Will Egypt’s violent polarization provoke ‘madness’ of military coup?

The decision to delay Egypt’s parliamentary elections, probably until October, has raised fears that growing political tension and polarization could lead to prolonged violence and provoke a military coup.

If the country becomes ungovernable, the “madness” of military intervention can’t be excluded, says Amr Hamzawy (right), a leading liberal and a political scientist at the American University in Cairo.

“This devastating combination of violence, failure of state and opposition and state establishments degeneration means one thing in all likelihood: we are taking this country to a point where it could well be ungoverned and unfortunately could end up being a failed state,” he stated.

The Arab Organization for Human Rights today denounced Islamists’ attacks on prominent human rights activists Hafez Abu Seada, the head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and Dr. Hassan Nafa, a professor of political science at Cairo University.

After 30 years of dictatorship, the Muslim Brotherhood “promised to be inclusive and tolerant,” The Economist notes.

But since Brotherhood official Muhammad Morsi became president, “politics has become steadily nastier. Egyptian society is ever more polarized.”

A group of UN experts today urged Egypt’s Shura Council to reject a draft NGO law, which infringes international standards on freedom of association.

“It is highly regrettable that a government that was formed as a response to peaceful social activism can place such restrictions on people’s right to freedom of association,” said the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, on human rights defenders, and on freedom of opinion and expression. “All actors should play a role in the conduct of public affairs.”

The draft legislation stipulates that NGO funds should be considered public funds and groups will be banned from securing foreign funds without prior approval.

“These provisions…. will compromise the role of independent civil society organizations, which is essential, particularly in times of political transition,” warned Maina Kiai, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Morsi’s recent threats against the opposition and media have been unhelpful in stemming the mood of political intolerance.

“Their lives are worthless when it comes to the interests of Egypt and Egyptians,” said Morsi, adding that “we can sacrifice a few so the country can move forward. It is absolutely no problem.”

“This is again another form of the perpetuation of violence; that was not the kind of language that one would have expected of the head of the executive who … seems now to be diverting more towards a profile a Mafioso,” Hamzawy said.

But the Islamists’ liberal and secular critics also bear some responsibility for the deterioration of Egypt’s transition, he said.

The opposition has “failed so far and despite the many challenges to offer a cohesive alternative and is confining itself to criticizing the performance of the president and to appease the masses without attempting to offer serious solutions for consideration.”

Even without the postponement of the election, the transition process was in trouble, said Professor Hassan Nafae of Cairo University.

“It was up the president to complete the formation of the institutions. But as a matter of fact, he has not been able to do that in a good way because the constitution has been drafted and adopted through a referendum before it had a real consensus,” he said.

A prominent Brotherhood sympathizer concedes that Egypt is suffering from “a leadership deficiency,” but sees no signs of an end to the current polarization.

Morsi “will survive the political quagmire,” says Moatazbellah Abdel-Fattah, director of the House of Wisdom think-tank, if he “manages to get through the next six months and ends with a functional government place that can address the most pressing economic and security concerns, a fairly elected parliament in place and is willing to undertake the reconciliatory moves necessary to dispel the fears of Copts and the judiciary.”

The current economic crisis and political instability may prompt a military intervention to end Egypt’s democratic transition, says Abdel-Fattah, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

“Though let’s face it, if you asked an average Egyptian today if he or she is willing to forgo democracy in return for security and economic stability the chances are they will say yes,” he said. “This is where growing calls for the return of the army come from.”

Political analyst and publisher Hisham Kassem [left] tells VOA the delay could hurt the Islamist parties that dominate government, including the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, with a decline in popular support as economic and security problems mount. But he argues that may be neutralized by disarray in the opposition. …..While the polarization between Morsi and his opponents have led to street battles in recent months, Kassem remains optimistic that stability will prevail.

“We have seen very poor performance of the Brotherhood matched by very poor performance by the opposition,” he said.

“The only positive thing here is that there is still an attempt and enough foundations to prevent the country from going into a civil war or into chaos.”

Given the country’s looming economic crisis, Egypt “needs a government that can take some difficult decisions swiftly,” says The Economist:

To that end, Mr Morsi should select a fresh team of ministers from a much wider ideological spectrum, including technocrats and secular-minded people as well as his own Islamist brethren. Together they might share the opprobrium that will inevitably result from the measures needed to do a deal with the IMF and get the economy working.

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Russia’s NGO crackdown: Putin ‘nationalizing the elite’, ‘experimenting with new ideology’

Russian authorities are raiding non-governmental organizations to ensure compliance with a law designed to curb foreign interference in Russian politics, says Vladimir Putin.

But other analysts believe the underlying reason is that Putin is “recasting his unwritten contract with the country’s elite and experimenting with a new ideology to appeal to the Russian public.

Putin told Russia’s rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin that the aim was to “check whether the groups’ activities conform with their declared goals and whether they are abiding by the Russian law that bans foreign funding of political activities,” AP reports:

Pavel Chikov (right), a member of the presidential human rights council, said Russian agencies with no connection to the new law — including the fire, labor and health departments — had joined the checks.

“The prosecutor general’s office has become a kind of repressive machine, instead of serving as institution that enforces the law,” fellow council member Sergei Krivenko said.

Krivenko, a board member of the rights group Memorial said that the searches were “unprecedented in the last 25 years.” He compared the investigations to what civil society faced under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Krivenko said the inspections can be compared to Soviet government campaigns that closed down religious institutions and foreign organizations across the country in the 1920s and 1930s.

“Life has never been that easy for civic-society groups in Russia, especially for those active on issues the state considers politically sensitive,” says The Economist:

Some have been singled out, such as Golos, a vote-monitoring group, which was the subject of a campaign of harassment around the time of Duma elections in December 2011. Yet it is the first time that so many NGOs, working on disparate issues and spread out across the country, have faced a large, single wave of meddlesome inspections all at once.

So why crack down now?:

Putin is recasting his unwritten contract with the country’s elite and experimenting with a new ideology to appeal to the Russian public. A public attack on NGOs is a way to try to suppress their work, pushing them to the margins of political and social life. ….At the same time, demanding so many documents on nearly every aspect of a NGO’s work is a means to “collect information and see later how it might be used,” says Andrei Soldatov, a journalist who covers the security services.

The campaign has propaganda value too. In Moscow, nearly every inspection has been joined by a camera crew from NTV, the state-owned channel that has aired a series of conspiratorial documentaries over the past year. … Last week, after accompanying prosecutors to Memorial, a renowned human-rights group, NTV broadcast a segment called “Memorial Is Hiding Its Revenue From the General Prosecutor”.

The Kremlin’s program to “nationalize the elite” is a direct response to last year’s mass protests, according to Elizabeta Suracheva, Aleksander Gabuev and Ilya Barabanov.

“The government is convinced that there are foreign governments behind these protest movements,” said one source. ……….That source added that when Putin said that Hillary Clinton might be behind the protests, he was not simply playing to the public – he really believed it.

“At that point, Putin realized that a huge number of civil servants, elected officials and businesspeople depend on the West – because of children who live there, real estate they bought in London and bank accounts in Switzerland. That’s when he got the idea to try to bring all of that back to Russia, so that the West wouldn’t have such an influence.”

“One Russian official remembers a diplomatic meeting with the United States regarding the U.S. rocket defense shield,” they write for Kommersant

One of the U.S. negotiators told Russia to stop threatening to attack European cities with their missiles, saying bluntly to the Russian delegation: “You really think we are going to believe that you are going to attack a city where your children are studying and you keep your money? We have your number.” The members of the Russian delegation thought long and hard about that comment.

While Russian NGOs differ in their responses to the new NGO laws, “the larger fear…. is that other newly passed laws that have so far remained dormant will also be reanimated,” says The Economist

In November Mr Putin signed a law on treason, lobbied for by the FSB, which covers not only Russians who pass secrets to a foreign intelligence service, but anyone who offers information or assistance to a foreign state or international group “directed against Russia’s security”. Such persons could be sent to prison for 20 years. So far, the new law remains unused.

Memorial, Agora and many other groups raided recently are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Bahraini medics acquitted but rights groups fear for hunger strikers

Twenty-three Bahraini medics arrested during anti-government protests two years ago have had their convictions quashed. But two jailed human rights activists — a father and daughter — on a hunger strike are in a dangerous medical condition.

The medics had been found guilty last November of participating in “illegal assemblies” after treating protesters injured by security forces.

“These acquittals are welcome and horribly late,” said Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley. “A year after their trial started, two years after the alleged incidents, these medics have finally been vindicated after being mistreated or tortured in custody.”

The medics have always maintained that they were tortured and forced to make false confessions after being arrested in April 2011 when the kingdom was under martial law.

Dr Fatima Haji (right), a rheumatologist and co-founder of Doctors in Chains, said the acquittals were a “first step”.

“People need to be reinstated to their jobs, they need to be compensated for the abuse they suffered,” she told the BBC:

Dr Haji was among doctors in the Accident and Emergency unit who assisted the protesters injured when police used force to clear Pearl Roundabout. An appeal court overturned her conviction and five-year jail sentence but she has not been offered her job back at Salmaniya.

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and his daughter Zainab began their hunger strike last week after being denied family visitation rights.

As Mohamed El Dahshan writes for Foreign Policy’s Transitions:

Zainab al-Khawaja, on hunger strike since March 17, escalated her protest last weekend and now refuses liquids as well, risking her internal organs shutting down, according to an urgent appeal by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

Maryam al-Khawaja (above), the youngest in the al-Khawaja family living in quasi-exile in Denmark, is the acting director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and a tireless advocate for Bahrain’s cause abroad.

“Not a week passes without protests in various villages across Bahrain,” she told me at a conference in Tunis last week. Moving the audience with rhetorical gifts, Maryam’s words were a reminder that, as personable as the plight of the Khawaja family is, it is truly the plight of a nation.

Beyond the simplistic accusation of the movement as a Shiite rebellion against the Sunni authority, Maryam reminded us that some of the most renowned freedom fighters in the Bahraini revolution are Sunni, while the propagandist Minister of State for Information is a Shiite. Rather, the Bahraini revolution is one taking place in villages the country over, but it is drastically underreported.

Zainab al-Khawaja wrote a letter from prison which was widely published. She quotes Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Henry David Thoreau.

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Free Syrian Army still a force for de-radicalization and democracy

Fragmentation and disorganization have plagued Syria’s opposition since peaceful protestors began forming rebel groups under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, Elizabeth O’Bagy writes in a new report. But the Supreme Military Command has enhanced coordination and with its commitment to democratic principles and accountability it has the potential to check radicalization and help to assert a moderate authority in Syria.  

On December 7, 2012, rebel leaders from across Syria announced the election of a new 30-member unified command structure called the Supreme Joint Military Command Council, known as the Supreme Military Command (SMC). The Supreme Military Command improves upon previous attempts at armed opposition unification through higher integration of disparate rebel groups and enhanced communication, which suggest that it could prove to be an enduring security institution.  

The SMC includes all of Syria’s most important opposition field commanders, and its authority is based on the power and influence of these rebel leaders. Its legitimacy is derived from the bottom-up, rather than top-down, and it has no institutional legitimacy apart from the legitimacy of the commanders associated with the council. Thus, the SMC is not structurally cohesive, and its ability to enforce command and control is dependent on the cooperation of each of its members.  

From its inception, the organization attempted to marginalize ideologically affiliated rebel units, fearing that any religious connotation undermined what they saw as an inclusive, secular movement. This was a deliberate decision made by the SMC’s Joint Command in order to garner broader support from minority communities and to reassure the international community of the organization’s adherence to democratic principles.  

The Joint Command’s avowed secularism did not, however, reflect conditions on the ground. By the summer of 2012, protracted fighting had led to a surge in religiosity and exacerbated sectarian fault lines. This situation paved the way for the proliferation of ideological groups among the opposition. 

Although it is highly unusual for there to be elected positions within a military command, the opposition has sought to adhere to democratic principles and enforce a level of accountability by emphasizing the importance of elections. Thus, all current opposition leadership bodies, both political and military, include elected positions. 

In discussing the merits of inclusion versus exclusion of more radical forces within the SMC, the importance of unity among all rebel groups should take precedence.

A schism has also emerged between Jabhat Nusra (left) and its most reliable ally, the Syrian Islamic Front. Despite adhering to a more radical interpretation of Islamic law, many within SIF’s ranks support some type of democratic governance…..The growing rift between Jabhat Nusra and SIF is due to competing views on the Syrian state versus an Islamic caliphate as well as participation in political processes. 

Jabhat Nusra members reject democratic political processes as illegitimate and seek the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. On the other hand, SIF members largely believe in the integrity of a Syrian state and are willing to participate in some democratic processes, including elections. …… Even among the more radical groups in Syria they continue to exhibit nationalist sentiment and prefer some form of democratic processes, however limited. 

The SMC’s ties to Islamist and Salafist forces inside of Syria do warrant some concern, however. The FSA leadership, as a potential national-level authority, has long been recognized for its nationalistic character and adherence to a secular, pluralistic vision for a future Syria. However, with the influence of the more religiously conservative forces now serving on the SMC, some fear that a moderate, pluralistic future for Syria is endangered. This begs the question of whether the SMC, as a democratic institution, is capable of incorporating hostile religious actors, and if so, what will be the long-term political effects of inclusion on the SMC and its sub-units. 

Although the threat of extremism should not be underestimated, the SMC has the potential to serve as a moderating authority among radicalized factions fighting on the ground. The impetus for de-radicalization is largely structured by strategic calculations and political opportunities. If the SMC can create enough incentives for moderation, it will likely be able to marginalize the most radical elements within its structure. To this end, the SMC has recognized the importance of the inclusion of some of the more radical forces, while still drawing a red line at the inclusion of forces that seek the destruction of a Syrian state, such as jihadist groups like Jabhat Nusra. The case of the detained UN peacekeepers is an example of the positive influence that the SMC can have over more radical groups. 

President Assad is likely counting on collapsing the attempts at a unified rebel strategy through the brutality of his forces and the cost of battle. Once that happens, he likely expects rebel ranks to fragment and more radical elements, like Jabhat Nusra, to come to the fore. At that point he would be in a position to market himself as the sole guarantor against terrorism and chaos.  

Infighting among rebel units only benefits Assad’s strategy. Unity, regardless of ideological affiliation, will be important to defeating the regime and ensuring stability in a post-Assad Syria. 

This extract is taken from The Free Syrian Army, an analysis from the Institute for the Study of War.

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Civic solidarity: NGOs protest crackdown on Russian civil society

International civil society groups are expressing alarm at the current wave of official raids on the offices of domestic and international NGOs operating in Russia.

The Civic Solidarity Platform, a consortium of human rights NGOs from Europe, Eurasia and the US, issued an appeal to the international community to “stand firmly by Russia’s civil society and to speak out against the new attempt to intimidate and discredit in particular groups that rely on foreign funding.”

Germany today warned Russia that the NGO crackdown could damage relations after officials raided the Moscow offices of Human Rights Watch, Transparency International and the Civic Assistance refugee center, following earlier searches of two German NGOs in Moscow and St Petersburg.

The latest raids were described by a Moscow human rights activist as a “shock-and-awe campaign” against foreign-funded NGOs.


We, members of the Civic Solidarity Platform[i], are alarmed by the mass NGO inspections currently under way in Russia and express support and solidarity with our Russian colleagues who are affected by this development. We also appeal to the international community to stand firmly by Russia’s civil society at this time and to speak out against the new attempt to intimidate and discredit in particular groups that rely on foreign funding to promote respect for human rights and other universal values. The importance of such a response on the part of the EU and other international actors is underscored by the recently adopted landmark UN resolution on the protection of human rights defenders.

In the last few weeks hundreds of NGOs in different parts of Russia have been subjected to inspections apparently aimed at determining whether they comply with legislation in force, especially recent repressive legislation on NGO funding from abroad and broadly worded anti-extremism legislation. The inspections have been carried out by officials from prosecutor’s offices accompanied by officials from the Ministry of Justice, the Tax Services and various other authorities in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as Saratov, Rostov, Penza, Perm, Krasnodar, Primorsky, Orenburg and other regions. Among those singled out for inspections are many human rights NGOs, including members of the Civic Solidarity Platform. As the inspections continue, it is believed that thousands of NGOs across Russia may be targeted in total in this nation-wide campaign that is expected to be concluded by April.

According to an order from the General Prosecutor’s office, which has been published by media, regional prosecutors have been instructed to particularly look into the “lawfulness” of NGO funding, as well as possible signs of “extremism” in their activities. While the inspections have been carried out in different ways in different cases, many NGOs subjected to inspections have reported that they have not received any advance notice or any clear explanation for the checks. NGOs have often been required to provide copies of long lists of various financial and other documents, within short deadlines and on the basis of vague requests regarding the information wanted, e.g. using formulations such as “any other” documents or information. Inspectors have also requested to examine NGO premises and to question NGO staff members. The inspections have caused uncertainty and distress among NGOs, both those already targeted and those expecting to be targeted, and have obstructed their regular work and created a heavy burden on them to seek to comply with extensive and ambiguous requests for information.

The current wave of NGO inspections follows the adoption of a series of new laws negatively affecting Russian civil society since Vladimir Putin’s return as president last year. Taken together, these laws have contributed to a seriously worsening climate for civil society. The so-called Foreign Agents Law, which entered into force in November 2012, is of particular concern. This law requires NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they receive any kind or amount of foreign funding and engage in “political activities,” a term that is defined so loosely so as to include any activities aimed at “influencing” the decision-making of public authorities or “shaping” public opinion. In addition to the stigmatizing nature of this law, harsh sanctions are foreseen for violations of it: NGOs may be suspended without a court decision and given heavy fines and their leaders may face criminal charges. Another law adopted in December 2012 provides for suspending and freezing the assets of NGOs that receive funding from US sources and are deemed to engage in “political activities.” Shortly before the mass NGO inspections began, President Putin used a mid-February Federal Security Services gathering to reiterate his allegations that foreign-funded organizations work for “foreign interests” and to call for implementation of the new NGO legislation. Anti-extremism legislation already previously in force in Russia defines “extremism” in an excessively broad way and is open to arbitrary enforcement stifling legitimate free expression.

While Russian prosecutors do have powers to supervise that public associations comply with legislation in force, the context in which the current NGO inspections are being carried out coupled with their scope and nature can only create the impression that they are aimed at intimidating and putting pressure on NGOs, in particular those that benefit from foreign grants for public advocacy work on human rights and related issues. There is also reason to fear that these inspections constitute only the first step toward enforcing the new repressive NGO legislation, and thus toward silencing inconvenient groups. In an indication of this, a crew from the state-controlled NTV station known for its sensationalist coverage and anti-opposition propaganda showed up during the inspection of the human rights NGO Memorial in Moscow on 21 March, making its way into the organization’s office and filming there without asking for permission. Later that day NTV aired a story that accused Memorial of seeking to “hide” information about its sources of funding and suggested that the group may face legal consequences for failing to register as a “foreign agent.”

The same day as these events took place in Russia, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a new important resolution on the protection of human rights defenders (A/HRC/22/L.13). This resolution, which was passed without a vote and with broad cross-regional support, calls on states to create a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders can operate free from hindrance and insecurity, to refrain from criminalizing or imposing discriminatory restrictions on sources of funding for human rights activities, as well as to ensure that laws to protect national security are not misused to target human rights defenders or groups. The new resolution complements the 1999 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders that was adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly and that commits states to take all necessary steps to guarantee the right to conduct human rights work individually and through associations and NGOs, as well as to solicit, receive and utilize resources for this purpose (e.g. by receiving funds from abroad).

In view of these two documents and other international agreements and treaties that protect the right to engage in human rights activities, as well as the rights to freedom of association and expression, we call for an end to the current campaign of intimidation and harassment of Russian NGOs. We urge members of the international community that have not yet done so to convey concerns about the ongoing mass NGO inspections, to express unequivocal support for Russia’s civil society and to insist that Russian legislation and policies affecting NGOs are brought into line with international human rights standards. We urge in particular the EU and its institutions and representatives to respond to this situation, in accordance with the EU commitment to support and protect civil society and human rights activists in third countries, as set out in the EU Human Rights Strategic Framework and the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders. The EU should make clear that pressure and scare tactics against NGOs are contrary to Russia’s international human rights undertakings and incompatible with a genuine EU-Russia partnership for modernization, an initiative discussed at European Commission-Russian government talks held in Moscow on 21-22 March, just as a series of NGO inspections were carried out in this and other Russian cities.

Signed by the following members of the Civic Solidarity Platform:

International Partnership for Human Rights (Belgium)

Norwegian Helsinki Committee

Center for Civil Liberties (Ukraine)

Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (Azerbaijan)

Foundation of Regional Initiatives (Ukraine)

Human Rights Club (Azerbaijan)

Bulgarian Helsinki Committee

Crude Accountability (United States)

Legal Transformation Center (Belarus)

Promo Lex Association (Moldova)

Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association

Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan

Kharkiv Regional Foundation “Public Alternative” (Ukraine)

Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Poland)

Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights (Russia)

Center for National and International Studies (Azerbaijan)

Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union

Public Verdict Foundation (Russia)

Netherlands Helsinki Committee

People in Need (Czech Republic)

UNITED for Intercultural Action (Netherlands)

Moscow Helsinki Group

Helsinki Committee of Armenia

Belarusian Helsinki Committee

Nota Bene (Tajikistan)

Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly – Vanadzor (Armenia)

Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia

Association of Ukrainian Human Rights Monitors on Law Enforcement (Association UMDPL)

Article 19 (United Kingdom)

Albanian Helsinki Committee

Belarusian Human Rights House (Lithuania)

International Youth Human Rights Movement

[i] The Civic Solidarity Platform is a coalition of human rights NGOs from Europe, Eurasia and the US. For more information, please visit http://www.civicsolidarity.org.

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