Neighbors / The power of opposition
After passing the test of presidency, albeit via beatings, arrests, dispersing demonstrations and, according to his rival Mehdi Karroubi, by raping detainees, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now faces his next test. On Sunday, the Iranian parliament will debate the president's list of 21 candidates for the new cabinet. This is not an easy test, and is one Ahmadinejad repeatedly failed during his first term in office.
The opponents he now faces in parliament will not only be the relatively few reformists, who occupy some 60 of the 290 seats, but also some conservatives who oppose his policies. In the West, for example, his decision to nominate three women to ministerial positions was greeted with enthusiasm, but in Iran this generated more criticism than excitement. Several conservative legislators oppose the appointment of women, citing "doubts about women's ability to hold managerial positions" and also that religion forbids women from holding such senior posts. This is an expected argument, though one not characteristic of only Iran.
The reformists, for their part, maintain that the female candidates' inexperience in affairs of the state is a hindrance. Alternatively, they also argue that the three nominated women represent the extreme conservative camp and their candidacy does not reflect any change in the president's policy.
For example one of the nominees, Fatemeh Ajorlou, is suspected of having aided one of Ahmadinejad's supporters who was imprisoned for accusing former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his family of corruption. Another controversial candidate is Carman Daneshjoo, who managed the recent elections and is widely suspected of being responsible for the enormous fraud allegedly committed there.
The parliamentary campaign is also expected to be particularly difficult this time around as the Majlis' speaker is Ali Larijani, former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council who resigned in 2007 due to bitter differences with Ahmadinejad over the way Iran was negotiating its nuclear program. Larijani was elected to the parliament the following year and launched a campaign criticizing Ahmadinejad's economic policy.
Their rivalry dates back to 2005, when Larijani lost the presidential elections to Ahmadinejad - but it is not only politically based. The president comes from a low-class family, his father a locksmith in a neighborhood in southern Tehran. Larijani, on the other hand, represents the intellectual elites. He is very close to the religious sages in Qom as the son of the Grand Ayatollah Hashem Amoli and the son-in-law of Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, one of the Islamic Revolution's important ideologues murdered by his rivals. Larijani is also very close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had appointed him as his representative on the National Security Council and before that as head of Iran's broadcasting authority.
Ahmadinejad, who is aware of Larijani's power, last week quickly appointed his brother Sadegh Larijani to the important post of head of the judicial system. In contrast with the justice minister's relatively limited role, the person at this post determines the judicial system's policy and is a direct subordinate of Khamenei. Another brother of Larijani, Mohammad Javad, heads the physics institution involved in Iran's nuclear program. By the way, Mohammad Javad studied at Berkeley University in California and was his brother Ali's adviser when the latter negotiated his country's uranium enrichment program with Europe and the United States. These family ties create a strong political "tribe" that might present powerful opposition to the president. They cannot depose an incumbent president, but can still cause him a lot of trouble, delay any initiative he seeks to promote and begin to groom their preferred candidate for the 2013 presidential elections.
No need for Israelis
The Turkish soap opera "Noor and Mohannad" captured the Arab states last year. The 150-episode series, dubbed in Syria to Arabic, was distributed throughout the Middle East and became a cultural hit. Saudi columnist Maha Al-Hujailan wrote in the daily Al Watan that it represents the Arab women's image of the ideal man. "He is not just good looking but he is very attentive, concerned and soft towards women. It is the man we'd like to see in the Arab society." The actors are blond, the language up-to-date and the storyline a celebration of romance.
Now the Turks realize the series was not only a compelling cultural export, but that they've revolutionized tourism to their country. Hundreds of thousands of tourists from Arab countries reached Turkey this summer, replacing the "shortfall" in tourists from Israel. They wanted to visit the sites where the show was filmed. Ottoman palaces? Famous mosques? These were not as interesting as the villa on the shores of the Bosphorus where the series was shot and whose owner now charges $40 for every tourist seeking to enter. Turkish tour operators who in the past marketed the country's historical sites or hot water springs as attractions have begun including the series' locations as well.
According to data that Turkey has published, the overall number of tourists who visited that country last year dropped by one percent because of the economic crisis. However, the number of visitors from Arab states increased significantly. There were 21 percent more tourists from the United Arab Emirates, and 51 percent more from Morocco. This increase, which brings Turkey closer to the Arab countries, creates a cultural shift in Turkey itself. Turkish merchants and hoteliers are straining to quickly learn Arabic, just as they hurried to learn Hebrew or Russian. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the leader who phased out the use of Arabic letters in Turkish and strived to both distance his country from the Middle East and bring it closer to Europe, is probably turning over in his grave.