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Time to Stop the Abstract Reference to “New Media”

In their USIP report on “New Media and Contentious Politics” Aday and associates identified five levels of analysis in which new media and political conflict intersect. The five levels are pretty straightforward but useful. Still, I find two things most interesting about the evolution of new media: they are the fact that new media is not so “new” anymore, and secondly that new media relies on old media more than we thought. There is an interdependence and dependency on the two media (new and old) that organizes itself according to bridging structures. Quickly, the five levels are individual such that individual attitudes and behaviors are changed. The society is a second-level evidenced by things like polarization, protests, and participatory events. Collective action is a third level of analysis which points to the ability to organize and catalyze political activity. Regimes are also affected by new media because information and stories, accurate or not, can circulate in the society and stimulate regimes to respond impressively. And new media brings international attention which was especially potent during the Arab uprisings.

Again, Aday and colleagues in another Blogs and Bullets report explained in more detail the functioning of new media during contentious politics. When the audience is local new media such as Facebook serve mostly an information function. And of course it is increasingly important for mobilizing protests and organizing the community. But when the audience is more global new media plays a megaphone role in that it attracts international attention to local issues.

It remains interesting that new media are not so central to the news process as some people were beginning to think because it turns out that their relationship with traditional media is more complementary. Sometimes traditional media cannot cover a story because they are restrained or simply organizationally unable to manage coverage. Consequently, new media which are smaller and more mobile can cover a story and then make it available to traditional media and their often superior resources. And if new media and traditional media are both available then they make up a more complex media ecosystem that enriches the information value available.

The location of click data, reported in the Blogs and Bullets report, indicates that the majority of them came from outside the country thus reinforcing the notion of new media as an international megaphone. But the international community has a short attention span and they turn away from the story rather quickly. The Blogs and Bullets report suggests that counter to the popular conclusions about the local organizational role of new media (Facebook, Twitter, various webpages), they actually had more effect outside the region and internationally. Moreover the report underscores the fact that disentangling traditional media effects from new media effects is difficult if not impossible. The two media systems if you will have mutually influential effects on one another and are not quite so distinct as some believe.

Generalities about “new media” or “social media” have to give way to more precise questions and relationships. Thus, Facebook seemed to have some definite effects in Egypt but it did not another places. Why would that be? What are the lines that connect new media with traditional media? In other words, how do they work together to create an effect and can we parse out these effects?

The term “new media” continues to be a convenient shorthand and is communicative to the extent that it refers consistently to network-based asymmetrical forms of communication made possible by digital technology. But more work needs to be done on just how preferences and concepts are formed and spread, and which medium (new or old) is responsible for which affect.

 

 

 

 

 

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No Advocate for New Media Would Want to Take Credit for Egypt or Ukraine

Facebook must be truly a magical medium. It cannot only reconnect you with your old high school friends but whip up a democratic revolution in its spare time. It received so much initial credit for the Arab Spring that political activists in places like Egypt began to question whether or not they were sufficiently committed or worked hard enough. Well, that was all an exaggeration but it is the case that Facebook had at least “something” to do with influencing the uprisings.

I enjoy my twitter (that’s me @dellis2) and Facebook accounts and they represent truly important advances in technology and the puffed up power of information networks. But as of now their media created images remain more potent than the reality; the impact of online activists is exaggerated although not unimportant. Marc Lynch, writing in Foreign Policy (Twitter Devolutions), argues that the power of social media must be tempered, that activists and academics sang the praises of these new media too loudly and they are subject to more criticism than has been levied. Moreover, the gritty politics that follow these uprisings is more important for shaping political life, yet if you judge by news coverage new media seem to have little to do with this. Facebook and twitter only seem to rear their heads during times of revolution. Off-line politics is turbulent but remains more central to the struggle for transition from authoritarian systems to more democratic ones. Below are some questions and issues that must be addressed with respect to new media because on the one hand new media get too much press, but on the other they are truly impactful. This means our understanding must be more nuanced.

1. Why do social media seem to get more attention or have more impact during revolutions or times of upheaval? During quiet times Facebook seems to offer little more than a pleasant pastime or benign exchange of information. There is still a tinge of awe surrounding new technology that lends technologically laden significance to a story that it carries. The story is not trivial because it is circulating on new media; on the contrary, it is important. When there is a crisis or political instability Facebook and Twitter seem to structure stories quickly as “good vs. evil” or “right vs. wrong.” I would guess, and I have yet to see data on such an effect, that any flurry of new media activity has a polarizing effect that results in binary oppositions such as “right vs. wrong.”

In the article cited above, Lynch observed that during the most active times in Cairo the Muslim Brotherhood and the non-Islamist online community structured their Twitter and Facebook exchanges exactly as described. Every time a story was critical of the Muslim Brotherhood it was quickly shared and reinforced by additional stories critical of the Brotherhood. And the same was true of the other side, every story critical of non-Islamist political activists was redistributed and shared by the Muslim Brotherhood thus perpetuating spirals of polarization. Habermas’s glorious inclusive and democratically aesthetic public sphere was nowhere to be found.

2. Why is it that social media are better at organizing and stimulating upheaval then routine politics? The new media seem to love energy and issue-driven controversies rather than the slow work of building political organizations. Again, Lynch points out that Twitter and Facebook were more successful at merging once disparate coalitions than mobilizing masses of voters. Perhaps Facebook is simply easier and faster and works best when a political situation is amenable to faster organization. Moreover new media can quickly employ the power of visual and auditory messages that increase their impact. Violence or a grisly death can be captured immediately on a cell phone and uploaded within minutes. This captures the attention of activist groups and encourages involvement. There is a “thrill” to new media because of its speed and multi-sensory impact that is not present during routine politics. we have not heard much from Ukraine but pay attention as things heat up.

3. The political strengths of Twitter and Facebook can be easily challenged by any regime willing to be as repressive as it needs to be. Places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, not to mention Iran and Syria, are finding new ways to interfere with online activism including shutting them down when necessary. After enough pressure, and it does not take much, citizens and active account users will simply stop participating in online activity in order to avoid persecution and even violence. The possibility of harassment and arrest make it quite easy to withdraw from the online community. But it does pose the conservative dilemma which is that shutting down new media causes an uproar and does as much damage as good in the eyes of the dictator.

The various social media did not create revolutions in Egypt or the Arab spring, but they did play a role. They have undermined traditional models of information and helped elites and activists empower themselves in order to facilitate change. But if we hail the opportunities for elites and activists to encourage democratic changes, we have to also recognize the problems and limitations of these new forms of communication. At the moment, given the instabilities  in Egypt and other countries, no advocate for new media would want to take credit for the current political realities.

Edited From Feb 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.

I Told You So! You Don’t Want Islam Running the Department of Waste Management

In February of 2011, over two years ago, I posted a blog with the title “Do You Really Want Islam Running the Department of Waste Management?” With the rise and now fall of Morsi in Egypt we had a chance to watch what happens when the Muslim Brotherhood or Islam is governing. It wasn’t pretty. Morsi was dumped by the Egyptian military for his autocratic and incompetent governance. Local Egyptians have been “put off” by the shortfall in fuel, electricity, and a crumbling economy. Human Rights Watch said that Morsi continued the abusive practices of Mubarak, and any number of journalists and political activists have been prosecuted unfairly.

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies reported on July 9, 2013 that apparently a document proving six-figure payments to top Muslim Brotherhood officials has surfaced. This document is important because as Islamists the Brotherhood claimed that they were more religious and had higher morals and were less subject to corruption. Morsi had apparently replaced hundreds of judges and officials with Muslim Brotherhood figures and was assumed to have adopted the political corruption of his predecessors.

It’s just possible that Morsi failures signal the end of religious politics in Egypt. Much of the population is unhappy with the Muslim Brotherhood’s politicization of religion and unfair treatment of the opposition. The Egyptian Constitution is wise with respect to its principles of separation of religion and politics. Religious parties are illegal because they could not maintain the respect for the differences between religion and politics. The Muslim Brotherhood has failed to respect this principle which is crucial for democracy.

Democracy through its persistent debate and contest maintains a check and balances system that is constantly responding to needs and threats posed by different groups in society. Different religious, ethical, and political groups need to have their rights met but also achieve a degree of unity. Such unity will not be found in a comprehensive political or religious system; that is, a system of fixed ideas about the universe and preference for only those who hold such ideas. In that case the political entity would be governed by a single group with the regular maximization of differences and inequality. The most successful form of unity tying pluralistic groups together is broad but not necessarily very deep. It represents a political conception of justice that is capable of including multiple groups.

Hence, the logic of the European liberal experience has demonstrated that tolerance cannot be separated from liberalism. And, continuing the logic, tolerance cannot be separated from a loss of certainty. Tolerance results in a loss of faith and in the experience of at least unfreezing one’s attitudes. This is why religious groups – whether they are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish – who are highly Orthodox in their beliefs and unwavering often isolate themselves from others. They fear contamination in the form of exposure to unwanted influences. Tolerance is firmly rooted in a communication process, governed by conditions of civility and debate, which sets into motion political activity that questions one’s own certainty. One of the difficulties for the liberal state is for its members to subscribe to a shared point of view about justice and recede from religious justifications, but subscribe to this shared morality on the basis of their own religion and point of view. The key point here is that the result of discovering this common point of view or common morality is justified on moral grounds acceptable to both competing parties. As Rawls (1993) maintains, this sort of overlapping morality can only emerge from the public sphere on the basis of public reasoning.

Such conditions are very alien to the religious Muslim. Not that this is required because there are ways to think about and interpret Islam in a somewhat more accommodating manner. But such is not the case for the Brotherhood.

Two Ways to Think about Egypt and the Birth Pangs of Democracy

We are in a very real sense witnessing Egypt’s struggle to shed the skin of authoritarianism and emerge as a democracy. One of the more important debates that accompany this struggle is just how democracies do emerge. Must they go through phases? Are certain cultures susceptible to authoritarianism and will never democratize? How long does it take? There is lively debate over these matters and I encourage anyone to read the Journal of Democracy (JOD).

Few people would question the value of democracy as a form of governance. In fact, it is on its way to becoming a universal value. It simply has tremendous advantages such as an outlet for conflict resolution, rarely waging war against one another, promoting privatization and economic development, and generally less likely to abuse its citizens. The thorny issues are still how we turn antiquated cultures into democratic ones. Some people stress preconditions such as economic development, equality, and certain cultural traits having to do with associational skills. Sheri Berman (Journal of Democracy, 18, 2007) offers an insightful summary of how democracies emerge. She explains how the “preconditionists” stress the importance of national prerequisites and others are “universalists” who claim that democracy can develop in many ways and be successful in diverse political environments. The “third wave” of democracy beginning in 1974 seemed to favor the “universalists” since dozens of countries with diverse cultural backgrounds made the transition.

Egypt seems to be one more domino falling into line after Tunisia, Libya, and Syria. The universalists are convinced that democracy can emerge anywhere and such an attitude prompted the United States incursion into Iraq and Afghanistan. We were convinced that we can plant the seeds of democracy and watch them grow in these alien soils. It remains to be seen just how naïve we have been. But more interesting, and related more directly to Egypt, is a new perspective by preconditionists who insist that a developmental path must be followed and places like Egypt have much to do to cultivate that path. Fareed Zakaria suggests there must be a tradition of liberalism for democracy to succeed. In the end, the march toward a stable democracy is long and slow but the best way to understand these transitions is to study the countries that have experienced them.

First of all, there is the matter of overthrowing authoritarian regimes and then the matter of replacing them with democracy. These are two different processes requiring two different sensitivities. The old order will desperately hold onto its privileges, and we are seeing some of that now with Egypt’s military. On the other hand, some theorists believe that a strong military and authoritarian government will lead to democracy faster than a weak and feeble semi-democracy. We’ll have to wait and see what direction the Egyptian military takes. Berman in her article mentioned above concludes that it is easier to bring down an authoritarian order then it is to replace it with a stable new one. That is probably a pretty safe conclusion.

In the end, the path to democracy is complex and neither the “preconditionists” or the “universalists” are completely correct. Democracy does not come into being peacefully and it does not emerge in a straight line. It is certainly true that political qualities such as freedom, prosperity, and tolerance both stimulate democratic sensibilities and are in turn developed as a result of democratic behavior. I’m afraid there are no easy answers for the Egyptians. They must undo an old order but put into effect a new one of which they have no experience. It is of little consequence to those living in Egypt now, but only future generations will bring new democratic opportunities to the Egyptians.

New Media Revolutions: The Problems

Facebook must be truly a magical medium. It cannot only reconnect you with your old high school friends but whip up a democratic revolution in its spare time. It received so much initial credit for the Arab Spring that political activists in places like Egypt began to question whether or not they were sufficiently committed or worked hard enough. Well, that was all an exaggeration but it is the case that Facebook had at least “something” to do with influencing the uprisings.

I enjoy my twitter (that’s me @dellis2) and Facebook accounts and they represent truly important advances in technology and the puffed up power of information networks. But as of now their media created images remain more potent than the reality; the impact of online activists is exaggerated although not unimportant. Marc Lynch, writing in Foreign Policy (Twitter Devolutions), argues that the power of social media must be tempered, that activists and academics sang the praises of these new media too loudly and they are subject to more criticism than has been levied. Moreover, the gritty politics that follow these uprisings is more important for shaping political life, yet if you judge by news coverage new media seem to have little to do with this. Facebook and twitter only seem to rear their heads during times of revolution. Off-line politics is turbulent but remains more central to the struggle for transition from authoritarian systems to more democratic ones. Below are some questions and issues that must be addressed with respect to new media because on the one hand new media get too much press, but on the other they are truly impactful. This means our understanding must be more nuanced.

1. Why do social media seem to get more attention or have more impact during revolutions or times of upheaval? During quiet times Facebook seems to offer little more than a pleasant pastime or benign exchange of information. There is still a tinge of awe surrounding new technology that lends technologically laden significance to a story that it carries. The story is not trivial because it is circulating on new media; on the contrary, it is important. When there is a crisis or political instability Facebook and Twitter seem to structure stories quickly as “good vs. evil” or “right vs. wrong.” I would guess, and I have yet to see data on such an effect, that any flurry of new media activity has a polarizing effect that results in binary oppositions such as “right vs. wrong.”

In the article cited above, Lynch observed that during the most active times in Cairo the Muslim Brotherhood and the non-Islamist online community structured their Twitter and Facebook exchanges exactly as described. Every time a story was critical of the Muslim Brotherhood it was quickly shared and reinforced by additional stories critical of the Brotherhood. And the same was true of the other side, every story critical of non-Islamist political activists was redistributed and shared by the Muslim Brotherhood thus perpetuating spirals of polarization. Habermas’s glorious inclusive and democratically aesthetic public sphere was nowhere to be found.

2. Why is it that social media are better at organizing and stimulating upheaval then routine politics? The new media seem to love energy and issue-driven controversies rather than the slow work of building political organizations. Again, Lynch points out that Twitter and Facebook were more successful at merging once disparate coalitions than mobilizing masses of voters. Perhaps Facebook is simply easier and faster and works best when a political situation is amenable to faster organization. Moreover new media can quickly employ the power of visual and auditory messages that increase their impact. Violence or a grisly death can be captured immediately on a cell phone and uploaded within minutes. This captures the attention of activist groups and encourages involvement. There is a “thrill” to new media because of its speed and multisensory impact that is not present during routine politics.

3. The political strengths of Twitter and Facebook can be easily challenged by any regime willing to be as repressive as it needs to be. Places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, not to mention Iran and Syria, are finding new ways to interfere with online activism including shutting them down when necessary. After enough pressure, and it does not take much, citizens and active account users will simply stop participating in online activity in order to avoid persecution and even violence. The possibility of harassment and arrest make it quite easy to withdraw from the online community.

The various social media did not create revolutions in Egypt or the Arab spring, but they did play a role. They have undermined traditional models of information and helped elites and activists empower themselves in order to facilitate change. But if we hail the opportunities for elites and activists to encourage democratic changes, we have to also recognize the problems and limitations of these new forms of communication. At the moment, given the instabilities still raging in Egypt and other countries, no advocate for new media would want to take credit for the current political realities.

New Media and Political Conflict

Claims that new media such as Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet have significant impacts on political activity and protest continue to swirl around in the academic world in particular. It takes little more than a local citizen to be interviewed and report his use of Facebook for the world believe that these fancy new media are responsible for protest and the outbreak of Jeffersonian democracy. Consequently, there is contentious debate about the role of social media in crystallizing events in certain countries. The long-term research on these matters is sparse but we can introduce a scholarly perspective and at least “sum up” our current state of knowledge. There is a review article pertaining to the Internet and politics here. Below I will intertwine some commentary with a statement of the general direction of this research.

It is true that social media play a role in political protest and organization. But it is important not to overstate the role. The riots and eventual overthrow of Mubarak were influenced by social media but not caused by them. This is especially true as a protest spreads because it becomes more difficult to contain information. If the social upheaval gains traction, if it refuses to fade away and the size of the crowds swell, then many participants will begin documenting and sharing images. This becomes a self reinforcing cycle as it becomes apparent that more people are participating and thus encouraging others to participate.

The opportunity for what is termed “user generated content” is a special feature of new media. This means that information and stories about political activity are removed from the sole hands of the official journalist community. Bloggers and users of Facebook and Twitter begin to produce content, write stories, and take pictures and essentially become citizen journalists. A so-called “citizen journalist” will have a different perspective than the professional journalist. He or she will have a more subjective and “on the ground” view with a more hard hitting human impact. That is one reason why social media are better at coordinating leaderless challenges to authority than they are at organizing democratic processes. Dramatic photographs that come to characterize a political movement (burning flags, violent police or security people, dead innocents) are increasingly likely to be taken by citizens with new media capabilities. The amount and quality of user generated content is also dependent on the richness of the media system of the country. Egypt, for example, had greater use of Twitter with more tweets from organizations and activists then did Tunisia. It is not surprising that Egypt and Tunisia, which have more new media users than any country in the region, experienced greater social upheaval and pressure toward change. An interesting future research question will be to explain why some countries have experienced unsuccessful protests (Algeria, Bahrain) or no protest at all (Saudi Arabia) even though these are cultures with access to new media.

New media lowers the cost of collective action. It makes organization cheaper and available to more people. A key challenge in all social organization is to take networks of people with weak ties and coordinate and motivate them. The quick, inexpensive, and pervasive contacts available through Twitter or Facebook make this easier. But the downside is that the ease of contact and organization made possible by new media makes it more difficult to build permanent and durable social structures. This is related to the term “slacktavist” or the tendency for new media to be an easy way to contribute, a way that does not require much effort, but make people feel like they are doing more than they actually are.

This tendency to make dramatic claims for the effects of new media continues: Jay Carney, a spokesman for the White House, claimed that the video offensive to Islam caused the riots in Libya. We know now of course that the video had no such potency. Still, because the Internet is not confined by physical boundaries it provides political actors with a number of opportunities. It becomes easier to destabilize social systems from afar. There are now electronic diasporas that enable ethnic or religious communities to stay in touch with their home countries and maintain identities rather than assimilate into a host country. Muslim communities that ring the city of Paris are one example. Lack of cohesion, difficulty with language and employment, and regular cultural tensions are consequences of failing to assimilate and maintaining an identity within ethnic homeland. It is also important not to forget that the Internet is more vulnerable to censorship than you might think. There is an association between Internet use and democratic processes in a country, but this is probably more likely the result of democracies allowing widespread Internet use.

In the future it will be impossible to study social protest or conflicts without including the Internet and the tools that it makes available. New technologies are increasingly integrated into our political consciousness and more than anything else are influencing the information process. In other words, it will affect what news becomes available to different cultures, how fast it reaches various subgroups, and as exemplified by Wikileaks it will make new information available. In the end, social movements are increasingly dependent on new media but it remains the case that such movements have ethnopolitical explanations and that politics and history come first.

Your Muslim Neighbor

There are about 1 billion Muslims and they are probably here to stay. Historically, Muslims cared little about others and kept to themselves. Christians and Jews were strange sects that were deserving of a certain amount of condescending respect as people of the book and part of the Abrahamic religious tradition, but were assumed to be misguided and lost. Even as transportation and new technology made the world smaller, and Islam fell behind on measures of progress, Muslims stayed within the confines of their religion and allowed themselves to become subjects of European rulers.

Muslims are now our neighbors both locally and globally and, like it or not, we are required to live with them. But the relationship is not very neighborly. Our Muslim neighbors have formed a block party in which they regularly claim they are disrespected. The easiest way to do this is to assert that Mohammed and their holy book have been insulted. That’s why the silly and amateurish film “The Innocence of Muslims” was so easily effective. Neighborhood watch leaders have to do little more than claim disrespect in order to stoke the fires that burn in their followers. We Western neighbors are particular targets and have always been the subject of Muslim criticism. The defining leaders of modern Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood such as al-Banna and Qutb saw America as the palatial neighborhood whorehouse that was libidinous and unkempt.

Our new global neighbors have obliterated boundaries so there are unclear distinctions between groups and each believes in its own foundational truths. We in the western portion of the neighborhood have “free speech” and “democratic rights” and our Muslim friends hold dear to the belief that Allah is the God of everyone. Therefore both neighborhood groups feel authorized and permitted to force their values on the other. The distasteful Internet video was insensitive but still protected by freedom of expression according to the Western neighbors; on the other hand, our Muslim friends in the East hold the same foundational belief about insulting Islam – it’s not protected symbolic expression. The clash of these “universal” values is powerful and the streets are aflame in riots and protests.

Egyptians have a difficult future ahead of them as more extreme fundamentalists fight pragmatic politicians. Difficult as it may be to understand, and as conservative as the Muslim Brotherhood might be, they are no match for the Salafists and their desire to purge Islam and Muslim lands of all Western influences. The Salafist leaders, if they get their way, will destroy tourism because they do not want to see people in bathing suits; they will stunt the growth of business and the economy by refusing to conduct transactions with certain cultures; half of the population (women) will be denied basic human rights and prevented from contributing productively to the economy.

During the Egyptian “revolution” when Mubarak was removed there was a glimmer of hope that the key political and intellectual battle would be between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s secular nationalists and developing liberals. But it looks like the closer relationship (Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist) will contend for the soul of Egypt. And as events play out in the news the same might be true of Libya and Syria. So the neighborhood is reorganizing itself such that more difficult groups will be contending for leadership. This does not bode well for future problems with respect to weapons accumulation. It’s likely that proud and conservative governments, with traditions of demands for dignity and respect, like the one emerging in Egypt may want to follow in the footsteps of Iran and amass weapons thereby consolidating their demands for respect but making the neighborhood an even more dangerous place to live.

Trouble with my neighbor can be handled in one of two ways – arm and isolate my household to protect myself, or carry over fresh baked goods and chat. Neither alternative will do all by itself but we should stand firm on our demands that our neighbors learn from us and trust us. And, of course, we have to engage them. Yes, protected symbolic expression is important and one does not behave violently or riotously just because they were insulted. But it’s also true that “holding one’s tongue” and cultural adaptability remain part of the democratic governance we want to encourage.

Egypt’s Inverted Pyramids

We will see what the future holds for Egypt, but I have trouble shaking the feeling that not much will change. The election of Mohammed Morsi has been hailed as the first democratically elected president of Egypt in its history, but after the dissolution of Parliament and the reemergence of the Egyptian military it remains unclear just how democratic Morsi’s election was. The political situation in Egypt remains precarious because of its assertive military, questionable legitimacy, political shenanigans, not to mention the “wait-and-see” attitude the world is taking with respect to the behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood. When the parliament was dissolved the votes of about 30 million people were simply ignored. This is no way to run a democracy.

Morsi’s election was mishandled and the results were reliant on military arrests, a special constitutional declaration that gives the military greater power and increases their potential influence on any new Constitution. Clearly most good liberal Democrats around the world shudder at this sort of military power, but of course in Egypt it is the military that will keep the Muslim Brotherhood in check and that is probably more important.

The divisions in the Egyptian society are really quite deep. The military (essentially SCAF the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) spills over into executive power; there is no constitution so there is confusion about foundational principles; there is lack of clarity about the role of religion in government; and then there are the normal divisions of religious versus secular, modern and traditional, liberal versus conservative. The Egyptians must make progress toward consolidating their democracy and the transition to new leadership. Below are some issues relevant to this consolidation and directed towards stabilizing the Egyptian polity.

  1. Morsi is a well-known Muslim who clearly will not abandon his religious principles. This is why the selection of a Vice President who represents constituencies other than the Muslim Brotherhood would provide some welcome balance and an alternative voice. One of the lessons of democracy is that it relies on contestatory discourse not cohesion. The government of Egypt must continue to develop its skills, shall we say, with respect to incorporating and managing differences. It is also crucial that the work of writing a constitution be completed. The reorganization and redefinition of various governmental institutions can only take place within the context of constitutional political legitimacy.
  2. Along these lines, the Muslim brotherhood must support legal experts and those with contemporary interpretations of Islam with an eye toward greater inclusiveness and integration of contemporary issues into Islamic sensibilities. And Islamic political and religious organizations such as the brotherhood certainly have their own agenda which they seek to advance. But if the brotherhood is more interested in ideological purity than political pragmatism it will be a problem.
  3. The military has far too much power and this is always a dangerous situation, even though in the case of Egypt the military is holding Muslim Brotherhood in check as well as keeping the peace. The military is currently empowered to arrest and detain people without a warrant. This is not acceptable in a democracy. Moreover, the SCAF in particular must withdraw from public political activity. They currently justify their behavior because there is no constitution but this must change immediately upon completion of the constitution.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the military are the two most powerful Egyptian institutions and they must lead the way toward learning the habits of managing differences rather than imposing agendas. The international community will support Egyptian democratic transition in the form of foreign aid and support as long as Egypt can achieve the proper balance is between religion and democracy – difficult as that is. Egypt has a long and noble history that has prepared it more than others to accept the new democratic climate brought about by the Arab spring. They should be commended for the relatively peaceful protest and their engagement in the debates surrounding their own cultural change. At the moment the Egyptian pyramids have been turned on their pointed sides and are teetering: important changes are necessary so the strong and broad foundation that has sustained these pyramids for centuries can return to its rightful place.

Explaining the “Democracy Deficit” in the Arab World

Those of you who follow this blog at all know that I’ve been interested in democracy in the Arab world. Democratization and Islam pose undeveloped and interesting future theoretical issues. A new report was just published by the Brookings Institute and authored by Eric Chaney. It is a methodologically and empirically sophisticated document that poses an interesting explanation for the democracy deficit in the Arab world. The document can be retrieved here: http://www.brookings.edu/economics/bpea/Latest-Conference/chaney.aspx

At first glance, it looks as though the Middle East is holding more elections than usual –Tunisia,Morocco,Libya, and Egypt. Is this unusual? The Middle East andNorth Africaare not known for competitive elections and have been criticized historically for failing basic democratic principles. There has been debate for some time about why the Middle East has resisted democracy and explanations run the gamut from too much oil, too much religion, too much military, too much conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis (of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to be the blame for something, even deep historical patterns in Muslim culture), and too much centralized power.

Eric Chaney and his report on “Democratic Change in the Muslim World” noticed something striking. He noticed a concentration of non-democracies in areas of the world invaded by Muslims. But it was religion and the control structures put in place that prevented democracy from developing. And it is control structures that pacify and control a population that were most important. Some Muslim countries like Albania, Chad, and Sierra Leonedo not share the democratic deficit because they were not subject to Muslim state political control. Some non-Arab countries conquered by Arabs still have the democracy deficit. So it is not Arab culture or Islam per se that is the reason for democracy deficit, but the political control structures put in place.

The best explanation according to Chaney is the “institutional persistence” that has held strong to a consistent pattern of autocracy. Dating back generations, Islamic countries have put into place control structures that included close relationships with the military and religious strictures that prevented the evolution of a strong civil society or any centers of power that might compete with the state.

In the last century a number of structural changes have provided the basis for current uprisings. Chaney noted that more recent reports of well-being have been diminishing in countries like Egypt and Tunisia and this is associated with general theories of revolutionary change. Interestingly, democracy is not likely to evolve in cultures that are divided between the military and religious organizations (Egypt), but will be more successful in cultures with a greater civic balance of influence (Tunisia). Egypt started out on the world stage as a model of change and demand for greater freedom and democratic processes, but much of Chaney’s analysis does not bode well for Egypt’s future as power simply shifts in Egypt from the military to the Muslim Brotherhood. The military-religious alliance that undermined democracy for centuries is still very much present in places likeYemen and Egypt.

Still, the Arab world is more ripe for democratization than ever before. Changes in the last 60 years have established more fertile conditions promising to unhinge rigid structures. In the absence of competition for power, any group will likely establish autocratic rule. Unless Islamists in countries like Egypt become more receptive to civil society power groups such as labor unions and commercial interests, then it is highly likely that autocracy will continue. The ramblings of democratic change in the Arab world are encouraging, but it’s too soon to be hopeful.

 

 

 

 

 

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