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.

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Egypt’s Messy Transition and the Meaning of “State Collapse”

Cairo, Egypt Protests

Protesters in Cairo, Egypt, in February 2011, around the time of the fall of the Hosni Mubarak government. Photo credit: RamyRaoof (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Earlier this week, the head of Egypt’s military warned that his country was on the brink of “state collapse.” General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s pronouncement followed on sustained, angry protests in Cairo, and violence in Port Said and other areas. Most analysts read the general’s assessment as a thinly veiled threat of additional military intervention in domestic politics, and perhaps a coup. Unfortunately, many prominent news outlets have accepted this phrase – “state collapse” – at face value. Two years after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is facing disorder and great uncertainty in its political affairs. We should not confuse this reality with the much more dire circumstances of state collapse.

According to Harvard scholar Robert Rotberg,

A collapsed state is a rare and extreme version of a failed state. Political goods are obtained through private or ad hoc means. Security is equated with the rule of the strong. (emphasis in original, p. 9, When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, 2004)

For the sake of argument, we could even define “collapsed state” and “failed state” as synonymous. Even in this context, it is simply not appropriate to describe Egypt as a failed state.

The people of Egypt and concerned outsiders should be very wary about accepting senior military leaders’ pronouncements at face value. Even though militaries can play the roles of public guardians, their record in democratization processes is spotty. Civilian control of the military is difficult to establish and sustain, but it is essential in the process of democratic development. Established democracies – such as the United States – must be vigilant in constraining the political ambitions of their soldiers, lest they replace the rule of law with the rule of the strong.

I close this post with a few more thoughts about why Egypt is not a failed state, and certainly not a society on the brink of state collapse. Here are some specific characteristics that are in Egypt’s favor:

  1. On the whole, the country benefits from a strong sense of national identity. Rooted in common language, ancestry, religious background, and historical experience, Egypt is not a culturally divided state, despite small ethnic and religious minority groups, such as the Coptic Christians.
  2. The large protests in Cairo and elsewhere are evidence of intense political engagement on the part of ordinary citizens. Instead of withdrawing from the state, citizens are seeking to reshape government and law.
  3. Despite serious strains and dysfunction, Egypt possesses a fairly large and internationally connected economy. Too many Egyptians face grinding poverty, but agriculture, industry, and tourism are all important sectors that provide livelihoods for many.

The tendency of public figures and journalists to loosely use rhetoric is dangerous. Though scholars can descend into needless arguments about semantics, words must be chosen carefully, lest they lead to undesirable actions, such as military coups.

Angola: Recovering from State Failure

Campaign Sign for Angola's Jose Eduardo Dos Santos

President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos’ MPLA won another election in 2012, despite protests from the opposition about the conduct of the poll. Photo credit: Oscar Megia (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Forbes announced last week that the eldest daughter of Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos is Africa’s first female billionaire. Though much is unknown about  Isabel Dos Santos’ climb to this elite club, her status is indicative of the opportunities and challenges facing Angola.

For much of its history since independence in 1975, this African state has been wracked by armed conflict, grinding poverty, and bad governance. In short, Angola was a failed state for much of the not-too-distant past.

In the case of this lightly settled, oil-rich country, external factors were exceedingly important in Angola’s decay. The country suffered as the site of a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States, and involved other states like Cuba and South Africa. Prior to the Cold War meddling, the Portuguese – like the Belgians elsewhere in Africa – did a poor job preparing the colony for independence.

When the Portuguese left in relative haste, the Angolans initiated a 27-year civil war that also had significant connections with the global geopolitical struggle between Moscow and Washington. These dark decades can be summed up by a long list of depressing words and phrases: refugees, landmines, official thievery, food insecurity, bombed-out bridges, and empty schoolhouses.

After the death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002, Angola’s fortunes have begun to improve. First and foremost, Angola has recorded a decade of peace. Economic growth has been impressive, even if concentrated in the export-oriented energy sector. Transportation has improved within the country, helping the country’s many small-scale farmers get their goods to markets. Many refugees have returned from neighboring countries.

Now, back to Africa’s first female billionaire. Here I provide an excerpt from the Forbes story, which includes a pertinent quote from the political scientist Peter Lewis:

How did a 40-year-old woman who started out with just one restaurant come into such a vast fortune? . . . “It’s clear through documented work that the ruling party and the President’s inner circle have a lot of business interests. The source of funds and corporate governance are very murky,” Lewis explained. “The central problem in Angola is the complete lack of transparency. We can’t trace the provenance of these funds.”

Lewis is careful to state that he cannot authoritatively comment on the particulars of Isabel Dos Santos’ wealth. The people who can comment on her wealth, likely do not intend to do so.

Even so, there are indicators that Angola’s ruling party has been somewhat less corrupt in recent years. New investments have flowed into the country. And, Angola has even remade itself as an immigration destination for financial crisis-weary Portuguese.

Yet, there are limits to the gains in governance. According to Freedom House, Angola remains an authoritarian state, despite holding elections. President Dos Santos has led the country since 1979, and looks set to do so for many more. The political opposition remains weak. And given the country’s continued reliance on oil exports (with the heavy involvement of the Chinese state), this is not a good mix for broad-based development. Angola is no longer a failed state, but its foundation for the future is uncertain at best.

South Africa’s Slide

This week’s Economist magazine highlights mounting troubles in Africa’s largest economy. Though South Africa is far from state failure, the heady optimism of early post-apartheid days is long gone. Even as many African countries are surging ahead, politically and economically, the “rainbow nation” is stalling out.

Mandela’s land is dear to me, since I have traveled there three times in the last few years, leading groups on two occasions. It is a land of tremendous beauty and potential, but the current political climate and nagging legacies of the white supremacist era are holding South Africa back.

The main obstacle to South Africa’s progress is an uncompetitive electoral landscape, which breeds corruption and bad governance. There is no way around it: the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has lost its way. Though South African elections are basically free and fair, a serious opposition party is yet to emerge as the country nears two decades since the end of apartheid. The ANC’s dominance must be broken, if only for a short time, if the country is to move forward.

Lack of electoral competition is hardly the only challenge that South Africa faces. As the Economist’s special report highlights, South Africa’s schools are in pitiful shape. Many of the country’s southern African neighbors produce better outcomes, and that with less spending per student. To be fair, these neighboring states do not have to deal with the fallout of the struggle against apartheid. During the last 15 years of white minority rule, widespread protests and civil unrest led to a “lost generation” with respect to education. And, despite some recent gains, HIV/AIDS persists as a major burden for the country. And we could go on.

Let’s hope that South Africa’s current travails are simply a rough patch in an otherwise promising post-apartheid narrative. Africa and the world need a stable, free, and prosperous South Africa. And, after the nightmare of apartheid, it would be tragic if South Africa goes the way of Zimbabwe.

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.

Cote d’Ivoire: The Lost Decade

In early 2011, international attention shifted away from Cote d’Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast) as an electoral crisis drew to an end. The decade-long rule of Laurent Gbagbo came to a close, despite his best efforts to cling to power. With muddled United Nations backing and French military might, the rightful winner of the November 2010 presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, finally took office in May 2011. For many, this event was the presumed bookend of a lost decade for the West African state.

In the first few decades of its independence, Cote d’Ivoire exhibited relatively strong economic performance. From 1960 until the first part of the 1980s, the country witnessed export-led growth, mainly due to its strong farm and agro-processing sectors. Production of cocoa and other crops provided employment for Ivorians and other West Africans. During this period of relative economic success, Ivory Coast experienced political stability under the benevolent authoritarian rule of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the country’s first post-independence president.  Unlike other African leaders of his generation, Houphouet-Boigny pursued a basically even-handed and inclusive approach to politics. Despite his authoritarian character, Ivory Coast’s first president genuinely sought to accommodate ethnic, religious, and regional differences in the country.

By the end of Houphouet-Boigny’s rule – brought about by his death in 1993 – the country’s international terms of trade had shifted dramatically against it. In particular, the world cocoa price began a steady fall in the mid-1980s. And, as often happens in authoritarian regimes, the country was not sufficiently prepared for the death of a long-ruling dictator. Whereas the dictator was fairly competent and even-handed, his successors proved less capable and more divisive. A 1999 coup, a disputed presidential election in 2000, and an army mutiny in 2002 are only a few of the key markers that led into Cote d’Ivoire’s “lost decade.”

The September 2002 army mutiny – led by soldiers from the neglected North – did not achieve its full objectives. The mutiny did, however, lead to the de facto division of the country into two halves. In this case, the insurgents were not seeking secession for their marginalized region. Rather, they were seeking fuller participation and representation in a government they perceived as being dominated by southerners and Christians.

In the period since his presidential inauguration in May 2011, Alassane Ouattara has overseen some gains. Some foreigners and international investment have returned to the country. The troublesome Mr. Gbagbo now sits in The Hague awaiting trial. And world prices are more favorable for the country’s main export, cocoa.

Earlier this week, though, the International Crisis Group warned of new risks for Cote d’Ivoire. Ethno-regional reconciliation has not advanced enough in the past 14 months. Indeed, numerous recent attacks on police buildings, military barracks, and other sites indicate mounting tensions along partisan (and ethno-regional) lines. Pro-government newspapers even accused Gbagbo’s party, the Ivorian Popular Front, of organizing the anti-government attacks. A state that slipped from stability (1960-1993) to critical weakness (1999-present) is not yet on a definitive pathway back to stability.

*** 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.

Afghanistan and Federalism: The Road not Taken

Public debate about Afghanistan’s political future generally suffers from a lack of deeper historical perspective. Too often, this debate fails to extend beyond the late Cold War period. Soviet invasion and the proxy war that followed were transformative and negative influences on the country’s development. Millions of Afghans were displaced, much infrastructure was destroyed, and a terrible legacy of landmines was left, among other late Cold War impacts. Even so, Afghanistan’s troubled political history has many more layers than the Taliban and the US-Soviet contest.

The longer-term theme that matters more is Afghans’ longstanding resistance to a centralized state. For part of the twentieth century, the reign of King Zahir Shah provided some impulse toward centralization. The broader theme in the country’s political history, though, is resistance to centralized governance. Most Afghans continue to be suspicious of national governments in Kabul, especially with the effort to re-establish a highly centralized (or “unitary”) state since 2001.

Afghanistan would likely function much better under some kind of a federal political system, in which significant power is wielded at the provincial and local levels. There is a great paradox at play, which affects many countries, and not just Afghanistan. Although federal systems can lead to more unified and stable states, these systems are very difficult to sustain. Truth be told, federations require democracy. Beyond this general need, most experts argue that federations need particularly well-functioning, independent judiciaries, which sort out jurisdictional disputes between the central government and the smaller units (i.e. provinces, localities). Related to this is a strong broader respect for the rule of law. In practice, many federations have tended toward centralization without these key cultural and institutional safeguards.

It is clearly the case that Afghanistan is not yet very democratic, nor does it have the other basic requirements for a federal system of government. The Western backers of the present Afghan political system were right to encourage a centralized model. The road not taken (i.e. federalism) was a road that could not have been taken, given Afghanistan’s situation. That is unfortunate, because a decentralized model is well suited to the cultural and environmental realities that are contemporary Afghanistan.

*** 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.