Arab democracy needs ‘Islamist revision’

Islamic movements in the Arab world should undertake a “radical intellectual revision” and abandon the “dogmatic” idea of a religious state, leading Arab analysts argue.

“Any Islamic state would have a problem with democracy because Islamists seek to create a religious state in which the infallible Islamic Sharia would replace the law though Sharia is merely a way of life,” said Radwan al-Sayed, professor of Islamic Studies at Lebanon University. Addressing a seminar organized by the Doha-based Arab Democracy Foundation, he condemned Hamas and Hezbollah party for resorting to violence. Hamas has “relapsed into violence against the Palestinians who voted for it”, while Hezbollah deployed “just to obtain more advantages over rival factions,” he said.

Arab regimes were responsible for “the weakening of the religious institutions”, creating a vacuum which Islamists sought to fill. “A main obstacle to democratisation in the Arab countries is the ruling regimes themselves,” he explained. “They suppress all the civil society movements including the Islamists.
He was supported by Tunisian analyst Salah al-Din al-Jurashi who called on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to abandon its slogan “Islam is the solution” which implies a “monopoly of Islam”.

“I hope that Islamists can give up the idea that application of the Sharia will solve all the problems of our societies and do some sort of calm revision of their approaches,” he said. “Without a radical revision made by Islamists, a relapse would remain possible.”

Muslim societies typically divide into three broad blocs, suggests Bret Stephens: a “pre-modern” element of tribesmen, peasants, nomads, and the like; a “modern” element – the Arab Center – the urban, educated middle-class; and an “anti-modern” elements, comprising Islamists but also members of Baathist and other fascistic groups.

So far, he argues, many democracy-promotion efforts have targeted the middle, most familiar group. “But this is not, in all cases, politically the most consequential element,” Stephens argues. “What we have learned in Iraq is that it is possible, indeed necessary, to isolate anti-moderns by creating political alliances between the urban middle class and the tribes.”

Left to right: Salah al-Din al-Jurashi, Radwan al-Sayed and ADF’s secretary general Mohsin Marzouq

Left to right: Salah al-Din al-Jurashi, Radwan al-Sayed and ADF’s secretary general Mohsin Marzouq

Burma’s junta in charge a year on from Saffron Revolution

A year on from the abortive Saffron Revolution, Burma’s military junta has launched pre-emptive cyber-attacks against exiled dissident groups and handed down severe prison sentences on labor rights whistle-blowers. The protests climaxed when up to 100,000 people marched through Rangoon on September 24 before a brutal crackdown left dozens dead and many more injured.

The regime this week freed Burmese journalist Win Tin, a 79-year old democracy activist, was one of 9,000 prisoners, mostly common criminals, released this week after spending over 19 years in one of the world’s most notorious prisons.

“Many, many of my friends are dead. I saw them die. And there are many people left inside. The leaders of [the pro-democracy movement] are all still there,” said Win Tin. More than 2,000 other political prisoners remain behind bars.

But he reiterated his commitment to the democratic movement. “If we stay passive there is absolutely no hope for the future,” he said. “This is why we are going to continue to struggle.”

Some observers speculated on at least three reasons for Win Tin’s release-international pressure on the junta for reform; the junta’s growing confidence about its control of the country; and rumors that Suu Kyi and the regime may be close to an accord on the country’s future.

The regime’s cyber-attacks targeted exiled dissident publications, the Democratic Voice of Burma, Irrawaddy magazine and the New Era Journal. In recent years the regime has sent students — mostly from the army — to Russia for study that many believe includes training in cyber warfare. Aung Zaw is founder and editor of The Irrawaddy magazine

Last year’s protests were prompted by sharp rises in commodity or fuel prices put an unbearable strain on people, said Monique Skidmore, a Burma expert at Australia’s University of Canberra. “These issues combined to create a peaceful uprising of people not normally involved in pro-democracy causes,” she said.

But the economic protests were fading until the Buddhists monks mobilized. “By 2007, a new generation of monks had come of age since the nationwide failed democracy uprising in 1988,” said Skidmore. “Young, frustrated and seeing the suffering of the people on a daily basis, they were unafraid to mobilize.”

But few observers expect a repetition of the protests this year – or anytime soon as the junta seems to be in control.

“They’re pursuing their roadmap to democracy as they see it,” said Carl Thayer, a Burma expert at Australian National University. “There will be elections and they have a variety of political parties that are in a constellation backing the military regime with the regime mass organizations that will dominate the elections. But I think they can wait out international pressure.”

International labor unions have condemned the sentencing to two years hard labour of U Thet Way, a Burmese labour activist. U Thet Way helping provide the International Labour Organisation with information on forced labour, including the military junta’s forced recruitment of children into the military.
“Once again the military junta is showing complete disregard for fundamental rights,” said Guy Ryder, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.  The International Labour Office said it is “concerned and disappointed” at the sentence.

Angola’s ersatz elections – the wrong lesson for Africa

As Angola’s President José Eduardo dos Santos promised, his country’s first elections since 1992 set an example to Africa. “They have provided the world with a master-class on how to hold apparently democratic elections, annihilate the opposition and regress to a one-party state – and still gain the quiet approval of the west,” writes Lara Pawson of  the University of Witwatersrand.

More than 8 million registered voters elected a new national assembly with a mandate to confirm a six-year-old peace deal and settle the legacy of 27 years of civil war. The new government is talking about constitutional revisions but observers are skeptical.

“In Angola, laws don’t really count in terms of the real relations of power”, says Oxford University’s Ricardo Soares de Oliveira. “Whether the constitution creates an even more presidentialist system, or whether they go for something more open and create an American or French-style system, the fact is that real power relations take place on an extra-constitutional level.”

A network of pro-democracy groups, trained and supported by the National Democratic Institute, deployed 2,500 election observers. But there are obstacles to political engagement run deep, says NDI’s country director Isabel Emerson.

“The challenge is helping them overcome some of their fears, fears of being engaged in political activity,” she said. “This idea of a political discourse and debate, and different ideas, it is still very new and people find it hard to engage.”

The European Union’s election observer mission concluded that Angola’s elections failed to meet international standards because of flawed election procedures and the pro-government bias of state-controlled radio, television and print media.  As one account notes:

In Luanda and Huambo, two cities where the contests were expected to be close, credentials were withheld from hundreds of members of an Angolan civic coalition, the Plataforma Nacional de la Sociedad Civil Angoleña para las Elecciones (PNASCAE, “National Platform of Angolan Civil Society for the Elections”), which had organized independent poll monitors. As if to confirm critics’ suspicions, visas were denied to several foreign journalists-including reporters from Portugal’s second-largest television channel, SIC, and the former colonial power’s newspaper of record, Público-just one day before the poll, apparently because authorities did not like their earlier reporting.

Yet, the EU report said, the poll was peaceful and showed the people’s “clear commitment to the country’s democratic process and desire to leave behind a past marked by decades of war and civil conflict.”

The large majority won by the ruling MPLA and the poor showing of the opposition UNITA grouping mean that there will be little in the way of countervailing power to constrain an authoritarian and notoriously corrupt government buoyed by massive oil revenues. “The fact that they won such a vast majority will translate into a one party state practically,” said NDI’s as Isabel Emerson. “I hope they see it as a wake-up call.”

Given the impact of Angola’s  resource curse, external pressures for good governance, transparency and pluralism will be muted in their impact as long as the country’s elite continues to enjoy the fruits of high oil prices and benefits from trade deals with powers less concerned with even incremental reform.

“In Angola, donor agencies have not had the leverage they enjoy elsewhere in Africa,” notes a recent study by the independent Madrid-based Fundación par alas Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE). “That is chiefly because Angola’s political class has become empowered by its insulation from donor pressures (for ‘good governance’ and ‘sound economic policies,’ for example) by its financial and even ideological alliance with the hydrocarbon industry, and more recently by the rising importance of China as a competing mercantile power.”

Georgia’s threat of a good example

Ron Asmus, executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels-based Transatlantic Center, supports the call for an independent commission of investigate in to the causes of the recent Russo-Georgian conflict. But he is clear about which narrative he finds most credible:   

Georgia was a potential threat to today’s rulers of Russia precisely because of its efforts to become a liberal democracy on Russia’s borders threatened to undercut the position and legitimacy of a Russian ruling elite that has pinned its legitimacy to the reestablishment of Russian power and glory.

In short, there was and is a link between growing autocracy at home in Moscow and neo-imperialism abroad -or what President Medvedev now cutely called Russia’s sphere of privileged interest. So-called frozen conflicts were manipulated by Moscow for wider geopolitical purposes.

Our mistake in Georgia was not being too supportive of Georgia but not doing enough to deter Moscow or to engage sufficiently in solving these conflicts before they exploded. So it is time to become more, not less, involved. The West must move quickly to save the Rose Revolution from collapse and reassure endangered countries like Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

Meanwhile, itinerant journalist Michael Totten has an insightful article on the environmental devastation caused by Russia’s deliberate scorching of Georgia‘s ancient forests.

Latin America’s ‘birth defect’ a challenge to consolidating democracy

Latin America's Struggle for Democracy

“Latin America’s democratic regimes are still afflicted by many shortcomings because institutions are not as strong as they should be,” Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said yesterday. Her views echo those aired in a seminar on the State of Democracy in Latin America held earlier this week at the National Endowment for Democracy.

The continent was previously central to democracy assistance in practice and to the analytical literature on democratization, noted Marc F. Plattner, of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the NED. But it shifted from highly visible and contested terrain to what Moises Naim called the lost continent, falling off the map of journalists, investors and diplomats after 9/11.

The meeting, held to mark the publication of Latin America’s Struggle for Democracy, a Journal of Democracy book, was taking place at an “extraordinary moment”, said Larry Diamond, one of the books co-editors, with Plattner and Diego Abente Brun. Some three decades after the “third wave” of democratization reached Latin America, the military remains “politically subdued”, he said, and not a single state has reverted to rule by the generals. Some 31 of 33 states were democratic, with Cuba and Venezuela the outliers, sometimes demonstrating interesting forms of political experimentation and social empowerment, as in Brazil’s participatory budgeting.

The threats to Latin American democracy no longer come from the barracks or the garrisons, but from faulty institutions and persistently high levels of poverty and inequality, said Abente Brun, deputy director of the NED’s Forum and a former Paraguayan senator.

Some countries are confronting poverty and inequality through conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs, like Mexico’s Oportunidades and Brazil’s Bolsa Família, through which poor families receive small stipends on condition that their children attend school. Poverty in Mexico was halved between 1996 and 2005, and Brazil’s Gini coefficient (a measure of economic inequality) dropped significantly from 1995 to 2004.

The “inclusionary liberal democracies” of Chile, Brazil and Uruguay set the standard, said Abente. But too many states still suffer from institutional deficiencies. The market works, the state does not, often lacking the capacity and political will to deliver services to a new and loose constituency of grievance-driven “informals” who provide the social basis of radical populism, reflecting new patterns of social and political mobilization.

While democracy may be on the defensive elsewhere, there has been no rollback of democracy in Latin America, observed Cynthia McClintock, professor of political science at George Washington University. The continent’s Freedom House scores peaked in 2006 and have since leveled off. During the “democratic fiesta” of elections in 11 states in 2006, only in Mexico was the result disputed.

Between 1930 and 1980, 40% of governmental change in Latin America came through military coups, said Arturo Valenzuela, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Latin American Studies. While the “dark nights of authoritarianism” are long gone, challenges remain, in part because of conceptual confusions that accompanied democracy’s third wave.

The establishment of democracy was confused with its consolidation, neglecting the importance of Rostow’s “habituation” phase. Democratization of states with a history of dictatorship like Paraguay was conflated with re-democratization in places like Chile which enjoyed engrained democratic traditions, habits and institutions. Finally, neo-liberal programs of structural stabilization took the form of a “vulgar Marxist economic determinism”, treating institutions as a dependent variable and assuming democracy would magically emerge through market-driven economic growth.

States like Chile, Brazil and Uruguay have developed strong political institutions, a functioning democratic process and robust centrist coalitions. But many democracies are marred by paralysis and confrontational politics. Their limited capacity to deliver and address acute social problems has created openings for the majoritarian populism evident in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Populist discourse crudely divides politics and society into a clash of The People vs. the Oligarchs, according to Ecuadoran political scientist Carlos de la Torre, a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Democracy is distorted and diluted as politics is reduced to “plebiscitary acclamation” and interests represented “or incarnated” in the figure of the leader.    

Latin America was born with a birth defect: a highly unequal initial distribution of resources that dates back to the colonial era,” Francis Fukuyama has observed. Neglecting the social dimension of democratization undermines the likelihood of successful democratic consolidation. “Oligarchic societies may be able to achieve high rates of growth for a period of time,” he argues, “but continuing inequities in distribution lead to political instability and populism, which then undermines growth.”

“If the U.S. wants to support liberal democracy around the world, it needs to start thinking seriously about a well-designed social agenda that will appeal to the poor,” argues Fukuyama, a NED board member. “If true supporters of liberal democracy and free markets are to compete successfully with the populists, they need “a social agenda that gives some hope not just to the middle-class and educated, but to those who are isolated and excluded.”