Browsing articles in "Middle East"
May 31, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Egypt: A New Hybrid Regime?

 

El-Sisi supporters. Source: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

El-Sisi supporters. Source: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Presidential elections in Egypt finalized this Thursday with a voter turnout of 46% – a slightly lower turnout than the 2012 presidential elections with a 51.85% turnout. It is not surprising that the volatile situation and fear of retribution could have played an influential role on this. Not only was voting extended to a third day but substantial propaganda was used by the government. Today, it is clear that Egypt’s military is not a purely professionalized institution as army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi accepted to become presidential candidate for this year’s elections. What is astounding is that, his charismatic character appears to be fusing already with militarism. In the following years, it is highly probable to see that Egypt’s regime becomes a hybrid regime like Pinochet’s Chile –a military-personalist one.

Voter turnout was so low for presidential elections that voting was extended to a third day. The government tried first to allure citizens through declaring a last-minute holiday. It then tried to coax citizens by threatening to fine those who did not vote. It is quite possible that this strategy was aimed at convincing the international community about the support that el-Sisi has as well as to demonstrate an alleged disapproval for the Muslim Brotherhood. However, all this has demonstrated to political analysts is Egyptians’ discomfort with the current political situation. It is obvious that a large percent of the population supporting the Brotherhood did not vote and also considering that one million ballots were casted blank. El-Sisi’s left-wing rival, Hamdin Sabbahi, obtained less than 4% of the votes. Moreover, social inequality does not appear to have played an important role. Despite perceptions that a strong inequality might have driven revolutionary spirits, a study by the World Bank showed that, in fact, inequality had decreased. However, according to the World Values Survey, expectations for a better living surpassed the moderate economic gains.

The new regime type that is being brewed is a hybrid regime because it has several authoritarian traits while apparently holding free –albeit not so fair– elections. For starters, el-Sisi announced on May 16 that the Muslim Brotherhood would be finished. Second, he and his supporters have already been blamed for the deaths of several of the Brotherhood’s supporters in August of 2013. In an aim to continue modernizing Egypt à la Nasser, the military is excluding a relevant societal sector. Without inclusiveness –a necessary condition for democracy to flourish as per Robert Dahl– Egypt’s democratization will be doomed to failure. Egypt’s regime has the initial features of the hybrid “military-personalist” regime. For Geddes (2002), under this kind of rule the military remains professionalized but the dictator makes most decisions, such as Chile under Augusto Pinochet’s rule. For this researcher, the combination of such features can make regimes last significantly more than if they only were pure militarism. If we were to use Geddes theory on the length of military-personalist regimes, we could expect an approximate duration of el-Sisi’s rule of 10.3 years (average), holding constant economic and other political factors.

Egypt’s elections low voter turnout must be considered as a red flag. Transition periods are usually characterized by large numbers of citizens wanting to participate in the political process, depicted by a high voter turnout. Nevertheless, the recent repressive tactics have intimidated voters from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood as no representatives from the Brotherhood were allowed to participate in elections. Indeed, many were unsatisfied with their rule but ignoring their presence only increases resentment that can accumulate as a pressure cooker. The following weeks will reveal whether such type of regime is possible and if it will possess the durability that Pinochet’s regime had. Indeed, time will tell. So far, we can already observe that personalism is a tool that the new polity is to employ.

Other
Feb 17, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Third Way

 

Source: ChinaPost

After a second round of negotiations for peace in Geneva on Valentine’s Day, the peace negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, left the UN headquarters empty-handed. No compromises were made during the second round. Brahimi even apologized to the Syrian population for the lack of progress. That same day, the Syrian group “Masarat Syria” circulated a YouTube video wishing a Happy Valentine’s Day to the world, in spite of living a civil war that has left a death toll of circa 140,000 people during the last 3 years. Why is it that when, at moments of extreme suffering, the West is the most hesitant to intervene? One part of the reason is the multiplicity of actors and of the interests at stake. But perhaps the other influential cause is nearsightedness.

On February 14, second round negotiations seemed to close without a record of achievement. The regime of Bashar al-Assad refused to speak about violence. For some, this is a clear indication that the government is not willing to cede power to an interim government that is supposed to share power with the opposition. The Syrian regime accused the U.S. for undermining the peace talks and the opposition for not settling over the “terrorism” issue. For their part, the United Kingdom, France and the United States blamed al-Assad’s regime for not willing to move forward in negotiations. Currently, the regime is using 54,199 soldiers, there are 275 Hezbollah fighters, 360 Shiites, 24,000 opposition fighters and 8,972 jihadists. The civilian death toll is: 50,000 civilians, from which 7,626 are children and 5,064 are women.

About a month ago, Immanuel Wallerstein described in great detail about the most possibly influential international actors that could affect the peace process. He painted a pretty pessimistic outcome. Wallerstein identified three possible outcomes: regime continuation; a Salafist outcome with a Sunni shar’ia law; and, a third different outcome. For international actors, he identified that Iran was in a dilemma since it supports the Syrian regime but doesn’t want to defriend the U.S., particularly when there is so much progress in their bilateral relation. The Kurds, in seeking their own autonomy, their negotiations with Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, are threatened by the conflict and can influence Syrian peace negotiations. Turkey is currently in an odd position in that from being a friend of al-Assad regime, became a foe, and then nothing. Israel has not yet taken a stand understandably because it could worse its relations with the regime and Iran. The internal position of international actors like Russia, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, France, the U.K., Germany and Italy did not seem unified for him. Wallerstein concluded that this situation was a “geopolitical chaos,” that actors had a very limited ability to influence any possible outcome and that atrocities were not expected to cease. Furthermore, turmoil had already began to spread to Lebanon and Iraq.

But what if Wallerstein’s views are not entirely accurate? What if there is a third path to which most of the international and domestic actors could be amenable to? If al-Assad’s regime is not willing to talk about a transitional government, what if a government managed by the international community is negotiated? Clearly, this would imply adopting a resolution at the UN Security Council. Core members such as Russia and China would hesitate to support such resolution. However, on September 18, 2013 both members first agreed on supporting Resolution 2118, which instructed the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to work with the Syrian regime to destroy its chemical weapons. Yes, an internationally-led interim regime could be somewhat of an implausible outcome. Yet, this has not been mentioned in the negotiation table. Therefore, a third way is possible. Despite the ‘seemingly impossible peace’, there are hopes. The third round is yet to take place. So far, none of the negotiators have cancelled it and the agenda that was original set by both parties is on: violence, terrorism, interim government, national institutions and national reconciliation. Although deadlock roams around interim government, the topics of the third round could be modified. Will the UN negotiator Brahimi seek to modify them? It is likely that he will attempt to do so, hopefully with the help of the international community. Certainly, we all look forward when the mass atrocities stop. Hope remains in that decision-makers, for once, decide to open up to hear what the enemy –who is likely just a cousin– says, vents and then forgives.

Jan 31, 2014
PEstrada

Motherland Lost

Yesterday, Georgetown’s MA in Democracy and Governance alumn and Research Fellow at the Hudson Group’s Center for Religious Freedom, Samuel Tadros, discussed his recently published book Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity.

In his work, Tadros goes against the idea that Copts, native Egyptian Christians, being a minority have remained completely separate of political developments in Egypt. Instead, he argues that in one way or another they have always been present in the political processes of their country. Further, this presence has been largely related to the issue of what it means to be a Copt. During the modernizing attempts in the late 19th century, Copts, along with Muslims, were expected to give up their religion in favor of a secular state. However, Copts, whose identity is defined entirely by religion and land (Copts have no language or folklore of their own unlike, for instance, Jews), claimed it was them, not Muslims, the original inhabitants of Egypt and the true descendants of the Pharaohs. Hence, it would not be possible to rescind their religious identity in favor of the “Egyptian” one; for them, both were ancestrally inseparable. In order to prevent the emergence of conflicts, these identity issues were not dealt with.

A confrontational time begins in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the appearance of political Islam in response to the failures of democracy. Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood has claimed to fight for an Islamic state, leaving for Copts and other religious minorities in uncertain positions. With such a threat posed by politicized Muslims, the Coptic Church has sought to maintain a somewhat close relationship with the secular governments in Egypt and try to ensure some protection against their aggressors. This is one of the reasons for which the Coptic Pope has been seen in occasions next to authoritarian leaders of the country, most recently sitting right byo President Gral. Al-Sissi. In turn, this is what some Islamist leaders use as a pretext to attach Copts, associating them as supporters of the repressing actions against the Muslim Brotherhood after the fall of Mohamed Morsi.

The tension between Copts and Muslims is accentuated by the fact that Copts pass substantial portions of their lives within the walls of their churches, without having many interactions with other religious or social groups. Inside Egypt there is little knowledge about what Copts are, believe, and how they see the world. Yet the Copt diaspora maintains such a trend: the Church remains the center of the life of Copts residing outside Egypt.

Tadros’ book makes the case for a situation that many could have thought was surpassed in the 21st century, but it has not. Identity and minority conflicts prevail in many countries. Not only this, but they pose substantial obstacles for political development. This can be due to, as Professor Daniel Brumberg noticed in the discussion in yesterday’s event, the fact that a minority group could suffer under a liberalized political environment (as the prosecutions suffered by Copts at the hands of the Brotherhood for associating them with dictators). From another point of view, the situation of Copts in Egypt makes us wonder the extent to which democracy can thrive in a country with substantial fractioning among its social groups. Several authors have proposed some solutions to this problem. Notably, Arend Lijphart suggested a consensual government in which elites of the different groups make decisions, rather separate from grassroots conflicts. Another exit could be secession (which would not work in the Egyptian case because Copts are not geographically concentrated). However, as noted by Professor Brumberg retrieving an idea of Clifford Geertz, many of these situations are very primitive in the sense that the force driving the political actions of social groups is bare fear. The Egyptian attempts to build a new regime offer a real-time answer to the question of how democracy can deal with fear.

Jan 30, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Dreamed Olive Branch

Demolition of Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood, Hama / HRW report on Syria

Demolition of Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood, Hama / HRW report on Syria

Negotiations to achieve peace in Syria are resuming now in Geneva’s UN headquarters, after a brief start in Montreux, Switzerland. United Nations special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, indicated that the ice between the government and the opposition is slowly breaking. Negotiations started with venting feelings and pro and anti-regime journalists pointing fingers towards each other. In order to find a solution to any conflict, oftentimes feelings need to be aired out. However, it is not clear whether both sides will listen to each other in Syria’s case. Particularly when other interested parties that have the power to solve the conflict are not present. Such is Syria’s current state of affairs. Peace negotiations seemingly not including key parties are taking place amidst new revelations that the regime has purposely demolished thousands of homes of families supporting the opposition. Another key indicator complicating the peace talks is the unfortunate delay by the Syrian government in surrendering its chemical weapons materials.

First, according to UN Security Council Resolution 2118, al-Assad’s government has not complied with the first deadline to surrender the “priority one” target of chemical weapons of December 31, 2013. Additionally, Reuters indicated that sources close to the regime report that the regime has no intention of meeting the “priority two” deadline for the February 5 delivery. Accordingly, the main reason for this delay are security concerns and the need for ‘additional’ equipment such as containers. At the negotiations table in Geneva, the Syrian regime has been accused by the opposition journalist Ahmed Zakaria in using, allegedly, food aid delivery as a bargaining tool. If this is so, then such a bargaining tool would contradict the UN SC resolution where the international community demanded that humanitarian aid be provided with no qualms. However, the frankness on the weapons delay appears to be questionable when looking at the Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) recent report on Syria.

In its report, HRW reveals seven large-scale demolitions that took place between July 2012 and July 2013. It also provides satellite images where the demolitions took place. The report also mentions that such destructions took place in neighborhoods that had supported the opposition. A total of, at least, 145 hectares were destroyed which are comparable to “200 football pitches.” With this, credibility of the al-Assad regime by global civil society and several members of the international community, albeit secretly, is under suspicion. Yet, is it the al-Assad regime the only one to blame? Quite honestly, we must look deeper down the rabbit hole so as to perceive a clearer picture.

Syria’s conflict is not only run by the government and the opposition. The government’s weakening has created a power vacuum that non-state actors have taken advantage of. In an article, the New York Times mentions that President al-Assad’s government does no longer hold control of its oil and gas resources. Rather, two splinter groups from Al Qaeda are the ones holding power over these resources and even selling them to the al-Assad government. These groups are the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front. The opposition has been accusing the government for working with these radical groups and protecting them. Some experts also indicate that the Syrian government has been relying on regional oil imports from Iran and Iraq. Perhaps, it is in the government’s best interest to keep this armed and rebel groups on their side, in case they need their help to fight the opposition. Moreover, perhaps one of the reasons against intervening in Syria is that, if Bashar al-Assad’s government were to lose power, then Al Qaeda related cells could take over the state.

Other opposition groups are seemingly not present in the table. Pablo Estrada’s previous post mentions the Syrian National Council, the National Coordination Committee and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It is highly likely that the parties sitting on the negotiations table are the softliners in the government and in the opposition. In this regard, we should first question what is the role of these former Al Qaeda cells and how are they preventing the conflict from being solved. Are they influencing the government from abstaining from offering the olive branch? If so, to what extent is their influence? This could be key. In every negotiation, softliners are the ones sitting on the table. However, what happens when we realize that we may be missing key decision makers (in this case, non-state actors)? Then, we are clearly avoiding to advance democracy and preventing any possible progress in any political transition. Indeed, some may say that it is unethical to deal with non-state actors such as Al Qaeda because it would imply their recognition and giving them unnecessary attention. Yet, in order to reach peace, some degree of empathy must be shown by listening to our greatest enemy.

Jan 23, 2014
PEstrada

The Magic Mountain

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria (from BBC).

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria in a hotel of the town (from BBC).

On Wednesday, a long-expected international conference backed by the United Nations began in Montreux, Switzerland. Its participants, representatives from 40 countries (including the U.S. and Russia) and delegates from the Syrian government and some factions of the Syrian opposition, discuss the so-called Geneva communiqué. This document was issued in 2012 as a result of another international meeting about the Syrian conflict. In general, it provides a framework within which the war will come to an end, including the stop of violence, the formation of a transitional government with full executive authority, and the holding of elections, among other things. After a one-day break, the meeting will resume on Friday in Geneva.

The first day of the encounter was dedicated to speeches from all the delegations attending it. Leaving rhetoric aside, this first glance at the conference illustrates the obstacles that very likely it will find in the near future. The most salient point of divergence is that while the U.S., most of the foreign delegations, and the Syrian opposition insist that Bashar Al-Assad must step down and cannot be present in a transition government, the official Syrian representatives assure that the continuation of Al-Assad as president is not to be discussed. Further, for the Syrian government the conference is not about discussing the formation of a transition authority (even more, Syria is the only participating delegation that did not subscribe the Geneva communiqué), but about the Syrian people’s demands of “eliminating terrorism”, “terrorists” being how they refer to Al-Assad opponents (in addition to the fact that there have been reports of Al-Qaeda activity in Syria). Therefore, there are different and diverging goals among the attendants to Montreux and Geneva.

Another aspect that could complicate the conference is its measures of success. It would be very unlikely that the main goal of the Geneva communiqué, the constitution of a transition government, is achieved. However, there are other more specific goals that will be discussed in the second part of the meeting. While the Montreux event featured speeches from each delegation, Geneva will hold more head-to-head mediated conversations between the parts in conflict. It is expected that the talks in these sessions go around issues such as the provision of humanitarian assistance and the protection of human rights in the areas of conflict, the facilitation of the flow of people between zones controlled by the government and by the opposition, or the continuation of the provision of basic public services throughout the country. The extent to which deals can be struck in these issues is still to be seen, but it appears they have more chances of success than topics related to the transitional government.

But even within that reduced set of expectations about the conference, whatever results it could bring could find further difficulties to be implemented in the ground. This is mainly due to the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition. Its largest and arguably most visible section for external viewers, the Syrian National Council, is not sitting at the table because it refuses to discuss anything until Al-Assad leaves power. The leader of another large group, the National Coordination Committee, refused to participate because its delegation did not have sufficient time to prepare itself. Finally, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces yielded to pressures from other countries and agreed to take part in the discussions, although many of its members did not agree with this because they wanted guarantees that Al-Assad would step down.

The picture above could suggest that the prospects for the conference in Geneva are grim. However, it must also be underlined that the current assessment is made taking as after just one day of work in which top-level diplomats (mostly foreign ministers from the participating countries) gave speeches. The session in Geneva could be more productive, constructive, or at least less polarized, given its interactive nature and the presence of mediators. At the same time, the top objective, the formation of a transition government without Al-Assad, could almost be ruled out. Once works in Geneva begin and some time as gone by we can have a clearer idea about what to expect from this conference.

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