Islamist leaders in Egypt and Tunisia deploy unreformed security forces

“The governments that rose to power in Egypt and Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring are increasingly relying on the oppressive security apparatuses crafted by their predecessors,” notes a regional analyst.

“Whole-scale reform of the security services in both countries, where police were viewed as predatory foot soldiers for the regime, was a central catalyst for the uprisings two years ago,” writes the Global Post’s Erin Cunningham:

But as the two North African nations now grapple with heightened and sometimes violent unrest — the result of stalled political and economic progress — the government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and Tunisia’s Ennahda leadership are embracing the unreformed police forces as necessary tools to quell opposition to their rule, activists say.

Morsi attracted 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.

“Tunisians say the Ennahda-led Interior Ministry, meanwhile, continues to torture and turns a blind eye to attacks by extreme Islamists on liberal opposition groups — including the assassination of vocal government critic and human rights advocate, Chokri Belaid, earlier this month,” Cunningham observes.

That’s one reason why Ennahda Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem insisted on the Islamist group retaining control of the Interior Ministry rather than accept a government of neutral technocrats, one analyst notes.

Similar tensions are arising in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood appears content to utilize rather than reform the repressive apparatus inherited from the Mubarak regime.

“The police are returning to their ways in the time of [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak,” said Hafez Abu Seada, the president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. “They are a tool of oppression in the same way that they were. They are working for the Muslim Brotherhood now, and it should not be this way.”

Civil society groups had high hopes for reform in the country, where, according to the United States Institute for Peace — a nonpartisan group — educational standards are high for entrance into the police force, security infrastructure is solid and rules of engagement are clearly established…..But divisive political climates and ailing economies frustrated aspirations for reform.

“As political and social protests continue on the one hand, and on the other hand, the government is less able to provide — the only thing they can do as a government is repress,” said Karim Medhat Ennarah, security sector researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

Pro-democracy activists and rights groups in Tunisia say police abuses like protester beatings and sporadic torture continue, including against government opponents. The police force under the Ennahda government has failed to investigate or prosecute perpetrators of mostly religious-based attacks against liberal establishments like bars, art galleries and cinemas.

“Before the revolution, the ministry was very much an opponent of Ennahda,” said Ali Zeddini, vice president of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights. “Now the tables have turned, and the ministry is working in Ennahda’s interests.”

But even Egypt’s prosecutor-general, appointed by Morsi, is now spearheading an effort to protect security forces under the new government, Ennarah of the EIPR said.

The public prosecutor is renewing the detention of prisoners without evidence — sometimes without even a basic police report — EIPR said. Ennarah, who has worked with the president’s advisory team on proposals for security sector reform, said, “the role of the prosecution” in aiding police impunity is new.

According to rights groups, they proposed the immediate implementation of simple reforms to the presidential office like the creation of an independent commission to investigate the illegal use of firearms by security forces, or small monitoring teams to make visits to detainees in prison. …They were rebuffed. 

“They want a compliant police force, rather than a reformed one,” Ennarah said of the Morsi administration.

“In the absence of any will or interest of any kind in reforming the security services, the government is going to constantly be at loggerheads with the population,” he said.

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Tunisia’s ‘emerging political stalemate’

The ruling Ennahda party may hold the most seats in the body convened to oversee the writing of a new Tunisian constitution, writes the Stratfor analysis group, but the Islamist group remains severely constrained and lacks the authority to govern meaningfully.

For nearly 60 years before the fall of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia was ruled by a strong central government that placed a premium on loyalty to the state. While Tunisians largely still identify with the state, tribal divisions, socioeconomic gaps and ideological differences have become increasingly evident, preventing the central government from exerting its historical levels of control. The resignation of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali on Feb. 19 is just the latest manifestation of the ongoing scramble for power among Tunisian political factions, which appear to have fought their way to a stalemate.


Jebali’s resignation is the latest setback in Ennahda’s attempt to capitalize on the electoral success that brought it to power in 2011. These tensions boiled over after the Feb. 6 assassination of Chokri Belaid (above), a prominent secular opposition leader, which triggered mass protests and riots.

Disagreements over political strategies will not fracture Ennahda in the short term, but the party’s internal discord is a primary contributor to the larger political deadlock.

Ennahda’s rejection of Jebali’s plan [for a government of technocrats] also demonstrates that opposition parties, even those within the ruling coalition, have an interest in destabilizing the government. Secular opposition parties have been focused on what they believe to be a looming threat of Salafist activity in Tunisia. Indeed, the country’s Salafists have become more active since political controls were relaxed after the revolution, and militants have been crossing Tunisia’s porous borders with Algeria and Libya.

Beyond security concerns, Tunisia is also under economic pressure. Financial stresses arguably sparked the Arab Spring, and the Tunisian economy has continued to suffer since the fall of Ben Ali. The government is currently in late-stage negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a $1.78 billion loan, which the agency said could be jeopardized by the country’s political drama. Moreover, Tunisia’s influential labor unions have increased their protest activities, and tribal unrest has persisted in southern Tunisia. The more unpredictable Tunisia’s domestic political situation becomes, the more salient these problems will appear — and Ennahda will bear the brunt of popular dissatisfaction if it cannot take steps to solve them.

Lacking the connections and authority of the old single-party regime, Ennahda will need to strengthen its relationships with the Interior Ministry, the military and the labor unions for its electoral success to translate into political authority. This is why Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem, an Ennahda member who the coalition partners wanted removed, insisted that control of the Interior Ministry would remain with Ennahda after Jebali stepped down. However, the opposition is vying for these relationships as well, and Tunisia’s new political system affords the country’s institutions unprecedented freedom of operation. Because of this, governance in Tunisia has become much less centralized.

While Tunisia has a compact geography and a generally homogenous society (98 percent of Tunisians are ethnically Arab-Berber and Sunni Muslim), its populace has many divisions — secular and Islamist, rural and urban, wealthy and poor. Tunisia’s revolution began in the town of Sidi Bouzid at least in part due to the lack of economic development undertaken by the central government in Tunisia’s interior and southern governorates.

Democracy has given these groups new political voices, and the collapse of the erstwhile single-party system has fostered fierce competition for authority and power among Tunisian political parties. Jebali’s resignation must be understood in that context. And Tunisia’s political, economic and security environments will remain volatile for as long as that competition is about who will rule, as opposed to how.

This extract is taken from a longer analysis published by Stratfor (RTWT – registration required). 

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Russian opposition strategist faces death threat

A leading Russian opposition figure is the subject of death threats, reports suggest.

Internet journalist Sasha Sotnik reports that security services have targeted Andrei Piontkovsky (left), a leading political scientist, essayist and democracy activist, for “assassination” while a minivan with surveillance equipment is reportedly parked in front of Piontkovsky’s apartment building.

A member of the governing body of the opposition Solidarity movement and Coordination Council, Piontkovsky was prosecuted under anti-extremism legislation in 2007 for his book, “Unloved Country,” which was deeply critical of President Vladimir Putin.

Piontkovsky is the “brain center” and master strategist of the opposition, according to Valery Otstavnih, an Ekho Moskvy blogger.

“It’s difficult to put in jail a politician who is known all over the world. There would be a terrible outcry. It’s easier to make him disappear,” he writes.

The opposition’s Expert Council has called on General Prosecutor Yuri Chaika to conduct a thorough investigation of the reported threats.

“The law-enforcement agencies are obligated to question the persons who may know anything about these assassination plans and take all necessary measures to prevent it, up to and including providing security for Andrei Piontkovsky and his family,” said a council press statement.

Piontkovsky was one of first signatories of the online Putin_Must_Go manifesto, published on 10 March 2010, and he has repeatedly stressed its importance and urged citizens to sign.

“They decided to sacrifice Pekhtin,” he said this week, referring to Vladimir Pekhtin, a vehemently anti-American member of the United Russia ruling party, who resigned from the Duma following revelations that he failed to disclose properties he owns in Florida.

“Every day a corrupted official is flung into the field of people’s ire. I have a hypothesis that it is not only Navalny (the inventor of the ‘Party of Swindlers and Thieves’ brand) who participates in the campaign to discredit the State Duma, but also the authorities themselves,” he said.

“It seems re-branding and re-formatting of top leadership are in the works; perhaps there will be early elections to the State Duma. And instead of the discredited Party of ‘Swindlers and Thieves,’ there will emerge an unblemished and radiant ‘People’s Front.’”

A contributor to the Journal of Democracy, Andrei Piontkovsky was a Reagan Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in 2006.

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With $49bn in capital flight, ‘Is corruption in Russia’s DNA?’ (no more than authoritarianism)

“Russia’s central bank governor has lifted the lid on $49 billion in illegal capital flight – more than half of which, he says, is controlled ‘by one well-organized group of individuals’ that he declined to name,” the FT’s Charles Clover reports:

Sergei Ignatiev…..unburdened himself in an interview with the Moscow newspaper Vedomosti about money leaving the country through the back door, which he said equaled 2.5 percent of gross domestic product last year. “This might be payment for supplies of narcotics…illegal imports…bribes and kickbacks for bureaucrats…and avoiding taxes,” he told the daily, which is part-owned by the Financial Times:

A Moscow-based economist, who asked not to be identified, said the schemes described by Mr. Ignatiev were exactly those being investigated now in several jurisdictions in connection with the case of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky (above) who died in police custody in 2009 after he attempted to track a fraudulent tax refund that appeared to benefit a group of bankers and law enforcement officers.

“What Magnitsky was looking into – that was the tip of the iceberg,” the economist said.

Igor Yurgens, a former adviser to Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, said that if what Mr. Ignatiev said about a “single organized group” was true, “such an operation would not be possible without serious support from law enforcement”.

The revelation follows news that Vladimir Pekhtin, a vehemently anti-American member of the United Russia ruling party, resigned from the Duma this week following revelations that he failed to disclose properties he owns in Florida.

Is corruption in Russia’s DNA?”, the subject of an exhibition by photographer Misha Friedman, appears to be a legitimate question to ask.

But analysts caution against indulging in stereotypes.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush famously asked “whether or not it’s possible to reprogram the kind of basic Russian DNA, which is a centralized authority.”

But Adam Michnik, a leading founder of the Solidarity movement, dismissed the notion of  authoritarian DNA . Russia has a variety of traditions, including a liberal democratic tradition going back at least to Alexander Herzen, he said, rejecting the “point of view among Western and American cynics and opportunists that we don’t need to do anything, because Russians like dictatorship.”

Two things are striking about Russia’s regression to authoritarianism under President Vladimir Putin, writes Jeff Gedmin of the London-based Legatum Institute:

First is how Putinism so frequently gets a pass in the West. The United States has pursued the last four years a policy intended to ‘re-set’ relations with Moscow, a kind of constructive engagement with the Kremlin. That policy has failed. The EU’s Moscow strategy has been equally feeble. Putin’s apologists in the West often insist that Russian culture is not conducive to Western democracy; so why fuss and fret? Of course, culture matters. After 70 years of Soviet Communism, no one thought this transition would be easy.

But we’ve been here before. Democracy was once said to be impossible in places like Spain and Portugal (and Latin America) because of Catholic authoritarian traditions. …. If Russians don’t care about democracy, why does Putin spend so much time and energy curbing and quelling dissent?

The second striking thing about developments in Russia is how much Putin and his allies have learned about the art of repression. ….. There are softer, more sophisticated forms of intimidation and misdirection these days. Take media. Martha Bayles of Boston College writes of the “manipulations of cynical 21st-century authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, who use a free flow of infotainment to keep the masses amused and distracted, while crushing any political speech that might threaten his power.” RTWT

But some commentators appear willing to sacrifice Russians’ democratic aspirations on the altar of Realpolitik in the interests of engagement.

Engaging an authoritarian regime like Putin’s “raises a classic foreign-policy dilemma, where U.S. interests and values are in conflict,” writes the Washington Post’s David Ignatius.

Nevertheless, he concludes, “the benefits of a more cooperative U.S.-Russian relationship — on Syria, Iran, North Korea, arms control and other issues — are so substantial that they are worth the cost. That’s a heavy burden, especially since it’s likely to be borne by Russian human-rights activists.”

If the US and Russia are to reset the reset, says the Carnegie Endowment’s Matthew Rojansky, engagement should at least be extended beyond the intergovernmental sphere to civil society.

“Above all, ordinary Russians and Americans need more opportunities for engagement, not fewer,” he contends:

After a decade of strong economic growth, Russians themselves can now afford to engage as never before. But the Kremlin must resist the temptation to monitor and control every interaction. Rather than imposing visa bans, Russia should offer streamlined visa-free entry to US and EU citizens, even if western governments are too stodgy to return the favor. Ordinary people – students, tourists, and entrepreneurs – could come in droves, and while Russia would enjoy huge economic benefits, the exponential growth in international dialogue would have an even more transformative effect on political relations.

But that’s easier said than done when the Kremlin is not only manifestly hostile to pluralism and independent civil society, but also cultivating the most virulent anti-American sentiment seen since the height of the Cold War.

Russian democrats aren’t advocating isolation, an end to trade or a stop to negotiating nuclear weapons, writes Lilia Shevtsova, Rojansky’s Carnegie colleague.

“The opposition and the liberal critics of the West do not expect Western governments to fight for Russian democracy and freedom; this is an agenda for Russians,” she wrote this week in a must-read analysis. “But in pursuing trade or security relations, nothing is forcing Western governments to play the game ‘Let’s Pretend’ with regard to the path the Kremlin has taken.”

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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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