Egypt: crackdown on Brotherhood enters new phase

Egypts-Abdul-Fatah-al-Sisi-672x372Egypt is now experiencing violence akin to that of its darkest periods, according to two leading analysts. But compared to previous eras, there is a fundamental difference in the state’s way of dealing with the Brotherhood, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan J. Brown and Michele Dunnewrite for Foreign Affairs:

Under Nasser — as well as Sadat and Mubarak — repression was the job of security agencies and special courts. The judiciary sometimes acted as a brake on the government’s most authoritarian impulses. Now, all the instruments of the Egyptian state seem fully on board. Whereas Nasser had to go to the trouble of setting up kangaroo courts, today there is no need. The regular judiciary has led most of the recent crackdown on the Brotherhood, from the Minya convictions to other trials of Brotherhood leaders. Meanwhile, the state media, the religious establishment, civil service, and educational institutions have all joined in the effort. Some political parties and most of the private media have even signed on too, apparently of their own free will.

“As a result, the institutions of the Egyptian state that used to command respect because they were seen as being above the political fray — the judiciary as well as the army — now seem to be very willing participants in the repression,” say Browne and Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Some observers believe the regime’s repression of non-violent Islamists is paving the way for a resurgence of jihadist terrorism.

“Many Egyptians believe that many young people are going to join the forces of terrorism in the near future. As long as there is no open way for political participation, the substitute will be violence,” Cairo political analyst and journalist Mohamed Abdella tells VOA.

EgyptfragmentingReport-COVERIf there is a lesson to be learned from the past three volatile years, it is the negative impact of repressive politics on the capabilities of individuals to articulate political agendas that respond to citizens’ concerns, according to Fragmenting Under Pressure: Egypt’s Islamists Since Morsi’s Ouster, a new report from the Center for American Progress. 

“While some of this expertise exists within Egypt—for example, in universities and civil society—the crackdown makes the realization of its potential impossible,” the authors argue. “The recent detention of journalists and political activists of varying ideological stripes are examples of the type of draconian measures that are shrinking Egypt’s political space.”

Shadi Hamid, an expert at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, said autocrats such as Egypt’s military ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have been emboldened. “They think they can get away with more than ever,” Hamid said. “And this is tied to a growing sense of weakness under the Obama administration, whether it’s fair or unfair.”

In Egypt, Sisi believes he is fighting an existential threat with the Muslim Brotherhood. In Washington, American officials disagree over whether core American interests are at stake, and the autocrats know it.

“There is a calculation there,” Hamid said. “They know that they want it more than we do.”

According to human rights analyst Bahay Eldin Hasan, even Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi admitted that the state “is run by the security bodies, who control the presidency, cabinet, media and judiciary.”

The path away from the current  impasse is political reconciliation, in which the authorities agree to release detainees, drop the terrorism designation, and reintegrate the Brotherhood into political life in exchange for a pledge from the group of nonviolence and its acceptance that Morsi will not be restored as president, Brown and Dunne write for Foreign Affairs:

It will eventually have to happen if Egypt is to reach some sort of political consensus along the lines of Tunisia’s, which is its best hope for stability. There are simply too many Islamists and non-Islamists (nationalists, liberals, leftists) for any one side to dominate. The other option is continued violence and instability. RTWT

What sort of president will Sisi make? asks Neville Teller, who writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal”:

He often appears alongside images of the late presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Some commentators suggest that he will take one or other of these predecessors as his model. He certainly followed both by pursuing the “political track” within the Egyptian military, and in particular the infantry – the corps which produced both Nasser and Sadat….But he has already indicated considerable pragmatism by cooperating with Israel in combating the jihadist terrorism current rampant in Sinai, fostered by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and threatening both Egypt’s nascent régime and Israel’s security.

And it is on counter-terrorism, according to Professor Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian political scene, that al-Sisi’s pre-presidential campaign has concentrated so far – both in Sinai, and much closer to home. In pursuit of this policy, he has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt and maintains a ruthless crackdown on its activists and supporters….

Meanwhile the economic crisis intensifies, reflected in government debt, rising unemployment, poverty, inflation, power outages, and an absence of tourists. “For all of this,” writes Professor Springborg, “Field Marshal Sisi has avoided any direct blame, skilfully shuffling that off onto Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi and his hapless cabinet, which resigned on 24 February.”

Springborg believes al-Sisi wants to project a presidential image of a new, “believing” Nasser (Nasser was somewhat of a secularist), although the profound changes since the 1950s within and beyond Egypt make his aim a near impossibility. ….

 Sadat did not agree with Nasser’s distrust of Islamic influence on government and opposed his socialist inclinations. He succeeded in instituting a “corrective revolution” which purged the government, political and security establishments of the most ardent Nasserists. In addition Sadat actually encouraged the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been suppressed by Nasser. He gave them “considerable cultural and ideological autonomy” (as author Gilles Keppel has it) in exchange for political support, little realizing the viper he was clutching to his bosom. In this, at least, al-Sisi utterly rejects the Sadat approach.

In 2006, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was sent to the US Army War College to study for a master’s degree. In a research paper he warned that democracy in the Middle East was “not necessarily going to evolve upon a Western template”. He argued that “democracy, as a secular entity, is unlikely to be favourably received by the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic faith”.


Erdogan set to ‘assault’ Turkey’s civil society, opposition

erdoganPrime Minister Erdogan won the day in Turkey’s municipal elections, but his one-party rule will be even more hotly contested as the August presidential election approaches, analyst Henri J. Barkey writes for The American Interest.

There are four main conclusions that can be drawn from these elections, he argues:

First, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, succeeded in defining the election as a referendum on the Prime Minister. The opposition, buoyed by the allegations, fell into this trap. ….

Second, the AKP also succeeded in making the political opposition seem subservient to the religious leader Fethullah Gülen……… Gülen and his numerous followers, who had been allied with the AKP until recently, had decided to take on Erdogan. The reasons are complex, but fundamentally they take issue with his growing dominance at the expense of all other societal and political forces, and also with the overt and unabashed corruption in his government. ….. The government rebranded itself as victim when all the while it was engaged in a bitter, scorched earth counterattack.

Third, this election undermined the one assurance that had hitherto prevailed in Turkey: that elections (with the exception of the Kurdish areas where the army constantly manipulated the votes in the past) were always fair and clean. … Unless the AKP allows the Supreme Electoral Council to respond in a constitutionally legitimate manner to the voting irregularities, the damage to the system will be enduring. Turkey lacks the wherewithal to deal with such massive challenges.

Finally and most importantly, these elections have polarized the country in an unprecedented manner. Whereas people who disliked Erdogan and his party had accepted his leadership precisely because he had emerged from fair elections, he is increasingly regarded as illegitimate. His authoritarian behavior has alienated many, but especially the urban and tech-savvy professionals. Erdogan and his supporters likewise dismiss their opponents as illegitimate; they are traitors, tools of foreign powers, and deserve prosecution. Turkey resembles Venezuela today.

Gulen’s spokesman, Alp Aslandogdu, said the AKP had shown “blatant disregard” for fair and free elections. “We are disturbed by the prime minister’s apparent pledge to ruthlessly crackdown on those he perceives as his political enemies,” he said. “While we are concerned about crackdowns on individuals, we remain committed to our democratic values.”

“Emerging strongly from the elections, Erdogan will likely run for president during the summer,” said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute think-tank.

With memories fresh of last June’s violence — when eight people died, thousands were injured and clouds of tear gas wafted through Istanbul’s Gezi Park — many feared further dangerous tensions ahead.

“The government says it will launch a witch-hunt against the media (and) civil society,” said the head of the secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

His warnings were echoed by less partisan voices.

“We are about to witness a very broad assault,” said Atilla Yesilada, an Istanbul-based analyst at Global Source Partners, a political risk consultancy. “The key thing to look for would be a mass trial against the Gulen movement as a terror organization—just like they sponsored against the generals. Erdogan doesn’t have much time before the presidential elections so he will want to see quick results.”

New ‘foreign agents’ assault on Russia’s NGOs

russia_civilsociety_HRWThe upper chamber of Russia’s parliament is working on new amendments to force advocacy groups to register as “foreign agents.” Under the new proposal, the Justice Ministry could register groups as “foreign agents” without their consent, Human Rights Watch said today: 

The proposal comes amid an intense government crackdown on freedom of expression. A draft law would ban publication of “inaccurate” information about the Russian government and military. New proposals would further restrict media freedom online. Several opposition websites have recently been blocked and hundreds of peaceful protesters have been detained. 

On March 27, 2014, at a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and the leadership of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, the chair of the chamber’s committee on constitutional law, Andrei Klishas, announced that the upper chamber was working on the amendments to the legislation on nongovernmental organizations. He said the amendments were intended to make sure that all groups that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activities” publicly identify themselves as “foreign agents.”

A 2012 law requires groups receiving foreign funding and conducting broadly defined “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” effectively demonizing them as foreignspies. Authorities define as “political” such work as urging legal and policy reforms, raising awareness, and assisting victims of abuse.

Not a single advocacy group has registered as a “foreign agent,” and instead groups are fighting through the courts the efforts by the authorities to force them to register. Thirteen Russian rights groups also have jointly filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights challenging the “foreign agents” law as violating freedom of association. The case is under review.

When explaining the planned amendments to the president, Klishas characterized foreign-funded human rights groups as subversive organizations that refuse to register as “foreign agents” despite being engaged in “political activities” and promoting an allegedly foreign agenda. Putin said in response that, “No loopholes should be left for those who do not protect the interests of Russian citizens but rather protect the interests of foreign states inside Russia.” Authorizing the Ministry of Justice to register groups as “foreign agents” without their consent would apparently close that “loophole.” 

“For two years now, the ‘foreign agents’ law has been at the core of Russia’s unprecedented crackdown on independent groups and activists,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If it becomes law, this new proposal would take the crackdown to a new, dire level.”



Striking behavior: China labor militancy challenges official union


IBM workers protest Credit: China Labor Bulletin

IBM workers protest
Credit: China Labor Bulletin

One of the primary causes of China’s labor unrest unrest over the last three years has been the sale, merger, relocation or closure of factories in the southern manufacturing heartland, according to a leading analyst.

For example, a Shenzhen strike was triggered by IBM’s sale of its low-end server business to the Chinese-owned computer manufacturer Lenovo and the workers’ protest followed a familiar pattern, says China Labour Bulletin’s Geoffrey Crothall.

The protest highlighted the ambiguous role of the official trade union and the importance of local non-governmental organisations that actively look out for the rights and interests of workers, he writes for Open Democracy:

The official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has for the most part been unwilling or unable to support China’s workers and help level the playing field in labour relations. The trade union has essentially been a helpless bystander as the workers’ movement has gained momentum. But there are signs that growing pressure from the workers for the union to represent their interests better is beginning to take effect. At the same time as the IBM strike in Shenzhen, workers at Pepsi plants in several cities across China went out in a co-ordinated strike against large-scale layoffs, pay cuts and reduced benefits. The protests were backed and even led by the company trade union and several individual factory unions. And in the central province of Hunan the trade union at a Walmart store, which was scheduled to close on March 19th, took the lead in protests by nearly 150 shop workers opposed to the planned closure.

Why would an authoritarian regime like the Chinese Communist Party tolerate such an active and seemingly radicalised workforce, especially when it is being supported in some cases by the trade union? Crothall asks:

The workers’ demands, in and of themselves, are not a threat to the party. Quite the contrary: demands for better pay and conditions and for pension payments and decent severance pay after years, even decades, of service are perfectly in keeping with the party’s stated desire to raise the incomes of ordinary workers, reduce the rapidly growing gap between rich and poor and create a new class of consumers that can put the Chinese economy on a more stable and sustainable footing.

CLB is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.


Algeria: bureaucratic ploys used to stifle associations

Authorities in Algeria are using – and even going beyond – the restrictive 2012 Law on Associations to stifle freedom of association, says Human Rights Watch. The authorities have been arbitrarily rejecting or refusing to process registration applications from organizations, putting both new and long established independent organizations in legal limbo and curtailing their ability to receive foreign funding or to hold public meetings.

“Algeria needs to have a vibrant public debate ahead of the April 17 presidential elections,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “There’s much the government needs to do to create an environment for credible elections, but one important step would be to allow Algerians to form associations, meet, and organize events without hindrance.”

Law 12-06 requires associations to obtain a registration receipt from authorities before they can legally operate. Authorities can refuse to register an association if they decide that the content and objectives of a group’s activities are contrary to Algeria’s “‘fundamental principles’ (constantes nationales) and values, public order, public morals and the applicable laws and regulations.” These vague criteria give authorities broad leeway to block a group’s legalization.

Abdelwahab Farsaoui, secretary general of the association Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse – RAJ), established in 1992, and Noureddine Benissaad, head of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, established in the mid-1980s, said that when they tried in June and December 2013, respectively, to deposit their new statutes at the Interior Ministry, they could not get an appointment. They sent their documents by registered mail, but received no confirmation, so lacked proof that they had filed their application on time. Both had been duly registered under the previous law.