Tag Archives: Egypt

Parliamentary Elections in Egypt

Parliamentary elections in Egypt will take place beginning this weekend, with more than 5,000 candidates running for 448 seats through single-member districts. An additional 120 seats will be allocated by proportional representation lists, and 28 will be appointed by the country’s president.

The military ousted the country’s elected President, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013, leading to a period of instability in Egypt. In 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, protestors overthrew the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for nearly 30 years. His pro-Western military regime was replaced by more pro-Islamic parties, leaving the military in an uncertain role. Many hopes now rest on Sunday’s elections, which will fill the country’s House of Representatives. Delegates to the House will also be charged with reviewing laws passed by the caretaker government when the House was not in session.

What do you think? Will this weekend’s elections help facilitate Egypt’s path back towards a fully functioning democracy? What challenges does Egypt face in its path? And what, if anything, should the United States and/or the European Union do to help facilitate this process?

Military Cooperation the Arab World

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are leading an initiative to create a joint Arab Defense Force, comprised of approximately 40,000 soldiers, several elite units, and supporting aircraft and surface vessels. The new force, originally discussed ahead of an Arab League Summit in March, would likely be used in place of Nato and Western-led initiatives to counter the Islamic State, to support Saudi-led operations in Yemen, and would provide a counterbalance to growing Iranian influence in the region. The force might also be used to respond to calls from Arab states for support in addressing the growing threat posed by Islamic militants, such as the call issued last week by the Libyan government.

What do you think? Will regional defense forces provide a useful replacement for the deployment of American forces abroad? Does this development highlight a shift in the global role of the United States? Would such a shift be positive or negative? Why?

The Future of Egyptian Democracy

Millions of Egyptians marked the first anniversary of President Morsi's term with protests.

Millions of Egyptians marked the first anniversary of President Morsi’s term with protests.

It’s been a fascinating week to study Egyptian politics. Massive popular protests—estimated by the BBC to have numbered in the millions and to have been the largest political protests in the history of the world—rocked the streets of Cairo, Alexandra, and other Egyptian cities on Monday and Tuesday. Protesters were angered by the lack of progress by the Egyptian government in addressing the economic challenges faced by the country. On Tuesday, the Egyptian military warned President Mohammed Morsi—Egypt’s first democratically-elected President—that he had until Wednesday night to “meet the demands of the people” or it would step in and restore order. Then, on Wednesday night, the Egyptian military followed through on its promise, seizing control of the media, placing Morsi under house arrest, and naming Adly Mansour, a little-known constitutional judge, as interim president.

The developments in Egypt present interesting challenges for the global community. As leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi had pursued a conservative approach to domestic politics, upsetting many moderate Egyptians. And Morsi was not popular in the global community. But how should the West respond?

To date, most other governments have taken an extremely cautious approach in responding to developments in Egypt. President Barack Obama expressed “deep concern” over the seizure of power by the Egyptian military, and called on them to “move quickly and responsibility to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process”. British Prime Minister David Cameron noted that Britain “never support[s] in countries the intervention by the military, but what needs to happen now in Egypt is for democracy to flourish and for a genuine democratic transition to take place.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a political solution and a quick restoration of democracy. And the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling for all sides to exercise restraint. But no one appears to be particularly motivated to take more significant action, like recalling ambassadors, suspending aid to Egypt, or refusing to recognize the new government.

In reality, there is little that most other countries are able or willing to do on the ground. The Egyptian military effectively ruled the country throughout most of its recent history and is probably the most stable and influential force in contemporary Egyptian politics.

What do you think? Was the Egyptian military justified in its decision to overthrow the Morsi government? Or should it have waited for the next presidential election in three years? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Libya: The Drivers of Democratization

Pro-US Protester in Libya

Pro-US Protester in Libya

In continuing developments in Libya, protestors on Friday stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia and the Sahaty Brigade. Both groups were believed to be involved in the recent attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi.

Anti-American protests continue to reverberate across the Middle East in response to a trailer for the controversial film The Innocence of Muslims. The trailer—which makes B-movies look like Academy Award material by comparison—was apparently shot to promote a film which (given the quality of the acting, thankfully) was never made. Nevertheless, many protestors believe the film was produced and that it mocks the Prophet Mohammed.

While protests against the film continue in many parts of the Islamic World, in Libya, the protests now appear to have a different message.

Pro-US Protester in Libya

Pro-US Protester in Libya

Protestors there have taken to the streets there to demand justice for the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stephens last week. Many have carried signs like those here.

There appears to be reason to believe that Libya has, as the BBC put it, “bucked the Islamist trend.” While democratization has been a boon to the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Egypt, in Libya there appears to be much less support for fundamentalist parties.

There is a rich tradition in political science of exploring why some countries move towards liberal democracy while others do not. Common theories center on one or more of the following variables: wealth (gdp per capita), education (especially female education), a free market economy, social equality, a civic culture, cultural values, foreign intervention, and even age distribution. Unfortunately it is not clear yet why (or even if) Libya is moving towards liberal democracy while its neighbors are not. At a minimum, though, the contrasting experiences of Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt will likely provide interesting case studies for comparativists moving forward.

What do you think: What drives democratization? Will Libya sustain its move towards democracy? Or will the trend reverse?

The Paradox of Democracy in US Foreign Policy

There’s a famous saying that we should “be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”

A car burns outside the US Embassy in Libya on Tuesday.

A car burns outside the US Embassy in Libya on Tuesday.

Last week was a difficult one for the US foreign policy establishment. On Tuesday, the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was stormed by militants, who killed the US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other American personnel. Stevens had worked closely with the rebel movement that overthrew Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in last year. Fluent in French and Arabic, he was, in many ways, the ideal US representative to the troubled region.

It is now believed that the attack was launched by Islamic militants who used ongoing protests against the United States in Benghazi as cover to launch their operation. But the protests which were initially exploited to cover the operation have since spread. By Friday, US, German, and British embassies in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen were the scenes of often violent protest by demonstrators who objected to an obscure online video produced by an American mocked the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, child molester, and ruthless killer.

The growing protests have been strongest in countries which experienced the Arab Spring, where longstanding dictatorships were overthrown and replaced with fledgling democracies. The leaders of those countries must play a dangerous balancing game. While seeking to retain good relations with the United States, they must also keep an eye on reelection campaigns. When Anti-Americanism runs high, one of the two competing goals has to give.

This tension marks an interesting turn from the historical foreign policy of the United States. During the Cold War, the United States was often criticized for supporting dictators who, while not democratic, were certainly anti-communist. While the promotion of democracy often remained an ideal objective of US foreign policy during the Cold War, in many cases, such as that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the United States was willing to overlook democracy for a firm commitment to anti-communism. Now, the emphasis on democratization has raised new questions arising from the competing demands faced by the fledgling democracies in the Middle East. How do we reconcile those demands?

What do you think? How should US foreign policy engage with democratically-elected governments expressing anti-American sentiment? What is the most effective way to engage with governments like those of Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan, where leaders balance a desire with closer ties with the United States against popular expressions of anti-Americanism? And more fundamentally, what role should the promotion of and support for democratization play in US foreign policy? Let us know what you think.

Institutions and The Egyptian “Counterrevolution”

Egyptian protesters voicing their displeasure at court rulings that have stalled the country’s democratic transition.

This week’s events in Egypt indicate that a counterrevolution is under way by the ruling military authorities (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF).  A court appointed by former president Hosni Mubarak ruled that Egypt’s democratically elected parliament must be disbanded, effectively giving legislative power to the SCAF.  The court also ruled that the Mubarak regime’s final prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, could remain a candidate in the presidential election currently taking place.  The SCAF is also preparing a new constitutional “annex” that will define the powers of the incoming president and will set further guidelines on the composition of the assembly that will draft a new constitution.  For analysis of the implications of these events for Egypt’s transition to democracy, see here and here.

From a political science standpoint, these events provide a stark reminder of the importance of institutions in determining political outcomes.  Institutions are usually defined as including both the formal structures/processes and the informal rules and procedures that govern behavior.  In the case of Egypt, the SCAF knows that in order to preserve its power it must control the process of institution-building and not allow the creation of institutions that will severely limit or eliminate its influence (hence its insistence on micro-managing the selection of the assembly that will draft the new constitution).   The SCAF could continue to exercise power informally despite what the new constitution says–as has happened in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for example–but relying on informal institutions in defiance of the formal ones will be politically difficult in a country gripped by revolutionary fervor and the notion that power must devolve to the people.

Institutions are worth fighting over because they play a major role in determining who wins specific political battles.  They determine the rules of the game, the cast of legitimate players, and the “victory conditions.”  For example, executives in presidential systems (like France and the U.S.) are less constrained in certain ways by their legislatures than are prime ministers in parliamentary systems.  And as comparative politics scholars have noted, certain voting rules (proportional representation systems) allow small parties a chance to be represented, while other rules (“first-past-the-post”) tend to produce two large, powerful parties while stifling minority parties.

What do you think?  Will SCAF succeed in its attempted counterrevolution by creating favorable institutions?  Or are these measures the last grasping efforts of a dying regime that will inevitably fall to an empowered public that will create new institutions of its own?  (Take the poll below to voice your opinion on the future of democracy in Egypt).

The Trouble with Quangos

U.S. pro-democracy workers board a flight in Egypt before departing the country on March 1, 2012. The charges against the Americans have not been dropped.

The recent detention of staff members from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt is only the latest example of a wider pattern of harassment and resentment against Western-backed NGOs in the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere.  Unlike intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), whose members are states, NGOs are private actors which operate–at least theoretically–independently from governments.  But increasingly the independent status of many NGOs has been called into question, with serious consequences for their mission, the safety of their workers, and relations among governments.  A blog post by foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead discusses the thorny dilemma of these “quangos“:

“‘Quangos’, as the Brits call them — quasi non-governmental organizations — operate partly as non-affiliated promoters of democracy and freedom abroad. But they receive US government funding and are closely linked to political leaders in both parties. The ‘wall of separation’ between the quangos and actual government policy is somewhat fictional, and the whole relationship is deeply suspect in countries with morbidly suspicious political cultures. The latest crisis in Egypt is a sign of just how very careless the US political establishment has grown as it makes use of these groups to achieve political ends in foreign countries…More and more countries (with, frankly, more and more reason) regard quangos not as innocent civil society actors but as direct tools of US foreign policy operating outside the traditional restraints of diplomatic institutions. They and their employees will increasingly be seen as fair game for retaliation.”

Mead calls for a stricter separation between NGOs and supporting governments, warning that “the existence of the quangos muddies the water for genuine civil society groups; it is easy for foreigners to denounce all western civil society groups as government agencies when some ‘NGOs’ receive most or all of their funding from foreign governments.”

Interestingly, Mead compares the plight of secular western quangos today to the problems faced by Christian missionaries in the 19th century.  He notes that these missionaries “had their greatest success when the missionaries were not backed up by gunboats, and when there was a clear separation between missionary groups and imperial power. Democracy activists need to spend more time studying mission history. There are some rich lessons there that need to be learned.”

What do you think?  Should western governments interested in promoting democracy sever or hide their ties to pro-democracy NGOs abroad?  Or will this weaken organizations that need state backing to achieve their goals?  Will autocratic governments threatened by pro-democracy NGOs really stop the harassment simply because these groups are certifiably independent of foreign governments?

Civil-Military Relations and the New Egyptian Uprising

Clashes between protesters and police in Cairo have reportedly claimed 24 lives in the past three days.

The escalating crisis in Egypt that has pitted the military against an uneasy coalition of Islamists and liberals reveals the importance of civil-military relations and their relationship to democracy.

Long a central actor in Egyptian politics, the Egyptian military gave President Hosni Mubarak the final push to leave office in February 2011.  At the time, many of the protesters welcomed the military’s prominent role as a guarantor of stability during the transition to democracy.  But after originally promising to hand power to a civilian government by September, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has recently announced that it will not relinquish power until a new constitution is ratified and a new president is elected, which may not happen until after 2013.  The SCAF has also provoked widespread discontent by unveiling this month “a set of ground rules for a next constitution that would have given the military authority to intervene in civilian politics while protecting it from civilian oversight.”  Specifically, the military called itself the guardian of Egypt’s “constitutional legitimacy.”  While the SCAF has backed off some of these guidelines and suggested that it would subordinate itself to civilian rule, these concessions have not placated the protesters, whose ranks have grown and who now battle soldiers and police in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Democracy requires that elected civilian officials have ultimate control over a country’s domestic and foreign policymaking.  Unelected military officers must be subordinate to the elected officials, both legally and in practice.  But in many countries at various stages of democratization–from Pakistan to Egypt to Turkey–the military has historically played a powerful independent role, stepping into politics and even removing leaders when it believes stability demands such action.  Egypt’s Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, are particularly opposed to such a role for the Egyptian military, since they believe (with good reason) that their dominance in upcoming elections and the subsequent government is exactly the sort of development the military would like to suppress.  Many U.S. officials are also concerned about an Islamist victory in next week’s parliamentary elections, which puts the U.S. in a difficult bind since its twin goals of democracy and stability in the region are apparently in conflict.

What do you think?  Are we witnessing the beginning of the second Egyptian Revolution of 2011?  Will the military bow to the demands of the protesters and accelerate the transition to civilian control, or will it remain intransigent and “double down” on its strategy of remaining the most important player in Egyptian politics?  How should Western governments, including the U.S. (which gives Egypt roughly $3 billion annually and therefore has significant leverage) respond to these developments?

Should We Fear the Arab Spring?

Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the Chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council, recently decreed that polygamy would be legalized and banks would not charge interest.

Dictators across the Arab world obviously have reason to fear the phenomenon known as the Arab Spring. The wave of popular uprisings has already toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya since January, and tyrants from Damascus (Syria) to Sanaa (Yemen) to Manama (Bahrain) are feeling the heat from domestic protesters and rebels demanding change. But in recent days observers in the West have voiced concern that events are taking a dangerous turn, down a path that could harm Western interests and undermine the quest for democracy that has purportedly motivated much of the unrest.

These critics cite several recent developments in making their case:

(1) In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the
first free elections
have brought to power an Islamist party that some fear will not uphold basic civil liberties.  The authors of this opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor raise this concern: “Tunisia’s current constitution is not explicitly secular and keeps the possibility open for a more religious interpretation of the way the state should function. This is unlikely to change with the coming constitutional modifications, and the potential for oppression in the name of religion becomes a legitimate threat with Islamists in power.”

(2) In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful actor and will likely do well in the upcoming elections, scheduled for November 28.  Since the ouster of President Mubarak–a close U.S. ally–in February, concerns have grown in the U.S. that his successors may be less hospitable toward peace with Israel.  Attacks on the Israeli embassy in Cairo and against Coptic Christians have underscored the instability of this key country.

(3) In Libya, the chairman of the National Transitional Council has made statements indicating that Islamic Law, or Sharia, will play a greater role in Libya than many observers expected.  He has already decreed that the ban on polygamy be lifted and has said future banking regulations will ban the charging of interest.  As this report describes, “Mr Abdul-Jalil’s decision – made in advance of the introduction of any democratic process – will please the Islamists who have played a strong role in opposition to Col Gaddafi’s rule and in the uprising but worry the many young liberal Libyans who, while usually observant Muslims, take their political cues from the West.”

Are these criticisms premature and lacking in perspective, given the nature of the regimes that the Arab Spring toppled?  Or do they correctly sound the alarm about ominous developments that undermine democracy in the Arab world and the interests of Western powers?

The Troubled Road to Democracy

The toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, 2003 was an iconic image but only the beginning of a difficult transition to democracy.

With the historic changes of the Arab Spring many observers have concluded that “people power” has finally begun to triumph over autocratic regimes in a region that had seemed strangely resistant to the waves of democratization that swept over other parts of the world in previous decades. And while there are indeed many hopeful signs throughout the region for those who value democracy, it is worth noting that the road to democracy is often fraught with setbacks and challenges that the pictures of falling statues, cheering crowds, and jubilant voters don’t communicate.

Scholars such as Fareed Zakaria have distinguished between electoral democracy and liberalism (the presence of civil liberties that limit the government’s reach). While liberal democracies enjoy both free elections and broad civil liberties, illiberal democracies combine (at least nominally) democratic institutional structures with serious deficiencies in the area of civil liberties.  Countries undergoing transitions to democracy sometimes get “stuck” in this halfway zone and find it hard to progress the rest of the way toward full liberal democracy.  Consider Russia, a country that began its transition with the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991.  It holds regular elections (although the degree to which they are free and fair has come into serious doubt), but as noted in this Freedom House report, individual liberties including freedom of speech, assembly, association, and religion are lacking. 

America’s recent “democracy projects” in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced nominally democratic regimes that have a very long way to go before they can be called mature democracies.  Not only do serious questions persist about the freedom and fairness of elections (particularly in Afghanistan) but basic democratic norms such as respect for minority rights and nonviolent resolution of disputes have not yet permeated these societies. 

Despite the stagnation and setbacks associated with so many democratic transitions, Daniel Drezner’s recent thought-provoking blog post on trends in global democracy and autocracy suggests that the future for democracy remains bright.  Drezner cites the analysis of Jay Ulfelder, who explains the deepening authoritarianism of certain nondemocratic regimes as increasingly desperate attempts to contain democratic aspirations that will ultimately prevail: “[It is] evident that these regimes are increasingly struggling to contain the same forces that have propelled the diffusion of democracy elsewhere in the past two centuries. What I learn from the trajectories of prior transitions is that those forces cannot be contained forever. The processes of political change spurred by those forces are often choppy, frustrating, and even violent, but the long-term trend away from self-appointed rulers toward elected government is remarkably strong and consistent, and the forces driving that trend are already evident in many of the world’s remaining “hard” cases of authoritarian rule.”

Are Drezner and Ulfelder simply putting a rosy spin on some very harsh realities, or is there reason to be optimistic that freedom will ultimately prevail in countries such as Russia, Iran, and China? What signs are there that the newest revolutions, in Egypt and Tunisia, will result in democracy? What signs are there that these embryonic transitions have already stalled?