The Syrian National Coalition's recent decision to participate in the Geneva II conference on January 22 was welcome news to the U.S. government, which has promoted the negotiations as "the best opportunity" to end the violence in Syria. So surely U.S. policy would want to take into account the reflected wisdom of academics and policy thinkers who have studied how successful political settlements take hold. Academics rarely agree on anything, so it is notable when a consensus position emerges, as it largely has with the academic literature on civil war termination. Even more notable, perhaps, is that this position has almost no influence on government policy.
The academic literature on civil war termination holds that civil wars like the one in Syria usually last a long time and end only in victory by one side or another. The few that do end through a negotiated settlement usually require an agreement that permits a division of political control that roughly corresponds to the division of power on the ground, a parallel agreement among all of the external supporters of the various sides, and external military assistance to monitor and enforce the agreement.
Yet U.S. policy on Syria seems to take none of this into account. The United States seeks a negotiated settlement, but specifically rejects the idea that the Assad regime might maintain some degree of control; specifically (for now) excludes Iran, a key external supporter, from the negotiations; and rejects the idea of contributing to monitoring or enforcing the agreement despite the evident lack of alternatives. This is in part because these are difficult future questions that need not be posed until the negotiations actually begin -- which might actually be never. It is also because the idea of power sharing conflicts with the idea that war is about getting rid of President Bashar al-Assad, while the idea of inviting Iran conflicts with the higher priority U.S. interest in reducing Iranian regional influence.
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Libya's elections did not need to be perfect, but the country plainly needs a popularly elected government to tackle the difficult and unpopular decisions involved in building the new state. The polls thus could have been judged a success merely by taking place without major disruption, a test they aced with flying colors following reports of 65 percent turnout and over 98 percent of polling centers opening without incident. Around the country, the long-awaited vote was justifiably treated as cause for national celebration.
But the seeds for political contention at the next stage may have been sown in the run-up to the polls. Less than 48 hours prior to elections, the National Transitional Council (NTC) stripped the to be elected national congress of its core mandate: supervising the drafting of Libya's new constitution. Rather than being appointed by the new congress, the constitutional commission actually drafting the charter will theoretically now be directly elected in a second set of polls that give all parts of the country equal representation. This legal bombshell risks acrimony later this year between different parts of the country as well as rejection by the newly ascendant political parties, who on paper find themselves in charge of a congress suddenly relegated to bystander status on constitutional matters.
On June 16, Beji Caid Essebsi announced the formation of the Call for Tunisia -- a provocative new initiative which aims to unite Tunisia's non-Islamist parties in a national unity movement to counteract the ruling Islamist-led government. The Call is raising profound questions about the extent to which post-Ben Ali Tunisia should accept the inclusion of former regime officials in future administrations. At a time when many of Egypt's former regime officials loom in the shadows, and Yemen has struggled with the legacy of its provision of amnesty to the former regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tunisia may once again take the lead in confronting a major political dilemma in semi-revolutionary change.
The Call for Tunisia features a broad spectrum of former regime officials together with secular liberals. The former regime officials, or RCDists (from the Constitutional Democratic Rally), were excluded from running in the last elections and see in the new initiative a chance to revive their political prospects. (There was no such cleansing of the actual government administrations -- only positions in the Constituent Assembly). These officials and their supporters oftentimes criticize the current government as incompetent and unable to manage the complexity of government. They try to deflect criticisms of the rampant corruption and stasi-like police state of the past, by pointing to the (very real) progress achieved under Bourguiba and Ben Ali. They cite statistics on women's rights, improvements in education, and infrastructure development, and they compare Tunisia with its neighbors in the Maghreb and throughout Africa. Their motives are clear -- keep the good and throw out the bad of the former regime.
On Monday, French Foreign Minister Alan Juppe stated that freezing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's assets should be discussed as soon as possible. Such an assets freeze has been an action pushed by nationwide protesters for months and is widely seen as the first step that must be taken if Yemen's 10-month long political stalemate is to come to an end.
After being tricked into believing that Saleh would sign a Gulf Cooperation Council brokered power transfer deal three times, the international community has finally realized that Saleh has no intention of leaving power until at least 2013, the end of his official presidential term of office. Other than using language to "condemn" the killing of peaceful protesters, an ineffectual U.N. resolution, and asking nicely, an assets freeze would be the first real attempt to put pressure on President Saleh to step down.
It's Palestine season at the United Nations! As the world's governments field their teams and their talking points for the next round of diplomacy's most bruising sport, some of you watching from home may be wondering how to judge who the winner is. Your confusion is understandable: Palestine has been on the U.N.'s agenda since Britain placed it there in 1947; and, like other games invented by the British, this one is interminably long and difficult to follow. Use this guide to make sense of what happens next.
You can expect almost everyone to jump into the fray in New York this season, but four teams are especially worth watching: the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Europeans, and the Americans. Here is what each needs to do to win.
Friday's attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo by protestors marching from Tahrir Square and the subsequent harsh security crackdown could become an epic fail for the Egyptian revolution. That's not because Egyptians shouldn't protest against Israel if that's what angers them, and it's not because the incident is likely to escalate to war. It's because the incident could easily become an excuse for the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to postpone elections, expand rather than surrender its Emergency Law powers, and avoid the transfer of power to a legitimate civilian government. What's more, these moves might now win applause rather than condemnation among key constituencies: revolutionaries who were already skeptical of elections, liberals worried that Islamists will win, and Americans and others abroad worried about the implications of Egyptian democracy for Israel.
This would be a terrible mistake. The absence of any legitimate political institutions seven months after Mubarak's fall and the SCAF's arbitrary and unaccountable rule are what created the political vaccuum which has brought Egypt to this edge. Yesterday's chaos should not be taken as a reason to postpone a democratic transition. It should instead be a powerful reminder of the urgency of sticking to the timeline for elections and getting on with the business of building an Egyptian democracy. Those who care about Egypt completing its revolution should now be doubling down on the urgency of a real democratic transition -- not backing away from it.
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The news that Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi's wife and three of his children found political refuge in neighboring Algeria comes as no surprise given the country's long-standing effort to reaffirm its revolutionary heritage, drawn from 132 years of colonial occupation and nearly eight years of a war of national liberation. Yet this historically-rooted revolutionary struggle was long ago routinized. The resulting bureaucratically defined and elitist directed nationalist myth is intended as much to sustain the political status quo as to serve as an exemplar of peoples' revolt against hegemonic rule, whether foreign imposed or domestically conspired.
Algeria's reluctance to abandon its fellow revolutionary in Libya flows from an outdated yet still dominant ideological frame of reference through which Algeria sees the world and wants to be seen by it. It also reflects an unwillingness to accept the new geopolitical and strategic realities that the Arab Spring has brought to North Africa and the Middle East.
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