Normative Narratives


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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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Conflict Watch: In Africa, Preventative Peacebuilding Has It’s Day (Years? Decades?)

A While back, I wrote about the potential benefits of scaling up preventative peacebuilding programs globally. Rooted in protracted social conflict (PSC) theory, preventative peacebuilding aims at addressing the root causes of the majority of intrastate conflict, by addressing human rights violations that lead to violence before a conflict emerges. While this approach obviously has certain limitations, foremost of which is that it is completely ineffective in resolving an ongoing conflict (such as the Syrian Civil War), it has considerable benefits in situations where tensions are escalating but large-scale violent conflict has not yet enveloped the country (think present day Egypt).

A bit of background on PSC: Most new wars can be explained by Edward Azar’s theory of Protracted Social Conflict (PSC). According to Azar,”deprivation of human needs is the underlying source of PSC“. The sources, and therefore solutions to PSC often lay within a state, rather than across state borders, although this is not always the case, particularly in the context of regional insecurity. PSC also shifted some of the focus away from overtly violent conflicts, towards identifying potential future conflict zones based on underlying humanitarian grievances.

PSC theory applied in another context connects human rights violations, conflict, and terrorism. Human rights violations lead to conflict as PSC presumes. When the government is unable to provide basic services and security to it citizens (or in some situations itself perpetuates human rights violations and insecurity), well funded extremist groups can fill this void, providing security, goods and services in exchange for goodwill, legitimacy, and cover (this is essentially how the Syrian Civil War has evolved). By empowering people and building resilient nations (a little UNDP plug), conflicts can be avoided and the breeding grounds for terrorism salted.

It seems as if world leaders have been convinced by PSC theory, and are willing to try putting money into preventative peacebuilding operations in Africa–ground-zero for human rights violations and intrastate conflict (Original article):

“This fall, the United States and Niger will bring together in that West African nation police officers, customs inspectors and other authorities from a half-dozen countries in the region to hone their collective skills in securing lightly guarded borders against heavily armed traffickers and terrorists.”

“Denmark has already forged a partnership with Burkina Faso to combat violent extremism, and backed it up with a war chest of $22 million over five years aimed at stifling the root causes of terrorism before they can bloom.”

“The two-day meeting here in this seaside city was organized by the Global Counterterrorism Forum, an organization of 29 countries and the European Union created two years ago with the State Department’s support to act as a clearinghouse of ideas and actions for civilian counterterrorism specialists.

One of the forum’s five areas of focus is the Sahel, with wealthier Western, Middle Eastern and Asian nations partnering with some of the continent’s poorest countries to address a range of issues. In this week’s closed meetings, officials discussed border surveillance, enhanced intelligence and police cooperation, the rule of law, arms trafficking and undercutting terrorists’ financial networks, according to a conference agenda and interviews with more than a dozen participants.

‘What’s encouraging is that the regional countries here recognize what kind of assistance they need and are able to define that’ said Michele Coduri, chief of the Swiss Foreign Ministry’s international security section. ‘That’s not always been the case.’

“A senior Malian official told the delegates that the Malian authorities had seized many suspected jihadists in the recent fighting. But he said the Malian military and police were not practiced in collecting evidence for criminal court proceedings, according to participants. As a result, only a handful of extremists have been prosecuted, he said.

‘These states need to build counterterrorism policies within legal frameworks,’ said Justin H. Siberell, a State Department counterterrorism specialist who led the American delegation. ‘Still, people feel a sense of urgency that these kind of things have to start happening.'”

It is heartening to see the developing and developed world working together to tackle the problem of terrorism and its underlying causes, as global security is the definition of a global public good (everyone benefits from it, therefore rife with “free-rider problems“, which seem to have been partially averted due to the seriousness and immediate impacts of the issues at hand, as opposed to say climate change which is a serious concern but not as immediate a threat). Conflict undermines the Rule of law and democracy, and inhibits economic and human development. Peace is a necessary precondition for sustainable human development.

It seems that the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is starting to catch-on in fields other than climate change. Western powers, realizing that foreign intervention is extremely costly and only incites further anti-Western sentiments (essentially adding fuel to the jihad fire), and that the results are unsustainable. By having regional forces fighting extremist factions, backed by Western intelligence, weaponry, and technical assistance, a more sustainable and inclusive global security balance emerges. Since everyone will have an important role to play in global security initiatives, a less imperialistic and more democratic decision making process should also follow this approach. Coordinated military operations could also help build the relationships needed for greater economic and social policy coherence at the international level.

It will ultimately be difficult to assess the effects of this program for a number of reasons. For one, the stated goals are long term and preventative–on a certain level it is impossible to say whether conflict did / didn’t occur due to these programs, as there are so many variables at play. Therefore, in order to test the efficacy of this project, I think we will ultimately have to look past just the security outcomes in Africa (while also still considering these as well). How this project affects overall standard of living, freedoms, and happiness in the region will ultimately be the yardstick by which we should judge this program. While this project is designed as a military endeavor, it is in reality a human development initiative.

I can’t help but think that this is the type of news that, while somewhat off the mainstream radar now, will in the future be credited with drastically changing the world for the better. I sure hope I’m right…