US quits bilateral group to protest Russia’s crackdown

The Obama administration has pulled out of a joint working group on civil society with Russia to protest the Kremlin’s crackdown on critics.  

The Civil Society Working Group was a key component of the administration’s “reset” policy with Moscow, but Russian democracy advocates questioned its effectiveness. 

“In practice, it has turned out that human rights and the rule of law and democracy have all but disappeared from the agenda in the U.S.-Russia dialogue,” said Yuri Dzhibladze (above), president of the Moscow- based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights. The group became “a symbolic anatomy of the failure of the reset policy.”

“This particular working group has not been too helpful, and I’m glad it is gone,” he said. “We should not pretend that this has been a real mechanism for dialogue.” 

The panel, which came under the umbrella of the U.S-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, was neither effective nor appropriate, said Thomas Melia (right), U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

He said the decision to withdraw from the working group was made “in light of recent steps taken by the Russian government to impose restrictions on civil society.”

“The U.S. government is open to an honest and open dialogue on civil society and human rights issues with the government of Russia and with civil society,” Melia said in a statement. “We will continue voicing our concerns both publicly and privately about the new laws that restrict the work of civil society in government-to-government discussions.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law that requires foreign-funded non-governmental organizations to register as “foreign agents”, and the Kremlin ejected the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The panel has accomplished almost nothing in the past 18 months, said Matthew Rojansky, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, because it is clear that Putin’s government has no interest in developing the hallmarks of a civil society.

“We take these things seriously,” Rojansky said, characterizing the American message. “And you have shown you don’t take them seriously.”

The US move also follows a notable spike in anti-Americanism which, observers suggest, has been deliberately promoted by the regime. But some Russian analysts fear the Kremlin’s xenophobia will prove to be counter-productive.

“Conducting a harsh anti-American course, we won’t get anywhere because America has more levers of influence over the main centers of power like China, India, the European Union, Japan and even the countries of the post-Soviet space,” Alexei Arbatov, a prominent analyst at a state research institute, wrote in the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper this week.

A close adviser to Putin today defended the clampdown on foreign-funded NGOs.

“We are effective enough to ensure a growing civil society, growing political engagement,” said Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press secretary, in an interview with the National Interest.

“Definitely we have those who are considered to be members of the opposition. Some of them are popular enough; some of them are not popular at all,” he said. “But, as a matter of fact, the dialogue between the Russian government and the opposition cannot be a subject of the bilateral relationship between Moscow and Washington, and in no way can be an issue of [state-to-state] discussion.”

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Egypt’s liberalism ‘still matters’

The secular groups protesting on the second anniversary of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster share the blame for Egypt’s authoritarian drift under the Muslim Brotherhood, analysts assert.

The Islamist’s political dominance is a consequence of liberal and secular groups ceding the initiative to the Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Salafists by failing to unite and organize in the two years since they initiated Mubarak’s ouster.

“They were unable to transfer their popular demands to real political action when they had the opportunity,” said Robert Danin, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, won the most seats of any party in parliament and later propelled Morsi to presidency. Other political parties with varying views and demands have also burgeoned in popularity and public presence, and demonstrations and protests continue in the streets, revealing a consistently vibrant political arena.

The secular parties behind today’s protests need “to accept that, if they want a democratic outcome, they have to fight in the electoral arena,” says a prominent analyst.

“Secular parties have already wasted two years they should have devoted to organizing in squabbling among themselves and hoping that the courts could stop the rise of Islamist parties,” writes Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:

With the economy in tatters and many Egyptians, including pious ones, worried about a possible Islamist overreach, secularists can get support. But they need to organize, develop a message, and show more respect for ordinary Egyptians, whose votes they need. It is not that Islamists do not share the blame for the present state of affairs. They have become arrogant and overly sure of themselves, but the only way to stop them is to show that they are vulnerable to competition.

Liberal and secular groups are well-placed to take advantage of Egypt’s new political space and energy, observers suggest.

“People have been mobilized politically in a way that didn’t exist previously,” said Middle East analyst Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation, a think tank in New York. “There is a different sense of relationship between citizens and government.”

Moreover, while there have been gains in procedural democracy, political mobilization and political life, these haven’t yet translated into institutional reform and a radical overhaul of public policy, he said.

Furthermore, despite the Brotherhood’s authoritarian drift, public opinion still shows notably liberal trends.

Egyptian citizens “consistently express lofty democratic aspirations,” according to a recent Pew Research Center poll (above). Two-in-three believe democracy is the best form of government, while only 19% accept that non-democratic government may be preferable in certain circumstances.

“Moreover, there is a strong desire for specific democratic rights and institutions,” the Pew research finds. “About eight-in-ten (81%) considered it very important to live in a country with a judicial system that treats everyone in the same way, while roughly six-in-ten said it is very important to have a free press (62%); free speech (60%); and honest, competitive elections with at least two political parties (58%).”

There were exceptions to the trend of liberal failure,” according to Michele Dunne and Tarek Radwan.

“Liberal intellectual and media star Amr Hamzawy handily won his Cairo seat in the first round of voting, and several other prominent liberals such as analyst Amr Chobaky and young revolutionary Mostafa Naggar gained seats as well.”

“Islamist and liberal ideology in Egypt have converged over the years around a strongly held recognition of the importance of building democratic institutions and the rule of law,” they write in the JOD, a publication of the National Endowment for Democracy:

The primary difference between liberals and Islamists lies in the Islamist conception of the state as a moral actor responsible for social transformation. This belief is reflected in the post-revolution policies and behavior of Islamist groups and the Islamist-dominated government that promote and defend checks and balances within government, the right to protest, and political participation, but mostly within an Islamic framework that places limits on free speech and on the equality of women and non-Muslims, as delineated by shari‘a. The result might be a more intrusive state than what liberals advocate.

It will take time before Egypt is able to fashion its own distinctive blend of Islam and democracy, says a leading liberal analyst.

“The correct application of democracy and Islam requires a well-educated and politically mature society. This will evolve with time, and not by force,” writes Mohammed Nosseir, a member of the political bureau of the Free Egyptians Party.

“Egyptian society is in dire need of a functional democracy and genuine Islamic values, based on a correct understanding of the dynamics of each, and a complete separation between the two,” he writes on the Atlantic Council’s Egypt Source. ‘Egypt will progress faster and better standing on two legs (democracy and Islam); by crossing legs, however, we are certain to fall down.

Egypt’s liberals may be few in number, but it would be a mistake to underestimate their disproportionate influence on the country’s politics, say Dunne and Radwan, respectively director and associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.  

“The dominant narrative that focuses on Islamist electoral ascendance ignores not only the increasing acceptance and even dominance of liberal political ideas in Egypt, but also the transformative and moderating effect upon the political scene exerted by liberals both before and during the transitional period,” they write in the Journal of Democracy:

Leading political figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Hamzawy have done yeoman’s work in assembling a public consensus behind liberal political ideas, and groups such as Kifaya have had an unmistakable impact on the changing political views of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Egyptians generally. Civil society organizations such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (among many others) act as checks on the institutionalization of Islamist social conservatism. Liberal journalists such as television host Yosri Foda, newspaper editors Ibrahim Eissa and Hani Shukrallah, and publisher Hisham Kassem are a constant presence in the mass media and help not only to shape public debate but to raise difficult questions for Islamists.

“Egypt’s liberals, though they do not dominate political life and perhaps never will, remain the vanguard of change in the country,” but they have “helped to make the entire political space more liberal and to defend that space against regressive initiatives, forcing the peaceful (if heated) dialogue and negotiation necessary to resolve differences through a democratic process.” RTWT

Egypt’s current political polarization is characteristic of turbulent change, says one analyst.

“Often enough, when the dust of the revolution is settled, the various groups which had united for the sake of changing the regime become embroiled in protracted ideological, political and personal disputes which might bring uncertainty and even chaos. writes Elie Podeh, a professor in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Egypt has not reached that point yet, but the worsening economic situation and the continuation of the political stalemate might further antagonize the Egyptian people and lead to renewed cycles of demonstrations and violence above and beyond those which accompanied the presentation and passing of the constitution recently,” Podeh asserts.

Egypt improved its status from “Not Free” to “Partly Free” as a result of growing respect for political rights and civil liberties, according to the latest Freedom House survey.

But a crackdown on civil society, the judicial dissolution of an elected parliament and a power grab by President Morsi, and threats to freedom of expression have highlighted the fragility of recent gains.

“The future of the Middle East will depend in significant ways on the success of Egypt’s democratic experiment, which in turn rests at least in part on the ruling Islamists’ commitment to democratic norms,” the report said. “In light of the past year’s developments, the outcome remains very much an open question.”

The US and other external actors can only play a “limited” role in assisting or facilitating Egypt’s transition, says Ottaway.

“Transitions are always predominantly a domestic process, and Egyptians are hypernationalistic and oversensitive,” she writes in The National Interest:

Outsiders must not choose sides. They must reject both the secularist narrative of victimization and Islamist claims that elections have given them a mandate. Secularists need to be told that many of their problems are self-inflicted and that they need to stop dithering and take the task of organizing for elections more seriously. Islamists need to be reminded that an election victory is not a mandate for unlimited power; they face immense problems, particularly economic ones, and they cannot even start addressing them without broad cooperation from all political forces and a skeptical international community.

But the U.S. can do more in two other areas, other observers suggest:

First, it should resume negotiating a free-trade agreement with Egypt. The EU has had one since 2004, and while Egypt’s Salafists will probably balk, business people — including many in the Muslim Brotherhood — would welcome a U.S. equivalent. More immediately, the U.S. could increase the range of tax-free goods that can be exported to the U.S. from Egypt’s Qualified Industrial Zones.

Secondly, the U.S. administration can be more forceful on democracy and human rights. It has understandably soft-pedaled the promotion of stronger democratic institutions since the arrest of U.S. nongovernmental-organization personnel. A new Egyptian law on nonprofits, and trials, will probably follow the elections, clearing the way for this to change. The U.S.- Egyptian security relationship may be paramount, but the U.S. must also stand up for democracy and human rights if it’s to stand for anything.

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Egypt ‘on a collision course’ as protests mark revolt anniversary

At least 110 people were injured in violent clashes between protesters and police during rallies to mark the second anniversary of the revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, AP reports:

The two sides clashed throughout the day Friday in Cairo, Alexandria, the cities of Suez and Ismailia on the Suez Canal and a string of others, with police firing tear gas and protesters responding with stones.

“Today the Egyptian people continue their revolution,” said Hamdeen Sabahi, an opposition leader who finished a close third in last June’s presidential elections. “They are saying `no’ to the Brotherhood state … We want a democratic constitution, social justice, to bring back the rights of the martyrs and guarantees for fair elections.”

The anniversary has highlighted the growing polarization between Islamists and secular groups, as well as growing concerns about freedom of expression, judicial independence and the Muslim Brotherhood’s penetration of state institutions.

“It is impossible to impose a constitution on Egyptians, a constitution which was sponsored by the Supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the revolution today will bring this constitution down,” said Alaa al-Aswany, Egypt’s bestselling novelist and democracy advocate who today marched with Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei to Tahrir Square.

Many activists and analysts believe President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood has hijacked the democratic transition, failed to consult or compromise with rivals and adopting increasingly authoritarian practices.

“Egypt is in a bad place. It’s been wholly consumed with issues of power, and governance has been left by the wayside. None of this had to be,” said Michael W. Hanna, a senior fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation. “It was a conscious decision to eschew reform by consensus. … For them (the Brotherhood) it’s not about reform it’s about power.”

The Islamists’ critics say the Brotherhood is trying to colonize state institutions and pursuing a process of Islamization by stealth.

“I am taking part in today’s marches to reject the warped constitution, the ‘Brotherhoodization’ of the state, the attack on the rule of law, and the disregard of the president and his government for the demands for social justice,” tweeted Amr Hamzawy, a prominent liberal politician.

His concerns are shared by many independent observers, some of whom accuse the Brotherhood of adopting a deceptive “dual discourse,” using democratic rhetoric to obscure autocratic practice.   

“Based on everything I have seen and read, thus far the Brothers have continued to use the language of democratic change, but they have dealt with internal challenges through a variety of authoritarian means,” writes Steven A. Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“To be sure, it is still early in Egypt’s transition, but there is reason to be concerned that the Brotherhood/FJP/Morsi are setting the trajectory of Egyptian politics on a non-democratic course,” he asserts.

Analysts suggest that Morsi “is clearly working to install networks of allies over key parts of the state,” The New York Times reports:

He has named Brotherhood members as governors in 7 out of 28 provinces. In a cabinet shake-up, he named another Brotherhood member as minister of local development, who under the new Constitution could have new powers over day-to-day local government.

Although Mr. Morsi has the legitimacy of a democratic election, he has inherited the still-intact remnants of Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarian state, built on fear, loyalty and patronage, and much of it permeated by a deep distrust of the Islamists. The bureaucracy’s resistance could prevent the Islamists from imposing their ideology or building a new dictatorship.

Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said that so far the Brotherhood takeover sometimes appears to be working in reverse.

“You feel that the institutions are taking over Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood,” tells The Times, “not the other way around.”

The country’s political dynamics are unlikely to foster a majority consensus conducive to a liberal democratic transition.

“Egypt’s current state of polarized politics encourages the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party to move to the right in order to pick up Salafi support,” analyst Zack Gold writes in The National Interest. “It also discourages Salafi parties from compromising on issues of importance to their constituents.”

Growing political polarization is placing Egypt “on a collision course,” according to Georgetown University’s Cynthia Schneider.

An ever growing, if periodically discouraged, portion of the population opposes the government and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, and supports the revolution’s goals of social and economic justice, accountable government, and basic freedoms, including freedom of expression and protection of minorities,” she argues. “Yet the government is moving in exactly the opposite direction, with its authoritarian control over political, social, and religious life.”

The Brotherhood decided against mobilizing its supporters to celebrate the anniversary and focused instead on its recently-launched Together We Build Egypt campaign, the latest of its characteristic grassroots organizing efforts that have helped it emerge as Egypt’s most powerful political force

“The Brotherhood is very concerned about escalation, that’s why they have tried to dial down their role on January 25,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.

“It’s definitely tense on the ground, but so far there hasn’t been anything out of the ordinary or anything that really threatens to fundamentally alter the political situation,” he told Reuters.

In Tahrir Square, protesters echoed the chants of 2011′s historic 18-day uprising. “The people want to bring down the regime,” they chanted. “Leave! Leave! Leave!” chanted others as they marched towards the square.

“We are not here to celebrate but to force those in power to submit to the will of the people. Egypt now must never be like Egypt during Mubarak’s rule,” said Mohamed Fahmy, an activist.

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Will Beijing veto Korean unification?

The rising probability of a democratic transition in China may in turn facilitate change in North Korea and reunification of the Korean peninsula, says a prominent analyst.

Drawing on the recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee research report on Chinese-North Korean economic integration – China’s Impact on Korean Peninsula Unification and Questions for the SenateMinxin Pei outlines three potential scenarios in which Beijing will be unable to exercise a veto over Korean reunification:

The first one is the repeat of a “Burma Scenario” North Korea-style. It is well known that North Koreans are fiercely nationalist and resent becoming a “tributary province” of China. Just as China’s controversial commercial behavior in Burma alienated Burmese elites and the public alike, and was an important trigger of Burma’s political opening, the ongoing economic integration of China and North Korea, as described in the Senate minority report, could also drive Pyongyang away from Beijing. The Kim dynasty could easily sell out its Chinese patron and turn to the West in the same way the Burmese military regime has done. Of course, given the blood on its hands, the North Korean regime will have a harder time getting the West to embrace it. But North Korea also has more attractive bargaining chips, its nuclear arsenal and missiles, with which it can extract favorable terms in negotiations.

The second scenario is a democratic transition in China itself. This may not be a realistic possibility in the short-term (the next five years), but the probability of a democratic transition in China is non-trivial and is on the rise. The country has reached a level of socioeconomic development (about $U.S. 8,500 per capita in purchasing power parity) at which few non-oil producing autocracies can survive. Signs of political awakening, such as the recent anti-censorship protest, calls for democracy, and civic activism, have emerged in China. Endemic corruption inside the regime, loss of public credibility, and extreme income inequality have greatly undermined the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party. The question of regime transition in China is a matter of when and how, not whether or not. Should such a political revolution occur, a new democratic regime in Beijing will most likely jettison Pyongyang and embrace a reunified democratic Korea.

Even in the event of a rapid collapse of the North Korean regime, triggered most likely by a military coup or a popular uprising (or a combination of both) against the Kim dynasty, China’s capacity to intervene militarily in order to prevent reunification is questionable. North Korea has nuclear weapons, a factor that is likely to deter China from sending the People’s Liberation Army across the Yalu River should the Kim dynasty be overthrown by an internal uprising.

“Beijing needs to review – and completely change – its Korea policy, which is based on erroneous and obsolete strategic assumptions that are driving away South Korea as a potential regional partner,” says Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and a contributor to the Journal of Democracy.

RTWT in The Diplomat.  

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