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.


Do Not Draw Lessons From Turkey 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.

The Harming Power Of Elections

July 3, 2013 § 10 Comments

We here in the U.S. tend to fetishize elections. For many people, elections and democracy are synonymous with each other, and there is a tendency – particularly among the non-political scientist set – to assume that any country that holds free elections must be democratic. This mindset has been out in full force over the past decade as genuine elections have become more common in the Arab world. When Iraq held its first free elections after the American-led ouster of Saddam Hussein, supporters of the Iraq War (and in the interests of full disclosure, I was firmly in that group) rushed to dub the war a success because Iraq was now deemed to be a democracy. Time and again we are reminded that Hamas is the legitimate government in Gaza because it was democratically elected (never mind that those elections happened in 2006 and have not been repeated since). When Egypt elected Mohamed Morsi a year ago, Egypt was immediately declared a new or emerging democracy by dint of those elections. For many people, elections are what matter to the exclusion of all else.

For a long time, this view of elections being the dividing line between democracies and non-democracies held sway in political science as well for the simple fact that non-democratic regimes did not bother to conduct elections. When Juan Linz wrote his groundbreaking and still seminal work on non-democratic regimes in the 1970s, he did not even consider that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes would hold elections; trying to distinguish free and fair elections from illegitimate elections did not factor into his analysis because it was not an issue that ever came up. When he updated his work two decades later in book form, elections still not did make it into his exhaustive typologies of non-democratic regimes. Nevertheless, because the West had placed such a priority on the legitimizing power of elections, authoritarian regimes began to catch up and elections became a permanent feature of all manner of non-democratic states. In some cases, such as Saddam-era Iraq, they were complete shams where the dictator routinely won 99% of the vote, and in other cases, such as parliamentary elections in Egypt and Jordan, the parliaments held no real power and the election outcomes were predetermined, albeit not to the absurd extent in places like Iraq or Tunisia. Political science quickly caught up to what was going in the real world and came up with a new category of regimes, typically called competitive authoritarian or hybrid regimes. These regimes were recognized to fall somewhere in a gray zone, as they held competitive elections but not ones that were free and fair, and so while there was the possibility of a transfer of power post-elections, it was a difficult feat to pull off. Research was also done on regimes, oftentimes called hegemonic authoritarian regimes, where non-competitive elections were held so that the regime could claim the mantle of electoral legitimacy but where the outcome was never in any way in doubt. Because elections themselves are a powerful tool, we now live in a world where there are elections all over the globe, but in many instances they mean next to nothing.

We are now moving into an interesting phase, where elections are not only being used by authoritarian regimes to justify their existence, but are being used by a wide class of states to justify any specific action they take. Examples A and B in this regard are Turkey and Egypt, where elected leaders repeatedly refer to their elected status as justification not just for their continuation in office but for any actions the government wants to take. In Turkey, which is a problematic democracy but still to my mind meets the criteria for being an electoral democracy (even if it is looking increasingly shaky), Prime Minister Erdoğan has spent the last month dismissing any and all concerns on the part of the protestors because, as he likes to remind everyone, the AKP was elected in 2011 with an overwhelming plurality of the vote, and if people don’t like what he’s doing, they can go back to the ballot box in a couple of years. Erdoğan fiercely believes that elections confer absolute power, and his view of majoritarian democracy states that the majority can do as it pleases, no matter the consequences or the nature of the opposition. Never mind that democracy is about much more than elections, or that massive numbers of people are protesting in the streets against specific policies. For Erdoğan, all that matters is what happens on election day, and the party that finds itself in government has four or five years to pursue any manner of policies that it chooses to implement. If people don’t like it, than they can voice their displeasure in the next election, and it is as simple as that. Elections confer blanket authority.

In Egypt, which is not yet a democracy no matter how many people would like to believe otherwise, Morsi became president following democratic elections, and has ever since pursued a narrow, sectarian policy in which he has made clear that he believes he is the president of the Muslim Brotherhood rather than all Egyptians. He too has fallen back on the fact that there were elections to justify all sorts of policies that rankle most Egyptians, and the fact that Egypt this week saw what were likely the largest demonstrations in human history makes no difference to him. He cloaked himself in the mantle of elections in order to shunt aside Egypt’s courts and force through a new constitution six months ago, and during the crisis of the last two days, he has refused to acknowledge having made mistakes or grant that changes need to be made because he insists that his policies have the ultimate legitimacy emanating from the fact that he was elected. Morsi is using elections not only to justify his position, but to justify any actions that he takes.

To be clear, if the military moves in and deposes Morsi by force, it will be a disaster. As I pointed out during the constitutional crisis in December, such a move will doom any real hope for democracy in Egypt for decades:

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.

Free and fair elections need to be respected, and no matter how poor of a president Morsi has been and no matter how wrongheaded and disastrous his government’s policies, the millions of people in the streets should be heeded by the government in terms of changing course but not in allowing mob rule. Egyptians have legitimate grievances, but by the same token a military coup to get rid of Morsi is not the answer. Nevertheless, Erdoğan, Morsi, and heads of state everywhere need to unlearn the lesson that they have taken away, which is that elections are all that matter and that what happens between elections does not. Voting for one’s leaders is an important and necessary component of democracy, but elections alone do not a democracy make. This idea of an absolute majoritarian mandate conferred based on election results is enormously damaging, and it harms democracy rather than furthers it. We went through a period in which elections were emphasized as the primary component of democracy promotion, but perhaps now it is time for a switch in which elections are deemphasized in favor of other things, such as checks and balances, horizontal accountability, respect for minority rights, and other similar factors that have been lost in the shuffle. Elections are needed to usher in democracy, but in a disturbing number of cases elections are now being used to choke off the democracy that they allegedly heralded.

The Other Dark Side Of Energy Independence

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?

Egypt Is Adopting A Turkish Model After All

December 12, 2012 § 5 Comments

As Mohamed Morsi continues his campaign to push through a referendum on the Egyptian draft constitution at all costs, it is increasingly clear that Egypt is emulating a Turkish model, but not the one it might have intended to emulate. I wrote last week about the danger of Egypt falling into the same pattern as Turkey when it comes to military interventions in civilian politics, and while that may indeed come to pass, it is still too early to tell. The new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government is, however, following Turkey down another path. The Turkish model that Egypt has already begun to mimic is one of an alternate, yet just as unsavory, variety, which is the government’s adaptation of the very same authoritarian strategies of its predecessors despite formerly being victimized by those very same strategies and tactics. It requires a sort of historical amnesia to do to your opponents what was previously done to you, and while in Turkey this took a little more time to play out, in Egypt it is happening at lightning speed.

Turkey’s more authoritarian bent during the last five years or so of AKP rule has manifested itself primarily in restrictions on speech and targeting journalists, politicians, and others for expressing opinions outside the bounds of what the government deems to be acceptable. Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country in the world, and more recently there has been controversy over Prime Minister Erdoğan suggesting that prosecutors should take action against a soap opera depicting the life and times of Suleiman the Magnificent and over a fine levied against a private broadcasting station for airing an episode of The Simpsons deemed to be blasphemous. Erdoğan’s beef with the soap opera, Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century in English), is that he does not like the stylized description of Suleiman’s life as an endless parade of battles and harem trysts, and he threatened to have production shut down by saying, “Those who toy with these values should be taught a lesson within the premises of the law.” One of the AKP MPs followed up by introducing a bill that would ban the show along with establishing guidelines for filmmakers to conform with Turkish moral values. What is surprising about the heavy emphasis on targeting objectionable speech is that this is precisely the tactic used by previous governments and the Turkish military to go after current AKP members in the past. As pointed out by the blog Atatürk’s Republic, “Having been born, raised and educated in a society which accepted and even welcomed  a certain level of state media control, the leadership of the AKP has now begun to echo their secular predecessors, almost in spite of themselves.  After all, Erdogan himself spent nearly a year in jail for a speech crime.” The hypocrisy of Erdoğan, who was imprisoned for four months (although sentenced to ten) for reading a poem at a rally that the state deemed as a violation of the law against inciting religious hatred, now going after others for speech that offends his values carries a large degree of irony, and is part of a pattern of the AKP resorting to the same tactics as its predecessors used on it to punish action that it does not like.

In Egypt, Morsi has taken this lesson and run with it. For years, Muslim Brotherhood members were subject to torture on the part of the Mubarak regime intended to elicit false confessions and uncover hidden evidence of foreign conspiracies. During the uprising against Mubarak in January 2011, opponents of the regime were detained, beaten by plainclothes thugs bussed into Cairo from other parts of the country, had their wallets and phones confiscated while being tortured into confessing that they were being paid to demonstrate, and Mubarak would give speeches alleging foreign hands trying to break the sovereignty of the state and how it was up to him to hold firm and protect Egypt from outsiders. And yet, last week this scenario played out identically except that it was Muslim Brotherhood thugs rather than felool baltagiya doing the detaining and beating, and it was Morsi giving a speech decrying the nefarious influence of foreign conspirators determined to bring down Egypt. It was Morsi threatening to reinstate martial law and claiming that “temporary” emergency measures would be necessary to restore order and calm. If I put up two articles side by side, one from January 2011 and one from last week, and removed all named references to the actors involved, you’d be hard pressed to tell which article was from which time period, and yet before it was Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (among others) being repressed and now it is Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood using the exact same playbook to do the repressing.

The reason this happens is simple. Like I wrote about military intervention last week, existing institutions constrain the range of available political outcomes, and make it easier for a country’s politics to repeat the same patterns irrespective of who is at the top. New governments often inherit a logic of action and behavior that is difficult to unlodge, and when the same institutional rules, resources, and patterns of competition remain in place from one regime to the next, the behavior exhibited by the state’s new rulers begins to look identical to that exhibited by the state’s former ones. In this case there is something else at work as well as my friend and colleague Hesham Sallam has insightfully pointed out, which is that Egypt has a deep state of powerful interests and institutions that have resisted attempts to break their autonomy, and it thus becomes easy for the Muslim Brotherhood to cut a deal with these military and security apparatuses and adopt the same tactics used by its predecessor. This all combines to create a situation in which Morsi was elected to the presidency, realized early on that the easiest way to get what he wanted given Egypt’s weak political institutions and lack of cohesion was to adopt the same antidemocratic measures under the guise of legalism as Mubarak did, and when faced with protests resorted to the same tactics of torture, prosecuting his leading opponents, and alleging foreign conspiracies. Because he cut a deal with Egypt’s deep state, he is so far getting away with all of this under the protection of the military and security forces, who are happy to let him do as he pleases as long as their own prerogatives are not trampled. And just like that, it turns out that the man and organization that bitterly denounced Mubarak for torture, detentions, and giving up any pretense to democracy are doing the exact same thing themselves not even one year into coming to power.

Unfortunately, this is how authoritarian politics works, and nobody should be surprised to see the same patterns repeating themselves. In some ways, it is a miracle that democracy ever occurs, and the conditions have to be right and a healthy dose of luck must be involved for a successful transition to happen. In Egypt, neither of these two variables seem to apply so far, and thus it has been very easy for Morsi to morph into Mubarak. There is a reason that Mubarak resorted to the tactics that he did, which is that it was the most effective way for him to hold on to power, and Morsi has quickly learned that the Mubarak playbook works. Just like Erdoğan has conveniently forgotten what was done to him, so too has Morsi, and it means that Egypt is even more unlikely now than it ever was to adopt the Turkish model of a religious society with a democratic secular government.

Where Is The Egyptian Military?

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.

The Case Against Presidential Systems, Egypt Edition

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.

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