Vietnam ‘escalating crackdown on critics’

Vietnam’s Communist authorities are “is systematically suppressing freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and persecuting those who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule,” according to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2013:

In 2012, authorities arbitrarily arrested activists, held them incommunicado for long periods without access to legal counsel or family visits, subjected them to torture, and prosecuted them in politically controlled courts that meted out long prison sentences for violating vaguely worded national security laws or other criminal provisions.

Indicative of the rising repression to deal with the increasing dissent were a series of trials throughout 2012 that jailed people for exercise of their basic rights, as described in the Human Rights WatchWorld Report. For example, in March, dissident Protestant Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh was sentenced to 11 years in prison on a charge of “undermining national unity.” Rights activists Ho Thi Hue and Nguyen Bich Thuy received two years each for participating in protests against land confiscation in Tay Ninh province.

“The human rights situation in Vietnam took a another step backwards in  2012, with the authorities pursuing harsh policies in defiance of growing domestic expressions of political, social, and economic dissatisfaction,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“At a time when its ASEAN colleague Burma is undergoing significant change, the Vietnamese government stands out for its retrograde policies, persecuting activists, and holding back the country’s development.”

The report describes the December 27 arrest of Hanoi-based human rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan (above) as “another major blow to human rights.” Quan has been jailed on politically motivated charges of tax evasion, after criticizing the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.

Quan was previously arrested in 2007 for three months on his return from a five-month Reagan-Fascell fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez gets passport

Shortly after using her Twitter account, @yoanisanchez, to blame the “lethargy of the bureaucracy in Cuba” ­­­for her inability to get a passport, the well-known blogger Yoani Sánchez (right) received permission to travel, The New York Times reports:

Experts have noted that encouraging Cubans to come and go could benefit the island’s sclerotic economy as more Cubans work abroad and send money home.

Ms. Sánchez is also well known worldwide, having won a number of awards for her efforts to create more room for public discourse in Cuba, so by approving her request to travel, Cuba has avoided stirring up a storm of criticism internationally.

“On the same day Ms. Sánchez received her passport, Angel Moya, one of 75 dissidents and writers imprisoned in 2003 for their political activities, reported that his passport application had been denied,” says the Times.

“On one hand I have my document to travel,” Sánchez wrote, “but for many of my friends like @JAngelMoya, they will not allow it.”

Moving Beyond Rhetoric: U.S. Policy in the Middle East

The Obama administration should be more assertive steps to in?uence the outcome of Arab Spring transitions, engage more broadly than government-to-government relations with a diverse set of actors, and employ leverage and incentives to affect the behavior of key actors, says a new report.

“Don’t just declare a desire or an expectation that governments will take constructive steps—clearly identify rewards and consequences to encourage such actions,”  is one of the key proposals of Moving Beyond Rhetoric: How Should President Obama Change U.S. Policy in the Middle East?

An initiative of the Project for Middle East Democracy, the report from draws on the reflections of leading US-based academics and analysts, including former senior officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations, as well as prominent Middle Eastern voices from Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates.

“The power of any country lies with its people, and the historic Arab revolutions have made clear the need for sustained and meaningful engagement directly with the Egyptian people,” say Esraa Abdel Fattah, vice-chair of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, and Bassel Adel, a leading member of the Dostour Party, who recommend:

­ ….much greater direct engagement by the sta? of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo with a diverse spectrum of representatives of civil society, political opposition movements, community associations, and labor unions

Moreover, direct people-to-people engagement between the two countries is equally important, and this should include the signi?cant expansion of exchange programs between Egyptian and American civil society organizations, trade unions, social service providers, and businesses.

“How about supporting democracy—loudly, from the top, and often?” asks Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations:

It isn’t a matter of choosing sides in elections or being for or against monarchies. It’s a matter of backing those who peacefully seek freedom of speech and press and assembly, the rule of law, and free elections. It means calling forcefully for the protection of minorities and of the rights of those who (sometimes narrowly) lost an election….. We should make it very clear that an elected leader has no more right to compromise the democratic system than one who seizes power in a coup.

Such an approach does not suggest confronting all Islamist parties, and they will di?er in their approach to democracy. But it does mean we should not embrace them until we are sure what that approach is…

“Many of the political forces emerging in Tunisia are not focused on democracy, but instead on securing their own power,” writes Sihem Bensedrine, a veteran Tunisian human rights activist and journalist who is currently the president of the Arab Working Group of Media Monitoring:

It is essential that outside actors send a clear and consistent message that their support remains with the Tunisian people in our struggle for democracy and not with any forces acting contrary to that goal.

As we have seen in other regions, democratic transitions are long-term processes that are more likely to succeed with consistent international support. …But here in Tunisia, we fear that that U.S. impatience threatens to undermine support for our democracy.

“The second anniversary of the Arab Spring ?nds Arab liberals disappointed and even angered by the United States,” says Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law, and a founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy:

Their common refrain is that we are not acting on our declared principles, that our historical policy re?ex—to ?atter and embrace whoever is in power—still reigns. ­

Being truer to our democratic principles does not have to mean being naïve and self-defeating. In fact, it is the “realist” position that is proving naïve in Egypt, where a Muslim Brotherhood president has been rolling over liberal democratic norms…..with hardly a word of protest from the administration…. In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has had a long head start on this project and is much further along toward decimating democratic constitutional balances and restraints.

Neither can we be credible with the inevitable forces of change in the region if we keep clinging uncritically to our traditional friends, like the authoritarian monarchy in Bahrain while it imprisons and tortures non-violent advocates of democratic change.

“In the two years since the fall of Mubarak, Egypt has received little assistance from the international community due to the political turmoil inside the country as well as the worry that post-revolutionary governments would adopt populist economic policies,” writes Michele Dunne, the Director of the Atlantic Council’s Ra?k Hariri Center for the Middle East, and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

International concern about Egypt’s political and economic trajectory is justi?ed, but the way to deal with it is not to wait and see but to o?er incentives to Cairo to build democratic institutions and adopt responsible economic and foreign policies. 

The United States cannot on its own provide the billions in grants, loans, and investments that Egypt needs, but it can become the aggregator and gateway for such assistance from many sources. An internationally agreed upon program can also help to dissuade any Egyptian government from veering sharply ….. toward a new form of authoritarianism or irresponsible foreign policies.

­“The Obama administration has opted for a minimalist approach to the Arab Spring, anchored in a cautious wider Middle East policy,” argues Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based freelance journalist and analyst who blogs at The Arabist:

Yet, as the recent constitutional crisis in Egypt and other events illustrate, neglect is not always so benign. If the United States is to have a positive impact on the transitions taking place, it must be agile. Interventions at pivotal moments cannot always take place at the level of Secretary (of State or Defense) or President, reactions must be faster, and sometimes policy will need to be made on the ?y.

“Expectations were high when Barack Obama was elected President, as were the hopes for a change in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. However, in the past four years, none of these expectations or hopes has been met,” according to Lily Feidy, CEO of the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH):

What we, the Palestinians, are asking for is not a management of the crisis, or an easing of the situation, but an actual, just solution. It is not about making the situation bearable, or calling for negotiations, but actually taking action and making permanent changes to the realities on the ground.

“There is a need to coordinate the funding of a ‘multilateral reform endowment’ that would provide clear incentives to Arab countries to implement necessary reforms,” writes Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center:

The endowment would include a minimum of $5 billion, with the goal of increasing total available funding to $20 billion by 2022. Receiving aid would be conditional upon meeting a series of explicit, measurable benchmarks on democratization, which would be the product of extensive negotiations with interested countries. ­ The endowment would be funded with contributions from the United States, the EU, allies like Japan, Qatar, and Norway, rising democracies such as Turkey and Brazil, as well as international ?nancial institutions.

“The United States also needs to continue to diversify the portfolio of contacts and leaders it engages—it must avoid being seen in Egypt and the broader region as simply replacing a Mubarak-centric policy with a Muslim Brotherhood-centric policy,” argues Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center American Progress:

It must outline U.S. interests and values more clearly as Egypt moves through these transitions and have a diplomatic strategy that explains U.S. positions on Egypt to key actors in the broader region.

“The Obama administration should use its political skills and technical expertise to assist in the institution- and capacity-building of the Libyan security forces to increase their ability to confront security challenges that might hinder Libya’s democratic transition,” says Zahi Moghrebi, professor emeritus of political science at Benghazi University in Libya and former director of Vision Libya 2025:

What is needed is a policy of engagement with the Libyan government and more, not less, interaction with all political groups and civil society organizations—without the exclusion of any current or trend.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has started a project to Islamicize various sectors of the Egyptian society beginning with the media, cabinet, trade unions, governors, and judiciary, with their eyes set on military and police forces next,” writes Sultan al-Qassemi, an in?uential commentator on Middle Eastern a?airs and nonresident fellow at the Dubai School of Government:

While doing so, they have become adept at shifting their rhetoric with respect to their audience. In English, their statements are full of assurances largely targeted at the international community; in Arabic, their rhetoric is exclusionary and threatening. Late last year, a controversial constitution was passed that allows military trials for civilians as well as restriction of freedom of speech in numerous articles; the abolition of both powers were demands of the non-Islamists who initiated the Egyptian revolution.

If there is no repercussion for such behaviors, these methods could serve as a blueprint for other rising Islamist forces in the region to follow.

“The single most important policy shift the Obama administration must make in its second term is to stop the killing in Syria,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Professor of Politics and International A?airs at Princeton University, and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

­The U.S. and many of its allies have already recognized the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. …The next step is to support that coalition by taking decisive steps to protect as many Syrian civilians on the ground as possible. In addition to massive humanitarian assistance, we must make clear that military action is on the table. Only then will Assad’s supporters conclude that support for a transitional government is a better way out than clinging to an Alawite mini-state.

“The fundamental insight in President Obama’s embrace of the Arab Awakening was that the region’s autocracies have revealed themselves as fundamentally unstable in an era when citizens were demanding dignity, freedom, and accountable governance,” says Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy:

Security cooperation and economic assistance cannot alone stabilize countries su?ering from the unchecked exercise of power, a lack of political dialogue and compromise, weak political parties and institutions, and/or arbitrary laws. To advance stability and reliable partnerships, the United States must be diligent both in criticizing these ?aws where they emerge in transitional governments and in working to advance the realization of democratic rights and values region-wide.

Second, the administration must embrace the fact that transitions to democracy are not just procedural, but rather intensely political processes…. The inevitable fact is that, in a transitional environment, any American engagement or assistance is likely to be viewed as politically tinged.

­These brief extracts are taken from Moving Beyond Rhetoric: How Should President Obama Change U.S. Policy in the Middle East?

The Project for Middle East Democracy is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy

Can Al-Azhar dialogue solve Egypt crisis?

Is Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi governing in the national interest or pursuing an agenda determined by his comrades in the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership? Or is it a case of what one analyst calls new regime, same old state, with Morsi in office, but the Mubarak-era bureaucracy exercising power?  

“Morsi is simply overseeing the presidential portfolio on behalf of the Supreme Guide’s Office, and so in negotiating with him you are simply speaking to a messenger,” a source close to the group’s leaders told Yasmine El Rashidi.

She cites the case of Morsi’s confirmation that he would attend a “humanitarian dialogue” convened by military officers.

“The next afternoon, the meeting was canceled. The Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood had intervened,” Rashidi writes in the New York Review of Books. ‘For him, it was not tolerable that the armed forces should be seen as capable of gathering together all factions, including the president, in a national dialogue, while the president himself had utterly failed to do the same.”

So it will be interesting to monitor the Brotherhood’s response to a move by Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning,  to sponsor a cross-party, non-sectarian initiative to resolve the country’s political crisis.

The initiative, announced following a meeting attended by representatives of various political parties, Egypt’s three churches and Salafist imams, recognizes calls for dialogue as the only way to resolve outstanding differences and stipulates several key principles, Al-Ahram reports, including:

The duty of the state and its security apparatuses to protect the citizenry, their constitutional rights and freedoms, and public and private property without breaching human rights and laws.

The condemnation of all calls for violence, defamation of the other, spreading rumours against public figures and entities, and recognition of these actions as ethical crimes.

A commitment to peaceful means of engaging in politics and raising Egypt’s next generation into a culture of peaceful political discourse.

A commitment to serious dialogue between different political groups, especially in times of crisis, aimed at reinforcing a culture of respect for diversity.

The protection of Egyptian society from sectarian and racist calls, illegal militant groups and illegal foreign intervention.

The protection of the Egyptian state is the responsibility of all parties: the government, opposition, the people, the youth, the elderly, political parties, groups and movements.

The meeting attracted several party leaders, including the Constitution Party’s Mohamed ElBaradei; the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mahmoud Ezzat; Saad El-Katatni, head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party; the Strong Egypt party’s Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh; the Salafist Nour Party’s Younes Makhioun; Amr Hamzawy, head of the Free Egypt Party; the Free Egyptians party’s Ahmed Said; Hamdeen Sabbahi, head of the Egyptian Popular Current; the Conference Party’s Amr Moussa; and the heads of the Wafd, Wasat Party; and Ghad Al-Thawra parties.

Despite the new-found consensus, the National Salvation Front (NSF) is still calling for a nationwide demonstration against “a regime that seeks to impose its will on the people and is managing the country in the interest of the Brotherhood.”

Morsi is plagued more by indecision that sectarian commitments, says one leading analyst.

“One problem is that the president won’t make up his mind. Is he a reformist, a transitional spare tire president or a head of state?” says Emad Shahin, a professor at the American University of Cairo:

And even if he does make up his mind, how will he direct the entrenched Egyptian state which in Shahin’s view is supported by a powerful military establishment and centralised bureaucracy? Morsi can try to revive the state’s weakened institutions if he wants to, “or if he can,” says Shahin, but so far the president and the Muslim Brotherhood have been “over analysing and thus over paralysing” the state.

But Morsi’s political instincts reflect the Brotherhood’s intolerance and authoritarianism, says Rashidi, as demonstrated in its approaches to the media…..

At the state TV and radio building that day, a reporter told me that the media’s hands were increasingly tied:

It’s no different from when Mubarak was in power. The red lines of what we can say and can’t say are being redrawn. Instead of Mubarak, now it’s Morsi. We know that it was the Supreme Guide who gave orders for the lunch to be canceled. We know there is a tension between the army and Brotherhood, but we can’t say that.  

…. and its opportunistic and sectarian dismissal of power-sharing and political pluralism:  

In late November 2012, Morsi tried to bring off a coup of his own. He granted himself unlimited powers to protect the nation and pass legislation without judicial oversight. Some said that his “bosses” in the Muslim Brotherhood knew exactly what they were doing in supporting this move and that they were well aware of the reactions it might provoke. The phrase “power grab” had been increasingly used with respect to the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies. As the months after the revolution wore on, the Brotherhood kept adding to the many posts and parliamentary seats that its leaders said they would contest or angle for.  

Essam El-Erian, the longtime spokesman for the Brotherhood and vice-president of its Freedom and Justice Party, first told me in April 2011 that the group would contest “20 percent” of the parliament’s seats; he later said “25 to 30 percent,” then “40 percent,” then “a majority.” 

What was meant to be a “representative” one-hundred-member Constitutional Assembly had been turned, by the Islamist-led parliament, into an Islamist-dominated one, and one in which the Islamists—the Muslim Brotherhood members but also ultra-orthodox Salafis—were trying, increasingly, to impose their own rigid, radical views.

While Egypt’s secular opposition has also been criticized for its political ineptness and opportunism, its leadership did attempt to engage the Islamists during the constitution-making process, Rashidi observes:

During the summer, I chatted with the former Arab League chief Amr Moussa at his campaign villa after he lost the election. Discussing what an Islamist-led Egypt might look like, he kept, apologetically, taking phone calls. I heard him say:

We must do it….

But it’s important for the country….

I urge you, this is the starting point of collaboration….

Please, we want to have a meeting tomorrow to speak to people….

We must try….

I knew he was on the phone with Sameh Ashour, chairman of the Lawyers Syndicate, discussing the Constitutional Assembly, of which they were both members. Several members had announced they were withdrawing from it on grounds that it was “unrepresentative,” and there were murmurings about a possible boycott. Moussa, whom the Muslim Brotherhood first cast as felool (an affiliate of the former regime), was trying to rally support for the assembly. “We have to try to make it work,” he told me. “We have to give them a chance.”

Contrary to the Brotherhood’s claims of a commitment to non-violence, Rashidi recalls “gory threats from Islamists. (I was threatened with having my throat slit.) – and suggests that the Islamist group is well-placed to cement its growing political hegemony:  

The Brotherhood, in its highly organized way, is already preparing for the parliamentary elections. Various factions of Islamists are forming and rebuilding parties with an eye to another sweeping victory. Amid all this, ElBaradei’s NSF seems somewhat pallid—not firm in defining policies or planning political action, and not visible enough as a campaign force among the masses. There have been signs that in a turbulent future, the army may become more involved in politics. 

Rashidi quotes a “well-known businessman” who takes a pragmatic approach to dealing with the Brotherhood:

They’re the best clients these days—they’re in control of so much of the business. You can’t really tell them “no” anymore, even if they want control of our beaches. And the reality is that they are creeping up, and want control of everything. It’s not about Egypt, it’s about their larger vision for an Islamic Caliphate. And the problem is that they don’t know how to play politics. They make a deal, and then manipulate or break it, and then swear to God that you are the one in the wrong.  RTWT

So what should the Obama administration do in response to Egypt’s political volatility and authoritarian drift?

“Here, we come to a core analytical difference about the nature of the problem facing Egypt,” writes Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University:

For one camp, the problem is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is entrenching its domination of state and societal institutions and revealing its true repressive face. The most popular solution based on this diagnosis would be to distance Washington from an inherently hostile Islamist government and do whatever possible to weaken its grip on power. Concretely, this might mean more support to liberal groups, though you have to wonder what form that might take, whether such groups really want the support and are willing to take it publicly, and how American backing would play in an intensely polarized and nationalistic Egyptian arena. It might also be complicated by the open antipathy which many leading activists and liberals frequently express towards the administration.

“For the other camp, the core problem is the economic crisis and failure of governance that fuels social and political polarization,” says Lynch, an editor ofForeign Policy‘s Middle East Channel:

Rather than an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood relentlessly establishing its domination everywhere, this camp tends to see a weak, ineffective and paralyzed government that doesn’t control the bureaucracy, can’t appoint a new minister of the interior, can’t enforce a curfew, can’t police the streets, can’t conclude a deal with the International Monetary Fund, can’t take the military’s support for granted, and can’t get anyone to take its prime minister remotely seriously. …. They would argue that the best way to help Egyptian democracy is to stop the bleeding, stabilize the economy, restore order, and give normal politics a chance. Rather than a tough line in conditionality talks, they would likely prefer to get significant economic aid into the system as quickly as possible to staunch the crisis and calm things down before the country spirals into an irrevocable cycle of collapse.

“Given the need to make choices, I generally fall into the latter camp: Stop the crisis, fix the institutions, stabilize the economy,’ says Lynch:

That does not mean backing away from democracy, though — far from it. Morsy is not going to be able to overcome the recurrent crises without a more inclusive and real dialogue with the country’s political forces, a less polarizing way of governing, and (probably) a more respected government.

One of the Obama team’s key insights about the Arab uprisings has been that the United States should as much as possible avoid playing an active role in the internal political affairs of Arab states. U.S. officials often say that Egyptian political solutions must come from Egyptians, and they’re right. Washington should stand up for its values and for its very real interest in seeing Egypt make a transition to full democracy, but it should not be trying to micromanage Egyptian politics.


Human Rights Challenges as Egypt Prepares for Elections

Amid escalating protests and violence in Egypt, the United States is watching anxiously for signs that Egypt’s transition from authoritarianism can move forward. Parliamentary elections are expected to take place in the next few months.

These are critical times for Egyptian democracy activists who have not been able to channel the energy of the 2011 protests into victory at the polls. 

What do activists expect from these elections, and what are the obstacles to Egypt achieving progress toward a peaceful democratic transition?  What can the United States do — and what should it not do — to promote human rights and universal values in Egypt in the vital months ahead?  

Human Rights First Invites you to a special live-streamed discussion with Esraa Abdel Fattah – “Facebook Girl” (above) – and Bassel Mohamed Adel Ibrahim. 

Human Rights Challenges as Egypt Prepares for Parliamentary Elections

 Monday February 4, 2013

12.00 – 12.45 

Esraa Abdel Fattah

Leading democracy activist, vice-chairperson of the Egyptian Democratic Academy,

an independent human rights and democracy promotion organization. 

Pioneer social media activist, founder of the April 6 Group on Facebook in 2008. 

Bassel Mohamed Adel Ibrahim

Political activist and journalist.  Co-founder of the Al-Ghad Party with Ayman Nour in 2004. 

Member of the steering committee of the Constitution Party, led by Mohamed al-Baradei. 

Neil Hicks

International Policy Advisor, Human Rights First

Live webcast

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on the bottom right corner of the Facebook/Ustream page)