August 13, 2012 § 2 Comments
The big news in the Middle East over the weekend was new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s sacking of the twin leaders of the SCAF, defense minister Hussein Tantawi and chief of staff Sami Anan, and annulling the SCAF’s previous constitutional declaration that gave it wide ranging legislative and executive powers. For some analysis about what all of this might mean, try Marc Lynch or Issandr El Amrani or my friend and fellow Georgetown compatriot Hesham Sallam. I have my own thoughts, but I’d instead like to make a wider point about what this tells us about American influence. One of the most notable aspects of what happened yesterday is that the president of Egypt got rid of the defense minister, chief of staff, and service heads with one fell swoop, yet the U.S. had absolutely no hint that this was coming. To give you a sense of just how much of a surprise this was, remember that last month Hillary Clinton met with Tantawi separate from her meeting with Morsi while in Egypt, and I’d wager that the meeting with Tantawi was the one that contained a more in-depth and far-ranging discussion. A couple of weeks ago Leon Panetta was in Egypt and he met with Tantawi as well and afterward said that “it’s my view, based on what I have seen and the discussions I’ve had, that President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together towards the same ends.” Doesn’t sound like a guy expecting Tantawi to be forced into early retirement just two weeks later, does it? It also doesn’t sound like a guy particularly eager for such a step to be taken.
I do not mean to suggest that Egypt has any obligation to run its policy by the U.S. before doing anything, since Egypt is a sovereign state and has the right to do whatever it likes in this regard. It is certainly curious though that Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually from the U.S. in military aid, not to mention the fact that the U.S.-Egypt relationship is largely built on military to military ties and security issues, and Morsi did not feel the need to even give the U.S. a heads up that this was coming down the road. I understand the need to keep a move like this quiet before it happens, but there’s no way this was a snap decision; it’s not like Morsi woke up yesterday morning and just felt like replacing Egypt’s entire military leadership. That the administration or DoD did not know about this beforehand – and David Ignatius is clear on the fact that they did not – says a lot about the limits of American influence these days. Clinton and Panetta just wasted a whole lot of time for nothing, and irrespective of whether Morsi did this on his own or whether it was the result of an internal military coup (after all, Tantawi and Anan were both replaced by other SCAF members), the shadow of the U.S. should be long enough that either Morsi or other senior officers would have told someone here what was about to go down. It’s tough to imagine the U.S. having zero inkling of a complete turnover of Egyptian military leadership five or ten years ago, and I think this isn’t just about Morsi but about the Egyptian military as well.
Egypt is not the only place where the limits of U.S. influence are strikingly apparent. Israel is awash in speculation that Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have made the decision to strike Iranian nuclear facilities this fall, despite the fact that the U.S. has sent a parade of officials to Jerusalem – including Panetta on that same trip two weeks ago - pleading with Israel to give sanctions some more time. Again, as with Egypt, Israel has every right to do what it wants, particularly when it has legitimate fears about Iran, but compare this to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, during which U.S. influence with Israel was so strong that it was able to convince Israel to sit tight as Saddam Hussein launched 42 Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and other Israeli populations centers. Of course, Israel has not yet launched an attack (and I plan on writing later this week about why I remain skeptical that it will), but the fact that it is being so openly contemplated and Israeli officials are saying nasty things to the press about American knowledge and intelligence capabilities demonstrates the depths to which U.S. influence with Israel has fallen. Israel is contemplating a strike despite not having the weaponry to completely eliminate Iran’s nuclear program and despite U.S. public and private assurances that it will not tolerate Iran producing a nuclear weapon, and that tells you all you need to know about waning American sway.
Power can be measured in lots of different ways. From a military/resources standpoint, the U.S. is doing perfectly fine. But power consists of many other things as well, such as persuasion or being kept in the loop. On these other measures, this weekend highlighted pretty clearly that U.S. influence could use some real strengthening.
June 18, 2012 § 3 Comments
I know I should be writing about Israel or Turkey (and Turkey has plenty of interesting stuff going that I want to get to, particularly surrounding the elusive Fethullah Gülen and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s very public invitation for him to return), but I can’t stop watching what is going on in Egypt. Just as voting got underway yesterday in the second round of Egypt’s presidential election – voting which was hollowed out by the dismissal of parliament last week – the SCAF issued a constitutional declaration expanding the military’s powers over the president and the constitution writing process. Among other things, the SCAF gave itself veto power over any new constitutional elements proposed by the Constituent Assembly, which it has also given itself the power to appoint, and required the president to get its approval before going to war. In a nutshell, the SCAF essentially institutionalized its position as sitting above the rest of the political system with oversight of all relevant executive, legislative, and judicial bodies, and is unquestionably the highest power in the land irrespective of who the next or future presidents are. Some are looking at this as a preemptive strike against a Morsi presidency, and that may well have been the point, but these moves make democracy in Egypt an absolute and complete impossibility no matter how many free and fair elections take place down the road.
It’s worth thinking a little about why this is. This same issue comes up with regard to Iran, where people sometimes claim that Iran is a democracy or somehow more democratic than its Arab neighbors because it has an elected president and legislature with campaigns that feature genuine choices in the voting booth. This claim is utterly false. Despite its elections, Iran is not a democracy because even a minimalist electoral democracy is about much more than just elections, and Egypt today officially entered a pattern in which it too cannot attain democratic status unless the new constitutional provisions are discarded. Neither Iran nor Egypt have what is called vertical accountability, meaning that there is an unelected group that has a reserved domain of power and that stands above elected officials without being accountable to the electorate. In Iran that group is the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader, and in Egypt it is now the SCAF. The elected president of Egypt is subject to a military veto, and the military is accountable to nobody. Egypt can hold elections every four years that are unassailably free and fair with regular transfers of power between parties, and none of it will matter because Egypt will still not be democratic.
In a way, what has taken place in Egypt is a lot more problematic than the type of military coup seen in Turkey or Latin American countries during the latter half of the last century. When the military intervenes in politics to depose an elected civilian government, it often does whatever it feels needs to be done and then returns to the barracks. As was the case in Turkey, this did not mean that another coup would not happen in ten years, but at least in the interim civilian politics was given a chance, albeit with the omnipresent specter of the military hovering over the proceedings. In Egypt, however, the SCAF is not simply intervening in civilian politics; it is establishing a permanent military veto and permanent martial law that will exist in conjunction with civilian politics. Even if the military does not ever actively remove the president, the president cannot go to war without the SCAF’s approval or do anything to curb the military’s power to indiscriminately arrest civilians or remove SCAF oversight of the legislative process. This is more insidious than a temporary military coup, because it permanently cements the subordination of elected officials to unelected generals. As much as the military was preeminent under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, this is a step even farther, since now the military will be actively involved in governing. Nobody should fool themselves about what it means should Morsi actually be declared the winner of yesterday’s election; just because he wins and Shafiq – widely presumed to be the SCAF’s favored candidate – loses does not make for a triumph of democracy, or even a glimmer of hope. There is no democracy in Egypt, and that won’t be undone through the process of elections.
One final thought about Egypt and democratic transitions. For the last year and a half, it has been fashionable to talk about Egypt’s transition or Egypt’s emerging democracy. Neither of these terms was ever accurate. A democratic transition is a frustratingly nebulous concept, and there is no good way of measuring when one has actually occurred and a state has crossed some magic threshold. That said, there are a couple of baseline definitions one might use. One (from O’Donnell and Schmitter) is the interval between the original political regime and the one that replaces it. Did that ever happen in Egypt? To my mind, the answer is a resounding no. Mubarak is gone, but his regime never went anywhere. His defense minister and army chief of staff have been running Egypt under the guise of the SCAF, and his last prime minister just participated in a two man runoff to become the next president. That is not a regime change, or even a change of government. There has been no interval between political regimes in this case since the original regime has not been replaced or even deposed.
Another definition (from Przeworski) is that a transition has occurred once a state has arrived at the point where no actor can intervene to reverse the outcome of the formal political process, and the transfer of power occurs from a set of people to a set of rules. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that this ever occurred in Egypt post-January 2011. Clearly the military has stepped in on a number of occasions to reverse the outcome of formal politics, with yesterday and last week being only the latest and most egregious examples. Egypt has also not really come close to vesting power in a set of rules rather than in the SCAF. It is tempting to describe what has just taken place as an aborted transition, but that implies that a transition was in process against all evidence to the contrary. The old regime has been in power from the start, and just signaled that it has no intention of giving that power up, no matter who wants to call himself president of Egypt. There are lots of different definitions for what constitutes a democracy and plenty of vigorous debate over what is required, but as things stand today in Egypt, it is not a democracy and did not undergo even a limited transition, and pretending otherwise is an exercise in futility and false hope.
June 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
It’s tough to ignore the big news out of Egypt this morning, which is that the High Constitutional Court ruled that the Political Disenfranchisement Law – which prohibited high ranking Mubarak government officials from running for public office – is unconstitutional and nullified the election of 1/3 of the seats in parliament that were reserved for individual candidates (and that was dominated by Islamist candidates, including the new Muslim Brotherhood speaker of the parliament). The consensus among Egypt watchers is that this decision is a political one mandated by the SCAF, and the effect of it is that Parliament now has to be dissolved, there is no Constituent Assembly to write the constitution, and the new president (and I’d bet money that it will conveniently be former Mubarak PM Ahmed Shafiq) will be unchecked by any other political institution since they have just been eviscerated. This is for all intents and purposes a soft coup orchestrated by the military.
So why am I writing about this? The reason is that Egypt is increasingly looking like it is following the path that Turkey took in the second half of the 20th century, which was marked by military domination of politics and successive military coups that were carried out when the generals did not like the direction that the country’s politics were taking. While I have not written much about Egypt on this blog, I have been openly skeptical in many conversations with friends and on Twitter that the military was going to allow a genuine transition to occur, and today’s events certainly confirm my doubts for the time being. The most worrying part for Egypt is that it is following the praetorian Turkish model without enjoying two of the benefits that Turkey had that allowed it to break the cycle and become a legitimate electoral democracy.
First, Turkey’s first military coup came in 1960, which was fourteen years after Turkey transitioned to a two party system and ten years following the Turkey’s first democratic elections and transfer of power to the opposition. When the military intervened in 1960, 1971, and 1980, it eventually returned power to civilian governments in each instance after a few years, and one of the primary reasons was that Turkey had a history of contested elections and democratic government, which made it easy to fall back into democratic patterns. One of the, if not the absolute, best predictors of democracy is having previously been a democracy, and Turkey fell into this category. Egypt, however, does not, and now that the military has intervened in a real way to protect its own interests and the remnants of the old regime, there should not be an expectation that Egypt is going to easily overcome this. Make no mistake, a government led by Shafiq with no real parliament and martial law (which was reimposed yesterday) is a continuation of the Mubarak regime plain and simple, and that does not change just because Shafiq is going to have to win some votes before being formally installed as president. Egypt has no real democratic tradition upon which to fall back, and so while the intervention of the military in politics may look like what took place in Turkey, nobody should be optimistic about Egypt’s chances of eventually breaking out of this pattern like Turkey did.
Second, the establishment of firm civilian control of government in Turkey that has taken place under the AKP was in response to a number of outside structural pressures. I have previously mentioned the role of the EU accession process so there is no need to go into that in depth again, but it is a factor that Egypt is obviously missing since no outside body is demanding wholesale democratic reforms as a condition for conferring a host of benefits upon the country. The EU process was not the only variable pushing Turkey toward civilian government, however, since there was also the NATO factor. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, and it was thus firmly ensconced in an important club of Western democracies and subject to regular pressure from and close contact with countries like the U.S. One of the theories about why Turkey suddenly decided to get rid of its single party system is that the aftermath of WWII left Turkey in a position where its interests lay in a closer relationship with the West, but achieving this meant embracing liberal democratic governance and ending one-party rule. Turkey’s quest for aid from the United States and its signature on the United Nations Declaration made democracy imperative to implement since Turkey needed to be in compliance with the obligations it had agreed to undertake.
Furthermore, the distancing from the Soviet Union and the increasing contacts with the U.S. lessened the appeal for many Turks of Soviet-style authoritarianism, which was far different from the Turkish political system but seemed like a newly emerging threat. While Turkey had a close relationship with the Soviet Union during the first two decades of the republic, the Soviets demanded a readjustment of the Soviet-Turkish border following WWII and Turkey’s only recourse for protection against Soviet encroachment was to turn to the U.S. and other Western states. In order to take full advantage of U.S. concern over communism as embodied by the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, it was plainly in Turkey’s best interests to democratize. These pressures continued throughout the second half of the 20th century as Turkey became invested in the American-led order that had been created in the postwar period.
This is another factor that does not exist for Egypt. There are no serious outside influences pressuring it to democratize, and it is not dependent on the U.S. and other Western democracies to the same extent that Turkey was. It is not joining the EU, it does not need protection from the Soviet Union, and its military aid from the U.S. is not ever going to be really endangered because of the way in which it is bound up with the peace treaty with Israel. In short, Egypt in 2012 looks very little like Turkey from 1950 onwards, and the pressures that existed on the Turkish military that ensured quick handovers to civilian governments following military coups do not apply on anything like the same scale to the SCAF. It is understandable that those who are disappointed with today’s events might look to Turkey as a ray of hope for what can eventually happen after the military intervenes in politics, but the comparison is an unsuitable one. Turkey had a democratic head start and a host of reasons to ultimately consign the military to the barracks for good, and Egypt unfortunately has neither of these things.