Month: October 2015

Elections in Egypt

“We don’t know anything about these candidates so I’m not going to give my vote to someone who doesn’t deserve it”,  19 year old Michael Bassili from Alexandria.

Egypt has just completed its first round of parliamentary elections since the main chamber was dissolved in 2012. Voter turnout was expectedly low, with one newspaper calling it an “election without voters”, reflecting a lack of confidence in the new electoral system. Young voters who make up the majority of Egypt’s population were largely absent. This may be a challenge for President Sisi who has been counting on a strong turnout to legitimize the push for reforms needed to stabilize both the political sphere and the economy in order to attract new investments and reduce dependence on financial aid from Gulf states.

Musicians_and_dancers_on_fresco_at_Tomb_of_Nebamun

The past 4 years have been a period of political turmoil as many of the gains following the 2011 ousting of former president Mubarak have been reversed via legal and military means. Mubarak’s resignation was followed by the country’s first democratic elections leading to Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leader Muhammed Morsi becoming president in June 2012. In the same month the Supreme Constitutional Court declared the then electoral laws unconstitutional and ordered the dissolution of parliament then dominated by the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party. Protests followed against Morsi’s ‘Islamist’ policies resulting in military intervention and the arrest of the president in July 2013. An interim presidency under Adly Mansour followed; a new constitution was approved in Jan 2014; and presidential elections held which saw General Sisi swapping his uniform for a suit, winning 96% of the vote.

The first round of parliamentary elections were held on October 18-19 in 14 of Egypt’s 27 governorates. Round two is scheduled for November 22-23 in the rest of the country including Cairo and the troubled Sinai peninsula. The new parliamentary law of 2014 establishes a mixed electoral system and increases the number of representatives to 596. Of these seats, 20% are for candidates from party-lists, 5% appointed by the president, and 75% for individual candidates – meant to minimise the strength of opposition blocs in the new parliament according to critics. “There are very few fierce regime critics who are participating in the electoral process and so clearly they have managed this election in such a way that is not going to be a representative parliament with a fully empowered opposition that is seeking to challenge the government.” said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

‘For the Love of Egypt’, a pro-government coalition of loyalist parties, politicians and wealthy businessmen and coordinated by former intelligence officer Sameh Seif El-Yazal, won all 60 seats allocated for party-based lists in the first round.  Al Nour, having lost much support after endorsing Morsi’s overthrow, failed to win seats in the initial poll but gained 10 seats in the run -off.  273 candidates have secured seats in the upcoming parliament thus far.

Critics of the new electoral laws call it a “selective process of elite reconfiguration” – a way of maximising the probability of a desired outcome i.e. no ‘Islamists’ or powerful regime opposition groupings. Support for Sisi is generally rooted in the entrenched role of the military in Egyptian society, and the fact that security concerns have produced “a reactionary movement…quieting the impulse for change”. The new parliament is widely seen as unlikely to challenge the executive and is expected to endorse decrees made by Sisi since he assumed power, including a number of draconian measures meant to deal with security threats affecting the country, from the insurgency in the Sinai province to disruptions caused by regular street demonstrations by the MB and other opposition figures.

All’s Not Smooth Sailing Along China’s Maritime Silk Route

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of China’s Rise over the past decade has been its diplomatic setbacks in the region it needs to consolidate first before setting its sights further abroad. The might of the PRC has not been lost on the states of Southeast Asia, some of which have been slowly congealing into a loose anti-Chinese coalition of sorts. Beijing has become aware of its failure to balance its hard power excesses with the reassurances necessary to prevent fear amongst its neighbours from becoming a stumbling block in its goal of regional leadership and is attempting to address its failings via various means, including economic – drawing these states into a commercially integrated ‘maritime silk route’ as part of its ‘peripheral diplomacy’.

But recent events have shown the limitations of this policy. In June the Philippine President Benigno Aquino arrived in Japan for a four day visit where he drew headlines after giving a speech likening China’s policies in the South China Sea to Nazi Germany’s expansionism during WWII. The timing of the statement was welcome to Japan since 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII with corresponding levels of ‘Japan bashing’ across the region. Aquino’s statements drew attention away from the memory of Japanese aggression in the region, focusing instead on the growing threat posed by China to regional stability. Aquino has sought Japanese help in resisting Chinese actions in the South China Sea and is also benefiting from a deal financed by Japan which will see 12 high speed patrol vessels for the Philippines Coast Guard delivered in 2016. In 2012, Aquino’s foreign secretary, Del Rosario stated that: “We are looking for balancing factors in the region and Japan could be a significant balancing factor.”

American forces are also being welcomed back into the Philippines as part of an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed by President Barack Obama during a state visit in April 2014.

July 6-10 saw a visit of Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to the United States – the first time the party’s leader has ever visited the country, as part of what analysts have called Vietnam’s pivot towards the United States. But here also the sailing has not been smooth; human rights concerns are have been put forward as the reason that groundbreaking developments such as the complete lifting of the lethal arms embargo and the upgrading of the relationship to “extensive comprehensive partnership” were not achieved. Nevertheless, as Alexander Vuving writes “Vietnam and the United States now trust each other far more than either trusts China”. Recent months have seen the signing of a ‘Joint Vision Statement’ meant to guide future relations between the two countries, and the US has pledged $18 million towards Vietnam’s purchase of American Metal Shark patrol vessels. So much for wartime historical memories that continue to haunt Japan.

Added to the mix have been a host of inter-regional ‘strategic partnerships’ forged as a result of the common Sinic denominator, such as that between Japan and the Philippines, the Japan-Malaysia strategic partnership, the Vietnam-Philippines strategic partnership, India-Vietnamese security cooperation, as well as a host of enhanced U.S. relations with states in the region. Read more

Crisis in Congo-Brazzaville

The Republic of Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso is pushing for a constitutional reform allowing him to stand for a possible third term by running in elections scheduled for August 2016. He has ruled the country for over three decades years since 1979, with 5 years spent as an opposition leader before returning to office in 1997. Opposition groups have vowed to oppose his bid for another term and if events in Burundi and Burkina Faso are anything to go by, the results will be heightened political instability and a further deterioration of investor confidence in a country still recovering from the effects of a civil war which left 300 000 people dead.

After receiving a go ahead from a largely pro-government national conference in September, President Sassou Nguesso announced a referendum on constitutional changes to be held on October 25. He is likely to succeed owing to the power of the entrenched Congolese Labor Party (PCT) however the move will not go unopposed: the leader of the opposition coalition Congolese Social Democratic Party (PSDC), Clément Miérassa called the announcement a “constitutional coup” and vowed to fight it, indicating that the opposition will mobilize its supporters to pressure a retreat by 71 year old Nguesso. The constitution limits presidential terms to 2 and excludes candidates over the age of 70.

When President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso attempted a similar change in 2014, a popular uprising ensued which saw him fall from office after 27 years in power and in Burundi deadly protests followed President Nkurunziza’s announced his plans for a third term, which was later confirmed by the country’s constitutional court (some of whose members fled the country after receiving death-threats).

With comparative levels of insecurity to its giant neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo – which saw fatal street protests erupting in January after President Kabila was accused of attempting the same – the oil exporting Republic of Congo is already suffering the effects of low crude prices. Domestic instability would add to the countries fiscal woes which has already led the government to reduce budgetary expenses by 12% this year.

The president needs to tread carefully however – disputed parliamentary elections in 1993 led to fighting along ethnic lines between pro-government forces and the opposition with peace later restored via ceasefire. Peace did not last however – ethnic and political tensions led to civil war erupting in 1997 with the army and country split along ethnic lines between northern supporters of Nguesso and southern support for the rebels. Fighting was prolonged by strongmen motivated by the prize of capturing the countries offshore oil fields.