How to Reclaim Egypt’s Lost Revolution

info-human-righThe crackdown on supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi on August 14 was a watershed moment in Egypt’s transition, yet the passing of its one-month anniversary might mark the passing of the window of opportunity for reviving Egypt’s fragile march towards democracy. The clamoring over the new Egyptian constitution is taking place amid a sustained crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, near-daily security incidents targeting police and military officers, continued civil unrest, and increased aggression towards human rights and democracy activists—one cannot help but wonder if the promises of the January 25 uprising can ever be resuscitated. Unless the military-led government in Cairo changes its course in the very near term, Egyptians may find themselves waiting another generation before they get a second try at revolution.

In the euphoria of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster almost three years ago, revolutionaries would have never imagined the state of affairs in which they find themselves today. In early 2011, with Mubarak's interior ministry goon squad reeling from an unprecedented defeat, they saw infinite possibilities for reshaping the new Egypt in their own image, unable to realize the difference between their vision and that of the state bureaucracy, the Islamists, and other vested interests. As those differences played out in a cliff-hanging political drama, a new dynamic emerged, reaching a crescendo on July 3, 2013 when thousands of protesters called for Morsi’s removal: that of polarization.

The roots of this drama lie in the governing strategy that Morsi—and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, by extension—employed during his truncated term. In the lead up to presidential elections in 2012, most Egyptians were willing to suspend their distrust of the shadowy group and put their faith in the power and momentum of the people’s uprising to constrain its ambitions and employ it to the demands of the January 25 aspirations. It did not take long to realize, however, that political considerations trumped any revolutionary demands for transformative change. Some could accept the way the Muslim Brotherhood played a deft game of deceit, shifting its alliances as it saw fit to position itself to rule, as part and parcel of politics in Egypt—or anywhere, for that matter. But as the economy continued to nosedive, and voices of dissent in critical media outlets were silenced, and it became apparent that Morsi was interested in co-opting rather than reforming state institutions, that momentum shifted against him and those he represented.

Morsi’s November 2012 constitutional decree introduced the poison that corrupted the spirit of the revolution. With the stroke of a pen, he declared himself the supreme ruler in Egypt. Despite his restraint, he reignited the fear of authoritarianism in Islamist form and sparked the war against him. The dominoes fell predictably enough: as the secular opposition went on the offensive, he relied on Islamists who maintained harder lines than the Muslim Brotherhood and rammed through a constitution that marginalized secular input. To maintain Islamist support, Morsi’s language against detractors grew harsher, and the conflation of faith and politics renewed sectarian tensions. As the distance between ideologies grew wider, his control over policy implementation grew weaker, increasing popular animosity that resulted in the Tamarod campaign—his eventual downfall.

Balancing Sovereignty and Democracy at the UN


Six years ago, the United Nations General Assembly declared September 15th the International Day of Democracy, an annual event to assess the progress of democracy around the world.

It may seem strange to some that a body that counts representatives from Nicaragua, Qatar, and the Kingdom of Bahrain among its presidents in the last decade should present itself as a promoter of democracy. After all, the UN is a member-state organization with clear nondemocratic elements. Its membership includes many authoritarian states, and its internal structure and procedures often diverge greatly from the ideals of liberal democracy. Notably, the UN’s most powerful body, the Security Council, is unrepresentative, dominated by five permanent veto-wielding members, without a single African or Latin American country among them.

The UN is not a democracy of the world, nor does it claim to be. Rather, it is an international organization with 193 members founded on a commitment to state sovereignty, whether the state is democratic or not.

However, the UN is also a values-based institution that carries at its core a commitment to democratic principles. Although the UN Charter does not mention the word “democracy,” Article 1(3) cites “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights” as a primary purpose of the organization, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, declares that regular elections and “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.”

In fact, each year the United Nations system conducts a host of activities supporting democracy worldwide. Through a variety of agencies and departments, including the UN Development Program, the UN Department of Political Affairs, the UN Democracy Fund, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the system provides direct technical assistance to countries organizing elections and promotes the growth of institutions vital to the rule of law.

Thus, the UN as a whole works to support democratic norms, but it is also structurally committed to the sovereign equality of states, no matter what their form of government. And at times, this dual commitment to both independent states and free individuals creates a tension at the center of the international system.

Notes from a New Egypt: Witness to the Creation of Narratives, Myths, and Symbols



The curfew is a good indicator of the delicate situation that Egypt is going through at the moment. The most remarkable thing about it is the extent to which the population is respecting it, particularly when compared to the one that the Mubarak regime failed to impose during the uprising in Egypt in early 2011. And it is extraordinary for a city that was characterized by its nocturnal activity, whether it was families strolling by the side of the Nile, young men playing football, or people simply chatting away at a street side café until the small hours.

Though certain regions of the country devoted to tourism are less affected—such as the northwestern coast on the Mediterranean and the southern coast of the Sinai Peninsula—and it is impossible to impose it in the more popular neighborhoods of the capital, much of this vast country comes to a standstill everyday like clockwork. In central Cairo, where most official buildings are situated, movement stops completely everyday from eleven in the evening until six in the morning. This is in fact a significant relief from what was in place prior to August 31, when the curfew started at seven in the evening.

Hani, a taxi driver in his early thirties who for years preferred to work at night, has had his habitual timetable turned upside-down, but despite his frustration, he nevertheless appears to be happy to comply. This is because the curfew is a sort of informal referendum on the support for the measures imposed by the Egyptian Army, as well as a sense of incapacity to resist them by those that oppose it. In Hani’s mind, for example, there is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood has shown its true colors—in particular, its chauvinism—during the one year that its leader Mohammed Morsi held power, and he is more than happy to see him go.

For Hani, as well as many other Egyptians, the car bomb attack against the Minister of the Interior’s caravan in Cairo earlier this month is further validation that the army is fighting terrorism, violence which, according to him, the Muslim Brotherhood is evidently behind. This is indeed one of the main narratives that General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi—who led the ousting of Morsi from power in early July and now holds the reins of power in the country—is propagating as a justification for the military intervention in the governance of Egypt and the steps taken thereafter.

Key to this narrative is the military operations taking place in the north of the Sinai Peninsula and next to the border with the Gaza Strip. In Sinai, where the army is said to be conducting major operations, movement is forbidden between towns after six in the afternoon, and within towns after eleven in the evening, just like in Cairo. Apache helicopter attacks in this area were front-page news in the official Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, and its headline on September 8 read, “The biggest military operation to purify Sinai from the sources of terrorism.” Solid information is hard to come by, but the consensus appears to be that, this time, the Egyptian Army is planning to get rid of the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt once and for all.

Central African Republic: Back to War Again?


Over the last week, armed skirmishes around the small city of Bossangoa in the northwest of the Central African Republic (CAR) led to the death of up to 100 people and the destruction of a number of properties. While incidents like this have been recurrent since a loose coalition of armed groups called Séléka (“alliance” in Sango, the national language) seized the capital Bangui in March 2013, this episode should convince external observers and the international community that the slow normalization, once considered the most likely scenario, is not happening. Instead, a further deterioration in the country’s security is occurring, with a surge of highway banditry and predatory armed groups claiming different allegiances, and a narrative of an ongoing Christian-Muslim war that may have deleterious effects beyond the areas directly affected by fighting.

On September 25, a meeting of “CAR friends” is scheduled to take place alongside the UN General Assembly. Participants should announce stronger political and financial support to the new African Union force (MISCA) that is due to take over from the current Economic Community of Central African States mission, called MICOPAX, and police the whole country. Challenges demand more than a “business as usual” diplomatic initiative; they require a deeper assessment of the situation on the ground and of the regional stakeholders’ interests. The international response should focus on framing a more comprehensive strategy to deal with insecurity in CAR, a looming “religious” war, and the political vacuum created by the last years of François Bozizé’s rule, and the current, extremely weak government.


On September 6, more than 50 people, some of them armed, took over Benzambé, the home village of CAR’s former ruler François Bozizé and near the city of Bossangoa, and killed or made prisoner 20 Séléka fighters. Muslim households, essentially from the Peulh ethnic group, were targeted, and some were killed as revenge for the many abuses against the local Christian population by Séléka elements; robbery also seems to have been a motive for that brutal action. Over the next few days, armed skirmishes happened in other places near Bossangoa and gave some credibility to the emergence of an armed group made up of Bozizé’s supporters and former military. 

At the time of this writing, there is no independent confirmation that those people who fought against the Séléka are organized in a genuine politico-military movement, though Bozizé’s entourage in Paris claims that they are. The weapons and tactics used for the ambushes do prove the presence of former soldiers among them. But there are other possible scenarios, such as self-defense youth groups convinced that Bozizé would soon go back to power and endorse their fighting (and plundering) against local Muslim communities. 

There are at least three aspects of concern that can be pinpointed in this bloody episode. The first is the ongoing polarization between Christian and Muslim communities that could be devastating for the whole country and have consequences for the region, notably in Chad and Cameroon. Séléka fighters were recruited from Muslim communities settled in CAR or in the “three border areas” (Chad, Sudan, and CAR). Others also joined—mostly Sudanese elements settled in CAR or connected with the northern CAR shadow economy, Chadians, and others.

While Séléka fighters have notional inclinations for political Islam, they share a strong sense of communal identity and a will to avenge previous CAR regimes and their beneficiaries identified as Christians (not much of a discriminating factor, as the CAR population is more than 75% Christian). Lay Muslims in CAR today are less likely to be harassed by the Séléka, and most often, there is cooperation. The whole Muslim community is therefore perceived as supporting the Séléka and hostile to the core Christian population. CAR elites play a big role in articulating this narrative based on some limited truth and wide approximations to build a constituency against CAR’s current president, Michel Djotodia, and his armed supporters. The Muslim community also played a strategic role in the economy, and any attempt to disrupt it would negatively affect the urban economy at the risk of a violent reaction by the Chadian contingent of MICOPAX.

Data Map Shows Protests Around the World Increase, With Caveat

Looking at this time-lapse visualization of protests around the world since 1979, one can easily surmise that the spirit of protest exploded during the 1990s, steadily increasing until it seemed to overtake entire continents post-2010. But is the world really overrun with dissent and revolution?

Only sort of. The data driving the visualization is taken from the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT), which has drawn on media reporting to georeference nearly a quarter-million events over the past 34 years. And while there has been an increase in media coverage of every type of event since 1979, the number of protests as a percentage of the total number of “events” reported has not increased.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t spikes in the data, as one of the project’s lead researchers, John Beieler, wrote in an email. “There are times when the amount of protests behavior goes up and is higher than average. The past few years is actually one of those times.”

A write-up about this map in Foreign Policy discussed some of these spikes: the protests in South Africa against apartheid, the Arab Spring, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Poland in the 1980s. If you know where to look in the visualization, you can watch them unfold.

But, with data comes problems. Commenters on the Foreign Policy post quickly pointed out what they saw were the map’s limitations. “Maybe I'm being nit-picky, but I'm just looking at Latin America and I can tell you this is severely underestimating the number of protests, both now and prior to the third wave of democratization,” wrote one user. “Clearly, wrong!! In México we have an permanente[sic] wave of protetest [sic] since 1950 and in the map only appears since 1994,” wrote another.

All the underlying data for this map are derived from text-mining a cross-section of all major international, national, regional, local, and hyper-local news sources; no human hand is involved."The GDELT dataset is generated completely by fully automatic software algorithms operating with no human oversight or intervention and is based on global news media reporting," reads GDELT's Web site.

In general, all data can contain bias, which can lead to a flawed representation of events. And while visualizations can make complex information look simple, they must be coupled with a deeper understanding of the political and social complexities, as well as an awareness of the shortcomings in the data itself. Without this expertise and analysis, the possibility of misinterpretation is high.

Still No Good Options in Syria


Governments, including those that are democratically elected, often display a propensity and determination to act contrary to their self-interest. The quagmire in which the US administration finds itself on Syria is, to a large extent, of its own making. It is unlikely that anything President Barack Obama heard at the G-20 summit or since then will discourage him from ordering surgical military strikes against Syria. Only the US Congress can provide the required discouragement.

The fact that Bashar al-Assad has used brutal force to maintain his repressive regime is not in any doubt. Equally, the situation today is largely due to the pursuit of regime change by the Gulf states and Turkey supported by the US, UK and France. The rebels fighting the regime, all Sunnis armed to the teeth by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and their Western allies, are affiliated either directly or indirectly to al-Qaeda and are engaged in a sectarian war against the Alawites or Shias and Christians. Violence unleashed by them has matched the brutality of regime forces.

The use of chemical weapons is immoral and unacceptable, and must be condemned. Given the nature of the conflict, jumping to conclusions before all the evidence has been analyzed, and conclusively holds one party responsible, is fraught with additional danger. Apart from placing the military might of the US at the disposal of al-Qaeda, military strikes, which appear increasingly likely, will result in another paradoxical situation. Deaths from chemical weapons constitute less than 1 per cent of fatalities since the Syrian civil war began more than two years ago.

Limited enthusiasm for military strikes against Syria is the least of the problems confronting decision-makers in Washington. A concerted campaign to convince the skeptics, both within Congress and outside, may rectify the situation. The more serious implications that need to be factored in include the near certainty that such strikes will strengthen the very forces that constitute a threat to the US’s national security.

Threat of Strikes Could Change Russia's Mind on Syria: Interview with George Lopez



The mere threat of military action against Syria by the United States and others could move Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table, but it is contingent on what behind-the-scenes negotiations are going on, particularly with Russia, said George Lopez, Hesburgh Chair of Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

"Have the United States and Russia agreed to a situation in which the Russians feel they publicly will condemn US action, will vote against it in the [UN Security] Council, but are using all new leverage they can muster against Assad to possibly bring him to a table?" said Mr. Lopez.

"Many of the findings of international relations research suggest that your strongest degree of compliance from a target is actually as the target anticipates something which is going to be quite painful," he said.

But, Mr. Lopez said, it was limited strikes by NATO in Kosovo in 1999 that created political pressure and ultimately pushed the parties to negotiate.

Mr. Lopez said he would advocate for "a much more robust humanitarian and diplomatic strategy in this moment, in which we show the commitment of the West to protect civilians in new and direct ways, and also retain the ability of the threat, particularly if Obama doesn't get a congressional vote on behalf of military action."

He also argued that even if UN Security Council support for military action remains unlikely, more input from the Council could still make US-led strikes in response to Syria's use of chemical weapons more legitimate: "If you could get a Security Council resolution that condemns the action of the Syrian government but then stops short of the call for military force… that would actually increase the legitimacy."

However, given the evidence that al-Assad has moved possible military targets into civilian areas since the chemical weapon attack on August 21, Mr. Lopez worries that "military force looks better in planning than it may accomplish in fact."

The interview was conducted by Marie O’Reilly, associate editor at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Marie O’Reilly: I'm here with George Lopez, who holds the Hesburgh Chair of Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. George, thank you very much for speaking with the Global Observatory today.

George Lopez:  I'm delighted to be here. I'm a big fan of the Observatory.

MOR: George, we're seeing a buildup to military action on Syria, in particular by the United States and some other Western powers. Without approval from the UN Security Council, the legality of US military action appears tenuous from an international perspective. But, what about its legitimacy?

GL: Well, I think that's a wonderful distinction. Obviously without a full authorization for the use of force, you’re violating international law to engage in surgical bombing. Legitimacy has to do with the nature of the offense, which obviously is grievous in this case. The attack using chemical weapons violates all prohibitions in international law.

The style and direction of the vote of the Council might matter for the degree of legitimacy. If you could get a Security Council resolution that condemns the action of the Syrian government but stops short of the call for military force, or a second resolution is voted down for military force, that would actually increase the legitimacy, and it will be interesting to see what the P5 does with that.

But, the Obama administration is going to be on tough grounds here to make the case and to do it in a way in which you have a coalition of forces and countries that say, “we tried at the Security Council and couldn't, but we also can't let this kind of offense slide by.”

MOR: The Obama administration is making a hard sell on the benefits of military strikes on Syria. But what risks does military action by Western powers in Syria bear for civilians on the ground?

GL: Well, this is a difficult question because it's a situation in very quick motion. Had the surgical strikes occurred, let's say, early last week, or even a few days after the attacks—even without full evidence—you probably would've been able, from a military and tactical point of view, to inflict much more damage on the Syrians' military capability to deliver these kinds of weapons again.

Is MONUSCO Lost in Translation?

info-human-righOn August 28, the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) suffered its first casualty since Security Council Resolution 2098 in March authorized an offensive Intervention Brigade tasked with “neutralizing” rebel groups. During fighting near Goma in eastern Congo, between Congolese armed forces backed up by MONUSCO’s new brigade and M23 rebels, one Tanzanian peacekeeper was killed and several others wounded by artillery fire.

The same evening, MONUSCO promptly denounced the incident, tweeting a statement from Martin Kobler, the new special representative of the secretary-general (SRSG) and head of the UN mission.

While this type of statement is expected following such an incident, the choice of the wording used reveals that the mission has yet to adapt its language to its new offensive mandate. This is especially true in the French version, which is presumably the original one since the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a French-speaking country. The use of the French word “meurtre”—meaning “murder” and not the more neutral word “killing” used in the English statement—is at best ill-adapted and at worst misleading in a context where MONUSCO has arguably become a party to the conflict and, therefore, a legitimate target under international law.

Key Conclusions

  • The applicability of international humanitarian law to MONUSCO is widely accepted, despite continuing debate on the scope of its application. This implies that peacekeepers involved in combat become a legitimate target under international law.
  • The creation of MONUSCO’s Intervention Brigade raises serious—although not entirely new—policy and legal questions regarding the impartiality of the mission, the security of UN staff, and the legal standards it must abide by.
  • The deployment of the brigade makes it urgent to seriously address ambiguities that, for the most part, date back to the robust mandate given in 2009 to MONUSCO’s predecessor, MONUC. A good first step would be to adapt the mission’s language to the new operational realities.


The applicability of international humanitarian law (IHL)—also known as the law of armed conflict—to UN peacekeeping forces directly participating in combat has been widely accepted since the UN secretary-general’s adoption of the Bulletin on the Observance by United Nations Forces of International Humanitarian Law in 1999. Nonetheless, the UN has always been reluctant to admit it might become a party to a conflict under IHL, not least because of the implications it has on the safety of blue helmets, as one legal scholar recently noted. Indeed, the prohibition of attacks on peacekeepers, which is considered a war crime by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, is valid “as long as they are entitled to the protection given to civilians or civilian objects under [IHL].” When the UN becomes a party to the conflict, it forfeits this protection and, as fighters, its peacekeepers consequently become legitimate targets.

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