The ‘sectarianization’ of the Middle East

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Is the Middle East destined to fragment?

Robin Wright writes: Pity the Kurds. Theirs is a history of epic betrayals. A century ago, the world reneged on a vow to give them their own state, carved from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The rugged mountain people were instead dispersed into the new states of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, with another block left in Iran. Since then, all three countries have repressed their Kurds. Saddam Hussein was so intent on Arabizing Iraq’s Kurdistan that he paid Arab families to unearth long-dead relatives and rebury them in Kurdish territory—creating evidence to claim Arab rights to the land. He also razed four thousand Kurdish villages and executed a hundred thousand of the region’s inhabitants, some with chemical weapons. Syria stripped its Kurds of citizenship, making them foreigners in their own lands and depriving them of rights to state education, property ownership, jobs, and even marriage. Turkey repeatedly—sometimes militarily—crushed Kurdish political movements; for decades, the Kurdish language was banned, as was the very word “Kurd” to describe Turkey’s largest ethnic minority. They were instead known as “mountain Turks.”

Iraq’s Kurds got a bit of revenge this week. In a historic but controversial referendum, more than ninety per cent of voters endorsed a proposal to secede and declare their own country. “The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it,” the President of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, vowed on the eve of the poll. Jubilation erupted. Waving their distinctive flag—three stripes of red, white, and green, with a blazing golden sun in the center—Kurds across northern Iraq took to the streets.

The Kurdish vote reflects an existential quandary across the entire Middle East: Are some of the region’s most important countries really viable anymore? The world has resisted addressing the issue since the popular protests in 2011, known as the Arab Uprising, or Arab Spring, spawned four wars and a dozen crises. Entire countries have been torn asunder, with little to no prospect of political or physical reconstruction anytime soon. Meanwhile, the outside world has invested vast resources, with several countries forking out billions of dollars in military equipment, billions more in aid, and thousands of hours of diplomacy—on the assumption that places like Iraq, Syria, and Libya can still work as currently configured. The list of outside powers that have tried to shape the region’s future is long—from the United States and its European allies to the Russian-Iran axis and many of the Middle East’s oil-rich powers. All have, so far, failed at forging hopeful direction.

They’ve also failed to confront the obvious: Do the people in these countries want to stay together? Do people who identify proudly as Syrians, for example, all define “Syria” the same way? And are they willing to surrender their political, tribal, racial, ethnic, or sectarian identities in order to forge a common good and a stable nation?

The long-term impact of these destructive centrifugal forces is far from clear. But, given the blood spilled over the past six years, primordial forces seem to be prevailing at the moment, and not only among the Kurds. “The only people who want to hold Iraq together,” Lukman Faily, the former Iraqi ambassador to Washington, opined to me recently, “are those who don’t live in Iraq.” That sentiment is echoed, if not as concisely, elsewhere.

The challenge is addressing the flip side: If these countries, most of them modern creations, are dysfunctional or in danger of failing, what then will work to restore some semblance of normalcy to an ever more volatile region? No major player, in the region or the wider world, seems to be exploring solutions. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab autocracy trap

Shlomo Ben-Ami writes: It has been more than six years since the start of the Arab Spring, and life for most Arabs is worse than it was in 2011. Unemployment is rife in the Middle East and North Africa, where two thirds of the population is between the ages of 15 and 29. And throughout the region, regimes have closed off channels for political expression, and responded to popular protests with increasing brutality.

The governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and, to some extent, Morocco, epitomize Arab regimes’ seeming inability to escape the autocracy trap – even as current circumstances suggest that another popular awakening is imminent.

Egypt offers a classic example of how revolution often ends in betrayal. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s dictatorship is even more violent than that of Hosni Mubarak, the strongman whose 30-year rule was ended by the 2011 uprising. With the help of a police force that he himself describes as a “million-man mafia,” Sisi has made repression the paramount organizing principle of his regime.

It would be a Herculean feat for anyone to reform Egypt’s economy so that it benefits the country’s 95 million people (plus the two million added every year). And it is a task that Egypt’s leaders cannot avoid, because the social contract of the Mubarak years, whereby Egyptians traded freedom for an expansive welfare state and generous subsidies, is no longer sustainable. [Continue reading…]

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Why was an Italian graduate student tortured and murdered in Egypt?

The New York Times reports: The target of the Egyptian police, that day in November 2015, was the street vendors selling socks, $2 sunglasses and fake jewelry, who clustered under the arcades of the elegant century-old buildings of Heliopolis, a Cairo suburb. Such raids were routine, but these vendors occupied an especially sensitive location. Just 100 yards away is the ornate palace where Egypt’s president, the military strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, welcomes foreign dignitaries. As the men hurriedly gathered their goods from mats and doorways, preparing to flee, they had an unlikely assistant: an Italian graduate student named Giulio Regeni.

He arrived in Cairo a few months earlier to conduct research for his doctorate at Cambridge. Raised in a small village near Trieste by a sales manager father and a schoolteacher mother, Regeni, a 28-year-old leftist, was enthralled by the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring. In 2011, when demonstrations erupted in Tahrir Square, leading to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, he was finishing a degree in Arabic and politics at Leeds University. He was in Cairo in 2013, working as an intern at a United Nations agency, when a second wave of protests led the military to oust Egypt’s newly elected president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, and put Sisi in charge. Like many Egyptians who had grown hostile to Morsi’s overreaching government, Regeni approved of this development. ‘‘It’s part of the revolutionary process,’’ he wrote an English friend, Bernard Goyder, in early August. Then, less than two weeks later, Sisi’s security forces killed 800 Morsi supporters in a single day, the worst state-sponsored massacre in Egypt’s history. It was the beginning of a long spiral of repression. Regeni soon left for England, where he started work for Oxford Analytica, a business-research firm.

From afar, Regeni followed Sisi’s government closely. He wrote reports on North Africa, analyzing political and economic trends, and after a year had saved enough money to start on his doctorate in development studies at Cambridge. He decided to focus on Egypt’s independent unions, whose series of unprecedented strikes, starting in 2006, had primed the public for the revolt against Mubarak; now, with the Arab Spring in tatters, Regeni saw the unions as a fragile hope for Egypt’s battered democracy. After 2011 their numbers exploded, multiplying from four to thousands. There were unions for everything: butchers and theater attendants, well diggers and miners, gas-bill collectors and extras in the trashy TV soap operas that played during the holy month of Ramadan. There was even an Independent Trade Union for Dwarfs. Guided by his supervisor, a noted Egyptian academic at Cambridge who had written critically of Sisi, Regeni chose to study the street vendors — young men from distant villages who scratched out a living on the sidewalks of Cairo. Regeni plunged into their world, hoping to assess their union’s potential to drive political and social change.

But by 2015 that kind of cultural immersion, long favored by budding Arabists, was no longer easy. A pall of suspicion had fallen over Cairo. The press had been muzzled, lawyers and journalists were regularly harassed and informants filled Cairo’s downtown cafes. The police raided the office where Regeni conducted interviews; wild tales of foreign conspiracies regularly aired on government TV channels. [Continue reading…]

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The massacre that ended the Arab Spring

Shadi Hamid writes: Four years ago today, the Arab Spring—or what was left of it—ended with a massacre. There were only two countries with largely peaceful democratic transitions. One of them was Tunisia; one of them was Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation and a bellwether for the region. On August 14, 2013, six weeks after a military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, over 800 people were killed near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo. It was the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history.

By then, there had been two formative political moments in my life, the September 11th attacks and the Iraq War. And now there was a third. Friends who’ve known me both before the Arab Spring and after tell me that my writing has become darker. They’re probably right.

The first time I set foot in Rabaa, just a week before the massacre, I was surprised at how self-contained everything was. Along with tens of thousands of supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, there were kitchens, pharmacies, food stalls, sleeping quarters, and a “media center.” You couldn’t just casually stroll in. At the makeshift entrance, about 50 feet off the street, volunteer guards, standing next to piled-up sandbags, were hurriedly checking IDs. As I walked in, people sprayed me with water. This, apparently, was their way of welcoming me. It was the peak of the humid Egyptian summer. Like many Egyptian protests, this one teetered somewhere between panic and jubilation.

The killing hadn’t happened yet (although there had already been two “smaller” massacres on July 8 and July 27). Rabaa was where young Muslim Brotherhood members, some of them still in college, told me of that mix of adrenaline and dread they felt as they drafted their wills and bid their families goodbye. As Egyptians waited for a massacre, they debated just how many people the new regime would be willing to kill, and when it might do it. Beyond the personal stories of death, fear, and families torn apart, Rabaa, and the military coup that preceded it, told a remarkable, and a remarkably sad, story of a country that appeared intent on destroying itself. To the extent that Egyptians insist on feeling pride in their country, it is a pride tainted by the events that millions of them—including members of my own family—were complicit in. [Continue reading…]

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‘Letting go of every principle’: Tunisia’s democratic gains under threat

Monica Marks writes: It has been a dangerous week for Tunisia’s fragile democracy. Two retrogressive bills appear likely to pass parliament, possibly within days. The first would effectively give an to amnesty public officials who committed crimes in pre-revolutionary Tunisia. The second would grant corrupt security forces more leeway to violate human rights.

Both bills undermine the quest for dignity and justice embodied in Tunisia’s 2010-11 revolution
Both bills undermine the quest for dignity and justice embodied in Tunisia’s 2010-11 revolution. They will almost surely become law within days or weeks unless Tunisian civil society and international actors, most importantly the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), manage to convince the government to reverse course.

Tunisia has debated both pieces of legislation since 2015. That spring, newly elected President Beji Caid Essebsi, who insisted Tunisia must focus on future development rather than on past abuses, proposed the first bill. Called the Reconciliation Law, it initially offered amnesty to two groups: corrupt businesspeople and public officials.

Defenders of the law touted its supposed economic benefits. Lifting the threat of prosecution, they said, would encourage investment in Tunisia’s cash-strapped economy. They also argued that the law did not give an amnesty to the corrupt, since it promised that guilty parties would be required to repay ill-gotten gains.

The Reconciliation Law faced immediate opposition from civil society as well as international legal experts. They argued that the law lacked independent enforcement mechanisms and would undermine the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission, a constitutionally supported body that is pursuing transitional justice against state abuses, including financial crimes. [Continue reading…]

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What Assad has won

Kamel Daoud writes: The Arab springs are nearly all out of season; everywhere except in Tunisia, they are aging poorly.

In the beginning, after a popular uprising, it was the dictator who fled, by airplane, as did president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia in early 2011. Now it’s the opposite that is happening: It’s the people who are fleeing, for instance from Syria, by sea and land.

This reversal raises an essential question, both simple and tragic: Can one still call for democracy after the victory of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, even if that victory turns out to be temporary, as some predict? What does it mean for the peoples of the Maghreb and the Middle East?

For many, the first lesson to be drawn from the Syrian case is obvious: One can’t always win the revolution, or at least not as fast as one would like. So far Assad has come out of the conflict alive, even strengthened — at the cost of the slaughter of half his people. His longevity goes to show that being wrong and facing fierce opposition from dissidents, an army and a large swath of the international community aren’t enough to unseat a dictator.

Assad, by killing so many Syrians, has also killed the dream of democracy for many other Syrians, as well as for plenty of people elsewhere in the Arab world. They can see that a revolutionary often ends up a martyr, a tortured prisoner, a militiaman in the pay of foreign forces or an unwelcome refugee. And neither his children nor his people are the better for it. That’s enough to sow doubt in even the most democratic of minds and the most fervent of revolutionaries.

And so here is the first Assad effect: The perception that democracy is costly — perhaps too costly. [Continue reading…]

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How Egypt’s generals used street protests to stage a coup

Neil Ketchley writes: Four years ago, Gen. (now President) Abdel Fatah al-Sissi appeared on Egyptian television to announce the suspension of the recently passed Constitution and the removal of the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, from office. Days earlier, on June 30, 2013, massive street protests called for new presidential elections. The decision to intervene, Sissi assured his audience, followed months of failed attempts to bring about national reconciliation and stabilize the country. Egypt’s military, he promised, would stay out of post-Morsi politics.

In a new book on the January Revolution of 2011 and its aftermath, I detail how Egypt’s generals and security apparatus instigated the June 30 protests in a bid to roll back new forms of civilian authority and legitimate a military takeover. This might seem counterintuitive at first. We often think of street-level mobilization as the domain of progressives and revolutionaries. However, as a growing body of empirical research suggests, powerful state actors can also facilitate and orchestrate collective protest for their own ends.

Initially portrayed as a grass-roots movement, the Tamarod, or “rebellion,” petition campaign led the calls to oust Morsi on June 30. Only later would the role of Egypt’s military and Interior Ministry stimulating the movement become apparent. Leaked audio recordings reveal that Tamarod’s leadership was drawing on a bank account administered by Egypt’s generals and replenished by the United Arab Emirates. Interviews with Interior Ministry officials and former Tamarod members highlight how the security apparatus fomented street protests against the Morsi government. These revelations quickly discredited Tamarod after the coup. In October 2013, secular activists and revolutionaries attacked one of the movement’s founders, who they denounced as a “pimp of the intelligence services.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudi and allied autocrats demand Qatar shuts down Al Jazeera

Reuters reports: Four Arab states boycotting Qatar over alleged support for terrorism have sent Doha a list of 13 demands including closing Al Jazeera television and reducing ties to their regional adversary Iran, an official of one of the four countries said.

The demands aimed at ending the worst Gulf Arab crisis in years appear designed to quash a two decade-old foreign policy in which Qatar has punched well above its weight, striding the stage as a peace broker, often in conflicts in Muslim lands.

Doha’s independent-minded approach, including a dovish line on Iran and support for Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, has incensed some of its neighbors who see political Islamism as a threat to their dynastic rule.

The list, compiled by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain, which cut economic, diplomatic and travel ties to Doha on June 5, also demands the closing of a Turkish military base in Qatar, the official told Reuters.

Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isik rejected the demand, saying any call for the base to be shut would represent interference in Ankara’s relations with Doha. He suggested instead that Turkey might bolster its presence.

“Strengthening the Turkish base would be a positive step in terms of the Gulf’s security,” he said. “Re-evaluating the base agreement with Qatar is not on our agenda.” [Continue reading…]

In an editorial, the New York Times says: [B]y attacking Al Jazeera, the Saudis and their neighbors are trying to eliminate a voice that could lead citizens to question their rulers. Al Jazeera was the prime source of news as the Arab Spring rocked the Middle East in 2011.

That uprising ousted the military-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak and led to Egypt’s first free election, which brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. A loose political network founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence. The real reason it’s been labeled a terrorist group is that autocratic regimes see it as a populist threat. [Continue reading…]

For CNBC, Abid Ali writes: Al-Jazeera has been a constant thorn in the side of its neighbors. The news network was the first independent media network in the Middle East winning plaudits with more than 20 years of broadcasting. But after the Arab Spring, Doha was forced to tone down coverage to maintain stability in neighboring countries, especially in Bahrain.

Qatar has been forging an independent foreign policy since the discovery of gas and a palace coup where the former Emir ousted his pro-Saudi leaning father. Since 1995 the country has been on a tear with a construction boom reshaping the desert state. While Qataris are the world’s richest per capita ($130,000), in neighboring Saudi Arabia more than 35 percent live under the national poverty line.

“The State of Qatar recognizes that a decision to close Al-Jazeera will infringe on their sovereignty,” Wadah Khanfar, the former director general of Al-Jazeera, told CNBC in a phone interview. “The independence of the state is at risk. If they move against Al-Jazeera what next? They will stand firm.” [Continue reading…]

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Egypt: The new dictatorship

Joshua Hammer writes: On July 3, 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, chief of staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces, appeared on national television. Clad in a military uniform and black beret, he announced that he was acting on “a call for help by the Egyptian people” and seizing power from the Muslim Brotherhood. Since winning parliamentary elections in 2011 and the presidential election the following year, the Brotherhood—a grassroots movement founded in Egypt in the 1920s—had stacked the government with Islamists, failed to deliver on promises to improve the country’s deteriorating infrastructure, and attempted to rewrite Egypt’s constitution to reflect traditional religious values. These moves had provoked large demonstrations and violent clashes between supporters and secular opponents.

Sisi declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and jailed its leadership—including the president he had deposed, Mohamed Morsi. Six weeks later, on August 13, he ordered the police to clear Brotherhood supporters from protest camps at two squares in Cairo: al-Nahda and Rabaa al-Adawiya. According to official health ministry statistics, 595 civilians and forty-three police officers were killed in exceptionally violent confrontations with the protesters, but the Brotherhood claims that the number of victims was much higher.

That fall, Sisi launched a sweeping crackdown on civil society. Citing the need to restore security and stability, the regime banned protests, passed antiterrorism laws that mandated long prison terms for acts of civil disobedience, gave prosecutors broad powers to extend pretrial detention periods, purged liberal and pro-Islamist judges, and froze the bank accounts of NGOs and law firms that defend democracy activists. Human rights groups in Egypt estimate that between 40,000 and 60,000 political prisoners, including both Muslim Brotherhood members and secular pro-democracy activists, now languish in the country’s jails. Twenty prisons have been built since Sisi took power. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab Spring unleashed a wave of torture and abuse

 

Nader Hashemi writes: Assad’s chemical weapons attack and the subsequent U.S. missile strike on Syria jolted our world. Most of the commentary that ensued, however, was about the West.

What are the implications for U.S-Russian relations?

Is there a strategic vision behind Trump’s new Syria policy?

What can we learn about White House palace intrigue in terms of who has the president’s ear?

What was completely ignored was a connection between these attacks and the broader politics of the Middle East.

Assad’s sarin gas attack was not a sui generis event that took place in a vacuum. It is directly related to longstanding trends that help explain the region’s turmoil. Two themes stand out: 1) the extreme measures that authoritarian regimes will adopt to retain power, and 2) the severe human rights crisis facing the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Arab Winter

Borzou Daragahi reports: To the Egyptian state, Khaled al-Balshy is public enemy number one. In the three years since a military coup toppled the country’s elected government, he has been charged with trying to overthrow the government of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, rioting, damaging public property, harboring fugitives from the law, blocking public roads, illegally protesting in the streets, and insulting the police. He has been described in the pro-government press as a communist, a paid foreign agent, an anarchist, and a member of the outlawed Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Balshy is a journalist, and until recently served as deputy head of the country’s press syndicate. A bookish, disheveled 45-year-old, in rectangular eyeglasses, Balshy is the editor of an independent news website called al-Bedayaiah, which means “beginning.” His wife, Nafisa el-Sabbagh, is also a journalist. The pair divide their time time between newsrooms, the press syndicate headquarters, and caring for their two kids, 16-year-old son Ali, and 9-year-old daughter Bassil. When Balshy’s not at home, at work, or out talking politics with friends, he spends a lot of time at various courthouses, both for his own pending cases and to keep tabs and offer support for the scores of other journalists run being run through the grinding, degrading machinery of Egypt’s judiciary.

He laughed at the charges against him. He said he’s never done anything violent in his life. In fact, during demonstrations last year against the Sisi government’s attempted transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, he was regarded as the voice of reason. “I was the one who advised people to go home, and I tried to communicate with the security officials,” he said. “I wanted them to stop beating people.”

Eventually, Balshy grew used to living in what he describes as a “traditional dictatorship,” where the court appearances and public smears became humdrum. He even dared grow hopeful at signs of dissatisfaction, including widespread opposition to the Red Sea islands deal, as well as sporadic shows of spine by the judiciary and small spontaneous demonstrations against police brutality or the price of bread.

As the military-dominated government under Sisi widened its crackdown on media, civil society, and dissidents, democracy activists often turned to the international community for support. This frequently came in the form of subtle warnings by the US and others that continued military aid was contingent on the country’s democratic progress or simply statements standing up for those targeted in the crackdown — in some cases lending them just enough backing to be released from jail or allow their work to continue.

But then Donald Trump was elected president, and everything appeared to get worse. [Continue reading…]

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Marching towards nowhere?

 

Ivan Krastev writes: What strikes any observer of the new wave of revolutionary politics is that it is a revolution without an ideology or a project. Protesting itself seems to be the strategic goal of many of the protests. Failing to offer political alternatives, they are an explosion of moral indignation. In most of the protests, citizens on the street treat politics not so much as a set of issues but as a public performance or a way of being in the world. Many protesters are openly anti-institutional and mistrustful toward both the market and the state. They preach participation without representation. The protest movements bypass established political parties, distrust the mainstream media, refuse to recognize any specific leadership, and reject all formal organizations, relying instead on the Internet and local assemblies for collective debate and decision making.

In a way the new protest movements are inspired by mistrust in the elites, empowered by mistrust in leadership, constrained by mistrust of organizations, and defeated by the protesters’ inability to trust even each other: “This is an obvious but unspoken cultural difference between modern youth protest movements and those of the past. […] Anybody who sounds like a career politician, anybody who attempts to use rhetoric, or espouses an ideology, is greeted with visceral distaste.”

Mistrusting institutions as a rule, the protesters are plainly uninterested in taking power. The government is simply “them,” regardless of who is in charge. The protesters combine a genuine longing for community with a relentless individualism. They describe their own political activism almost in religious terms, stressing how the experience of acting out on the street has inspired a revolution of the soul and a regime change of the mind. Perhaps for the first time since 1848 — the last of the pre-Marxist revolutions — the revolt is not against the government but against being governed. It is the spirit of libertarianism that brings together Egypt’s anti-authoritarian uprising and Occupy Wall Street’s anti-capitalist insurrection.

For the protesters, it is no longer important who wins elections or who runs the government, not simply because they do not want to be the government, but also because any time people perceive that their interests are endangered, they plan on returning to the streets. The “silent man” in Taksim Square, Istanbul, who stood without moving or speaking for eight hours, is a symbol of the new age of protests: He stands there to make sure that things will not stay as they are. His message to those in power is that he will never go home.

While it is popular for Europeans to compare the current global protest wave with the revolutions of 1848, today’s protests are the negation of the political agenda of 1848. Those revolutions fought for universal suffrage and political representation. They marked the rise of the citizen-voter. The current protests are a revolt against representative democracy. They mark the disillusionment of the citizen-voter. The current protests function as an alternative to elections, testifying that the people are furious; the angry citizen heads to the streets not with the hope of putting a better government in power but merely to establish the borders that no government should cross. [Continue reading…]

Anti-war, anti-capitalism, anti-globalization, anti-interventionism — the problem with centering any movement around opposition is that almost in obedience with the laws of physics, the end result will be inertia.

The logical conclusion of insistently saying no is that we end up going nowhere.

The successful movements of the last century have instead always been centered on positive goals — women’s rights; civil rights; marriage equality, and so forth.

Likewise, the most effective forms of resistance against the socially corrosive agenda of the Trump presidency are not simply anti-Trump; they are affirmations — for immigrants, for Muslims, and for women.

To build a better world, we have to unite around the things we support and not simply the things we oppose.

What Trump is counting on is that his opponents remain locked in an oppositional posture in which we will eventually tire and thereafter fall into torpor and silence.

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The Arab Spring is far from over

Koert Debeuf writes: What were once high hopes for a new, free and democratic Arab World have turned into civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. Instead of democracies, countries like Egypt, Bahrain and even Morocco have become even more repressive dictatorships.

In Egypt alone, no less than 40,000 people have been detained since President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in July 2013. All independent television stations have been closed and critical journalists arrested. Most NGOs have been shut down or can simply no longer function. And then there is the Islamic State, the most barbaric outcome of the chaos that followed the 2011 uprisings.

These may seem like more than enough reasons to call the Arab Spring an utter failure. But, in truth, it depends on how carefully you look at what is happening. On the surface, the political upheavals look like failed revolts against dictatorships. But dig a bit deeper into the societies of these Arab countries and there are reasons to believe what we see is not a simple revolt, but an epochal revolution.

If that is true, today’s depressing situation is not the end; it’s just one of the stages the region is going through on its way to a better future. That, at least, is one of the lessons we could learn from history.

Take the French Revolution. The storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, didn’t come out of nowhere. In the 18th century, the population of France had grown by 50 percent. The large young generation couldn’t find jobs because the economic system was stuck. The people were getting poorer, while the grandees who populated the court in Versailles were excessively rich. There was no freedom of religion, and the Church was amassing power and wealth. The French Revolution didn’t stop when Napoleon took power in 1799. It took 80 years and 12 constitutions before France became a stable democracy in 1870. [Continue reading…]

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Islamism after the Arab Spring: Between the ISIS and the nation-state

Shadi Hamid, William McCants, and Rashid Dar write: Five years after the start of the Arab uprisings, mainstream Islamist groups — which generally seek to operate within the confines of institutional politics — find themselves brutally repressed (Egypt), fallen from power (Tunisia), internally fractured (Jordan), or eclipsed by armed groups (Syria and Libya). Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood-inspired movements had enjoyed considerable staying power, becoming entrenched actors in their respective societies, settling into strategies of gradualist democratic contestation, focused on electoral participation and working within existing state structures. Yet, the twin shocks of the Arab Spring — the Egyptian coup of 2013 and the rise of ISIS — have challenged mainstream Islamist models of political change.

The first section of the paper analyzes how recent developments in the region are forcing a discussion of the various fault lines within Islamist movements in Muslim-majority countries. The second brings out the challenges faced by Islamist parties, which, once admitted into the halls of power, have had to play politics in circumscribed contexts and make difficult compromises while not alienating their conservative constituencies.

The third section considers how Islamist groups have made sense of ISIS’s rise to prominence. The fourth takes a closer look at the state-centric approaches of Brotherhood-linked movements and how these are either coming under scrutiny or being challenged from various quarters, particularly by younger rank-and-file activists. The paper concludes by briefly considering to what extent Islamist movements will be able to “see beyond the state” in the years (and decades) to come.

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Yemen: A calamity at the end of the Arabian peninsula

By Vincent Durac, University College Dublin

At the tip of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen’s disastrous war has been raging for nearly two years. Somewhat overshadowed by the devastating crisis in Syria, it is nonetheless a major calamity: according to the UN, more than 10,000 people have lost their lives, while more than 20m (of a total population of some 27m) are in need of humanitarian assistance. More than 3m people are internally displaced, while hundreds of thousands have fled the country altogether. There are reports of looming famine as the conflict destroys food production in the country.

So how did Yemen get here – and what are the prospects for turning things around?

This war has its roots in the popular uprising of 2011. That rebellion unseated the country’s long-time president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose General People’s Congress (GPC) has dominated the country’s political life since Yemeni unification in 1990. But what really triggered the conflict that began in in 2015 was the years of failed transitional negotiations that followed Saleh’s ousting.

The protest movement spread quickly across the country, its youth protesters soon joined by established opposition parties, as well as southern Yemeni separatists and the Houthi movement.

The Houthi movement emerged in the early 2000s; in brief, it’s a Zaydi Shia revivalist movement that seeks to redress the marginalisation of Yemen’s significant Zaydi minority, whose opposition to the Saleh regime erupted in outright violent conflict on six separate occasions between 2004 and 2010.

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Six years after the Arab Spring a revolt could re-emerge

In an editorial, The Guardian says: This month marks six years since the beginning of the Arab spring, a series of events that were meant to be a major turning point in the modern Middle East. It was the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor and his death on 4 January that initiated a revolutionary year. The subsequent protests energised ordinary Arabs, who recovered, it seemed, a popular self-confidence diminished by six decades of autocracy. The Arab street was honoured for its people’s courage and determination, inspiring movements across the world. Protesters did not just voice their complaints, it was said, they changed the world. Four Arab leaders fell. Yet six short years on those dreams are now in tatters. In Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, a counter-revolution has returned a military dictatorship. Much of Libya and Yemen is reduced to rubble in a war where outside powers are the principal actors, prepared to fight until the last local is dead. Syria is in ruins, stained by rivers of blood. The sole democratic success was Tunisia, which did see a peaceful transition from authoritarian rule to elective government. The main Islamist party won power and last year declared it would end all of its cultural and religious activities to focus only on politics – becoming a Muslim democratic party, rather like its western Christian counterparts. But every silver lining has a cloud: Tunisians make up the largest number of foreign fighters in the ranks of Islamic State.

The underlying reasons for revolt have not gone away. In many ways the conditions today are even more explosive than in 2011. The Arab state is in crisis almost everywhere: plunging oil prices have holed Saudi’s economy; Egypt’s flawed leadership has created crisis after crisis. The desperate men and women leaving for Europe want a better life than that found at home. According to the UN’s Arab Development Report – the first since the Arab spring erupted – the Middle East is home to only 5% of the world’s population, but accounts for 45% of the world’s terrorism, 68% of its battle-related deaths and 58% of its refugees. This at a time, the UN warns, when the population of young Arabs exceeds 100 million and is growing fast – but not as fast as rates of unemployment, poverty and marginalisation. [Continue reading…]

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