Tag Archives: democracy

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.

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.

The Terrorist Challenge to Liberal Democracy: IEDs

A USA Today article yesterday quoted Lt. General Michael Barbero, retiring head of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), as saying that the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs, homemade bombs) “is here to stay.”  Perhaps even more chilling, he added, “Boston is not an anomaly.”  In order to avoid fueling any public panic, this challenge must be carefully considered and the means of defeating it rationally explored.

Since the countries that report the highest number of IED attacks are the US and various Middle Eastern/Central Asian countries, I thought it would be useful here to reflect a bit on how the means to prevent IEDs all require watering down one or another element of what the US has valued as its practice of liberal democracy.  IED attacks will never succeed in bringing down US democracy, nor will they accomplish terrorists’ plans in the US (other than making the US population angrier across the board), but they frequently sabotage Middle Eastern attempts to implement broad-based democracy on a US model, and the responses taken by Middle Eastern governments to counter terrorism are often labeled “violation of freedoms” by people in the US who do not realize the choice between curtailed freedoms and further loss of life.  Looking at the limited means available to interrupt the production of IEDs, and their attendant costs in terms of freedom, may provide a more realistic assessment of options in both American and Middle Eastern governance.

So, how can IED attacks be prevented?

Option 1: Ignorance is bliss

If people don’t know how to make homemade bombs, they cannot make them to use in attacks.  Unfortunately, the cat is out of the bag, and I’ve heard that one can find bomb plans online (I haven’t looked).  So apart from bringing down the whole internet and reverting to 1995, which almost no one would support because of the widespread benefits which also come from internet access (including my ability to write this blog, for example), this is no longer an option.

Option 2: You don’t say!

Internet reading access is nearly unrestricted, but so is internet writing access, and now with free blogs and Facebook just about anyone can write anything and put it online.  One might try targeted cyber attacks to take down any webpage that posts recipes for homemade bombs.  Call it selective censorship.  Yes, it curtails freedom of speech, although some would be willing to pay a selective topic-specific loss in freedom of speech in order to gain more safety on the streets.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to define precisely what is or is not a recipe for an IED.  Pressure cookers, for example, were a main ingredient in the recent Boston Marathon bombs, but pressure cookers are also mentioned in home canning recipes posted online.  Given that those attempting to post bomb recipes would presumably not title them “How to Make an IED” or something equally obvious, there is a real danger of more subtle detection methods making Facebook never work again because of a continuous stream of false positives, and the majority of the US population would then go into withdrawal symptoms.  But there’s also the problem of false negatives: just as the alchemists of old came up with bizarre codes to encode their recipes which might allegedly turn lead into gold, so codes could be endlessly invented to attempt to circumvent the targeted cyber attacks.

And even if the internet could be ruled out as a means of transmitting the knowledge of how to make IEDs, that does not prevent person-to-person or over-the-phone sharing.

Option 3: It’s not what you know, it’s whom you know

If it is not possible to prevent transfer of the knowledge of how to make IEDs, perhaps it is possible to trace the social networks by which this knowledge transfer happens.  In this case, new social media websites actually help by making publicly visible the otherwise invisible threads of social connections.  If person A is a suspected terrorist, then all of person A’s “friends” might be suspected terrorists too!  Of course, as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s classmates have found out, it is possible to be a “friend” of someone accused of an attack without having the faintest idea.  This raises the problem of the lower and upper bounds of this kind of reasoning: the number of suspected terrorists for which a government knows the name (and social media usernames) might be very small relative to the number of people who might be getting information to plan IED attacks, while it might be very difficult to distinguish “terrorist social networks” from normal social networks on the basis of structure alone.

How to obtain better results?  Apart from putting a beacon on every search engine to inform them whenever anyone searches for “home made bomb recipes” (now admit it, how many of you found this post by just such a search?), it is very difficult, and there is great danger of racial profiling or religious profiling.  I was dismayed by the way news articles (for example, here) used reports that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had become “more religious” as synonymous with “more likely to be a terrorist.”  If a Protestant minister or an atheist blogger criticizes the US government, that is just the value of free speech in a functioning democracy, but if an imam criticizes the US government, many might take that to be a symptom of radical Islam!  Racial profiling and religious profiling will simply increase the bitterness and alienation of those in the targeted groups against the government, leading to increased violence.

(It is always worth reminding people that the terror tactics presently used by jihadis were adopted by them in imitation of secularist and right-wing Western terrorists of a previous generation.  These secularist and right-wing Western terrorists have continued to the present in figures such as Anders Behring Breivik.)

And even if social network analysis has yielded some folks who probably know how to make IEDs and know people who might want to use them, how should the government act on this information?  Should it arrest them?  On what charge?  Should it have secret police follow them around?  Wouldn’t that just make them angrier?  Should it simply tap their phones and wait for them to say something incriminating?  It is unclear how such information might be used to reduce the change of attacks rather than to increase it.

Option 4: Why do you want that pressure cooker?

A separate option would be to try to restrict the materials used in the construction of IEDs, keeping a national registry of anyone who buys pressure cookers, nails, or fertilizer.  Then if people are buying a whole lot of pressure cookers, they could be flagged for further investigation.  But given that a large proportion of the population uses nails or pressure cookers at one time or another, I doubt this approach would yield meaningful data.

Option 5: Checkpoint Charlie

The cheapest solution in many Middle Eastern countries is to install checkpoints with metal detectors.  There are two theories of this: one is to create a “safe zone” within which it is guaranteed that no one has IEDs (at least in theory), and the other is as a deterrent to try to prevent traveling bombs and catch some people in possession.  The former theory is the more difficult to implement, but is the theory of airline security.  The latter goal, more modest, may open the door for people to circumvent the checkpoints.  While these checkpoints are relatively standard in the Middle East, I doubt the US population would tolerate this curtailment of freedom of movement, even if it would create a lot of jobs.  In practice it would also give outlet to all of people’s prejudices and result in racial and religious profiling.

Option 6: Big Brother is Watching (Some of) You

I was struck how in the search for Boston Marathon bombing suspects the FBI quickly released photos taken by surveillance cameras.  This enlisted the public aid in a way that previous manhunts had not, and raised the possibility of increased permanent surveillance cameras being used to track people whom the government suspects of possible terrorist intent.  Of course, even if the whole country were blanketed in security cameras, it would be impossible to follow everyone all the time across them.  The camera-watching personnel could not in principle comprise such a large portion of the population to make that feasible.  And so inevitably, while Big Brother may be watching, it will only be watching some.  While those some may be identified through just means, they may also be identified as “persons of interest” through unjust means such as racial profiling.

There is also the danger of misconstrual: the pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers released by the FBI before they knew their names caused fear and consternation among people who physically resembled them.  Nor did the photos released by the FBI show any wrong-doing; and what if the photo released had been of someone who had not done anything wrong, but who had done something which might have looked perhaps like something wrong from the camera angle?  How confident are the people watching surveillance cameras in their understanding of the events depicted?

Option 7: Peer Pressure

Of course, the cheapest and most old-fashioned method is to ask people to report suspicious behavior to authorities.  Even this is not perfect, however, even apart from its undue burden on introverts and eccentric personalities.  People may report “suspicious behavior” of people they know and do not like (as in “witch hunts”), and people may not report known violent behavior if they suspect it will reflect negatively on them, for instance by making them a suspect of a crime or by alienating them from their current community.  When a minority identifies itself as alienated from its government, as Sunnis do in Iraq now, it is unlikely to be forthcoming with aid to the government.  All too often, this leads the government to view the group as a whole as terrorists or potential terrorists, breeding further resentment between the government and the targeted minority.


IEDs are indeed destructive, but often not in the way desired by terrorists.  While an attack may generate media attention, its ability to subvert democracy depends upon the public response to the violence.  If, as is often the case in the Middle East, the public views the attack in sectarian terms and blames everyone of a certain hated group (which group it is will depend on who was targeted), then democracy is among the first casualties.  In the US this is less common for public outcry to turn sectarian (although public suspicion of Muslims often approaches sectarianism), and such blasts tend to provoke public anger against the person(s) or group identified as responsible and a desire to thwart whatever might be identified as their goal.

But how can IED attacks be prevented?  Interrupting the transfer of knowledge over the internet involves censorship or restricting free access to information, while using social media and increased surveillance cameras or checkpoints almost universally leads to acting out prejudice and profiling.  The availability of IEDs for attacks, while they will not bring western democracy to an end, may require curtailing some of the freedoms we have enjoyed in the West.

Safety comes at a price.  In some cases, that price is worth it, and in some cases it isn’t.  But we do not know unless that price is made clear to us.  And if we decide the price is worth it, we must make sure that both the cost and the benefit are apportioned fairly, to avoid the “tyranny of the majority over the minority.”  Such democratic tyranny would only increase the bitterness and suspicion of minority groups, and result in greater violence.