Tag Archives: Arab Spring

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.

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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.

The Arab Spring – updated challenges and outdated responses

by Rhodri C. Williams

Just a quick Sunday morning posting inspired by two commentaries plucked out of the Swedish foreign ministry’s list of current readings. Taken together, they arguably reflect two fundamental factors at risk of being obscured by the frenetic flow of images and information constantly pumping out of the contemporary Middle East – namely the unprecedented nature of some of the underlying changes driving the unrest and the antediluvian inability of human governance institutions to react effectively.

First out is Thomas Friedman, with an NYT commentary on how the Arab Spring is driven “not only by political and economic stresses, but, less visibly, by environmental, population and climate stresses as well.” Friedman goes beyond my (and others’) observations last year that the Arab Spring was partly motivated by distributional inequalities related to land rights to observe that the productivity of land in the Middle East and North Africa is fundamentally threatened by climate change. For instance, a UN report found that persistent winter droughts wiped out 800,000 Syrian farmers in the five years leading up to the current revolt, and such trends appear to be the new rule rather than the exception.

Friedman extensively cites a report by Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington recommending a broader vision for responding to the environmental as well as the political risk factors in the Middle East:

“If climate projections stay on their current path, the drought situation in North Africa and the Middle East is going to get progressively worse, and you will end up witnessing cycle after cycle of instability that may be the impetus for future authoritarian responses,” argues Femia. “There are a few ways that the U.S. can be on the right side of history in the Arab world. One is to enthusiastically and robustly support democratic movements.” The other is to invest in climate-adaptive infrastructure and improvements in water management — to make these countries more resilient in an age of disruptive climate change.

However, a second commentary by Timothy Garton Ash demonstrates how difficult engineering such a response may be. Garton Ash alleges that Syria is being left to an “Ottoman fate” – one that is almost entirely subject to local and regional calculations of power and interest that have have little time for the suffering of ordinary civilians caught up in the violence. Garton alleges that the reason that Europe, in particular, has failed to recognize its interest in seeking a just resolution of the issue is related to its dithering over Turkey’s candidacy to the EU:

The balance of forces around Syria would be different if the historically new, shared sovereignty model of the EU had reached out to embrace Turkey, as it has been promising to do – incredibly, in both senses of the word – for nearly 50 years, since the association agreement of 1963. But it has not. Europe, as Europe, is inaudible on Syria as on so many other issues. And so the fate of that country’s brave resisters and suffering civilians depends on the old-fashioned regional competition of diverse sovereign powers.

 Garton Ash’s implication that a humanitarian intervention should be sought in Syria will be controversial, in the context of a much broader debate raging over this issue. However, his other implication – that Europe has still not learned that failure to positively engage with its periphery will ultimately bring negative consequences – is harder to dispute. This finding is particularly poignant on the 20th anniversary of Europe’s dithering over the breakup of the former Yugoslavia – and particularly worrisome in light of the new climate change-related challenges to regional and global governance that we were so blissfully unaware of back then.

Costing stability against freedom: The minority dilemma in Syria and Iraq

by Rhodri C. Williams

In a recent discussion with a member of Syria’s Christian minority here in Sweden, I found myself conceding the point that a majority of the population may still support the al Assad regime and that many of its opponents in the region clearly have a political axe to grind alongside their professed humanitarian motivations. It was easy enough to dismiss the notion that Assad had been seriously interested in reform, but my interlocutor’s most troubling argument was that the regime had been – and remained – the sole guarantee of her and her communities’ physical safety.

In a media world almost saturated with analysis of the Arab Spring, an increasingly historically oriented strain of thinking has begun to revive the arguments that had become too threadbare to save Mubarak and Ghaddafi – après moi le déluge: Continue reading

More Arab than Spring?

by Rhodri C. Williams

In skimming OpenDemocracy’s latest analysis of the Arab Spring, I came across a curious pair of coincidences. The superficial one involves ten percent, that being the percentage of the Egyptian population made up of Coptic Christians, as well as the population of a set of North African and Sahel countries centered on Libya composed of the Tuareg people. The less superficial coincidence relates to the effect of years of allowing these minorities to be used as a scapegoat.

The more obvious case is described by Nelly van Doorn-Haarder and relates to Coptic Christians, a religious minority in Egypt that have come under increasingly violent attack since the 1970s and tend to be blamed for their own misfortune: “Justifications for the attacks abounded: a village feud, two merchants fighting, Copts had raped a Muslim girl.  Attacking Christians became the new normal; somehow they deserved what happened.”

Harking back to the Economist’s plug for an Arab Spring guided strictly by individual rights of the civil and political variety last May (and my response), the Coptic Christians probably make up one of the most favourable examples for this viewpoint. They are not only a minority that has its home in Egypt (e.g., has no clear secessionist agenda), but also one that suffers from egregious discrimination in the civil and political arena.

A great deal could be done to redress their situation, in other words, through measures ensuring effective equality, e.g. without having to go as far as endorsing any group-specific rights for them. Moreover, the incentives to take such steps should exist – after the most recent rioting, the BBC reported that the violence had not only caused the biggest stock market slide since last March but could also derail parliamentary elections set for next month if it continued.

On the other hand, the Tuareg present a more complicated scenario, raising issues that the Economist’s formulation of human rights cannot necessarily answer. As a transnational ethnic and linguistic minority, the Tuareg of the Sahel are in a similar situation to the Kurds – a nation that had the same potential, in principle, as many others to form a state, but which was ultimately hit with the uti posseditis stick and ended up as a series of contiguous minorities in states dominated by others.

In a fascinating analysis in OpenDemocracy, Hugh Brody notes that this fate may explain why the Tuareg of Libya (well, some of them) have turned out to be the one group demonstrating unswerving loyalty to the Ghaddafi regime clear through to the bitter end. Citing a prescient (pre-Arab Spring) commentary on the Tuareg by Jeremy Keenan in Al-Jazeera, Brody notes that many countries in the region had found it expedient to accuse the Tuareg of Al Quaeda ties during the late, unlamented era of the Global War on Terror.

By doing so, these countries were in a position to forge valuable ties with Western security forces and simultaneously continue longstanding depredations against Tuareg land and natural resources. However, they left a legacy of bitterness that translated into an otherwise inexplicable loyalty to Colonel Ghaddafi, the only leader in the region who had seen a tactical interest in doing anything to ameliorate the Tuareg’s situation (notably through preferential economic treatment rather than any meaningful political autonomy).

In light of their situation, the Tuareg present a dilemma to the new Libyan authorities as a group, rather than as individuals, and a sustainable resolution of the conflict is likely to require guarantees of some degree of recognition of this group identity, rather than individual guarantees of equality. The last word goes to Hugh Brody, who summarizes both the nature of the problem and the nature of any meaningful solution:

Thus have the Tuareg come to be at the centre of Libyan events, for which many of them may find themselves paying a dreadful price.  They have had few friends, and may now have increased the animosity of their old enemies.  The Libyans who are taking over their country need to find the fullest and most intelligent understanding of the history that has shaped the lives and decisions of the Tuareg.  They must bring the Tuareg a new justice rather than yet another level of retribution.

Sweden versus social and economic human rights? Part 1: Benchmarking human rights

by Rhodri C. Williams

Last weekend, Swedish international lawyer Krister Thelin published a provocatively commonsensical proposal in Dagens Nyheter, one of Sweden’s two big broadsheets. In his article, Thelin, who sits on the UN Human Rights Committee, recommended that the countries of the world be assigned grades allowing comparison of their human rights performance. He argues that overcoming UN hesitations in this area would place greater pressure on non-compliant states and provide benchmarks to guide the performance of governments genuinely interested in performing better. Mr. Thelin also suggested that such an approach would be of immediate assistance in encouraging progress toward democracy and respect for human rights in the course of the ongoing ‘Arab Spring’ in the Middle East and North Africa.

This argument is sound in principle. Human rights are meant to be universal and applicable in equal measure to all the states of the world. Moreover, the vast majority of states have ratified human rights conventions and virtually none deny the existence or applicability of human rights as a matter of official policy. From this perspective, the failure of states to uniformly apply human rights is not only morally repugnant but hypocritical, and a grading system as proposed by Mr. Thelin would further expose this hypocrisy. The establishment of such a system would probably be more complicated than Mr. Thelin lets on, given that it would add further fuel to a number of debates within the field of human rights as well as in regard to the related fields of humanitarian assistance, development cooperation and transitional justice. However, one of the striking aspects of Mr. Thelin’s proposal, as it now stands, is that it does not entirely acknowledge the existence and significance of these debates.

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