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General Abdel Fattah

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Sudan: No Surprise

It’s like Tienanmen Square in miniature, and maybe not all that miniature. The official death toll in Khartoum after Monday’s massacre stands at 35, but the whole city is still locked down, with columns of Rapid Support Forces (RSF) vehicles driving through the streets firing at practically anything that moves. There may be a lot more dead.

The RSF used to be known as the Janjaweed, and they are not soldiers; they are professional killers. They are the local solution to the problem any dictatorship faces when it decides to end a non-violent protest by murdering the protesters. By that time your soldiers will usually have been on the streets for a while, and will have had personal contact with the people you want to kill.

The ordinary soldiers come from exactly the same society as the protesters and, knowing who these people really are, will by now be quite reluctant to kill them. Dictators know that you must never give your soldiers an order you know they will disobey, because that creates a dilemma for them that they can only resolve by killing you. So you must find some other group to do the massacre.

They may just be soldiers you bring in from out of town, who have had no previous human contact with the protesters before the order to kill is given. That’s what the Chinese regime did before the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989.

They may be special forces troops and secret police, left over from the old dictatorship and long rewarded for abusing and murdering the old regime’s enemies, who will gladly serve a new dictatorship. That’s who General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi used to kill at least a thousand non-violent protesters on Rabaa Square in Cairo after his military coup overthrew Egypt’s elected government in 2013.

In Sudan that group began as a bunch of camel-herding tribesmen, already at war with the local farmers, who were then recruited by the old regime to torch villages and slaughter their inhabitants in western Sudan. They acquired a taste for rape, pillage and murder and became known as the Janjaweed. They are now called the RSF.

Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictator since 1989, originally created them to carry out a genocide in the separatist western province of Darfur, a crime for which he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. They were never seen in the capital in those days, but now they have uniforms of a sort and they are all over Khartoum.

They are doing the job that the soldiers of the regular army might have balked at: killing enough citizens, more or less at random, to frighten the rest back into submission. The ordinary soldiers’ reluctance was often on display in the early days of the Sudanese revolution, when they sometimes intervened to protect the protesters from the RSF.

The generals who have now unleashed the RSF never felt that reluctance themselves. Unlike the private soldiers, they have profited greatly under Bashir’s rule and have no intention of giving up their own privileges and power. They were happy enough to sacrifice Bashir to the protesters (he’s now under arrest and awaiting trial), but they don’t do self-sacrifice.

So they played for time, negotiating a ‘democratic transition’ with the protest leaders while waiting for the support to flow in from other Arab tyrannies. It duly arrived: an immediate gift of $3 billion from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to help Bashir’s military heirs buy back support, and the promise of political support for any killing that they saw as a necessary part of the process.

The military junta, calling itself the ‘Transitional Military Council’, kept up the facade of power-sharing with the opposition ‘Alliance for Freedom and Change’ right down to last weekend. On Sunday the TMC spokesman said that a deal was almost done: there would be an election in two years, and civilians would have a majority of the seats on the interim council.

Then on Monday morning the Rapid Support Forces/Janjaweed went in shooting and cleared the square in front of Army Headquarters that had been occupied by pro-democracy forces for the past two months. The TMC’s head, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, declared on state television that the military had decided to “stop negotiating with the Alliance for Freedom and Change and cancel what had been agreed on.”

What had changed? Nothing. The military were never negotiating in good faith; they were just buying time. The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), whic spearheaded the nationwide protests, is calling for a campaign of “sweeping civil disobedience to topple the treacherous and killer military council,” but unless it can take back control of the streets, it’s all over.

Can it do that? Probably not. The Janjaweed don’t care how many people they kill, and none of the most powerful governments in the Arab world do either.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“They may…2013″)

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.