Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: Bizarro Egypt (Part 2)

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.

This ruling juxtaposes an Egyptian government-appointed panel’s findings that no security forces are accountable for the August massacres which resulted in 1,300+ (officially recognized, and therefore likely under-estimated) protester deaths. Instead, the panel blames “extremists” who used civilians as “human shields”.

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). The Egyptian 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.

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Conflict Watch: Is History Still “Written by the Victors”?

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).

As people around the world have become more educated / empowered (via civil / human rights), we have naturally learned to question conventional wisdom. Have we gotten to the point where this historic adage is no longer applicable? A report by an Egyptian government panel responsible for determining what happened during the August 2013 Cairo massacre seemingly refutes this claim:

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).

The wounds of the Morsi ouster and crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood are still very fresh. Morsi currently stands accused of capital crimes, and the MB was just designated a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia, marking a larger regional crackdown against the group. Eventually, the truth will be recognized. Unfortunately for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no specific date when this will happen. It is, however, important to remember that history is not written in a matter of months.

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.


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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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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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Economic Outlook: Fixing Egypt

Yesterday we discussed the ongoing opposition of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi. While the opposition has political and secretarian issues with Egypt’s first democratically elected president, these issues alone would constitute a very weak argument for the removal or Morsi or demands of a national coalition government. Knowing this, the opposition has created an atmosphere that is not conducive to economic activity. Egypt’s economy has been producing below potential since the instability caused by the ousting of former Dictator Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian pound has depreciated, but Egypt has been unable to take advantage of having cheaper exports because it cannot mobilize its factors of production to produce more exports (compounding the issue, there’s no escaping higher food prices, as Egypt is a net food importer and everybody has to eat to survive).

The monetary crisis has turned into a humanitarian crisis. People are having trouble feeding themselves, there is not enough oil being produced to meet both international and domestic needs, creating food and fuel shortages usually symptomatic of a country at war (and compounding the stagnation in the Egyptian economy, people cannot be as productive without enough food and machines cannot run without an energy source).

With the economy producing below capacity, the government’s ability to provide basic services to the people is in jeopardy. Less tax revenue means it is much more difficult to pay for social programs that people rely on. Printing more money would further weaken an already weak Egyptian Pound, and Egypt cannot assume more debt as it seeks an IMF loan contingent on strong fiscal indicators. Competitive devaluation of the currency would scare off potential investors; having a more competitive Fx rate has done little to boost Egyptian production up until this point, so there is no reason to believe further devaluation would be an effective measure.

Egypt needs a more stable environment to grow its economy. People often point to political uncertainty (rightfully so) as a reason for a slow recovery from the “Great Recession”. Imagine how much slower it would be if on top of political uncertainty you had instability and insecurity that threatened the overall legitimacy and sustainability of the current government in power (and if that government was a new government attempting democracy after decades of dictatorship):

“Mursi’s supporters say the protesters want to overthrow Egypt’s first democratically elected leader. The unrest has prevented a return to stability ahead of parliamentary elections due within months, and worsened an economic crisis that has seen the pound currency tumble in recent weeks.”

Egypt needs IMF loans and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from developed countries and Multi-National Corporations (MNC) to get its economy growing again. However, international capital will not flow into Egypt with its current level of instability and insecurity, regardless of the expected rate of return on investment:

“German industry leaders see potential in Egypt but are concerned about political instability.

‘At the moment many firms are waiting on political developments and are cautious on any big investments,’ said Hans Heinrich Driftmann, head of Germany’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce…Germany’s ‘offer to help with Egypt’s transformation clearly depends on it sticking to democratic reforms’”

I, for one, believe that any call for a national coalition government is illegitimate and would damage the long term sustainability of democracy in Egypt. What would it say for the future of democracy if a violent minority could successfully influence the way Egyptian politics work. However, defending the long term sustainability of democracy in Egypt may be a fool’s errand if there is a real chance that Morsi’s democratic regime may break down in the very short run. Morsi must also be careful in using military power and/or executive orders to ensure security in Egypt. Any use of these measures will unfairly associate Morsi’s democratically elected government with Mubarak’s military dictatorship.

The opposition, instead of being concerned with the future of the Egyptian state, has used current instability as a tool in hopes of ousting Morsi or at least strong-arming him into appointing members of the opposition to positions within his government:

“’Our demand is simply that Mursi goes, and leaves the country alone. He is just like Mubarak and his crowd who are now in prison,’ said Ahmed Mustafa, 28, a youth who had goggles on his head to protect his eyes from teargas.”

“Opposition politician Mohamed ElBaradei called for a meeting of the president, ministers, the ruling party and the opposition to halt the violence. But he also restated the opposition’s precondition that Mursi first commit to seeking a national unity government.”

Egypt has the potential to be a dynamic economy and a symbol of democracy and modernization working alongside Islamic principles. Setting this precedent would go a long way in establishing a friendlier relationship between the “Western world” and the Middle-East. Just as the many citizens of Egypt (and the region as a whole) have much to gain from such a relationship, the current elite and those ideologically opposed to “Western values” have much to lose.

Democracy in Egypt could be a lynchpin to this mutually beneficial relationship, but such a relationship is far from a foregone conclusion. The Morsi regime must be able to provide stability and security in order to maintain its legitimacy. The key to this objective is jump-starting the Egyptian economy with foreign capital. Sources of foreign capital have been apprehensive to get involved in Egypt because of the instability and uncertainty caused by Morsi’s opponents.

As you can see, we have a circular pattern here where Egypt’s economy continues to stagnate and the opposition continues to undermine the regimes legitimacy. Hopefully the international community can come together with President Morsi to figure out a way out of this vicious cycle that works for everyone. A national unity government may undermine the principles of a democratically elected government, but if it would bring the requisite stability and security needed to sustain democracy in Egypt (and infuse desperately needed international capital into Egypt’s economy), then it is an idea worth pursuing.