Archive for May, 2012

Syria is a second Bosnia. Assad is Milosevic.

We all saw the horrifying images. Dozens of children who were mercilessly slaughtered in the Syrian city Houla. It is one of the many massacres since the Syrian revolution started on 15 March 2011. Men, women, children are killed by the regime’s soldiers by grenades, bullets, knifes or bare hands. Those who are captured, are tortured to death in the most brutal ways. We all know it. We all see it. But the focus on Syria is decreasing. It’s hard to broadcast the same news every day. Meanwhile the international community keeps on “observing”. It’s a crying shame. How much longer are we going to leave Bashar Al-Assad untouched?
Cynically enough the comparison with the war in Bosnia is more than obvious. The scenario is nearly identical. A quick memory refresher: the violence in Bosnia started in April 1992, after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The Bosnian Serbs proclaimed their own republic and carried out an ethnic cleansing through the whole territory, mainly of Bosnian Muslims, which caused a hundred thousand victims. The most horrifying images, especially those of Sarajevo and Srebrenica, remain deeply embedded in our minds and are one of the darkest pages in the history of the international community.
Why? Just like in Syria the international community tried a peace plan for Bosnia, on 1 May 1993. Also 13 months after the war and the slaughtering had started. The plan required that the Serbs would stop shelling Sarajevo. The comparison with Homs and Hama is clear. When the horror continued, Western countries scanned each other for months in order to measure their readiness for a military intervention. Alas, nobody was ready. The reasons for their hesitance sound familiar: the situation was complex, it was a sectarian war between Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims who all had committed crimes, which made it difficult to choose a side, Russia was objecting because of its ties with Serbia and there was no “post-war-plan”.
Only three years and a hundred thousand victims after the beginning of the war, a military intervention took finally place. A few months after the intervention all the Dayton agreements were signed by all parties concerned. Bosnia had to wait until the ethnic massacre of Srebrenica, where seven thousand Bosnians were massacred at once, while they were actually under UN protection.
It is a disgrace that the international community is using identical reasons for not intervening in Syria. The situation is complex in Syria, there is fear for sectarian violence, Russia is objecting, there is no “post-Assad-plan” and the opposition is divided – even if they are united in the request for Assad to leave. Since 2001 there is another argument that is cunningly manipulated by Assad: the presence of Al-Qaeda. Although we can doubt to what extend Al-Qaeda still exists, since a few months there are indeed members present in Syria. That was the case in Bosnia as well, and there are probably as many of them in Syria as there used to be in Bosnia at the time: a few hundred. The only difference is that back then they were called Mujahedeen.
In Cairo I regularly meet Syrian opposition leaders. Each one of them fled from Syria in the past six months. Many of them lived under cover for many months. Others were tortured in Assad’s prisons. They all say the same thing: after the massacre in Houla it should be clear for everybody: Kofi Annan’s peace plan doesn’t work and it will never work. Assad will do everything to stay in power, no matter what. His army will continue to rape, to kill and to destroy. His secret service will continue to arrest people who dear to talk to UN-watchers and torture them to death. Those who openly oppose against Assad, will be killed as well as their entire family. The terror will remain, even though if Assad is not in a strong position at all. The part of the army actually fighting consist of only twenty thousand soldiers. He doesn’t trust all the others. More than hundred thousand soldiers are kept in their barracks. Last week I heard from somebody who had just fled Damascus that Assad even has confiscated all passports of ministers and army generals, in order to prevent them from escaping the country.
There is only one way to stop this terror and that is an international intervention. The creation of one or two safe zones where people can find refuge and from where humanitarian aid can be sent to the right places. Sooner or later this intervention will take place, just like in Bosnia,. With the UN if possible, with NATO if necessary, just like in Kosovo in 1999. The only question is: how many more children will need to be massacred before proper action will be taken?

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How to safeguard the revolution in Egypt? An outsider’s perspective.

Two days before the presidential elections, I had a dinner in my place with some revolutionaries and bloggers. One of them suddenly asked the question: “What are we going to do if it’s a run-off between Morsi and Shafiq?” A moment of silence followed. Nobody had really thought this could have been a possibility. Voting for Morsi would give the Muslim Brotherhood all the power in Egypt, a secular’s worst nightmare. Voting for Shafiq, the last Prime Minister of Mubarak, would turn the revolution back to square one, a revolutionary’s worst nightmare.

But here we are. The worst case scenario for the secular revolutionaries is today’s reality. How could that happen? The answer is quite obvious: fragmentation. It was fragmentation that led to the defeat in the Parliamentary elections, earlier this year, and it is fragmentation that blocked revolutionary candidates to make it to the second round of the presidential elections. If they would have combined forces, they would have easily made it. But for some reason, every revolutionary wants to become the next President of Egypt.

So what to do now? Boycotting the run-off is useless. If you don’t participate in the election you have no right to speak afterwards. Counting on a new revolution, in case there has been no electoral fraud, is strange. You cannot demand for democratic elections and refuse to recognize the results if you don’t like them. Even not if you profoundly dislike the results. Doing nothing at all, finally, and giving everybody the freedom to vote for the candidate he dislikes the least, is the worst strategy as it throws away the power of all revolutionary votes combined and it leaves the revolution with empty hands.

In my opinion, there is only one way to safeguard the revolution: think strategically and negotiate! Neither Morsi, nor Shafiq are sure about winning the presidency. So no doubt both of them are desperate for any proposal that could lead them to victory. With some 40% of the votes, the revolutionary power and thus leverage is much bigger, than most might imagine. Here lies the opportunity. For once, the other candidates should stick together. As one block they should offer their support in exchange for non-negotiable conditions. The secular/revolutionaries must be guaranteed on paper 1) the vice-president, 2) the prime minister, 3) half of the government ministries, 4) half plus one of the Constitutional Committee 5) all decisions will be signed by both the president and the vice-president. This is politics. This is democracy.

Public statements will not safeguard the revolution, but tough negotiations can. I would first go to Mohamed Morsi with this package. If he agrees, the power of the Muslim Brotherhood and the new President of Egypt will be seriously reduced. But he will realise, this is the only way to unite the country again and make it move forward. If he refuses, it means that not Egypt but the Muslim Brotherhood is on top of his agenda. In that case, go with the same package to Shafiq.

Is this package the ultimate guarantee that the voice of the revolution will always be heard? Perhaps not, but if one of the candidates agrees, signs the paper and announces this publicly during the campaign, he cannot act as it doesn’t exist, once he is elected. It will give the revolutionary forces the opportunity to safeguard what millions of Egyptians have been fighting for. If the next President of Egypt breaks his promises, then and only then a second revolution can start again.

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Elections in Egypt: some early conclusions

Today, just as yesterday, millions of Egyptians are casting their vote in the first democratic presidential elections ever. Already since 5 am men and women are waiting in line in front of the polling stations. Around 8 am I have seen thousands of people quietly standing in lines of hundreds of meters, hoping to seal the change Egypt is going through since the revolution of beginning 2011. Since many weeks and even months Egyptians discuss these elections all the time and everywhere. The first question people asking each other in metro, taxi or teahouse was always: who are you going to vote for? Without doubt the most remarkable moment of the presidential campaign, was the debate, live on two commercial televisions, between the two top contenders, Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh. The actual debate lasted not less then four and a half hours. Until two o’clock at night. All pubs were packed with people cheering the debate as if it was the finale of the Champions League. It is very clear: Egyptians adore free elections and no-one is going to take this away from them anymore.

Although today is only the beginning of the presidential process – on 16-17 June there is the second round and on 30 June the transfer of power – some conclusions can already be drawn.

1. These elections are democratic because the outcome is totally unpredictable. Where three weeks ago everybody would have said that Moussa and Abul Fotouh would go to the second round, today it is impossible to make a prediction. There are five top candidates and every single one of them has the possibility to win.
(1) Amr Moussa (former foreign minister of Mubarak and former secretary-general of the Arab League) has started his campaign almost the day after Mubarak was ousted from office. Moussa is popular because he talks like the people in the street do. Some call him even populist. His advantage is his experience, his disadvantage his links to the old regime.
(2) Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh (former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, left to become presidential candidate) is also one of the first candidates. He promotes himself as someone who unifies people. Despite his conservative past, he is a progressive Muslim and an early supporter of the revolution. That’s the reason why many young revolutionaries are campaigning for him. Strange enough he also has the support of the Salafis, as they didn’t want to support the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, many Egyptians distrust Abul Futouh as they believe that ‘once MB always MB’.
(3) Mohamed Morsi (president of the Freedom and Justice Party from the MB) entered very late in the race. The candidate of the MB was initially Khairat Al Shater. But as he was kicked out of the race because of ‘legal reasons’, Morsi came in as the ‘reserve-candidate’. Morsi has no charisma at all. But he is backed by a formidable machine: the Muslim Brotherhood. I have seen towns change overnight from no Morsi into all Morsi.
(4) Ahmed Shafiq (last Prime Minister under Mubarak, general) had to wait long before getting the permission to run. The parliament voted a law that barred former ministers of Mubarak (last ten years) to run for president, but the Election Committee overruled that. He is the candidate of the Army and did an huge campaign in a short period of time. Because of the deteriorated security situation in Egypt, many people like his image of law and order.
(5) Hamdeen Sabahi (long time Nasserist and revolutionary) might become the biggest surprise of the elections. Until three weeks ago, one could hardly hear his name mentioned. Now half of the taxidrivers say they are going to vote for him. Most of all candidates, Sabahi embodies the revolution and secularism at the same time.

2. It is surprising but clear that three months after their huge victory in the parliamentary elections the Muslim Brotherhood is loosing ground. Many people who voted for the MB are now despising them. Why? First of all, there is disappointment. Egyptians voted for the MB because they were the most organised and stable factor after the revolution and thus the best guarantee to make Egypt moving forward again. Egyptians were that enthusiastic about the new parliament that they watched the live broadcasted plenary sessions every day. There they saw MB not doing what they had hoped for. Secondly, Egyptians are angry about one specific broken promise: that MB would never issue a presidential candidate. The moment Khairat Al-Shater announced his candidacy, the reaction of many people was very harsh: MB wants all the power and we will not let this happen. A Gallup poll confirms this tendency, saying that MB has lost one third of their support since February :

3. In general, this campaign proved that the role of Islam in people’s life and convictions is much more complex than assumed. One could say that Egyptians are very religious, but don’t like someone to impose on them how to be religious. Moreover, the debate on how to combine Islam and democracy is far from ended, and is likely never to end. A great majority of Egyptians do support the article 2 of the constitution saying that ‘Islamic law (sharia) is the main source of legislation. At the same time they fiercely disagree on what the sharia exactly is and how to interpret it. For many this article 2 is what the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ was for the European Constitution. Nathan Brown, from Carnegie, has written a very good article about this :

4. Not one candidate likes Israel, but the fiercest opponent is not an Islamist but the socialist-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi. He openly said many times the peace-treaty should be thrown in the dustbin. One should also not forget that Amr Moussa became popular as foreign minister by being tough on Israel. If we can believe a study of Brookings, a huge majority see Israel and the United States as biggest threats. ( Obama has lost a lot of popularity, while Erdogan remains a hero. An old opinion poll of the BBC shows that only 10% of the Egyptians see the EU as a positive force. It is hard to say what the current perception of the EU is. But in general people have no idea what the EU is doing in Egypt; they even don’t know the EU is giving money to the country. Europe does have huge opportunities in the region, but a lot of work still needs to be done.

Whatever the results will be of this historic election, it is clear that from today on we can put Egypt on the list of the world’s democracies. And this is thanks and only thanks to all those brave revolutionaries who risked their life time and again on and around Tahrir Square. As Europe failed to support the revolution, it should use this new key moment and make sure the EU is finally the neighbour that Egypt deserves.

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