HK’s unofficial poll ‘draws Beijing’s ire’

More than 200,000 residents of Hong Kong did something on Friday that no one in mainland China can do: They participated in a free vote over their political future, The New York Times reports:

The results are nonbinding because the election is not official: It is a referendum held by a civic group on how the 7.2 million people in Hong Kong, a former British colony, will elect their head of government. The voting on Friday was through computers and mobile phones, with organizers saying they would have been pleased if 100,000 people had cast ballots over the entire 10-day voting period, which ends June 29…..

The referendum’s organizers have vowed to disrupt the city’s central business district later this year with a sit-in protest, called Occupy Central, drawing on civil disobedience principles — Henry David Thoreau is often invoked — should the central government in Beijing and Hong Kong’s administration fail to come up with a plan for universal suffrage, promised by 2017, that meets international standards for free and fair elections. Mr. Leung, who took office in 2012, was chosen by a group of fewer than 1,200 Hong Kong residents.

“Organizers of the referendum say its online voting platform has faced cyberattacks in recent days,” The Times reports:

The standoff comes as one authoritative poll shows that dissatisfaction in Hong Kong with the way Beijing is managing its rule over the territory is at its highest level in a decade. The trend is especially pronounced among the young, with 82 percent of permanent residents aged 21 to 29 polled in December and January by the Hong Kong Transition Project expressing dissatisfaction.

Such feelings are being driven by concern that Hong Kong’s civil liberties, guaranteed until 2047, are being slowly eroded as the mainland’s economic and political influence grows. A policy document, or white paper, recently issued by the State Council reminded Hong Kong’s people that their liberties were granted solely by Beijing and also said that judges and other government officials must be “patriots,” language that Hong Kong’s bar association says encroaches on judicial independence.


Afghanistan fraud charges ‘may jeopardize democratic transition’




Afghanistan‘s presidential election has been plunged into crisis after one candidate demanded a halt to vote counting, suspended cooperation with election authorities and called for a UN commission to mediate over “blatant fraud”, The Guardian reports:

It was an unexpectedly strong challenge to an election that had initially been celebrated as a qualified success, with high turnout in both the first round and a 14 June run-off, despite Taliban threats and violence.

Former foreign minister and mujahideen doctor Abdullah Abdullah had already signalled that he was unhappy about preliminary turnout figures for the second round, and wary of large leaps in voter numbers in the strongholds of his rival Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank technocrat.

The Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) spokesman Fahim Naime called on the electoral commissions and presidential candidates not to harm the election process, Deutsche Welle reports.

“We call on the IEC and Abdullah Abdullah to resolve this issue as soon as possible, because as time passes the crisis deepens. If it continues this way, we might reach a point where the commissions won’t be able to resolve these problems,” Naim told DW. He also called on the IEC to take steps in order to restore trust with Abdullah Abdullah.

“In the meantime the candidates should respect the votes of the people and not take such actions that can harm the election process,” Naime said.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says in a DW interview Abdullah has made a dramatic accusation while presenting no substantive evidence. In order to uphold the integrity of the electoral process, Kugelman adds, Afghan election officials probably won’t start to investigate these allegations until the vote counting process has concluded.

An election observer mission from the US-based National Democratic Institute [a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy] concluded two days after the poll that “the problems it observed did not appear to be widespread or systematic”.


Libya poll to proceed despite political chaos

LIBYAFLAGLibya’s second national election since the 2011 ouster of strongman Muammar Gaddafi will go ahead next week despite growing political chaos, organizational troubles and the prospect of a low turnout, Reuters reports (HT: FPI):

Dismissing doubts among foreign diplomats that Tripoli could arrange the vote in only a month, election commission head Emad Al-Sayeh told Reuters that preparations for polling on June 25 were coming along well and staff were being trained. ….He said there were “positive indications” that the vote would go ahead even in Benghazi, the eastern city where fighting takes place almost daily between forces of renegade Geenral Khalifa Haftar and Islamist militants.

A Western diplomat said the government was adamant the vote should go ahead and noted that voting for a constitutional committee in February went ahead in most areas.

“There will be challenges to open polling stations in some places in the east and south,” he said. “The bigger question would be what will happen after the election, whether tensions will ease.”

The General National Congress (GNC) assembly decided in February to step down after its initial mandate had ended, bowing to pressure from voters who blame political infighting for Libya’s bumpy transition to democracy.


Egypt ‘at perilous juncture’: parties concerned over new election law

A law passed by Egypt’s interim president will set the stage for parliamentary elections this year but political parties fear it will return the country to a system similar to one under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, Reuters reports:

One of the most significant changes in the election law is a return to a system where individual candidates take the majority of seats in parliament, rather than party lists of candidates. Of the 540 parliament members to be elected, 420 will be drawn from individual candidate lists while 120 will be from absolute closed lists. Such an arrangement would weaken the position of political parties in the country where they already have little influence on the ground, politicians say.

“It is not at all what we expected and it will weaken political parties and allow the return of a parliament similar to what we had during Mubarak’s days,” said Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the liberal al-Dostour party.

egypt sisiEgypt is at a perilous juncture in a decades-long journey of change, says a leading analyst.  A prudent readjustment of U.S. policy can help prevent catastrophes that have become distinct possibilities—such as the escalation of unrest into an Algeria-style insurgency or the outbreak of an Islamic revolution similar to that of Iran, notes Michele Dunne (above, left), Senior Associate in the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Above all, the U.S. must not endorse as a partner a repressive government that will increase the likelihood of such outcomes, she contends.

Even a less extreme scenario of ongoing radicalization of Islamists is bad for U.S. interests and for Egypt, Dunne writes in in a new policy paper. Lending U.S. support to youth and civil society to help create a more educated, enlightened cadre of Egyptians that can deal more capably and creatively with the next wave of political and social change, whenever it comes, will be a wiser investment, she asserts:

egyptsisidunneMaintain only essential security and counterterrorism cooperation with the Egyptian government. …

Express support for the Egyptian people’s aspirations rather than for the state. . ….. What is critical is that the space for free expression, association, and competitive politics be reopened so that Egyptians can work toward resolution of their deep differences, from the nature of the economy to civil-military relations to the role of religion in public life.

Transfer the bulk of assistance to one or two large programs aimed directly at the population. …. U.S. military assistance should constitute at most one-third—$500 million—of the $1.5 billion the United States has long provided to Egypt annually. The remainder, at least two-thirds, should not be devoted to programs implemented by Egyptian government agencies. Rather, it should go to one or two large, high-profile programs that aim to empower Egyptian citizens and improve their economic prospects. ….

Invest in higher education and vocational training for Egyptians. One of the striking disparities between Egypt (whose first attempt at a democratic transition failed) and Tunisia (which so far is succeeding) is the level of human development in each country, notably levels of education as well as empowerment of women…. Better higher education, including vocational training, will also be critical to helping young Egyptians qualify for jobs created in the private sector….

Strengthen support for civil society organizations, particularly rights, watchdog, and labor groups. Egyptian civil society is under intense pressure in the constricted post-coup environment. Simply put, if the United States, Europe, and other democratic nations do not support civil society in Egypt financially and diplomatically during the coming period, many of these groups are likely to crumble under the pressure of a military-dominated government intolerant of scrutiny and criticism. ….

EgyptUSflagsRTXX9IF-198x132Avoid getting bogged down in state reform. The United States should avoid becoming enmeshed in assistance projects to strengthen Egyptian state institutions. That will require discipline because Sisi has emphasized repeatedly that the state—rather than citizens—will be his priority. ….

Do not bolster the military’s economic interests. ….

Coordinate with Europe, persuade Gulf allies and Israel. The United States should take this opportunity to develop a joint policy strategy with Europe, which largely shares U.S. values and concerns regarding Egypt and is the country’s largest trading partner. It should also undertake, with Europe, the more difficult task of convincing allies in the Gulf and Israel that the road to stability in Egypt lies along the path of political participation, rule of law, and respect for rights rather than one of exclusionary politics and brute force. ….

But the Gulf monarchies are unlikely to sign up to prioritize inclusive initiatives over maintaining the status quo, reports suggest.

Saudi Arabia this week “called for a donor conference to assist Egypt as the Gulf’s Arab superpower seeks to muster regional support for its vital regional ally against what it regards as the threat of political Islam,” The Financial Times reports:

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud called on states to support Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was elected president with nearly 97 per cent of the vote on a low turnout. Mr Sisi faces severe economic challenges, such as low tourism revenues and poor investor confidence as government wage bills soar amid large state subsidy costs.

Concerned at the rise of political Islam in the aftermath of the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have led Gulf support for Mr Sisi, who deposed the elected Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government last year.

The story now unfolding in Egypt will be a long one and largely beyond Washington’s control, says another prominent analyst.

egyptcarnegie2The country’s politics do not represent a dichotomy between democracy and autocracy or Islamism and secularism, but rather the interplay between several large forces (an entrenched bureaucracy, a sprawling military, political Islam) to which a new and potent force has been added: the people’s expectation of political participation, writes Michael Singh, managing director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

As in Turkey, Thailand, and similar cases, the interaction among these forces will not follow a straight line toward a particular outcome, but a meandering and turbulent path that will require patience and sustained attention from Washington.

The State Department is unlikely to be in a position anytime soon to certify that Egypt is on the road to democracy and thereby clear the way for resumption of military aid. But returning to the status quo ante — which had been deteriorating for years — should not be Washington’s goal, nor Cairo’s. Rather, Sisi’s victory should be seen as an opportunity to redefine the relationship so that it once again merits the label “strategic.”

Credit: Freedom House

Credit: Freedom House

“The single-mindedness with which the Egyptian government pursued [the prosecution of US-backed democracy assistance NGOs] was surely intended as a warning to the United States that support for democracy and human rights would not be tolerated,” writes Freedom House analyst Charles Dunne:

Worse, it was designed to signal to Egyptian pro-democracy civil society organizations that they too would no longer be tolerated. Their resolve to bring about representative democracy in the wake of Mubarak’s overthrow was simply unacceptable to Egypt’s falool, or “remnants” of the former regime, including the bureaucracy, the security services, and the economic oligarchs, all intent on a comeback.

That comeback is in full swing now.

Political progress & human rights: unrealistic hopes?

“The exuberance that attended the February 2011 revolution led Western officials and Egyptians alike to form unrealistic hopes for the country’s transformation,” the Washington Institute’s Singh contends:

While Washington should not despair of pressing Cairo to follow a democratic trajectory, it should focus on realistic goals that can serve as progress on which to build. Some immediate goals should be Egypt’s military stepping back from politics; authorities permitting open campaigning during upcoming parliamentary elections; the legislature playing a robust role and serving as a check on presidential power; and Sisi pledging compliance with term limits and allowing for the rotation of power, which in itself would be a sharp and welcome departure from the past six decades of Egyptian history.

“Even as it presses for such pragmatic steps, Washington should continue to speak out for human rights and democracy,” he contends. “This support should aim to help Egypt build democratic institutions — political parties, civil society, and a just, well-functioning legal system, for example — to repudiate the false choice between extremism and authoritarianism.”

A board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, Dunne agrees that the U.S. “must avoid being trapped in these zero-sum games.”

“This will be challenging, because U.S. relations with Egypt have always had a dominant security focus, and particularly a military-to-military dimension,” she notes. “During the Mubarak era, most U.S. assistance and effort went into the security relationship, with secondary attention devoted to various reform projects (economic, judicial, decentralization) agreed upon with the government. The new Egyptian government, and particularly the military from which Sisi hails, will be eager to return to that model.” 


Sisi wins Egypt poll, but faces credibility gap

egyptsisidunneFormer army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won a landslide victory in Egypt’s presidential election on Thursday but a low turnout may have deprived him of the strong mandate he needs to fix the economy and face down an Islamist insurgency, Reuters reports:

Sisi won 93.3 percent of votes cast, judicial sources said, with most ballots counted after three days of voting. His only rival, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, gained 3 percent while 3.7 percent of votes were declared void. But a lower-than-expected turnout figure raised questions about the credibility of a man idolised by his supporters as a hero who can deliver stability.

“All in all the weak turnout will make it harder for Sisi to impose painful economic reforms that international institutions and investors are demanding,” said Anna Boyd, an analyst at London-based IHS Jane’s.

That the low turnout reflected more than apathy or hot weather was confirmed by a recent survey in Egypt conducted by the Pew Research Center, The Washington Post notes:

It showed that 72 percent of Egyptians were dissatisfied with the direction of the country and that Gen. Sissi was viewed favorably by only 54 percent, compared with 45 percent who rated him unfavorably. Despite massive repression, the arrest of thousands of its members and a vicious media campaign, almost 40 percent still were willing to tell Pew’s pollsters they have a positive view of the Muslim Brotherhood and former president Mohamed Morsi.

“No matter what’s announced, the narrative of the low turnout is there, fixed in people’s minds that he didn’t get as much of a show of public support as he wanted,” said Michele Dunne, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Program.

“I think for now he’ll become president, people will give him a chance, and then we’ll see what happens six months or a year down the line,” said Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “If things don’t go well, at that point people will start bringing it up again.”

With the outlines of his less-than-desired election victory now clear, Mr. Sisi must decide how to respond to the evident apathy or hostility of a significant fraction of the Egyptian electorate who decided to stay home rather than vote, The Wall Street Journal reports:

“The fact of the matter is there is such a broad chunk of the population that is not part of the political process and want to make Egypt ungovernable,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Institution. “They have an incentive to play spoiler.”

Mr. Sisi’s disappointing mandate could drive him to affirm his strength and “push him to adopt more oppressive policies,” said Khalil al-Anani, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

“[Sisi] became popular in part because people can read anything they wish into him; he also represents one of the few functioning institutions in Egypt, the army—and it is a structure that promises order and security, which the country lacks,” said Dr. Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

“It is unclear what his program is. He has been very vague. It is not even clear who is key advisors are. He has communicated patriotism, a paternalistic sense of responsibility, and an insistence that Egyptians work harder and protest less,” Brown said.

Hisham Kassem, a Cairo-based analyst and former political activist, warned that meager turnout could cripple Sissi early on in his presidency, the Post reports.

“Sisi will definitely start things off with a handicap if turnout is as low as reported,” he said. “It’s much lower than I expected. And if Sisi doesn’t deliver, I have no doubt there will be a third uprising.”