Burma’s Buddhist monks wield Kalashnikovs against Rohingya

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Pic credit: David Brenner/Foreign Policy

Anyone familiar with the recent sectarian conflict in Burma will shiver at the militiaman’s words, London School of Economics researcher David Brenner writes for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab:

Since the country embarked on its rapid liberal reform process in 2011, communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims has swept the country…..While the underlying drivers of sectarian violence in Rakhine are complex, one thing is very clear: An alliance between ultranationalist politicians and a well-armed militia is certain to end in catastrophe. One KIO officer puts it this way: “We cannot let them return with weapons in their hands and massacre innocent civilians.” That, of course, is far easier said than done, considering that the KIO is currently preoccupied with fighting the Burmese army.

Yet the responsibility for solving this problem cannot be attributed to the KIO alone. So far, the Burmese government has focused on brokering cease-fires in its wars with restive ethnic groups. A more permanent solution will have to involve demobilization, reintegration, and a plan to address the socioeconomic causes of sectarian violence.

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Review of post-coup Egypt confirms retreat from democracy

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In the year since the July 2013 coup, the interim government has been guilty of an “abysmal failure to restore democracy,” according to the latest Egypt Democracy Compass from Freedom House.

“Although the authorities have taken basic procedural steps such as adopting a constitution and holding a presidential election, Egypt is now much farther from genuine democracy than it was immediately after the coup,” said the group’s Vanessa Tucker, vice president for analysis.

“Political pluralism has all but vanished following the bloody suppression and mass criminalization of the Muslim Brotherhood and parallel crackdowns on leftist and liberal activists. Access to unbiased information has been quashed as critical or independent media are shut down and the surviving outlets obediently toe the government line. And all of this has taken place in a shockingly arbitrary legal environment, with more than 16,000 political prisoners arrested, thousands tried in military courts, and detainees denied the most basic elements of due process. Sadly, given that Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been the de facto ruler for the past year, it is unlikely that the recent election will lead to a change in course.”

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Russia-Ukraine ‘culture dialog’ will engage civil societies

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Another consequence of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis has caught little attention and has yet to be fully comprehended, the Mikhail Khodorkovsky Center notes, is the breakdown of civil, cultural, and academic relationships:

Russia’s and Ukraine’s society has been taken hostage by a conflict orchestrated by the authorities; under threat is the long-standing cooperation between research institutions, religious organizations, universities, human rights activities, artists, environmentalists.

The ‘Russia-Ukraine: Dialog‘ Congress (above)that convened in Kyiv on April 24-25 at the initiative of the Russian PEN-Center and the movements ‘The 3rd Ukrainian Republic’ and ‘Open Russia’ demonstrated the dire need, under the circumstances, for a forum for direct professional and personal interactions between civil society activists, academics, and intellectuals from both countries (read the closing documents from the event here).

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Tunisia: troubled transition ‘a lesson in modesty’ for West

TUNISIA UGTTWhile much of the world is focused on the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya, a slow and steady counter revolution is taking place in Tunisia, reports suggest.  

Four Tunisian soldiers were killed in a landmine blast yesterday, Reuters reports, in the latest sign of growing jihadist militancy.

Despite growing concern over the political resurgence of former regime elements, prime minister Ali Laarayedh believes the majority Islamist party, Ennahda, will be a major force in the forthcoming elections.

The Ennahda Movement and other parties have a wide and stable electoral base, but the fear today comes from the possibility of Tunisians staying away from the elections, and this is a danger for us all,” he said, noting that estimates suggest that some 40 percent of voters are still undecided.

Outdated ancien-régime thinking

At a meeting of Ennahda’s governing council last month, party leader Rached Ghannouchi expressed his determination  to prevent the party from fielding a candidate in the presidential election, the Guardian reports:

He advocates backing an “independent”. “People’s power is more important than the central power, which is why the parliamentary election is more important than the presidential election,” he says. “The revolution transferred power from just one person to a whole people, and the parties that focus their attention on the presidency are still governed by outdated ancien-régime thinking.”

However, Hamadi Jebali, who headed the first government after Ennahda’s victory in October 2011 and is the party’s general secretary, still harbours ambitions and has not yet made his plans clear. The internal differences will soon be settled. The party leadership may go even further and give up any claim on government or the job of prime minister. For Ghannouchi and his supporters, this is definitely on the agenda.

tunis-flag“It’s a possibility,” says Ali Larayedh, who took over from Jebali as prime minister and is the deputy general secretary. “It’s not an easy decision for a party with an ideological basis, but exercising power in a nascent democracy inevitably requires pragmatism and compromise. What happened in Egypt has strengthened this tendency towards compromise.”

The major parties must reach a consensus on reform if they are to save the country’s troubled transition, say analysts.

“Ultimately, the economic, political and social transformation of Tunisia will require a myriad of parties working together to steer the country forward,” one observer suggests. “With elections on the horizon, the prospect of financial reform and the security situation calming, there is hope for its people that permanent change is coming.”  

Other observers point to a growing climate of intolerance.

Buffeted by political tumult, the country’s tiny Jewish community feels besieged, the New York Times reports.

“Amel Karboul, the tourism minister, is one of the leaders defending her country’s inclusiveness,” notes one observer. “The fact that she was subjected to a no-confidence vote in parliamentary debate was regrettable. The fact that she prevailed, with the prime minister’s support, was encouraging — a rare positive signal in a troubled region.” 

Remarkable achievements

If the EU were to get a grade on its actions and policies on each country affected by the Arab Spring, it would probably score a “pass” on Tunisia, writes Carnegie Europe analyst Marc Pierini:

But that would be more by default than by design, since it was the Tunisians themselves who pulled off a success, rather than the EU giving them decisive support. Even though Tunisian citizens today are impatient, dissatisfied, and worried about their future, the achievements to date of their country’s three-and-a-half-year transition are remarkable….

tunisia_ugtt(1)Throughout Tunisia’s transition process, the strength of civil society was remarkable. Trade unions (left), judges and prosecutors, and women’s organizations were the decisive engines that pushed political parties to compromise and condemn violence. Ultimately, these groups obliged Ennahda to leave the government in January 2014. A collective preference for dialogue and compromise was imposed on political parties. This tendency was reinforced after the assassinations of two opposition politicians in 2013. The sorry example of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which came to power after that country’s 2011 revolution before itself being overthrown within a year, may also have enticed Tunisia’s political actors to exercise moderation.

Has Tunisia’s transition progressed irrespective of the EU being involved? Yes and no, Pierini adds:

In addition to the many visits by the EU special representative for the Southern Mediterranean, Bernardino León, and the EU special representative for human rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU did what it promised to do: the European Commission, the union’s executive, doubled its financial support to Tunisia between 2011 and 2013 from an annual average of €80 million ($109 million) to some €150–160 million ($204–218 million). In addition, EU support for civil society projects, which were officially welcome but in practice always blocked under the regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, are now operational.

The three-year-old transition in Tunisia is a lesson in modesty for the EU and other Western partners, he adds:

The revolution was not inspired, let alone triggered, from outside; it came out of a citizens’ uprising. Outsiders simply voiced their political support, and the EU tried to steer its increased funding to the most meaningful projects under the circumstances.

Whether the EU can do more in the future will not be a decision for EU institutions to make. Rather, it will essentially be up to Tunisian citizens and political stakeholders to indicate where they need most EU support and engagement.

The EU would do well to share with Tunisia—not teach—more of its experience in inclusive governance, civil society development, media freedoms, and transitional justice.

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Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Failures

egyptMBCarnegieTo understand Egypt’s current political situation, it is crucial to examine how and why the Muslim Brotherhood—a leading political actor just over a year ago—met its demise so suddenly and forcefully, says Carnegie analyst Ashraf El-Sherif. Though it had to operate in a hostile political environment, the Brotherhood ultimately fell because of its own political, ideological, and organizational failures, he argues in a new report.

  • The organization’s inclusion in the political system did not lead to its democratization and moderation, as some observers had predicted it would. Instead, the lack of political consensus in Egyptian society combined with the Brotherhood’s unwillingness to undergo a process of ideological and organizational transformation undermined the group’s democratic potential.
  • The Brotherhood’s leadership was made untenable by its inability to placate the powerful old state or win over crucial elites and other political actors.
  • Ideological hollowness and opportunism undercut the Brotherhood’s claims to a legitimate “Islamic democratic project,” and the organization’s structural deficits led it to be widely distrusted.

The Brotherhood’s failure to transform electoral victories into sustainable political control effectively eliminated the possibility of Islamist domination. While its fall did not signify the end of political Islam in Egypt, it did mark the end of the utopian idea held by some that “Islam is the solution.”

Three faults

  •  Politically, the Brotherhood misread the situation. It moved toward political domination too quickly, making a series of tactical mistakes in the process. It failed to either appease or successfully confront institutional power bases, and, believing its electoral victory to be an irreversible popular mandate, it was reluctant to make the concessions necessary to avoid alienating crucial secular elites. The Brotherhood waged an unwinnable battle, driven more by ideological zeal and delusions of grandeur than by a realistic assessment of the political environment.
  • Ideologically, the Brotherhood was shallow and opportunistic. It proved too willing to sacrifice elements of its ideology for short-term political victories. Furthermore, fundamentally antidemocratic components of Brotherhood dogma and the disconnect between the group’s professed ideology and the policy positions it assumed highlighted its incompatibility with modern democratic politics.

Organizationally, the Brotherhood was incapable of adaptation. Its rigid, hierarchical structure prevented it from successfully reacting to rapid societal changes. The Brotherhood’s attempts to promote organizational unity, while successful at muting the impact of intragroup differences, contributed to the exodus of fresh talent and ideas. Its organizational introversion and conspiratorial mind-set also undermined its ability to build a broad network of support.

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Ashraf El-Sherif is a nonresident associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.