jasmine revolution. Close at hand, however, the continuing unrest in Tunisia, for long the most politically neutered of Arab countries, does not bring to mind the sweet-smelling flowers that men here tuck jauntily behind an ear. What’s happening reeks more of sweat, tear gas and burning rubber, and has brought Tunisians as much anguish as pride or pleasure.

It cannot quite be termed a revolution, at least yet. The main instruments of control for the past 50 years, the police and the ever-ruling RCD party (a French abbreviation of Constitutional Democratic Rally) are battered and wobbly but still standing. They face no strong, cohesive opposition, no charismatic leader waiting in the wings, armed with a mission or an ideology. Yet with 78 civilians dead by official count and with street protests continuing into a sixth week, it is certainly bigger than a revolt.

Everyone knows what started it: the self-immolation on December 17th of a despairing, jobless youth named Muhammad Bouazizi in the main square of Sidi Bouzid, a town in Tunisia’s hardscrabble interior. Yet there is a fierce dispute about what has sustained the revolt, encouraging furious protesters to the streets of prosperous coastal cities, galvanising near-moribund trade unions and opposition groups into action, and bringing about the dramatic scuttle into exile on January 14th of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, president for the past 23 years. And nobody is sure what Tunisia’s troubles will lead to: a transition to multiparty democracy, a military coup or a prolonged period of turmoil.

What is sure is that the Tunisian uprising has not only put an end to one of the more insidiously oppressive and comically rapacious strongman regimes in a region inured to them. It has also put Mr Ben Ali’s fellow rulers-for-life on notice that they, too, may suddenly find themselves without friends or a country. Mr Bouazizi’s public suicide has spread a grisly rash of copycat self-torchings across north Africa, from Mauritania to Egypt. Their acts of self-sacrifice hope to incite a spiral of events similar to Tunisia’s.

Perhaps they will. Given the extreme social stresses shared by many Arab societies, and particularly the anger of soaring numbers of jobless, jeans-clad youths against the ageing cynics in suits and uniforms that have for so long denied them a role or a voice, it is not too far-fetched to conjure a sweeping wave of change, much as in Europe in 1989.

Yet Tunisia’s circumstances are in some respects unique. With a population that is ethnically and religiously homogenous, recognised borders that are centuries old, and a tradition of centralised government that predates colonisation by France in 1881, Tunisia has more solid foundations than many Arab states. Despite the country’s paucity of natural resources, its 10.6m people enjoy relatively good standards of health, education and other public services. It has a high level of home ownership and reasonably solid national accounts. Its economy, integrated with the outside world as a magnet for investment in manufacturing, offshore services and tourism, has grown at an annual average of 5% for the past two decades.

That modest record of success, contrasting starkly with the messy dysfunction of Algeria and Libya, the oil-rich countries Tunisia is squeezed between, goes a long way to explaining why Tunisians have put up with their stifling political order. Mr Ben Ali did not invent this system. His predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, a passionately Francophone lawyer who led Tunisia to independence in 1956, created a paternalistic, monopolistic ruling party and a cult of personality during three decades of rule. Like Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, Mr Bourguiba tried single-handedly to yank his country out of old ways, championing women’s rights and enforcing strict secularism.

When Mr Ben Ali, newly installed as interior minister, ousted the ageing but respected president in a palace coup in 1987, he was greeted as a needed breath of fresh air. Secularists and even liberals at first applauded his hounding of the Ennahda party, a mild Islamist movement, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, that had flowered in the chaotic waning years of Mr Bourguiba’s rule. On largely spurious charges of terrorism its leaders were either jailed or forced into exile, and the movement essentially eradicated.

Sadly, rather than subsequently broadening freedoms, the ex-policeman crushed them, infiltrating watchful RCD party hacks into trade unions, university faculties and other once-independent institutions. Benalisme, as Tunisians sometimes dubbed his style of rule, brought with it increasingly farcical elections, an absurdly adulatory press and dread of the pervasive, petty and vindictive security services. During Algeria’s bloody civil strife in the 1990s, Tunisians joked of a plump, sleek Tunisian dog fleeing across the border and meeting a ragged, starving Algerian one. “What on earth are you doing here?” asked the Algerian dog. “I came here to bark,” was the forlorn reply.

Tunisia came to have more police than France, a country with six times more people. With few real threats to the state to combat, Mr Ben Ali’s bloated security service specialised in such tactics as planting evidence in order to blackmail suspects. Taxi drivers commonly sought protection by joining the RCD or working as police informants. “Going too often to the mosque could mean a summons to State Security,” says one. “They could lift your licence, and put you through hell to get it back.”

Those hungry relatives
Benalisme also brought corruption, particularly at the level of the president’s own family. With time the web of influence extended both to the husbands of Mr Ben Ali’s four adult daughters and to the many relatives of his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser whom he married in 1992. Between them, the Trabelsis and Mr Ben Ali’s sons-in-law came to control a huge slice of the economy (see diagram). In recent years their tentacles penetrated deep into Tunisia’s financial system, extracting sweetheart loans from once-respectable banks.

For a society that remains mostly poor or tenuously middle class it was not the possession of big assets that rankled so much as the flaunting of baubles, such as the flashy cars and villas in Tunisia’s most exclusive districts. What grated most with Tunisia’s small elite was the upstart first family’s habit of elbowing out competitors and flaunting of power. Giving a cut to one of the favoured circle came to be seen as de rigueur in order to gain a licence or agency quickly. “Of course I brought in a Trabelsi, without his even asking,” a Tunisian economist recalls a business acquaintance declaring defensively. “Its just a tax, so I don’t have to pay other taxes.”

Mr Ben Ali himself feigned ignorance of such things despite the rising smell, and the rising cost to the country of such shenanigans. An American diplomatic cable from 2008, revealed in early December by WikiLeaks, described the ruling family as the nexus of corruption and a quasi-mafia. Tunisian investors wary of getting caught in this web preferred to forgo business ventures and instead bought property or stashed funds abroad, continued the cable, so dampening growth and helping to sustain high unemployment.

A report this month by Global Financial Integrity, a watchdog group, corroborates this assessment. “The amount of illegal money lost from Tunisia due to corruption, bribery, kickbacks, trade mispricing and criminal activity between 2000 and 2008 was, on average, over $1 billion a year,” it estimates. That is a substantial sum for a country whose GNP barely reaches $80 billion at purchasing-power parity.

The sprouting of fancy shopping centres, yacht marinas and housing developments along Tunisia’s breezy coast provided a shiny veneer of prosperity. Even bleak provincial towns and the slums around prosperous cities look tidy by the standards of other developing countries. But the exterior sheen conceals a growing sense of anomie, compounded by swelling unemployment and material expectations fed by rising educational standards.

Ezzeddine Larbi, a former World Bank economist who left the country to live abroad, found that unflattering economic statistics were routinely suppressed or massaged. He reckons that unemployment, officially put at 14%, is closer to 20% for university graduates, and 27% overall for the 20-29 age group. Such numbers are not unusual for the region, but other factors exacerbate the problem in Tunisia. Its economic model, based on undercutting European labour costs, means that many of the jobs on offer are unskilled and unrewarding. University graduates do not aspire to be waiters, call-centre operators or garment stitchers. At the same time, Tunisia’s tidiness and success at building a middle class mean that a black economy cannot absorb legions of street vendors and house servants, as in Egypt and Morocco.

This partly explains why Mr Bouazizi poured petrol on himself. A university graduate, he had tried to scrape a living selling vegetables from a stall which was confiscated by the police. When a few young men rioted in protest at his action, poorly trained policemen responded violently. Protests spread to nearby towns, and several youths were killed by police gunfire, further raising public anger.

Mr Ben Ali was not insensitive to the brewing trouble. He visited Mr Bouazizi in the hospital where he lay dying, offered compensation to his family and sacked the provincial governor as well as a government minister. The unrest might have petered out but for an unexplained escalation. On January 8th the toll of deaths from police gunfire suddenly surged, from fewer than ten to more than 30.

Many assumed an order had been given to stamp out the unrest with terror. The fury spread to Tunisia’s coastal cities, growing as gory imagery relayed by cell phones and the internet clashed with the sanitised blandness of state television. Actors that had previously stayed on the sidelines, such as student groups, the remaining, puny opposition parties and the once-powerful trade-unions organisation, joined the fray. But the focus had changed: people were calling for Mr Ben Ali’s head.

In a rambling television address, the president blamed foreign agitators for the troubles. Sacking his feared interior minister, he promised a huge jobs programme, and inquiries into corruption and excessive police force. But this was too little, too late—and it also showed weakness. Rioters were now fighting the police in pitched battles, torching police stations and sacking banks and shops, particularly those thought to belong to RCD members.

In some cases the police themselves were accused of looting, either as part of a plan to tarnish the protesters and frighten the middle class, or simply to profit from the collapse of order. So tarnished was the reputation of the police that Mr Ben Ali belatedly asked Tunisia’s army to intervene. Some units did enter the capital, but refused to use force against protesters, who greeted them with cheers.

Still, few Tunisians expected the president to go, even when as many as 40,000 people gathered on January 14th at the headquarters of the Interior Ministry on Tunis’s stately Avenue Bourguiba, braving torrents of tear gas and live fire. That evening, with a curfew in place and army tanks sealing Tunis’s main airport, Mr Ben Ali and his immediate family slipped out of the country on an aircraft that eventually, having been rebuffed by France, took them to Saudi Arabia. “What an irony that a guy who banned veils should end up with the Wahhabis,” was the Twitter comment of one Tunisian writer.

The following day witnessed a near-complete breakdown of order, with the once ubiquitous police vanishing from streets across the country. Near the port of La Goulette on Tunis’s outskirts, youths raided a lot filled with cars imported by Mr Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Sakhr Materi. Surrounding streets were soon filled with flaming, overturned Porsches, Volkswagens and Kias. In the coastal resort of Hammamet, looters trashed Mr Materi’s villa and slaughtered his pet tiger.

More disturbingly, reports emerged of attacks by suspected saboteurs and snipers, with gun battles erupting in the capital. Many Tunisians assumed the culprits to be members of shadowy, rearguard units loyal to the ousted president. Amid a swirl of rumour, some detect a plan to foment chaos and so pave the way for Mr Ben Ali’s return as the restorer of order, perhaps backed by his friend Colonel Qaddafi. Frightened by such talk, groups of civilians across the capital have set up voluntary guard units, manning checkpoints and searching cars for weapons. Special army and police units are also said to have arrested suspected saboteurs.

As a result, by January 19th a measure of calm had returned to Tunis, with many shops and businesses reopening, and no sound of gunfire during the (now shorter) nightly curfew. Elsewhere, there were no reports of violent unrest or looting, except for vandalism against some local RCD offices, indicating that the party has emerged as a new focus of pressure.

The political situation remains foggy. After Mr Ben Ali’s departure, his prime minister since 1999, Mohammed Ghannouchi, a veteran RCD leader, announced he would form a government of national unity, with the speaker of parliament, Foued Mebazaa, temporarily filling the presidency. Seeking to assuage public anger, Mr Ghannouchi announced the lifting of all censorship, the institution of three independent commissions to investigate corruption, human-rights abuses and political reform, the release of all political prisoners and preparations to hold free elections within six months.

The new cabinet he announced included several opposition figures, but kept the main ministries for RCD members. Before the new cabinet could meet, four of its ministers had resigned in protest at lingering RCD influence. It is not yet clear whether palliatory measures by the party, which has expelled Mr Ben Ali and senior cronies, and accepted the resignation of Mr Ghannouchi and Mr Mebazaa, were enough to lure the ministers back.

The Tunisian public appears divided in response. Many among the educated middle class would prefer to give the new government a chance, fearing a slide towards military rule, or worse. But smaller demonstrations continue across the country calling for the sacking of all RCD ministers and the inclusion of exiled opposition leaders. In any event, patching up the political system will not be easy. With a constitution tailored to bolster Mr Ben Ali, a sitting parliament packed by the RCD, and institutions such as the police and courts deeply compromised, the mechanism for the kinds of sweeping change demanded by many Tunisians is not there.

Opposition forces, fractured by years of repression and manipulation, are not much help, and lack figures with popular authority. The potential role of Islamists, so far markedly muted, remains an unknown. For the time being the shadowy supporters of the banned Ennahda party are backing the provisional government, for fear of a military takeover that could see their hoped-for revival further postponed. Their leader, 69-year-old Rashid Ghannouchi, remains in exile in London, awaiting an amnesty since he formally faces a sentence of life in prison.
Repercussions in the wider Arab world hinge on the outcome in Tunisia. Signs of unrest have already emerged in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Libya and Sudan. “The Tunisian model is very similar to its Egyptian counterpart, and the extremely happy response to events there on Egyptian streets shows that Egypt might witness solutions like the Tunisian one soon,” noted Ayman Nour, an Egyptian politician who was thrown in jail after challenging Hosni Mubarak in an election in 2005.

Governments have also taken note, intervening recently to keep down the rising cost of basic staples in several countries, and showing unwonted compassion for the unemployed. But some, such as Colonel Qaddafi, have drawn opposite conclusions, and may prove more determined to face down pressures than Mr Ben Ali was.

Many of the region’s countries look, on the surface, to be far more fragile than Tunisia, with equal volumes of anger and far deeper social woes. But different factors serve to bolster even unpopular governments. In Syria the ever-present danger of war with Israel mutes dissent. The Egyptian state, despite its appalling record in running other things, wields a large force of riot police that is well equipped, highly trained and very experienced, and so less likely to provoke outrage by excessive violence. Egypt also has a relatively free press. This not only gives healthy air to protest, but acts as the sort of early-warning system that Mr Ben Ali, due to his own repressive tactics, sorely lacked.

There is another way in which Tunisia’s experience could prove subtly inspiring. “The one constant in revolutions is the primordial role played by the army,” said Jean Tulard, a French historian of revolutions, in an interview in Le Monde. So far Tunisia’s army, kept small to forestall coup attempts, has won kudos for holding the fort, and not playing politics. Yet it is the army which is believed to have persuaded Mr Ben Ali to leave. Perhaps a few generals elsewhere in the Arab world are thinking that they, too, might better serve their countries by doing something similar.

Japan's illusionary sense of fear

Source: Global Times
The successful flight of the J-20 stealth fighter has sparked concern among China's neighboring countries. Japan seems to be the most worried. It is reported that Japan is discussing importing the American F-35 jet fighter, as well as buying Russian fifth-generation jets. This build-up is aimed at the J-20.

Every step of China's military growth seems to unnerve Japan more than it does the US. This is understandable given the geographic proximity of China and Japan. But does Japan's fear of China's rise make sense?

That China remains less powerful than Japan seems to be the endgame here. Otherwise, Japan would not feel any unease. It cannot accept China's military spending growth, it is unwilling to see China's fleet breaking through neighboring island chains. China's plans to build aircraft carriers and to fly the J-20 compounds this unhappiness.

But will China adjust its long-chosen military plan because of this worry? China has a population 10 times larger than Japan's. China's growth cannot be decided by the will of Japan. Japan has to gradually accept a stronger China and ponder the future of northeast Asia based on that reality.

The "China threat" is imaginary: Japan has benefited from China's rise. Japan is clear that the way China is dealing with Asian countries is different from its own militaristic past. Japan had invaded other countries when it was a rising power. Does the fact give it reason to infer China will follow the same route? China's military growth is not targeting Japan. Japanese society must understand this. The competition between the two countries has to be rational and pragmatic.

China, aiming at having more open land and sea territory, is encouraged by the J-20. Japan's worry demonstrates that it is overly guarding against China.

The illusionary sense of crisis will not make Japan feel any better. Perhaps it should take a look at the cultural relics looted from China now on display in the Tokyo museums. China didn't harm Japan in history. Why would it do so in future?

Bulgaria, Pakistan support Afghan reconciliation process

Bulgaria and Pakistan Wednesday announced support for the Afghan-driven reconciliation efforts to restore peace in the war-shattered Afghanistan.

Visiting Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Evtimov Mladenov and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi told a joint press conference here that Pakistan and Bulgaria are supportive of reconciliation process in Afghanistan to bring normalcy there but it should be led by Afghans themselves.

Pakistan and Bulgaria will sign an agreement on Thursday to promote economic ties and expand bilateral trade and investment, foreign ministers of the two countries said on Wednesday after bilateral talks.

They said they have decided to expand bilateral relations in various fields including defense, economy, trade and culture.

Qureshi said both the countries also decided to expand political consultations and their next round will be held this year. He said both the countries have also decided to establish linkages between their universities.

The Bulgarian foreign minister said that his country appreciates Pakistan's role in the fight against radicalism and terrorism.

He said that the international community must take collective stand against radicalism and there should be religious harmony all over the world to fight these elements.

He said Bulgaria has rich experience in generating coal energy and it can share its experience with Pakistan to overcome energy crisis.

Mladenov said his country fully supports Pakistan in European Union to get trade concessions and improve its economy.

Qureshi said while replying to a question that Pakistan and Afghanistan are developing their relations at all levels and there is a qualitative change at official military and political level during the past few years.

Shackleton's Whisky Heads Home After 100 Years On Ice

Several bottles of key expedition kit are making their way back home to Scotland more than 100 years after being abandoned in Antarctica by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

The British explorer's unsuccessful South Pole expedition of 1907 left quite a few bottles of alcohol buried beneath a hut in Antarctica, including Mackinlay's whisky. The stash was discovered last year.

The whisky — dating from 1896 or 1897 — stayed liquid despite temperatures in the range of minus 22 Fahrenheit. Now a few bottles have been flown back to Scotland aboard a private jet for analysis.

Whyte & Mackay's, which now owns the Mackinlay's brand, will use syringes to extract small samples of the precious liquid. They want to see how it compares to modern recipes, and to see if it can be recreated.

The FT, however, reports that rules governing historic sites in Antarctica mean that the whisky will not be drunk or sold:

Vietnam’s Communist Party Picks New Leaders

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party has picked new leaders at a meeting in the capital Hanoi. Analysts say despite concerns about economic instability there were no surprises and the current Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, looks set to retain his job. But the leaders will need to rein in inflation or risk future growth.Vietnam’s Communist Party Congress ended Wednesday with the announcement of its top leaders.

The party’s central committee re-elected Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to the Politburo. Despite the country’s economic problems, he is widely expected to be re-appointed to another term as prime minister later this year.

However, the central committee placed two of his rivals for the top spot high up in the Politburo membership, an indication, some political analysts say, of the party’s attempt to balance the prime minister’s power.

Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam at Australia’s Defense Force Academy, says the reshuffling went largely as expected.

"It’s a system that always seeks out the middle ground and doesn’t move to extremes,” Thayer said. “It always moves gradually and cautiously. So, I think that’s what we’re seeing here. It’s business as usual and it’s people that we know. And it will take a while for even the newcomers on the Politburo to really assert themselves. It’s a culture where seniority matters so that will carry on in importance."

Thayer says once re-appointed, Prime Minister Dung is likely to continue his policy of funding big state projects such as a high-speed train.

He came under criticism last year when a heavily indebted state-owned ship builder defaulted on an international loan, driving down Vietnam’s credit rating.

Vietnam is a one-party state and the party congress, aside from choosing leaders, sets out a five-year plan for the country. About 1,400 delegates gathered in Hanoi over the past week for the party. The congress met as Vietnam, despite its fast growth, faces serious macroeconomic problems, including a growing trade deficit and rapid inflation.

Jonathan Pincus is an economist with the Harvard-Vietnam Program in Hanoi. He says global pressure on consumer prices is expected to grow this year making it all the more important for Vietnam to control its fiscal and monetary policy.

"I don’t think that requires a massive change in policy,” said Pincus. “I think to re-establish stability simply would require a more conservative fiscal policy, in other words, reducing the government’s fiscal deficit. And, very close attention to monetary policy to make sure that credit growth stays within the limits set by government so that prices don’t get out of control."

After two decades of central control, Vietnam’s economy has been gradually liberalized. But some large state companies still depend on government hand-outs.

When Vietnam opened up to market forces and the global economy, private businesses became the driving force of annual growth that has averaged about 7 percent over the past 20 years.

At the congress, the Communist Party for first time voted to admit private business owners as members, a recognition of their importance to the economy.

But state-owned enterprises are still at the core of major industries, such as energy and telecommunications. Some economists say they are inefficient monopolies that drain state funds.

Le Dang Doanh is a retired advisor to the government on economic issues. He says the big state companies’ inefficiency is the overwhelming problem with Vietnam’s economy.

"Vietnam needs to reform strongly in order to overcome the macroeconomic instability and also to mobilize the potential resources,” Le Dang said. “If Vietnam could implement needed reform the economy will continue to grow. If not, Vietnam will face multiple challenges."

The party congress expressed concerns about the economy but also optimism that the imbalances can be brought under control.

Le Dang Doanh says the delegates are overly optimistic about the situation and that Vietnam needs to balance experienced leaders with younger, reform-minded ones to better face new challenges as it expands in the global market.

7.3 million Afghans are 'food insecure'

International partners teamed up with Afghan leaders to discuss the seriousness of food security issues in the country, the World Food Program said.Louis Imbleau, the WFP representative in Afghanistan, met with Afghan leaders in Kabul to discuss bilateral measures needed to address food shortages in the war-torn country.
"This groundbreaking meeting is a sign of how serious all parties are about the need to improve Afghanistan's food security," said Imbleau.
WFP launched a three-year relief and recovery operation in Afghanistan in April. The agency said it was working on addressing immediate humanitarian needs for those affected by conflict in Afghanistan. By working with the government in Kabul, meanwhile, WFP is addressing long-term rehabilitation strategies in the country.
WFP said its aim is to provide food assistance to the nearly 7.3 million Afghans suffering from a shortage of food.
About 31 percent of the Afghan population was identified as "food-insecure" by a 2007 report on national risks.
WFP during its Kabul meeting established a network of working groups to find common approaches to agricultural and nutritional development in the country.

16th Tour de Pakistan to begin March 8

The 16th Tour de Pakistan Cycling Race, also known as the ‘longest race in Asia’, will be staged this year from March 8 in Karachi, and will culminate on March 20 at the hilly summer resort of Abbottabad, President of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Cycling Association Syed Azhar Ali Shah stated on Thursday.

Shah claimed that preparations for the event were in full swing and that cyclists from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Iran, South Africa, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia were expected to make up the foreign teams for the 1,620 kilometers race.

The race, modeled after the Tour de France, used to be 22 stages long and 2,200 kilometers in length, but was reduced in 2007 to 1,648 kilometers and 11 stages.
“Pakistan Cycling Federation (PCF) wants to promote such events because right now most of the focus was on track cycling,” Shah said.

The grueling race has become one of the longest and toughest in Asia which has seen international teams compete alongside Pakistani teams. The current prize money is $10,000 which will be shared between the top six teams.

The 15th Tour de Pakistan started on March 1, 2010 and cyclists from different parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan participated in it. Zahid Gulfam of Wapda, now suspended for doping, won the race by covering distance of 1,655 km in 46 hours 13 minutes and 9 seconds and received US$ 2,500. Nisar Ahmed got second position and won US$ 1,500, while third position holder Hashmatullah of Afghanistan received US$ 1,000.

Fourth to sixth position winners received US$ 750 each.

Haroon Rashid of Pakistan Wapda won the Tour in 2001, followed by Zahid Gulfam of Pakistan Wapda in 2003, Thomas Lodburaey of Germany in 2005, Robin Reid of New Zealand in 2007, Naimat Ali of Pakistan SSCG in 2008 and Zahid Gulfam of Pakistan Wapda in 2010.

The race in stages:
March 8: Karachi to Hyderabad 150km
March 9: Hyderabad to Moro 163km
March 10: Moro to Sukkur 150km
March 11: Sukkur-Rahim Yar Khan 178km
March 12: Rest Day at Rahim Yar Khan
March 13: Rahim Yar Khan-Bahawalpur 200km
March 14: Bahawalpur to Multan 90km
March 15: Multan to Sahiwal 154km
March 16: Sahiwal-Lahore 160km
March 17: Rest Day at Lahore
March 18: Lahore to Gujrat 115km
March 19: Gujrat to Rawalpindi 150km
March 20: Rawalpindi to Abbottabad 110km

The business of buying Fata MNAs, senators

A Pandora's box has opened but behind the tight walls of secrecy in a tribal jirga on the question of how the money changed hands in the Senate election last year when four Fata senators allegedly purchased eight votes in return of Rs600 million, a vote-for-sale scandal involving two cabinet members. Each senator had to pay Rs150 million to a tribal MNA negotiating on behalf of his eight colleagues but full payment has not been made by any senator. For example, one senator is said to have paid Rs140.88 million and another Rs140.55 million. Two other senators paid Rs70 million and another Rs125 million.

The issue would have remained buried under the carpet had a jirga not convened after a dispute emerged between Federal Minister for Environment Hameedullah Jan Afridi and Senator Haji Khan, in the aftermath of the non-payment of pledged amount intended for the Fata MNAs.

The jirga has met more than six times but in vain. It called the minister and the senator in person on Sunday to resolve their dispute in a separate sitting and in case of their failure, the jirga members would issue their verdict. Both sides have also paid Rs600,000 to jirga members for their services hired for resolving this dispute. Another issue being settled by the jirga is the utilisation of development funds of Senator Haji Khan by the elder brother of Hameedullah Afridi. The utilisation of funds was part of condition for supporting Haji in Senate election, a fact confirmed by Hameedullah's elder brother, Jehanzeb.

The jirga members, among others, have travelled from Peshawar to Islamabad on a fact-finding mission to meet Munir Orakzai, a Fata MNA and an alleged leader of those tribal lawmakers voted in return of money. Though Orakzai vehemently denied his involvement in such dirty deal while talking to The News, it has been confirmed from jirga members and others.

Another federal minister from Fata, Noor-ul-Haq Qadri is also being alleged during jirga conversation as an important player in vote-for-sale scandal. He couldn't be reached for comments despite repeated calls.

Arifullah Khan, a local ANP leader and jirga member, confirmed their delegation met with Orakzai but said he couldn't participate in it because of some other engagement. Arifullah, who represents Senator Haji Khan in the jirga, said that the senator had paid Rs125 million as the cost of votes that earned him the Senate seat and is being pressed by federal minister Hameedullah Jan Afridi for the remaining Rs25 million, a demand Haji Khan is not ready to oblige.

Haji Khan is said to have paid Rs125 million through a middleman for disbursement among the lawmakers that voted for a minister and asserts that Rs100 million was the cost of vote and the remaining Rs25 million was a loan to the minister, a fact confirmed by Arifullah.

Haji Khan is said to have further argued before the jirga that he can only be forced to deposit the sum of Rs150 million for buying the vote after full recovery is made from other senators falling in this category.

Senator Haji Khan further told the jirga that Senator Idrees Safi had an outstanding amount of Rs80 million as he had so far paid only Rs70 million to the lawmakers who sold their votes, but nobody had pressurised him for the recovery. Even the money paid by Senator Safi, Rs30 million was a loan he had to pay to Malik Bilal, his cousin and an MNA from Mohmand Agency.

Likewise, another Rs35 million paid was a loan he had taken from Duran Shah, a close relative of federal minister Hameedullah Jan Afridi. The News couldn't reach Senator Safi. However, MNA Malik Bilal, denied the assertion of supporting Safi in return of money. "I had proposed and supported him but didn't get money."

As regards Senator Haji Khan, he didn't pick the call despite repeated attempts to reach him. The details relating to him were confirmed by three people close to him including one representative in the jirga, Arifullah Khan, who also confirmed Haji Khan's assertion regarding the Senator Safi's outstanding payable amount to the lawmakers who voted him to power.

Arifullah lamented this malpractice on part of the lawmakers, saying "it is a matter of shame for us. Common folks think their representatives are in Islamabad to resolve the problems of their voters but the lawmakers are involved in dirty deals."

Another jirga member Mujeeb Khan confirmed that discussion took place on vote-for-sale issue but said he could not divulge inside details. Nazir Khan, another jirga member who represents Hameedullah Afridi, said the jirga had called Hameedullah and Senator Haji Khan for a meeting on Sunday to have meeting in isolation. In case they fail to resolve their dispute, the jirga will give its own decision.

Hameedullah Afridi confirmed that there was a dispute between him and Senator Haji Khan as the latter, under an agreement, had surrendered the development funds to the former. Now in breach of this agreement, that has no legal value otherwise, he is not only exercising his discretion in use of funds but also allegedly selling these funds.

Regarding the money used for buying MNAs and Haji Khan's claim of disbursing the amount through the minister, Hameedullah Afridi said that money has not been distributed through him. "He (Haji Khan) should contact the man who dealt with such matters," the minister said in an oblique reference towards Munir Orakzai, without naming him.

Obama’s State Dinner for Hu

President Hu Jintao of China was honored Wednesday night with a state dinner at the White House
was given by President Obama and his wife, Michelle.