Syria: An Impending Humanitarian Crisis?
Egypt’s Vote Begins: The Election vs. the Revolution
Successful Islamist Parties: The Brand ‘Justice and Development’
Sanctions, Refugees, and Indecision: A Recipe for the Perfect Storm?
Last week saw the imposition of sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria from a host of unlikely sources. The Arab League stepped up to the plate and came through on its pledge to impose sanctions if Assad did not permit the entry of a League observer mission – as well as a host of other criteria outlined in the previous bulletin. As this week continued, the Syrian government indicated its willingness to allow a League observer mission into the country, if League sanctions were cancelled. However, the Syrian government continued its efforts to control every aspect of the observer mission, including numbers and nationalities involved in the delegation. The League Secretary-General, Nabil al-Araby, indicated that it was unlikely that the League would comply with these requests, including any immediate cessation of sanctions. Turkey also announced the implementation of sanctions targeting the Assad-regime.
While the League sanctions were the general freezing of financial assets and implementation of travel bans on senior political personalities, Turkey’s sanctions were further reaching and far more harmful to the regime. The Turkish Foreign Minister announced an immediate freeze of Syrian government assets in Turkey, as well as a ban on transactions with the Syrian government. In addition to the standard travel ban on officials, a variety of trade and strategy mission meetings have been scrapped as well. Possibly most alarming to the Assad regime is the halting of military and arms transfers to the Syrian army. The European Union also increased its sanctions against Turkey – much to the delight of the US government.
While these sanctions do show an increased acknowledgement of the continuing bloodshed in Syria – UN reports now indicated that over 4,000 people have been killed since protests began in mid-March – they also present a stumbling block and cause for concern. While the sanctions present a loss of face for the regime, and a loss of faith in the regime from the likes of former staunch allies, such as the League, they are unlikely to personally effect Assad or his cronies. As is typically the case with the likes of economic sanctions, the Syrian people are the ones who stand to lose the most, especially as the country enters the coldest winter months and the price of basic commodities continues to sky-rocket. A travel ban for senior officials is akin to a slap on the wrist, and simply leaves them with more time on their hands to come up with methods and strategies of shutting down the continuing protests.
Most alarmingly are the continued reports of refugees leaving Syria for neighbouring countries, in particular Turkey. Syria itself plays host to a plethora of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, approximately 1.3 million, who are classified as refugees or in the instance of Palestinians as stateless.’ As hostilities continue more and more pundits and statesmen alike are voicing concerns that Syria will descend into outright Civil War – a la the recent conflict in Libya. However, in Syria there is a far better trained and equipped state military than was found in Libya in recent years. Even with the numerous continuing defections, it is unlikely that any homegrown resistance could stage a successful military campaign against the Syrian military.
This puts the West and NATO in a tricky situation. With continuing calls for NATO to get involved and not to get involved, there seems to be little clarity as to what will actually happen.
There is certainly little appetite in the West for further military involvement, as their forces are still recovering from the involvement in Libya. Similarly, the Syrian army would present far more of a challenge than Gaddafi’s army. Likewise, humanitarian aid agencies seem to be reluctant to draw too much attention to the current situation, opting instead to respond as incidents occur rather than preemptively plan and establish refugee camps and ‘humanitarian corridors.’ Where does this leave the situation? In a very uncertain place, but with the likelihood of further death and destruction before any substantive action is taken.
Egypt Votes: the Revolution vs the Elections
For the first time in decades, Parliamentary elections in Egypt took place without violence and without foreknowledge of the winners. But the elections occurred in less than ideal conditions, following in the immediate wake of a violent crackdown by Egyptian military and riot police, which killed more than 40 Egyptian protestors and injured more than 3,000. The violence erupted after the revolution reasserted its determination, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets to demand an end to military rule and the transfer of power to a civilian government. During an Al Jazeera English broadcast protestors could be heard chanting, “The people demand the overthrow of the regime,” echoing the original words chanted to topple former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In response to the renewed protests, the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) tried to appease protestors by appointing Kamal El-Ganzouri as Prime Minister. El-Ganzouri previously served as Prime Minister under Mubarak in the late 90s. His selection is likely not what protestors had in mind as they renewed their calls for an overthrow of the regime.
Despite the newly energized protests, the brutal attacks on protestors, and calls emanating from Tahrir Square to boycott the elections, the SCAF determined that the first phase of the Parliamentary elections would take place - rubber-coated steel bullets, the clouds of American-made tear gas looming over Tahrir Square, and the battles on Muhammad Mahmoud Street.
Yet voter turnout was high, with estimates ranging from 50 to 70 percent. Many Egyptians waited in line for up to seven hours to vote in the first round of a lengthy and complicated election process, offering choices of more than 6,700 candidates and 47 parties. With official results yet to be released, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party said last week it had received 40 percent of the initial vote, a strong showing. However, there are a few points that might explain and eventually undermine such support.
The Muslim Brotherhood is well established and highly organized in comparison to many of the newer leftist and liberal parties, formed shortly after the fall of Mubarak. Thus the Brotherhood currently has a greater ability to mobilize support. But is this support sustainable? The Muslim Brotherhood has made some interesting plays recently, including under the table talks with the US and EU governments. During the talks the Brotherhood reinforced their support for the Camp David Accords, promised to not antagonize Israel, and expressed a desire to implement neoliberal economic policies. Moreover, the Islamist parties in general focused on religion rather than actual policies that would address Egypt’s problems and the underlying reasons for the revolution.
Regardless of the elections or the results they yield, the spirit of defiance remains strong among the revolutionaries. Five employees of the Suez Port, now known as “the brave five,” refused to sign for a recent shipment of 7.5 tons of tear gas arriving from the US just before the elections. Moreover, the revolutionaries have maintained a healthy skepticism of the unfolding electoral process, as many questions and uncertainties remain. It is still unclear the degree of independence the SCAF will permit the newly elected Parliament, or if the elections will merely allow the SCAF to maintain power and circumvent the transition to a civilian-led government.
It will take time to see how this all shakes out, and to determine just how free and fair these elections really were. However one thing seems certain: until the real needs of the people and the demands of the revolution are addressed and met the revolution will continue.
Brand Justice and Development: Just call them a success
Beneath all the din of an Islamist Trojan Horse following the despots’ downfall is simple, savvy electoral strategy: promise jobs, preach broad cultural values, and call for justice and development. While Al Jazeera spread Mohammed Bouazizi’s revolutionary flame to Cairo and beyond, another pattern is emerging from the ashes of Ben Ali and Mubarak. It is best seen in the election results between the straits of Hormuz and Gibraltar. Who is getting the votes?
The winners in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt have all promised job-creation and political participation - absences of both are still key popular demands - and coupled it with nationalism rooted in Islamic heritage. This is the model pioneered by Turkey’s current rulers, the Justice and Development Party, and is being adapted in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and, to a lesser degree, Syria. Is this the objective reality of Arab unity?
The Justice and Development political franchise is bathing in ballots: it's name and platform won a slight majority in Morocco last week and a sizable showing in Egypt’s first round of elections. But the ideas of Justice and Development go beyond the name: both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood-linked Freedom and Justice Party and Tunisia's Ennahda have stated they've used the Justice and Development model.
But the bottom line is that none of the official or inspired-by Justice and Development parties in Tunis, Cairo, or Rabat will rule absolutely. Look at the numbers: all the victorious coalitions are surrounded by still-clamoring masses with 27 percent of the seats in Morocco and 41 percent in Tunisia. Any projections of results in the five-month long Egyptian elections should be taken with salt grains - and an energetically engaged public will moderate them. Specifically, Les Marocaines have a monarchy to deal with alongside a recently unified eight-party opposition coalition with a slight superiority in parliament; the Egyptian left-wing parties are forming a coalition; and Tunisia is still writing their constitution.
These center-right organizations wear the mantle of moderate traditionalists and call themselves Justice and Development, but when Turkish PM Recip Tayyip Erdogan announced support for secularization in Egypt, Islamist parties denounced him. Channeling the widespread popularity of Justice and Development, in perhaps a superficial adoption of it’s platform, is certainly wooing voters. Promising jobs and rights has worked before, in many places. Comparatively, secular attack ads on the Justice and Development platform failed in Tunisia. The real question is the nature of the program: is Justice and Development a radical ideology or a pragmatic campaign model?
And don’t forget the power of political economy - the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda, Raschid Ghannouchi, this past weekend reassured Washington that his party would continue Ben Ali’s neoliberal transformation of Tunisia.