Sunday, 24 June 2012

Turkey's downed jet- An act of war?

If any country were to intervene in Syria it seems most likely to be Turkey.

Syria said the Turkish jet was in Syrian airspace. Turkey said it was in international airspace. Either way, Syrian forces shot it down. As of writing the two Turkish pilots are missing. The rebels in Syria have so far used no aircraft. They have none that are commonly known about. So what on earth were the Syrians doing shooting down their northern neighbour’s aircraft at such a tense time?

Well the Syrians might not actually be technically in the wrong. The Turkish foreign minister did admit that the jet had entered Syrian airspace briefly 15 minutes before it was hit. However, it was unarmed he said, conducting domestic radar tests and was not, contrary to Syrian assertions, warned before being shot down.

Syria, however, is in a state of virtual civil war. The two countries have reason to be wary of each other as relations have plummeted since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime started last year. Turkey shelters the Free Syria Army and has been the recipient of over 30,000 Syrian refugees from the fighting. If any country were likely to intervene in Syria it would be Turkey. It might not be important that Turkey is a member of NATO, though it will now make representations to NATO about the downing of its plane. Turkey though is fed up of the refugees and the bombardment and massacre of civilians it sees over the border. Many are openly calling it civil war in Syria now, and it is clear that the rebels are putting up as much of a fight as they can. However it also seems obvious that despite increasing numbers of defections, the mass of troops and heavy weapons is in the Assad regime’s hands and they are using them. Reports are hard to verify but few doubt that it is mainly Syrian shells that are flattening houses and civilians. It was June 2011, yes last year, when I was first told of the possibility of Turkish troops crossing into Syria to create ‘humanitarian corridors’ to protect civilians trying to escape. That was by a former Turkish foreign minister. That idea has been mentioned many times since. Of course, it would not be seen as such by the Assad regime which claims it is fighting against terrorists. It would be seen as an invasion.

Was it possible the ‘domestic’ radar tests being conducted by the Turkish jet were in fact probes of Syrian air defences for a future planned intervention? This happens a lot, even without war conditions, between many countries. Turkey is notoriously crabby about jets coming too close to its own airspace either in mainland Turkey or in northern Cyprus.

Could the Syrians have thought it was a rebel aircraft? Unlikely, though not beyond possibility. Other weapons are being snuck in to the rebels. Some aircraft could have reached them over Syria’s borders, even over the border with Turkey, though Turkey denies supplying the Free Syria Army with weapons.

There is also the defection of a Syrian airforce colonel in his jet just a few days before, who landed in Jordan, which at the very least would have put Syrian air defence on edge.

All of this though is very marginal and unlikely stuff. The Syrian army would most likely have known given the location that the jet was Turkish. The Turks claim their aircraft wasn’t even warned before being fired on. That would indeed have been overly aggressive. Turkey and other NATO leaders haven’t indicated they have much of an appetite for intervention in Syria, and some reasoned, calm diplomacy between the two countries may well be enough to diffuse the issue. But that is not assured given such troubled times along the border. Now, with NATO meeting about it, Turkey calling it ‘a hostile act’ and the situation in Syria deteriorating, it could have been a very rash shot indeed.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Electing to disagree- Egypt and the debates ahead

The official results were still days away when people started shouting about victory in Egypt's presidential runoff vote. The Muslim Brotherhood's supporters were out in Tahrir square celebrating what they called a victory for their candidate, Mohammed Mursi. He has tried to identify with Egypt's revolution against the Mubarak regime and against the currently ruling military. This has had mixed results.

One activist and human rights campaigner, Dalia Ziada, says it's too early to say who has won and that Mursi supporters declaring victory is a cheap ploy. "They want to make it look like they've won first so that if Ahmed Shafik (the other candidate) wins they can say he is just trying to commit electoral fraud."

Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last Prime Minister and a former airforce officer, is widely seen as being connected to the military and the old regime. However Dalia says she would rather him than Mohammed Mursi. "I don't support either of them, " she says, "but it's better to have Shafik who we can at least argue with. If we have Mursi and we have any complaints, the Muslim brotherhood will just accuse us of going against the Koran. We can't win against that kind of intolerance."

Meanwhile the army has astonished and angered people by re-writing a constitutional declaration, giving itself much more power in constructing the country's first post-Mubarak constitution. SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) has also given itself sweeping legal powers. Many fear that either by the hand of the army and the old regime or by the Muslim Brotherhood, their revolution for a democratic new Egypt has been hijacked.

Turnout in this election is reportedly lower than in previous votes since the revolution. People are tired. the country's economy is teetering Have they given up? "No," insists Mariam Kifollos, another activist in Cairo. She thought, like many pro-democracy campaigners, that the entire presidential election was illegitimate from the start because the SCAF had not been dissolved first. But when I asked if the revolution was dead she replied, "we have to keep trying. Other people might feel tired but I don't. We've not given up hope for our demands having success."

In fact, many people talk about the fear that Egypt's revolution has run out of steam, but in the next breath remain defiant they will not stop going out to demand a better future for their country. There are major arguments ahead over the very pillars of a future Egyptian state, its President, Parliament, Constitution and the role of the Army. But while there is still argument, there is still a chance the revolution's demands could become reality.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Trouble in Limbo- The State of the Egyptian State

For a voter or a politician Egypt is a confusing place at the moment. Nothing seems to have been sorted out after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. And the feeling is that time to fix the mess is running out.

The second round of a presidential election is imminent. Many involved in last year’s revolution, Egyptians liberals, are dismayed at the stark choice they see before them. The religiously conservative Muslim brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi or Mubarak’s last Prime Minister and a former Airforce officer, Ahmed Shafik. How did it come to this, they wonder. Protesters are back in Tahrir square, ever more worried that their revolution for a modern, democratic Egypt will be hijacked either by the muslim brotherhood or by the old regime.

Three other candidates were disqualified from standing already and Shafik may yet be as well, if it’s found that his candidacy breaches a law that bans figures too close to the old regime from standing.

The Muslim brotherhood has control of two-thirds of parliament after elections last year. A Muslim brotherhood President would tighten their grip on power, which terrifies liberals. However the parliamentary elections themselves still have a question mark dangling over them. They may have been unconstitutional, meaning they would have to be re-run, meaning Egypt would have no parliament or president.

A lot of the disagreement is made more confusing and more intense by the fact that Egypt still has no new constitution either. In fact a year and half after the revolution the various parties can’t even agree on the makeup of the committee which is to draft it.

No, constitution, no parliament (possibly), no president. Most agree this is a recipe for chaos in a country still feeling the reverberations of popular protests on Cairo’s Tahrir square. So who has to decide? Everyone seems to be turning to the courts.

On the presidential issue the courts have to decide if the election commission was right to refer Ahmed Shafik’s candidacy question to the court. But they could also rule that the law banning Mubarak era figures from standing, which was rushed through parliament, may itself be unconstitutional. Depending on these two rulings former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik may remain in the running, be removed from it, or the whole presidential race against his rival Mohammed Mursi be scrapped and start again.

Nobody can confidently see through the maze of competing rules and possible outcomes to predict what might happen.

On the parliamentary election, in which the Muslim brotherhood did so well, the question revolves around how they were conducted. There was a combination of different voting systems used. The courts may rule that this was unconstitutional so the parliament would have to stand down and be elected again. The Muslim Brotherhood is thought to have lost support since then, with people disappointed in their choices in parliament, so they don’t want a re-election in which they could lose their gains.

But wait a minute. How can this and that be unconstitutional when Egypt doesn’t have a constitution! It’s all part of the muddle Egypt finds itself in. There is currently a constitutional declaration which everyone is trying to refer to. But it’s not a full constitution. And here we come to the only real remaining authority in Egypt; the army and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF.

They are supposed to hand over control of Egypt to a civilian administration in a few weeks. But it’s increasingly likely the court could delay its decision or that SCAF could decide to delay the handover.

But people see the army and SCAF as too close to the old regime. They were furious when recently six senior security officials were acquitted of involvement in the killing of hundreds of protesters in the 2011 revolution. Most people I spoke to didn’t blame the judge but did see the trial as a product of the old regime seeking to protect itself.

All of the above places enormous pressure on Egypt’s courts. They have little constitutional guidance, little room for perceived bias and little time. And everyone’s watching them.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Tahrir Nights- Egypt's threatened revolution

Protesters waved flags, beat drums and called for greater change late into the night.

Protesters have spent another night in Cairo’s Tahrir square in noisy protest at an Egyptian court ruling which sentenced former President Hosni Mubarak and his interior minister to life imprisonment but acquitted six former police chiefs of involvement in the deaths of hundreds of protesters last year.

I travelled the square last night speaking to protesters and asking them what they thought of the decisions. More than one thought that Mubarak should have been put to death. But few blamed the judge. They said that he did the best he could in the situation with a legal code produced by the old regime. Even those who wanted Mubarak to be killed ‘in their hearts’ said they wanted another trial first.

A few tents had been set up in Tahrir square amid a bustling protest centre.

All of this anger comes at a crucial moment for Egypt, which is between the first and second rounds of its first presidential election since Mubarak left. However the two candidates in the run-off vote are also causing consternation. As one young female protester told me, “I don’t support the Musilm Brotherhood, but I’d rather vote for them than for Shafiq who is just part of the old regime.”

Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister and a former general, is one of the two candidates. He says that he wouldn’t reinstate the old regime and that to vote for his opponent, Musilm Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi, would drag Eqypt ‘back to the dark ages’.

Mr Mursi himself toured the protest camp after the verdict. Many see the court’s decision as proof that the military regime of Mubarak is still in control and Mursi called for the ‘revolution to continue’ until that situation ended. He also said that if elected he would try to get Mubarak tried again and executed. 

The opposition are worried that underneath the court's decision and the presidential election there has been no real change. 

Another protester described the renewed protests both in the capital and around Egypt like a train. "We must stop the train being smashed or derailed at this tense moment," he said. "But equally we have to stay here and not let it run out of steam. We have to remain here until the revolution has won.”

‘Until the revolution has succeeded.’ I heard this phrase many times from demonstrators. But what does that mean now? There is no third candidate left, one who represents the wishes of reformers without the conservatism of the Muslim Brotherhood. They don’t like the court’s decision. They don’t like the perceived control of the military regime. They don’t like the elections. They seemed to be protesting for a reorganisation. Another go at a new Egypt. Underneath it all seems to be a deep seated worry that this train, not just the protests, but Egypt as a whole, might be on the wrong track altogether.