Egypt’s Winding Road to Democracy

Anti-Morsi Protest in Cairo

Anti-Morsi protest in Cairo, Egypt, August 2012. Photo credit: Gigi Ibrahim (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

The recent fall of Egypt’s democratically-elected civilian government is in line with the experiences of many other transitional states attempting to move from authoritarian to democratic rule. As with Egypt’s false start of 2012–2013, transitional states frequently revert back to authoritarian regimes.

In the period between World Wars I and II, over half of the world’s democracies regressed to non-democratic forms of government. After a notable period of decolonization in the mid-twentieth century, the world experienced what Samuel Huntington referred to as another “reverse wave” of democratization in the 1960s. The latter wave of reversals was particularly notable in Africa. Likewise the “third wave of democratization” (from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s) was followed by some notable setbacks, particularly in the post-Soviet region.

The drive for political freedom in the Arab world—possibly including the emergence of liberal democracies—will likely be a generational struggle. The over-reach of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, and a general lack of rule of law—in which the military, courts, and masses are all complicit—do not spell the end of democratic aspirations in this key Arab state.

Humans beings, after all, do learn lessons and recast their behaviors and beliefs. In the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s contempt for political compromise and respect for the rule of law, Egyptians must grapple with what to do with a political party that has limited respect for democracy. The military’s ouster of Morsi was distasteful, at best. Perhaps it was the least bad path for Egypt’s future.

State Secrets and Political Legitimacy

A former U.S. contractor with access to classified materials has helped re-open a debate about tradeoffs between privacy and security. It was surprising, but not shocking, to learn that the Obama administration—and particularly the National Security Agency (NSA)—has been using “big data” methods to troll through the phone records of millions of American citizens. Predictably, administration officials claim that numerous (dozens?) of terrorists attacks have been thwarted by the data mining. Official spokespeople have assured U.S. citizens that NSA and FBI agents have not been snooping on the actual content of their phone calls.

The New York Times and other major newspapers are right to roundly condemn the actions of the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. Public trust in government was not running very high before these latest revelations. Politicians of both parties have been guilty of over-reach in pursuing what many conclude to be unconstitutional searches. And, although I often disagree with their substantive stances on issues, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) should be applauded for pursuing these recent revelations in the judicial system.

The United States is not a weak or a failed state, but my country is struggling with public trust in our system of government. Few dispute the need for state secrets. Even so, the recent Congressional testimony of General (retired) Keith Alexander, NSA Director, adds to citizen distrust of senior officials. In weak and failed states, official half-truths and lies are commonplace. And, ominously for Americans, such lies are often justified in the name of “security.” Who doesn’t want to be more secure? On this point the libertarians have it right: Americans should be more concerned about security from government over-reach.

Failed States, Counter-Terrorism and Obama

Last week, President Obama delivered an important foreign policy speech, which has significant bearing on the future of weak and failed states. In contrast to the wide-ranging aspirations of Bush’s “War on Terrorism”—and even some of Obama’s earlier rhetoric about global counter-terrorism efforts—this speech set forth a modest foreign policy agenda.

During most of the George W. Bush administration (2001–2009), the grand narrative of global counter-terrorism dominated official rhetoric. The 2002 National Security Strategy declared that America and other stable democracies were fundamentally threatened by weak and fragile states. The experience of Afghanistan was used as the main example of how a failed state could become the source for global attacks.

In reality the Bush administration never had the resources, time, or political will to develop a truly global response to threats emanating from failed states. Even if Bush’s rhetoric matched policy realities, failed states have never primarily been terrorism-related threats. Yes, Yemen and Somalia could certainly be added to the discussion involving Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even so, the primary security threats associated with failed states are more local in character.

Obama’s recognition of the obvious last week is worthy of praise: Americans do not have the patience and spirit of sacrifice to sustain an unending, meddlesome global counter-terrorism effort. (Nor do Americans really want to engage in long-term nation building projects as part of a global counter-terrorism strategy.) Besides, such an undertaking was never really achievable anyway. Citizens and leaders in a democracy should be able to call out hubris when necessary. Particularly in an age of budgetary austerity, the U.S.A. has no business sustaining an open-ended illusion that one powerful country can remake vast regions of the developing world for its own ends.

Hope for Somalia?

Mogadishu, Somalia

Mogadishu in wilder days, prior to the African Union peacemaking mission. Photo credit: ctsnow (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Al-Shabab is in retreat. The country has a new president respected by many at home and abroad. Foreign donors are pledging significant new aid. Peace is taking hold in larger portions of the country. This is a season of hope in Somalia. Or, at least it seems that way to outside observers.

But what are Somalis envisioning for their future? Are ordinary people eager for a federal system held together by a Mogadishu-based central government? The new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has impressed Britain, America, and other key states with his rhetoric about a decentralized political system. No significant tasks have yet been completed on the path to a federal Somalia.

Like Afghanistan, Somalia does seem to be an appropriate candidate for shared power between local and national governments. Both countries have long histories marked by intense political loyalties rooted in local communities. Both countries have cultural foundations in pastoral lifeways.

In the case of war-ravaged Afghanistan, federalism is the road not taken. The Hamid Karzai era has been one of centralized political power, backed by foreign military might and international aid.

In Somalia, President Mohamud may yet prove skeptics wrong by pursuing and constructing a democratic federal system in this failed state. Developing a federal structure is hard, even in more favorable environments than Somalia. To succeed, federations need strong momentum in favor of democracy and the rule of law. And decentralized systems require particularly strong courts, in order to sort out power struggles between local governments and the central government.

Putting all of these challenges aside, it is still not clear that most Somalis want a modern state—federal or otherwise. Western governments, the African Union, and the UN may all desire a reconstructed Somali state. Perhaps most Somalis continue to see the modern state taking more than it gives. If that perception continues to hold sway at the grassroots level, maybe the latest state building effort in the Horn of Africa is just old wine in new wineskins. I welcome feedback from those on the ground in Somalia.

South Sudan: Fragile and Resilient

In July 2011, South Sudan gained political independence. With the exception of Eritrea, no other African state has been created in the post-colonial period (i.e., since the 1950s). South Sudan now faces a long and difficult road to stability and prosperity.

Like many of the former European colonies in Africa – especially the Belgian and Portuguese territories – South Sudan’s independence inheritance was limited. In the case of South Sudan, governments in Khartoum systematically marginalized this geographically peripheral region. Some basic data tell a grim tale of under-development:

  • Only about 25 percent of the young state’s population is literate. Most developing countries have figures in the range of 50 to 80 percent.
  • South Sudan possesses a physical area larger than France. The new country, though, has virtually no paved roads. The longest stretch – connecting the capital of Juba to Uganda – is only about 100 kilometers.
  • Less than 1 percent of the population has access to electricity. That’s right, only a tiny fraction of South Sudanese can count on reliable access to a power grid. The 1 percent figure presumably does not include those who have access to a generator.
  • Maternal and infant mortality rates are falling, but they are shockingly high. The improved figures (since independence) are: 76 infants deaths per one thousand and 2,054 maternal deaths for every one hundred thousand births. This maternal mortality rate is the worst in the world.
  • A disputed border with Sudan and internal conflicts have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands.

Yet, the new country has weathered its early independence phase better than many predicted. This assessment is especially remarkable given the long standoff with Sudan over oil transit fees. And South Sudan does have key natural resources other than oil. A high percentage of arable land, fairly dependable fresh water supplies, and ecotourism potential are a few of the country’s key natural assets.

The world’s newest state, though, is landlocked and situated in a highly volatile region of Africa. The Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo are both neighboring failed states. Adjacent portions of Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan have also experienced armed conflict or communal unrest in recent years. The South Sudanese people will require much more resilience in the years ahead.

Business Climate and Failed States

This morning I launched a new business. Although I had to fill out many forms and submit fees to various government agencies, this process has been remarkably easy. In fact, I live in a country that offers helpful public resources to support entrepreneurs. For  entrepreneurs in failed states, starting a business is an arduous and expensive task, and one that is frequently abandoned.

People can reasonably disagree about how much businesses should be regulated. Most, however, would concur with the sentiment that the private sector should be restrained no more than necessary. This principle is especially important with regard to forming a new business. If it is too difficult to legally form an enterprise, whole economies suffer. The dynamism of free markets is suppressed. Prospective entrepreneurs will remain without work or under-utilized as employees of existing companies. And black markets will flourish.

The Burden of Bureaucracy

This collage features Franz Kafka and Max Weber, two authorities on bureaucratic obstacles. Illustration credit: Harald Groven (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

It will come as no surprise that it is very difficult to start a business in failed states. Beyond the challenges of poor infrastructure and under-educated populations, poor governance hinders entrepreneurial activity. Each year the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal publish an “Index of Economic Freedom.” I don’t agree with all of the ideological judgments behind the index, but it is nonetheless a very valuable dataset.

One of the ten criteria assessed in the index is “Business Freedom,” which is defined as follows:

Business freedom is a quantitative measure of the ability to start, operate, and close a business that represents the overall burden of regulation as well as the efficiency of government in the regulatory process. The business freedom score for each country is a number between 0 and 100, with 100 equaling the freest business environment.

Poor performance on this criterion is common among failed states. Poor performers on “business freedom” are frequently referred to on this blog. These countries include: North Korea, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Myanmar (Burma).

In contrast, my home state of Virginia offers a “Business One Stop,” for new businesses. And, based on my experience, Virginia deserves the praise it receives for business friendliness. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist a bit of local boosterism.)