Time for a new democracy agenda?

“As he develops his second-term foreign policy agenda, President Obama should include a prudently implemented strategy to expand freedom’s reach to those parts of the globe where fear and repression prevail,” say two prominent observers.

“To date, the president has been uneven on the exercise of U.S. power to promote democratic change,” write David J. Kramer and Arch Puddington, respectively president and vice president for research at Freedom House:

Obama spoke eloquently at the State Department and at the United Nations last year about the vital role democracy plays in a peaceful world. After the Arab movements began, he recognized that the embrace of democracy by Arab societies is essential to the development of peace and prosperity in the region. During the 2012 campaign, Obama repeatedly declared his commitment to the cause of global freedom.

On the other hand, Obama’s conviction that he could find ways to forge productive, “win-win” relations with enemies of freedom led to the “reset” initiative with Russia that included playing down the rampant violation of democratic standards and human rights under Vladi­mir Putin and ignoring the pleas of Iran’s beleaguered Green Movement in 2009.

Obama administration officials seemed to believe, at least initially, that the burden of pressuring authoritarian regimes to change should not be shouldered entirely by the United States, and they looked to regional powers such as Brazil or South Africa to take on human rights and democracy challenges. Shifting the burden has not worked. We have learned, rather, that if the United States does not take the lead in pressuring repressive powers, the job won’t get done.

It took the “electric shock” of the Arab Spring for the Obama administration’s democracy policy to be revitalized after a phase of retreat and recalibration, a leading analyst has observed.

Initially concerned to distance itself from the legacy of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, force of events compelled the administration to take a more engaged and energetic approach to democracy support, said Tom Carothers, author of Democracy Policy Under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat?

In the early days of Obama’s first administration, observers noted the conspicuous absence of a fourth “D”  when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited defense, diplomacy, and development as the core priorities of US foreign policy , raising speculation that democracy was being  ”quietly shelved.”  It fell to Vice President Joe Biden to call for a renewed emphasis on development and democracy, “two of the most powerful weapons in our collective arsenals.”

While Obama has characterized himself as a foreign policy realist, “the support of freedom and the national interest are often mutually reinforcing,” Kramer and Puddington contend, offering suggestions for where the administration should offer more forceful support of democratic principles:

? China. With a new leadership taking control in Beijing at a time of growing labor, ethnic and social unrest, now is the time to remind those in authority that a government’s global reputation is earned through respect for freedom of thought and free institutions; to press China publicly to release political prisoners; to speak out when Beijing extends its methods of control beyond its borders; and to insist that international human rights bodies stop ignoring China’s repressive domestic practices.

? Russia. Confronted with domestic opposition — against whom he launched a brutal crackdown — Putin accused Washington of bankrolling regime change and expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development. ….The Obama administration should demonstrate its revulsion by supporting sanctions on Russian officials responsible for gross human rights abuses, which the House passed Nov. 16. The president should also have regular contact with forward-looking members of the opposition and beef up U.S. foreign broadcasting.

? Syria. If the president is serious about avoiding a repeat of the kinds of atrocities that Rwanda and Bosnia endured, he should rethink his hands-off approach toward Syria by instituting a no-fly zone and more active support for liberal-minded figures among the anti-Assad opposition.

“Incorporating a serious democracy initiative as a major element in U.S. foreign policy is critical when anti-democratic forces are acting with growing brazenness and disdain for world opinion,” Kramer and Puddington conclude.


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Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘Morsillini’ leading Egypt into ‘period of darkness’

“Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi faces the prospect of widening civil disobedience as media and the tourism industry pondered measures to join a protest by judges against the Islamist leader,” AP reports.

But allies of Morsi, dubbed ‘Morsillini’ by Egyptian bloggers, insist that the Supreme Judicial Council will supervise the coming referendum on a draft constitution, Reuters reports, although judges are calling for a boycott, angered by what they see as a power-grab by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The influential but unofficial Judges Club urged colleagues on Sunday to shun the referendum which Morsi hopes will douse anger over a decree he issued on Nov. 22, greatly expanding his powers and temporarily putting himself above the law. Such a boycott, even if not all judges joined it, could undermine the credibility of the plebiscite and worsen disputes that have plagued Egypt’s path to political change since a popular revolt overthrew Hosni Mubarak nearly 22 months ago.

The judiciary, like Egyptian society at large, is split over the vote on the constitution, the way in which it was drafted and Mursi’s decree, seen by his opponents as a power grab and by his supporters as necessary to keep the transition on track.

“The Supreme Judicial Council has met and agreed to delegate judges to oversee the constitutional referendum,” Mohamed Gadallah, the legal adviser to Mursi, told Reuters.

Judge Yousseri Abdel-Karim, a former spokesman of the electoral commission, doubted that the judges would oversee the referendum.

“Judges don’t retreat and we fear nothing and we will not change our position,” he said.

Protests by Muslim Brotherhood members forced the supreme court to adjourn its work indefinitely on Sunday, intensifying the conflict that pits secular and liberal Egyptians against the Islamists.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is determined to go ahead with its own plans regardless of everybody else. There is no compromise on the horizon,” said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University.

Sunday’s confrontation was all the more perplexing and distressing because Morsi had seemed in recent days to be winning his battle with the judiciary, said Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch:

Morayef said that although the judiciary needs reform, Morsi’s tactics were counterproductive in achieving a goal that most of the country supports.

“To choose to do that at a time like this, it’s not just adding insult to injury, this is a full onslaught,” she said. “Intimidation of judges is an extremely serious matter. For Morsi’s party to be involved in that is a terrifying precedent. We do not want to get into a situation where those who criticize the president have to fear for their lives.”

Brotherhood members in the Constitutional Assembly are targeting one judge who is openly concerned about the group’s attempt to monopolize power, The New York Times reports:

Egyptian state news media reported the existence of a little-noticed clause tucked into the draft constitution that appears to single out Judge Gebali, the Islamists’ bête noire, for removal from the bench. The provision would keep the president of the court and its 10 most senior judges, but remove more junior members, and the 11th in seniority — the first who would be forced off the bench — is Judge Gebali.

“She makes no secret of her concern about the rise of the Islamists, and Islamists have come to see her as a justice who rules on the basis of her political preferences,” said Nathan Brown, a scholar of the Egyptian legal system at George Washington University. “If the constitution is passed and goes into effect, she will lose her position on the bench immediately because of a clause that seems designed with one purpose in mind: to dismiss her.”

Observers believe the Brotherhood has placed itself above the law by laying siege to the Constitutional Court.

Sunday’s demonstration was criminal, said Khaled Abu Bakr, a legal expert with the International Union of Lawyers.

“The president and the Interior Ministry should protect judicial institutions and enable the judges to do their jobs,” he said.

“There is a battle between the constitutional court and the president,” he said. “Even the head of the constitution-drafting assembly session said that we are practicing constitutional revenge.”

Liberal analyst and former parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy (left) warns that the situation could still deteriorate, AP reports.

“The president and his group (the Muslim Brotherhood) are leading Egypt into a period of darkness par excellence,” he said. “He made a dictatorial decision to hold a referendum on an illegal constitution that divides society, then a siege of the judiciary to terrorize it.”

The opposition is raising the stakes with plans to march on Morsi’ palace on Tuesday, a move last seen on Feb. 11, 2011 when tens of thousands of protesters marched from Tahrir Square to Mubarak’s palace in the Heliopolis district to force him out. Mubarak stepped down that day, but Morsi is highly unlikely to follow suit on Tuesday.

The latest events indicate that Egypt is moving towards illiberal democracy, says Harvard’s Tarek Masoud.

“[W]hen we look at democracy, we don’t really just care about the voting. The voting’s important,” he said. “But we care about freedom and liberty for people. Then, you would have to think that Egypt is really not going in the right direction.”

Some observers believe the Brotherhood may be exaggerating the degree of public support for its authoritarian stance.

“Judging by the results of the last parliamentary election, Islamists are possibly in a minority, certainly not an overwhelming majority. However, they are much better organised than the liberals, and may be better at getting their supporters to the polls,” writes BBC analyst Jon Leyne.

The standoff also presents a strategic challenge to the liberal and secular opposition.

“It is clear Morsi decided that it was time for hard action and that he is listening to hawkish advisors,” said Omar Ashour, senior lecturer in Arab politics at the University of Exeter. “Even if he could not have contained the polarisation in society, he could have lessened it by better communication and making some concessions on the constitutional panel.”

Morsi can rely on the superior organisational abilities of his Muslim Brotherhood group and allied ultraconservative Salafi parties which have been careful to project the message that support for the president means support for Islam and for stability. Analysts say that many Egyptians, who are yearning for an end to political turmoil, are likely to vote ‘Yes’ in a referendum on the constitution, in the belief that it will help the economy and encourage investment.

“The anti-Morsi forces are faced with a big challenge,” said Mr Ashour. “The main issue behind their weakness is that they do not provide an alternative route. So even if they manage to stop the referendum, what next?”

“Also their command is decentralized because they are composed of disparate groups, democrats, leftists, liberals and even people who are known for having supported military rule and the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak.”

The current conflict is bad news for Egypt and for the Brotherhood, writes George Washington University’s Nathan Brown:

The problems do not lie so much in the content of the constitution, which is filled more with missed opportunities than egregious authoritarianism. But that document, if it passes, will have to operate in a very difficult atmosphere. Rival camps have now formed and are preparing to face off in every arena: not merely at the polls but in the press, the courts, and the streets. Only a continued aversion to violence and a fear that civil disorder could drag the army back are preventing more violent struggle.

The Brotherhood is also likely to be damaged by the standoff, says Brown: had its leaders not panicked, they probably would have received the constitution they …. And likely electoral victories would have allowed them to take their place at the head of a political system that was functioning and accepted as legitimate. As it is, they may win but the society will be deeply divided and an important part of the state—the judiciary—is forgetting its stodgy ways and rising up in defiance of the president.

Morsi’s edict, which placed most of his actions beyond judicial review, set the stage for the current conflict, says a leading analyst.

“Unfortunately, Morsi has made a mistake, which is that he has become understandably frustrated with how difficult it is to move the political process forward in Egypt,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“He decided he needed to step in and enforce his will to make something happen, rather than compromise. However, it is important for Morsi to realize it’s not only the text of the constitution that will establish its legitimacy but the process by which that text was reached. And that process fell apart.”

Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood backers and the more ultra-con­servative Salafist Nour Party have called for large demonstrations of support for him Saturday, a sign that they are willing to battle for a kind of legitimacy in the street that they failed to achieve through the courts or compromise.

“This is definitely a moment of high tension and high anxiety,” said Dunne.* “Particularly if you start to have large crowds of demonstrators along this secular-Islamist divide really attacking each other. That would be truly distressing, and some people have started to speculate about whether the military would step in once again.”

Morsi’s biography, especially his association with some of the Brotherhood’s more extreme members, should have alerted observers to his authoritarian instincts, says Eric Trager, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief internal enforcer within the Guidance Office, steering the organization in a more hardline direction ideologically while purging the Brotherhood of individuals who disagreed with his approach,” he writes in The New Republic:

While Morsi’s bare-knuckles approach alienated Muslim Brothers who wanted the organization to remain focused on dawa, or Islamic preaching and the provision of social services, it impressed those Brotherhood leaders who wanted the organization to undertake a more political role. Known as Qutbists for their adherence to radical Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb’s politicized interpretation of Islam, these Brotherhood leaders emphasize “the necessity of developing a detached vanguard that focuses on recruitment and empowering the organization,” according to former Muslim Brother Ibrahim El-Houdaiby. Though generally distancing themselves from Qutb’s embrace of violent jihad, Brotherhood Qutbists view ideological uniformity as essential to the Brotherhood’s efficient pursuit of power, and therefore embraced Morsi’s anti-pluralistic policies by giving him important political responsibilities…..For example, in 2007, the Qutbists appointed Morsi to handle its dealings with the Mubarak regime’s repressive state security apparatus, apparently believing that his ideological rigidity and prickly demeanor towards outsiders would make him unlikely to concede anything. 


*Michele Dunne is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Cuban regime ‘has lost the ideological battle’

The incremental reforms launched by Cuba’s Communist authorities are failing to inject much dynamism into the island’s moribund economy, reports suggest.

The debate is all the more complicated because the same leaders who rejected capitalism for so long are now the ones trying to encourage people to try it out,” The New York Times reports:

Raúl Castro was notoriously the revolution’s most loyal Communist; now, as the country’s president, he is the main booster for free market reforms. On one hand, a recent gathering of Cuba’s Communist Party earlier this year included a session on overcoming prejudices against entrepreneurs; on the other, Raúl Castro has said he would “never permit the return of the capitalist system.”

“They are kind of schizophrenic,” says Ted Henken, a Cuba expert at Baruch College. “They are saying they are changing, but they treat these things as gifts and not as rights.”

Instead, when success arrives, the government seems to get nervous. This past summer, officials shut down a thriving restaurant and cabaret featuring opera and dance in what had been a vacant lot, charging the owner with “personal enrichment” because he charged a $2 cover at the door. A news article from Reuters had described it as Cuba’s largest private business. A few days later, it was gone, along with 130 jobs.

“The Castro government has tried to keep a lid on innovation in other ways, too,” The Times reports:

It has not allowed professionals like lawyers and architects to work for themselves. And its efforts at political repression have focused over the past few years on innovative young people seeking space for civil discourse in public and online — the blogger Yoani Sánchez, or Antonio Rodiles (above), director of an independent project called Estado de Sats, who was arrested in early November and released last week after 18 days in jail.

The attempt to forge a Market-Leninist regime along the lines of China and Vietnam appears to be failing, say analysts.

“The government has lost the ideological battle,” said Óscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who was sent to jail in 2003 for criticizing the government. “The battle for ideas was the most important battle, and they’ve lost.”

Capitol Hill Cubans report that a 15-year old girl, Berenice Héctor González, suffered a knife attack for supporting the female pro-democracy movement, The Ladies in White.

According to Diario de Cuba, the attacker, Dailiana Planchez Torres, is the daughter of a senior Castro regime official in the town of Cienfuegos.

She had asked for Daliana to stop insulting The Ladies in White, of which her aunt, Belkis Felicia Jorrín Morfa, is a member.

As a result, Berenice was attacked and cut in the face, neck, breast and legs.  She received 66 stitches for her injuries. The attacker remains free.

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Afghan women’s rights fragile – and threatened

Sakena Jacoobi is an Afghan woman who’s been working on women’s education in Afghanistan for the past several decades, NPR reports. She started in 1995, opening schools for Afghan girls in refugee camps across the Pakistan border. After the Taliban fell, she went back to her hometown, Herat, near the Afghanistan-Iran border, and she set up home schools for women and girls.

Jacoobi is concerned about the threat to women’s rights once the international security forces leave Afghanistan, raising the likelihood of a Taliban resurgence.

“If the security is not available for the women of Afghanistan, they will be in trouble. Getting out of the house, going to school, going to work tasks – they are all going to be an issue that we are really concerned about it,” she says. “. And who is there to really guarantee their security? We don’t have really right now an army. The army is not really capable. How they are capable to protect our women, our children?”

Jacoobi says about a quarter of roughly six million Afghan schoolchildren are girls.

Like the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, in neighboring Pakistan, who was recently shot by the Taliban.

The New York Times features a horrendous case that highlights the threats women already face prior to the international withdrawal from the country:

It is doubly miraculous that the young woman named Gul Meena is alive. After she was struck by an ax 15 times, slashing her head and face so deeply that it exposed her brain, she held on long enough to reach medical care and then, despite the limitations of what the doctors could do, clung to life.

“Americans and Europeans have put a special emphasis on programs to help Afghan women and raise awareness of their rights,” The Times adds. “Now, as the Western money and presence are dwindling, women’s advocates fear that even the limited gains will erode and a more tribal and Taliban culture will prevail, especially in the south and east of the country, where Pashtun tribal attitudes toward women are strongly held.”

Thousands of Afghan girls daily risk the fate of Malala (right), says Jacoobi.

“Their life has been threatened. They have been disappeared – all kinds of things happen to the girls in Afghanistan,” she tells NPR’s Rachel Martin, reaffirming her intention to stay and fight for women’s rights, despite threats to her own life.

MARTIN: You’ve gotten a lot of international attention for your work. You’ve received many honors. Has this attention made it in some ways more difficult because you have such a high profile? Has it made you a target for critics? Now, up until this point in the interview, Jacoobi had been quick to answer every question. But when asked about her own safety, she paused, she leaned back in her chair and chose her words carefully.

JACOOBI: You know, I love my country, I love my people, especially the women of Afghanistan in my heart. And when you choose to do something, you do what you will, it takes you to do it, when you have a passion and love for it.

MARTIN: Have you ever been threatened as a result of your work?

JACOOBI: Well, you decide what you do in life, and that you do, no matter what it takes.

Sakena Jacoobi is the executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, based in Herat. She was a recipient of the 2005 National Endowment for Democracy award.

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US presses Iran on ‘intolerable mistreatment’ of Nasrin Sotoudeh

The Obama administration today expressed concern over the rapidly deteriorating condition of a prominent Iranian rights advocate.

Imprisoned human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh, the winner of the 2012 Sakharov Prize, has reportedly dwindled down to 95 pounds as her hunger strike enters its 42nd day.

“Iranian officials have denied Sotoudeh, a leading women’s rights champion, medical care during her more than six-week hunger strike and have kept her in solitary confinement,” said Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokesperson,

“We remain concerned for Sotoudeh’s well-being given Iran’s history of withholding treatment from prisoners and allowing them to die from hunger strikes,” she said. “We demand the Iranian Government cease its intolerable mistreatment of Sotoudeh and immediately release her and the more than 30 other female political prisoners detained in Evin Prison.”

A founding member of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, the lawyers’ association led by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, Sotoudeh represented many activists detained in the wake of the Green movement upsurge following the contested presidential elections in 2009.

Sentenced to 11 years in jail for “activities against national security” and “propaganda against the regime,” she was also banned from practicing law or traveling for 20 years. The sentencing provoked a chorus of international condemnation.

Before her arrest, Sotoudeh had spoken out against the unannounced execution of one of her clients.  While jailed at Evin Prison, Sotoudeh has protested the restrictions placed on her husband and 12-year-old daughter, who are barred from leaving the country. Her family has also agitated against not being allowed to hug their mother on visits. In October she went on hunger strike.

In an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, her husband Reza Khandan said, “The most visible thing was her severe weight loss, her gaunt face, and her hollowed eyes.” Sotoudeh has been on hunger strike for more than 40 days.

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