Friday, January 17, 2014

In the land of referendums

A quick review of Egypt's recent constitutional referendum votes:

March 19, 2011:
Yes: 77.3 percent of votes cast
No:  22.7 percent of votes cast
Invalid ballots: 1 percent of votes cast
Voter turnout: 41.9 percent

December 15 and 22, 2012:
Yes: 63.8 percent of votes cast
No:  36.2 percent of votes cast
Invalid ballots: 1.8 percent of votes cast
Voter turnout: 32.8 percent

January 14 and 15, 2014:
Yes: 98.1 percent of votes cast
No:  1.9 percent of votes cast
Invalid ballots: 1.2 percent
Voter turnout: 38.6 percent


Friday, July 5, 2013

Some initial thoughts on Egypt

This is my initial reaction to the July 4 David Brooks article:

Brooks is right to point out that there is a difference between the process and substance of democracy. This is not a new observation. But I think people tend to overemphasize it in order to accuse one party of not being "democratic" and to undermine their participation in the political process. In this case, the process was flawed from the outset - the electoral laws were developed in a black box and clearly favored the most organized political forces. There was no consensus regarding what constitutional principles should guide the country. But at the end of the day, it was not the MB alone that should pay the price for these flaws. Within that existing electoral framework, they won an overwhelming mandate to rule in both the parliamentary and presidential elections. At the end of the day, process and substance are intimately related - we see this in many other cases. For example in Hungary, a flawed electoral framework has left the country's democratic substance's wanting. Orban is no Islamist!

I do not agree with Brooks' argument that Islamists are fundamentally opposed to pluralism and modernity. Their engagement in the political process developing in an environment of great uncertainty and insecurity. Nathan Brown gets it right (as he often does): “The tight-knit organization built for resilience under authoritarianism made for an inward-looking, even paranoid movement when it tried to refashion itself as a governing party.” This is greatly problematic in a plural political setting, but not hard-wired into the DNA of Islamists.

This insecurity led the MB to distrust many of the other political forces, particularly the Salafi Islamists (who under Mubarak were given some freedom to preach as long as it wasn't political) and the secular forces. It also led the MB, once it was in power, to try to strike a series of back-room deals with the military and security forces that it had feared for so long (and that it perceived as the strongest force in Egypt). In practice, this meant that the MB did not cooperate well with the other political forces. This was a huge miscalculation on their part. It also meant that the economic and political reforms that are necessary to move Egypt forward could not happen as many of these would require serious concessions by the security forces, military, and bloated bureaucracy. But since the military is back in the driver's seat (disguised perhaps in the coming months as the passenger's seat), it seems very unlikely that the next political leaders will be able to get the military and security forces to carry out these reforms. Ultimately, this military intervention will be evaluated on the basis of what types of concessions the military is willing to make and how much ALL the political forces are willing to compromise in order to reach a mutually-acceptable conception of political legitimacy, not on the basis of who it removed.

Although I am very hesitant to use analogies, since Brooks is discussing Islamists more generally, I do think that this broad narrative about Islamists - developing in an authoritarian context with powerful security services - seems applicable to cases like Algeria and Turkey. The Palestinian and Iranian contexts are different, but share some of these features. Let's keep in mind that, while the other forces, such as the leftists, are not as prominent, they also display these problematic tendencies - distrust of others and disregard for differing viewpoints. This is what makes democratic transitions, where ever they take place, so difficult.

Sometimes it is too late to go back to undo mistakes you made in the past or simply hit the restart button. This might be one of those cases. While I would have praised a technocratic government headed by ElBaradei in May 2011, it seems very likely that removing Morsi and then arresting the MB leadership is only going to deepen the polarization and exclusion that this coup is purporting to address. I hope I am wrong. I hope that ElBaradei is involved in some way as he is one of a very few I think have a chance of pulling a transition off, but it is going to be enormously difficult.

Going forward, the MB and other Islamists must be included in the political process in a meaningful way. The focus needs to be on developing a set of constitutional principles that establish the boundaries on the political sphere for all involved parties and clearly define the concept of political legitimacy that people seem to be debating ferociously nowadays. Those who welcomed this military intervention or participated in it need to learn from Morsi's failures - they need to respect the political rights of others and be willing to compromise. While some will, I think we will find that it is not only the Islamists that have trouble doing this, it is those in power more generally.

Finally, on the US: Yes, the US has been disappointing at several points throughout the process. But I think that working with the MB after they were elected was not one of those errors. In most cases, the US should engage with a country's elected officials! The Embassy's problem is that it was not maintaining relationships with the youth activists and not leveraging its relationship with the military.

Here is a Q&A by Nathan Brown who I think is spot-on in his analysis.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Love, Freedom, and Rumi

Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling,
they are given wings.

- Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pragmatic-ideological Tension in Egyptian Politics

Conventional wisdom on Egypt is that Islamists and liberals engage with – and gain from – the political superstructure in Egypt in a wholly linear fashion, each according to a set of pre-established values. For instance, the positions of the parties regarding the different election debates in Egypt are often characterized as falling along a neat Islamist-secular divide, with Islamists pushing for elections to be held on time and liberals calling for supraconstitutional principles to protect the civil nature of the state. Though certain elements of such an Islamist-secular duality are present in recent events, each political party in Egypt asserts itself based on a set of unique calculations about its principles, constituency and relationship with the current regime, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

An often overlooked dynamic in Egyptian politics is the “pragmatic-ideological” dialectic – an internal tension that can be found in both the liberal and Islamist camps. Both sides face this pragmatic-ideological conflict, with neither acting solely on principle or political expediency. Instead, the degree to which pragmatism is embraced – or rejected – by each faction is motivated by unique considerations, and every action by a party has a heterogeneous effect on the party’s political salience vis-à-vis various constituencies.

The protests in Tahrir Square over the past month illustrate the interesting recalculations of each political party as it attempts to contend with and gain mastery over the Egyptian political sphere. The protest against the Selmy Document of supra-constitutional principles on November 18 and the protest and sit-in against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on November 25 show the fundamental alignments that undergird party politics in Egypt today and offer one explanation for the ability of each party to mobilize voters, specifically the poor performance of the liberal parties in Egypt’s parliamentary elections.

Between a rock and a hard place: Egypt’s liberal parties

The consequence of the pragmatic-ideological divide in Egyptian politics has taken a significant toll on the campaign capabilities of Egypt’s liberal parties. Although it is certainly untrue to say that Egypt’s liberal parties lack all pragmatic sensibilities, the current pragmatic-ideological divide has alienated the liberal parties from the other power centers in Egypt as well as from their natural allies and potential campaign ‘foot soldiers,’ the politically-active youth of Tahrir. Because these parties are trying to tap into the legitimizing power of Tahrir and build up their profile with the youth of the revolution, they try to stay on top of the waves of popular unrest, hoping that standing with Tahrir will somehow launch them into positions of power. In the case of the November 25 protests, this led many of these parties to issue statements supporting an electoral delay until security had returned to Cairo’s streets, a view that placed them at odds with both the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF, but aligned them with the protestors in Tahrir.

At the same time, in the eyes’ of the idealistic Tahrir protestors, these parties often do not go far enough in condemning the SCAF and the Egyptian cabinet. These secular parties espouse liberal values, such as democracy and equal rights for all, while at the same time supporting many of the articles of the Selmy document that puts constraints on the power of the incoming parliament to form a constitutional-drafting assembly.

The generally-speaking liberal youth activists, who one imagines as the natural base of support for these parties, also eschew almost all political deals, the types of compromises that were the currency of Egyptian politics for at least the last thirty years. As the liberal parties have sought to establish a presence on the ground, these politically-active youth of Tahrir have been distracted from the electoral battle by a number of other political battles like that against military trials for activists and have been alienated from these parties by any move they view as legitimizing the rule of the SCAF. The position of these youth is best captured by the position of parties such as the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, which took a strong stance against Selmy document and took part in the anti-SCAF protest between November 19 and 25.

Best of both worlds: Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nour

The Muslim Brotherhood’s vacillation between protest and pragmatism, in contrast, does not cost them at the ballot box; in fact, it probably helps. Most parties in the Revolution Continues Alliance, the Islamist Alliance, and the Freedom and Justice Party-led Democratic Alliance opposed the Selmy Document, as did the unaffiliated parties of al-Wasat, and al-Adl. The dominant view expressed by these groups was that the document was undemocratic because it sought to impose supra-constitutional principles before elections were held and permanently granted the SCAF a set of powers outside of civilian oversight. While spearheading the November 18 protest against the Selmy document, the Muslim Brotherhood was careful to focus on one fundamental issue – the undemocratic nature of the supraconstitutional principles – rather than call for the overthrow of SCAF, an unabashedly undemocratic body of military officials. The Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party did not participate in the November 25 demonstrations against SCAF, claiming it would endanger the country’s stability. This move illustrates the Brotherhood’s characteristic political expediency only a week before parliamentary elections which its Freedom and Justice Party was certain to fare well in.

Notably, the Salafi al-Nour party, which participated in the protests from November 18 through November 24, also announced its withdrawal from the square ahead of the November 25 protests. While seeking to position itself as a pro-revolution force, al-Nour, like the Freedom and Justice Party, also garners legitimacy from its religious work in the community and, therefore, relies more on these religious networks to activate their constituencies rather than the politically-active youth of Tahrir. It may also illustrate a tactical difference in their approach with SCAF – while making statements and going to the streets to protest major issues for them, such as the Selmy Document, the Salafi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood recognize that they developed important networks under the old regime and are positioned to lose more than gain with a total overthrow of the system.


The tension between cooperation and protest with the larger system is an important factor in determining the political strategies of both the liberal and Islamist political parties in Egypt. The evolution of this pragmatic-ideological tension within each party’s strategy will play a crucial role in determining their respective salience in Egyptian politics in the months ahead.