January 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
A couple of weeks ago, Egyptian political scientist Emad Shahin was charged by the Egyptian government with espionage, forcing him to flee Egypt before he could be arrested. Professor Shahin, who was teaching at the American University of Cairo, is someone I know fairly well, as he was my professor while in grad school for a seminar on comparative politics of the Middle East and a course on political Islam, and supervised my masters thesis on Islamist parties that supported an opening to the West (although we haven’t been in touch in some years). The notion that he is a spy trying to undermine Egypt is, to put it bluntly, quite insane. I echo Nathan Brown’s comment that it is more likely that Joe Biden is a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army than that the charges against Professor Shahin are accurate. The charges in the indictment include espionage, leading an illegal organisation, providing a banned organisation with information and financial support, calling for the suspension of the constitution, preventing state institutions and authorities from performing their functions, harming national unity and social harmony, and causing to change the government by force. This last one is particularly laughable coming from a government that sits where it does because it carried out a military coup.
In all the time I spent with Professor Shahin, I found him to be fair, open-minded, intellectually honest, accepting of criticism, and above all imbued with a deep love and concern for his country. He was someone who recognized very early on that governments in the region would have to engage with political Islam and he tried to suggest ways in which this could happen, but he was not in any way a water carrier for or even supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, an advocate of violence, or tolerant of authoritarianism in any guise. My masters thesis back in 2007 argued that Islamist parties were the ones most likely to be successful in Muslim-majority states and that the U.S. should identify ways of supporting Islamist parties amenable to coexisting with the West, with a focus on the ideological evolution of Ennahda in Tunisia and the AKP in Turkey. The Muslim Brotherhood was not one of the parties I identified as being sympathetic to the West, and Professor Shahin never suggested in any way that it was or argued that it was a moderate body worthy of Western support. Professor Shahin was also modest, reserved, soft spoken, and respectful to everyone with whom I ever saw him interact. In short, it boggles the mind that anyone would possibly think he is a covert Muslim Brotherhood leader seeking to overthrow the current Egyptian government in favor of an Islamist regime.
More broadly though, the nonsensical charges against Professor Shahin point to something I argued months ago, namely that crackdowns by an authoritarian government on one group always lead to the spread of a much wider net designed to ensnare all opposition of any stripe. Professor Shahin has been consistently critical of authoritarianism in Egypt, from the Mubarak regime to the Muslim Brotherhood government under Mohamed Morsi to the current military government. It is no surprise that the government is now trying to portray him as a Muslim Brotherhood stooge, as it has based its legitimacy on eliminating what it has deemed a terrorist threat and so the strategy is to lump anyone it can under that umbrella. But charging Professor Shahin with espionage and charging Amr Hamzawy with insulting the judiciary, both of whom are part of what might be deemed the liberal opposition, is a harbinger of what is to come, which will be a crackdown on non-Islamist critics of the government. When I wrote in Foreign Affairs in August that the Islamists were the first target but wouldn’t be the last and compared the situation in Egypt to that in Tunisia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali quickly moved against his secular and liberal opponents after he had dispatched Ennahda, some veteran Egypt experts argued that I was wrong and that the response to the Brotherhood was “special” so that liberals would be discredited but not put down. I take no pleasure in the fact that the Shahin affair appears to be vindicating my position, and I’d add that this is unlikely to be an isolated incident. Each situation is unique, but there is a reason that political scientists like to compare things, and if Tunisia continues to serve as a reliable guide – and I think that it will – the critical non-Islamist press, politicians, academics, and intellectuals are going to start finding themselves on the wrong end of these types of bogus charges with an unsettling frequency.
I hope that enough pressure is put on the Egyptian government, both internally and externally, to have the charges against Professor Shahin dropped so that he can return to his country if he so chooses. If he is forced to spend the rest of his time in the U.S., however, it will be American academia’s gain and another unnecessary loss for Egypt.
July 8, 2013 § 1 Comment
Now that Mohamed Morsi has been deposed in a popularly-backed military coup, the myth of the Turkish model – in which military coups leads to democracy – is once again rearing its head. Things may very well turn out ok in the long run in Egypt (although put me firmly in the pessimistic camp on that front), but looking to Turkish history as an analogy is a mistake. Not only were the circumstances in Turkey very different, but the idea that the Turkish military somehow safeguarded democracy during its interventions into civilian politics is also misguided. I explain why in Foreign Affairs:
When a popular military coup dislodged Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from power earlier this week, it became fashionable once again to speak of the Turkish model — the country is relatively well functioning, it is Muslim majority but also secular and democratic, and it has a history of military interventions against Islamist-leaning governments that supposedly advanced democracy. The idea that other countries could learn from the Turkish example has been around since the early days of the Arab Spring. It might be tempting for Egyptians to latch onto it now, hoping that the Egyptian military’s actions over the past few days will lead to a similar outcome. And despite the fact that the coup’s immediate aftermath has brought reprisals against members of the Muslim Brotherhood and armed clashes in the streets between the Brotherhood’s supporters and opponents, there are certainly arguments to be made that this particular coup may have a happy democratic ending. But looking to Turkey as an example badly misreads Turkish history and political development. Turkey did not get where it is today because of the military but, rather, in spite of it.
The so-called Turkish model, in which the military provides the space for secular democracy to thrive, is built on the assumption that the decades of military tutelage in Turkey were beneficial. The army, the thinking goes, served as an important check on elected governments until Turkish democracy had matured to the point that it could run on its own. In fact, military rule in Turkey, particularly following the 1980 coup, did the opposite. For one, it brought the torture, imprisonment, and disappearance of thousands upon thousands of Turkish citizens. In addition, although the coup had enormous public support behind it — much like the recent one in Egypt — it did not lead to political utopia. No country can be democratic until there are no unelected bodies with power over elected officials. So long as the Turkish military had the ultimate veto, elected governments had to look over their shoulders, which, in turn, damaged state and civil society institutions. Kemalist judges relied on the army to further their interests, Turkish media became part and parcel of a climate of censorship, and state institutions remained immature.
The argument that the Turkish military was solely out to protect the secular character of the Turkish state is also flawed. Much like the Egyptian army, Turkish officers were looking to protect their place in the system and their own privileges. It is true that the military coup plotters in 1960 talked about rescuing Turkish democracy from religious ideologues, and that they returned power to elected civilians in less than two years. But it is also indisputable that the junior officers who carried out the coup had done so because the government had been neglecting the armed forces’ upkeep, so that it was in a shabby state compared to its NATO counterparts. The 1960 coup was as much about protecting the military’s prime position within the state as it was about protecting the state itself. In the case of Egypt, the fact that the Egyptian military worked with the Muslim Brotherhood until doing so was no longer convenient speaks volumes about whether the army has an ideological agenda, or a self-interested one. The military may not want to govern. But it also does not necessarily want genuine democracy in Egypt.
To keep reading the rest of the article, including the factors that helped push the military out in Turkey but that do not exist in Egypt, click here.
May 1, 2013 § 7 Comments
Ben Alter (who has done yeoman’s work editing the last couple of pieces I’ve written for Foreign Affairs) and Ed Fishman wrote an insightful op-ed for the New York Times this past Sunday in which they argued that American energy independence – which may be a reality by the end of the next decade – will have a downside too, which is that it will lead to massive destabilization in states that rely on high global energy prices. States like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain depend on revenues from oil and natural gas to maintain to dole out patronage and co-opt the opposition, but the introduction of U.S. shale gas into the global marketplace will lower energy prices worldwide, and Alter and Fishman argue that it will create domestic unrest and even regime change in petrostates, which will in turn put shipping lanes in harm’s way, endanger counterterrorism cooperation and efforts to deal with Iran between the U.S. and Arab Gulf monarchies, and force Russia into a more aggressive and territorial foreign policy. The upshot here is that energy independence will not allow the U.S. to withdraw from the world as it is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil producing states, but rather the U.S. will still have to act as the liberal hegemon guaranteeing the safety of global trade, maintaining great power stability, and working to spread democracy so that the international system remains relatively stable.
Writing in Forbes in response, Christopher Helman says that Alter and Fishman baked a faulty assumption into their argument since the price of oil will never get as low as $50 a barrel (and he accuses them of taking liberties with the report that they presumably cite), and that even if the global price did hit that floor, it wouldn’t remain there as unrest in petrostates would cause global prices to skyrocket once more. Another scenario is that OPEC states would cut their production in order to inflate prices back up to $90-$100 per barrel in order to maintain their current levels of government spending. While this criticism may be accurate, Helman is misreading the important takeaway from Alter and Fishman’s piece, which is that there are unintended consequences that emanate from even what appear to be the rosiest of scenarios. In short, U.S. energy independence and lower energy prices will be a great development for the U.S. in many respects, but it will also create a host of negative externalities that will require the U.S. to stay on its toes.
While reading the Alter/Fishman piece, I couldn’t help but think about how their argument applies to Iran and the question of whether a nuclear arms race in the Middle East will ensue should Iran achieve nuclear status. There is a wide-ranging debate over whether this scenario is a realistic one, with no less than President Obama (and thus presumably the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) warning that a nuclear Iran will set off a regional nuclear arms race, and analysts such as my close friend Steven Cook arguing that nuclear dominoes will not fall in the Middle East as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia either don’t have the scientific capability and infrastructure or the cash on hand to build their own bombs. I do not claim to have any expertise in this area at all, and Steven certainly knows his stuff, but let’s assume for a moment that of these three candidates, Saudi Arabia could conceivably go nuclear given that the Saudis have the cash to buy the technology and build the infrastructure they would need in a hurry. Let’s also assume that Alter and Fishman’s predictions unfold, and U.S. energy independence destabilizes Saudi Arabia in fifteen years and leads to the fall of the ruling family and the government. Isn’t this in many ways the ultimate nightmare scenario – not that the current governments in the Middle East will become nuclear powers, but that whomever or whatever replaces them will be nuclear powers?
Anyone who knows anything about U.S. foreign and defense policy knows that the most pressing problem facing the U.S. right now is not the rise of China or the fight against al-Qaida. It is the possibility that the Pakistani government will fall and that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will be taken over by extremists. Only slightly less worrisome is that the lax command and control structure that exists for Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile – and for those who don’t pay close attention to these things, it turns out that the Pakistani government moves its nukes in and out of traffic in barely guarded civilian vans so that we won’t steal them – will lead to a nuke being stolen or even accidentally launched. This is the reason that the U.S. keeps on propping up the Pakistani government and throwing money into a Pakistani black hole despite mountains of evidence that Pakistan is not our ally and actually works to undermine the U.S. in Afghanistan and other places.
Now let’s replicate this situation in Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or any other slightly shaky Middle Eastern state that may be inclined to try and acquire nuclear weapons in response to Iran, and that later falls due to the instability unleashed by the Arab Spring or the instability unleashed by falling oil prices. Or imagine the nightmare that we would be dealing with right now in Syria if Israel had not bombed the Syrian reactor a few years ago and Syria had somehow made a successful mad dash for a nuke, and that instead of worrying about missing Syrian chemical weapons, we were worrying about missing Syrian nuclear weapons. I am not someone who worries about the current Iranian regime actually using a nuke should it develop the capability to build one – although I do worry about the cascade effects of Iran having the bomb and thus making its support for international terrorism and groups like Hizballah largely untouchable – but I certainly worry enormously about what would happen to an Iranian nuke in the chaos following the current regime falling, or a Saudi nuke in the chaos of the monarchy falling. Maybe I have missed the conversation on this issue, which would be understandable since I am not a nuclear policy person, but shouldn’t the conversation surrounding Iran and its nuclear program be a little more focused on the Pakistanization of this problem in a regional context when energy prices fall rather than solely on whether the Iranian regime can be trusted not to nuke Tel Aviv?
December 6, 2012 § 4 Comments
As supporters and opponents of Mohamed Morsi square off with rocks and Molotov cocktails while Morsi hunkers down in the presidential palace and ponders whether or not to rescind his decree granting him powers beyond the scope of the courts, it is difficult for me to fathom that all of a sudden the military is nowhere to be seen. The same military that formed the SCAF and ran the country for over a year is now content to remain in the barracks while Egypt once again burns in an eerie repeat of the clashes that marked the end of Hosni Mubarak’s tenure as president. It seems that after cutting a deal with Morsi that allowed him to actually assume power in return for letting the military do its own thing away from the oversight of civilian government – and it is pretty obvious to me based on the new draft constitution that this is exactly what happened – the army is no longer interested in interfering and is going to let things play out.
In one sense, this is not at all surprising. My friend Steven Cook hit the nail on the head in his book Ruling But Not Governing in which he posited that the Egyptian military is content to maintain its prerogatives and special ruling status but does not want to have to be involved in actually governing on a day to day basis, and after a brief and relatively unsuccessful foray into governing, the Egyptian military probably does not want any more part of it. It has been assured that it will be left alone, and so it probably welcomes a return to its historical role of remaining behind the scenes while Egypt’s different factions feud amongst themselves. The flip side of this is that it is an odd spectacle watching Egypt’s officers do nothing as the Muslim Brotherhood, of whom it has historically been wary, beats protestors in the streets and does everything it can to consolidate its power.
The question is how long the army can actually stay on the sidelines given that Egypt looks to be getting closer and closer to a heightened state of internal conflict. In the Washington Post, Robert Springborg contends that the military may have to intervene sooner or later and that both the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents may be looking to the army to decide Egypt’s future. While the fighting in the streets and the crisis between Morsi and Egypt’s judiciary is getting worse and does not have an obvious endgame as both sides dig in, turning to the military to resolve things would be the most damaging move that Egypt could inflict upon itself if it ever hopes to maintain long-term civilian rule. As much as an outside referee may be needed, it absolutely cannot be the Egyptian military.
Political patterns have a logic of their own and can rapidly become institutionalized once they are repeated. Look no further than the tradition of a strong Egyptian president and how the Muslim Brotherhood, a la John Kerry, was famously against it before it was for it. Or more saliently for the purposes of this discussion, take the experience of Turkey, which had its first military coup in 1960 intended to temporarily right the ship, and then went through both hard and soft military coups in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Once the army had stepped in once, it became much easier for it to happen a second time and then a third, and the rationale for doing so also became more justifiable. After all, since the army had restored civilian politics after the initial coup, a military course correction every ten years or so might not look so bad. Once military intervention in the political system was routinized, not only did it guarantee repetition, it turned into a pattern that was self-perpetuating and very difficult to break. It took jailing hundreds of officers and eviscerating the Turkish military in an undemocratic way to finally put an end to military interventions.
The Egyptian army has already stepped in once to try and steer the ship of the state on a temporary basis. The logic in doing so at the time was in many ways justifiable, and while the results were less than ideal, it was a popular move with many Egyptians who saw no good alternative. This time, however, if the army gets in the middle of the various parties and tries to intervene and sort things out, the long term results will be even more disastrous. Creating a pattern in which the military is expected to act as a referee and step in any time things get hairy will doom any hope for civilian rule or the semblance of democratic politics in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is in my view acting in an extreme and inexcusable authoritarian manner, and while it may view its recent activities as being in the service of democracy I see that as a serious stretch. The liberal opposition, while at the moment protesting the MB’s anti-democratic moves, also does not have its own history of supporting democracy, and in fact is quite content to support anti-democratic measures that further its own objectives. So you have two sides, neither of whom has any demonstrable democratic credentials of which to speak, fighting over Egypt’s political future and what happens next. It does not give one any real hope that Egypt is going to come out of this post-revolutionary period having transitioned to democracy, and I have been extremely skeptical about the chances of that outcome from the start. One thing I can say for certain though is that another military intervention is not going to do the trick. If the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents cannot figure out a mechanism for sorting this out and the army has to do it for them and arbitrate or even just choose sides, Egypt’s nascent civilian politics will be wiped out for the foreseeable future. So as bad as the scenes are coming in from Cairo, Alexandria, and other places, the fact that the military is nowhere to be seen might actually be a blessing in disguise.
November 30, 2012 § Leave a comment
The current constitutional crisis in Egypt pitting President Morsi against the secularists and the courts has been dominating the news, and it got me thinking about how in some ways Egypt’s transition was set back irrespective of who won the presidential election just by dint of the fact that Egypt kept its presidential system in the first place. I wrote about it for the Atlantic, and here is a teaser:
As the battle lines, both literal and figurative, take shape between the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and secularists and liberals on the other, some are pointing out the naïveté of those who assumed that the Muslim Brotherhood would ever act democratically, while others are trying to locate Morsi’s actions in the context of overreaching in an effort to save Egyptian democracy. While Morsi’s motives will continue to be debated, his actions illuminate a larger question about what happens when you mix a presidential system with a fragile transitional state.
Presidential systems have their pros and cons, and both of these are enhanced when dealing with a state that has weak political institutions and a history of conflict. On the one hand, because a president is directly elected, he can be viewed as a unifying figure who stands above politics and is concerned with the good of the nation as a whole. If the president is seen as a credible and non-partisan figure who is directly accountable to voters in a way that parliaments are not, then a president can help paper over divisions that exist in society and within the political class. One of the reasons that George Washington was viewed with such awe by his contemporaries is precisely because he was seen as a figure above politics, and as such he was uniquely able to heal divisions that had been exposed by the American revolution and set the United States on the path to democracy.
Yet a presidential system also carries with it significant dangers for transitional states. A president is bound to come from one of the groups vying for power, and he can be expected to privilege that group above the rest. When this happens, it fractures a country and worsens any divisions that already exist, as the conflict now involves the institutions of the state as well, and it generally destroys any real chance for democracy to take root. In a polarized society, a presidential system might also create a problem of dual democratic legitimacy, where some people turn to the president for leadership and others turn to the parliament or the courts, fostering ever greater splits in a country already segmented into distinct groups.
To read the whole thing and find out why I think this applies particularly well to Egypt and Morsi, please click over to the full piece at The Atlantic.
November 28, 2012 § 7 Comments
Friend of O&Z and frequent guest poster Dov Friedman – who tweets from @DovSFriedman – is back today with thoughts on Egypt and President Morsi, and whether focusing on the Islamist character of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood risks missing the forest of authoritarianism for the trees of Islamism. Bonus points for relating the debate over Morsi to the debate over Turkey and the AKP and making sure to cover the Ottomans portion of this blog, which has been lacking as of late due to Gaza and the upcoming Israeli elections. Without further ado, here’s Dov:
In The New Republic on Monday, Eric Trager criticized those who bought into the idea of Mohamed Morsi as a moderate during the Egyptian uprising. The timing of the piece makes sense, as Morsi expanded his already considerable power last Thursday in a constitutional declaration. Trager was among the analysts consistently skeptical of the supposed moderation and democratic potential of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yesterday’s piece served to remind observers that not every analyst bought into last year’s dominant narrative. As evidence, Trager provides excellent detail about the Muslim Brotherhood’s “cultish” structure and immoderation:
That’s because the very process through which one becomes a Muslim Brother is designed to weed out moderates. It begins when specially designated Brotherhood recruiters, who work at mosques and universities across Egypt, identify pious young men and begin engaging them in social activities to assess their suitability for the organization. The Brotherhood’s ideological brainwashing begins a few months later, as new recruits are incorporated into Brotherhood cells (known as “families”) and introduced to the organization’s curriculum, which emphasizes Qur’anic memorization and the writings of founder Hassan al-Banna, among others. Then, over a five-to-eight-year period, a team of three senior Muslim Brothers monitors each recruit as he advances through five different ranks of Brotherhood membership—muhib, muayyad, muntasib, muntazim, and finally ach amal, or “active brother.”
I encourage you to read the whole thing.
The problem with Trager’s analysis is that the facts marshaled fail to support the hypothesis—it uses evidence of ideologically conformist Islamism to support a claim about Morsi’s authoritarianism. Of course this may be correct, but it is not inherently so.
This same conflation occurs in the conversation about Turkey, the AK Party, and Prime Minister Erdoğan. At its most benign, the error manifests itself as The Economist’s insistence on calling the AK Party “mildly Islamist.” The same misdirected criticism turns quite noxious at times. Look no further than Daniel Pipes or Andrew McCarthy in National Review.
As Istanbul-based independent journalist Claire Berlinski has argued, it would be more appropriate—and more helpful—if The Economist called the AK Party “mildly authoritarian.” Put differently, AK Party acts increasingly authoritarian in ways unrelated to its Islamist roots. Critics’ focus on Islamist identity diverts their attention from the main problem: alarmingly anti-democratic developments under Erdoğan’s rule. So they may snarl at last year’s education reforms or the current project to build a mosque in Taksim Square, but they miss Erdoğan’s systematic crackdowns on free speech, press, and association.
I cite Turkey as an example because the decade of AK Party rule has contained policy approaches that confounded critics. In the early 2000s, Kemalist and secularist critics invoked fears that AK Party would impose a radical ideology on the country. Erdoğan and President Gül stymied criticism by pursuing, among other policies, EU accession—the centerpiece of Kemalist and liberal dreams for Turkey. When the AK Party did pursue some conservative domestic policies, the earlier conflation of Islamist identity and anti-liberalism robbed opponents of clarity in their criticisms.
Similarly, the early moments of AK Party’s authoritarian creep coincided with a period in which Turkey’s foreign policy was becoming deeply internationalist and aligned with the West. In 2007 and 2008, Turkey spearheaded mediation efforts between Israel and Syria, and between Serbia and Bosnia. In 2009, Istanbul hosted the Alliance of Civilization. In 2010, a former Turkish MP served as president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. At the same time, in 2010, the government levied punitive fines on Doğan Holding, an AK Party critic. By 2011, Turkey already imprisoned journalists in alarming numbers. Erdoğan and other government officials have filed suit and won judgments against individuals who “insult” them. The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials mutated in recent years from legitimate investigations to score-settling efforts to crush opposition voices. Here again, arguments about Erdoğan’s nefarious Islamism were easily brushed aside, and—worse—masked some crude anti-democratic domestic developments.
Yesterday in The Atlantic, Trager expanded upon the previous day’s post and broadened the argument. He argued that Morsi’s domestic power grab suggested that after the Brotherhood’s domestic power is consolidated, Morsi would construct a conservative Islamist foreign policy. As evidence, he pointed to a series of distressing statements by top Muslim Brotherhood officials.
Prime Minister Erdoğan has also made distressing statements of late, as Michael has discussed in previous posts. He’s called Israel a terrorist state and claimed that rocket fire is a legitimate means of resistance. Turkey observers recognize that while these statements are odious—and likely detrimental to Turkey’s foreign policy standing—they may also serve a more complex purpose than simply representing the Prime Minister’s foreign policy beliefs.
I note these pairs of similarities to make a relatively simple point. The number of world leaders with Islamist backgrounds has increased in the post-Arab Uprisings world. Funneling analysis of their domestic and foreign policy actions through the lens of their radical Islamist ideology may, at times, inhibit the ability to understand not only why these leaders act in particular ways but also how these leaders may act in the future. A strict focus on their Islamist identities may also overlook actions that are deeply problematic but do not naturally fit into a discourse of Islamist creep. This has certainly been the case with Turkey.
Trager is very knowledgeable about Egypt, and thus I defer to him and other analysts to continue informing those of us for whom Egypt is an interest but not a specialty. However, nuance in interpreting not only what has happened but also why it has happened remains crucial.
November 15, 2012 § 1 Comment
After I analyzed the Israeli decision making calculus on Gaza on Monday, Zack Gold, who is an astute Middle East analyst and tweets from @ZLGold, rightly took me to task for neglecting to examine the Egypt angle. I asked Zack if he’d be willing to write a guest post filling in the large gap that I had left, and between now and then Israel has launched Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza and Egypt has responded, making Zack’s post all the more timely. In addition, I argued in the Atlantic that Egypt is likely to be more active in pressuring Israel over the Palestinians, but Zack has a different view contrary to mine and comes at it from an interesting angle, and I like to air as wide a debate as possible here at O&Z. So without further ado, here is Zack on the Egyptian reaction to Israel’s operations in Gaza.
The recent flare-up in tit-for-tat violence between Israel and Gaza, and especially the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense yesterday, has had me watching for reaction across the border in Egypt. Michael wrote a post on Monday on the likelihood of a wider Israeli operation in Gaza. I agreed with many of his points, but I was surprised that a post on Israeli policy towards Gaza didn’t take into account the reaction of a post-revolution Egypt. Michael graciously invited me to write a guest-post on the topic.
The theory that Israel lost its strategic depth on the Gaza front with Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, is two-fold. First, a democratic leader of Egypt will have to be more responsive to public opinion; and whether Islamist, liberal, revolutionary, Nasserist, Muslim, or Copt, pretty much the only thing that all Egyptians agree on is animosity towards Israel.
In addition to the pressure from the street, it was likely that any Egyptian leader not from the ancien régime would view Gaza differently than had Mubarak. This is not because Mubarak was an American-Zionist stooge, but his regime viewed Hamas in the same light as he viewed his most powerful opposition: the Muslim Brotherhood. That Egypt’s post-revolutionary president, Mohamed Morsi, hails from the Brotherhood is all the more reason to assume the Egyptian government would not sit still during a major Israeli operation in Gaza, as Mubarak’s had during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead.
So the Israeli government has gambled that Egypt will not react as a changed nation or decided that even if it does the reaction is worthwhile because the threat from Gaza is too great. More worrisome would be that Operation Pillar of Defense is a short-term political decision: acting against an immediate threat to the homeland, right before an election, in a way that may damage longer-term strategic interests.
As of this writing, Egypt has not acted in the tempestuous way one might expect. It is possible that—the Israeli operation so fresh—the Egyptian government has been able to issue harsh statements, to recall its ambassador, and to call for discussions at the United Nations, but not had enough time to plan a more thorough response. Indeed, the “street” has not even had a chance to mobilize yet: small gatherings of leftists and revolutionaries have rallied and marched in Cairo, but the Muslim Brotherhood has called for nationwide demonstrations this afternoon (a public holiday) and tomorrow.
At the same time, there are several reasons the Egyptian government may not react as expected. First is the issue of proximity. Unlike Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s response to Cast Lead, it is difficult for Morsi to be a champion on the “Arab street” when his actions will have important consequences for his own nation. He may refuse to utter the word “Israel,” and his Muslim Brotherhood seeks to quietly diminish relations, but the Egyptian president has continued to stand by the peace treaty. Max Fisher speculated that Egypt could open up the Gaza border: breaking the blockade and allowing in necessary aid. But opening the border is a two-way street, which could allow a portion of 1.5 million Palestinians to flow freely across the border: giving Egypt more responsibility for Gazans’ wellbeing.
An overflow of Palestinian refugees would also exacerbate Egypt’s own economic woes, which also limit its actions towards Gaza. At the very moment the situation unfolds across the Gaza-Israel border, in Cairo the government is sitting down with IMF officials to negotiate a much need $4.5b loan. Egypt just secured $6.3b from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, but that money will be tied to IMF approval. Not to mention the $1.5b annual contract with the Americans. In addition to government loans and grants, Egypt needs private investment. But if Egypt breaks its post-revolutionary commitment to maintain the peace treaty with Israel then investors are less to risk whether it will stand by other commitments.
Finally, post-revolutionary Egypt is still struggling to make the transition to a post-revolutionary system. Morsi is also held back by the Egyptian military and interior ministry, which are “chasing ghosts” in the Sinai: smugglers and Salafi jihadis with links to Gaza. Indeed the Egyptian president’s first attempt to change the status quo was cut short by the August 5 attack that left 16 soldiers and guards dead near the border with Israel and Gaza.
Morsi is trying to raise Egypt up as a regional powerbroker, but he is stunted by domestic problems. For now, it seems, Morsi has settled on statements and for calling on others (namely the United States and the United Nations) to halt the violence. As he meets with members of his cabinet and security apparatus—and as Egypt’s population mobilizes in support of Gaza—it has yet to be seen if Egypt’s first post-revolution president will act any differently from his pre-revolution predecessor.
November 1, 2012 § 1 Comment
The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday entitled “Tunisia’s Challenges” that dealt with the tensions between Tunisia’s Islamist government and the secular opposition, and more broadly attempted to grapple with the role of Islam in a nascent democracy. The gist is that Ennahda has promised to respect liberal values and not impose its own views of morality on the rest of the county, but has also tried to engage Tunisian Salafis, and in so doing has imperiled Tunisian democracy and not shown enough commitment to moderation. In the words of the Times,
Ennahda has also drawn fire for allowing the introduction of constitutional proposals that would enshrine Shariah, or Islamic law, and compromise rights for women. The party eventually backed off those positions and the constitutional draft before the assembly omits Shariah and endorses gender equality. Ennahda leaders may have been maneuvering to draw the Salafis into the process, while maintaining their political support, but it gave the secularists another reason to doubt Ennahda’s commitment to moderation…
The pressure is on Ennahda to deliver a Constitution that protects the rights of all Tunisians under a system of equal justice and to create jobs so educated but unemployed young Tunisians are not drawn to the Salafi movement, which would try to exploit their disillusionment. The pressure is also on the secularists to find ways to work with Ennahda to build a better state. That will require more compromise and commitment to the common good than either side has been willing to show so far.
This all seems like a plausible argument, but it also demonstrates that the Times editorialists have a misinformed and naive view of how democracy works and what brings it about. Let’s start with the glaring contradiction in this editorial, which is that on the one hand the NYT wants Ennahda to speak for all Tunisians but on the other seems to want to cut the Salafists, who last time I checked are Tunisian citizens, out of the process altogether. Tunisian Salafi groups espouse extreme and retrograde positions on all sorts of subjects, including women, secularism, and Jews, to name just a few. The problem is that Ennahda cannot just make the Salafists go away. They are a force to be dealt with, and Ennahda’s determination seems to have been to try and co-opt them in order to reduce their capacity to make mischief. In many ways this has been a bad strategy, and the violence carried out by Salafists on university campuses and against television stations is deplorable and has often been ignored or downplayed by the government. There is no good excuse for this – or, for that matter, Ennahda leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi’s encouragement and advice to Salafists on how to eliminate secularist power – but what the NYT misses is that Tunisia is not a country with decades of liberal tradition. The Salafists are not committed democrats willing to work within the confines of the political system, and so Ennahda has been trying to figure out a way to bring them in with as little chaos as possible. Yeah, the initial constitutional proposals were pretty bad, but like anything else this is a game of back and forth, and the current draft constitution is largely where it should be.
This brings me to the crucial point here, and the one on which the New York Times needs some schooling. Democracy does not just emerge from the mist, and leaders in a newly post-authoritarian state cannot just close their eyes and tap their heels together and create a democratic political system. Democracy has been aptly described as a second-best solution, because it results from a stalemate in which no side has the power to fully impose its will and thus everyone becomes willing to roll the dice and take their chances with democratic politics in order to win something. Essentially, democracy is installed by non-democrats who have no other choice, and over time democratic politics become habituated and the system (hopefully) becomes self-perpetuating. If this does not describe what is going on in Tunisia, then I don’t know what does. Tunisia is not filled with committed democrats, but is instead a combustible mix of parties that would all like to impose their will. The Salafists would like to create a pure Islamic state, Ennahda likely wants something closer to what the Muslim Brotherhood wants in Egypt, and the secularists want Ben Ali’s Tunisia without Ben Ali. Make no mistake though; the secular parties would just as soon impose their vision of society on everyone as the Salafists would if they had the strength to do so. The fact that none of these factions are able to carry out their will unimpeded is what gives me hope that Tunisia will emerge democratic.
This is precisely how democracy comes about, and yet the New York Times seems to think that democracy is not the end result of a difficult and torturous process. Let’s remember that the United States went through slavery and a civil war, so it’s not like we had an easy time of it either. When the Times editorialists talk about the need for more compromise, the maneuvering around the constitution is exactly that. Parties in a newly democratizing state are not going to compromise out of the munificent goodness of their hearts, but out of the need to break the gridlock, and that is what’s going on here. It may seem counterintuitive, but in new democracies the process is more important in some ways than the substance. Tunisia still has a long way to go, and Ennahda has displayed plenty of disturbing behavior to make doubts about a successful democratic transition perfectly legitimate. I don’t in any way mean to give Ennahda a free pass or to minimize the serious concerns everyone should have over the party’s flirtation with extremely illiberal and violent elements within Tunisian society. But in fretting over the haggling surrounding the constitution and sermonizing about commitment to the common good, the New York Times is missing the point about how democracy is born and demonstrating why taking an introductory course to comparative politics might be a useful thing to do.