From protest to politics in the ‘dark digital revolution’?

Today’s digital revolutionaries must make a transition from protest to politics if they are to realize the emancipatory potential of liberation technology, say two leading advocates.

Observers and participants alike have described the recent Arab Spring as ‘leaderless’ —but this obviously has a downside to match its upside,” say Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, the authors of The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, writing in The Wall Street Journal:

In the day-to-day process of demonstrating, it was possible to retain a decentralized command structure (safer too, since the regimes could not kill the movement simply by capturing the leaders). But, over time, some sort of centralized authority must emerge if a democratic movement is to have any direction. Popular uprisings can overthrow dictators, but they’re only successful afterward if opposition forces have a plan and can execute it. Building a Facebook page does not constitute a plan.

“The empowered citizen,” said Henry Kissinger, “knows the technique of getting people to the square, but they don’t know what to do with them when they are in the square. They know even less of what to do with them when they have won.”

Egyptian blogger-activist Mahmoud Salem, aka Sandmonkey, is also critical of the inability of slacktivist protesters to make the shift from opposition to organization.

“If you are a revolutionary, show us your capabilities. Start something. Join a party. Build an institution. Solve a real problem,” he argues. “Do something except running around from demonstration to march to sit-in. This is not street work: real street work means moving the street, not moving in the street.”

Building tangible support

“Historically, a prominent position grew out of a degree of public trust (with the exceptions of, say, warlords or machine bosses),” according to Schmidt and Cohen, Google’s executive chairman and director of Google Ideas, respectively:

The visibility of a high-profile leader corresponded with the size of his or her support base. But in the future, with the broad reach of digital media, this equation will be inverted. Prominence will come earlier and more easily; only then will a would-be leader start to build tangible support, credentials and experience.

Opposition groups will have to compete with each other to have the best plan for their country’s future, the best set of internal and external alliances and the most useful operational tool kits and hubs for organizers. If you’re running an opposition group, your influence will be measured not only by the number of supporters you can get to a rally but also by the number of times your field manual is downloaded, the comments on your proposed constitution and the guest posts on your blog.

The revolts that have convulsed the Arab world were not Facebook or Twitter revolutions, however much cyberutopians would like them to be, analyst Jeffrey Ghannam wrote in Digital Media in the Arab World One Year After the Revolutions.*

“The Internet’s potential as a tool that can help the process of democratization is undeniable,” he observed, but “the Internet also can be used for oppression by authoritarian governments in the Arab world and elsewhere.”

That’s a view echoed by Google’s Schmidt and Cohen.

Technology has the potential to bring about change, but there is also “a dark side to the digital revolution that is too often ignored,” they argue:

There is a turbulent transition ahead for autocratic regimes as more of their citizens come online, but technology doesn’t just help the good guys pushing for democratic reform—it can also provide powerful new tools for dictators to suppress dissent.

Fifty-seven percent of the world’s population still lives under some sort of autocratic regime. In the span of a decade, the world’s autocracies will go from having a minority of their citizens online to a majority. From Tehran to Beijing, autocrats are building the technology and training the personnel to suppress democratic dissent, often with the help of Western companies.

Rather than facilitating China’s democratization, for instance, the internet has allowed the ruling Communist Party to consolidate its power, Gady Epstein wrote in a recent Special Report for The Economist.

“Despite the expense, everything a regime would need to build an incredibly intimidating digital police state—including software that facilitates data mining and real-time monitoring of citizens—is commercially available right now. What’s more, once one regime builds its surveillance state, it will share what it has learned with others,” Schmidt and Cohen contend:

We know that autocratic governments share information, governance strategies and military hardware, and it’s only logical that the configuration that one state designs (if it works) will proliferate among its allies and assorted others. Companies that sell data-mining software, surveillance cameras and other products will flaunt their work with one government to attract new business. It’s the digital analog to arms sales, and like arms sales, it will not be cheap. Autocracies rich in national resources—oil, gas, minerals—will be able to afford it. Poorer dictatorships might be unable to sustain the state of the art and find themselves reliant on ideologically sympathetic patrons.

The great paradox of “liberation technology, analyst Evgeny Morozov recently wrote, is that its growing salience as a political tool “may push Internet-control efforts into non-technological areas for which there is no easy technical fix.”

“Authoritarian governments control the Internet through the combination of technological and sociopolitical means,” he wrote in a Journal of Democracy article. “It is unclear what the most potent combination of those types is; an Internet-control system that wields mainly the sociopolitical means may end up being more draconian than one that relies on technological means only.”

All-encompassing surveillance states

“Democratic and autocratic governments alike will soon be able to collect biometric data,” Schmidt and Cohen caution:

By indexing our biometric signatures, some governments will try to track our every move and word, both physically and digitally. That’s why we need to fight hard not just for our own privacy and security, but also for those who are not equipped to do so themselves. We can regulate biometric data at home in democratic countries, which helps. But for newly connected citizens up against robust digital dictatorships, they will need information and tools to protect themselves—which democracies and nongovernmental groups will need to help provide.

“Dictators and autocrats in the years to come will attempt to build all-encompassing surveillance states, and they will have unprecedented technologies with which to do so,” they conclude.

“But they can never succeed completely. Dissidents will build tunnels out and bridges across. Citizens will have more ways to fight back than ever before—some of them anonymous, some courageously public.”

*Digital Media in the Arab World One Year After the Revolutions is published by the Center for International Media Assistance. CIMA is an initiative of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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US human rights report decries global crackdown on civil society

“The Obama administration warned Friday that nations such as Iran, Russia and Venezuela are turning up pressure on human rights other activists, decrying what it described as a global crackdown on the ‘lifeblood of democratic societies,’” the Associated Press reports.

In assessing global human rights over the past year, five developments are particularly striking, according to the US State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012:

  • Shrinking space for civil society activism around the world;
  • the ongoing struggle by people in the Middle East for democratic change;
  • steps toward emerging democracy and a tentative opening for civil society in Burma;
  • the game-changing nature of information and communication technologies, in the face of increased suppression of traditional media and freedom of expression; and
  • the continued marginalization of and violence against members of vulnerable groups.

The report states that “governments continued to repress or attack the means by which individuals can organize, assemble, or demand better performance from their rulers.”

But authoritarian regimes are not the only threat to human rights and democratic governance, the report notes.

“Our world is complex and increasingly influenced by non-state actors – brave civil society activists and advocates, but also violent extremists, transnational criminals, and other malevolent actors,” US Secretary of State John Kerry notes in what may appear to be prescient comments in the light of current events in Boston.

Russia’s crackdown on civil society is highlighted, notably recent measures designed to curtail the activities of foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations, as well as a broader array of restrictions, including “large increases in fines for unauthorized protests, a law recriminalizing libel, a law that limits Internet freedom by allowing authorities to block certain Web sites without a court order, and amendments to the criminal code that dramatically expand the definition of treason.”

Human rights advocates welcomed the thrust of the report (extracted below).

Human Rights First’s Robyn Lieberman applauded Kerry for making the case “that human rights are central to U.S. national security” and for his commitment to continue to engage with civil society.

“Civil society is the lifeblood of democratic societies,” the report states. “Countries succeed or fail based on the choices of their people and leaders — whether they sit in a government ministry, a corporate boardroom, an independent union or a cramped NGO office. When individuals have the ability to come together, air their views and put forward their own proposals, they challenge and support their governments in reaching higher standards of progress and prosperity.”

Shrinking space for civil society activism

Civil society is the lifeblood of democratic societies. Countries succeed or fail based on the choices of their people and leaders – whether they sit in a government ministry, a corporate boardroom, an independent union, or a cramped NGO office. When individuals have the ability to come together, air their views, and put forward their own proposals, they challenge and support their governments in reaching higher standards of progress and prosperity. Countries are stronger when the different elements of society work together for the common good and when a lively and critical debate informs government decision-making. Governments that welcome and foster civil society activism are more stable and resilient, and those societies are thriving; government crackdowns on civil society point to weakness and fragility on the part of those in power and are characteristic of societies where governments are stifling economic and social development. Unfortunately, some governments appear to be learning restrictive tactics from others and, in some cases, regional powers are setting a negative but persuasive example for neighboring governments.

Increased headwinds buffeted civil society in 2012, as governments continued to repress or attack the means by which individuals can organize, assemble, or demand better performance from their rulers. From Iran to Venezuela, crackdowns on civil society included new laws impeding or preventing freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion; heightened restrictions on organizations receiving funding from abroad; and the killing, harassment, and arrest of political, human rights, and labor activists.

Russia adopted a series of measures that curtailed the activities of NGOs and civil liberties. These measures included laws restricting NGOs – particularly those receiving international funding – and large increases in fines for unauthorized protests, a law recriminalizing libel, a law that limits Internet freedom by allowing authorities to block certain Web sites without a court order, and amendments to the criminal code that dramatically expand the definition of treason.

The Egyptian government took action against domestic and international NGOs at the end of 2011, with police raids against a number of prodemocracy and human rights groups, including the Washington-based National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute. The government charged citizens and foreign personnel with “running unlicensed organizations” and “receiving foreign funds without permission” and for several months imposed a travel ban on the expatriate NGO workers. Forty-three individuals remained on trial throughout 2012, in a process marked by delays, and the government continued to use an onerous registration process to prevent domestic and foreign NGOs from working in the country.

In Bangladesh, independent labor unions continued to face major obstacles to their ability to register and conduct organizational activities. Furthermore, a lack of government attention to safe workplace standards contributed in part to numerous deadly fires in garment factories, including the tragic Tazreen fire in December that killed 114 workers.

In China, the government imposed burdensome registration requirements that effectively prevented the formation of independent political, human rights, religious, spiritual, labor, and other organizations that the government believed might challenge its authority. The government increased efforts to silence political activists and public interest lawyers and employed extralegal measures including enforced disappearance, “soft detention,” and strict house arrest, to prevent the public voicing of independent opinions.

There are some hopeful signs, however. In Afghanistan, the revised Law on Social Organizations passed the lower house of parliament in December. Among other changes, the new law would remove existing barriers to the receipt of foreign funding for social organizations. In Mongolia, the draft law on Public Benefit Activities provides for a governmental foundation to support civil society. The government is also developing legislation on contracting out services to civil society organizations. If adopted, these laws will provide for new domestic funding sources for civil society and at the same time, ensure transparency and accountability in distributing public funding.

Ongoing struggle for democratic change in the Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East is in the midst of transformations every bit as profound and consequential as the changes which swept over Latin America, Europe, and Eurasia two decades ago. Progress across the region is uneven, and the challenges of this moment – two years into what will likely be a long and difficult evolution – are immense. Debates and divisions suppressed for decades are resurfacing. Institutions are being held accountable for the first time. Young people are impatient for reform and results. Citizens and governments are negotiating democratic rules of the road.

In the countries that gave rise to the Arab Awakening, 2012 witnessed a bumpy transition from protest to politics, brutal repression by regimes determined to crush popular will, and the inevitable challenges of turning democratic aspirations into reality. While there were encouraging democratic breakthroughs in some cases, other countries saw the erosion of protections for civil society, sexual violence against women, violence against and increased marginalization of members of religious minorities, and escalating human rights violations, especially in Syria. Each of the nations of the region will follow its own path, but those governments that do not respond to the aspirations of their own people will have difficulty maintaining the status quo.

In Syria, the Asad regime continued to brutalize its people. The government conducted frequent police and military operations against peaceful civilians, including attacks on funeral processions, breadlines, schools, places of worship, and hospitals, and continued to use indiscriminate, disproportionate, and deadly force to terrorize the Syrian population into submission. Sexual violence was widespread. According to the UN, as many as 70,000 people have died since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, and the number of deaths had increased from around 1,000 per month in the summer of 2011 to an average of more than 5,000 per month by July 2012.

In addition to supporting the Asad regime and terrorist organizations outside its borders, the Government of Iran continued to severely restrict the rights of its own citizens. The government committed acts of politically motivated violence and repression, targeting journalists, students, lawyers, artists, women, ethnic and religious activists, and members of their families. According to NGO reports, the government executed a total of 523 persons in 2012, many after trials that were secret or did not provide due process. Prosecutors often charged persons arrested for political and human rights-related activities with moharebeh, “enmity towards god,” a vague and overly broad charge that carries the death penalty. The government promulgated new and sweeping restrictions on women’s activities, education, and employment.

Bahrain remained at a crossroads at the end of 2012. The government took some steps to implement the recommendations in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report. However, the most important recommendations addressing fundamental inequalities in Bahraini society were unfulfilled at year’s end, and sectarian tensions continued to rise.

In addition to the crackdowns on NGOs in Egypt, 2012 saw increasingly targeted sexual violence against women, the failure of security forces to protect Coptic Christians from several incidents of societal violence, impunity for many of the perpetrators, and increasing political polarization. The latter trend led to widespread protests for and against the president’s efforts to declare his actions temporarily above judicial review and to expedite enactment of a controversial new constitution, which was adopted in a hastily organized December referendum.

Encouragingly, 2012 saw Libyans and Egyptians participate in contested and credible elections for the first time in decades. Tunisia held on to many of the historic gains towards sustainable democracy made in 2011, and the National Constituent Assembly conducted an open and inclusive constitutional-drafting process. Libya’s newly elected government, meanwhile, struggled to assert control over local militias and extremist violence, which claimed the lives of four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador, in Benghazi in September.

The sweeping change set off by the frustrations of a single Tunisian fruit vendor in late 2010 will play out in different ways over the coming decades. The transition to democracy in the region will not be linear, and there surely will be setbacks. But it is important to analyze these changes with a longer view of history and a steady commitment to work with the people of this region in their quest to build free, democratic, inclusive, and stable societies.


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Albania’s June Elections: A Key Test for Democracy

Since ending decades of Communist rule and isolation in 1991, Albania has made substantial progress toward Euro-Atlantic integration, joining NATO in 2009 and receiving conditional EU candidate status in 2012.

Progress on consolidating Albania’s democratic institutions, however, has been uneven. Elections have been particularly problematic: none of the major polls since the introduction of a multiparty system has been considered free and fair or resulted in the uncontested transfer of power. The 2013 parliamentary elections, just two months away, will be both a key test of Albania’s democratic progress and a determining factor in its continued progress toward the EU.

At a meeting next week, panelists will discuss the role of political parties and civil society in contributing to a transparent and democratic contest, challenges to be faced before, during and after the polls themselves, and ways the international community can help support a credible election process.

The National Endowment for Democracy, Open Society Foundations, and National Democratic Institute for International Affairs invite you to attend a panel discussion on:

Albania’s June Elections: A Key Test for Democracy


Dritan Taulla, KRIIK Albania Association and the Coalition for Domestic Observers

Jonathan Moore, Office of South Central European Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Rob Benjamin, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs

Janusz Bugajski, Independent analyst and host of “Bugajski Hour,” Albanian Screen TV

Moderated by: Janet Rabin Satter, National Endowment for Democracy

Tuesday, April 23, 2013. 10:00 – 11:30 a.m.


Dritan Taulla is Deputy Chairperson of the KRIIK Albania Association, a NED grantee based in Tirana. Established in 1997, KRIIK is a nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization that promotes civic engagement and human rights, and seeks to actively involve Albanian youth in the country’s democratization processes. KRIIK has monitored every election in Albania since 2005, when it joined with two other organizations to establish the Coalition of Domestic Observers. In 2009, KRIIK also became a member of the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO). In addition to his work with KRIIK, Taulla is also an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Tirana.

Jonathan Moore is Director of the Office of South Central European Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, a position he has held since August 2012. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Moore has served as a desk officer for the former Yugoslavia, Political/Economic Section Chief of the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania, Deputy Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé at the U.S. Embassy in Belarus, and, most recently, Deputy Chief of Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Moore was also Congressional Fellow in the Policy Office of Speaker of the House Hastert and National Security Affairs Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Robert Benjamin is a senior associate and Regional Director of Central and Eastern Europe programs. In this latter role, he oversees in-country and regional programs in legislative strengthening, political party development, civil society development, election processes, and women, youth and ethnic minority political participation. He has also contributed to democracy programs in Asia, Latin America, North Africa and West Africa. Benjamin has worked at NDI since 1993. He holds a B.A. from Princeton University and an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Janusz Bugajski is a policy analyst, author, lecturer, columnist, and television host based in the United States. He is also a senior associate (non-resident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and host of the television show “Bugajski Hour,” broadcast on Albanian Screen from Tirana. Author of 18 books on Europe, Russia, and transatlantic relations, Bugajski is a regular contributor to various U.S. and European newspapers, publishes in international journals, and is a columnist for media outlets in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Georgia, Kosovo, and Ukraine. His newest book is entitled Return of the Balkans: Challenges to European Integration and U.S. Disengagement.

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