Gulf NGO closures ‘ring alarm bell’ for Arab democracy

“Possibly emboldened by Washington’s recent decision to approve military aid to Egypt without conditions on improving human rights,” National Journal reports, the United Arab Emirates has shut down the Dubai office of the National Democratic Institute.

UAE authorities yesterday closed the Abu Dhabi offices of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a think tank close to Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, which promotes democracy abroad.

“After our experience in Egypt, not only do we regret this decision but it rings alarm bells if non-governmental organizations and political foundations are not desired in the Arab World,” said KAS head Hans-Gert Poettering.

Egyptian authorities raided the foundation’s offices in Cairo last year, along with those of NDI, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House and several other foreign and indigenous pro-democracy groups.

No reason was given for shuttering NDI’s Dubai office, which functioned as a hub for programs in other Gulf states, said Les Campbell, the group’s Middle East and North Africa director.

“As far as we understand it now, our license will be cancelled,” Campbell told National Journal.

The State Department said it was in contact with the UAE authorities over its decision to close the NDI office on Wednesday.

“We’ve made clear that allowing NGOs to operate openly and freely is important to support political and economic development,” a State Department official told National Journal.

Advocates of Arab democracy fear that Egypt’s crackdown on pro-democracy groups will embolden other regimes in the region to do likewise.

“For governments around the world to see that Egypt can remain the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid while it’s cracking down blatantly on international organizations – including American organizations that are trying to support democracy– is very likely to embolden other governments to follow suit,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.

NDI and IRI are two of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Fund China’s grassroots NGOs, not GONGOs

Too many foreign funders prefer funding China’s officially-sanctioned, professionalized and bureaucratic NGOs over grassroots civil society groups, writes Anthony J. Spires.

In China, the 1990s saw a dramatic increase in the creation of oxymoronic “government-organized non-governmental organizations,” or GONGOs. From Beijing’s standpoint, such groups can serve as tools for domestic control of new social forces while also attracting foreign funds for programmers the Chinese government itself is unwilling to support.

Yet over the past decade, growing numbers of bottom-up grassroots organizations have emerged. These non-governmental organizations have not been created by nor officially incorporated into the party-state. They sometimes engage in advocacy, but most frequently focus on much-needed social services in fields like health and disease, labor rights, environmental protection and education.

Because grassroots NGOs can provide alternative spaces for political organizing and mobilization, some Chinese officials view them as a serious threat to the regime. The legal requirements for registration are, in practice, prohibitively stringent for those that might wish to become properly registered legal entities. Many are forced instead to register as businesses or operate without legal identity. Unregistered groups run the political risk of being branded “illegal organizations,” while those registered as businesses risk being shut down for fraudulently presenting themselves as nonprofits to their funders and the public.

Although GONGOs may outnumber grassroots groups, a recent study led by myself and colleagues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Civil Society Studies identified almost 300 grassroots organizations in Guangdong, Yunnan and Beijing. Extrapolating to the national population of 1.3 billion, this implies the existence of several thousand grassroots NGOs in China – all potential grantees of foreign donors.

Clearly, however, when US-based funders favor officially-sanctioned, professionalized and bureaucratic grantees that look and talk much like themselves over grassroots civil society organizations, they may be missing an opportunity to support some of China’s most innovative groups and the visionary people who lead them. While government partners can certainly be effective in some fields, denying grassroots groups the support they need is holding back the broader good of society that grant-makers say they aim to nurture.

Unless such patterns change, the impact of US grant-making on Chinese society as a whole will be limited, at best.

Anthony J. Spires is associate director of the Centre for Civil Society Studies and assistant professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This is an extract from a longer article on Yale Global Online, A Publication of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

Suu Kyi says Burma elections unfair, but a ‘triumph’ for democratic awareness

Credit: DVB

“If Aung San Suu Kyi is elected to Burma’s parliament on Sunday, the world will inevitably ask: Has Asia’s Nelson Mandela finally met her F.W. de Klerk?” says Timothy Garton Ash. “Or, if you prefer a European comparison, has Asia’s Václav Havel met her Mikhail Gorbachev?”

Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi says this weekend’s by-elections will be neither free nor fair due to irregularities ahead of Sunday’s poll. Only a small number of seats are up for grabs, but the poll has assumed immense symbolic importance as an indicator of the integrity of the country’s reform process and the viability of removing sanctions.

The European Union is already coming under pressure to lift sanctions from member states and big business eager to take advantage of the country’s extensive resources and market potential. 

“There’s a lot of momentum to remove the sanctions as quickly as possible, beginning even before the April foreign ministers’ meeting,” said a senior EU diplomat.

“Germany and Italy are among those pushing for a complete removal of sanctions right away, while others favor a more gradual easing,” he said, citing Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden among the second group.

That’s one reason why some observers believe the civilian-led, military-backed government wants Suu Kyi elected.

“They’re holding a game of political theater with the West,” said Maung Zarni, a Burma expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “They want to showcase this election and be on their best behavior so they can get candy from the West. They want the West to lift sanctions.”

Rangoon’s hotels are full of Indian, Chinese and European businessmen, said Igor Blazevic, who is based there working for People in Need, a Czech NGO.

“They look more like trading adventurers who are testing the water for bigger players,” he told Reuters.

The election campaign could not be considered ”genuinely free and fair,” said Suu Kyi, due to irregularities that went “beyond what is acceptable for democratic elections”.

Nevertheless, the head of the National League for Democracy said she was ”determined to go forward” and did not regret contesting the poll. Whatever the results, the campaign had been a “triumph” in raising political awareness and popular understanding of the meaning of democracy.

 “An election alone is not going to change our country,” she said. “It’s the people — the change in the spirit of the people which will change our nation.”

The poll was only the start of a longer process towards what she called the “revolution of the spirit.”

“I mean a revolution that will help our people to overcome fear, to overcome poverty, to overcome indifference,” she said, “and to take the fate of their country into their own hands.”

Suu Kyi said the poll would also be an important step toward national reconciliation, especially in Burma’s conflict-ridden border regions.

“We have been particularly encouraged by the response in the ethnic nationality states, in the Kachin State, in the Shan state and the Mon state,” she said. “We have found that there is great potential for a true democratic union, because we do not find that there are any fundamental differences between what we want and what the people of the ethnic nationality states want. We are after all the Burmese, simply a majority among many ethnic nationality groups in Burma.”

Conceding that the poll was flawed, an adviser to President Thein Sein that the election still demonstrated that “the country is on its reform road, and is in the process of building a democratic society.”

Nay Zin Latt told The Associated Press that “there could be some flaws and some bumps in the process, but our leaders have publicly said that their policy is to hold a free, fair and impartial election.”

The United States said that it had raised concerns with the authorities about “irregularities” in the campaign and the administration would be closely monitoring the vote

“This is an important moment for Burma. These by-elections, if seen as free and fair, will demonstrate the government’s commitment to democratization,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “This would further propel momentum in our bilateral relations.”

But holding successful by-elections may not be sufficient for some US sanctions to be lifted, observers suggest.

“In addition, there are U.S. laws that impose sanctions on Myanmar for unacceptable behavior … such as the use of child soldiers, drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, failure to protect religious freedom and violations of workers’ rights,” said Murray Hiebert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Observers suggest that Suu Kyi’s election will boost the government as much as the opposition.

“It is much more dangerous for President Thein Sein if Aung San Suu Kyi fails to win her seat,” said analyst Nicholas Farrelly. “Such an outcome would lead to inevitable cries of vote-rigging and could spark an uncontrollable backlash. It may even spell the end of the nascent democratizing project,” he said.

The election had been a worthwhile investment for Burma’s democratic forces, she said, by raising political awareness and attracting widespread participation, especially from younger voters.

“After decades of quiescence, one might have expected that very few of our people would be in a position to take part in such a process, but we have found that they are quick to wake up and quick to understand what the issues are and what the challenges are,” Suu Kyi said.

While Suu Kyi’s high-flown rhetoric called for “freedom from fear” in her first TV campaign speech, other candidates stressed bread-and-butter issues.

“For the farmer, the poor, the ordinary people, their concern is their livelihood, how they put meals on the table. Other issues like freedom are secondary,” analyst Aung Naing Oo told AFP.

Shan Nationalities Democratic Party member Sai Bo Aung said the party aimed “to follow pragmatism rather than pursuing utopia,” while National Political Alliances candidate Kyaw Swa Soe focused on poor farmers’ ability to “grow their favorite marketable crops after cultivating monsoon paddy.”

Suu Kyi said she remains confident that Thein Sein “wishes for democratic reform, but as I’ve always said, I have never been certain as to exactly how much support there has been behind him, particularly from the military.” While many activists are skeptical about the reform process, her moral capital and integrity have helped persuade others of the value of engagement.

“Aun Sang Suu Kyi is a very smart person. So if she believes in this old man [President Thein Sein], there must be something behind it,” dissident Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein tells the Wall Street Journal:

People who know her say she was swayed by several factors, including assurances from Mr. Thein Sein that he would pursue reform as well as encouragement from Western leaders who thought it was worth taking a chance to see if the president followed through. The government subsequently approved amendments to the country’s election rules sought by Ms. Suu Kyi, released more political prisoners, and took other steps she approved of.

“She didn’t change her mind, but she at least changed her approach–she agreed to take part in this political game,” said Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based analyst. “For the first time she seems to have a strategy, which she never seemed to have,” he said. “I think being older and smarter is certainly part of it.”

External actors need to ensure that the authorities don’t backslide on democratic reforms, observers suggest.

“The Obama administration should keep up pressure for genuine cease fires with ethnic nationalities and coordinated assistance to the 70,000 displaced people at China’s border,” writes Rena Pederson, a former speechwriter at the US State Department. “And a US ambassador, the first in over two decades, should be named who has deep, clear-eyed familiarity with this country’s multi-layered problems.”

Until there is compelling evidence that the reform process is irreversible or at least well-entrenched, lifting sanctions could be premature.

“There are some really good signs, but there are areas where there are problems,” said an EU diplomat from a country that favors lifting sanctions. “We don’t want to be in the position of lifting them and then having to put them back.”

Burma’s reform process and democratic forces face serious obstacles, but there are grounds for optimism, says a seasoned observer of earlier democratic transitions.

“The NLD may not have the kind of organization the ANC had in South Africa but, as Mr. Havel showed in Czechoslovakia, mass organizations can emerge with remarkable speed in velvet revolutionary times,” writes Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution:

There’s the social and moral force of the country’s Buddhist monks. The regime’s clearly keen to get European and American sanctions lifted, so there’s some leverage there. Then there’s India, which might at long last choose to encourage next door what it practices at home: democracy. And there’s The Lady herself, a treasure without price.

Authoritarian capitalism versus democracy?

The paradox of the new world order emerging from the recession is that the global spread of democracy and capitalism marks “the end of the West” as a political actor, writes Ivan Krastev. The reluctance of newly emerging democracies to promote democracy is an indicator that the nature of political regimes will be an unreliable predictor of geopolitical alliances, he argues in this extract from an article in the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review. The current global political landscape is defined by the blurred borders between democracies and authoritarian capitalism, rather than the triumph of democracy or the resurgence of authoritarianism, while a passing glance at China, India, Russia, and the Muslim world makes clear that ethnic nationalism and religion are major ideological driving forces shaping global politics.

A decade ago, Washington’s power was best demonstrated by its capacity to shape the choices of others, making world politics look like a contest of who imitates America best — its economic model, educational institutions, and entertainment industry. Today America’s power is manifested not by its capacity to capture the imagination of others but by Washington’s capacity to load its problems on others.

The newly-found weakness of the U.S. is not only in the imagination of the declinists but in the erosion of America’s economic power, the declining social mobility in American society, and the citizens’ loss of trust in American institutions. The crisis that American society is going through is not unprecedented, but that doesn’t mean that this time it cannot end up differently. Robert Kagan is right to argue that America cannot turn its back on the world and its problems, but it is also unrealistic to believe that America’s reputation will not be hurt by the way others view the performance of the American economic and political system. Falling in love with the idea that American power is in decline presents a clear and present danger for American society. But the denial of America’s visible loss of influence cannot be the alternative to decline.

Kagan envisions international liberal order as a post-Soviet world disciplined by the moral clarity of the Cold War ideological confrontation between freedom and tyranny and dominated by a single power: the United States. He believes in a world divided between the league of democracies and the axis of autocracies. But could the Cold War’s ideological frame be preserved in the world of global capitalism, where money, technologies, and ideas are changing hands every minute? In a world in which the sons and daughters of authoritarian leaders are studying and living in the West, in which the money of authoritarian governments is managed by Western bankers, in which American voting machines are most likely manufactured in China?

Between 1917 and 1989, ideologies replaced national passions at the center of world politics. But this very exceptional period ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War was a blessing for the West because it left capitalism and democracy without an alternative, but it was also a curse because it forced the alternatives to democracy and capitalism to mutate (taking the forms of democratic or market institutions) and because it profoundly changed the relations between the elites and societies.

The Cold War was a time when the democratic West successfully dismantled the borders between social classes while strengthening and successfully defending the borders between the states — and in particular between free nations and communist dictatorships. In the days of the Cold War, political and business elites haunted by the specter of the communist takeover were actively cooperating with the society at large, exposing themselves to the constraints of democratic politics. In the past two decades, however, the reverse is the trend.

The borders between states are gradually losing their importance while the borders between social classes have become much more difficult to cross. Globalization dramatically increased the number of middle-class people in the world, but it has eroded the foundations of the middle-class societies that were the distinctive feature of the Cold War West. Social inequality has increased in most Western democracies, and social mobility has declined.

What many of the European critics of American power have discovered is that a world order built on seemingly unassailable American power was the one most hospitable to the European project. It was America’s global hegemony that enabled the European Union to emerge on the world stage as an attractive power in the first place.

American hegemony made room for the European Union to experiment with being an unconventional, non-nation-state actor and freed it to concentrate on its internal scope and institutional architecture. America’s security umbrella, not least, allowed the European Union to become a global power without needing to become a military one. But while Europeans are nostalgic for the American world of yesterday, they do not believe that this is the world of tomorrow. Europeans have also lost their conviction that the eu is the governance model for the world to come.

A decade ago, European public opinion assumed that globalization would prompt the decline of states as key international actors and nationalism as a seminal political motivator. But what until just yesterday seemed universally applicable begins to look exceptional today. Even a passing glance at China, India, and Russia, not to speak of the vast reaches of the Muslim world, makes clear that both ethnic nationalism and religion are back as major ideological driving forces shaping global politics. Post-modernism, post-nationalism, and secularism are making Europe different from the rest of the world, not making the rest of the world more like Europe.

What makes Kagan an optimist is his conviction that “the present world order — characterized by an unprecedented number of democratic nations; a greater global prosperity, even with the current global crisis, than the world has ever known; and a long peace among great powers — reflects American principles and preferences and was built and preserved by American power . . . If America’s power declines, this world order will decline with it.” In short, America is not in decline because the world cannot afford it. The very survival of the liberal international order is a proof of America’s strength.

It is true that the determinism of the pessimists who have already accepted America’s decline as inevitable is not much different from the determinism of the optimists who two decades ago endorsed the idea of the end of history. But while it is wrong to bet on America’s decline, it is fair to observe that nothing seems further from America in the 1990s than America today. In the past decade, America’s global influence has suffered substantial setbacks. America has experienced the limits of hard power and the erosion of soft power.

Newly emerging democratic powers like India and Brazil are very reluctant to make democracy promotion the center of their foreign policy decision-making. Old-fashioned ideas of national interest, but also postcolonial solidarities, seem much better predicators for the foreign policy rationale of the new democratic powers.

So the world of tomorrow is unlikely to be disciplined by the Cold War corset. It is not only that the new democratic powers are unenthusiastic about making democracy promotion the defining feature of their international behavior, but also the fact that some of the recent democratic explosions in the world are likely to end with the establishment of illiberal and anti-Western regimes unattractive to American and European publics.

China is a rising global power, but China is not the ideological “other” Kagan hopes for. The citizens of the democratic West do not see the world of authoritarian capitalism as a threat similar to the Soviet one. The Soviet Union was not simply a nondemocratic power. It was a hostile political universe. It was a power with the ambition to conquer the world and to remake it in its own way. None of the current spoilers in international politics has this combination of ideological vision and military and political power.

The paradox of the new world order emerging out of the ongoing recession is that the global spread of democracy and capitalism, instead of signaling “the end of history,” marked “the end of the West” as a political actor constructed in the days of the Cold War. In the decades to come the nature of the political regimes will be an unreliable predictor for the geopolitical alliances to emerge; and it is the blurring borders between democracies and authoritarian capitalism, rather than the triumph of democracy or the resurgence of authoritarianism, that defines the global political landscape.

So this is the paradoxical nature of our new world — the spread of democracy and capitalism makes it more difficult if not impossible to build lasting value-based coalitions. At the same time, it makes it possible for the international liberal order to survive even in the case that the West’s power declines and the powers of authoritarian capitalism enjoy a temporary rise.


Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He is a member of the board of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Egypt’s Brotherhood-military conflict escalates

“Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led parliament began drawing up a no-confidence motion against the military-appointed government today,” AP reports, “further escalating the Islamists’ increasingly public power struggle with the country’s ruling generals.”

The military “will fight” to defend its extensive and largely secret economic interests, said a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said today. Defense of military prerogatives is a politically explosive issue in transitions that is best addressed by gradual ‘salami-slicing’ tactics, a National Endowment for Democracy forum heard today.

The ruling SCAF initially agreed that the newly-elected parliament could form a new Cabinet, said Saad Emara, a parliamentarian with the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. But only on condition that the military retained the right to appoint two deputy prime ministers and ten ministers, including the defense and security portfolios. The Brotherhood rejected the proposal.

“The Cabinet showdown is a symptom, while the military’s worries over its special interests are the heart of the issue,” Emara said.

Military-owned business account for between 15 and 40 per cent of the nation’s GDP, analysts suggest, and the SCAF is fiercely resisting proposed civilian oversight of the military budget.

“We will fight for our projects, and it is a battle we won’t give up on. We have sweated for 30 years, and we won’t leave this for anyone to destroy,” said Major-General Mahmoud Nasser, the Deputy Defense Minister for Financial Affairs.

The Brotherhood is also involved in a standoff with liberal and secular groups boycotting a constitutional-drafting panel to protest Islamist domination of the body. The representative of Al-Azhar, the pre-eminent center of learning in Sunni Islam, today joined the boycott.

Announcing the withdrawal of former grand mufti, Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel, Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Centre cited “attempts by some to marginalize its role,” following the rejection of the Al-Azhar Document, a statement in which the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, endorses a “democratic and constitutional” state, and cautions that theocracies are invariably autocratic.

The statement of principles was widely welcomed by liberal and secular parties, but received a lukewarm response from Islamists. 

But a military-sponsored forum to discuss options for “effective representation for all parties, political forces, civil society and public personalities” in a more inclusive constitutional process resulted in a compromise on the dispute over the panel’s representativeness, reports suggest.

Fourteen parties, including the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, endorsed a compromise in which parties increased their representation on the panel by drawing on reserve candidates.

The parties also agreed that the constitution would define Egypt as “democratic, guided by a constitution and modern, with citizenship and the rule of law as its pillars,” said parliamentarian Mostafa Bakri, who attended the forum.

A compromise could allow liberal and secular groups to exercise influence over a constitutional process that will be dominated by the military and the Brotherhood. By boycotting the panel, liberals risk repeating the mistake made by Venezuela’s democratic opposition, a Washington meeting heard today.

By similarly abstaining from a constitutional reform process initiated by populist president Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s democratic forces “lengthened the road back to credibility,” Dartmouth College’s John Carey told a forum on constitution-making and electoral design.

The constitution-drafting powers of the panel are ill-defined, said Andrew Reynolds of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It is equally unclear how much space the military will allow liberals to shape the constitution.

Challenging the military’s prerogatives was an equally sensitive issue in Indonesia’s transition, Duke University’s Donald L. Horowitz told the National Endowment for Democracy meeting.

As in Egypt, the Indonesia military had extensive and lucrative business interests, but it was divided and discredited. The armed forces were gradually disempowered by civilian “salami-slicing” tactics, culminating in a 2005 law that required the military to divest its economic holdings within five years.