The fallout: intervention and the Arab Spring

Clashes between Gaddafi and rebel forces during the initial civil war. February 2011. Wikipedia license, public domain.

Disturbing news -there is a serious power struggle in eastern Libya– not just between secular and Islamist groups, but between government armed forces and renegade paramilitaries.

This is the lesson of 21st century Western-backed regime change in the Middle East. When a dictator is toppled, so goes the one institution that can use sanction and force to establish order. One may remember the order in 2003 that dissolved Iraq’s Republican Guard and other police and military forces as a more formal way to create a situation like 2014 Libya. True, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein were using their armed forces for terrible things – both warfare against their own people and bloody wars like Hussein’s slugfest with Iran in the 1980’s. When they are gone, however, it becomes a free-for-all, and any democratic successor relies on the military foundation to enact political policy. If the rebel victory in Libya could be considered a potential revolution, though if it is it’s a complicated one, the reaction is when civil conflict attacks the ideals of the original movement.

In Iraq, looking solely at the development of democratic institution, the new regime had the assistance of a large Coalition force that, struggles with insurgents notwithstanding, had a lot of firepower to back a new government. Libya has none of that. It’s the remnants of Gaddafi’s power bloc and the shattered pieces of the rebels, plus any foreign Islamist force that wishes to creep in from neighboring countries. The country becomes a set of fiefdoms, just how the Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds had their own districts in Iraq. It shouldn’t be some great surprise when this is where the Libyan Civil War ends up. Military intervention only becomes justifiable if it’s a benefit in both the short and long-term. Personally, I opposed any kind of bombing campaign against Syria, as proponents (who had the burden of proof) couldn’t show how it would save lives and improve a future resolution of the conflict. You don’t throw missiles into a situation without a clear of idea of why their damage is important. Or to be more realistic, you shouldn’t.

It was clear that a massive humanitarian response was both urgently needed and ultimately defensible. Libya is much the same- if not now then soon.

A paramilitary stands guard.

The ledger of the Arab Spring, about three and a half years later, is complex and still shifting. As Jeffrey Laurenti writes that elections “have been unfolding this spring in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria as well as Egypt. Not all of them are a sham. But even the genuinely free elections are often associated with dysfunctional governments and deeply divided societies.” Egypt is going back to a military autocrat, with much of the electorate happy with the change, even among widespread violence against the Muslim Brotherhood. One may think of this as mere window dressing. Was Egypt really anything but a military junta going through a bit of an experiment? Laurenti points out that even Lebanon, which scores the highest in terms of political freedom in Middle East states if you disqualify Israel, is charitably a complete mess – though some of this is a war in Syria that they cannot separate themselves from.

This is the 21st century. Movements can be worldwide, countries influence each other on so many levels. And political revolution and crisis are harder and harder to ignore. From this comes the question – what can I do to make other societies fairer, safer, more egalitarian? What can my country do? Everyone is finding their limits. Clearly Western powers often get involved in cultural and societal conflicts that they don’t understand. But then other times they sit by and do nothing – as I write this, two decades ago Hutu extremists were massacring Tutsis in the streets with machetes. The balance of doing something and letting things play out on their own is always there, and everyone has their own take on where their country and the world should stand.

Confusion in 2013: Egypt

Bodies of protestors in Cairo, August 2013. Credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

The chaos in the last three years in Egypt has led to an old lesson- just because a wide swath of people can agree that a given person is bad doesn’t mean they have a clear and better alternative. Post-Mubarak Egypt has seen the Muslim Brotherhood achieve power, stumble, then lose it to the same military figures that ousted Mubarak. As the year closes it looks like the Brotherhood will face more repression from the authorities, making their experience little changed in the past three decades.

Some favor the military, others favor the Brotherhood, and a growing third population rejects both. Each new week reminds us how mixed the results from the Arab Spring have been.

Resistance in 2013: Gezi Park
A protester in Gezi Park, Istanbul. June 1st, 2013. Credit: Daniel Etter

2013 was marked by mass actions in Turkey, Chile, Thailand, Cambodia, the Ukraine and many others. Egypt saw street protests become more divided and conflicting, as politically it began to grapple with what a post-Mubarak society should look like.

Gezi Park was a great example of how mass resistance can arise and turn a small, local dispute into a large scale response to national politics. Sometimes all there needs to be is an outlet, a location to rally around- the passion and anger is already there.

Photo is by Daniel Etter, who has done a whole series of photos around the Gezi conflict.

Eygpt: right or wrong, it’s carnage

Cairo's Nasr City district after violent clashes (Ed Giles/Getty Images)
Cairo’s Nasr City district after violent clashes (Ed Giles/Getty Images)

As with Syria, the situation in Egypt is complex. It is not a story, crafted by a single author with intent. There are no flawless protagonists to carry the day, or villains you can only despise. There is just blood, smoke, tears, and causalities in the thousands.

The day that the military deposed Morsi and began efforts to shut down or contain the Muslim Brotherhoods, the Huffington Post ran a huge headline. Below was a picture of one of the main generals, above simply read “FREEDOM.”

To some the end of Morsi is freedom, to others it is quite the opposite. To everyone, it is carnage. This was Wednesday, the Muslim Brotherhood is planning a “day of anger” on Friday. I assume such pictures will continue to filter out.

When an economy sinks a revolution

(credit Civil-Military Fusion Centre)

The revolutionaries who ousted long-time President Hosni Mubarak demanded bread and social justice, but after two-and-a-half years of military and Muslim Brotherhood rule, the government has made little progress towards those goals.

Al Jazeera English has a comprehensive feature on the economic problems that Egypt has faced in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. The issues are myriad, mostly rooted in bad debt and low international confidence in the Egyptian pound or their ability to pay back loans. It does raise the question of how a political revolution can keep itself intact, given that some economic hardship is guaranteed.

Economist Ahmed Ghoneim sums up the issues when he says “[Morsi’s administration] was only thinking of politics, not the economy.” While the Muslim Brotherhood had persisted as a political entity for over eighty years, they were unable to address fundamental problems and have ministers that were both loyal to the Brotherhood and skilled at their job. Ultimately that political support begins to dry up, as the unemployment rate, GDP per capita growth rate, and currency value begin to worsen.

Revolutions like those in Egypt also suffer from what could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The chaos and danger of large-scale protests, police and military action, and political upheaval can be deadly to tourism and foreign financing. The feature describes the shop owners, travel agents, and museum guides without clients, and large loans from the IMF and other Islamic countries being difficult to secure due to risk and a lack of backing from large banks. If there are economic roots in the 2011 upheaval, they are difficult to solve in the aftermath. Cutting corruption and getting new diplomatic ties can help, but it may not be enough.

I think of how many Latin American and African revolutions have been reversed when economic progress was promised, then not delivered. While a lack of democracy and civil rights are a key reason that revolutions happen, demand for bread and jobs are just as powerful reasons- if often implicit.

The lack of focus and direction in Egypt’s post-revolution economy was where Morsi’s political skills withered. The kind of things a good economic minister does are not politically popular. They are not the things you win elections running on- tax increases, harsh adjustments to please foreign lenders- but they are how you solve systemic problems. Hopefully a new administration will understand that.

There is a quote attributed to various great leaders, that a society is three missed meals away from anarchy. Ultimately it comes down the basics. If it gets bad, it doesn’t matter who’s in power, or what they believe or promise.


Morsi gone, military here. Is this the cycle?

Morsi gone, military here. Is this the cycle?

(photo by Mohammed Saber/EPA, taken July 3rd in Cairo)

Muhammad Morsi has been overthrown by the military. The controversial president of Egypt was elected in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution that removed Hosni Mubarak. This marks the second military-led change of power in as many years- the first to remove an unelected autocrat, the second a democratically-elected but unpopular successor. There also appears to be a concurrent roundup of major Muslim Brotherhood leaders by the military. The extent of military action into politics and the length that it will suspend the constitution for remains to be seen.

Laser lights spell out an anti-Morsi message in Tahrir Square. Credit to Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty
Laser lights spell out an anti-Morsi message in Tahrir Square. Credit to Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty.

The question is, then, whether this is fresh start for the politics of Egypt, or a trend of popular government alternating with military control. Several countries have been unable to link together peaceful and democratic transfers of power- the history of Bangladesh and Pakistan is one of civilian governments being cut short by military coup. Nigeria was able to do such a transfer in 2007, after close to fifty years of instability and autocratic rule.

The relationship between most people and the military seems to be positive and strong, as Tahrir was home to chants of “The people and the army are one hand!” However, each one of these actions will be sure to alienate sections of the electorate- Morsi’s support was significant and the Muslim Brotherhood historically important in Egyptian politics.

A question to meditate on is what political and religious liberals should think of these events. Some Egyptian liberals celebrated the removal of Morsi, but does such a precedent mean elected liberal leaders may also face a military takeover as well? Morsi’s defenders emphasize his “legitimacy”- what makes a head of state in this context legitimate?

With the constitution suspended, it looks like there may be another long process of rewriting the structure of Egyptian government. The documents are a cornerstone of the controversy- whether the president is given too much power, and whether civil rights are given enough protection. It is to be seen if Egypt in the coming month has a stronger foundation to work upon, or if it is weak and unstable already.