Saturday, January 29, 2011

Will the US make the right decision in Egypt?

The remarkable events in Tunisia have been followed by even more spectacular developments in Egypt. The idea of an "inert" Middle East that suffers from a "democracy deficit" is belied by the thousands of Egyptians marching in the streets of cities throughout the country chanting slogans that call for freedom and democracy.

Unfortunately, the demonstrations have been marked by violence on the part of the security forces and have caused many casualties. However, with the withdrawal, at least temporarily, of the hated CSF (Central Security Forces), Egypt has experienced not only political protest but looting, including destruction of priceless artifacts at the Egypt National Museum in Cairo.

Thus far, the military has exercised restraint regarding the demonstrations and has not moved forcefully to suppress them. However, it seems that the Mubarak regime withdrew police forces from the streets to send a message that the protests will lead to chaos, thus preparing the populace for the redeployment of the CFS. If this occurs, and the regime orders the military to back up the police, we could see extensive bloodshed in Egypt in the days ahead.

One of the key question that remains is what the response of the Obama administration will be towards the popular uprising in which calls for fair elections, freedom of expression and assembly, and the elimination of the corrupt Mubarak regime continue to ring out.

Once again, radical Islam is the specter that continues to haunt Western policy-makers. Focusing almost exclusively on the possibility of an Islamist takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration and the European Union have been tepid in their response to the protests that have engulfed Egypt. They continue to call on the Mubarak regime to exercise restraint in suppressing the demonstrations, allow for the free expression of ideas and enact social reforms (but reforms which have been left largely undefined).

What Western powers fear is a repetition of the events in 1978 and 1979 in Iran where street demonstrations resulted in bringing to power the repressive regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. These considerations pose a problem for the Obama administration. What action should it take regarding the popular uprising against President Husni Mubarak's regime in Egypt?

Unfortunately, the US has shown great equivocation regarding events in Egypt. When the demonstrations began, Secretary of State Clinton at first assured the world that the Mubarak regime was stable. Subsequently, President Obama encouraged the Egyptian government to respect the rights of the demonstrators and to minimize the loss of life. He underlined that the US wants to see the same freedoms we enjoy in this country respected in Egypt as well and he called on President Mubarak to enact long over due reforms. These statements were accompanied by remarks by White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, that US aid to Egypt - $1.3 billion per year, of which all but $250,000 is for military aid - was under review.

While it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood and even more radical Salafi groups in Egypt seek to exploit the uprising, they did not initiate it. Rather it was Egyptian youth, most of whom do not have an Islamist agenda, who began the uprising. While the Islamist movement in Egypt will be the topic of another posting, now is the moment for the US to show its true colors in Egypt and the Middle East and come out full square for democracy.

If the US does not take strong action to force the Mubarak regime to implement immediate and concrete reforms, such as holding truly free elections rather than the sham parliamentary elections in which only 16 opposition candidates were elected to office out of 518 parliamentary seats, the US will lose what little credibility it has among the Egyptian people. It will only play into the hands of the radical Islamists, potentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about their rise to power.

If a major and bloody suppression of the demonstrations does occur, and the US watches from the sidelines, it will represent a failure of potentially catastrophic proportions for the US. Democracy activists will be further marginalized and Islamists strengthened. US inaction will only pour more oil on the politically explosive fires that are rapidly spreading in the Middle East.

Instead, the US should threaten to drastically reduce US aid unless the Mubarak regime enacts immediate and meaningful political and economic reforms. Food supplies are already running short in Egypt. The regime may have the military muscle to suppress the demonstrations, but it does not have the economic wherewithal to sustain 85 million Egyptians should foreign funds and food imports begin to dry up.

Yes, a future Egypt without Mubarak is, for many Western policy-makers, a frightening scenario given the uncertainty that his departure would bring. However, we all know what sticking by the side of the Shah of Iran to the bitter end in 1978 brought in its wake. Does the US and the West want to see a recurrence of Iran in Egypt?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Beyond the Secular-Islamist Divide in Middle East Politics

Despite the Western media's obsession of viewing Middle East politics through the lens of radical Islam, events taking place in Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon have little to do with religion.

In Tunisia, radical Islamist groups were delighted with Zine al-Abidine Bin Ali's overthrow and hoped to exploit the unrest to establish an "Islamic Amirate of Tunisia." To the chagrin of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghrib (North Africa), Tunisians have shown no interest in such bombast and instead have emphasized the secular nature of their protest movement.

In Lebanon, Hizballah has dramatically increased its power, but only through cross-confessional cooperation. Hizballah has proposed a billionaire Sunni prime minister, Najib Miqati. A graduate of the American University in Beirut with a Masters of Business Administration degree, he is hardly a radical Islamist. To put him in office, Hizballah has required the support in parliament of Michel Aoun's Maronite and Walid Jumblatt's Druz factions .

In Egypt, the Mubarak regime is trying to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the unrest that is sweeping the country. The Brotherhood denies any involvement and demonstrators who have been interviewed by the press say their protests have nothing to do with Islam. As one young activist put it, "If we were the Brotherhood, we'd be much better organized."

What are the drivers of the current unrest in the Middle East?
There are many factors behind the current unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon, unrest that may spread to other countries as well. First, there is large unemployment and underemployment in these countries, as in many others in the region. This unemployment disproportionately affects youth, who make up a large demographic in most countries of the Middle East, often well over 60% of the population under the age of 25. Second, there is the problem of massive corruption and nepotism within the state apparatus, made all the more intolerable by the increasingly sharp divide between the rich and poor. Third, protesters are no longer willing tolerate political systems that continue to be dominated by a small group of entrenched elites who refuse to share power with anyone else. All this combines to undermine any sense of hope in the future.

With the dramatic increase in social media in the Middle East, this discontent is widely shared on the Internet among large segments of the populaces of the region. Social media help offset feelings of inefficacy because they demonstrate that the same same feelings of discontent transcend national borders. Social media also provide a way to organize opposition to authoritarian regimes, as we saw in Iran in June 2009 after the election of president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, which many think was rigged. Social media facilitate the organization of demonstrations and are difficult for the state to control.

Is the Jasmine Revolution transportable?
But is the Tunisian model of regime change applicable to other countries of the Middle East? One of the most important elements in the Jasmine Revolution has been the support for the demonstrators by the military and, more recently, the national police. The Tunisian army is a relatively small force and largely apolitical. The refusal of its commander-in-chief, Gen. Rachid Ammar, to obey the orders of deposed president Bin Ali to fire on demonstrators, was seen as key to forcing Bin Ali and his family to flee the country.

In Egypt, the military is much more politicized, having seized power in the July 1952 Revolution. Military officers subsequently became directors of nationalized companies, that came to form Egypt's large public sector, where many made large fortunes for themselves and their families. Other former officers added to their wealth and power through occupying key positions in the state bureaucracy and intelligence services. The Egyptian army, by which I mean the upper echelons of the officer corps, will most likely fight vigorously to prevent the ouster of the Mubarak regime (although it may seek to replace him with another autocrat in an effort to placate the current demonstrators).

One key variable in assessing the possibilities of democratic change in the Middle East is the degree to which corruption has pervaded the upper echelons of society. The greater the degree to which there is an institutionalized system of corruption, the larger the number of political actors and groups who will oppose democratic political change, realizing that such change will curtail their power and wealth.

Lebanon presents a very different situation from both Tunisia and Egypt. Ethnically and confessionally divided, it has always had a weak state, and is subject to pervasive and negative "neighborhood effects" - namely interference in its political affairs by Syria, Israel, Iran and many other states in the region. Many of the drivers of discontent in Tunisia and Egypt are operative in Lebanon - unemployment, corruption and nepotism, lack of government services and a small political elite that monopolizes power and is unresponsive to the need for political and economic change.

When analysts ask how Hizballah was able to transform itself from a shadowy organization that was connected to the bombing of the US marines barracks in Beirut in 1983 to a movement today that, in effect, controls Lebanese politics, they only need look to the country's political elite which has always ignored the needs of the poor Shi'a of south Beirut and southern Lebanon. This segment of the population has grown dramatically over the past two decades, and was forced for almost 20 years to confront Israel's occupation of the south. Had the Lebanese government taken the south's problems seriously during the 1950s and 1960s, well prior to the Israeli invasion of 1982, it is doubtful that Hizballah would have acquired the power that it has today.

Hizballah, and its backers, Syria and Iran, will attempt to prevent the type of change that is occurring in Tunisia from happening in Lebanon. With the country's different ethnic and confessional groups divided along many ideological lines, it is unlikely that the type of national unity that we are seeing in Tunisia will crystallize in Lebanon.

Still, Lebanon has a largely democratic political culture, and Hizballah will be forced to take responsibility for the country's problems, now that it, for all intents and purposes, rules the country. If it pursues a sectarian agenda which leads to more conflict, it may alienate many of its own supporters who, like most Lebanese, yearn for political stability following the devastating civil war of 1975-1990 and continued political instability. If, as is expected, the unsealing of the indictments by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon of those alleged to have assassinated former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005 show that they were members of Hizballah, the organization could lose considerable credibility in Lebanon.

What is the role of the international community in the Jasmine Revolution?
Even if it is doubtful that either Egypt or Lebanon will move towards greater democracy in the near future, what can the international community do to help the Jasmine Revolution consolidate its gains? If Tunisia establishes a functioning democracy after its forthcoming elections, elections that the military vows it will make sure are fair and transparent, a danger lurks if the new government is unable to address the economic problems that were the reason for the uprising against the former Bin Ali regime. Educated professionals, workers and others may be delighted to have freedom or expression and assembly, the right of political participation and other benefits of democracy, but these will soon lose their attractiveness if there is no improvement in the economy.

Already the UN has sent a team of advisers to Tunisia to provide assistance to the new interim government. The UN should be the focal point for a large international effort to provide economic assistance to Tunisia. The UN, the US, the European Union, Turkey and other countries should encourage foreign investment in the Tunisian economy. International lending agencies should provide micro-credit for small merchants, such as the vegetable and fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation set the Jasmine Revolution in motion. International agencies, both governmental and non-governmental, should help the new Tunisian government provide better services to its citizenry, such as health care and job training.

Tunisian universities should receive assistance that would allow them to upgrade their curricula, thereby providing better educational opportunities for the large youth demographic in the country. Universities in north America, Europe, Turkey and elsewhere could establish "sister university" relationships where foreign universities partner with their Tunisian counterparts to improve the educational system, both secondary and higher. All these efforts would provide the critical social and economic underpinnings for the Tunisian economy. They also would send a strong message to the populaces of other authoritarian states in the Middle East that democratic change is possible in the region, the assertion that it suffers from a "democracy deficit" notwithstanding.

Religious devotion should be respected by everyone. But forcing one's religion on someone else is antithetical to the spirit of tolerance and brotherhood/sisterhood that characterizes all of the world's major religions, including Islam. Muslims throughout the Middle East have discovered that Islamism - by which we mean requiring the wearing of a certain type of dress and following certain codes of behavior - cannot, on its own, bring about the improvements in the quality of life sought by the peoples of the Middle East.

Jobs, better education, accessible health care, and increased opportunities for women require much more than the outward trappings of religious belief. Above all, this type of progress requires a civic, participatory and democratic citizenry that works together, across religious lines, and that includes both men and women and old and young, to bring about the positive change we see occurring in Tunisia. Religious fanaticism has no role to play in this type of political movement.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Youth in the Middle East: a New Force for Change?

The toppling of Tunisian President Zine al-Abadine Bin Ali goes far beyond the ousting of an aging, repressive and corrupt autocrat. Bin Ali is the first Arab president to be forced out of office by non-violent civil demonstrations. Perhaps most importantly, the impetus of the movement that led to his fall was the actions of Tunisian youth who kept up demonstrations against his regime for more than a month. Responding to the self-immolation last December of a 25 year old unemployed Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, who the police had prevented from selling vegetables in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisian youth took to the streets to protest a repressive and increasingly unpopular government. Despite the estimated killing of 50 demonstrators by the police, they refused to leave the streets. What was most significant was the role of youth in the first toppling of a sitting Arab leader. What are the implications of youth activism for political change elsewhere in the Middle East?

My own research with Iraqi youth over the past two years, which was recently featured on National Public Radio's All Things Considered (Wide Gulf Divides Youth from Older Generation), indicates a pattern throughout the Middle East, namely the deep disaffection of youth. While Iraqi youth may be less disaffected than youth in more repressive countries, because at least Iraq has democratic elections, they reject sectarianism and the manipulation of religion for political ends. While highly attracted to Western culture, Iraqi youth know little about their own country's history. While some are very active in civil society organizations, others are cynical about politics which they view as the realm of corrupt elites. Because Iraq's youth constitutes 65% of the population under the age of 25, we find the same "youth bulge" that exists in many countries of the Middle East, including Tunisia. Youth comprise an important demographic that represents the future of the Middle East and one that calls out for more study.

Yet the older generation, as we see in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, is very out of touch with young people in the region. These elites have done little to prepare these youth for the future or to build economies that would provide them with jobs. Freedom of speech is suppressed and the national media strictly censored. To legitimate their rule, Islam is manipulated for political ends. Secular leaders like Bin Ali, Egypt's president Husni Mubarak, Syria's Bashar al-Asad, and Algeria's Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika, argue that authoritarianism is necessary to prevent Islamists from coming to power. Islamist regimes, such as those in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, completely distort Islamic doctrine to suppress individual freedoms and prevent any form of dissent.

These conditions suggest a dangerous and explosive future for the region. Lack of jobs, and hence little hope in the future, widening disparities in income distribution, combined with increased awareness of the high life led by corrupt and nepotistic rulers, made all the more evident by social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, provide all the elements for a "perfect storm" of social unrest and uprisings against unpopular regimes. While some oil-rich regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, may be able to co-opt dissidents, this is not an option in many of the region's dictatorships that do not possess such resources.

The role of social media will continue to fuel the flames of discontent. As the blogosphere in the Middle East has expanded, young people have access to even more information about the sharp contrast between the lack of freedoms in their own country and the freedom enjoyed by youth in the West and elsewhere. Even a cursory examination of events in Tunisia during the past month indicates the power of the Internet in fomenting and organizing the discontent that led to the toppling of the Bin Ali regime.

Even in countries where elections matter, such as Turkey, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon, large numbers of youth see their respective political leaders as unimaginative, corrupt, and unresponsive to the wishes of the populace at large. In the remainder of the region's authoritarian countries, which range from the milder regimes in Jordan and Morocco, to the highly repressive in Iran and Saudi Arabia, most youth have either given up hope or are ready to take to the streets.

As educational opportunities began to expand in the Middle East during the 1950s and after, young people became ever more conscious of the problems facing their countries. For many, having a degree meant little if they did not have the influence (wasta) among the political elite that would allow them to obtain meaningful employment. Indeed, Tunisian youth interviewed during the recent demonstrations speak of not having the necessary funds to bribe officials to obtain employment.

For many educated youth, escape to Europe, North America, Australia or elsewhere provided a release for some of this frustration. But, as the global economy has deteriorated, and now seems to face an extended crisis, the educated are no longer able to "vote with their feet." If we add to the disaffected middle classes - the main social force behind the demonstrations in Tunisia (and in Iran during the protests following the rigged June 2009 presidential elections) - the growing urban poor, many of whom are under the age of 30, we see that a revolutionary situation is in the offing.

Of course, many of the urban poor often support populist and would-be authoritarians, such as Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. One of the trends to keep an eye on will be the extent to which disaffected youth from the middle and lower classes can make common cause to improve their economic status and political freedoms. Clearly, for the poor, improving their material fortunes takes precedence over more abstract values , such as freedom of speech and assembly.

Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" reflects the frustration that all societies in the Middle East feel as the result of political leaders who lack vision and refuse to enact democratic change. This is clear from the enthusiasm and shock waves that events in tiny Tunisia have sent throughout the Middle East. All across the region, citizens in various countries are asking themselves: could this be the beginning of a new democratic era? This is especially true of young people who are the main force behind the social media that is deluging the Internet with commentary about what is taking place in Tunisia.

Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, who ruled from 1957 to 1987, promoted education, a secular culture and women's rights. While he was as much of an autocrat as Bin Ali, the results of his policies are evident. Islamists have played almost no role in the past month's events in Tunisia.
Instead, we see a movement of the secular middle classes pushing for democracy and social justice. That Tunisia has a large middle class, albeit economically distressed, that believes in democratic freedoms and is no longer willing to live under autocratic rule should send a message to all political elites in the area.

Political protest in Tunisia contrasts sharply with recent events in Pakistan, where young lawyers - trained during the repressive regime of the late General Zia ul-Haq - who imposed a harsh and intolerant form of Islam during his rule from 1977 to 1988, showered rose petals on Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salman Taseer. the secular governor of Punjab Province. Taseer's "crime" was his persistent criticism of the so-called Blasphemy Laws imposed by General Zia which harshly punish those considered to have insulted Islam. Before his assassination, Taseer had been trying to overturn the sentence of a Christian woman who had been convicted of insulting Islam under these laws. While Bourguiba's regime produced a large secular middle class, Zia ul-Haq's rule spread intolerance and bigotry.

While radical Islamism is still strong among some sectors of the Pakistani population, Islamism in its authoritarian variant has run its course in the Middle East. The June 2009 demonstrations which led to Iran's Green Revolution, that protested the rigged reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are a good example of the disgust many Iranian youth feel for the so-called Islamic Republic, which they see as neither Islamic or representing republicanism in any meaningful definition of the word. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has experienced serious internal cleavages as young members have increasingly opted for democracy and have challenged the prerogatives of the movement's aged leadership. In Morocco, many Islamists have opted for non-violent action in their efforts to create a truly democratic polity.

Many youth int he Middle East realize that Islamist parties have no programme for creating jobs, improving educational opportunity, offering better health care or expanding individual freedoms. Indeed, in Iraq, many young people are increasingly rejecting Islamism in its intolerant variants as they see sectarian leaders manipulate a distorted version of Islam for their own personal political and economic ends.

The upheaval in Tunisia is far from over, the movement for democracy there is still in formation,and it is unclear who will lead the country out of its current crisis. Still, Tunisia may represent the first chapter in a process leading towards greater freedom in the Middle East. A successful transition to democracy in Tunisia could have a "domino effect" throughout the region. The recent demonstrations may also presage an ever more active role for the youth of the Middle East who have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the continuation of authoritarian rule and "politics as usual."