Browsing articles in "Middle East"
Jan 23, 2014

The Magic Mountain

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria (from BBC).

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria in a hotel of the town (from BBC).

On Wednesday, a long-expected international conference backed by the United Nations began in Montreux, Switzerland. Its participants, representatives from 40 countries (including the U.S. and Russia) and delegates from the Syrian government and some factions of the Syrian opposition, discuss the so-called Geneva communiqué. This document was issued in 2012 as a result of another international meeting about the Syrian conflict. In general, it provides a framework within which the war will come to an end, including the stop of violence, the formation of a transitional government with full executive authority, and the holding of elections, among other things. After a one-day break, the meeting will resume on Friday in Geneva.

The first day of the encounter was dedicated to speeches from all the delegations attending it. Leaving rhetoric aside, this first glance at the conference illustrates the obstacles that very likely it will find in the near future. The most salient point of divergence is that while the U.S., most of the foreign delegations, and the Syrian opposition insist that Bashar Al-Assad must step down and cannot be present in a transition government, the official Syrian representatives assure that the continuation of Al-Assad as president is not to be discussed. Further, for the Syrian government the conference is not about discussing the formation of a transition authority (even more, Syria is the only participating delegation that did not subscribe the Geneva communiqué), but about the Syrian people’s demands of “eliminating terrorism”, “terrorists” being how they refer to Al-Assad opponents (in addition to the fact that there have been reports of Al-Qaeda activity in Syria). Therefore, there are different and diverging goals among the attendants to Montreux and Geneva.

Another aspect that could complicate the conference is its measures of success. It would be very unlikely that the main goal of the Geneva communiqué, the constitution of a transition government, is achieved. However, there are other more specific goals that will be discussed in the second part of the meeting. While the Montreux event featured speeches from each delegation, Geneva will hold more head-to-head mediated conversations between the parts in conflict. It is expected that the talks in these sessions go around issues such as the provision of humanitarian assistance and the protection of human rights in the areas of conflict, the facilitation of the flow of people between zones controlled by the government and by the opposition, or the continuation of the provision of basic public services throughout the country. The extent to which deals can be struck in these issues is still to be seen, but it appears they have more chances of success than topics related to the transitional government.

But even within that reduced set of expectations about the conference, whatever results it could bring could find further difficulties to be implemented in the ground. This is mainly due to the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition. Its largest and arguably most visible section for external viewers, the Syrian National Council, is not sitting at the table because it refuses to discuss anything until Al-Assad leaves power. The leader of another large group, the National Coordination Committee, refused to participate because its delegation did not have sufficient time to prepare itself. Finally, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces yielded to pressures from other countries and agreed to take part in the discussions, although many of its members did not agree with this because they wanted guarantees that Al-Assad would step down.

The picture above could suggest that the prospects for the conference in Geneva are grim. However, it must also be underlined that the current assessment is made taking as after just one day of work in which top-level diplomats (mostly foreign ministers from the participating countries) gave speeches. The session in Geneva could be more productive, constructive, or at least less polarized, given its interactive nature and the presence of mediators. At the same time, the top objective, the formation of a transition government without Al-Assad, could almost be ruled out. Once works in Geneva begin and some time as gone by we can have a clearer idea about what to expect from this conference.

Jan 22, 2014

The other 62%

Poll officials counting ballots of the constitutional referendum in Egypt (from Al Jazeera)

Poll officials counting ballots of the constitutional referendum in Egypt (from Al Jazeera).

Last week Egypt held a constitutional referendum. After many months of work and frequent controversies, the constitutional draft was ready to be submitted to the Egyptian citizens for a vote of confidence. 98% of the voters supported the new document. This figure has been largely taken as an overwhelming support for the constitution and the people who is behind it, namely the Army and the Army-appointed president Gral. Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi. Yet, the participation rate was at a low 38%. What would the remainder 62% of voters have to say about the document?

One answer is that they could be against what the constitution and its supporting group represent. There have been some reserves in calling the constitution democratic. For instance, Islam continues to be the state religion, and it is uncertain whether the political influence of the military has been reduced. This is, the role of religion and the Army have not been entirely constrained, what would be expected in a democracy. Thus, the constitution would have fallen short of the democratizing expectations which surrounded Hosni Mubarak’s downfall three years ago. People dissatisfied with the outcomes of the political processes in Egypt would feel the constitution is “more of the same”.

However, the constitution includes some precepts that contrast with attitudes of the government headed by Mohammed Morsi, toppled by the military last summer. For instance, there is a prohibition to create political parties based on religion, race, gender or geography, which practically outlaws the Muslim Brotherhood. As well, in spite of the official character of Islam, there are provisions guaranteeing the protection of religious minorities. Quite notably, the document says that women cannot be discriminated from being appointed to senior positions in the public and judicial administrations, and, for the first time in Egypt, the state has the responsibility to protect women from all kinds of violence. The inclusion of these rights marks a clear contrast with the previous rule of Mubarak and the short-lived administration of Morsi and the Brotherhoon. Those whose power could be affected by these new rights, particularly the Brotherhood, could be among the 62% who did not go to the polls. They would have felt it was an exercise aimed at damaging them, and would not legitimize it by participating in it.

That said, it is worth noticing that the 38% turnout rate in last week’s referendum is in fact higher than that of the previous vote of confidence for a constitution back in 2012 (33% of participation, with 64% of voters supporting the constitution), when the document was heavily influenced by the Brotherhood and there were more grounds to doubt of its democratic credentials. Despite all its problems, including those already visible by the institutions it designs and those that can be foreseen in enforcing the new rights, this version of the constitution generated more enthusiasm than its predecessor.

In such an agitated political system it is difficult that no group feels threatened by practically any new constitution. There will always be losers and winners in the process of trying to define who the actors will be and under what rules they will play. Also, due to the upheaval of such process (evident in political maneuvers but also in violent episodes, not absent from this referendum), people who would like to participate in it but cannot make their voices heard, or who feel alienated from it, could not be very eager to respond to the call of officials to go to the polls. In the end, the low turnout rate in the referendum could be read as a symptom of the convulsed process of political change in Egypt.

Nov 28, 2013

Political Order in Egypt

Protests in Egypt have been a constant at least since January 2011, before the ousting of Hosni Mubarak (from Al-Jazeera).

Protests in Egypt have been a constant at least since January 2011, before the ousting of Hosni Mubarak (from Al-Jazeera).

Earlier this week, the Egyptian President Adly Mansour signed a bill regulating public protests. The government has explained that its goal is to prevent violence and disorder in public gatherings. On the contrary, opposition groups and civil society organizations have severely criticized the law because, in their view, it imposes major limits to the rights of assembly and protest, obstructing even more the construction of democracy in Egypt. Not surprisingly, clashes between protestors and security forces have continued, if not increased, after the new legislation became effective, completely failing its official purpose.

Since October, some organizations had warned against preliminary drafts of this law, making some recommendations to eliminate what they considered were its most worrying precepts. In spite of these preventive measures, the final version of the document includes many aspects that constitute obstacles to the right of demonstration. Concerns have two sources. On the one hand, there are the limits it imposes. For instance, organizers of a demonstration are required to inform the government three days in advance the realization of any public activity (if it is for electoral purposes, the meeting must be informed of one day in advance). Their briefing must include purpose, slogans, time and address of the meeting and, if a march will take place, its route. However, a permit for the protest will be denied if the government considers that there are not sufficient guarantees that the event will take place in a peaceful manner. Infamously, the new legislation also prohibits electoral marches of more than ten people. With all these elements, civil society organizations complain their right of manifestation is seriously compromised.

Failing to comply with those regulations brings about high fines. However, there are quicker penalties. The second source of concern about the new law is that the state can use the force if the regulations are not respected. Indeed, the police is authorized to use batons, tear gas, water cannons and, if they consider necessary, cartridge bullets, which if shot from a short distance can be lethal. These powers are not new. However, the law mentions that police can use those tactics when and if protests are not peaceful, without defining that term nor explaining how such an assessment will be made. Furthermore, there are no provisions regarding the investigation and prosecution of eventual abuses committed by the police.

Civil society organizations disregard this law. Its first challenge came the day after it was promulgated, when protestors organized a meeting in front of the upper legislative chamber, without any notice, to protest against a law allowing civilians to be trialed in military courts. Expectedly, there were violent clashes against the police. The leader of the April 6 Movement, Ahmed Maher, says that the injustice of the new law will provoke protests against it, trusting that it will eventually be repealed, as other unpopular laws have, such as that which gave ousted President Morsi de facto legislative powers and the capacity to overrule judiciary decisions. Another organization, Kefaya (Enough), suggests that the legislation on protests is a clear example that the new government has not understood that the relationship between citizens and the state cannot be the same as during Mubarak’s rule, with the state adopting a paternalist attitude by deciding what is appropriate and not for society.

The new law on protests shows that Egypt has not yet found a legitimate mechanism by which to solve power conflicts. Protests, an essential component of the policy cycle in democratic regimes, are seen as a threat by the government. Hence, authorities’ logic would dictate, some limits are put to them. On the other hand, citizens, dissatisfied with the performance of politicians and with the capacity of formal institutions to process their interests and demands, recur to protests to express themselves and to try to have a saying in political processes. While the regulation of protests to prevent them from affecting “public peace” might be a sensible objective, the limitation of the handiest form of participation is a major blow for Egyptians. Imposing obstacles to protests and not improving other channels of participation blocks the political rights of citizens and hinders democratic change in Egypt.

Sep 26, 2013


Muslim Brotherhood supporters marching in Cairo earlier this month (from Al Jazeera).

Muslim Brotherhood supporters marching in Cairo earlier this month (from Al Jazeera).

On Tuesday, a court in Egypt banned all activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and ordered to seize all its assets. This is expected to be the final blow for the organization that has received the largest blame for placing obstacles to democracy during the presidency of Mohammed Morsi (by neglecting the construction of political institutions and the rebuilding of the economy but dedicating more attention to the implementation of the Sharia) and for instigating instability after the President was toppled down (even being accused of terrorism). With the detention of some of its leaders, including its spokesman Gehad El-Haddad, its newspaper shut down, and now the whole group being declared illegal, the goal is to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from the mainstream Egyptian political scene.

A basic rule in a competitive democratic system is that it should be open to any political group interested in taking part in it provided that it does not play against its rules. An actor cannot be prohibited from participating in it because others do not agree with its world vision or objectives. It is between those two perspectives that the reactions to the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood can be placed.

On one side, there are those who, as mentioned above, blame Morsi and the Brotherhood’s one-year long administration for ignoring the most important concerns of Egyptians and just looking out for themselves. To this group belong a part of citizens, who were not willing to tolerate a closed and non-democratic regime similar to that of Mubarak (with not real freedom of cult and with Morsi trying to coopt legislative and judicial powers), and the Army, which did not feel comfortable in an unstable environment derived from political decisions that provoked strong reactions from the citizens. For them, banning the Brotherhood represents getting rid of a hurdle in the institutionalization and democratization of Egypt.

On the other side, there are those who view the Brotherhood as the victim of the story: they won the first democratic elections, they were trying to establish the foundations of a new authority, but were ousted by angry citizens and the Army. As it has done since Morsi was forced out of office in early July, it will not be surprising that the Brotherhood fights back the measures against it. The only difference is that any riposte is now illegal. Furthermore, as a pro-Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood activist commented in an interview for The Guardian, the ban will make little difference in the group’s activities, because for more than 80 years of its existence the Brotherhood was illegal. Even under such circumstances, when the system was opened the group easily emerged as the strongest, more articulate and better organized political force in Egypt. They are ready for whatever challenges may come.

At the same time, other members and sympathizers of the Brotherhood, mostly young people, in a way are thankful of the government’s measures against it. With the detention of its leaders and the suppression of its activities (including political rallies and publications), they argue that the most radical and aged sector of the group has lost its share of power. Now that they have left, the idea continues, more pragmatic and committed to democracy people can constitute a modern alternative of an Islamic political discourse. If that is really their objective, they will have to convince the electorate that there is a space for some version of political Islam in Egypt that actually fits in a democratic regime. As the Court’s decision illustrates, there seems to be not a lot of current support for such idea.


Sep 6, 2013

Terrorism in Egypt?

Damage left by a bomb attack against Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim's car (from The New York Times).

Damage left by a bomb attack against Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim’s car (from The New York Times).

Yesterday, Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim was the target of a bomb attack while he was riding his car in Cairo. He survived, but the explosion caused major damage in a building, caused one death, and left at least seven injured, including a child. As of Friday morning, no group had officially claimed responsibility for the strike, which the government has not doubted in labeling as an act of terrorism.

The first question is: who and why would like to see Ibrahim dead, who reported having received some recent death threats? The answer, although not in a definitive way, points to the Muslim Brotherhood. Since President Mohammed Morsi, member of the Brotherhood, was ousted in early July, the group has been continuously attacked by the government, especially by the police, under the command of Ibrahim. Many arguments have been put forward against the Brotherhood and Morsi: they wanted to impose a backward Islamic state, with religion dictating the social norms and with limits on the freedom of speech and religion, a prospect rejected by most Egyptians; they were more occupied in designing the religious structure of the new state as opposed to attending economic, political, or social problems; Morsi worked against any steps taking towards democracy by trying to assume powers above the courts or the legislature; or the administration was committing very similar human rights abuses in fighting the remnants and former supporters of Mubarak than those the ancient dictator committed against the opposition. For all these reasons, the Muslim Brotherhood was perceived to be an enemy of democracy. Hence, the new administration, controlled by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and, to a lesser extent, by Acting President Adly Mansour, have fought the Brotherhood, who now would be striking back by bombing Ibrahim’s car.

Notwithstanding who actually orchestrated the attack (in the lawless Sinai Peninsula there are many rebel groups rejecting any kind of central authority in order to exert their own power there who could have also carried out the attack), it seems to be the case that it will be more relevant who the government or the public opinion think was behind the attack, and the interpretation that is made of it. Although everything seems to suggest that the target was the Interior Minister (hence, it was a political assassination attempt), the government was quick in calling it a terrorist attack, advancing the idea that every Egyptian citizen could be the next victim. Hence, the second question that emerges after the bombing of Ibrahim is, what comes now?

In other words, how will the government react to the perceived growing presence of terrorism? Under such a threat, even more with the military having the upper hand in decision-making processes, it would be easy for controls on the press, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and other civil liberties to increase, thus potentially augmenting the number of human rights violations and other kind of abuses. Clearly, this scenario is no good prospect for the advancement of democracy or the reconstruction of the state in Egypt. However, today some peaceful demonstrations took place asking to end with the military rule in the country. At first glance, these rallies do not seem to have the same large numbers than those against Mubarak in 2011 or against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in this year’s summer. At the same time, they serve as a reminder that, notwithstanding the popularity of the military for having ended with the despised Muslim Brotherhood rule, it is not a military administration what people want, but a secular, weighed, and open democracy. It is the presence and activism of that kind of citizens that now will be the strongest force pushing towards democracy in Egypt.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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