Posts Tagged ‘Arab spring’

Was European colonialism the force that spread democracy?

November 26, 2012

A new paper in the American Political Science Review suggests that European colonialism was the key driver in establishing democratic systems of government around the world. Only states which had strong established political structures prior to the colonial wave managed to resist colonial rule and/or  the establishment of “democratic” European institutions. According to the author, Jacob Gerner Harir of the University of Copenhagen,

”This could mean that perhaps we need to adopt a new view of the colonial era. Even though it led to massive exploitation and oppression of many people in the Third World, we can now see that it also contributed to the spread of democracy.”

There is a hint of defensiveness here, almost as if this work is also an attempt to justify the oppression and exploitation that was the main-stay of European colonialism.

(more…)

Arab spring withering into autumn

June 23, 2011

The prospects and hopes and expectations of the Arab spring spreading throughout the Arab world are now becoming uncertain. In Tunisia and Egypt the military is firmly in control and whether a real shift of power to the people will now take place remains in doubt. There is still hope and the change itself is irreversible but how far the change will go remains to be seen. It will only be by attacking the high unemployment and endemic corruption that a measure of success can be achieved.

But the fires lit by the events in Tunisia and Libya are struggling to stay alight in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. In Saudi Arabia the government has so far managed to douse even the smallest sparks that were flickering.

In Bahrain the King with the help of the Saudis is suppressing all opposition from the Shia majority:

The sentencing of 21 men to prison terms ranging from two years to life has sent waves of anger through the majority Shia community in Bahrain. Family members say they have already experienced weeks and months of anxiety about loved ones, to whom they have been given little access.

They say the men have been tortured, denied appropriate legal representation, and are now being sentenced harshly for crimes they did not commit in a bid to silence opposition calls for reform.

In Yemen:

Opposition figures blamed pro-government military officials for allowing more than 60 suspected members of al-Qaida to escape Wednesday from a Yemeni prison. The mass escape from the prison occurred Wednesday in the southern city of Mukalla.

Opposition leaders blamed senior military officials loyal to embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh for the prison break. They said it was an effort to get financial support from Washington and prop up the regime of the Yemeni president, the Yemen Post reports.

As the Hindu puts it:

Yemen, in many ways, is the most complicated situation. It is infested with the maximum external interference — Saudi Arabia, U.S., Iran, GCC and assorted countries. At one time, its long-serving President had accepted the principle of resigning and leaving, but since seems to have changed his mind. The injuries he suffered in an attack on his compound and consequent flight to Saudi Arabia have paradoxically given him time to consolidate his position and strengthen his support base in Yemen. The south wants to secede and parts of north want to merge with the big northern neighbour, but the latter is not interested, it seems. The Shia-Sunni act is also being played out there. Al-Qaeda was reported to have captured a town, Zinjibar, in the south, but it was suspected to be a diabolical move of the President who, thereby, calculated to win the sympathy of the Americans. The latter are exploiting the situation and relentlessly bombing suspected concentrations of the al-Qaeda, hoping to eliminate its leadership.

In Libya things are getting very messy and the NATO efforts sans the US is less than impressive:

Libya has turned out to be the cry of despair for those who have committed their armed personnel, scarce financial resources and, more importantly, prestige in the outcome of the situation there. The conflict has gone on for longer than anyone expected and is costing the western nations more than they would really care to spend. Having pushed through Resolution 1973 with the help of the Arab League, they had calculated a quick and low-cost operation. Like in Afghanistan, Nato cannot afford to pull out without being able to claim victory. Two or three factors have frustrated their plans — Muammar Qadhafi’s stubborn refusal to disappear from the scene, the absence of an identifiable and credible alternative leadership, and the continued loyalty of many African states to Mr. Qadhafi. Mr. Qadhafi is no doubt counting on the fatigue — financial and military — factor weakening public support for the Nato operation. Nato strikes killing civilians will further erode support and provide more propaganda ammunition to Mr. Qadhafi.

And in Syria an embattled Assad is balancing between cosmetic reforms and a ruthless and bloody repression of his opponents:

Tens of thousands of Syrians are demonstrating in support of the president a day after pro-democracy protesters rejected his speech. President Bashar Assad vowed reform in a speech Monday that was only his third public appearance since the revolt against his family’s 40-year-rule erupted in March.

But his vague overtures to a pro-democracy uprising fell flat with the opposition, and anti-government protesters took to the streets shouting “Liar!” and demanding his ouster. Thousands of people carrying Assad’s pictures took to the streets of Damascus on Tuesday, pledging allegiance to the president.

….  The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad unleashed his military and security forces to crush the protest movement that erupted in March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and that spread to region after region.

There is now a real possibility that the  fresh green  Arab Spring which promised so much just a few months ago may wither into an Arab Autumn and millions may have to withstand a dormant and repressive period before a new Spring finally arrives.

But this new season will surely come.

Paradigm shift: The beginning of the end of Jihadism

May 9, 2011

I have posted earlier that the death of Osama bin Laden represents a paradigm shift for US foreign policy where after a decade the “Get Osama” game is over. The question of evidence of Osama being dead is already obsolete. Doubts about the legality of  executing a self-appointed enemy in another country without the tacit approval of that country have also become irrelevant. The bottom-line is that it is the end of one chapter – if not the whole book – of the 9/11 tragedy. US Policy can finally begin to look beyond the nebulous “War on Terror”. The lack of definable boundaries for this “War” has actually led – in 10 years – to the loss of many of the civil liberties which had been won slowly in the previous 50+ years since the end of World War II. Perhaps some of these will be restored.

But the shift may be more fundamental and more widespread than just for US policy. The Spring revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East have  actually caused change on the ground and have been more effective than any ideology based on jihadism or terrorism. As this movement spreads to Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and perhaps even to Saudi Arabia, the value and even the capability of jihad being a vehicle for revolutionary change is losing ground.

The world has shifted away from Ben Ali, Mubarak, Osama bin Laden, Gaddafi, King Abdullah, Assad and their ilk.

Paradigm Shift

The violence of jihad is no longer being seen as a credible method of change against the authoritarian regimes of the Arab World. Other methods are clearly more effective. Jihad has few definable objectives left. 

Der Spiegel writes:

Osama bin Laden’s violent ideology may have once garnered support in the Arab world, but his death this week came at a time when the burgeoning pro-democracy movement in the Muslim world had rendered his ideas and his international terror network al-Qaida irrelevant.

… Many Muslims admired Osama bin Laden, and not secretly. A study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center conducted two years after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington found that 72 percent of Palestinians, almost 60 percent of Indonesians and Jordanians and almost half the Pakistani population considered bin Laden to be “trustworthy.”

Given such overwhelming support back then, it is amazing how little interest there is today in the former batal, or hero, in the Arab world. The news of the audacious Navy Seals raid electrified the West, but in North Africa and the Middle East it was merely one story among many. On Tuesday, the front page of Dubai’s Al-Bajan newspaper was dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates. In Cairo, the lead article in the Al-Wafd newspaper addressed worries about money flowing out of Egypt. The Arab News in the Saudi capital Jeddah reported that English would now be an obligatory subject at school from fourth grade onward. Only then did it mention and comment on the death of “the Sheikh,” as bin Laden was always respectfully and reverentially referred to.

Not much of that respect and reverence appears to remain, and both bin Laden’s reputation and the violent culture he symbolized have been on the decline in the Muslim world for years. Since 2003, researchers at Pew have asked the same question about bin Laden every year. While 72 percent of Palestinians backed him in 2003, that figure has now fallen to 34 percent. Jordanian support has dropped from 56 to 13 percent, while Pakistani backing for bin Laden has slumped from 46 to 18 percent. ….. But as dangerous as al-Qaida remains as a terrorist organization, its political ideology has become virtually irrelevant in the Middle East. The more attacks it has carried out since 9/11 — including on targets in the Muslim world — the harder it has been to justify that terrorism to ordinary Muslims. …

…. The upturn in fortunes in the Persian Gulf, the resulting opening of previously closed Arab economies and the simultaneous boom in the use of social media have threatened to sideline al-Qaida completely. A growing majority of mainly young Arabs are no longer primarily interested in fighting presumed American hegemony in the Middle East or pushing for the acceptance of a religion allegedly repressed by pro-Western regimes. Instead they want a share of the economic growth from which only their rulers’ clans have profited until now.

Pious jihadist philosophers simply have no answers to such aspirations. Religious arguments are as useless in countering anger at the unjust division of wealth as the sham reforms with which autocratic leaders in the region have tried, and in several instances, failed to cling to power. It is ironic, for example, that bin Laden’s killing comes only weeks after the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who claimed until the bitter end that “hundreds of new bin Ladens” would make the world unsafe unless his advice was heeded. 

Other dictators and terrorist leaders will undoubtedly follow Mubarak and bin Laden into the annals of history. As the commanders of a sinking epoch both men managed to cause a lot of harm, but their philosophies are finished.

Singapore elections: A benevolent dictatorship has become a one-party authoritarian “democracy”

May 7, 2011

Lee Kwan Yew in 1963

Lee Kwan Yew built Singapore. He also put in place all the trappings of a multi-party democracy but was effectively the benevolent dictator who controlled every aspect of life for over 40 years (31 years officially as Prime Minister and for a decade afterwards).

But the institutions he set up for legislative representation and the judiciary are all somewhat nullified when the current reality is one of a single party, ruling in a quite authoritarian style under the cloak of a pluralistic democracy. The ruling party has been quite ruthless in using legalites and a compliant judiciary to exclude rival political parties as soon as they begin to show any signs of becoming popular.

Singaporean politics have been dominated by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since the 1959 general election when Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore’s first prime minister (Singapore was then a self-governing state within the British Empire). The PAP has been in government ever since. Singapore left the Commonwealth in 1963 to join the Federation of Malaysia, but was expelled from the Federation in 1965 after Lee Kuan Yew disagreed with the federal government in Kuala Lumpur. Foreign political analysts and several opposition parties including the Workers’ Party of Singaporeand the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) have argued that Singapore is a de facto one-party state.

The Economist Intelligence Unit classes Singapore as a “hybrid” country, with authoritarian and democratic elements. Freedom House does not consider Singapore an “electoral democracy” and ranks the country as “partly free”. Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 140th out of 167 countries in its 2005 Worldwide Press Freedom Index.

… The PAP employs censorship, gerrymandering and the filing of civil suits against the opposition for libel or slander to impede their success. Several former and present members of the opposition, includingFrancis Seow, J.B. Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan perceive the Singaporean courts as favourable towards the government and the PAP due to a lack of separation of powers. …..

Jeyaretnam lost a series of suits to members of the PAP and was declared bankrupt in 2001, effectively disqualifying him from participating in future elections. Similar civil suits have been filed against Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party. In 2005, filmmaker Martyn See shot a documentary on Chee called “Singapore Rebel” and was threatened with a lawsuit for making a “politically partisan” film, which is illegal in Singapore. In 2008, Chee Soon Juan along with his sister Chee Siok Chin were again sentenced to jail for testimony they provided in court. Both have been made bankrupt and are prohibited from leaving the country.

Singapore goes to the polls today and it is noticeable that the events in Tunisia and Egypt have aroused a yearning among many Singaporeans for the strangle-hold of the PAP to be at least weakened if not broken.

BBC:  Politics in the tiny but hugely wealthy state have been dominated by the current ruling party since independence in 1965. But a decision by opposition parties to co-ordinate more closely, and a huge rise in the use of social media, have created a greater sense of competition. The issue dominating discussion is the economy.

Singapore is one of the safest, cleanest and wealthiest countries on the planet – something which should bode well for any incumbent government. And in truth there is little doubt that the People’s Action Party, which has ruled since independence, will be returned to power.

But it is facing a tougher test in this election than ever before. The many parties of the traditionally fragmented opposition have adopted a co-ordinated strategy which has allowed them to challenge almost every seat.

In fact the only uncontested constituency is that of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.

The challenges facing the country are being discussed. Old orthodoxies are tentatively being challenged. Which is why this election, in normally staid Singapore, is being hailed as the most exciting for a generation.

Whether the Arab spring or the Facebook revolution will be reflected in these elections remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that the PAP is more worried about the effect of the new social media sites than they have ever been. They have even apologised for errors they have made. But Lee Kwan Yew’s legacy will not be so easily  overturned when the majority perceive – as they do – that they have it “pretty good”  and maintaining the status quo is far better than the uncertain benefits of an increased level of freedom.


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