I've had some great feedback already on this week's FP column, What We Talk About When We Talk about Supporting Egyptian Democracy (Alt-T). I'm not going to summarize the rather lengthy article here -- just go read it, please! When you're done come on back, because I'd like to throw out a real, not rhetorical, challenge to those who want the United States to effectively support democracy in Egypt (that's not to deny the legitimacy of those who don't think we should be promoting democracy there for one reason or another -- that's just not today's question).
Before I get to the challenge, one quick response to an objection raised by my right honorable friends Michael Wahid Hanna and Issandr el-Amrani. They argue that whatever it might have said at other times, the Obama administration badly misplayed its response to Morsi's November 22 power grab. I don't really dispute their read of the initial response -- I think the administration was still primarily focused on Gaza at that point and didn't catch the significance of Morsi's domestic move quickly enough. But I don't think that the overall trend of two years can be judged by one day, and would continue to argue that the administration has been far more consistent in its public and private support for Egyptian democracy than is generally remembered. But still, point taken -- that was not part of my highlight reel.
Okay, now to the challenge. I believe that most of the academic and policy community in Washington seriously wants to support democacy in Egypt, believes it to be both normatively valuable and important to American national interests, and thinks that the United States has not done enough to support it. That same general description would have applied to pretty much any point in the last twenty years, regardless of the U.S. administration or Egypt's political conditions. (The turmoil of the last two years and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have driven at least some to rethink the goal of democracy, but again that's a different argument).
Most of the disagreements within this community, for better or for worse, are about how to promote such democracy. But I'm not sure that the debate about means has quite kept up with the dizzying changes of the last two years. As I point out in the column, we still mostly hear about the same old chestnuts: more pro-democracy rhetoric, more funding for civil society and democracy programs, more conditionality on military aid or financial assistance. What seems to be missing is genuinely new thinking about what "getting serious" about democracy would actually mean concretely in the current environment. How do you support democracy while opposing Muslim Brotherhood victories? How do you support liberal movements or parties without undermining their electoral prospects? Does conditionality make sense at a time when the Egyptian economy is collapsing?
So here's the challenge. Below are six specific questions about how the U.S. should go about supporting Egyptian democracy. They are meant as questions, not answers -- I don't believe that anyone, including me, has fully or persuasively answered most of them. I'm not looking for you to agree with me (not that anyone would!) -- I'm looking for real debate and good new ideas. You don't need to answer all of them or write fully developed articles, but do try to think beyond the familiar answers that we can all recite by heart. Next week, I'll write up and link to the responses if I get enough useful feedback. And also feel free to pose new questions which you'd like to see addressed.
Without further ado, the questions:
1. The Islamists. It is frequently argued that the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology and organization renders it essentially incompatible with true democracy. The Brotherhood won Egypt's post-transitional parliamentary and presidential elections, however, and is likely to perform well in (if not win) future elections. How would you propose dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood's participation in democratic elections? Should the United States call for barring the Muslim Brotherhood from fielding candidates or refuse to deal with its members if they do take office? If not, then how would you propose dealing with the reality or prospect of their winning free and fair elections?
2. Supporting Liberals. Most U.S. policy advocates would like to support liberal trends in civil society and in the political arena. The current Egyptian political arena (including many leftist activists) is quite hostile to foreign interference in general and to the United States in particular, however, and is likely to continue to be so for at least the next few years. Even if the case against U.S. democracy NGOs were to be thankfully resolved, it is unlikely that they will be able to operate in any significant capacity in the near future. Given this, how do you think that the United States could most effectively support liberal or otherwise sympathetic political trends or groups? Should the United States openly support such groups, and if so what do you think the effects would be inside of Egypt? Should the United States attempt to quietly or covertly support them? If so, do you think this is feasible in Egypt's current media environment, and what do you think the effects would be of exposure of such support? Do such groups in fact want U.S. funding and/or support, and would it actually help them win elections?
3. The Process. One alternative to supporting liberals or opposing the Muslim Brotherhood is to focus on the democratic process and institutions. Support for the abstract principle of democracy, however, is often taken as support for the winners, so that "backing democracy" is perceived as "backing Morsi." Do you believe that the MB's current dominance of Egyptian institutions means that seemingly neutral support for the democratic process is actually de facto support for Islamist rule? Is there some way which the U.S. might support the democratic process which would not have that effect? What, precisely, would that be? Most agree that elections are not enough, and that effective inclusion and respect for minorities and core human rights lie at the heart of any real democracy. How, specifically, could the United States most effectively push for such inclusion and rights?
4. Conditionality on military aid is often seen as the key mechanism for influencing the Egyptian political system. Does it still make sense to focus on conditionality for military assistance now that the SCAF has transferred power to a civilian government? Would conditioning military aid under the current political alignment mean weakening the military relative to the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus be counter-productive? How credible and effective would such conditionality be given what we know about how military aid to Egypt actually funds U.S. corporations and about how conditionality will always include issues related to the Camp David Treaty as well as to democracy and human rights?
5. Conditionality on economic assistance, whether bilateral or through the IMF and World Bank, is also often seen as a key point of leverage. Does the intensity of Egypt's current economic crisis make this the wrong time to talk about conditionality, given the urgent need to stabilize the situation? Or does the crisis make this the perfect time to take advantage of the desperation of Egyptian leaders for external support?
6. Engagement. There is a broad consensus that the United States has been ineffective at communicating its support for democracy to the Egyptian public and that it should do more to engage broadly across the Egyptian public. What, specifically, could the United States do to engage more effectively? With whom should it speak, what should it talk about, and what policies should be changed which would make the engagement more effective with a broad cross-section of the Egyptian public?
My answers to at least some of these questions are here, but as I said I'm really looking for new, specific ideas here. I'm pretty sure that there will be a highly interested audience within the government as well as the policy community for any good new ideas about these questions. Please email me your thoughts and comments, or a link to any you post at your own outlets, and if I get enough responses by early next week then I will write them up. So fire away!
Or my Alt-Title: What We Talk About When We Talk About Supporting Egyptian Democracy.
This post is simply to point my blog readers over to my weekly Thursday column, which is entitled "The Egyptian Treadmill: Why Washington Isn't Panicking About Egypt's Latest Crisis." It looks at how the Obama administration views the ongoing crisis in Egypt and the various proposals for what it should be doing about it. More discussion later but for now, I just hope you go read it!
A few minutes ago I asked Twitter: should the Middle East Channel cover the events in Mali? The first wave of responses was sharply negative: "Muslim =/= Middle East. Struggling to believe that this is a real question" (@lindsayiversen); "Sure, it's right next to Afriganistan" (@jimmysky); "Don't think I've ever seen a definition of "Middle East" that includes Mali"(@drjoyner) ; and a coveted "#headdesk" from Africa expert Laura Seay (@texasinafrica). But not everyone agreed: Andrew Exum asked whether the Sahara should be seen as a natural boundary or as a highway; Issander el-Amrani mused that "it is an issue on the periphery of the ME that can affect it, so yes."
When I asked the question, it wasn't because I misread my maps (see above, where Mali isn't part of the Middle East) or because I hoped to steal an exciting new conflict from my Africanist colleagues. Nor was it because I think that "the Middle East" should be expanded to include anyplace where jihadist movements pop up, or where Western countries intervene militarily (hence FP's AfPak Channel, which is different from the Middle East Channel). It was mainly because I've been receiving some excellent article submissions focused on the Mali policies of Arab states -- mostly, but not exclusively, Algeria. I'm still undecided as to whether that merits inclusion on the Channel -- right now, I'm leaning towards "Algerian foreign policy, yes; French realization that they are trapped in a quagmire they didn't think through, no."
But the Mali discussion then led to an ancillary, arguably more interesting one: should Algeria be counted in the Middle East? On what grounds? Now, I think there's a very strong case for inclusion of North Africa in our conception of the Middle East. If nothing else, the widespread regional impact of the Tunisian revolution should have settled that question. I believe that Algeria's aborted democratic experiment of 1988-91, where the army's decision to step in to prevent Islamists from winning Parliamentary elections helped spark an exceptionally gruesome five year civil war, remains one of the least appreciated and most central events in the modern evolution of Islamist politics. (See my POMEPS Conversation with Oxford University North Africa expert Michael Willis for more discussion of this). And of course, Morocco was invited to join the Gulf Cooperation Council.... just kidding.
But just for fun, could there be a case for excluding North Africa from "the Middle East"? It wouldn't be unprecedented. I recall some serious intellectual debates in the 1980s about Maghrebi exceptionalism. North Africa had an entirely different experience of colonialism than did the states of the Levant or the Gulf (people tend to forget that Algeria was actually part of France for more than 100 years). The EU's "Euro-Mediterranian" project and Barcelona process launched in 1995 offered an alternative institutional framework for these states which some thought might spark the evolution of a distinct Mediterranean identity (that didn't really pan out though). Its economies, particularly its vast labor migration and remittance economies, connecting North African states to Europe far more than with the rest of the Arab world.
What about realist definitions based on security complexes? East of Egypt, the Maghreb doesn't really share the same security environment as the Levant or the Gulf, with little at stake in the great regional conflicts surrounding Israel, Iran, Iraq or Syria. Political definitions? Tunisia may have hosted the PLO in exile, but it would be a stretch to argue that any North African country has really been central to the great political issues of the Middle East. Sure, the Maghreb states are members of the Arab League, but so is Djibouti (and the exclusion of non-Arab Israel, Iran or Turkey rarely makes people define them out of the "Middle East"). And then there's the general incomprehensibility (to non-Maghrebis) of the local dialect despite the formal "Arabic is the mother tongue" thing (not to mention the Berbers, plus the political implications of the large Francophone communities).
The Middle East Channel is going to keep covering all the countries of North Africa, no worries. To me, the similar political institutions and dynamics of authoritarianism and opposition, the common language and membership in regional organizations, and the manifest belief on all sides that it is part of the Middle East are enough. But it's an interesting thought experiment -- one which applies not only to Algeria or Mali but to other potential candidates: South Sudan, after the secession? Afghanistan? Cyprus? How does this fit with those intense political battles to refuse the "normalization" of Israel, and by implication its full membership within the "Middle East"? Or with Gulf Arab campaigns to define Iran as Shi'a rather than as an authentic part of a "Muslim" (i.e. Sunni) Middle East?
So no, Mali isn't part of the Middle East. But thinking about it can be fun for the whole family! And the discussion did produce one broad consensus which I whole-heartedly endorse: FP should find somebody to run an Africa Channel.
I returned earlier this week from a week in Saudi Arabia. I got to meet with a wide range of Saudi academics, journalists, activists, human rights lawyers, and former government officials. I had a long conversation with the leading reformist Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, who faces a prison sentence over his efforts to form a human rights NGO and his hard-hitting tweets. I traveled out to the Eastern Province and met with a number of leaders from Qatif. And, as recounted in yesterday's FP column, I got politely chewed out by Prince Turki al-Faisal and a legion of Saudis for my views on Bahrain.
My column seeks to focus attention on the challenge posed by America's alliance with Saudi Arabia to any policy based on promoting reform or meaningful change in the region. Washington and Riyadh simply see the region's politics very differently, have different priorities, and have often been working at cross-purposes -- especially with regard to the Arab uprisings, not only in Bahrain and the GCC but across Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, North Africa, and beyond. And Riyadh's own domestic institutions and practices are, as will surprise nobody and as fully described in the State Department's annual human rights reports, manifestly incompatible with the vision of universal freedoms and rights which President Obama has frequently articulated.
At the same time, it's easier to diagnose the problem than to prescribe a solution. Washington cannot easily think past its reliance on Saudi Arabia for its current approach toward Iran, the flow of oil, and the broader regional status quo, and the transition costs of moving toward something else can't be wished away. My column urges focusing more on protecting and supporting the emergent Saudi public sphere which is already giving voice to a wide range of political and social challenges. I believe that the rapid emergence of a radically new kind of Saudi public sphere over the last two years represents a more fundamental challenge than is generally believed -- not that it is going to necessarily lead to revolution, but that it deeply disrupts the existing political institutions and norms. Pushing publicly and privately for an end to the prosecutions over political speech of figures such as Qahtani and Turki al-Hamad, as well as the legions of less well-known young Saudis detained over their Facebook and Twitter postings, would be a start. There's more, including getting serious about the repression in the Eastern Province and the discrimination against Shi'a and women.
But is this enough? Two of the keenest American observers of Saudi Arabia are skeptical.
Greg Gause, author of the December 2011 Council on Foreign Relations task force report "Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East" and a vocal skeptic about the idea that the kingdom faces significant instability anytime soon, comments:
I think you are trying to have it both ways here. "Liberal vision" AND the existing security structure of American regional policy. I don't think that you can have both. The middle ground of talking about pushing for reform and the like in Saudi Arabia without really doing anything about it opens us up to legitimate charges of hypocrisy.
And Toby Jones, quoted in my column as the leading academic pushing for a wholesale rethinking of the American posture in the Gulf, responds to my sense that critique has to be framed within the terms of what Washington might realistically consider:
I think you're right, but we don't have to let DC's inertia and inability to see clearly as a pretext to soft-peddle on the best options in the Gulf. I'm not suggesting you're doing that, but a lot of people do. I'd like to see very clear justifications for why the status quo policy or at least continued emphasis on security, rather than a more robust kind of political engagement, is necessary. Lots of assumptions are made about Iran, about oil, etc., and almost none of them stand up to really close scrutiny.
I think Gause is somewhat too sanguine about the stability of Saudi Arabia and perhaps insufficiently impressed by the depth of the challenge posed by the new information environment and youth frustration. And I remain unsure of precisely what alternative American posture Jones would like to see in the Gulf and how it might get there without major disruptions along the way.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, the experienced journalist Ellen Knickmeyer suggests that the crucial question is really the sustainability of the patronage state -- which I think is right, and which along with the question of expatriate workers and Saudization of the workforce consumes the attention of most of the Saudi businessmen and economists I met. That's a whole other set of issues which need to be addressed, and I've seen some pretty alarming -- albeit contested -- numbers put forward on it. Maybe I can get the scholar who produced those numbers to publish them on the Middle East Channel … (hint, hint, scholar who produced those numbers?).
At any rate, Saudi Arabia does lie at the heart of the challenge I posed in my first FP column: What does the Obama administration want the Middle East to look like when it leaves office in four years, and how will its policies help to create such a region? I hope that this week's column helps to spark more debate and ideas.
My column last week arguing that American intervention would probably not have helped Syria has generated a lot of discussion, both positive and negative. Some of the discussion has been productive and useful, even if some has been of the predictably low caliber which anyone who has has been immersed in the Syria debate over the last two years would regrettably expect. Robin Yassin-Kassab published a particularly thoughtful rebuttal yesterday "Fund Syria's Moderates" on FP, which offers a good opportunity to respond to some of the major objections which have been circulating.
I'm in Riyadh for the week (where I've been hearing a lot of support for arming the Syrian opposition and an intensely sectarian Sunni-Shi'ia framing of the conflict -- but more on all that next week). But the FP column I filed before I left on intervention in Syria came out yesterday and I wanted to just quickly make a few comments on it and some of the responses I've received here.
The column looks back at the failure to achieve a negotiated political solution to the crisis, and some of the flawed assumptions (including my own) which might have contributed to that failure. It is not a happy column -- how could it be amidst Syria's devastation? The failure of Annan's diplomacy does not mean that it should not have been tried, though, for reasons I outline in the column. But some of the people discussing the column slightly missed the point when they suggested that I'm still supporting the Annan/Brahimi approach. Actually, what I tried to argue was that the conditions which made it worth attempting last year have mostly disappeared. It's too late to avoid the militarization of the conflict or to prevent the sidelining of non-armed groups. There's no diplomatic process or international consensus to save. It's hard to imagine the "soft landing" for which that political track so desperately -- and correctly -- strove. There's no going back.
The last year should be a lesson to those who called for arming the rebels, too. The shift to armed insurgency in the face of Assad's brutality and refusal of genuine political change has produced catastrophic results. The poorly coordinated funneling of weapons and money to armed groups by various external players has produced greater bloodshed, the eclipsing of non-violent protest leaders, fragmentation into competing emergent warlords, the creation of an attractive open field for jihadist groups to exploit, the retreat of the uncertain middle ground into hardened camps, and the greater likelihood of post-Assad chaos. The problem is not that the U.S. or other outside powers didn't provide enough weapons, it is intrinsic to the nature and logic of such an armed insurgency.
Today is the second anniversary of the flight of former Tunisian President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali. But the new Tunisian republic's second birthday is not an especially happy one. A year ago, Tunisia was widely seen as the one Arab transitional country getting things right. But today, there's much less optimism. The economy continues to struggle, the constitution and elections remain unresolved, Islamist-secular polarization has intensified, and many complain about the over-reach of the ruling Ennahda party. Despair over Tunisia's fate has become as fashionable now as optimism was last year. And as for Egypt... well, Egypt.
How surprised should we really be with these travails, though? As I tried to persuade Nervana Mahmoud over Twitter this weekend, looking more broadly at other non-Arab cases might help. Comparison only gets you part of the way, of course -- no, theory doesn't let you get away with not knowing your cases inside and out! But at the least, a longer and wider comparative lens can help to show which parts of a country's political struggles are unique, demanding explanation in purely local terms, and which are common across many similar cases and therefore don't.
Studying politics long enough usually somewhat lowers expectations about the virtues of democratic politics. Democracy is usually ugly, messy, frustrating, and alienating -- even fully consolidated ones. Politicians don't often set aside their self-interest for the greater good. Old elites generally don't just give up and walk away. Opposition forces struggle for unity. The media rarely avoids profitable sensationalism in the interest of rational public discourse. Intense competition with high stakes and uncertain results tends to drive mistrust, competition and fear. Elections don't usually bring out the best in the political class. Constitutional drafters disappoint. None of that means that democracy isn't worth pursuing -- quite the contrary! -- but a dose of realism can help innoculate against stampedes towards despair.
And so yes, Egypt and Tunisia do look pretty bleak two years into their revolutions... but that's pretty much what the comparative cases would predict. Transitions from authoritarian rule are hard! Skepticism bordering on despair for democracy, polarization, fragmented oppositions, economic struggles, controverisal constitutions as democratic revolutions enter their second year.... well, let's just put it this way. There's a reason that "the terrible twos" are sort of a cliche.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
In case you missed it, my debut FP column came out yesterday calling for the "right-sizing" of America's Middle East strategy. Basically, it argues that President Obama has done some really good things over the last four years, like getting out of Iraq, and has done a good job at avoiding the worst outcomes -- yes, even in Syria, where we could easily have just as terrible a civil war but with significant American military involvement. But as he gears up for his second term, this is the time for the new Obama team to take a step back and think about its longer-term goals for the Middle East. He has his four more years: what does he want to do with them in the Middle East? How are his policies helping to achieve those goals?
Basically, I argue that Obama does have a Middle East strategy shaped by an accurate assessment of the nature of the Arab uprisings and laid out very well in his mostly-forgotten May 2011 speech. But that vision is too easily forgotten in the daily grind of crisis management and the inevitable compromises of tough policy choices, and needs to be adapted to the dramatic changes in the year and a half since his last major Middle East policy address. The column, partly based on a longer article which I wrote with Colin Kahl which will be published in a few months, tries to lay out the logic of "right-sizing" --- not "disengagement" and not "retrenchment", but systematically changing the expectations and the reality of America's military and political role in regional affairs while pushing to build a new regional architecture based upon more democratic and independent allies in key countries like Egypt and Libya as the foundations.
I hope you'll read the whole column over on the main FP page. I'll try to respond to comments and questions when possible over here. My next column is going to focus on one of the main strategic challenges, and arguably failures, of the first term.. but you'll just have to wait to see which one!
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.