Check out my piece in The National Interest:
The emergence of an elective presidency in Egypt will essentially be the rise of a third branch of government. There is an enormous institutional potential here. While the president will be forced to carve out authority from the two older branches, the position will come with enormous weight. A capable president could play the older branches off each other and force them to resolve their tensions via appeals to the public. Ultimately, the president would aim to eliminate the old executive, returning the military to a quieter role in politics and consolidating his power. All this would be enormously beneficial to the development of a legitimate and democratic government in Egypt.
In spite of the complex political and social forces the revolution unleashed, the Egyptian on the street now faces an unpalatable binary choice: a Thermidorian turn to the old elite or increased authority for the deeply controversial Islamist party.
Commentary: Egypt’s Democratic Hopes Imperiled | The National Interest.
After being initially embraced by many Westerners, the Arab Spring has become a subject of concern. The crowds of Tahrir and Tunis chant for freedom, for participation, for democracy; their spokespeople are young “latte liberals” with perfect English; their rallies see Muslims and Christians side-by-side in clouds of tear gas. However, the elections they established have heavily favored Islamist parties who are ambiguous on religious pluralism, on nonsectarian governance, and on individual liberty. What’s going on?
The logos of the hardline an-Noor Party (left) and the more moderate Freedom and Justice Party (right), two Egyptian Islamist parties that will likely be able to form a strong coalition should they choose. (Image via the FJP's English website, fjp25.org)
There are of course many factors driving this gap. The people that came out to protest in Tahrir, especially the ones that Western (and Qatari) media outlets chose to interview, were not a representative sample of the Egyptian public. At the core, however, are two different visions of freedom. In Egypt, and in many Middle Eastern countries, a collective vision of freedom predominates; in America, and many Western countries, an individualistic vision of freedom predominates. The West’s confusion thus results from a miscommunication–when Westerners cheer for “freedom” in Egypt and beyond, they expect one thing and find something unfamiliar. Individual freedom is the right of one person to choose to live their life and express their views as they see fit, provided they do not harm others. Collective freedom is the right of a common group to live in a society that accords with its vision.
I had only intended to write two posts on Israel’s bad week. However, sometimes a lot happens in a week. The fallout with the Turks expanded, with Erdogan threatening to use Turkey’s military to protect aid vessels traveling to Gaza. Such an action could start a war, which would certainly jeopardize Ankara’s standing in NATO. Still, no nation likes to be threatened with military involvement by an ally. Last night’s attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, however, is the icing on the cake for the Jewish state’s awful week. Protests outside the embassy were not tolerated under Mubarak; now, they’ve become regular, and they’ve been growing more intense for weeks. An Egyptian man scaled the building in which the Embassy is housed and removed the Israeli flag; during his arrest, soldiers hoisted him above the crowd like a hero. In subsequent nights, protesters launched fireworks at the embassy’s windows. With a view to relieving tension, the government built a large Berlin Wall-like barricade in front of the building; a few nights ago, protesters tore it down with, among other things, a large makeshift battering ram.
In the past several hours, however, unrest crescendoed. Protesters breached the building and then the embassy itself, throwing sheaves of documents from its windows and again removing the flag from its balcony. Several embassy personnel were reportedly inside when the protesters entered, and barricaded themselves in a room; a security agent on the phone with Foreign Ministry officials reportedly asked them to tell his family of his death in person rather than by telephone should the last door fall.
Rioters outside the Israeli embassy. (Image via the Guardian)
Friday’s chaos in the Sinai and protests in Cairo showed a current of the Egyptian revolution that many had feared would emerge at some point. In Cairo, liberal and Islamist activists had negotiated a joint protest against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ continued use of military tribunals against civilians. However, when the liberals arrived, they found their signs being torn down and replaced with signs bearing Islamist slogans and a generally Islamist atmosphere prevailing. They announced their withdrawal, leaving the Salafists and Muslim Brothers free run in Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, in the Sinai, “hundreds” of armed men on motorcycles, bearing black-and-white “No God But God” banners, drove into the city of El Arish, engaged in a shootout with police, and vandalized a statue of Sadat. They also blew up the natural gas pipeline to Israel for the fifth time since the events of January 25. This story has been drowned out in major media by the US debt crisis, but assuming America doesn’t default on its loans, this could actually have a much greater long-term impact.
An Islamist protester in Tahrir Square on Friday. The number of people with beards is quite obviously greater than in any of the prior protests there of which I've seen footage. (Image via WSJ)
The National Strategy Forum Review just published an article I coauthored on the troubles of Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate. The article speaks for itself, so I won’t belabor it, but note that the section on insecurity is already out of date. The major natural gas pipeline that runs through the region, supplying both Jordan and Israel, has been blown up four times since the Egyptian revolution–we had to update the publishers once in April, and it’s been blown up twice in July. There’s really no telling who was behind it–the region is home to dissatisfied Bedouins, radical Islamist groups (foreign and domestic), and a range of organized crime groups. There are also human traffickers, drug runners, and rumors of Iranian-backed weapons smuggling. If I had to guess who’s blowing up the pipelines, I’d say it’s the Bedouin, as they’ve got a long history with the Egyptian central government. After years of displacement, corruption, sedentarization, and delegitimization, it’s no shock that they’re unhappy.
The pipeline burns near el Arish, Egypt. (Image via the Daily Mail)
I’m a big fan of using Google Alerts to get my news on the Middle East, because it scours a huge array of media outlets and sorts (by no obvious algorithm) them into a short list of important stories. One downside is that it picks up a lot of propaganda pieces–my Iran alert, for instance, is usually 50% stories from the very state-run Fars News Agency. The upside of this is getting exposed to some pretty absurd news, like the claim I recently mentioned by Iran to have powerful missiles that could target aircraft flying in space. Anyway, here are a few of the more ridiculous stories:
The Arab Spring has complicated relations within the Middle East. Prior to the revolts, one could point to only one real state-to-state axis—the Arabs against the Iranians. The Arab states were, despite their massive securitization, more or less united as status quo powers, seeking to keep down liberal and Islamist oppositions while making slow, or no, progress on reform. The revolts ended that consensus. Egypt and Tunisia have been forced to accelerate reforms and be at least slightly responsive to popular demands. Morocco and Jordan have forestalled revolution with moves towards constitutionalism. Some states, like Syria and Yemen, have lost what little regional influence they had, and some states, led by Saudi Arabia, are attempting to salvage what they can of the old order.
(Image via Travel-Destination-Pictures.com)
Al Jazeera English this morning showed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi receiving a visit from International Chess Federation (FIDE) president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Since Ilyumzhinov is also president of the Russian autonomous region of Kalmykia, this was a historic meeting–two of history’s most bizarre heads of state in one room. Gaddafi’s oddities–his Amazonian bodyguards, his rambling speeches, his rumored dabblings in prostitution and drugs–are likely well-known to readers of this blog. Ilyumzhinov is quite possibly even stranger than Gaddafi. His most famous oddity is that he claims to have had extensive contacts with alien visitors from another planet. Among other unusual decisions: building an entire city in Kalmykia dedicated to chess and constructing a grandiose Roman Catholic cathedral to commemorate a papal visit. Considering Kalmykia is reported to have one Catholic resident, he will likely have plenty of seats to choose from! As president of FIDE, Ilyumzhinov has made a number of odd decisions, including an attempt to have the World Championship contested in Saddam Hussein-era Baghdad.
Gaddafi played a match with Ilyumzhinov, footage of which can be seen here:
On Saturday, the famous Rafah border crossing between Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate and the Gaza Strip will be opened, with most Palestinians not needing visas to cross. The action represents a substantial shift in Egypt’s foreign policy, one that will be quite popular on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. The Egyptians had been tacit supporters of Israel’s extremely controversial blockade of Gaza, which (coupled with the Sadat-era peace treaty) drew accusations that Egypt had subverted its foreign policy to the needs of Israel. Despite hysterics from many commentators, the new military regime in Egypt would be insane to abrogate the peace treaty and attack Israel, for Egypt’s military has always been a political institution and not a thoroughly professional fighting force.
Within the past twenty-four hours, a shocking string of sectarian incidents has broken out in Cairo, with fighting between Muslims and Coptic Christians killing at least ten and wounding about two hundred. This is an extremely unsettling incident. There has always been an element of tension between the mainstream Egyptian population and the Coptic minority, but the recent uprisings had seen poignant displays of unity. Several months prior to the revolts, a terrorist attack on a church killed 23 Copts, prompting large numbers of Muslims to assemble at churches around Egypt to serve as human shields against terror. During the revolts, the Copts returned the favor, linking arms around groups of praying Muslim demonstrators. Since the uprisings, however, there have been several incidents between the two groups that have threatened to erase the kumbaya spirit of the revolts.
A crowd gathers around a burning church in Cairo. (Al Jazeera/AFP)