Eurovision spotlights Azerbaijan’s ‘work in progress democracy’

Credit: Index on Censorship

Azerbaijan has detained leading pro-democracy activists in central Baku just days before the former Soviet republic comes under the global spotlight for hosting the Eurovision song contest.

“Azerbaijan sent an ominous message about the government’s commitment to fundamental freedoms as the police violently dispersed two peaceful protests,” Human Rights Watch said today. “Police rounded up dozens of peaceful demonstrators, forcing them onto buses and beating many of them in the process.”

The authoritarian regime has gone on a PR offensive following criticism from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and local democracy activists.

“Azerbaijan has also come under fire from some Western NGOs for its human-rights record and for the pace of democratic change,” but its democracy “remains a work in progress,” claims Elmar Mammadyarov, the country’s foreign minister.

“Each parliamentary and presidential election has been an improvement over its predecessor. Opposition newspapers can and do now criticize the government on a daily basis,” he writes in the Wall Street Journal.

“A survey conducted last year by Populus, the British polling company, showed that 70% of Azerbaijanis believe that their country has improved in terms of freedom and democracy over the last 15 years, while nearly 80% supported the general direction of policy.”

But local activists dispute the regime’s claims and plan to use the Eurovision contest to highlight the government’s poor rights record.

The song contest “must be yet another tool to promote Azerbaijan’s European integration, first of all through the improvement of the situation with human rights,” says Rasul Jafarov, of Sing for Democracy.

“Ever since the Azerbaijani duo Ell and Nikki walked away with the top prize at the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest, the country has been preparing to host this year’s homage to kitsch, tight shirts and sequins with a seriousness more befitting a G20 summit,” Courtney Weaver writes from Baku:

To the government, for nearly two decades the fiefdom of the late Heydar Aliev and now his son Ilham, Eurovision is a chance to push the Caspian country into the limelight and promote both tourism and its bid to host the 2020 summer Olympics… [But] local activists claim hundreds of Baku residents were removed from their homes illegally to make way for new construction projects, including the Eurovision concert hall.

“When else can we make noise? Eurovision is it – at no other time would anyone pay attention to us,” says Nurija Halikova, who was kicked out of her home in downtown Baku and given compensation that she says was no more than two-thirds the market price.

Afag Ismayilova, a doctor similarly forced out of her home earlier this year, says the president’s family “has palaces everywhere. And what do I have? I had one home that they destroyed, even though I had two court injunctions in my hand”.

The “Sing for Democracy” campaign is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Print Friendly

Islamists vs. ‘regime remnants’ in Egypt’s presidential face-off

As Egyptians prepare to vote in tomorrow’s presidential poll, the diversity of candidates disguises what is essentially a polarized set of options: vote for Islamists of ‘regime remnants.’

The poll will nevertheless represent the start of a significant new stage in Egypt’s troubled transition.

“Free and fair elections and the installation of a civilian president would be a step in the right direction,” said Samer S. Shehata, an Egypt expert from Georgetown University. “It will be the first step in the retreat, or hopefully the removal, of the military from executive power.”

Each of the leading candidates has established a niche, says Shadi Hamid, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Center. “Amr Moussa is the ‘Change but not too much change’ candidate. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is the Change and ‘Let’s transcend partisan divisions’ candidate — the sort of Obama thing. Mohamed Morsi is the ‘We vote the Muslim Brotherhood’ candidate,’” he says. “And Ahmed Shafik — he’s the ‘Nostalgia for the old order candidate.’”

With many secular and even Christian voters flocking to former Muslim Brotherhood official Aboul Fotouh, his candidacy has become the Rorschach test of Egyptian politics, says Hamid.

“Whoever is elected, and who SCAF accepts [as president], will be made aware of the balance of power between the president, the army and its rulers,” said Amir Salem, a human rights lawyer and longtime activist. “The transition has not yet reached a point where the president can act as a strong, independent entity.”

The failure of secular liberals, including the media-hyped Facebook liberals, to field a credible candidate reflects a combination of political naivety, strategic myopia and lack of organizational capacity, observers suggest.

Some of the leading self-styled revolutionaries agree.  

“Before and after the revolution, we should have had a plan for what we would do after Mubarak left,” says Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6th movement that supported an outbreak of labor militancy in 2008, a precursor of the Jasmine Revolution three years later.

While the Islamists have sided with the military, supporting the crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs, for instance, Maher believes they are the lesser of two authoritarian evils.

“If there is Islamic rule in Egypt, we can protest, fight, quarrel, file lawsuits, stage demonstrations, but with army rule there is no room for negotiation,” he argues.

The popularity of the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party has taken a dive since the party won 40 percent of seats in the new assembly. The performance of the Islamist-dominated parliament and the Brotherhood’s sectarian opportunism has led to a decline in support for the Brotherhood from 63% in February to 42% in April, while the group’s FJP also fell from 67% to 43% over the same period, according to a newly-released Gallup poll. The ultraconservative Salafists witnessed a similar – if less dramatic – decline from 37% to 25%, with the Salafist Nour Party falling from 40% to 30%.

With a recent poll placing Morsi in fourth place, there are two reasons why the Brotherhood’s candidate is trailing, says Khalil al-Anani, a senior fellow at Egypt’s al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“First of all, he doesn’t have charismatic character, which can convince many Egyptians outside the Brotherhood,” he says. “Second thing, there is a sense among Egyptians that the Brotherhood seeks to dominate all the political institutions.”

Furthermore, Morsi is an organization man and will clearly follow the party line of what remains a highly opaque, disciplined, Leninist-type sect.  

“That’s one of the main weaknesses of him, that many people don’t believe that Morsi can act away from the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood,” says al-Anani.

The historically “reactive” Brotherhood has also struggled to make a strategic transition from the politics of protest to the prospect of power, says al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at the UK’s Durham University.

“It is a mistake to try to make the jump from a long-banned movement to the main political power in the country,” he argues. “This is a trap and the Brotherhood has been lured into it.”

Some sixteen months after Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt “is still struggling politically, economically, and in terms of security,” writes David Schenker, the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The election, if credible, has the potential to some degree to help stabilize the state on these fronts. The key will be the process,” he contends:

Egyptians are going to be watching the voting process itself quite carefully. With dozens of American staffers of U.S.-based democracy promotion organizations still standing trial in Egypt in absentia, only a few foreign organizations — including just one U.S.-based organization, the Carter Center — plan to monitor the elections on the ground. As of May 16, however, credentials for these monitors still had not been issued by the Egyptian Higher Committee for Elections. Worse, the Carter Center has already been informed that it will not be allowed to observe any single polling station for more than thirty minutes.

The regime’s prosecution of US-based and US-funded pro-democracy NGOs has had a detrimental effect on civil society’s capacity to monitor the electoral process, say analysts.   

“Because of the whole NGO scandal and sort of the attack on foreign funding, this is going to be at a much smaller scale than it was for the parliamentary elections and than it should be,” said Michele Dunne,* an Egypt expert with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “There will be some monitoring going on. It’ll be small scale. And at the same time, the elections themselves will be much larger scale.” The scale of the poll could overwhelm monitors, she fears.

“The presidential election is even clearer and more exciting than the parliamentary elections were. So potentially, there are 52 million eligible voters, we could see 30 million or something like that turning out,” she explained.

Nevertheless, “wholesale fraud” is unlikely, writes Schenker:

Historically, that task has been the purview of the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, an organization that is not at present working closely with the SCAF. Moreover, thousands of domestic Egyptian monitors are slated to observe the balloting. On Monday, for example, a campaign official working for Abdel Monem Abouel Fetouh told the Egyptian daily al-Yawm al-Saba that the candidate had “nearly 100,000 volunteers and registered representatives” to “follow up on irregularities” during the voting and spend the evening in the polling stations.

The presidential poll reveals Egyptians as falling into three main categories, Haitham Tabei a journalist at Asharq Al-Awsat, writes on EgyptSource:

 1) those who support the revolution or the Islamist current and whose views cannot be changed;

2) a smaller group affiliated with the former regime, who are equally steadfast in their beliefs; and

3) the most important group – those confused voters who have not yet made up their minds, and who determined the parliamentary elections in favor of the Islamists led by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and Salafi Nour Party.  

Many Egyptians argue that the revolution has not improved their living conditions, but has only increased their misery in light of deteriorating security conditions and protests that no longer satisfy them, the anger against mass protests and demonstrations rose more and more after the killing of a soldier by gunfire in the clashes at Abbasiya. State media reports that the army discovered weapons among the protesters, this instability, chaos and insecurity situation has made many voters inclined to choose a candidate capable of restoring security and order in the Egyptian street, rather than the candidates associated with the revolution.  

The Parliament’s disappointing performance does not bode well for Islamists, who have failed to present solutions to problems of unemployment, low salaries, and inflation. In my conversations with Egyptians in the Delta region who voted in large numbers for the Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections, the perception that the Muslim Brotherhood aspires to control and monopolize all state authorities and institutions is now causing many voters to turn away from the Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi.  

This trend is also pushing voters toward Shafiq and Moussa. The latter enjoys considerable support in the Egyptian street because of his strong stance against Israel during his tenure as Foreign Minister. Many believe that the SCAF is keeping Shafiq in the race despite his initial disqualification by the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) to galvanize activists against Shafiq, and them more willing to accept Moussa as an alternative. But many activists here are fighting them both equally, and they believe that Moussa is only marginally better than Shafiq.  

In summary, the January uprising has plunged revolutionary forces into a final battle against the former regime, and it is a battle of survival that will determine the fate of the nation. But the war is not only against candidates of the former regime but also against stereotypes that control undecided voters’ perceptions of the revolution and Islamists, which pushed them to vote in favor of former regime candidates although only fifteen months have passed since the revolution.  

Read the rest on EgyptSource.

Print Friendly

Egypt’s military seeks role after ‘stupidest transition in history’

Egypt’s military and Islamist politicians have postponed talks on the powers of the new presidency until after this week’s presidential poll, which is unlikely to produce a clear winner, sources said today.

“No one really knows what the outcome of this vote is. And neither side feels it should set down just yet what powers the unknown president will have over the state,” an Egyptian official with knowledge of the talks told Reuters.

General Mamdouh Shahin, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had hinted that articles outlining the president’s role and ring-fencing military prerogatives could be agreed in advance of the poll.

But the military has retreated on its demand for guarantees over its economic and political privileges a backlash from the powerful Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party and other political parties.

“The army must go back to its normal role as defender of the nation, and it should not have this kind of economic control,” Karim Radwan, a member of the FJP executive committee recently insisted.

The SCAF is reluctant to subject the military’s budget and extensive economic interests to public scrutiny.

“The military council is very worried now that if a president is elected and the military council does not have influence over the drafting of the constitution, their position in the state will be undermined. They are very resistant to this,” said Essam Haddad, a senior Brotherhood member.

But there is little prospect that the military will retreat into a non-political role, say observers.

“They [the army] will want to have continued influence over the state as a whole,” said Robert Springborg, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, and expert on the Egyptian military.

“Parliament remains weak, the court system has been further weakened,” he said. “There aren’t too many allies in the state itself that the president would be able to draw on against the military.”

The armed forces may be allowed to act as a guarantor of constitutional rule similar to the role performed by Turkey’s generals.  

“The Turkish model for the relationship between the state and the military seems to be where Egypt is heading,” said Essam Erian, a senior FJP member. “But we do not want to start where Turkey is now,” he said.

The SCAF’s determination to retain a political role also reflects a dismissive attitude towards civilian politicians’ competence, analysts suggest.

“It will take years before the military and civilians learn how to work together,” said Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert from the Century Foundation in New York. “The generals don’t want to rule, but they have a dim view of civilians. And there are things they are unlikely to budge on — things they want to have a say in, like national security.”

The military has received scathing criticism for mishandling what George Washington University’s Nathan brown calls the “stupidest transition in history.”

But for all of its mistakes, “the SCAF has gotten one really important thing right: it has remained committed to the transfer of power to an elected government on schedule despite frequent opportunities to renege,” writes Marc Lynch, Brown’s GWU colleague.

“Those inspired by the January 25 revolution have every reason to be disgusted by the course of events,” Lynch writes in Foreign Policy. “But those disappointments always needed to be kept in perspective. It was always clear that the shift from the street to the ballot box would not be kind to activists, who represented a small, mobilized minority which was always likely to be drowned out by mass movements such as the various Islamist trends.

Despite the many reversals and setbacks, “Egypt could have a brighter future than most believe,” he contends:

The new President will jockey for power with the SCAF and with the Parliament, the wonderfully contentious and unruly Egyptian media will challenge and scrutinize their every move, and many activists will likely continue to take to the streets in protest. But on the eve of the election, Egypt suddenly seems tantalizingly close to something like a successful transition.

According to the Project for Middle East Democracy:

Two presidential candidates have sent official complaints to the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) over the voting process at the Egyptian embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Jeddah. Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh and Khalid Ail both allege electoral fraud took place in expatriate voting in Saudi Arabia. In early returns, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi took about half of the votes. Meanwhile, state owned paper Al Gomhouria posted a full page advertisement for a second day in favor of former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. The advertisements were printed despite a period of silence in campaigning which are in effect for the two days prior to the vote on Wednesday. The ad was not paid for by the Shafiq campaign, but by an outside group called the Silent Majority Movement. In related news, Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri said the government would not allow any irregularities in the presidential elections and said that he and the military council guarantee the integrity of the electoral process.


Monitoring groups said Egyptian authorities have allowed them to begin work, one day before the start of the presidential elections. According to Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (ENCHR), 9,700 monitors have been accredited from 54 foreign and local groups, which is far fewer than the number that monitored the parliamentary elections. The groups argue that this late start will not allow them to gauge whether or not the elections are genuinely free and fair. At least one local monitoring group, the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, said it will not monitor the elections because of the restrictions placed on NGOs by the government. Other groups, such as the ENCHR said despite the restrictions and late start, boycotting monitoring activities is not the right solution.

POMED’s Egypt Parliamentary News Roundup is produced by the Egyptian Democracy Academy, one of POMED’s partner organizations in Egypt. To receive these parliamentary news updates please click this link.

The Project for Middle East Democracy is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Print Friendly

Lady Gaga censorship shows Indonesia ‘no model for Muslim democracy’

“It is fashionable these days for Western leaders to praise Indonesia as a model Muslim democracy,” writes Andreas Harsono, citing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement, “If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.”

The Obama administration has reportedly considered the country as an example for ‘Arab Spring’ transitions, studying the work of prominent scholars like Duke University’s Donald L. Horowitz who has written authoritatively in his latest book on Constitutional Change and Democracy in Indonesia and in the Journal of Democracy on such politically delicate issues as the intersection of democratic constitutions with shari‘a (Islamic law). 

But recent events are casting doubt on the country’s credentials as a paradigm for the Arab Spring transitions, prompting a Muslim democratic commentator to note that it is transitioning “from an authoritarian state to a state without authority.” 

The influence of radical Islamist groups attracted worldwide media attention with last week’s police ban on pop superstar Lady Gaga, and radicals recently launched a violent attack on a lecture by the liberal Canadian Muslim Irshad Manji. But the militants’ growing political leverage presents a more serious threat to the country’s democratic culture than these high-profile incidents suggest, say analysts. 

“While Indonesia has made great strides in consolidating a stable, democratic government after five decades of authoritarian rule, the country is by no means a bastion of tolerance,” says Harsono, a researcher for the Asia division at Human Rights Watch: 

The rights of religious and ethnic minorities are routinely trampled. While Indonesia’s Constitution protects freedom of religion, regulations against blasphemy and proselytizing are routinely used to prosecute atheists, Bahais, Christians, Shiites, Sufis and members of the Ahmadiyya faith — a Muslim sect declared to be deviant in many Islamic countries. By 2010, Indonesia had over 150 religiously motivated regulations restricting minorities’ rights.

“The Ahmadiyya Muslim community is perhaps the most persecuted,” Benedict Rogers, who works for the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide, writes in the New York Times:

Violent attacks against this group, whose beliefs are considered heretical by many conservative Muslims, have increased significantly. Last year I met victims of one of the worst outbreaks of violence, an attack on Ahmadis in Cikeusik on Feb. 6, 2011, which left three people dead. One man described how he was stripped naked and beaten severely and a machete was held at his throat. He was dragged through the village and dumped in a truck like a corpse. Another man fled into a fast-flowing river, pursued by attackers throwing rocks and shouting “kill, kill, kill.” 

He hid in a bush, dripping wet and extremely cold, for four hours. A third suffered a broken jaw, while a fourth, pursued by men armed with sickles, machetes and spears, was detained by the police for three days, treated as a suspect not a victim. Of the 1,500-strong mob that attacked 21 Ahmadis, only 12 people were arrested and prosecuted, according to The New York Times. Their sentences were between three and six months

More disturbing is that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono “is not simply turning a blind eye; he has actively courted conservative Islamist elements and relies on them to maintain his majority in Parliament, even granting them key cabinet positions,” writes Harsono. “These appointments send a message to Indonesia’s population and embolden Islamist extremists to use violence against minorities.”

Lauded as a democratic beacon in a volatile region, Indonesia’s reform process was characterized by a “remarkable opening-up of political space [and] regeneration of civil society.” Its transition reportedly has a particular resonance for US President Obama, who lived there as a child and recently praised its shift from authoritarian rule in a speech in Jakarta. 

But just as illiberal forces have moved to exploit the openings presented by the Arab awakening, militant groups are seeking to reverse Indonesia’s democratization. 

Muslim democrats and civil society groups have demonstrated that radical Islamist groups and their toxic ideology can be confronted and defeated, says Rodgers. 

“It is not too late. There are some excellent Indonesian Muslim organizations such as the Wahid Institute, founded by former President Abdurrahman Wahid, and the Maarif Institute, whose work should be supported,” he notes. 

“If President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono acted, he would have the silent majority behind him. His government made progress in tackling terrorism, but it should not shirk its responsibility to fight the ideology that underpins terror.” 

As the United Nations reviews Indonesia’s human rights record this week in Geneva, it should call on Yudhoyono “to crack down on extremists and protect minorities,” Harsono writes.

“Yudhoyono needs to take charge of this situation by revoking discriminatory regulations, demanding that his coalition partners respect the religious freedom of all minorities in word and in deed, and enforcing the constitutional protection of freedom of worship,” he argues. “He must also make it crystal clear that Islamist hard-liners who commit or incite violence and the police who fail to protect the victims will be punished.”

Indonesia has gone through a transition “from an authoritarian state to a state without authority,” says a moderate Islamic commentator.

“The stability and prosperity of the world’s biggest Muslim nation is of immense economic, security, and geopolitical importance,” analysts agree, so the country’s democratic backsliding and its “inward and backward’’ shift towards growing economic nationalism are causing concern:

President Yudhoyono’s own indecisiveness partly reflects his lack of authority under Indonesia’s multi-party Parliament. While still popular, he runs a minority government that is hostage to shifting allegiances. The democratic era has devolved power to regional governments. There is no clear successor for the 2014 presidential election. And Indonesia’s basic political cleavage between Islamism and secular nationalism drives personality, rather than policy, competition.


Print Friendly