Tunisia’s ‘start-up democracy’ again at a crossroads

tunisia transition

The United States will give Tunisia $60 million worth of military aid to help it fight Islamist militants who are threatening the country’s nascent democracy, Reuters reports

Protests in Tunisia in 2010 sparked subsequent revolutions that have transformed the Arab world and in many ways it is more stable and secure than other Arab Spring countries such as Libya, Egypt and Syria. But it is facing a militant threat of its own, mostly due to attacks mounted by the al Qaeda offshoot Ansar al-Sharia and to a flow of fighters and weapons unleashed by other conflicts in the region.

Demand for Democratic Dividends

Five months after the landmark passage of Tunisia’s constitution, and with historic elections expected in October and November of this year, a new International Republican Institute poll finds Tunisia once again at a crossroads in its democratic transition:

Since February 2014, unfulfilled expectations and the slow pace of economic growth have contributed to a 19 point increase (from 48 percent to 67 percent) in the percentage of people who think Tunisia is headed in the wrong direction.  Although reason for concern, this number is still better than the levels throughout 2013 when between 77 and 79 percent of respondents believed Tunisia to be headed in the wrong direction.

When asked about their highest priorities, Tunisians are unsatisfied with their government’s pace of progress on the economy and employment.  Fifty-eight percent of respondents described the current economic situation in Tunisia as very bad, and a further 22 percent said somewhat bad.

But not all the news is bad for Tunisia’s leaders.  Despite the growing frustration, 67 percent said the security situation has improved over the last year.  Overall, when asked if they were satisfied with the current government’s performance, 60 percent expressed at least some satisfaction.  This is down from 74 percent in February, but is still a strong majority and an indicator that people remain hopeful.

“Democracy does not lead to overnight prosperity, and Tunisians are coming to terms with this reality,” said Scott Mastic, IRI’s director for Middle East and North Africa programs.  “Yet the public’s commitment to democracy is evident in the face of mounting regional challenges.  Effective democratic governance is the ultimate path to long-term stability in Tunisia and those who want to see the country succeed must provide the tools of support needed now more than ever.”

Tunisia has a tremendous opportunity to provide a sound political and economic system that not only is for the benefit of Tunisians but reflects a greater possibility for the broader region. The U.S. has a shared interest with Tunisia in making its “start-up democracy” really take off, analyst Charlotte Florance writes for The Daily Signal (HT: FPI).

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Putin’s ‘good cop claim rings hollow’ as NATO plans new bases

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko promised on Wednesday to work on a ceasefire plan to end the separatist conflict in the east of the country following talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, the FT reports:

After two hours of bilateral talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk, the leaders gave no details of what the plan might look like and there was no indication on how the pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine might respond.

The positive spin from Russia and Ukraine doesn’t amount to much, according to Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Center for International Political Economy in Brussels. All the talks produced was an agreement to hold more meetings, he told Bloomberg.

“The Kremlin’s long-term strategy is to destabilize Ukraine — not to take over its territory but to keep it weak,” Erixon said by phone. “The notion that you reach a compromise deal with Putin through more talks, well, I just don’t see that.”

NATO’s secretary general announced that the alliance will deploy forces at new bases (Guardian) in eastern Europe for the first time as it responds to the Ukraine crisis, a move that will likely trigger a strong reaction from Moscow, says the Council on Foreign Relations:

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko agreed during talks in Minsk (NYT) on Wednesday with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that he will work on a cease-fire plan (FT) to end the separatist conflict in the east of the country, although he gave no details of what the plan may entail. Separatist rebels shelled a town in southeastern Ukraine on Wednesday (AP), raising fears of a counter-offensive on government-controlled areas of the region.

ukrainesolidarnoscStanford University’s Michael A. McFaul, President Obama’s former ambassador to Moscow, said Mr. Putin had frequently shifted between more pragmatic calculations and a nostalgia-tinged commitment to reviving Russian power, particularly over former Soviet territories like Ukraine.

“Putin has always had dual impulses, lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union but also recognizing that Russia has to integrate in the wider world,” Mr. McFaul told the New York Times in a telephone interview.

What’s the end game for Putin here? PBS asked Steve Sestanovich, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow (above):

There’s a range of possibilities. He could be looking at a kind of permanent ferment in Eastern Ukraine, something like the support that Russia’s given over many years to separatists in Moldova, in Georgia and elsewhere. That’s not a really good outcome because it doesn’t get him off the hook with The West, it means a lot of these sanctions will probably stay in place for a long time.

A better outcome would be one in which he gets some kind of concessions from Poroshenko about the structure of Ukrainian politics, some kind of acknowledgement that there has to be decentralization. Poroshenko has offered all of that, but he hasn’t offered to do it in a way that looks enough to Putin like a real victory.

Putin ‘gone too far to back down’?

“Moscow’s policy towards Ukraine in the past year has been a disaster in its own terms, giving Ukrainian identity and self-respect a boost as never seen before. Mr Putin is counting on other world leaders staring aghast at this brutal intra-Slav trial of strength, and deciding to stay well clear of it,” says Charles Crawford, formerly British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, and a founder member of The Ambassador Partnership:

The eternal problem for diplomacy in situations like this is trying to talk about a deal on the level of pragmatic principle while both sides strain to create new facts on the ground. Any outcome that freezes the military situation in eastern Ukraine as it is today amounts to a win for the Kremlin: all Ukrainian territory not controlled by Kiev turns into “something other” and becomes the basis for eventual separatist claims.

“However, President Putin in turns knows that any outcome that allows Kiev to reassert control over all its territory other than Crimea is a Kremlin defeat,” he writes for the London Telegraph. “President Putin has not stepped into open illegal warfare just to lose.”

Putin’s ultimate goal – to bring Ukraine under Russian influence – “has moved further from his reach,” said Sestanovich, a National Endowment for Democracy board member.

And right now, he has to decide whether he is ready to settle for a lesser goal, because he has lost the opportunity to dominate Ukraine in the way that he once aimed for,” he told Deutsche Welle. “Now he has to decide whether he is prepared to live with a Ukraine that has significant institutional ties to the West.

CFR Analysis

“In looking to negotiations to end the crisis in Ukraine, the West should first make clear what steps NATO and the EU will undertake to support Ukraine and, if required, how sanctions on Russia will be intensified if it is unwilling to reach a fair settlement. Without this clarity, Putin may be reluctant to accept that the endgame has begun,” writes the National Interest.

“Ukraine doesn’t belong to NATO, so the alliance is not obligated by treaty to deploy ground troops or air support. NATO could provide weapons, but the fight would be the Ukrainians to win,” writes David Francis for Foreign Policy.

“Russia’s conflict with the West over Ukraine will grow more dangerous. Tougher US and European sanctions won’t change Russia’s approach to Ukraine, because President Vladimir Putin is determined that this country will remain in Russia’s orbit and eventually become the crucial addition to his “Eurasian Union”, an economic alliance that now includes Kazakhstan and Belarus,” writes Ian Bremmer for the Straits Times.

Track II initiative

In the interest of promoting greater dialogue between Americans and Russians about the crisis, the Carnegie Endowment’s Andrew Weiss recently joined a group of senior experts and former officials at a meeting in Finland. The preliminary results of this Track II initiative—specifically, a framework for a possible high-level discussion about a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Ukraine—are published online today by the Atlantic and by Kommersant in Russia.

The joint document emphasizes that both Russia and Ukraine will need to make significant compromises to ensure a lasting peace. Among other things, it calls for a UN-authorized peacekeeping mission under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, a redoubled effort to halt the illegal transfer of military equipment and personnel across the Russian-Ukrainian border, and agreed limits on the concentration of Russian and Ukrainian troops along the border.

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Not Who We Are – Syrian refugees in Lebanon

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With no end to the bloodshed in Syria in sight, the number of registered Syrian refugees is estimated to surpass 3 million in September 2014. Lebanon alone, a country of about 4.8 million citizens, has received far more than a million Syrians fleeing from the onslaught of Bashar al-Assad or Islamist militant factions 

Behind these figures of incomprehensive magnitude lays a mosaic of human destinies, stories and faces. Not Who We Are, a gripping documentary by Lebanese filmmaker Carol Mansour, follows five young Syrian refugee women in Lebanon to tell their story of hardship, identity and the value of community.

The New America Foundation and the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America are pleased to host a screening of Not Who We Are followed by a panel discussion. The documentary was selected as Best Documentary at the Rated SR- Socially Relevant Film Festival in NY, 2014, and received the Jury’s Special Mention at the Festivale Internationale du Film Orientale a Geneve (FIFOG), 2014.

PROGRAM

5:30 PM Film Screening: Not Who We Are

7:00 PM Panel Discussion with Filmmaker Carol Mansour, Co-producer Muna Khalidi and Syrian Human Rights Lawyer, Catherine al-Talli. Moderated by Leila Hila, Senior Fellow, International Security Program, New America Foundation.

Admission is free and snacks and drinks will be provided.  

Monday, September 8th, 2014 5:30 p.m. New America Foundation, 1899 L St NW, Washington, DC 20036  

To RSVP, please click here.

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Libya’s recovery short-lived as country risks falling apart

libya-free_1835951cA comeback by Libya’s oil industry may be short-lived as a confrontation between armed groups risks splitting the country three years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Reuters reports:

Oil production has risen to 650,000 barrels per day (bpd), five times the level two months ago, in a rare success for the economy at a time when armed groups and two parliaments fight for control of the North African country. ….The recent increase comes after a group of federalist rebels campaigning for regional autonomy implemented a deal to reopen major eastern ports such as Es Sider.

But Libya expert Dirk Vandewalle said federalist rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran might close these ports again, after a rival armed faction from the western city of Misrata took control of the capital Tripoli.

This group has pushed to reinstate Libya’s old General National Congress (GNC), refusing to recognize the new House of Representatives. Part of the Misrata forces are backed by the Muslim Brotherhood. In response, the federalists might opt to exert their power over oil exports and the economy as a whole.

“There is always the possibility that the federalists may take this opportunity to reassert themselves,” said Vandewalle, author of the book “History of Modern Libya”.

Secret air strikes are “an astounding and unusual action,” said William Lawrence of the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, adding that the US would not have approved of the move.

Libya expert Lawrence agrees that Security Council talks need to take place, saying, “Libya needs to be stabilized and hasn’t been able to do so on its own.” Instead, Lawrence tells DW, a UN mission is needed to help the country establish reliable political institutions and an inclusive government: “We need a political dialogue that includes the Islamists but doesn’t let them take the lead.”

In the campaign to overthrow Qaddafi, many militias currently fighting each other were comrades-in-arms. But many have since become enemies on the battlefield, RFE/RL reports.

“Over time, the different groups have associated themselves with different political currents, primarily nationalists and Islamists, and that automatically pits one against the other,” says George Joffe, a Libya expert and lecturer at the University of Cambridge, who estimates that around 350 different militias are currently operating in Libya.

“Each of them has represented an autonomous power center and has been very unwilling to share power with other groups. On top of all that, there is the question of the regional and tribal identities of the groups involved.”

Three important themes that have surfaced in the most recent episode of Islamist/Non-Islamist conflict concern the bifurcation of Libya, foreign intervention and the proxy war that Libya has become, Jason Pack of Libya-analysis.com told Aljazeera’s Inside Story.

While much of the world’s attention has been focused on crises further east, the situation in Libya in the past few weeks has dissolved into the worst chaos since the 2011 war that ousted Moammar Gaddafi, the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor and Adam Taylor observe.

With reports that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are now getting involved, the conflict has turned into something of a proxy war for the Middle East’s big powers…..Put simply, the crisis could be framed as a contest between Islamist and Arab nationalists — a familiar trope throughout the Arab world.

But there are other factors at play, including regional rivalries, rump parliaments and outside agendas that don’t always align neatly, they add, providing a helpful guide to the key actors in the Libyan maelstrom….RTWT

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Assad regime, Islamic State committing war crimes in Syria, U.N. says

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A report presented by the United Nations today paints a pretty grim picture of Syria, NPR reports:

It tells the story of a country mired in a ruthless civil war in which all sides are indiscriminately killing and torturing civilians. It presents a laundry list of human rights violations and war crimes undertaken by both the forces of President Bashar Assad and non-state armed groups, such as the Islamic State, that are fighting to topple the regime.

The Guardian encapsulates the 45-page report like this:

“Syrian government forces have dropped barrel bombs on civilian areas, including some believed to contain the chemical agent chlorine in eight incidents in April, and have committed other war crimes that should be prosecuted, they said in a 45-page report issued in Geneva on Wednesday.

” ‘Violence has bled over the borders of the Syrian Arab republic, with extremism fuelling the conflict’s heightened brutality,’ said the report. …

” ‘Executions in public spaces have become a common spectacle on Fridays in [Isis power-base] Raqqa and in Isis-controlled areas of Aleppo governorate,’ said the commission, which includes former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte. ‘Bodies of those killed are placed on display for several days, terrorising the local population.’

The BBC says that about 200,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in 2011

The airstrikes reportedly being considered by the Obama administration will not be enough to shift the balance of power on the ground, analysts suggest.

“In Iraq we seem to seem to have been able to find some very good targets. In Syria, the question is what exactly we are targeting,” Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council for Foreign Relations, told FRANCE 24.

Abrams [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy] points out that successful strikes on the IS in Iraq take place when they are travelling, often in US-supplied armored vehicles stolen from Iraqi state forces.

In Syria, where the militants have been able to flourish without fear of sophisticated air power, larger operations, such as military bases, might also be open to attack.

“IS militants are different from traditional terror groups because they don’t hide out in the desert, they control and seek to govern territory,” explains John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy and US Foreign Policy program.

“By virtue of administering territory, they have to have somewhere to gather fuel; to repair equipment and to train. For now, they can do this in Syria which remains a safe haven. But once the US expands operations across the border, their structure could be their downfall.”

Robust and timely aid for Syrian nationalist rebels fighting both the regime and ISIS is a must, says Frederic C. Hof, a Resident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He worked on Syria-related issues in the State Department from 2009 through 2012.  

Relevant security assistance for a Syrian National Coalition trying to set up an alternate governing structure in non-Assad, non-ISIS Syria is mandatory, he writes for the New Republic.

“Building an all-Syrian national stabilization force in Turkey and Jordan for eventual anti-regime and anti-ISIS peace-enforcement is essential. American leadership in creating mechanisms that can one day bring Bashar Al Assad and his principal enforcers to trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity is vital,” says Hof, who worked on Syria-related issues in the State Department from 2009 through 2012.  

The notion of partnering with the Syrian government against the IS is just silly at every level, says Hussein Ibish, a columnist at NOW and The National (UAE), and a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine:

First, his forces show no interest or ability in actually or effectively fighting these lunatics. Indeed, they just lost control of the Tabqa airfield, 25 miles outside the IS’s stronghold and capital of Raqqa. This means that Raqqa Province is the first region of Syria to fall entirely out of the control of the regime, and it should surprise absolutely no one that it has fallen to the IS.

Second, for the Damascus dictatorship, the IS is the perfect enemy. It’s not as if there won’t still be an uprising afterwards, should the IS be defeated or badly degraded. On the contrary, it’s likely that opposition forces would be greatly strengthened and the arguments and appeal of the regime profoundly weakened….

Finally, the IS cannot be successfully countered by sectarian non-Sunni troops, either in Syria or Iraq. Anyone who imagines that an Alawite-dominated Syrian army or extremist Shiite militias in Iraq can be the solution to crushing or profoundly degrading the IS has failed to understand how and why the group has risen to prominence. It feeds off of the deepest Sunni Muslim rage, both locally and internationally.

The sordid history of Assad-AQI/ISIS collaboration was neatly encapsulated in a short but invaluable essay by Peter Neumann in the London Review of Books last April, Ibish notes:

As the uprising gained steam, the Syrian dictatorship released the most notorious Salafist-jihadists they were holding from prison. They concentrated their fire power on the Free Syrian Army and other nationalist groups that actually threatened to potentially overthrow the regime successfully, while ignoring the steady gains of ISIS. As Hassan Hassan has pointed out, “When [ISIS] Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, … the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.” Instead, it did nothing. Except purchase large quantities of oil from ISIS, fattening their coffers even further.

“Air strikes against Isis targets without any coherent plan to boost mainstream rebel forces means we’re, in effect, acting as Assad’s air force,” said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The battle for Aleppo is an “existential moment” for the rebels. “If they lose Aleppo, it is going to be one of the worst events in recent months,” he tells the Financial Times.

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