Normative Narratives


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Initial Reactions to the Egyptian Military Coup D’etat

Looking Back:

Make no mistake about it, actions taken today by the Egyptian military represented a coup; Morsi was elected democratically and passed his constitution democratically. A military removing a democratically elected leader is a coup, regardless of how you spin it. At no point in the last year has there been any legitimate claims of unfair election / voting processes in Egypt. The only thing Morsi’s opposition can muster a majority over is, apparently, their dislike of Morsi.

Morsi’s year as President was marked by continued refusal by the opposition to take part in the democratic process. He was by no means a perfect leader, his rule was marked with civil and human rights violations as he struggled to keep at bay a power-grab by his long suppressed supporters while also upholding the responsibilities of running a pluralistic democratic society.

In addition to sectarian divides, the economic aftermath of the Mubarak ouster plagued the Morsi regime. Popular subsidies had to be cut in order to unlock international aid after the economy collapsed. Political divisions made such measures impossible to pass, and further economic degradation only reinforced divisions amongst Egyptians, leading to a degenerative cycle of poverty, insecurity, and political division.

No one will invest money, be it the IMF or General Electric, if a country is so divided that the ruling party and the opposition cannot even sit down together a come to agreements on policies with significant and immediate human rights and economic development implications. And certainly no family is going on a vacation to a country where their livelihood could constantly be in danger. As a result, Egypt’s foreign reserves dwindled, leading to inflation and a further deterioration of the Egyptian standard of living. 

General Asis, by giving Morsi a 48 hour period to negotiate, had already made up its mind about overthrowing Egypt’s first democratically elected leader. 48 hours is not enough time to make meaningful progress on negotiations— all such an unrealistic time frame did was further entrench the opposition’s position to refuse to come to the negotiating table.

Give Morsi 6 months or a year, an amount of time that allow the opposition to prove its legitimacy, other than stand on its head and watch fireworks and light shows. So far all the opposition has shown is extreme, borderline irrational hatred for Morsi and the inability to participate in the democratic process. Why should we believe that now democracy will work in Egypt?

The Military missed a golden opportunity to play arbiter between Morsi and the opposition, upholding both the principles of democratic institutions while also ensuring an inclusive agenda setting and policy making process consistent with international human rights norms. Instead the coup undermines the very ability of democracy to take root in Egypt, and creates far more questions than provides answers.

I sure hope I am wrong about the precedent being set in Egypt.

Looking Forward:

“Flanked by political and religious leaders and top generals, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the suspension of the Islamist-tinged constitution and a roadmap for a return to democratic rule under a revised rulebook.”

“The president of the supreme constitutional court will act as interim head of state, assisted by an interim council and a tecnocratic government until new presidential and parliamentary elections are held.

Those in the meeting have agreed on a roadmap for the future that includes initial steps to achieve the building of a strong Egyptian society that is cohesive and does not exclude anyone and ends the state of tension and division, Sisi said in a solemn address broadcast live on state television.”

It was encouraging to see diverse interests standing alongside General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. However, the shutting down of Muslim Brotherhood news stations and arrests / killings of Morsi supporters paints a grim picture for the future of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. What bothers me is what will happen to those not  in the meetings mapping out Egypt’s future–namely the Muslim Brotherhood. Suspensions of freedoms of expression and media independence are also alarming, and make for an unstable basis on which to build a new democracy.

How the new government and the Muslim Brotherhood interacts will determine the ability of Egypt to move forward as a cohesive and peaceful democratic society. If the Brotherhood reacts violently, Egypt may be mired in civil violence for years to come. Only if the Muslim Brotherhood and opposition embrace one-another (admittedly a long shot, at least right away, and one that would require significant political and diplomatic maneuvering) can the new government truly represent all factions of Egyptian society. A modernized Egypt that treats Muslims Brotherhood members as second class citizens can never be a true democracy.

US Support

There is also the question of whether America will continue to back the Egyptian military. If the U.S government finds the Egyptian military indeed seized power via a coup, which lets be honest they did, aid would legally have to be suspended. However, lawyers and politicians will work to keep the long-standing relationship going. Egyptian stability is necessary for Middle-Eastern stability, which is currently in short-supply as is; American leaders will be pragmatic as opposed to idealistic. 

Lots is still up in the air; I will be sure to keep my readers up to date on Egypt’s outlook as more details present themselves.

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Transparency Report: Unrest in Egypt and The Democratic Process

Original article:

“On Friday, Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood and their allies will gather in Cairo, as will some opposition groups. On Sunday, the opposition hopes millions will heed the call, a year to the day since Mursi became Egypt’s first freely elected leader.

‘I am more determined than ever to go out on June 30 to demand the removal of an absolutely irresponsible president,’ Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for a coalition of liberal parties, said on Thursday after Mursi’s marathon late-night address.

It is hard to gauge how many may turn out but much of the population, even those sympathetic to Islamic ideas, are deeply frustrated by economic slump and many blame the government.”

“Mursi described his opponents as “enemies” and “saboteurs” loyal to the ousted dictator, whose “corruption” had thwarted him and driven the economy into crisis, though he conceded he had made some mistakes and promised reforms.

He also offered talks on “national reconciliation” and changes to a controversial new constitution to end the polarization and paralysis that he said threatened democracy.

Opponents dismissed that as nothing new. Mursi and his allies complain that their opponents, defeated by the highly mobilized Islamist groups in a series of elections last year, are bad losers who have repeatedly snubbed offers to cooperate.”

‘Our demand was early presidential elections and since that was not addressed anywhere in the speech then our response will be on the streets on June 30,’ said Mahmoud Badr, the young journalist behind a petition which has garnered millions of signatures calling on Mursi to quit. ‘I hope he’ll be watching.'”

“Warning ‘violence will only lead to violence’, Mursi urged his opponents to focus on parliamentary elections, which may be held this year, rather than on “undemocratic” demands to overturn his election on the streets: ‘I say to the opposition, the road to change is clear,’ he said. ‘Our hands are extended.'”

I have written many times about the democratic experiment in Egypt here at NN. Egypt is an interesting country, it is the most populous country in the Middle-East, and has a long history of cooperation with Western powers (the U.S. funds the Egyptian military). Egypt’s armed forces will play a crucial role in preventing the Syrian Civil War from turning into a regional conflict (and in maintaining regional security in general). While Turkey is another example of an Islamic state attempting to reconcile democracy and traditional Islamic values, there is something about Egypt’s geographical position that makes it seem like a more robust test of the compatibility of the two ideologies (perhaps Turkey seems European-ized–it is actually seeking EU membership–which may isolate it from more conservative Muslim’s, whereas Egypt is in Africa, which could be more agreeable to those same factions).

For these reasons, alongside the human rights and modernization implications of effective democratic governance, I have been cheering Morsi on in his attempt to bring democracy to Egypt. Sometimes I have been too understanding; Morsi has made mistakes along the way, including targeted violations of the civil rights of his opponents in the name of national security / democracy. President Morsi has owned up to these mistakes, and now seems to have learned what it takes to lead an effective democracy.

Transparency, rule of law, accountability / anti-corruption, personal and societal security, an inclusive and participatory governing process, and the indiscriminate protection of human rights are among the most important aspects of an effective democracy. Morsi has (hopefully) learned that seeking to strengthen the legitimacy of his regime by violating these aspects of democracy, even in the name of national security, is counter-productive. Self-defense is fine, but short of that the opposition must be allowed to assemble. In a religious dictatorship the opposition are terrorists / saboteurs / infidels; in an effective democracy they are simply the opposing political party (again, so long as they use political and not military means to advance their goals). 

So now we have two sides at odds, and in this case I must again take the side of President Morsi, and here is why:

President Morsi has proposed national reconciliation efforts, including making amendments to the constitution (which was open for vote to begin with, the opposition simply refused to participate). He has also proposed the opposition take part in parliamentary elections. Judicial independence has been tricky, as many of the judges in Egypt were assigned under former dictator Hosni Mubarak (packing the courts with his own judges would not ease concerns of a Morsi power-grab either; anyone he appoints, regardless of his background, would be seen by his opponents only as a “Morsi appointee”. Nevertheless, Morsi has offered basically every legitimate democratic avenue available to address the concerns of his opposition.

The opposition, on the other hand, has refused to take part in the democratic process. It will be satisfied with nothing short of Morsi’s removal from office, calling for early presidential elections. Is that any way to establish the credibility of a brand new democratic process, by tossing that process aside instead of trying to work within it? Early elections would undermine the future of democracy in Egypt by setting a bad precedent.

The opposition also continues to emphasize the “15 million signatures it has calling for Morsi’s removal“. Last time I checked, there were 83 million Egyptians, more than half of which are over the legal voting age. Since when has 30-40% of a population been enough to be considered national consensus. If anything the 15 million signature mark–if it is even legitimate–suggests a majority of Egyptians want an end of the political turmoil (with Morsi remaining in power), in order to begin addressing the deteriorating economic and social conditions in Egypt.

So this minority, which refuses to take part in the democratic process, is demanding a step that ultimately undermines the sustainability of democracy in Egypt–thanks but not thanks, I will stick with supporting the imperfect Morsi regime which is at least attempting to make democracy work.

This is not to say that Morsi cannot do things better to ease peoples fears, but the opposition must be willing to come to the table and compromise through democratic channels. One such channel is the National Council For Human Rights in Egypt. Being an “A” rated NHRI (national human rights institution) according to the UN International Coordinating Committee (ICC), the Egyptian council should be a trusted institution in holding the Morsi regime accountable for its human rights duties not only to its constituents but to all Egyptians.

The issue is that the Egyptian NCHR was last reviewed in 2010 (before Morsi came to power), and is not scheduled to be reviewed again until late 2014. In other words, the NHRC has not been reviewed since Morsi has come to power.

The only information I was able to find on the role of the Egyptian NCHR during the Morsi regime comes from the UN Sixty-seventh General Assembly Third Committee 37th Meeting (PM) (November 14th 2012):

MONZER FATHI SELIM (Egypt) said the Council played an important role in supporting States in their primary responsibility to protect all human rights, and it should work to ensure the realization of those rights with full respect to the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in order to avoid the politicization, selectivity and double standards that affected its predecessor.  The report reaffirmed the Council’s important role in building national capacities, monitoring human rights, protecting the human rights of Palestinians and strengthening efforts to combat racism, among other things.”

So according to the Egyptian NHRC, its ability to monitor human rights issues has not be compromised since Morsi took office. However, one could argue there may be a conflict of interest if a Morsi crony is running the show. Therefore, Morsi should invite Human Rights Watch, The Center for Economic and Social Rights, Transparency International–literally every and any intentional human rights based organization that wishes to come–to verify the ability of the NHRC to fulfill its functions. Morsi should also extend an invitation to the ICC to perform a formal UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the immediate future, instead of waiting almost a year and a half for the scheduled review.

If Morsi takes these steps, it should separate the legitimate opposition from the Mubarak-era vested interests who want Morsi gone for illegitimate reasons. Additionally, the Morsi regime must stop shooting itself in the foot by denying people their human rights, as this feeds into the claims of the opposition and hurts his regimes legitimacy (which it gained by being the first democratically elected regime in modern Egypt).

There are both domestic and international reasons I want democracy to work in Egypt. Have my own desires clouded my judgment? I think I have been pretty even handed in this analysis, but as always I would like the hear what my readers have to think in the comment section!


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Transparency Report: PRISM, The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, Civil and Human Rights

There has been understandable concern over reports that leaked last week which tied the US government to the collection of peoples personal phone and internet records through a sweeping government program known as PRISM. One questions brings about more questions. Are whistle-blowers hero’s or traitors? Is PRISM a necessary component of national security or an infringement of civil rights? Has PRISM actually been effective in stopping terrorist attacks? Has the leak compromised America’s national security? Perhaps due to still murky details, American’s are still largely divided on these issues.

The New York Times editorial board was particularly one-sided in its assessment of the programs; such a response is not surprising, as a major representative of news Media, the New York Times ability to produce meaningful content relies on civil rights.

“Perhaps the lack of a broader sense of alarm is not all that surprising when President Obama, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, and intelligence officials insist that such surveillance is crucial to the nation’s anti-terrorism efforts.

But Americans should not be fooled by political leaders putting forward a false choice. The issue is not whether the government should vigorously pursue terrorists. The question is whether the security goals can be achieved by less-intrusive or sweeping means, without trampling on democratic freedoms and basic rights. Far too little has been said on this question by the White House or Congress in their defense of the N.S.A.’s dragnet.

The surreptitious collection of “metadata” — every bit of information about every phone call except the word-by-word content of conversations — fundamentally alters the relationship between individuals and their government.”

Tracking whom Americans are calling, for how long they speak, and from where, can reveal deeply personal information about an individual. Using such data, the government can discover intimate details about a person’s lifestyle and beliefs — political leanings and associations, medical issues, sexual orientation, habits of religious worship, and even marital infidelities. Daniel Solove, a professor at George Washington University Law School and a privacy expert, likens this program to a Seurat painting. A single dot may seem like no big deal, but many together create a nuanced portrait.

The effect is to undermine constitutional principles of personal privacy and freedom from constant government monitoring. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Tuesday, challenging the program’s constitutionality, and it was right to do so.

The government’s capacity to build extensive, secret digital dossiers on such a mass scale is totally at odds with the vision and intention of the nation’s framers who crafted the Fourth Amendment precisely to outlaw indiscriminate searches that cast a wide net to see what can be caught. It also attacks First Amendment values of free speech and association.”

It should be noted that the open and multifaceted discourse relating to these leaks is hard evidence that our first amendment rights continue to be upheld despite government surveillance–sometimes you just have to look up to see that the sky isn’t falling.  

The ACLU is perfectly within its rights to file a lawsuit, but I believe the Supreme Court will ultimately uphold the constitutionality of PRISM. It is true that PRISM violates the 4th Amendment , in that the government is indiscriminately collecting “metadata” on Americans phone and internet data. The American people want answers. The European Commission wants answers (further complicating US-Euro Free Trade talks). And it seems answers we will get, although perhaps not all the answers we desire:

” The director of the National Security Agency said on Thursday that he would release more information about the top secret programs that sweep up vast quantities of communications data on people here and abroad, and vowed to clear up what he said were inaccuracies and misperceptions about how the programs work.”

“”We have pledged to be as transparent as possible,’ he said after emerging from a classified briefing with House members. “I think it’s important that you have that information. But we don’t want to risk American lives in doing that. So what we’re being is very deliberate in this process so that we don’t end up causing a terrorist attack by giving out too much information.’”

“Among the inaccuracies he said he wanted to clear up was that the N.S.A. is listening to Americans’ phone calls.”

“Mr. Rogers stressed that grave damage was done by the disclosure of the programs, which involve a huge database of the logs of nearly every domestic phone call made by Americans, and the collection of information from American Internet companies like Google without individual court orders if the request is targeted at non-citizens abroad.”

We will get answers, hopefully answers that shed light on previous  terrorists acts thwarted by PRISM. But it is also clear that we will not get answers that compromise national security.

The Constitution was drafted as a living document, a foundation upon which our nation could grow upon. There is no possible way our forefathers could have foreseen modern security risks–in revolutionary times wars were fought with single shot muskets! Reading into any document too literally, be it a legal or religious document, is likely to lead to extreme conservative values which ultimately restrict human rights. For these documents we’re written in different times, and need to be amended to remain relevant today. As a legal document, the Constitution was understandably focused on civil and political rights and liberties. 

The Declaration of Independence, as a more general declaration, was based on what are now known as human rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…”

Subsequent constitutional amendments have been aimed at expanding the universality of civil rights (3/5’s compromise revoked, women’s and minority rights). It was never the intention of the founding fathers for civil rights to constrain the government from upholding basic human rights–such as the right to personal security. In fact, “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” referred to in Declaration of Independence are almost identical to Article 3 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights ,”Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.

I would argue that America was founded not only on the principles of civil rights, but on the principles of human rights (which include civil rights). The idea government is responsible for providing the services and resources necessary for personal freedom and happiness is 100% consistent with human rights law. That these rights come before the power of government, and with the power to overthrow a government that does not fulfill these duties, places human rights even ahead of constitutional rights (as overthrowing the government would in effect render The Constitution null, but the legitimacy of such action is upheld right there in the Declaration of Independence).

Enough about 200+ year old documents; it is interesting to interpret the wording (many people have made careers out of it, our own President Barack Obama was a professor of Constitutional Law the University of Chicago, one of the most prestigious law schools in the world), but I would like to set my sites on something a bit more modern–the NYT editorial attack on the PRISM system.

The issue is not whether the government should vigorously pursue terrorists. The question is whether the security goals can be achieved by less-intrusive or sweeping means, without trampling on democratic freedoms and basic rights. Far too little has been said on this question by the White House or Congress in their defense of the N.S.A.’s dragnet.”

Of course there are other means of achieving our security goals; we have been actively attempting them for the past 12 years. The problem is that fighting wars is incredibly expensive and often counter-productive. We do not have to live within the constraints of colonial times in our legislation or our military conduct. Technology has evolved since the 18th century, allowing us to change the ways in which we protect our national security.

Expensive wars have compromised the ability of the government to pay for basic goods and services. Inequality of opportunity and social mobility are huge problems facing modern American society. Our civil and political rights cannot come at the cost of our economic and social rights. If gathering intelligence keeps American safer, and does so in a way that relies less on military expenditure, then the resources saved have to factor into societies C-B analysis at some point. 

The tangible benefits of reduced military expenditure should not be dismissed due to unfounded fear of government intrusion. The government has been collecting this data for years already. Has it changed the way people go about their lives? No, until a week ago we had no idea the program existed (although I am sure people have speculated) . Is there even one example of the government using personal information for nefarious or deviant purposes? Not that I have heard of.

The absence of evidence may not be the evidence of absence; but in America everyone is still innocent until proven guilty, and the government has yet to be proven guilty of misusing personal data ascertained via the PRISM program.

It would be nice if the government could be more transparent about its national security programs, but information travels to easily in today’s digital world–there is no way to release America’s national security information to Americans while not allowing anyone else to see it.

This is not 1776, the threat of tyranny is not a real one. In order to use our national resources in the most efficient way, we must focus them on containing real threats (terrorism, and general deterioration of equality of opportunity, meritocracy, and social mobility which is hurting America’s long run economic growth potential and compromising the “American Dream” itself), not hypothetical violations of our rights.