Pankaj Mishra on Arundhati Roy: Hindu nationalists ​have many ways to silence writers

Pankaj Mishra writes: he governments of Egypt and Turkey are brazenly leading a multi-pronged assault on writers, artists and intellectuals. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month denounced his critics among Turkish academics as treasonous fifth columnists of foreign powers; many of them have been subsequently dismissed and suspended. Both Turkey and Egypt have imprisoned journalists, provoking international protests. But the suppression of intellectual and creative freedoms is assuming much cannier forms in India, a country with formal and apparently free democratic institutions.

Controlled by upper-caste Hindu nationalists, Indian universities have been purging “anti-nationals” from both syllabuses and campuses for some months now. In a shocking turn of events last month, Rohith Vemula, a PhD student in Hyderabad, killed himself. Accused of “anti-national” political opinions, the impoverished research scholar, who belonged to one of India’s traditionally and cruelly disadvantaged castes, was suspended, and, after his fellowship was cancelled, expelled from student housing. Letters from Modi’s government in Delhi to university authorities revealed that the latter were under relentless pressure to move against “extremist and anti-national politics” on campus. Vemula’s heartbreaking suicide note attests to the near-total isolation and despair of a gifted writer and thinker.

The extended family of upper-caste nationalists plainly aim at total domination of the public sphere. But they don’t only use the bullying power of the leviathan state – one quickly identified by local and foreign critics – to grind down their apparent enemies. They pursue them through police cases and legal petitions by private individuals – a number of criminal complaints have been filed against writers and artists in India. They create a climate of impunity, in which emboldened mobs ransack newspapers offices, art galleries and cinemas. [Continue reading…]

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Fight ISIS with democracy

Baghdadi

Rached Ghannouchi, co-founder and president of Tunisia’s Muslim democrats party, Ennahdha, writes: As more countries confront the question of how to counter terrorist groups like ISIS, it is clear that a short-term, reductionist approach focused largely on military force has proven ineffective. Efforts to dislodge the so-called Islamic State through bombing, and to keep it at bay by strengthening and equipping security forces in the places it operates, have so far had limited success despite their enormous financial costs.

This is because, although such efforts are critical, they are not sufficient. The rise of ISIS, and its ability to recruit from a region that just five years ago was swept by democratic hopes and aspirations, requires a global response that is informed by where the group came from. For such a response to work, I believe it must reflect five principles. These are based on Tunisia’s experience as the most successful democratic transition to emerge from the Arab uprisings, as well as my personal intellectual and political work in Tunisia and the Arab world over five decades.

First, there is no universal approach to tackling ISIS. Rather, the group can only be defeated through a variety of locally designed and targeted responses. Extremist groups like ISIS use technology and social networks to cross boundaries and attract recruits globally—but their discourse is linked to local grievances wherever they operate. [Continue reading…]

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The failure of Egypt’s democratic transition was not inevitable

Tahrir_Square

Michael Wahid Hanna writes: The fifth anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian uprising has produced an oddly structuralist set of reflections in which the failure of its democratic transition has taken on an almost foreordained quality. Influential political science interpretations of the Egyptian uprising’s failure have focused analytical attention on structural factors, such as the role of a politicized and overreaching military, the uneven balance of power between the Muslim Brotherhood and its non-Islamist competitors, the former regime’s political structure and the weakness of transitional institutions.

Structure matters, of course. But so does agency. Overly structural interpretations miss the decisive impact of highly contingent events, deflects responsibility from the political actors whose choices drove the transition off course and can lead to unwarranted skepticism about the possibility of meaningful political change.

Egypt’s transition to a legitimate, civilian-led political order after the popular mobilization of January 2011 always faced long odds, but the failure of the transition was never inevitable. Structural explanations of the July 2013 military coup gloss over the fear and uncertainty that shaped political decision-making over the previous two years. The political openings of 2011 were real and potentially transformative and could have provided a platform for slow but sustainable change. Structural analysis should not become an excuse for political malpractice or an analytical surrender to the necessity of autocracy. Different decisions by key political actors such as the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Salvation Front could have shaped a very different political environment. [Continue reading…]

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Europe wades into debate over Poland’s constitutional crisis

By Simona Guerra, University of Leicester and Fernando Casal Bértoa, University of Nottingham

Poland’s prime minister Beata Szydło recently found herself summoned to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to defend her government over accusations that its commitment to democratic values is on the slide.

This was an unprecedented meeting. The parliament had called a debate under the auspices of a law introduced in March 2014, giving it the right to question a national government if it thinks a systemic threat to democracy is about to take place in a European country.

In Poland’s case, concerns were raised over government plans to limit the power of the national constitutional court, and change the way the media is governed and civil servants hired.

The aim of a meeting is to have a constructive conversation about concerns but if that fails, Brussels can move to suspend a country from taking part in EU decision making (although this is an unlikely scenario).

Among the post-communist states that joined the EU in 2004, Poland has generally been seen as a success story. While Hungary and Romania, and candidate countries such as Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina seem to be dragging their feet over democratic reform, Poland has blazed the trail.

But in October 2015, the new social national conservative government, led by Szydło (Law and Justice party, PiS) won an outright majority in parliamentary elections and quickly set about making significant changes.

[Read more…]

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Robin Yassin-Kassab talks about the emergence of grassroots democracy in Syria

Robin Yassin-Kassab blogs at Qunfuz.

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An attack on democracy? Worries over Poland mount in Brussels and Berlin

Der Spiegel reports: No, Frans Timmermans says, unfortunately he still hasn’t received an answer. The deputy head of the European Commission has written to the government in Warsaw twice in recent weeks to express his concern over the rule of law in Poland. Instead of the requested letter, all he got was gloating on the part of new Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszcykowski. Any EU official “who came to office via political connections” is “not a legitimate partner” for a government elected by the people, Waszcykowski scoffed.

Timmermans these days is having to exercise his utmost diplomatic skill in order to avoid an escalation of tensions. When, during a visit to Amsterdam on Thursday, Timmermans was asked about the Polish foreign minister’s jibe, he could have struck back. But there is already enough tension, so he chose to take a different tack, instead praising the transformation of Eastern European countries from socialist dictatorships to free societies. But, he added, true democracies include two important elements: the protection of human rights and adherence to the rule of law.

The fact that Timmermans had to utter something that obvious says a lot about the current state of the European Union — and developments in Poland. In less than two months, the country’s new nationalist-conservative government has succeeded in disempowering the constitutional court, passing a law establishing government control over public broadcasting and installing party-aligned political appointees at the head of its intelligence services. “We want to cure our country of a few illnesses,” Foreign Minister Waszcykowski told Germany’s tabloid Bild earlier this month.

It’s a choice of words most often associated with autocrats and has alarmed the European Commission. On Wednesday, the EU executive is expected to discuss whether or not it will open the so-called “rule of law mechanism.” Should it do so, it would mark the first time a member state has been subjected to that level of scrutiny for violating the fundamental values of the European Union. [Continue reading…]

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The limits of American realism

Roger Cohen writes: Is realism really, really what America wants as the cornerstone of its foreign policy?

Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University, has an eloquent ode to realism in Foreign Policy magazine. He argues that, with realism as the bedrock of its approach to the world over the past quarter century, the United States would have fared far better. Realists, he reminds us, “have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint.”

Pessimism is a useful source of prudence in both international and personal affairs. Walt’s piece makes several reasonable points. But he omits the major European conflict of the period under consideration — the wars of Yugoslavia’s destruction, in which some 140,000 people were killed and millions displaced.

Realists had a field day with that carnage, beginning with former Secretary of State James Baker’s early assessment that, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” This view was echoed by various self-serving assessments from the Clinton White House that justified inaction through the portrayal of the Balkans as the locus of millennial feuds neither comprehensible nor resolvable.

True, discerning a vital American national interest in places with names like Omarska was not obvious, even if the wars upset the European peace America had committed to maintaining since 1945. The realpolitik case for intervention was flimsy. Sarajevo was not going to break America, less even than Raqqa today.

The moral case was, however, overwhelming, beginning with the Serbian use in 1992 of concentration camps to kill Bosnian Muslim men deemed threatening, and expel Muslim women and children. These methods culminated at Srebrenica in 1995 with the Serbian slaughter of about 8,000 male inhabitants. In the three-year interim, while realists rationalized restraint, Serbian shelling of Sarajevo blew up European women and children on a whim. Only when President Clinton changed his mind and NATO began concerted bombing was a path opened to ending the war.

I covered that conflict and its resolution. For my baby-boomer generation, spared Europe’s repetitive bloodshed by American military and strategic resolve, it was a pivotal experience. After that, no hymn to realism pure and simple could ever be persuasive. Walt calls me “a liberal internationalist;” I’ll take that as an honorable badge. [Continue reading…]

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In pursuit of a nuclear deal, Obama shunned Iran’s democracy movement

green-movement

The Wall Street Journal reports: Iranian opposition leaders secretly reached out to the White House in the summer of 2009 to gauge Mr. Obama’s support for their “green revolution,” which drew millions of people to protest the allegedly fraudulent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The demonstrations caught the White House off guard, said current and former U.S. officials who worked on Iran in the Obama administration.

Some U.S. officials pressed Mr. Obama to publicly back the fledgling Green Movement, arguing in Oval Office meetings that it marked the most important democratic opening since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mr. Obama wasn’t convinced. “‘Let’s give it a few days,’ was the answer,” said a senior U.S. official present at some of the White House meetings. “It was made clear: ‘We should monitor, but do nothing.’ ”

The president was invested heavily in developing a secret diplomatic outreach to Mr. Khamenei that year, sending two letters to the supreme leader in the months before the disputed election of Mr. Ahmadinejad, said current and former U.S. officials.

Obama administration officials at the time were working behind the scenes with the Sultan of Oman to open a channel to Tehran. The potential for talks with Iran — and with Mr. Khamenei as the ultimate arbiter of any nuclear agreement — influenced Mr. Obama’s thinking, current and former U.S. officials said.

U.S. officials said the White House also was getting conflicting messages from Green Movement leaders. Some wanted Mr. Obama to publicly warn Mr. Khamenei against using force. Others said such a declaration would give Iran’s supreme leader an excuse to paint the opposition as American lackeys.

Mr. Obama and his advisers decided to maintain silence in the early days of the 2009 uprising. The Central Intelligence Agency was ordered away from any covert work to support the Green Movement either inside Iran or overseas, said current and former U.S. officials involved in the discussions.

“If you were working on the nuclear deal, you were saying, ‘Don’t do too much,’ ” said Michael McFaul, who served as a senior National Security Council official at the White House before becoming ambassador to Russia in 2012.

After a week of demonstrations, Iran’s security forces went on to kill as many as 150 people and jail thousands of others over the following months, according to opposition and human rights groups. Mr. Khamenei accused the U.S. of instigating the uprising. Iran denied killing protesters.

Some of Mr. Obama’s closest advisers, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in retrospect the U.S. should have backed the Green Movement. “If we could do it again, I would give different counsel,” said Dennis Ross, Mr. Obama’s top Mideast adviser during his first term. At the time, he said, he argued against embracing the protests.

A senior U.S. official said this week that the Obama administration argued against covert support for the Green Movement because it risked undermining its credibility domestically, not out of fear of Mr. Khamenei’s reaction. “We did not want to tar the movement,” the official said. [Continue reading…]

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A generation of failed politicians has trapped the West in a tawdry nightmare

decay

Pankaj Mishra writes: Racism, a beast cornered if not tamed after much struggle, has lumbered back to civil society in the solemn guise of “reforming” Islam. Tony Blair summons us to worldwide battle on behalf of western values while embodying, with his central Asian clients, their comprehensive negation. The handful of media institutions and individuals that are not obliged to flesh out Rupert Murdoch’s tweets on Muslims seem to be struggling to remain viable in an increasingly retrogressive political culture. Even the BBC seems determined not to stray far from the Daily Mail’s editorial line.

Unsurprisingly, we witness, as Judt pointed out, “no external inputs, no new kinds of people, only the political class breeding itself”. “The old ways of mass movements, communities organised around an ideology, even religious or political ideas, trade unions and political parties to leverage public opinion into political influence” have disappeared. Indeed, the slightest reminder of this democratic past incites the technocrats of politics, business and the media into paroxysms of scorn.

Having acted recklessly to create their own reality, they have managed to trap all of us in a tawdry nightmare – a male buddy film of singular fatuousness. At the same time, reality-making has ceased to be the prerogative of the American imperium or of the French and British chumocrats, who lost their empires long ago and are still trying to find a role for themselves.

Some random fanatic, it turns out, can make their reality far more quickly, coercing the world’s oldest democracies into endless war, racial-religious hatred and paranoia. Such is the great power surrendered by the crappy generation and its epigones. The generations to come will scarcely believe it. [Continue reading…]

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As Poland lurches to the right, many in Europe look on in alarm

The New York Times reports: In the few weeks since Poland’s new right-wing government took over, its leaders have alarmed the domestic opposition and moderate parties throughout Europe by taking a series of unilateral actions that one critic labeled “Putinist.”

Under their undisputed leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, they pardoned the notorious head of the security services, who was appealing a three-year sentence for abuse of his office from their previous years in power; tried to halt the production of a play they deemed “pornographic”; threatened to impose controls on the news media; and declared, repeatedly and emphatically, that they would overrule the previous government’s promise to accept refugees pouring into Europe.

But the largest flash point, so far, has been a series of questionable parliamentary maneuvers by the government and the opposition that has allowed a dispute over who should sit on the country’s powerful Constitutional Tribunal to metastasize into a full-blown constitutional crisis — with thousands of protesters from all sides taking to the streets.

Countries across Europe have seen nationalist movements rise in popularity, particularly in the wake of the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks in Paris. But Poland’s rightward lurch under the newly empowered Law and Justice Party is unsettling what had been the region’s strongest economy and a model for the struggling post-Soviet states of Eastern Europe. [Continue reading…]

Bloomberg reports: Poland’s government replaced the head of NATO members’ training facility in Warsaw after Defense Ministry officials and military police entered its provisional office after midnight on Friday.

The Counter Intelligence Center of Excellence was staffed with officials who weren’t supported by the Polish government, Deputy Defense Minister Bartosz Kownacki told RMF radio. The ministry appointed Colonel Robert Bala as the acting director of the center, which hasn’t yet been accredited by NATO, an alliance official said. [Continue reading…]

On November 12, AFP reported: Tens of thousands of protesters poured into Warsaw’s streets on Wednesday for a demonstration organised by the far right, marching under the slogan “Poland for the Polish” and burning an EU flag.

Police said 25,000 people joined the march, which marked the anniversary of Poland’s return to independence after the First World War, while organisers put the numbers at 50,000.

“God, honour, homeland,” chanted the protesters as they marched under a sea of red-and-white Polish flags.

Demonstrators trampled and burned a European Union flag at one point, while a banner added to the anti-EU theme with the slogan “EU macht frei” (“Work makes you free” in German), a reference to the slogan over the gates at Auschwitz.

“Yesterday it was Moscow, today it’s Brussels which takes away our freedom,” chanted one group of protesters.
Other banners read “Great Catholic Poland” and “Stop Islamisation”. [Continue reading…]

Ivan Krastev writes: The new government has pushed forward three staggering changes. The man chosen to oversee police and intelligence agencies is a party stalwart who received a three-year suspended sentence for abusing power in his previous role as head of the anti-corruption office, signaling that political loyalty is above the law.

The government has purged European Union flags from government press briefings, demonstrating that it sees Polish national interests in opposition to European values.

And it has weakened the country’s separation of powers by rejecting the previous Parliament’s nominees to the constitutional court — and instead appointed its own candidates, provoking a constitutional crisis.

Why has Poland, the poster child of post-Communist success and Europe’s best economic performer of the last decade, suddenly taken an illiberal turn? Why, despite the profound public mistrust of politicians, are people ready to elect parties eager to dismantle any constraints on government’s power?

For one thing, the Law and Justice Party bet on a form of illiberal democracy because it succeeded in Hungary. The Orban model of rebuking the European Union while accepting billions in aid money has worked. So have Mr. Orban’s efforts to consolidate power by demonizing his political opponents. Hungary’s economy has not collapsed as critics predicted; nor did Mr. Orban’s party lose at the ballot box. [Continue reading…]

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The new protest movements are paying a high price for their anti-institutional ethos

Ivan Krastev writes: Shortly after Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup in Paris, five of the greatest political minds in Europe hustled to their writing desks to capture the meaning of the events.

The five were very different people. Karl Marx was a Communist. Pierre Joseph Proudhon an anarchist. Victor Hugo, the most popular French poet of his time, a romantic. And Alexis de Tocqueville and Walter Bagehot were liberals. Their interpretations of the coup were as different as their philosophies. But in the manner of the man who mistook his wife for a hat, they all mistook the end of Europe’s three-year revolutionary wave for its beginning.

Has the Western media made the same mistake in recent years? Are its interpretations of the global wave of popular protests — spontaneous, leaderless, nonviolent, which Thomas Friedman memorably described as the rise of the “square people” — similarly off-base? It seems so: Just take the stunning and unexpected victory of the governing Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., in Turkey’s parliamentary elections last week. [Continue reading…]

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Why Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘Mandela moment’ is a victory for Myanmar’s generals

Maung Zarni writes: Though in exile 6,000 miles away from Myanmar, I can almost taste the euphoria of my fellow dissidents. Aung San Suu Kyi’s wildly popular opposition – the National League for Democracy – has won a landslide in the multiparty elections, and 31 million voters, most apparently backing the NLD, are savouring a long-awaited moment of jubilation. The NLD leader, whom they call Amay or mother, appeared on TV, her eyes shining with tears of joy.

Even foreign journalists covering the country in the 25 years since Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest have scarcely been able to conceal their excitement at the prospect of a new era of freedom and democracy, ushered in through her non-violent, pragmatic leadership.

Myanmar’s Mandela moment has arrived. Or has it?

A sober analysis may be in order. Aside from the fact that Myanmar’s military leaders have, constitutionally, blocked any possibility of “the Woman” with her two “impure-blooded sons” and “foreign privileges” assuming the presidency, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party faces huge barriers to turn a resounding electoral mandate into a real step towards a genuinely representative government.

And this is not the first time the public has felt euphoric about the power of its votes. In May 1990 Aung San Suu Kyi and her then fledgling opposition party won a decisive mandate taking 82% of the parliamentary seats and 62% of the total votes. That landslide came despite the fact that the generals placed her and her senior colleagues under house arrest on the eve of the elections, in effect barring them from the electoral process. So the opposition knows how it feels to fail to convert this mandate a quarter-century ago into a real political gain or put the country on the path of democracy. [Continue reading…]

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Aung San Suu Kyi victory will test commitment to human rights in Myanmar

By Andrew Fagan, University of Essex

Myanmar has taken a potentially momentous step away from dictatorship and towards democracy. More than 6,000 candidates from 91 political parties competed for the votes of 33m registered voters on November 8 in the country’s first credible elections since 1960.

The precise outcome won’t be known for days, but Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is claiming to have gained at least 70% of the votes cast. Senior figures in the ruling party are conceding defeat.

No one should underestimate the significance of power changing hands in Myanmar via the ballot box. However, this will only finally occur in March 2016, when the newly-elected MPs vote for a new president and a new government will be formed.

[Read more…]

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How the West’s unwillingness to support pro-democracy activists has empowered ISIS

Samira Shackle reports on Mohamed Soltan’s incarceration in Egypt and his ongoing struggle to promote democracy: Finally, in May this year, physically frail and psychologically pressured, Soltan was deported to the US. He had given up his Egyptian citizenship, making him eligible for a presidential decree that allows for the deportation of foreign prisoners. Before leaving prison, Soltan was not allowed to say goodbye to his father, who is on death row.

Since then, Soltan has dedicated himself to speaking out, meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry and ambassador to the UN Samantha Power to argue that western security interests are at stake. “The Egyptian regime is not facing any real substantial consequences for escalating repression. The non-violent opposition is not rewarded for maintaining its non-violence. The longer we’re turning a blind eye and being silent about this, the more likely folks inside prison will adopt more extremist ideas.”

For a time during his incarceration, Soltan shared a cell with Isis and Al-Qaeda militants. “They walked around with a victorious air: ‘look, you idiots, your model doesn’t work’. There’s a growing disbelief in freedom and democracy amongst moderate Islamists. Literally daily, things are happening that is proving the very simple arguments the Isis guys were making. You are facing so much oppression and there’s no outlet for it, no dialogue, no space for political dissent. People feel continuingly abandoned by the international community, which is legitimising this coup and giving it everything it needs to thrive.” [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s slide into dictatorship is about to speed up

By Bahar Baser, Coventry University and Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, University of Ljubljana

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayip Erdoğan, appears to have strengthened his grip on the country after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won an outright majority in a snap election just five months after an inconclusive poll. It is a result that will shock and frighten many in the country.

Unofficial preliminary results, appeared to give the AKP 49.3%, followed by the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) on 25.7%, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) on 12.1% and the pro-Kurdish left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) on 10.5%. The AKP is predicted to take 312 seats in the 550-seat parliament, the CHP 135 seats, the HDP 60 and the MHP 43.

This result is a big surprise, since pre-election polls forecast a result not much different from that of the June election – and it undoubtedly owes a lot to the toxic atmosphere in which the election was held.

As reported widely around the world, the campaign was anything but fair. The AKP not only controls the army, but also holds sway over the judiciary and much of the media. The party and President Erdoğan effectively dominated pre-election airtime on the country’s public broadcaster, the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), which once again displayed blatant favouritism toward the government and Erdoğan.

More worryingly still, reports are circulating of vote-rigging. The news agencies announced the results very rapidly. The election was called for the AKP within only a few hours, despite the fact that many votes were not even delivered to the counting boots. Social media was abuzz with allegations of election fraud, as angry Turks documented their claims with photographs and videos.

[Read more…]

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