Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Difference Between Pragmatism and Loyalty

The most important thing to read on Syria this week is not the news that the regime drove rebels out of the Khalid bin al-Walid Mosque in Homs, but rather this opinion piece by Thorsten Janus and Helle Malmvig in the Christian Science Monitor.  But their proposal depends upon the distinction between pragmatical allegiance and belief-based loyalty.  This crucial distinction affects the Syrian Civil War on both sides, and it deserves to be unpacked more explicitly.

The idea is simple: not everyone who declares allegiance to someone agrees with everything that person espouses.  This is true of political parties.  Cold War-era American propaganda pitted the “godless Communists” in the USSR against the “Christian nation” of the USA, so I was surprised to learn, while visiting the Indian state of Kerala, that the local Communist party has many members drawn from the large South Indian community of St. Thomas Christians.  Indeed, the current president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, is a Christian member of one of Syria’s Communist parties.  The conflict between Christianity and Communism is very real in some quarters (as Russian Orthodox priests will tell you) and not in others, and depends widely on what those two terms are understood to mean in various locales.  Not everyone who votes for a Communist party candidate has drunk deeply of doctrinaire Leninism or Maoism (although some have, to be sure).  Some simply see the Communist option as better than any available alternative.

This distinction between pragmatic acceptance and doctrinaire loyalty plays out on both sides of the Syrian Civil War.  On the rebel side, international observers have been alarmed at the increasing influence of jihadi extremism, usually linked to al-Qa’idaFree Syrian Army commanders have complained of soldiers defecting to Jabhat al-Nusra, and cited the lack of ammunition held by the FSA compared to the free-flowing arms of the jihadi Jabhat al-Nusra as an explanation for this trend.  In other words, as Salim Idris has grown increasingly frustrated at the failure of western nations to provide his Free Syrian Army with weaponry, the more extreme groups have plenty of weaponry from international sources supporting their jihad against the infidel Syrian regime.  The idea is that many of those fighting for jihadi groups do not necessarily agree with the ideology, but are willing to tolerate it for the sake of getting what they desire more, which is the weaponry to fight against the regime.  This is precisely the argument made by Mouaz Mustafa, the head of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, according to an interview with him two weeks ago, as to why the US should get more involved with the Syrian Civil War.  On his view, providing weapons with secular strings attached will not only contribute to deposing President Bashar al-Assad, but will also diminish the appeal of jihadi groups, because they will no longer have the advantage of greater resources.

On the other side, religious minorities in Syria have by and large not participated in the rebellion, and in many cases have actively supported the regime.  This is equally true of ‘Alawites, other Shi’ites, and various Christian groups.  This does not mean that they approve of everything which the Syrian Army is doing; it merely means they regard the regime’s side of the Civil War to be more likely to hold a future for them.  They have reason to be alarmed.  Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have increased progressively since the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, escalating again after the ouster of Muhammad Mursi because his supporters blame the religious minority for the coup.  When two months ago a Syrian rebel commander filmed himself cutting open a killed ‘Alawite soldier’s corpse, removing an internal organ, and biting into it while spewing threats against all ‘Alawites, he made clear to the ‘Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria.  That has been the message many Syrian Christians have taken from the abduction and murder of Christian clergy by rebel forces.  Fearing a sectarian cleansing of all non-Sunnis, most religious minorities in Syria see no choice but to support the regime.

The Syrian rebels have done very little to convince religious minorities that a post-Assad Syria will be better for them, or that the occasional vague assurances of minority rights in the future Syria will be enacted.  The one-sided portrayal of the Syrian Civil War by the US government, lionizing the rebels and demonizing the regime, has left many Syrian non-Sunnis feeling that America has betrayed its principles of democratic pluralism and minority rights.  This is where the proposal of Janus and Malmvig could be so important.  If the US and the US-backed rebels could somehow convince non-Sunni minorities that they will be allowed to continue breathing in a post-Assad Syria, then their support for the regime might be less unshakeable.  Janus and Malmvig are banking on the fact that the minorities themselves do not want violence, and probably do not like Assad, so an option which assures their future safety would be very welcome to them.  It is an interesting proposal.

The question is whether that assurance could be given in any credible way.  Would Shi’ites and Arabic Christians trust themselves to an American or UN peacekeeping force?  Or would they suspect the force would fail to prevent them from falling victim to violence by other segments of society?  If the Free Syrian Army declared an amnesty for all ‘Alawites, would any ‘Alawites entrust themselves to the mercies of a force whose commanders have promised to purge all supporters of the regime?  Or would they not rather continue to support the regime, distrusting promises of safety from some rebels while others call for their blood?

With regime forces gaining ground in Homs, many non-Sunni minorities may be feeling that they have chosen the winning side.  But if additional arms flows to Syrian rebel forces again reverse the tide of this long-running civil war, as has happened in the past, then the minorities may feel that their backs are against the wall and they have no choice but to live or die with the regime.  The real importance of the minorities will be seen in their potential as stalemate-breakers.  When two armies are very closely matched, even a small force can shift the course of battle.  This was clearly demonstrated in May when Hezbollah, with fewer than 2,000 soldiers, joined the Syrian Army against the rebels, each of which has over 100,000 soldiers, and yet it is precisely from May that regime forces have begun to gain ground against rebel forces.  If the rebels continue to scare non-Sunni religious minorities with threats of vengeance and extermination, they will simply make it all the harder to defeat the regime.  On the other hand, if the rebels address concerns of non-Sunni rights for example by punishing violence targeting religious minorities in rebel-held territory and providing special protection to religious buildings of other groups, then they might gain ground by undercutting Assad’s support.  The civil war in Syria may be won or lost by the allegiances of non-Sunni religious minorities, whose primary motivation will not be ideology but a pragmatic calculus how to survive the war and its aftermath.

Found: New non-News on Abducted Bishops

Hürriyet Daily News, a Turkish news outlet, ran an article two days ago with the headline “Three suspects who allegedly killed Syrian bishops captured in Turkey” which made me think that perhaps there was some news about the abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo, Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji.  The two were abducted three months ago on April 22 and no solid news has been heard of them since.  Unfortunately, it seems this article got a little muddled as to why three foreigners (a Chechen, a Russian, and a Syrian) were briefly arrested in central Turkey between Konya and Ankara.  It mentions a video depicting the beheading of a priest and other Christians one month ago, and indicates that none of those victims were either of the bishops, but we knew that.  Were these three detained and released on suspicion of being in the video, which has nothing to do with the bishops, or were they arrested out of some suspected connection to the bishops, which has nothing to do with the video?  In any case, they were swiftly released, so the upshot is that there is still no news about the abducted bishops.

Needed: (Near-)Consensus on Legitimacy

When Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi went on national television on July 2 to rebuff calls for his resignation, he repeatedly stressed his “legitimacy” (الشرعية), apparently using the word 56 times in this single speech.  His supporters are now protesting to demand his return to office using “legitimacy” as their watch-word.  His detractors insist that Mursi lost any legitimacy due to his divisive and economically damaging politics.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil War continues because the diplomatic log-jam has not been broken between countries who consider Bashar al-Assad the legitimate president of Syria and those who reject his legitimacy (some of which recognize the Syrian National Council as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people”).

In the ebb and flow of promises of military support and the accusations of promoting terrorism, there are two easy errors to make on the subject of legitimacy.  One, all too common for observers from far away, is to ignore legitimacy entirely, regarding it as unimportant relative to the issues of people dying and suffering, and the question how to end the bloodshed.  The other, all too common for participants and observers near at hand, is to consider legitimacy as something obvious, so that my view of legitimate government is the one that all right-thinking people must hold.  On this view, anyone disagreeing with me over legitimacy is a terrorist, a propagandist, or a dupe for one.  These two errors are not mutually exclusive, of course, and probably most people unreflectively hold to both, to one degree or another.

Legitimacy matters.  In peace time, legitimacy is the difference between taxation and extortion.  It is the difference between “necessary measures” and repression.  Some degree of legitimacy for government is necessary to enable stable social functioning, since people do not wish to pay taxes to or register with a government they view as illegitimate.  A loss of governmental legitimacy in the eyes of people with power will lead to an attempt to change the government.  For that reason, legitimacy is a crucial part of any ruler’s staying in power.

This was understood well by Timur Lenk (d. 1405, better known in English as “Tamerlane”), the last great Central Asian warlord, who conquered from the borders of China to the Bosphorus Strait (in modern Istanbul).  In his society, to be a legitimate ruler required two ingredients: giving your soldiers plunder, and descent from Genghis Khan (d. 1227), the Mongol conqueror whose grandchildren ruled from the Pacific to the Mediterranean.  Unfortunately for Timur, he was not descended from Genghis Khan himself, so while he was effective in battle he could not rule in his own name.  To get around this, he took a no-name Mongol who happened to be descended from Genghis and made him a puppet Khan, ruling in his name.  When his Khan got uppity, he killed him and replaced him with one more docile.  To increase his own standing in this society, Timur married a princess descended from Genghis Khan, acquiring the prestige of being a “son-in-law” (kuregen).  On his last campaign rumors were even circulating that he himself was descended from Genghis, certainly fostered by the ruler, perhaps planning to dispense with the puppet khan and rule in his own name.  Timur died en route to invading China, and he never ruled in his own name, but his sons did, so apparently the rumor worked.

In this progression from royal “protector” to royal son-in-law to would-be Khan, victory was not enough.  These rumors were not to flatter Timur’s vanity but to assuage his worries about legitimacy, for he knew his troops would not fight in the name of a nobody, and anyone not descended from Genghis Khan was a nobody.  If Timur had not very carefully cultivated these successive steps of legitimate rule, he would have been abandoned by his own army, as other Mongol and Turkic princes were at key moments in their own attempts to rule.  Legitimacy is the glue that holds the state together.  Legitimacy matters.

But as Timur’s example also shows, there are different ways of claiming legitimacy.  So the opposite error, that of assuming that legitimacy is obvious to everyone, and every “right-thinking” person must agree with me, is also wrong-headed.  Just as in civil society people disagree widely on the best way to solve issues such as the failing Egyptian economy or the priorities for urban development in Istanbul, so legitimacy is usually a subject of disagreement.  Dynastic wars in medieval Europe and the Middle East occurred between rival family members who each claimed to be the “legitimate heir to the throne.”  When Genghis Khan began to conquer Muslim-occupied territories in 1219, there was a debate among the Muslim religious leaders about whether the new “pagan” rulers were legitimate or not.  A verdict of illegitimacy would entail a personal obligation upon every Muslim to resist the new government to the point of death.  (Needless to say, those in favor of Mongol legitimacy won the argument, by claiming that their victory was given by Allah as punishment for Muslims’ sins and religious laxity.)  In the modern period, civil wars happen precisely when large segments of the population disagree with each other about what is the legitimate government, and are willing to kill or be killed to make the point.

But legitimacy is also not a discussion where everyone gets a voice.  Some people matter rather more where legitimacy is concerned.  Timur was worried primarily about the opinions of the other Turko-Mongol military leaders who commanded the personal loyalty of their troops, who might turn against him and challenge him in battle.  In 20th-century Turkey, democratic legitimacy for many decades was arbitrated by the military, which deposed any prime minister the generals deemed overly (and therefore illegitimately) religious.  Legitimacy is argued by those who have the means to make themselves heard or the means to act upon their decisions, so while popular opinion often matters in civil society, it is never simply a matter of polling.  Minorities and marginalized populations such as refugees are not the ones determining the legitimacy of the government.

In those Middle Eastern countries experiencing instability today, legitimacy is a key issue which needs to be recognized and addressed on its own terms.  Legitimacy is not a war that can be won exclusively with funding or funneling arms, the favored strategies of Western diplomacy, and any country which wishes to intervene positively in the Middle East must engage with these debates directly.

In Egypt, supporters of Muhammad Mursi contend that legitimacy is granted exclusively through the ballot box, and a military deposing a president elected by even a narrow margin is necessarily a coup.  Opponents of Mursi contend that democratic legitimacy requires “playing well with others” rather than playing “winner-take-all,” and Mursi’s decision to rush a constitution through a rump parliament consisting only of his party members and boycotted by other groups cost him whatever legitimacy was conferred at the ballot box.  (They also often point to his presidential decree last November which made his actions above judicial review, which he eventually retracted in light of continued pressure, but only after the constitution was pushed forward.)  Both sides have accused the West of betraying its democratic principles by siding with the other party, either by refusing to call the military’s ouster of the elected president “a coup” or by refusing to call Mursi “illegitimate.”  To avoid increasing bloodshed, Egypt needs a nation-wide dialogue, involving supporters as well as detractors of Mursi, to establish the criteria for legitimate government.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his father before him contended that legitimacy was measured in social stability rather than political participation or particular freedoms.  (This is actually a very ancient defense of a ruler’s legitimacy, from the days when monarchs were considered to be the bridge between the gods’ favor and the prosperity of the land and its people.)  But his attempts to enforce social stability by military force have progressively alienated those segments of the Syrian population who identified more with the people being killed than with the government.  The rebels contend that the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy due to the deaths of around 100,000 people in the civil war.  Meanwhile the increasingly prominent role played by jihadis within the rebel forces have caused Assad’s supporters to believe his claims to be the bulwark between them and social disintegration, blaming those 100,000 dead on the rebels instead of the regime.  The Assad regime, along with Russia and China, have viewed the West’s threats to arm the rebellion as illegitimate foreign trouble-making against the legitimate government.  Meanwhile the rebels have felt betrayed by the West’s failure to provide greater firepower against the illegitimate regime.

Legitimacy also plays a vocal role in the protests in Turkey against the Erdoğan government’s development plans in Taksim Square.  Supporters of Erdoğan insist on his electoral victory at the ballot box, labeling the protesters looters and trouble-makers, while his critics call him the prime minister of the 51% who voted for him, namely not the legitimate prime minister of all Turkey.

The lack of revolutions in a generation in Western Europe, and longer in North America, has made westerners complacent about government legitimacy.  Sure, there are a few quacks on the far right and the far left who are trying to bring down the government, but most westerners feel these fringes are not much of a threat, and are amply dealt with by the police structures in the various countries.  But the lack of serious challenges to government legitimacy in the West should not obscure analysts’ engagement with the issues around the presentation of legitimacy in the various Middle Eastern conflicts.  In each case, a plausible account needs to be given within the cultures present as to how a legitimate government is to be instituted and maintained.  This has not been done, but a lasting peace requires it.  The conflicts in the Middle East will not be won by force alone.  They will either be won with words, or postponed for later.

Also about Egypt:

Also about Syria:

The Human Dimension of Syria’s Conflict

This past week, US Secretary of State John Kerry toured the largest Syrian refugee camp, the Za’atari camp in Jordan, and encountered “the human side of this crisis,” as he put it.  Indeed, the situation in the camp is very difficult, so difficult that thousands of Syrians have left the camp to return to the civil war in Syria.  There has been intermittent reporting about the endemic sexual violence suffered by women in these camps.  The human side of the Syrian Civil War, as seen in the Za’atari refugee camp, is very bleak.

But it is also only one side of the suffering.  Three weeks ago the LA Times ran an interesting piece on two religious minority shrine enclaves, the town of Saydnaya with its ancient Greek Orthodox monastery of the Virgin and the Sayyida Zaynab suburb of Damascus with its grave of Zaynab, the daughter of ‘Ali and Muhammad‘s daughter Fatima.  The human side of the Syrian Civil War includes besieged minorities expecting to be annihilated if the regime falls.

One quotation in each of these articles stood out to me:

  • “A 43-year-old woman in a tan jacket and gray headscarf asked Kerry what the U.S. is waiting for. As a superpower, the U.S. could change the equation in Syria in 30 minutes, the woman said. Like other refugees, she asked not to be named for security reasons.”
  • “‘I have a question for you,’ Azar [the head of Saydnaya’s defense] asks a visiting U.S. reporter. ‘Why does America want all the Christians out of the Middle East?'”

The first quotation shows how the myth of American omnipotence is taken for granted among refugees, generating a lot of anger at US failure to take their side in the conflict.  The second quotation shows how the unintended consequences of previous US interventions in the Middle East, such as the targeting of the Iraqi Christian population in the sectarian violence following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

These pieces are best read together to get a sense of the multiple human sides to a conflict which has torn Syria apart.  What is clear is that there are no good options for anyone in this war.  What is often forgotten is that none of the fighting forces, rebel or loyalist, are “the good guys.”

Found: The Power of Lost Causes

A week of peaceful demonstrations on opposing sides of Egypt’s political divide is a welcome change from last week’s news of violent confrontations between activists for and against deposed President Muhammad Mursi or between Mursi supporters and the Egyptian armed forces which deposed him.  As the anti-Mursi demonstrations shrink in size, having achieved their goal of removing the president, the sit-in of Mursi supporters around Cairo’s Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya Mosque (مسجد رابعة العدوية) may become an important canary in the coal mine of Egyptian democracy.

This demonstration of Mursi supporters is almost assured to be futile.  Mursi will not be returned to power by ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and his forces, the very people who deposed him and now have him in custody.  Mursi supporters in the square may have rallied tens of thousands, perhaps even a hundred thousand, but that is far less than the hundreds of thousands in Cairo and perhaps over a million across Egypt who called for Mursi’s removal on 30 June.  This will not be sufficient popular pressure to bring Mursi back, even as participants vow not to leave the square until Mursi is reinstated.

But to be powerful, the pro-Mursi protest must continue and remain peaceful, neither of which is assured.  If Mursi is a lost cause, the place of the military as arbiters of election results is a very real issue.  Although al-Sisi claimed that the removal of Mursi was not a military coup but the army acting out the will of the people, the group which organized the 30 June demonstrations against Mursi publicly complained that they were not consulted in the constitutional decree speedily issued by interim President ‘Adli Mansur.  If Egyptians too quickly pack up and go home, they will have handed the Egyptian military a precedent that can be invoked to remove any future elected official unappreciated by the armed forces.  All future civilian Egyptian heads of state are certain to have learned the lesson.  Since the anti-Mursi camp sees their job as done, the pro-Mursi sit-in can keep the question of the army’s role in the ouster of President Mursi in the public eye, but only if it continues.

But if the pro-Mursi demonstrations turn violent, then the army will have an excuse to crush the protesters as opposed to the Egyptian state.  Unfortunately, it really does not matter whether this violence is started by the protesters or by the army, because in either event both sides will blame the other, as we saw with the violence of last Monday.  The power of the pro-Mursi demonstrations to call for democracy depends upon their continued peacefulness.

But if the pro-Mursi sit-in in Cairo continues and continues peacefully, they represent a salutary challenge to the army-run interim government which is desperately claiming that it did not come to power through a coup but through the will of the people.  The government’s ability to maintain this claim may depend on its ability to allow a peaceful protest of thousands of people who view it as illegitimate.  Although many, perhaps most, Egyptians do not sympathize with the die-hard Mursi supporters, a government crack down on a peaceful protest may increase their public support, and certainly would increase the plausibility of the Muslim Brotherhood’s claims that it is being illegally suppressed.  The continuing – though futile – pro-Mursi sit-in around the Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya Mosque may demand that the army and its interim government live up to their promises of supporting democracy for the entirety of the Egyptian people, even those who disagree with them.  The continuation of that sit-in will build Egyptian trust in their developing democratic system; the cessation or termination of the pro-Mursi movement will only lead to further troubles.

Strange as it may sound, Egypt’s best hope for democracy may lie in a long-running, peaceful, and ultimately futile sit-in of Mursi supporters.

The Expected Fate of US Arms in Syria

President Obama promised military aid to the Free Syrian Army in June, although apparently delivery has been held up by US congressional concerns about where the weapons would end up.  The Free Syrian Army responded saying that the necessary safeguards are already in place and US weapons will not end up in the hands of Islamists such as the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.  But yesterday USA Today ran an article pointing out that US weapons are ending up in the hands of Shi’ite pro-Assad militias, as well as being used by Jabhat al-Nusra (mentioned, but not emphasized, by the article).

Now, this is not necessarily a contradiction: the weapons currently being used by forces which the US government would prefer not to arm are likely hold-overs from previous US wars in the Middle East, such as the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan of the past decade.  But it does reveal how little the US can control who gets US weapons once they are handed over.

Given earlier reports that the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra coordinate on the battlefield, and that soldiers fighting for the Free Syrian Army have defected to the better-equipped Jabhat al-Nusra, it is hard to regard the two rebel militant groups as fully distinct, however distinct their command structures are.  Even if FSA commanders do not share weapons in advance of a coordinated battle, as they might be tempted to do in order to increase the likelihood of victory, it would be expected that common soldiers defecting from FSA to Jabhat al-Nusra would take their FSA-issued weapons with them.  As Islamist assassinations of secularist commanders increase, such as today’s murder of Abu Bassel al-Ladkani, the weapons issued to FSA commanders may be seized by the Islamists.  Thus the expected fate of US weapons shipped to Syria will be that they will turn up in future conflicts wherever black market salesmen can sell them.

The Guardian yesterday posted a detailed article discussing Jabhat al-Nusra and how it is running the territory under its control in eastern Syria.  The “emir of gas” (the refinery manager) interviewed in the article was another example of an FSA soldier who defected to Jabhat al-Nusra, and he declares enmity not only against Jabhat al-Nusra but against the “apostate secularist state” which would be founded by the FSA in case they win.  He speaks explicitly of a post-Assad war between jihadis like Jabhat al-Nusra and secularists in the FSA, as I also anticipate.  Another commander of Jabhat al-Nusra spoke explicitly of the power struggle with the Islamic State of Iraq, the al-Qa’ida affiliate in neighboring Iraq which attempted to unilaterally annex Jabhat al-Nusra, leading to a rebuke from al-Qa’ida’s supreme leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.  The article paints a much broader picture of Jabhat al-Nusra than merely a fighting force, and shows the divergent Syrian viewpoints on the efficacy of the al-Qa’ida affiliated revolt.

Found: Dissension in Hezbollah’s Ranks

It remains interesting to me which news stories spread between which news media cultures.  Yesterday I found a news story about Hezbollah only picked up in English by Lebanese and Israeli news outlets after being run in Arabic only in London’s Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat (“The Middle East”), although today Asharq al-Awsat published the English translation of yesterday’s Arabic article.

It is especially surprising that this article received a limited run because it describes dissension within Hezbollah’s members over involvement in the Syrian Civil War.  Evidently a certain number of rank-and-file Hezbollah members have petitioned the central Hezbollah command to bring their sons home from the war.  It also reports unidentified Hezbollah estimates that they have sent 20 units of 100 men each into Syria, for a total Hezbollah force in Syria of 2000 men minus casualties.  The report indicates that Hezbollah leaders are asking Iran to step up Iranian support for Assad, saying the Lebanese militant group cannot handle the task of supporting the Syrian regime alone.  Although Hezbollah is suspected of having sent fighters to aid Assad earlier, it was only with the siege of al-Qusayr by loyalist forces in late May that Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, publicly announced Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting in Syria.

The Arabic article has additional details about Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah which are missing from the English translation, but which I am too busy to translate right now, although they may help explain the Israeli interest in the report.  The Arabic also contains a short synopsis of the latest quarrel between Subhi al-Tufayli, former secretary-general of Hezbollah and since 1992 head of a more extreme splinter group off of Hezbollah, and the current leadership.  Al-Tufayli, himself a Shi’ite cleric, apparently pronounced a fatwa saying any members of Hezbollah killed fighting for the Syrian Regime are in hell, a move sure to reduce popular support for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.  Hezbollah apparently responded by getting an Iranian Shi’ite’s fatwa against al-Tufayli himself.

Followers of Lebanon’s intricate political dance will not be surprised, however, by the Maronite Michel Aoun‘s defense of Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War.  Aoun’s “Free Patriotic Movement” party (التيار الوطني الحر) has been allied with Hezbollah since late 2006, and currently leads the “March 8 Alliance” of political parties in parliament, a coalition including Hezbollah.

Is Egypt Catching the Common Coup?

A military coup deposed and jailed an elected president, also jailing the leaders of his party and suspending the constitution.  This is Egypt in 2013, but it could also be Turkey in 1960.  Indeed, many observers familiar with varieties of Middle Eastern democracy see familiar signs of Turkey’s brand of military-guarded democracy in Egypt’s current events.  CBC reports some similarities between the two countries, but the article refers only tersely to “covert coups and postmodern coups.”  This phrase refers to the alleged 1993 covert military coup and the 1997 resignation of Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in response to a military ultimatum.

Those observers who still wrestle with whether to label the Egyptian army’s intervention in politics last week a “coup” or not can replace every instance of the word “coup” with “ouster of the elected president under the alleged aegis of ‘popular sentiment’ represented by an uncounted number of protesters.”  But I think when the commander-in-chief of the armed forces reads a decree which suspends the constitution, deposes the government, and has immediate force of governing law, followed by arrests of said leaders by soldiers, all the evidence points toward a military coup.  Besides, “coup” is so much shorter than the alternative 19-word phrase.

But this Turkish model of Middle Eastern democracy, kept on a leash by the military to ensure its secularism, has probably been broken by current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had several hundred military personnel, including very senior generals, arrested and prosecuted for planning a coup.  It may have been the success of that maneuver, and the fear of a military coup, which led Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi to order the former commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military, Husayn Tantawi, to retire.  Nevertheless, Mursi was deposed by a military headed by his own appointee as defense minister, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, perhaps attracted to the prior Turkish model for the power it gave the military.

But a military-policed democracy is not the only model for elections in the Middle East (even leaving aside the single-party “democracies” such as Syria and supreme monarchies such as Saudi Arabia):

  • Iran polices its democracy by means of a “supreme leader” appointed for life, who also commands the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guards which exist to protect the “principles of the Islamic Revolution” of 1979, thus resulting in a military-clerical establishment which differs from the Turkish military-led democracy primarily in the beards of the men who call the shots.
  • Lebanon has a balkanized government which ensures that various religious groups have control of particular posts (the president is a Maronite Christian, the speaker for the parliament is Shi’ite, and the prime minister is Sunni, and parliamentary posts are allocated based on the population reported in the 1932 census).
  • In Israel voters choose parties rather than candidates, and the leaders of the parties parcel out the parliamentary seats between them based on their proportion of the popular vote; only then does the parliament elect the prime minister without consulting the populace.  Of course, Palestinians do not have a vote in choosing the government which approves plans for new Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory and whose military operates checkpoints restricting their freedom of motion.
  • Jordan‘s king appoints members of the upper parliamentary “House of Senators,” while the lower “House of Deputies” is elected by the people, although opposition voices complain that the elections are rigged.

Each of these models is flawed in various ways, but it is not clear what other models of Middle Eastern democracy are available to Egypt.  The post-2011 Libyan government has not yet written a constitution, and Sudan has its own military president following a 1989 coup.  Iraq’s Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashimi was convicted in absentia to execution, a sentence widely believed to be a political move by Iraq’s Shi’ite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.   Tunisia’s government has also not re-solidified following the 2011 revolution, and if Turkey has achieved a post-military democractic system, it remains to be seen how well it will fare.  Although one frequently hears calls for “democracy,” the single word covers a wide range of governmental practices, and implementing a practical democracy is more challenging than calling for elections.

Needed: Egyptian Definition of Freedom

Yesterday’s ouster of Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi was greeted by jubilant crowds celebrating in Cairo’s Tahrir (or “Liberation”) Square.  It was also greeted by tears from Mursi’s supporters staging a sit-in around Cairo’s Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya Mosque (مسجد رابعة العدوية).  It was described as a military coup by members of the deposed government, while international heads of state such as US president Barack Obama were hesitant to call it a coup, due to the political ramifications.

So the question is: is the ouster of Muhammad Morsi a return to the dark days of undemocratic military rule under Hosni Mubarak, as Morsi’s supporters allege?  Or is it the renewal of the stalled 2011 revolution by the removal of Morsi the “mini-Mubarak”, as his opponents claim?  Is the intervention of the Egyptian army to depose the elected president in response to massive public protests a step forward for freedom, or a step back?

This question, like so many questions that matter, is difficult to answer not only because the future is unknown, but also because the question is poorly framed.  As it stands, this question presumes that freedom is a thing which can be possessed or lost, or perhaps a substance which one can have more of less of.  But freedom is neither, nor is it an agreed-upon concept, but rather notions of freedom vary widely.  Even leaving aside Janis Joplin‘s dictum, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” the situation in Egypt throws into sharp relief how one person’s freedom is another person’s tyranny.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood (such as ex-president Mursi) want to be free to enact laws in accordance with the system of government which they have constructed with the mandate, such as it is, of the 13 million voters who voted for Mursi over his opponent Ahmad Shafiq in the run-off election in June 2012.  Opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood want to be free from the sorts of laws enacted by a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.  At its most basic form, freedom is always freedom from something or freedom to do something (although it is often, more perniciously, freedom for someone to do what they want at the expense of someone else).

These desired freedoms in Egypt are not compatible, any more than the clash between the French government (founded upon the motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité“) banning the hijab in public schools in the name of freedom of religion, while some French Muslims desire freedom of religion to be able to wear the hijab.  Similarly, at the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey in the 1920s, Ataturk’s notion of freedom of religion in a secular state involved closing the madrasas which train Islamic religious scholars, while some Turkish (and Kurdish) imams still desire the freedom to attend a madrasa in their own country.  The Turkish military staged repeated coups to bring down governments considered too Islamic, although the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may have sufficiently curtailed the power of the military through his earlier purges of senior generals on charges of plotting a coup.  This is not a problem facing only Islamic society, but a challenge facing all human society: my getting what I wish (my freedom) may prevent or hinder you from getting what you wish (your freedom).  In the crass terms of the old saying, “Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose.”  Nobody’s freedom is complete freedom, and all freedom in actual societies restricts the freedom of other people.

Indeed, some people attack others in the name of exercising their personal sense of freedom.  One aspect of both the 2011 and 2013 popular demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo which is only now receiving increased news is the spike of sexual violence in the unstable situations of the protests.  Nina Burleigh wrote for CNN a thoughtful opinion piece which argues that the increasing numbers of rapes on Tahrir Square are a political message telling women that they have no place in Egyptian politics.  (A small quibble: I accept the feminist critique of the old view that rapes are about excess lust; feminists instead pointed out how rapes are about power.  But I doubt the rapists on Tahrir Square are self-consciously using rape as an articulated political tool to send a conscious message.  Instead, a culture which encourages sexual harassment of women in public mixes with the heady optimism of successfully ousting the president, leading some men to feel empowered to take whatever they want with impunity, even to the point of raping women.)  As Burleigh points out, rapes in the atmosphere of the demonstrations are not merely “an unfortunate byproduct of mob violence,” but a pervasive and culturally condoned crime for which the victim is falsely blamed while the perpetrators go free.  But if I analyze the causes subtly differently than Burleigh, the take-home message for many Egyptian women is certainly the same: the freedom of Tahrir Square may be an exclusively male freedom, which comes at great cost to certain women.

So if freedom is not a thing to be had or not had, nor simply a quantity to be increased or decreased, what is it?  It is a set of societally and culturally defined parameters by which the society regulates those aspects of individual life which are explicitly allowed to vary.  It is, as it were, the regulation on the regulations.  Egyptians need to work out what sort of freedom Egyptian freedom will be.

In that regard, it is telling that when Egyptian defense minister ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi read the army’s statement announcing that President Mursi was deposed on national television, among the people shown by the camera as seated beside him were former director general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, and the Coptic pope Tawadros II.  This image of al-Sisi with the seated leaders of Egyptian society sends a clear message that free Egyptian society will be welcoming of secularists and of Christians.  The placing of Mursi and several other Muslim Brotherhood leaders into “political isolation” (an odd euphemism for military arrest) sends a clear message that free Egyptian society will not be welcoming to Brotherhood-brand Islamist policies.  The lack of any women depicted in the video of al-Sisi reading the army’s statement (here in Arabic) was hardly a surprise, but itself reinforces the possibility that free Egyptian society may be a man’s world.  The individuals depicted in that video, broadcast alive across the country and onto big screens in Tahrir Square, is no accident: the army has taken a stand on what free Egyptian society should look like, who should be excluded and who included, and who should stand at the podium speaking for all Egypt (namely the defense minister al-Sisi himself).  It remains to be seen whether Egyptians accept the army’s definition of Egyptian freedom, or rather which Egyptians accept it and to what degree.

Syria: That Other Middle Eastern Crisis

When the “Arab Spring” started to hit the Anglophone news with the protests in Tunisia and then Egypt early in 2011, Middle Eastern historians and Islamic Studies experts sat up and took notice.  The resignation of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011 drew in a wider readership, but for most Americans anyway it was the sharp spike in gasoline prices in March 2011 as the US intervened in Libya to impose a no-fly zone and aid the revolt against Mu’ammar Qaddafi that indicated something was happening in the Middle East.  During the ensuing Libyan Civil War, which lasted until October 2011, Libyan headlines dominated the “Middle Eastern spot” in US world news media reporting.

But African nations were not the only venues for Arab Spring protests.  Yemen was already a divided nation with President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih in the capital of Sana’a contending on the one hand with the Shi’ite Houthi rebellion in the north of the country and on the other with a secessionist desire in the south to undo the 1990 unification of Yemen (in which the northern Yemen Arab Republic absorbed the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen).  When major protests began in Sana’a at the end of January, some reporters confidently predicted the swift end of Salih’s presidency.  In fact, Salih held on thirteen months through a rising civil war until he secured a transfer of power to his vice-president at the end of February 2012, with himself remaining in Yemen and immune to prosecution.  Things turned out rather better for Yemen’s Salih than for the former presidents of Tunisia or Egypt.

In the same month, almost the same day, protests in Syria started against the presidency of Bashar al-Assad.  They went mostly unnoticed by Anglophone news media focusing on Egypt and then Libya.  (Perhaps the nineteenth-century European colonial partition of Syria as French and Egypt as English continues in the interests of their respective news constituencies.)  Hafez al-Assad, the predecessor and father of the current Syrian president, had demonstrated his willingness to violently crush any political opposition in his repeated destruction of the central Syrian city of Hama (in 1981 and most violently in 1982, when estimates of 10,000-40,000 people died).  People who knew Syria knew that Bashar al-Assad would not resign easily, but it was after the early March, 2011 arrest of children in Dar’a in the south that protests rapidly grew, and then violence escalated as the army was sent to kill protesters.  Some soldiers and officers defected, refusing to gun down peaceful protesters, and from July 2011 armed rebels have fought back against the remaining state army in the Syrian Civil War.

In Anglophone news media, there have been occasional whispers of continually worsening problems in Syria, but meanwhile US attention focused on Yemen (another former British protectorate), and then on Egyptian elections.  Syria only occasionally made front-page headlines, and only consistently in April-June 2013 as there was public discussion whether chemical weapons had been used and whether that would cross President Barack Obama’s “red line” and trigger US involvement.  Reporting on Syria was often more concerned with US/UK relations with Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, or Israel’s enemy Hezbollah.  However, with the announcements in early June that the EU had withdrawn its arms embargo on Syria and the US would arm the rebels, coupled with the revelation the following week that the CIA had already been training the rebels, it seems that Anglophone public interest in the Syrian Civil War has waned.

For the casual peruser of Google news, it seems the “Middle East spot” in World news is again occupied by Egypt, which is experiencing enormous protests against President Muhammad Mursi, inaugurated one year ago, and the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs.  Events in Egypt have certainly been dramatic, with up to millions turning out on the streets of Cairo and other cities, staging rival protests in support of or against the president, resignations of non-Muslim Brotherhood members of Mursi’s cabinet, and a 48-hour ultimatum by the army.  Western news outlets have been caught between not particularly liking Islamists of Mursi’s stripe and not particularly liking military coups deposing democratically elected presidents.

(One cautionary note: several news reports, including this one from the BBC, indicated that the elections which brought Mursi to power were “considered free and fair.”  The passive voice is concealing who considered the elections to be free and fair.  It is true that the elections were not legally challenged, and did not immediately spark widespread street protests, and Mursi won with only a narrow margin rather than a suspicious landslide.  It is also true that there were allegations of Muslim Brotherhood intimidation of voters suspected of opposing Mursi.  I cannot now find the news articles, but at the time there were public threats by preachers against Coptic Christians if Mursi should not be elected, unreasonably blaming the Coptic minority for all opposition to the Islamist candidate, and subsequent low voter turnout in areas with concentrations of Coptic Christians.  The elections were “considered free and fair” by Western governments not wishing to intervene.)

In some ways, Egypt’s news is bigger news than Syria’s.  The news in Syria is: more people are dying.  There continues to be violence.  Just a new number of people killed today.  And Egypt has an estimated population of 84.5 million to Syria’s 22.5 million.  And more Western tourists go to Egypt than to Syria (or at least, they did until the Arab Spring brought the Middle Eastern tourism industry to a standstill).  Egypt is what Anglophone readers want to hear about.

But when even a search of Google News for “Syria” only turns up hits on US Secretary of State John Kerry (not himself a Syrian, as it turns out) and US diplomacy with Russia (neither country part of Syria), it is clear that Syria is not interesting to readers of English-language news.  (This search result has changed during the period of composing this post.)  I fear the result will be that US and UK involvement in Syria will be limited to poorly considered and haphazardly implemented measures designed merely to keep Syria out of the political discourse in the US and the UK, to prevent the “Syrian situation” from becoming a tool against the current governments in those countries.  It need hardly be said that such an evaluation of US and UK “national interests” will only make the Syrian Civil War more complicated and less tractable.  For Western intervention in the Syrian Civil War to do more good than harm, it will take sustained interest in the situation on its own terms, an open willingness to engage with multiple conflicting Syrian perspectives on the conflict, and a refusal to let the siren song of optimistic quick-fixes and band-aids lure policy-makers away from careful analysis, much of it rather bleak.

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