Egypt’s ‘democratic dictator’ flees presidential palace

Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi has fled the presidential palace after thousands of protesters converged outside the building and in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to voice their opposition to a Muslim Brotherhood power-grab, according to reports:

The deepening political crisis has pitted Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, and his Islamist backers against a broad alliance of young liberals, judges, human rights groups and loyalists of the former government.

The protesters vehemently reject the draft constitution drawn up by an Islamist-dominated panel which, they charge, threatens civil liberties and the rights of women and religious minorities. The constitution must be ratified by a December 15 referendum, but one veteran rights activist believes it will be rejected by the judiciary.

“There’s no way this constitution is going to go through,” said editor and publisher Hisham Kassem. “Even if [Morsi] manages to get it passed on the 15th through a referendum, it’s null and void. It’s a primitive piece of legislation. It’s becoming clear from jurists comments that this is basically a constitution that will take us back 1000 years or so.”

The protests have revived and, at least temporarily, united Egypt’s fractious liberal and secular opposition.

“Morsi has done the opposition a huge favour,” said Mirette Mabrouk, a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution. “He has managed to shake off everyone who was sitting on the fence. He has frightened and unsettled a lot of people.”

Mohamed Aboul Ghar, the leader of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic party, said Mr Morsi’s said his party had attracted as many new members in the past two weeks as it had during the previous eight months. “But will this unity last? There is a question mark here,” he said.

Some secular leaders fear the prospect of political violence.

“It has never been this way before,” said Amr Moussa, a former presidential candidate and opposition leader. “There is no dialogue whatsoever.”

In that atmosphere, the opposition’s escalations and the Islamists’ response has become more combustible, raising the specter of political violence. “I’m afraid of a confrontation,” Mr. Gad said. “I do not want to use the term civil war.”

There was little sign the air would clear soon.

Morsi’s offers of dialogue is “a farce,” said Amr Hamzawy, the founder of the Free Egypt Party and a former member of Parliament, who said the opposition was fighting “a calculated attempt by the Brotherhood to take over Egypt.”

Mr. Hamzawy compared recent Brotherhood rallies to pro-Hitler demonstrations in Germany in the 1930s. “There are great similarities,” he said. “We will not legitimize what’s going on,” he said, raising the possibility of boycotting parliamentary elections that are to be held after the constitution is approved.

“I do not see us breaking apart soon,” Mr. Hamzawy said of the opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, that was formed during the crisis. “We have a historic chance to bring people behind us, and to stand where we belong.”

“Fear grips the majority of Egyptians, who want a true democracy rather than a theocratic state,” writes Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the Al-Dostour (Constitution) party:

The country is threatened by four time bombs that have emerged under the leadership of the military and now the Brotherhood. Our economy is in free fall; at the present pace we will default in six months, especially if the recent instability jeopardises a loan from the International Monetary Fund. Law and order remain elusive, and the impact on tourism and foreign investment is severe. Northern Sinai is turning into a battleground, threatened by jihadist groups coming from Afghanistan and elsewhere. And now, with the uproar over the draft constitution, the country is dangerously polarised.

Many commentators have suggested that the Brotherhood would follow the Turkish model of a civic state informed by Islamic values. But the military was a vital bulwark against Islamist extremism, forcing the AK Party to moderate its ambitions.

That’s unlikely to happen in Egypt, says Eric Trager, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

The constitution, drafted without input from secularists and Christians and passed Thursday night in a rushed session of parliament, preserves the military’s control over its budget and foreign policy, meaning it can maintain peace with Israel and retain billions of dollars of U.S. aid, Trager says. 

“The military gets something in the constitution, and it has an incentive to play along with the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says.

The military remains a significant political player because Egypt’s security forces have not been reformed in any meaningful way, says Omar Ashour, Director of the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center:

Morsi, in his effort to force out the prosecutor, will have to avoid opening another front with the Mubarak-era security generals, whom he will need to protect state institutions and maintain a minimum level of public security. The security sector may, it seems, emerge from this crisis as the only winner. It will enforce the rule of law, but only for a price. That price will be reflected in the constitution, as well as in the unwritten rules of Egypt’s new politics.

“This constitutes a much more serious and lasting threat to Egypt’s democratization than do Morsi’s temporary decrees,” Ashour contends.

The opposition remains divided over whether to campaign for a No vote in the referendum or to boycott the poll.

“I am with a No vote” said Khaled Abdel Hameed, a leader of the Popular Socialist Alliance party. “I think we have to fight the battle. We should go out and mobilise for the No. I know there are some in the opposition who want a boycott, as a chance to delegitimise the referendum, but I think we have not reached this stage, Morsi has not reached the dictatorial level of Mubarak.”

Mr Aboul Ghar said he had “slim hope” that the referendum results would favour the opposition.

“But even if we lose we will have learnt to mobilise people,” he said. “If we get a 40 per cent share of the vote, we will have a stronger position and the constitution will be illegitimate and we will show that we are not a zero as they say.”

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Citizen Journalism in the Information Revolution

Citizen journalists are becoming a potent force for building open and democratic societies. Today, a single smart phone offers the public a journalist’s tool box that just a few years ago cost thousands of dollars and filled a car trunk.  

In environments where poor infrastructure, minimal access to technology, and small-scale economies impede the development of mainstream independent media, and in countries where repressive governments limit the ability of professional journalists to operate freely, citizen journalists are helping to fill the gaps. These citizen journalists can provide a corrective, alternative view that exposes corruption, fosters accountability, and documents abuses of power. Just as they can serve to challenge mainstream forces, however, they can also be tools of government propaganda, as in Syria and China, where loyalists have flooded social media sites and blogs with pro-regime sentiment.  

Citizen journalism also poses a problem for advocates of quality, accuracy, and objectivity, as they typically lack formal training or knowledge of the essential roles independent media play in ensuring accountable and transparent government. Join the following discussion at the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance as panelists explore the growth of citizen journalism, its impact on independent media, and the challenges for media development trainers.  

Citizen Journalism in the Information Revolution 

Featuring:

 Yehia Ghanem

@ICFJ

International Center for Journalists 

Anahi Ayala Iacucci

@anahi_ayala

Internews

 Dale Peskin

@wemedia

We Media 

Jane Sasseen

@janesasseen

Author, The Video Revolution  

Moderated by: 

Adam Clayton Powell III

@USC_CCLP

University of Southern California 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

2:00 p.m.-3:30 p.m. 

1025 F Street, N.W., Suite 800 Washington, DC 20004 

REGISTER HERE      

If you are unable to join, watch the event live here

Follow the event @CIMA_Media on Twitter: #cimaevents

 About the speakers: 

Yehia Ghanem is country director for Egypt with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), overseeing its program training professional and citizen journalists to cover their local communities. The program has been on hold since the Egyptian government’s crackdown on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations began in December 2011.  

Anahi Ayala Iacucci is Internews’ innovation advisor for Africa, specializing in information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D), crisis mapping, and the use of new technologies to overcome communication barriers. Iacucci is co-founder of the Standby Task Force, an online volunteer community for live mapping, which managed the LibyaCrisisMap project. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya. 

Dale Peskin is co-founder and chief knowledge officer of We Media, a global innovation agency committed to harnessing the power of media, communication, and human ingenuity for the common good. A pioneer in digital and social media, Peskin coined the term “we media” in 2002 to express how the democratization of media would transform news media.                                                                                                   

Jane Sasseen is a freelance editorial consultant who has worked with numerous major non-profit and media organizations. She was an editor and co-author of several chapters of The State of the News Media 2012, the annual report on American journalism produced by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. 

About the moderator: 

Adam Clayton Powell III is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication Leadership and Policy and a university fellow at USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy, coordinating USC projects and forums in Washington, DC, on subjects ranging from public diplomacy and public service media to future business models for cultural institutions and arts journalism. Powell is a member of CIMA’s advisory council and the author of Bigger Cities, Smaller Screens: Urbanization, Mobile Phones, and Digital Media Trends in Africa.

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‘Sun setting’ on US chance to shape Syria’s transition

Former Baathist PM Riad Hajib: Syria’s transitional premier?

The United States is losing its chance to shape Syria’s post-Assad transition, according to a U.S.-based activist group.

It will be too late to win over Syrians’ “minds and hearts,” if the administration doesn’t act soon, says Louay Sakka, a spokesman for the Syrian Support Group.

“This is [America's] last chance to catch up, otherwise you’ll have a failed state and no support on the ground,” Sakka says. “If [the US] doesn’t do this, why will people listen? Syrians will think, ‘When we needed them, they didn’t help us.’”

“The U.S. has to have a vision, a plan toward Syria,” he says. “Time is running out, and the absence of such vision has jeopardized [the] U.S. position as [a] world leader.”

Pro-democracy activists are concerned that US and Western reticence is inadvertently handing the initiative to radical Islamist forces which receive considerable financial and military assistance from the Gulf.

“The Qataris are much less squeamish about funding the various jihadist groups,” notes one observer.

Abu Anas, an activist with one such group, Ahrar al-Sham, expects post-Assad Syria will be a dawlet islamiyah, or state governed by Islamic law, he tells NPR:

Lately, Abu Anas’ group and the more hard-line jihadists have worked side by side to take Syrian army bases and weapons with the less religious, more moderate rebels who call themselves the Free Syrian Army. Some analysts say this was a calculated move on the part of the Islamists. Not only are they vying for weapons and power, but for the first time they are bowing to public pressure to be less extreme. Last month Islamist fighters released a video denouncing the political opposition that’s working to bring down Assad. They later retracted the video after criticism from Syrian civilians.

“However, that was a retraction of a video that came out while Assad is still in power and whilst they [the Islamists] have relatively little to lose,” says Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. “I think the situation could feasibly change if Assad was actually to fall. There’d be an awfully lot more to play for. And so I think some kind of tension is inevitable.”

US President Barack Obama forcefully warned the regime against the use of chemical weapons, but some analysts believe they are more likely to be used as a defensive rearguard action.

“Today I want to make absolutely clear to [President Assad] and those under his command: The world is watching,” Obama said. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

“It’s likely that these weapons are headed to the coast,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Mideast-focused think tank. “The weapons placed here would be out of reach of the rebels and could be used for the defense of a mini-state.”

The recent Internet blackout and the severing of landline and cell phones services are an indication of the regime’s vulnerability, rather than signs of an imminent crackdown, says Syrian opposition activist Ammar Abdulhamid.

“The possibility of accidental damage can be discounted,” he said. “This is something done intentionally by the regime, and reflects growing desperation on account of the recent advances made by rebels, especially in Damascus.”

His assessment appears to be borne out by a Russian analyst with contacts at the Foreign Ministry who has revealed that “people sent by the Russian leadership” in contact with Assad described a broken man, The New York Times reports:

“His mood is that he will be killed anyway,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a Russian foreign affairs journal and the head of an influential policy group, adding that only an “extremely bold” diplomatic proposal could possibly convince Mr. Assad that he could leave power and survive.

“If he will try to go, to leave, to exit, he will be killed by his own people,” Mr. Lukyanov said, speculating that security forces dominated by Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect would not let him depart and leave them to face revenge. “If he stays, he will be killed by his opponents. He is in a trap. It is not about Russia or anybody else. It is about his physical survival.”

The U.S. State Department’s former head of policy planning has emerged as “one of the most articulate exponents of intervention,” says a leading commentator.

By failing to intervene, the US is “betraying yet again what America claims to stand for,” Anne-Marie Slaughter* warned recently, calling for “decisive action to save tens of thousands of Syrian lives and possibly tip the balance of the conflict.”

“Alongside the humanitarian arguments, the interventionists also make a more pragmatic case,” writes the FT’s Gideon Rachman:

The rebels are making headway. The eventual fall of the Assad regime seems inevitable. But if the western powers have not provided armed assistance to the eventual victors, the west’s ability to shape post-conflict Syria could be much more limited. As one US official puts it: “We need some skin in the game.”

The interventionists also make geopolitical arguments. The fall of the Assad regime would be a blow to Iran. Some also fear that by hanging back, they are underlining the perception of declining US influence. How can it be, they ask, that tiny Qatar is having more impact on Syria than the world’s sole superpower?………….[B]y holding back, the west is ensuring that it is precisely the jihadists who are gaining power within the coalition of opposition forces fighting in Syria. In a similar vein, the interventionists argue that all the other western nightmares – the fragmentation of the country and the ethnic cleansing of the Christian and Alawite communities – are becoming ever more likely, the longer the conflict drags on.

Administration officials defend the US role in supporting the Syrian opposition, albeit with non-lethal assistance.

“As far as the opposition is concerned, I don’t see any other country that has been more involved than the United States,” says one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“The U.S. has supported [the opposition] in their development of a transition plan and political mission statement in Cairo and their efforts in Doha to form the Syrian Opposition Coalition,” the official says of the two conferences this fall. “The Syrian Opposition Coalition is inclusive and broadly representative. A large portion of its membership is made up of folks from within Syria or folks who have recently departed.”

Islamists are also making headway within the broader opposition coalition which recently selected a prime minister to lead a transitional government after talks in Cairo that furthered the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, a veteran apparatchik in Assad’s Baath Party before he defected, is backed by Jordan and Gulf states, and is likely to be chosen before or during a gathering in mid-December of the Friends of Syria, according to coalition insiders:

The coalition created an executive body, less than a month after the group was formed with Western and Arab support. The 11-member ‘political assembly’ will be headed by Moaz al-Khatib, the current president of the coalition. 

They will include his two vice presidents and the coalition’s secretary general, Qatari-backed businessman Mustafa Sabbagh, who has emerged as one of the most powerful figures in the new structure. …. Since the coalition was set up in Qatar earlier this month, the Brotherhood has swiftly assembled a de facto majority bloc, according to insiders keeping track of changes in the membership of the coalition. 

The US debate over intervention is unlikely to be resolved soon, observers suggest.

“We’re already heading for a failed state, with parts of the country controlled by jihadist militias. What could be worse than that?” demands one interventionist. A US official replies: “Anybody who says that western intervention cannot make things worse in Syria simply lacks imagination.”

*Anne-Marie Slaughter is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. 

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Arab awakening edging closer to Saudis?

Saudi Arabia’s response to the ‘Arab awakening’ has involved efforts to co-opt potential domestic movements for change, the funding of illiberal actors in transitional states and direct military intervention in Bahrain in an attempt to squash its movement for democratic reform.

But observers are now questioning whether the Saudi monarchy can escape the region’s political turmoil.

“Saudi security forces recently detained dozens of men, women and children after they staged a rare protest outside a human rights group’s office in Riyadh to demand the release of jailed relatives,” Reuters reported.

The Saudi strategy of containment and co-option is being strained by growing social tensions and demands for fundamental rights, not least from the country’s impoverished lower classes and the repressed Shia minority.

“Millions of Saudis live in poverty, struggling on the fringes of one of the world’s most powerful economies, where job-growth and welfare programs have failed to keep pace with a booming population that has soared from 6 million in 1970 to 28 million today,” The Washington Post’s Kevin Sullivan reports:

The Saudi government discloses little official data about its poorest citizens. But media reports and private estimates suggest that between 2 million and 4 million of the country’s native Saudis live on less than about $530 a month — about $17 a day — which analysts generally consider the poverty line in Saudi Arabia.

Forbes magazine estimates Abdullah’s personal fortune at $18 billion, making him the world’s third-richest royal, behind the rulers of Thailand and Brunei. He has spent government funds freely on high-profile projects, most recently a nearly $70 billion plan to build four gleaming new “economic cities,” where government literature says “up to five million residents will live, work and play.”

The king last year also announced plans to spend $37 billion on housing, wage increases, unemployment benefits and other programs, which was widely seen as an effort to placate ­middle-class Saudis and head off any Arab Spring-style discontent.

Such discontent is already brewing within the restive Shia minority, which comprises some 10 per cent of the country’s 28 million people.

“The death toll here – 14 civilians and two police officers since the beginning of last year – is small compared with recent rebellions in other Arab countries [and] unlike elsewhere, protesters here are not demanding the overthrow of their government,” notes one report:

They want long-denied basic rights: equal access to jobs, religious freedom, the release of political prisoners. But in the richest country in the Middle East, where even peaceful protests have long been banned, the clashes between police and demonstrators have become a big concern for King Abdullah and his ruling family…..But the government’s response has largely been to dismiss the protests as illegitimate.

Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the powerful Interior Ministry, said in an interview that the Saudi protesters “have connections to Hezbollah”, the Iran-backed Shia militia in Lebanon. Such assertions infuriate supporters of the protesters.

“Show me one person here who has any connection to Iran. Where is the evidence? There is none,” said Waleed Sulais of the Adala Centre for Human Rights, a group formed last year in Qatif to document abuses against Shia.

Shia have demanded an end to discrimination in employment – few top-level government jobs go to them. They want more freedom to build Shia mosques and religious community centres, which are banned in many areas. They want more development in towns that appear run-down and neglected. And they want the release of Shia political prisoners, many of whom have been held without charge or trial for months or years.

“If the government would answer some of these demands, people would calm down,” said Ahmed al-Meshaikhes of the Adala Centre.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been compared to North Korea as a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden.”

Nevertheless, “For all their frustrations, most Saudis do not crave democracy,” writes Karen Elliott House in her new book, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future. “What unites conservatives and modernizers, and young and old, is a hunger not for freedom but for justice; for genuine rule of law, not rule by royal whim.”

Credit: MEMRI

Yet Saudi citizens are increasingly turning to social media networks to mobilize popular protests, notes one observer.

Studies show that 38% of the population use social networks, more than in any other Arab country, and that Saudis lead the list of the 100 most influential Arabs on Twitter, writes Y. Admon, an analyst with the Middle East Media Research Institute:

An example of the widespread use of Twitter in Saudi Arabia was apparent following a recent food crisis in the country and a drastic rise in the price of chicken. In response to the crisis, Saudi citizens organized a “Chicken Campaign” protest on Twitter which was so successful that the regime, sensing a possible threat, quickly curbed the price increase. The students who protested in the kingdom in March 2012 also made use of the social networks, mainly Facebook, to promote their cause.[2] In addition, the Saudi media has recently been warning that the Muslim Brotherhood is using Twitter to incite against the regime. In light of this growing use of social networks, the regime increasingly fears that they could spark social or political unrest, and is consequently monitoring the material posted on them by Saudi citizens.

Social media is also proving an effective organizing space for nascent civil society networks, including the Saudi women’s campaign for the right to drive.

“The threat posed to the Al-Sa’ud regime by the social networks joins other threats it is facing,” says Admon, “including power struggles within the royal family; the Arab Spring uprisings; the Iranian threat, one of whose expressions is repeated protests by the Shi’ite minority in the eastern part of the kingdom; and mounting criticism of the regime’s policy – both by citizens and by Saudi princes – regarding institutional corruption, high unemployment and poverty rates, the lack of freedom of expression and of government transparency; the oppression of the Saudi woman; and more.”

RTWT

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A year on: a different, unstable Russia

Stanislav Dmitrievsky, Russian human rights activist. Credit: Human Rights Watch

Russia is caught in a dangerously status quo, says a leading analyst. The system cannot be changed from above, but the opposition lacks the strength to force change from below.

According to the Levada Center’s Denis Volkov, who has conducted surveys of opposition protesters, the consensus is: “The system will never change from the top. We do not have enough strength to force change. But Russia can’t go on like this.”

Potential scenarios are disturbing

“The atmosphere is full of undemonstrated violence,” said Boris Dubin, a Levada Center sociologist, which documents public opinion. “The situation is unstable, and alarming.”

“Pushing Russia into uncharted waters, a year of wholly unexpected political protest is sharpening tensions within both the society and the government itself,” The Washington Post’s Will Englund and Kathy Lally report. “No one understands how this will turn out, but no matter what happens, the Russia that existed in 2011 will not be seen again.”

As the Post reports: The big street demonstrations that suddenly began last December seemingly accomplished little concrete change, and the Kremlin is still fully in control of parliament, police and courts — and unbashful about deploying them against its foes.

Yet the past 12 months have shown for the first time here how people can organize themselves to take action and demonstrate broad dissatisfaction with the government of President Vladimir Putin. The protests have pushed the president into a reactive posture and given the protesters an unfamiliar sense of solidarity.

“It’s growing from the bottom up,” said Grigory Okhotin, a statistician who has been analyzing the demonstrations. “We’ve never seen this before.”

The Kremlin has reacted to the rebirth of civil society with an unprecedented crackdown.

Russia recently expelled the United States Agency for International Development and passed a law requiring foreign-funded NGOs to brand themselves as “foreign agents.”

“As a result,” The New York Times reports, “the National Democratic Institute, an American-financed organization that promotes democracy, moved to Lithuania last month, and its counterpart, the International Republican Institute, is likely to follow.”

The offices of two prominent NGOs – For Human Rights and Memorial – were recently spray-painted with the words “foreign agent” on the day the NGO law came into force.

Both groups intend to boycott the law.

“We will not follow this law, it is unlawful,” For Human Rights director Lev Ponomaryov (right) told Reuters:

Ponomaryov said he did not know who had sprayed the door [with the words "foreign agent" and a heart with "USA" next to it] but that the law was a scare tactic to try to restrict the operations of organizations like his.

“We have to show some sort of civil disobedience. They are threatening us and if they apply some sort of repressions to us, we will try to make our case in courts,” he said.

The regime has conducted a campaign of selective, targeted repression against key opposition activists, the Post reports:

The authorities are also petitioning to ban a new book on human rights abuses in Chechnya as “extremist.” The case reflects the growing misuse of anti-extremism legislation against civil society activists, says a leading human rights group.

Credit: Human Rights Watch

On December 6, 2012, the Dzerzhinsk City Court in the Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia will hold a hearing on a petition filed by the local prosecutor’s office to ban a book by Stanislav Dmitrievsky (above), et. al., International Tribunal for Chechnya. Prospects of Bringing to Justice Individuals Suspected of War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity During the Armed Conflict in the Chechen Republic. The 1,200-page book (left) was published in July 2009 with a print-run of 700 copies and made available to broader audiences on the website of Novaya Gazeta, a leading independent newspaper.

“Dmitrievsky’s book is based on meticulous desk research and is an important source of information on the Chechen conflict,” said Hugh Williamson, director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities’ efforts to ban the book as ‘extremist’ have no basis in international human rights law and seem aimed at punishing Dmitrievsky for his human rights work.”

“In recent days, Moscow officials denied permission for a rally protesting political repression on the Soviet-like reasoning that the Russian Constitution prohibits such repression, and therefore it cannot exist,” the Post reports:
Putin used to portray himself as the leader of all Russians, above the party fray. But now the Kremlin is driving a wedge into society, demonizing the opposition, dividing Russians between “ours” and “not ours.” That strategy, though, has driven the three strands of the protest movement — leftists, nationalists and liberals – closer together, when many expected a rupture, said Sergei Davidis of a group called Solidarity.

Protesters who met at the big rallies have banded together to collect clothes for the homeless, to defend exploited immigrant workers who have been forced into servitude, to organize a children’s hospice, to play a role in relief efforts for flood victims. This is nearly unprecedented, Davidis said, and in some cases these actions have forced the authorities’ hand.

“A year ago, every activist had his own cop watching him,” says one activist. “They can’t do that anymore.”

RTWT

NDI and IRI are two of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. 

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