Tag Archives: Egypt

Democracy as a process

by Rhodri C. Williams

Democracy is on my mind this afternoon. For one thing, its July 4th and Philip Gourevich was kind enough to remind me that its about more than hotdogs and fireworks:

As our national day of celebrating our political system passes, I am also currently attending one of the most convincing exercises in homegrown open democracy anywhere in the world here in Sweden, while I simultaneously find myself preoccupied by the ongoing struggle to establish something tenable between the unattractive extremes of autocracy and people power in Egypt.

In Sweden, I am attending “Almedalen week“, an annual political gala in the picturesque seaside town of Visby. Sweden is a small enough polity that after a few years there, you recognize all the politicians and they are literally all here, from the xenophobes to the suecophiles, strolling around in their business casual uniforms, making speeches and gleefully networking. Coming from a country where the president has to cart around truckloads of bulletproof glass on foreign trips, it is a pleasant kind of shock to be this up close and personal with Sweden’s political elite, as well as a lot of leading journalists, diplomats and other functionaries.

There is plenty to find fault with in Almedalen, ranging from the way the week has morphed into a commercial free-for-all to the fact that Swedes of color are frequently notable by their absence. But for all that, Almedalen week is a remarkable experience, a sort of national pep rally for a democratic process that is deeply ingrained, civilly conducted, and fundamentally liberal (in the philosophical sense, Rush. Look it up.) Nothing much of import gets said or decided here, but everyone comes away with a fairly visceral sense of a system that is accessible and responsive.

Meanwhile in Egypt, we are seeing a brand new democratic process experience severe ructions. The commentators have been out in force, and there seems to be a  consensus that both sides are at fault, with the Muslim Brotherhood having vastly overplayed the hand it won in Egypt’s first free elections, and the opposition having responded by undermining the very democracy some of them had risked life and limb protesting for in 2011 (see the ICG’s statement here and Nathan J. Brown’s constitutional analysis here). For both practical reasons and more principled ones, there has been some reluctance to characterise what Egypt is currently experiencing as an unqualified coup. But it is undoubtedly a severe and early setback in a fragile process.

As I write this, a raucous group of Yanks (and their Swedish buddies) who are renting the guesthouse next door are doing a very poor rendition of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’. My own patriotism is feeling a bit less bruised now that I dumped this year’s load of IRS busywork into the mail (though Peter Spiro reminds that ever more US citizens abroad are unwilling to face a lifetime of pointless double-filing), and it is tempting to reflect on the progress of democracy. It is undeniably a pretty infectious idea that all those be-wigged gentlemen farmers invoked back in 1776. It certainly feels like the concept has found fertile ground here in Sweden, and it has made extraordinary progress in the last few years in the Middle East. But it is crucial to recall that it is a process, and never an entirely irreversible one.

PS – Anyone interested in watching my efforts to discuss the rule of law in Libya – in Swedish – here in Almedalen can tune in here: http://www.sommartorg.se/. The seminar will be carried live at noon, GMT+2 and will be available for streaming thereafter.

Costing stability against freedom: The minority dilemma in Syria and Iraq

by Rhodri C. Williams

In a recent discussion with a member of Syria’s Christian minority here in Sweden, I found myself conceding the point that a majority of the population may still support the al Assad regime and that many of its opponents in the region clearly have a political axe to grind alongside their professed humanitarian motivations. It was easy enough to dismiss the notion that Assad had been seriously interested in reform, but my interlocutor’s most troubling argument was that the regime had been – and remained – the sole guarantee of her and her communities’ physical safety.

In a media world almost saturated with analysis of the Arab Spring, an increasingly historically oriented strain of thinking has begun to revive the arguments that had become too threadbare to save Mubarak and Ghaddafi – après moi le déluge: Continue reading

Sweeter the second time around? Self-determination gets another chance

by Rhodri C. Williams

In reading Barack Obama’s now-famous May 19 speech on the Arab Spring, I was struck by his repeated use of the term ‘self-determination’ . Technically speaking, the right to self-determination was meant to be a one-off. When the two core global human rights conventions were adopted in 1966, self-determination was placed front and center in each with the goal of making good on the promise of decolonization set out in the UN Charter. As such, the right to self-determination was an unusual right – it was more overtly political than the rest, it was to be exercised collectively (by ‘peoples’) rather than individually, and it was implicitly a single-use right: if you were a people entrapped by colonialism, you exercised your right to self-determination, became an independent nation and never looked back.

So why are we talking about self-determination again? All the ‘peoples’ in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region punched their ticket once already right? Well, maybe not.

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More Arab than Spring?

by Rhodri C. Williams

In skimming OpenDemocracy’s latest analysis of the Arab Spring, I came across a curious pair of coincidences. The superficial one involves ten percent, that being the percentage of the Egyptian population made up of Coptic Christians, as well as the population of a set of North African and Sahel countries centered on Libya composed of the Tuareg people. The less superficial coincidence relates to the effect of years of allowing these minorities to be used as a scapegoat.

The more obvious case is described by Nelly van Doorn-Haarder and relates to Coptic Christians, a religious minority in Egypt that have come under increasingly violent attack since the 1970s and tend to be blamed for their own misfortune: “Justifications for the attacks abounded: a village feud, two merchants fighting, Copts had raped a Muslim girl.  Attacking Christians became the new normal; somehow they deserved what happened.”

Harking back to the Economist’s plug for an Arab Spring guided strictly by individual rights of the civil and political variety last May (and my response), the Coptic Christians probably make up one of the most favourable examples for this viewpoint. They are not only a minority that has its home in Egypt (e.g., has no clear secessionist agenda), but also one that suffers from egregious discrimination in the civil and political arena.

A great deal could be done to redress their situation, in other words, through measures ensuring effective equality, e.g. without having to go as far as endorsing any group-specific rights for them. Moreover, the incentives to take such steps should exist – after the most recent rioting, the BBC reported that the violence had not only caused the biggest stock market slide since last March but could also derail parliamentary elections set for next month if it continued.

On the other hand, the Tuareg present a more complicated scenario, raising issues that the Economist’s formulation of human rights cannot necessarily answer. As a transnational ethnic and linguistic minority, the Tuareg of the Sahel are in a similar situation to the Kurds – a nation that had the same potential, in principle, as many others to form a state, but which was ultimately hit with the uti posseditis stick and ended up as a series of contiguous minorities in states dominated by others.

In a fascinating analysis in OpenDemocracy, Hugh Brody notes that this fate may explain why the Tuareg of Libya (well, some of them) have turned out to be the one group demonstrating unswerving loyalty to the Ghaddafi regime clear through to the bitter end. Citing a prescient (pre-Arab Spring) commentary on the Tuareg by Jeremy Keenan in Al-Jazeera, Brody notes that many countries in the region had found it expedient to accuse the Tuareg of Al Quaeda ties during the late, unlamented era of the Global War on Terror.

By doing so, these countries were in a position to forge valuable ties with Western security forces and simultaneously continue longstanding depredations against Tuareg land and natural resources. However, they left a legacy of bitterness that translated into an otherwise inexplicable loyalty to Colonel Ghaddafi, the only leader in the region who had seen a tactical interest in doing anything to ameliorate the Tuareg’s situation (notably through preferential economic treatment rather than any meaningful political autonomy).

In light of their situation, the Tuareg present a dilemma to the new Libyan authorities as a group, rather than as individuals, and a sustainable resolution of the conflict is likely to require guarantees of some degree of recognition of this group identity, rather than individual guarantees of equality. The last word goes to Hugh Brody, who summarizes both the nature of the problem and the nature of any meaningful solution:

Thus have the Tuareg come to be at the centre of Libyan events, for which many of them may find themselves paying a dreadful price.  They have had few friends, and may now have increased the animosity of their old enemies.  The Libyans who are taking over their country need to find the fullest and most intelligent understanding of the history that has shaped the lives and decisions of the Tuareg.  They must bring the Tuareg a new justice rather than yet another level of retribution.

Another dimension of the Arab unrest: Its the land, stupid

by Rhodri C. Williams

Having spent the last few weeks apologizing copiously for exceeding the remit of this blog every time I have written on the current Middle East turmoil (as here and here), I am now beginning to sense that I might not have been so far off base after all. It turns out that land issues – and particularly anger at decades of tenure insecurity, crooked deals and discriminatory allocations – have been one of the seeds of the current unrest.

The case of Egypt is particularly illustrative at a number of levels. First – and most practically important in a country that remains almost 60% rural – former President Mubarak presided over a quiet reversal of earlier land reforms in the 1990s with profound negative implications for rural smallholders. According to a very revealing posting in the Landesa blog, Mubarak’s predecessors had accorded former tenant farmers significant tenure security, but in a form that never extinguished the ownership rights of powerful rural landlords. The failure to complete the land reform process by according ownership rights to smallholders would ultimately be its undoing:

In 1992, with little fanfare, and the acquiescence of President Mubarak, the Egyptian legislature adopted a five-year phase out of the registered tenancy provisions of the 1952 land-reform law, beginning with an immediate tripling of rent levels. By 1997, tenants would once again be as they had been under the old monarchy: evicatable at the landlord’s pleasure, and subject to any rent the landlord wished to charge; or replaced by hired day labor.

There is no happy ending to this story. During the five years 1992-97 that is precisely what happened. Roughly one million tenant households (about six million people, or close to one in ten Egyptians) went from being secure, moderately prosperous farmers who enjoyed owner-like status and paid a low fixed rent, to being traditional insecure sharecroppers, or someone’s source of day labor.

At the same time as rural smallholders were losing their shirts, a new generation of politically connected business interests had begun to benefit from sales of peri-urban land for as little as $1 per square meter, often without competitive tenders. One of the interesting aspects of this story is the extent to which the graft underlying the ensuing real estate boom was not prominently covered in the international media despite the intense domestic resentment it generated. A comparison of two articles in the Financial Times, one from September 15, 2010 (‘Egypt’s building progress’), and the other from February 13, 2011 (‘Focus on Egypt land deal fortunes’) is instructive:

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Libya on the edge

by Rhodri C. Williams

It remains impossible to resist commenting on the amazing cascade of democratic uprisings convulsing the Middle East right now. In all awareness that these lie far beyond the strict purview of this blog (there are undeniably land issues, but they hardly play a central role), I just can’t quite believe that I’m witnessing this type of transformation all over again.

I hear tonight that Ghaddafi’s remaining time in “office” might be a matter of hours and I’m suddenly back to the Macalester College cafeteria one morning in December 1989 when Neville Blakemore told me the Berlin Wall had fallen and I almost dropped my tray. Having at last finished David Fromkin’s Peace to End All Peace a few weeks ago, I had just begun to feel like I had finally arrived at a sound understanding of how the modern Middle East was patched together – and now the rug is gloriously being swept out from under my feet.

The situation in Libya is horrifying, but the persistence of demonstrators throughout the country is all the more inspiring for Mr. Ghaddafi’s apparently limitless brutality. And as usual, some of the most satisfying revenge seems to be occurring online from a tech savvy generation no one seems to have dreamed existed in the Middle East – not least in the form of a hilarious video by an Israeli musician (!) that skewers the dictator’s buffoonish rants.

From a human rights perspective, one of the most interesting things about the current ructions is that they may after all issue from George W. Bush’s project to transform the Middle East. On OpenDemocracy, Shadi Mokhtari points out that Bush broke a taboo surrounding human rights discussions in the region – but not through what he said but what he did. In essence, once Arab leaders found themselves forced to condemn Abu Ghraib, it was impossible to keep the spotlights averted from the other dungeons that had kept them in power for decades. Where it ends, nobody knows…

The Onion on Egypt

Thirty years of state of emergency trumped by eighteen days of protest. Its been a pretty wild twenty-four hours but, as the Onion helpfully points out, its now just down to clearing up some administrative details now…

Week in Links – Week 06/2011: Food prices, injustice and Egypt

– Confirming that earlier food price alarums represent a trend rather than a blip, the FAO registered the highest food prices ever earlier this month. Linking this development to the re-emergence of actual food riots in the last years, commentators in Foreign Affairs assert that violence generally fails to erupt unless food price fluctuations are accompanied by a concrete sense of injustice perpetrated by local actors. Whether this should be seen as a reassuring or alarming factor is left to you, gentle reader, to decide.

– While the situation in Egypt is less obviously connected to the subject matter of this blog (whatever the role of food prices there), it is one of the unfolding human rights events of the century and I cannot avert my eyes. And despite the breathing room the Mubarak regime gave the protesters by its cretinous decision to assault foreign reporters last week, things still look pretty precarious. Even as the military appears to wobble on not using open force against protesters, the Guardian has carried allegations of systematic torture of protesters by army units. Meanwhile, even murkier allegations are coming to light about the agenda of the Obama administration and the dubious resume of Omar Suleiman, the ostensible midwife of Egypt’s democratic transition. I am generally not one for conspiracy theories but at this point even fairly mainstream commentators such as Nicholas Kristof and Roger Cohen at the New York Times are nervously urging President Obama to keep himself on the right side of history. I never dreamed I would say this, but I am beginning to feel downright sentimental for the moral clarity (such as it was) of the Cold War.

We interrupt the post-9/11 world order to bring you Egypt

by Rhodri C. Williams

I’d like to say I’ve been a little distracted by what is going on in Egypt over the last few days but its probably fairer to say I’ve been transfixed. Its just another one of those moments when the veneer of the conventionally possible buckles and the great loose cannon of everything-else-that-could-happen comes thundering in. My generation has been provided with more than our share of these moments and we should be old enough now to appreciate them, but not so jaded as to take them for granted.

One of the things that has struck me most about this uprising is the sheer physical courage of the protesters, who are enduring hardships that are unimaginable to me in order to attain a semblance of the life I take utterly for granted. Complain as I might about my occasional run-ins with the humorless Swedish bureaucratic state, I have lived in high trust societies where the great circulation of rights, obligations, taxes, and services flows free and untrammeled. I was neither born into a permanent state of emergency nor remotely considered the prospect of doing hard time for having the temerity to blog.

Another insight from the week’s events is the fragility upon which our security architecture rests. Can it really be, for instance, that Israel’s regional security policy consisted of hoping that Mr. Mubarak would hang on for a few more years? Were they planning to clone him perhaps? The flipside of this realization is also fairly haunting. Should Mr. Mubarak contrive to engineer a kinder, gentler Tiananmen Square event or otherwise hang on, the US, Israel and many other Arab regimes would still *need* him in the same way and in the same magnitude as they needed him one week ago. While the Egyptian regime’s  response to the protests would change this calculus, it would only be a change of degree rather than one of kind. We all knew that systematic torture, rigged elections and rampant cronyism were part of the picture before, after all.

Last night as I went to bed, we had just found out that Bert Sundstrom, a decent Swedish TV correspondent (who had never quite lost that “Gee, I really am a reporter!” gleam in his eye) had ended up severely injured in a hospital in Cairo after a run-in with pro-Mubarak thugs. After a day of watching the protesters absorb shocking levels of violence, it felt like the regime was plucking out the eyes of the world in preparation for a final massacre. It was only once I got the news this morning that the protesters were still there that it felt like a new day had dawned.