The Egyptian government sharply raised fuel prices early on Saturday, apparently signaling the resolve of the country’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to forge ahead with a series of austerity measures despite official concerns about a public backlash.
Fuel, bread and other goods are heavily subsidized in Egypt, where nearly 50 percent of the population lives under or near the poverty line. As Egypt has weathered years of economic crisis since the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, talk of overhauling the subsidy program, which eats up more than a quarter of the state budget, has taken on added urgency.
The government, which has embarked on a wide-ranging crackdown on its opponents, has also banned unauthorized demonstrations, raising the costs of any public unrest.
General consumption subsidies are intrinsically regressive; they benefit most those who consume the most, who are naturally the wealthiest. IMF demands that Morsi institute unpopular austerity measures in return for development aid was one the primary factors leading to public outrage against his rule. Sisi has been able to avoid the issue to this point thanks almost $20 billion in loans from Gulf Allies.
Egypt does need to reform its fuel subsidies, which are fiscally unsustainable. However, it must be done in a way that is sensitive to those in poverty–nearly 50% of the population according to the Reuter’s article. The government can satisfy both these demands by changing the general subsidy to a pro-poor social program, ensuring people are not left without basic necessities as the government puts itself on a more sustainable fiscal path. Sustainability is more than a budgetary number; society’s most vulnerable must have their basic needs met. If they do not, the ensuing insecurity threaten’s any “sustainable” gains made (which may be exactly what Sisi wants, as insecurity creates the demand for his militaristic style of governance).
Democratic governance goes beyond free and fair elections (which, by no stretch of the imagination, did Egypt have). Rule of law (including judicial independence), budgetary transparency, freedom of association and protest, access to information and media independence are all crucial democratic institutions missing from Sisi’s government.
I have been a very outspoken critic of President Sisi’s brand of authoritarian governance. He has maintained since he overthrew President Morsi and assumed power that he was fulfilling “the will of the people”; that he has Egyptian’s best interests at heart, that a strong-handed rule is needed to provide the security needed for growth and development. The extent to which Sisi, a career military man turned politician, has manufactured this threat to justify an unaccountable military-industrial complex is open to debate–I would say this is exactly what he has done.
These austerity measures mark the first real governance test for President Sisi. This is a problem he cannot blame on “terrorists”, and one to which there is no military solution. Does Sisi truly care about the Egyptian people, or will he let the poor go without basic needs while the military enjoys carte blanche?
Iraq and Syria are twins: multiethnic and multisectarian societies that have been governed, like other Arab states, from the top-down. First, it was by soft-fisted Ottomans who ruled through local notables in a decentralized fashion, then by iron-fisted British and French colonial powers and later by iron-fisted nationalist kings and dictators.
Today, the Ottomans are gone, the British and French are gone and now many of the kings and dictators are gone. We removed Iraq’s dictator; NATO and tribal rebels removed Libya’s; the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen got rid of theirs; and some people in Syria have tried to topple theirs. Each country is now faced with the challenge of trying to govern itself horizontally by having the different sects, parties and tribes agree on social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens who rotate power.
In Iraq, the Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki — who had the best chance, the most oil money and the most help from the U.S. in writing a social contract for how to govern Iraq horizontally — chose instead, from the moment the Americans left, to empower Iraqi Shiites and disempower Iraqi Sunnis. It’s no surprise that Iraqi Sunnis decided to grab their own sectarian chunk of the country.
So today, it seems, a unified Iraq and a unified Syria can no longer be governed vertically or horizontally. The leaders no longer have the power to extend their iron fists to every border, and the people no longer have the trust to extend their hands to one another. It would appear that the only way they can remain united is if an international force comes in, evicts the dictators, uproots the extremists and builds consensual politics from the ground up — a generational project for which there are no volunteers.
I could say that before President Obama drops even an empty Coke can from a U.S. fighter jet on the Sunni militias in Iraq we need to insist that Maliki resign and a national unity cabinet be created that is made up of inclusive Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders. I could say that that is the necessary condition for reunification of Iraq. And I could say that it is absolutely not in our interest or the world’s to see Iraq break apart and one segment be ruled by murderous Sunni militias.
ISIS and Sisi, argues Perlov, a researcher on Middle East social networks at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, are just flip sides of the same coin: one elevates “god” as the arbiter of all political life and the other “the national state.”
Both have failed and will continue to fail — and require coercion to stay in power — because they cannot deliver for young Arabs and Muslims what they need most: the education, freedom and jobs to realize their full potential and the ability to participate as equal citizens in their political life.
We are going to have to wait for a new generation that “puts society in the center,” argues Perlov, a new Arab/Muslim generation that asks not “how can we serve god or how can we serve the state but how can they serve us.”
Perlov argues that these governing models — hyper-Islamism (ISIS) driven by a war against “takfiris,” or apostates, which is how Sunni Muslim extremists refer to Shiite Muslims; and hyper-nationalism (SISI) driven by a war against Islamist “terrorists,” which is what the Egyptian state calls the Muslim Brotherhood — need to be exhausted to make room for a third option built on pluralism in society, religion and thought.
The Arab world needs to finally puncture the twin myths of the military state (SISI) or the Islamic state (ISIS) that will bring prosperity, stability and dignity. Only when the general populations “finally admit that they are both failed and unworkable models,” argues Perlov, might there be “a chance to see this region move to the 21st century.”
“Both the secular authoritarian model — most recently represented by Sisi — and the radical religious model — represented now by ISIS — have failed,” adds Marwan Muasher, the former foreign minister of Jordan and author of “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism.” “They did because they have not addressed peoples’ real needs: improving the quality of their life, both in economic and development terms, and also in feeling they are part of the decision-making process. Both models have been exclusionist, presenting themselves as the holders of absolute truth and of the solution to all society’s problems.”
We tend to make every story about us. But this is not all about us. To be sure, we’ve done plenty of ignorant things in Iraq and Egypt. But we also helped open their doors to a different future, which their leaders have slammed shut for now. Going forward, where we see people truly committed to pluralism, we should help support them. And where we see islands of decency threatened, we should help protect them. But this is primarily about them, about their need to learn to live together without an iron fist from the top, and it will happen only when and if they want it to happen.
Essentially, the twin cases of Iraq and Syria have been a crash course in what not to do. The U.S. invaded Iraq without an established partner ready and willing to defend a pluralistic democratic society. We ended up spending trillions of dollars, found no “weapons of mass destruction”, and, given recent developments in the region, have left Iraq in worse shape than under Saddam (and by no means do I believe Saddam was a viable long term solution either, stick with me here).
In Syria, Iraq’s twin state, essentially the exact opposite situation played out. A war weary American public held the belief it was best to not intervene militarily in Syria in the early stages of the uprising. But Syria was not Iraq; there was an organic, grass roots, civil society movement based on modern pluralistic democratic governance ready to fill the power void. Assad was and continues to butcher his own people openly and indiscriminately, and the pluralistic movement based on soft power has ceded ground to vicious extremist groups and government bombardment. This story has many parallels to what has transpired in Egypt over the past few years.
We must assist legitimate, pluralistic, democratic movements in the developing world, as they are the key to sustainable human development. Going to war without such an ally is a fools errand, as The Iraq War has shown. Abandoning such an ally (as we have done in Egypt and Syria) results in the slaughter of innocents, reverses in economic development and human rights, and presents opportunities for the rise of extremism / authoritarianism. When such an ally presents itself, we must be ready to assist them, before it is too late and that ally is marginalized / defeated.
US Domestic Fiscal Policy:
The Iraq War highlights the greater folly of “starve-the-beast” economic policy. The central tenet of starve-the-beast is that government is just that, a beast, whose role must be minimalized. Notably, President W. Bush went to war in Iraq and gave large tax cuts during his presidency–he starved the beast. The U.S. government was therefore in a poor position to weather the Great Recession, creating somewhat artificial budget debates (even though for the U.S. Federal government, borrowing money was and remains little more expensive that spending from surplus).
Had Bush not given his tax breaks, and the U.S. was determining policy from the prospect of a huge federal surplus, one could argue that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would have been substantially larger (and therefore substantially more effective). President Obama deserves some of the blame for the inadequacies of the ARRA; he was a new president, very idealistic, and tried to make everyone in Washington happy instead of getting the best deal for the American people. Perhaps he wrongfully believed he could go back for more stimulus money later if needed–if so, this was a costly miscalculation. Nevertheless, the fiscal context against which the ARRA was drafted naturally played a role in its composition.
As the economic recovery drudges on for the vast majority of Americans (low growth, high unemployment, stagnant wages), one cannot help but wonder how different things may have been had the U.S. Federal government instead pursued somewhat counter-cyclical fiscal policies.
The U.S. fought a war we had no business fighting in Iraq, leaving ourselves unwilling to assist legitimate democratic movements in Egypt and Syria. This is the major consequence of starve the beast philosophy–when we waist money on things we don’t need now, we cannot afford the things we do need later (at least without relying on deficit spending). Domestically, unneeded tax cuts meant there was not enough stimulus money to jump-start the U.S. economy. Abroad, the will to intervene in situations where we should have intervened did not exist because of an unnecessary war.
It is up to civil societies to determine for themselves when to cast off the shackles of authoritarianism and demand modern and pluralistic democratic governance. It is the role of the U.S. and our allies to defend and nurture those movements whenever they present themselves.
The U.S. government is not a beast, it is a force for progress and socioeconomic justice both at home and abroad, and the leader of the “international community”. Have their been policy failures, both home and abroad, in recent history? Of course. This is no reason to dismiss the many positive outcomes stemming from American domestic and foreign policies.
Starving the beast has real costs for both America and the world’s most vulnerable people; it is mind boggling that it has been the rallying cry of a major American political party for decades.
Days after declaring Martial Law, Thai General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced a Military Coup on Thursday. Since then the Military has stationed troops in major cities, suspended the constitution, enacted a curfew, put a halt to both pro and anti-government protests, taken certain channels and media outlets out of circulation, and detained former PM Yingluck and members of her government. Classic Coup actions.
The Thai army says it will remain neutral and wants to enact certain reforms before holding elections. If this is indeed possible, this Coup could be less disruptive than previous Coups. The big question is what form will reforms take? Will they increase transparency and accountability, curbing the potential for future corruption? Or will they involve drastic legislative redistricting, in an attempt to marginalize the political voice of rural Thailand? Can the army orchestrate meaningful reforms while remaining a neutral intermediary between rival political parties?
The answers to these questions will likely determine how the Coup plays out. There is, however, something reassuring about the Thai army calling this a Coup, especially in comparison to Egypt’s “non-Coup”.By acknowledging this was in fact Coup, the Army is at least taking responsibility for what happens next in Thailand. We should not, for instance, expect a bloody crackdown as we saw in Egypt.
In a previous post, I emphasized the determinative role armed forces can play in regime change. All things equal, it is always best for the military to stay out of politics and focus on security and defense issues. But all things are not equal; countries face unrest for a variety of reasons, and this unrest can turn violent and often has adverse economic consequences, as it has in Thailand.
One could certainly question the necessity of this Coup, violence has not recently escalated and Prime Minister Yingluck agreed to step down 2 weeks ago. Economic deterioration seems to be the most obvious catalyst in this instance. Either way a Coup has occurred, and the focus now shifts to the actions of the Thai army.
If the Army is indeed committed to the things it says, it may be possible for a Coup to play a constructive role in Thailand’s political crisis. Last month the U.N. highlighted this constructive role security forces can play in peace efforts:
The United Nations Security Council today called on countries emerging from conflict and all those assisting them to prioritize the development of domestic police and national defence forces that maintain rule of law and respect human rights, in its first-ever stand-alone resolution on security sector reform.
Stressing that it is the sovereign right and the primary responsibility of the countries concerned to reform their security institutions, the Council, through the resolution, encouraged the UN and other international partners to strengthen their approach to training and other assistance, and to integrate it with other efforts to help rebuild national institutions.
Mr. Ban reaffirmed some of the principles of security sector reform outlined in his latest report on the issue, including the linkage between security efforts and broader processes of political and institutional reforms in the countries in question.
“Strengthening operational effectiveness must be combined with efforts to build a strong governance framework, robust accountability and oversight mechanisms, and a culture of integrity and respect for human rights. National ownership is imperative,” he said.
Security is a necessary prerequisite for stability, human development and economic growth. There is nothing inherently good or bad about security forces. They can restore order and champion principles of democracy, human rights, and rule of law, or they can kill with impunity. There is something very interesting and deeply psychological about the broad spectrum of roles armed forces can play in society–it is in many ways a microcosm of free will.
Thailand is not Egypt, there is no reason to think just because there was a Coup, that the human rights environment in Thailand will deteriorate as it has in Egypt. However, certain actions by the Thai army certainly raise eyebrows, such as imposition of a curfew and suspensions of press freedom. Also, the Thai military’s track record does not inspire confidence; perhaps today is a new day?
All we can do now is wait and see, and hope the Thai army backs up its neutral rhetoric with appropriate actions and reforms. Except more on this topic in the coming weeks.
Supporters of the Morsi regime argue that the “deep state” (security forces, judiciary, business elites) conspired against his administration, resulting in ineffective rule. While this argument is open to debate (although I would say events over the past 7 months have at least partially vindicated this position), there is no question that the Egyptian judicial system is currently an extension of the military backed government:
Trials will be held in Minya province, south of Cairo, where a judge on Monday sentenced 529 defendants to death on charges of killing a police officer during an attack on a police station last summer.
Egyptian authorities are holding a series of mass trials in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other supporters of Morsi since the military removed him in July. Around 16,000 people have been arrested over the past months, including most of the Brotherhood’s leadership.
The new trials bring the total number of defendants in Minya along to 2,147 in four trials, including the trial in which the verdicts were issued on Monday.
In one of the new trials, 715 defendants, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohammed Badie, are charged with killing six people and the attempted murder of 51 others during attacks on state institutions on 14 August in the city of Sallamout. Only 160 defendants in this case are in detention. The prosecutor asked for the arrest of the remainder.
In the second trial, 204 defendants, also including Badie, face charges of inciting violence. Only three are in detention in this case, in which the charges include attacking state institutions and police in al-Adawa town, also in Minya.
A court will set a date for the trials.
A judicial official said the same judge who issued the death sentences on Monday will preside over the two new trials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press.
There is little reason to believe this same judge will not find all the defendants guilty and sentence them to death without due process, as he already did to 529 people this past Monday after only two days of deliberation.
For those of you “keeping score” at home, that’s 529 sentenced to death for the murder of one police officer (and likely 2,000+ sentenced for a handful of deaths), 0 security forces sentenced for the deaths of 1,300+ protestors.
This disproportionate justice delivers a message which should outrage even the strongest pro-government Egyptians. In Egypt not everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, security forces can kill with impunity, and the lives of security forces are much more valuable than the lives of civilians. These are not foundations upon which vibrant societies are built.
How many people will actually be executed in these trials is unknown, as the majority of the defendants are fugitives (can you blame them ?), but this is besides the point.
Making matters worse, alongside its crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian government has launched a blatant affront against a multitude of “good governance” concepts (soft power, human rights, accountability, judicial independence, pluralism, and democratic governance to name a few). TheEgyptian government continues to use Western rhetoric to justify draconian practices. The supposed champions of these ideals (the U.N., U.S.A., E.U., etc) have responded mutedly–a terrible lesson for the people around the world with legitimate democratic aspirations.
For Sisi, who this past week officially announced his candidacy for President, this crackdown has been a calculated move. By driving peaceful Muslims to the extremism, he has created greater support for his strong-handed militaristic approach to governance. Sisi could probably win a fair, free and transparent election right now. But Sisi does not just want to win, he wants a such a lopsided victory that he can claim a popular mandate to continue the crackdown against dissenters.
At the UNDP, we had a philosophy that a society should be judged based on the well-being of it’s most vulnerable people. Egypt’s economy may well flourish under Sisi’s rule, but at what human cost? The only faction of society that can truly call Egypt’s version of “democracy” sustainable are the security forces.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan shut down Twitter, citing bias and vowing to show the world how “powerful” his administration is:
“It is difficult to comprehend Twitter’s indifference, and its biased and prejudiced stance. We believe that this attitude is damaging to the brand image of the company in question and creates an unfair and inaccurate impression of our country,” the statement from Erdogan’s office said.
“Twitter, mwitter!,” Erdogan told thousands of supporters at a rally ahead of March 30 local elections late on Thursday, in a phrase translating roughly as “Twitter, schmitter!”
“We will wipe out all of these,” said Erdogan, who has said the corruption scandal is part of a smear campaign by his political enemies.
“The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is,” Erdogan said.
The European Union Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes tweeted that the ban in Turkey “is groundless, pointless, cowardly.” She added that the “Turkish people and international community will see this as censorship. It is.”
It is laughable to call Twitter “biased”, as it is a social media platform for people to share what they think. If Twitter is “biased” against Erdogan’s administration, it is because it has lost the support of the Turkish people. If Twitter was creating fake accounts to post anti-Erdogan tweets, or censoring pro-Erdogan followers, that would indeed be biased; this is not the reality of the situation.
On one hand, Erdogan says “Twitter, schmitter”, as if he is indifferent to supposedlyfalsified accusations against him. On the other hand, he shows himself to be very concerned about what goes up on Twitter, enough so to shut the social media platform down. Erdogan is clearly afraid that Twitter will catalyze a revolution in Turkey, as it did in Egypt.
In an attempt to show his strength, Erdogan has instead shown just how concerned he is about his oppositions social media activities, lending credence to their claims. This action is likely to backfire, adding another grievance (alongside corruption, tightening control over the judicial branch, and firing hundreds of police officers and officials) to the opposition’s arsenal, while moving protest movements from social media back to the streets.
U.S. first lady Michelle Obama told an audience of college students in the Chinese capital on Saturday that open access to information – especially online – is a universal right.
“My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens, and it’s not always easy,” she added. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Censorship in Chinese news media and online is widespread, and internet users in the country cannot access information about many controversial topics without special software to circumvent restrictions.
Turkey has modernized quickly over the past decades, and currently boasts a much stronger human rights record than China or Egypt. But sometimes taking away freedoms can cause a greater backlash than keeping them from people in the first place. When people have been empowered with certain rights and then see them taken away, it generally does not sit well.
It is not easy to take criticism, but as most people know, addressing a claim only makes it appear legitimate. In the age of social media, any position in the public eye requires “tough skin”.
While Erdogan has presided over a prosperous era in Turkish history, he now seems outdated and unfit to govern a country with “Western” aspirations (such as EU ascension). Erdogan sounds borderline crazy when he calls dissent a “conspiracy” or “bias” from an inherently neutral medium of expression.
In pluralistic democracy, political dissent is part of everyday life. It is up to the politician to make the call as to whether dissent is:
a) uninformed (in which case the government can inform the opposition as to why they should not be concerned), and/or;
b) comes from a vocal minority which can (but not necessarily should) be dismissed, or;
c) a legitimate grievance which must be addressed with policy changes.
When “c” is met with a dismissal (claims of conspiracy, bias, etc.) and tightening of power, it makes the situation worse. Erdogan still remains very popular in Turkey, but one has to question how many missteps his popularity can endure.
(Note: A government will almost always try “a” and claim “b” even if in reality the case is “c”. Furthermore, “b” can turn into “c” if not addressed. This list is supposing these alternatives are mutually exclusive and there is an objective truth, which is often not the case, at least until long after the fact.)
This famous phrase calls into question to objectiveness of history; can we really believe the accounts of those who exterminated their foes? Prior to World War II, the world was a much different place: there was very little economic interdependence, war was a profitable endeavor, and “soft power” (diplomacy, “spotlighting” abuses of power) played a negligible role in international affairs. From the beginnings of modern history through WWII, no one can really question that history was written by those who emerged from conflicts victorious (although, as the quote above argues, this does not necessarily mean it is false).
The tide began to shift towards more objective historic accounting in the decades following WWII. The proliferation of independent media outlets, combined with advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) (the internet, social media, etc.), have made it much more difficult for any one party to dictate history on their own terms, regardless of their ability to exercise “hard power” (I wrote a research paper on this shift for anybody interested in a more in-depth read).
A government-appointed panel said on Wednesday that the deaths of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at a protest camp in Cairo last August was mostly the fault of demonstrators who had provoked the security forces into opening fire.
The findings mainly echoed the military-backed government’s version of events. But in an unusual move, the panel also placed some responsibility for the bloodshed on the security forces and said they had used disproptionate force.
Panel member Nasser Amin accused the Mursi supporters of detaining and torturing civilians at the protest camps…contradicting past official accounts, Amin said security forces did not maintain proportional use of force when confronted with heavy gunfire from protesters.
He said some protesters also carried arms and shot at security forces, causing them to fire back.
But most of the protesters were peaceful and some had been used as human shields by the gunmen, he said.
The Interior Ministry has said that authorities did not use excessive force to scatter the camps and that Mursi’s supporters fired first.
It is particularly telling that a commission tasked with assessing blame for 1,200+ murders took up the issue of “detaining and torturing”. The commission found that deaths were not the fault of the Egyptian military, but rather Mursi supporters who used protesters as “human shields”, apparently quite effectively.
Admission of disproportionate use of force by Egyptian forces is a sign that the Egyptian government cannot simply whitewash over this past August’s bloodshed. Instead, it has to rely on distraction (don’t worry about the murders which undeniably took place, worry about alleged torture), and absurd scapegoating (it was not the fault of those who fired on protesters, but of terrorists using people as human shields).
Eventually, liberal politicians will wrestle power from the Egyptian military. In order to build up the broad based support needed to do so, liberal politicians will have to embrace some form of a “truth and reconciliation commission“, uniting all factions of Egyptian civil society under the banners of pluralistic democracy, economic populism, and human rights. To what extent the Egyptian military will be held legally accountable under such a commission is uncertain; military leaders will likely use immunity as condition for agreeing to hand over power in the first place. However, just having official recognition of grievances fosters unity, trust, and reconciliation–all important aspects of peaceful and prosperous societies.
We have come to a point in history where eventually the truth prevails, which is in itself a huge victory for social justice / deterrent against nefarious actors. It can certainly be argued that currently “crime still pays”, as accountability for social injustices is often incomplete, disproportionately lenient, and not timely in nature. However, as trends in governance and technology continue to empower people, we will one day reach an age of true social accountability.
Police leave their position around the Ukrainian p[arliament in Kiev on Friday after the country’s deputy army chief resigned in protest over government attempts to involve the army to put down the unrest rocking Ukraine. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images
Egypt: In modern Egyptian history, the Army has been the strongest and least unaccountable force in domestic politics. It is therefore unsurprising those in control of the Army are determined to ensure their spot at the top of the pyramid (no pun intended) is preserved. The Egyptian military has a vested interest in a protracted civil conflict; by creating an adversary in the Muslim Brotherhood, it has secured an important role in Egyptian life and public support. Indeed, military supremacy was enshrined in a recently passed constitutional referendum.
Syria: In Syria’s dynastic authoritarian regime, the armed forces are controlled exclusively by President Assad; the military cannot be expected to support the will of the people. Assad ordered a military response to peaceful protests, resulting in a protracted civil war with no end in sight.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has proposed early elections; her opposition wants an appointed caretaker government to implement reforms before elections are held. In a recent development, Yingluck has been called in to answer for corruption charges related to a rice subsidy (a policy symbolic of her Pheu Parties popularity with Thailand’s poor), which could result in her impeachment.
Venezuela: Paratroopers we’re called in to “maintain the peace”, which is allegedly a cover for a brutal crackdown of the anti-Maduro opposition. The future remains uncertain in Venezuela; if reports of a bloody crackdown are true, a protracted civil conflict is likely.
When it comes to regime change, the means are just as important as the ends. The extent to which Armed Forces remain neutral / indiscriminately uphold security (in order to give the political process time to run it’s course) is a good indication of both how “ugly” protests will become, and the direction a country will move ex post facto.
In Egypt the military could have remained neutral, allowing the Egyptian people to impeach Morsi and setup elections. Instead, the military decided to intervene, securing it’s own interests. Morsi had to go, but the way he was removed has set the country on a path divergent from pluralistic democracy. In a similar vein, Sisi may indeed be the President Egyptians want. If so, why the need to crackdown on dissenters?
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck may indeed be a corrupt ruler unworthy of her office. If this is the case, allow the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to conduct an impartial investigation. If she is found guilty, there may be grounds for impeachment. If not, the vocal minority opposition will have to rethink it’s position.
Notably, the Thai Military is allowing the political process to determine the countries political future (as in Ukraine), increasing the likelihood that a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Thailand can emerge from this current bout of unrest (Unlike Egypt, Syria, and likely Venezuela).
If a countries Armed Forces are committed to the goal of pluralistic democracy, the best thing they can do is remain neutral and allow domestic political conflicts to be resolved politically. Democratic governance is derived from “soft power“–inclusive politics, non-violent protest, self-determination. The need to resort to force against non-violent protestsis proof in and of itself that human rights rhetoric is being used to human rights violations.
When the global champions of human rights (U.S., E.U., U.N. etc) urge deescalation and dialogue, these are not empty words (as Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay has urged in Venezuela). Over the past few decades, “soft power” has played an increasingly important role in both domestic and international affairs. Governments that embrace this shift will ultimately be the most successful.
Well that might be a bit of an overstatement, but the passage of time continues to undermine the goals of the “Arab Spring”. Protracted Social Conflict theory identifies “grievances” or human rights abuses, as the root cause of social conflicts. Paul Collier takes the theory one step further, arguing that over time legitimate grievances are hijacked by opportunistic forces seeking wealth and/or power.
These theories have almost perfectly explained what has transpired over the past 2+ years in both Syria and Egypt:
In Syria, peaceful protests for basic freedoms and liberal democracy (starting in March 2011) were met with violence from the Assad regime, sparking a civil-war. Over time, legitimate grievances were hijacked by opportunistic Islamic extremists who wish to setup an Islamic Syrian state.
“The ones who fight now are from the side of the regime or the side of the thieves,” he said in a recent interview via Skype. “I was stupid and naïve,” he added. “We were all stupid.”
Even as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria racks up modest battlefield victories, this may well be his greatest success to date: wearing down the resolve of some who were committed to his downfall. People have turned their backs on the opposition for many different reasons after two and a half years of fighting, some disillusioned with the growing power of Islamists among rebels, some complaining of corruption, others just exhausted with a conflict that shows no signs of abating.
“It’s undeniable that a lot of your early activists are disillusioned,” said Emile Hokayem, a Syria analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, adding that in revolutions, it is often “your most constructive, positive people who are engaged early on who find themselves sidelined.”
Disillusioned activists say that early on, euphoric at being able to protest at all, they neglected to build bridges to fence-sitters, or did not know how. Homegrown fighters desperate for help welcomed foreign jihadists, and many grew more religious or sectarian in tone, alarming Mr. Assad’s supporters, dividing his opponents and frightening the West out of substantially supporting them.
With a ruthless foresight, following the playbook of his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Assad’s forces cracked down early and hard on the civilian, educated opposition, erasing the space where a middle ground could have emerged. They used heavy weaponry on rebel supporters to an extent that shocked even their foes, while pursuing a deliberate and increasingly successful strategy of persuading Syrians and the world that their opponents were a greater danger.
The fracturing of the opposition has played into Assad hands (the regime still enjoys political and military unity). Assad’s narrative of fighting “terrorism” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; as Western aid has lagged, the opposition has become increasingly unorganized and radicalized. Moderate Syrians who favor liberal democracy represent a decreasing proportion of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian humanitarian crisis has become an after-though of the violent civil war.
The Egyptian revolution began in January of 2011 with protests which toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Who you believe “hijacked” the Egyptian revolution depends on your take of what transpired this past July. Was the military takeover a coup or did it represent the will of the people? Are these two answers mutually exclusive, or is there some middle ground in which both arguments have merit? The world many never come to consensus answers to these loaded questions.
A leading Egyptian social democrat fears the elite that thrived under former President Hosni Mubarak will once again dominate politics in elections promised by the army after it overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.
The 2011 popular revolt against Mubarak raised hopes for an end to decades of corruption and nepotism, but political turmoil since then has dimmed aspirations for genuine democracy.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which came out on top in every national vote in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, may yet be allowed to contest next year’s parliamentary election via its Freedom and Justice Party, or by running candidates as individuals.
But even if the Brotherhood chose to take part, its electoral dominance might be over in a reshaped political landscape, where both state and private media condemn it as a terrorist organization – and lionise the police and military.
Liberals have failed to build popular new parties and look ill-placed to exploit the Brotherhood’s plight. This could allow a comeback by the “felool”, or Mubarak-era remnants.
“The terrorist attacks going on make the situation more difficult,” Abul Ghar [Liberal Activist] said, adding that the violence made it easy for any government to take anti-democratic actions.
Both of these situations are eerily similar. In both cases, revolution started as a legitimate push for rights, freedoms, and liberal democracy. In both cases, the party in power (the Assad regime in Syria, the “deep state” in Egypt) have claimed the opposition are “terrorists” (and used this claim as a justification to strengthen their grip on power in the name of security). In both cases, these claims have become self-fulfilling; over time, those favoring liberal democracy have become marginalized as those who seek power dominate the fight over the future of their respective countries.
The implications for global governance are clear. In the future, we cannot afford to allow the combination of the passage of time and power-grabs to marginalize those who seek basic human rights and a dignified life. We must instead–as a global community–muster the political will and economic / military resources to support legitimate factions before it is too late.
Failure to do so entrenches the wrong ideas–that the international community cares more power-politics/national sovereignty than about people/human rights (concerns the R2P was supposed to address), and that democracy simply cannot work in certain regions of the world.
Hopefully it is not to late to achieve the goals of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria, although admittedly I see no end in sight to these particular conflicts. Going forward, we must do all we can to prevent similar situations from arising in the first place.
The NYT released an article today, highlighting the rare opportunities for diplomacy between the U.S. (presumably representing the interests of the international community) and various Middle-Eastern nations. First I will recap some highlights of the article, then I will give my input on the situations in Syria, Iran, and Egypt:
Only two weeks after Washington and the nation were debating a unilateral military strike on Syria that was also intended as a forceful warning to Iran about its nuclear program, President Obama finds himself at the opening stages of two unexpected diplomatic initiatives with America’s biggest adversaries in the Middle East, each fraught with opportunity and danger.
For Mr. Obama, it is a shift of fortunes that one senior American diplomat described this week as “head spinning.”
In their more honest moments, White House officials concede they got here the messiest way possible — with a mix of luck in the case of Syria, years of sanctions on Iran and then some unpredicted chess moves executed by three players Mr. Obama deeply distrusts: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and Iran’s erratic mullahs. But, the officials say, these are the long-delayed fruits of the administration’s selective use of coercion in a part of the world where that is understood.
“The common thread is that you don’t achieve diplomatic progress in the Middle East without significant pressure,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said Thursday. “In Syria, it was the serious threat of a military strike; in Iran it was a sanctions regime built up over five years.”
Skeptics — and there are plenty in the National Security Council, the Pentagon, America’s intelligence agencies and Congress — are not so optimistic. They think Mr. Obama runs the risk of being dragged into long negotiations and constant games of hide-and-seek that, ultimately, will result in little change in the status quo. They argue that the president’s hesitance to pull the trigger on Tomahawk strikes on Syria nearly two weeks ago, and the public and Congressional rebellion at the idea of even limited military strikes, were unmistakable signals to the Syrian and Iranian elites that if diplomacy fails, the chances of military action ordered by the American president are slight.
All these possibilities could evaporate quickly; just ask the State Department diplomats who in the last years of the Bush administration thought they were on the way to keeping North Korea from adding to its nuclear arsenal, or the Clinton administration officials who thought they were on the verge of a Middle East peace deal.
Iranians are desperate for relief from sanctions that have cut their oil revenue by more than half, crashed their currency and made international banking all but impossible, but they may not understand the price of relief. “I suspect they are heading for sticker shock,” one official deeply involved in developing the American negotiating strategy said recently.
I am by no means a war-hawk; as a political / development economist, I understand that no MDG has ever been sustained in a conflict region. Peace and political stability are necessary preconditions for sustainable human development, which is the ultimate goal of development practitioners / human rights advocates around the world (it is also at the core of the UNDP’s strategic plan for 2014-2017, which is where I was introduced to the term). Sustainable development requires development not be achieved at the expense of the environment / future generations. The human-rights-based-approach to development requires that development not be achieved by exploiting the worlds most impoverished / violating their human rights. Put together, these two concepts form the concept of sustainable human development; this is the only truly sustainable form of development as it reduces the probability that conflicts–which tend to have human rights violations at their core–will undo otherwise environmentally sustainable development gains.
But I am also a realist. I understand that sometimes revolutions are needed in order to overcome structural impediments to sustainable human development, such as an autocratic regime. Such regimes are not accountable to their people, and while there may be “benevolent dictators”, there is nothing sustainable about someones rights being granted by an individuals benevolence (he may change his mind, or be succeeded by a less progressive ruler). In this vein, effective democracy is the only means to sustainable human development. It is not some “western value” that drives my passion for democratic governance, it is my belief in the power of people, self-determination, and “development as freedom” which fuels this passion.
In the real world, concepts such as human rights and effective democracy are kept at bay by vested interest who would lose power if civil societies as a whole were empowered. These vested interests rely on collective action problems (I gain a lot as-is, by changing each person only gains a little) to maintain the status-quo. When collective action problems are overcome (a process which has been aided by innovations in social media / ICTs), vested interests often turn to military power to maintain their positions. I find this to be unconscionable, and therefore give some of my time to doing what little I can to try to shape the world as I believe it should be.
Diplomacy is a powerful preventative tool. However, I am less sold on diplomacy’s “soft-power” when the gloves come off and all-out war begins. Diplomacy is always more effective in democracies (where governments are accountable to the will of the people) than in autocracies (where the survival of the regime is the governments number one priority).
Syria: As you could probably tell, I am not sold on the “solution” to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. I think this is a stalling tactic, which will further entrench Assad’s grip on power and further marginalize the legitimate Syrian opposition. I hope I am proven wrong, but I am not optimistic.
The Syrians now face a series of deadlines. The first comes this weekend, when they must issue a declaration of their chemical stocks that “passes the laugh test,” as Gary Samore, Mr. Obama’s former top adviser on unconventional weapons, put it earlier in the week.
It is also concerning that, so soon after a deal was reached and before any part of the deal has been carried out, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is already calling for Western Nations to “force” the Syrian opposition into peace talks with Assad.Mr. Lavrov does not seem to understand that democratic governments cannot “force” people to do things; furthermore, Western powers do not have that sort of leverage as they have till this point been largely absent in aiding the Syrian opposition. It is not surprising Mr. Lavrov had this misunderstanding, in Russia the government can indeed force people to do things.
Even more concerning is President Putin’s recent assertion that the UN chemical weapons report, which did not explicitly accuse Assad but does does implicitly suggest his regime was responsible for the August 21st chemical weapons attacks, is “biased”. He later goes on to say the Assad regime has evidence suggesting the rebels are responsible. So Putin would have us believe the UN is biased, but Assad is not? Sorry, but I’m not buying that and neither should you.
“On delivering weapons we have always said that we want to control these supplies so that they do indeed go to the Free Syrian Army … because they represent the Syrian National Coalition that we recognise as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and today they are caught between a hammer and an anvil,” Hollande said.
“The hammer is the air strikes and actions of the Syrian regime and the anvil is radical Islam,” he said.
If the U.S. also agrees to arm the FSA, and can garner international support to strike Assad in response to confirmed chemical weapons usage, the Syrian-stalemate can be overcome and the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people realized.
Egypt: With Chemical weapons use in Syria dominating news, unrest in Egypt has taken a back-seat on the international communities agenda. However, fighting between Islamic Militants and the Egyptian Army continues. It is the job of the Egyptian military to rid Egypt of these extremists and ensure stability. It is not the Egyptians army’s job to condemn all Muslim’s as terrorists (as it has in the aftermath of the Morsi ouster). The Egyptian military wishes to remain unaccountable to the Egyptian people–it is not committed to effective democratic rule–as expressed in a draft of the new Egyptian Constitutional Declaration.
The Islamist assembly pointedly excluded prominent feminist, activist and secularist voices. It’s unclear to whom the current committee — appointed by an interim president, backed by the army, packed with the heads of official institutions — is accountable beside the state itself. Organizations such as the Journalists’ Syndicate have already complained that their recommendations on press law and freedoms of speech have been overlooked.
And this assembly, just like the previous one, is rushing its work, and conducting it with little transparency. In fact, the Islamist assembly may have been better at sharing information about its progress: It maintained a Web site tracking the latest discussions and amendments. We learn of the workings of the current assembly only through sporadic interviews its members give to the press.
This issue could be addressed in the coming weeks. And there are many ways in which the current constitution could improve upon the last. Hoda Elsadda, a founding member of a prominent feminist research center who heads the freedoms and liberties subcommittee, says she want to include an article prohibiting discrimination and human rights violation by the security services. Several members of the assembly have voiced their opposition to military trials of civilians. The rights of religious minorities, women and children — given short shrift in the last document — will probably receive greater emphasis now.
ButIn a country ruled by the military, and amid a declared war on terrorism, it seems very unlikely that the constitution’s biggest shortcomings will be addressed. The draft as it stands now subjects fundamental freedoms to vague qualifications that render them meaningless: These freedoms must be exercised “according to the law” or as long as they don’t hinder “national security.” The document places the army above oversight and accountability.
And it sets many Egyptians — not just supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood — on the sidelines of what should be a national conversation and a fresh start.
To be fair, Morsi’s constitutional drafting process was not exactly inclusive either. But Morsi’s regime was willing to work within the democratic process, while General Sisi is not. The democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people will likely come second to ensuring the military’s grip on power.
Iran: Iranian President Rouhani, a relative moderate, has been much more diplomatic towards the West than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian economy has been crippled by 5 years of economic sanctions, and in order to have those sanctions lifted, Iranian leaders appear willing to negotiate an agreement on ending Iran’s nuclear weapons program (which it denies having):
American officials say they understand that Iran will need some kind of enrichment ability to assure its own people that it has retained its “nuclear rights,” as its negotiators say.The question is how much. Unless a good deal of the current infrastructure is dismantled, Iran will be able to maintain a threshold nuclear capability — that is, it will be just a few weeks, and a few screwdriver turns, from building a weapon. It is unclear whether Mr. Obama can live with that; the Israelis say they cannot.
The NYT article talked about “sticker shock”, the price Iran will have to pay in order to keep its nuclear rights and have sanctions against it removed. In a previous post, I laid out conditions I thought Iran should have to agree to in order to have sanctions removed:
The issue comes down to transparency, accountability, and ultimately governance. Can countries without the traditional checks and balances present in Western democracies be credible partners? Can they actually uphold their promises, or are they merely trying to buy time / have sanctions eased until it is beneficial to renege on their commitments?
The burden of proof falls on Iran and North Korea on this one. If either country wishes to be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes without dealing with crippling international sanctions, certain conditions must be met. Most notably, independent international inspectors must be given unrestricted access to known / suspected uranium enrichment facilities; if either country can fulfill this condition, then it will have earned the right to enhance uranium for peaceful purposes.
I still believe these conditions should be part of any talk to ending sanctions against Iran.
Diplomacy is a powerful tool, but it has it’s limits. Both diplomacy and military action, as well as economic leverage and intelligence sharing, combine to form the D.I.M.E foreign policy paradigm I believe the U.S. should pursue.
5 years of sanctions were needed to bring Iran to the bargaining table, and the threat of force was needed to get Assad to admit he had chemical weapons / agree to dismantle his arsenal. Only time will tell how / if these complex issues can be resolved thought diplomacy. One thing is certain; we cannot trust dictators or take them at their word, their commitments must be verifiable. In order to hold a dictator accountable for his concessions, international investigators must be given unfettered access to any point of interest. This requires relinquishing some “national sovereignty”, something no country–democratic or otherwise–likes to do.
The U.S. failed to drive a hard enough bargain (in my mind) on chemical weapons with the Syrian regime. At least as a starting point, Western powers should make their demands clear and strong heading into negotiations with otherwise unaccountable regimes.
Egypt has actually turned into Bizarro World–the country is literally upside down. I swear you can’t write this stuff, or maybe you can… either way, I can’t. But I can analyze whats going on with some clarity and insight:
The first democratically elected President in Egyptian history is in jail for crimes against the regime of popularly toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
At the same time, it appears said toppled autocrat is said to soon be released from jail (cases are heard by a judiciary that is largely still intact from Mubarak’s days in power)
The Egyptian government has shut down all national media outlets sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, while stepping up anti-Brotherhood rhetoric and propoganda.
At the same time, General Sisi lashed out at foreign media outlets for not evenly portraying both sides of the story; essentially for not recognizing the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Does Sisi actually thinks he can control what independent international media outlets report?
Sisi also insists he has a “mandate from the people” to provide security from “terrorists”. No mandate can give the authority to kill innocent people with impunity. Democracy is about indiscriminately upholding and protecting the rights of everyone, not only certain groups.
Far from trying to justify the killings, and offer any sort of olive branch or iota of accountability, the Egyptian government has commended itself for using “a huge amount of self-restraint and self-control.” Who exactly are they trying to convince, the international community, Egyptian civil society, or themselves?
The United States decides not to suspend aid to the Egyptian military, despite the insurmountable evidence that what has transpired in Egypt since July 3rd was a coup. The official U.S. ruling on whether or not the Morsi ouster was a coup: “it is not in our national interest to make such a determination.” Way to really lead by example there America!
It now appears that the U.S. and the E.U. are finally going to review their ties with the current Egyptian government–a little bit late but still good news. The first official move against the Egyptian government, the U.S cancelled joint military exercises–also a good move.
The next move makes no sense; the U.S. plans to pull the plug on $250 million in government aid, while leaving $1.3 billion in military aid in tact. In other words, aid that could give the U.S. some leverage in the Egyptian political arena, or for economic development projects that would benefit all Egyptians, is being cut. At the same time, we will continue to supply the Egyptian military with hundreds of millions of dollars in firepower, because you know killing all those “terrorists” won’t be easy…
Egypt and the Middle East in general are at a crossroads. Both the U.S. and the E.U. are currently reviewing their relationship with the Egyptian government, so it is likely we will have a clearer picture of their respective stances soon. Should Egypt deteriorate into civil war, it will be interesting to see if there is another U.N.S.C. showdown between “Western Powers” and China and Russia along the lines of the current Syria impasse.
I have read articles saying this is not the time for Democracy in Egypt or the Middle-East, that we should set our sights lower and hope for stable governments. While these articles make goods points and tend to be well written, I refuse the believe this is true. I am of the belief that the majority of all parties and factions in Egypt want the same thing; security, health, family, an opportunity to realize their full potential and a better future for their children.
Not to get to abstract or philosophical, but the future is yet unwritten; if we set our sights low, then we will never know if we could have done better. Much of the groundwork for realizing the normative goals of the Arab Spring is still as ripe as it will be for some time. Old autocracies have been broken (although the inability for democracy to fill the power void has created opportunities for a return to autocratic rule that vested interests–who tend to be opportunistic by nature–will fight for tooth and nail, bullet and rocket). People have never been as empowered as they are today, thanks to innovations in ICT, social media, and the unprecedented recognition of human rights as the key to sustainable human development by the international community.
The international community can no longer turn a blind eye or claim ignorance, not in 2013. The world is getting smaller, and global action or inaction affects all of us, whether we want to admit it or not. By turning a blind eye to Sisi’s gross human rights violations and abandoning the goal of pluralistic democracy in the ME, we would essentially be putting a band-aid on a festering infected gash. Surely the international community can help the Egyptian people come up with a better and more sustainable solution than that.
We cannot let determined spoilers derail this goal, or “put it off for a few decades”; this is not an acceptable solution and will lead only to another round of autocracies in the Middle-East. This would only serve to further cement the ideas that only autocracies can survive in the ME / democracy cannot exist in the ME, that Political Islam and democracy are irreconcilable, and that Jihad is the way for young Muslims).
The goals of the Arab spring have not been fully met–anybody who thought establishing effective democracies in the ME could be achieved quickly, linearly, or peacefully was fooling themselves. But we cannot abandon those goals; if we do because the global champions of human rights / democracy think they cannot afford to help, or that the time is not right due to regional security concerns, the opportunity may not arise again for decades.
On a personal note, as a progressive Jew from NY, I never would have thought that I would be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood…a coup, a series of massacres, and gross human rights violations make for strange bed-fellows no?