Bahraini dissidents start hunger strike

Fourteen jailed opposition activists in Bahrain have gone a hunger strike ahead of the February 14 anniversary of the suppression of pro-democracy protests.

“They demand an end to the political crackdown. They are protesting against the unfair trial they faced and they want the release of all prisoners of conscience,” said Mohammed al-Mascati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

Opposition activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was “hospitalized” after riot police “fired tear gas Monday on detainees on hunger strike in one of the cells,” he told AFP.

An Independent Commission of Inquiry reported in November that prisoners had been tortured and called on Bahrain’s authorities to review the sentences of political detainees:

The government, under outside pressure to implement the recommendations, has said a judicial panel will review some sentences. But they have not questioned the military verdict against the 21 protest leaders, who have the right to take the case to the cassation court, the highest appeal court. A government official expressed hope some of the jailed protest leaders would be freed but said others had planned an Islamist coup.

“I’m hopeful for not necessarily all of them, but at least some of them,” said Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a senior adviser at the Information Affairs Authority. “There are those in prison who called for a restructuring of the country’s institutions, for a full-blown revolution and who called for an Islamic republic using non-peaceful methods.”

Contrary to the regime’s claims, most independent analysts have noted that the leading opposition Coalition for a Republic – comprising Al-Haq, Wafa and the Freedom Movement – did not call for Islamic rule but for democratic reform.

As the Project for Middle East Democracy notes:

The decision by the Obama Administration to move forward with a proposed arms sale to Bahrain has been criticized by several human rights and international organizations. News of the newly-proposed arms sale surfaced last week surrounded by controversy due to its lack of transparency and explanation.

Freedom House released a statement raising concerns about the message the U.S. is sending to the Bahraini regime and the international community. President of Freedom House David Kramer said that the U.S “should not consider any arms sale” taking into account the absence of  serious reform and continued human rights abuses. “By breaking up the sale of these items into small packages, the Administration is sidestepping the important process of Congressional oversight and public disclosure,” said Charles W. Dunne, director for Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House. ….

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) called for transparency regarding the contents of the sale and called the sale “unnecessary.” Chief Policy Officer Hans Hogrefe said the sale of arms at this time is sending the message “that the U.S. will continue to help the Government of Bahrain no matter what it does to its citizens.” ……

Human Rights First demanded an explanation of “what’s behind” the sale and called on the U.S. to “condemn the ongoing crackdown” as the 1 year anniversary of the unrest approaches. …Just Foreign Policy sent an email alert calling for action against the proposed sale.


Change or decay for ‘more sick than BRIC’ Russia?

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is already violating electoral norms and regulations, Russia’s only independent poll watchdog said today:

Putin, who is widely expected to return to the Kremlin for a six-year term, has illegally started campaigning before the official opening of the campaign season and has used his official status to promote his bid, said Golos officials, presenting their first report on the March 4 election. ….Golos also spoke of unfair measures being used against opposition candidates, lambasting a requirement that independents must submit 2 million signatures, and noted that many United Russia candidates have distanced themselves from Putin’s ruling party and are running as independents in hope of winning local elections also scheduled for March 4.

“The work of the leading mass media is directed at promoting one candidate under the guise of covering his professional activities,” Golos said in a 16-page booklet distributed at a news conference. The group has experienced “open intimidation” in the run-up to March’s presidential polls.

Putin’s proclaimed ‘state-capitalist’ project to modernize Russia is a reminder of how lucky and tragic his administration has been: lucky in assuming power just as the economic reforms of the 1990’s kicked in and oil prices started to rocket; and wasteful in failing to invest the resulting windfall in improving Russia’s collapsing infrastructure and deteriorating human capital.

As a result, Russia remains – as Nouriel Roubini put it – more sick than BRIC.

Russia’s economic malaise is principally due to “the personalization of power, and the fusion of policy and power that defines Russian politics,” according to a recent report for the European Council on Foreign Relations,

But luck is only one of four key factors explaining Putin’s longevity and his considerable reserves of popular support, notes one observer. He has also exploited a nationalist nostalgia for the Soviet era, inherited the formidable siloviki network  of former KGB operatives and played to Russians’ cultural submission to authority, according to John Lloyd’s must-read survey:

 [Putin] has been a master of nostalgia, with a fine ability to render the Soviet period as one in which, granted, mistakes were made but greatness was achieved, a fascist enemy beaten and a new civilisation ripped from the rotting corpse of Tsarism [as David Satter details in It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway]. …

A “Russian lives without freedom but in his own mind he is not a slave,” Satter writes. “He is a participant in a grand enterprise with which he and his fellow citizens have been entrusted and which requires a sacrifice and a readiness to accept total subordination.”

“This is a sweeping judgment,” says Lloyd, a former FT Moscow bureau chief. “But it is surely the case that a feeble civil society has inhibited opposition and reasoned dissent.”

He notes that Putin “inherited from his time in the KGB a network of comrades who were highly trained, intelligent, ruthless and knowledgeable …[and who] held similar views to Putin – that the west, especially the US, had taken advantage of Russian weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Russia constitutes a separate civilization from Europe and that the promotion of democracy, within and around Russia, is a danger to the country.”

 In Change or Decay – a book-length conversation between Lilia Shevtsova, a strongly liberal and sharply observant political analyst based at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, and Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Russia – Shevtsova quotes Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, as saying that European culture has had its day as the dominant force in the world; Russia offered an alternative. Over the course of the 2000s, Putin and his comrades successfully encouraged that vision to take deep root in the population.

Despite these systemic advantages, Putin’s legitimacy is facing a serious challenge, yet it remains unclear whether Russia will take a democratic or an authoritarian turn, Lloyd concludes:

Putin, early in his rule, said Russia’s only destination was Europe – and he might return to something of that. The middle class has grown greatly – as have their freedoms to read (especially on a now lively internet), to travel and to discuss…..Yet there are as many fears that the iron fist won’t unclench, and that Russia will become even more closed, suspicious, unfree.

Golos is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Egypt’s NGO ‘assault’ on agenda at White House showdown

Members of the Obama administration’s National Security Council are expected to press Egyptian officials to end attacks on democracy and civil society groups at a White House meeting tomorrow, as an analyst warned that the affair could “spin out of control.”

Egypt’s justice minister today rebuffed an appeal by the U.S. ambassador to allow Cairo-based democracy assistance officials to travel.

The meeting coincides with renewed conflict over the country’s transition, as secular groups demanding civilian rule today clashed with Muslim Brotherhood members chanting “the army and the people are one hand,” while newly elected parliamentarians accused the military of violating democratic norms.

The violence between secular and Islamist groups found an echo in the newly-elected Constituent Assembly where liberal politicians accused the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party of stifling debate:

As the clashes started, Social Democratic Party MP Ziad El-Elemy said that about thirty MPs from different parties decided to withdraw from the session in protest at Parliament Speaker and leading FJP member Mohamed Saad El-Katatni’s decision not to call on them to speak, and joined the protesters outside the Parliament building.

Fifty-six political parties and movements called for Tuesday’s marches on the parliament to demand that representatives support the One Demand initiative raised by those forces. The One Demand initiative was announced earlier this week, listing certain measures that Parliament should adopt to achieve the stated demands: “No to safe exits for military council leaders, no to a constitution drafted under military rule and no to presidential elections under the military’s supervision.”

Liberal parliamentarians attacked the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, “accusing them of trampling on democratic norms and overstepping their powers by passing laws, including a crucial one regulating presidential elections:”

Amr Hamzawy called the military’s move “a clear violation of democratic traditions,” and urged parliament “to seriously consider setting early dates for presidential elections to end this monopolizing” of decision making.

Administration officials must stress the attack on pro-democracy non-governmental groups “is taken very seriously by the U.S. government” by linking the issue to the certification of U.S. financial aid, said Charles Dunne, programs director for the Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House, one of several NGOs raided by Egyptian security services in December:

Freedom House estimates that 400 American and Egyptian NGO’s working in Egypt have been similarly targeted for harassment, said Dunne, a former U.S. diplomat in Cairo.

“It’s a pretty broad-based assault on Egyptian society,” he said.

Some analysts suggest that the dispute exemplifies the perennial conflict of ideas and interests, and fear that it may damage both U.S.-Egyptian relations and legitimate security concerns.

The military link is pivotal for U.S. influence in Egypt and will be even more important as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Salafi movement rise to power through elections, said Paul Sullivan, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington who formerly taught at the American University in Cairo.

“It’s getting ratcheted up over here, it’s getting ratcheted up over there, and if we’re not careful, it will spin out of control,” he said.

West must prepare for the coming intervention in Syria

The United States faces a conundrum regarding Syria, writes Hussein Ibish, in this guest post. But armed conflict will only intensify, while humanitarian, strategic and political imperatives will lead to some form of direct outside intervention. The democratic West, and the U.S. in particular, should get used to the idea and start preparing for it now.

The United States faces a terrible conundrum regarding Syria. The Obama administration wants the regime of Bashar al-Assad gone, but it does not want to see the unfolding of the very processes—conflict and possible international intervention—that seem to be emerging as the only viable means to achieve that.

This means that the United States has condemned itself to thus far playing an almost entirely reactive role, even in the context of the limited means at its disposal to influence events in Syria. However, standing on the sidelines and warning all players not to do what they are already doing is not going to work.

Washington is very reasonably anxious about the prospect of a widespread civil conflict—with or without a direct international dimension—because it worries about both the process and the outcome.

A civil war in Syria would likely have a strongly sectarian character and the potential to spill over into neighboring states such as Lebanon and Iraq, posing a significant threat to regional stability. It could also prove a protracted, bloody mess.

At least as troubling from Washington’s perspective is that the outcome is very uncertain. What the aftermath would look like is even more unclear than it was in Libya, where the stakes were considerably lower. The possibilities of stalemate, regional conflict, de facto partition, communal cleansing, waves of refugees, empowerment of extremists and other grim scenarios all inform a strong American desire not to see the emergence of civil war in Syria.

This conundrum is shared not only by other Western powers but some Arab states and many in the Syrian opposition, including a large group in the Syrian National Council’s leadership, as well.

But none of these actors are in control of events on the ground, which seem to be moving inexorably toward intensified armed conflict and away from a political battle. The regime has presented the Syrians in general, as well as the international community, with a binary choice: Take us as is, or face an open-ended conflict with uncertain outcomes.

Opposition forces on the ground that seem to answer directly to no one, such as the Free Syrian Army, have in effect waved aside repeated warnings from Western and Arab leaders, and senior SNC figures, that militarizing the conflict plays into the hands of the regime. That’s certainly true on paper, where the Syrian army would seem to dwarf the size and capabilities of the fledgling insurgent groups, but the political story tells a different tale as the regime’s hold on power and legitimacy has never looked more precarious and, indeed, doomed.

Even though it is the regime that is deliberately pushing Syria toward civil war, and the opposition might have been wiser to avoid armed conflict, these events have developed their own momentum, and reversing it will be difficult if not impossible.

The problem for the United States is that all of its more obvious intermediate solutions seem bound to fail. The present Arab League initiative at the UN, based largely on the Yemen model of coerced transition, seems unlikely to gain Security Council approval. And, if it did, there’s no reason to believe it would be a functional model for regime change in Syria. Even if strengthened economic and other sanctions mandated by the Security Council could be achieved over Russian objections, historical precedent strongly suggests they would also have a very limited impact.

The preferred scenario, of course, is to persuade Russia by various means—possibly including reassurances about the long-term future of its precious warm-water Mediterranean port on the Syrian coast in Tartus—to relent on its uncompromising support for the Assad regime.

However, in the long run, Russian opposition to intensified sanctions, blockades and other coercive measures, potentially including military intervention, could be bypassed through a General Assembly 377 resolution. Such “uniting for peace” measures were precisely designed to get around repeated vetoes by a permanent member of the Security Council. Similarly, Security Council super majorities —even if subject to a lone veto— and strongly-worded Arab League statements can give substantial measures political and moral authority.

Although it is very hard to speculate on the exact trajectory, all signs in Syria point toward the escalation of the insurgency into a civil war and the need, like it or not, for more aggressive and even direct forms of international intervention. Certainly the conditions for such a move are not yet ripe, both diplomatically and on the ground. Preparing for the worst, however, especially when it seems to be gradually becoming unavoidable, is actually the best way to prevent that from becoming unavoidable in reality (and makes the chances for success much greater).

All the variables in play suggest that the armed conflict will only intensify and that direct outside intervention of some kind, for humanitarian, strategic and political reasons, is eventually coming. The West, and the United States in particular, would be well advised to start getting used to this idea and begin preparing for it now.

Egypt’s ‘unsophisticated’ military using NGO crisis for domestic political purposes

Egypt’s justice minister has returned a letter from the U.S. ambassador that called for the lifting of a travel ban on democracy assistance activists, while local news media report that Ministry of Justice officials dismissed claims of a deal between U.S. and Egyptian authorities to allow NGO officials to leave the country.

According to Reuters:

Justice Minister Adel Abdelhamid Abdallah said he had urged the U.S. embassy to redirect the letter to investigating judges. Abdallah said the request from Ambassador Anne Patterson was sent to his home and he returned it to the U.S. embassy because it should have been sent to the investigating judges.

“In it were the names of the people banned from travel and it was asking for a cancellation of this decision to be considered, as their constitutional right,” he said. “I spoke to the embassy and I returned this letter and told them that this letter should be sent to the investigating judges and not to the minister of justice.”

Several U.S. citizens working for pro-democracy non-governmental organizations are banned from leaving Egypt and several have taken refuge at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Observers expect the regime to prosecute the officials – along with Egyptian and European activists – following a crackdown on civil society groups.

On December 29, security forces seized computers, cell phones, documents and staffs’ personal effects from the offices of Egyptian and foreign-based non-governmental groups, including the Arab Center for Independence of Justice and Legal Professions and the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory.

The authorities also targeted foreign democracy assistance groups, including the US-based International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, as well as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer foundation.

The investigation was initially prompted by Egyptian authorities’ shock at the extent of US funding for NGOs that incoming ambassador Anne Patterson revealed in Congressional hearings last summer, a Washington meeting heard yesterday.

Officials feared the political impact of civil society and, allegedly, potential ‘security’ risks arising from the funding, a Cairo-based analyst told an off-the-record forum.  But the ruling military and former regime elements – principally Fayza Aboul Naga, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, who oversees foreign funding – are also exploiting the issue for political purposes, having conducted a high-profile smear campaign against foreign-funded NGOs as agents or tools of foreign powers.

The official propaganda campaign has been successful in swinging public opinion against foreign-linked NGOs, the analyst said, and also enjoys tacit support from the Muslim Brotherhood and some of the old established ‘liberal’ parties, especially the Wafd, which fear the emergence of new democratic forces.

The investigation is being used to shore up the authorities’ tattered public reputation, according to Said Sadek, a political sociologist at the American University in Cairo.

It is being used for domestic purposes “to show that Egypt is still strong and say ‘no’ to the United States,” he argues, “ especially after the criticism that some Americans raised against the behavior of the SCAF, human rights organizations condemning the transitional period and the mismanagement from the military.”

Naga’s ministry conducted an investigation into foreign funding which revealed that by far the largest sources of external political finance are Qatar and Kuwait, yet Islamist groups are not being investigated, let alone prosecuted.

But the investigation is also demonstrating the military’s political shortcomings, says Michele Dunne, an Egypt analyst at the Atlantic Council.

“We are seeing an Egyptian government headed by military officials who are much less sophisticated politically, and I think they have sort of gotten themselves into a situation here, a conflict with the U.S., and maybe not sure how to get out of it.”

Despite a personal appeal by President Barack Obama to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military junta, to stop the prosecutions, there is no sign that it will do so.

The dispute is threatening to undermine U.S.-Egyptian relations and jeopardize assistance to other transitions, while lawmakers on Capitol Hill are threatening to withhold the annual $1.3 billion U.S. aid package to Egypt’s military. The funds will only be released if the Obama administration verifies that Egypt remains on the path to democracy.

And that won’t be easy, says Dunne, a former State Department official.

“Under current conditions it would be extremely difficult for the administration either to certify that the Egyptian government is meeting the conditions or to use the national security waiver,” she says.

“Members of Congress are very angry about what has happened, and they really see this closing down of the NGOs, and particularly the American NGOs, as being a direct threat and an insult to the United States.”

But the AUC’s Sadek believes that strategic considerations loom larger than human rights and democracy in shaping U.S. decision-making.

“Remember, the United States needs the military whom they invested in for many decades,” he said. “They also have open relationships with the political powers in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, and they know that those two powers are very important in this relationship.”

An article in Monday’s Al Shurouk newspaper, was headlined, “Prosecution to Refer Foreign Funding Case to Criminal Court,” CNN reports:

It quoted an unidentified “judicial source” as saying, “The list of charges leveled against them include working without an official permit from the Ministry of Social Solidarity and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, receiving foreign funds in violation of the law and spending such funds on activities that harmed the country.”

The paper says that “among those hit by the travel ban … are 13 Americans and eight Europeans, mostly Serbians.” The paper added that the official spokesperson of the Ministry of Justice dismissed claims that a deal has been struck with the United States under which the American officials of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute would be allowed to leave the country.

“The travel ban,” the paper quoted the official as saying, “is a judicial decision made by an independent investigative body. Under no circumstances should Egyptian judicial rulings be swayed.”

None of NDI’s staff members are at the U.S. Embassy, said Leslie Campbell, the group’s director of programs in the Middle East and North Africa:

The institute has been told that six of its staff members are on the “no-fly” list of foreigners who are not allowed to leave the country, but the institute “has not seen the list and has not tried to test it” and remove staff from the country. Campbell says that there is no “legal process” under way in Egypt and that the government is not communicating with the non-governmental organizations directly.

“There is no warrant, no explanation, no documentation or charges,” he said. Almost all of the information the groups are getting comes from Egyptian media reports. Recent articles in the media have indicated that the investigation is almost at an end and “that is the prelude to putting them on trial.”