Mocking rulers is a tradition almost as old as rule itself. At times mockery is subtle and allegorical; at others it is blunt, sometimes gauche, but always funny. Some wonderful examples are the fables of Nasreldin Goha, a folkloric character rumored to have lived in thirteenth century Turkey. One of his jokes comes to mind:
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The video has no sound, just several minutes of footage shot on a busy street in the sallow sulfur glow of Vientiane streetlights. Two blurry figures approach the passenger's side of a jeep stopped at the curb. A man gets out of the driver's side, walks around the jeep and onto the darkened sidewalk. Another man dressed in black arrives by motorbike, ducks into the shadows, then gets inside the jeep and drives away. Three minutes later a pickup truck stops, people get in, and the vehicle leaves.
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When I left Burma sixteen years ago, the last place where I stayed was the Rangoon home of my friend Thet Win Aung. We got up at three in the morning and said goodbye to his parents as monsoon rain poured down outside. Then we got in a car and headed for the Thai-Burmese border. Little did I know how much was to happen before I would be able to return to my homeland.
There's a statistic that sheds a harsh light on the current gang-rape scandal in India. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a nongovernment organization, there are quite a few Indian politicians who stand accused of rape and other crimes against women. Six state assembly members have actually been elected to office despite facing rape charges.
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The drizzle didn't spoil the street party in Jakarta that ushered in the New Year. About 200,000 people converged in the main square of the Indonesian capital on New Year's Eve to party and watch the fireworks light up the sky above the city's skyscrapers. If the shamans had done a better job repelling the rain, the turnout could have reached the 700,000 that Jakarta governor Joko Widodo had hoped would turn out.
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Now that 2012 has come to a close, I can say that it has been an interesting year for Uganda, with the country experiencing some of the greatest highs and lows in its history. The country just buried a young woman member of parliament from the ruling party, Hon. Cerinah Nebandah from the Butaleja District in Eastern Uganda, who died under mysterious circumstances. Her suspected poisoning has strongly divided the nation. The official government autopsy report claims she died from a drug and alcohol overdose, but her family and legislators have rejected the findings. The debate, however, does bring to the fore the alcohol and drug problem in Uganda, which society has failed to acknowledge as a deeply entrenched problem among young people. What I see, above all, is the loss of one of Uganda's most vibrant young politicians. For many young people, the 24-year-old Nebanda represented a new political force that could potentially cleanse the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party from within.
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On November 27, the president of Venezuela's National Assembly read a communiqué from President Hugo Chávez where he asked Congress for permission to travel to Cuba. In a characteristically opaque statement, the President said he needed to travel for a combination of "physiotherapy" and "hyperbaric oxygen therapy." Venezuelan bonds rallied following the news.
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James A. Robinson explains why Colombia's remarkable degree of political stability is not all that it's cracked up to be.
Malik Al-Abdeh wonders whether the creation of a new umbrella group for the Syrian opposition group will actually help to bring down the Assad regime.
Mohamed El Dahshan argues that the current government ban on pornography in Egypt threatens freedom of expression.
Larry Jagan analyzes the dynamics within the Burmese leadership and explains why fragmentation of the ruling party would be a disaster for the country.
Christian Caryl explores the comparison between two civil war presidents, Bashar al-Assad and Abraham Lincoln.
Besar Likmeta profiles Ina Rama, Albania's first female general prosecutor and valiant hero in the fight against sleaze.
Jackee Batanda reports on the increasing demoralization of a Ugandan public battered by new revelations of corruption in high places.
And here are this week's recommended reads:
Thomas Carothers and and Nathan J. Brown explain the real danger for democracy in Egypt.
Katrin Verclas and Lina Srivastava wonder why a new list of democracy promotion heavyweights is bereft of women.
In a Guardian interview with Colin Poulton, the SOAS research fellow makes the case that the establishment of democratic institutions in developing countries can be detrimental to the rural poor.
A new RAND report assesses the nation-building challenges in post-Qaddafi Libya.
A new report on Burma from the International Crisis Group, Storm Clouds on the Horizon, shows how continuing sectarian conflict is casting a shadow over the reform process. Writing in The Independent, Emanuel Stoakes stresses the need for President Obama to acknowledge the issue during his upcoming trip to Burma.
In an analysis for the Middle East Research and Information Project, Pete Moore explains why -- despite the recent turmoil there -- Jordan is unlikely to experience its own version of the Arab Spring.
Sarah Kendzior argues that there are good reasons for holding policy forums in authoritarian countries.
Alina Rocha Menocal takes issue with the notion that "building institutions" is the best formula for promoting development.And finally, Evelyn Lamb, writing in Scientific American, explains the background of the Gini coefficient -- and why it's not like the Kardashians
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"I called people up so they would join the revolution. And they died. I let (Ahmed) Harara walk onto Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and he was blinded. My friends, who weren't into politics but whom I talked into coming to the streets, died... All so you would block porn sites, you sons of bitches?"
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Indonesian Islamist politicians must be looking with envy at the victory of Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring. The Islamist parties here have contested three democratic elections since Indonesia turned to democracy in 1998, but despite their 14-year head start they pooled only 26 percent of the votes in the last election in 2009. Their own fragmentation hasn't helped; the election spoils are shared by four political parties.
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My father recently bought a new copy of an old book. We couldn't buy it earlier because it was virtually impossible to get one when Hosni Mubarak was president. You'll understand why when you hear the title: Dictatorship for Beginners: Bahgatos, President of Greater Bahgatia. (You can see a copy here -- in Arabic, but you don't have to understand the text to enjoy it).
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that child marriage is bad. Yes, it's just wrong, on the simple moral level when an 11-year-old is pushed into marrying someone four or five times her age. But the practice causes plenty of harder-edged problems too -- ranging from early pregnancy (the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide) to lost education opportunities and the psychological burdens of running a household from an early age. It's commendable that there are so many organizations, both at the global and grassroots levels, that are committed to stopping child marriage. But now, thanks to the first ever International Day of the Girl Child, you can too! Here's the hashtag: #DayoftheGirl. Problem solved.
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Reporting from Caracas, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez explores scenarios after this Sunday’s presidential vote in Venezuela. The main question: Will Hugo Chávez give up power if he loses?
Christian Caryl tells the story of an elementary school teacher in Sudan who faces execution because she had the courage to stand up to the regime. And Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch presents a gallery of similarly courageous but little-known activists from around the world.
On the scene in Tbilisi, James Kirchick reports on the surprising aftermath of Georgia's parliamentary election -- especially President Mikheil Saakashvili's remarkable acceptance of his own defeat. And Kirchick's dispatch from election day provides a vivid account of the tensions and hopes leading up to the vote.
In an excerpt from his new book, economist Justin Yifu Lin compares the experiences of transition economies and offers a few useful rules of thumb for reformers.
Christopher Stephen, on the scene in Benghazi, describes a local backlash against the militants who killed a popular U.S. ambassador.
In the run-up to Venezuela's epochal election, Juan Nagel reports on the shifting balance of forces, while Francisco Toro takes a closer look at whether Hugo Chávez has improved the life of the country's poor.
Reflecting on Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to the United States, Min Zin takes her to task for neglecting to mention the country's continuing civil war.
Endy Bayuni reports on the Indonesian Anti-Corruption Commission's effort to take on one of the country's most graft-ridden institutions: the police.
Mohamed El Dahshan investigates the absurdities of Egypt's campaign against blasphemy.
And Jackee Batanda recounts the curious tale of a run-in between U.S. diplomats and a Ugandan general.
And now for this week's recommended reads:
A paper from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance provides an in-depth look at Venezuela's presidential election.
In a provocative op-ed, MIT scholar Brian Haggerty argues that those who argue for a "limited" intervention in Syria are likely to be proven wrong by conditions on the ground.
The International Crisis Group offers a handy backgrounder on Malaysia, where a long-anticipated general election may soon shake up the political landscape.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Sadanand Dhume explains why he expects little from the new anti-corruption party just launched in India.
The Jamestown Foundation's Igor Rotar worries that the explosive situation in Central Asia's restive Ferghana Valley is likely to aggravate instability throughout the region.
A new book from Democracy Lab contributor Francisco Martin-Rayo tells of his travels through the terrorist recruiting grounds of Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.
And finally, Jadaliyya offers a withering review of The Daily Show appearance of Jordan's King Abdullah II, who, they say, is incorrectly portrayed as a reformist "constitutional monarch." You be the judge: You can find Part I of the interview here.
The Daily Show
Indonesia’s official anti-corruption agency, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), is walking on thin ice after taking on a top police officer, one of its biggest cases to date.
Inspector General Djoko Susilo has been accused of taking massive kickbacks in the procurement of driving simulators when he headed the National Police Traffic Corps division in 2010. After defying two summonses, he showed up at the commission’s headquarters on Friday. But he is clearly not taking the corruption accusation lying down, and appears to enjoy the full backing of the police force.
"The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities," John Dalberg-Acton wrote in 1877. Egypt now seems to be reveling in its failure to pass that test. (Though I should add that a certain degree of caution is advisable here.)
In a remarkable interview with Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, Nazila Fathi asks Iran's leading human rights activist why she believes that an attack on Iran would strengthen the mullahs and undermine democratic aspirations.
Mark James Russell explores how South Korean popular culture has been giving the country's exports a brand name bump in the developing world.
Looking ahead to next week's parliamentary election in Georgia, political scientist Scott Radnitz argues that having two political machines contending for power is better than one. This week's case study from Princeton's Innovations for Successful Societies offers an in-depth look at one of President Saakashvili's signature reforms.
Christian Caryl makes the case that Aung San Suu Kyi should not be immune to criticism.
Roger Bate urges the FDA to take regulating internationally sourced pharmaceuticals more seriously.
Mohamed El Dahshan takes aim at the seemingly archaic Egyptian economic policy.
Endy Bayuni contrasts the various Indonesian views on blasphemy laws.
And here are this week's recommended reads:
The International Republican Institute offers a handy overview of the political scene and the major players in Georgia's October 1 election. At The Atlantic, Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. looks at the recent prison scandal there and what they say about the legacy of the 2003 Rose Revolution.
The Caracas newspaper, El Universal, analyzes the impending Venezuelan presidential election through the prism of both candidates' tweets. Reuters investigates the scandal over a fortune in government funds spent on a factory that never quite got built.
In its latest report, Freedom House takes a critical look at the state of censorship on the web.
October's issue of Journal of Democracy includes several noteworthy papers on the state of Burma's transition, including pieces by Hkun Htun Oo on minority rights, Min Ko Naing on civil society, and Brian Joseph and our very own Min Zin on the challenges of building democracy.
Anthony Kuhn of National Public Radio tells the story of Singapore's forgotten dissidents.
Democracy Digest offers a helpful introduction to a new report, Political Parties in Democratic Transitions, that analyzes the dynamics of democratic transitions.
As the wave of protests around the Muslim world ebbs, two authors offer their perspectives on the motives of religious anger: Kenan Malik compares the latest protests with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and Steve Cole, writing in The New Yorker, shows why the TV imagery of fanatical rioters usually falls short of a complex reality.
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Any decent Muslim would have been angered by the portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed in the film Innocence of Muslims. But it took a few days longer in Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population, for the rage to translate into violent protests against American interests of the kind that happened elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Christian Caryl reports on the Salafi movement, which has been implicated in many of this week's protests around the Middle East.
With her white hijab and the slight gap between her teeth, Fatma Nabil looks like my cousin. She probably looks like everybody's cousin.
Yet after presenting the afternoon news last week, Fatma became the most recognizable face on Egyptian television: She is, after all, Egypt's first veiled TV news anchor. Ever.
For decades, members of Indonesia's Shiite Muslim minority have led a somewhat secluded but peaceful life. Everyone knew of their existence in Indonesia, but no one was going around asking about their faith and practices -- and they didn't go around flaunting their religious identity either.
Most Muslims in Indonesia were not aware of their Sunni identity. They could not even tell the difference between Shiite and Sunni, or understand the historic deep-seated enmity that has split Muslims in other parts of the world. The majority of Muslims in Indonesia may follow the Sunni teachings, but many of their daily practices resemble the Shiite traditions, such as the way they pay homage for dead relatives. This suggests that Shiite influence is far larger than the number of people who profess to follow the denomination. It has had a presence in Indonesia long before many educated Muslims were drawn to Shiism after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978.
Patrick Bodenham meets some of Burma's child soldiers, and examines why the government has failed to follow through on its pledge to end the problem. Christian Caryl explains why the predicament of Burma's Rohingya is becoming a new global cause célèbre for Muslims.
In an overview of recent papers on transition economics, Peter Passell explores the dynamics behind issues ranging from girls' schools to clean cooking stoves.
Silent Voices, a new play at the National Theatre in Kampala, questions the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation in Northern Uganda. The rhetoric in the last couple of years about Northern Uganda has focused on the forgiving nature of the people -- and thus on how reconciliation will successfully remove the stench of the long and terrible war against the Lord's Resistance Army.
Written by Judith Adong, Silent Voices deftly captures the experiences of the people affected by the conflict. Adong was inspired by the research she carried out in 2006, looking at the use of drama therapy for former child soldiers, at the World Vision Children of War Rehabilitation Centre and at the Gulu Support the Children Organization.
But the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation were only negotiated at the political level; the Amnesty Act forgave perpetrators who surrendered, and in cases protected them from future litigation. Adong's meetings with community members led her to realize that, "there was a feeling of betrayal, bitterness, a need for revenge and a feeling of having been neglected, while crime perpetrators were instead being rewarded and victims being ‘forced' to forgive."
In a country where consulting a psychologist is taboo, Portia Walker explores the challenge of overcoming the civil war in Libya.
Endy Bayuni examines why few Indonesians are prepared to come to terms with the darkest chapter of the country's recent history.
Min Zin wonders whether the regime will succeed in its bid to co-opt the pro-democracy opposition through appeals to nationalism amid continuing sectarian strife.
Three Princeton researchers (Morgan Greene, Jonathan Friedman, and Richard Bennet) tell the story of how post-Yugoslavia Kosovo (with some help from the international community) managed to pull off a remarkable feat of state-building.
Endy Bayuni explains why Indonesians disagree about the start of Ramadan, and what it says about the country's climate of religious toleration.
The majority of Muslims in Indonesia will begin fasting for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan on Saturday, following the date ordained by the government. But a handful will start observing the holiday today. (The photo above shows Indonesians getting in last-minute shopping before Ramadan begins.)
Both Indonesian and foreign observers are baffled by how Muslims in this country are always fighting, at times quite passionately, over when Ramadan begins and ends. It is not unusual to find families divided by this debate. Once Ramadan begins, the fights cease and everyone goes about their lives (and their faith) as usual. Until the next year, that is.
Picture the scene: It's July 1974, and congress is on the brink of impeaching President Nixon. As the procedure moves forward, Britain's foreign minister comes to Washington, D.C. in a desperate diplomatic bid to save a key ally from losing power. But instead of talking to the White House or trying to lobby congress, the British Foreign Minister heads straight for the Pentagon, where he gives a fiery harangue beseeching the Joint Chiefs of Staff to disregard any congressional move to impeach Nixon, telling them that doing so would nullify the democratic will of the electorate, and that it's their duty to stand firmly by their president, putting troops on the streets if need be.
Substitute July 1974 with June 2012, Richard Nixon with Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, and Britain's foreign minister with Venezuela's, and you have a rough approximation of the extraordinary events that allegedly took place just two weeks ago as Paraguay's congress moved to impeach the president.
There were presidential elections. Both candidates declared victory. The Higher Electoral Commission ruled to delay the official announcement of the results "indefinitely." Mubarak was declared brain-dead, then in a coma, then neither.
So it's great news for everyone. Both camps are celebrating: Mubarak's detractors are glad to see him die, while his fans celebrate his recovery from the brink!
Joking aside, "indecision" is the word of the week in Egypt, and none of the above seems to matter.
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This week, the Egyptian military made its boldest attempt yet to regain control over a country that has been slipping from its grip.
The two Thursday rulings from Egypt's Constitutional Court -- which effectively disbanded parliament while allowing Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, to run for president (his image trampelled on, above) -- have thrown the whole political situation into chaos. But there's an even more ominous part of the story that everyone seems to be overlooking.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.