Democratic Transition in the Middle East: Between Authoritarianism and Islamism

The outcomes of recent Arab uprisings have confirmed the organizational superiority and appeal of Islamist political parties in a number of countries in the Middle East. This new form of Islamism appears to be compatible with democracy, a free society and a modern economy, and its ascendancy may foreshadow the political future of the region and the roles of domestic, regional, and international actors. 

The International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy cordially invites you to a luncheon presentation entitled Democratic Transition in the Middle East: Between Authoritarianism and Islamism, featuring Mokhtar Benabdallaoui, Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow, with comments by Samer Shehata, Georgetown University. 

Mokhtar Benabdallaoui will explain why Islamists have embraced democracy instead of fundamentalism and why the appeal of Islamists exceeds that of leftists and liberals in the Arab world. He will assess the challenges of shaping Islamist political thought in a democratic direction, the prospects of Islamist governments accepting diversity and differences of opinion, and the ways in which Islamists may reconcile conflicting religious and political ideas from across the Arab world. Drawing upon the example of Islamist political parties in four countries—Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Lebanon—Mr. Benabdallaoui will consider how ascendant Islamists have influenced societies across the Middle East and conclude with an assessment of the main stakeholders in the Arab Spring, their propensity for reform, and the prospects for further change in the region. Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, will provide comments. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012 12 noon–2:00 p.m. (Lunch served 12:00–12:30 p.m.) 1025 F. Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004 Telephone: 202-378-9675 RSVP HERE (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Tuesday, July 10. 

Mokhtar Benabdallaoui is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Doctoral Center for Studies in Politics and Religion at Hassan II University in Casablanca, Morocco. He is also founding director of the Center for Humanities Studies and Research, a Casablanca-based nongovernmental organization that carries out a broad range of activities under the auspices of the Civic Forum, including civic education workshops, publication of the quarterly journal Rihanat, and conferences on democratic reform. During his fellowship, Dr. Benabdallaoui is studying the evolution, activities, and impact of Islamist parties in the Arab world and intends to publish his findings in the form of a book. 

 

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‘Mubarak Dead and Alive, Shafiq and Morsi President’ – farcical Egypt ‘on verge of explosion’

“Thousands of protesters filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square overnight,” Reuters reports, “as Egypt’s rival presidential candidates accused each of trying to steal an election whose result is still not known five days after polling ended.”

The Muslim Brotherhood has claimed victory on the basis of supposedly official statistic compiled by local authorities, but independent observers question the credibility of the Islamists’ claims, citing flaws in the paperwork.

“We cannot rely on them as numbers, because they contain great problems,” said Hafez Abou Saeda, a prominent human rights activist heading a civil society a monitoring initiative.

The competing claims of victory by Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, are contributing to growing tensions, political polarization and the prospect of violence, prompting impartial analysts and democrats to suggest independent mediation.

“The interest of the nation goes before narrow interests,” said reformist politician Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. diplomat and Nobel peace laureate on Twitter. “What is required immediately is a mediation committee to find a political and legal exit from the crisis. Egypt is on the verge of explosion.”

The delay in releasing the results of the presidential election could have “explosive” consequences, analysts suggest.

“The delay really is a lose-lose situation,” Shashank Joshi, a regional analyst with London-based Chatham House, told RFE/RL. “It erodes trust in the military further than is already the case but if Ahmed Shafiq, the establishment candidate comes out on top now, it will be interpreted fairly straightforward as a case of a rigged vote, or an annulled outcome in favor of the army’s own man. I think that will promote real anger and frustration, potentially even onto the street.”

Recent events amount to a reversal of the country’s apparent political transition from dictatorship to democracy, some observers suggest, while others believe they only confirm that Egypt’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’ was an illusion since there was never any transfer of power from the old regime.

“There is more than a bit of farcicality to Egypt’s predicament, The Economist notes:

This was well displayed in a recent newspaper headline: “Mubarak Dead and Alive, Shafiq and Morsi President”. The words referred to firm official reports, later firmly denied, that Egypt’s 84-year-old ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, had died on June 19th, and to vehement, rival claims of victory in the presidential elections held on June 17th, given the peculiarly lingering absence, several days later, of an official count.

Unusually for a country famed for its humor, few in Egypt are laughing. Seventeen months after the uprising that toppled Mr Mubarak, the most populous Arab country remains tangled in a web of rumor, mistrust and Byzantine legal convolutions. The latest twists appear to many to have set the country back where it was at the beginning of its hoped-for transition from dictatorship to democracy.

The decision by Egyptian election officials to delay declaring a winner in the country’s presidential ballot has sent tensions in the country soaring,” reports suggest. “With both candidates …claiming victory, analysts say the postponement risks undermining public trust in the process.”

The key question is “whether the democratic transition in Egypt has gone irretrievably off the rails or can get back on track,” says Michele Dunne, Director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Washington-based Atlantic Council:

This disruption and manipulation of the political transition to serve military interests also comes at the expense of Egypt’s economy and national security, which will suffer as a result of the ongoing struggle between the military and the Brotherhood. The economy is teetering on the brink of disaster, and the new developments will push off for months the time when international financial institutions and donors feel confident enough to make loans and grants to a new Egyptian government. Meanwhile the lawless atmosphere in the Sinai continues to present threats to Israel (as seen in the June 18 incursion in which one worker was killed) and to inhibit a return of tourists to Egypt; it will be difficult for the new president and military to impose order there amidst this political chaos.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is determined not to allow the Brotherhood to “seize power”, according to a military source quoted by Ahram Online:

[The SCAF] will not relinquish the reins of power until a new constitution is issued and the arena is set for a balanced political process…………..The United States and the European Union have both been sending messages reflecting their preference for [the Muslim Brotherhood's] Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s president. In the belief that they enjoy this support, the group has adopted a policy of pressuring Egypt’s interim rulers regarding upcoming political arrangements.

Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood’s guidance bureau has been exchanging messages with the US – to which Israel is privy – containing reassurances about the group’s stance on Hamas, Gaza and the Camp David accords. It remains unclear, however, whether the US would prefer to see Morsi or Shafiq in Egypt’s highest office

“I’ve never seen Americans so confused and worried as I have ever since January [2011],” said Hisham Kassem, a prominent liberal publisher and leading member of the World Movement for Democracy.

“While this may be overstating the case, says Brookings analyst Shadi Hamid, “the narrative of a United States that is feckless, incoherent, and increasingly irrelevant is one that has taken hold in Arab public discourse. And in the Middle East, perception is often reality.”

Last year, political unrest and fervor had spread throughout the country. That’s what happens during a revolution. And it’s precisely not what’s happening in Egypt right now.

The military’s  assumption of control over drafting the country’s new constitution is the most significant and potentially dangerous development, according to Maha Azzam, a regional expert with Chatham House,

“They can choose the members of the assembly which draws up the constitution and in addition to that they have veto power,” he says. “In a sense they are saying ‘we are the arbiters of the political process in Egypt’ as well as the constitution writing, which is so fundamental to the democratic process going forward.”

But radical youth activists’ call for a second revolution is illusionary, analysts suggest.

“Egyptians have no interest in a new revolution,” writes Eric Trager, the Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Though acknowledging the SCAF’s poor management of the country and its undemocratic depredations, many Egyptians fear that a new round of demonstrations will catalyze even greater unrest, worsen Egypt’s declining domestic security situation, and further damage its sinking economy.”

Egypt’s youth revolutionaries’ conspiracy theories are a further reflection of their political naivety, while the politically-savvy Brotherhood is “hedging its bets” and preparing to abandon its secular allies – again:

It is reportedly negotiating with the SCAF. So despite the Brotherhood’s talk about “completing the revolution,” it could back down at any moment—presumably, as long as it is given the share of power it has long sought. As Egypt expert Josh Stacher smartly tweeted, the Brotherhood always has “one foot in Tahrir and one in the formal political arena.”

“In other words, although new mass demonstrations are already underway, a new revolution is not,” Trager writes for The New Republic:

The protests are not affecting anything beyond Tahrir Square, and there is a large segment of the Egyptian public that opposes them—at least in form, if not in substance. The next stage of Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition will thus likely be a sustained confrontation between the SCAF on one hand and an uncomfortable coalition of revolutionary youth activists and Islamists on the other. There may be moments of intense violence, and others of negotiated calm. But unless these demonstrations are capable of capturing the broader public, they will likely be a much more contained affair than last year’s revolution.

The Obama administration has so far backed and trusted the SCAF to transfer power to civilian authority “despite pervasive human rights abuses and even a campaign against American non-governmental organizations carried out under military rule (which still continues),” says Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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Prioritizing democracy: how to re-orient US policy in the Middle East

It seems unlikely that U.S. policy toward the Middle East will get much attention during the 2012 presidential campaign, especially when it comes to the epochal transformations under way in the Arab world, writes Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center.  But whoever wins the election, the next U.S. administration should institutionalize the promotion of Arab democracy by funding a multilateral “reform endowment” to provide clear incentives to Arab countries to implement reforms.

President Obama has repeatedly proclaimed his support for Arab democratic aspirations. Yet the rhetoric has not been translated into clear policy initiatives, let alone significant material assistance.

The Obama administration has avoided articulating a broader vision or grand strategy and instead emphasized the need for a “boutique strategy” that focuses on the specifics of each particular case. Considering the vastly different contexts of each country, this is unavoidable. Yet, a case-by-case approach, to be successful, needs to be guided by a coherent vision. There is nothing approaching the unified purpose of Truman’s Marshall Plan or even the rhetorical sharpness of Bush’s short-lived “freedom agenda.” The amount of U.S. economic assistance promised to transitional countries is minimal, dwarfed by the commitments made by the Gulf countries.

In the United States, there is growing sentiment, particularly on the Left, that America’s declining influence and negligible credibility in the region compel it to adopt a “hands-off” approach and reduce its footprint in the Arab world. Yet it is precisely because of its still considerable power and influence in the region that the United States can and should provide critical support to Arab countries transitioning to democracy. After supporting autocratic regimes for more than five decades, the United States has a second chance to get it right and, in the process, build considerable goodwill among Arab populations and the governments they elect.

Whether Obama is reelected or replaced by a Republican, the United States must:

  • Articulate a comprehensive strategy toward the Middle East that advances American long-term interests by prioritizing the support of democracy and democrats in the region.
  • Institutionalize the promotion of Arab democracy by coordinating the funding of a multilateral “reform endowment” that would provide clear incentives to Arab countries to implement necessary reforms.
  • Pursue a strategic dialogue with rising Islamist parties in key countries of interest.
  • Recognize that the window for a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is closing, commit to rebuilding frayed ties with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and outline clear U.S. parameters on borders, right of return, and the status of Jerusalem.

Active and consistent support for democratic change in the Arab world—even if it means occasionally angering long-standing allies—is important for a number of reasons. First, it aligns American policy with regional trends that are irreversible. Instead of being caught unaware once again, the United States should anticipate the changes to come—and recognize that the region is growing more, not less, democratic. It means little to support the demands of protesters after they have already won. It will send a much stronger signal to the region’s future leaders if Washington encourages and defends them when it is not easy and when their victory is far from a foregone conclusion.

Second, before the Arab Spring, anti-American sentiment could be—and often was—ignored or dismissed as irrelevant. After all, it mattered what governments did, and most Arab governments were firmly in the pro-U.S. orbit. In the coming years, however, what Arabs think and what their governments do will be much more closely linked. And, as long as tens of millions of Arabs dislike the United States, viewing it as a destructive force in the region, Arab democracies will feel compelled to act against American interests to gain popular support. Of course, Arab public opinion, fueled by deeply held resentments, will not change overnight, but, over the long run, the United States can work to build new relationships—based on shared values and common interests—with the region’s rising democracies.

As for countries that are not democracies, and may not be anytime soon, a forward-looking strategy is required. Many, including Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait, will follow a middle path, somewhere between outright revolution and total repression. Here, the United States and like-minded nations should work to persuade them that they must start or continue down the path of reform because substantive change, however difficult, is ultimately the only viable option. Rather than being satisfied with partial, cosmetic reforms, the United States should clarify that the ultimate goal is a revamped political system in which the king or dictator relinquishes significant power to elected bodies.

Moving in this direction requires measures that institutionalize the promotion of Arab democracy. The next president should coordinate the funding of a “reform endowment” that would provide clear incentives to Arab countries to implement necessary reforms. The endowment would include a minimum of $5 billion and would be available to all interested countries. Receiving aid would be conditioned on meeting a series of explicit, measurable benchmarks on democratization. These benchmarks would be the product of extensive negotiations with interested countries. Unused funds would be reinvested, while new democracies would be asked to contribute annual dues to help grow the endowment over time. For skeptical Arab audiences, the message from the United States and other donor countries would be clear—democracy cannot be imposed, but it can be actively and vigorously supported.

For transitional states like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, benchmarks could include military noninterference in civilian affairs, the establishment of judicial independence, and the protection of a vibrant, independent press. For liberalizing monarchies, such as Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait, benchmarks should focus on expanded political space for opposition groups and the gradual devolution of power to elected institutions that are accountable to the people. This reform endowment should be funded with contributions from the United States, European nations, Turkey, Brazil, Qatar, and other like-minded powers. An international board would apportion loans and grants to states seeking to bring about real reform.

Democracy skeptics will counter that such efforts are in vain and that democratization has its dark side in light of the rise of Islamist parties. In a sense, they are right; in the Middle East, the future is Islamist. Instead of denying or fighting what is now an unmistakable reality, the United States and Europe should adapt by pursuing a strategic dialogue with Islamist actors across the region. Such parties are either already playing major roles in parliament and government or are likely to do so in the near future. Therefore, U.S. interests in the region will, whether Americans like it or not, be inextricably tied to theirs. With this in mind, there is an urgent need to foster a degree of mutual understanding and trust with these groups.

Many of them, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, have made clear their desire to engage with the United States, realizing that American support will be critical to boosting trade and attracting foreign investment. Again, timing matters. Such relationships should be developed before these parties come to power, rather than afterward, when American leverage is likely to be less effective. With such channels, the United States can exert influence—and, if necessary, pressure—when Islamist parties overreach and take action that threatens vital U.S. interests in the region.

The Arab Spring will see the emergence of governments that are less amenable to Israel’s security interests. The more democratic the Middle East becomes, the more anti-Israel new elected governments will be. Israel’s isolation is only likely to grow. With this in mind, the United States should make clear that it stands firmly by Israel during a difficult time, while also impressing upon it the need to act sooner rather than later to make the difficult but ultimately necessary compromises for a durable peace.

This is a slightly edited extract from a longer paper from the Brookings Doha Center. Read the rest here.

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Belarus: 10 principles for confronting ‘Europe’s last dictator’

Belarusian rights activists today launched a campaign to monitor forthcoming elections, as the country’s civil society groups complained that growing pressure from the authorities is shrinking the limited available political space.

A new film documenting human rights violations under the authoritarian rule of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka – widely known as Europe’s Last Dictator premiered in London this week (above).

“The situation in Belarus is unfavorable for holding elections, because political prisoners still remain in jails, political and civil activists are being detained. An atmosphere of fear reigns in the country,” said Aleh Hulak, the chair of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

Some opposition leaders have called for a boycott of forthcoming parliamentary elections, given that recent polls have been so manipulated and fraudulent that there is no prospect of changing the government.

But election observers will “take an objective approach” to monitoring the poll, said Hulak, even if the regime’s fraud has “devalued” the electoral process.

Civil society has experienced an intensified crackdown since the 2010 presidential election, Syarhey Matskevich, leader of the Assembly of Non-governmental Organizations, said this week.

“We cannot but notice that the number of activists has decreased, they have been arrested and persecuted,” he said. “Ales Byalyatski (right), deputy chairman of the Assembly, is in prison and there is no hope for the improvement of the situation.”

The founder of the banned Vyasna human rights group, Byalyatski is serving a four and a half year prison sentence for tax-evasion, a charge which the European Union, United States and rights groups condemned as politically motivated.

The U.S. State Department recently announced that Byalyatski would share its 2011 Human Rights Defenders Award with Uganda’s Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law.

Belarus has some 2,000 registered NGOs “but one cannot say that civil society is developing” or has the prospect of doing so, said Syarhey Lisichonak, head of the Assembly’s Executive Bureau,  citing the restrictive impact of laws like the Criminal Code’s Article 193-1, which criminalizes actions on behalf of an unregistered organization, while NGOs are routinely denied registration and rights to foreign assistance.

In the latest case of official harassment, Andrei Bandarenka, the director of the Platform rights group, was recently summoned to the Minsk prosecutor’s office to receive a warning for discrediting the Republic of Belarus. Platform’s has been a leading light in the campaign to persuade the International Ice Hockey Federation to cancel plans to hold the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship in Belarus unless the regime releases all political prisoners and ends the crackdown on journalists, human rights and civil activists.

The European Union this week threatened to extend the blacklist of Belarusian officials facing personal sanctions, despite the recent release of two prominent political prisoners – presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and his aide Dmitry Bondarenko. Over 22 members of the nomenklatura are currently barred from entering or doing business in the EU.

“The release of two political prisoners has not put the ball in the EU’s court. The ball remains in Minsk … We could probably broaden the number of people on the travel ban,” said Gunnar Wiegand, a senior official in the European External Action Service.

The much-missed Belarusian democracy activist and analyst Vitali Silitski made important contributions to political science with his insights on preemptive authoritarianism, the authoritarian international, and social contracts, says the National Endowment for Democracy’s Rodger Potocki.

But Vitali also “stood for, and embodied ten principles that remain important prescriptions for both those inside Belarus and those of us on outside trying to help them,” he told a Washington meeting this week:

Work inside

Vitali was passionate about his country. He left a promising international academic career to move back home and try to change things there. He repeatedly called for more assistance to civil society inside Belarus to “build pressure from inside the country.” Regarding the current debate over whether to shift support to an exile government or movement, his views were clear: “spend money inside the country rather than on émigré groups.”

Unite

Vitali understood that unity among the opposition was crucial for promoting democratic change in authoritarian states: “When egos are swallowed and divisions overcome, victory becomes feasible.” He warned that “a weak and disunited opposition is much easier to be taken down by repression than one that is professionally organized and politically efficient.” Vitali highlighted the positive results of the united Belarusian opposition in 2006 and mourned its break up a year later. He was often critical of “an opposition [that] wasted time on internal fights instead of consolidation.”

Think broadly

Although a political scientist, Vitali believed in more than parties and governments.  He was not just a brilliant scholar, but also a committed third sector activist. Vitali understood the pivotal role of civil society in the broad sense in the democratic revolutions in the post-Soviet sphere. I like to think that we at the Endowment played some role in this process. When Vitali came to us in 2004 he was quite the “ivory tower intellectual.” After returning to Belarus, he founded and became the head of the country’s leading think tank. Vitali highlighted the important activities being carried out by the independent media, cultural NGOs, youth groups and other civil society actors in Belarus.

Be political

In Belarus and among donors working in the country, there have been endless debates about the right role of civil society, whether it should provide social services and assist citizens in other nonpolitical, technical ways; seek to engage with officials from the regime; or be a part of the democratic opposition. Vitali came down solidly on the later view. He declared: “in societies [such as Belarus] nongovernmental organizations must be primarily political: in seeking to empower individuals, they frequently need to weaken the power of the state, particularly in authoritarian societies.” But he understood that this political role must be a positive one: “when NGOs lobbied for unity among the democratic opposition rather than taking sides in partisan divides, they provided the best service they could have to connect the opposition to society.”

Work with the people

Vitali understood well that democratic civil society in Belarus is cut off from the rest of the population, often in a self-imposed internal exile. He wrote about the “gap that separates the “democratic subculture” from the rest of society” and advocated tirelessly for civil society to break out of its ghetto and work with society. While this rarely has happened, Vitali pointed out the success that resulted when it did: the post-election protests in 2006 “proved to the entire world that support for democratic change in Belarus is not limited to just a handful of fanatics.”

Engage

Vitali believed in a dialogue by the West with Belarus. He thought that it was important “that Belarus be linked to the policymaking environments in the EU and the United States.” He understood that the country and its people needed to be drawn back into the Western orbit, and that the policy of isolation bore no fruit. But he wasn’t naïve about dialogue and stressed that it had to be applied with conditionality: “it has to be clear to Lukashenka that any help from Europe is conditioned by a complete and irreversible cessation of political repression. Economic assistance has to be conditioned by real market reforms…” 

With elections in Belarus now called for September 23rd, it should be stressed that Vitali believed in taking part in elections, even when they were obviously not free or fair. Those now advocating for a boycott should take heed of what Vitali wrote regarding the opposition’s decision not to take part in the 2000 parliamentary elections. He believed that the boycott weakened the opposition, demoralized the pro-democratic electorate, and left the undecided part of society without an alternative. The 2000 boycott ended up splitting the opposition further.

But have values

Vitali spoke, wrote and acted with a refreshing lack of political science relativism. Being both an analyst of and participant in a struggle against dictatorship gave him the credibility to write openly about moral codes and the fight between good and evil in Belarus and elsewhere. He described the March 2006 events as the beginning of “a revolution of the spirit that will bring the last tyranny in Europe to an end.”

Vital was critical of political forces in the last election that campaigned on a “a value-free basis.” He abhorred their use of political technologies, PR and people, calling this “politics a la Russe” and not much different than the politics of the regime. Vitali believed that this cynical strategy “destroyed what good which was left in the democratic movement – principles, values, dedication.”

He related to me how, after many years of membership, he resigned from his political party due to its lack of backbone and compromises with the regime after the December 2010 crackdown.

Be skeptical of Russia

Vitali’s patriotic convictions, belief in values, and academic work led him to profoundly distrust the Big Brother to the East. Unlike many in his country who continue to believe that democracy can best come to Belarus from Russia, he wrote frequently about how and why the Kremlin kept Lukashenka in power.

Europeanization is the key

Despite the shocking and brutal ending to Belarus’ dalliance with the West after the flawed presidential election of December 2010, Vitali believed that the two-year Dialogue Period was worth it. The price paid by those beaten, imprisoned and exiled was balanced by the growth in the number of Belarusians who came to know and accept the ideas of Western values and European integration. He was enthusiastic about a “record-breaking number of pro-European Belarusians… a great mass of thinking citizens who want a government that is accountable to the people.” He himself was passionate about and strove for a Belarus in Europe.

Promoting democracy is a noble cause

Finally, as all this makes clear, Vitali’s focus on democratic revolutions was more than a passing academic interest. He lived this struggle and defended those who were his comrades in arms. He simply believed that supporting dissidents and democrats was the right thing to do.

Use the Internet  

I promised only ten points, but couldn’t resist adding one more. Vitali wasn’t unique in his focus on the Internet, though he was one the first to realize its importance in Belarus, where the regime controls traditional mass media. But because he was an avid Internet user, a part of him lives on today in cyberspace. We can still find him in his Tweets and on his Facebook page, in emails and skype conversations, and through his Amazon reviews of movies, books, clothes and other products. They are but another reminder that Vitali will always be with us, in so many ways.

Vitali was a NED grantee, Reagan Fascell Fellow, contributor to the Journal of Democracy, and a participant in the World Movement for Democracy

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Citizens, civil society demand ‘Another Cuba’

Cuban democracy advocates today launched the CLICK Festival, described by a leading blogger as an online “constructive space to plan for tomorrow,” as an unprecedented collaborative initiative by the island’s civil society groups is sparking fresh hope that the democratic opposition can overcome factional rivalries (often engineered by state security agencies) and develop sustainable coalitions for change.

Pro-democracy groups are uniting behind Citizen Demand for Another Cuba, a manifesto for political change described by one democracy advocate as “a serious, coordinated effort led by street activists, opposition leaders, independent professionals and intellectuals to raise citizen awareness about their political, social, and economic rights.”

The initiative, whose signatories include the prominent blogger Yoani Sanchez, opposition activists Manuel Cuesta Morua and Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, leading dissidents and a wide range of independent voices, is the latest sign of increasingly vibrant debate and political assertiveness within Cuban civil society (above).

“The days of disagreement are coming to an end,” says Sanchez (right). Cuba’s civil society groups “have learned the lesson that unity, convergence and reconciliation make them stronger against the verticality of the totalitarian government.”

“The importance of creating coalitions is such that the main task of the island’s political police is now to destroy bridges and alienate potential allies,” she noted. “Intrigue, confrontation and fostering rivalries have come to be the hackneyed strategies employed by State Security to try to maintain a separation between the threads of the civic fabric.”

But activists believe the new initiate represents a genuine watershed.

“As Cubans, legitimate children of this land and an essential part of our nation, we feel a deep sorrow at the prolonged crisis that we are experiencing and the demonstrated inability of the current government to make fundamental changes. This obliges us, from civil society, to seek and demand our own solutions,” the statement begins:

The miserable incomes, shortages of food and shelter, the massive emigration due to lack of opportunities, the discrimination against those who think differently, the absence of spaces for public debate, the arbitrary arrests and lack of citizen rights, the corruption and the tenure and inability to remove the ruling elite, are some of the symptoms of the difficult reality facing us.

We want to debate publicly the dual currency, immigration restrictions, rights of workers to a living wage, the right of all Cubans, wherever they live, to promote economic initiatives in their own country, the demographic crisis, free access to the Internet and new technologies. We want to discuss the exercise of democracy…..

We are committed to democratic transformation where everyone can contribute their views and contribute to its realization.

“I feel we have gained awareness that together we are very hard to silence,” Sanchez wrote. “To see a list of signatures with such plurality and diversity gives me hope. It makes me believe that all the intrigues cooked up in the offices of the intelligence services no longer make even a dent in our consciousness.”

The Communist authorities recently detained 32 members of the celebrated Ladies in White after a sweep of arrests across the island.

“These women have been released little by little, because the objective was to prevent them from getting to Havana,” where they had organized a “literary tea” for political dissidents in honor of Father’s Day, the group’s leader Berta Soler told AFP.

Another leading dissident, Jorge Luis García Pérez* (left), commonly known as “Antúnez,” was also recently arrested, beaten and detained for several days after he joined fellow activist Sarah Marta Fonseca in giving testimony via live video conference to a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing about Cuba’s human rights violations.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry joined Cuban-American Senators Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Marco Rubio, R-Fl., in condemning Raúl Castro’s regime for suppressing peaceful dissent.

“I want to be crystal clear that I strongly condemn any efforts to intimidate Mr. Perez or any other Cuban citizen into silence,” Sen. Kerry said. “I echo the calls of my Senate colleagues, demanding an end to repression in Cuba and urging international observers to conduct an investigation into his detention.”

The Citizen Demand for Another Cuba calls for free access to the Internet and new technologies, but the Communist authorities’ reaction to the CLICK Festival launched today by independent bloggers and activists is a telling indication of the regime’s paranoia.

An article in the official media refers to the initiative as “Media Terrorism” and “a subversive monster,” notes Sanchez, one of the initiative’s organizers.

“Far from monstrous (no comment on “mediocre”), the CLICK Festival is technological, not ideological or political, [but] a constructive space to plan for tomorrow,” she writes:

We encourage all Cubans to attend, and also extend a broad welcome to foreign tourists visiting the Island who want to join us; the doors of the CLICK Festival will be open to you. Your presence will strengthen our visibility and transparency, contributing to the greatest protection we could count on.

——————-

Citizen Demand for Another Cuba

As Cubans, legitimate children of this land and an essential part of our nation, we feel a deep sorrow at the prolonged crisis that we are experiencing and the demonstrated inability of the current government to make fundamental changes. This obliges us, from civil society, to seek and demand our own solutions.

The miserable incomes, shortages of food and shelter, the massive emigration due to lack of opportunities, the discrimination against those who think differently, the absence of spaces for public debate, the arbitrary arrests and lack of citizen rights, the corruption and the tenure and inability to remove the ruling elite, are some of the symptoms of the difficult reality facing us.

We want to debate publicly the dual currency, immigration restrictions, rights of workers to a living wage, the right of all Cubans, wherever they live, to promote economic initiatives in their own country, the demographic crisis, free access to the Internet and new technologies. We want to discuss the exercise of democracy.

The Constitution of the Republic of Cuba establishes:

In its Article 3: In the Republic of Cuba sovereignty resides in the people from whom all the power of the State originates.

And in its Article 63: Every citizen has the right to direct complaints and petitions to the authorities and to receive the appropriate attention or responses in a timely manner, according to law.

WE DEMAND THE CUBAN GOVERNMENT:

Immediately implement the essential legal guarantees and policies conceived in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ratify the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, signed by the Government of Cuba on February 28, 2008 in New York City. This would ensure full respect for citizens regardless of their ideas or their political-social actions and restore the rights of everyone who, in their opinions, disagrees with the government. We consider these rights essential to the formation of a modern, free and plural Cuba that will receive us all equally and place our sovereignty in a dynamic and increasingly global world.

We are committed to democratic transformation where everyone can contribute their views and contribute to its realization. We invite all Cubans inside and outside the Island who identify with these demands, to join this just and necessary claim. Our expectation of being heard by the government is almost exhausted, yet we have decided to bring the authorities this demand as an urgent recourse to achieve effective understanding. We are determined not to accept institutional silence in response to this demand for the ratification of the agreements mentioned.

*Jorge Luis Garcia Pérez (aka “Antúnez”) was one of five Cuban dissidents honored by the National Endowment for Democracy., the Washington-based democracy assistance group. Addressing the meeting by phone from central Cuba, he accepted the NED’s 2009 Democracy Award as an indication of the “prestige and recognition which the political opposition has gained.”

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