Category Archives: Egypt

Obama Avoids the Law Again

U.S. law generally prohibits foreign assistance to “the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” You might think that this is a problem for Egypt, whose military recently deposed the elected head of government and is now beginning to crack down on dissenters. President Obama is not so sure.

In a bizarre interpretation of the law, the Administration has apparently decided that it does not have to decide what happened in Egypt. As one official told the New York Times: “We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say.” The Administration is not releasing the legal reasoning behind this novel position.

President Morsi was an incompetent leader. But some in Obama’s party have said the same about recent U.S. presidents. We did not depose them. As bad as Morsi was, the generals are likely to be far worse over the long-term. Their suffocation of Egypt’s civil society and economy will continue, but now there is unlikely to be any democratic check against it. While the mandatory cutoff of aid may have inconvenienced the administration, the law is supposed to be the law.

This Administration has made a travesty of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Faced with an historic chance to side with the economic and political dreams of the vast majority of Arabs, it has time and again been paralyzed by fear and indecision. When so many in these countries hope for a life like ours, we have focused on the threat posed by a few Islamic radicals rather than on the tremendous benefits of having these countries become full participants in the modern world. And we have probably missed a rare opportunity to cleave the anti-American bloc of Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria by ensuring the fall of the Assad regime. Indeed by not acting we have helped ensure what we most feared: a steady dissent into prolonged broader sectarian conflict that threatens the neighboring countries.

Even if one were to overlook incompetence, illegality is another matter. This Administration has a strong disregard for any legal constraints that hamper its ability to pursue its goals. This cute refuge in blindness is only the latest insult to plain language and common sense. A democracy is not supposed to work that way.


		
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The Revolution in Egypt: Now for the Hard Part

In both Egypt and Tunisia the task now turns to figuring out what will replace the overthrown regime.  This task will not be easy.  It is possible, perhaps even probable, that we will see the establishment of a new regime largely controlled by the same people who benefited from the former dictatorship.  While some minimal concessions may be made in terms of elections and legal rights, power and opportunity would still reside with those who held it before.  In this case a great opportunity will have been lost.

Another option is that a new faction, long oppressed but no more dedicated to the principles of democracy than the old order, will gain power in one way or another and then use all of the tactics of the old regime to keep it.  Thoughts turn immediately to radical Islamists, but they do not present the only danger.  As Iraq shows, in any society that is deeply split along racial, religious, political, or geographic lines each faction has to worry about being oppressed if other factions are allowed to gain power.

The task before the Tunisians and Egyptians is large.  They must agree on the constitutional rules that will govern their new governments and establish the institutions to protect them. And all of this must be done relatively quickly, involve numerous groups whose interests may or may not coincide and who may or may not have a history of talking to each other, all while maintaining the basic stability needed to let people go on with their normal lives.

Now we see the price the United States pays for its appeasement of tyranny.  In different circumstances it would be highly desirable if America could act as a guide in this process.  After all, we went through it ourselves once.  America certainly has many things that would help in the transition; money, a large body of highly trained civil servants with experience in running the police, judicial, welfare, infrastructure and other institutions necessary to a modern society, and social, economic, and cultural traits that appeal to a large part of the population.  Perhaps most important, the American people have a deep history of respect for religious freedom, individual autonomy, and civil society.

What we do not have, at least in Egypt, is legitimacy.  For decades American administrations supported the Egyptian government despite its oppression of the vast majority of its people.  Large amounts of military assistance were given because it served the interests of Mubarak and the army, not because it was at all useful to the vast majority of Egyptians.  America looked the other way as the regime became more corrupt and closed off more avenues of political expression and economic participation to more people.  Lectures in democracy were always enough to satisfy our conscience but never enough to change reality.  Protesters in Egypt have few reasons to think that the American government is really interested in helping them realize their desires with respect to economic growth, the role of Islam in society, and peace in the Middle East.  It could be different.

In the end, support for democracy implies that governments should represent the will of their people, even if this will is opposed to the interests of America and its allies.  The corollary of this principle is that citizens are responsible for the governments they support.  Belief in the right of Egyptians to make their own decisions on the peace treaty with Israel does not mean that America should support whatever decision they make.  But in a democracy arguments about public policy have to appeal to the interests of the people as a whole rather than the interests of the ruling class, the army, or the United States.  America’s foreign policy has never attempted to do this in the Arab world, preferring instead to talk over the heads of the citizenry to governments that do not represent common opinion.

Preservation of democracy requires the establishment of civil society; the routine treatment of social issues by individuals and groups based on dialogue, common respect, and trust.  A recent Foreign Affairs article by Clay Shirky makes three interesting points about this process.  First, the growth of civil society makes it easier to overthrow a repressive regime because the exchange of information erodes the government’s legitimacy and makes its weaknesses common knowledge.  When the revolution comes, civil society provides the strength to resist the government’s attempts to preserve itself.  Second, the existence of civil society makes the second stage of any revolution much more likely to succeed by providing public leaders with the popular authority to make constitutional decisions.  And finally, communications technology, especially social networking sites, can play a vital role in this process.  Shirky argues that, while access to Western media sources is important, the most vital role of technology is putting citizens in touch with each other so that they can start the dialogue needed to build a stronger society.

It may be too late for the United States to play a meaningful role in determining what replaces Mubarak.  But we can do better going forward.  First, by making it clear that, while the United States believes that every nation should be democratic, it is ultimately up to each people to demand their own freedom.  Attempts to overthrow or undermine regimes from outside are unlikely to produce democratic governments without a strong civil society ready to assume power when it is handed to them.  Second, by making it clear that when citizens do make a common decision to support a policy, America will always support their right to do so, even if it opposes the policy itself.  And finally, as Shirky argues, the United States should focus on supporting technology that increases personal and social communication among a state’s population.  These tools have the dual purpose of increasing economic growth and building civil society.  Any regime that attempts to shut them down faces the “dictator’s dilemma;” because these tools are central to modern economies and effort to shut down the medium of social communication also imposes large economic costs.

Let’s hope that future Administration’s do more to act on the belief that: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”  Even if that form does not seem the most convenient for us.

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The Revolution in Egypt: The Easy Part is Over

Now the hard part begins.

Although it is often overlooked, every revolution has two parts; the removal of the old regime and the creation of a new one.  The first is by far the easiest.  But as the revolutions in France (1789), Russia (1917), China (1949), and Iran (1979) all demonstrate, the second part is just as important, and often more difficult than the first.  Even in the American Revolution, five years elapsed between the Treaty of Paris and ratification of our Constitution.

The recent experiences in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate important lessons with respect overthrowing regimes.  The first is that when enough people are willing to go up against the state, the government has no chance.  In this respect every government does in some sense rest upon the will of the people.  Even in a place as brutal as North Korea, the regime’s survival is just a matter of numbers.

Even when the regime has lost all support, rebellion is still a matter of strategy.  If only a few protesters raise their heads, the government can easily deal with them.  If everyone raises their head, there are not enough bullets or troops to put them all down.  While some opponents have no regard for danger, the participation of most citizens depends upon the number of other protesters and the chance of success.  In both Tunisia and Egypt the revolution gained momentum as each day’s successful protest drew more people into the streets.  The calculations have already started in other countries.  Opponents are learning that if they can only persevere, momentum will eventually sweep an unpopular regime away.  Governments may come to the conclusion that the first uprisings need to be ruthlessly suppressed.

The second lesson is that communications technology, especially social networking software, undoubtedly makes it easier for protesters to assemble the critical mass needed to topple a regime.  It does not guarantee success and governments certainly can use the same technology to fight back, but revolution is much easier with the presence of Twitter, Facebook, and file sharing software  than it would be without them.

The third lesson is that in the beginning, if not in the end, it comes down to the army.  Once most citizens oppose a regime, only force will keep it in power.  And even force is not enough if everyone rises up.  The answer then is that any serious uprising has to be crushed immediately, before it can be seen to gather momentum.  And for that the army is vital.  The problem from the regime’s standpoint is that even the army and police consist largely of ordinary people whose willingness to kill their fellow citizens to support a regime that largely benefits their superiors becomes more suspect as the regime becomes more unpopular and isolated.  In the end, the army may decide its interests do not coincide with the government’s.

The people of every nation have the ability  to overthrow tyranny by rising up united against it.  The United States should make it clear that it will morally support them whenever they do.  But that still leaves the hard part of establishing a stable democracy.  That is the subject of a subsequent post.

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