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Rethinking the Arab Spring: Uprisings, Counterrevolution, Chaos, and Global Reverberations

16 Dec

[Prefatory Note: the post below was previously published in the Third World Quarterly 37 (No. 12): 2322-2334 (2016). At this point, following the election of Donald Trump as the next American president, there are likely to be significant geopolitical adjustments with related regional impacts. It is possible that cooperation between Russia and the United States will be forthcoming for the purpose of ending civil strife in Syria and Yemen, defeating religious extremism in the region, and maintaining the Iran nuclear agreement. If Trump carried out his campaign pledges to avoid regime change, democracy promotion, and violent conflicts in distant countries, there could be a gradual lessening of turmoil throughout the Middle East. Yet such a hopeful course is not by any means assured, given Trump’s impulsive tendencies and the kind of ultra-militarists he will be relying upon to shape national security policy. The coming years are likely to be a rough ride for various reasons, including the swing in parts of Asia and Europe, as well as the United States, toward an embrace of right-wing populism that includes the rise of the popular autocrat. The most relevant reflection relating to my essay is ‘What became of the Arab Uprisings? Why did their promise dissipate so quickly? What can we expect in the next five years?’]

 

 

Rethinking the Arab Spring: Uprisings, Counterrevolution, Chaos, and Global Reverberations

 

Attaching the label ‘Arab Spring’ to the remarkable events of 2011 already seems quaint, if not a complete misnomer. Looking back five years later, rather than a pathway to a better future, what is unfolding is a darkening of an already quite dismal regional political canvas. Yet whether this darkening is the final outcome rather than a midway point in a process whose outcome cannot now be foreseen lies at the core of interpretative uncertainty.

 

This article attempts an overview of salient developments during this turbulent period, as well as an extremely selective mention of antecedent occurrences that deepen our understanding of what I continue to call the Arab Spring, partly for convenience, but also to acknowledge the excitement that was brought about by a series of dramatic popular uprisings against entrenched authoritarian regimes that occurred throughout the Middle East during the year of 2011.

 

One significant observation centers on the much weaker resonance of the Arab Spring experience and counterrevolutionary aftermath in relation to the various monarchies in the Arab world as compared to the states with secular governing processes. Explaining more adequately this apparent structural difference requires consideration of the situation prevailing in each monarchy, but the monarchies as a whole seemed to possess greater legitimacy than their secular neighbors. This was reinforced by some transnational connections among royal families, various ties with the Islamic religious establishment and as a result of their relative wealth that enabled the population to be pacified through state subsidies and other material benefits.

 

Antecedents

 

The Arab uprisings of 2011 were preceded by a variety of developments that set the stage for what happened additional to the obvious conditions pertaining throughout the region: a governing process that was corrupt and repressive producing deep discontent and sharp class divisions; massive poverty and joblessness accentuating growing gaps between the privileged wealthy elite and the rest of society. Of course, these overall regional conditions produced different political configurations depending on distinct national circumstances that prevailed in each country, including the character of political leadership and the quality of the governmental machinery.

 

There were four developments in the Middle East that gave religion a particular relevance to these political events. First of all, the widespread sense that secular nationalism had not performed effectively during the period of independence, a view that was intensified by the disappointed post-colonial expectations of the population and the unfulfilled promises of the early post-independence leaders. This disillusionment among the citizenry also extended to the failure of these recently independent states to uphold the sovereign integrity of the country in response to Western intrusive designs.

 

These perceptions in the Arab World were strengthened by a decade of success enjoyed by the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, which was perceived as partly a beneficial result of the Islamic orientation of the political leadership. Secondly, the resilience of the Iranian Revolution that had assumed power in 1979, imposed theocratic rule on the Iranian people, and yet managed to withstand a variety of hostile pressures mounted from outside its borders. Thirdly, the deployment of major resources by Saudi Arabia to spread Islamic militancy throughout the region, and beyond. Fourthly, the unlawful 2003 military intervention in Iraq and its subsequent occupation as a result of the joint efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom. One feature of this occupation was to deepen the Sunni/Shi’a rivalry in ways that contributed to the rise of jihadism throughout the Middle East and to foster sectarian alignments that magnified the scale of violence in Syria and Yemen.

 

Further in the historical background, but exerting a significant influence in the shaping of events and helping to explain the varied national experiences of order and chaos that afflicted Middle East countries, were two other impositions by extra-regional forces of the West.[1] Above all, the diplomacy that ended World War I created conditions that generated internal conflict and regional instability in forms that persist a century later. Perhaps, the most notorious of the results of the aftermath of World War I was the implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which exhibited the colonial ambitions of the UK and France with respect to the allocation of the territorial spoils associated with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.[2] Such a development not only represented a European betrayal of promises made to Arab nationalist leaders during World War I, but it inflicted arbitrary borders and artificial political communities on the region.[3] Under such conditions, only coercive and authoritarian rule could hope to achieve stability. The ‘Democracy Promotion’ ideas implemented during the George W. Bush presidency as a legitimating goal of military intervention in Iraq was a spectacular and discrediting failure. Tragically, Iraq since 2003 has vacillated between severe domestic violent chaos and restored and abusive authoritarianism that reflected the Shi’a sectarian bias of the American governing process imposed upon the country to carry out its project of neoliberal state-building, a dynamic that is significantly responsible for the emergence of ISIS.[4]

 

The Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising the world Zionist movement British support for the establishment a Jewish homeland in Palestine, has also been a major contributor to the troubles of the region.[5] emergence of the state of Israel reflected contradictory European motivations. It was at once a consequence of colonialist interference with the rights of self-determination enjoyed by the Palestinian people and much later a humanitarian/political response to the horrifying Jewish experience of the Holocaust. Whatever its origins, the rise of Israel as a regional military power in defiance of Palestinian rights and the views of Arab majorities has injected a permanently destabilizing element that is both a cruel legacy of the colonial era and a periodic source of political tension and confrontation that has given rise to a series of wars in the region and a constant atmosphere of tension.

 

It is against this background that the Arab Spring erupted in 2011 as a shock to the widely shared perception that regardless of these deficiencies of the regional order, the established political order was ultra-stable for better or worse. It was believed that the Arab publics were disposed to be submissive and passive, making prospects of populist challenges to the political status quo out of the question.[6] Intelligence agencies and academic experts completely overlooked the political relevance of these antecedents to the Arab Spring, and thus failed to take note of forces at work that were below the surface, becoming dramatically active as agents of challenge, even if not in the end successful as agents of change.

 

 

The Arab Spring can be interpreted from various angles. It seems sensible to distinguish developments in Egypt and Tunisia from those in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. And further to distinguish between the secular states in the region that experienced sustained uprisings and strong countervailing forces from the monarchies that remained stable although despite signs of widespread discontent.

 

 

The Arab Uprisings: Tunisia and Egypt

 

As is now widely known, the series of uprisings in the Arab world started with a typical incident illustrative of the suffering of the poor, but rarely giving rise to political repercussions of national, and even regional and global proportions. The chain reaction of political escalating political developments that produced widespread turbulence in Tunisia started on 17 December 2010. A small vegetable street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi in the interior Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzed set himself on fire after being humiliated and his plea rejected by a minor municipal official, dying a few days later amid a growing furor. Apparently, the underlying situation was so unstable that this single act of self-immolation provided the spark that produced a massive uprising challenging the dictatorial and repressive leadership of the country on the basis of a series of grievance associated with joblessness, massive poverty, corruption, food inflation, and the denial of elementary freedoms. The protest activity continued for many days, concentrating its anger and demands on the person of Zine Abidine Ben Ali, a Tunisian strongman who had ruled the country since 1987. By 14 January Ben Ali abdicated to Saudi Arabia where he was given asylum, and a struggle for a new governing process ensued.

 

What was notable in Tunisia, and the pattern elsewhere, was the mismatch between wildly ambitious expectations of those on the streets for a new social, economic, and political order and the relatively limited demands for change set forth by the militants. The only specific demand was for Ben Ali to give up his leadership role, and for a reformist constitutional process to be put in place. As elsewhere in the Middle East, the Islamic forces were best organized among the opposition groups, and quickly assumed control of the political process under the leadership of Mohamed Ghannouchi of the Ennahda Movement. The process was not smoothe, and two sets of forces created trouble for this effort to reform the Tunisian governing process. One was militant Islam that rejected the pluralist and inclusive approach favored by Ghannouchi and the other was the secularists who were opposed to the slightest taint of Islamic influence in the governing process. There were political assassinations, turbulent elections, terrorist incidents, but also a willingness to allow a process of compromise take hold that ended up maintaining continuity with the past and ensuring moderation in the present. In this regard, for all its trials and tribulations, Tunisia not only initiated the Arab Spring but has alone among the states affected, achieved so far achieved a steady forward democratizing momentum.[7]

 

Egypt, in many ways the most important of Arab states, followed a much different path than Tunisia after its own spectacular movement succeeding Hosni Mubarak who had ruled the country for three decades. Its uprising centered in Tahrir Square, and was initially notable for its relative nonviolence and for the use of social media to mobilize support, succeeded in getting Mubarak to give up power, and accept internal exile in summer home. It appeared in early 2011 to be a great victory for democratic forces that inspired activists in many parts of the world, a major stimulant of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. and Britain.[8]

 

The formidable Islamic presence in Egypt was centered in the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), whose leadership has long been kept in prison and was confined to largely underground political activities and the dispensing of social services in communities throughout the country. At first, the MB calmed secular concerns by pledging not to compete in many of Egypt’s political provinces during a series of legislative elections and also not to field a candidate of its own in the all important presidential elections. When it turned out that the MB won dominating support in the legislative elections, results augmented by electoral successes of new Salafi parties, it prompted both the MB and its rivals to reconsider the future of the country. It was this show of strength that undoubtedly led the MB to withdraw their pledge, and compete everywhere in the country and to put forward a MB leader when it came time to elect a president. And there is no doubt that the prospect of Islamic control of the political destiny of the country caused worry and a shift in outlook on the part of many urban Egyptians who had originally supported the uprising.

 

These developments cast a cloud over the victories of Tahrir Square. Although there was an initial consensus that the MB should be allowed to compete politically as part of a move toward inclusive democracy, this mood among the secular elites of Egypt quickly dissipated. The secular elites had originally supposed that MB strength would be no more than 30% in terms of legislative participation, and this could be accepted, but when it turned out to be double that level, a dire prospect confronted secularists: Either Egypt will become dominated by the secretive, hierarchical MB and sharia law or it must revert to an authoritarian form of governance. The seeming unanimity of the Tahrir period disappeared, with the liberal supporters of the anti-Mubarak movement now either withdrawing or joining forces with falool, or remnant of the Mubarak Era. It became clear that the old regime had substantially survived the downfall of the leader, and that the Egyptian armed forces held the key to the future of the country.

 

It seemed that the Egyptian armed forces remained passive in the early stages of the uprising and its aftermath. In an important respect, the uprising achieved an outcome to the liking of the armed forces, namely, disqualifying Mubarak’s two sons from succeeding their father in the governance of the country. There were even indications that the MB and the armed forces had made a deal exchanging political support for assurances that the privileges of the military with respect to budget and a large stake in the private sector would not be challenged. But then things started to go wrong. The MB candidate, Mohamed Morsi, narrowly won the national elections, and secular forces in the government and society refused to accept this outcome, doing their best to create a crisis of legitimacy that would destabilize the elected government. At the same time, Morsi once sworn in as the Egyptian president displayed no skill or tact in managing the governing process, and quickly alienated and frightened minorities, especially the Copts, and handled the economy in a manner that gave few hopes of either equity or growth. Tourism and commercial life declined sharply, and within a few months there were many whispers from former supporters of the uprising that things had been better under Mubarak. At least tourists came then, and small businesses flourished.

 

A second popular movement took hold, actually larger than the one that captured the world imagination in 2011, culminating in huge street demonstrations and a widely supported coup led by General Abdel Fattah el- Sisi, the current president. The coup has been followed by a bloody repression of the MB, and more recently, anyone who criticized the regime faced torture and prison. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt is now more authoritarian than under Mubarak, and although enjoying vast economic support from the Gulf countries and strong backing of the Egyptian armed forces, it has not found a way to revive the economy or to satisfy the grievances of the poor and unemployed.

 

We note then that Tunisia and Egypt as of 2016 have seemingly reached very different outcomes, but perhaps examined more closely, the present phase of governance is not that dissimilar. To be sure, Tunisia has managed a transition to a democratic process, although it is beset by unresolved problems and faces serious threats of disruption. Yet as of now, it has navigated the turbulent waters, partly by not threatening the Ben Ali bureaucracy or class structure, and partly by working out some viable accommodation with Islamic forces and their flexible and realistic leadership.

Egypt, in contrast, has achieved comparable continuity with the past, but by

jumps and starts, accompanied by harsh and bloody crackdowns. Neither country has found a way to overcome the fundamental economic difficulties arising from mass poverty, accompanying unemployment, corruption, and gross forms of inequality, and both are vulnerable to spikes in food prices or renewed global economic recession, and possibly to renewed political agitation.

 

 

The Arab Uprisings: Syria, Libya, and Yemen

 

The same societal longing for change evident in Tunisia and Egypt was experienced elsewhere in the region. This anti-regime political mood led quickly to a further series of popular uprisings in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Unlike the Tunisian achievement of an incremental transition to a more democratic form of governance and in contrast with the Egyptian moves toward democracy generating a counterrevolutionary reaction that restored authoritarian governance, Syria, Yemen, and Libya have each in its own way experienced sustained civil strife that has caused major suffering for the civilian population and led to the collapse of orderly governance. Although the regional dimensions of state/society relations helps explain the similarity of the challenges mounted against the status quo, the specific situation in each country, especially the contrasting national reactions of the governmental leadership account for the great differences from country to country. One further similarity is the presence of a resolve by the ruler and his immediate entourage to use state police and military power to override the societal demands for drastic reforms.

 

A significant point of contrast with Tunisia and Egypt concerns the presence and degree of foreign intervention in the conflict arising subsequent to the uprising. It is notable that the events in Tunisia and Egypt unfolded primarily in response to the play of internal political forces, although especially in Egypt outside hidden influences, especially on the armed forces and via foreign economic assistance, were exerted to uncertain degrees by both the United States and Saudi Arabia.

 

In the cases of Syria, Yemen, and Libya, all currently beset by severe disorder the magnitude of the political violence following upon a challenge to the established national governing process was greatly increased by direct and indirect forms of foreign intervention emanating from the region and beyond. The unfortunate effects of these interventions, although very different in the three instances, adds to the strong arguments against military intervention, even when it is authorized by the UN as was the case with Libya.[9]

 

Syria. In Syria, the leadership from the initial expressions of protest in the southern city of Daraa, responded violently and the movement of opposition seemed to grow and spread rapidly, assuming the form of an armed insurgency. The United States and Turkey after a short interval were open in their support of the Syrian rebel forces, as was Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although it soon became evident that the opposition to the Damascus regime headed by Bashar al-Assad was very fragmented. At the same time for the first year or so of the insurgency it was widely believed that Assad regime would be quickly overthrown.

 

Such an expectation turned out to be misguided. The armed forces of the Syrian government were well equipped and trained, possessing advanced anti-aircraft defense systems and other modern weaponry. Furthermore, the Alawite leadership in Damascus had the backing of the Christian and Druze minorities in the country, except for the Kurds, and were largely supported by the urban business community. Beyond this, Russia and Iran were engaged allies, and rendered material and diplomatic assistance, as was Hezbollah, which supplied significant number of combat troops. The Syrian struggle was bloody from the outset, and casualty totals are now put at over 250,000 killed, and at least half of the total population of an estimated 23 million either internally displaced or refugees.

 

There have been many international initiatives seeking both ceasefire and a more vigorous Western intervention.[10] The situation has grown ever more complicated with the rise of ISIS as a leading anti-Assad force and the efforts of Syrian Kurds both to fight on the ground against ISIS and to establish a de facto state of their own on the ground. These developments have greatly confused the alignments of intervening state and non-state political actors. Priorities for the United States and Europe have shifted to emphasize the struggle against ISIS, minimizing the goal of replacing the Assad leadership, while those of Turkey alternate back and forth between anti-Kurdish and anti-Assad objectives.

 

What has given the Syrian aftermath of the Arab Spring a particular historical relevance is its character, which seems to epitomize the new shape of warfare in 21st century.[11] The originality of this terrible civil strife is the extent of extra-national spillover from the struggle in the form of massive flows of refugees and transnational terrorism extending the battlefield beyond Syria to include the foreign sources of intervention including Turkey, Europe, and even the United States; the multi-layered and contradictory mix of state and non-state actors involved pursuing shifting and sometimes inconsistent goals, and the intermixture of regional and global intervening governments and political movements. The Syrian struggle exhibits also a distinctive form of hybridity, mixing a conflict between the state and a mobilized domestic opposition with both a struggle to contain a terrorist actor that controls substantial territory, sectarian alignments, and involving an armed effort by the Syrian Kurdish minority to achieve de facto statehood. As well, the intervening actors have their own diverse goals that are often at cross-purposes and confused by shifting and contradictory priorities: anti-Assad at first, then anti-Russian and anti-Iranian, then pro- and anti-ISIS as well as pro- and anti-Kurdish, and not to be overlooked, pro- and anti- Islamist, pro- and anti-Sunni. It is hardly an exaggeration to contend that there has never been such a multi-dimensional and hybrid war in all of history. It is also evident that geopolitical standoffs and the limits of interventionary leverage make it dangerous and imprudent to act coercively to shape the political outcome of the conflict.

 

Libya. Libya, at first, seemed to follow closely the pattern established by Tunisia and Egypt. A popular uprising against an abusive dictatorial leadership under Muammar Qaddafi who ruled the country for decades, managing to suppress the ethnic and tribal tensions that defied national cohesion and sustained by abundant energy resources. The uprising quickly turned violent, abetted by the involvement of European foreign advisors, and Qaddafi responded violently, refusing to give ground, and raising global concerns by condemning opposition forces with hysterical rhetoric that had a genocidal edge. Several Western countries expressed humanitarian concern, convened the UN Security Council, and despite skepticism achieved a mandate to establish a No Fly Zone to protect the imminently threatened civilian population of Benghazi. The limits embedded in the Security Council mandate, which was a weak endorsement of military force in view of abstentions from five important countries, were ignored from the outset of the military operation carried out under NATO auspices.[12] Instead of protecting the beleaguered Benghazi population from advancing government troops, Tripoli was bombed, and a regime-changing undertaking was implemented, ending with a grisly execution of Qaddafi by rebel forces.

 

What ensued in Libya has been a series of failed state-building undertakings that have left the society in chaotic turmoil, dominated by local militias and

tribal rivalries, lacking an effective central government. The political disorder has also created a situation in which ISIS has been able to establish a strong presence, posing a threat to local and Western security interests that had not existed during the Qaddafi period. Libya’s instability seems likely to persist, and contrasts with the kind of repressive stability (except in the Sinai) achieved in Sisi’s Egypt and the sort of fragile constitutionalism that has so far survived in Tunisia.

 

The Libyan aftermath is distinctive in several respects. Above all, as with Iraq, it suggests that from a Western perspective and in terms of domestic public order, military intervention does not deliver on its promise to produce a more humane form of governance even when it succeeds in toppling the authoritarian regime and encouraging the emergence of a constitutional order. In Libya as in Iraq the abuses of the old political order seem far less destructive than the violence, devastation, and displacement caused by a heavy handed foreign intervention. Instead of ‘democracy promotion’ what took place in Libya, as earlier in Iraq, is best described as ‘chaos promotion,’ and as the region is now constituted, this also opens the door to political extremism that can flourish in ways that were never possible in the old order.

 

The Libyan intervention was costly in other ways, as well. The manipulation of the Security Council by understating the goals and nature of the contemplated intervention completely undermined the trust that had led the five skeptical members to abstain rather than cast negative votes, which in the case of Russia and China would have nullified any UN authorization due to their right of veto. As it turned out, these memories of institutional manipulation from Libya, impeded a possibly more constructive role for the UN in response to the strife in Syria.

 

Of course, there are relevant questions raised about why intervention in one country but not in others. Is the oil dimension part of the explanation of large-scale interventions in Iraq, and then later after the Arab Spring, in Libya, but not to anything like to the same degree in Syria or Yemen, which lacked oil and did not offer lucrative prospects for construction arrangements to repair the damage wrought by the ‘shock and awe’ tactics relied upon by foreign interventions from the air.

 

Yemen. As elsewhere, the popular uprising in Yemen was at first directed at the hated, corrupt, and abusive ruler, Ali Abdellah Salah, producing a raging state/society struggle that remains inconclusive. The challenge to the established order also revived geographic and ethnic tensions involving the Houthi minority in the north, and introduced a regional proxy dimension to the internal conflict. The Houthi were Shi’a and perceived by the Gulf monarchies as an extension of Iran’s influence, which induced Saudi Arabia to side with the challenged regime, eventually producing a large-scale intervention taking the form of punishing air attacks, causing widespread devastation and considerable civilian loss of life, and yet not managing so far to control the political destiny of the country. The outcome in Yemen hangs in the balance, remains in doubt, but once more reinforces the impression that external intervention to control the political dynamics of a country in the wake of the Arab Spring is likely to produce negative results, and make the old order, as objectionable as it was, seem less damaging to the society than the counterrevolutionary effort to defeat the societal forces seeking change.

 

Several conclusions emerge: (1) the original uprising in Yemen was a further regional indication that the authoritarian political order was deeply resented by significant portions of the citizenry; (2) unlike Egypt and Tunisia, but in manner resembling Syria and Libya, the challenged regime fought back rather than gave way to the popular movement; (3) as with Syria, the internal balance led to a prolonged struggle that remains unresolved, with no transition to a new normalcy in the offing; (4) Yemen’s difficulties were compounded to the extent that the internal struggle was also perceived as containing sectarian implications, prompting a ferocious Saudi intervention, but unlike the anti-regime intervention in Libya, the intervention in Yemen was pro-regime.

 

The Monarchies. The Arab Spring phenomenon had clear reverberations in the main monarchies in the MENA region, especially Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco. Protest demonstrations occurred in these countries but were quickly contained, often accompanied by royal pledges of economic and political reforms that promised the citizenry greater economic equity and more meaningful participation in the governing process.

 

As with secular governments, the monarchies had their own distinctive national characteristics that explain some differences in the response of governments and regional actors. For instance, Bahrain, partly because of its Shi’a majority and the presence of a major American naval base was perceived as the most vulnerable to a credible internal insurrectionary challenge. To forestall such an eventuality, Saudi Arabia intervened with ground forces and helped the kingdom restore stability by suppressing the opposition, and imprisoning civil society leaders, including advocates of human rights. Jordan and Morocco, both having strong internal security forces, met opposition activity with police discipline and some royal gestures of accommodation. In Morocco and especially Saudi Arabia the relationship between Islam and the state contributed to the stability and legitimacy of the prevailing political order, although in Saudi Arabia these conditions were reinforced by a pervasive set of oppressive constraints, which included human rights outrages that rivaled the behavior of ISIS in their disregard of standards of civilized law enforcement, especially with respect to women and the Shi’a minority.

 

The case of Saudi Arabia is particularly illustrative of the interplay between the Arab Spring and geopolitics. Because of the special relationship with the United States, Saudi Arabia like Israel, enjoys unconditional support from Washington. This included turning a blind eye to beheadings and public displays of severed heads of dissidents and more incredibly, overlooking Saudi support for jihadi terrorism throughout the region, including evidence of startup funding of ISIS.[13] This special relationship was initially based on the importance of positive relations for the West with Gulf oil production and reserves, seen as a vital strategic interest ever since the end of World War II, but it has persisted in recent years despite the falling price of oil and the diminished dependence on Gulf reserves due to the development of other energy sources.

 

There are other developments in the five years since the Arab Spring that help

explain the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser degree, the other monarchies. Principal among these are the combined search for regional stability, positive connectivity to the neoliberal world economy, and the encouragement of convergent interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel. This latter development became especially evident in Saudi tacit support for Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014. The rationale for convergence was the supposed links between Hamas and Iran, as well as the perception of Hamas as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. As is evident both Hamas and the MB are Sunni in orientation, making it clear that the overriding Saudi priority is the insulation of its royalist regime from hostile forces regardless of whether Sunni or Shi’a. In this regard, the sectarian card is played pragmatically to oppose the regional ambitions of Iran in several national settings, but sectarianism does not explain Saudi hostility to MB grassroots Islamic movements, which are seen as possibly encouraging to anti-royalist social movements throughout the region and hence treated as threatening.

 

Concluding Observations

 

The most striking conclusion is to appreciate that from the perspective of 2016, the counterrevolutionary reaction to the Arab Spring seems far more durable than the challenges posed by the 2011 uprisings, none of which created an enduring discontinuity with the authoritarian antecedents. Tunisia came closest, but it preserved relative stability after the uprising, despite being punctuated by Islamic extremist challenges and secularist anxieties. The political leadership maintained continuity in both the governmental bureaucracy and among the privileged elite. It did permanently rid the country of the authoritarian leader, as did Egypt, but with the latter, authoritarianism returned to govern in an even more oppressive form.

 

In many ways, the Egyptian and Syrian stories are the most influential and pronounced legacies of the Arab Spring. Egypt is the keystone state of the Arab World with the secretariat of the Arab League located in Cairo. The Egyptian uprising seemed to expressed the highest hopes of the Arab Spring through the remarkable upsurge of peaceful oppositional gatherings in Tahrir Square. Yet two years later the uprising and its reformist hopes were completely erased, and replaced by the restoration of the old order, astonishingly with the blessings of the overwhelming majority of Egyptian people. Mass disillusionment with the post-Tahrir political process had resulted from the failure of electoral democracy to bring either improvements in material circumstances or respect for the new political leadership.

 

In contrast to Egypt, Syria is emblematic of what can ensue when the inspirational encouragement of the Arab Spring challenges a regime that is determined to prevail even at the cost of unleashing virtually unlimited warfare against its own people and destroy its own cities. The Syrian experience is illustrative of the tragedies that befall an insurrectionary challenge that cannot shift the balance of forces against the status quo. Syria also illustrates the regional stakes of such a national struggle, as well as sectarian rivalry that produced a regional proxy war, with Iran and Hezbollah supporting the Assad government and Saudi Arabia siding with the rebel forces. Additionally, Russia with its only warm water naval base in Syria, a circumstance similar to that of the United States in Bahrain, not surprisingly allied with Damascus, while an opposing geopolitics led the United States to support anti-Assad so-called moderate forces.

What seems evident in retrospect is that none of the movements that followed the Tunisian uprising were sufficiently revolutionary to create the intended discontinuity in terms of freedoms, constitutional governance, and economic growth and equity. Again the Egyptian case is most illustrative. The very qualities of mounting a nonviolent challenge against Mubarak based on stirring displays of religious and societal unity, with an avoidance of program or leadership, produced a political vacuum filled on the one side by the Muslim Brotherhood and on the opposite side by adherents of the established order. When a showdown came, as might be expected the armed forces, relied upon to manage the political transition, mounted a counterrevolutionary coup and suppressed the MB. It completed a dynamic featuring a triumphant and popular counterrevolution following upon a fractured series of failures to create societal progress in post-Mubarak Egypt.

 

Finally, what we learn from these developments in the Middle East that have occurred during the past five years is the close links between national, regional, and global confrontations and differential priorities. Such strong interconnectedness gives alignments and military interventions of varying degrees of overtness, with the Libyan experience being at one end of the spectrum and Egypt at the other end due to its apparent relative national autonomy. Syria, above all, has been grossly victimized during the past five years by seeming to invite struggles for ascendancy by an array of external state and non-state political actors compounding the state/society strife occasioned by the Arab Spring.

 

As this time, the only future that can be discerned is seen through a glass darkly, meaning persisting chaos or oppressive authoritarian governance. [14]There are no trustworthy bright spots, although the fragile polities of Tunisia and Lebanon seem at least for the present to have avoided the worst of the counterrevolutionary storm, but neither has much assurance that future developments could bring chaos and internal strife.

 

 

[1] For perceptive overview see Mohammed Ayoob, Will the Middle East Implode?

[2] See Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans

[3] For assessment of World War I peace diplomacy on contemporary Middle East see Richard Falk, Power Shift: On the New Global Order, Chapter 9.

[4] See Daniel Byman, Al Qaeda, The Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement; also helpful, Phyllis Bennis, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.

[5] Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict;

see also Victor Kattan, From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1891-1949.

[6] See Farhad Khosrokhavar, The New Arab Revolutions that Shook the World; also, Richard Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring

[7] See Khosrokhavar, Chapter 2.

[8] An insider account is Wael Ghonim, Revolution 2.0; see also Khosrokhavar, Chapter 3.

[9] On humanitarian intervention see Fabian Klose, ed., The Emergence of Humanitarian Intervention; Rajan Menon, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention;

Richard Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution

[10] For a range of views see Nader Hashemi & Danny Postel, eds., The Syria Dilemma

[11] What has ensued in Syria goes far beyond Mary Kaldor’s innovative analysis of new wars in Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars, 3rd ed..

[12] For text see Security Council Res. 1973 (2011), including its provocatively ambiguous phrase authorizing ‘all necessary measures’ to enforce the No Fly Zone.

[13] See citations Note 4.

[14] For varied assessments see Marc Lynch, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East; Richard Javad Heydarian, How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings; Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution.

Slouching Toward Global Disaster: Chaos and Intervention in the Middle East  

22 Dec

 

The Geopolitical Foreground

 

There are many disturbing signs that the West is creating conditions in the Middle East and Asia that could produce a wider war, most likely a new Cold War, containing, as well, menacing risks of World War III. The reckless confrontation with Russia along its borders, reinforced by provocative weapons deployments in several NATO countries and the promotion of governing regimes hostile to Russia in such countries as Ukraine and Georgia seems to exhibit Cold War nostalgia, and is certainly not the way to preserve peace.

 

Add to this the increasingly belligerent approach recently taken by the United States naval officers and defense officials to China with respect to island disputes and navigational rights in the South China Seas. Such posturing has all the ingredients needed for intensifying international conflict, giving a militarist signature to Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia.’

 

These developments are happening during the supposedly conflict averse Obama presidency. Looking ahead to new leadership, even the most optimistic scenario that brings Hilary Clinton to the White House is sure to make these pre-war drum beats even louder. From a more detached perspective it is fair to observe that Obama seems rather peace-oriented only because American political leaders and the Beltway/media mainstream have become so accustomed to relying on military solutions whether successful or not, whether dangerous and wasteful or not, that is, only by comparison with more hawkish alternatives.

 

The current paranoid political atmosphere in the United States is a further relevant concern, calling for police state governmental authority at home, increased weapons budgets, and the continuing militarization of policing and law enforcement. Such moves encourage an even more militaristic approach to foreign challenges that seem aimed at American and Israeli interests by ISIS, Iran, and China. Where this kind of war-mongering will lead is unknowable, but what is frighteningly clear is that this dangerous geopolitical bravado is likely to become even more strident as the 2016 campaign unfolds to choose the next American president. Already Donald Trump, the clear Republican frontrunner, has seemed to commit the United States to a struggle against all of Islam by his foolish effort to insist that every Muslim is terrorist suspect Islam as a potential terrorist who should be so treated. Even Samuel Huntington were he still alive might not welcome such an advocate of ‘the clash of civilizations’!

 

 

 Historical Deep Roots

 It has taken almost a century for the breakup of the Ottoman Empire to reap the colonialist harvest that was sown in the peace diplomacy that followed World War I. In the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement diplomats of England and France in 1916 secretly negotiated arrangements that would divide up the Middle East into a series of artificially delimited territorial states to be administered as colonies by the respective European governments. Among other wrongs, this devious undertaking representing a betrayal of promises made to Arab leaders that Britain, in particular, would support true independence in exchange for joining the anti-Ottoman and anti-German alliance formed to fight World War I. Such a division of the Ottoman spoils not only betrayed wartime promises of political independence to Arab leaders, but also undermined the efforts of Woodrow Wilson to apply the principle of ethnic self-determination to the Ottoman aftermath.

 

As a result of diplomatic maneuvers the compromise reached at Versailles in 1919 was to accept the Sykes-Picot borders that were drawn to satisfy colonial ambitions for trade routes and spheres of influence, but to disguise slightly its colonialist character, by creating an international system of mandates for the Middle East in which London and Paris would administer the territories, accepting a vague commitment to lead the various societies to eventual political independence at some unspecified future time. These Sykes-Picot ‘states’ were artificial political communities that never overcame the indigenous primacy of ethnic, tribal, and religious affinities, and could be maintained as coherent political realities only by creating oppressive state structures. If World War II had not sapped European colonial will and capabilities, it is easy to imagine that the societies of the Middle East would remain subjugated under mandate banners.

 

After World War II

 

Is it any wonder, then, that the region has been extremely beset by various forms of authoritarian rule ever since the countries of the Middle East gained their independence after the end of the Second World War? Whether in the form of dynastic monarchies or secular governments, the stability that was achieved in the region depended on the denial of human rights, including rights of democratic participation, as well as the buildup of small privileged and exploitative elites that linked national markets and resources to the global economic order. And as oil became the prime strategic resource, the dominance of the region became for the West led by the United States as absolutely vital. From these perspectives the stable authoritarianism of the region was quite congenial with the Cold War standoff between the United States and Soviet Union that was interested in securing strategic and economic partnerships reflecting the ideological rivalries, while being indifferent to whether or not the people were being victimized by abusive and brutal governments.

 

The American commitment to this status quo in the Middle East was most vividly expressed in 1980 after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution of the prior year by the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine. President Carter in his State of the Union Address was warning the Soviet Union by a strong diplomatic signal that the United States was ready to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf by force, which because of supposed Soviet superiority in ground warfare was understood at the time as making an implied threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary.

 

After the Cold War

 When the Cold War ended, the United States unthinkingly promoted the spread of capitalist style constitutional democracy wherever it could, including the Middle East. The Clinton presidency (1992-2000) talked about the ‘enlargement’ of the community of democratic states, implying that any other political option lacked legitimacy (unless of course it was a friendly oil producer or strategic ally). The neocon presidency of George W. Bush (2000-2008) with its interventionist bent invoked ‘democracy promotion’ as its goal, and became clear in its official formulation of security doctrine in 2002 that only capitalist democracies were legitimate Westphalian states whose sovereign rights were entitled to respect.

 

This kind of strident militarism reached a new climax after 9/11. The White House apparently hoped to embark on a series regime-changing interventions in the Middle East and Asia with the expectation of producing at minimal cost shining examples of liberation and democratization, as well as secure the Gulf oil reserves and establish military bases to undergird its regional ambitions. The attacks on Afghanistan, and especially Iraq, were the most notorious applications of this misguided approach. Instead of ‘democracy’ (Washington’s code word for integration into its version of neoliberal globalization), what emerged was strife and chaos, and the collapse of stable internal governance. The strong state that preceded the intervention gave way to localized militias and resurgent tribal, clan, and religious rivalries leading domestic populations to wish for a return to the relative stability of the preceding authoritarian arrangements, despite their brutality and corruption. And even in Washington one encounters whispered admissions that Iraq was better off, after all, under Saddam Hussein than under the kind of sectarian and divisive leaders that governed the country since the American occupation began in 2003, and now threaten Iraq with an implosion that will produce at least two states replacing the shattered one.

 

 

 The Arab Spring

 Then came the Arab Spring in 2011 creating an awkward tension between the professed wish in Washington for democracy in the Arab world and the overriding commitment to upholding strategic interests throughout the Middle East. At first, the West reacted ambivalently to the Arab uprisings, not knowing whether to welcome, and then try to tame, these anti-authoritarian movements of the Arab masses or to lament the risks of new elites that were likely to turn away from neoliberal capitalism and strategic partnerships, and worst of all, might be more inclined to challenge Israel.

 

What happened in the years that followed removed the ambiguity, confirming that material and ideological interests took precedence over visionary endorsements of Arab democracy. The reality that emerged indicated that neither the domestic setting nor the international context was compatible with the existence of democratic forms of governance. What unsurprisingly followed was a series of further military interventions and strategic confrontations either via NATO as in Libya or by way of its regional partners, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. With few tears shed in Washington, the authentic and promising democratic beginnings in Egypt that excited the world in the aftermath of the 2011 Tahrir Square were crushed two years later by a populist military coup that restored Mubarak Era authoritarianism, accentuating its worst features. What amounted to the revenge of the urban secular elites in Cairo included a genuine bonding between a new majority of the Egyptian people and its armed forces in a bloody struggle to challenge and destroy the Muslim Brotherhood that had taken control of the government by winning a series of elections. Despite its supposed liberalism the Obama leadership played along with these developments. It obliged the new Sisi-led leadership by avoiding the term ‘coup’ although the military takeover was followed by a bloody crackdown on the elected leadership and civil society leadership. This Orwellian trope of refusing to call a coup by its real name enabled the United States to continue military assistance to Egypt without requiring a new Congressional authorization.

 

The folk wisdom of the Arab world gives insight into the counterrevolutionary backlash that has crushed the populist hopes of 2011: “People prefer 100 years of tyranny to a single year of chaos.” And this kind of priority is shared by most of those who make and manage American foreign policy. Just as clearly as the Arab masses, the Pentagon planners prefer the stability of authoritarianism to the anarchistic uncertainties of ethnic and tribal strife, militia forms of governance that so often come in the wake of the collapse of both dictatorial rule and democratic governance. And the masters of business and finance, aside from the lure of post-conflict markets for the reconstruction of what has been destroyed militarily, prefer to work with dependable and familiar national elites that welcome foreign capital on lucrative terms that benefit insiders and outsiders alike, while keeping the masses in conditions of impoverished thralldom.

 

In many respects, Syria and Iraq illustrate the terrible human tragedies that have been visited on the peoples of these two countries. In Syria a popular uprising in 2011 was unforgivably crushed by the Basher el-Assad regime in Damascus, leading to a series of disastrous interventions on both sides of the internal war that erupted, with Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in a proxy war on Syrian soil while Israel uses its diplomatic leverage to ensure that the unresolved war would last as long as possible as Tel Aviv wanted neither the regime nor its opponents to win a clear victory. During this strife, Russia, Turkey, and the United States were intervening with a bewildering blend of common and contradictory goals ranging from pro-government stabilization to a variety of regime changing scenarios. These external actors held conflicting views of the Kurdish fighters as either coveted allies or dangerous adversaries. In the process several hundred thousand Syrians have lost their lives, almost half the population have become refugees and internally displaced persons, much of the country and its ancient heritage sites devastated, and no real end of the violence and devastation is in sight.

 

The Iraq experience is only marginally better. After a dozen years of punitive sanctions following the 1991 ceasefire that exacted a heavy toll on the civilian population, the ‘shock and awe’ of US/UK attacks of 2003, an occupation began that rid the country of its cruel and oppressive leader, Saddam Hussein, and his entourage. What followed politically became over time deeply disillusioning, and actually worse than the overthrown regime, which had been hardly imaginable when the American-led occupation began. The Iraqi state was being reconstructed along sectarian lines, purging the Sunni minority elites from the Baghdad bureaucracy and armed forces, thereby generating a widespread internal violent opposition against foreign occupation and a resistance movement against the Iraqi leadership that had gained power with the help of the American presence. This combination of insurgency and resistance also gave rise to widespread feelings of humiliation and alienation, which proved to be conducive to the rise of jihadi extremism, first in the form of al-Qaeda in Iraq and later as ISIS.

 

Toxic Geopolitics 

It is impossible to understand and explain such a disastrous failure of military interventionism without considering the effects of two toxic ‘special relationships’ formed by the United States, with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The basic feature of such special relationships is an unconditional partnership in which the Israelis and Saudis can do whatever they wish, including pursuing policies antagonistic to U.S. interests without encountering any meaningful opposition from either Washington or Europe. This zone of discretion has allowed Israel to keep Palestinians from achieving self-determination while pursuing its own territorial ambitions via constantly expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, fueling grassroots anti-Western sentiment throughout the Arab world because of this persisting reliance on a cruel settler colonialist approach to block for seven decades the Palestinian struggle for fundamental and minimal national rights.

 

The special relationship with Saudi Arabia is even more astonishing until one considers the primacy of economic strategic priorities, especially the importance of oil supplied at affordable prices. Having by far the worst human rights record in the region, replete with judicially decreed beheadings and executions by stoning, the Riyadh leadership continues to be warmly courted in Western capitals as allies and friends. At the same time, equally theocratic Iran is hypocritically bashed and internationally punished in retaliation for its far less oppressive governing abuses.

 

Of course, looking the other way, is what is to be expected in the cynical conduct of opportunistic geopolitics, but to indulge the Saudi role in the worldwide promotion of jihadism while spending trillion on counter-terrorism is much more difficult to fathom until one shifts attention from the cover story of counter-terrorism to the more illuminating narrative of petropolitics. Despite fracking and natural gas discoveries lessening Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil, old capitalist habits persist long after their economic justifications have lapsed and this seems true even when such policies have become damaging in lives and financial burdens.

 

Finding Hope is Difficult

 In such circumstances, it is difficult to find much hope in the current cosmodrama of world politics. It is possible, although unlikely, that geopolitical sanity will prevail to the extent of finding a diplomatic formula to end the violence in Syria and Yemen, as well as to normalize relations with Iran, restore order in Iraq and Libya, although such sensible outcomes face many obstacles, and may be years away. The alternatives for the Middle East in the near future, barring the political miracle of a much more revolutionary and emancipatory second Arab Spring, seems to be authoritarian stability or anarchic strife and chaos, which seems far preferable if the alternative is the deep trauma associated with enduring further American military interventions. If you happen to hear the Republican candidates give their prescriptions for fixing the Middle East it comes down to ‘toughness,’ including the scary recommendations of ‘carpet bombing’ and a greatly heightened American military presence. Even the more thoughtful Democrats limit their proposals to enhanced militarism, hoping to induce the Arab countries to put ‘the boots on the ground’ with nary a worry about either igniting a regional war or the imaginative collapse that can only contemplate war as the recipe for peace, again recalling the degree to which Orwellian satiric irony is relied upon to shape foreign policy prescriptions by ambitious politicians. Imaginative diplomacy, talking and listening to the enemy, and engaging in self-scrutiny remains outside the cast iron cage of the military mentality that has long dominated most of the political space in American foreign policy debates with the conspicuous help of the passive aggressive mainstream media. In this respect, American democracy is a broken reality, and conscientious citizens must look elsewhere as a prison break of the political imagination is long overdue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ISIS, Militarism, and the Violent Imagination

18 Sep

 

 

 

 

Before ISIS

 

The beheading of American and British journalists who were being held hostage by ISIS creates a truly horrifying spectacle, and quite understandably mobilizes the political will to destroy the political actor who so shocks and frightens the Western sensibility, which is far from being free from responsibility for such lurid incidents. Never in modern times has there been a clearer example of violence begetting violence.

 

And we need to ask ‘to what end?’ Political leaders in the West are remarkably silent and dishonest about what it is that they wish to achieve in this region beset since 2011 by a quite terrifying outbreak of political extremism, whether from above as in the cases of Syria, Egypt, and Israel or from below as with ISIS and al-Nusra.

 

It is difficult to recall that at the start of 2011, just three years ago, progressive voices around the world were inspired by the Arab upheavals, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, that burst upon the political scene unexpectedly. These extraordinary events appeared to repudiate the prevailing patterns of authoritarian, exploitative, and corrupt collaboration between oppressive domestic elites, neoliberal economic forces, and the regional imperial juggernaut that had kept this humanly disastrous reality stable for so long. Yet even during that time of optimism about the Arab future, a closer scrutiny of what was happening disclosed many reasons to be worried. It is helpful to look to this recent past to have some comprehension of the perplexing present.

 

A Revolutionary Spirit Without Revolutionary Action

 

The goals of these upheavals were far too ambitious to be realized by such limited challenges directed at the established order. These movements were essentially confined to getting rid of a hated ruler. Associating single individuals such as Mubarak, Ben Ali, or Assad with the grievances of an exploited and oppressed people overlooks the degree to which class interests and entrenched bureaucracies constituted structures. The popular forces bravely challenging the status quo lacked leadership, program, and even a clear agenda, and naively expected the remnants of the old regime to disappear or go along with the anguished call of mass discontent that sought bread, freedom, and dignity as the effect of removing the hated leader.

 

This innocence of exaggerated expectations made what had seemed a remarkable achievement of doing the impossible more vulnerable to reversal than was generally understood at the time when the immediate results seemed so stunning. What particularly impressed thoughtful commentators was being described as ‘a new subjectivity’ of the Arab masses. It had long been presumed that these Arab publics were reconciled to their fate, and would remain passive victims of their sorry fate. That they rose up with such force and resolve surprised the world, and themselves, by these courageous displays of self-empowerment and political creativity. It was also impressive that these upheavals, each distinct, shared a vision of an inclusive democracy that when established, would henceforth govern society with respect for all classes, religious and ethnic identities, genders, and political persuasions.

 

The reluctance to challenge the old order more fundamentally and punitively became coupled with a paradoxical and perverse situation of dependence on the old regime to manage in good faith the transition to the promised new dawn of constitutional democracy and freely elected political leaders. There seemed to be no understanding that these old elites in each country had interests that had been generally served by the previously established order, and would inevitably be threatened by the longings of the people, including expectations of moves toward greater social and economic equity threatening the prior acceptance of predatory arrangements with neoliberal globalization.

 

Preconditions for Transformative Political Ambitions

 

In this sense, there seemed little awareness in these movements of Lenin’s insistence that a successful transformative politics necessarily depends on substantially destroying the prior state structures; (“you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”), that is, by rebuilding the new transformed state from the ground up and getting rid of the old bureaucracy. This generalization is especially true if the old order was managed by indigenous leadership, and not imposed from without as in the colonial era. Also, as Hannah Arendt argued in her book on revolution, if the overthrow of the former regime does not have a radical social agenda, as was the case with American Revolution, only then does the possibility of a smooth and peaceful transition exists. [See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1969). Excluding the prospects for improved material conditions, including jobs for youth, was a political impossibility in the Arab world, where conditions of mass misery were what partially explained the role of oppressive structures and the assignment of security forces to prevent workers from organizing effectively.

 

Revealingly, in contrast to the activists in Tahrir Square, Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran encouraged a kind of Islamic Leninism, rejecting all pleas to reach compromises with the Shah’s regime in exchange for social peace and shared political power. From the perspective of late 2014 we take note of contrasting realities: Iran’s Islamic Republic is celebrating its 35th anniversary without a serious threat to its governance, while the so-called Egyptian Revolution barely lasted two years before the old regime in a more extreme form was fully restored under the bloody military leadership of General Sisi.

 

 

 

Underestimating Political Islam

 

There were additional factors at work in Egypt and the region. Perhaps, most significantly, those who sought to liberalize the governance structures without shaking their foundations greatly underestimated the electoral strength of political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the ideals of the Tahrir movement affirmed inclusionary democracy, the assumption of many who initially championed a new political order was that the MB would participate as a minority presence that would not displace the old urban ruling classes or threaten its privileges. When this turned out to be wrong it immediately shifted the political balance in such a way as to promote counter-revolution. As Europe discovered after 1848, nothing is worse for progressive politics than revolutionary ambitions to exceed revolutionary means.

 

This situation was further stressed by the rich and influential Gulf oil dynasties that felt deeply threatened by the Arab upheavals, and cared far more about their own stability than they did about promoting Sunni politics in the region. These governments were disturbed by the fall of Mubarak, and hoped for a political reversal in Egypt, welcoming the counter-revolution led by Sisi with an avalanche of funding, without blinking when this new military leadership proceeded to commit major atrocities against members of the MB and to criminalize the organization. It should not be ignored that this counter-revolutionary violence also served the strategic interests of Israel and the United States, restoring stability, marginalizing Muslim and democratizing forces, and avoiding the emergence of governments much more inclined to support Palestinian aspirations and to challenge neoliberal links with global capitalism. Into this mix that emerged in Egypt, must also be added the political ineptness of the MB, neither appreciating its popular support nor recognizing that MB political hegemony would never be accepted by either the remnants of the old regime nor by secular liberals who wanted Mubarak overthrown, but not the system. In this sense, it appears in retrospect that it was a great mistake of the MB to withdraw their earlier pledge after the Tahrir success story to refrain from seeking either to dominate the parliamentary elections or compete for the presidency.

 

Not Forgetting Iraq or Syria

 

If we consider other developments in the region there is another disturbing ‘truth’: the region at this stage seems better off being governed in an authoritarian manner than by either the sort of ‘democracy promotion’ that was the theme song of the George W Bush presidency (2000-2008) or through the political responses to the kind of popular uprisings that erupted in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, elsewhere, but turned out to be unsustainable. The least bad outcomes as of now appear to be those countries where the old authoritarian regimes prevailed without much struggle (e.g. Morocco) and made a few gestures of reform averting both civil strife and a more brutal turn in authoritarian rule. The alternatives to authoritarian in the region now seem far worse: terrible civil warfare (as in Syria) or chaos without respite (as in Libya). Given the mess that unfolded in Iraq during a decade of American occupation, what Washington policymaker would not at this point secretly consider the second coming of Saddam Hussein in Iraq as a gift of the gods?

 

Syria, as well, sent the wrong signal throughout the region. First, there occurred a popular challenge to the Assad regime that occasioned a bloody counterinsurgency campaign. Then outside forces, Turkey, the United States, Gulf countries teamed up as ‘Friends of Syria Group’ to help the insurgency prevail, badly underestimating the military capabilities and political support of the Damascus government, which enabled it to withstand these efforts to repeat the Mubarak/Qaddafi experience of overthrow either from below (by a mass movement) or from without (by a NATO air campaign). In Syria instead of regime change there occurred an ongoing civil war that has taken upwards of 200,000 lives, caused millions to flea the country as refugees and millions more to become internally displace.

 

Three negative political effects also followed: neighboring countries were destabilized, the unresolved Syrian struggle gave rise to various forms of Islamic extremism within Syria and in the region, and the atrocities of Assad gave license to others in the region (such as Sisi) to commit crimes against humanity with the prospect of impunity.

 

What lessons can we learn? Above all, beware of what is wished for. In effect, above all else, the last several decades should teach the West that the days of staging successful colonial interventions at acceptable costs are long past, and that premising post-colonial interventionist diplomacy on a moral crusade of human rights, democracy, and counter-terrorism fools almost no one except some of the people in the metropole, and wins few real friends in the target societies other than cynical opportunists or desperate insurgents. If intervention is followed by military occupation many of those who were initially willing to accept any and all outside help to get rid of the hated leader quickly get disillusioned and turn on their earlier benefactor, a process dubbed ‘blowback.’ [For identification of the phenomenon and its naming see Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2004) If the intervention is not followed by an occupation the results are not much better. Piles of bodies and debris are left behind, but the new reality is likely to be, as in Libya, the kind of ungovernable chaos with armed militias substituting for the rule of law. Washington tends to call such situations ‘failed states’ as if it had nothing to do with the collapse of governance.

 

America’s and NATO’s Unlearned Lessons

 

America and NATO should have learned the limits of military superiority and the problematics of occupation from their failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military superiority and shock and awe tactics can generally overwhelm a Third World government and quickly destroy its military capability, but that is only initial and easy phase of an effort to control the political future of a targeted country. Notoriously, Bush didn’t understand this in relation to Iraq when he infamously announced ‘mission accomplished’ to the world immediately after Iraqi military resistance crumbled and Saddam Hussein was driven from power.

Phase two of the Iraq undertaking involved occupation and state-building neoliberal style, and the emergence of formidable political resistance. The early glow of victory soon fades away, and a variety of troubles start to overwhelm the intervening side. A movement of national resistance takes shape, and adopts insurgent tactics against the foreign invader that takes away many of the benefits of military superiority that earlier achieved an easy battlefield victory. Resistance consists of various acts of violent disruption that gradually turn a hostile and foreign occupation into a long nightmare. The high tech weaponry of the occupier remains an effective killing machine, but it increasingly kills the wrong people, alienates far more, and seems helpless to establish minimal order much less to deliver on the promise of democracy, economic prosperity, and human rights for all. The prime objective of the occupier becomes one of crafting a graceful exit that disguises the abandonment of the original enterprise, and if that fails, leaving in a humiliating manner without being able to disguise the defeat. It should have been evident from the outset in Iraq that the effort to embed democracy is in tension with the strategic goal of integrating the country in accord with Western ideas of security and political economy. The idea of turning over security to an indigenous and partisan army trained to make safeguard the government put in place by a military intervention is truly a ‘mission impossible.’

 

Strategic Failure

 

What was the real outcome of both of these major military interventions that cost many lives, generated mass refugee and internally displaced populations, and expended trillions of dollars on these futile ventures? In Afghanistan the results were a mixture of chaos, destabilization of Pakistan, and the reemergence of the Taliban as a formidable political force. In Iraq, the ironic outcome after a decade of occupation was a strategic victory for Iran and its pro-Shi’ite foreign policy, along with sectarian strife and widespread chaos, culminating during this past year with the eruption of ISIS occupying a significant expanses of territory in Iraq, and Syria. ISIS had the audacity to proclaim itself the Islamic State and to found a new caliphate without regard to international borders.

 

In both societies these results are exactly the opposite of the goals set by the intervening side. What were the real motivations of the intervenors? There are, I believe, three overlapping answers given varying weights by commentators: for oil, for arms sales and the political economy of militarism, and to ensure the desired strategic hegemony of the American/Israeli partnership throughout the Middle East.

 

The failure results from a basic disconnect. Securing the neoliberal priority of assuring access to Middle Eastern oil at stable prices bolstered by a maximum Western private sector investment depends upon maintaining good relations with stable governments and receptive societies. Stable political structures, given the American commitment to Israel, together with capitalist predatory behavior, produces a hostile cleavage between state and society throughout the region, making political order fully dependent on effective authoritarian governance. Under these conditions it is evident that any claimed commitment to human rights and democracy is hypocritical, and at best peripheral. Such claims serve as misleading rationalizations for intervention in a post-colonial era where naked imperial justifications are no longer credible. It puts the West in the position of inevitably collaborating with national elites that suppress the most fundamental human right of their own peoples—that of the right of national self-determination, which is highlighted as common Article I of both the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

 

Remembering Vietnam

 

There is a further disconnect. Relying on military intervention to achieve the goals of foreign policy is not a new recipe for political failure, and such an approach should have been discarded long ago for realist reasons. A repudiation of interventionary diplomacy should have been the crucial lesson learned from the Vietnam War. Remember America won all the big battles, controlled every combat zone, and yet lost the war. A Vietnamese military commander’s response is worth pondering made to an American official who insisted that despite the political outcome of the war, the United States was never defeated militarily by Vietnam: “Yes, that is true, but it is irrelevant.”

 

Understanding why it is irrelevant is the great unlearned lesson in relation to the conflicts taking place the period since World War II. It should by now be clear even to the most dimwitted real politik analyst that every colonial war since World War II was won by the militarily inferior side. Perhaps, the most dramatic instance of people power triumphing over imperial power occurred in India’s defeat of the mighty British Empire without firing a shot. In Indochina and Algeria French colonialism finally gave way to national movements with far worse weaponry. National resilience in the end proves stronger than foreign military and police control.

 

The real untold story of this string of losses sustained by the West is the empowerment of people. This empowerment was eventually accorded moral and legal respect by a global diplomatic process that now seems a false gesture of imperial disempowerment. Acceptance of the moral claims of and legal right to self-determination was formally acknowledged, but the geopolitics of power and wealth went on as before, and continued at great costs to seek by force of arms what could not otherwise be justly acquired.

 

The recent Israeli military operation against the helpless people of Gaza is an extreme illustration of this dynamic. No people in the Middle East have endured as much cruelty and suffering during their long national movement for independence and sovereignty than have the Palestinians. And no state has been as determined as Israel to rely on its vastly superior military means to maintain control, expand, and ruthlessly suppress opposition. And yet after nearly 70 years of dispossession, occupation, militarist subjugation, and Western backing, the Palestinians are far from defeated. In the recent one-sided Protective Edge campaign over 2100 Palestinians were killed, 75% of whom were civilians, as compared to Israel reporting losses of 70 dead, of whom 66 were members of the IDF. It suggests that ‘state terrorism’ is far deadlier for the civilian population than is the violence of enemy resisters. But consider the political dynamics: the Israeli reasons for staging this horror show seemed to be mainly to convince the collaborationist leadership in Ramallah to stop cooperating with Israel and to weaken decisively the organization structure and political support of Hamas. As with the cases mentioned earlier, the military dominance produced great devastation combined with a political defeat: instead of weakening Hamas, the organization gained in popularity not only in Gaza, but even more so in the West Bank where new polls show that in any forthcoming election Hamas would easily win over the Palestinian Authority, which was unlikely before Israel launched its latest deadly attack to once more ‘mow the lawn’ in Gaza.

 

The next concern, following from what has been argued, is ‘why such a clear pattern of repeated failures should not lead to policy adjustments?’ There are two explanations: the political elites of the world are hard-wired to think within an anachronistic realist box in which military power is the controlling force of history. Such thinking is also part of the political culture of the United States where security is correlated with hard power, no matter the facts are. This defiance of reality is sadly reinforced by American political culture. When recent horrific crimes in movie theaters and schools where innocent persons are willfully slaughtered by a deranged heavily armed individual, the militarized mentality of the citizenry leads it not to demand the prohibition of assault weapons in private hands, but perversely to a surge in private arms sales.

 

The ISIS Challenge Revisited

 

This brings us back to ISIS, and what might be done that improves the situation rather than worsen it. Barack Obama has presided over shaping the regional response. He was confronted by a multifaceted dilemma. He had been elected president twice partly to end American engagement in overseas wars, especially in the Middle East, and here he was once more rallying the region and Europe for yet another war against an adversary that posed no discernable threat to the American people. To overcome this awkward fact, it was necessary to dramatize the barbarism of ISIS tactics, pointing to the

American victims of ISIS atrocities, and at the same time promise there would be no American casualties. Barbarous as were these atrocious acts, beheadings were unfortunately not new to the region, and were regularly used upon by the Saudi Arabian government in punishing convicted criminals. True, these incidents involved American and British nationals who were innocent of wrongdoing, but the emphasis was not so much placed on their innocence as on the horrifying technique used to carry out the executions.

 

Here is the core problem: America’s leadership in the region depends on actively protecting the authoritarian status quo, especially in the Gulf, and so doing nothing about ISIS was not an option. What Obama is proposing to do repeats the old formula of failure: air strikes; training, arming, and advising friendly forces (Iraqi Kurds, moderate Syrians, Iraqi military units), disrupting ISIS overseas recruiting and funding. Obama’s program is a pale version of post-Vietnam counter-insurgency doctrine where risks of American casualties must be minimized while air power, including drones, plus native ground forces with their own political agendas are relied upon to carry out the dirty work. Yet, as in earlier encounters, the likely result is to induce chaos and alienation arising from accidental targeting of innocent civilians arousing public resentment, and a no win/no lose standoff that causes great suffering to the society, including producing many refugees and internally displaced persons. It is illustrative of thinking within the old militarist box, and its prescriptions are almost certain to make any particular situation worse than if left alone.

 

Of course, there are far preferable options, but to adopt these requires looking below the surface. It would have to start with the admission that the American occupation of Iraq was the proximate cause of the emergence of ISIS, especially due to the purge of Bathist elements in the government and armed forces, and the encouragement of Shi’ite sectarianism. Abandoning sectarian maneuvers is one way to avoid some of the worst recent mistakes.

 

Another productive path presupposes an American diplomatic outlook oriented around wider ethical and world order concerns. Such an adjustment would require loosening the dependency ties to Israel, and follow a rational line of geo-strategic self-interest in the Middle East. Such a course of action, hardly ever mentioned because it seems too unrealistic, would involve taking three steps: bringing Iran into the effort to find a political solution for the Syrian civil war; proposing a nuclear free zone throughout the Middle East; exerting pressure on Israel to uphold Palestinian rights under international law. This is a distinctly political approach that contrasts with militarism that has produced destructive turbulence in the region in the period since the partial stabilities of the Cold War era collapsed along with the Berlin Wall in 1989.

 

Militarist geopolitics seems destined to lead to yet another Western catastrophe in the tormented Middle East. There is no political will visible anywhere on the horizons of world politics that might pose a humane challenge to such disaster-prone policymaking. And so the murderous cycle of violence repeats itself yet again, the alien militarism of this Western led coalition is confronting the indigenous violence of ISIS that the mistakes of earlier interventions by the West have helped to nurture. And so dispiriting repetition occurs instead of uplifting innovation, and the wheels of violence turn with accelerating velocity.

Cruelties of Ceasefire Diplomacy

27 Jul

[Prefatory Note: the post below is a revised text of an article published in AlJazeera America on July 26, 2014. Devastation and violence has continued in Gaza, with Palestinians deaths now numbering over 1000 (overwhelmingly civilians) and Israeli deaths latest reported at being 43 (almost all military personnel). Such casualty figures and disparities raise questions of state terrorism in a stark manner. Also, it should be appreciated that if Israel were to do what it is required by international law to do there would be no rockets directed at its population centers–lift the blockade, negotiate peace on the basis of the 2002 Arab proposals and Security Council 242. Yet this would require Israel to give up once and for all its expansionist vision embedded in the settlement phenomenon and the version of Zionism embraced by its leaders and reigning political parties. The best that the UN has been able to do is to call for an “immediate and unconditional ceasefire” to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council; such an unseemly balancing act is not what the UN Charter had in mind by aligning the international community in opposition to states that break the peace and act aggressively in disregard of international law; a victimized people deserves protection, not some sort of display of deforming geopolitical symmetry.]

 

So far, the diplomatic effort to end the violence in Gaza has failed miserably, most recently with Israel’s cabinet rejecting a ceasefire proposal from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. This attempt by Washington is representative of the overall failure of American policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict, only on this occasion the consequences can be measured in the growing pile of dead bodies and the widespread devastation that includes numerous homes, public buildings and even artillery damage to several United Nations schools sheltering Palestinian civilians.

 

The U.S. approach fails because it exhibits extreme partisanship in a setting where trust, credibility and reciprocity are crucial if the proclaimed aim of ending the violence is the true objective of this exhibition of statecraft. Kerry is undoubtedly dedicated to achieving a cease-fire, just as he demonstrated for most of the past year a sincerity of commitment in pushing so hard for a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Yet throughout the failed peace process the United States exhibited all along this discrediting extreme partisanship, never more blatantly than when it designated Martin Indyk, a former staff member of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and former ambassador to Israel, to serve as the U.S. special envoy throughout the peace talks.

 

The U.S. approach up to this point to achieving a ceasefire in Gaza has been undertaken in a manner that is either woefully ignorant of the real constraints or callously cynical about their relevance. This is especially clear from the initial attempt to bring about a cease-fire by consulting only one side, Israel — the party bearing the major responsibility for causing massive casualties and damage — and leaving Hamas out in the cold. Even if this is a unavoidable consequence of Hamas being treated as “a terrorist entity,” it still makes no sense in the midst of such carnage to handle diplomacy in such a reckless manner when lives were daily at stake. When Israel itself has wanted to deal with Hamas in the past, it had no trouble doing so — for instance, when it arranged the prisoner exchange that led to the release of the single captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit back in 2011.

 

The basic facts seem so calculated to end in diplomatic failure that it is difficult to explain how they could have happened: The U.S. relied on Egypt as the broker of a proposal it vetted, supposedly with the approved text delivered personally by Tony Blair to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo, secreted endorsed by the Netanyahu government, and then publicly announced on July 15 via the media as a ceasefire proposal accepted by Israel, without Hamas having been consulted, or even previously informed. It’s a diplomatic analogue to the theater of the absurd. Last July, then-General Sisi was the Egyptian mastermind of a coup that brutally cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood and criminalized the entire organization. The Sisi government has made no secret of its unrelenting hostility to Hamas, which it views as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and alleged responsibility for insurgent violence in the Sinai. Egypt destroyed the extensive tunnel network connecting Gaza with the outside world created to circumvent the punitive Israeli blockade that has been maintained since 2007. Was there ever any reason for Hamas to accept such a humiliating ceasefire arrangement? As some respected Israeli commentators have suggested, most prominently Amira Hass, the “normalization” of the occupation is what the Israeli military operation Protective Edge is all about. What Hass suggests is that Israel is seeking a compliant Palestinian response to an occupation that has for all intents and purposes become permanent, and seems to believe that such periodic shows of force will finally break once and for all the will to resist, symbolized by Hamas and its rockets, and now its tunnels. In this respect, the recent move to establish a unity government reconciling the Palestinian Authority with Hamas was a setback for the normalization policy, especially suggesting that even the PA could no longer be taken for granted as an acceptably compliant ‘partner,’ not for peace, but for occupation.

 

Whatever ambiguity might surround the Kerry diplomacy, the fact that the cease-fire’s terms were communicated to Hamas via the media, made the proposal a “take it or leave it” clearly designed to show the world that Hamas would never be treated as a political actor with grievances of its own. Such a way of proceeding also ignored the reasonable conditions Hamas had posited as the basis of a cease-fire it could accept. These conditions included an unwavering insistence on ending the unlawful seven-year siege of Gaza, releasing prisoners arrested in the anti-Hamas campaign in the West Bank prior to launching the military operation on July 8, and stopping interference with the unity government that brought Hamas and the Palestinian Authority together on June 3. Kerry, by contrast, was urging both sides to restore the cease-fire text that had been accepted in November 2012 after the previous major Israeli military attack upon Gaza, but relevantly, had never been fully implemented producing continuous tensions.

 

Hamas’ chief leader, Khaled Meshaal, has been called “defiant” by Kerry because he would not go along with this tilted diplomacy. “Everyone wanted us to accept a ceasefire and then negotiate for our rights,” Meshaal said. This was tried by Hamas in 2012 and didn’t work. As soon as the violence ceased, Israel refused to follow through on the cease-fire agreement that had promised negotiations seeking an end of the blockade and an immediate expansion of Gazan fishing rights.

 

In the aftermath of Protective Edge is it not reasonable, even mandatory, for Hamas to demand a firm commitment to end the siege of Gaza, which has been flagrantly unlawful since it was first imposed in mid-2007? Israel as the occupying power has an obligation under the Geneva Conventions to protect the civilian population of an occupied people. Israel claims that its “disengagement” in 2005, involving the withdrawal of security forces and the dismantling of settlements, ended such obligations. Such a position is legally (and morally) unacceptable, a view almost universally shared in the international community, since the persistence of effective Israeli control of entry and exit, as well as air and sea, and violent incursions amounts to a shift in the form of occupation — not its end. Israel is certainly justified in complaining about the rockets, but the maintenance of an oppressive regime of collective punishment on the civilians of Gaza is an ongoing crime. And it should be appreciated that more often than not, Israel provokes the rockets by recourse to aggressive policies of one sort or another or that most primitive rockets are fired by breakaway militia groups that Hamas struggles to control. A full and unbiased account of the interaction of violence across the Gaza border would not find that Israel was innocent and only Hamas was at fault. The story is far more complicated, and not an occasion for judging which side is entitled to be seen as acting in self-defense.

 

In “Turkey Can Teach Israel How to End Terror,” an insightful July 23 article in The New York Times, the influential Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol drew from the experience of his country in ending decades of violent struggle between the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state. Akyol “congratulated” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (while taking critical note of his “growing authoritarianism”) for ending the violence in Turkey two years ago by agreeing with the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to initiate conflict-resolving negotiations in good faith and abandon the “terrorist” label. Some years ago I heard former British Prime Minister John Major say that he made progress toward peace in Northern Ireland only when he stopped treating the Irish Republican Army as a terrorist organization and began dealing with it as a political actor with genuine grievances. If a secure peace were ever to become Israel’s true objective, this is a lesson to be learned and imitated.

 

Just as with the peace process itself, the time has surely come for a credible ceasefire to take account of the views and interests of both sides, and bring this sustained surge of barbaric violence to an end. International law and balanced diplomacy are available to do this if the political will were to emerge on the Israeli side, which seems all but impossible without the combination of continuing Palestinian resistance and mounting pressure from outside by way of the BDS campaign and the tactics of a militant, nonviolent global solidarity movement.

 

 

Imperiled Polities: Egypt and Turkey—Two Visions of Democracy

25 Jan

 

The Meaning of a 98.1% Vote

 

In mid-January there was a vote in Egypt as to whether to approve a constitution drafted by a 50-person committee appointed by the interim government put in place after the military coup carried out on July 3, 2013. The constitution was approved by 98.1% of those who voted, 38.6% of the eligible 53 million Egyptians. This compares with 63.8% support received by the constitution prepared during the presidency of Mohammed Morsi from the 32.9% of the Egyptian citizenry that participated in the vote. It should be observed that this new constitutional referendum was boycotted by both the Muslim Brotherhood and various of the youth groups that has been at the forefront of the anti-Mubarak upheaval in 2011. Also the validity of the vote was further discredited because of the atmosphere of intimidation in Egypt well conveyed by the pro-coup slogan: “You are either with me or with the terrorists.” Not only had the MB been criminalized, its assets seized, its leaders jailed, its media outlets shut down, but anyone of any persuasion who seemed opposed to the leadership and style of General el-Sisi was subject to arrest and abuse.

 

In the background here are questions about the nature of ‘democracy,’ and how to evaluate the views of people caught in the maelstrom of political conflict. On one level, it might seem that a vote of over 90% for absolutely anything is an expression of extraordinary consensus, and as a result el-Sisi’s constitution is far more popular than Morsi’s constitution, and hence more legitimate. Reflecting on this further makes it seem evident, especially when the oppressive context is to taken into account that the one-sided vote should be interpreted in the opposite manner, making Morsi’s vote more trustworthy because it reached plausible results. Any vote in a modern society that claims 98.1% support should be automatically disregarded because it must have been contrived and coerced. In effect, we cannot trust democratic procedures to reveal true sentiments in a political atmosphere that terrorizes its opponents, and purports to delegitimize its opposition by engaging in state crime. The consent of the governed can only be truly ascertained if the conditions exist for the free and honest expression of views for and against what present power-wielders favor.

 

Maybe, however, the connections made between democracy and legitimacy, seeking this populist signal of approval by the ritual of a vote, is itself a kind of blindfold. It would seem that a majority of Egyptians did, in fact, welcome the el-Sisi coup, believing that a military leadership would at least ensure food and fuel at affordable prices and restore order on the streets. In other words, most citizens in crisis situations posit order and economic stability as their highest political priorities, and are ready to give up ‘democracy’ if its leaders fail to meet these expectations. In my view, what has happened in Egypt is the abandonment of the substance of democracy by the majority of the Egyptian people, as reinforced by the suppression of a minority hostile to the takeover. This dynamic is hidden because the discourse and rituals of democracy are retained. It is this process that I believe we are witnessing as unfolding in Egypt. In effect, polarization of the first two-and-half years following the overthrow of Mubarak has been followed by the restoration of autocratic rule, but due to the intervening embrace of political freedom, however problematic, the new autocrat is even harsher than what was rejected at Tahrir Square three years ago.

 

The Politics of Polarization and Alienation  

 

Amid this political turmoil that has been spoiling the politics of the Middle East is a conceptual confusion that contributes to acute political alienation on the part of those societal elements that feel subject to a governmental leadership and policy agenda that is perceived as hostile to their interests and values. Such circumstances are aggravated by political cultures that have been accustomed to ‘one-man shows’ that accentuate tendencies toward adoration and demonization. Each national situation reflects the particularities of history, culture, values, national memories, personalities, and a host of other considerations, and at the same time there are certain shared tendencies that may reflect some commonalities of experience and inter-societal mimicry, as well as the deformed adoption of Western hegemonic ideas of modernity, development, constitutionalism, and governance, as well as of course the relationship between religion and politics.

 

The recent disturbing political turmoil in Turkey and Egypt, each in its own way, is illustrative. In both countries there are strong, although quite divergent, traditions of charismatic authoritarian leadership, reinforced by quasi-religious sanctification. Very recently, however, this authoritarian past is being challenged by counter-traditions of populist legitimacy putting forward impassioned demands for freedom, integrity, equity, and inclusive democracy, which if not met, justify putting aside governmental procedures, including even the results of national elections. Within this emergent counter-tradition is also a willingness to give up all democratic pretensions so as to restore a preferred ideological orientation toward governance, that is, resorting to whatever instruments are effecting in transferring control of the state back to the old order that had lost control of the governing process by elections, and had poor prospects of democratically winning power in the future.

 

In Egypt, this circumstance led to unconditional opposition to the elected leadership, especially to Mohammed Morsi, the president drawn from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. The aim of this opposition, whether or not consciously espoused, seemed to have been to create a crisis of governability of sufficient depth to provoke a crisis of legitimacy, which could then produce a populist challenge from below that brought together ideological demands for a different orientation and material demands for a better life. It is true that Morse lent a certain credibility to this rising tide of opposition by a combination of incompetence and some clumsy repressive moves, but this was almost irrelevant as his secular and fulool opponents wanted him to fail and never allowed him even the possibility of success. For such opponents, the idea of living under a government run by the MB was by itself intolerable. In the end, many of those who had pleaded so bravely for freedom in Tahrir Square were two years later pleading with the armed forces to engage in the most brutal expressions of counter-revolutionary vengeance. Whether this will be the end of the Egyptian story for the near future is difficult to discern, the downward spiral suggests insurrection and strife for the foreseeable future.  

 

In Turkey, such a collision has recently produced turmoil and highlighting the dangers and passions that accompany lethal polarization, initially, in the encounters of the summer of 2013 at Gezi Park and some months later in a titanic struggle between Tayyip Recip Erdogan and Fetullah Gulan generating a rising tide of mutual recriminations and accusations that threatens the AKP dominance of the political process, a threat that will be soon tested in the March local elections, especially those in Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey is different than Egypt in at least two major respects. First of all, its economy has flourished in the past decade, producing a rising middle class, and a business community with lots to lose if investor confidence and currency exchange rates decline sharply. This reality is complicated by the fact that part of those that have gained economically have been aligned with the AKP, and by the degree to which the Turkish armed forces are also major stakeholders in the private sector. Secondly, a major achievement of the AKP leadership has been to depoliticize the role of the Turkish military, partly to protect itself against interference and partly to satisfy European Union accession criteria.

 

Alienation and emotional distress is more a symptom than an explanation of why there exist such strong political tensions. Better understood, these conflicts are about class, religion, status, political style, the benefits of governmental control, and availability of capital and credit. An additional source of public antagonism is the unresolved, and mostly unacknowledged, debate about the true nature of democracy as the legitimating ideal for good governance in the 21st century. One perplexing element is language, especially its use by politicians concerned with public opinion. There is this impulse on one side to base governmental legitimacy on pleasing the citizenry, and the impulse on the other side is to insist upon fidelity to law and constitutionalism. Both sides have powerful arguments that can be invoked to support their claims. There is no right and wrong, which is infuriating for polarized discourse that can only raise its voice to shout in higher decibels, but can never reach a conclusion of the sort that might resolve a scientific debate or solve a mathematical puzzle. Each side is motivated by unshakeable convictions, and has no disposition to listen, much less appreciate, what the others are saying. In effect, good governance is impossible in the absence of community, and what has become evident is that society unity is currently unattainable in the presence of the sort of alienation that has gripped the publics in Egypt and Turkey, and elsewhere. 

 

Part of the controversy, but only part, can be reduced to these differences over the very nature of democracy. Another part, as discussed in relation to the vote on the Egyptian constitution, involves the abandonment of democracy in substance while insisting on its retention in form.

 

Varieties of Democracy

 

The word democracy itself needs to be qualified in one of two ways: majoritarian or republican. And here is the central tension: the public myth in all countries that deem themselves ‘modern’ endorse the republican tradition of limited government and internal checks and balances, while the political culture is decidedly ambivalent. It can spontaneously legitimize the majoritarian prerogatives of a popular leader with strong backing on the street and among the armed forces, even at the cost of republican correctness. Because of this reality, there exists a tendency by those social forces being displaced through societal power shifts to view a newly ascendant leader through a glass darkly. They suddenly lament authoritarian tendencies that never troubled them in the past when their elites held the reins of governmental authority. Part of the recent confusion is that sometimes the authoritarian tendency gets so corrupted that it loses support even among those who share its class and ideological outlook, and a reformist enthusiasm emerges. This happened in Egypt, but its tenure was short lived as its adherents, drawn from the ranks of the urban educated elites, quickly realized that their interests and values were more jeopardized by the ‘new’ order than it had been by the excesses of the ‘old’ order. 

 

We find in Egypt this pattern played out through the wildly gyrations in the perception of the armed forces as a political player. In the Mubarak Era the armed forces were the central pillar of the state, and a major beneficiary of governmental corruption, neoliberal inequities, and a principal perpetrator, along with other security forces, of state crime. In the Morsi period of governance the armed forces seemed to stay in the background until either responding to or prompting the populist mandate of the opposition exhibited by mass demonstrations and media mobilization based on a paranoid image of Muslim Brotherhood rule and widespread genuine distress about economic stagnancy and political disarray.

 

After the July 3rd coup led by Morsi’s Minister of Defense, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the armed forces set aside the constitution, installed a transitional government, promised new elections, and set about drafting a constitution that embodied the hegemony of the armed forces. What has taken place, however, is an undisguised exercise of authoritarian closure based on declaring the former choice of the citizenry, the Muslim Brotherhood, to be a ‘terrorist’ organization whose leadership were victims of several atrocities, imprisoned, forced underground, and fled the country. Nevertheless, despite these repressive measures, the armed forces are proceeding on a basis as if their action has been mandated by ‘democracy,’ that is, by majoritarian demands for change enacted on the streets of Egyptian cities and through the subsequent endorsement of the repressive steps to be undertaken by the regime, eventually validated through demonstrations, voting, and electoral ratification. In the background of such a counter-revolutionary turn, of course, were weak institutions of government accustomed to operate for decades within a strict authoritarian political space, and a governmental bureaucracy whose judiciary and police continued to ideologically aligned with the old order. Such an entrenched bureaucracy seems to have regarded the reemergence of authoritarian and militarized politics as natural, linked in their imaginary with Egypt’s ancient heritage of greatness and more comfortable with such domineering figures as Nasser and Mubarak as compared to the density and seeming incapacities of Morsi.

 

Challenging Democracy in Turkey

 

The situation in Turkey is much more subtle and less menacing, yet exhibits several analogous features. Despite the outcome of elections that brought the AKP to power initially in 2002, a development subsequently reinforced by stronger electoral mandates in 2007 and 2012, most of the opposition never accepted these results as politically acceptable, and immediately sought to undermine the elected leadership in a variety of legal and extra-legal ways. In the background of this alienation was the implicit and feared belief that the AKP was mounting a challenge to the hallowed legacy of Kemal Ataturk, as well as to the rigid Turkish style of secularism that was periodically reinvigorated by the armed forces that staged coups, which in 1982 had imposed a highly centralized, security oriented constitution on the country. With political acumen, the AKP maneuvered pragmatically in an impressive manner, creating a rapidly growing economy, seeking to play a conflict resolving role throughout the Middle East, and repeatedly proclaiming a fidelity to the secular creed as the foundation of public order, and by stages subjecting the armed forces to civilian control. Despite the magnitude of these achievements the AKP and Erdogan never gained an iota of appreciation or respect from the anti-religious Kemalist opposition that claimed to be the only legitimate guardians of Turkish ‘secularism.’  Strangely, this alienated opposition was never able to present a responsible political platform that could give the Turkish people a positive alternative, and so the prospects of mounting an electoral challenge remained poor, especially given the accomplishments of the AKP.

 

In such a setting this intensely alienated opposition seemed increasingly dependent on manufacturing a crisis of legitimacy that would restore the old state/society balance that had prevailed since the founding of the republic in 1923. The Ataturk legacy included a somewhat reluctance acceptance of procedural democracy in the form of free and fair elections with the apparent implied assumption that the outcome would remain faithful to his modernist orientation, modeled on Europe, that accompanied the founding of the republic. The range of opposition was limited by a law allowing the closure of political parties that seemed to be straying from the prescribed Kemalist path. When the AKP defied these expectations in 2002, the opposition became quickly fed up with the workings of  ‘democracy,’ and seemed early on to count on being rescued, as in the past, by a military intervention that they hoped would be encouraged by the U.S., which was assumed to be unhappy about the Islamist leanings attributed to the AKP political base and leadership.  The disappointment among the old secular elites arising from the failure of these expectations to materialize deepened the alienation and frustrations of opposition forces, especially on the part of urban elites in the main cities of Turkey in the western part of the country, which exaggerated the faults of the government and ignored its achievements.

 

With such considerations in mind it was understandable that there would be exhilaration among the opposition generated by the Gezi Park demonstrations in the summer of 2013, especially in its initial phases that were as much a protest against the AKP’s embrace of an environmentally rapacious neoliberalism as it was against the authoritarian excesses of the Erdogan leadership. This enthusiasm weakened when the Gezi movement was substantially hijacked in its subsequent phases by the most extreme tendencies of the alienated opposition, which seemed to believe that Gezi presented an opportunity to fashion a full-fledged crisis of governability out of this narrowly focused protest that might force the resignation of Erdogan, if not the collapse of the AKP. There was an attempt to take advantage of escalating public outrage that resulted after excessive force was used by the police to maintain order in the Gezi context. Of course, Erdogan’s harsh style of discourse, including off the cuff opinions that reflected his Islamic devoutness, were part of the broader political atmosphere, and were particularly alarming to an already alienated opposition, reinforcing their their underlying beliefs that any alternative would be better for Turkey than what the AKP was bestowing upon the country. The situation was aggravated  after the AKP electoral success in 2011. It seemed to give Erdogan confidence that he need no longer adhere to his earlier cautiously pragmatic approach to leadership, and he adopted the sort of swagger that both frightened and disgusted an opposition that was not inclined to give him any leeway.

 

Similarly, the more recent, unexpected, and still obscure and bitter public falling out between the AKP and the hizmet movement has injected a new virus into the Turkish body politic posing unpredictable threats. It may turn out that this conflict represent nothing more fundamental than a struggle for relative influence and power that calmer minds will resolve before long. Perhaps also Turkey is experiencing some of the almost inevitable mishaps associated with keeping one political party with a strong leader in power for too long. Such prolonged control of government almost always produces scandal and corruption, especially in a political culture where the rule of law and the ethics of civic virtue do not have a very strong grip on behavioral patterns. In the more distant Turkish past are the memories of Ottoman times when the country was a regional power center, governed by highly authoritarian figures, a hallowed past that was secularized in the last century but not challenged in its essential role in Turkish political culture.

 

Majoritarian and Republican Democracy Assessed

 

With this mix of considerations in mind, the distinction between ‘Majoritarian Democracy’ and ‘Republican Democracy,’ although simplifying the actual political texture, seems important.  In Majoritarian Democracy the leadership is essentially responsible to the electorate, and if its policies reflect the will of the majority, the views and values of opposed minorities need not be respected. Critical views treat such forms of government as susceptible to the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ which has subjective and objective realities distinguishing between what is perceived and what is actually taking place. Arguably after Morsi’s election in 2012, and given the embittered opposition that seemed unwilling to accept the outcome of the vote, the Muslim Brotherhood used the prerogatives of office in a failed attempt to impose the majoritarian will, and may itself have been prepared to change the rules of the political game so as to retain control. Part of the majoritarian mentality is to locate a check on its excesses in the will of the citizenry, and thus when the people are mobilized to demand a new leadership for the country without waiting upon the niceties of the next elections, the path is cleared for the sort of military takeover that occurred last July. Of course, majoritarian dynamics are subject to manipulation by anti-democratic forces whose zeal is directed toward gaining control of the state.

 

‘Republican Democracy’ in contrast starts with a generally skeptical view of human nature, and seeks above all to find procedures and support the nurturing of a political culture that prizes moderate government over efficiency and transcendent leadership. The American self-conscious adoption of Republican Democracy at the end of the 18th century, as spelled out for the ages in The Federalist Papers, is a classic instance of molding a constitutional system that was wary of majorities and protective of minorities and of individual rights ( although totally blind to the human claims of slaves and native Americans). Unlike Egypt or Turkey, Americans were seeking to arrange a different future for themselves than was associated with British royalism, and its absolutist pretensions. In the background, were political thinkers such as John Locke with a stress on the link between good governance and rights and Montesquieu who argued along analogous lines about the cardinal relevance of separation of powers to the avoidance of the concentration and excesses of state power. Delinking government from religious claims of certainty was also consistent with republican sensitivity to human flaws and the general ethos of Lord Acton’s famous saying ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

 

Because over time every political system faces crises, the American founders realized that the envisioned arrangements would only survive the tests of time if two conditions were realized: first, reverence for the constitution by both lawmakers and citizens, and secondly, judicial supremacy to override legislative and executive swings toward either implementing the momentary passions of the mob or aggrandizing power and authority, and thereby upsetting the delicate balance of institutions. Despite this self-conscious commitment to the republican approach, in times of war and crisis, the democratic feature of accountable power-wielding tends to yield to claims of national security and public expediency. And once such departures from republicanism become entrenched, as a result of a long period of warfare or in relation to nuclear weaponry, and now transnational terrorism, the authoritarian genie is able to escape from the constitutional bottle. As the American motto of ‘eternal vigilance’ reminds us, there are no safe paths to moderate government, and its most influential advocates realized that their wishes might be so defeated that they recognized that the people enjoyed ‘a right of revolution’ if despite all precautions the governing process had become despotic.

 

It need hardly be argued that neither Egypt nor Turkey are remotely similar to the United States or Europe, but the superficial embrace of democracy by these and other countries might benefit from examining more closely the menace of Majoritarian Democracy in a fragmented polity and the difficulties of establishing Republican Democracy in political cultures that have been so long dominated by militarism and authoritarianism. Egypt is experiencing the essentially anti-democratic restoration of authoritarian militarism, while Turkey is trying to preserve sufficient stability and consensus to enable the self-restrained persistence of procedural democracy and a successful process of constitutional renewal that rids the country of the 1982 militarist vision of governance, and moves toward creating the institutional and procedural frame and safeguards associated with Republican Democracy. Beyond this, however, will be the immense educational challenge of shaping a supportive political culture that entrenches republican values in public consciousness, above all a respect for individual and group rights and an inclusive approach to policy formation that seeks participation by and approval from stakeholding constituencies opposed to the majority. Such a vision of a democratic future for Turkey implies a process, not an event, and will require an ongoing struggle inevitably distracted by both manufactured and authentic crises of legitimacy. The hope is that moderate minds will prevail, serving the long-term interests of a state and its peoples that retain great potential to be a beacon of light for the region and beyond.

 

  

Beholding 2014

3 Jan

 

2013 was not a happy year in the chronicles of human history, yet there were a few moves in the directions of peace and justice. What follows are some notes that respond to the mingling of light and shadows that are flickering on the global stage, with a spotlight placed on the main war zone of the 21st century—the Middle East, recalling that Europe had this negative honor for most of the modern era except for the long 19th century, and that the several killing fields of sub-Saharan Africa are located at the periphery of political vision, and thus their reality remains blurred for distant observers. Also relevant are the flaring tensions in the waters around China in relation to territorial disputes about island ownership, especially Diaoyu/Senkaku  pitting China against Japan, and reminding us that some old wounds remain unhealed.

 

Many persons in many places suffered greatly, and often with no better prospects in 2014, although our capacity to project a dismal present into the future is so modest as to make dramatic changes in direction quite plausible.

While highlighting some particularly troubled countries, we should not overlook those tens of millions throughout the world living in dire poverty, without healthy drinking water, sufficient food, adequate medical facilities, lacking proper housing, and deprived of education and employment opportunities. These chronic conditions of acute suffering generate migration flows, and underscore the terrible ordeal worldwide of economic migrants and refugees, always at risk, often living ‘unlawful’ lives of unbearable vulnerability. Such a general reflection on the human condition is meant to encourage serious reflections and commentary about whether the current state-centric structures of global governance deserve to be considered legitimate, and if not, what sorts of alternative arrangements can be envisioned to raise hopes for a better future.

 

What follows is a brief look at some of those situations of conflict that generate particular concern at this time:

 

            –the Syrian plight has been situated in the realm of the unspeakable for almost three years, and although punitive bombing was avoided in 2013 and chemical weapons arsenals destroyed, the killing (now far in excess of 100,000; some speculate 73,000 in 2013 alone), refugee exodus (2.3 million out of a population of 22.4 million), massive internal displacement (with estimates running as high as 6.3 million), and extreme material hardships are increasingly prevalent (with latest estimates that basic needs are unmet for as many as 9.6 million); what is also illuminating in a negative way is the incapacity of the UN and external actors to bring the political violence to an end, much less to find a solution to the conflict that protects minorities and enhances more generally the lives of the Syrian people; perhaps proxy antagonist states will act less irresponsibly in 2014, perhaps international relief efforts will increase; perhaps, the prospects of some kind of accountability for endless crimes against humanity will have some bearing on how the various participants work toward a just peace; at least, we must not avert our gaze from the slaughterhouse that Syria has become, and at least do what can be done to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe that continues to unfold there and inhibit its already disastrous spillover effects in such countries as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey;

 

            –the Palestinian plight persists in Gaza most disturbingly where underlying political and environmental challenges of viability involving water, food, and medical supplies have been cruelly aggravated by disastrous storms, polluted waters, fuel shortages, power failures, political antagonisms creating a humanitarian emergency that persists virtually unnoticed, and threatens to become even more horrendous; Palestinians throughout Palestine are also enduring a continuous  process of encroachment upon their most basic rights in relation to land, residence, water, settlements, wall, Jerusalem, refugees; the persistence of belligerent occupation for more than 45 years should not be tolerated, especially if the wellbeing of the civilian population is being continuously undermined, but under present circumstances this unfortunate set conditions cannot be effectively challenged directly; more promising is the widening Legitimacy War being waged to mobilize civil society and win the battle to sway the public mind by the imagery of Palestinian victimization and peaceful struggle, as well as the degree to which both sides fare in the underlying debate about who is right and who is wrong; it is important that in a Legitimacy War the target is definitely not the state of israel, but rather the policies and practices of the Israeli government; the end sought in this Legitimacy War is a just, inclusive, and sustainable peace for both peoples, but with the contours of peace fixed more by rights than by interplay of hard power capabilities;

 

            –the Egyptian people who had so illuminated the darkness three years ago by their remarkable rising in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country, now face a darker future than even during the bleak Mubarak years. As grim as this unfinished revolutionary process is in Egypt, not less discouraging has been the silence, or worse, of neighboring governments who poured in funds after a military coup, undeterred by subsequent bloody massacres that exhibit the features of crimes against humanity, and have now been outrageously extended by declaring a civic organization that fairly won democratic elections to be ‘a terrorist organization’ despite its long sustained pledge of nonviolent political engagement, implying that mere membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is itself a serious form of criminality; that such extreme behavior by the el-Sisi post-coup leadership can pass beneath the geopolitical radar screen of the liberal democracies in Europe and North America is also cause for lament, and further proof that 21st century global governance is afflicted with double standards, hypocritical condemnations, malign neglect, and a multitude of unholy alliances;

 

            –the Arab Spring that brought such hope and joy three years ago to many peoples entrapped in the cramped political space provided by authoritarian regimes now seems entrapped anew, whether in atrocity-laden  civil strife as in Syria or in militia-dominated chaos as in Libya or in reworking

of the non-accountable oppressive state as in Egypt or in the sectarian strife that still daily torments the people of Iraq; these regional patterns are not yet firm, and there remains a plausible basis for not renouncing all hopes that made the upheavals so promising in 2011;

 

            –the Turkish domestic downward spiral is also a cause for deep concern as 2013 draws to a close: the lethal dynamics of polarization took an unexpected turn, swerving from the apparent confrontations of the summer in Gezi Park that pitted the forces of a severely alienated secularist opposition, including new youth elements, against the entrenched AKP establishment that reacted with excessive force and political insensitivity; now attention has turned to the split between two leading forces previously united but newly warring: the Fetullah Gulen hizmet movement versus the Erdogan-led AKP now fighting it out in relation to corruption charges, but also each seeking to gain the upper hand in a nasty struggle to sway public opinion to their side; the Kemalist old order embodied in the CHP is presently sidelined, but likely waiting in a mood of excited anticipation for the principal gladiators to exhaust themselves on the field of battle, creating a political vacuum that could then be filled. In the background is the ‘zero problems’ approach to foreign policy so ingeniously constructed a few years ago by the energy and brilliance of Ahmet Davutoglu, the great Turkish Foreign Minister, which showed the world how soft power can gain ascendancy, then moved into a shadowland of disillusionment after a series of Syrian miscalculations, and now seems to be reemerging in more selective and principled form in improving relations with Iran, Iraq, Israel, and the United States, although the situation remains precarious so long as the Turkish currency sinks to new lows against the dollar and the domestic confrontation remains far from resolved;

 

            –Europe should not be forgotten. The economic downturn of recent years as well as the uneven recovery of the various EU members has exposed the follies of premature enlargement after the end of the Cold War and the problems associated with proceeding too quickly on the economic track of integration and too slowly on the political track; also, at risk, is the European reorientation of its global engagement by way of soft power geopolitics; despite the difficulties, the EU undertaking remains the most ambitious world order innovation since the birth of the modern state system in the middle of the 17th century, and its success in establishing ‘a culture of peace’ in Europe that had been for centuries the cockpit of warring states is an extraordinary achievement; at the same time, without a renewed commitment to going forward, risks of regression, even collapse, remain cause for worry;

 

            –and then there is the United States, which has had a somewhat mixed year, finally ending its combat relationship to Iraq, overriding the Israel’s objections to  dealing constructively with the new leadership and mood in Iran through interim arrangements relating to Iran’s nuclear program, and winding down its military operations in Afghanistan; but there were many problematic sides of America’s global role: drones; chasing Snowden; abusing Chelsea Manning, threatening Assange, and not facing up to the foreboding consequences of totalizing the global security state in the 12 years since 9/11—the new formula for democracy in the United States: making the lives of the citizenry as transparent as possible while keeping key government operations and policies shrouded in layers of secrecy. This is why the ‘crimes’ of WikiLeaks, Snowden, and Manning are seen as so subversive of public order by the new security entrepreneurs that unfortunately seem to include the top elected leaders. We the people are asked to throw caution aside, and despite acknowledged governmental lying and doctrines of deniability, put our trust in governmental prudence, integrity, and self-restraint. At the same time, the leaders, starting with Barack Obama, act as if this new dystopia of drones and the NSA panopticon is nothing other than business as usual, branding those who express doubts as suspicious characters, forcing brave journalists to behave like spies or Mafia operatives to get the truth out, as in the case of Glenn Greenwald.  There is also the disappointing abandonment by the supposedly less constrained second term Obama presidency of the first term visionary commitments to work toward a world without nuclear weaponry and to turn a new page toward reconciliation in addressing the grievances of the Muslim world, with especial attention to the Palestinian struggle to achieve self-determination and end the cardinal ordeal of prolonged occupation.

 

Looking ahead, there are several salient, although contradictory, realities that should help direct political energies and shape hopes for the future:

            –the inability of existing problem-solving mechanisms to find satisfactory responses to collective action challenges: climate change, nuclear weaponry, drone warfare, economic migration;

            –the failures of military intervention as a protective approach to

humanitarian catastrophe in tension with the futility of relying on diplomacy;

            –the growing importance of global civil society activism in promoting global justice, nonviolence, and sustainable development;

            –the increasing promise of soft power geopolitics in overcoming realist skepticism about compliance with international law and reliance on international cooperation.     

Two Forms of Lethal Polarization

17 Nov

Two Forms of Lethal Polarization: Egypt and Turkey

 

            There is a temptation to suggest that political life in Turkey and Egypt are both being victimized by a similar deepening of polarization between Islamic and secular orientations, and to some extent this is true, but it is also misleading. Turkey continues to be victimized by such a polarization, especially during the eleven years that the Justice & Development Party (AKP) has governed the country, and arguably more so in the last period. In Egypt, so describing the polarization is far less descriptive of the far more lethal form of unfolding that its political cleavage has taken. It has become an overt struggle for the control of the political destiny of the country being waged between the Egyptian armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two organized political forces capable of projecting their influence throughout the entire country, including rural areas.  This bitter struggle in Egypt engages religious orientations on both sides, and even the military leadership and upper echelons of the armed forces are observant Muslims, and in some cases extremely devout adherents of Salafi belief and practice.  

 

            In effect, at this point, there is not a distinctly secular side that can be associated with post-coup Egyptian leadership under the caretaker aegis of the armed forces, although clearly most of the liberal secular urban elite and many of the left activists sided with the military moves, at least initially. Recent reports suggest more and more defections, although the price for making such a change of heart public can be high. For General el-Sisi the essence of the conflict seems to be between what is irresponsibly alleged to be a ‘terrorist’ opposition on the one side, which has been broadened somewhat to extend beyond the Muslim Brotherhood to whomever dares question the tactics or intentions of the new leadership, and political forces supposedly committed to a democratic future for the country on the other. If the core of the opposition can be effectively portrayed as terrorists in this post-9/11 world, then the criminalization of their activities and organization, and the neglect of their rights will seem prudent to many, and even a necessary ingredient of national security.

 

            The Egyptian state controlled media, along with the mainstream media in the West, has allowed the Egyptian post-coup leadership to so far get away, literally, with murder! This sort of distorted presentation of the conflict has been also indirectly endorsed by governments, and has somewhat surprisingly achieved strong backing throughout the Arab world with a few notable exception. Among the grossest distortions are the unchallenged depiction of the Muslim Brotherhood as purveyors of violence, given that the organization has renounced violence after 1978, and generally maintained such a posture despite decades of suppression and provocation by Mubarak government, and more recently by the forces arrayed against it. It should also be appreciated that Morsi’s clear counsel to his followers from the time of the coup was to insist on the legitimacy of the elected government and to resist the claims of the post-coup leadership, but to do so nonviolently.

 

            It is important to understand that neither the Egyptian or Turkish experiences of polarization are symmetrical processes. In each instance, the side that is fairly beaten by democratic procedures, especially elections, refuses to accept the implications of political defeat. Rather than form a responsible opposition, with an alternative political program, such an embittered opposition has recourse to extra-constitutional means to regain power, and strives to establish a justification for such extremist advocacy and initiatives by demonizing its adversary, especially the person of the leader.

In contrast, the side that enjoys democratic legitimacy relies on its right to govern, and sometimes on its performance, to justify the retention of governing authority. There is no doubt that Morsi was in a radically different position that Erdogan after his narrow electoral victory in 2012—having an economy on a downward slippery slope, a public with high post-Mubarak expectations of a change for the better, and a complete lack of governing experience.

 

            This phenomenon of polarization is becoming more widespread, an expression of growing alienation within societies as a response to disappointments with traditional political parties and their leaders at the national level. As dissatisfaction and frustrations with prevailing forms of governance grows in many countries, the opposition becomes ever more embittered, and tends to blame the elected leader with venomous rhetoric. Often such excessive attacks provoke a response from the government that further discredits the leader in the eyes of the opposition, widening the gap between those governing and those in the opposition. If the angered opposition senses that it is unable to win at the ballot box, it will be tempted to mobilize a populist politics in the street, and sometimes manages to enlist those parts of government bureaucracy (often the judiciary and security forces) that are aligned openly or secretly with efforts to create crises of legitimacy and governance.

 

            From such a combustible mix, explosive possibilities are possible on both sides, ranging from coups to various authoritarian abandonment of democratic procedures. Each side produces a self-serving narrative of national survival that shifts the blame entirely to its political enemy. There is no effort at dialogue, which is essential for the political health of a democratic society beset by serious challenges and policy disagreements. This does not mean that the two sides are equally persuasive, but it does suggest there are few informed and judicious voices that can be heard above the noise of the fray.

 

            Outsiders also complicate the scene, whether they favor the government or the opposition. The originality of each national situation needs to be taken into account. There are many variables, including history, culture, geography, stage of development, economic performance, levels of unemployment and poverty, quality of governance, role of violence, respect for human rights and the rule of law, degrees of corruption. And yet at the same time, there are patterns and transnational similarities that make certain regional generalizations illuminating.

 

            The comparison of Turkey and Egypt is suggestive of this broader regional, and indeed global, pattern of polarization that is undermining political discourse in more and more countries. The Turkish political scene is still very much shaped by the lingering socially constructed and politically maintained legacy of Kemal Ataturk, and his radical modernization project that sought a total eclipse of Turkey’s Ottoman past. This endeavor, although highly influential, never completely succeeded in creating a post-Islamic normative order in the country, although it did manage to produce a highly secularized and Europeanized upper middle class in the main cities in western Turkey that fiercely, with its own unacknowledged religious intensity, clings rather sadly to the outmoded Kemalist legacy as the only usable past.

 

            In Ataturk’s defense as a historical figure, it should be remembered that the challenges facing Turkey after World War I were primarily to create a strong unified state out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire while withstanding European imperial ambitions that were rampant elsewhere in the region. The Turkish defeat of colonial ambitions was spectacular, but it led to a dysfunctional form of hyper-nationalism that had three prominent features: the attempted erasure of minority identities, a discriminatory insistence on the privatization of religious values and beliefs that particularly victimized Turkish women, and a deferential mimicry of Europe, especially France, in its construction of a secular polity.

 

            Each of these undertakings over time generated strong forms resistance that could never be fully overcome: minority identities were not extinguished, especially for the large and diverse Kurdish minority, Islamic political orientations did not disappear and kept seeking limited acceptance in public space, and the European model never won the allegiance of the Turkish masses. What did occur in Turkey until the end of the twentieth century was political domination by secular elites relying on the mantle of Kemalist legitimacy, with power bases in the main cities, and total control of the bureaucratic structures of Turkish governance, including a crucial alliance between the civilian secular leadership and the armed forces, which included the increasing private sector interests and market activity of the military. As a left challenge of a Marxist character emerged after World War II, secular control was sustained by a series of military coups to make sure that capitalist ideology was not frontally challenged. The Cold War pushed Turkey to adopt an anti-Communist foreign policy of a distinctly Western direction. In the NATO context Turkey was made responsible for the vital Southern flank of NATO, and seemed to follow without dissent the geopolitical line taken in Washington.

 

            What happened next after the Cold War ended was a growing populist rejection of the societal structures of Kemalist Turkey without mounting any direct and explicit challenge to the legacy. It was merely circumvented and adapted to a new set of conditions and social priorities. The ascent of the AKP in the 2002 elections, a result that was reinforced by larger victories in 2007 and 2011, achieved a sea change in the tone and substance of state/society relations in Turkey. It came about in stages, and may yet be reversed when new elections are held in 2015. There was Kemalist resistance from the outset, fears that Turkey was supposedly on its way to becoming ‘a second Iran.’ When that fear failed to materialize or to erode pro-AKP support there occurred a variety of coup plots that never came to fruition, largely because the neoliberal economy was flourishing, the AKP was cautious and pragmatic in its early years of leadership, the secularist ‘deep state’ remaining a brake on governance by the elected leaders, and the West, especially the United States was eager at the time to show the Islamic world that it could have a positive relationship with a government that did not hide the devout Muslim convictions of its principal leaders.

 

            The dynamics of polarization are such that when electoral prospects of the opposition are perceived to diminish, the opposition, especially if it had earlier controlled the state for a long period, grows angry and impatient with the workings of constitutional democracy even if it had earlier based its own legitimacy to govern upon the outcome of elections. Now in an altered political climate such a displaced opposition explores other ways to regain control of the state, itself now opting for populist forms of protest and democratic accountability that it had earlier ruthlessly suppressed.

 

            In the Turkish case, the opposition tactics along these lines were surprisingly unsuccessful in the first decade of the 21st century, although the avoidance of a coup may have been based on a number of unstable contingencies.  Such frustration over a ten year period, even as accompanied by impressive economic growth statistics and diplomatic prominence, did not lead the old Kemalist forces to acquiesce in the new political order, but only made the opposition enraged. Instead, these intensified frustrations, bringing anti-AKP resentment to a fever pitch, directed especially at its charismatic, populist, impulsive, and provocative Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man who evokes the strongest passions of love and hate. Erdogan serves as a cynosure of why democracy is at risk from above and below in Turkey. The government has ample grounds to feel threatened by the tactics, extremism, invective, and hostility of the opposition, which does not even bother to hide its contempt for democratic procedures in its quest for a return to the control of governance. In turn, the leadership, especially the sort of highly unpredictable emotional politics practiced by Erdogan, strays itself from democratic procedures partly as an understandable defensive reflex, has grounds to view the opposition as illegitimate, including its most vituperative media critics, which can easily slide into the embrace of a kind of defensive authoritarianism.

 

            The Egyptian descent into the vortex of hyper-polarization has certain resemblances to the Turkish experience, but also significant differences other than the relationship of contending forces to the poles of religion and secularism. In effect, secularism isn’t really a pole in Egypt, but at most one of the constituencies mobilized in the pre-coup period by anti-Morsi forces, many of whom might not have even realized that by opposing being governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, they were opting for the restoration of a brutal regime of the sort that had governed Egypt for three decades under Mubarak, which had seemed to have alienated virtually the whole of the country during the excitement of the January 25th movement in 2011. At that time, the armed forces were seen as standing aside while the people cast off a cruel and corrupt dictatorship that had reduced the Egyptian masses to a condition of subjugation and collective misery. In retrospect, this was an optical illusion created because the armed forces seemed willing to let Mubarak go to avoid having the next leader being his possibly reformist son, but was not at all ready to transform the governing process of the country despite the overwhelming mandate to do just that. It now seems clear that the Egyptian military would struggle against any political developments that threatened control of their budget, regulation of their business activities, and restriction of their discretion to manage the security policies of the Egyptian state (in collaboration with internal police and intelligence forces).

 

            Against this background, including the structural problems generated by Mubarak’s neoliberal approach to development, the Muslim Brotherhood would have been wise to abide by their initial public pledge to not field a candidate for the presidency and to limit their electoral ambitions in parliament and the constitution-forming process. Possibly, sensing their popularity as a transitory opportunity in a fluid situation, and maybe deceptively encouraged by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the MB leadership thought it was entitled to compete for leadership to the full extent of its popularity. Its years of community organizing and welfare services paid off in parliamentary results far in excess of what had been predicted. There seemed to be a mandate to lead the country, but there also seemed to a series of insurmountable challenges that were unlikely to be met whoever gained controlled of the government.

 

            When it became clear that the MB was stronger than expected, and that it would not limit its goals as earlier announced, much of the liberal anti-Mubarak opposition registered a reaction of panic. Reflections on the prospect of living under a MB government induced many Egyptians to swing back to the Mubarak side, leading Ahmed Shafik, a fulool mainstay, to win almost 50% of the vote in the presidential runoff election in June 2012. It was a defeat, but considering the near zero support for the old established order in the heady days of Tahrir Square, this result suggested a dramatic reversal of political mood at least in the main urban centers of Egypt. That near victory of Shafik should have been interpreted as a signal that counter-revolutionary tremors would soon begin to shake the foundations of political stability in Egypt.  Polarization took multiple forms in the ensuing months, with Morsi faltering as a leader partly for failures of his own making, and the opposition stridently insisting that things were out of control, allegedly worse than in the most unpopular Mubarak times. There was also evidence that to mobilize the populace well orchestrated efforts were made to create fuel shortages and price hikes in food prices, impacting negatively on the image of Morsi as someone who could lead post-Mubarak Egypt into better times. The outcome, perhaps exaggerated in the media, was a huge mobilization of anti-Morsi forces that produced the largest public demonstrations in Egyptian history, and set the stage for the July 3rd takeover, with its blank check given to the armed forces to do whatever it wanted to do, including if necessary the elimination of the MB (at least 30% of the populace) from the political scene. What followed was a series of massacres and abuses of state power on a scale that would have shocked the conscience of humanity if it had been reported to the world in an honest and responsible fashion. Instead, what appear to be a series of thinly disguised Crimes Against Humanity of a severe character were swept under the rug of world public opinion, and the new regime received financial and diplomatic support and many diverse wishes for success.

 

            This then is the final point. When a polarized opposition resorts to unlawful means to regain or seize power, the nature of the regional and global response can be critical to its success or failure. There were strong geopolitical incentives for welcoming the Egyptian coup, and thus not complain too much about its bloody aftermath. There are less clear reasons to favor the defeat of the AKP government in Turkey, especially given its role in NATO and the world economy, as well as the absence of a responsible and credible opposition, and yet there are regional and global actors that would greet the fall of the AKP with a smile of satisfaction.

 

            I am arguing that theses instances of polarization amount to a deadly virus that attacks the body politic in countries with weak constitutional traditions, especially if such societies are beset by economic disappointment and significant regional and global hostility due to ideological and political tensions. So far, Turkey has an immune system strong enough to neutralize the virus, while Egypt having virtually no protection against such a virus has succumbed. If there is hope for a brighter Egyptian future, then it will become evident in the months ahead as the Egyptian body politic seeks belatedly to destroy the virus that is threatening the quality of life in the society. For Turkey the future remains clouded in comparable uncertainty, and it may be, that the polarized alienation combined with the mistakes associated with too long a tenure in office will yet lead to the democratic downfall of Erdogan and the AKP.