Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: Tunisia’s Test

On March 18th, terrorists took hostages at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia’s capital city of Tunis. When the dust settled, 22 innocent people had been murdered, mostly foreign tourists (20) but also Tunisian nationals (2).

Tunisia is to date the lone success story of the “Arab Spring”. This distinction, while undoubtedly a positive, makes Tunisia a target for extremist groups who are ideologically opposed to moderization, democracy, and human rights (“Western values”). It was not, therefore, a question of if extremists would try to scare the democracy out of Tunisia, but when and how.

That question was partially answered on March 18th, and unfortunately there are no guarantees that extremists groups will not attack again. Tunisia’s security forces must remain vigilant, and should receive substantial support from the international community. Seeing Tunisia succeed as a stable, functioning democracy is not only in the interest of Tunisians, but also the disenfranchised throughout the region and the world.

The Tunisian people, for there part, have proven themselves to be remarkably courageous and dedicated to democratic values:

World leaders joined tens of thousands of Tunisians on Sunday to march in solidarity against Islamist militants, a day after security forces killed members of a group blamed for a deadly museum attack.

“We have shown we are a democratic people, Tunisians are moderate, and there is no room for terrorists here,” said one of the demonstrators, Kamel Saad. “Today everyone is with us.”

“The Tunisian people will not bow,” President Beji Caid Essebsi said in a speech after the march. “We will stay united against terrorism until we wipe out this phenomenon.”

Tunisia’s leaders have passed every test of their commitment to democracy. They have transferred power peacefully and enshrined their dedication to liberal and pluralistic democracy in a new constitution. I am confident that the international community, understanding both the ethical and symbolic implications of Tunisia’s democratic success, will provide assistance as necessary.

But in the wake of these terrorist attacks, a new test to democratic values has emerged–preserving the rights of the accused:

Tunisian security forces have arrested 23 more suspected Islamist militants as part of a crackdown after last month’s Bardo museum attack in which two gunmen killed 21 foreign tourists, the interior ministry said on Friday.

The attackers gunned down foreign tourists visiting the national museum in Tunis, in one of the worst attacks in the country, which has mostly avoided violence since its 2011 uprising against autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

The interior ministry said in a statement that the 23 new suspects belonged to two terrorist cells. It said that so far 46 suspects have been arrested since the Bardo massacre.

“Members of these terrorist cells will be charged of being accomplices in the terrorist incident (Bardo attack) through providing weapons and logistics help,” the statement said.

I do not pretend to know the evidence against those arrested as accomplices–it is possible that all of the 46 suspects indeed are guilty of being accomplices to this heinous attack. But it is imperative that due legal processes are followed, and that trials are conducted in an open and transparent way.

People are angry, and rightfully so, but convicting people to placate public anger would be a misstep for Tunisia’s budding democracy. Tunisia’s government should resist urges to try all the defendants jointly (except when a joint trial is objectively prudent), and let the facts of the case determine the outcome.

Effective democratic governance is not only about majority rule, it is also about pluralism, personal rights, judicial transparency, due process and rule of law. Tunisia must show peaceful Muslim’s that there is a place for them in Tunisian society, that they won’t be unjustly punished because of their beliefs. Failure to do so would be counter-productive, pushing Muslims into extremists arms, resulting in greater future instability.

Tunisia’s leaders must stand behind democratic principles; the world–both those rooting for against Tunisian democracy–is watching. While Tunisia’s leaders have given us no reason to think they won’t rise to the challenge, the emotional nature of this situation raises some concerns. Enlisting help from UNDP Tunisia might not be a bad idea.

The Tunisian people, who have been unwavering democratic watchdogs throughout the Arab Spring, must remember the big picture and demand their government ensures fair trials for the accused.

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Conflict Watch: In the Push for Liberal Democracy in the Middle East, Time May be the Greatest Enemy

Well that might be a bit of an overstatement, but the passage of time continues to undermine the goals of the “Arab Spring”. Protracted Social Conflict theory identifies “grievances” or human rights abuses, as the root cause of social conflicts. Paul Collier takes the theory one step further, arguing that over time legitimate grievances are hijacked by opportunistic forces seeking wealth and/or power.

These theories have almost perfectly explained what has transpired over the past 2+ years in both Syria and Egypt:

Syria:

In Syria, peaceful protests for basic freedoms and liberal democracy (starting in March 2011) were met with violence from the Assad regime, sparking a civil-war. Over time, legitimate grievances were hijacked by opportunistic Islamic extremists who wish to setup an Islamic Syrian state.

Even internationally recognized factions of the Syrian opposition have become fractured. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the political arm of the Syrian opposition, has agreed to attend the “Geneva 2” peace talks, while the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the military arm of the Syrian opposition has refused to attend.

All the while, the moderate opposition has become increasingly marginalized and disillusioned:

“The ones who fight now are from the side of the regime or the side of the thieves,” he said in a recent interview via Skype. “I was stupid and naïve,” he added. “We were all stupid.”

Even as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria racks up modest battlefield victories, this may well be his greatest success to date: wearing down the resolve of some who were committed to his downfall. People have turned their backs on the opposition for many different reasons after two and a half years of fighting, some disillusioned with the growing power of Islamists among rebels, some complaining of corruption, others just exhausted with a conflict that shows no signs of abating.

“It’s undeniable that a lot of your early activists are disillusioned,” said Emile Hokayem, a Syria analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, adding that in revolutions, it is often “your most constructive, positive people who are engaged early on who find themselves sidelined.” 

Disillusioned activists say that early on, euphoric at being able to protest at all, they neglected to build bridges to fence-sitters, or did not know how. Homegrown fighters desperate for help welcomed foreign jihadists, and many grew more religious or sectarian in tone, alarming Mr. Assad’s supporters, dividing his opponents and frightening the West out of substantially supporting them.

With a ruthless foresight, following the playbook of his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Assad’s forces cracked down early and hard on the civilian, educated opposition, erasing the space where a middle ground could have emerged. They used heavy weaponry on rebel supporters to an extent that shocked even their foes, while pursuing a deliberate and increasingly successful strategy of persuading Syrians and the world that their opponents were a greater danger.

The fracturing of the opposition has played into Assad hands (the regime still enjoys political and military unity). Assad’s narrative of fighting “terrorism” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; as Western aid has lagged, the opposition has become increasingly unorganized and radicalized. Moderate Syrians who favor liberal democracy represent a decreasing proportion of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian humanitarian crisis has become an after-though of the violent civil war.

Egypt:

The Egyptian revolution began in January of 2011 with protests which toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Who you believe “hijacked” the Egyptian revolution depends on your take of what transpired this past July. Was the military takeover a coup or did it represent the will of the people? Are these two answers mutually exclusive, or is there some middle ground in which both arguments have merit? The world many never come to consensus answers to these loaded questions.

One thing, however, is certain; as in Syria, Egyptian moderates who revolted for liberal democracy have become increasingly marginalized. The power players in Egypt are Islamic extremists (who have become more violent since the ouster of Morsi) and Mubarak-era loyalists:

A leading Egyptian social democrat fears the elite that thrived under former President Hosni Mubarak will once again dominate politics in elections promised by the army after it overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

The 2011 popular revolt against Mubarak raised hopes for an end to decades of corruption and nepotism, but political turmoil since then has dimmed aspirations for genuine democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which came out on top in every national vote in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, may yet be allowed to contest next year’s parliamentary election via its Freedom and Justice Party, or by running candidates as individuals.

But even if the Brotherhood chose to take part, its electoral dominance might be over in a reshaped political landscape, where both state and private media condemn it as a terrorist organization – and lionise the police and military.

Liberals have failed to build popular new parties and look ill-placed to exploit the Brotherhood’s plight. This could allow a comeback by the “felool”, or Mubarak-era remnants.

“The terrorist attacks going on make the situation more difficult,” Abul Ghar [Liberal Activist] said, adding that the violence made it easy for any government to take anti-democratic actions.

These anti-democratic actions include a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, restrictions on protests, as well as further entrenching the Egyptian army’s role in politics (which is enshrined in a draft of Egypt’s new constitution).

Both of these situations are eerily similar. In both cases, revolution started as a legitimate push for rights, freedoms, and liberal democracy. In both cases, the party in power (the Assad regime in Syria, the “deep state” in Egypt) have claimed the opposition are “terrorists” (and used this claim as a justification to strengthen their grip on power in the name of security). In both cases, these claims have become self-fulfilling; over time, those favoring liberal democracy have become marginalized as those who seek power dominate the fight over the future of their respective countries.

The implications for global governance are clear. In the future, we cannot afford to allow the combination of the passage of time and power-grabs to marginalize those who seek basic human rights and a dignified life. We must instead–as a global community–muster the political will and economic / military resources to support legitimate factions before it is too late.

Failure to do so entrenches the wrong ideas–that the international community cares more power-politics/national sovereignty than about people/human rights (concerns the R2P was supposed to address), and that democracy simply cannot work in certain regions of the world.    

Hopefully it is not to late to achieve the goals of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria, although admittedly I see no end in sight to these particular conflicts. Going forward, we must do all we can to prevent similar situations from arising in the first place.


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Bizarro Egypt

Egypt has actually turned into Bizarro World–the country is literally upside down. I swear you can’t write this stuff, or maybe you can… either way, I can’t. But I can analyze whats going on with some clarity and insight:

  • The first democratically elected President in Egyptian history is in jail for crimes against the regime of popularly toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
  • At the same time, it appears said toppled autocrat is said to soon be released from jail (cases are heard by a judiciary that is largely still intact from Mubarak’s days in power)
  • The Egyptian government has shut down all national media outlets sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, while stepping up anti-Brotherhood rhetoric and propoganda.
  • At the same time, General Sisi lashed out at foreign media outlets for not evenly portraying both sides of the story; essentially for not recognizing the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Does Sisi actually thinks he can control what independent international media outlets report?
  • Sisi also insists he has a “mandate from the people” to provide security from “terrorists”. No mandate can give the authority to kill innocent people with impunity. Democracy is about indiscriminately upholding and protecting the rights of everyone, not only certain groups.
  • Far from trying to justify the killings, and offer any sort of olive branch or iota of accountability, the Egyptian government has commended itself for using “a huge amount of self-restraint and self-control.” Who exactly are they trying to convince, the international community, Egyptian civil society, or themselves?
  • The United States decides not to suspend aid to the Egyptian military, despite the insurmountable evidence that what has transpired in Egypt since July 3rd was a coup. The official U.S. ruling on whether or not the Morsi ouster was a coup: “it is not in our national interest to make such a determination.” Way to really lead by example there America!
  • It now appears that the U.S. and the E.U. are finally going to review their ties with the current Egyptian government–a little bit late but still good news. The first official move against the Egyptian government, the U.S cancelled joint military exercises–also a good move.
  • The next move makes no sense; the U.S. plans to pull the plug on $250 million in government aid, while leaving $1.3 billion in military aid in tact. In other words, aid that could give the U.S. some leverage in the Egyptian political arena, or for economic development projects that would benefit all Egyptians, is being cut. At the same time, we will continue to supply the Egyptian military with hundreds of millions of dollars in firepower, because you know killing all those “terrorists” won’t be easy…

Egypt and the Middle East in general are at a crossroads. Both the U.S. and the E.U. are currently reviewing their relationship with the Egyptian government, so it is likely we will have a clearer picture of their respective stances soon. Should Egypt deteriorate into civil war, it will be interesting to see if there is another U.N.S.C. showdown between “Western Powers” and China and Russia along the lines of the current Syria impasse.

I have read articles saying this is not the time for Democracy in Egypt or the Middle-East, that we should set our sights lower and hope for stable governments. While these articles make goods points and tend to be well written, I refuse the believe this is true. I am of the belief that the majority of all parties and factions in Egypt want the same thing; security, health, family, an opportunity to realize their full potential and a better future for their children. 

Not to get to abstract or philosophical, but the future is yet unwritten; if we set our sights low, then we will never know if we could have done better. Much of the groundwork for realizing the normative goals of the Arab Spring is still as ripe as it will be for some time. Old autocracies have been broken (although the inability for democracy to fill the power void has created opportunities for a return to autocratic rule that vested interests–who tend to be opportunistic by nature–will fight for tooth and nail, bullet and rocket). People have never been as empowered as they are today, thanks to innovations in ICT, social media, and the unprecedented recognition of human rights as the key to sustainable human development by the international community.

The international community can no longer turn a blind eye or claim ignorance, not in 2013. The world is getting smaller, and global action or inaction affects all of us, whether we want to admit it or not. By turning a blind eye to Sisi’s gross human rights violations and abandoning the goal of pluralistic democracy in the ME, we would essentially be putting a band-aid on a festering infected gash. Surely the international community can help the Egyptian people come up with a better and more sustainable solution than that.

We cannot let determined spoilers derail this goal, or “put it off for a few decades”; this is not an acceptable solution and will lead only to another round of autocracies in the Middle-East. This would only serve to further cement the ideas that only autocracies can survive in the ME / democracy cannot exist in the ME, that Political Islam and democracy are irreconcilable, and that Jihad is the way for young Muslims).

The goals of the Arab spring have not been fully met–anybody who thought establishing effective democracies in the ME could be achieved quickly, linearly, or peacefully was fooling themselves. But we cannot abandon those goals; if we do because the global champions of human rights / democracy think they cannot afford to help, or that the time is not right due to regional security concerns, the opportunity may not arise again for decades.

On a personal note, as a progressive Jew from NY, I never would have thought that I would be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood…a coup, a series of massacres, and gross human rights violations make for strange bed-fellows no?