Wednesday, February 2, 2011

This is what Democratization in the Middle East Looks Like - with Caveats

Wait a second...I though Arabs and Muslims and the Middle East region in general couldn't really handle democracy? That something about their culture explained that these people needed strong man running their states, not (real) popular electoral contests and a representative system of government. Well, I am shocked to see what is happening in the streets of Cairo right now. I am a bit surprised about what has happened in Tunisia, what is starting up in Yemen. Actually, I am a little alarmed by the level of repression used by the Mubarak regime in Egypt to try and silence the political dissent when it is clear the whole world is watching. But in terms of what is happening in the streets, this moment has been building for a long time. And no, Arabs, Muslims, and people in the Middle East are not predisposed to authoritarian rule. That's just the system that's been forced on them by force by some of their own elites and great powers abroad. While there is far too much to cover in a single blog post, and quite honestly, it would take me days to write something all-encompassing, I want to give you some short thoughts about what is happening right now in the Middle East.

(Note: I wrote this post very quickly to try and get thoughts out that had been on my mind for the past few days. For that reason, there's a lot here, but I might ramble somewhat. For that, I do apologize. Hopefully there are some thoughts y'all can let marinate for a minute in here)

Tunisia first...why was the Ben Ali regime toppled after being in power for so long? Well...unlike many of the other regimes in the region, his basically did not "upgrade authoritarianism" - Tunisia was the rare country that basically isolated power in the executive. Most importantly, Ben Ali went after al-Nahda, the Islamist group. Much of the talk in the western press dealt with the secular, non-religious aspect of Tunisia's overthrow of Ben Ali. Well...that's because he basically pushed them out of the picture. On the one hand, this was actually a problem for him. Instead of playing off opposition parties against each other, like most regimes in the region do (especially with Islamist groups), this was not an option in Tunisia. There was very limited space for Tunisians to blow off steam, something limited political contestation would allow. that sense, Tunisia is very different than other regimes in the region. This undoubtedly played a role in Ben Ali's downfall (economic problems were probably the main issue, of course) in a way it almost certainly won't in other regimes in the region, which are more liberalized autocracies - they have the facade of some liberalization, which helps them stay in power. Thus, will Tunisia be the first domino to fall? It seems unlikely, in the sense that other regimes are very different from Ben Ali's. The Tunisian success in overthrowing the regime will undoubtedly give others heart (it did in Egypt...but that revolt didn't happen because of Tunisia, as there were many other conditions in play...though, again, the Tunisian success certainly helped), but it seems unlikely to be the main factor in a wave of democratization in the region. Indeed, it may not really become a democracy itself.

Yes, that's right, Tunisia could revert pretty easily. In fact, the factors that helped explain the overthrow will probably hurt the prospects for democracy. By allowing almost no political contestation, Tunisian opposition groups are simply not very used to the process of real elections, real power transitions, and real governance. As a result, they may not be successful in democratization - they just don't have any experience at it. It would not be surprising to see a reversion to a dominant single party, or military rule, something that seems plausible as well. Since the overthrow of Ben Ali, the military has played a major role in the transition. If the opposition parties are unable to manage the situation, could the military step in and take control? Not out of the question, that's for sure.

Moving on to Egypt...the protests have been massive, the repression somewhat harsh at first (though dwindling, as Mubarak's police were simply overwhelmed by the numbers in the streets), and the reality disconnect quite high for Mubarak...or not. This seems to be a societal revolt against 30 years of Mubarak's dictatorial rule. Like Tunisia, economic woes played a major role in the uprising. The most recent elections may have been the most fraudulent during Mubarak's reign...and that's saying something. There have been many different grassroots efforts to create political dissent, as the regime alternated between allowing limited contestation, and outright banning parties and jailing opposition leaders. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) was one of the main targets of this. Again, Mubarak is an expert at upgrading authoritarianism. He lets the opposition blow off some steam, but doesn't really allow them to gain any real political space.

The divide-and-rule tactics commonly used in Egypt are part of why it has been surprising to see the opposition hold together so far. They have pledged to make no deals with Mubarak, and seem to all agree that they want ElBaradei to be the main negotiator. This has been an impressive far. Let's see if it lasts. There is no doubt the regime is making efforts to divide the opposition, though.

The protests seem to encompass most of Egyptian society. This is a wide-spread revolt. The protestors span gender, socioeconomic status, religiosity, age...Egypt has truly shown up in the streets. This has helped make it difficult to frame this as anything other than a national uprising against the regime. In fact, the MB was late to the party, as they didn't join in until after it was clear this was a massive protest. They have played a role, but not a dominant one. This makes it very difficult to argue this is just the religious groups out in full force, something that western allies of Egypt would undoubtedly worry about. Not that they're not overhyping it, anyway, but it becomes very difficult to say this isn't a clear country-wide revolution against a dictator.

The US response has been pretty abysmal thus far. On the one hand, I get it. They basically don't want to get cozy with the opposition in case Mubarak holds onto power. On the other hand...why would we want Mubarak to stick around at this point? He's a major liability, and the cat's out of the bag...people REALLY DISLIKE HIM in Egypt. That's not good for economic investment...volatility is a big deal, and quite honestly, can you trust that this type of situation won't happen again if Mubarak (or his regime - he said he's done in September, but he's 82 and this is really about ensuring his son or other cronies don't just get in power and end up running the same system he did) holds onto power? No, you can't.

There is, indeed, a false dichotomy being set up. It's not democracy vs. stability. Mubarak staying around isn't necessarily stable. Yes, he is more pliant to our wishes. However, if his regime persists, you risk these types of uprisings in the future. Also, there's a moral issue at hand...we'd be denying people their rights to democracy. And not just people...Arabs...many of whom are Muslim. Think that will go over well? It makes our hypocrisy stand out even more re: democracy promotion.

Additionally, who's to say Egypt wouldn't still be an ally? Yes, a new regime would probably have different policy views. However, a good ally tells you the things you don't want to hear. Also, is it really likely that a new Egyptian regime would go to war with Israel (a common fear in the news here)? Is there a risk that the MB would win power? Sure...but that's not necessarily a bad thing. All the research on Islamist groups show that they moderate when they're allowed to participate in politics (as they have an incentive to not be too extreme...they can win elections), but radicalize when they are kept out. This holds across many countries: Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia...allow them to participate, they moderate, keep them underground = no moderation. Thus, the MB in power probably means they, too, moderate. Finally, it's not clear that they would be the dominant party. This is a common assumption here...but a look at the protests reveal that the MB is simply one of many opposition groups present. Are they the strongest? Maybe, though some suspect their power is waning.

However, it's not as if the MB would run the show. They would have to negotiate with other opposition groups, some of whom are secular and much more liberal. Additionally, the MB isn't al-Qaeda. They may not be as liberal as many would like, but they're hardly a religious extremist group. They abandoned violence a long time ago, and have pledged themselves to the democratic process. As such, even if they did dominate politics (which they almost certainly would not), they wouldn't necessarily be that radical. Look at the AKP in Turkey. See how that one turned out? After a few years, the Islamist regime distances itself from political Islam often. They want to stay in power. Appealing to most voters, not the extremes, is how they do this...which means abandoning religious extremist views.

In many ways, Mubarak's response to all of this suggests just how out-of-touch he is with reality. In a country used to "liberalized authoritarianism", his move to dismiss his government and replace it...with different sets of cronies, including appointing Omar Suleiman, America's point man for rendition with Egypt, was as good as extending a middle finger to the populace. It was the same old song and dance. His move to shut down the internet smelled of legitimate leader would do such a thing. His statement to not run for re-election said very little as well. He's 82. I don't think his running for another 6 year term was going to happen, anyway, and this said nothing about his ability to rig the elections yet again to make sure his son, Gamal, or one of his other cronies, took over and ran things as if the old man were still in charge.

Indeed, Mubarak's claim to step aside in September and allow for reforms is an issue because he has no credibility. Given his history, he cannot possibly make a credible commitment to follow through on this pledge. If he was serious, he could have tied himself to some respected international organization, tying his hands to reform. This could have satisfied the opposition in the streets because, as much as they want Mubarak out of power, they fundamentally want a truly democratic system. If they knew they would get that along the way to Mubarak's leaving in September, I suspect they'd be okay with him sticking around just a few more months. However, this did not happen.

There's a huge concern...Mubarak might be trying to wait this thing out. The fact that the U.S. hasn't pushed him harder means that it's not out of the question that he holds onto power, promises "reform", implements some reform, removes much of that reform pre-election, then rigs the voting to ensure a successor he favors. I'll post more about this later. But I am somewhat concerned this might be happening. The protestors cannot stay out in full force for that much longer. The military is now calling for a return to normalcy. Violence is now breaking out (I wouldn't be shocked if the pro-Mubarak crowd instigating the violence are actually on the government payroll, btw), which gives the military a reason to step in, even though the anti-Mubarak protestors have been non-violent. This whole thing could unravel very quickly, and I'm concerned that Egypt could see more of the same. Just like Tunisia. This would be absolutely tragic.

1 comment:

farrahflave said...

Really interesting analysis, Fouad!

I know you posted this right before the pro-Mubarak "thugs" got all midieval on peaceful anti-Mubarak demonstrating civilians.

The violent assaults against the demonstrating opposition is truly vile and I think the military should have stepped in more to prevent those unnecessary deaths and thousand(s) injured!

Hopefully Mubarak will stop paying the thugs $3.40 = 20 LE (according to CNN and twitter posts) and be held accountable for this inhumane actions.

Even Secretary of State Clinton condemned pro-Mubaraks attacks: