Planning for Chávismo without Chávez?

Venezuela’s democratic opposition will never again win an election, says President Hugo Chávez. And “there will be no transition” following October’s presidential election, a leading Chávista official insists.

The radical populist yesterday rejected claims that he had left a leadership vacuum while he undertook cancer treatment in Cuba, but his absence prompted criticism from the opposition.

“Venezuela today is being governed via a telephone, via Twitter,” said Henrique Capriles, the democratic coalition’s presidential candidate. “Today, we are five months away from electing a stagnant present or a progressive future,” he added:

Capriles, a center-left state governor who admires Brazil’s “modern left” political model, has been struggling to close a two-digit gap behind Chávez in most opinion polls. He is on a nationwide “house-to-house” tour to try and project himself as a national leader and hear Venezuelans’ problems. But he is struggling to win headline space from Chávez.

In a half-hour telephone broadcast yesterday, Chávez appeared to suggest that the electoral process would be engineered to forestall any prospect of a victory for his critics.

“The opposition are never going to win any elections in Venezuela, ever again, we are going to give them a resounding knockout,” he said.

Chávez recently said that “a thousand buffaloes will pass through the eye of a needle” before he will cede power.

A source close to the government said over the weekend that Chávez’s health has deteriorated considerably with the radiotherapy. He has been in intense pain and is unable to walk, requiring him to use a wheelchair, the source told Reuters. “There is great anxiety over what is coming,” the source said:

Chávez’s health is treated as a state secret – like that of his mentor and friend, Fidel Castro of Cuba. The Venezuelan has had three operations since last June, including one that removed a baseball-sized tumor. But officials have refused to divulge details about his cancer.

He is supposed to have completed the last of five radiotherapy sessions in Cuba in recent days, but his uncharacteristic silence has brought speculation his condition is getting worse, possibly fatal.

Officials deny that a recently-formed Council of State is a transition agency for ensuring post-Chávez continuity – Chávismo without Chávez.

“It is not a transition (committee) and there will be no transition,” said Vice President Elias Jaua at the weekend. “There will be elections, re-election and a new term for Hugo Chávez.”

Allies seen as potential replacements for him if he cannot run include Jaua, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello. Chávez’s two daughters, who have no political experience but frequently appear with him in public, are seen as potential stand-ins who could command respect from supporters and allies.

“There is no way to know the likelihood of any given scenario without serious information about Chávez’s health,” said local pollster and analyst Luis Vicente Leon:

“But one thing is clear: Chávez will be the candidate, dead or alive. Even if Chávez is physically absent, the campaign will be full of his symbols, photos, messages and missions,” he told Reuters:

Opposition leaders, who have avoided directly commenting on his illness, describe him as a doctrinaire autocrat whose steady expansion of the state has weakened the economy and left Venezuelans dependent on state handouts.

Capriles, a center-left state governor who admires Brazil’s “modern left” political model, has been struggling to close a two-digit gap behind Chávez in most opinion polls. He is on a nationwide “house-to-house” tour to try and project himself as a national leader and hear Venezuelans’ problems. But he is struggling to win headline space from Chávez.

Some observers fear that Chávez’s politicization of the Venezuelan military and promotion of known narco-traffickers to the most senior officer ranks has increased the likelihood of a coup should the democratic opposition win the October poll.

“But even if these officers are true democrats that reject Chávez, the Bolivarian regime has already in place para-military groups such as the Bolivarian Circles” writes analyst Luis Fleischman:

It has also created a militia that responds directly to the executive branch. As things are defined now, Para-military forces and even militias might be filled with “fighters” from other groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and even Middle Eastern terrorist groups such as Hezbollah; two groups Chávez has embraced.

Secondly, the regime has created a network of people who have benefitted from his regime and would like to see continuity. This includes the “boliburguesia” , which is a business class that has made its wealth not from its hard work and devotion but by virtue of its connections to the state.

The appointment of former military intelligence chief Henry Rangel Silva as defense minister and his recent admission that the military would not accept an opposition victory in October, confirm that the leadership “will provide continuity to the Bolivarian revolution regardless of an opposition victory in the upcoming election,” he writes, noting that authoritative sources also suggest that Cuba is involved in preparing a “soft coup” in the event of a democratic victory:

Nelson Bocaranda, who is a columnist for the Venezuelan daily El Universal, revealed that in Cuba there was a meeting between Hugo Chávez, Raul Castro, six Cuban generals and eight pro-Chávez Venezuelan generals, including the Minister of Defense, Rangel Silva. The discussion was focused on possible scenarios after the death of the Bolivarian leader. Bocaranda reports that among the issues considered was the possibility of creating a situation of chaos including violence and looting which would provide an excuse for the military and other non-military security forces to carry out a self-coup.

RTWT

Chávez’s plan to pull Venezuela out of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) suggests that he is trying to solidify his authoritarian legacy.

“The last president to make a similar threat was Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori in 2000 when the IACHR had handed down a series of recommendations about death squad killings, the seizure of a private television station and the sacking of a constitutional court judge,” writes Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas:

The spectacle of two supposed ends of the ideological spectrum—the self-proclaimed socialist Chávez and the neoliberal Fujimori—railing against the IACHR is really not as surprising as it sounds. It’s the common bond of autocratic regimes that want to be free of international scrutiny and the obligations to protect and defend their own citizens that transcends ideology. And for those, the IACHR—which has stood in defense of human rights for over 50 years irrespective of the ideology of the government—makes a logical enemy.

RTWT

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Russia’s burgeoning civil society: a new wave of civic activism

As Vladimir Putin’s returns to the Kremlin to assume his third term as President of the Russian Federation, his legitimacy has never been more tenuous, writes analyst Julia Pettengill, There is virtually no public appetite for an “Orange Revolution” scenario, she argues in a wide-ranging survey of Russia’s opposition (extracted below. But a political alternative to Putin’s power vertical can emerge through an evolutionary process of exploiting the space created by the recent protest movement to push for genuine political reforms through a combination of continued mass protests, grassroots political engagement and the strengthening of political parties/alliances. 

 The next six years of Putin’s presidency will be decisive for Russia’s political development — or its further deterioration. This is why the first major report to be published by The Henry Jackson Society’s new Russia Studies Centre, written by Pettengill, the Centre’s co-chair, is a comprehensive survey of the individuals, parties, and factions that have driven the post-election protests, and an assessment of their strategies and prospects.

* The relative decline of the protest movement following the reelection of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in March 2012 has raised the question of whether or not the post-election protest movement has strengthened Russia’s hitherto marginal political opposition in the long-term.

* Russia’s political opposition can be divided between the “systemic” opposition, which is permitted to operate by the state but does not challenge state authority and/or actively colludes with the ruling power structure, and the “non-systemic” opposition, which encompasses parties and groups that are unable to officially register as political parties and/or freely operate and compete in elections.

* Growing popular frustration and fatigue with corruption and the authoritarian ruling structure-particularly amongst the urban middle class-provided the momentum for the protests between December 2011 and March 2012.

* While polls demonstrate that Vladimir Putin remains the only viable leader in the minds of the public on a national level, they also indicate that this is borne not so much from satisfaction with Putin as a lack of political alternatives and the premium placed on stability.

* Prior to the beginning of the post-election protest movement, the Russian Opposition was unable to engage significant portions of the public, and the segment of the non-systemic opposition which organized the largest protests was the nationalist camp. While nationalist groups individually do not command large degrees of popular support, polls reflect a broad swath of nationalist sentiment in Russia, particularly in relation to immigration, which some oppositionists have suggested needs to be engaged.

* Liberal oppositionists have benefitted from the pro-democracy, broadly liberal character and support base of the recent protests, but face significant challenges in overcoming popular associations of liberals with the “Wild West” capitalism of the 1990s.

* Left-wing opposition parties have in the past been outflanked by the systemic left-wing opposition parties the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and A Just Russia. The protest movement has lent renewed vigor to the non-systemic left-wing activists, and inspired a growing level of cooperation between the systemic and non-systemic left-wing, with important protest leaders emerging from the ranks of A Just Russia. The socioeconomic disparities and the consequences of the economic downturn have the potential to bolster the appeal of left-wing oppositionists in future.

* Civil society groups – which encompass such diverse figures as anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny and environmental activist Evgenia Chirikova – have emerged as the crucial and unprecedented force. Their grassroots quality has lent legitimacy to the concept of a political opposition, previously perceived to be dominated by the liberals of the 1990s who turned against Vladimir Putin.

* The most significant opportunities for the opposition to gain influence are presented by the decline in Vladimir Putin’s popular appeal, which had lent the ruling structure its appearance of legitimacy; popular pressure for political liberalization; the waning fortunes of United Russia, now popularly thought of as the “Party of Crooks and Thieves;” the looming, large-scale problems presented by the failure to invest in essential services and infrastructure; and the inefficiencies and disaffection created by systemic, state-sponsored corruption.

* The most significant challenges to the “non-systemic” opposition are the continued power monopoly of Vladimir Putin and the United Russia Party; lack of access to the mainstream media; limited resources; the possibility of further fragmentation and the difficulty in keeping the multifarious groups united; and parties of the non-systemic opposition working together towards a common goal.

* The growth of Russia’s non-systemic opposition could be achieved through an evolutionary process of exploiting the space created by the recent protest movement to push for genuine political reforms through a combination of continued mass protests, grassroots political engagement and the strengthening of political parties/alliances.

* The non-systemic opposition must also try to induce systemic oppositionists to abandon Putin, and must remain wary of the potential for extremist, anti-democratic elements within the nationalist and far-leftist opposition camps to come to the fore.

* There is virtually no public appetite for an “Orange Revolution” scenario, a fact which most opposition leaders understand; their ability to build a pro-democracy alternative to the status quo will depend upon their ability to remain loosely united under a broad agenda of political liberalization and anti-corruption: the two key weaknesses of the current government.

In December, hundreds of thousands marched in protest against a fraudulent parliamentary election geared to favor Putin’s United Russia, a party that is now so tainted by anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny’s moniker — “the party of crooks and thieves” — that there is talk of dissolving it altogether. Murdered tax attorneys and feminist punk bands have become folk heroes for younger, more politically engaged Russians who don’t see a fair trade in abandoning human rights and real democracy for the so-called “stability” of a perpetual strongman government.

RUSSIA’S BURGEONING CIVIL SOCIETY: THE NEW WAVE OF CIVIC ACTIVISM

One of the most important and novel developments in Russia’s contemporary opposition landscape has been the importance of individuals and groups expressing opposition to various government actions or policies outside of the conventional political activism of the liberals, left-wing or nationalist groups. These writers, artists, bloggers and grassroots activists have coalesced into a loose movement, united by the principle of holding the Kremlin to account for its performance on certain issues.

These groups operate on a horizontal model of loose cooperation between organizations run by self-starters, and lack centralized leadership, and is scattered across the country. Many of these groups and individuals have been instrumental in forming the League of Voters and the For Fair Elections movement, founded in response to the fraudulent Duma elections. Journalist Yulia Latynina has argued that perhaps the most significant development in this burgeoning movement’s influence was the mobilization of the 28,000 citizen volunteer election observers, who monitored the polling stations on 4 March and reported numerous cases of voter intimidation and fraud.

This phenomenon is partly a consequence of the restrictions upon political competition in Russia, which has made activists turn their energies from conventional political activities like building political parties, towards issue-specific causes like corruption or the environment, for which the country’s burgeoning civil society lends slightly more space to develop. According to scholar Graeme Robertson, “No longer is protest dominated by workers with economic demands, involved in bargaining games among the divided elite. Instead there are real widespread and numerous opposition groups actively challenging the Russia state wherever they can.” Despite legal constraints on the formation of civil society initiatives, sheer civic initiative has allowed Putin’s Russia to experience the gradual growth of this hitherto unoccupied area of the public sphere.

Denis Volkov argued that the Levada Centre polls show that these civic initiatives are more popular than the traditional opposition because they offer a chance to “…change the pattern within traditional oppositional politicians, which could be a positive development.”  It is telling that Levada Centre polls of protestors at the 24 December protests expressed a far greater degree of trust for figures such as the writer Boris Akunin, blogger Alexey Navalny and journalist Leonid Parfyonov more than traditional politicians like Mikhail Kasyanov.

Oleg Kozlovsky argues that it is precisely the novelty and authenticity of these grassroots activists that is the opposition’s greatest source of strength. “The civil society revolution is the way forward—they have more legitimacy, because of the strong distrust of traditional politicians. The older politicians need to take a backseat,” Kozlovsky said. “For years the opposition has had the problem of not seeing new faces—especially in the liberal camp. The next generation of leaders will come from civil society, not from established political parties or groups.”

Ironically, it was the spontaneous development of anti-Kremlin youth groups like Oborona which inspired the creation of groups like Nashi and the All Russia People’s Front coalition, as part of the Kremlin’s strategy to build and control their own ersatz civil society. Civil society activists have also been targeted for harassment, imprisonment and censorship by the state. However, in some cases they have cooperated with the local authorities in their efforts—for instance, being invited to join “expert groups” by governmental authorities.

It should be noted that the emergence of civil society actors as an important component of the opposition movement presents certain organizational challenges. Vladimir Milov argues that the very source of their strength and legitimacy—their lack of centralization and association with official politics— also means that these groups do not always possess the political skills to carry their agenda beyond the initial period of street protest.

“A large part of civil society activists have no clear idea about how the political structure works and the instruments you need to use,” Milov contended. “They have the authority and the energy, which is good, but they are political amateurs and sometimes promote the wrong things.”

Others point out that it is too early to assess how well this new generation of civil society activists has performed. “Some of the civic activists are quite impressive, but emerging as a leader is a more difficult question,” Maria Lipman noted.

PROSPECTS AND PROJECTIONS

Russia’s long history of autocracy has led many to assume that the country is either not equipped or not desirous of democratic reform. In this view, the “sovereign democracy” of Vladimir Putin represents a genuine reflection of popular will, and the best prospect for stability. Yet the internal contradictions of the mixed system Putin has created, and the inevitable instabilities which will result if the culture of corruption and state-led disregard for the rule of law is left unchallenged, have become increasingly evident. This presents a window of opportunity for the contemporary opposition movement— strengthened for the first time in a decade by the 2011-2012 protest movement—to push for genuine political liberalization in Russia.

It is unclear what the final strategy of the regime will be to counter the current opposition movement, but it is unlikely that Putin would be able to introduce meaningful democratic reforms and survive. Genuine political openness would undermine the entire basis of the system that has kept him in power and above the law, and would submit him to challenges from political alternatives. Given Putin’s well-known fear of an “Orange Revolution” scenario, he may be induced to launch tactical crackdowns against key leaders of the opposition movement, or even a wider crackdown. Some have pointed to the detention of activists in Red Square in April, searches of the independent REN-TV channel and the ousting of independent board members from the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy (known for being critical of –and hated by—Putin) as a sign of more to come.

The intensification of Soviet-style rhetoric accusing the opposition leaders of being puppets of the American government has played an increasing role since the beginning of the protests in December: US Ambassador Michael McFaul’s promises to allocate $50 million towards funding Russian civil society projects has been seized upon as evidence that the civil society movement is in fact a vast American conspiracy. According to Ilya Ponomarev, “The possibility of a Velvet or Orange Revolution is very unlikely: we’re not going to get the government to resign peacefully. I think violence is now more likely that non-violence.”

If this happens, Putin may in fact be more constrained than he appears: a crackdown risks fuelling public outrage, and may not even be effective given the decentralized nature of the protest movement. This is symptomatic of what Alexey Navalny has argued is the fundamental weakness in the regime’s mixed model of electoral authoritarianism: “…if they try to do anything systemically against a huge number of people, there’s no machine. It’s a ragtag group of crooks unified under the portrait of Putin. There’s no super-repressive regime. There are no mythical Cheka agents that we need to be scared of. It’s just a bunch of crooks.” This weakness also makes the current power structure very vulnerable to street protests, as it reveals the essential contradiction between the constrained freedoms and the lack of a fully-developed repressive apparatus.

In the past, Putin has dealt with this challenge by seeking to channel popular frustrations into popular movements controlled by the Kremlin, whilst relying on coercion to create an environment of caution. The relative light touch displayed towards protestors thus far is likely part of strategy to project an image of calm and tolerance towards the protestors, in the hopes that the movement will act as a temporary pressure valve but eventually lose its popular interest.

In the interim the state has so far preferred to deploy a strategy of token “reforms” and “engagement,” such as the meeting Medvedev held with opposition leaders prior to the presidential elections and at the signing of the bill easing registration limits for political parties, but has restricted the application of the reforms to such an extent that they cannot shift the ruling party’s monopoly on power. For example, the proposal to restore the direct election of regional governors has stalled and is set to be hampered by new amendments proposed by the Federation Council—including a requirement that the candidates receive presidential approval, which would all but nullify the intended effects of direct election. Such measures are clearly designed to prevent strong, popular leaders emerging from the regions capable of challenging Putin’s monopoly on power.

Putin’s legitimacy has been fundamentally eroded by the protest movement, and the combination of a rising middle class and popular ambivalence could provide the oppositionists with the ingredients to further develop and extend their reach. “Putin is seen by many as a man of stagnation, so the momentum is on our side,” said Vladimir Milov. The fact that Putin received 47 percent of the vote—partly thanks to electoral fraud—in Moscow is a significant sign of the erosion of his power base. If the president’s genuine support in the capital has withered to that extent, the rest of the country may follow in time.

Moreover, social and economic such as widening access to the internet and enhanced expectations are creating an increasingly “horizontally integrated generation,” a development which the Kremlin does not appear equipped to counter. However, the state has been known to use tactics such as redirecting users of VKontakte, the social networking site widely used by oppositionists, to malware sites, and recent reports indicate that the siloviki are planning to employ new technologies to orchestrate an internet crackdown.

The possibility that the systemic opposition will forge closer ties with the unofficial opposition is a significant threat to the stability of the regime, and the increased cooperation between the two forces—particularly in the mayoral elections in Yaroslavl and Asrakhan—have already demonstrated the power of such an alliance. One of the key weaknesses of hybrid regimes like the Russian Federation is the threat that hitherto cooperative elites will side with anti-regime forces and challenge the power structure. Maintaining the status quo consequently relies upon projecting an impression of invincibility and providing sufficient incentives to keep the elites in fold. The fact that members of the systemic opposition are positioning themselves to take advantage of the insurgent opposition movement– coupled with the diminishment of Putin’s popularity and the unpopularity of Unite Russia, may induce political elites in the systemic opposition to withdraw their support and demand political change.

However, the fact that the opposition do not have the guaranteed support of “court” figures who may facilitate negotiation and increase pressure remains a source of weakness—and may persuade some oppositionists to compromise their principles and ultimately undermine their own movement. Alexey Navalny has said that he is “…convinced that the main strategy of the Kremlin in the coming months would be neutralizing protests by the usual deceit and bribes.” This remains a source of significant suspicion and distrust within the opposition movement, and ironically, the reforms to political party registration could aid the state in its effort to co-opt oppositionists by courting individuals who weary of division or simply become greedy for power. Indeed, when asked the most important piece of advice he could give the new generation of oppositionists from his long career as a dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky advised: “Never agree on anything offered by the KGB, which in this case is the people in power. They won’t negotiate with you: they’ll just try to recruit you. And if you show that you’re willing to compromise, they see you’re weakness and you will only go further and further. Tell them to go to hell.”

Opposition parties still face the considerable challenges of attempting to engage popular support in an environment in which they have virtually no access to the mass media, at a time when popular interest and engagement in the protests appears to be on the wane, whilst keeping party activists happy and maintaining relationships within a broad coalition of groups and interests. While the internet has emerged as an important tool with growing influence in Russia, it does not yet have the power to reach the entire country. As Vladimir Milov noted: “The problem is that the opposition has for quite some time existed in a different mode compared to what is required, and hasn’t been able to reach out to the average voter because of the information blockade. Now the protests have brought the groups a new dynamism, but some have been unprepared for that, and could fail to meet the expectations of the protestors.” Going forward, Milov emphasized the need to focus on breaking through the “information blockade,” twinned with a strategy of party political pressure to force Putin into making concessions: “Some people say we need to focus only on protests, but that can’t happen without political engagement.”

Milov warned of the divisions that remain in the ranks of the opposition between those who favor a protest oriented strategy, and those—like Milov himself—who emphasize the need for political engagement and mobilization of parties: “People are overcome with a romantic revolutionary mood—people like Navalny deny the need to develop party politics, they want internet democracy. But that’s giving Putin what he wants—he doesn’t want us to develop those core institutions. That lack of understanding in the opposition may be a consequence of being out of power for so long. A horizontal civil society network just isn’t sufficient.” Yevgenia Albats, editor of the pro-opposition newspaper The New Times, has castigated the current movement for what she argued was an insufficiently clear and adaptable strategy. “Clearly, the For Fair Elections motto is too outdated now. They [the opposition leaders] should have foreseen that,” Albats said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy. She also complained of the lack of unity between protest leaders displayed during the 5 March demonstrations, in which some leaders left the Square, while other stayed behind to face arrest and police harassment; but at the same time, has argued that Udaltsov’s calls for protestors to remain in Pushkin square until Putin leaves power will prove counterproductive. Accusations of amateurishness play into the hands of the Kremlin, which has charged that the opposition lacks a “…constructive programmed for national development.”

This split over tactics has long been a source of division within the liberal camp, and disagreements over whether to initiate a “permanent protest” as Alexey Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov advocate, versus focusing on the mobilization of political parties, as Milov and Nemtsov advocate, are likely to intensify now that the passing of the presidential elections has weakened the momentum of the protests. This decline in enthusiasm was, to some extent, inevitable; and the opposition’s reliance on popular outrage at electoral fraud would always need to give way to a transitional message in the event that demands for an electoral re-run fizzled out. While the mass organization of electoral monitors was extremely important in engaging citizens in the political process and in building a broader base of civic engagement, the chance of affecting the outcome in the short term was always remote. In short, the gains of the opposition have been subtle and evolutionary, and the opposition will need to communicate this in a way that does not make their supporters lose hope.

Finally, the lack of clear leaders capable of uniting the entire movement has been cited by many analysts as a key handicap of the contemporary opposition, and it is true that the movement would doubtless benefit from a figure like Andrei Sakharov or Vaclav Havel, capable of uniting and leading the movement across ideological lines, and possessed of unquestioned moral authority. Yet the fact is, the amalgam of ideological strains and pseudo-democratic practices which characterizes the contemporary Russian state has produced a situation in which such a leader has not emerged—or at least not yet. Yet the absence of the type of all-encompassing totalitarianism that was challenged by dissidents like Havel and Sakharov may compensate for the absence of such a galvanizing figure.

SPOTLIGHT: WHAT DOES THE LEVADA CENTRE’S POLLING INDICATE ABOUT THE FUTURE OF RUSSIA’S OPPOSITION MOVEMENT?

As one of the only independent sources of polling data in the Russian Federation, the Levada Centre’s research offers a compelling insight into the attitudes of ordinary citizens in Russia today. The polls taken on a variety of subjects since the height of the protest movement in December 2011/January 2012 up to the presidential elections of March 2012 reflect the complex collection of attitudes and impulses which characterize the Russian public’s attitudes towards contemporary politics, and illustrate a society that is at once increasingly engaged on matters of reform yet unprepared to push for radical responses to these problems. The polls analyzed below were conducted on representative nationwide samples of urban and rural populations of 1,600 people aged 18 and over, with a 3.4 percent margin of error.

ATTITUDES TOWARDS PUTIN AND AUTHORITARIANISM

Support for the “vertical power” structure created by Putin has declined noticeably, and disapproval of vertical power has increased: with 30 percent finding vertical power useful in January 2012 (down from 38 percent in February 2011), and with 35 percent finding it more harmful (up from 27 percent in February 2011).

READ THE REST

The Levada Center, the Moscow Helsinki Group and several other groups cited in the report are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance foundation.

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Equatorial Guinea: dissident convicted on political charges

Human rights and democracy activists today condemned the conviction of Wenceslao Mansogo Alo (left), a leading member of Equatorial Guinea’s beleaguered political opposition, as “a travesty of justice.”

A court sentenced Mansogo, a medical doctor, to three years in prison on grounds of professional negligence in what observers describe as a politically motivated trial.

“The conviction of Mansogo does not stand up to scrutiny and should be overturned on appeal. His prosecution was clearly opportunistic, designed to remove a vocal opponent from the political arena, and not supported by the facts of the incident in question,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch:

Mansogo, a leading member of the political opposition and prominent human rights defender, has been detained since February 9, 2012, following the death of a patient during surgery. The court also granted the prosecution’s request for an order to close Mansogo’s private health clinic and ordered him to pay five million CFA (approximately US $10,000) to the patient’s family and a fine of 1.5 million CFA (approximately $3,000) to the government of Equatorial Guinea, according to one of his lawyers who was at the court when the verdict was read. Mansogo has also been barred from practicing medicine for the duration of his sentence. His lawyers plan to appeal the conviction and sentence, as well as the order to close the clinic and impose the fines.

In addition to owning and operating the Espoir Litoral Medical Center in Bata, where he specializes in gynecology and obstetrics, Mansogo is a leader of the opposition Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS) party and serves as its secretary for international relations and human rights. He is also a member of the local city council.

The CPDS is the main opposition party and also conducts human rights education and monitors, investigates, and reports on human rights violations. Party members are regularly harassed, intimidated, and arrested by governmental authorities.

Freedom House, which listed Equatorial Guinea as one of the “Worst of the Worst” countries in 2011 for its abysmal record of civil liberties and political rights, was one of many human rights and democracy groups to oppose the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s attempt to award a life sciences prize associated with Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo:

UNESCO’s Executive Board approved a plan that would reinstate the prize, but exclude any reference to Obiang.  Freedom House believes that this cosmetic change is not enough, as the prize would still be tainted by its association with one of the world’s most repressive and corrupt regimes.

The $3 million prize originally bearing Mr. Obiang’s name was proposed in 2008, and then indefinitely suspended by UNESCO in October 2010 after an unprecedented global outcry seeking its cancellation. A number of notable public figures, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Congressman Howard Berman publicly urged UNESCO to reject the Obiang Prize. They cited a record of corruption, abuse, and restricted press freedom under President Obiang that is well documented, including by UN reports and foreign government investigations.

Despite considerable oil wealth, rights monitor IREX reports: Equatorial Guinea is a closed country with an extremely poor population, and the corruption rate is said to be among the highest on the continent (Transparency International ranked it 168 out of 180 countries worldwide in 2009).

For more reporting on Equatorial Guinea, please visit here.

For more information, please contact:
In New York, Lisa Misol (English, Spanish): +1-646-515-6665 (mobile); or misoll@hrw.org
In New York, Rona Peligal (English): +1-212-216-1232; or +1-917-363-3893; or peligar@hrw.org
In Berlin, Wenzel Michalski (English, German): +49-151-419-2425-6 (mobile); or michalw@hrw.org
In Paris, Jean-Marie Fardeau (French, English, Portuguese): +33-6-45-85-24-87 (mobile); or fardeaj@hrw.org

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Egypt’s pious Muslims kick back, as Islamists ‘flex muscles’

Growing militancy on the part of Egypt’s formerly violent jihadist groups is causing growing alarm, reports suggest, while increasingly strident rhetoric at Muslim Brotherhood rallies (above) is casting doubts on the group’s moderate credentials.

But the country’s Islamists are facing a backlash, not from the ruling military or secular liberals but “from deeply religious, non-Islamist, Muslims,” while even Brotherhood activists believe its “taste for politics is jeopardizing its soul.”

Radical groups are well-poised to exploit discontent with Egypt’s tortured political transition, say analysts.

“The dreams of the revolution are fast disappearing and, in response, extremist groups are emerging,” said Khalil el-Anani, an expert on Islamic groups at the UK’s Durham University. “Those extremists follow al-Qaida’s ideology but are not organizationally affiliated with it.”

The militants, believed to be followers of former jihadist groups, lie at the outer edge of the Islamist movement. More mainstream Islamists gained instant empowerment when Mubarak’s regime was toppled by a popular uprising. Led by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis, these Islamists long ago abandoned violence and supported peaceful change toward an Islamic state. The Brotherhood and the Salafis now combine for more than 70 percent of all seats in parliament, making them the dominant political force in the country.

Talk of increasing radicalism could play into the stormy political situation. El-Anani said media loyal to the military could be drumming up the potential threat to justify a military crackdown that could even sweep up more mainstream groups. Or the warnings could steer some popular support toward presidential candidates seen as more favorable to the military.

But the country’s Islamists are facing increasingly vocal opposition – from Egypt’s most pious Muslims offended by “activists who would corrupt God’s religion for petty political gain,” one observer reports.

“Who are these people that claim to speak on behalf of Islam?”

“Such sentiments distinguishing Islamism from Islam is hardly unique – liberal and non-religious forces within predominantly religious conservative societies in the Muslim world have been making that argument for a while now,” writes Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based analyst.

As the Muslim Brotherhood and newly politicized Salafi groups “seek to increasingly manifest their Islamism on the level of public policy, they will find opposition from an expected quarter: deeply religious, but non-Islamist, Muslims,” he argues.

Opposition to the conflation of politics and piety finds an unlikely champion in Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the former Brotherhood leader who is contesting the presidential election as an independent.

“The Muslim Brotherhood should not have a political wing…The interference of preaching and politics causes confusion,” Fotouh told the LA Times today.

Talks have intensified within the group to more clearly separate its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, from its religious and community works. Since its founding in 1928, the Brotherhood has been respected for its Islamic and social programs, such as schools and clinics. The fear among many members is that the Brotherhood’s taste for politics is jeopardizing its soul.

The Islamist group has long experienced tensions between more religious conservative factions committed to dawa – propagating its message and inculcating Islamic values through social, educational and welfare activities, and pragmatists eager to convert the movement’s social and religious legitimacy into political power:

“Our presence in parliament and trade unions has sapped a lot of our energy,” said Ashraf Abu Zeid, a Brotherhood member in Cairo. ‘‘Before the elections, we were present in the street and all our efforts were focused on social work and services. … But all of a sudden politics has taken too much of our strength, numbers and focus.”

The Brotherhood was late coming to the protests that ousted Mubarak, worried that if the revolt failed the group would be persecuted anew. But its grass-roots reach and organisational skills quickly made it the country’s dominant political force. The shift from opposition to the chambers of government, however, has been clumsy and erratic; the Brotherhood has broken promises and appeared politically opportunistic.

“The concurrent blunders of the Brotherhood have exposed its limited political skills,” Anani wrote in the Egypt Independent newspaper.

“Not only have these mistakes distorted the movement’s image but, more importantly, it weakened its position in the game with its contenders.”

The Muslim Brotherhood’s support for the recent crackdown on pro-democracy civil society groups indicates that Islamists are trying to gain advantage by aggravating political tensions and promoting xenophobic conspiracy theories, observers suggest.

“It seems that we are dealing with a deliberate policy of escalation on the part of the Islamist parties, in an attempt to put pressure on other political parties and impose an Islamic candidate for the presidency,” writes Asharq analyst Mohammed Sadeq Jaraad.

The Brotherhood is “exploiting the sentiments of the masses and rejecting all things American by consecrating the longstanding concept of the ‘conspiracy theory’; deeming everything that comes from America or the West as a foreign plot,” he contends:

The US is stressing the depth of its long partnership [by] providing support for the democratic transition and assistance to Egyptian civil society and political parties….in contrast to the accusations of some in Egypt that the same civil organizations are trying to destabilize Egypt and prevent the achievement of the revolution’s objectives, receiving illegal funds from abroad aimed at undermining security and stability.

References to Islamists’ traditional historical objective of an Islamic caliphate are anachronistic and rarely voiced, a Washington meeting heard today. Somebody evidently forgot to tell Safwat Higazi.

“We can see how the dream of the Islamic caliphate is being realized, God willing, by Dr. Mohamed Mursi,” Higazi told thousands of Brotherhood supporters at a Cairo soccer stadium (above) as Mursi – the movement’s presidential candidate – and other Brotherhood officials nodded in agreement.

“The capital of the caliphate – the capital of the United States of the Arabs – will be Jerusalem, God willing,” Higazi said. “Our capital shall not be in Cairo, Mecca or Medina,” he said, before leading the crowd in chants of “Millions of martyrs march toward Jerusalem.”

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Jordan on the brink (again)?

Jordan ranks slightly below Bahrain “as at risk of a sudden escalation of political crisis at which point the impossible would in retrospect look inevitable,” writes a leading analyst.

Last week’s unanticipated resignation of Jordan’s Prime Minister Awn Khasawnah threw a spotlight on the limitations of the country’s political reform process, Marc Lynch writes in Foreign Policy:

The deficient new election law rolled out last month, like every step the King has taken over the last year and a half, did too little, too late to respond to the concerns of Jordanian citizens….Veteran observers of the region can be excused for rolling their eyes ever so slightly at reports of instability in Jordan, of course.   The Kingdom has seemed on the political brink virtually constantly for many decades, its stability always questioned and the monarchy’s command doubted (often, admittedly, by me).  And yet the Hashemite monarchy has survived.

The democratic opening, which followed an outbreak of social protests in 1989, including press liberalization, freely contested elections, and the crafting of a “National Pact” for a democratic monarchical system, now seems a distant memory,” writes Lynch, while a “new election law designed to curb the power of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front Party (above) produced a series of weak, ineffectual Parliaments too often dissolved early at the whim of the Palace.”

The last elections, in November 2010 were among the worst in the Kingdom’s history; ostentatious displays of wealth fuel resentment and prompt ever more open talk of corruption; Jordanian-Palestinian identity politics are intensifying; and promised constitutional reforms remained largely “fictional,” according to analyst Sean Yom.

The hopes placed in Khaswaneh, a respected liberal jurist, have now been frustrated, notes Lynch, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. But the palace should not be so confident that history will repeat itself, with stability readily restored:

The spread of protest into new constituencies, the rising grievances of the south, the intensifying identity politics, the struggling economy, and the pervasive fury at perceived official corruption create a potent brew.  The violent dispersal of an attempted Amman sit-in last March shocked activists and broke their momentum, but the protest movement has proven resilient and creative. 

RTWT

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