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Edition 1 Volume 10 - January 05, 2012

Winners and losers in the Arab revolutions: China, Russia, Central Europe, the Sahel

In Syria, what does Russia want?  - Hussain Abdul-Hussain
Arms sales may not be the only motive behind Russia's support for Assad.

China and the 'Arab spring'  - Kelley Currie
Beijing still has a number of things working in its favor.

A view from Central Europe  - Matyas Eorsi
I find derision in the western media regarding the chances for democracy in the Arab world to be disconcerting.

A view from the Sahel  - Modibo Goita
Full disclosure of the beneficiaries of Gaddafi's huge gifts would cause considerable surprise.

In Syria, what does Russia want?
 Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Russian policy on Syria might seem planned and coherent, but a closer look shows that Moscow has no imagined end-game for Syria's unrest, and is rather improvising its stances as events unfold.

Moscow has a clear interest in the survival of the regime of President Bashar Assad, who is a major importer of Russia's arms. Syria reportedly buys ten percent of Russia's annual arms exports at a cost of $1 billion. In Libya, Russian arms makers lost close to $4 billion in contracts with the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi. Moscow is keen to prevent a repeat in Syria.

But arms sales may not be the only motive behind Russia's support for Assad. Perhaps Moscow fears that international intervention in Syria could emerge as an accepted model for the future. If Russians take to the streets en masse demanding an end to the long rule of their president-turned-prime-minister Vladimir Putin, now running for a third presidential term, the Kremlin might want to make sure that it can strangle any such movement without fear of the United Nations jumping on its back to protect protesters.

A third reason behind Moscow's obstruction of the world effort to stop Assad's brutal force against his citizens could be Russia's self-perception as heir to the glorious Soviet empire. Since Putin's accession to power in 2000, Moscow has always tried to show foreign policy muscle.

This posture has helped Putin awaken national chauvinism by rallying Russians around his leadership against mostly imagined foreign threats. With the Assad family being a former Soviet ally, and with western capitals supporting Assad's opponents, Russia might have seen in Syria an opportunity to stand up to the "imperial" West by preventing the downfall of another one of Moscow's old Arab friends and arms clients.

The Russian government has so far thrown its lot behind Assad. On October 4, it exercised its veto power to kill a UN Security Council resolution that would have denounced the Syrian government.

Moscow's initial support of Assad was based on its understanding that his forces could swiftly bring the uprising to an end. But days turned into weeks and weeks into months, during which Moscow might have concluded that Assad could be the wrong horse to back and that, instead, it should reach out to his opponents and show itself as the sponsor of peace between the two sides.

The Russian position has therefore undergone a noticeable evolution since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in mid-March. During the first weeks, Russia described the unrest as a domestic issue, calling on the world to respect Syrian sovereignty by staying away.

However, a surge in the number of deaths, standing at 5,000 by December meant that Russia could not make the Syrian crisis go away simply by claiming it a domestic issue.

Moscow realized that it should either come up with a solution to stop the bloodshed, or risk western capitals eventually imposing one. Russia therefore endorsed the Arab League initiative, which calls for the immediate cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of the Syrian army from cities, the release of detained anti-regime activists, and the admittance of Arab observers and foreign media to verify Assad's compliance.

Damascus said on November 2 that it would accept the initiative, but failed to sign on the protocol for its implementation, forcing the league to suspend Syria's membership nine days later. Seeing that its allies in Damascus were squandering a golden opportunity that could circumvent western intervention, Moscow circulated in mid-December a Security Council draft resolution that endorsed the initiative. By doing so, Russia moved from categorically ruling out any international intervention in Syria to attempting to shape such an effort in its favor.

The Syrian government signed on the initiative on November 19 but still obstructed the admittance of Arab observers. News reports from Syria said that the regime's forces were committing massacres against army defectors and civilians in the north.

In a sign that Moscow had grown impatient with Assad, Russia circulated on December 24 another Security Council draft resolution, this one employing stronger language against Assad. Feeling the Russian heat, the Syrian president reluctantly admitted the Arab Monitoring Commission, which is expected to disclose its findings by January 20.

Should the Arab mission be deemed a failure, world opinion would certainly tilt in favor of UN intervention, in which case Russia would find itself alone at the UN fending off another western diplomatic offensive against Assad. Meanwhile, indicators show that Assad's grip on power is weakening and his finances--needed to keep his military machine going--deteriorating.

In the second diplomatic showdown at the UN, expected in February, Russia might not rush to the defense of Assad and could instead come to a compromise with other world powers over his removal.

Perhaps sensing that Moscow's pro-Assad stance could change, chief of the opposition Syrian National Council Burhan Ghalioun told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in Moscow in mid-November that should Assad fall, Russian interests in Syria would be "guaranteed."-Published 5/1/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper, Alrai.

China and the 'Arab spring'
 Kelley Currie

There has been speculation that China's authoritarians stood to benefit from the wave of revolutionary political change that swept across the Middle East and North Africa, but the reality has proven more complicated. While the Chinese leadership has moved quickly--sometimes clumsily, sometimes not--to exploit some of the openings created by the dramatic events of the past year, the destabilizing nature of the "Arab spring" has challenged China's diplomatic skills, and the values orientation and internationalization of local political changes have set Beijing's teeth on edge.

Many analysts have noted that China shares some of the characteristics that led to uprisings across the Middle East last year: a stultified political culture; endemic corruption and ruling elite cronyism; growing economic inequality; and rising expectations, particularly among educated urban youth who are struggling to realize them. The ruling regime faces increasingly difficult public policy trade-offs in the chase to maintain sufficient economic growth without resorting to naked nationalism or coercion. The perception is growing that the party-state is struggling to deal with dissenting voices it perceives as threatening to its rule. The ongoing arrests and harsh treatment of dissidents, artists, lawyers and other activists, and the increasing difficulty of handling ostensibly non-political protests feed this perception.

The Chinese authorities' task is complicated because they are operating in a wired world: urban areas of China have a high level of internet and mobile connectivity. China has an increasingly wired economy and citizenry that is able to publicize local events on a national level at previously unimagined speed. Citizens' reactions to the deadly high-speed train crash outside the wealthy coastal city of Wenzhou last July represented a perfect storm of public frustration with corrupt imperious officialdom, infantilizing censorship and the unexamined costs of China's breakneck economic development model. In addition, the increasing willingness and capability of Chinese citizens to publicly spoof and mock their leaders--on bold display after the Wenzhou crash and throughout 2011--demonstrates a palpable diminution of fear among at least some element of China's citizenry. This trend rightfully alarms the brittle, self-regarding Chinese leadership.

But while the Chinese leadership's extreme prickliness in response to political criticism and dissent reflects a lack of confidence, Beijing still has a number of things working in its favor. Economic growth continues to give the regime a substantial cushion. The central authorities have been remarkably effective in channeling popular discontent toward local authorities, so the Chinese people largely do not connect quotidian grievances about corruption, lawlessness and inequity with the underlying political system. Regular rotation of top leaders also serves as a safety valve guarding against the personalization of autocracy. While censorship can be grating, it is also extremely sophisticated, constantly walking the line between controlling flows of information to protect the party-state's interests and provoking the wider public's ire. Nonetheless, each of these sources of control has problematic aspects, and the half-life of Chinese leadership legitimacy has been shrinking since Mao. China's robust economy and relatively savvy authoritarianism mean that its control probably is not eroding fast enough to put China in the category of states that are presently ripe for revolution, but it should definitely be on everyone's watch-list.

From an international perspective, China's view of the Arab spring is likewise mixed. Chinese diplomacy is generally characterized by a ruthlessly pragmatic opportunism. The current Beijing government appreciates predictability and stability in its relations with other countries. The regime's overriding objective in foreign policy is to maintain a permissive global environment for the preservation of the regime's political prerogatives--which imbues its pragmatism with a certain authoritarian bias. While this conservative element of Chinese foreign policy means it often can be clumsy in dealing with periods of fluidity, the offsetting pragmatism allows it to quickly abandon old friends once it is certain they have lost power.

These streams of conservatism and pragmatism have generally served Beijing well in responding to events in the Middle East over the past year. China has kept itself largely aloof from these issues, content to stand back and let western democracies and regional players set the tone. When China has asserted itself, the results have been mixed. After reluctantly supporting United Nations' action in Libya, Beijing was alarmed that NATO went beyond what it saw as the limits of authorized action to remove Muammar Gaddafi (with whom China had a tempestuous relationship). China subsequently joined with Russia to veto Security Council action on Syria and has suffered few consequences for doing so. Beijing's prickly reaction to nascent democratization in neighboring Burma (Myanmar) likewise demonstrates its need to balance long-running concerns about the possibility of domestic contagion from others' political liberalization with the need to maintain good relations with key regional players.

China remains extremely uncomfortable with international activism that it views as impinging on a country's sovereignty or promoting a democratic agenda. However, Beijing is also increasingly loathe to find itself outside the regional and international consensus and can be moved to engage once it sees this is in its interest. In the parlance of Chinese policymaking, Beijing is "crossing the river by touching the stones" as it attempts to navigate the repercussions of the Arab spring at home and abroad. Whether this approach--cautious yet forward-oriented--will allow China to escape this latest wave of political change remains an open and closely-watched question for 2012.-Published 5/1/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Kelley Currie is a senior fellow researching human rights, democracy and humanitarian issues in Asia at the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington DC think tank.

A view from Central Europe
 Matyas Eorsi

We have more and more reasons to be skeptical about predictions of political analysts and even intelligence services. None of us could foresee that a socially-motivated suicide protest by a young Tunisian man, Mohammed Bouazizi, would be followed by public anger that brought down Tunisia's brutal dictator. None of us could have seen that the riots would set fire to neighboring North African countries, then move to the Arabian Peninsula. Numerous analyses have been published since then, yet none provides a tool for predicting similar events anywhere in the world.

The "Arab spring" came as a huge--and pleasant--surprise. Is it different from the fall of the Berlin wall and the liberation of Central Europe 22 years ago? Could the collapse of the Soviet empire have been foreseen? As my uncle, dissident writer Istvan Eorsi, said in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union had been so weak that it had no strength even to collapse.

Nevertheless, the West was fully unprepared for the changes. When we are critical about other leaders for having been loyal to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak for the sake of stability, we tend to forget that a British prime minister, "Iron lady" Margaret Thatcher, assured Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev that the United Kingdom was not interested in revisiting the Yalta treaty and suggested that the Soviet Union should keep East Germany.

As it was impossible to envisage the events of the Arab spring, so it is impossible to predict to what extent western-type democracies will emerge in the Arab world. Nevertheless, I find derision in the western media regarding the chances for democracy there to be disconcerting. True, it is easier to be pessimistic. If someone had written two decades ago that democracy could not be established in Central Europe, that journalist could write today: Look at Hungary, how a democratically-elected government can dismantle checks and balances, control the media and derogate the independence of the judiciary; so I was right, wasn't I?

Yet we all know that the journalist would be wrong. Democracy is not a static form to which countries instantly arrive, but rather an endless learning process, with ups and downs.

Obviously, there are several factors that render the democratization process more likely to be successful in Central Europe than in the Middle East and North Africa. Most Central European countries enjoyed democratic traditions from the beginning of the twentieth century until the communist takeover in 1949, and the Soviet occupation could not erase democracy from the memory of the people. Because Soviet-occupied Central Europe constituted a key area in a bipolar world, the liberalization of Central Europe had a major global political impact. Furthermore, because Central Europe lies in the immediate neighborhood of the European Union, pressure to provide western political, economic and other assistance to Central Europe was a foregone conclusion.

It is clear that the Arab world wanted to get rid of its dictators, but it is less clear in what direction an average demonstrator there wanted his or her country to go. In contrast, the countries of Central Europe, besides wanting to end the Soviet occupation and regain their independence, also wanted to become part of western structures such as NATO and the EU. So deep was this desire in all Central European countries that they were ready to do their utmost to meet western democratic criteria of membership.

Such opportunities do not exist in the Middle East and North Africa. The West cannot offer any integration options. Even worse, the West repeatedly faces a dilemma in Egypt in choosing between supporting democracy and risking deterioration in stability and even possible military conflict with Israel.

There are, however, other factors that tend to favor the Arab spring compared to Central Europe. We have noted that freedom in Central Europe came as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were some protests in Czechoslovakia, Poland, the DDR and Hungary, and there was blood in the streets in Romania. But even if freedom was not handed to Central Europeans on a plate, it was more an outcome of history than a result of their own efforts. In contrast, dictators were defeated in all Arab spring countries by the people in the street. Unlike in Central Europe where transition took place basically without even a slap on the face, in the Arab world hundreds of thousands were literally fighting and tens of thousands sacrificed their lives. This is painful for the families and for loved ones, but--and I by no means wish to sound cynical in saying this--it is also a huge political asset for the future. Those sacrifices result in a stronger and deeper sense of ownership.

Democracy must deliver and people in democracy expect better living standards. Communism in Central Europe wiped out market economy behavior and attitudes. As a consequence, when communism fell, far too many people became losers due to the changes. These millions, who enjoyed a better life under communism, cannot be expected to become defenders of democracy. The situation may be different in the Middle East and North Africa, except perhaps for Egypt. Especially in Libya, oil revenues will enable the new leaders to significantly improve living standards and persuade millions of Libyans to continue to support change.

Building democracy is a very long process. It is taking several generations in the heart of Europe. It may take even longer in the Middle East and North Africa, where disappointment is inevitable. Democracy in Central Europe is still a challenge, but it is far better than communism. Whatever the future brings to the Arab world, it will certainly be much better than under Ben Ali and Gaddafi and hopefully under Mubarak.-Published 5/1/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Matyas Eorsi served in leadership positions in the Hungarian parliament from 1990 to 2010 and in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from 1994 to 2010. In 2011, he worked in democracy promotion in Jordan and Libya on behalf of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

A view from the Sahel
 Modibo Goita

Arab revolutions have caused regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, violent uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, and demonstrations in Algeria, Jordan and Morocco. These dramatic recent events in the Arab world have generated speculation among experts regarding ramifications for the Arab world, Israel, Africa and NATO.

I believe the winners thus far are the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan peoples who gained the sovereign right to choose their rulers. The triumphant Islamic parties still have to fulfill the people's expectations and succeed where their predecessors failed for centuries. We know that democracy cannot be built overnight.

The Arab League appears to be a winner even as it has exercised a double standard. On the one hand, it initiated a no-fly zone over Libya, requested United Nations intervention and supported Security Council resolution 1973 authorizing "all necessary measures" to protect civilians there. On the other, in Syria the Arab League reacted more softly--though this constitutes huge progress when compared to the League's silence after the Hama crackdown of 1982--and in Bahrain it failed completely to condemn the repression.

The new rulers emerging from the revolutions will soon or later reveal their approach to the issue of peace in the Middle East. Certainly, Israel must revise its position and give peace a new opportunity. Meanwhile, it is both a winner and a loser. Having lost its alliance with Turkey, it may now lose Egypt. But a potential civil war in Syria and the army's breakup there would tilt the balance of forces overwhelmingly in Israel's favor to a greater extent than at any time since 1967. Hence any new ruler in Damascus will resume negotiations with Israel over return of the Golan Heights from a fragile position.

For the countries of the Sahel, the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi generated a threat. This has taken the form of proliferation of weapons from Gaddafi-era arms depots and the forced return of Sahel nationals after accusations of mercenary activities and torture by anti-Gaddafi fighters. Some former members of the Libyan army armed with heavy weapons have infiltrated Sahel states like Mali.

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, "the Libyan arsenal has provided enough weapons to arm the entire African continent." Imagine man-portable missiles falling into the hands of terrorist groups in the Sahel. This concern led Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure to declare that the "Arab spring will bring a burning summer for the region." Indeed, the entire Sahel region could now be destabilized.

For many Africans, leaders and others, Gaddafi's death meant the loss of a prodigal friend. Such was Gaddafi's financial largesse that even the famous London School of Economics received a donation from the foundation of his son, Saif al-lslam (that has now cast doubt over the way he got his PhD). African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping ironically asked, "who has not got money from [Gaddafi]?" Full disclosure of the beneficiaries of Gaddafi's huge gifts would cause considerable surprise.

In Mali's capital, demonstrators have expressed support for Gaddafi and a special prayer service was held in his memory. He is remembered by many as an Arab leader who invested billions of West African CFA francs and sustained more than 3,000 Islamic schools and mosques.

The African Union appears to be a big loser vis-a-vis the Arab revolutions because it failed to condemn violent repression in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. It sought instead to act as a neutral mediator, only to see its peace plan turned down by the Libyan National Transitional Council. Meanwhile Gabon, Nigeria, South Africa, the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement supported the United Nations' position. It is easy to explain this gap in communication: Gaddafi was one of the founders of the AU and contributed almost 15 percent of its budget. His death will certainly mark the end of his "United States of Africa" project. Even more deplorable is the AU silence over the ill-treatment inflicted on African migrants after Gaddafi's fall.

I expect that African defense experts learned something from NATO's performance in Libya. The NATO states demonstrated their military capacity (executing more than 26,000 sorties) to intervene outside Europe. As French Minister of the Interior Claude Gueant acknowledged, in providing intelligence and weapons to rebels and putting Gaddafi's convoy at their mercy, NATO's actions even exceeded its UN mandate.

The military lesson is that poorly-equipped and ill-trained armies are no match against air supremacy in modern warfare. Accordingly, Algeria will probably now better defend its strategic interests within the framework of its collective security agreement with Mali, Mauritania and Niger, take the offensive and exercise the right of hot pursuit as agreed among the members. Moreover, Algeria and Morocco must now find a way to cooperate in order better to confront the threat of chaos emerging from their southern flank. Otherwise, they both must prepare to encounter unavoidable foreign intervention.

The political lessons to be learned by the leader of a developing country--a non-nuclear state that has failed to satisfy the basic needs of its population--are, first, that African youth can erupt like a volcano and, second, that threatening to wipe out your own population or annihilate that of another state will trigger the international responsibility to protect endangered civilians.-Published 5/1/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Modibo Goita is a professor at the Peacekeeping School in Bamako, Mali. The positions presented here are personal and represent no official point of view.

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