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Transparency Report: Thailand’s Anti-Democracy Protests

Original article:

In a world now accustomed to democratic upheavals, including the Arab Spring and the Saffron and Orange Revolutions, the weeks of political upheaval in Thailand stand out for one main peculiarity. Protesters massing on the streets here are demanding less democracy, not more.

From their stage beneath the Democracy Monument, a Bangkok landmark, protesters cheer their campaign to replace Parliament with a “people’s council” in which members are selected from various professions rather than elected by voters.

The embattled prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has proposed new elections as a solution to the turmoil. But that is just what the protesters do not want.

In today’s fractured Thailand, a majority wants more democracy, but a minority, including many rich and powerful people, is petrified by the thought of it.

Because a number of the protest leaders are members of Thailand’s wealthiest families, some have described the demonstrations here as the antithesis of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is the 1 percent rebelling against the 99 percent, they say.

The reality is more complicated — the protesters include rich and poor, Bangkok residents and many people from southern Thailand who feel disenfranchised by the current government and its northern power base. What unites the protesters is the desire to dismantle Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, which has won every election since 2001.

The anti-democracy protests, which have been some of the largest in Thai history, call into question the commonly held belief that a rising tide of wealth in a society will naturally be followed by greater demands for democracy. Thailand today is much richer than it was two decades ago, but it is also much more divided.

On the face of it, the crux of the protest appears to be a classic power struggle between a dominant majority and a minority frustrated by its losing streak in elections and its inability to influence national policies in a winner-takes-all, highly centralized system.

But Thailand’s crisis is multifaceted and tightly intertwined with the fact that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s 86-year-old monarch, who during more than six decades on the throne has been revered to the point of quasi-religious devotion, is ailing and that the country is bracing for his death.

More broadly, Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a leading Thai scholar on the monarchy, argues that Thailand’s protracted political turmoil has been exacerbated by the contrast between a deified king and politicians who appear crass and venal in contrast. “We have an image of monarchy that is flawlessly excellent in everything,” he said in 2010. “If we had not built this image in the first place, we would not have so many problems and complaints with politicians.

Respect for the king, and the notion of his near-infallibility and beneficence, are deeply ingrained in Thais from the earliest years of schooling.

This blog is concerning the legitimacy of protests calling for replacing the democratically elected government with an appointed “peoples council”. There are two central tenets of liberal democracy I will base this analysis on:

1) Liberal democracy is meant to uphold the will of the majority, while protecting the rights of the minority.

2) Everyone is viewed as equal in the eyes of the government; no one person has more or less influence over political outcomes than another.

Based on uncontested election results, and the fact that protesters are not satisfied with the proposition of early elections offered by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, one can assume the protesters represent a minority of Thailand’s population. Based on this article, there is no evidence that the rights of this minority are being infringed upon.

Protesters cannot claim a mismanagement of the economy, as the per capita GNI has more than doubled over the past decade. Thailand’s HDI has been trending upwards for decades, and it’s poverty rates have been going down for years (accompanied by a decline in the Gini inequality index)–the current democratic governance structure surely has some merits.  One particular area of concern is Thailand’s level of perceived corruption / lack of transparency, however a move away from democracy would likely exacerbate this problem.

It seems rather that protesters, unhappy with populist policies that do not directly benefit them, are trying to change the policy making process to one which they can control. Such a move would be a violation of the two tenets of liberal democracy listed above. It would amount to upholding the will of the minority while violating the political rights of the majority. It would also give more power to the desires of select individuals.

To appease the opposition, the government should consider changing its parliament from a “first past the poll” system to a proportional representation system, to ensure a plurality of opinions in policy making. The government should also consider expanding civilian oversight mechanisms, to increase transparency and allay fears of corruption / embezzlement.

To become a more effective political party, the opposition should consider embracing policies which have had success in reducing poverty / inequality while simultaneously increasing economic growth. Such pragmatism is a necessary component for the continued relevance of any political party; in democracies everywhere, parties which do not embrace popular and effective policies tend to fall by the wayside.  

So far, the King and the military have stayed out of this fight, hopefully they will continue to do so and allow the democratic process to fix the unrest it has caused. Thailand should not dismantle its democratic system, which has a long history of effective governance.

 

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Transparency Report: (In China) the Appearance of Human Rights Laws Must be Upheld, Especially When they are Being Broken

This is a picture of William “Boss” Tweed, one of the most notoriously corrupt politicians in American history. His character, in the critically acclaimed movie “Gangs of New York”, has a particularly memorable line; “the appearance of the law must be upheld, especially when it is being broken”.

The Chinese government does not supporting human rights, as exposed in a recent government white paper on the subject. According to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, “China’s white paper is oblivious to the indivisible and universal nature of human rights, and that guaranteeing human rights requires action and not just mere hollow proclamations.”  While Tibetan’s are admittedly not unbiased observers, this does not change that fact that this statement is 100% correct.

International human rights law is not only about economic development; this is just one element of the human rights based approach to development. Human rights consist of economic rights, as well as social, cultural, political and civil rights. These rights are understood as universal (must be granted indiscriminately), interdependent, indivisible, and mutually reinforcing. One right begets other rights (leading to empowerment and sustainable human development), while one violation enables another (leading to undesirable ends such as “extreme poverty”). This broader definition of [sustainable] human development is about far more than GDP per capita – that tells us remarkably little about the state of a society, particularly where gross inequity prevails, according to Helen Clark, UNDP administrator.

It seems the Chinese government believes in the economic rights portion of human rights, but not the other essential components. It may pay lip-service to these other rights, but this is simply a facade to appease the international community and it’s own civil society. However, neither of these parties seem fooled. Microblogs have become a popular outlet for Chinese citizens to voice grievances against the government, prompting stricter monitoring / regulations. The international community also recognizes a deterioration of human rights in China, according to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council:

“We’re concerned that China suppresses freedoms of assembly, association, religion and expression…, harasses, detains and punishes activists…, targets rights defenders’ family members and friends and implements policies that undermine the human rights of ethnic minorities,” Zeya said.

“I think that there wasn’t really an openness to criticism,” Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, told a news briefing. “It was clear from the Chinese delegation’s responses that ‘objective and frank’ meant no criticism, or at least no criticism that they didn’t control.”

Some experts had thought the administration of Xi would be less hardline than his predecessors. Instead, critics say Xi has presided over a clamp down that has moved beyond the targeting of dissidents calling for political change.

For example, authorities have detained at least 16 activists who have demanded officials publicly disclose their wealth as well as scores of people accused of online “rumor-mongering”.

“Xi Jinping has definitely taken the country backwards on human rights,” prominent rights lawyer Mo Shaoping told Reuters.

Three specific examples support the theory that China does not uphold international human rights standards, but rather pays lip service to them: 1) the governments reaction to smog in China, 2) the corruption trials of Bo Xilai, and 3) the treatment of Tibetan monks.

1) Smog in China:

Schools, major roads and an airport remained closed Tuesday, as a thick cloud of filthy smog smothered the northeastern city of Harbin.

Pollution levels remained far above international standards, as the city’s monitoring stations on Tuesday showed that concentrations of PM2.5 — the tiny airborne particles considered most harmful to health — were more than 30 times the World Health Organization’s recommended standard, the state-run China Daily reported.

However, the government has responded with token measures. To the extent the government cares about pollution, it is arguably for economic reasons (reduced tourism, stopped economic activity), as opposed to the health aspect (premature deaths due to dangerous smog)

China said on Monday it would give rewards amounting to 5 billion yuan ($816.91 million) for curbing air pollution in six regions where the problem is serious, underscoring government concern about a source of public anger.

Protests over pollution in China are becoming common, to the government’s alarm. Authorities have invested in various projects to fight pollution and even empowered courts to mete out the death penalty in serious pollution cases.

But the results have been mixed. Enforcement of rules has been patchy at the local level, where district authorities often rely on taxes from polluting industries.

State media said in July the government planned to invest 1.7 trillion yuan ($277 billion) to fight air pollution over the next five years.

Despite new enforcement rules, without empowering people with civil and political rights, top down measures never become ground level realities; a prime example of the interdependence of different aspects of human rights.The Communist party can be seen taking a tough stand on pollution, without adequately addressing the problem.

Such a response will not result in better air quality; which is bad news for the vast majority of Chinese people who cannot afford a purifier; top of the line airs purifiers run between $2000 and $3000, and basic standard models range from $320 to $480 a piece. Meanwhile, the average annual family income of the 712 million urban Chinese is $2100. Do the math!

2) Bo Xilai Trial

The sentencing of former Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai to life in prison on bribery charges over the weekend effectively brought to a close China’s biggest political crisis since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.  Bo’s exit is significant in that it leaves the neo-Maoist “New Left” without a star. But the trial was also noteworthy for the many questions it raised about the future of China’s much-scrutinized legal system.

The trial of Bo, presided over by the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court in eastern China’s Shandong province, caught many off guard with its apparent openness. While politically sensitive trials have typically been cloaked in secrecy, the proceedings in the Bo trial were broadcast online in unusual detail through the court’s official feed on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

This “apparent openness” was by design, as is everything done by the Communist Party in China. The purpose was to show Chinese citizens, and the world, that leadership has gotten “serious” about corruption. Here’s the problem, China has over 10 million civil servants, it is impossible to stamp out corruption on an ad-hoc basis. In effective democracies, corruption is kept at bay by the democratic process; if a civil servant is proven unfit for service, he is dismissed. Absent these political rights, the Chinese people must rely on the benevolence of the parties internal auditing.

The Chinese judicial system is controlled by the government (and therefore not independent or transparent)  and is highly reliant on confessions as opposed to evidence. Confessions can be forced, especially when people lack the civil rights to challenge the interrogation / judicial processes. The Chinese judicial system allows government leaders to push out strategic foes under the guise of fighting corruption. Again, the Communist party appears to be upholding peoples rights, without making any meaningful reforms.

3) Tibetan Monks:

One of the most important sites in Tibetan Buddhism, Labrang presents an idyllic picture of sacred devotion that is carefully curated by the Chinese government, which hopes to convince visitors that Tibetan religion and culture are swaddled in the Communist Party’s benevolent embrace.

But behind closed doors, many of the monastery’s resident monks complain about intrusive government policies, invisible to tourists, that they say are strangling their culture and identity.

“Even if we’re just praying, the government treats us as criminals,” said a young monk, who like others interviewed recently asked for anonymity to avoid government repercussions.

Such frustrations, many monks say, are what has driven more than 120 Tibetans to set fire to themselves since 2009, including 13 in the Labrang area, in a wave of protests that has gone largely unreported in the Chinese media.

International human rights advocates say that rather than address the underlying grievances — including Beijing’s deeply unpopular campaign to demonize the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader — Chinese authorities have responded with even harsher policies that punish the relatives of those who self-immolate and imprison those who disseminate news of the protests to the outside world.

Monks here describe a largely unseen web of controls that keep potential troublemakers in line: ubiquitous surveillance cameras, paid informers and plainclothes security agents who mingle among the busloads of tourists. Hidden from the throngs are the political education sessions during which monks are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama. Stiff jail sentences await those who step out of line. “If we don’t obey, it will be terrible for us,” the monk said. 

With an eye on the lucrative prestige of a Unesco World Heritage listing, the central government is giving the monastery a $26 million face-lift. Around 1,000 monks and 65,000 volumes of Buddhist scripture are housed in the sprawling complex, which local officials say is in dire need of structural improvements.

Yet locals complain that much of the construction is aimed at increasing tourism, rather than benefiting Tibetans. “It looks fancy, but in reality all the improvements are for Chinese people,” one said.

Such complaints appear to be falling on deaf ears. During a tour of the region in July, China’s top official in charge of ethnic minorities, Yu Zhengsheng, insisted that economic development was the panacea for what ailed Tibetans. In the same breath, he condemned the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” which calls for genuine autonomy in Tibet but not independence, saying it conflicts with China’s political system.

“Only when people’s lives have been improved can they be better united with the Chinese Communist Party and become a reliable basis for maintaining stability,” he said, according to Xinhua.

Notice a common thread? You should. In each of these cases, the Chinese government is going to great lengths to paint the picture of a society which respects the human rights of it’s citizens. At the same time, it continues to crack down on dissenters with relative impunity. It is no secret that people do not have political freedom in China’s one party system, but apparently there is also no respect for civil or rights, religious freedom, or concern for health-related socioeconomic rights. By denying political and social rights, as well as media independence, the Communist party can appear to be making reforms while in reality it roles back China’s human rights record by cracking down on dissenters.

It would appear that the only rights the Communist Party of China truly cares about are economic rights. Am I being too critical? Read Mr. Zhengsheng’s comment again and decide for yourself; it would appear the Chinese government is openly concerned only with economic rights. The appearance of the law must be upheld, especially when it is being broken–international human rights law is no exception. Perhaps this is all for the good of the Chinese people; if that is so, let them decide that for themselves.   

Can China perhaps uphold specific human rights, notably economic and educational, while denying others? There is certainly an element of Chinese exceptionalism; there is no parallel political structure in the world that compares the Communist Party of China–it’s experiences are unique. Even if China ultimately proves that sustainable human development can be achieved by picking strategic human rights and denying others (which I do not think will happen, I try not to make predictions but growing unrest in China’s future is more of a hypothesis anyhow), this would be the exception (albeit an incredibly large exception), not the rule.

The political organization and homogeneous society present in China simply does not exist in the vast majority of the developing world. Furthermore, without the “production engine” that over a billion Chinese workers represent, other developing countries will need to rely on less labor intensive, more diversified / entrepreneurial growth; which are cultivated by upholding all human rights and allowing them to realize their full potential. 


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Conflict Watch: Ghosts of Egypt’s Past, Present, and Future

Quick historic background on the Muslim Brotherhood

The NYT has an excellent interactive timeline of events Egypt from the resignation of former President Mubarak–present day.

Last night I stayed up until 2:30 am to watch the UNDP Oslo Group / FAFO conversation on Egypt’s immediate future. Silly me, as I could have just streamed it today.

Today I will focus primarily on major events since the Mubarak ouster (credit to the NYT), and insights from the conversation last night. It is also helpful to brush up on some of the basic historic power-dynamics of Egypt’s current major political players.

Mubarak Steps Down

Feb. 11, 2011

David Kirkpatrick and Anthony Shadid report from Cairo on the aftermath of President Mubarak’s resignation.Zena Barakat

Vice President Omar Suleiman announces that President Hosni Mubarak, 82, has turned over all power to the military, passed all authority to a council of military leaders and named his prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, to lead the cabinet.

The announcement, which comes after an 18-day revolt led by the young people of Egypt, shatters three decades of political stasis and overturns the established order of the Arab world.

Egypt’s Military Extends Its Power

June 15, 2012

Protesters gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo as Egypt’s military rulers moved to consolidate power on Friday, the eve of the Egyptian presidential runoff election. The day before, the Supreme Constitutional Court moved to shut down the Islamist-led Parliament, locking out lawmakers and seizing the sole right to issue laws.Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

Egypt’s military rulers move to consolidate power on the eve of the presidential runoff election between Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister to Mr. Mubarak. They shut down the Islamist-led Parliament, predicated on acourt ruling a day before, and seize the sole right to issue laws even after a new head of state takes office. Their charter gives them control of all laws and the national budget, immunity from any oversight and the power to veto a declaration of war.

The military counsel also issues an interim constitution, all but eliminating the president’s authority in an apparent effort to guard against a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mohamed Morsi of Brotherhood Sworn In as President

June 30, 2012
President-elect Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood spoke to hundreds of thousands of supporters in Tahrir Square. Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Mr. Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, is the winner of Egypt’s first competitive presidential election, handing the Islamists both a symbolic triumph and a potent weapon in their struggle for power against the country’s top generals.

Mr. Morsi, 60, an American-trained engineer and former lawmaker, is the first Islamist elected as head of an Arab state. He becomes Egypt’s fifth president and the first from outside the military. But his victory is an ambiguous milestone in Egypt’s promised transition to democracy.

Military and President Escalate Their Power Struggle

July 2012

Graffiti in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, the epicenter of antigovernment protests that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, depicts members of the former government. From right are Mr. Mubarak; Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who had acted as head of state until last week and will maintain the title of defense minister; Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and presidential candidate; and the former general and presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik. Tomas Munita for The New York Times
The battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military intensifies when Mr. Morsi summons back into session the democratically elected Parliament that the generals had dissolved after a hurried court ruling. Egypt’s highest court and generals dismiss the order, but Parliament meets in defiance and votes to appeal the court’s decision, creating a chaotic mess of conflicting legal authorities and jurisdictions.

The power struggle reflects dueling claims to Egypt’s emerging politics, with each side trying to frame the debate as a contest for ideals, legitimacy and democracy.

Morsi Seizes New Power

Nov. 22, 2012
Supporters hail President Mohamed Morsi’s move to take new power and retry his predecessor.Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

With a constitutional assembly on the brink of collapse and protesters battling the police in the streets over the slow pace of change, President Mohamed Morsi issues a decree granting himself broad powers above any court as the guardian of Egypt’s revolution and uses his new authority to order the retrial of Hosni Mubarak.

The unexpected breadth of the powers he seizes raises immediate fears that he might become a new strongman.

Nov. 29, 2012

Egyptian Islamists Approve Draft Constitution Despite Objections

The Islamists drafting Egypt’s new constitution vote to approve a charter that human rights groups and international experts say is full of holes and ambiguities. The result will fulfill some of the central demands of the revolution. But it will also give the generals much of the power and privilege they had during the Mubarak era and will reject the demands of ultraconservative Salafis.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands fill Tahrir Square to protest Mr. Morsi’s expansive new powers.

Egypt Struggles to Revive Ailing Economy

March 2013
Egyptians in a gas line in the city of Luxor. Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

A fuel shortage has helped send food prices soaring. Electricity is blacking out even before the summer. And Egypt is struggling to pay the billions of dollars it owes foreign oil companies.

For months, the government has been negotiating a $4.8 billion loan on fairly easy terms from the International Monetary Fund. The thinking is that if the I.M.F. approved a loan, it could give the government the credibility it needs to unlock billions more dollars in aid and loans. But if a deal is reached, it will probably mean reducing subsidies for energy — a step many fear will incite the public.

In April, Egypt presses to increase the loan size, but discussions are pending and won’t start again until October.

July 3, 2013

Army Ousts Egypt’s President; Morsi Denounces ‘Military Coup’

In an announcement read on state television, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian defense minister, ousts Mr. Morsi, the nation’s first freely elected president, suspending the Constitution, installing an interim government and insisting it was responding to the millions of Egyptians who had opposed the Islamist agenda of Mr. Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.

The military intervention, which Mr. Morsi rejects, raises questions about whether the 2011 revolution will fulfill its promise to build a new democracy at the heart of the Arab world.

Dozens of Morsi Supporters Are Killed in Cairo Protest

July 8, 2013

Supporters of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s ousted Islamist president, demonstrated outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo on Monday.Yusuf Sayman for The New York Times

Soldiers and police officers open fire on hundreds of supporters of Mr. Morsi outside the facility where he is believed to be detained, killing at least 54 people and wounding more than 300.

A military spokesman, contradicting dozens of witnesses who say the attack had been unprovoked, says the violence had started when Brotherhood members attacked the officers’ club of the Republican Guard.

It is the single deadliest episode of violence since the final days before Mr. Mubarak’s ouster.

Sudden Improvements in Egypt Suggest a Campaign to Undermine Morsi

July 10, 2013
Relatives of Christians killed near Luxor, where Muslim mobs invaded Christian homes and set them alight while besieging other Christians in their homes.Ibrahim Zayed/Associated Press 

The sudden end of crippling energy shortages and the re-emergence of the police suggest that those opposed to Mr. Morsi had tried to undermine his administration.

The new military-led government accuses Mr. Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood of a campaign to incite violence before and after his ouster as president.

July 16, 2013

Egypt’s New Government Doesn’t Include Muslim Brotherhood

Muslim Brotherhood supporters tried to block the Six October Bridge in Cairo during demonstrations Monday into Tuesday morning.Mahmoud Khaled/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Adli Mansour, Egypt’s interim president, swears in a new cabinet that is dominated by liberal and leftist politicians. Not one of the 34 cabinet members belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood or to any other Islamist party. The cabinet does include three women and three Coptic Christians, making it slightly more diverse, in some respects, than Mr. Morsi’s cabinet.

Crackdown in Egypt Kills Islamists as They Protest

July 27, 2013

This was the second mass killing of demonstrators in three weeks.Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

The Egyptian authorities unleash a ferocious attack on Islamist protesters, killing at least 72 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 tactics — many were killed with gunshot wounds to the head or the chest — suggest that Egypt’s security services felt no need to show any restraint.

Egyptian Forces Storm Pro-Morsi Sit-Ins

Yesterday (Aug 14)

Supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, tended to the wounded near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in the Nasr City district of Cairo.Narciso Contreras for The New York Times

Security forces launch a bloody crackdown on two sit-ins by supporters of Mr. Morsi, setting off waves of violence in the capital and across the country. More than 500 are killed and 3,700 people injured in the the bloodiest day since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster. Muslim Brotherhood supporters urge followers to take to the streets the next day.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the interim vice president and a Nobel Prize-winning former diplomat, resigns in protest, as General Sisi declares a one-month state emergency.

(Again big thanks to the NYT for putting together such an extensive timeline)

Since my most recent post about the crisis in Egypt, things have taken a decidedly ominous turn. Here’s an excerpt from my post two weeks ago:

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”.

Even I, who was pessimistic about the implications of the coup for political Islam and democracy since the beginning, did not foresee the military misplaying it’s hand as catastrophically as it has. And again, as always, time has answered many questions that a few weeks ago were a mystery.

The Military has shown it’s true colors. Mass killings, media censorship, and a further grip on power have defined the so called “road-map to democracy”. The interim government was formed without a single MB member, while military loyalists assumed many top positions. VP Mohamed ElBaradei, a former UN negotiator, Nobel Prize winner, and bastion of legitimacy for the interim governments, resigned from his position in dissent of the army’s actions. Experts expect further resignations in the coming days and weeks. 19 / 27 provincial governors appointed were ex-military (for comparison sake, 11/27 appointed under Morsi were from the MB).  The police have come back essentially as another arm of the military. The state media has become an anti-Morsi propaganda engine, (even more-so than it was during Morsi’s rule)

The fact of the matter is that, regardless of how much of a power grab the MB made during Morsi’s brief time in Presidency, it pails in comparison to the power grab the military has staged for the last half a century. The military cemented it’s rule prior to Morsi’s election, via confirmation from a Mubarak era judge, fueling speculation that the “deep state” never truly gave up power. For all we know, Mubarak is living in the lap of luxury; his resignation a calculated move to win popular support for the military in order to further sustain it’s nontransparent, undemocratic rule. OK, maybe I am getting a little ahead of myself, but at this point no revelation would surprise me.

The Egyptian army is concerned only with self preservation–everybody else is dispensable. The military has little reason to care for the people; as long as it can continue to finance it’s operations, the productive capacity of society is a distant secondary concern. It was willing to let Morsi rule, until it seemed that the MB could become so powerful that it would be able to hold the military to account. Seizing on popular dissent, the army removed the MB “threat” as part of a “mandate of the people”. Very soon, if not already, liberal Egyptians will come to realize their revolution was hijacked not by Morsi, but by Sisi. 

Democratic gains made during the revolution have been reversed since the coup. Political and civil rights and freedoms, including rights of self-expression and assembly, no longer exist. Media liberalization has been reversed. The economy continues to collapse, while the military only exacerbates the problem by borrowing more, creating more debt and larger future cutbacks for whoever ends up ruling Egypt. The sectarian divide is deeper than ever, putting Egypt on the verge of civil war. It is interesting to note the rule the Salifi movement  has played in Egypt’s ongoing political chaos. A historically conservative group, it has emerged as an even handed, pluralistic, pragmatic, and centrist force in Egyptian politics. Of course it remains to be seen how the movement reacts to the most recent massacre of the MB. Consolidation of Islamic forces between the MB and Al Nour would make Civil War that much more likely.   

Egypt is bleeding, literally and figuratively. The ghosts of authoritarian regimes past have reared their ugly heads–Sisi yesterday imposed a month-long “state of emergency”, further exonerating his forces from any wrongdoing. Just like in the past, the MB is being excluded from politics and driven to the margins of society, where their human rights can be violated with impunity. The ghosts of the present are the people currently being massacred in an attempt to “restore order” to Egypt. The ghosts of the future may be casualties from a future Egyptian Civil War, or perhaps they will be ghosts of westerners, as the jihad movement seizes on the coup as a way to recruit disenfranchised young Muslims.

I can no longer find any reason to be optimistic about Egypt’s democratic transition. It seems that the army did not fully think the coup through by underestimating the resolve of the MB; after 3 separate massacres totaling close to 700 MB deaths, a prolonged civil conflict–if not an all out civil war–seems almost unavoidable at this point. Far from a “road map to democracy”, it seems Egypt’s military is steering the country down the Highway to Hell.


If you have made it this far, and want more insight, take a look at my notes from last nights conversation on Egypt’s current and future prospects.

FAFO_UNDP_Egyptnotes

Two general lessons from this talk.

1) The situation is still very fluid and there impossible to predict (but it wont stop me from hypothesizing!) 

2) Both the Egyptian military and the MB are running parallel and conflicting propaganda campaigns. It is very difficult to get a straightforward account of what is going on on the ground. Every movement has conservative, moderate, and liberal components. Things are not as black and white as they appear.

I am admittedly not always impartial here, that is not what Normative Narratives is about. When I take a stance here at NN, I am speaking in the aggregate; there will always be individual examples that run counter to my arguments. I take information from the most transparent sources I know (mainly the NYT and Reuters), and combined with my education experience and knowledge of history (which is of course not all-knowing), come up with what I believe are reasonable conclusions. Sometimes I am wrong, sometimes I am right, but I will never not have an educated opinion on a matter I find important.


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Initial Reactions to the Egyptian Military Coup D’etat

Looking Back:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Forward:

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

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

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

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

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

US Support

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

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


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Transparency Report: Unrest in Egypt and The Democratic Process

Original article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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