Monthly Archives: August 2013

Back to the Future for Egypt: They Have Returned to the 1950s

I’ve been skeptical about emerging democracies in the Middle East in general but Egypt in particular. There have been a few positive signs here and there and that is encouraging. Last week’s post was devoted to REAL democracies and, if I do say so myself, was a pretty convincing comparison of what even rudimentary democracies should look like and how places like Egypt do not measure up.

But I thought Walter Russell Mead’s article in the Wall Street Journal on the failure of our grand plans in the Middle East was particularly insightful. You can find the article here. In fact, I thought his main point about what actually happened with the takedown of Mubarak was so convincing that my dose of depression about Egypt’s supposed emerging democracy is on the increase. And although I’m not convinced of each point made by Mead, his analysis of the relationship between the military and the government is spot on. The military is a privileged organization in Egyptian society. The military leadership is an elitist segment of the society that garners significant benefits and perks, which they are not about to give up easily. Some of the strongest and most accomplished leaders in Egypt are military, and they move easily between the military and the civilian government. The military is highly integrated into Egyptian politics and considers itself the dominant and most important state institution.

It turns out, according to Mead, that Mubarak was trying to arrange for his son to be his successor and avoid altogether the military’s role in choosing a future leader. This would have turned Egypt into a family dynasty rather than a military republic. The military leadership was having none of this and was involved in fighting back partially by creating unrest. The military touted their democratic credentials by standing back and letting protest movements challenge Mubarak until he fell. They then stepped in and restored peace and quite skillfully played the father-protector role. Even though the military is more powerful than the Muslim Brotherhood, they accepted the appointment of Morsi initially believing they could manage him. When Morsi turned out to be less than competent and failed to understand his role the military removed him. Again, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood credentials worked to his disadvantage since both the military and the general population is suspicious of the Brotherhood.

So, what do we have now! We have the Egypt in the 1950s. Egypt is a military republic that has come full circle and made no progress toward democracy. Mead continues to explain that the population assumes that only the military can protect them from the Islamists and hence maintain a sympathetic attitude toward the military. The other two forces in society – liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood – are fluttering in the background incapable of doing much.

Both Mubarak and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are on trial which I presume will justify military political goals. Mubarak, who is from the military, was sentenced to life imprisonment but a retrial was ordered. This will allow the military to remove Mubarak but pay their debts to one of their own. The military has skillfully deposed Mubarak and appeased the population who would have revolted had they watched him walk away free, but the military will ensure that Mubarak’s final days are quiet and in the background.

Egypt is an important culture and strategic ally of the United States. A couple of years ago there was great hope and optimism for enlightened progress in Egypt. But such hope and optimism are waning. We have to sit back for a while and let Egypt stabilize before altering our foreign-policy stance. But we can’t sit back for too long because issues related to Iran, the peace treaty with Israel, Islamism, terrorism, and various strategic interests await us.

What It REALLY Means to Be a Democracy: Egypt Ain’t It.

I grow weary of listening to all these claims of developing democracies in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. It’s well enough understood that elections alone don’t mean much and some minor rabble rousing from the population is equally as trivial. I have little interest in pseudo-democracies, hybrid democracies, illiberal democracies, nondemocratic but liberal states, and societies where strands of democracy exist but must be upheld and supported by the military of all institutions.

A true democracy achieves consolidation and the best thing one can read on consolidated democracies is by Linz and Stepan (Journal of Democracy, 7, 1996). A REAL democracy, one that is established and fully functional, is a system of institutions and communication patterns that does not compete with anything else. Places like Egypt and Libya will be considered truly democratic when the current regimes no longer have to grapple with the problem of governmental breakdown. When the majority of people believe that any political change must only emerge through the democratic process, when there is no significant movement to control or overthrow the government, then democracy is taking hold in a culture.

In REAL democracies the actors do not spend their time trying to create nondemocratic processes. Certainly the military does not step in and remove someone from office. It is true that removal of an anti-democratic leader can be part of the transition to a genuine democracy, but this represents an early unstable stage of development not what I am calling a REAL democracy. In such democracies the population holds the belief that democratic institutions are the only way to govern and any support for an alternative system is small. Democracies remain a continuum from well-developed liberal democracies (the US, France) to lower quality pseudo-democracies (Venezuela, authoritarian groups democratically elected, e.g. Hamas). And these lower quality democracies are marked by the ease with which nondemocratic alternatives gain support.

REAL Democracies Have the Following Features:

First, the citizenry must be intellectually and politically developed such that they appreciate democratic institutions and support the role they play. An angry tribal citizenry, who might be more properly termed “subjects” than “citizens,” will have trouble meeting the standards of an educated citizenry who have the proper democratic habits of mind. Democracy is advanced citizenship and often runs contrary to the preference of many for quick and easy decisions. A democratic population requires a level of sophistication.

Secondly, you know that a democracy is stable when the society has an active and influential civil society. Still, a stable civil society is not enough. Egypt has benefited from it civil society because it is increasingly educated and demanding of democratic processes and market economies. The civil society must be able to create pressure on government and leadership; it should have the capacity to monitor government, and resist nondemocratic pressures.

The ability to provide citizens with what they want and actually “get things done” is a third quality of REAL democracies. The institutions and structures of government must be skilled and professional enough to carry out laws and regulate the political system. We are seeing now in Egypt the removal of elected political officials (the justification of which is debatable) and the military cracking down on a significant portion of the population. This is prima facie evidence that the institutions of government are not working in a democratic manner.

There are other important issues associated with genuine democracy (the legal system, the economic structure) but no other is probably as basic as the right of the public to contest policies and priorities. Democracy should not be composed of powerful ideological forces (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood) whose goals are to absorb other groups; rather, the concept of the public sphere should be dominant – a place where representatives from any number of ideologies come together to work out problems that are shared by everyone. Public contestation is the foundation of the interactive system of argument and discussion that is the basis of governance.

Places like Egypt are trying to break free of cultural and political constraints and might be an interesting case of the “transition” to democracy, but do not yet represent REAL democracies.

Best of Luck to the Kerry Talks between Israelis and Palestinians: But There Is Not yet Enough Pain

The fact that Secretary of State John Kerry has organized talks between the Israelis and Palestinians is noteworthy for two reasons – it’s a positive anytime you can bring these two sides together, and the world has issued a collective shrug. Israelis are generally bored with the Palestinians and don’t believe there is anyone really to talk to. The cynicism over the possibility of anything actually coming of these talks is extensive. Few people are even paying attention because they are so sure that this will all be an empty exercise. Even President Obama seems distant from the process.

But we should avoid cynicism and I am all for any sort of engagement and it can be anytime, anyplace, and even under less than ideal conditions. There are numerous posts on this blog at various points in time explaining the advantages of communicative contact (e.g. see July 8th 2013). There are good reasons to have talks all of which are pertinent to unpacking this complex conflict and repackaging it into something sustainable. Let’s look at a few of them, but first a little context.

The Unique Nature of the Talks

The Kerry Talks are supposed to focus on final status issues; that is, the crucial six issues which are the status of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, Israeli security, settlements, and the Palestinian right of return. These issues have been ignored in the past and sometimes defined as too difficult and hence put off for a future date.  Read some background on final status issues here . Barak and Arafat made some attempts at a final status agreement as did Olmert at Annapolis. These efforts failed and the explanation always was that the two sides were still too far apart. But it is also the case that both sides simply cannot imagine themselves settling on the decision. Conservative political blocs in Israel oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, and Palestinian leadership is a proxy for the larger Arab world and feels very uncomfortable giving up anything or recognizing Israel.

The divisions that separate these two groups run deep especially when it comes to the special status of Jerusalem and refugees. Jerusalem just may be the most intractable problem because of its sanctity. The Palestinians, on the other hand, choke on the possibility of any recognition of Israel and will not accept their presence as a Jewish state. Gritty and thorny as these issues are talk is all the two sides have and there are reasons to engage it.

The Palestinians have been frustrated and thus decided to go around the Israelis through, for example, their petition to the United Nations as a basis for claiming statehood. Any final agreements must be and should be the result of negotiation between the two principal sides, and the Palestinian petition to the United Nations was counterproductive and responsible for the deterioration of the process. Israel and the United States opposed the Palestinian petition to the United Nations and threatened financial pressures. The proposed talks can help repair the damage to the relationship between the three parties (the US, Israel, and the Palestinians) and move the center of discussion back to the principals.

Secondly, the United States does not have the luxury of waiting around. Even though the conflict has been with us for decades and seems to be a constant on the political playing field, one in which the issues are fixed in people’s minds and will not change much, it remains a powerful symbol of difficult ethnopolitical conflict and the “clash of civilizations.” Moreover, the US has practical “on the ground” concerns with respect to terrorism, balanced international relations, oil, democracy development, and national security. Although the claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the cause of so much international tension is simply unjustified, it is a combustible political symbol that arouses ethnopolitical passions around the world.

The settlement issue must be solved. Israel will have difficulty moving settlers and the Palestinians have stated that they want no Israeli presence in the future state of Palestine. A Palestinian state must be negotiated by the two sides and cannot come into being otherwise. The two-state solution is the only way that Israel remains Jewish and democratic and there is considerable work to be completed before the contours of this potential state are fashioned.

Finally, talking to one another is the only way that compromises and adjustments will be made. Both sides have powerful positions that control aspects of the discussion and direct communicative encounters are the only way these compromises and adjustments will come into being.

My guess is that these talks will fail but at least represent a step in a long journey. It’s possible that both sides believe the other will be the cause of the failure and have agreed to enter into the discussions for that reason alone. Sadly enough, I’m still of the opinion that there is insufficient pain. In other words, if conflicting parties have to wait until they are at a “hurting stalemate” before they get serious than these two parties simply aren’t hurting enough yet.

How New Media Changes Religion: Goods Not Gods

Data seems to pretty clearly indicate that Americans in particular are changing their relationship with religion. It has been commented upon and written about with increasing frequency. The most typical change reported is that religion is becoming more individual; people are picking and choosing their own beliefs and practices and forming hybrid combinations that represent individual feelings and emotions. Moreover, private and subjective spirituality is replacing what were once coherent religious beliefs rooted in history and social and intellectual development. Finally, we hear more and more about the abandonment of institutions and the community’s general distaste for long-standing religious institutional doctrine and practices. Somehow the accumulated wisdom that informs institutional practices is fading away to be replaced by private preferences.

Bryan Turner, writing in the Social Science Research Council, offers up some interesting insights into the relationship between communication and religion (go here). Traditionally, the religious practice of communication was authoritative and hierarchical. It was a unitary system of beliefs influenced by clearly established sources of knowledge and wisdom (Popes, Priests, Imams, Rabbis). One receives messages and information from authoritative sources and the layperson’s communication was a node in a hierarchical chain with upward supplication and downward instruction.

New media – in the form of the Internet, Facebook, Web 2.0, cell phones, etc. – has upset this traditional religious communication structure. In the new media environment communication is more horizontal than hierarchical and certainly more diverse and fragmented than unitary. User generated possibilities have changed messages because such messages have become more devolved from authoritative status sources and more subject to negotiation and multiple interpretations. Turner points out that in Islam there has been an inflation of authoritative sources such that any local mullah can turn himself into a source of authority. Knowledge about religion has been democratized such that the Internet and pamphlets are equally as authoritative as individuals. People feel less need to attend their collective religious service because their needs are met with individual preferences and online religion.

Again, in the case of Muslims, they are learning increasingly more from the Internet especially Muslims in the diaspora. There is a correlation between the electronic network and the social network. This correlation has altered various distinctions between types of contact. As I said above, pagers, videophones, email, websites, and cell phones have transformed social relations in religious communities (especially diaspora communities) and offered new ways to theorize those communities. Some authors have explained how communities of people with religions in common use the Internet to cultivate a cosmopolitan democracy that addresses broader issues.

In the future we will see the increasing frequency of new public spheres because electronic media will provide access to thousands of individuals who share interests. The mobilization qualities of new media will make it possible to quickly amass like-minded individuals into electronic communities. Perhaps, we will come full circle and reconstitute larger institutional organizations. Globalization will be very dependent on the Internet as a source of connection to other cultures, including one’s home culture, and the combination of new interpersonal networks with the broad and fragmented information on the Internet will serve to reinforce individualism. Individualism and religion is a two edge sword; it can be associated with rigid thinking and fundamentalism as well as creativity and expressiveness.

New media and horizontal relationships rather than vertical ones will result in a form of individualism consistent with the general commodification of culture. In other words, religious choices and consumption are becoming more important than informed absorption into an established religious system. People want religious “goods” not “gods.” And although established religions will maintain a fair amount of strength and presence, processes for deinstitutionalization are in play as individuals learn to defend their own subjective spirituality and participate more fully in horizontal relationships formed and sustained by new media.
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