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This past week, representatives from some 20 countries in the Arabic-speaking world and beyond got together, once again, to talk about Internet freedom in the region. The meeting was particularly interesting, convening as it did in a country where the government clearly doesn't know what to make of this whole "freedom" thing.
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Each day, Libya's General National Congress (GNC), the highest political authority in the country, draws closer to a looming existential crisis that could lead to a total power vacuum and the collapse of Libya's democratic transition. The GNC, the interim legislature elected among high hopes in August 2012, faces mounting pressure from the public, civil society groups, political activists, and some blocs within the GNC itself to complete its mandate and hand over its power to a new body early next year.
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Eritrea, a country of roughly 6 million people on the Horn of Africa, is one of the world's most repressive states. There is no freedom of speech, press, or religion. Not a single election has been held since the country achieved independence two decades ago after a 30-year war with Ethiopia. Prolonged detention and torture are routine for any dissenters. And adults are forcibly conscripted mandatory military or national service that can last as long as the government decides.
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Anna Nemtsova reports from the town of Baikalsk, where the shutdown of one of Russia's dirtiest factories threatens the community's livelihood. Photographer Brendan Hoffman captures Baikalsk in pictures.
Juan Nagel marvels at Venezuela's new, Orwellian Ministry of Happiness.
Christopher Walker and Alexander Cooley expose Azerbaijan's zombie election monitors.
Asma Ghribi explains why Tunisia's first suicide bombing sends an ominous signal amid rising political violence.
Christian Caryl looks back on the life of Tadeusz Mazoweicki, Poland's modest revolutionary, and explains what today's activists can learn from him.
Luka Oreskovic argues that Bosnia's politicians should seize the chance to embrace a broader notion of citizenship.
Mohamed Eljarh reports on Benghazi's assassination epidemic.
And now for this week's recommended reads:
Writing for the Atlantic, transitions scholar Larry Diamond asks whether the world's dictatorships are suffering from the "70-Year Itch."
The Center for International and Strategic Studies issues a new report urging increased U.S. assistance for the Burmese health care sector.
Writing in the Washington Post, Michael Abramowitz and Holly Atkinson demand protection for Burma's beleaguered Muslim minority.
The Community of Democracies publishes A Diplomat's Handbook for Democracy Development Support.
Today's Zaiman writer Ali Aslan Kilic reports on the female lawmakers who are challenging Turkey's secular establishment by wearing headscarves to parliament. (In the photo above, thousands of Turkish Alevis rally to demand equal citizenship.)
Michael L. Ross finds that countries rich with petroleum tend to have violent conflicts and durable autocracies.
On the Arabist, Fahmy Howeidy argues that the current alliance between Egyptian liberals and the military will not stand the test of time.
In the Financial Times, Jonathan Ledgard and John Clippinger make the case for a universal digital currency in Africa.
In the National Interest, Vivek S. Sharma argues for a new view of corruption in developing countries.
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Twenty-five years have now passed since Burma started its struggle for democracy. It began as the “8-8-88 Movement,” a nationwide popular uprising calling for the removal of military dictatorship and the restoration of democratic government. Tens of thousands of young Burmese took to the streets, shouting the slogan: “To achieve democracy is our cause, our cause.”
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Recently I spoke to Amera Ali, a young lawyer from Tripoli, who had little good to say about the current situation. During the early days of the Libyan revolution, Ali took to the streets as part of a lawyers' movement to protest the killing of anti-Qaddafi protesters. As she was putting her life on the line, I am sure she never dreamed that the end of the conflict would bring a-not-so subtle campaign to drive women out of the judicial and legal profession altogether.
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TRIPOLI — There's a joke that Libyans tell about their driving habits. A Tripoli driver zooms through a red light at full speed. When his foreign passenger protests, the Libyan responds, "Don't worry, I'm a professional." At the next red light, the driver does the same, once again reassuring his nervous guest. "It's okay, I'm a professional." The next traffic light is green -- and this time the drive stops. "Why are you stopping?" asks the nonplussed foreigner. The Libyan shrugs: "You never know when there might be another professional around."
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When you first arrive in Naypyidaw, as I did last week, you can't help but experience a peculiar sensation of equal parts awe and fear. In just a few years, the then-ruling military junta carved a new Burmese capital out of pure jungle. It came at a cost of billions of dollars to a country where most people live in poverty. "Only an autocrat would come up with a grandiose project like this" I mused, "at the expense of all other important things, of course."
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On January 29, 2011, nearly a week into the popular uprising that would eventually topple the Mubarak regime, a series of well-organized and violent attacks against prisons took place throughout Egypt. Among those escaping in the chaos were 34 members of the Muslim Brotherhood -- including the man who is now Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsy. Freed alongside this small cadre of Islamist activists were many thousands of regular prisoners held for apolitical (read "criminal") offenses. This flood of prisoners onto the streets resulted in a sharp spike in criminality from which the beleaguered country has yet to recover.
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TUNIS, Tunisia — The humming of the censorship equipment that ran in Tunis is barely audible, but intimidating nevertheless. You can't help but feel a certain awe as you stand in front of the modest-looking server that was used for so many years to curtail the online freedoms of Tunisians.
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For years, Venezuela's government has dodged accusations that it does not protect freedom of speech. Critics usually point to the frequent use of public airwaves to broadcast government propaganda, as well as the many TV and radio stations the government has shut down for playing critical content. The government usually responds by citing the continued operation of Globovisión, a sharply critical all-news station (or rather, the only critical news station). Chavistas claim that its survival throughout the Chávez era refutes any allegations of censorship.
The people of Libya were invariably forced to express their support for Muammar Qaddafi for over 40 years in order to ensure their personal safety. The intolerant and authoritarian nature of Qaddafi's regime constrained Libyan's political, civil, and religious rights by curtailing their freedom of expression and thought, freedom of association, and free access to information.
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Over the weekend, Libya's interim legislature, the General National Congress (GNC), voted overwhelming in favor of a controversial political isolation law that will ban Qaddafi-era officials from holding public office. As many as 164 voted in favor of the law, while four members voted against it and 19 members did not show up for the voting session. The circumstances under which the vote passed were far from ideal for deciding important legislation: The capital of Tripoli was effectively being taken over by armed supporters of the law. Militias besieged numerous government ministry buildings for more than a week, and several ministries continue to be blockaded even after the passing of the law. Many lawmakers are demanding Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's resignation.
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This morning, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in the city of Zawiya, about 40 km west of the capital, to denounce the takeover of government ministries by armed groups in Tripoli. The demonstration moved on to both Algeria and Martyrs Square, with numbers growing by the hour. The protesters, who have remained there, are calling for the disbanding of all armed militias in Tripoli and the end of the siege.
In what might be a first for history, a group of Egyptian conscientious objectors protested in Cairo last Tuesday for the freedom of a Jewish Israeli citizen. Representing the "No to Compulsory Military Service" movement, while simultaneously promoting the right of Israel to exist, the peace activists came out to Talaat Harb Square, just meters from Tahrir Square, to support the rights of their fellow objector, Natan Blanc.
Maikel Nabil Sanad
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Tensions between Burma's Buddhists and Muslims have flared up again, this time in Meiktila, a town in central Burma. A brawl between a customer and a seller in a local market on March 20 triggered a fight that broadened into a full-fledged sectarian riot. State-run media reported that 32 people died in the violence. The government announced a curfew for Meiktila and two nearby towns. For the moment, the situation in Meiktila appears to be under control. It should come as no surprise that most of the lives and property destroyed so far belong to Muslim residents of the community. Independent observers said that the damages -- including the death toll -- are likely higher than the government's report.
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You'd think that Libyans wouldn't have much in the way of objections to Coptic Christians. There aren't really enough of them in the country to cause any problems: Only about 1 percent of the population consists of Copts, and more or less all of them are immigrants. Unfortunately, their low profile hasn't protected them from the forces of intolerance.
What has changed in Tunisia since opposition leader Chokri Belaid was assassinated? I've asked many Tunisian friends that question. Most remained silent for a few seconds, smiled sadly, and whispered, "not much." One, a well-known activist, noted bitterly that what was clear was that Belaid didn't die "for that incompetent man (Laarayadh) to become prime minister".
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On Thursday, a Bangladeshi tribunal found Delwar Hossain Sayeedi guilty of crimes against humanity committed during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. The tribunal condemned him to death -- in stark divergence from their ruling in the case of his political colleague, Abdul Quader Mollah, who received a life sentence from the same court. In response to the Sayeedi verdict, Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamist party in which both Sayeedi and Mollah hold prominent positions, stepped up its protests against the tribunals. The result was a spate of violence that has now left more than fifty people dead.
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In last week's post, I mentioned how Libyans were planning to use the second anniversary of their revolution to exercise their democratic right to peacefully protest and hold their elected government accountable. For the record: There was no second revolution, no apocalyptic violence, and no jihadi takeover.
Photo by MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
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.
Mac Margolis explains why Brazilian political consultants are all the rage in Latin America and beyond.
Min Zin anticipates President Obama's planned trip to Burma and what it might mean for the development of the country's democracy.
Pedro Pizano and Jamie Leigh Hancock offer a rare glimpse inside one of Africa's harshest dictatorships.
Based on an interview with Transparency International co-founder Laurence Cockcroft, Christian Caryl contends that corruption is set to become one of the defining political issues of the twenty-first century.
Liana Aghajanian reports on Armenians' revolt against the political and economic power of business tycoons.
Azzurra Meringolo interviews the leading Bahraini human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja.
Juan Nagel looks ahead to the approaching state elections in Venezuela and wonders whether the opposition will have a chance.
And Endy Bayuni tells the sad story of a scandal over judges with poor judgement.
And now for this week's recommended reads:
Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart, writing for the Legatum Institute, present an outline for a post-war transition in Syria.
Democracy Digest examines Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's vow to stay no matter what, and analyzes the impact of his statement on the continuing civil war.
Writing for the Center for International Policy Studies, Alexandra Gheciu examines the possibility of military intervention in Mali.
At Jadaliyya, Fawwaz Traboulsi maps out the political opportunities that the Arab Spring has provided to the forces of the left -- and suggests how they might be exploited.
Shannon K. O'Neil at the Council on Foreign Relations analyzes how U.S. state votes on the decriminalization of marijuana will affect drug policies in Latin America.
Radio Free Asia provides a profile of the "multimedia monk" who has been campaigning for human rights in Cambodia.
The Economist presents a video report on the ethnic violence in western Burma.
Golnaz Esfandiari, author of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty's Persian Letters blogs, provides a unique look into the mindset of one of Iran's basij paramilitaries.
At Al-Akhbar English, Sarah El Sirgany offers an intriguing comparison of the U.S. and Eygptian presidential elections.
Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GettyImages
M. Steven Fish and Katherine E. Michel explain why Tunisia is taking the right approach to establishing democractic institutions.
Anne Applebaum explores the motivations for people to support authoritarian regimes.
Dalibor Rohac argues that religion isn't necessarily the key to understanding the success of Islamist parties in the MENA region.
Endy Bayuni explains the tensions underlying recent violence among Indonesian migrants.
Peter Passell introduces the Legatum Institute's 2012 Prosperity Index.
Jackee Batanda reports on the corruption scandal that has soured Uganda's relations with foreign aid donors.
And now for this week's recommended reads:
David Rieff attacks the assumptions behind America's democracy promotion agenda.
The Arabist provides alternate sources of English versions of the new Egyptian draft consitution -- with a bit of arch commentary along the way.
Amrit Dhillon criticizes the Indian government's restrictions on morphine for the poor.
At The Monkey Cage, Joshua Tucker offers a handy overview of Ukraine's parliamentary elections and what they tell us about the Ukraine's continued drift toward authoritarianism.
Writing for The Irrawaddy, Burmese journalist Aung Zaw explains why the resurgence of ethnic conflict in northwestern Burma bodes ill for the next phase of reforms.
At Jadaliyya, Basma Guthrie and Fida Adely explain why the Jordanian government is tightening the screws on the domestic media.
Foreign Policy's own Marc Lynch writes on the burgeoning dissatisfaction in Kuwait.
Writing for OpenDemocracy.net, Paul Rogers argues that western intervention in Mali would be a gift to Al Qaeda.
Democracy Digest offers a useful situation report on the state of democratic institutions in Tunisia.
[The photo above shows Cubans lining up to receive government coal rations in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.]
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Venezuela has just gone through a long and exhausting presidential campaign. There were massive rallies, ads of all kinds, interesting last-minute developments, and turnout on election day was heavy. The incumbent president won comfortably, and the challenger gracefully accepted defeat. The winner even called the loser on the phone.
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My former colleagues in Burma are preparing a special commemorative ceremony to be held next week to honor a fallen hero, Thet Win Aung. They've asked me to write an essay about him, as they plan to publish a book about him on the sixth anniversary of his death. For several days I've been unable to complete the task.
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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Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.