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Egypt

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Sudan’s Revolution

It’s moving fast now. For three months the protesters in Khartoum got nowhere with their demand that “the people want the fall of the regime,” but last week they moved their protest to the real centre of power in Sudan, army headquarters. Last Thursday the army responded by arresting Omar al-Bashir, the brutal dictator who had ruled the country for the past 30 years.

The generals were only trying to save their own skins, of course. Defence Minister Ahmed Awad ibn Auf, who was being groomed to step into the 75-year-old dictator’s shoes, just arrested Bashir and declared that he would lead an interim military council that would hold elections in…oh, let’s say two years.

It was so stupid it was almost funny. Auf didn’t even bother to talk to the protesters outside his headquarters before making his announcement, so they just ignored him and went on protesting.

The other generals clearly felt that Auf hadn’t quite grasped the seriousness of the situation. The crowds were not going away, and some of the army’s own soldiers had fired on the regime’s hired thugs when they tried to harass the protesters. Time to change horses again.

So on Friday night they persuaded Auf to ‘resign’, and made another general, Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, head of the interim military council instead. Burhan had two advantages: he had gone out and talked to the protesters, and he didn’t actually face International Criminal Court charges or international sanctions for genocide (as Bashir and Auf do).

To sweeten the pot, the military also forced Salah Gosh, head of the murderous and universally hated National Intelligence and Security Service, to resign. Surely the protesters would now see sense. All the generals really wanted was two years to destroy the evidence and top up their pension pots with stolen government funds before they went into exile.

No deal. When the crowds chanted “we want the fall of the regime,” they really meant all of the regime. And then on Tuesday the African Union (AU) chimed in with a threat to suspend Sudan from the pan-African organisation if the military did not hand power over to the civilians within fifteen days.

The AU is a different outfit from its corrupt and useless predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Despite a few stumbles, the AU has managed to establish a genuine moral authority in African politics, and enjoys a higher reputation than any other regional grouping except the European Union. When it tells African soldiers to stop meddling in politics, they sometimes do stop.

So it is reasonable to believe that we may soon see an all-civilian transitional government in Khartoum. No two-year transition, either. Three months to prepare a free election, six months tops. But then the real problems start.

It’s axiomatic that non-violent democratic revolutions like this one inherit huge economic problems. If there weren’t such problems, most people would not be out in the streets protesting.

Sudan lost three-quarters of its oil income when South Sudan broke away and took most of the oil-fields with it eight years ago, and there’s really not much else to sustain Sudan’s 43 million people. Agriculture could help if there were not massive corruption, but this is a country with millions of hectares of unexploited potential farmland where the price of bread tripled in the past three months.

The soaring cost of food is what finally set off the revolution in Sudan, just as it set off most of those other attempted revolutions in the ‘Arab spring’ eight years ago. Only one of the six Arab countries that started down that road in 2011 is both democratic and at peace today, and it certainly feels as if the odds are also stacked against Sudan.

The generals will probably make a deal now that the AU has come out against them. If they are wise, they will throw a few more of their senior colleagues to the wolves (including Burhan, who has worked closely with another of the regime’s murderous paramilitary groups, the Rapid Support Forces, once known as the Janjaweed). Then they will withdraw and wait.

The Sudanese Professionals Association that leads the protests is clever and disciplined, but once in power it will have to take deeply unpopular decisions to rescue the economy from its current paralysis. The Islamists, betrayed and sidelined by their former ally Bashir, will start coming out of the woodwork again.

And a year or two from now, when everybody is throughly disillusioned by continuing economic hardship and political chaos, the military will try to take back control, just as they did in Egypt. Their success is not guaranteed, but they will have the full backing of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It is, alas, a likely outcome.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“It was…protesting”; and “The AU…stop”)

Turkey’s Attempted Coup

Turkey’s democracy is dead. It was dying anyway, as President Recep Tayyib Erdogan took over media outlets, arrested political opponents and journalists, and even re-started a war with the Kurds last autumn in order to win an election. But once part of the army launched a coup attempt on Friday night, it was dead no matter which way the crisis ended.

It wasn’t a very competent coup attempt. The first rule of coup-making is: arrest or kill the person you are trying to overthrow. The coup leaders should have been able to grab Erdogan, who was on holiday at the seaside resort of Marmaris, but they didn’t.

They didn’t shut down the internet and social media either, so Erdogan was able to use his cellphone to get a message out on FaceTime, calling on his supporters to defy the soldiers on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. They didn’t even shut down the broadcast media that sent Erdogan’s call out to the public.

It was three hours before they occupied the offices of TRT, the state broadcaster, and they were chased out again by Erdogan less than an hour later. They didn’t ever try to shut down the private television networks, which have a much bigger audience.

The second rule of coup-making is: act as if you mean it. This usually means that you have to be willing to kill people – but the colonels behind the coup (the generals were all vetted by Erdogan’s people) were reluctant to use large amounts of lethal force.

This is laudable, in human terms, but if you are trying to overthrow the rule of a ruthless man who aspires to absolute control, it is a very bad mistake. They took control of Istanbul airport, but they were chased out again by Erdogan’s supporters because they were not willing to shoot them – and Erdogan flew back into the city.

Maybe the coup-makers were just too short of troops to grab control of everything they needed to make the coup work. Maybe, also, they were afraid to order their troops to carry out a massacre because Turkey’s is a conscript army, and many of its young soldiers – basically civilians in uniform for one year – might simply refuse to kill their fellow citizens in large numbers.

At any rate, they didn’t use massive violence in Istanbul, and so they were soon in retreat. But there can be no happy ending to this episode.

Democracy would obviously have been dead if the rebels had won. Almost exactly half of Turkey’s voters backed Erdogan in the last election, so a military regime would have had to stay in power for a long time. It would not have dared to hold a free election and risk Erdogan returning to power.

It would have been equally dead if the coup had partially succeeded and the army had really split, for that would have meant civil war. Mercifully that possibility has now disappeared, but democracy is dead in Turkey even though the coup has been defeated.

A triumphant Erdogan will seize this opportunity to complete his take-over of all the major state organisations and the media, and become (as his followers often call him) the “Sultan” of Turkey. That is a tragedy, because five or ten years ago Turkey seemed well on the way to being the kind of democracy, with free media and the rule of law, where a coup like this was simply inconceivable.

When Erdogan won his first election in 2002, promising to remove all the restricions
that pious Muslims suffered under the rigidly secular constitution, it seemed a reasonable step foward in the democratisation process. He kept his promises about that, but gradually he went further, trying to Islamise the country against the strong opposition of the half of the population that favours a secular state.

Luckily for Erdogan the Turkish economy was booming, so he went on winning elections – and he worked steadily to concentrate all power in his own office. He removed any officials who were not his avid supporters, attacked the freedom of the media, and committed Turkey to unconditional support for the Islamist rebels in neighbouring Syria.

The rebel army officers may have been trying to stop all that, but it was a terrible mistake for which they will suffer severe punishment. So will anybody who is even suspected of having sypathised with them, and Erdogan will emerge as the all-powerful “Sultan” of a post-democratic Turkey.

The coup leaders made the same mistake as the Egyptian liberals made when they asked the army to overthrow the elected president there in 2013. Egypt had a president whom they feared and hated, but they also had a democracy which provided a peaceful means of ousting him.

Erdogan’s popularity would have dwindled with time. The Turkish economy is stagnant, his Syrian policy is a disaster, and the flagrant corruption of the people around him is getting hard to ignore. Sooner or later he would have lost an election. But like the Egyptian liberals, the officers who led the Turkish coup didn’t trust democracy enough to wait.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 15 and 16. (“It was…audience”; and “The coup…wait”)

Egypt: Triumph and Tragedy

Exactly five years after Egypt’s democratic revolution triumphed, the country is once more ruled by a military office. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in July 2013 and is even nastier than his predecessors.

More than 600 Egyptians were sentenced to death last year, mostly in mass trials, and most of the cases involved people who had gone to pro-democracy protests.

When Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign from the Egyptian presidency on Feb. 9, 2011, by nationwide non-violent demonstrations, there was an explosion of joy. It ended an unbroken 59 years when thinly disguised military dictators ruled the country and their cronies looted the economy.

Egypt’s democratic revolution followed closely in the footsteps of the Tunisian revolution that triggered the “Arab Spring,” but it mattered far more because the country’s 90 million people account for almost a third of the world’s Arabs. Despite the disaster in Syria, we would still count the Arab Spring as a success if the Egyptian revolution had survived, but it was never going to be easy.

The protesters who drove the revolution in the cities were mostly young, well-educated and secular, but most Egyptians are rural, poorly educated and devout. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood had for decades been providing free social services to poor Egyptians. They were grateful and they were pious, so of course they voted for the Islamists.

The young revolutionaries should have understood that the Muslim Brotherhood was bound to win Egypt’s first free election. Most of them were horrified when “their” revolution actually ended up making the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president.

Morsi had his own problems, including trying to balance his own party’s expectation of rapid Islamization with the reality that the army and much of the urban population were committed to a secular Egypt. He was not good at tightrope walking, so what he probably saw as reasonable compromises were viewed by his opponents as forcing political Islam down people’s throats.

If his opponents had also more political experience, they would have calculated the Muslim Brotherhood was bound to lose the next election. The Egyptian economy was a disaster, so in four years’ time they would be deeply unpopular.

Instead, in June 2013, just one year after Morsi became president, they launched mass demonstrations demanding a new election – and called on the army to support their cause. El-Sisi, whom Morsi had trustingly appointed as defense minister, led a military coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood leader.

El-Sisi took off his uniform and had himself elected president. The army is back in power, and the number of secular political activists in jail is now probably greater than the number of Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

“The level of repression now is significantly higher than it was under the Mubarak regime,” Egyptian investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat told The Guardian last month. “People from older generations say it is worse than even the worst periods of the 1950s and 60s.”

It is too soon to conclude that a modern democracy cannot thrive in the Arab world? Tunisia, after all, is still managing to hang on to its revolution, and the sheer number of people that Sisi has jailed suggests that his regime is far from secure. But nobody in Egypt is celebrating the fifth anniversary of the country’s democratic revolution.

Five Years After the Arab Spring

Five years ago this month, the “Arab Spring” got underway with the non-violent overthrow of Tunisia’s long-ruling dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He dared not order the army to open fire on the demonstrators (because it might not obey), he was running out of money, and eventually he flew off off to Saudi Arabia to seek asylum.

In an Arab world where satellite television broadcasts and social media had effectively destroyed the power of the censors, practically everybody else spent the four weeks of civil protest in Tunisia tensely watching what the Tunisians were doing. When the Tunisian revolutionaries won, similar non-violent demonstrations demanding democracy immediately broke out in half a dozen other Arab countries.

It felt like huge change was on the way, because the world had got used to the idea that non-violent revolutions spread irresistibly, and usually win in the end. The ground-breaking “People Power” revolution in the Philippines in 1986, for example, was followed in the next three years in Asia by non-violent democratisation in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Bangladesh, and failed attempts at non-violent revolution in Burma and China.

Similarly in eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist regime in East Germany in 1989 was followed by non-violent democratisation in all the Soviet-dominated “satellite” countries by the end of the year. The Soviet Union itself broke up in 1991, and some of its component parts also became democratic. Non-violence was a magic potion, and people assumed that it was bound to work in the Arab world too.

They were wrong. The non-violent movements demanding democracy spread just as fast, but their only lasting success was in Tunisia. Egypt and Bahrain are back under autocratic rule, and Yemen and Syria are both being devastated by civil wars and large-scale foreign military intervention. Libya is also being torn by civil war (although the revolution there was never non-violent).

You can hardly blame people for trying to get rid of the old regimes – they were pretty awful – but beyond Tunisia the endings were uniformly bloody and tragic. Was there some systemic reason for this, or was it just a lot of bad luck? There is great reluctance to pursue this question, because people are afraid that the answer has something to do with the nature of Arab society or Islamic culture. They shouldn’t worry.

Islam is not incompatible with democracy. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, had a non-violent democratic revolution in 1998 and continues to be a thriving democracy today. Turkey has been democratic for decades, although Recep Tayyib Erdogan, the current president, is doing great damage to the country’s democratic institutions. Pakistan and Bangladesh are both democracies, although turbulent ones.

These four countries alone account for almost half the world’s Muslims. In the Arab world democracy is a much scarcer commodity, but it does exist, most notably in Tunisia itself. Several other Arab countries, like Jordan and Morocco, have a significant democratic element in their politics, although the king retains much power.

So what went wrong with the “Arab Spring”? In the case of Bahrain, the problem was that the majority of the population is Shia, but the ruling family is Sunni and saw the democratic movement as an Iranian plot. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia saw it the same way, and sent the Saudi army in to crush the “plot”.

Yemen was a lost cause from the start, since there was already an incipient civil war in the country. Now it’s a full-scale war, with foreign military intervention by a Saudi-led coalition that includes half the countries in the Arab world, and the non-violent protestors are busy hiding from the bombs.

Syria was a hard case since the Ba’athist regime, in power for more than forty years, had accumulated a great many enemies. The Alawite (Shia) minority who dominated the regime were terrified that they would suffer from revenge-taking if they lost power, and were willing to fight to the last ditch to keep power.

But it is also true that Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and later the United States as well, encouraged an armed uprising in Syria that undercut the entire non-violent movement. It probably wouldn’t have succeeded anyway, but it really didn’t get tried. And in Egypt, the non-violent revolution actually won.

The Egyptian victory didn’t last long. The Muslim Brotherhood won the election in 2012, and the urban, secular minority who had made the revolution panicked. They asked the army to intervene, and the army was happy to oblige – so now the army runs Egypt again, after a massacre of non-violent Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo in 2013 that was probably worse that the slaugher on Tienanmen Square in 1989.

Egypt is by far the biggest country in the Arab world. If it had not thrown its democracy away, about a third of the world’s Arabs would be living in a democracy today. It was very bad luck, but non-violent revolution is still a viable technique – and democracy is still just as suitable for Arabs as it is for Poles, Peruvians or Pakistanis. It’s just going to take a little longer than we thought in 2011.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“You..worry”; and “These…power”)