Tag Archives: Arab Spring

Happy Holidays (and on to 2014)

First of all, a happy holiday season to all TN readers who are so geographically located and culturally inclined. I’ve been taking some badly-needed time off on the winter dark Åland Islands and am happy to observe many of the rest of you are getting some downtime too, at least based on the cratering hit numbers during the last week. So, if you are reading this, many thanks but now close your laptop please, and go play Legos with your kids (thats my plan).

Second of all, because after all this is a blog that follows international affairs, here’s to 2014 because 2013 felt like a pretty lousy year. I don’t really go in for conspiracy theories or notions about auspicious and inauspicious years, but it felt like the world overdid it a bit during 2011, slept through 2012 and had a debilitating global headache in 2013.

Most obviously, of course, was the scramble to find a suitably lousy epithet to re-dub the events-formerly-known-as-the-Arab-Spring. As Tunisia stagnated, Egypt reverted to form, Libya seethed, Yemen and Bahrain dropped off the media horizon, Iraq re-ignited and Syria dragged everyone into a pit of fear and loathing. The only arguable bright spot was an apparent opening in Iran, although it remains to see whether the “worst ever” US Congress will tank the modest progress made this year by piling on further sanctions in 2014.

In light of general developments in the Middle East, the commentariat was quick to proceed from predictions of Syria’s breakup to a vision of redrawn lines throughout the entire region based on the abandonment of the ‘Sykes-Picot’ agreement that carved up the region after the First World War. Last year saw the eruption of both old and relatively new fissures. Events in 2014 will be decisive in determining whether these can be bridged or will further harden into boundaries and borders, endangering tens of thousands of civilians that may ultimately find themselves on the wrong sides.

Similarly worrying (if less threatening to global security) is the failure of Myanmar to fully emerge from the miasma of ethnic tensions that erupted into the full light of day in 2013 – again two years after a spectacular opening in 2011, with the dissolution of the military junta, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and a sprinkling of Clinton fairy dust.

And most recently, 2013 is set to close to the tune of yet another meltdown – in less than a week of bloody ethnic conflict – of Africa’s newest state. As in all the above cases, South Sudan was consecrated in a burst of optimism – in retrospect, perhaps naive – that followed from the surprisingly peaceful and well-organized referendum on independence from Sudan proper, again in 2011.

So let’s hold the auld lang syne this year and move on expeditiously to a better 2014.

Bosnia 2013 – a tale of two pictures

by Rhodri C. Williams

As the ‘Arab uprising’ countries are now learning the hard way, building a better future is a process that can often be expected to last just as long as surviving one’s bad past did. It is a bitter pill for local populations to swallow, particularly in countries like Libya where the euphoria of having slipped the grasp of a seemingly immortal psychopath is being ground down by the dispiriting business of overcoming his legacy. Its a lesson that well-meaning international observers seem to have an even harder time digesting, let alone anticipating (despite the fact that we have all been down this road before and should know by now that there are no shortcuts).

So thats what made the taste of Bosnia’s recent qualification for the World Cup so sweet. After years of stagnant ethnic deadlock, this event seemed like something that in retrospect would be seen as an awakening from a prolonged coma. A pulse had been detected last summer when ordinary citizens finally revolted against a politics of not re-attaching your own nose to spite the other guy’s face, and then had fizzled out as disillusion and ordinary life set back in. Then suddenly, the first stirrings of something big as the Bosnian team crept closer to Brazil, beating Slovakia in September and being rewarded with its unprecedented adoption as ‘our’ team by the staunchly nationalist Glas Srpske.

bosnia_qualifies_for_brazil_world_cup4And then the breakthrough – and talk of a long-overdue ‘national success story‘ – as the ‘Dragons’ swept Lithuania before them and qualified last October. Suddenly, it seemed as if Bosnia would be redefined by pictures like this, an ordinary family celebrating the victory of a highly non-ordinary state. The new Bosnian flag that rumors attributed to an OHR intern with basic photoshop skills – and that wags said looked like the logo on a cereal box – was to flap off to Brazil with all its other more time-honored fellows. The turning of a page at last.

A number of other factors spoke for normalization in Bosnia and perhaps the entire region. Warts and all, the first Bosnian post-war census was completed at around the same time of the qualifying match. Off in Kosovo, a new EULEX head seemed to take a firmer approach to corruption, even as the territory lurched toward shambolic municipal elections that were nevertheless the first ever to be supported by both Pristina and Belgrade. However, it is hard to overstate the horrors that beset the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and the extent to which they will continue to compete with the fragile new normality in defining the country’s image.    Continue reading

Beware philosophers bearing simple answers – Sharia and democracy

by Rhodri C. Williams

The BBC Magazine is currently running a series by philosopher Roger Scruton on democracy. In the latest installment, he gives his views on the compatibility of Islamic Shari’a law and democracy. As with a fair bit of what I read on these topics, I took issue. A little more unusually this time, I took issue strongly enough to be moved to reply.

Scruton’s starting point is a comparison of the states of Eastern Europe that resulted from the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 with the states that resulted further south from the simultaneous dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. While such a comparison undoubtedly provides a useful analytical window into the current tumult in the Middle East, that is where my agreement with Mr. Scruton ends.

Quite simply put, Scruton’s analysis treats the two categories of post-imperial states as antithetical, positing a nearly unbridgeable divide in historical experience and political culture and going on to issue a fatwa on the incompatibility of Shari’a with democracy. To me, this argument not only essentialises and oversimplifies the diverse experiences of entire regions but also misses the wonderful opportunity that the recognition of obvious commonalities would provide to draw historical lessons relevant both to the Middle East and the (less dramatically so but undoubtedly troubled) frontiers of Europe.

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Cleaning up the maps? Portents of unilateral partition in Syria

by Rhodri C. Williams

One of the chilling by-products of the wars in the former Yugoslavia two decades ago was the development of antiseptic terminology like ‘ethnic cleansing’, a neologism that managed to obscure the most visceral and intimate fratricide Europe had seen in decades behind a whiff of wiper fluid. Personally, I was always most disturbed by the related idea of ‘cleaning up the maps’, a notion that departed entirely from any notion of humanity (at least the cleansing was admittedly ‘ethnic’) and equated living communities with any other natural barriers that might impede the march of progress.

Map-cleaning emerged as a term of art at the time of the fall of Srebrenica, one of a number of embattled enclaves in Bosnia that presented both logistically and strategically challenging anomalies in the territorial carve-up then viewed as an essentially inevitable outcome of the war. Get everybody on the right side of defensible lines, so the theory, and the map becomes a blueprint for a durable peace. The problem, as demonstrated in Srebrenica in July 1995, is that the tidying can take the form of flight, or forced removal, or mass murder, depending on the circumstances. Whatever capacity maps may have to be tidy, wars rarely are.

For some time now, the specter of partition has hung over Syria, albeit in a context in which it was not seen as a desired option for any of the parties to the conflict. Rather, as described by Jim Muir at the BBC, de facto partition of the country is likely to result as an inevitable status quo from a situation in which no side is likely to be able to achieve a complete victory over any other. Meanwhile, commentators such as Robin Yassin-Kassab (here) and Marwa Daoudy (in Open Democracy) remain at pains to point out that the Syria conflict is only sectarian to the extent that the Assad regime has made it so in a bid to consolidate and militarize its most reliable constituencies and demonize peaceful protesters.

As described by Daoudy, this tactic may have taken on a dynamic that the regime may now no longer be able or willing to control: Continue reading

Democracy as a process

by Rhodri C. Williams

Democracy is on my mind this afternoon. For one thing, its July 4th and Philip Gourevich was kind enough to remind me that its about more than hotdogs and fireworks:

As our national day of celebrating our political system passes, I am also currently attending one of the most convincing exercises in homegrown open democracy anywhere in the world here in Sweden, while I simultaneously find myself preoccupied by the ongoing struggle to establish something tenable between the unattractive extremes of autocracy and people power in Egypt.

In Sweden, I am attending “Almedalen week“, an annual political gala in the picturesque seaside town of Visby. Sweden is a small enough polity that after a few years there, you recognize all the politicians and they are literally all here, from the xenophobes to the suecophiles, strolling around in their business casual uniforms, making speeches and gleefully networking. Coming from a country where the president has to cart around truckloads of bulletproof glass on foreign trips, it is a pleasant kind of shock to be this up close and personal with Sweden’s political elite, as well as a lot of leading journalists, diplomats and other functionaries.

There is plenty to find fault with in Almedalen, ranging from the way the week has morphed into a commercial free-for-all to the fact that Swedes of color are frequently notable by their absence. But for all that, Almedalen week is a remarkable experience, a sort of national pep rally for a democratic process that is deeply ingrained, civilly conducted, and fundamentally liberal (in the philosophical sense, Rush. Look it up.) Nothing much of import gets said or decided here, but everyone comes away with a fairly visceral sense of a system that is accessible and responsive.

Meanwhile in Egypt, we are seeing a brand new democratic process experience severe ructions. The commentators have been out in force, and there seems to be a  consensus that both sides are at fault, with the Muslim Brotherhood having vastly overplayed the hand it won in Egypt’s first free elections, and the opposition having responded by undermining the very democracy some of them had risked life and limb protesting for in 2011 (see the ICG’s statement here and Nathan J. Brown’s constitutional analysis here). For both practical reasons and more principled ones, there has been some reluctance to characterise what Egypt is currently experiencing as an unqualified coup. But it is undoubtedly a severe and early setback in a fragile process.

As I write this, a raucous group of Yanks (and their Swedish buddies) who are renting the guesthouse next door are doing a very poor rendition of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’. My own patriotism is feeling a bit less bruised now that I dumped this year’s load of IRS busywork into the mail (though Peter Spiro reminds that ever more US citizens abroad are unwilling to face a lifetime of pointless double-filing), and it is tempting to reflect on the progress of democracy. It is undeniably a pretty infectious idea that all those be-wigged gentlemen farmers invoked back in 1776. It certainly feels like the concept has found fertile ground here in Sweden, and it has made extraordinary progress in the last few years in the Middle East. But it is crucial to recall that it is a process, and never an entirely irreversible one.

PS – Anyone interested in watching my efforts to discuss the rule of law in Libya – in Swedish – here in Almedalen can tune in here: http://www.sommartorg.se/. The seminar will be carried live at noon, GMT+2 and will be available for streaming thereafter.

If it’s broke, destroy it? The partition debate arrives in Syria

by Rhodri C. Williams

Almost inevitably in appalling situations like the conflict in Syria, there comes a moment when inhibitions seem to drop among certain sectors of the commentariat and a note of petulant, provocative resignation enters the debate. They can’t live together, goes the standard line, and they have well and truly proved it now. Why should liberals in the West be indulged in their Benetton fantasies? Why spend blood and treasure to preside over the shotgun remarriage of nations so fundamentally unable to tolerate each other’s presence that they engage in fratricide?

The infuriating thing about such ‘partitionist’ arguments is not (only) the curiously visceral satisfaction some commentators seem to take in espousing a vision of humanity unable to accommodate difference by any other means than forced assimilation or strict separation. Nor is it the fact that such arguments tend to rely on speculation about what ordinary people actually want, often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. Nor the way that they play into the hands of unprincipled and frequently undemocratic elites and conflict entrepreneurs. It is the fact that they may in some cases be right but for all the wrong reasons.

My first brush with ‘partitionist’ lines of argument came in Bosnia where my initial receptivity to them was challenged not only intuitively (by my unreconstructed persistence in the belief that people can find ways to rub along together) but also structurally (by my job specifically seeking ways to support Bosnians in doing so). However, my best efforts notwithstanding, the partition bandwagon rolled along, perhaps in most raucous form when splitting Bosnia looked like a real option, yet gaily undeterred long after it was clear that partition was neither particularly feasible nor especially desirable.

Perhaps as a result, there was a certain satisfaction in having worked on something as seemingly pollyanna-ish as property restitution in post-conflict Bosnia and seen it succeed. Granted, not everyone returned, but the result was segregation based largely on individual and household choices, rather than partition based on a political sew-up. And, safe in an unprovable negative, I will propose that the brute fact of restitution – the resolution of 200,000 claims that intimately affected many of the families most victimized by the conflict – cannot but have had a calming influence that has helped keep Bosnia’s notorious post-war ethnic politicking from spilling over into new bloodshed.

One can even argue that the pollyannas have been vindicated once again by the recent post-nationalist demonstrations in Bosnia. Perhaps the new generation we have all been going on about so long has now come of age. If this is the case, a new politics could result. Certainly not a politics that transcends nationalism (not even Sweden can manage that), but one that could at least reveal the hollowness at the core of the ‘inevitability’ discourses surrounding partition proposals in places like Bosnia.

Nevertheless, in 2004, the very year that I left Bosnia convinced that partitionism was en route to the dustbin of history, ethnic riots in Kosovo sent carefully orchestrated plans for national reconciliation there into a tailspin. A familiar call and response ensued, with aggrieved international observers eager to wash their hands of the mess and earnest liberal interventionists arguing that the preservation of a multiethnic society was not only possible but necessary.

At that point, my former Bosnia colleagues Marcus Cox and Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) were prompted to mount one of the most spirited defenses of ‘post-partitionism’ to date, contrasting the integrity of international efforts to hold places like Bosnia together with the cynicism of an earlier generation of peace agreements in which population transfers were as routine as border demarcations. But in 2004, one year into the US invasion of Iraq, the partition debate had barely begun. Two years later, the festering dispute between Arabs and Kurds over the region surrounding Kirkuk and the spiraling sectarian violence in Baghdad placed partition squarely on the international agenda.

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A happy ending for Eurovision?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I promise that this will be my last ever word on the Eurovision song contest. There are any number of good reasons for me to move on, not least the fact that Eurovision seems to move me to rant, which is honestly not my strongest genre. However, the best possible reason was handed to me on a plate by fresh-faced Emmelie de Forrest, who took all the honors and moved them conveniently from one peaceful Nordic democracy to another one a forty minute commute away.

And there were moments, as Azerbaijan nudged within a few ‘dix points’ of Emmelie’s comely heels, where I saw an alternative, dystopic future – a future in which I would once again be compelled to wander the darkened streets of the blogosphere, bitterly denouncing the capricious demolitions of homes in Baku, casting aspersions upon the political naifs of the European Broadcasting Union, and railing against the hypocrisy of ostensible guardians of democracy such as the Council of Europe, long since tamed by a steady diet of inflated per diems and caviar. Thank you, Emmelie, for sparing us all that.

But before I bow out of the debate about Eurovision and human rights fully, a few observations. First, despite the welcome contrast between Azerbaijan’s structural aversion to human rights (universality notwithstanding, how is one honestly to go about applying them in a dynastic autocracy fueled by oil patronage?) and Sweden’s imperfect but earnest efforts, the human rights did emerge once again as a background issue in this year’s contest.

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Depravity

by Rhodri C. Williams

It is hard to find words for Syria anymore. After 18 grinding months, the lengths that a cabal of pampered psychopaths will go to in order to preserve their unwarranted power becomes more appalling by the day.

The constant escalation of atrocities are wrecking the chances of any type of positive future for the country, but they also serve to confirm that almost any outcome would still be better than continued rule by the current regime. They are also a frontal rebuke to the legitimacy of the UN, with Russia and China seemingly no more concerned about dragging the Security Council to the bottom than the Assads are about destroying a country they can no longer rule.

And, at a personal level, the atrocities are a bracing reminder that man’s persistent inhumanity to man still retains the power to shock, even in this jaded age. Think you’ve seen it all, wise guy? Get a load of this!

In this case, the ‘this’ is the shelling and subsequent massacre of 400 or more civilians in the Damascus suburb of Darayya. As described by the BBC, Darayya was the birthplace of the peaceful, ingenious and almost insanely courageous protests that quickly exposed the hollowness and brutality of the regime. After what has happened now, I cannot imagine how one could reasonably expect any further forbearance from ordinary Syrians faced with the choice between peaceful protests and armed resistance. They stand an equal chance of violent death either way and the futility of the first option is now amply in evidence.

While the sheer number of people killed by indiscriminate shelling and up-close-and-personal murder by security forces in Darayya exceeds the toll of prior massacres, the moral collapse of the regime is most evident in a pornographic attempt by the state media to place the blame for these acts on the Free Syrian Army. As Robin Yassin-Kassab puts it in his incisive blog, it is a case of the murderer demanding sole speakers’ rights at the funeral. Where it goes from here, nobody knows.

Land, property and displacement in post-revolution Libya

by Rhodri C. Williams

An earlier version of this text was submitted to Forced Migration Review for its newly released Issue 39 on “North Africa and displacement 2011-2012”. The article has been published there in a shorter version. I can recommend the entire, highly topical magazine and am grateful to the editors for their permission to publish the longer version of my piece here.

By post-conflict standards, Libya has a relatively small population of about 70,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). However, as a result of basic security concerns, many individual IDPs – as well as several entire displaced communities – face the prospect of protracted internal displacement. Despite national and local efforts to foster reconciliation, return will not be a realistic prospect for many until after the national elections currently scheduled for July. Inability to access pre-displacement housing, land and property (HLP) assets poses a significant obstacle to the achievement of durable solutions for almost all IDPs.

However, there is significant variation in the nature of the HLP problem. For households that remain displaced within their own communities due to the wartime destruction of their homes, durable solutions are largely contingent on reconstruction. However, for IDPs displaced outside of their places of origin, inability to access pre-war homes and properties is merely a symptom of the broader insecurity that has blocked virtually all return to date. In most cases, IDPs also face significant tenure insecurity in their current locations, whether they are in collective settlements or private accommodations.

Lurking behind both the tenure insecurity currently facing IDPs and their difficulties accessing pre-war property is a much broader question related to the sweeping and arbitrary redistributions of property undertaken during the forty-two year reign of Libya’s ex-dictator Muammar Ghaddafi. These waves of confiscation and partial compensation undermined the rule of law and sowed the seeds of corruption and legal uncertainty that continue to affect nearly all sectors of society in Libya. While these acts are largely viewed as illegitimate by the interim National Transitional Council (NTC), there is broad recognition that any peremptory attempt to revoke them would risk destabilizing the country.

As a result, these ‘legacy’ property issues are unlikely to be definitively resolved until after the upcoming elections, in the context of democratically-grounded legislative and constitutional reforms. From this perspective, the HLP question in Libya must be seen not only through a humanitarian lens, but also from the perspectives of transitional justice, national reconciliation, rule of law and economic development. While IDPs – and some refugees in Libya – may be disproportionately affected by this question, almost every constituency in the country has a stake in its outcome.

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Foreign Affairs on Syria and the Alawites

by Rhodri C. Williams

Two interesting Foreign Affairs pieces on Syria raise the significance of the ethnic/sectarian dynamic in the conflict. Both articles raise many of the concerns related to the possibility of state collapse and sectarian conflict discussed on these pages earlier. However, both also present modulated views that give some rise to optimism.

First, Leon Goldsmith discusses the role of the Alawite minority that has come to be perceived as dominating Syria through its association with the Alawite Assad dynasty, as well as its overrepresentation in the security forces. He begins with the observation that the Alawites made a conscious decision to integrate into the emerging Syrian state in the 1930s, despite the demonstrated historical threat posed by the Sunni majority. For a time, this audacious decision seemed to pay off as both the Sunni and the Alawites supported the 1963 Baathist coup.

The significance of Hafez al Assad’s massacre of Sunnis in Hama in 1982 is therefore seen as a pivotal moment with high current significance. As tensions had grown after Mr. Assad’s 1970 coup, Sunnis had revived historical accusations of heresy against Alawites and the regime responded by a classic ‘compromising the villages’ strategy:

Even liberal Alawites, who criticized Assad’s aggressiveness at the outset of the revolt, remained silent in the aftermath of the Hama massacre. They had been transformed from victims into perpetrators.

However, Goldsmith evokes the continuing economic disparities within the Alawite community as one of a number of reasons that the current regime may not be able to indefinitely rely on the unconditional support of its base. In an interesting – and no less brave – echo of the 1930s, a small but significant number of Alawites have sought to integrate themselves into the Sunni-led uprising against the Assad regime. Just like the earlier decision to integrate with the state of Syria, the terms of such decisions reflect the existential choices facing minorities in such circumstances:

The fall of Assad presents several possible scenarios for the Alawites. It could launch a comprehensive reconciliation process, drive them back to their mountain refuge in northwestern Syria, or lead to open conflict with the Sunnis. No matter what, the Alawites face a dilemma. If Assad collapses, the community will have to fend off the criticisms of supporting the regime for this long.

In a second piece, former Syrian General Akil Hashem argues that the Syrian uprising has settled into a stalemate in which attrition remains a long way off and both sides will continue killing until they are physically stopped. He implicitly promotes a Western intervention that he asserts would rapidly overcome Syrian defences weakened by pervasive corruption. However, he provides a chilling account of the Assad regime’s mathematics of staving off intervention:

According to my sources, the regime actually regulates how many should be killed per day. At the beginning of the armed uprising, the number was about 50; after the assault on the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, the number increased to 100. Assad knows that if he commits a large-scale massacre, he will trigger intervention. So if the numbers climb to 30,000 or 40,000 dead, or many thousands are killed at once, then you may see the international community act.

With regard to the Alawites, the General does not take sectarian loyalty for granted. One possibility that he foresees for an end to the conflict would be “mass defection among the Alawite sect itself.” Meanwhile, he is sanguine – under the circumstances – about the possibity for the Alawite and other minorities to eventually be incorporated in a post-Assad Syria:

There will be chaos. It will be like Iraq — a totalitarian regime that controlled everything suddenly collapsing, opening the door for all kinds of problems, even sectarian violence. But anything that comes after the regime would be a million times better than what we currently have. The doomsday scenarios of the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda taking over Syria are ridiculous. Eventually, the opposition forces in the diaspora and within the country will find a way to unite to establish a free, democratic country.

 Given the current departure point and the precedents in the region, this sounds almost pie-in-the-sky. Then again, Mr. Hashem really may not have so much to lose either way – if he is Sunni.