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Archive for November, 2011

This past Friday my wife (and fellow peace activist) Karen Jacob and I participated in a huge pro-democracy rally in Tahrir Square. The demonstration was completely peaceful and much larger than those we witnessed earlier in the week. The huge throng filled the entire Square and was reminiscent of the historic mass mobilizations in February that brought down the Mubarak dictatorship. The rally was announced as a ‘million man march’ and had the backing of a broad cross section of Egyptian activist groups, from liberal secularists to conservative Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood did not support the march, although many of its youth members joined the crowd. The rally had a positive and hopeful spirit, in sharp contrast to the earlier violent clashes, which we witnessed on November 20.

courtesy of Karen Jacob

The atmosphere in the Square on Friday was almost festive. We saw families with children, vendors selling food and drinks, and everywhere the red, white and black stripes of the Egyptian flag, face-painted on children, and thanks to a group of laughing teenagers, also painted on our hands. It was a diverse crowd, young and old, women and men, middle class and the very poor. We were welcomed and greeted warmly by many.

courtesy of Karen Jacob

The crowd was friendly but determined in its commitment to fulfill the promise of the revolution. There were no speeches but constant chanting from groups throughout the Square, all with a similar message. Military rule must end. “How long will you stay in the Square,” we asked a young woman. “Until the generals leave power,” she replied. “The military should defend the nation not rule it,” said one of the many hand-written posters. An older man explained that the generals who took charge in February have lost their legitimacy and must step aside in favor of civilian democratic government.

Where the revolution goes from here is uncertain. The military council is digging in its heels and refuses to step down. It has appointed a new civilian Prime Minister, Kamal el-Ganzouri, a Mubarak-era apparatchik, but it refuses to accept independent civilian leadership. The generals have issued ‘guiding principles’ for the democratic transition that assert their right to veto constitutional provisions and exempt the military from parliament authority.

The democracy movement will not accept this. It has been reawakened by the events of the past week and will not relent until the military steps aside in favor of a fully empowered civilian interim government—one that can shepherd the country through the parliamentary elections that are now beginning, the constitution-writing process that will follow, and the presidential elections that all hope will complete the democratic transition and bring to power Egypt’s first popularly elected civilian leader.

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Dark Days on Tahrir Square

We saw people severely beaten right in front of our eyes yesterday in Tahrir Square. We were horrified later when the news reported that several were killed. As we watched from a balcony overlooking the Square we heard the boom of military cannons, saw contrails from tear gas canisters hurtling across the Square, and felt clouds of stinging gas wafting up to our landing. Panicked crowds frantically rushed from the police. The news reported that several people died from the stampedes.

photo courtesy of Karen Jacob

Just below us we saw soldiers in black uniforms savagely beating an already prostrate demonstrator, clubs repeatedly pounding his motionless form. Was he one of the fatalities? Nearby a young man struggled to wrestle out of the grip of soldiers, staggering under the blows of continuous whacks to his head, arms and shoulders.

We had entered the Square a couple hours earlier from the subway, where we could smell the lingering tear gas from clashes on Saturday. We walked into the gathering crowd without incident and made our way to a nearby bookstore, only to find it closed, windows broken and boarded, apparently damaged during previous street clashes. All along the sidewalk and nearby street the pavement was torn up to provide paving stonesand bricks for protestors to fling at the police and military.

photo courtesy of Karen Jacob

When the melee started we were in the midst of an interview with the learned Dr. Nadia Mostafa, former chair of Cairo University’s political science department. Suddenly we heard shouts and screams from the crowd and sounds of military attack. We rushed to the balcony to survey the unfolding carnage.

As we gazed in shock at the battle below, Dr. Nadia quietly stepped back from the balcony. We turned and saw her sitting alone in her office, hanging her head, shaking it from side to side in dejection. She had just said that the continued clashes were harming the revolution, that unknown forces were at work among the activists and in the military to undermine the revolution and prevent the transition to democracy. No good can come from this, she said. Little could she have imagined that her words would be so quickly and horribly confirmed.

David Cortright and Karen Jacob

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If there is no military solution to end the war in Afghanistan, as many agree, then a negotiated political agreement is the only way out. So what’s being done to advance the peace process? Very little, according to everyone we interviewed on a recent research trip to Kabul.

The Kabul government’s peace and reconciliation process, which began last year, has ground to a halt, according to the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, an independent research center in Kabul. It never had much momentum to begin with, and it was abruptly suspended in September when the head of the High Peace Council, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated by an insurgent suicide bomber pretending to be an emissary of the Taliban.

The peace process is fake, said a former government official.  The insurgents distrust the government and foreign forces and are not serious about negotiating. The Kabul government has no interest in sharing power with insurgents, and its officials do not want to lose their economic and political privileges.

The United States has made some efforts to encourage talks, but it has also adopted a ‘fight and talk’ strategy, which means shooting at the very people you supposedly want to engage. This is “not helpful to the negotiating process,” said one of the researchers.  U.S. night raids and airstrikes are poisoning the atmosphere that is needed to facilitate meaningful dialogue and confidence building. They are killing mid-level commanders who may be needed to achieve reconciliation.

Pakistan wants a seat at the table and has made clear its ability and intention to derail any negotiating process to which it is not a party.

Meanwhile the average citizen has been sidelined. The Kabul government has not communicated its intentions to the public and seems to have no intention of involving ordinary citizens in resolving armed hostilities. For the Afghan people the transition process has no meaning, said a former official. “The people have no clue” what peace is supposed to mean, he said.

This is the exact opposite of what civil society experts in Afghanistan and the United States have urged. A recent report published by the U.S. Institute of Peace, written by Lisa Schirch of 3P Human Security, lays out parameters for an inclusive peace process that involves all social and ethnic groups within Afghan society. Assuring that Afghan citizens are fully engaged offers a strategy for addressing the underlying causes of the conflict and building a broad base of stakeholders committed to upholding human rights in any negotiated agreements.

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Real progress has been achieved over the past decade in improving the status of Afghan women, especially in the areas of education and health care. Girls and women are now able to go to school and many are taking advantage of that opportunity. Access to health services and maternal care has improved substantially across the country. The National Solidarity Program of community-based economic development has empowered many women to play a more active role in their communities. A quarter of the seats in the Afghan parliament are reserved for women. In Kabul women are more actively involved in public life. These are substantial gains, described by one observer as “irreversible.”

In the all-important area of personal security, however, conditions have deteriorated. During my recent visit to Kabul, member of the Afghan Women’s Network said that the situation is more dangerous and uncertain for women now—despite the presence of 150,000 international troops. Insurgent groups have increased their control over many parts of the country.

Foreign military operations are oriented toward battling insurgents, the women explained, not protecting civilians. “No one protects us in the streets,” said one woman. A researcher exclaimed, “I’d rather trust my life to the thieves than the soldiers or police.” We don’t need policies that are created in Western capitals, said another woman. “We need to be involved in designing and monitoring our own security policies.”

Women have equal rights on paper, but in reality their freedoms are being undermined. Women are threatened not only by the Taliban, said the director of a coordinating agency for relief groups, but by Afghan government officials, the very same agencies Western governments are supporting. “Those guys in the government are the ones who passed the family law,” the agency director said, referring to the Personal Status Law adopted in 2009, a measure that legalizes rape in marriage.

The U.S. has concentrated on building the Afghan National Army and National Police, which will soon number 300,000 troops. This huge security force is unsustainable financially, and it has done little to provide security for Afghan women.

The U.S. is creating local police forces, supposedly to enhance security, but these poorly trained troops are responsible for many abuses, including murder, rape, arbitrary detention and illegal land grabs. These crimes are documented in a recent Human Rights Watch report.

As the U.S. and other countries begin to scale back their military involvement in Afghanistan, the challenge for the future will be preserving the gains women have achieved while ensuring greater protection for Afghan civilians, especially women. That will require a shift in strategy away from military combat operations toward a greater emphasis on development and human security.

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