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End of the Arab Spring

7 July 2013

End of the Arab Spring?

By Gwynne Dyer

If the people in charge of the various opposition parties in Egypt had any strategic vision, they would not have launched the mass protests that caused the army to oust President Mohammed Morsi on 4 July. They would have bided their time and waited for the next election. Because there is probably still going to be a next election in Egypt, despite the coup, and now the Muslim Brotherhood might actually win it.

There is a good deal of chatter in the media at the moment about the “end of the Arab Spring,” some of it by commentators who can barely conceal their delight. Egypt, with almost one-third of the world’s total Arab population, was the great symbol of the democratic movement’s success, and now Egyptian democracy is in a mess. But the drama still has a long way to run.

Morsi is now under arrest, as are many other leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the passionate demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in the streets of Egypt’s cities make it hard to imagine that any compromise is possible. Indeed, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin warned last weekend that Egypt risks stumbling into a civil war like the one that has devastated Syria.

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, on the other hand, justified the military coup by claiming that it had been the only alternative to civil war – which could, he said, have been as bad as Somalia. Really? One suspects that he doesn’t know much about Somalia. Indeed, one suspects that he doesn’t really know much about his own country either (he has spent most of his career abroad).

There was no risk of civil war in Egypt before last week’s military intervention, and there is no risk of civil war now either. What we are seeing is a no-holds-barred struggle for power between rival political movements, in a system where the political rules are newly written, hotly disputed, and poorly understood. And all the players have made some serious mistakes.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the basis of last year’s 51.7 percent majority for Morsi in the presidential election, assumed that it had the unquestioning support of half the population. This was probably not true.

Many voted for Morsi in recognition of the Muslim Brotherhood’s long resistance to six decades of military dictatorship. Others voted for him in gratitude for the Brotherhood’s unfailing support for the poor, or in disgust at the fact that Morsi’s only opponent in the second round of the election was a left-over from the Mubarak regime.

Perhaps as few as half of them actually voted for the Brotherhood’s core project of Islamising Egyptian law and forcing its own version of Islamic values on Egyptian society – but the Brothers seemed to think they all had. Even if that had been true, trying to impose fundamental changes on a country with the support of only half the population was not wise.

Some of the constitutional changes that Morsi imposed, and some of his tactics for pushing them through, may actually have been the result of political compromises within the Brotherhood, where he constantly had to fend off the fanatics who wanted even more extreme measures. Nevertheless, the secular opposition parties inevitably saw him as an extremist, and genuinely feared that he would somehow manage to force the whole package on Egypt.

So the secular parties responded with extra-constitutional tactics of their own: mass demonstrations that were explicitly intended to trigger a military take-over that would sideline Morsi and the Brotherhood. In only four days of demos, they succeeded, in large part because the army, a resolutely secular organisation, had its own grave misgivings about where Morsi’s government was taking Egypt.

But the army hasn’t actually seized power. It has appointed Adly Mansour, the head of the Constitutional Supreme Court, as interim president, with the task of organising new parliamentary and presidential elections. It will not be possible to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from those elections without turning the whole process into a farce – especially since the Brotherhood will probably be going through some changes of its own.

The Muslim Brotherhood took little part in the 2011 revolution, and the men at the top, including Morsi, were utterly unprepared for power. They are now likely to be replaced by a younger generation of leaders who are more flexible and more attuned to the realities of power. They might even win the next election, despite all Morsi’s mistakes this time round.

That’s the real irony here. If the opposition parties had only left Morsi in power, his unilateral actions and his inability to halt Egypt’s drastic economic decline would have guaranteed an opposition victory at the next election. Now it’s all up in the air again.

But democratic politics is far from over in Egypt. Foolish things have been done, but the Arab Spring is not dead.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 3 and 4. (“Morsi…abroad”)

 

 

The Peaceful World

26 May 2013

The Peaceful World

By Gwynne Dyer

Imagine for a moment that all the wars of the world have come to a peaceful conclusion. Most violent crime against people and property has also been eradicated. The worst outbreak of violence in the world in the past 24 hours has been a fight in a bar in Irkutsk, Russia.

What item do you think will lead the international news for the next 12 hours, or however long it takes until something fresher come along? The bar fight in Irkutsk, of course. “If it bleeds, it leads,” says the axiom, and the world’s media follow it slavishly, so they will always give you the impression that the world is drowning in violence. It is not – but people think it is.

Stop people at random and ask them how many wars they think are going on in the world right now. Most people would guess around a dozen, although they wouldn’t be able to name them. The right answer is two, and one of them, Afghanistan, is probably approaching its end.

There are close to 200 independent countries in the world, and only one in a hundred is currently at war. They are both primarily civil wars, although there is some foreign involvement in each case. The Syrian civil war is extremely destructive of lives and property, the war in Afghanistan less so, and in both cases the fighting occasionally slops over their borders, but that’s it.

There are a number of other countries where there is a lower level of civil conflict: the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, or Colombia (although the latter is now engaged in peace talks to end the fifty-year conflict between the state and the FARC guerillas). But the Sri Lankan civil war is over, the Iraqi civil war is at least over for the moment, and the many little wars of West Africa are all over.

Then there is Somalia, the world’s only failed state, where twenty years of violent anarchy may finally be drawing to an end. But the actual scale of the fighting has rarely risen to a level that would qualify what has been happening there as a full-scale war. Not, at least, what would have qualified as a full-scale war back in the days when that sort of thing was still common. Most of the time Somalia’s conflict has been more like gangland wars on steroids.

There is terrorism in various places, like Boko Haram’s bizarre campaign to impose Islamic law on Nigeria (where only half the population is Muslim), the Pakistani Taliban’s campaign of murder against their Shia fellow-citizens, and the Naxalites’ long and forlorn struggle to make a Communist revolution in India. All nasty, but none of them real wars.

And there is, finally, the famous “war” on terror, which these days amounts to little more than over-zealous law enforcement at home and selective assassination by drones abroad. Like the “war” on drugs in Mexico, it is only a metaphor for an activity that is not really a war at all.

So that’s it: two real wars, and a clutter of lesser conflicts that really do not merit the term. In a world of seven billion people, only a few hundred million have even the slightest experience of organised violence for political ends. Why, then, do so many people think that the world is still overrun by war?

The media are partly to blame, but they are also manipulated by various governments that raise the spectre of war for their own ends. Wars that have not happened and are never likely to fill the imaginations of the public: a war in Korea, a US and/or Israeli attack on Iran, Western or Israeli intervention in Syria, a war between China and South-East Asian countries over islands in the South China Sea, a US-Chinese conflict in the Pacific, and on and on.

A lot of people, some in uniform and some not, make a living off these mostly phantom fears, and they contribute to the general impression that the world is still a place where war, however deplorable, is the normal state of affairs. It is not. We live in an era where, for the first time in history, no great power genuinely fears attack by any other, and where the number of actual wars can be counted on the fingers of one badly mutilated hand.

Almost 90 million people died in the world wars and other big wars (including the Russian, Chinese and Spanish civil wars) of the first half of the 20th century, out of a world population that was one-third of what it is now. In the second half of the century the death toll dropped steeply to 25 million or so, most of whom died in colonial independence wars and civil wars.

And so far, in the 21st century, the total is less than one million people killed in war. What we have on our hands here is a miraculous and mostly unsung success story. There will doubtless be more wars, but they may be small and infrequent. We are obviously doing something right. We should figure out what it is, and do more of it.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Then…steroids”; and “And there is…at all)

 

 

Somalia Come-Back

11 April 2013

Somalia Come-Back

By Gwynne Dyer

There have been no elections in Somalia since 1967 and there won’t be any this year either. But the country has a new parliament (appointed on the advice of clan elders) who have elected a new president, and the new government actually now controls a significant part of the country. The world’s only fully “failed state” may finally be starting to return to normality.

A failed state is a horrendous thing: no government, no army, no police, no courts, no law, just bands of armed men taking what they want. Somalia has been like that for more than twenty years, but now there is hope. So much hope that last month the United Nations Security Council partially lifted its embargo on arms sales to Somalia in order to let the new Somali government buy arms, and last week the US government followed suit.

The new government replaces the “Transitional Federal Government”, another unelected body that had enjoyed the support of the UN and the African Union for eight pointless years. Then last year a World Bank report demonstrated the sheer scale of its corruption: seven out of every ten dollars of foreign aid vanished into the pockets of TFG officials before reaching the state’s coffers.

Fully a quarter of the “national budget” was being absorbed by the offices of the president, the vice-president and the speaker of parliament. The fact that after all that the TFG still only controlled about one square kilometre (less than one square mile) of Mogadishu, the capital, while the rest of the shattered city was run by the Islamist al-Shabaab militia, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, also contributed to the international disillusionment.

That tiny patch of ground, moreover, was being defended not by Somali troops but by thousands of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Unisom). More than 500 of them had lost their lives defending the useless TFG, and the foreign donors were losing faith in the mission. But the Unisom soldiers did achieve one major thing: they fought al-Shabaab to a standstill in Mogadishu.

In August 2011 the Islamist militia pulled its troops out of the capital. That created an opening, and the international community seized it. It ruthlessly initiated a process designed to push the TFG aside: Somali clan elders were asked to nominate members for a new 250-seat parliament, which was then asked to vote for a new president and government.

It was obviously impossible to hold a free election in a country much of which was still under al-Shabaab’s control, but this process also had the advantage that it allowed the foreigners to shape the result. The corrupt officials who had run the old TFG all re-applied for their old jobs, but none of them succeeded.

The new president who emerged from this process, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, is a former academic and human rights worker who only entered politics in 2011. No whiff of corruption clings to him, and he has worked tirelessly to bring about national reconciliation. And he has the wind at his back: just after he was chosen last September, a Kenyan force evicted al-Shebaab from Somalia’s second city, Kismayo.

That still leaves about 95 percent of the country’s territory and three-quarters of its population beyond the government’s direct control. Al-Shabaab still rules in most rural parts of the country, and Ethiopian troops and their militia allies control much of the western border areas. Pirates with a lot of guns and money effectively dominate much of the north.

One whole chunk of the country, calling itself Somaliland, has declared its independence (and runs its affairs much more peacefully and efficiently than any other part of Somalia). No other country recognises its independence at the moment, but it used to be a British colony, quite separate from Italian-ruled Somalia, and in principle it can make exactly the same case for independence as Eritrea did when it broke away from Ethiopia.

The worst problem facing President Mohamud is the venal and cunning politicians who have exploited the clan loyalties that pervade every aspect of Somali life to carve out their own little empires. Some are frankly and unashamedly warlords; others, including all the senior officials in the defunct TFG, masquerade as national politicians but work for their own interests.

They have not gone away, nor have the clan rivalries that kept the fighting going for 21 years. Drawing up the rules and sharing out the power for a new federal Somalia (none of which has yet been decided) will give them plenty of opportunities to make trouble for the new president and regain their former power. Mohamud definitely has his work cut out for him.

Nevertheless, he has strong UN and African Union support, and he now has a chance to create a spreading zone of peace in the country and start rebuilding national institutions. So last week the United States declared that it was now willing to provide military aid, including arms exports, to Somalia. Weirdly, that actually means that thing are looking up in the world’s only failed state.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That still…Ethiopia”)

 

 

Somalia Again

24 August 2010

Somalia Again

By Gwynne Dyer

The US decision in 2006 to send Ethiopian troops into Somalia in 2006 was one of the stupidest moves in a very stupid decade. This week, some of the chickens spawned by that decision came home to roost.

On Monday the al-Shabaab militia launched a “massive war” against the 6,000 African Union peacekeepers, most of them Ugandan, who are protecting the so-called government of Somalia. In reality, however, all it actually governs is a few dozen blocks in Mogadishu, and its members are just a group of Somali warlords and clan leaders who proclaimed themselves to be the “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) in 2004.

Six “members of parliament” were among the forty people killed when an al-Shabaab suicide squad stormed the al-Muna hotel in Mogadishu on Tuesday, but there will be no by-elections to replace them. They were never elected in the first place. The TFG made no progress in reuniting the country, and now its surviving members sit surrounded by al-Shabaab fighters who control most of the sprawling capital.

Southern Somalia has been trapped in an unending civil war since the last real government collapsed in 1991, but the current round of killing was triggered when the United States invited Ethiopia to invade the country in 2006. This was a bit high-handed, especially since Ethiopia was Somalia’s traditional enemy, but Washington’s aim was to destroy the “Islamic Courts ” in Somalia.

The TFG failed utterly to impose its authority and restore order in Somalia, but the Islamic Courts Union took a different approach. Its roots were in the merchant class in Mogadishu, who simply wanted a safer environment to do business in, and they understood that Islam was the only common ground on which all of the country’s fissiparous clans and militias might be brought together again.

The Islamic courts, applying shariah law, were the instrument by which the society would gradually be brought back under the rule of law – and for about six months, it worked amazingly well. The zones of peace and order spread throughout southern Somalia, the epicentre of the fighting, and trade and employment revived. A made-in-Somalia solution had spontaneously emerged from the chaos.

Inevitably, some of the younger supporters of the Islamic Courts movement enjoyed ranting in public about the virtues of al-Qaida, the wickedness of Americans, and other matters of which they knew little. Almost every popular movement has a radical youth wing that specialises in saying stupid and provocative things. It is the job of the adults, inside and outside the organisation, to contain their excesses and NOT TO PANIC.

Alas, the United States panicked, or at least its intelligence agencies did. The mere word “Islamic” set off alarm bells in the Bush administration, which had the lamentable habit of shooting first and thinking later.

Washington therefore concluded that the Islamic Courts Union, Somalia’s best hope of escaping from perpetual civil war, was an enemy that must be removed. Since the TFG was clearly not up to that task, Washington asked Ethiopia, Somalia’s old enemy, to provide the necessary troops.

Ethiopia agreed because it does NOT want stability in its old enemy, Somalia. The Ethiopians understood perfectly well (even if Washington did not) that the presence of their troops in Somalia would drive out the moderate leaders of the Islamic Courts Union and leave the country at the mercy of the crazies in the youth wing.

A prostrate and divided Somalia was clearly in Ethiopia’s long-term strategic interest, so why not? Especially since the United States financed the whole operation.

The Ethiopian troops invaded in late 2006 and the Islamic Courts Union was destroyed, leaving the field clear for the movement’s radical youth wing, al-Shabaab (The Youth). Attacks on both the TFG and the Ethiopians multiplied, and civil war and chaos returned to Mogadishu. After two years the Ethiopians, having thoroughly wrecked any prospect of peace in Somalia, pulled their troops out and went home.

Since late 2008, only the 8,000 African Union troops in the country have kept alive the fiction of a Somali government friendly to the United States, but al-Shabaab has now gone on the offensive. The two suicide bombs that killed 74 people in Kampala last month were a warning to Ugandans to bring their troops home from Somalia, and al-Shabaab is now trying to overrun the last small patch of Somali territory still held by the TFG.

Al-Shabaab is far more radical and anti-American than the Islamic Courts movement ever was, but the price of Washington’s stupidity will be paid mostly by Somalis. The Islamist fighters will probably not be able to control the whole of southern Somalia even if the African Union troops pull out. In any case, al-Qaida and its friends don’t need “bases”: conventional military operations do, but bases are virtually irrelevant in terrorist ops.

The northern half of former Somalia, ruled by the breakaway states of Puntland and Somaliland, is already at peace and will remain so. Southern Somalia will probably have to endure more years of violence and despair because Washington never understood that the Islamic Courts Union could be its tacit ally in stabilising Somalia. But nothing particularly bad will happen to anybody except Somalis, so that’s all right.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14. (“Ethiopia…wing”; and “Al-Shabaab…ops”)