How to prepare for a Syrian transition

Faced with the unpalatable choice of standing by while Bashar al-Assad massacres Syria’s people or engaging in a violent and unpredictable conflict, the international community should prepare to assist a future transition, while avoiding the unintended consequences of badly designed assistance, write Dr Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart (above), respectively chair and director of the Institute for State Effectiveness.  Before preparing and implementing a strategy, both policymakers and donors must have a comprehensive understanding of the situation. In a new report, they outline recommendations for working groups and members of the international community; develop scenarios for transition; identify relevant peace-building lessons from the past; and pinpoint issues to be addressed in articulating and implementing a post-Assad agenda

Although the contours of any possible transition will be shaped by the evolving context, lessons can be learned from the global experience of the 1980s, 1990s, and the first decade of the 21st century—lessons which might help Syria not only avoid the deepening of civil war but move towards restructuring itself as a legitimate modern state.

Conditions in Syria are still too uncertain to create a definitive plan. Instead, we recommend the creation of working groups to prepare and ready a common agenda if the political opportunity presents itself, building on work of exercises such as the Day After Project of the United States Institute for International Peace. The more clearly and credibly a post-Assad agenda can be articulated—and the broader the consensus around it—the more likely the transition is to succeed. Grounded in an understanding of the lessons and methods described above, working groups could and should immediately address each of the following issues:

i. the legal framework

ii. Provision of security

iii. internal reorganisation of the state

iV. media and access to information

V. Public finance

Vi. social and economic development

Vii. immediate stabilisation measures

Viii. relations with the region and the international community.

A Reconstruction Conference, perhaps held under the auspices of the Arab League, should be immediately convened in order to help create a common action plan, and to allow the international community to make conditional commitments to a common trust fund.

In preparing for the opening of political dialogue in Syria, our comparative reading suggests that decision-makers should closely consider key operational and process issues, without which the process can become abstract and vague. Our recommendations for tangible engagement include:

  • Keep the content narrow and defined
  • Carefully balance short term trade-offs vs. long term stability
  • Address the question of sovereignty and a realistic timeline for resumption of full sovereignty for Syria if there is a form of limited sovereignty for any transition period
  • Pay attention to the implementation of a new constitution, elections, delivery of basic services, and security
  • Mobilise and organise outside resources early
  • Concentrate on building a role for civil society and pay attention to citizens and not just to military and political factions

Although there are many possible scenarios for a situation as complex as Syria, we have chosen four, into which others can be collapsed. Full development of each of these scenarios will require working with people on the ground to help them weigh the consequences of their decisions. Preparation for each of these scenarios is not only possible, it is essential, as events are not within any single person’s control and any of these scenarios may yet unfold.

Accommodation of an Assad Regime Without Assad

Despite the mutual antagonism, a bargain between core elements of the regime and the opposition could produce an accommodation acceptable to both sides. The regime may decide to acknowledge a stalemate if it runs out of money, has difficulty replenishing its arsenal, or paying its soldiers; if Iran and Russia decide not to provide armaments without payment; and if the personal toll grows too high and the number of defections increases.

At such a juncture, the two sides could cut a deal which made the regime more inclusive while at the same time avoiding retribution for the acts of violence committed by both sides. Guatemala, El Salvador and Sudan are all cases where an impasse was acknowledged, and where both sides agreed to pay a significant price in order to achieve a peaceful compromise.

Some of the Syrian opposition have thought through this possibility before. In their Damascus Manifesto of 2000, prominent figures within Syria proposed gradual reforms.

The advantages of such a scenario are that it preserves the livelihoods of some of Syria’s leadership—a necessity ignored by de-Ba’athification in Iraq—but allows for eventual transition to a multi-party regime, constitutional reform, and elections held at a date mutually acceptable to the two sides. The political energies of the street could be diverted into electoral politics.

This approach would require a robust and active approach to transitional justice and forgiveness in order to take steps toward a peaceful future. Without a process for reestablishing rule of law and addressing grievances there would be a significant risk of retribution, further eroding trust, and derailing the peace process.

There are risks to this scenario as well. Discontented insurgents could re-mobilise against this type of accommodation. Security might become criminalised. Insurgent leaders might not have sufficient influence or be sufficiently representative. If the dynamics that produced the street movement are ignored—the youth bulge, inequality, economic exclusion and marginalisation—the risk of a recurrence of conflict is significant.

Illusive Peace and Stability Leading to Instability and Deepening Civil War

If elites fail to reach mutually acceptable terms; if they cannot persuade their constituencies to accept an agreement; if they do not exert control over armed forces; if they are unable to address the concerns of the youth; or if regional powers do not accept the accommodation and continue to fuel warfare; the outcome might be an illusive ‘peace’ which is frequently broken by renewed conflict.

Without an agreed-upon political process and steady movement towards clear goals, steps would be reactive and improvised. The political system would remain divisive and corrupt, leading to deepening distrust, criminality, and a resumption of fighting. The window that seemed open would quickly close, as in Afghanistan during the 1990s, as well as Kenya at the time of the elections in 2007 and Liberia in 1996, which suffered a decade of internal and external infighting and conflict negotiation between warlords.

Recognition would provide the insurgent government with access to a range of resources and could help tip the balance between the regime and the insurgency. Equally, the conflict could settle into a prolonged civil war, with neither side controlling the entire country. Biafra in Nigeria as well as Montenegro, Croatia, and Kosovo in former Yugoslavia are all examples of regional insurgencies that gained control of territory and demanded recognition. The consolidation of insurgencies in Chiapas, Mexico, and the Mindanao in the Philippines forced governments to start a serious programme of reforms to address the concerns of the insurgency.

Unlike Syria, where the insurgency is largely comprised of the majority Sunni population, these insurgencies were spurred by the demands of ethnic minorities. And although some of them ended peacefully, Lebanon’s example is sobering: a Middle Eastern country left to struggle with civil war for a full fifteen years. In such conditions, peace-making becomes particularly complex. The human cost is considerable and long-lasting, and the risk that violence bleeds into neighbouring countries increases substantially with a prolonged civil conflict.

A New Beginning

In this scenario, the state would be fully reconstructed, resulting in a pluralistic, inclusive Republic, held together by a national agreement on rules of the game and supported by regional and international stakeholders. Central to this scenario is a roadmap for building effective institutions that will foster accountability and stability.

The trigger for this scenario is a victory, military or otherwise, for the insurgency, followed by an agreement to re-write the constitution and reconstruct state institutions. Optimally the insurgency’s local organisational capabilities would be supported and expanded, allowing for a bottom up democratisation process. Political parties would be allowed, and the Ba’athists could regroup and participate. There would be a transition from a unitary single party state to a multi-party system.

A successful settlement would also require an inclusive economic plan for Syria; a reasonable transitional period with clear milestones; a relatively small but efficient peace-keeping force stationed in the capital; a major package of assistance from the Gulf as well as Mediterranean trade access agreements. An inclusive conversation, focused on the nation and on ideas of democracy would lie at the heart of such a transition. Instead of a compact of elites, a new Syrian government would obtain its legitimacy from the citizens, thanks to a new constitution and a democratic process.

Examples of countries that have successfully navigated a new start include Spain in 1975, Turkey in 1923 under Ataturk, Colombia with its national convention and generation of a consensus on the way forward, Rwanda in the aftermath of genocide, and Karnataka and Bihar at the sub-national level in India.

Imposed Peace

To date, regional and international actors have not intervened militarily or directly in Syria, at least not overtly. But this could change: in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor, the international community felt forced to intervene to impose peace when other mechanisms had failed or had begun too late. In an ‘imposed peace’ scenario, the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime—perhaps culminating in a ‘Srebrenica’ moment—enflame regional and international public opinion, and the international community, in the form of the UN, the Arab League, or an international coalition, reaches consensus on the need to intervene.

After the decision to act, no-fly zones and safe havens could be established and troops could even end up being deployed, probably under a carefully-worded mandate on the use of force. Parties to the conflict could be brought to the table and a peace agreement imposed. An interim international administration could be established, with sovereignty divided or taken over (as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and East Timor).

While they can effectively put an end to violence, interventions do not always create a clear roadmap for transition. Temporary measures can become entrenched. An interim administration, in the absence of a timetable or benchmarks for handover, can become semi-permanent, as happened in Iraq. Parallel structures established to exercise state functions in the short term become permanent, and the international community’s presence distorts politics, society, and the economy.

This is an extract from a longer report, Preparing for a Syrian Transition, published by the London-based Legatum Institute, in partnership with the Institute for State Effectiveness. The ISE works with countries aiming to make transitions from instability to stability and from poverty to prosperity.

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Ennahdha’s strategy – torn between Tunisia’s seculars and salafists

The recent announcement that Tunisia’s dominant Islamist party Ennahdha wants to reshuffle of the cabinet and forge a broader alliance with secular opposition parties is a sign of the group’s growing vulnerability, writes Mohamed Bechri, a former president of the Tunisian Section of Amnesty International. 

In order to understand Ennahdha’s motives, one should note that a turning point occurred with the Islamist party’s mishandling of the September 14 attacks on the U.S. embassy, he notes on the Fikra Forum. The four resulting deaths led to accusations of Ennahdha’s incompetence and their alleged cover up of the Salafi violence.

Ennahdha’s mishandling of the events of September 14 backfired at the very moment the party faced additional challenges from civil society organizations, the media, and the judiciary; and when its secular partners in the Troika coalition government are on the decline.

To make matters worse, the highly publicized video of Rachid Ghannouchi (left) warning a Salafi convention that the Tunisian administration is still in the hands of the secularists and that “the army and the police are not safe” provided those on the fence with proof of the Ennahdha president’s allegiances. The event put the group’s leadership on the defensive as the opposition and independent media used the video as concrete evidence of “the hidden agenda of the so-called moderate mainstream Islamists.”

In the midst of this tense political situation, Salafi violence returned in the Tunis suburb of Manouba on October 27, when Commander Wissam Ben Sliman was assaulted during clashes with Salafis protesting against alcohol vendors. The violence left Ennahdha with no choice but to apply a two-track strategy: cracking down on jihadi Salafis on the one hand, and authorizing Salafi political parties to keep the potential for political partnership open on the other.

Though the Islamists’ coalition parties are in a state of decay, they are taking a stand against Ennahdha. On November 8, the secretary general of CPR, Mohamed Abbou, announced that his party might leave the ruling Troika if its demands for the abolition of Ennahdha vigilantes, known as “The Committees to Protect the Revolution,” and the nomination of independent personalities to head the sovereign ministries were not met.

The weakness of both the Salafi Islah Front on the right and the secular partners in the Troika on the left explains the recent call by Rachid Ghannouchi for “a large alliance” to prepare for the coming elections, which should be understood as a call addressed to all secular opposition parties. The only exception is the newly formed “Call of Tunisia,” whose platform presents the party as a political alternative to Ennahdha.

While the Islamists’ attempts to shift alliances may be viewed as opportunistic, it undoubtedly reflects their current vulnerability. This in fact presents a valuable opening for their opponents to end Ennahdha’s hegemony.

Both the U.S. guarantee on government debt issues and the European Union’s assignment of privileged partner status embody a confidence in Tunisia’s transition to democracy. Nonetheless, the West’s leverage could be put to better use if it focuses on supporting the following: (1) the cabinet reshuffle as a precondition to ensuring free and fair elections, (2) making Ennahdha’s continued partnership with secular parties a precondition for future improved bilateral relations, and (3) strengthening Tunisia’s thriving civil society as the best line of defense against attempts to return to autocratic rule.

The combined pressure from both domestic and foreign sources would seriously weaken Ennahdha’s political dominance. The country that was the trendsetter of the Arab Spring movement could be the first to exit the Islamist theocratic quagmire altogether, again paving the way in the transition to full democratic rule.

This extract is taken from a longer article on the Fikra Forum. RTWT

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Undercover film shows Cuba’s dissidents ‘under intense pressure’

Two leading Cuban dissidents have been threatened and attacked, “by people they took to be intelligence agents in separate incidents on the same day,” AP reports:

Elizardo Sanchez said two plainclothes officials stopped him near his Havana home on Tuesday, shouting physical threats and using crude language. That night, dissident Guillermo Farinas was allegedly attacked by a man with a wooden stick elsewhere in Havana, resulting in light injuries.

The regime is keeping rights activists under intense pressure, with more than 5,600 dissidents, journalists and rights activists arrested or detained between January and the end of October this year, writes Ivette Martinez:

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation recorded 520 detentions in October alone. For the year, the group says it has documented 5,625 cases, which is “consistent with the high level of political repression in Cuba over recent years.”

The Communist authorities yesterday sentenced a labor union activist to two years in prison for his independent organizing activities.

Ulises González Moreno (right) was sentenced in a trial whose outcome was predetermined, independent journalist Iván Hernández Carrillo reports via his Twitter account:

According to Cuba Sindical, González Moreno is 45 years old and was detained on November 15, 2012 at his home located in Concordia # 414 apartment 2 in Central Havana by two plain clothes state security agents who identified themselves as members of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT). The following day when his wife went to where her husband was being detained she was told that he would be tried for “Peligrosidad Social” (Social Dangerousness), which indicates that the activist has a predilection to in a possible future commit a crime against the regime. This law has been used to persecute nonviolent activists.

Swept up in the recent wave of journalistic arrests in Cuba, former political prisoner of conscience Iván Hernández features in a must-see film (above) shot undercover by Al Jazeera, using hidden cameras to portray the experience of Berta Soler, Angel Moya, Antonio Rodiles, Elizardo Sanchez and other leading dissidents.

The film features moving footage from the funeral of Oswaldo Paya and shocking scenes of police attacks on the mourners. It also highlights the work of Rodiles (left), recently interviewed by Ivette Leyva Martinez in Cafe Fuerte, after spending 19 days in detention.

CF: What do you take away from this experience?

AR: I say to my friends and others with whom I have spoken, that my main experience is that at this moment in Cuba there are a great many people who understand that the country has to change, and that people thinking differently, that people having different views of things, political, ideological, is not a reason for people to hate them or to not respect them but, sadly, there is a group of people who up to now have demonstrated that they have carte blanche to use violence, who are committed to creating situations like this one and I think, what’s more, they are committed to creating even more critical situations.

I think it’s very important that all national and international public opinion support civil society activists because these people are not the preponderance of the people in this country.


Following the 2011 economic reforms announced by the Cuban government for the 52nd anniversary of the country’s revolution, there was widespread speculation about the possibility of comparable political reforms that would end the persecution of dissidents and the Communist Party’s grip on power.

But it took a courageous Cuban journalist to make an insightful current affairs programme about it, writes Al Jazeera’s undercover reporter. Today, that journalist, Ivan Hernandez, is in hiding. My first ever attempt to meet up with Ivan in a Havana bar, back in September 2011, failed for fear of being arrested by the political police on his tail. I was on a tourist visa and aware that any encounter with political dissidents could mean immediate expulsion from the country and a permanent ban from returning. To Fidel Castro, Ivan is a “counter-revolutionary” working for the American right-wing Cuban lobby. In reality, Ivan is just an independent freelance journalist, albeit one with a very critical view of the Cuban Revolution.

But in 2003, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring against the government and publishing “false information”. He was sent to a high security compound, isolated in an individual cell and deprived of contact with anyone other than his guards for months on end. His crime was merely to write reports about how difficult life was for the ordinary Cuban.

I was impressed by Ivan’s determination. I thought that following him undercover as we contacted other political dissidents and victims of state-sponsored violence could illustrate what it is like to be critical of Fidel Castro in Cuba today. Ivan liked the idea and we worked out a way to make it happen without being arrested. …..

From the start, Ivan warned me that one-out-of-every-five Cubans is suspected of being a police informer and that few people can be absolutely trusted. He said we needed to film with mini hidden cameras and concoct a plausible cover story for me, the foreigner in the team. We established a security protocol by which if the dissident with the camera did not report back to one of us within a specified period of time, we had to assume that he had been detained. We had a network of pre-determined “safe houses” and arrangements to call each other using public phones at a given time.

I taught Ivan some counter-surveillance techniques learned by covering other conflicts but he was well used to this himself.

Filming with Berta Soller, the leader of the Ladies in White protest movement, was one of our first tasks. Aware that her apartment was under constant surveillance we used a key-fob camera to get shots as we walked up to her building, although as it turned out, our work was made easier by the fact that too many policemen and “local informers” could be persuaded to look the other way for $5.

Then we took the decision to meet Antonio Rodiles, a 40-year-old with a degree in Physics who had left Cuba for work and had chosen to return to defy the government’s censorship from within. In 2010, Antonio founded Estado de SATS, or State of SATS. “SATS” is a Scandinavian word that refers to the instant just before the actor has to face the audience or the runner hears the bang. The moment of greatest concentration, the adrenaline rush that precedes an explosion. State of SATS is “an initiative of young artists, intellectuals and professionals in search of a better reality”. The best known work of SATS are the film-debates, produced in Antonio’s own home, that circulate with great success on Cuba’s alternative information networks.

But Antonio’s home was surrounded by CCTV cameras. Once inside the house, we went to check the backyard, which overlooks the sea, and as we were unpacking Antonio pointed out the CCTV cameras that could possibly be filming us. Ivan continued filming on his own until July 22.

That day, Oswaldo Paya, one of the most prominent dissidents, was killed in a car crash that his daughter claimed was “not an accident”. Ivan and I met. He wanted to film the funeral. He said it could turn into a demonstration. Knowing that I was now suspected we realised that if I went there after what happened, we risked losing everything we had filmed. So Ivan volunteered.

Two weeks later, I got the footage from a colleague who had gone to Cuba as a tourist to pick it up. I emailed Ivan to confirm that I had received it. But he did not reply. His phone was permanently “out of range”. I can only assume he is still in hiding. Then on November 8, Antonio Rodiles, one of our main interviewees, was arrested and detained.

This film, which will probably go to air as Antonio is in a cell for daring to speak his mind, will no doubt confirm the government’s suspicions of him – but like all the dissidents we spoke to in our film, he would not have had it any other way. Only by speaking out, they say, will Cubans bring change to their country.


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Egypt’s latest power-grab: ‘Brotherhoodizing’ labor

Credit: ACILS

The furor over President Mohamed Morsi’s edict granting himself untrammeled powers has distracted attention from another controversial decree extending the Muslim Brotherhood’s control over the country’s labor movement. The move amounts to another power-grab by the Islamists, say activists, confirming the group’s intolerance of political pluralism and determination to monopolize power. The provisions require board members of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) over 60 years of age to retire and permit minister of manpower Khaled al-Azhari, a member of the Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party, to appoint replacements to vacant posts. The ETUF, a bastion of the former regime led by Mubarak loyalists, has been challenged by internal reformers and an upsurge of independent unions.

“The highly controversial law has already garnered significant opposition from a wide array of labor activists especially as it threatens to extend a long history of state control over labor affairs,” writes Dina Bishara, a researcher at George Washington University.

“While this may not be directly linked to the battle over Morsi’s decree claiming unlimited presidential power, many Egyptians see it as part of a broader bid for executive and partisan power,” she adds.

Decree 97 denounced by the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), a body that emerged from the wave of industrial militancy that predated and, some observers suggest, sparked the January uprising that deposed the Mubarak regime.

“This is a clear indicator that Morsi is seeking to monopolize the labor movement by first ‘Brotherhoodizing’ the Ministry of Manpower, and now the ETUF” says Fatma Ramadan, an executive board member of the EFITU.

Rather than allow elections to fill the seats vacated by the old guard, Morsi is simply replacing Mubarak loyalists with Brotherhood placemen, he says, demonstrating that the Islamists are “clearly preparing a systematic crackdown against Egypt’s union movement, against the right to strike, against the right to organize and against union plurality,” he argues.

Decree No. 97 is “an attempt by the Brotherhood to control the union structure which had previously been monopolized by the Mubarak regime,” comments Wael Habib, a caretaker board member of the ETUF.

Many observers have charged that the Brotherhood shares many of the illiberal, authoritarian instincts of the former regime, as evidenced by the Islamists’ support for last year’s crackdown on foreign-funded democracy assistance NGOs.

The Brotherhood’s latest move “upholds — rather than breaks — with some of the core authoritarian practices of the past, namely extensive government interference in union affairs,” notes Bishara:

The amendments thus lend further evidence to the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to bolster its currently weak standing in the ETUF. Not only has Morsi’s prime minister offered one of the few FJP cabinet posts to the minister of manpower, MB unionists have also tried to push a new trade unions law that many critics charge violates the tenets of union pluralism.

“This is merely an attempt to replace old members of the National Democratic Party (NDP) with newer members from the now-ruling regime: the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party,” Habib adds.

 “The Brotherhood-controlled Ministry of Manpower is now in the process of facilitating this takeover of the ETUF. This is a blatant and unwarranted intervention in union affairs from the state.”

The new edict “sets a dangerous precedent for state-labor relations in post-Mubarak Egypt,” says Bishara.

“Rather than break from a pattern of state interference in internal union affairs, the law upholds that tradition, at least for the time being. But the decree has sharpened the divisions among labor activists in Egypt, further polarizing that community into pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood camps.”

The history and current state of Egypt’s labor movement are examined in The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, a report published by the Solidarity Center, one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

In recognition of their role in advancing of association and labor rights, the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services and the Real Estate Tax Authority union—Egypt’s first independent union in 50 years—received the 2009 AFL-CIO George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.

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