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Egyptian army declares it will not use force against civilians as protests intensify

Egypt's military maintain ambiguous stance on protests. 99% of southerners vote for independence, according to first official reports. Surge in political violence ahead of April’s elections in Nigeria. Elected parliament convenes in Myanmar for first time in twenty years.
Josephine Whitaker
31 January 2011

The Egyptian army announced tonight on national television that it will not use force against civilians in the country’s sixth day of street protests against rising unemployment, living costs and political repression.

In a statement, aired on Egyptian media, the military said that “acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people... (the military) have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people”.

The move, which may prove a death knell for Hosni Mubarak’s regime, comes ahead of massive marches and a general strike planned for Tuesday. The army’s statement, its first explicit commitment not to fire at demonstrators, urged people not to resort to sabotage or looting in the course of protests.

Incumbent President Mubarak, who earlier attempted to quell the protests that have seen tens of thousands of demonstrators on the streets of cities across the country with a cabinet reshuffle, appears determined to cling on to power. Newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman announced today that he has been tasked by Mubarak with opening dialogue with all political parties on constitutional reform.

However, without the support of the army, it is unlikely that Mubarak’s government will be able to regain control of the country.

Although estimating the number of casualties from the protests is difficult, most estimate that over 100 have been killed. There are also reports of widespread looting, and a chronic shortage of basic food stuffs in Cairo and other big cities. Many airports have also reportedly been closed ahead of planned protests tomorrow.

The openSecurity verdict: It is not clear what will happen next in Egypt. World leaders and analysts across the world have been failing to keep up, to interpret and to predict what might happen next. Whatever happens, the next phase is likely to be painful.

Look to Tunisia, where the country’s ‘jasmine revolution’ inspired the wave of protest sweeping Egypt now. The way forward for Tunisia is not clear. The interim government, tasked with restoring order and preparing for elections six months hence, is fragile. The role of former government members from ousted president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally in the new unity government is a source of contention. There are growing fears that the old men of Ben Ali’s regime will take advantage of the current power vacuum to consolidate their positions.

But it is not clear what the alternatives are. The country’s main trade union federation has emerged as a strong political force in the absence of any strong opposition parties. Another possibility is that the military may oversee a transition to democracy. General Rachid Ammar, apparently responsible for persuading Ben Ali to go into exile, has become increasingly popular after he told protestors that “the army is the guarantor of the revolution.”  Ammar has even been tipped as possible head of an interim government of technocrats, although many have pointed out that the idea of a military strong man overseeing a democratic transition is exactly how Ben Ali came to power 23 years ago.  

In Egypt, too, the alternatives are not clear. Mubarak remains unwilling to acknowledge that his position is now untenable. While the security forces remain at least ostensibly loyal to the regime (for now), it is increasingly unclear which way they will jump when push comes to shove. Scenes of officers joining forces with protestors suggest that Mubarak lacks the unequivocal backing of his security forces. Many believe that the army is likely to play a crucial role in what happens next. In the past, the army has played a crucial role in regime change, most notably in the army officers’ coup of 1952, and remains deeply embedded in Egyptian politics and the economy.

But, as in Tunisia, the absence of strong opposition parties makes things more difficult. Despite apparent terror in the United States that political Islamists are poised to seize control the minute Mubarak loosens his grip, the Muslim Brotherhood was taken by surprise by the protests. Cowed by threats of repercussions if it officially endorsed the protests, it only late in the day allowed its members to join the protests as individuals. Other opposition leaders, such as Mohamed ElBaradei, seem to have been similarly surprised by the uprising. None has emerged as a natural leader of a post-Mubarak Egypt.   

What is clear is that the problems which triggered the protests in both countries – rising food prices, soaring costs of living, staggering unemployment, especially amongst the young, and decades of political repression –  are systemic, and will need a skilled and experienced government to be resolved. Emboldened by the revolution that seems to be sweeping the middle east, voters are unlikely to be satisfied with half measures and rhetorical commitments to political reform. Any future Egyptian government will be faced by a daunting combination of serious structural socio-economic problems, a pressing need for meaningful political reform, and an electorate high on a revolution that (if successful) will leave them with seriously heightened expectations.

Whatever happens in Egypt will, of course, have serious ramifications for the rest of the world. Diving stock markets in the middle east and elsewhere have already rattled economists. As the region’s most populous country, and a strong influence on its wider politics, it is likely that regime change in Egypt will have knock-on effects in many other of the middle east’s gentocratic authoritarian regimes. Algeria, Yemen and Jordan, facing broadly similar socio-economic and political problems, have all seen protests of their own in recent weeks. Whether these will blossom into more widespread political upheaval remains to be seen.

However, developments in Egypt and Tunisia, even if they do not provoke popular uprisings of the same magnitude elsewhere, may well convince other authoritarian leaders that rhetorical commitments to political reform are no longer enough. As well as pushing unwilling leaders towards meaningful political reform, regime change in Egypt may also lead to the scrapping of unpopular dynastic succession plans, in Libya and Syria, for example.

Political change in Egypt will also lead to a radical recalibration of its relations with other countries around the world. In particular, with the US, which has so long been a backer of Mubarak’s regime. The US has squirmed over the last few days as it tries to find a position on what is happening in Egypt. It is clear that the US can no longer continue to prop up Mubarak, as an open letter of US academics to President Obama yesterday demonstrated, but its close ties to Egypt's military give it some security in its long-term relationship with Egypt. Perhaps it will finally turn up the volume on its tentative demands for political reform.

Relations with Israel and Palestine are also likely to undergo dramatic change if Mubarak goes. Instead of pursuing a policy largely developed to keep its American financiers happy, the Egyptian government is likely to adopt a strategy much more reflective of its citizens’ sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and their anger towards Israel. Egypt's role in the lock-down of Gaza may be revised, a prospect that has shaken the Israeli government and threatens cooperation in the largely demilitarised Sinai.

99% of southerners vote for independence, according to first official reports

Over 99 per cent of voters in south Sudan have voted in favour of secession from the north, according to the first official reports from south Sudan’s independence referendum announced yesterday.

The official results, declared by Chan Reek Madut, deputy head of the country’s electoral commission, show that 99.57 per cent of voters from the south have chosen to split from the north, confirming a result widely predicted by analysts.

Such a strongly pro-secession outcome brought jubilation across much of the south. Salva Kiir, south Sudan’s president and head of the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), told crowds “this is what we voted for, so that people can be free in their own country… I say congratulations a million times.” Kiir also praised Sudan’s national president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, for allowing the referendum to go ahead peacefully.

The referendum was the culmination of a peace process that brought an end to Sudan’s twenty-year civil war. According to the Comprehensive Peace Accord signed in 2005, the south must wait until July to formally declare its independence, allowing time for legal challenges to the result. The national electoral commission was at pains to emphasise that the result announced yesterday is preliminary, and subject to change once results from non-resident south Sudanese voters from the north and around the world have been taken into account.

Before the future of a divided Sudan is assured, a number of serious hurdles must be overcome. Contested Abyei province, which straddles the north-south divide and was due to vote on whether to secede with the south or remain part of the north, saw its own referendum delayed by disagreements on voter registration. Several violent flare ups since the south’s referendum indicate that the issue will continue to simmer until properly addressed.

Meanwhile, the situation in western Darfur province is reported to have deteriorated rapidly over the last month. Human Rights Watch said in a new report on Friday that government and rebel attacks on civilians have sharply increased in recent weeks, with peace keepers and humanitarian organisations being denied access to affected areas.

Surge in political violence ahead of April’s elections in Nigeria

A candidate for governor in northern Nigeria was shot dead on Friday, along with six others, in what is thought to be a political assassination ahead of national elections in April. Meanwhile, fresh violence has gripped the central city of Jos, after a number of students at the University of Jos were injured in a clash.

Modu Fannami Gubio was shot dead outside his father’s home in Maiduguri, Borno state, by gunmen on motorbikes, who followed him home after Friday prayers, say witnesses. The other victims included Gubio’s brother, political aides and security personnel.

The killings come amid a recent rise in political violence in Nigeria, ahead of national elections to be held in April. Islamist sect Boko Haram, which launched an uprising in 2009, has been blamed for other incidents of violence in the area in recent months. However, security officials say they do not know if the group was involved in Gubio’s murder. Other sources of hostility towards him may include deep division within his own party, the All Nigerian People’s Party, and a challenge to his candidacy from the nationally dominant People’s Democratic Party. Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan has “unreservedly” condemned the killings in Borno.

In Jos, the student attacks triggered protests around the city after two of those injured in the initial clash were incorrectly reported to have died in hospital. At least twenty homes were set alight by protestors. However, local officials report that Friday’s demonstrations were hijacked by “hoodlums.”

Meanwhile, local police reported today that they foiled a plot to bomb a Christian church in the north central city of Bauchi, capital of Bauchi state.

Violence between Christians and Muslims has led to thousands of deaths over the last decade, but clashes have intensified since Christmas, particularly in Plateau state, of which Jos is the capital. As the voter registration deadline for April’s elections draws nearer, political violence looks set to rise over the coming months. 

Elected parliament convenes in Myanmar for first time in twenty years

An elected parliament today convened in Myanmar for the first time in more than twenty years. Following on from what were widely held to be deeply flawed elections in November last year, over 600 newly-elected members met amid tight security in two new hluttaws, or legislative chambers, for the opening session.

While the ruling military junta hailed the opening of the new legislature today as a new dawn for democracy in Myanmar, critics both at home and internationally have been quick to dismiss it as a mere cosmetic change that leaves the realities of politics in the country unchanged.

As expected, the new parliament elected leaders for each chamber from the majority Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Although journalists were barred from attending the parliament’s opening, three of the four positions are to be filled by retired soldiers, according to law makers speaking on condition of anonymity.

Constitutional changes before last year’s elections reserve 25% of parliamentary seats at national and local level for the army, embedding the junta’s control over politics.

The National Democratic Force, the country’s biggest pro-democracy party that contested the elections, won just 12 out of 664 seats. The National League for Democracy, lead by Aung San Suu Kyi was officially dissolved when it refused to register under punitive registration laws last year.

It not clear who will take Myanmar’s presidency in elections expected to be held tomorrow, although some analysts expect that Than Shwe, the country’s top general, may well have decided to keep the top job for himself. Others predict he will appoint a key ally to the top job, continuing to run the country behind the scenes.

Opinion remains divided on whether the parliament opened today is a step in the right direction for Myanmar’s democracy, or just a continuation of business as usual under a new guise.

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