Turkey flirts with SCO – a ‘diplomatic cream pie’ for EU

“A half century after taking the first steps toward becoming an integral part of Europe, Turkey may be ready to give up,” The New York Times reports:

After heavy hints that Ankara is looking eastwards to a closer alliance with Asia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left), the prime minister, said this week that membership in the European Union was not a must for Turkey.

“It is not the Apocalypse if they do not let us in the E.U.,” Erdogan told reporters during a visit to Budapest on Wednesday, as he launched his latest broadside against the Union’s alleged delaying tactics to keep his country out. His remarks followed a news conference earlier this week in Prague, where Mr. Erdogan described the delay in granting membership to Turkey as “unforgivable.”

As Andrew Finkel wrote from Istanbul, the prime minister also “threw the diplomatic equivalent of a cream pie” into the debate by suggesting Turkey join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization instead.

Hugh Pope, the International Crisis Group’s project director in Turkey, suggested that Mr. Erdogan was courting popularity by bashing the Union.

The SCO has become a vehicle for undermining international standards of human rights and refugee law, according to a recent report from the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

The SCO has also been described as an authoritarian international for Eurasia’s illiberal regimes; “the most dangerous organization that the American people have never heard of”; and “one of those international bodies whose proclaimed ideals conceal an often sordid reality.”

The group’s approach to counter-terrorism is modeled on China’s Three Evils doctrine for combating terrorism, extremism and separatism, even if, as one study notes, this has “too often acted as cover for suppression of ….legitimate opposition groups and the cutting-off of trans-regional ties between them.”

The SCO focus on territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs, and social stability “contributes to supporting repressive regimes at the expense of national, regional, and global human rights,” according to a recent whitepaper from Human Rights in China.

“Washington has suggested that Turkish membership in the S.C.O., a security organization viewed as an anti-American bulwark in Central Asia, might be problematic in view of the Turkish role in N.A.T.O.,” The Times reports.

Andrew Finkel is a former Reagan Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. FIDH and Human Rights in China are NED grantees.

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Tunisia’s transition ‘entering new phase’ as government dissolves after secular leader killed

Tunisia‘s ruling Islamists today dissolved the government, announced a new administration of technocrats and promised fresh elections after the murder of an opposition leader sparked riots and the biggest protests since the revolution two years ago.

“This is the first political assassination in post-independence Tunisia – we might be entering a new phase now,” said Nabil Cherni, a lecturer at Manouba University in Tunis.

The decision by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali came hours after the assassination prompted “claims of government negligence – if not outright complicity – and bolstered fears that Tunisia’s transition to democracy will be far more chaotic than originally hoped.”

Offices of Ennahda, the majority ruling party, were attacked and protests erupted in the capital, Tunis, and several provincial towns in the wake of the killing of Shokri Belaid, a secular leftist who had warned about rising political violence on Tunisian TV on Tuesday night.

“I watched it and it was a chilling premonition of his own assassination,” said Mounir Khelifa, an English professor at Tunis’s Manouba University.

“We’re in a climate of political violence now,” said Amna Guellali, a researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Tunis. “Last month, there were various leaders targeted, various meetings of political parties disrupted and assaulted,” she said.

Belaid had called for a national dialogue to confront political violence, she said.

“He said political violence was becoming more organized due to the laxity of the government,” she said. “This just adds to the tragedy.”

During his TV appearance, Belaid called for the dissolution of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, which claims to focus on curbing the activities of former regime elements.

“In practice, AP reports, opposition leaders such as Belaid said the leagues are Ennahda-backed goon squads that attack opposition rallies,” including a recent rally held by Belaid’s Popular Front in northern Tunisia.

“There are groups inside Ennahda inciting violence,” Belaid told the Nessma TV channel. “Rachid Ghannouchi considers the leagues to be the conscience of the nation, so the defense of the authors of violence is clear. All those who oppose Ennahda become the targets of violence.”

Belaid accused Ennahda allies of harassing a recent Democratic Patriots meeting, the Project on Middle East Democracy reports.

“There is a small but potent Salafi Jihadi militant segment in Tunisia that has become very dangerous,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “The killing of Chokri sends a message loud and clear that they will try to silence secular voices and they will accept no criticism even of the Islamist-based Ennahda government.”

“Ennahda is in power – they have a huge moral and legal responsibility to prevent extremist elements from undermining social peace and harmony,” said the LSE’s Gerges.

Recent tension between Islamists and secular Tunisians “has led to episodes of escalating political violence, often perpetrated by hard-line Islamists known as Salafis — but never before brazen assassinations like Wednesday’s,” The New York Times reports:

Mr. Belaid and others had accused Ennahda, the ruling Islamist party, of accommodating the Salafis by refusing to prosecute them or crack down on the groups. In recent days, Mr. Belaid, a lawyer who had received numerous death threats including from hard-line imams, had accused Islamists of carrying out an attack on a meeting of his supporters.

“At the end of our meeting, a group of Ennahda mercenaries and Salafists attacked our activists,” Mr. Belaid said.

Ennahda is allegedly linked to the Leagues, Al Arabiya reports, noting a recent general strike called by the General Union of Tunisian Labor (UGTT) after League thugs attacked union members.

Members of the league, which has been described as an organization “close to Ennahda that has developed a reputation for brutal violence,” were also  accused of beating an opposition party official to death in October.

Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi moved swiftly to denounce the killing and said it “threatens the entire nation, stability and the democratic transition.”

“Is it possible that the ruling party could carry out this assassination when it would disrupt investment and tourism?” Ghannouchi told Reuters, blaming elements trying to undermine Tunisia’s democratic transition.

“Tunisia today is in the biggest political stalemate since the revolution. We should be quiet and not fall into a spiral of violence. We need unity more than ever,” he said.

Other party officials pledged a full investigation and suggested that the killing was designed to damage the Islamist group.

“Ennahda is the main target of this crime. We believe that this was done to make Ennahda look in the eyes of our people like a failed party that can’t protect people,” said Lotfy Zitoun, a member of the party’s 20-member executive bureau.

But Belaid’s relatives and opposition activists openly accused Ennahda and its allies of being behind the assassination.

“”I accuse … Rached Ghannouchi of assassinating my brother,” Abdelmajid Belaid told the AFP news agency, while protesters shouted: “No to Ennahda,” and: “Ghannouchi assassin.”

Belaid “was targeted because he has been on the front line criticizing Ennahda, and the Islamist-led government, and he has been denouncing what he called the attempts by the Islamists and the Salafists to impose on Tunisians a new way of life,” said Kamel Labidi, president of Tunisia’s independent media-reform commission.

Riccardo Fabiani, Eurasia analyst on Tunisia, described the killing as a “major failure for Tunisian politics”.

“The question is now what is Ennahda going to do and what are its allies going to do?” he said. “They could be forced to withdraw from the government which would lead to a major crisis in the transition.”

President Moncef Marzouki, who recently cautioned that tension between secularists and Islamists could lead to “civil war”, cancelled a visit to Egypt and cut short a trip to France, where he addressed the European Parliament.

“There are political forces inside Tunisia that don’t want this transition to succeed,” Marzouki said in Strasbourg.

“When one has a revolution, the counter revolution immediately sets in because those who lose power – it’s not only Ben Ali and his family – are the hundreds of thousands of people with many interests who see themselves threatened by this revolution.”

Some observers believe Ennahda could have done more to address the threat posed by the Salafists.

After Islamist militants torched the U.S. Embassy and the American Community School in Tunis last September, Marzouki told Time magazine’s Vivienne Walt that the government had seemed reluctant to intervene.

“We have to stop this phenomenon,” he said. “These people hate democracy, they do not want this democracy.”

By contrast, Walt reports, Ghannouchi rejected Marzouki’s words, saying in an interview that same day, “We don’t judge people based on what ideology they follow, but on their actions.”

The government’s “response to these attacks by Salafi groups is that it’s better to have dialogue with them and bring them into the political process rather than throw them in jail,” said Eric Goldstein, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa for Human Rights Watch.

Shadi Hamid, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Center who was in Tunis to meet with officials said the atmosphere was one of “shock and tension”.

“People are afraid this is a sign of things to come,” he said. “It could be the start of low-level instability, violence and protests on a regular basis. That’s the direction Egypt has gone in, Tunisia was supposed to be the exception to the rule but it looks like that might not be the case.”

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

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Iraq ‘squeezing’ liberties, but civil society scores victory

iraqpressPrime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has been “squeezing the space for independent civil society and political freedoms,” says a leading human rights group.

But Iraqi civil society activists this week secured a major victory by securing the repeal of a draft law that threatened to severely curb Internet freedom. 

The government withdrew the Draft Informatics Crimes Law following an energetic campaign led by the Iraqi Network for Social Media (IN4SM), the Society for Defending Press Freedom in Iraq and Iraqi Street.

According to Article 19, the London-based freedom of expression group, the law “distorted the legitimate basis of imposing restrictions to the right to freedom of expression and access to information”.

Article 3 of the draft law “prohibited computer use that compromises the independence of the state or its unity, integrity, safety or any of its high economic, political, social, military or security interests” essentially granting authorities the power to censor any expression it wished.

Iraq’s leadership used draconian measures against opposition politicians, detainees, demonstrators, and journalists, effectively squeezing the space for independent civil society and political freedoms in Iraq,” according to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2013. 

“While demonstrations for reform in the Arab world swept the region, the Iraqi government focused on curtailing the right of Iraqis to assemble freely,” the report notes:

Human Rights Watch observed how Iraqi authorities successfully interfered with Tahrir Square demonstrations in Iraq during 2012, by flooding the weekly protests with al-Maliki supporters and undercover security agents. Baghdad security forces blocked access to protests sites, beat unarmed journalists and protesters, smashed cameras, and confiscated computer memory cards. Several dissenting activists and independent journalists told Human Rights Watch that they no longer felt safe to attend the demonstrations protesting widespread corruption and calling for greater civil and political rights.


The Society For Defending Press Freedom in Iraq is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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US won’t use aid to bolster Syrian opposition moderates

“The State Department and USAID are increasing their humanitarian aid for Syria but have no intention of moving any of that money through the Syrian opposition coalition, as several senators have called for,” The Cable’s Josh Rogin reports:

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, Assistant Secretary for Populations, Refugees, and Migration Anne Richard, and USAID Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Nancy Lindborg just returned from a trip to Turkey, Jordan, and Kuwait. In Kuwait, they pledged $155 million of additional U.S. humanitarian aid to help alleviate the suffering caused by the Syrian civil war, bringing the total U.S. aid commitment to $365 million.

Richard and Lindborg said on a Wednesday conference call with reporters that State and USAID don’t work through government structures and therefore won’t be dispersing any of that aid through the Syrian Opposition Council, which President Barack Obama has recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

“We don’t provide humanitarian assistance through other governments anywhere globally,” said Lindborg.

Last month, seven U.S. senators from both parties traveled to some of the same refugee camps and met with the Syrian opposition coalition leaders, Rogin continues, after which they publicly called for the U.S. government to funnel some aid through the opposition leadership in order to bolster their legitimacy and credibility.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) called for the “significant” humanitarian assistance from the US to be distributed “in ways that strengthen the credibility and the reach and the effectiveness of the Syrian opposition council.”

Syrian democracy advocates and independent analysts have argued that moderate opposition factions are being outflanked by radical Islamist forces, which receive weapons, money and non-lethal assistance from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and independent Islamic charities.

Channeling assistance through the opposition would represent what former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter called “the happy medium between not committing us to a decades-long ground war and choosing not to do anything.”  A board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, she has been an eloquent advocate of US intervention in Syria.

“The moderates are the majority of people here in Syria, but now they are decreasing without any support,” one activist said. “If it continues like it is now, extremist groups will have a lot of influence after the Assad government falls.”

The failure to use moderate forces as a conduit for U.S. humanitarian aid “risks leaving Iran and radical Sunni Islamists to exploit human suffering for recruitment purposes,” say two leading analysts.

Aid channeled through the opposition council, in coordination with credible international nonprofit organizations, should provide for millions who have been displaced,” according tothe Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour and Firas Maksad, director of New Policy Advisors:

A nascent rebel joint military command, working under the opposition council, would allow anti-regime forces to better coordinate operations and steer fighters away from jihadi ideology, and could lay the foundation for a future national army. Military assistance, direct from the U.S. or through regional allies, must flow through this joint command. Doing so will afford moderates a better chance to succeed against both the Iranian-backed militias and the growing numbers of Sunni jihadists who are fighting in Syria.

“A greater U.S. role won’t render Syria an American-allied democracy. That possibility, if it ever existed, has long been lost,” Sadjadpour and Maksad contend.

“But continued U.S. inaction risks leaving Syria at the mercy of Iran and Sunni extremists whose intolerance, and hatred of the U.S., dwarfs any concerns they may have for the well- being of Syria and its people.”

Nevertheless, while the State Department has a full-time liaison with the opposition’s assistance coordination unit in Turkey to help them enhance their capabilities, Rogin notes on Foreign Policy’s The Cable, it is not considered an appropriate channel for U.S. humanitarian aid.

“Aid is supposed to be delivered not based on one’s political beliefs or which side one’s picking in a war, or which faction one belongs to, but based on need. We want to work with them, but right now they’re not built as an organization to deliver aid,” Richard said.

The United Nations distributes most of its aid via the Damascus-based Syrian Arab Red Crescent which operates largely in government-controlled areas, a supply line the Avaaz activist network describes as an “insane and immoral handout” to the regime.


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Yemen sets date for transition dialogue

Youth activism the most rewarding result of the 2011 uprising, says Gabool Al-Mutawakel

Yemens interim President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi has chosen March 18 as the date for a national dialogue to accelerate the country’s political transition, Agence France Presse reports:

The conference was delayed after factions in the Southern Movement, which has campaigned for autonomy or secession for the formerly independent south, refused to join the talks….The Common Forum parties, which represented the opposition under Saleh and control half of the current government, announced on Tuesday that they will take part in the dialogue.

The Shiite Huthi rebels, who fought the government of Saleh for many years in the north, also said they will participate in the forum. The position of some southern groups remains vague, but former vice president Ali Salem al-Beidh, who was the president of South Yemen, and who has demanded a full secession from the north, insists on shunning the talks.

A day after Nobel peace laureate Tawakkul Karman described Yemen’s transition as “on the brink of collapse,”  Hadi said the conference, which should kick-start a process to draft a new constitution and electoral law for polls in 2014, as a “strategic and historic opportunity… to achieve a civic and modern state.”

While the country’s politicians have been dragging their feet, Yemeni civil society has grown increasingly vibrant, writes Gabool Al-Mutawakel (above), co-founder of the Youth Leadership Development Foundation.

“Positive civil and political youth activism has been the most rewarding result of the Yemeni uprising of 2011,” she writes for Common Ground. “Individual activism, youth initiatives and the participation of youth in new political parties have introduced fresh approaches and perspectives to Yemen’s civil and political arenas.”

Youth involvement is changing the Yemeni landscape, says Mutawakel, a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy:

For example, in 2012 the Al-Watan Party (the Homeland Party) was co-founded by youth business leaders, development practitioners and professionals, many of whom had never previously engaged in politics. Its doctrine is that of a moderate and civil party based on individual initiative and social responsibility. ……

Another example is the Erada Foundation for a Qat-Free Yemen, established in early 2012 by Hind Eleryani, a journalist for NOW Arabic, Beirut, and carried forward by Nasser Alshama’a, an activist and the executive manager of Erada Foundation. Qat is a leaf that most of Yemenis chew for 4-6 hours daily. While chewing qat, people usually feel energetic. However, withdrawal symptoms make users lethargic and less productive. This affects the economic and social life of Yemenis. The emerging NGO’s pilot campaign was “One Day without Qat,” which has now happened twice and received a highly positive response from Yemenis and the media.

This extract is taken from a longer article for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). RTWT

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