What the Hounding of Emad Shahin Says About Egypt

January 23, 2014 § 1 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.

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Egypt’s Tunisian Future

August 28, 2013 § 3 Comments

Watching what is taking place in Egypt as the military goes after the Muslim Brotherhood, I can’t help but note the parallels to Tunisia under Ben Ali’s first few years in power (which, not coincidentally, is one of the case studies in my dissertation). There too, the regime mounted a campaign against Islamists in the name of national security and anti-terrorism following Islamist electoral success, while the secular Tunisian opposition parties supported the government’s efforts on the theory that the regime would eliminate an ideologically threatening political foe and that they would benefit in the end. What happened instead is that once authoritarian methods were deployed against the Islamists, the state quickly decided that it wanted to repress any and all political opposition, no matter the ideological bent, and so the campaign that had initially only targeted Ennahda quickly morphed into a wider effort. I use this episode to argue in Foreign Affairs today that Egyptian secularists and liberals are being myopic in their cheering on the army’s fight against the Brotherhood, since that fight will quickly boomerang back in their own direction. Here is a snippet:

An Islamist political party does well at the polls, and an authoritarian regime goes after it with a vengeance, killing its activists and arresting its leaders. The party is driven underground while secularists and other political groups applaud the government’s harsh measures, all taken in the name of eliminating a terrorist threat. Meanwhile, the regime and the non-Islamist parties assure the world that once the Islamists have been dealt with, the regular political process will resume again.

So it has happened in Egypt, but it is also the story of Tunisia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when hopes for a democratic transition were smashed after a campaign of repression that first targeted Islamists but eventually grew into a much wider effort to eliminate all political opposition. Tunisia’s experience offers a glimpse of what may be yet to come in Egypt — and suggests that Egyptian secularists should think twice before supporting the army’s efforts to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood.

After replacing President Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in November 1987, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a military officer, embarked on a program of liberalization and democratization that was at that point unprecedented in the region. His government released all political prisoners and gave them amnesty, revised the laws governing the press and political parties, and got every political bloc — including the Islamist Ennahda Party — to sign a national pact guaranteeing civil liberties and free elections.

Those elections were held on April 2, 1989, and were at the time the most competitive in the country’s history, if not in the entire Arab world. Although the winner-take-all system guaranteed that Ben Ali’s party would carry the day, given its organizational advantages developed over decades of unopposed rule, the president and most observers assumed that the secular opposition parties would emerge as the dominant opposition. Instead, the Islamists received the highest share of the opposition vote, 14.5 percent, a figure that was likely deflated due to fraud.

Just after the election, The New York Times declared [3], “Tunisia is undergoing a transition from a one-man dictatorship to a much more open society with a sleight of hand that could furnish lessons for Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader.” The article went on to quote the head of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights saying, “I am absolutely certain of Ben Ali’s good will.”

As it turned out, though, the prospect of a strong Islamist opposition, and especially of an Islamist government at some point down the road, was too much for Ben Ali and the Tunisian state to bear. The government launched a brutal crackdown, killing 1,000 Islamists, jailing another 30,000, and forcing into exile the leader of Ennahda, Rachid al-Ghannouchi. The regime justified its actions by claiming that the Islamists were terrorists out to sow discord and tear Tunisia apart. Only because of the national security threat that they presented, Ben Ali argued, were the Islamists being targeted.

To read about how the Tunisia story played out, and the specific lessons for Egypt, please head over to Foreign Affairs for the rest.

The NYT Editorial Board Needs A Political Science Lesson

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.

Exposing the Lie of Hamas Moderation

June 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hamas seems to be begging Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead, The Sequel. 45 rockets were fired by Hamas into Israel on Tuesday following the cross-border attack from Egyptian territory on Monday, confining much of southern Israel to bomb shelters. There is never an excuse for rockets directed toward civilians, and Hamas is barely even pretending to have a justification this time around. Hamas claims that the rocket barrage is a response to Israeli airstrikes, but the real reason Hamas is now returning to its strategy of indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians is that it is beginning to feel squeezed by other groups that are questioning Hamas’s commitment to armed resistance. As pointed out in the New York Times, Islamic Jihad’s more militant approach has garnered it growing popularity and Hamas does not want to be eclipsed by its smaller competitors. More saliently though, the attack on Monday coming from the Sinai and for which a group claiming to be affiliated with al-Qaida has claimed responsibility put even more pressure on Hamas, since it cannot afford to be seen sitting on the sidelines while an outside non-Palestinian group carries the banner of resistance against Israel. Hamas is madly trying to reestablish its credentials of taking the fight to Israel, and it does so by firing rockets from Gaza because it has no other long term strategy and no interest in a productive solution. It is being tarred as too compliant and willing to live with the status quo, and so Israeli civilians have to bear the brunt of it reflexing its muscles. Let’s also not pretend that any of this is a “legitimate response to Israeli aggression” since it’s pretty clear who made the first move here, not to mention that purposely targeting civilian communities with rockets is never a legitimate response to anything.

Hamas is gambling that with Israeli tanks moving toward the Egyptian border and Iran presumably occupying the Israeli defense ministry’s attention, the IDF will have neither the time or the inclination to bother with a large scale response to rocket fire that has thankfully not killed any Israelis yet. This is a bad miscalculation on Hamas’s part. Israel’s first priority is protecting its citizens from attack, and should this rocket fire continue, I fully expect to see an IDF incursion into Gaza. Israel is not going to be frightened off by a Morsi victory in Egypt, and is also unlikely to sit back and absorb rocket fire as a favor to the Egyptian military, which does not want to be pressured by public opinion into fighting Hamas’s battles. This is not destined to end well for Hamas should it provoke a real Israeli response, and yet Hamas is bafflingly more concerned with not being outshined by smaller resistance groups.

In this vein, the most important takeaway from this episode is that it is time to lay to rest forever the idea that Hamas is moderating or will moderate. When Israel pulled out of Gaza and Hamas took control of the strip from the Palestinian Authority, I thought there was a small but legitimate chance that Hamas would begin to transition away from terrorizing Israeli civilians and start focusing on governance. Any hopes I had on this front have been thoroughly dashed. Despite the recent relative quiet, it is clear that Hamas is not changing. It remains a revanchist group dedicated not to building a state but to seeking the elimination of Israel entirely, and it continues to be a hostage to small bore thinking without seeing the larger trends at work in the region. Islamist groups throughout the Middle East, from Ennahda in Tunisia to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are devoting their attention to governing, and while they are not necessarily forces for moderation or social progress, they recognize that the key to long term survival and relevance is basic party politics and the nitty gritty of learning how to run a state. Hamas evinces zero interest in following this path, which should permanently kill the notion that it is a legitimate Islamist political party that also happens to have a military wing. It is everlastingly obsessed with the idea of resistance above state building, purity above compromise. Is there anyone left still so naive as to think that a complete and total Israeli pullout from the West Bank would put an end to Hamas rockets, attacks on civilians, and efforts to abduct Israeli soldiers? Rather than prepare its constituents to live with the inevitability of Israel and attempt to improve their lot, Hamas is more concerned with looking tough and whether other groups are damaging its street cred. What a terrible and pathetic representative for the people of Gaza.

Look at the revolutionary trends rocking the rest of the Arab world, and then compare that to the stale stasis that grips Hamas as it remains impervious to change or adaptation and refuses to embrace any new role other than resistance in the form of barbarism. It is as it always was: an opaque organization with a super secretive process for selecting its leaders and making decisions, with the only difference that it now shoots rockets at Israeli civilians rather than blowing them up on buses or in cafes. I desperately think that Israel needs to deal with the Palestinian Authority to end the occupation of the West Bank and establish a Palestinian state, but Hamas is an altogether different breed and its actions yesterday were the latest abundantly clear demonstration of this. The attack from the Sinai and the rockets from Gaza are an important reminder that Israel lives in a nasty neighborhood and that there are some things which it will never be able to inoculate itself against no matter how it resolves the Palestinian issue. Nobody argues that Israel is threatening or occupying any part of Egypt and yet it still faces attacks coming from the Sinai, which pose a terrible dilemma for Jerusalem since it does not want to enter into any hostilities with the Egyptians but cannot afford to just let these provocations continue. This is where the double standard that governs all things Israeli kicks in, since every country in the world has the absolute right to respond to cross-border attacks (and this applies both to Egypt and Gaza) but by doing so Israel walks into an inevitable public relations trap. If Israel goes back into Gaza, every Palestinian civilian life that is lost will be an unqualified tragedy, but it will be entirely on Hamas’s head.

A Quick Diversion To Tunisia

March 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Despite it not being Israel or Turkey, I write about Tunisia a lot as well, and there is some significant news today on that front. Contrary to some who insisted that the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party was no more moderate than any other Islamist party in the Arab world and that their proclamations regarding not making religious dictates compulsory was cover in order to win over Western audiences, Ennahda has announced that it will keep the language in the first clause of the existing Tunisian constitution in place. This may seem trivial, but it is significant because the Tunisian constitution makes no mention of sharia law, and Ennahda is not going to alter that despite its Islamist ideology. This is going to make it harder for them to defend their right flank and will likely prompt an outcry from Tunisian Salafists, who have been demanding sharia law and a rollback of the more liberal social legislation that has been a hallmark of Tunisia since the days of Habib Bourguiba. This is just the latest in a long list of reminders that not all Islamists – even Arab Islamists – are the same. Ennahda advocated for democracy and was receptive (and even positive) toward Western influences well before the Arab Spring, and it has consistently pledged to maintain Tunisia’s secular Personal Status Code. Furthermore, its founder Rachid Ghannouchi wrote decades ago that secularism with personal freedom is preferable to sharia with authoritarianism, so today’s announcement on the constitution should not surprise anyone. Some object to the description of Ennahda as moderate given Ghannouchi’s and others’ statements on the acceptable use of violence against Israel, but the harsh reality is that even Arab liberals espouse some odious positions on Israel and Jews, and moderation in Arab politics is a sliding scale. On every other issue, Ennahda is aptly described as moderate and does not appear to have a nefarious plan to institute creeping sharia through the back door. It instead presents a hopeful model for what an Islamist regime can look like when it is focused on policies that will improve democratic quality and social freedom in an effort to win votes past the initial election rather than on policies designed to create Islamic social homogeneity. It is important to object to Ennahda’s position on when it is ok to kill Israelis since Israeli life should be deemed just as valuable as any other, but that should not blind anyone to the fact that it is a completely different organization in both tenor and practice than the Muslim Brotherhood.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming…

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