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.

The Palestinians, the UN, and Statehood

UN General Assembly

The meeting hall of the United Nations General Assembly. This is the room in New York City where decisions about statehood are made. Photo credit: Rob Young (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

On November 29th, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelming voted to admit Palestine as a permanent observer. Despite strong opposition from the United States and Israel, the General Assembly voted 138 to 9 (with 41 member states abstaining) to grant this diplomatic recognition. Though the UN is an inefficient and much-maligned world body, the United Nations General Assembly is the body that weighs questions of statehood in the contemporary era.

The Palestine vote has understandably attracted the most attention in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority had long been trying to gain observer status in New York, and the Israelis and the Americans had opposed this decision over a multi-year period. The General Assembly vote is another crucial milestone in the growing diplomatic isolation of Israel. In response to the UN vote, the Israeli government announced plans to fast-track a huge expansion of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.

Beyond this particularly important Middle East conflict, though, the Palestine vote underscores the continuing relevance of the United Nations to world politics. Prior to the UN era (1945 – ) – and the short-lived League of Nations era – international recognition of statehood was relatively chaotic and lacked a systematic character.

On the surface, the phrase “international recognition” sounds rather ordinary and unimportant. In reality, lack of international recognition is the key sticking point for most unsuccessful bids for sovereignty. Just ask the separatists from Somaliland, or Tibet (Xizang Province, China). In the current geopolitical era, unless the club of existing states (i.e. the UN General Assembly) grants you membership, your territory does not warrant the label “sovereign state.” And, importantly, Palestine has not achieved this designation. At least not yet.

Interestingly, the “Permanent Observer” status is one that has no founding basis in the United Nations Charter. Following is a brief excerpt from the General Assembly’s public pages:

The status of a Permanent Observer is based purely on practice, and there are no provisions for it in the United Nations Charter. The practice dates from 1946, when the Secretary-General accepted the designation of the Swiss Government as a Permanent Observer to the United Nations. Observers were subsequently put forward by certain States that later became United Nations Members, including Austria, Finland, Italy, and Japan. Switzerland became a UN Member on 10 September 2002.

Will the Palestine vote open the door for additional permanent observers at the UN General Assembly? The answer is likely no. The only other current observer is the Vatican. In the case of Palestine, both the longstanding nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict  and the symbolic and substantive importance of the conflict in the wider world point to an anomalous situation.

Even so, the world would do well to start re-thinking the status quo with regard to statehood recognition. In particular, state failure represents a huge challenge to the current system. My new book, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses, explores these issues in much greater depth.

Libya’s Long Road

On September 11, 2012 the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked by several dozen assailants armed with sophisticated weapons. The attack killed the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and several other diplomatic staff. On the surface the attack seems to be related to the release of an obscure online film, produced in the U.S. by clumsy critics of Islam. Related protests have occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. While the Libya attack may or may not be the start of a new season of heightened tensions between the United States and the Arab world, the attack does put a spotlight on state weakness in Libya.

Secretary of State Clinton acknowledged the confusion that many feel about the attack:

Today, many Americans are asking – indeed, I asked myself – how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.

But we must be clear-eyed, even in our grief. This was an attack by a small and savage group – not the people or Government of Libya. Everywhere [Ambassador Chris Stevens] and his team went in Libya, in a country scarred by war and tyranny, they were hailed as friends and partners. And when the attack came yesterday, Libyans stood and fought to defend our post. Some were wounded. Libyans carried Chris’ body to the hospital, and they helped rescue and lead other Americans to safety. And last night, when I spoke with the President of Libya, he strongly condemned the violence and pledged every effort to protect our people and pursue those responsible.

In short, how could a grateful Libya allow this attack to occur?

For those who follow Libya closely, such as Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the attack was shocking but not surprising. For more than a generation (1969-2011), Libya was governed through the highly personalistic rule of the Muammar Gaddafi. The eccentric and ruthless dictator established little in the way of institutions that would survive him; he ruled largely through caprice and ever-changing fiats. As Libyans struggle to establish democracy, they face a long, tough slog to establish formal institutions of governance guided by the rule of law and rational administration. It is hardly surprising that Libya is somewhat chaotic 11 months after Gaddafi’s death. Not least, tens of thousands of armed fighters are still operating in irregular militias throughout Libya. Other transitioning democracies – including those with a more helpful past – also face long roads to establish social and political order rooted in law and freedom. The United States and other democracies must be patient with the Libyans, even as we seek to bring the Benghazi attackers to justice. Lasting democracy cannot be established in one or two years. Anyone who says otherwise is simply wrong.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.