Pakistani women countering religious extremism

Women are emerging as a powerful force in countering radicalization in Pakistan.

“The alliance of educated Pakistani women against religious extremism is an extraordinary and heartening development in a country where women face stringent restrictions and enjoy minimal freedom of choice,” Malik Siraj Akbar writes for The Huffington Post:

Sameena Imtiaz, a soft-spoken, educated Pakistani social worker, operates in the midst of U.S. drone strikes and Taliban suicide bombings. She regularly travels to remote parts of her country in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, infamously known for the safe Al-Qadea and Taliban sanctuaries, to promote peace education among the radicalized young seminary students. ………….

Textbooks in Pakistan began to indoctrinate school kids with a radical version of Islam during the time of General Zia-ul-Haq, a military dictator with ultraconservative Islamic beliefs who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988. “My goal was to engage the Pakistani youth in counter-extremism dialogue and also to reach out to the rest of the world telling them that everyone in Pakistan was not a terrorist,” she recalls.

“Women are a powerful agent of change. During war and conflict, they open the doors of dialogue and peace,” says Mossarat Qadeem, the national coordinator of anti-extremism coalition Amn-o-Nisa (Women and Peace).

Mossarat, a former instructor at the University of Peshawar, has helped hundreds of extremists, including some potential suicide bombers, reintegrate into the society. She founded and now runs Pakistan’s first center for conflict transformation and peace building which has remarkably helped thousands of women and children in her native KP province and the tribal areas. …………

In April, the Institute for Inclusive Security brought powerful Pakistani change-makers like Sameena and Mossarat to the United States to engage them with American policy-makers and the media to share their work and experiences.

Miki Jacevic, Vice Chair of the Institute for Inclusive Security, says people in the United States barely hear the tales of these Pakistani women who strive for a change in their country by battling extremism in their daily lives.

“In the U.S. mainstream media, Pakistan is normally portrayed as a troublemaker or in negative terms,” he admits, but he emphasizes the significance of the work done by moderate Pakistani women, “engaging 79 men in peace conversation may sound a small number but it simply means averting 79 more suicide bombings.”


Malik Siraj Akbar is editor in Chief, The Baloch Hal, and currently a Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Egypt’s Brotherhood and critics in ‘important test of power’

As ultraconservative Salafists today joined liberals and leftists in criticizing parliamentary maneuvers by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, is “a new power structure” emerging?

The latest realignments in Egyptian politics came as the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces “promised to reshuffle the country’s cabinet, hours after the Islamist-dominated Parliament suspended sessions to protest the council’s failure to heed repeated calls for the government’s dismissal,” AP reports:

The speaker of Parliament, Saad el-Katatni (right), said he had received a call from the ruling generals promising to announce a reshuffling within 48 hours. Although the concession fell short of Parliament’s demand for an entirely new cabinet, the speaker said the decision would restore Parliament’s “dignity.”

The Muslim Brotherhood-led Parliament, which was seated three months ago, has been demanding that it be allowed to form a cabinet to replace the military-appointed one, headed by Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, a holdover from the authoritarian government of President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in a popular uprising 14 months ago.

“This was an important test of power: Who is governing Egypt — the (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) or the parliament?” said Diaa Rashwan, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies:

After being banned for years under Mubarak, the Brotherhood has become a force in the new and still-evolving era of Egyptian politics having claimed the lion’s share of seats in parliament.

Tensions between Islamist groups, including the Brotherhood, and the ruling Supreme Council have risen in the two weeks since 10 out of 23 presidential candidates were disqualified for various reasons. ….While Sunday’s announcement would appear to be a victory for the Brotherhood, Rashwan predicted military leaders “will not sacrifice Kamal Ganzouri” and that they’ll instead try to form a new Cabinet — proposing that it includes Freedom and Justice Party members — with Ganzouri staying on as prime minister.

“I don’t think this crisis is just over,” Rashwan said. 

Liberal MP Amr Hamzawy rejected El-Katatni’s decision to suspend parliamentary proceedings for a week, “because we refuse that parliament be turned into a battleground for partisan political interests, and because the move will severely damage parliament’s reputation.”

The Brotherhood’s performance of the parliament it dominates has also hurt the Brotherhood’s image, analysts say. Lawmakers are threatening a strike unless their allies get more influence in the cabinet, and the ruling military council has promised a reshuffle.

“The Muslim Brotherhood came to understand that they have been misled in a way,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political analyst and politician. “They thought their majority in parliament would give them the possibility to change the current political situation, to improve the living situation of the population. The public waited for some quick improvement of their daily life, which is not happening. Now, they [the brotherhood] want to share in the executive and be responsible for running the country.”

Economic hardship and the transition’s failure to address priority socio-economic grievances is causing popular support for Islamists to diminish alongside revolutionary fervor, says Hisham Kassem, a veteran publisher and a board member of the World Movement for Democracy “On the whole, the Islamists have lost points. People’s expectations are too high, and I don’t think that even if the liberals or any other current had [won last year's election], that they would have done better,” he tells VOA. “They would have lost a lot of points. People now are result-oriented. They don’t want to just keep hearing political jargon and not feel this is reflecting on their life.”

Today, some 80 MPs belonging to the Salafist Nour Party – the second largest parliamentary bloc – joined liberal and leftist deputies in condemning El-Katatni’s suspension of the assembly.

El-Katatni had imposed the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party line on parliament, Emad Gad, liberal MP and Al-Ahram political analyst, told Ahram Online:

“El-Katatni should have taken a vote on this critical decision, which took all non-FJP MPs by surprise,” said Gad. He went on to suggest that Sunday’s decision had been a premeditated move by FJP figures. “Many believe the decision was taken in advance by the FJP in coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood, while other deputies were kept in the dark,” argued Gad.

Many, however, believe the ongoing differences between the Brotherhood-dominated parliament and the ruling military council are part of a broader dispute over Egypt’s political destiny. Gad, for his part, believes the Muslim Brotherhood hopes to secure for itself a more influential role in the upcoming period, fearing the imminent election of a non-FJP president.

“They want to maximize their current parliamentary dominance, especially given rumors that parliament might be dissolved,” said Gad. “A new power structure is emerging in Egypt and the Islamists are trying to carve a foothold for themselves in this new structure.”

Further details from the Egyptian Democracy Academy and the Project for Middle East Democracy, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:  

On Sunday, People’s Assembly speaker Saad al-Katatni suspended parliament for the next week because of the cabinet’s refusal to resign. He proposed the move because parliament had objected to the cabinet’s agenda and accused it of failing to address security problems. Several members of parliament (MPs) criticized the decision, and according to MP Yassir al-Qadi there were 158 signatures of MPs who did not approve of Al-Katatni’s decision to suspend parliament. Al-Katani reportedly received word from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that it will appoint a new cabinet within 48 hours. Al-Katatni has repeatedly pressed the SCAF to appoint a new cabinet. Only the SCAF in its caretaker role has the power to appoint a new cabinet.


158 members of parliament refuse suspension of sessions…” Sawt Baladi (Arabic), 04/30/12.

Secular MPs criticize Parliament speaker over suspension of sessions”, Egypt Independent (English), 04/30/12.

Monday’s papers: Moussa and Abouel Fotouh fiercely competing”, Egypt Independent (English), 04/30/12.

158 signatures object…” Youm7 (Arabic), 04/30/12.

Egypt Military Bends to Islamist Will”, Wall Street Journal (English), 04/29/12.

‘Two horse race’ in Egypt poll, as Salafists, liberals back Islamist

A prominent ministerial favorite of ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak leads the opinion polls ahead of Egypt’s forthcoming presidential elections.

But former foreign minister Amr Moussa’s main rival, Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh (right), once a senior leader of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, today picked up endorsements from a radical Islamist group and a liberal cyber activist celebrated for his role in the Tahrir Square protests.

Abol Fotouh, who today cited Turkey’s Justice and Development party (AKP) as a model for restoring Egypt’s dignity, won the backing of former Google executive Wael Ghonim and Gamaa Islamiyya, the once-banned sect responsible for the 1981 assassination of president Anwar Sadat and the 1997 Luxor massacre. Their support adds to the momentum gained after the ultraconservative Salfist Nour and moderate Islamist Wasat parties endorsed his candidacy over the weekend.

Some 41 percent of voters support Moussa, according to a poll released Monday by the government-controlled Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Abol Fotouh took 27% and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq 12%, while Mohammed Mursi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, came in sixth with under 4%.

The nationwide poll of 1,200 people was undertaken between April 21 and 24 – before Abol Fotouh received the latest endorsements.

“We now have a two-horse race between (former Arab League secretary-general) Amre Moussa and Aboul Fotouh,” said prominent analyst and journalist Hisham Kassem: 

The Salafis, with their endorsement, may be angling for more influence if Aboul Fotouh becomes president and also point to that party’s own tensions with the Brotherhood. But he questioned whether the endorsement will scare off liberals who have also backed Aboul Fotouh.

Mursi will not even enjoy unqualified support from within the Brotherhood’s ranks, say observers.

“There is division even inside the Brotherhood,” said Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo. “The young Brotherhood supports Aboul Fotouh. He is representing moderate Islam.”

Turkey’s ruling AK party, led by the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had “brought back the Turk’s dignity. And this is what we are seeking — people with dignity, and not people who fear of speaking out,” Fotouh told Gulf News today.

A member of the Brotherhood’s executive from 1987 to 2009, Fotouh does not believe his record will alienate voters, he said, and rejected claims of a tension between Islamist parties and the West. 

“I believe my program and views demonstrate the moderate, enlightened, and progressive Islamist trend, a trend which respects human rights, seeks its advancement, facing the (attempts) to marginalize the status of women in our Arab region, and stresses that citizenship is the basis for duties and responsibilities,” he said. 

Those who raise the specter of Islamist rule are “using the same scarecrow, or playing the same broken record that was used by the ousted dictators,” he said. ‘Islam and the Islamic trend [are] a genuine trend in the region and can’t be ignored.”

Fotouh still commands respect from his former comrades, reports suggest, and his candidacy is supported by Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, arguably the Brotherhood’s most influential spiritual leader.

“In terms of ideology, there is little difference to me between Mursi and Abdel Moneim. As for the organization, of course there is a difference, but the idea is the same,” Helmi el-Gazzar, a Brotherhood member of parliament, told Reuters.

Some of his critics say Abol Fotouh is trying to be all things to all people. But he says there has been no change in his views since he quit the Brotherhood.

In an April 23 interview, Abol Fotouh said: “I have not changed my principles or ideas regardless of my administrative link: whether I was Brotherhood or now I am outside the administration of the Brotherhood.”

He added: “I don’t think there is a fair liberal, or a fair Salafi, or a fair leftist, who says Dr. Abdel Moneim says one thing and hides another.”

The Salafis’ support for Abol Fotouh  marks an important cleavage within the Islamist movement, says Shadi Hamid, an analyst at Brookings Doha Center,

“There was a lot of talk in recent weeks about Islamists unifying their ranks and choosing one candidate to support,” he said.

“It shows that Salafis are becoming increasingly pragmatic actors. If ideology was the main determinant, they would have gone for the most conservative candidate in the race – Mohamed Mursi – but they didn’t,” Hamid said.

According to Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at the UK’s Durham University, al-Nour’s decision “could encourage other Salafi groups to back Aboul Fotouh and create a future alliance with him. We have to see,” he tells the Washington Post:

He added that if other Salafist groups follow, it could consolidate the ultraconservative political movement. But Salafists still face significant challenges. The Nour party appears to be unraveling, with a number of members resigning in recent weeks, some even giving up on politics to return to preaching.

At the same time, many Salafists have said that they are boycotting the vote over Abu Ismail’s disqualification. The Jurisprudence Commission for Rights and Reforms, a panel of top, mostly Salafist scholars and clerics, backed the Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, last week, making it unclear whether the Nour party’s decision would seal the rank-and-file Salafist vote for Aboul Fotouh.

“Salafists are now one of the new power centers in Egypt, and their decision will shape Egypt’s polity for years to come,” Anani said.

The Salafists’ move reflects both an unsuspected pragmatism and a determination to diminish the Brotherhood’s growing political weight.

“The Brotherhood have the best [political] program…. but there are dangers when one group controls all the levers of power,” said Yasser Brohami, a senior cleric in the Salafi Call:

In a presidential race that has so far been marked by unexpected twists, there is no guarantee that the support of the Salafi Call will be enough to lift Mr Aboul Fotouh to victory. Although the group has a political arm, the Nour party, which holds a quarter of the seats in parliament, analysts say the movement is fragmented and possesses nothing like the Brotherhood’s well-oiled political machine.

“[Salafi Call] fear that if they support the Brotherhood they will always be the [junior] partner,” said Amr Ashour, director of middle east studies at Exeter university. “Also there is the idea of backing a president who they think they can influence. Mursi [the Brotherhood candidate] already has a strong backbone in the shape of his group.”

The Brotherhood has alienated potential allies by pursuing a largely self-interested and sectarian strategy, observers suggest, consistently breaking promises to operate inclusively

“The Brotherhood finds itself in a precarious situation. Without Salafi support, it’s difficult to see how Mursi can pull this off,” Brookings analyst Hamid told The Jerusalem Post. “The optics of a Brotherhood defeat – at the hands of one of their defectors – will do considerable damage to the organization’s standing. Even though Salafis and Brothers are within the same ‘family,’ they don’t always get along.”

Further details from the Egyptian Democracy Academy and the Project for Middle East Democracy, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:   

Abouel Fotouh Receives Multiple Endorsements

The Salafi Dawa and its political wing, the Nour party, announced on Saturday their endorsement of Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh for president. Nour party leader Mohammed Nour stated in a press conference that Aboul Fotouh had won in three separate polls conducted among the Nour party’s members of parliament, members of its high board and the Salafi Dawa Shura Council. Aboul Fotouh defeated two other Islamist candidates in the vote: the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and Islamist thinker Mohammed Selim al-Awa. Salafi Dawa spokesman said that the group believed that Aboul Fotouh has a better chance of defeating front-runner and former Arab League head Amr Moussa. Aboul Fotouh also received the endorsement of the Wasat party after 63% of the party’s members voted for him in a party poll on Sunday. Political activist Wael Ghonim also announced on his Facebook page on Monday that he was supporting Aboul Fotouh, saying he would be “a president for all Egyptians who will gather people, not divide them.” In addition, al-Jama’a al-Islamiya’s Shura council and its political wing pledged support for Aboul Fotouh on Monday. 


Egypt’s Wasat Party endorses Abul-Fotouh presidential bid”, Ahram Online (English) 04/30/12.

Salafis endorse Abouel Fotouh, say Morsy’s chances are low”, Egypt Independent (English), 04/29/12.

Wael Ghonim endorses Abouel Fotouh for president”, Egypt Independent (English), 04/30/12.

In another blow to the Brotherhood, Jama’a al-Islamiya endorses Abouel Fotouh”, Egypt Independent (English), 04/30/12.

Guangcheng case highlights ‘clash of ideas’ in US-China relations

Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng’s audacious escape from detention is likely to have as big an impact on US-China relations as it is having on the ruling party’s internal ideological conflicts.

“The fate of Chen Guangcheng is not one of those minor blips that will be brushed under the diplomatic carpet,” notes a leading analyst. “Instead, it is the public display of a clash of ideas that will be at the heart of international politics over the coming decade.”

“As China’s power grows, it is tempting to take the realist line that human rights should take a back seat to the important business that the two countries must conduct,” notes the FT’s Geoff Dyer:

In his recent book On China, Henry Kissinger urged the two Pacific powers to come together in a community of interests. Hillary Clinton flirted with the same idea when she first became secretary of state, arguing that human rights “can’t interfere” with other vital issues on the US-China agenda.

Yet the reality is that human rights and political ideas are at the core of the relationship between the two countries.

The so-called pivot to Asia that the Obama administration is implementing is not just about sending a few marines to Australia. Mr Obama has made it crystal clear it is part of a long-term project to underpin economic and political freedom in the region. The fact that the only potential challenger to this US-led order is a one-party state is not a side-issue, but a central pre-occupation for American strategists.

Chen’s “status and safety present a pivotal test for freedom in China and for U.S. credibility as a defender of freedom,” writes Bob Fu, founder and president of the China Aid Association.

“Chen is often described as a “dissident,” but that is a misnomer,” he notes:

Despite years of brutal treatment for seeking to bring attention to those victimized by China’s “one-child” policy, he has never established a political party or organization. He has never advocated overthrowing the Communist Party. In the video he posted online after his escape, he says that the injustices his family experienced “hurt the image of our Party.” And the first thing he told me after escaping was that he wanted the outside the world to know that he was not going to leave China but to “fight to the end for the freedom of my family. .?.?. I want to live a normal life as a Chinese citizen with my family.

The case will be a test of the Obama administration’s twin-track approach to engaging authoritarian regimes like China while reserving the right to promote democracy and human rights. 

“Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton favors ‘principled pragmatism’, she is an outspoken critic of China’s human rights record – and of Chen’s plight,” one analyst notes:

But a deep freeze between the world’s two biggest economies would be bad for the world. Besides, there is a deep economic co-dependency. While China’s overall trade surplus has been shrinking, the trade gap with Uncle Sam has actually widened. It hit a record $299 billion in the 12 months to February 2012, Reuters data shows.

A face-saving solution is certainly possible. If Beijing gives Chen some guarantees that he and his family will be left alone, he could return to his Shandong village. There are precedents: Lai Changxing, a ringleader in a notorious corruption ring, was extradited from Canada on the promise that he wouldn’t be put to death. Beijing could even blame Chen’s captivity on wayward local officials, and burnish its own credentials for upholding the rule of law.

The affair represents “a pivotal moment for U.S. human rights diplomacy,’ says ChinaAid’s Fu. “The United States must stand firmly with this broadly popular individual or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law.”

While Fu suspects that Chen may be released into US custody as soon as this week, other observers aren’t so sure.

“If they were to let him go, what does that mean? That means Beijing will probably be succumbing to any such attempt to seek asylum in the American Embassy,” Zhu Feng, an expert on U.S.-China relations at Beijing University, tells the Wall Street Journal:

Beijing wouldn’t relish any appearance it is kowtowing to Washington just before its sensitive once-a-decade leadership transition beginning late this year.

“There’s not a lot of precedent for the U.S. treating China as a good-faith negotiating partner on human-rights issues,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based human-rights researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The Chinese government might be sincere in promising to protect Mr. Chen and his family, he said, “but the way the case has been handled up till now makes it hard to trust any commitments they make to rule of law.”

Susan Shirk, who served as a deputy assistant state secretary under Bill Clinton, says that although allowing Mr. Chen to stay in China “would be the best outcome,” she believes the lack of any mechanism that would allow the U.S. to monitor and ensure his safety was highly problematic.

ChinaAid is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

‘The Guangcheng Redemption’ – rule of law in China?

The case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights advocate, is creating a dual dilemma – for China’s ruling Communist party and the US government.

The barefoot lawyer’s escape from house arrest and his move to seek refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing “came at an excruciatingly awkward time for the Chinese leadership as it struggles to preserve a cohesive front after the spectacular dismissal of Bo Xilai, a member of China’s Politburo,” notes one observer.

Chinese censors today blocked web searches of a range of terms related to his escape, from his name and ‘blind person’ to The Shawshank Redemption (right), the celebrated prison-break film.

The case threatens to aggravate ideological cleavages within the ruling party, according to China analysts.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong University, said reformers are on the offensive, which might ease the search for a solution to Chen’s case. But he warned that the authorities are risk-averse and will not gamble with anything that might disrupt the transition of power.

“Chen Guangcheng’s flight occurs at a very delicate moment not only because of the Bo Xilai crisis but also the upcoming 18th party congress and more importantly because the party leadership is obviously divided about many substantive economic and political issues,” said Cabestan. “In the post-Arab spring, Bo Xilai crisis, not only Zhou Yongkang but the whole leadership have become more risk-adverse than ever: they are very much aware of the domino effect of Chen Guangcheng’s release.”

The case “poses an immediate quandary for Premier Wen Jiabao, who has repeatedly advocated strengthening the rule of law and making this authoritarian Communist regime more accountable to the people,” The Washington Post’s Keith B. Richburg reports.

But it also presents Washington with a policy conundrum in the run-up to this week’s Strategic Dialogue with Beijing. 

“This is as near as there has been to a perfect storm in US-China relations since 1989,” said Christopher Johnson, a former China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, referring to the Tiananmen Square massacre. “It is a very messy situation.”

Chen’s fate is likely to be settled before the annual summit begins on Thursday, said Bob Fu of the Texas-based rights group ChinaAid.

“The Chinese top leaders are deliberating a decision to be made very soon, maybe in the next 24 to 48 hours,” Fu said, citing a source close to the U.S. and Chinese governments. Both sides are “eager to solve this issue,” said Fu, a former tutor at a Communist Party academy in Beijing.

“It really depends on China’s willingness to facilitate Chen’s exit,” he said.

The case “poses a quandary for the leadership,” representing a blow to security-oriented officials, writes Jane Perlez at the New York Times.

“Moreover, the case could easily become a weapon in the already complex factional battles,” reports suggest. “Some analysts say that proponents of political reform, including Premier Wen Jiabao, could use Mr Chen’s escape to blame Zhou Yongkang, the top security official and a leading conservative, for bungling the case and shaming China.”

With the political standing of the state security apparatus controlled by Zhou Yongkang, a key ally of  Bo Xilai, weakened by Bo’s demise and the 69-year old Zhou due to retire at the upcoming congress, party modernizers have an unprecedented opportunity to press their case for reform.

“There are growing numbers of people who feel China has made scant progress on the rule of law in recent years. These cases have stimulated discussion on the need for political/legal reforms. Coupled with the leadership transition, they may turn out to be the pivotal cases but it’s still too early to tell. The party’s instinct is to retain control,” said Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

The status quo is unsustainable, says a party sympathizer and former adviser to Mao Zedong in the 1940s.

“This should be a pivotal point in the struggle between Chinese reformers and anti-reform vested interests. Chen Guangcheng is not an anti-Communist dissident,” said Sidney Rittenberg. “I see it as a struggle between those who want rule of law and those who are content with China’s feudal tradition in which local authorities can defy the country’s laws and the central authority allows this, as long as it doesn’t threaten their rule.”

While the case could bolster reformists’ case for rule of law, it could have the opposite effect and reinforce nationalist elements.

“The flip-side is that some people will argue that the US is trying to take advantage of a delicate political situation in China,” said Johnson, now at the Center for International Studies in Washington.

The case “could redound to the benefit of hard-liners, who may see his escape as part of a conspiracy to embarrass China that involves the United States,” Perlez cautions.

The incident will further strain US-China relations, observers suggest.

“Many observers are drawing another analogy,” The Economist notes, “not to Wang Lijun but to the case of Fang Lizhi, the Chinese physicist who took refuge in the American embassy after the killings near Tiananmen Square in 1989. Mr Fang, who died this month, was holed up in the embassy, unable to leave China for America, for more than a year.”

Chen’s “status and safety present a pivotal test for freedom in China and for U.S. credibility as a defender of freedom,” writes Bob Fu, founder and president of the China Aid Association.

“Chen is often described as a “dissident,” but that is a misnomer,” he notes:

Despite years of brutal treatment for seeking to bring attention to those victimized by China’s “one-child” policy, he has never established a political party or organization. He has never advocated overthrowing the Communist Party. In the video he posted online after his escape, he says that the injustices his family experienced “hurt the image of our Party.” And the first thing he told me after escaping was that he wanted the outside the world to know that he was not going to leave China but to “fight to the end for the freedom of my family. .?.?. I want to live a normal life as a Chinese citizen with my family.

Fu called on Beijing to respond to Chen’s video requests. “They could make an example of his case to promote the rule of law,” he told Radio Free Asia. “But exile would be an option if the Chinese government decided to take a very extreme approach to Chen and his family.”

Chen’s dramatic escape has also “cast a spotlight on the Chinese government’s growing use of unlawful home detentions, disappearances, ‘black jails,’ and other, often brutal, extra-judicial methods to try to silence its internal critics and stamp out dissent,” reports suggest.

Although Chen has appealed to Beijing to investigate local officials’ abuses, he was placed under extrajudicial house arrest upon his release from prison in 2010 at the behest of central leaders, say observers and rights activists:

Political and legal analysts dismiss the notion that Mr Chen is a victim of local brutality. “His case was handled at the top,” says one. “Initially, having him convicted was seen as a way of legalizing the crackdown on him. Then, after his jail sentence, the central government decided that he had to be shut up at all cost.”

“The state security bureau told the Linyi authorities that they had to neutralize Chen but not re-arrest him lest it create more international outcry,” according to Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch, who said the authorities were increasingly using illegal measures because the old methods of information management have been incapacitated by the spread of microblogs.

“The security apparatus is not able to control and prevent critics and dissidents the way it was before. To make up for this erosion of social control, increasingly unlawful methods are being deployed against activists, including disappearance and torture, so as to silence them and intimidate others,” he said.

Rights activists are expressing concern for the relatives and supporters of Chen,  a recipient in absentia of the National Endowment for Democracy‘s 2008 Democracy Award, following a police crackdown on his family and associates.

“Stability is most important in this crucial year ahead of the 18th party congress [which is to determine the next leadership],” said a provincial party official.

The party leadership is fearful that China’s growing rights consciousness, emerging in large part as a result of rights advocates like Chen, may morph into politically threatening social unrest.

“Chen Guangcheng played a central role in accelerating the [rise of] rights lawyers in China,” said Bequelin, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Therefore the Chinese government is looking at a much bigger issue than embarrassment: It is sitting on top of a volcano of social unrest which would become even more dangerous if Chen Guangcheng is freed up to continue campaigning.”

Chen’s pioneering role is one reason why his house arrest prompted such an ‘extraordinary’ campaign by Chinese rights and civil society groups. His exceptional biography is another:

“When Chen Guangcheng was a child, no-one could have guessed that he would one day rock relations between the world’s two leading powers,” the FT’s Katrin Hille writes:

Born in 1971 in the eastern Chinese village of Dongshigu, Mr Chen went blind as a result of a fever before he was a year old. Growing up in the countryside during Mao Zedong’s final years in power would have been difficult anyway, but the loss of his eyesight robbed Mr Chen of even the modest opportunities others had to get an education. He did not get the chance to start primary school until he was 18.

“He incarnates everything that is wrong with China – the fallacy of the rule of law and the legality promise, the corruption and abuse of power, the discrimination of the handicapped,” says Bequelin.

Other pro-democracy and rights activists have been subjected to extra-judicial arrest and detention, most notably Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo; dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and the prominent human rights lawyer and activist Gao Zhisheng.

Yet Chen’s case “is really the most visceral example of the lack of rule of law in China and the really out-of-control abuses of the security agencies,” said Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Chen Guangcheng’s case is going to definitely reveal the reality of Wen Jiabao and his longtime advocacy for protection of the poor, the marginalized and the abused, and the application of the rule of law.”

As the Bo scandal has unfolded, China’s state-run media have repeatedly picked up Wen’s mantra, eager to show that Bo was not the subject of a political purge or personal vendetta. The Chongqing case showed that China was developing into a country where the law was paramount, according to the official refrain, and even a powerful figure such as Bo was subject to it.

“The rule of law is the foundation of the governance of the CPC and critical for realizing long-term stability,” the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, wrote in a widely-circulated editorial. “Anyone who breaks the law shall be convicted and punished.”

“It’s a recognition that to compete in the modern world, there needs to be a rules-based foundation,” says Michael Posner, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor “I think there’s a demand internally, from the Chinese people. The government is undoubtedly hearing that and responding to it.”

“In the long term, I feel a sense of optimism that the trend globally .?.?. for a law-based, rights-based structure is going to prevail here as well,” Posner said.

As China Digital Times notes, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos believes Chen’s escape is perhaps Wen Jiabao’s final chance to leave a concrete legacy as leader of the former group:

For years, Chen’s case has been a confusing blot on China’s aspirations for reform; every step that the country took toward greater rule of law or judicial accountability was cheapened by the fact that, ever since Chen’s legal challenges embarrassed his local government in 2005, central authorities in Beijing have been unwilling or unable to prevent local apparatchiks from systematically abusing him. His case became a kind of authoritarian tragicomedy in 2006, when Chen, who had once been celebrated in the local press for his determination to become a lawyer, was sentenced to four years and three months in jail for “destroying property” and “assembling a crowd for the purpose of disrupting traffic”—even though, at the time, he had been under house arrest. Even the nationalist corners of the Chinese press could no longer understand it. Last October, the Global Times wrote that “the case of Chen Guangcheng has become exaggerated into a mirror of China’s human rights, and it seems that we need more experienced authorities to lance this boil ….”

In his escape and his appeal, Chen has posed several questions. He has asked Premier Wen Jiabao to protect his family and address the corruption at the root of his case. In doing so, Chen has given Wen perhaps his final chance, in the final months of a frustrated ten-year term, to fulfill his oft-stated intentions to reform the system. As of now, Wen will be remembered as a well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective advocate for political reform. If he can protect Chen’s family, and bring his abusers to justice, Wen will have an accomplishment worth noting. It will do nothing to undermine Chinese stability and economic growth—so often the excuses to defer systemic reform—to address the crimes visited upon Chen Guangcheng.

China Digital Times and the  China Aid Association supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.