The best guide to the chaos of Egyptian politics is Hobbes. No, not Thomas Hobbes -- Calvin and Hobbes. Analysts have been arguing since the revolution over whether to call what followed a transition to democracy, a soft coup, an uprising, or something else entirely. But over the last week it's become clear that Egyptians are in fact caught up in one great game of Calvinball.
For those who don't remember Bill Watterson's game theory masterpiece, Calvinball is a game defined by the absence of rules -- or, rather, that the rules are made up as they go along. Calvinball sometimes resembles recognizable games such as football, but is quickly revealed to be something else entirely. The rules change in mid-play, as do the goals ("When I learned you were a spy, I switched goals. This is your goal and mine's hidden."), the identities of the players ("I'm actually a badminton player disguised as a double-agent football player!") and the nature of the competition ("I want you to cross my goal. The points will go to your team, which is really my team!"). The only permanent rule is that the game is never played the same way twice. Is there any better analogy for Egypt's current state of play?
Egyptian politics is prone to exaggeration and panic, fueled by deeply felt frustration, endless political maneuvering, partial information spread through dense and contentious news media, and profound political uncertainty. Things are often not as desperate as they appear. Indeed, I was joking on Twitter yesterday that the expert consensus that today would be a big crisis day in Cairo probably meant nothing would happen, since everybody (including me) is always wrong. But today's moves by the Constitutional Court on behalf of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) seem difficult to overcome and likely to push Egypt onto a dangerous new path. With Egypt looking ahead to no parliament, no constitution, and a deeply divisive new president, it's fair to say the experiment in military-led transition has come to its disappointing end.
The uprisings that swept the Arab world following the fall of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 represented a stunning moment in the region’s political history. For political scientists specializing in the region, the events of the last year and a half represented not just an exhilarating moment of potential change, but also an important opportunity to develop new research questions, engage in new comparisons, and exploit new data and information. The Arab uprisings challenged long-held theories dominant in the field, particularly about the resilience of authoritarian regimes, while opening up entirely new areas of legitimate social scientific inquiry.
The Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) was created in 2010 in part to build the capacity of Middle East experts to engage and inform policy-makers, the public sphere, and other political scientists about the region. On May 29-30, 2012, POMEPS convened a group of leading political scientists who specialize in the Middle East for its third annual conference at George Washington University to discuss the opportunities and challenges that the Arab uprisings pose to the subfield. Participants were asked: “What new and innovative research questions do you think have become particularly urgent, feasible, or relevant? How would those research questions fit into wider debates in the field of political science?” I am thrilled to announce the publication of a new special POMEPS Briefing collecting nearly two dozen of the memos written for the conference (free PDF download here).
The authors are all academic political scientists and Middle East specialists who speak Arabic and have lived in and studied Arab countries for extended periods. They include scholars at all career levels, from senior faculty at top universities to advanced graduate students still writing their dissertations. The memos reflect on a wide range of debates and paradigms within political science, and taken together lay out an impressive set of marching orders for the subfield. Graduate students looking for dissertation topics and junior faculty looking for articles that might make a big splash take note.
The Social Science Research Council's Transformations of the Public Sphere Initiative has been publishing an outstanding series of reflections by leading academics on the transformative effects of the evolving public sphere. Some of the key contributions to the series thus far by political scientists include "Too Much Information," by Lisa Anderson; "Political Science and the Public Sphere in the 21st Century" and "The Public Responsibilities of Political Science," by Rogers Smith; "International Affairs and the Public Sphere," by Stephen Walt; and "Intellectuals and their Public," by Jurgen Habermas. I was honored to be invited to contribute to such a stellar series. My new essay in the series, "Political Science and the New Arab Public Sphere," appears here with the permission of the SSRC.
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Political scientists specializing on the Middle East see Jordan as the Arab country most likely to experience major new mobilization during the coming year, but see Bashar al-Assad as the Arab leader most likely to lose power. They see the Obama administration as doing a pretty good job overall in its response to the Arab uprisings, but performing terribly on Bahrain and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are largely against military intervention in Syria, don't expect war between Egypt and Israel in the next two years, and don't expect a negotiated two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians in the next decade. And they are perfectly divided over who they think will win the upcoming Egyptian Presidential run-off election.
Those are among the interesting findings of a pilot survey I conducted this week during the third annual meeting of the Project on Middle East Political Science, a network of academic political scientists specializing in the Middle East which I direct. The sample for this pilot survey included about forty political scientists at all career levels, all of whom have spent significant time doing research in the region and speak the relevant local languages, and are primarily based at a university or college (rather than a think tank or NGO). This survey is a pilot study for a larger expert panel I'm planning to put together for the Middle East Channel. I hope that expert panel will offer a regular barometer of views of regional issues -- and also be willing to offer predictions which might offer some meat for the Philip Tetlock-inspired debate about the value of expertise for prediction.
Below the break are some of the key results of the POMEPS pilot survey:
Given the turbulent path of Egypt's post-revolutionary transition, it somehow seems only right that last week's first round of the Presidential election managed to produce the worst of all the possible run-off combinations: the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed al-Morsi vs. the SCAF's Ahmed Shafik. It's fair to say that the sky appears to many people, once again, to be falling. That tantalizing glimpse of a successful transition to a civilian President who could represent the revolution and challenge the SCAF seems to once again be dancing from view. So, basically, the Presidential election has gone just about as well as every other part of Egypt's disastrous transition. What now?
"The stupidest transition in history" is how my colleague Nathan Brown recently described the last fifteen months in Egypt. Few would disagree. At virtually every step, it seems that almost every player has made the wrong choice: the SCAF, the activists, the Muslim Brotherhood, the judiciary, political leaders... and even political analysts. When I've been in Cairo, or talking to Egyptian friends or following Egyptian media, the sky is pretty much always falling. Every protest is the next revolution, every internet rumor the latest catastrophe, every erratic move by the SCAF the unfolding of its cunning conspiracy, every inflammatory Islamist statement the sign of impending apocalypse. Indeed, predicting disaster is virtually mandatory for Egypt analysts.
And yet... if one had fallen asleep in February 2011 and awoken over the weekend to see a country consumed with excitement by tomorrow's Presidential election, things might look different. Egypt now has an elected Parliament, which has underperfomed in some ways but does enjoy real electoral legitimacy. The Presidential election is hotly contested by mostly non-disastrous leading candidates in which the outcome is very much unknown. Politics, as predicted, has shifted mostly from the streets to the ballot box, and election fever has gripped the country. The military still seems intent on carving out its own empire within the state, but has consistently refused abundant opportunities to postpone the transfer of power to an elected government. Islamists, after sweeping Parliamentary elections, seem to be losing some ground with the public in part through their own political mistakes (such as fielding a presidential candidate after promising not to do so and poorly managing the Parliament they won). Former regime fullul were wiped out in those same elections, and remain on the defensive. Could it be that Egypt's disastrous transition might still end up pretty much okay?
What should you be reading about the politics of today's Middle East, beyond (of course) the outstanding daily content on the Middle East Channel and the news and analysis featured in the MEC Daily Brief? The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader -- or, "Abu Aardvark's guide to good reads on the Middle East" -- is a new regular feature which will highlight what I consider to be the best of the academic journal articles, long-form magazine articles, policy reports and books which come across my desktop.
The MEC Editor's Reader will reflect what I'm actually reading and think merits your attention. Some weeks that might mean an extended book review, others a selection of journal articles. I may write about a ten year old book if it's what I'm currently reading, or I may write about forthcoming academic research. I will particularly highlight publications by the talented academic members of the Project on Middle East Political Science, which I direct, but I will try to not neglect writers from other fields. I can't promise to even try to be comprehensive -- which you'd thank me for if you actually saw my desktop. This will be a selective guide to work I found interesting for some reason, reflecting my own ideosyncratic interests and reading habits. But please do send me your articles and books if you want me to consider them. And with that, welcome to...
The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader #1 (May 16, 2012)
The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, by Roger Owen. (Harvard University Press 2012).
Harvard historian Roger Owen had almost completed a book on "Arab Presidents for Life" in late 2010, just as several of those Presidents suddenly faced mortal challenges. Rather than simply insert "and Fall" into the title, Owen chose to integrate the new developments into a thoughtful and incisive evaluation of Arab political authoritarianism in all its components. Owen points out the many ways in which Arab Presidents and Kings imitated one another, with Presidential sons following - or attempting to follow - their fathers, and all relying on extensive security services and webs of patronage. His analysis of the personalization of power challenges recent efforts to distinguish Arab monarchies from their Presidential counterparts, and lays bare the internal logic of such personalized security states. As an historian, Owen is sensitive, and admirably transparent, about the limits of our knowledge about the inner workings of these regimes. But his brief discussions of each country effectively convey both the commonalities and differences across the cases. Owen's highly readable book serves as a fitting requiem for a system of rule which long seemed immovable, has now been exposed in all of its flawed brutality, but seems likely to adapt to new structural conditions rather than simply fade away.
My PDF Reader:
Voting for Change: The Pitfalls and Possibilities of First Elections in Arab Transitions, by Ellen Lust (Brookings Doha). Yale University Political Scientist Ellen Lust, who has written widely on political parties and elections in authoritarian Arab regimes, lays out the challenges and opportunities in the foundational elections in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond. First elections, she warns, should be treated differently from subsequent elections, with different objectives and obstacles, with priority given to building a strong democratic system and addressing the fears and uncertainty which plague any transition rather than on managing a particular political outcome. Lust wrote about Syria's recent pre-transitional Parliamentary election for the MEC here.
The Rise of Islamist Actors: Formulating a Strategy for Engagement, by Quinn Mecham (POMED). Middlebury College Political Scientist and former State Department Policy Planning staffer Quinn Mecham argues for a more systematic strategy for engagement with Islamist political parties. It should surprise nobody that Islamist parties do well in Arab elections or more open political arenas. Mecham expertly lays out the benefits and risks of engagement, and urges the U.S. to engage broadly in order to build understanding on both sides ---but to neither compromise on core value commitments or to exaggerate their likely power.
Tunisia's Transition and the Twin Tolerations, by Alfred Stepan (Journal of Democracy). Columbia University Political Scientist Alfred Stepan, one of the leading figures in the study of democratic transitions globally, examines the relatively successful Tunisian experience since 2011. "With secularists agreeing that Islamists could participate fully in democratic politics, and Islamists agreeing that popular sovereignty is the only source of legitimacy," he writes, Tunisia has been able to avoid the violence and polarization found in some other cases. Egyptians and others should take note.
Networks of Third-Party Interveners and Civil War Duration. Asyegul Aydin and Patrick Regan (European Journal of International Relations, 2011). What is the likely impact of military assistance to the opposition on the duration of Syria's civil war? Aydin and Regan's 2011 article doesn't talk about Syria directly, but it does focus on the logic and historical record of external interventions in such conflicts. The network analysis suggests that such interventions are likely to increase civil war duration and encourage opportunistic, rent-seeking behavior among the combatants unless there is a high degree of unity of purpose and shared interest among the intervening parties. Well worth a read, even if you have a low tolerance for math, for trying to think through the likely implications of supporting armed opposition in Syria.
... and don't miss these from the Project on Middle East Political Science:
Jordan, Forever on the Brink. Collection of essays on the shortcomings of political reform and growing instability in Jordan.
Breaking Bahrain. Collection of essays on the political stalemate in Bahrain.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.