Hope and despair for Arab civilization

hussein--ibishHisham Melhem’s brilliant and profoundly significant cri de coeur  about the collapse of “Arab civilization”has reverberated powerfully throughout the Middle East commentariat, says a leading analyst. Surveying the wreckage of Arab culture and civilization, Melhem conducts an unflinching, overdue and merciless autopsy of what he declares to be a social, economic and political corpse, notes Hussein Ibish (left).

But it’s not true that there are no other social, political or religious visions in the Arab world, he writes for Now Lebanon. Indeed, predictions that post-dictatorship Arab societies would inevitably produce elected Islamist governments proved wrong, because even though most Arabs are devout Muslims, they are not Islamists. They might well be willing to accept Islamists in government if they are responsible, effective and accountable. But those Islamists who got the chance in government to show what they are truly made of – particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – proved nothing of the kind….

At a certain level, there’s no question that Melhem is basically right. A real Arab “recovery” won’t happen in his lifetime, or in mine. Some of the issues are so deep-rooted and structural that they really will take “decades and generations” to completely transform. But hope need not, indeed cannot, be vested only in such a thoroughgoing transformation. …

The first thing to bear in mind is how radically different things looked, even for what amounts to a fleeting political moment, at the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring.” It was not a mirage. Millions of Arabs in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere really did take to the streets demanding reform, accountability and good governance. It was a genuine and spontaneous expression of “people power” and revealed a real appetite for greater openness and at least some version of democracy…..There is, we can say with absolute confidence, indeed a mass Arab constituency for pluralism, tolerance, good governance and accountability.

Second, let us recall that when societies transform, they frequently do so with stunning rapidity. Particularly in the modern era, change can be, and often is, sudden, dramatic and swift. If three-and-a-half years ago was a period of brief but irrational exuberance about the rise of an empowered Arab citizenry demanding its rights and asserting its responsibilities, we should be open to the possibility that the present impulse towards despair might also prove to be exaggerated.

All across the region, from courageous individuals to small groups that are doing good in their own small spheres of activity and influence, to strategic realignments at the state and regional level (such as the important new international coalition to combat ISIS), the basis for hope for a better Arab future can indeed be identified if you start looking for it…. 

As bad as things are in the Arab world today, the grounds for such hope are genuine. The task is to first identify the bases for improvement, and then to act on them.



Russia’s international media ‘weaponized’ to poison minds


russia todayAt a time when Russia’s image in Europe and the U.S. has sunk to extreme lows, the Kremlin has announced dramatic new plans to increase spending on foreign propaganda, according to George Washington University’s Robert Orttung and the National Endowment for Democracy’s Christopher Walker. The Russian state budget includes a 41 percent increase for RT, the state-backed television network that broadcasts around the world in a number of languages. Rossiya Segodnya, the successor to the now defunct global news agency RIA Novosti, is set to see a tripling of its budget, they write for the Moscow Times:

The Kremlin is focused on poisoning minds through an insidious mix of information designed to muddy the media waters and disorient international audiences. ….It is telling that the growth in resources devoted to media beyond Russia’s borders is now outstripping those within them. At home, the Kremlin’s censorship and mass media control prevent alternative ideas from entering mainstream discussion and enable the government to dominate crucial narratives.

The Kremlin’s international propaganda applies a similarly cynical and manipulative approach, where it insinuates, for instance, that all societies are thoroughly corrupt and craven, suggesting moral equivalence between autocracies and democracies. RT unloads an endless stream of material seeking to portray the West, especially the U.S., in the most decadent of ways…..

As media analyst Peter Pomerantsev observed, debunking false information is time-consuming and expensive; the Kremlin’s fabrication of information is easy and relatively cheap. While the Kremlin tightens restrictions on the Internet at home, state media takes advantage of opportunities to make deeper inroads online beyond Russia’s borders. RT’s YouTube channel has garnered more than 1.3 billion views. Even accounting for clicks from phony accounts, this is a staggering number. 

Russia and authoritarian regimes claim that their media outlets are just like Deutsche Welle, BBC or Agence France-Presse, Orttung and Walker observe:

But RT operates under the direction of unchecked authoritarian political power and is therefore an entirely different enterprise. Accordingly, it should not be understood as a news outlet, but instead seen for what it is: a weaponized media instrument.

While it denies any meaningful space at home for independent voices, beyond its borders the Kremlin is flooding the media space with half-truths and outright lies with the aim of polluting audiences’ understanding of the world.

Given the serious stakes involved, the democracies must devise a far more thoughtful response  to meet the dual challenge of Russia’s intensifying censorship and modern propaganda, they conclude.  

Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.



Egypt: Sisi consolidating, civil society struggling

egypt sisiAt home and abroad, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi  has capitalized on fears of the chaos that has engulfed surrounding countries, the New York Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick reports:

If not for his takeover last year, he said in a recent interview with Time magazine, Egypt would be “caught in a vicious cycle of extremism” and “the U.S. would have felt the need to destroy Egypt.”

A catchphrase has become popular here: “At least we are not Syria or Iraq.” It is earnestly encouraged by pro-government television commentators and half-jokingly repeated by average Egyptians to shrug off bad news.

“No one in recent Egyptian history has been so firmly in control,” said Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo. “What we are witnessing now breaks all previous precedents, and I don’t think we have seen the end of it.”

Presenting himself as the bulwark against disorder, Mr. Sisi has surpassed even President Gamal Abdel Nasser in his ability to command the loyalty of the many fractious and quasi-independent institutions of the modern Egyptian state, Professor Fahmy said, including the military, the internal security forces, the intelligence agencies, the judiciary and the rest of the bureaucracy.

Washington’s new war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, has forced a reappraisal of its regional alliances that is working to the advantage of Mr Sisi and his anti-Islamist regime, the FT’s Heba Saleh reports .

“The new Egyptian regime has the advantage of being on the political scene when Isis has become far more prominent in American eyes than anything that analysts might find problematic anywhere else in the region,” said H.A Hellyer, associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“Criticisms of the Egyptian government continue, but they are far more muted than they would be otherwise.”

 Civil society struggling 

“Civil society in Egypt has been struggling for a long time with the laws governing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and, over the last few years, this struggle has become iconic in a conflict with the government,” Amira Mikhail of Washington College of Law American University writes for Open Democracy:

Egypt is a nation where historically any political expression was limited to football chants and to charitable volunteer opportunities. It is a country where a revolution was fueled by people’s desire to become involved and see positive change. It is a society that survives off civil society, a vast network of organizations that fill the voids where the government is unable or unwilling to do its duty….

With over 80 million citizens and around 40,000 registered local NGOs, despite a history of highly restrictive NGO laws, Egypt is described as having “one of the largest and most vibrant civil society sectors in the developing world”. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (“ICNL”) explains that the Egyptian government never used an outright ban on civil society; it conveniently provided “enormous discretionary powers to the Ministry of Social Solidarity.”

But Mr. Sisi’s success at starting the rollback of fuel subsidies without a public backlash may be the most striking evidence of his standing, Kirkpatrick adds:

Egyptian rulers have acknowledged for decades that the subsidies were increasingly unsustainable, but always avoided the cuts for fear of unrest.

“That is the one that surprises me,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and a former United States deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, noting that the desperate economic conditions of most Egyptians have only grown worse since the ouster of Mr. Mubarak.

Five things West can learn from Ukraine crisis

ukrainesolidarnoscAfter a popular uprising in February, protestors in Ukraine were full of optimism that the nation could improve on its last attempt to change its dysfunctional post-Soviet system, the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, writes Andrew Wilson, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

In my latest book Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for the West, I make no qualms in blaming Russia for the crisis, but the exact nature of the Russian regime and its modus operandi is still not widely understood. There can be few people left in the world who do not know that Russia is corrupt, but there is much less knowledge of its ability to corrupt others.

There’s also been potentially catastrophic damage to the West’s influence and credibility. All of these things will keep policy-makers and analysts busy for a long while, but here are five lessons to keep in mind from Ukraine’s crisis, he writes for Quartz:

1. Patriotism both enemy and friend

Ukrainians themselves like to talk about the “Ukrainian idea.” … Serhii Plokhy’s excellent new book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union is a useful reminder that Ukraine gained independence without any real social revolution, and after only about a quarter had backed the anti-Soviet movement “Rukh” in various elections in 1990-91. Ever since 1991 society has remained neo-Soviet and sharply divided on existential and foreign policy issues….

The Maidan and the war in the east are new foundation myths (a war Ukraine was winning before Russia got away with sending in so many conventional troops in late August). But is it not yet clear whether this is a short-term effect and whether the new patriotism will make Ukrainians more prepared to accept the pain of long-delayed reform. Ukraine may be building a new nation, but it is not building a proper state. …

russia ukraine2. A new kind of global protest           

The Ukrainian protests were a hybrid of forms, but were part of the recent global cycle of protest from the Arab Spring to Occupy to Hong Kong. They therefore provide useful lessons for protestors and autocrats across the globe. For protestors, the Ukrainians made a good attempt to solve the now-familiar paradoxes of “leaderless protest”—social media can assemble a crowd, but they can’t direct it. As Ivan Krastev’s book Democracy Disrupted: The Politics of Global Protest makes clear, many modern protestors do not seek representation; they stand outside and do not trust traditional politics…… Maidan veterans largely condemn the political process from outside; only a few are standing in the elections. Rather more of the old guard are doing so, relatively unchallenged.

3. Old-fashioned protest supreme

Technology was important at the start of the protests, but not at the end. Social media and SMS helped assemble the initial crowds. They helped protestors dodge the police and the regime’s hired thugs. But ultimately the protestors reverted to “classic” or “vintage” revolution, throwing cobblestones and Molotov cocktails. …. Compared to Moscow’s tech-savvy but dilettante Bolotnoya protestors in 2011-12, the tipping factor in Kiev was on old-fashioned willingness to fight and die for the cause.

4. Keep brutality off-screen

Lessons for autocrats. The Yanukovych regime tried to avoid international condemnation in three ways. First by inventing a narrative to discredit the protestors; and the line that they were all fascists was bought too easily by too many in the West. Second by using proxies, particularly the notorious regime thugs, the so-called titushki. Third by shifting violence “off-screen.” This was arguably working in early January. It was only when the regime lost patience and moved people down with sniper fire that it fell.

…. The Hong Kong authorities just backed off from the mistake of over-using local versions of titushki thugs before the world’s TV cameras, as they sensed the protests were winding down anyway.

5. “Coarse power” the new soft power

Russia fought dirty, but still operates within the paradigms of so-called “political technology.” Russia has invested huge amounts in soft power to rival the West in recent years, but academics have long thought soft power was not the right term. I found the right term in, of all places, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—grubaya sila, meaning “coarse power.” Tolstoy was talking about society’s power to repress the individual, but it describes the Kremlin’s modus operandi well—it’s idea of soft power is really covert power, buying support behind the scenes, and using non-violent forms of coercion. Just as so-called “hybrid war” or “information war” (two other Russian favorites) are still war by other means.

But the façade is still important. Russia loves to clone and copy—to steal Western terminology on international law or human rights, and to present its operations as morally equivalent to ours. It therefore copied the Maidan with its own bastard version—”public meetings” that elected “leaders” that nobody had heard of in Crimea and the Donbas. ….The Kremlin is highly-skilled at spinning narratives; its opponents need to avoid such open goals in the future. The West needs to be clear what it is dealing well—not a duplicitous power, but a system built on duplicity.

“After the Orange Revolution in 2004 it was actually the Kremlin that learnt the lessons best,” Wilson contends. “To the extent that it thought it was immune from any similar protest wave.


putinPutin embraces strongly authoritarian values and, much like Stalin, believes in cynical power politics and spheres of influence, notes Jeffrey Gedmin, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, senior advisor at Blue Star Strategies, and co-director of the Transatlantic Renewal Project:

That’s why he invaded Georgia, cyber attacked Estonia, threatens Moldova, pressures Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, and has gone to war in Ukraine. Moscow is drawing red lines today. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said recently that his country is determined “to build a system of equal and shared security in Europe.” Translation: you in the West have your half, we’re taking ours. Warns Lavrov: any further extension of NATO will be seen by the Kremlin as a “provocation.”

“So much for free and sovereign nations deciding their own alliances,” he writes for the Weekly Standard. “So much for the vision of ‘Europe, Whole and Free.’ Deriving legitimacy from consent is not exactly a Putin thing.”

Letting Putin off the hook?

In the meantime, the Kremlin hopes that its “de-escalation” will induce the European Union and United States to lift the economic sanctions they stepped up last month, the Washington Post observes:

To her credit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a crucial voice in any such decision, said last week that the union was “very far away [from] consideration to take back sanctions.” However, neither E.U. leaders nor the Obama administration have spelled out what conditions Moscow must meet to win a respite.

That opens the door to letting Mr. Putin off the hook before he takes steps that are essential to preserving what remains of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Putin holds good tactical cards, but his medium and longer-term prospects are poor, argues Sir Andrew Wood, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House and British ambassador to Russia from 1995 to 2000 – See more at:

“Moscow has not turned out to be the partner that many in the West had hoped for,” he writes. “If that is not yet obvious to decision makers in the EU or the United States the risk is that they will be forced to learn it again. The ceasefire in Ukraine is a lull, not an opening for a secure future.”

Putin planned to replace Russia’s democracy with kleptocracy ‘from the get-go’

President Vladimir Putin has signed a law banning public demonstrations at night, tightening controls over dissent after more than a decade in charge of Russia, Bloomberg reports:

Legislation on public protests has been modified to outlaw events starting before 7 a.m. or ending after 10 p.m., except for some memorial and cultural events, according to a government statement. Russian law already prohibits unauthorized protests.

The growing curbs on the right to dissent are one reason why former oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky (right) has re-launched Open Russia, an NGO promoting civil society.

KHODOKOVSKYUnlike many oligarchs, Khodorkovsky made the mistake of putting his head above the parapet and challenging the Kremlin, AP reports.

“Putin came to view me as someone who was gaining more influence than he was prepared to grant anyone who was not fully devoted to him,” he says. “He knew I had ambitions to become prime minister and that I’d had positive discussions with members of the pro-Kremlin party to encourage constitutional reform in favor of turning Russia into a parliamentary democracy.”

“He saw me as a threat because he had chosen the path to authoritarianism. That’s why he personally disliked me.”

At a meeting in the Kremlin in 2003, Khodorkovsky confronted Putin over corruption among state officials. Putin retorted by reminding him of the dubious ways in which Yukos had gained its assets and mentioned problems Khodorkovsky’s company had had with the tax authorities.

“I thought then that he hadn’t yet made up his mind about whether to go for a more open and transparent form of government or for authoritarian rule,” he says.

“Turns out that when I brought up the issue of state corruption, he’d already chosen to become more authoritarian. He’d basically made a deal with the state bureaucracy; you can steal as much as you want as long as you are loyal to me. So he took my words as … an attack on him.”

putins-kleptocracyKhodorkovsky’s suspicions are confirmed by a new book, “Putin’s Kleptocracy – Who Owns Russia?” in which Karen Dawisha argues (above) that analysts are wrong to “approach the Putin era as a democracy in the process of failing,” Epoch Times reports:

That assumes that the autocracy that Russia has become is the result of historical accidents or and bureaucratic incompetence. Not so, she said. It is not by chance that we have the current system. She argues that Putin and his clique sought from the beginning to establish an authoritarian regime in Russia. They were not motivated to build a democracy “that would inevitably force them to surrender power at some point,” she states.

“Within weeks of Putin’s coming to power, the Kremlin began to take away the basic individual freedoms guaranteed under the 1993 Russian Constitution.” She cites a document “never before published outside Russia,” which details plans laid out in late 1999 and early 2000 to reshape the government to deny “citizens the rights of a free press, assembly, and speech.”

Regime fragility

The recent arrest of oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov “is an indication of the fragility at the heart of Russia’s highly personalized system of power,” says one analyst.

“Western sanctions are having a rapid impact because they are reinforcing broader economic weaknesses that the current Russian system is unable to counter. It cannot reconcile its survival instincts with the need for long overdue structural reforms, argues John Lough, an associate fellow with Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program.

As a result, Putin’s social contract over the past 15 years, which delivered improved living standards in return for popular acceptance of limitations on civic freedoms, has been turned on its head, he writes for the Moscow Times:

To compensate, Putin can now only offer the population a defiant reassertion of Russia’s influence in Ukraine but at the price of much harsher restrictions on civil society and confrontation with the West.

In these circumstances, it is logical for Putin to fear dissent among the business elite and the formation of interest groups that could unite to challenge his course in Ukraine. By showing that a loyal figure such as Yevtushenkov is not invulnerable, Russia’s business leaders have been put on notice that the slightest sign of protest could lead straight to a prison cell.

“Putin created a typical, corrupt, over-centralized, inefficient police state,” Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister turned Kremlin opponent, tells the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s based on the export of raw materials, and that’s an economic dead end. As for the political system, there is no mechanism to change power without revolution. That is the real danger facing us.”