Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are essential to democracy and a key way for people of all political views to band together to influence public debate. But once more, the Egyptian government is threatening to restrict NGOs that receive foreign funds. Exercised about criticism from some of these groups, the ruling party is pushing a bill that would empower the government to decide which groups are allowed to receive foreign funding. That would invite the government to pick favorites, approving foreign funds for lapdogs while rejecting them for critics, particularly human rights groups.
But why are foreign funds so nefarious when received by NGOs yet apparently uncontroversial when received by others? The Egyptian military receives billions of dollars in aid from the United States; does that make it a subversive organization? The Egyptian government is desperately seeking foreign funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF); is that an act of treason? Egyptian businesses are clamoring for foreign direct investment and the spending of foreign tourists; are these acts of disloyalty?
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On Sunday, Kuwaitis staged what is thought to be the largest protest in the country's history. Tens of thousands responded to the call for a "March of Dignity" in rejection of an emergency decree issued by Emir Sabah al-Ahmed revising electoral laws. Chanting, "we will not let you" they were met by security forces equally determined to enforce the interior ministry ban on marches in Kuwait City. As the tear gas clears and the crowds disperse, Kuwaitis can agree that this was an unprecedented event. But oddly, after this dramatic show of brinksmanship there is no more clarity about where Kuwait is headed and how it will resolve its long political standoff.
The confrontation proved a test of strength and unity between two sides that have unsteady stores of it. The ruling family has been back on its heels since a corruption scandal was seized upon by the parliamentary opposition and its youthful allies to force the resignation of the unpopular Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, in November 2011, and then to elect a strongly oppositional parliament two months later. Al-Sabah found an unexpected reprieve when the 2012 parliament was voided after just four months due to a technical ruling by the constitutional court negating the dissolution of the previous parliament.
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
Oman's Basic Law (Implemented November 6, 1996)
Article 18: Personal freedom is guaranteed according to the Law, and it is unlawful to arrest, search, detain, or imprison any person or have his place of residence or freedom of movement or residence restricted except in accordance with the provisions of the Law.
Article 29: The freedom of opinion and expression thereof through speech, writing or other forms of expression is guaranteed within the limits of the Law.
Article 32: The citizens have the right to assemble within the limits of the Law.
It started with a road trip.
On May 31, two Omani human rights activists, Ismail al-Muqbali and Habeeba al-Hina'i, and a prominent local lawyer, Yaqoub al-Kharousi, drive to Fahud, a major oil facility about 217 miles southwest of Muscat.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of oil workers had taken part in strikes across the country demanding better working conditions and pay over the previous few days, and they were keen to see for themselves how the strikers were being treated by the police.
In a region home to governments with a long history of Internet censorship, Jordan has long stood out as a model of relative freedom. Since its arrival in the kingdom in the mid 1990s, free and open access to the World Wide Web has not only been maintained but indeed championed by King Abdullah II, since he came into power in 1999. An unfiltered Internet has been largely credited for cultivating a burgeoning IT sector that has come to represent roughly 14 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), as well as a new wave of youth-driven, Internet-based entrepreneurship in a country where unemployment ranges between 13 percent (official) and 30 percent (unofficial).
With such context in mind, many Jordanians were surprised at the government's announcement this August that it would be amending the country's notorious Press and Publications law to include articles that would seek to restrict Internet freedoms. The draft legislation includes articles that would hold online media accountable for any comments left by their readers, and would prohibit them from publishing any comments deemed irrelevant to the published article. Moreover, online media organizations would also be required to archive all comments left on their sites for at least six months. However, the most troublesome amendment essentially requires online media to register with and obtain a license from the Press and Publications Department, paying a fee of roughly $1,400 (lowered from an initially proposed $14,000), and giving the government the ability to block sites failing to comply. Bringing online news sites in to the folds of the Press and Publications law would therefore require them to be mandatory members of the Jordan Press Association, and undergo the same regulations governing print publications, including appointing an editor-in-chief who has been a member of the association for a minimum of four years.
You would never know there had been a revolution. Within the slightly grimy walls of Egypt's state-owned media buildings, it's business as usual. Observers would be forgiven for thinking the state television and papers are there largely as a public address system for whoever actually has their hands on the country's steering wheel.
Over the 30 years leading up to the 2011 popular uprising, state media took its cue from Hosni Mubarak's gatekeeper, the diminutive but terrifying Safwat el-Sherif, former minister of information. Post January 25, state media and papers backed the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the country's ruling military council. Last week, in a nod to the democratic process, it was the turn of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Egypt's upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, announced the appointments of the new editors, setting off a storm of angry protest among journalists, led by the Journalists' Syndicate, who insisted that the Islamist-dominated council had essentially rigged the selection process and assigned their own men to do its bidding.
The common media account of the crisis in Bahrain weaves a compelling narrative of a Shiite-majority people struggling to achieve their inalienable rights against a Sunni-dominant government. This "government versus the people" narrative implies that if only the government sheds its obstinacy or the people moderate their demands, then a political solution can be found in Bahrain. Yet the reality is far more complex. In fact, there are three main camps in Bahraini politics -- the government, the opposition, and the loyalist opposition -- that do not fall neatly along sectarian lines.
This triangle of conflict grows more entrenched by the day as moderates fall victim to the ever increasing fragmentation and polarization of Bahraini society. Any political process that holds any hope of achieving real reconciliation must include all three camps. Yet, in every camp, the hardline voices least likely to participate in such a dialogue grow stronger every day. Leaders of all three camps must urgently take measures to set aside short-term self-interest and break this destructive cycle before it is too late.
Despite the tentative and fragile ceasefire that appears to have now taken hold in Syria, skepticism and outright vitriol regarding the mission of United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan remains. This frustration is understandable as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has until now shown no signs of credible compromise and the human costs of conflict have continued to escalate. The odds against success remain high. Even as the Syrian regime has observed a cessation in hostilities, it has ignored agreements to redeploy troops and heavy weapons from population centers. However, even if the current iteration of the Annan mission fails, a sequential diplomatic approach remains the only avenue by which an international consensus might be reached; without such consensus there is simply no hope for a near-term resolution of the conflict through managed transition.
The ceasefire that is at the crux of current attention is not an end in and of itself. The six-point plan endorsed by the Arab League and the United Nations also seeks to establish a Syrian-led political process that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. While the terms of a transition are left unspecified, it should be clear to Russia and others that any credible managed transition will require the removal of Assad from power. There can be no stability in Syria if the regime remains fully intact. In light of the indispensability of Russia and China and their reservations about the consequences of a political transition, focus should now shift to fashioning a serious transition process that retains specific figures and institutions from the Assad regime while allowing for genuine political change to take root. If international consensus cannot be marshaled around such basic realities then Syria is destined to suffer from escalating and protracted conflict that is the sole alternative to a diplomatic resolution.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
When the European parliament issued a critical report on Egypt's human rights record in 2008, the Mubarak regime responded with nationalistic fury. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, sided with Europe. "Respect of human rights is now a concern for all peoples," its parliamentary spokesman, Hussein Ibrahim, declared at the time.
That Islamist movements, or at least the more mainstream ones, should take an interest in human rights is not especially surprising. They have, after all, experienced repression at first hand and had years to reflect upon it. There are some obvious limits, though. While acknowledging universal rights up to a point, they still hanker after cultural relativism. Ibrahim for his part added an important rider, that "each country has its own particulars" -- and made very clear that in Egypt's case the Brotherhood excludes gay rights.
The escalating bloodshed in Syria has rapidly become the center of regional and international attention. While the United States and its allies struggle to find ways to effectively help the Syrian people, the body count mounts and the prospects of a negotiated transition grow dim. Meanwhile, a growing chorus calls for a military intervention to protect Syrian civilians or to accelerate the fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The response to the Syrian crisis is shaped by its unique combination of humanitarian crisis and strategic significance. The horrifying death toll and the political failures of the Syrian regime are real, urgent, and undeniable. So are the strategic stakes of a potential regime change in a long-time adversary of the United States and its allies, and the key Arab ally of Iran. The Syrian crisis has revealed and exacerbated the profound tension between the narrative of "Resistance" which has long shaped regional discourse and the narrative of the Arab uprisings.
Our new POMEPS briefing, "The Syria Crisis" -- to which this post is the introduction -- surveys the issues posed by the ongoing struggle in Syria. The the ninth in our Arab Uprising Briefing series, "The Syrian Crisis" collects recent analysis and commentary from the Middle East Channel on these urgent questions.
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Earlier this month, for the fourth time in nearly as many months, thousands of young Egyptians took to the streets to vent their anger at the country's interim rulers, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF). The protesters and large numbers of their compatriots were outraged by the deaths of at least 74 soccer fans killed in a melee between rival fans at a stadium in the Mediterranean coastal city of Port Said on February 1, accusing the SCAF of failing to provide adequate security, and in some instances of deliberately instigating the violence through hired thugs.
Deadly clashes between angry protesters and regime forces have become virtually monthly occurrences in Egypt. For Egypt's revolutionary youth and large segments of the population, the names of Maspero, Mohammed Mahmoud Street, the Cabinet, and now Port Said are not just locations of regime "massacres" but battle cries in an ongoing revolution. State-sanctioned violence and brutality are of course not new in Egypt, and in fact were a major driving force behind last year's uprising that brought down former president Hosni Mubarak. But that is precisely the problem: The dictator may be gone, but his methods and mindset remain intact.
On January 25, 2011 on the Middle East
Channel, Ashraf Khalil marveled from the streets of Cairo about "sheer size of the turnout, which was larger
than anything I've seen in 13 years of covering Egyptian protests." From
Washington, I pushed back against skeptics who doubted that Tunisia's
revolution would spread to Egypt, as I noted that, "the images and
stories of protests today have been impressive, both in numbers and in energy
and enthusiasm. The Egyptians are self-consciously emulating the Tunisian
protests, seeking to capitalize on the new mood within the Arab world."
Over the following 18 days, the Middle East Channel published a remarkable range of analysis and commentary about the unfolding Egyptian revolution. It featured not only outstanding reporting from the ground but also incisive analysis from the Middle East Studies academic community -- who stepped up in a big way to help inform public debate at a critical time. Nathan Brown, Shadi Hamid, Sherif Mansour, Emad Shahin and Daniel Brumberg assessed Washington's response. Vickie Langhor called on the Obama administration to side with Egyptian democracy, as did Tarek Masoud, Ellen Lust and Amaney Jamal. Geneive Abdo pushed back against those who saw echoes of Tehran 1979. Helena Cobban talked to the Muslim Brotherhood, Ellis Goldberg checked in with the business community, while MEC co-editor Daniel Levy surveyed the implications for Israeli-Egyptian relations.
Nathan Brown laid out the Egyptian constitution's rulebook for change, while Tamir Moustafa asked whether Egypt needed a new constitution to have a revolution. Michael Hanna laid out the reasons to doubt Mubarak's intentions. Sheila Carapico shrewdly observed how al-Jazeera's relentless focus on Tahrir framed understandings of the revolution. In one of Foreign Policy's most widely read, and arguably prescient, early contributions, Robert Springborg warned that the military's role in the transition meant that by February 2 the chance for democracy in Egypt had already been lost. Ambassador David Mack warned observers to curb their enthusiasm. I offered a stream of commentary from Washington. And all of this is only a small part of what appeared on Foreign Policy over those critical weeks.
This week, the Middle East Channel is proud to offer a wide range of commentary looking at an Egypt one year after the outbreak of the revolution. Among the highlights, including a few from last month for perspective:
More is coming over the course of the day, and I'll update the post as those pieces go live.
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On the top floor of a towering apartment block in Cairo, half a dozen Syrian activists are hunched over their laptops. Each man organized demonstrations in his home town before escaping the Assad regime's intelligence agents in the last few months. Now, armed with a list of trusted contacts that stretches across the borders from southwest Syria to Lebanon and Jordan, they have become a key link in the supply chain of an opposition movement that is struggling to outmaneuver a brutal crackdown. Donations collected from Syrians and well-wishers in Cairo are used to purchase cell phones, satellite communications equipment, medicine, and money, which is smuggled to friends and family members on the inside. In turn, protesters send out video evidence of attacks, which the men in Cairo catalogue, upload to YouTube, and forward to media outlets.
The men work with close contacts in their own villages and neighborhoods, independently of organizing committees or opposition bodies. Abdel Youssef fled from Ad Dumayr, a city northeast of Damascus. Syrian authorities went door to door there searching for military defectors on Wednesday night and he spent the day following their movements through eyewitness accounts. As he tells the story of how he fled, a Skype window flashes up on his screen. A woman he knows tells him that security forces attempting to arrest a man have captured his daughter instead. "Now I'm looking out the window," the message reads. "She is being beaten up by the security forces because she is saying ‘Allahu Akhbar'." Abdel Youssef passes on information like this to a contact in the Free Syrian Army, who he says use this information to block roads and set up ambushes in an attempt to protect demonstrations.
Giggling over a
communal pot of couscous, the girls swap stories and take turns pushing each
other across the room on wheely chairs. Douha Rihi, 20, a German language
major, wants to study abroad in Berlin. Sana Brahim, 23, is pursuing a master's
degree in Microbiology. They don't look like the kind of young women you'd
expect to find at the center of a major ideological controversy, but here they
are -- all ten of them -- perched on the second level of the university
administration building, fighting for their right to wear the full Muslim face
veil, called niqab, inside classrooms and during exams.
Along with a group of scraggly-bearded young Salafi men, these girls have been occupying the University of Manouba College of Arts and Humanities administration building since November 28 of last year. Their protest has resulted in the continued closure of one of Tunisia's largest campuses since December 6 and has kept an estimated 13,000 students from attending their classes.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Oman held parliamentary elections on October 15 -- two weeks before the Tunisian elections that captured the world's attention. But nobody paid them much mind. And why should they? There is not much more to be said beyond the high "participation" rate (76 percent of those who bothered to register), the solitude that the one elected woman may feel among her 83 male colleagues, or the election of three protesters. Tribal alliances still drove results in a country where political parties are not allowed and where, for most seats, 1,500 votes is enough to get elected.
But this might be deceiving. This has been Oman's least quiet year in a generation. The Economist scored Oman sixth highest within its (unsophisticated) Arab instability index in early February, a forecast met with wide incredulity at the time. A few weeks later, the country was shaken with memorable scenes of unrest: protests -- some violent, most peaceful, loyalty marches, regime concessions, a GCC "Marshall Plan," labor strikes and opportunistic demands, and regime crackdowns. The ground has significantly shifted beneath the feet of a regime that has overseen the rapid transformation of society over the last 40 years, underwritten by absolute power and facilitated by oil income.
MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP/Getty Images
The killing of a 14-year-old boy by police on the island of Sitra on Aug. 31 has reignited simmering tensions in Bahrain. Ali Jawad Ahmad died while attending an Eid al-Fitr demonstration, one of numerous flashpoints in the daily confrontations between anti-government protesters and the security services. His death triggered widespread protests that rapidly spread to most Shiite villages on the Bahraini archipelago. Some 10,000 people attended his funeral and repeated calls for the overthrow of the ruling Al-Khalifa family.
Groups of demonstrators also returned to central Manama where they attempted to reclaim the site of Pearl Roundabout -- now a traffic junction after it was bulldozed by the regime in March. Riot police beat them back with tear gas, but the symbolism of the attempted return to the heart of the pro-democracy movement that threatened to topple the Al-Khalifa in March was clear.
After six months of ongoing peaceful protests, a fracturing of the armed forces, and ongoing violence in numerous parts of the country, Yemenis face increasingly dire conditions each day. And yet they keep showing up. While non-democratic (nay, anti-democratic) neighbors fitfully engage in mediation efforts while also giving refuge to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S. continues to interpret the crisis through the lens of counterterrorism. Concerned about the risk of an emboldened al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the U.S. has offered tepid support for the aspirations of the country's majority, pinned its hopes on an atavistic autocrat, and opted to increase controversial drone attacks in some of the most unstable parts of the country.
This strategy is mistaken. It presupposes a narrow understanding of U.S. interests centered on counterterrorism, which I and others have argued against elsewhere. But it also assumes that working against the revolutionary aspirations of millions of Yemenis is, in fact, the best way to counter the threat of AQAP. Supporting the development of a democratically-constituted Yemen and offering support to its leaders as they build legitimate state institutions makes more sense. This Friday, the Organizing Committee of the Revolution, which is advocating for Saleh's immediate transfer of powers and the formation of a transitional council, has issued a call for a march in pursuit of a "Civil State." Yemenis from across ideological, occupational, generational, and class lines will gather around the country to demand a state accountable to its rights-bearing citizens. It will be the twenty-fifth Friday on which they have done so, camped out in the squares for the weeks in between.
Shlomo Avineri, a leading Israeli intellectual and politically very much a centrist, is to be commended for dismissing Israeli fears that outside criticism of their country's occupation policies is an effort to challenge Israel's very right to exist. Writing in Ha'aretz, Avineri notes there is not a single country in the world that maintains diplomatic ties with Israel that has ever questioned the legitimacy of Israel's existence.
Avineri maintains that whatever political problems might result for Netanyahu's government from a United Nations decision to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, it would in no sense "delegitimize" the state of Israel. On the contrary: recognizing Palestine within 1967 borders, he argues, would result in the international recognition of the 1967 lines as the border of Israel, which would mean recognition for the first time of West Jerusalem as a legitimate part of the state of Israel. Avineri concludes, therefore, that "there are no significant moves afoot anywhere on Earth to delegitimize Israel."
To most observers witnessing events in Syria, the goal is clear-cut: end the killing, support democracy, and change the Assad regime -- hoping it will be removed or reformed to an unrecognizable degree. State actors looking at the same reality will often bring a different set of considerations into play, especially if they happen to be neighboring Syria. Israel has had a complicated relationship with the popular upheaval in its northern neighbor -- and, indeed, with the Baathist Damascus regime in general over the years.
As of Sunday, that complexity entered a new dimension. Of course the popular uprising in Syria is not about Israel, nor will it be particularly determined by Israel's response. Nevertheless, Israel's leaders, like those elsewhere in the region, will have to position themselves in relation to this changing environment, and this will, in part, impact Syria's options.
On Sunday, June 5, marking Naksa Day (the Arab "setback" in the 1967 war), protesters -- mostly Palestinian refugees and their descendents -- marched to the Israel/Syria disengagement line representing the border between Syria and the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. According to reports up to 22 unarmed Syrian-Palestinian protesters were killed when Israeli forces apparently resorted to live fire (Israeli laid mines may also have been detonated and may have caused causalities, the exact unraveling of events remains sketchy). In most respects, this Sunday's events were a repeat performance of the outcome of May 15's Nakba Day commemorations (which Palestinians mark as the anniversary of their catastrophe in 1948).
When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia on Dec. 17 after a municipal worker confiscated his wares, it appeared to be simply another sad story in a region plagued by corruption, brutal state security services, and lack of accountability. But against all odds, his act of desperation has spurred a wave of reform that has engulfed the entire region, toppling the autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and threatening to engulf other countries across the Middle East.
But the uprising has not followed the same course in every country. In Jordan, protests have forced the government to abandon liberal reforms in favor of an unsustainable economic status quo. In Algeria, they have highlighted the public's disaffection with the political process. In other countries, the reverberations from the popular upheaval are still unclear. In the West Bank, for example, opinions remain divided about whether the events represent an opportunity for the Palestinian Authority, or its death knell.
MOHAMMAD HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
Since 1979 the United States has spent nearly $2 billion annually on aid to Egypt. Approximately two-thirds has been spent on "foster[ing] a well-trained, modern Egyptian military," with the purpose of ensuring stability in the country and in the region. The remainder of the aid has funded development and economic aid programs targeting civil society development, political party training, and educational exchanges, among other aims. In light of the Egyptian people's ongoing and forceful demonstrations for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak and their calls for a free and democratic political order, the U.S. should shift its aid distribution so that development aid is on par with funding to the military.
President Obama has already called for political change in Egypt leading to more freedom, opportunity and justice for the Egyptian people. In remarks on February 1, the President went so far as to press for an immediate and "orderly transition," leading to free and fair elections rooted in democratic principles. It is now time to begin putting in place the policies that support these words.
It's been hard for a historian to watch recent events in Egypt without a sense of déjà vu. Haven't we seen eruptions in streets and squares like this somewhere before, whether in Tunisia last month, in Iran 30 years ago, or in France more than two centuries past? Is Hosni Mubarak going to be next week's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, or Louis XVI?
Matching past and present like this is more than just a parlor game. Revolutionaries, more than most political activists, tend to consciously imitate their predecessors. In this sense, the most transformative political events are often paradoxically the most traditional, as actors take their cues from dramas staged at other times in other places and often follow scripts originally written for quite different theaters.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — On the gray winter mornings at this out-of-the-way farm town on the scrubby brown steppes between the Mediterranean coast and the Sahara desert, you still see a few old farmers in hooded brown cloaks rolling to market on donkey carts. The occasional old woman, hunched against the cold, comes down the main road through town, tugging a camel.
But come about 9 a.m. in Sidi Bouzid -- where 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi lived, burned himself to death, and launched at least one revolution in the Arab world so far -- the blue metal courtyard gates creak open on the squat stucco houses around where he used to live. Out marches an army: broad-shouldered men in their 20s and early 30s in hooded sweatshirts with Sacramento Kings' emblems, or other allusions to Western culture. Young women, crisply dressed in fashionable calf-high boots, clinging long sweaters, and humongous bug-eyed sunglasses. The crowd, growing in number as it streams into Sidi Bouzid's main streets, strides purposefully out of narrow neighborhood gravel lanes smelling of dried sewage.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
As the Palestinian leadership struggles to contain the damage caused by Al Jazeera's release of leaked documents detailing years of their negotiations with Israel, there is one lesson that risks being buried in all of the current hype. The Palestine Papers, and much of the response to them, demonstrate the increasingly narrow line the Palestinian leadership must walk between satisfying its U.S. and Western benefactors, as well as Israel, and maintaining credibility in the eyes of its own people.
As someone who was involved in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations for many years, including in the development of many of the documents now in question, I have been particularly struck by the extent and tone of the outrage surrounding the leaked documents. For those Palestinians and other Arabs who actively oppose a two-state solution, I can understand and appreciate their outrage over some of the "unprecedented concessions" contained in these documents.
On the other hand, for those who understand the basic requirements of a two state-solution-an outcome most Palestinians and other Arabs still say they favor, even as they remain highly doubtful of the other side's intentions and the ability of their own leaders to achieve it-there hardly seems cause for surprise, at least as relates to the concessions on permanent status issues - if not on other matters.
Did the Wikileaked State Department cables that described Tunisia's deposed leader Zine el-Abedin Ben Ali as the head of a corrupt police state play any role in encouraging the democratic uprising against him -- and thus spark the wave of protests now spreading across Egypt?
I asked our experts at Human Rights Watch to canvass their sources in the country, and the consensus was that while Tunisians didn't need American diplomats to tell them how bad their government was, the cables did have an impact. The candid appraisal of Ben Ali by U.S. diplomats showed Tunisians that the rottenness of the regime was obvious not just to them but to the whole world -- and that it was a source of shame for Tunisia on an international stage. The cables also contradicted the prevailing view among Tunisians that Washington would back Ben Ali to the bloody end, giving them added impetus to take to the streets. They further delegitimized the Tunisian leader and boosted the morale of his opponents at a pivotal moment in the drama that unfolded over the last few weeks.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
At around 11 p.m. Tuesday, U.S. East Coast time, unconfirmed reports of a coup in Tunisia spread across Twitter like wildfire, fueled by a rumor mill that has gone into overdrive since riots broke out this month outside the Tunisian capital.
"Phone confirmation that the army has surrounded the ministry of interior," tweeted Wessim Amara, a user based in Tunisia. Another, Fouad Marei, followed: "Tweeps unanimously confirm: #coup against #BenAli regime. Mainstream media continues to talk of clashes, no confirmation of #SidiBouZid coup."
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images
In recent months, commentators have given warning of creeping Islamization in Turkey's domestic and foreign policy. Descriptions of the new "swagger" in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's approach to the Middle East are paired with allegations of an increasingly authoritarian style of government by the ruling AKP party. Many have seized upon this weekend's constitutional referendum in Turkey as evidence that the country's secular establishment has been displaced and Islamist forces are consolidating power. While the referendum followed a period of intense political polarization, this simplistic account of Islamist forces arrayed against embattled secularists is both wrong and dangerous.
The twenty-six constitutional amendments at issue in the referendum are difficult to criticize on substance. They include provisions that: empower civilian courts while reducing the jurisdiction of military courts; strengthen gender equality and protections for children, the elderly, veterans and the disabled; improve privacy rights and access to government records; expand collective bargaining rights; and remove immunities long afforded to those responsible for the 1980 military coup. The overwhelming effect of these provisions amounts to civilianizing the military coup-era constitution, strengthening individual freedoms and undertaking much-needed judicial reform. Unsurprisingly, then, the European Union gave its strong support to the amendment package and President Obama called to congratulate Prime Minister Erdogan on the outcome of the referendum.
"This BlackBerry Messenger rumor mill in the UAE is getting out of hand." I had posted this tweet several days before the UAE announced a ban last week on BlackBerry services by next October if Research In Motion (RIM), the smart phone's manufacturer, didn't meet the country's regulatory conditions.
The truth is there are legitimate concerns behind the UAE's surprising decision. After all, sinister individuals have taken advantage of the country's modern infrastructure as well as its lax regulatory environment before, especially leading to the September 11th attacks.
An unprecedented wave of mass protests over declining freedom of speech has engulfed Iraqi Kurdistan over the last few weeks. The protests were sparked by the recent, mysterious death of the young Kurdish journalist Sardasht Osman, a 23-year-old student who had written in local publications and a Europe-based Kurdish website that are critical of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and both of its two parties -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Osman -- whose tortured body was found in Mosul -- had written fiercely critical essays about the region's ruling parties and their leaders. Although his death is the only such incident in the past several years for journalists in the Kurdistan region, many journalists now fear for their lives.
For the last four years running, Freedom House's annual evaluation of political rights and civil liberties, "Freedom in the World," has identified a worrisome global deterioration. The newly released findings of a more detailed analysis of democratic governance, "Countries at the Crossroads," affirms the troubling trends in quality of institutions and depth of citizen freedoms across a set of selected states occupying the world's political "middle ground."
The problems seen in various regions afflict the Middle East with particular strength. In all Freedom House analyses, Middle Eastern states consistently receive the lowest scores of any region. The lack of free and fair elections in the region is certainly a primary factor, but broader institutional deficits, the opacity of policymaking, the lack of accountability for human rights violations, and the prevalence of both de facto and de jure religious and ethnic discrimination all factor into the generally poor performance.
Last week Freedom House released their "Women's Rights in the Middle East" report, on the state of gender equality in the Muslim Middle East. The report ranked countries based on 45 criteria, combined into five main categories, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Study after study suggests that improving the status of women is associated with improved child health, alleviating poverty and disease, among other benefits. But if improved gender justice predicts these positive outcomes, what predicts gender justice? What makes one country better for women than another? Is it culture, or is it politics? Data from Gallup surveys in 20 Arab Middle Eastern countries, not previously released, suggests that the determinants of women's freedom are more complex.
The Middle East Channel offers unique analysis and insights on this diverse and vital region of more than 400 million.