Normative Narratives


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Bizarro Egypt

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?

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Conflict Watch: The Situation in Egypt is Spiraling Out of (Into?) Control

http://s1.reutersmedia.net/resources/r/?m=02&d=20130725&t=2&i=754029036&w=&fh=&fw=&ll=700&pl=300&r=CBRE96O0O7I00

A little more than a week before the Egyptian coup that resulted in the ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected leader Mohamed Morsi, I went on the record as being critical of any non-democratic means of removing Morsi from office. At the time, and still today, defending Morsi certainly puts one on the less popular side of the debate:

(recap)

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).

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.

A week after that blog, the Egyptian military gave Morsi a 48 hour deadline before they would step in and remove him from power–and then made good on that threat

I had this to say in reaction to the coup:

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, and do something 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 Brotherhood, a hatred that has included decades or persecution under the Mubarak regime) 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.

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.

I think the coup came down to Egyptians needing a scapegoat, and Morsi’s regime being in the right place at the right time. Nobody in Egypt wants to admit there are structural economic issues; popular fuel subsidies are unsustainable and large investments need to be made in Egypt’s infrastructure and public services. High unemployment, inflation, and insecurity depress economic output and create a basis for anti-establishment behavior. Egyptians want a President who will tell them they can have their cake and eat it too; perhaps this new coalition government will be able to deliver if they are able to secure a loan from an alternative source without IMF preconditions. I for one do not see where that funding could come from.

Sooner or later difficult fiscal decisions are going to have to be made in Egypt, and not everyone is going to be happy. Are they going to overthrow the next president too? I just do not like the precedent that was set–perhaps I am being idealistic instead of pragmatic. It may be that a stronger democracy comes from this military coup, we will have to wait and find out.

Since these events took place, many of the questions that arose from the Egyptian military coup have answered themselves (an excellent analysis of the events leading up to and since Morsi’s ouster was compiled compliments of Reuters). The Brotherhood has not embraced the armies calls for an inclusive road-map to an effective and pluralistic democracy. Instead, they have elected to continue mostly non-violent protests against the Egypt’s interim government which they refuse to recognize as legitimate.

The interim government’s Cabinet was established without a single Brotherhood member, but it did include military head General Sisi as first deputy Prime Minister. Media outlets that appear to be understanding of the Brotherhood’s dismay have been shut down, including Al-Jazeera’s Cairo branch. Fifty plus Morsi supporters were massacred during prayer where Morsi is believed to be held–ensuing investigations have been not into military conduct (of course not–in Egypt the military is above the law), but against Brotherhood leaders for inciting protests.

Throwing salt on the Bortherhood’s wounds (and fuel on the protester fire), Morsi was recently charged with espionage and murder in connection to his escape from jail in 2011. Morsi was a prisoner of former dictator Hosni Mubarak–charging him for a crime against a popularly disposed dictator seems to run against the armies stated goals.

The U.S. government will continue to provide military aid to Egypt, exonerating itself from taking a stand on exactly what happened in Egypt (although it has rightfully called for Egypt’s new leaders to release Morsi from jail):

The senior official did not describe the legal reasoning behind the finding, saying only, “The law does not require us to make a formal determination as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination.”

“We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say,” the official said.

The alternative source of funding I could not foresee came through from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to the tune of $12 billion in oil products, foreign reserves, and loans / grants. All three of these countries are monarchies, making interesting bedfellows for a country attempting to establish effective and pluralistic democracy. This will allow the Egyptian government to delay cuts to popular subsidies, a precondition for an IMF loan:

“The interim cabinet, chosen this week after the military ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, will probably avoid politically risky reforms of the budget such as cutting the subsidies on which Egypt’s millions of poor depend.

Instead the new cabinet which includes many technocrats and experienced administrators will try to buy social peace with billions of dollars of foreign aid, offered largely by wealthy Gulf Arab states.”

“If the strategy to boost growth fails, the next elected government could take office facing an even bigger cash crunch, forcing it into unpopular decisions early on.

“The concern is that once there is some more permanent government, it will inherit an even bigger economic mess than the one the Mursi administration had,” said Said Hirsh, an economist with London-based consulting firm Volterra Partners.”

Is Egypt spiraling into or out of control? I suppose the answer you receive to that question would depend on who you ask. Ask a Morsi opponent, and he will tell you that the Morsi regime was little more than an illegitimate power-grab. Ask a Morsi supporter and they will tell you Morsi’s failures were due to the “deep state” (military, police, judiciary) and a refusal of his opponents to embrace the democratic process, undermining his rule.

So instead lets look at the indisputable facts. Sectarian divides are stronger now than they were when Mubarak fell–did the coup avert a civil war, or lay the foundation for civil conflict? Human rights are not being upheld in an indiscriminate way, as anybody that supports Morsi may be silenced with impunity by the military (either by having media outlets shut down / being arrested / or killed). A larger budget deficit is all but certain for Egypt’s next democratically elected government.

In Egypt, as long as the army has a popular mandate (or what it deems a popular mandate), it can act with impunity. Human rights violations, unsustainable fiscal policy and government deficits, media censorship, and lack of accountability from the military are week pillars to build democracy on.

Having said all this, there does seem to be a legitimacy with the new Egyptian coalition government; it has said all the right things and seems to back the will of Egypt’s pluralistic civil society. But actions speak louder than words, and the actions of Egypt’s military and interim government–combined with The Muslim Brotherhoods determination to play spoiler in Egypt’s second attempt at democratization–does not bode well for the implementation of Egypts “road-map to democracy”.

If the strategy to boost growth fails, the next elected government could take office facing an even bigger cash crunch, forcing it into unpopular decisions early on.

“The concern is that once there is some more permanent government, it will inherit an even bigger economic mess than the one the Mursi administration had,” said Said Hirsh, an economist with London-based consulting firm Volterra Partners.

Update
Oh boy, it’s looking bad for the Brotherhood and Egyptian democracy:

“The Egyptian authorities unleashed a ferocious attack on Islamist protesters early Saturday, killing at least 65 people in the second mass killing of demonstrators in three weeks and the deadliest attack by the security services since Egypt’s uprising in early 2011.

The attack provided further evidence that Egypt’s security establishment was reasserting its dominance after President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster three weeks ago, and widening its crackdown on his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood. The tactics — some victims were killed with single gunshot wounds to the head — suggested that Egypt’s security services felt no need to show any restraint.”

“In a televised news conference hours after the clash, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim absolved his men of any responsibility and made no mention of the high death toll. His officers, he said, ‘have never and will never shoot a bullet on any Egyptian.'”

In Egypt, it appears the military is the judge, jury, and executioner, as well as the President, PM, Cabinet….

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Conflict Watch: Egypt’s Impending Humanitarian Crisis

There has been lots of media coverage over the past two years of the civil unrest in Egypt following the ouster of Honsi Mubarak 2 years ago. While political jockeying continues amongst members of the Muslim Brotherhood (Mr. Morsi’s Sunni dominated party) and the small Christian / Shi’ite minority who see his rule as a challenge to their vested interests secured through decades of supporting the military dictator Honsi Mubarak, the majority of Egyptians are presumably pleased with the new freedoms that have come with democracy and wish simply for the political coherence needed to move the country forward.

But those who stand to lose their privileged positions will not give up so easily (there is also the argument that Egypt’s new constitution does not protect minority rights, but I believe this is a scare tactic being used against Morsi’s regime). It is essentially a collective action problem, those who stand to lose from Morsi’s rule stand to lose a lot, while those who stand to benefit stand to gain only incremental benefits (at least in the short run). Morsi’s opponents are also bolstered by the idea that if they can simply continue to apply pressure a little longer, they can break Morsi’s hold on power.

And they may be correct. I for one am a fan of Morsi and the democracy experiment in Egypt. But no matter who is right or wrong, or who really wants what is best for the people of Egypt, if the Morsi government is unable to provide essential services to the people, his opponents will leverage this ineffectiveness as a means to incite further political instability in Egypt.

At the source of this potential humanitarian crisis is the shortage of food and fuel. It also ties into my post yesterday about international finance and energy subsidies:

“The root of the crisis, economists say, is that Egypt is running out of the hard currency it needs for fuel imports. The shortage is raising questions about Egypt’s ability to keep importing wheat that is essential to subsidized bread supplies, stirring fears of an economic catastrophe at a time when the government is already struggling to quell violent protests by its political rivals. “

“United States officials warn of disaster unless Egypt soon carries out a package of tax increases and subsidy cuts tied to a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. That would persuade other lenders that Egypt was creditworthy enough to obtain billions more in additional loans needed to meet its yawning deficit. “

“Egypt has held two years of unsuccessful talks with the I.M.F., and the current government is still balking at the politically painful package of overhauls — even as rising prices and unemployment make those measures more difficult with each passing day.

‘They are operating on the notion that Egypt is too big to be allowed to fail, that the U.S. and the West will step in,’ Mr. Shimy said. ‘They think Egypt has a right to get the loan, and I think they will probably keep pushing all the way.’”

“Energy subsidies make up as much as 30 percent of Egypt’s government spending, said Ragui Assaad, of the Economic Research Forum here. The country imports much of its fuel, and for the first time last year it was forced to import some of the natural gas used to generate electricity — the reason for the recent blackouts. Egypt also imports about 75 percent of its wheat, mixing the superior foreign wheat with lower-quality domestic supplies to improve its subsidized bread. “

“But the two years of mayhem in the streets since the ouster of Mr. Mubarak have decimated tourism and foreign investment, crippling the economy. The government’s reserve of hard currency has fallen to about $13 billion from $36 billion two years ago.”

Part of the problem appears to be people’s expectations. According to Mr. Farash of the Supply Ministry, people are hoarding goods and gaming the system because they fear future uncertainty. Fuel truck drivers are diverting fuel to black markets, and bakeries are reselling their subsidized wheat at higher prices to people who fear future shortages. The thinking being, once shortages do hit, those who have supplies horded will have the goods they need to survive and will be able to sell their excess at a steep profit.

Morsi’s government is planning on installing “smart cards” to increase accountability of fuel truck drivers and bakers, which should make gaming the system more difficult. But people will still find ways to take advantage if they believe it is essential for their future well being. In order to change people’s expectations and their actions, the Morsi government will need to secure international financing to allow the Egyptian economy to run as usual.

This is where the story ties into yesterdays Normative Narratives post. One section of yesterdays post highlighted a recent IMF report stating that countries should stop fuel subsidies as a means of injecting money into the economy. With 30% of Egyptian spending tied up in fuel subsidies, clearly the IMF will not extend financing until Egypt does something to temper its unsustainable fuel subsidies.

But these subsidies are popular amongst the people, something Morsi understandably does not want to undermine early into Egypt’s first attempt at democracy in decades. There are especially important now as the value of the Egyptian pound has plummeted in conjunction with the instability caused by removing Mubarak from power and unemployment remains high. Reducing fuel subsidies will be important for Egypt’s long term fiscal stability, but doing so prematurely—as the IMF is insisting on—would undermine the popular support needed for a democratic regime to govern.

Which brings us to the second point of yesterdays post; the BRICS proposed development bank. The Bank’s purpose is to provide an alternative to IMF and WB financing, and is specifically focused on energy and infrastructure projects. This Bank could be essential to providing the financing that the IMF is currently unwilling to lend without imposing the politically impossible conditions the IMF is insisting on. But this bank was just proposed, is it really possible for it to provide funding that is needed more or less immediately?

Up till this point, unrest in Egypt has been mostly politically motivated. But if a food and fuel shortage based humanitarian crisis unfolds, the Morsi regime will be under real threat of a full blown revolution. It is essential for Egypt’s attempt at democracy to succeed, as it is a natural experiment whose results will dictate whether future attempts at democracy are attempted in the region. In order for Morsi to remain in power, international financing has to come from somewhere. Will the IMF budge on it’s conditionality? Will the BRICS development bank be running soon enough to help stabilize the Egyptian economy? Will Morsi ultimately have to cave in to IMF demands in order to receive emergency financing? Or will the democracy project in Egypt fail? None of the answers to these important questions are yet written in stone—we will have to keep a close eye on the situation as it continues to unfold.

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