Tunisia – no signs of opening up

Syria with a smile” is how Tunisia is often described. Relatively liberal and open in cultural and social terms, presenting a benign face to tourists and visiting journalists, it is nevertheless rigorously authoritarian in its politics – and arguably becoming more so.

Unlike most of its semi-authoritarian neighbors, which have – under increasing domestic and international pressures for democratization – embarked on a (however limited) path of political reform, Tunisia shows no signs of opening up politically,” writes Kristina Kausch, in a recent analysis for the Democratisation and Rule of Law Program of FRIDE, the Madrid-based think-tank.

Indeed, the opposite is true. Whilst in countries like Morocco, Jordan and Egypt openly violent repression belongs largely in the past, behind the façade Tunisia remains an old-style dictatorship built around one man, whose rule is held up by an openly repressive police state with few aspirations to subtlety.

Iran: democracy ‘a real possibility’?

The ongoing protests in Iran have complicated the Obama administration’s policy of engaging the Islamic Republic on its nuclear ambitions.  “To the nuclear clock has been added a democracy clock, complicating every diplomatic equation,” writes Roger Cohen, in a must-read article in Sunday’s New York Times.

Continued resistance “would make the establishment of democracy a real possibility,” argues Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the country’s first president after the 1979 revolution. He believes the current situation offers parallels with the toppling of the shah as the government’s four sources of legitimacy – its competence, religious authority, commitment to independence, and stable base of social support – have all “now been irretrievably undone.”

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today denied a rift with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisting their relationship was that of “father and son.”  But there are clearly deep fissures within the regime’s hardline conservative factions.

While President Obama toned down a belated condemnation of the fraudulent election and subsequent crackdown on protesters, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Joe Biden favored a stronger line, says Cohen, recently returned from covering June’s disputed election. Consciously reacting to what they see as the Bush administration’s ideological approach, Obama’s advisers aspire to be pragmatic realists.  

“Who they select as leader in Iran is their prerogative, and there’s nothing we can do to control that,” Ray Takeyh, the State Department’s Iran specialist, told Cohen before the election. “We’re trying to deal with Iran as an entity, a state, rather than privileging one faction or another. We want to inject a degree of rationality into this relationship, reduce it to two nations with some differences and some common interests — get beyond the incendiary rhetoric.”

While some observers claim that Iranians would reject external assistance or that it would be counter-productive, Cohen’s recent encounters with protesters, including the 3 million-strong march of June 15, suggest otherwise.

“Sometimes they asked me if the United Nations would help them; often they asked if America would,” he writes. “Some protesters I met on the streets of Tehran pointedly asked me, ‘Where’s Obama?’”

While the U.S. wants dialogue, it can find no interlocutors in Tehran, at least for the time being:

Iran is no position to talk right now. It has no functioning national-security apparatus as its leaders scramble to shore up the regime. The republican pillar of the Islamic Republic has been destroyed to salvage a hard-line rightist order, but the price of this violent gamble in terms of lost support, internal division and external criticism has been immense.

When asked what determined history, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” The U.S. administration’s policy commitments may yet need to be adapted to reflect the shifting political contours in Iran, Cohen suggests:

Whatever Obama’s realism — and it’s as potent as his instinct for the middle ground — a president on whom so much youthful idealism has been projected can scarcely ignore the Neda effect.

“Policy is by necessity flexible. Nobody predicted this level of unrest,” says Andrew Apostolou, senior program manager at Freedom House.

Is U.S. doing enough on democracy?

An administration can support democracy internationally in three ways – through what it says, what it spends and what it does, writes Damian Murphy, Senior Program Manager at Freedom House. President Obama is making the right noises, he suggests, and while some recent budget cuts are a cause for concern, overall spending decisions look good for democracy assistance.

But, in the midst of a backlash against democracy, the administration needs to get the diplomatic corps on board:

While the administration’s public rhetoric and funding requests are beginning to address the global challenges to democracy, it is critical that the State Department and National Security Council put the weight of the American foreign policy apparatus behind the work of human rights defenders and democracy activists. The administration should enhance the commitment of chiefs of mission to implement their responsibilities and to do their utmost to support the front line defenders of democracy and human rights within their countries.

Read the rest.

Kyrgyz poll marred by abuses

Further to yesterday’s posting on the Kyrgyzstan election, “massive ballot box stuffing, often by members of election commissions”, government officials pressuring voters, and a surprising number of absentee ballots were just a few of the poll’s irregularities and abuses identified by the Alliance of Civic Organizations, a partner of the National Democratic Institute.

The poll was conducted peacefully, but marred by serious violations during voting and vote counting on election day, according to the preliminary report of the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO), a group of 19 civic organizations from 17 countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Several democracy activists were harassed and detained during the election, including Tolekan Izmailova, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy and former Reagan Fascell fellow.

Violence bolsters China’s hardliners?

International news agencies have seized on the death of a senior steel plant manager in northeastern China at the hands of angry workers, and the mass brawl at a Shaoguan toy factory between Uighur and Han employees that prompted the violence in Urumchi.

While welcoming the media spotlight on China’s neglected labor issues, the China Labour Bulletin, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, notes that “the reality is that workers are far more likely to be the victims of violence, harassment, intimidation and abuse than the perpetrators of it.”  

The violence in Urumchi has strengthened the hand of China’s hardliners, argues Charles Grant.  The country’s internal political system is becoming more authoritarian, he writes, noting that the Communist party has “promulgated a new doctrine known as the ‘six whys,’ stressing Marxist thought, the state’s role in the economy, party leadership, and the need to avoid both multiparty democracy and the separation of powers.”