International Politics Redux
Egypt Interrupted

Recent elections supervised by the military-dominated government have failed to deliver fundamental democratic reforms to Egypt’s political system.  The long-awaited parliamentary elections of November 2011 to January 2012 disproportionately favoured Islamist political parties at the expense of the liberal and secularist forces that packed Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the Egyptian revolution, in the early months of 2011.  Although repressed for decades under Egypt’s draconian security services, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists were unofficially tolerated because they provided social services to millions of citizens that the government was either incapable of doing or unwilling to do on its own.  As a natural albeit unintended consequence, political Islamists like the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and the hardline al-Noor Party were much better organized, mobilized and recognized at the ballot box than their opponents, be they political secularists, nationalists, leftists, liberalists, and virtually all others.

Though many may disagree with the results of these seemingly skewed elections, the fact is that they were the freest and fairest in modern Egypt’s history.  If the price to pay for a more democratic Egypt in the long run is an Islamist-dominated Legislative Assembly in the short run, then surely this is worth it?  The successful experiences of comparable parliaments in the Middle East with Islamist-party majorities would seem to support this fact: the governments of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (in power since 2002), Tunisia’s al-Ennahda Party and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (both in power since 2011) have all managed to reconcile Islamist political stewardship with democratic transitions of power.  While many may disagree with the priorities and proposed policies of Islamist politicians, democracy means trying them out until voters decide to change their minds with the next election.

But even this point is moot since on June 14-15, 2012, on the eve of a long and tumultuous race for the presidency in Egypt and in light of parliament’s failure to convene a representative panel and to draft a national constitution, SCAF unexpectedly dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament.  This is even more outrageous because after more than a year of gradually repealing Mubarak-era emergency-state laws which restricted political freedoms and civil liberties, SCAF simultaneously imposed a de facto state of martial law, granting the police and security services sweeping powers of arrest and detention – the same powers that had finally just been removed a month earlier!  And this is all taking place as Mubarak himself has been sentenced by the Supreme Court of Egypt to life in prison while his health continues to deteriorate and rumours of his health problems and untimely demise propagate unchecked.

As the sole arbiters of force in the country and the only credible mediators between rival political forces vying for Egypt’s destiny, the military deserves credit for at least maintaining stability and control where tens of millions of people are concerned, a chaotic situation threatens to engulf the region where the risk of governmental authority collapsing without them is all-too high.  Egypt’s socioeconomic situation is far from stable: poverty, unemployment, crime, hunger and corruption all remain rampant, and after over a year, the youth who instigated the revolution have virtually nothing to show for it.  While the military is far from the perfect facilitator of desperately needed democratic reform, it is a far cry better than an Egypt with no Mubarak as well as no law-enforcing, order-imposing military establishment.

So what is the significance of political developments in Egypt for the Middle East and for the rest of the world?  First of all, as the symbolic heart of the Arab World, Egypt’s revolutionary turmoil can spillover into neighbouring countries’ internal affairs and influence developments far beyond its own borders.  Secondly, Egypt’s massive population (85 million) and demographic issues (a youth bulge, urban sprawl and slum dwellings) have the potential – depending on how quickly a government is formed and which policies it chooses to prioritize – to either help or hinder human development in the Arab World.  Third, Egypt has been a critical lynchpin in the region’s Pax Americana since the 1970s, serving as an American ally in the wars against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1990s and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in the 2000s and since 9/11.  Finally, Egypt is key to the broader Middle East peace process, having signed a decades-old peace treaty with Israel (though its long-term survival has been called into question by leading presidential contenders in Egypt) and having mediating several Palestinian-Israeli, even intra-Palestinian, rounds of peace, disarmament and prisoner-of-war negotiations.

Even as Mohammad Mursi wins the first democratic presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood’s charismatic moderate has little leeway to influence events as they unfold in Egypt since no functional constitution yet outlines his powers or the relationship his office has with other governmental bodies.  Arab revolutionaries can at least find solace in the fact that an Islamist president at the helm of the Arab World’s most populous country was patently unthinkable just one year ago.  Having recently arrogated legislative prerogatives and constitution-drafting powers unto themselves, Egypt’s SCAF will continue to call the shots for the foreseeable future and pull the president’s strings, either from behind the scenes or out in the open.  For now, there is no difference.  The government is in the hands of the military, and so the country’s institutions will likewise continue to dance to the tune of their drums.

Arab democracy: Just a revolution away?

Much has been made in the past year about the prospects for democracy in the Arab world after the unexpected revolutions that began in Tunisia spread like wildfire throughout the rest of North Africa and the Middle East.  The US-based NGO Freedom House touted the accomplishments of the Arab Spring in its annual report, Freedom in the World 2012: “In a region that had seemed immune to democratic change, coalitions of activist reformers and ordinary citizens succeeded in removing dictators who had spent decades entrenching themselves in power.”  More than one year after it all began, does the democratic hype really live up to the revolutionary reality?

To better understand this question, consider how these revolutions have played out differently in different Arab states. In Bahrain, for instance, popular demands among the majority Shiites for representative government, constitutional democracy and respect for human rights have been stonewalled by the dominant Sunni monarchy, mainly because of external intervention on behalf of its Gulf Arab neighbours and its geopolitical alliance with the United States.  To its credit, the Bahraini government did authorize an independent commission to investigate the causes, killings and injustices of the so-called Pearl Revolution.  Released in late 2011, this report has been surprisingly candid in detailing human rights abuses committed by the regime and making public policy recommendations for the minority monarchy to reform its politically unrepresentative system.  The Bahraini case shows us how the revolutions in some countries have simply failed.

In other places, mass protests have yielded modest reforms on the part of benevolent autocrats – progress, to be sure, but nothing like a genuine revolution.  This reaction is typical of the more progressive monarchies of the region, like Morocco and Jordan, which have shrewdly managed limited reforms and maintained steady levels of popularity, thus ensuring their own survival.  The sheikhs and emirs of the Gulf, as in Kuwait and Oman, have made modest reforms too, just not the political kind.  Together with Saudi Arabia, these oil-rich countries spent at least $150 billion on their citizens in new economic grants and subsidies, effectively bribing their own people into submission – and since September 2011, that sum has only increased.  Here, evolution is a much better descriptor of the changes taking place than revolution.

Then there are the cases of ongoing revolutionary turmoil, the most prominent examples being Yemen and Syria.  After agreeing and to step down and then reneging on that commitment more times than most care to count, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seems to have finally ended his 33-year rule after he bid farewell to the country and headed to the US for ‘medical treatment.’  Even with national elections scheduled for later in February, Yemen needs at least $15 billion to survive the transition to democracy – an impossible feat for a country wracked by mass poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, unemployment, separatism and terrorism.  Similar forces are fueling popular outrage in Syria, with the various opposition groups coalescing around their opposition to four decades of the al-Assad family’s authoritarian rule and increasingly bloody crackdowns.  The stability and legitimacy of these regimes is extremely tenuous, and the political destinies of these countries are extremely fluid as a result at this point in time.

What about the post-revolutionary scenarios?  In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, it is now possible to discuss free and fair elections, civilian government as opposed to military control, independent judiciaries, freedom of the press, the rule of law and constitutional principles as never before.  In Tunisia the Salafi Islamist hardliners are beginning to openly challenge the ruling Ennahda Party’s moderate Islamist dedication to these principles.  The Transitional National Council in Libya faces enormous challenges preparing a country with no representative political institutions and no history of democracy for elections this summer while maintaining law and order, battling the remnants of pro-Qaddafi troops, unifying dozens of armed tribal factions, and facing fresh allegations of torture.  Although elections have been held in Egypt, they have handed Islamists with questionable commitments to democratic values over two-thirds of the seats in Parliament and glossed over the civil-military tensions between Egypt’s government and the ruling generals.

To get back to the original question, democracy as we know it in the West is far from assured in any of these revolutionary countries.  Many of them are still undergoing traumatic transitions in which the removal of the old guard has not yet given way to a stable post-authoritarian political order.  In other cases, a dictatorial figurehead has been substituted for an equally oppressive administration, dashing public hopes for democratic governance.  Only in a select few country cases does genuine transformation of the entire system of governance seem to be on the horizon, and even then a hybrid Islamic democracy (Tunisia) or a reformist democratic Islam (Morocco) might better reflect the will of the people.

Who knows if a full-fledged, representative democracy is the inevitable end-result of all these protests, uprisings and revolutions?  As many of these national leaders crackdown on dissent and adapt to survive, it is simply too early to say if entrenched authoritarianism will surrender to the forces of popular self-determination or continue fighting the losing battle for despotism.  The two new Islamist prime ministers of Morocco and Tunisia publicly defended the prospects for Arab democracy at this year’s annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  Only time will tell if other states in the region emulate the Tunisian and Moroccan models of democracy in this second year of the Arab Spring.  Regardless, an astonishing amount of progress has already been made since that first domino fell in the fateful month of January 2011 that it is difficult in these revolutionary times not to be optimistic – at last – about the future of the Middle East.

Toward Palestinian Reconciliation in 2012

What is Palestinian reconciliation and why is it important?  This domestic Palestinian political issue, like many things Palestinian, has far-reaching ramifications for the Arab World and the larger Middle East.  The Palestinian national movement has been divided for decades between left-wing secular nationalists like Fatah (now led by Mahmoud Abbas but previously led by the iconic Yasser Arafat) and right-wing Islamic militants like Hamas (led by Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza and by Khaled Meshaal in exile).  Although Hamas was always excluded from the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for its failure to sign onto the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, the two publicly broke ranks after elections in 2006 and Hamas’ seizure of the Gaza Strip in 2007.  With Hamas governing the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (PA) administering the West Bank’s 2.5 million, these two mini-states have failed to reconcile their ideologically opposed worldviews, political positions and approaches toward Israel despite repeated attempts over the past 5 years.  As Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations ebb and flow, the Arab Spring overturns entrenched regimes in the surrounding Middle East and the PA pushes for statehood in the United Nations (UN), the need for Palestinian unity, solidarity and reconciliation has never seemed more urgent.

Because of their dominant positions in the Palestinian Territories, Hamas and Fatah naturally overshadow the many other Palestinian factions jockeying for political representation within the national movement.  Last Thursday, December 22, Hamas agreed in principle to join the PLO after fresh elections are held in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem – with participation from refugees all over the world – in order to restore unity and improve representation in the Palestinian leadership.  Along with Hamas’ recently declared intention to shift from violent attacks on Israel to renewed dialogue with the PA, this latest round of Egyptian-brokered talks could actually be more successful than previous ones.  Both Hamas and Fatah seem to have realized that in the wake of the uprisings sweeping across neighbouring Arab states, the benefits of cooperation may finally outweigh the costs of compromise.  The sheer barbarity of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown and imminent demise of his minority regime has forced Hamas to begin the process of relocating their headquarters-in-exile, and the Fatah-led PA has failed to achieve any tangible results in peace talks with Israel or lobbying in the UN for statehood, so the two parties have engaged once again.  Nevertheless, serious obstacles remain in their way.

To begin with, Hamas remains classified as a terrorist organization, has never renounced violence and refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, facts which are all diametrically opposed to Fatah’s PLO and the internationally recognized PA.  Hamas also continues to collaborate with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran in rejecting any negotiations with the ‘Zionist entity’ that is Israel – although the unrest on the Arab street in the past year has begun to change this reality.  This fact means that international donors will refuse to continue to fund the PA and Israel will reject any dialogue with the Palestinians if Hamas joins the PLO without agreeing to abide by its past agreements with Israel, amending its charter, denouncing terror, and so on.  But there are other problems: Gaza and the West Bank remain geographically separated, bad blood still lingers from the near-civil war of 2007, millions of refugees live beyond Palestinian borders, corruption continues to run rampant through the bureaucracy, and Hamas’ Islamist political ideology clashes in a fundamental way with Fatah’s secular state-building project.

No country is an island, of course, and foreign interference is inevitable in a case like Palestine’s.  Israel and Hamas remain at loggerheads over issues like recognition, negotiations and nonaggression, so any reconciliation between Hamas and the PLO will be greeted with extreme caution by Israel.  Syrian and Iranian influence over Hamas has also waned as Hamas gradually redeploys its resources outside of Damascus and shifts away from Tehran’s orbit.  The military regime in Egypt has warmed to Hamas as well and has always been congenial to Palestinians in general, hosting reconciliation talks and providing ideological support to Palestinian independence as the Muslim Brotherhood looks poised to dominate Egypt’s postelection political landscape.  As other regional powers aim to influence Palestinian destiny, like the revolution-supporting Turkey and the revolution-suppressing Saudi Arabia, the very identity of the Palestinian political body also remains fluid and malleable.  

Palestinian reconciliation itself remains a distant possibility with major opportunities and several potential pitfalls for the time being.  Much more significant is the electoral process, which will be judged by its legitimacy, fairness and equality for the voting population.  Without meeting several benchmarks for democratic participation and representation, the whole project of Palestinian reconciliation is in doubt.  The dysfunctional nature of Palestinian politics for the past few years has failed to produce long-term results for the Palestinian residents of the Territories and refugees alike, modest improvements in the West Bank’s economic infrastructure notwithstanding.  What is required is a vision for Palestinian unity, a roadmap for sovereign statehood, and a viable basis for its peaceful international relations.  As long as this is lacking from the present Palestinian picture, doubts will remain regarding its future.

The Media and the Middle East

When Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the provincial Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid on December 28, 2010, to protest his inability as a fruit vendor to obtain a simple license to sell his wares at the local market from the government, nobody could have predicted the chain of events that has since led to revolutions in Tunisia and the wider Arab World.  Only ten days after Bouazizi died from his self-inflicted wounds on January 4, 2011, anti-regime protests forced the Tunisian President of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine ben-Ali, to flee the country with his family and inner circle.  By January 14, 2011, the Tunisian case had set the trend for the rest of the region, with popular pressure forcing the Egyptian President of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, to hand power over to the much-respected military and retire to the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh on February 11, 2011, only 18 days after massive demonstrations began!  In both of these cases, the Tunisian and Egyptian governments and militaries refused to crack down violently on protestors, and the message that peaceful revolution was possible spread to neighbouring Arab states.  But how did these revolutions succeed in the first place, and how have they managed to inspire populist uprisings elsewhere without any central planning or organization?

Without the modern media in the form of privately-owned newspapers, satellite television stations, smartphone-enabled citizen journalism, Internet-based blogging sites, and social media networks, these modern revolutions would have been impossible.  Take, for example, the fact that Al Jazeera – the Qatari-based satellite TV network with journalists reporting on the ground in practically every Arab state undergoing some type of civil unrest – was temporarily banned from Egyptian households by Mubarak’s supporters, their government-issued accreditation was revoked by the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain, and they have had reporters harassed and a cameraman even killed by pro-regime forces in Libya.  While these state-sponsored acts targeted Al Jazeera directly, they represent an attack by the region’s fundamentally unrepresentative and increasingly threatened authoritarian regimes on all democratically-motivated and transnationally-oriented revolutionary movements in the Middle East.  In other words, as the principles of democracy, transparency, accountability, empowerment, and social justice are championed locally by the international media, the traditional autocrats inimical to these modern qualities react with gradually more erratic, barbaric and unacceptable measures.

Ever since the apparent successes of Tunisia and Egypt, similar anti-government revolutionary movements have taken place in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and Bahrain, each with varying degrees of effectiveness in achieving their goals.  Part of the problem is that state-owned media networks often compete directly with the private and international media to feed the public their version of reality.  When government-run media stations lose control of the dominant narrative, they cut off access to foreign news sources by blocking satellite signals, revoking licences, disconnecting service providers, censoring the Internet, shutting down offices and physically deporting journalistic staff.  Until the very last days of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, local media virtually ignored the millions of people protesting in central Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  Throughout Muammar Qaddafi’s struggle to militarily defeat the rebellion in Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s repressive crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Syria, for instance, ordinary citizens consuming local radio, newspaper and television broadcasts are bombarded by government lies, propaganda and misinformation on a daily basis.

Even more interestingly, local media networks controlled by national governments can construct diametrically-opposed realities on stories of international significance.  The regional tug-of-war pitting Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other with Bahrain in the middle demonstrates this effect perfectly.  Bahrain is a majority-Shiite but Sunni-led Gulf state in which the Shiite opposition’s popular demands for better treatment in employment, housing and infrastructure have been received by the al-Khalifa ruling family with heavy-handed crackdowns.  Under the guise of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional security alliance, friendly Sunni monarchies responded to the King of Bahrain’s request for assistance by dispatching their militaries to the Bahraini capital of Manama and forcefully pacifying the protesters.  This is where fact and fiction collide: while the Sunni and Saudi-owned al-Arabiya satellite television station reported this event as a cooperative military intervention necessary for territorial integrity and regional stability, the Shiite and Iranian-owned al-Alam (Arabic) station decried it as an imperial military invasion that interfered in Bahrain’s sovereign affairs.  However events unfold in Bahrain, the point is that without truly independent media, governments are still able to create and control the narratives.

For the two North African Arab states which precipitated the so-called Arab Spring, it is worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on why the ruling families refrained from turning their powerful security, military and paramilitary forces on their own people in the way that other Arab dictators have done.  Although Egypt and Tunisia represent more homogeneous societies than those in Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, popular discontent remains a constant feature of the region.  What these demonstrators have recognized and capitalized upon is the power of the media to mobilize the message of the revolution and deliver it to the rest of the world instantaneously.  Whereas mere decades ago the government could control the message, massacre its own population and continue on with business as usual, international public opinion pressures these regimes to substantially modify their behaviour.  Not only are these individual Arab revolutions national in nature, they collectively represent a much broader media revolution in international politics.  Power is rapidly diffusing from governments to populations, aided by transnational networks and encouraged by international awareness.  If these changes usher in more democratic and representative governments, the long-suppressed peoples of the Middle East may finally be able to determine their own destinies and participate in creating a more modern world.