Bipartisan consensus on promoting democracy, but as low priority

Republicans and Democrats agree that defending national security interests and securing energy supplies are the top U.S. foreign policy priorities, Gallup reports, but part ways on the importance of promoting human rights and international cooperation.

The starkest divergence is over the question of working through the United Nations to achieve global cooperation, while there is also a 20-point gap in the importance assigned to promoting human rights abroad.

“Although roughly equal percentages of Republicans and Democrats rate democracy building as a very important goal, it ranks eighth among Republicans versus ninth among Democrats,” Gallup notes.

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US shifts from ‘velvet glove’ to ‘tough love’ towards Egypt’s Brotherhood government

The Obama administration appears to be responding to complaints from local activists, expert analysts and the regime’s own excesses by criticizing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government.  

The US envoy to Cairo criticized President Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist government for economic mismanagement and intolerance of dissent this week in an unprecedented critique of its authoritarian drift.

“Every economy goes through bad periods, but economies only recover when they are tended,” said ambassador Anne Patterson (right). “The most catastrophic path is for the government and the political leadership of the country – whether in power or in opposition – to avoid decisions, to show no leadership, to ignore the economic situation of the country.”

She also expressed concern at the illiberal provisions of the new constitution, drafted by an Islamist-packed committee.

“Those, like me, who find themselves in the public eye, are well-advised to work on acquiring thicker skins instead of wasting time and resources suing their detractors,” she said.

Patterson suggested that the government was responsible for a backlash against the “dramatically changed landscape” of “reinvigorated” media.

“We have seen court cases launched against journalists simply for speaking their mind. We have seen quite alarming attempts to intimidate journalists by encircling their studies at Media City, with little response from the authorities,” she said.

“One leading and reputable journalist told me a couple of days ago that his news outlet had been sued 200 times. This is clearly harassment and a distraction from the important work of the media.”

The apparent shift in US policy will be welcomed by Bahieddin Hassan (left), a human rights activist who last week wrote an open letter accusing the Obama administration of “giving cover” to Morsi’s regime and “allowing it to fearlessly implement undemocratic policies and commit numerous acts of repression.”

Washington’s criticism of the Islamist government coincides with calls for the Obama administration to change its approach from ‘velvet glove’ to ‘tough love’.

“Under Morsi’s rule, Egyptian society has become polarized between Islamists and non-Islamists,” according to the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan and Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:

Enraging the political opposition late last year, he railroaded through a new constitution that contains inadequate protections for the rights of women and non-Muslims and leaves open the possibility of Islamic clerical oversight of legislation. …. Morsi is moving ahead to legislative elections based on an electoral law to which the opposition objects. Meanwhile, his government has cracked down on journalists, brought spurious charges against opposition leaders and limited the right to public protests. It is considering legislation that would constrain the activities of non-governmental organizations even more than Hosni Mubarak did.

Morsi attracted further criticism from rights activists and appeared to confirm his authoritarian instincts last month when he replaced the minister of interior not with an outsider but a former occupant of the post and veteran Mubarak apparatchik accused of rights violations.

“We are also against the current interior minister and want to see him replaced,” said a police officer protesting in Alexandria against government policies.

“I believe that he is a Muslim Brotherhood loyalist and he is trying to ‘brotherhoodise’ the whole ministry. He is working to serve the brotherhood’s political interests and leaves us to be confronted by angry protesters because of his policies to serve and protect the brotherhood while he is sitting at his office not caring what happens to us in the streets when we face angry demonstrators.”

The episode will contribute to the “disillusionment [that] runs particularly deep among young men who have proved a political powder keg and feel new Islamist regimes have done little to combat poverty and high youth unemployment,” analyst Daragahi suggests:

Their anger is heightened when police resort to the same harsh tactics they used in the Mubarak era in spite of claims from the security services that they have mended their ways. In short, little has changed.

The absence of rapid reform has created an environment that is even more volatile and dangerous than two years ago, rights monitors warn. As a result of the revolution, Egyptians are more defiant of authority and more willing to put themselves in the line of fire. The tactics of the police, under the authority of the mammoth interior ministry, threaten stability. This is crucial for a country of 83m that has long been seen as the centre of gravity of the Arab world but has struggled to rebuild foreign investment and tourism since the revolution.

“Within the ministry, the laws they work under, the regulations they work by and the untold rules they work by – nothing has changed,” says Magda Boutros, a lawyer working for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the country’s main human rights groups. “In terms of their practices, nothing has changed. But the relationship between the people and the police has changed, and sometimes we find that things can become more violent than they used to be, and the police are becoming more brutal than they used to be.”

Pointing to comments by security officials complaining of weak laws and soft penalties for crime, some observers have concluded that the Morsi government and its Islamist allies have been forced to cut a deal with the ministry’s stalwarts to restore order on the streets and get the economy back on track, the FT’s Daragahi reports:

“They say, ‘You want security on the streets, you want Egypt to look like a good investment, you want tourism back, that means business as usual’,” says Heba Morayef, of Human Rights Watch, the advocacy group.

On February 5, a group of human rights activists stormed out of a meeting with Ahmed Mekki, the justice minister, after he refused to acknowledge the need for reform of the legal and security systems and instead accused activists and the media of stirring up the recent unrest that has hurt the economy.

“I refused his argument that the police could be reformed from within, and [said] that calling for reform from outside does not mean that we want the downfall of the police,” Khaled Fahmy, a professor at the American University of Cairo who attended the meeting, wrote in an account posted on Facebook.

The Islamist government’s media curbs prompted the Obama administration to “back-pedal” over the constitution, said Michael Hanna, an Egypt analyst at The Century Foundation.

“Freedom of expression has all along been something of a red line,” he said. “In private discussions this was one of the issues that was laid down as something that shouldn’t be crossed.” 

Egypt has been agitating for the US to invite Morsi to Washington, but that should be put on hold until the regime demonstrates a more liberal and inclusive approach to governance, say the co-chairs of the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt.

“That means supporting a law that meets international standards on regulating civil society, allowing watchdog organizations to operate freely and finally resolving the controversial status of foreign and foreign-funded NGOs,” according to Kagan and Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:

It means ending the persecution of journalists and opposition figures, committing to reform the police and hold them accountable and building a consensus on such critical matters as the constitution and electoral law.

The United States made a strategic error for years by coddling Mubarak, and his refusal to carry out reforms produced the revolution of Tahrir Square. We repeat the error by coddling Morsi at this critical moment. The United States needs to use all its options — military aid, economic aid and U.S. influence with the IMF and other international lenders — to persuade Morsi to compromise with secular politicians and civil-society leaders on political and human rights issues to rebuild security and get the economy on track.

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Euro crisis claims new victim in Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s parliament has voted to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov by a vote of 209 to 5, following widespread street protests against corruption and poor governance.

The demonstrations — the biggest in 15 years — were sparked by electricity price rises and corruption scandals, including reports that the nominee to head the government electricity regulatory commission was selling cigarettes illegally online.

“Apparently Borisov is trying to save the political capital he still has, and this was the reason for his resignation,” said Daniel Smilov, an analyst at the Centre for Liberal Strategies think-tank in Sofia. “I am not sure this will be a successful strategy, but he is a very skilful communicator.”

Bulgarians were disillusioned that the overthrow of Communism in 1989 and the country’s subsequent democratization had not delivered the expected prosperity, Smilov, told The New York Times:

Bulgaria has struggled to shed a reputation for lawlessness and corruption. It remains poor, with an average monthly wage of just $480, the lowest in the European Union.

“What we are seeing is the result of a general distrust in government and the political system,” said Smilov, noting that protests had engulfed wealthy as well as poorer regions of the country. “These are not the bottom layers of society, but people in the middle strata who have been hit hardest by the financial crisis. They fear they are losing their status, and they might become poor very fast.”

“My main worry is that there are no clear alternatives at the moment. The fear is that we may have a fragmented new parliament and strengthening of populist parties which could put governability at risk,” said Smilov.

“There are not too many immediate problems but long-term, the situation is not good,” he said.

The Centre for Liberal Strategies was a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. 

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Ecuador the latest ‘XXIst Century Dictatorship’?

“Unlike the dictatorships of the past, which took power with a coup d’état, closed down the Congress and replaced the president, the dictatorships of the XXI Century ignore the constitutional order under which they were elected and create a new constitutional order that allows them to stay in power,” according to a former Latin American leader.

“After a while, they become dictatorships,” former Ecuadoran president Osvaldo Hurtado asserts in Dictatorships of the XXIst Century. The title “mocks Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, [current Ecuadoran President Rafael] Correa (left) and other autocratic presidents’ claims that they are building a ‘Socialism of the XXIst Century’,” writes Andreas Oppenheimer.

What should pro-democracy people in Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and other narcissist-Leninist autocracies do? he asks Hurtado.

“The answer should come from the Organization of American States (OAS,) since these governments are violating several articles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” Hurtado said. “But unfortunately, the OAS has remained silent. There seems to be a double standard, in which the OAS lashes out against dictatorships of the right, but not against dictatorships of the left.”

Correa this week vowed to make Ecuador’s socialist revolution ‘irreversible.’ 

Re-elected in this week’s presidential poll, Correa has “intimidated Ecuador’s independent media into virtual silence,” The Washington Post reports:

Since May, the government closed 11 other radio stations that did not toe its line. A law forbidding biased reporting on political campaigns and allowing dissatisfied candidates to sue over alleged violations forced the media into pallid and skimpy coverage of the alternatives to Mr. Correa, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists — even as government media blatantly ignored the rules.

Journalists who try to oppose Mr. Correa are made to pay. A newsmagazine that urged voters to vote down a referendum giving the government still more control over the media was fined $80,000 for violating the law against electoral propaganda. Last year the Ecuadoran group Fundamedios recorded 173 “acts of aggression” against journalists, including one killing and 13 assaults.

Ecuador was rated only “partly free” for the 13th successive year in Freedom House’s recently published Freedom in the World 2013 survey. But it received aggregate scores of only 24 out of 40 and 36 out of 60 respectively for political rights and civil liberties. 

Impoverished Ecuadoran voters in particular flocked to vote for Correa, a US-trained economist, in large part because he has “improved access to education and health care for the poor and has built or improved thousands of miles of roads and highways,” The New York Times reports:

But he has governed with aggressive tactics that critics say undermine democracy by expanding presidential power; weakening the independence of the courts; and lashing out often at perceived enemies, including political opponents, the media and, at times, the United States.

“Much of Ecuador’s democratic decline over the last six years is attributable to Correa’s restrictions on freedoms of expression and association,” writes Freedom House analyst Alexander Brockwehl:
Correa has used intimidation tactics and antiquated criminal defamation laws to silence opinions he does not agree with, particularly those expressed in the news media. ….In January 2012, he went a step further toward silencing the press by using his line-item veto power to change the electoral process to limit press coverage of election campaigns. …..According to the prominent Ecuadorian press freedom organization Fundamedios, the law amounts to “censure” of the press and is “expressly prohibited by the Constitution that was approved via referendum in 2008.”

Correa also used electoral changes to centralize power in the executive branch and weaken the role of the legislature in checking executive power. The reform included a provision to modify the seat allocation formula for the National Assembly to favor larger parties which, according to domestic and international critics, will give his PAIS party an additional advantage in the elections.

As Freedom House reported in June, 2012 he has urged his supporters not to grant interviews to the “corrupt” private media and, more recently, he was the only one of the eight presidential candidates who rejected Fundamedios’ request to participate in a survey about the putative role of freedom of expression in Ecuador’s democracy.

Fundamedios is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. 

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Anti-American head of Duma ethics quits in US assets scandal

The anti-American head of the Russian Duma’s ethics committee quit his seat today after a leading anti-corruption blogger revealed his secret property acquisitions – in the United States.

Ruling party deputy Vladimir Pekhtin resigned after Alexei Navalny (above), a leading figure in Russia’s opposition, accused him of failing to declare his ownership of properties in Florida.

Last week, Navalny posted photographs and records showing Pekhtin’s name on deeds to two condos in Miami Beach and another in Ormond Beach.

“Pekhtin, 52, officially found himself in trouble not because he owned property in Florida — there’s no law against that — but because he had not listed it on the annual declaration required of government officials. That, undoubtedly, would have been too politically incorrect,” the Washington Post reports:

He had listed an income of $72,000 a year, along with $5,500 for his wife. Together, according to the declaration, they owned property including two large apartments, two houses, six large parcels of land, a Porsche Cayenne, a Toyota Land Cruiser, three Mercedes, a snowmobile and jet ski. All of it was in Russia, where people often seem to own vast quantities of property on small salaries.

Navalny has been a major Kremlin irritant for the last two years. He started calling United Russia the Party of Crooks and Thieves, a name that has stuck among the opposition-minded. The authorities have fought back against his anti-corruption campaign and popularity. Three charges of fraud have been brought against him recently. His supporters call the charges politically motivated, but he risks up to 10 years in prison.

The episode is an embarrassment to President Vladimir Putin and his ruling United Russia party which have made anti-Americanism a prominent theme in regime rhetoric. Putin has consistently accused overseas-funded non-governmental groups of acting as “foreign agents.”  

“Navalny has manifestly put Pekhtin, the ruling party, and the Kremlin in an extremely uncomfortable position,” political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote recently on Politcom.ru.

At a time when the Kremlin has pledged to crack down on corruption, it has exposed Putin’s inability — or unwillingness — to police top officials, RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore adds. And at a time when the authorities are branding NGOs who receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents,” one of the top lawmakers in the country is secretly holding multimillion-dollar properties abroad.

“If Aleksey Navalny has ferreted out published documents, the Russian security services are also perfectly capable of probing officials with regard to their exclusive loyalty to the Russian Federation,” Stanovaya wrote, adding that Putin apparently “does not have sufficient resources to move against the bureaucracy.”

The exposé is also likely to intensify what one analysis characterizes as deepening disarray among the elites as Russia’s self-isolation progresses.

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