EU agrees new endowment & ‘master plan’ for promoting democracy

The European Union yesterday formally agreed to establish a European endowment for democracy to encourage “deep and sustainable” change in countries ruled by repressive regimes.

The initiative was confirmed as the EU released its Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy with a commitment to “step up its efforts to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law across all aspects of external action” [EU-speak for foreign policy].

The EU has been criticized for stressing engagement with authoritarian regimes at the expense of support for democratic forces and the EU’s new ‘master plan’ reflects a strategic shift in this regard, say observers.

“The overthrow of autocratic regimes in Europe in 1989 and the public uprisings during the Arab Spring show that the power of the people is ultimately more significant than the people in power,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch.

“Tomorrow, the hard work begins of turning words into action, and we will be watching to see that EU member states and institutions practice what they preach,” she told the EU Observer.

The strategic plan takes a more activist-focused approach, stressing the interdependence of human rights, civil society and democracy.

“Courageous individuals fighting for human rights worldwide frequently find themselves the target of oppression and coercion; the EU will intensify its political and financial support for human rights defenders and step up its efforts against all forms of reprisals,” the policy document states.

“A vigorous and independent civil society is essential to the functioning of democracy and the implementation of human rights; effective engagement with civil society is a cornerstone of a successful human rights policy,” says the plan.

The endowment, initiated by the Polish EU presidency in June 2011, is expected to become operational within the next 6 months, providing assistance civil society, independent media, labor unions, youth groups, and other pro-democracy actors, largely targeting the EU’s eastern and southern peripheries.

The new body will provide “will carry swift and effective assistance” to activists within the EU’s ‘neighborhood’, said Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski. He expected the endowment to agree a location for its headquarters, appoint staff and propose its first programs “by the end of the year.”

The endowment will be funded by the European Commission and member states, and some observers are concerned that significant funds may not be forthcoming at a time when many EU member states are in the midst of economic crisis and fiscal austerity.

“Candidates will not apply for the fund, but EU officials in Brussels will decide who gets support on a ‘low-profile’ case-by-case basis,” reports suggest.

Target countries will include Belarus, widely considered to be “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

More EU support could help Belarusian democrats’ efforts to “awaken” a society buckled by fear and apathy, Nasta Palazhanka, the leader of the banned Youth Front, told EU Observer:  

Many young Belarusians, she said, keep a low profile for fear of arbitrary and pre-emptive arrests.

“Lukashenka is afraid of an awakening among this indifferent mass. This is why he frequently expels students and threatens to fire their parents,” she said.

The EU’s new Strategic Framework and Action Plan shares some commonalities with the Obama administration’s ‘revitalized’ approach to promoting democracy and human rights.

The EU undertakes to “strengthen its capability and mechanisms for early warning and prevention of crises liable to entail human rights violations,” in an effort that may come to resemble the administration’s recently announced Atrocities Prevention Board.  

Brussels is also taking a notably multilateral, partnership-based approach to democracy assistance, pledging to “deepen its cooperation with partner countries, international organizations and civil society, and build new partnerships to adapt to changing circumstances.”

The EU echoes a recent US emphasis on internet freedom, stating that it will “continue to promote freedom of expression, opinion, assembly and association, both on-line and offline; democracy cannot exist without these rights.”

The new endowment will not replace but run parallel to existing EU democracy assistance programs such as the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights which have been criticized as overly bureaucratic and slow to respond to changing circumstances and grass-roots demands.

“As a leading donor to civil society, the EU will continue supporting human rights defenders under the [EIDHR] and make funding operations more flexible and more accessible,” says the Strategic Framework.

A partnership-based approach, featuring “joint projects with other organizations, such as the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the UN and the Council of Europe, could increase available sources of funding,” for the new European endowment, according to a recent report from a Brussels-based think-tank:

The EED should promote the pooling of resources through so-called ‘basket funding’. To avoid stirring up controversy over the nature of particular organizations, the choice should be made carefully each time. The EED should be able to identify preferable partner organizations in advance in order to speed up the process and streamline the cooperation. Once the EED proves its value by developing a strong and uncontroversial brand, it will become easier to mobilize additional funding.


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Egypt’s military, Brotherhood prepare for ‘cohabitation’

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have been in negotiations for several days, senior Islamist officials conceded today, as analysts speculated over the future shape and tenor of a likely pact between the country’s leading illiberal blocs.  

The ruling military “is ready to accommodate an Islamist president, but they have taken precautions,” said Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed, a political scientist at Cairo University. As well as legislative powers, “all the issues relating to national security remain in the hands of the army. In this area, the president cannot do much.”

 Egypt’s pro-democracy activists have responded to the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi as the nation’s first Islamist president by expressing concern for minority rights and renewing their commitment to defend individual liberties and democratic institutions.  Veteran democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim (above) complained that Islamist groups forcibly prevented entire villages of Coptic Christians in Upper Egypt from voting in the second round of the presidential elections.

“As [the Muslim Brotherhood] is taking over Egypt, the struggle for human rights, women equality and individual freedoms will remain my top priority,” said human rights advocate Dalia Ziada, director of Ibn Khaldun Center for Democratic Studies.

Former liberal MP and political analyst Amr Hamzawy said that he would “be in the democratic opposition, ensuring that Morsi helps to hand power over to civilians, and defend democracy and civil law.”

Other activists expressed the widely-held view that the Islamists and military have revived their modus vivendi, the implicit pact designed to marginalize democratic forces that saw the Brotherhood back the regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs.

“Congratulations, the deal is accomplished, Morsy president of Egypt,” wrote activist Mohamed Effat:

Many activists accuse the Brotherhood of being slow to join the anti-Mubarak protest and were angered when the 84-year-old group first secured more parliamentary seats than it said it wanted and then reneged on a promise not to run for president. Some were swift to switch allegiances after a tactical vote to help Morsy beat his rival.

“We voted for Morsy reluctantly to prevent Shafik from coming in,” said youth activist Mohamed Abdel Latif. “Starting today we will oppose Morsy, and the Brotherhood must remember that they won because of us and they shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past.” Contrary to media reports that the organization was repressed under the former regime, the Brotherhood has long enjoyed a working relationship with successive governments, says a former leader.

“The regime’s strategy was to put the issue of the Ikhwan (Brotherhood) in the hands of state security agencies,” said Mohammed Habib, a senior deputy to the group’s Supreme Guide from 2004-09:

Habib spent more than six years in prison while the organization was banned under former president Hosni Mubarak. Yet, in a strange paradox, the Brotherhood had constant contacts with the Egyptian military and intelligence agencies.

The regime would alternately arrest members, then let them run for parliament while squashing secular opposition groups. That fed Mubarak’s narrative that democracy would lead to theocracy. Regime strategy ensured a Brotherhood leadership that was secretive and authoritarian, subservient to a supreme guide, Mohammed Badie. …..Brotherhood leaders continued to make secret deals with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and to betray revolutionary activists.

The Obama administration welcomed the election as a “milestone” in Egypt’s transition to democracy and called on the new president to form a government of national unity that would respect civil and minority rights, including those of women and the 10-percent Christian minority.

“It is important for President-elect Morsy to take steps at this historic time to advance national unity by reaching out to all parties and constituencies in consultations about the formation of a new government,” a White House statement said.

Senior Brotherhood officials admit that they have been negotiating with the military over the past week, reports suggest:

Though both sides deny that any deal was struck over the result of the presidential vote itself, Morsy’s election now sets a key reference point around which a power-sharing compromise can be built while the process of constructing a constitutional democracy goes on. ….He has promised a moderate “Islamic renaissance” for an Egypt mired in economic crisis. Supporters cite the example of Turkey, where the party now led by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan slowly eroded the army’s resistance to pious politicians and the Muslim country has emerged as a political and economic force.

But Morsy, and the party grandees behind him, are aware that without cooperation from both the army, and the wider “deep state” of business and institutional vested interests built up under military rule, the Brotherhood risks accepting a poisoned chalice, enjoying the outward trappings of power but taking all the blame when life does not improve as fast as people hope.

In the short term, the election result is unlikely to curb the military’s authority, but it will boost the Islamists’ credibility, said Eric Trager.

“While it is true that power remains with the SCAF, no one should underestimate the importance of the presidency as a bully pulpit for the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This will remain a fight between the Brotherhood and the military.” 

For Gilles Kepel, a specialist in political Islam at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences-Po), “the army has taken measures to trap the presidency in a sort of institutional net.”

But the balance of power will not prevent a “logic of cohabitation” between the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the army,” he added. The Islamists — notably through their influential local charity networks and their presence in the trade unions — and political-military system “are two entities that have in practice co-ruled in Egypt since the time of president (Anwar) Sadat.”

Egyptian democrats are not “naïve enough to believe that the revolution’s objective has been realized,” said Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“We are likely to see a tug of war,” she continued, “between the military and the Brotherhood over the next week or two since Morsi has now been confirmed as the president with the legitimacy of democratic elections behind him. He will be stronger in negotiations to discuss what power the new president should have.” By controlling the state budget, the military “will be able to put a stop to any institutional reform plans that the Muslim Brotherhood has.”

The Islamists’ success is a reflection of the pathologies at the heart of the Arab world ‘s democratic deficit rather than a solution to them, says military historian James Corum.

The Brotherhood “embodies the conspiratorial worldview and authoritarian culture that are the true cause of the crisis now faced by Middle Eastern nations,” he writes.

The Ibn Khaldoun center is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Lugo seeks to reverse Paraguay’s ‘golpeachment’

Whether you call it a parliamentary coup, a constitutional coup, or a “golpeachment,” the lightning quick removal of Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo (left)  is spurring fierce debate over the fragility of Latin America’s democratic institutions and underscoring “bitter resentments over land ownership, poverty and staggering inequality.”

Lugo said today that he is planning to return to power and reverse what he called a break with democracy:

Lugo has created a parallel Cabinet, attacking the legitimacy of the government that replaced him, and told reporters he would plead his case on the international stage at this week’s summit of the Mercosur trade bloc in Mendoza, Argentina, as well as challenging the new leaders over Paraguay’s role in a broader alliance of South American nations.

But the former Catholic bishop appears to “lack the kind of mass political movement at home that could pressure the new regime to restore him to power,” reports suggest.

“I’m not sure that there’s a groundswell of support for him,” said Peter Lambert, a specialist in Paraguayan politics at the UK’s University of Bath.

In removing Lugo, Paraguay’s Congress may have acted according to the letter of the law, but violated its spirit, he told the Wall Street Journal.

“If you apply the criteria of ‘poor performance’ to Europe, most of the presidents would be impeached today,” he said.

“This is politically motivated. And that’s why a number of governments are coming out saying this is unconstitutional and we won’t recognize it, because the law has obviously been twisted.”

Tiny, landlocked Paraguay has long been known as a haven for smugglers of everything from weapons to cigarettes to electronics, and has a history of convulsive, two-fisted politics. The country was ruled for more than 30 years starting in 1954 by military officer Alfredo Stroessner, until he was ousted by a coup in 1989. The return to democracy that began in the 1990s hasn’t been smooth, due to weak institutions and strains between landowning elites and peasants, who often speak the indigenous language Guarani rather than Spanish.

During nearly two decades of democracy, Paraguay has been riven by coup plots, the 1999 assassination of the vice president, a scandal involving a president who allegedly drove a stolen car and two prior impeachment crises.

When Mr. Lugo was elected in 2008, there were hopes that he would modernize Paraguay’s economy and combat economic inequality the same way that the pragmatic leftist leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had changed neighboring Brazil. But Mr. Lugo found himself embroiled in personal scandals and outmaneuvered by the long-time power brokers in Paraguay.

Lugo is a victim of his failure to deliver on election promises and to develop a constituency of support, says observers.

“In this era of globalization, it appears that even impeachment proceedings, which should be measured and deliberate given what is at stake, have become accelerated,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington research institute. “The Congress may have acted in accordance with the Constitution, but this is a setback for democracy nonetheless.”

“Lugo was always an improbable agent of change,” said Riordan Roett, a Latin America specialist at Johns Hopkins University, and he had “little real political support among the traditional elites—both Paraguayan and Brazilian land owners.”

He even grew increasingly detached from the ruling coalition’s leading party, the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, which formally abandoned the president following a  recent land protest, said Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College.

“Lugo became what I call, a ‘president without party’—which occurs when the ruling party switches over to the opposition,” Corrales said.

The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, a legal arm of the Organization on American States, describing Lugo’s ouster as a “parody of justice.”

“The process in which Lugo was removed may not have looked fair, but it was entirely legal,” said Alberto Poletti, a professor of constitutional law at Columbia University in Paraguay.

In some ways, the way in which Mr. Lugo, 61, was ousted says a great deal about Paraguay itself. His election in 2008 ended six decades of one-party rule, the first time in the country’s history that a president from one party peacefully transferred power to another. Allowing him to finish a five-year term, however, proved to be a bridge too far.

Mr. Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop who won initial popularity as an advocate for Paraguay’s peasants, always faced resistance from the country’s deeply conservative political establishment. Moreover, Paraguay’s Constitution incorporates vigorous checks on executive power, reflecting distrust of strong leaders after the long dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner.

The president needs cooperation from Congress for key decisions, including naming members of the Supreme Court and directors of the big hydroelectric dams, Itaipú and Yacyretá. For practical purposes, Mr. Lugo was hobbled throughout much of his presidency, emasculated by legislators and eviscerated in the country’s media.

His inability to resolve Paraguay’s disparity in landholdings, among the nation’s most pressing social issues, was exemplified in a clash this month between the police and squatters that left 17 dead. Mr. Lugo’s opponents in Congress used that violence as a pretext to accuse him of malfeasance, leading to an impeachment vote in the Chamber of Deputies and his trial in the Senate.

“What exactly happened during the ill-fated June 15 operation to remove squatters from a sprawling farm owned by Blas Riquelme, a wealthy businessman, former senator and Lugo opponent, remains unclear,” AFP reports:

We do know that six police officers and 11 landless peasant farmers died, and that Lugo, a 61-year-old former Roman Catholic priest, was removed from office just eight days later after his political enemies united to oust him.

The replacement of Lugo — seen as a “champion of the poor” when he ended more than six decades of Colorado Party rule in 2008 — has left many Paraguayan farmers fearing their miserable lot is only going to get worse.

While the process may have been legal, it was ethically questionable, observers suggest.

“The institutions have been used exactly for something which they were not designed,” said Adolfo Salgueiro, a professor of international law in Venezuela.

“It looks terrible throughout the region,” said analyst Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think-tank. “(Lugo’s ouster) doesn’t look like a deliberative process, and what it looks like is that a president can be removed simply for being unpopular, or making unpopular decisions.”

“The new government is going to be pretty isolated for the whole time that it’s in power,” Isacson said. “For Paraguay’s neighbours and trade partners, I think there’s probably not great cost involved in isolating the country for a year or more, and then re-recognizing whatever government is elected next year.”

Lugo’s electoral victory, ending six decades of Colorado Party rule, marked the twelfth time since the beginning of the third wave of democratization that a hegemonic-party regime was transformed into a fully competitive one,” Paraguayan analyst Diego Abente-Brun wrote in the Journal of Democracy.

“I want to resist until we regain power because here there was a parliamentary coup,” Lugo said Monday. “I call on people from the countryside, the youth and all citizens to resist until we are back in the office we unfairly had to leave.”

Congress booted Lugo out of office in fast-track proceedings last week triggered by a clash between police and landless protesters in which 17 people died. The Senate found him guilty of poor performance of his duties, a clause in the constitution that leaves wide room for congressional interpretation. Franco was tapped to serve out the remainder of Lugo’s term, until August 2013.

So far, local support of Lugo has been restrained. A few thousand people have demonstrated outside Congress last week and over the weekend, many in the capital turned out for a long-running protest where people took turns denouncing the ouster into an open microphone.

The most strenuous reaction has come from Paraguay’s neighbors, many of whom also have long histories of unstable democracy.

A resolution of the standoff must be consistent with respect for democratic principles, constitutionalism and adherence to international conventions, including the Inter-American Democratic Charter, said regional democracy and civil society groups.

Paraguayan political parties, government and civic organizations should act “within a framework of full respect for the constitutional order and the principles of peaceful resolution of disputes,” said the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy, a platform comprising 450 organizations advancing democracy, social cohesion and human rights composed of over 450 organizations.

The network is an official member of the Civil Society Forum of the Organization of American States (OAS) and Regional Chapter of the World Movement for Democracy (WMD).

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Egypt enters ‘most important stage’ of SCAF’s Etch-a-Sketch transition

Egypt‘s benchmark stock index closed up 7.6 percent,” AP reports, “in its largest single-day gain in nine years thanks to investor optimism following the declaration of a victor in presidential elections.”

But analysts are more pessimistic about prospects for the country’s democratic transition, despite reports that the Muslim Brotherhood has approached secular reformist Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. diplomat and Nobel peace laureate, to take a senior post, perhaps as prime minister.

Many liberal and secular activists fear that the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi as the nation’s first Islamist president will reinforce the country’s main illiberal forces: the military and the Brotherhood itself.

”At the symbolic level, it is important: Mursi is the first democratically elected Islamist President of the Arab world, and also Egypt’s first civilian President,” wrote Issandr El-Amrani, of the Arabist blog.

Morsi’s election “does little to resolve the larger standoff between the generals and the Brotherhood over the institutions of government and the future constitution,” David K. Kirkpatrick reports for the New York Times:

Two weeks before June 30, their promised date to hand over power, the generals instead shut down the democratically elected and Islamist-led Parliament; took over its powers to make laws and set budgets; decreed an interim Constitution stripping the incoming president of most of his powers; and reimposed martial law by authorizing soldiers to arrest civilians. In the process, the generals gave themselves, in effect, a veto over provisions of a planned permanent Constitution.

But other observers believe the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will revive its uneasy alliance with the Islamists and turn against the groups pushing for genuine transition.

“Both SCAF and Brotherhood have [economic] interests in cracking down on mobilization in the street especially over the next months,” said Ziad Akl, a senior analyst at Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

The military and the Brotherhood will probably negotiate an accommodation, says Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Britain’s Durham University.

“We are heading towards what might be the most important stage of the Egyptian transition,” since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, he told Agence France Presse.

“Morsi has a very strong legitimacy to ask for more powers for the presidency… and at some point the military and SCAF will have to compromise with him,” he said.

The armed forces reportedly want Morsi to be sworn in to office by June 30, meeting the SCAF’s own deadline for returning Egypt to “civilian rule,” an objective that will require intensive negotiations on the details of any such transfer of authority.

“President Morsi and his team have been in talks with the military council to bring back the democratically elected parliament and other issues,” Essam Haddad, a senior Brotherhood official, told Reuters:

Brotherhood sources told Reuters they hoped the army might allow a partial recall of parliament and other concessions in return for Morsy exercising his powers to name a government and presidential administration in ways the army approves of – notably by extending appointments across the political spectrum.

Military officials have confirmed discussions in the past few days but had no immediate comment on the latest talks. The Brotherhood has, movement officials said, approached secular reformist politician Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. diplomat and Nobel peace laureate, to take a senior post, possibly as prime minister. ElBaradei has not commented.

Brotherhood officials have said they will press on with street protests to pressure the army but this, along with a number of other contentious issues including to whom and where Morsy swears his oath of office, could be settled soon.

“Nobody should doubt there is going to be deal-making,” said analyst Shadi Hamid, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “The (SCAF) still has the tanks and guns and the Brotherhood still understands that. There has to be some temporary power-sharing agreement. There has to be give and take.”

Other commentators believe that Morsi lacks the charisma, intelligence and drive to implement the reforms required to revive Egypt’s economy and restore the integrity of government.

He is a little lacklustre, not very charismatic and there are fears that it’s going to be a weak presidency,” says Hisham Kassem, a veteran publisher and democracy advocate.

Morsi’s authority is also undermined by “the fact that it was not him, like Khairat al-Shater would have, who pulled the Brotherhood into a victory as much as it’s the Brotherhood that has taken him into a victory,” Kassem told Al Jazeera (above).

“The challenges are very strong,” said Mohammed Habib, a former deputy chairman of the Brotherhood who worked closely with Morsi. “Everyone is watching him through a microscopic lens.”

Asked if Morsi had what it takes to overcome those challenges, Habib said, “No, he doesn’t.”

Morsi has a reputation as a religious conservative and a company man, an enforcer for the group who brooks little internal dissent. During the campaign, he portrayed himself as a defender of strict religious values one minute, a moderate courting liberals the next — doing little to burnish his reputation. ……… Leaving aside Egypt’s all-consuming problems, especially its sputtering economy, Mr. Morsi will face specific governing challenges, especially enlisting partners from other parties who have been reluctant to work with the Brotherhood and dealing with the groaning state bureaucracy bequeathed to him by Mr. Mubarak.

“Morsi is an accident of history. He’s a fairly unremarkable guy,” Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, tells the New York Times. “I guess the real question is, can he change?”

Morsi faces scrutiny over his relationship with the Brotherhood. He resigned from the group on Sunday, but many people believe his years in the organization mean his ties to it will persist. During his campaign, Mr. Morsi never made a major decision without the approval of the Brotherhood’s guidance council. Mr. Shater, the group’s leading strategist whose disqualification led to Mr. Morsi’s running, is seen as especially influential.

“This is not like running a party or a group,” Mr. Habib said. “This is very big.”

Mr. Habib said Mr. Morsi would have to deploy “reconciliatory rhetoric,” to coax former presidential candidates like Hamdeen Sabbahi, a leftist, or Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader, to work with him. “He must strengthen his relationship, and restore the confidence of the national parties,” Mr. Habib said. “Otherwise they will cause him trouble and pull the carpet from underneath his feet.”

 “He has a chance to become his own man, but he has to distance himself from the Brotherhood,” Mr. Hamid said. “At some point, Mr. Morsi is going to start making his own decisions, and sooner or later, there will be tensions between Shater and Morsi.”

The Brotherhood also inherits a presidency that has been robbed of its key prerogatives by the military’s recent constitutional decree, Egyptian democrats complain.

“[The decree] means that the SCAF has become a state above the state, with wide legislative and executive powers, a veto on constitutional and other political matters, and stands immune to any challenges,” said Amr Hamzawy, a former liberal MP.

Furthermore, the high court judgment that dissolved parliament effectively conferred legislative and executive authority on the SCAF until a new assembly is elected.

“The Constitutional Declaration is a complete turn against the revolution and it makes the president a mere affiliate of the military council and extends the transitional period indefinitely,” said author Alaa El-Aswany.

“It is depressing to consider that Egypt’s first free elections, those for the parliament in November-December 2011, have now been tossed into the dustbin,” says Michele Dunne, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:

Sad that the presidency might end up being decided in a SCAF-Brotherhood negotiation instead of an honest reflection of the will of the voters—who, by the way, had no idea when this process started on May 23 that they were voting for a president with such limited powers. Frightening to think what all of this does to the confidence of Egyptian citizens in their infant political processes.

Given the vagaries of the SCAF’s “Etch-a-Sketch” transition plan, Egypt will become “a hard hat zone,” says Dunne, as “things are likely to get worse before they get better.”

The Ibn Khaldoun center is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. Michelle Dunne is a NED board member.

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How to aid Syria’s ‘maturing insurgency’

The policy debate about whether or not to arm Syria’s opposition has been overtaken by events: external actors are funding the insurgency, contributing to rebel military successes, but haphazard support is also endangering Syria’s future stability, a new report suggests. External support for Syria’s opposition is increasing, writes Joseph Holliday, author of Syria’s Armed Opposition and The Struggle for Syria, but with much assistance being distributed on a sectarian basis by the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi sources, it has not reinforced responsible organizations or bolstered opposition structures, while “competing and disparate streams of income and arms have injured opposition unity.”

The conflict in Syria is approaching a tipping point at which the insurgency will control more territory than the regime. Neither the perpetuation nor the removal of Bashar al-Assad will guarantee Syria’s future stability. In order to prevent Syrian state failure, the insurgency must mature into a professional armed force that can promote and protect a stable political opposition.

Increased external support for Syria’s insurgency has contributed to its success on the battlefield, but the resulting competition for resources has encouraged radicalization and infighting. This ad hoc application of external support has undermined the professionalization of the opposition’s ranks. Carefully managing this support could reinforce responsible organizations and bolster organic structures within the Syrian opposition.

The priority for U.S. policy on Syria should be to encourage the development of opposition structures that could one day establish a monopoly on the use of force. External support must flow into Syria in a way that reinforces the growth of legitimate and stable structures within the Syrian opposition movement. This will mitigate the regional threats of Syrian state failure and prolonged civil war.

Increased monetary and logistical support for the Syrian insurgency has improved rebel effectiveness and thus contributed to the creation of de facto safe zones that have challenged the Assad regime’s control of Syria. Yet this support has not fostered the emergence a responsible opposition that can promote and protect the political opposition.

Furthermore, the proliferation of money and weapons has not been aligned in a way that will bolster responsible opposition structures forming inside Syria. If these disparate sources of support do not become organized more responsibly, they may help defeat Assad but destroy Syria in the process.

External Support for the Insurgency and its Challenges

Competition for military assistance from outside parties has compounded mistrust among rebel groups and risks threatening broader organizational unity of the Syrian opposition. As one rebel put it in an interview, “When it comes to getting weapons, every group knows they are on their own. It’s a fight for resources.” External sponsorship can prompt opposition groups to coalesce. ”We felt forced into aligning with the Free Syrian Army because it is the most widely known. If

it gets recognized, we’ll get foreign aid,” one Idlib rebel explained. But unequal distribution and competing lines of funding have also created the opposite effect, and many interviewed rebels have voiced their frustration over the way assistance has reached the insurgency. “Deserving people are not being funded,” one said, “and all the money goes to people who do not deserve it.”

Many opposition sources have complained that Islamist groups, and in particular the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, have financed rebel battalions that share their religious outlook. Opposition sources report that the Brotherhood has representatives in the Antakya refugee camps ready to meet interested rebel groups. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has not denied these accusations, telling the Washington Post in mid-May that it had “opened its own supply channels to the rebels, using resources from wealthy private individuals and money from Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”

The Muslim Brotherhood is also likely to have drawn on money from the SNC to support this effort, made possible through their control of the SNC ’s relief committee. Leaked emails from

March revealed that the SNC transferred $1 million from its bank account in Qatar to its Istanbul account as frequently as once every three days. Evidence suggests that other external Syrian opposition leaders and wealthy expatriates are working together to counter the Brotherhood’s influence by funding their own groups working through personal connections on the ground.

Money remains the most common form of external support, but support has also begun to flow in the form of weapons. A rebel who does logistics work for the FSA in Turkey said money is not the problem – “plenty pours in from Syrians in exile”- but cited the logistical challenge of smuggling larger weapons across the relatively well-guarded Syrian border. The funds that reach Syrian insurgent groups undoubtedly go towards purchasing weapons, either from corrupt and sympathetic regime officials or from smugglers bringing weapons in from Syria’s neighbors.

Competing and disparate streams of income and arms have injured opposition unity in Syria. One of the most damning pieces of evidence once again comes from the email of Abu Majid in Homs: “The basis of the crisis in the city today is groups receiving uneven amounts of money from direct sources in Saudi Arabia, some of whom are urging the targeting of loyalist neighborhoods and sectarian escalation. …They are not national, unifying sources of support. On the contrary, mature field leaders have noted that receiving aid from them [Saudi Arabia] entails implicit conditions like working in ways other than the desired direction.”

The question is whether the opposition will be able to provide security where the Assad regime cannot. To avoid a power vacuum in rebel-held areas, Syria’s opposition must also establish a system of governance within these de facto safe zones that offers a responsible alternative to the Assad regime.

International support, carefully applied, could both hasten the fall of the Assad regime and reduce the Increased monetary and logistical support for the Syrian insurgency has improved rebel effectiveness and thus contributed to the creation of de facto safe zones that have challenged the Assad regime’s control of Syria. Yet this support has not fostered the emergence a responsible opposition that can promote and protect the political opposition. Furthermore, the proliferation of money and weapons has not been aligned in a way that will bolster responsible opposition structures forming inside Syria. If these disparate sources of support do not become organized more responsibly, they may help defeat Assad but destroy Syria in the process.

The international community must prepare for protracted civil war in Syria, but the extent of regional destabilization could depend on whether the opposition develops into an alternative government or descends into chaos and competition among warring factions. If the conflict continues along its current trajectory, Syria’s maturing insurgency will be able to challenge the Syrian state’s authority over large portions of the country. However, it will not be able to overthrow the Assad regime for the foreseeable future.

The regime can continue to count on the loyalty of a critical mass of its military formations, and the lightly-armed and locally-oriented rebels will not be able to march on Damascus to oust the government. Because of this, Assad is likely to hold the capital for the remainder of 2012. The sectarian and security structures that underpin the regime can hold the coastal areas of Latakia and Tartous provinces for much longer. Conversely, the regime does not have the forces required to hold all of Syria, and its control is steadily eroding across the country. If the Syrian opposition becomes strong enough, or the security forces become stretched enough, the Assad regime will lose its monopoly on the use of force in the northern, eastern, and even central parts of Syria.

Despite the best efforts of the international community, a stable, representative opposition government cannot be forged in Istanbul and injected into the conflict. Syria’s exile opposition groups lack legitimacy, cohesion, and grassroots support in Syria, in contrast to the existing organic opposition movement. As analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy wrote, the evolving grassroots political opposition “offers greater potential for the ultimate success of the revolution.”

Working in conjunction with these grassroots political structures, provincial military councils stand the greatest chance of achieving this difficult objective of securing and governing Syria.

The priority of U.S. policy on Syria should be to encourage the development of opposition structures that could one day establish a monopoly on the use of force. This is necessary to mitigate the regional destabilizing effects of Syrian state failure and prolonged civil war. The policy debate in Washington about whether or not to arm the Syrian opposition has been overtaken by events: external actors are funding Syria’s insurgency, and these resources are contributing to rebel successes on the battlefield. But haphazard support is also endangering Syria’s future stability. External support must flow into Syria in a way that reinforces responsible organizations and bolsters structure within the Syrian opposition movement.  

U.S. objectives should be to channel existing support in constructive ways, namely to the provincial military councils. U.S. policymakers must further recognize that the opposition structures emerging on a province-by-province basis are far more likely to establish this modicum of control than a national-level expatriate opposition organization.

This is an extract from Syria’s Maturing Insurgency, a report from the Institute for the Study of War. Read the rest here.

Joseph Holliday is a Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, where he studies security dynamics in Syria. He is the author of Syria’s Armed Opposition and The Struggle for Syria in 2011.

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