With the whole world watching, Mubarak instead offered a meandering, confused speech promising vague Constitutional changes and defiance of foreign pressure. He offered a vaguely worded delegation of power to Vice President Omar Suleiman, long after everyone in Egypt had stopped listening. It is virtually impossible to conceive of a more poorly conceived or executed speech.
Maybe, but watching Mubarak tonight reminded me of watching the delusional Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu in Nicolae’s last speech on December 21, 1989. Apparently they thought increasing wages by a 100 lei/month (less than $10 bucks was all that was needed to avoid the revolution). The disconnect from what’s happening in the streets coupled with the vapid bureaucratic language was eerily similar in the two speeches. The crowd turns on Ceausescu at the 2:30 mark leaving both he and Elena stunned:
Don’t know what will happen to Mubarak, but it didn’t end well for the Ceausescu’s….
The organic connection between the Egyptian armed forces and the existing political order is likely to place a drag on Egyptian reform and complicate US efforts to bolster change. With their influence institutionalized at the highest levels of the state, the officers are likely to countenance reforms that merely shore up the existing regime, but do not effect in any way their highly influential role over the course of Egypt’s political development.
Ever since the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, promising Egyptian military officers have come to U.S. military schools, including the Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., the Army’s Command General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Inculcated there with U.S. ideals on lawful civilian control of military, such an education has helped act as a “safety” on the firepower of the Egyptian streets now massing in Cairo and in other cities.
“This new generation of Egyptian officers has been exposed to the American military and has had a very favorable impression of not just the way we fight our wars but also about the relationship between the military and society,” says Robert Scales, a retired Army major general who served as commandant of the Army War College where he launched the international fellows program. “One of the reasons for the army’s reluctance to follow Mubarak’s intent and squeeze the population in Cairo has to do with the Egyptian military’s exposure to the U.S. military.”
Now, I hope that someone following civil-mil in Egypt more closely than I have will weigh in on the veracity of this analysis. But if this is indeed even a significant element of the basic story, then it confirms an argument by Carol Atkinson on the liberalizing effect of military-to-military relations globally:
The research presented in this article examines one aspect of state socialization, the extent to which transnational military-to-military interactions have served as an effective mechanism of the democratic political socialization of states. The socialization process described in this study is three level: (1) individuals acquire new ideas; (2) coercion, incentives, and persuasion aid in institutionalizing these ideas in the underlying political structure of the state; and (3) once institutionalized, these new ideas/identity of the state influence the material and ideational structure of international society. Using an original data set encompassing over 160 states during the years 1972–2000, the analyses find U.S. military-to-military contacts to be positively and systematically associated with liberalizing trends.
Is “people power” contagious? It’s easy to find examples of journalists, policymakers and/or analysts, and some scholars arguing that opposition to authoritarian rule is spreading like a winter virus from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen. In this case, many optimists argue (though some merely hope) that the viral idea will result in more democratic governance for millions of people that have long lived under autocratic rule. Moreover, many think (or hope) that the contagion will spread to other similar states with large Arab or Muslim populations.
However, the skeptics and pessimists have keyboards too. IR realists have already provided plenty of reasons for skepticism. For example, even during the so-called “third wave” of democratization some years ago, many states merely transitioned from authoritarian to semi-authoritarian rule.
The worriers are concerned about the fact that Egypt has long been the second largest recipient of American foreign aid. Indeed, many believe that the American government is quite cautious and fairly openly favors the status quo. Egypt has received substantial aid in large part because of its continued support for the Jimmy Carter-brokered Camp David peace agreement; thus, many friends of Israel are more than a little concerned about the current situation.
…the difference between Tunisia and Egypt is real, beyond the fact that Egypt’s the largest Arab country in the world.
So, I don’t see any direct relationship…But I don’t — I think it’s a stretch at this point. But I could be proven wrong. But I think it’s a stretch to compare it to Eastern Europe.
However, in a weekend Press TV news report (from Iran) about the continued unpopularity of American drone attacks, a man identified by name as a human rights activist openly declares (in English): “There will be an uprising in Pakistan. After Tunis example, after Yemen…I think so, now it is our turn. Now is Pakistanis turn.” See about 1 minute into this report, which differs somewhat from the one linked above that is currently on Press TV’s website:
Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal now totals more than 100 deployed weapons, a doubling of its stockpile over the past several years in one of the world’s most unstable regions, according to estimates by nongovernment analysts.
As the article notes, U.S. policymakers frequently “voice confidence in its [Pakistan’s] strong internal safeguards, with warheads kept separate from delivery vehicles.”
Perhaps these policymakers are simply whistling past the graveyard as a number of Wikileaks documents highlight genuine US and British concern about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. As the BBC reported in December:
senior UK Foreign Office official Mariot Leslie told US diplomats in September 2009 that Britain had “deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”.
In another cable seven months earlier, then-US ambassador Anne Patterson told Washington: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in the government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”
Potentially, that smuggling task would be easier in a context of internal disorder. Imagine if the state security apparatus is distracted by mass upheaval.
The UK has deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and Pakistan has accepted nuclear safety help, but under the IAEA flag (albeit British technicians). The Pakistanis worry that the U.S. “will drop in and take their nukes,” Leslie said.
Granted, it seems foolhardy to speculate about second and third-order consequences of internal upheaval in Pakistan. The drone attacks in Pakistan have long been unpopular, but it is possible that Biden is correct and that neither Washington nor Islamabad have anything to fear from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Perhaps readers should take solace in the words of Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK Wajid Shamsul Hasan, who told the BBC in December that his government “had a very successful, foolproof control and command system looking after the nuclear arsenal.”
The prospect of a new government in Egypt opens huge uncertainties for the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East. At this point, no one can predict what that new government will be. But it is clear that there will be substantial change, even if Mubarak hangs on. A military regime is possible. A transition government, perhaps led by Mohamed ElBaradei, leading to democratic elections also seems possible–and would be the best outcome. Notwithstanding the uncertainties, it is worthwhile to think more about the implications. In the long term, the events of last week would seem to mean more democracy or at least more democratic input into government in Egypt. Regardless, any new government will likely mean leaders less willing to do the bidding of the U.S., whether because of their own beliefs or because of the force of popular sentiment. (Certainly an important undercurrent in the journalistic reporting has been strong anti-American sentiments expressed by many of the protesters.) It is good that American policymakers seem to realize this. President Obama is quoted as stating several times at a high level meeting yesterday that “the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events”–or, in my view, much influencing them. In the longer term, the U.S. needs to accept the likelihood that a new Egyptian government might be “anti-American” and anti-Israeli. Certainly this is likely if elected democracy eventually ensues. Given huge, decades-long U.S. support for the unpopular and illegitimate government, it would be surprising if Egyptians felt differently. The result is likely to be an Egyptian government which–surprise, surprise–does not share American foreign policy preferences. Whether or not this is a more Islamically-influenced government matters less than the fact that it could better reflect popular sentiment in Egypt. The U.S. has had a difficult time accepting the possibility that “Islamist” or even radical governments might actually be put in office by free and fair elections–by thinking people who see no better alternative in their societies. U.S. opposition to the duly elected, Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority in 2006 is an obvious case in point. But it is not necessarily the case that Islamist governments are so hostile to democratic values that after winning election they would destroy democracy. Nor is it the case that, faced with the reality of governance, they would be unwilling to compromise. Leaving aside the irony of such views when the U.S. has long supported our own set of Arab autocrats like Mubarak, experience in other parts of the world suggests that governments influenced or run by Islamically influenced political parties are not necessarily hostile to democracy and can be pragmatic. Turkey is an obvious case in point. Overall, the fact that soon we may no longer have pliable, autocratic clients in Egypt, Tunisia, and possibly other North African and Middle Eastern countries is, on balance, a good thing notwithstanding risks of short-term violence. First, a more autonomous Egypt–or even simply a more unstable one–could exert greater pressure on Israel, expressly or tacitly, to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. Added to American presidents’ ineffective “good cop” pressure on Israel will be another neighborhood “bad cop” that might help change the calculus of negotiation even among the Israeli right. It is of course unclear how that might play itself out. But a more democratic or more Islamically-influenced government will not necessarily mean war in the Middle East—and might even add pressure on Israel that would help promote peace. Second, this and the Tunisian revolt once again demonstrate the force of “people power” seemingly untied to strong civil society associations. Although the power of “spontaneous” nationwide popular revolts, whether made possible by new or old media, is ephemeral, it can of course have great effect—as centuries of revolution attest. But the lesson for students of civil society—and for the American and other governments that seek to foster civil society–is broader. When revolutionary moments end, civil society organizations probably will play an important role. But in Egypt and other Islamic countries, a freer civil society is unlikely to look much like America’s.
This seems to trouble U.S. policymakers. Consider this recent remark of Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush’s national security advisor: “We should not press for early elections. We should give the Egyptian people time to develop non-Islamic parties. The point is to gain time so that civil societies can develop, so when they have an election, they can have real choices.” Hadley tacitly acknowledges that there are civil society groups in Egypt already—only, problematically in his view, they and opposition political parties are often tied to Islam. That is in part a reflection of real sentiments on the ground, although in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have been caught flat-footed by the popular revolt. It also reflects the kind of regime the U.S. has helped maintain in power with billions in aid for decades—one that has repressed much of Egyptian civil society, notwithstanding American lip-service favoring democracy. A revived Egyptian civil society will not be wholly or perhaps even predominantly secular. Islamic organizations are likely to hold considerable sway. But there is no reason to fear or denigrate religiously-based civil society organizations. American civil society is of course replete with religious groups, and they exert great influence in politics. The fact that in the Middle East and North Africa these will inevitably by Muslim organizations is not necessarily problematic either. As long as they are willing to play by democratic rules, their presence should be welcomed. And many Islamic movements are willing to do so. Finally and most broadly, an Egyptian transition unexpected by American officials would reinforce the need to curb American hubris about its role in the world. Too much of the U.S. foreign policy and military establishment believes and acts as if the U.S. has the right and the ability to manipulate other countries’ political systems, “in our favor.” This has created vast distortions in our own political system, starting with grossly outsized defense budgets completely disproportionate to the threats we face. For all that, we have never been able to “control” events overseas, as the Iranian revolution against America’s good friend the Shah demonstrated decades ago. Leaving aside moral issues of America’s acting as if we are the world’s “indispensable nation,” the events in North Africa should again emphasize that we see no further into the future, and stand no taller than other nations–notwithstanding Madeline Albright’s delusions of grandeur. And because we cannot control events in other countries, we should curb our penchant for trying to do so.
The neocon blogoshere is lit up with more willow witching that the events in Egypt are vindication of the Bush’s “freedom agenda.” And, they are blasting Obama for his timid response — apparently, Washington controls the destiny of this protest movement:
In yesterday’s Washington Post, Jackson Deihl claimed that it’s not too late to influence events. He called on the administration to support unidentified “democracy groups.” But more curious was his criticism of the administration. He cited Hillary Clinton’s 2009 comments about her personal friendship with Mubarak as setting the stage: “Thus began what may be remembered as one of the most shortsighted and wrongheaded policies the United States has ever pursued in the Middle East.” Right — let’s just ignore the fact that the U.S. has been cozying up to Mubarak for the past three decades — including a dramatic expansion of security and intelligence ties by the Bush administration after 9/11. Snippy political attack = 1; foreign policy analysis = 0.
Max Boot argued that this is the moment for Obama to “redefine” the Middle East and stand with the aspirations of the people:
we need a president fully engaged in the moment — a president who will speak for the aspirations of the people of the Middle East (more than one line, please), while also working to provide a soft landing for longtime dictators and to ensure that radicals don’t seize power.
Yeah, well there’s a novel idea. I bet no one in the administration thought of that…
Jeffrey Goldberg urged Obama to live up to American values and cut Mubarak loose and let the chips fall where they may with the Muslim Brotherhood — I guess that’s kind of living up to American values….
We still don’t know how this will unfold and I’m somewhat skeptical about what the Obama administration can do today or tomorrow to influence events — though Marc Lynch gives us some thoughtful comments on this.
But, I am struck that in all of this commentary, there is almost nothing about what’s next. Despite all of their generic claims to support democracy, the neocons cling to a very naive notion of what democracy is and how it emerges. In Iraq, they assumed democracy and market capitalism were self-executing — simply remove a tyrannical regime and let the natural, universal aspirations of the Iraqis guide the way. They didn’t plan for Phase IV of the Iraq invasion because they didn’t believe it was necessary. They were wrong, their actions triggered a civil war with disastrous consequences — more than 100,000 Iraqi deaths and countless more wounded, more than 2 million refugees, at a cost of more than 4,000 U.S. service members and well over $2 trillion.
It’s simply not enough to say one is “for” democracy and demand support for the protesters. The hard part of democracy building comes in the weeks, months, and years after a regime collapses. Let’s assume Mubarak flees sometime in the next few days. What then? How can the U.S and the international community help manage a transitional process to accommodate the demands of a disparate group of protesters? They are unified in their desire to remove Mubarak, but that consensus will evaporate the instant Mubarak gets on a plane. How will their competing claims be adjudicated — what kinds of mechanisms or institutions will best serve these challenges? What kind of institutional arrangements will be necessary to ensure domestic security that is sufficient and legitimate enough to maintain some sense of order but not coercive — what kind of leverage does the United States have over various factions within the military and security services to help this? Many of the protesters are in their 20s — nearly 3/4 of all of those unemployed are in this age bracket. What capacity exists to put them to work or to give them hope for new employment opportunities in the near future?
The administration clearly faces challenges in the coming days, but the real challenges likely will come in the weeks ahead. And there is nothing in Bush’s vacuous “freedom agenda” or the Bush administration’s experiences in the war in Iraq, or in the self-congratulatory rhetoric from the neocons that can help with the hard work of developing democratic state norms and institutions.
When I taught for three years at the American University in Cairo, my partner, who was conducting her doctoral dissertation research on Islamist political parties, would often get text messages from the Muslim Brotherhood informing us of interesting programs we might want to watch on satellite that evening or educational events around town. While I found the messages from the “banned-but-tolerated” party amusing (and useful), I was always dimly aware that the state must also be monitoring such messages. In one of my political economy classes I remember my students talking about one of their colleagues whom they suspected was being paid by the state to take notes in another lecture class. (When I asked whether they thought anyone was spying on my classes, my students all said IPE is just not that important to the regime). I think back to those stories whenever I hear people talking about the groundbreaking role of new media in organizing protests in authoritarian regimes.
While the January 25th revolution was partially organized through Facebook, activists are certainly not restricted to these new social media networks…. and make no doubt about it, this was a well organized revolution. The Atlantic has translated pamphlets distributed to protesters on how to organize and behave.
What one notes in this pamphlet is the advice not to use Twitter or Facebook because they are monitored by the state. These pamphlets were distributed the “old” fashioned way: photocopies given out by hand.
This is not to say that new social networking sites are irrelevant. What I mainly noticed in the days leading up to the start of the protests was that many of my friends in Egypt who are on Facebook began openly posting anti-government status updates. It was surprising to me because many of them are elites or at least members of upper middle class. In essence, one might hypothesize that the role of new social media networks is to help rally or tap into anti-government sentiment which is often not voiced loudly in public, but the actual organization and dissemination of strategy and tactics still occurs off-line.
Great powers find themselves compelled to support regimes they consider problematic, unpleasant, or even odious. The United States is no exception. Many of its friends and allies have far greater democratic deficits than Egypt, although few receive more combined U.S. aid than Cairo does.
Sometimes those allies will have revolutionary moments — points at which the forces for regime change are strong enough that no one can be sure whether the government will prevail. Sometimes they will have what might best be described as pre-revolutionary periods. During these periods it looks like a revolutionary moment might come, but no one is quite sure. Egypt is in a pre-revolutionary period, which means:
The US has less influence over Mubarak’s government than it would if the regime were under greater threat; and
The US faces much greater uncertainty about the costs and benefits of calibrating its level of support for the regime and the pro-democracy protesters.
The Obama Administration cannot pull a “Ferdinand Marcos” in Egypt; despite all that aid, Mubarak is less dependent on Washington than Marcos was. While I expect that the hearts of most people in the Obama Administration are, like most other Americans, with the brave men and women protesting on the streets of Egypt, they also need to worry about the geo-strategic costs of alienating — or losing completely — an important regional ally, whether by supporting a doomed regime or undercutting a survivor.
If things go badly, the ultimate fault will lie with decades of U.S. policy. From a realpolitik perspective we can understand why democratic great powers will support undemocratic regimes. But it is unforgivable for any great power — democratic or not — to lack exit options, e.g., to fail to cultivate other sources of support such that it can pivot to them when a regime begins to bend and shake upon its long-obvious cracks.
It is doubly unforgivable for a liberal great power to lack variants of those exit options that allow it to more fully support a people’s democratic aspirations, whether by:
Making use of concomitant leverage to pressure a regime to enact liberalizing reforms;
Being more secure in the knowledge that democratization will not threaten its geo-strategic interests;
Tomorrow is slated to be a showdown between the US backed Mubarak regime and masses of Egyptian protesters. It is a critical moment for Egypt, and also for the Arab nation.
What strikes me about these events, is the general way in which the discourse of “reform” continues to be the official American mantra (at least where there is not out right denial of the authoritarian nature of the regime in Egypt). After decades of supporting a dictatorship, the US government continues to claim that the Mubarak regime needs only to reform to retain power and address the legitimate anger of the Egyptian people. Of course, part of the reason that the regime has resisted political opening is strong US support, particularly whenever the prospect of an increase in Islamist representation in the government is raised.
Regardless of whether the Mubarak regime is finally toppled, it is time for Americans, as a people, to engage in a serious discussion of the long term costs and benefits to the American people of having our government prop up authoritarian regimes.
We haven’t had much to say about these topics at the Duck. Which is fine, as there are much better academic bloggers to go to for informed commentary (e.g. Marc Lynch, Juan Cole, etc.). But I am struck by this AP story, which suggests Egypt is taking additional efforts to shut down internet communications (more here and here [note: holy &*!!, the whole country appears to be cut off]) as it ramps up its crackdown.
On a more abstract plane, Josh Tucker wrote an interesting post on revolution and revolutionary contagion that approvingly cites Timur Kuran’s influential work on the inevitability of revolutionary surprises.
2) One of the most interesting theoretical pieces I ever read about the collapse of communism was a 1991 World Politics article by Timur Kuran (gated, ungated). In this article, Kuran posits that even people living within a regime that is perched on the edge of collapse may not realize it. The mechanism here is to assume that different people have different thresholds for when they will be willing to publicly oppose the existing regime. Imagine a country with 10 people, one person who will protest if there is at least 1 other protesting, 1 if there are 2 other protesting, 1 if there are 3, etc. It is a stable equilibrium for no one to protest. However, if something happens to put just one person out on the streets (say, a particularly difficult interaction with the authorities, or, hypothetically speaking, an emotional response to someone setting themselves on fire), then suddenly everyone ends up protesting. Person 1 comes out because now there is 1 person on the streets. Once person one comes out, then person 2 comes out because there are 2 people on the street, and onward up the chain. The lesson of the story – in my opinion – is that as long as regimes are repressive and we can assume that citizens have accumulated grievances against the regime, then there is always the possibility that the regime could tumble precipitously.
Kuran published a variation of this argument in a symposium in the American Journal of Sociology on the why-did-we-miss-the-collapse-of-the-USSR issue , which also included a piece by Charles Tilly called “To Explain Political Processes”. In it, Tilly argues that:
This seems to me a very important thing to remember when we turn our analytic vision to unfolding events. For now, however, I find the personal accounts coming over listservs and across the web moving and inspiring. I hope the people of Egypt claim their democratic rights.