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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The Politics of the Turkish Judiciary

January 15, 2014 § 4 Comments

The ongoing fight between the AKP and the Gülen movement has now moved into a new phase, where the government is not only reassigning police officers and firing prosecutors, but seeking to get rid of the separation of powers that exists between the government and the judiciary by proposing to have the body that appoints judges – the HSYK – become subject to the oversight of the Justice Minister. The opposition and the HSYK itself have declared this move to be unconstitutional and the EU has warned the government against passing such a measure, but Prime Minister Erdoğan hasn’t shown much inclination to back down. In World Politics Review, I have a long essay tracing how we got to this point. My argument is that the Turkish judiciary has throughout its history been a political actor, both in how it has behaved and how it is perceived, and thus successive governments – including the current one – have had no problem in treating it as such. Going after the judiciary in such a brazen manner seems extraordinary, but it is keeping with a long tradition of thinking about Turkey’s courts as an arm of the government rather than an impartial institution. Here’s an excerpt:

The Turkish judicial system appears to contain all the hallmarks of one that is enmeshed in a rule of law regime—independent courts, numerous avenues for appeal, civilian justice walled off from military justice and robust legal guidelines that adhere to a written constitution. Nevertheless, appearances can be deceiving. The Turkish judiciary suffers from a fundamental flaw, which is that it has often behaved as a political actor and is widely perceived by average Turks to be overly politicized. While the notion that courts are completely insulated from politics is a fallacy—in the U.S., for instance, politicians used to be routinely elevated to the Supreme Court, and Justice William Douglas even mounted a presidential campaign while serving on the court—the perception in Turkey is that the judiciary pursues political aims and that justice is far from being impartial. 

This is not to say that the entire system is rotten. Problems with Turkey’s administration of criminal justice are generally blamed on police and law enforcement abuses rather than on the courts. And there are many Turkish judges and prosecutors who perform their jobs in a manner comporting with the highest ethical standards. The level of confidence in Turkey that the judiciary as a whole is neutral or impartial, however, is not nearly as high as it should be.

There are good reasons for Turks to believe that the judicial system is an overtly political one. The first and primary reason is that the courts have intervened in Turkish politics even more often than has the Turkish military, which precipitated a coup during each of the past four decades of the 20th century. Articles 68 and 69 of the Turkish Constitution grant the Constitutional Court the power to shutter political parties whose platforms or activities violate a number of principles, including Turkey’s independence and territorial integrity, human rights, equality, rule of law or—and this is the crucial one—the principles of the secular and democratic republic. The Constitutional Court has relied upon this expansive but nebulously defined power on numerous occasions to close down political parties that have threatened Turkey’s hegemonic Kemalist ideology, targeting Islamist parties and Kurdish parties in particular as violating the principles of the republic. 

One might argue that the onus for this lies more with the drafters of Turkey’s constitution drafters than it does with the justices of the Constitutional Court; after all, the justices were granted a constitutional power so it is well within their right to use it. The problem is not that the court has closed political parties per se, but the sheer scope of how often this power is invoked: Since its establishment with the 1961 constitution, the court has closed down 27 political parties. To put this into context, postwar Germany—a state that knows the dangers of illiberal parties all too well—has only outlawed two. The total number of parties closed down in all of Western Europe in the post-World War II period is four. One need not be an expert in the vagaries of the Turkish constitution to understand that the Constitutional Court has oftentimes not acted as an impartial arbiter of law, but has rather functioned as a vanguard for the Kemalist elite and its particular vision of what constitutes Turkey’s best interests.

To read the full piece, including analysis of how the courts almost shuttered the AKP in 2008, how the courts have not really evolved in the switch from Kemalist governments to the AKP but simply changed their priorities, and how the current fight over the judiciary fits into the larger picture, please head over to article at World Politics Review by clicking here (and using this link will allow you to get around the paywall and read the article for free).

The Means Matter As Much For Democracy As The Ends

January 9, 2014 § 2 Comments

One of the tricky things about democracy is that we think of it as being an end-state that a country can hopefully achieve and maintain – hold regular elections with peaceful transfers of power, establish rule of law, incorporate and protect civil rights – but the pathway to getting there matters. It matters for two main reasons. First, democracy is not only about substance, but also about procedure. Countries that have hollow democratic institutions, where you have parties and elections but ones that are rife with corruption, patronage, irregularities, may look democratic from the outside but are not because their process is fundamentally undemocratic. Elections themselves do not magically confer democracy. Second, people and governments are not inherently democratic. Democracy generally emerges as a way out of a political stalemate or as a compromise between parties who are not powerful enough to impose their will on everyone, and as democratic behavior is repeated and becomes habituated over time, genuine democracy takes hold. In other words, behaving democratically is not innate, but it becomes second nature as it is carried out.

The idea that process matters is enormously important  in order to understand what is taking place in Turkey, and why the AKP’s constant drumbeat of claims about the high quality of Turkish democracy must be taken with a huge dose of skepticism. Almost everyone agrees that one of the AKP’s benchmark achievements has been to bring vertical accountability to Turkey, meaning that no unelected entity – in this case the military – wields ultimate power. It is for this reason that Iran is not a democracy no matter how many elections they have and no matter how free and fair they might be (not that they are), and very few people except a band of the most hardcore secular Kemalists would dispute that taking the army out of politics is a good thing and that power should be vested in those who win elections rather than those who carry guns. So the AKP’s campaign to bring the military to heel is an unqualified victory for democracy in Turkey, right? Except that it is not quite that simple, since the way the military was brought under control was through two investigations and trials, known as Ergenekon and Balyoz, that were fundamentally flawed and involved everything from detentions without trail to blatantly forged evidence. Nobody believes that these trials were victories for the rule of law, even if the ultimate end served democracy. Officers were subject to a witch hunt and the army was the victim of a campaign of recrimination in retaliation for its own decades of hounding Islamists and religious Turks, and so while it is an unqualifiedly good thing that the army will no longer be intervening in Turkish politics, nothing about the way that this result was carried out was model democratic behavior. All it did was reinforce the idea that Turkish democracy means winning power through elections and then using that power to act in fundamentally undemocratic ways.

Looking at what is taking place now as the AKP purges thousands of police officers and prosecutors in the name of subverting a coup attempt, you see a similar dynamic. The AKP talks about the Gülen movement as an undemocratic “parallel state” whose power needs to be curbed, and much like the move to curb the power of the military, there is truth in this. After all, it was the Gülenists who were responsible for the shady military trials, and to mistake them for pure democratic actors would be rank naiveté. Yet even taking the AKP’s claims about their former friends at face value, and granting that the Gülen movement uses its influence in the judiciary and the police in unsavory ways and that there needs to be some sort of check, the process here stinks to high heaven. Reassigning hundreds of police officers at once because they arrest people suspected of corruption, nakedly trying to remove all separation of powers and subordinate the judiciary to the power of the government, sending envoys from the prime minister to personally threaten the lead prosecutor of the graft cases, prosecuting eight television channels for reporting about the graft and corruption investigations…there is no way to justify this on democratic grounds, and yet this is precisely the gambit that Erdoğan and the AKP are attempting. By claiming that there is a coup attempt underway and that extraordinary measures must be taken in the name of protecting Turkish democracy, Erdoğan and his government are simply demonstrating that they don’t know the first thing about democracy or how it works.

It is a classic authoritarian gambit to use the powers of the state to go after your enemies and to claim that it is all being done in the name of security and democracy. The fact that the Gülen movement used this tactic to go after the military does not make it acceptable to use the same tactic to go after the Gülen movement. The notion that the corruption investigations constitute an attempt to carry out a coup and overthrow the government would be laughable if what was taking place in Turkey right now wasn’t so damaging to Turkey in the long term. When a government violently cracks down on protestors, fires prosecutors and police who dare to investigate allegations of gross misconduct, introduces legislation to eviscerate judicial independence, and darkly talks about foreign conspiracies supporting domestic terrorists without any shred of evidence, and does all of this in the name of “protecting democracy” and fulfilling the will of the people – people who, if the latest polls are correct, overwhelmingly condemn Erdoğan’s move to block the investigations and purge the police – it has taken an Orwellian turn for the worse. This goes double when hints of changing party rules midstream to allow Erdoğan to run for a fourth term are portrayed as being democratically necessary rather than extraordinary manipulation.

Process and procedure matter. Rule of law is not something to be subverted in order to arrive at democratic ends, because the process of implementing rule of law is itself the mark of democracy. The more that Erdoğan and the Turkish government do whatever they please because they have won elections, the more Turkish democracy withers. The only way for democracy to really take root is to have democratic behavior become repeated ad infinitum until it is routine. As Steven Cook so aptly points out today, the AKP is trying to manipulate Turkish political institutions to achieve its own ends, and Erdoğan’s and the AKP’s “fealty to democratic change extends only so far as it advances their interests.” For those still desperately clinging to the vestiges of 2002 through 2007 and the conviction that “Turkey has never been more democratic than it is under the AKP” despite all recent evidence to the contrary, the repeated and by now habitual flouting of democratic process is not something that Turkey will be able to just shake off when the AKP decides that it is time.

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