Event ReportsPublished on Jan 15, 2013
Though the 'Arab Spring' had dethroned the long serving President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak, there is still little scope for genuine democracy, according to Mr. Swashpawan Singh, former Indian Ambassador to Kuwait.
Little scope for genuine  democracy in Egypt
Though the ’Arab Spring’ had dethroned the long serving President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak, there is still little scope for genuine democracy, according to Mr. Swashpawan Singh, former Indian Ambassador to Kuwait.

Mr. Singh was speaking at a seminar, organised by Observer Research Foundation on January 15, 2013, to discuss Indian and European perspectives towards the recent political upheaval in West Asia.

Making a presentation on Syria and Egypt, Mr Singh noted that in Cairo, there exists an alternate narrative to the idea that Egyptians have finally embraced liberal democracy. He said despite the Arab Spring, the situation in Egypt for political freedom is relatively similar to that of time during Mubarak’s rule.

Mr Singh noted that the overthrow of President Mubarak has left all the political institutions intact, leaving little scope for genuine democracy. He pointed out that the army retains full control over the hard power structures in the country, they are also free to decide their own budget and have an independent judiciary to probe into defence affairs. This suggests that they will face little accountability and will operate with complete impunity.

Mr. Singh pointed out that the army is working alongside the members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its political manifestation of the Freedom and Justice Party. The Brotherhood’s leadership is composed of wealthy Egyptians from the upper middle class who are also interested in keeping Egypt’s economy closed. They are also hand in glove with the religious establishment, which allows them to maintain a presence in the grassroots.

Mr. Singh argued that the opposition of secular liberals is fragmented and has little support in rural Egypt.

On Syria, Mr. Singh cautioned that that country could be heading for a tentative balkanization due to a geographical scope for dividing the state amongst its varied minorities. The conflict has divided the international community and despite several calls for intervention, it is unlikely that it will take place, especially due to Syria’s complicated demographic structure. The misgivings in Libya have proved that ending an unfavourable regime is easily done, but establishing lasting stability can extremely problematic, he said.

Earlier, giving the opening remarks, the Ambassador of the European Union to India, Mr. João Cravinho, said that we have to question the approach that we have previously had towards the region. He said the current political climate in the Arab world reflected the highly flammable nature of the polity of the states in the region.

The first presentation was made by Mr. Alvaro de Vasconcelos, who has served as the Director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He hailed the Arab Spring as an imminent wave of democratic change. West Asia’s politics had stalled into a repressive and autocratic form of government, and external perspectives believed the region was immune to the demand for human rights and representative government.

However, as witnessed by the popular protests across the region, the vibrant civil society of the Arab World manifested its latent discontent into demands for political change and electoral reform, Mr. Alvaro de Vasconcelos said. He believes that dictators were supported by external powers due to a fear of ’Political Islam’ and the implication it would have for Israel.

However the political rights of the people of these nations cannot be ignored forever. For the EU and India it is thus imperative to support a republican transition where possibly and engage the emerging new republics economically and diplomatically, Mr. Alvaro de Vasconcelos said. Additionally it is important for G20 nations to take on their international responsibility in helping these countries address issues related to youth unemployment and economic liberalization. Most importantly still is the need to invoke the ’Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) doctrine in areas with an escalation in violence towards civilians.

The next presentation was made by Professor A.K.Pasha the Chairperson of the Centre for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He noted the historical relationship India has shared with the states in the Persian Gulf. India’s geographical proximity has today translated into the GCC being our 3rd largest trading partner, with bilateral trade and investment being valued at $124 billion. In addition we depend on these nations for our energy security, and most importantly we are interested in maintaining the welfare and security of the significant expatriate population that resides in West Asia.

Prof. Pasha noted the ostensible resilience of monarchy in the region, claiming that in certain cases where nations have large populations and thus wide income disparity, the regime is running on borrowed time. However, in certain cases people seem generally happy despite the limited room for political participation. Most monarchs in the Middle East retain some religious legitimacy which has allowed for them to stay stronger than the nationalist dictators that have fallen recently. They have initiated several temporary measures aimed at cosmetic change to keep their populations demands at bay.

Prof. Pasha stressed the need for India to maintain its policy, which is opposed to external intervention in the region, noting the duplicity with which these doctrines are enacted. But he believes that India and the EU can collaborate on putting diplomatic pressure for more inclusive government in the region.

The third presentation was made by Dr. Luis Peral from the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He addressed the conflict in Syria. He hailed UNSC Resolution 1973 as a breakthrough as being the first based on the principles of R2P (Responsibility to Protect). While acknowledging that the principle had been gravely damaged by NATO’s misuse of the resolution to enact regime change in Libya and stated that the EU firmly supported the R2P doctrine. It is sanctioned by the United Nations to use force to aid the civilians who face oppression by the same institutions created to empower them. He questioned India’s abstention on this issue, noting that India too signed the treaty to enact the R2P doctrine in 2005. He claimed that the situation in Syria reflects War Crimes and atrocities resembling genocide, and by putting off an intervention in the nation, we are collectively failing its people. He also believes that we should not discard actions short of an intervention, noting that encouraging an international dialogue that honours fundamental international principles.

The event was chaired by Mr. H.H.S Viswanathan, a former Ambassador and now a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Viswanathan warned of the fallouts of intervention noting that the ongoing conflict in the African nation of Mali is a direct result of the Libyan civil war.

Questions were raised regarding the EU’s commitment towards the R2P doctrine. Also questioned was why this commitment has arisen all of a sudden, despite the people in the Middle East having faced oppression for several decades prior to the so called Arab Spring. Mr. De Vasconcelos agreed that criticism for not having acted earlier is warranted, but stressed the need to support the demands of the people, through whatever means necessary.

Mr. De Vasconcelos reiterated that the rise of political Islam suggests that there is no incompatibility. Professor Pasha stated that a sustained dialogue is the best method to proceed, where India and the EU can individually address their own concerns.

Dr. Peral said the European agenda is not unified, but in cases like Syria, it is imperative to reconcile realism with humanitarianism. He noted that due to the sheer number of causalities, the world cannot subordinate the lives and welfare of the Syrian people to ideological differences.

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