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.

Lindsey Graham and Syria’s WMD

The Obama administration is facing renewed calls for direct American intervention in Syria’s war. One of Obama’s key critics in the Senate is Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. Graham is a key Senate leader on military and foreign policy issues, and his views often influence members of both political parties. The following excerpt, which quotes Graham, is from the Washington Post:

Syria is “going to become a failed state by the end of the year” if we don’t intervene, Graham said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” He warned that “we’re going to start a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program…. The whole region is going to fall into chaos.” (bold emphasis added)

In March, after allegations of chemical weapons use emerged, Senator Graham advocated the deployment of American soldiers to secure weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites in Syria. Earlier this week, the South Carolinian seemed to back away from this more aggressive military option.

Even though the American public is war-weary, Graham and others in Congress are right to press the Obama administration on Syria. This key Middle Eastern state is headed for state failure. The longer this two-year war drags on, the more political and security fall-out there will be for Syria, its neighbors, and the rest of the world. As one example, the United Nations is projecting that as much as half of Syria’s population will be displaced inside or outside the country by the end of this year, if current trends continue.

Despite his tough talk about a chemical weapons “red line,” President Obama seems to be in no mood for war. Lindsey Graham may be right about the need for American military involvement in Syria. It is a frightful prospect to consider a failed state with devastating, unsecured weapons. It is far from clear, though, that intervention would arrest a slide toward state failure. The long-term record on failed state interventions is, at best, mixed. Foreign interventions can hasten state failure, too.

Black Gold: The Geopolitics of Oil

I recently read Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century, a book by Tom Bower. Readers of this blog will find the book compelling for many reasons. Even so, Bower’s blind spot on climate change is a serious problem, and still symptomatic of the views of many of the world’s political and business leaders.

Oil – published in 2009 – provides a detailed account of the Western oil majors and their interactions with governments during the 1990s and 2000s. The book profiles a number of key industry executives – notably John Browne (former head of BP), and Lee Raymond (former head of ExxonMobil) – as it paints a nuanced picture of the risks and rewards of extracting “black gold.” Too often, ordinary consumers of oil do not comprehend the challenges associated with oil extraction, transportation, and refining. Companies often drill “dry wells” in the exploration process, which bring significant risk and cost to their operations. In many cases, host governments abandon negotiated contracts, leaving companies like Shell, Chevron, BP, and ExxonMobil in precarious financial situations. At the extreme, governments nationalize resources, as has happened in Russia, Venezuela, and the Middle Eastern states before them. Indeed, after the recent wave of energy nationalism, the Western oil majors (i.e. the world’s main privately held oil companies) now control a surprisingly small fraction of the world’s petroleum reserves.

Vladimir Putin Doll

Russia, more than any other state, has been closely associated with geopolitics and energy nationalism. The main architect of Russia’s energy geopolitics is Vladimir Putin. Photo credit: monkeyatlarge (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

The most interesting geopolitical coverage in Bower’s excellent book is his discussion of Russia and the post-Soviet region. The book’s account of Russia’s wild 1990s period is stunning for its treatment of (oil) oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Potanin. As this and other cases from the book show, black gold has a way of undermining the rule of law and stimulating pervasive corruption. Bower also does an excellent job detailing the rise of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s resource nationalism. One compelling sub-theme related to Russia is the Clinton administration’s (1993-2001) aggressive efforts to channel Central Asian energy resources to the West, but not by way of Russia.

Now more than ever, the oil business is not for the faint of heart. Added to longstanding cycles of boom and bust are major geopolitical risks associated with unstable and uncooperative oil-producing states. And, critically, there is the core unresolved issue of climate change. Unfortunately, Bower mostly treats climate change as a difficult public relations issue for the oil companies. He seems to pat the companies on the back when they eventually concluded that they could not be both fossil fuel extractors and alternative energy leaders. That might be the right short-term business decision for these companies, but heavy global reliance on fossil fuels is not a wise path for our future. We must settle the climate change debate in the public arena, not in corporate boardrooms.

***  A new book by this blogger:  Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses

Syria, Somalia, and State Failure

Damascus, Syria Skyline

The city of Damascus in a quieter time. The photo shows part of the capital city’s skyline in 2006. Photo credit: RabunWarna (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Two years after widespread anti-government protests began in Syria, the situation there is rapidly deteriorating. Last week’s issue of The Economist marked the deterioration  with a cover story declaring “the death of a country.” Indeed, the numbers tell a story of humanitarian catastrophe: 70,000 killed; 150,000-200,000 political prisoners; 1 million refugees; and 2 million displaced within Syria. These are staggering figures for any country, but especially so for a relatively small country  of 21 million people. In the three months since I last focused on the situation in Syria, this crossroads state has taken troubling steps toward state failure.

Here it is worth quoting from the The Economist’s editorial:

As the world looks on (or away), the country jammed between Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel is disintegrating. Perhaps the regime of Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, will collapse in chaos; for some time it could well fight on from a fortified enclave, the biggest militia in a land of militias. Either way, Syria looks increasingly likely to fall prey to feuding warlords, Islamists and gangs – a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant. [emphasis added]

In certain respects, the comparison of Syria with Somalia is warranted. Both states suffered long under authoritarian rule prior to their descent into catastrophe. Both states have experienced fragmented civil wars, with rival anti-government groups targeting each other. Both states have been influenced by Islamist militants. Both states have significantly destabilized neighboring countries.

Syria, though, is not Somalia. And Syria is not likely to become another Somalia anytime soon. The fundamental breakdown in this comparison is the contrasting experiences of these two places with modern statehood. Those who know Somalia best (e.g. Ken Menkhaus) argue that resistance to centralized government has been a hallmark of this part of the Horn of Africa. Despite linguistic, religious, and ethnic homogeneity, most Somalis have adamantly resisted centralized government. The lack of legitimacy accorded modern state institutions led to the failure to construct a state after independence in 1960. Decades after independence, the central government had still not established basic state institutions such as courts and an effective police service. The ineptness of the Siad Barre government (1969-1991) and the turmoil associated with the end of the Cold War led to deeper problems for Somalia in the 1990s and 2000s. Somalis are still struggling to accept some form of Westphalian-type statehood, 53 years after independence.

The situation in Syria is strikingly different. Even with the deep ethnic and sectarian divides in Syria, a strong majority of Syrians embrace the concept of modern statehood. The anti-Assad forces – though divided – are struggling to capture Damascus and establish a new government for Syria. The Syrian rebels – now recognized in many foreign capitals as the rightful political representatives of the country – are seeking a rather conventional agenda with their war.

So, even if Syria soon becomes a “failed state,” the prospects for rebuilding the state are at least fair. Somalia, in contrast, has never really had a functioning state, despite the fiction of world political maps and the country’s seat at the United Nations.

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.

Is Syria a Failed State?

A Syrian flag in Homs

A war-ravaged Homs, Syria in May 2012. Photo credit: Freedom House (Creative Commons license).

Remember the Arab Spring? In March 2011, peaceful protests against the Bashir al-Assad government erupted in Syria, following closely the political upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Initially, protesters called for policy changes; after massive repression, they began mobilizing for regime change. Since March 2011, Syria’s civil war has resulted in more than 40,000 deaths and nearly half a million refugees. And with recent territorial gains by the opposition forces, it seems unlikely that the war will de-escalate any time soon. Even with all this violence, is it appropriate to call Syria a failed state? The clear answer is “not yet.”

The Syrian war is fundamentally a struggle for control of state institutions. The Free Syria Army is seeking to overturn the decades-long rule of the repressive Assad dynasty. The opposition is striving to take over control of the Syrian state, not to undermine state institutions. Unless the civil war drags on for many more months, Syria will re-emerge as a critically weak, but not failed, state.

In 2008, the Brookings Institution released an excellent global assessment of state fragility. Co-authored by Susan Rice, current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the assessment identified Syria as a “state to watch”:

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has failed to promote economic prosperity, despite having promised reform of the country’s state-run economy. Syria’s low score in the economic sphere derives primarily from slow growth and inadequate regulatory quality. In the political arena, repression and government control of the media continue to stifle political opposition and dissent. (pp. 20-21)

The last sentence seems quite prescient, given the events of the last two years. Even so, the key crossroads state of the Middle East was not labeled as a failed state or a critically weak state, and for good reason.

In the Rice report, and in more recent data, Syria fares well in terms of human development indicators. The country boasts an adult literacy rate of over 85 percent. Before the war, adult life expectancy was four years above the world average of 70 years. Infant mortality was comparatively low for a developing country. And Syria’s Human Development Index score was about average for its region, and much higher than most failed states.

Yes, more than a year of war is beginning to exact a heavy toll on the country’s population, economy, and infrastructure. Syria will not instantly recover from this dark era. It is, however, worth recalling another post-conflict state that many wrongly called a  failed state in the 1990s.

In years immediately before and after the genocide of 1994, Rwanda was not a failed state. It was a state afflicted by widespread atrocities, but the country had and has relatively effective governmental institutions, and most Rwandans deem state institutions as legitimate. Just as Rwanda’s (economic) development has surprised many in the post-1994 period, post-civil war Syria could surprise many with an era of rapid reform and progress. With or without Assad, post-war Syria will have key advantages that most failed states do not have.

The Geopolitical Vulnerabilities of Israel

War has returned to Israel and Palestine. At least every few years, Israel is involved in active, intense warfare on its northern or southern borders. And since Hamas gained control over the Gaza Strip in 2006, Israel’s southern flank has been particularly active. Now that anti-Israel elements in Gaza have acquired more sophisticated weaponry, and given wider political changes in the region, Israel’s precarious geopolitical situation has become even more perilous.

Wall Separating Israel from the West Bank

This is a section of the wall (“security barrier”) separating Israel and the West Bank (of the Jordan River). Photo credit: Ian Burt (Creative Commons license).

Given its out-sized importance in the Middle East, Israel is often perceived to be much larger than it is. Admittedly, the size of Israel depends on the definition of its boundaries, which are disputed. Any “fact” about Israel’s size is therefore dependent upon what boundaries are assumed (see, for example, this pro-Israel site). If the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank (roughly along the lines of the 1967 ceasefire) are excluded, Israel’s physical area is about 21,000 square kilometers (or 8,000 square miles). (The estimated population for this area is about 8 million.) That area is about one-third less than that of Belgium. Or, to use an American reference point, Israel is about the size of a smaller New England state (such as Vermont or New Hampshire).

So what does Israel’s size have to do with the current war raging in and around the dense urban cluster that is Gaza? Simply put, Israel’s small size makes it exceedingly vulnerable to attack. That is nothing new. What is new is Gaza militants’ acquisition of longer-ranged rockets, which are capable of targeting Israel’s core population and economic centers, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Iran seems to be a key link in Hamas’ acquisition of these rockets.

Old City Jerusalem

Photo credit: acroll (Creative Commons license).

One need not be pro-Israeli to recognize the increasingly precarious geopolitical context for the majority Jewish state. Whatever Israel’s past collective sins against the Arabs, the country now exists in a much more difficult regional situation, not least due to political upheaval in Egypt. Israelis persist in a heightened state of war readiness because they must. The United Nations cannot ensure Israel’s survival. Only hard-nosed realism can.

Obama, Romney, and Schieffer Missed Much of the World

On Monday, October 22, 2012, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama squared off in the last of three presidential election debates. The single theme of the last debate was foreign policy. Moderator Bob Schieffer (and the candidates) mostly debated U.S. foreign policy toward North Africa, the Middle East, and Af-Pak, or the core of the Islamic world. There was almost no discussion of Latin America, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, Southeast Asia, or Oceania. What a pity. The graphic below is suggestive of the places discussed in the debate. The size of the labels indicates the prominence of these countries and regions in the debate.

Iran’s Political Circus Continues

Last week, Iran’s currency, the rial, lost more than 30 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. Iran has experienced exchange rate volatility before, but last week’s drop was enough to prompt widespread protests by more than 10,000 merchants. The currency drop is just one more chapter for a political system that can best be described as circus-like.

In addition to jolting economic and security events, Iran is accustomed to a politics of illusion and mirage; political relationships are often not as they may seem on the surface. True, even established liberal democracies have moments of political surprise and subterfuge. In Iran, though, a system dominated by a council of Islamic clerics is a hall of mirrors for average citizens and expert observers alike.

To what extent are the economic policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responsible for the slide in the Iranian currency? To what extent are international economic sanctions fomenting macro-economic crisis? How free is Ahmadinejad’s government to pursue its own course on domestic economic issues? How much patience will (younger) Iranians have with the supreme council of clerics? Have ruling elites over-played their hand in pushing the domestic economy to the brink over its nuclear program?

Various Iranian experts do not believe that the country is facing an imminent political revolution. These experts argue that continued exports of energy, an increasingly effective clampdown on the Internet, and the formidable coercive power of the Iranian Revolutionary guard provide the regime enough resources to survive. As in so many other cases, regime change in Iran may ultimately rest on the question of the loyalty of the government’s soldiers.

The Geopolitics of Sectarianism (Syria, Iraq, and Regional Contagions)

Nine months after the full withdrawal of American soldiers, Iraq is being squeezed on many fronts. Internally, a Sunni-based insurgency persists. Troubles remain in part of the northern Kurdish region, leading to Turkish military incursions. Tensions between neighboring Iran and much of the world remain high. Oh, and there is Syria. The problems in Syria are a potent reminder of just how unstable sectarian politics can be, particularly given the cultural geography of the Middle East.

Though Iraq’s leaders profess to be democrats, they seem to be moving in a direction of greater support for the decidedly un-democratic Assad government in Syria. Planes delivering weapons to Assad have been transiting Iraqi air space from Iran, despite the efforts of U.S. and other diplomats to halt the flow. Established democracies (in the West) also support authoritarian governments at times, out of geopolitical realism. Given his recent tactics, though, Bashar al-Assad is no longer a run-of-the-mill dictator.

The bigger picture is about much more than the fate of a political dynasty in Syria. As others have noted over the last year, the Syrian uprising – unlike those in North Africa – has the potential to instigate a catastrophic regional contagion. Syria’s marginalized Sunni majority is the core of the anti-Assad forces. In neighboring Iraq, the Sunni minority remains uneasy after the upheaval that began in 2003. Elsewhere – in places like Bahrain and Yemen – Sunni-Shiite tensions are palpable.

It is easy for outsiders and Westerners to recognize the flaws of sectarian politics in the Middle East. For many Muslims, though, the sectarian contest is the fundamental dimension of domestic political life. And, if one does not accept some level of separation between mosque and state, there is little space for democratic compromise.

The rest of the world will soon find out whether the Syrian conflict can be contained. Even if it is, the specter of sectarianism will persist in the region.

*** 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.