Monthly Archives: June 2012

After Morsy’s win, counter Islamists with citizenship

There can be little doubt that the victory in the Egyptian presidential election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, represents the greatest single victory in the history of the Islamist movements in the Arab world. So, how should non-Islamist Arabs—including secularists, leftists, nationalists, traditional or mystical Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, or simply the rational—react to this dramatic development?

First, don’t overstate the problem.

The powers of the presidency are significantly constrained by numerous formal and informal factors. The non-Islamist vote proved much stronger in the presidential election than it did in the earlier parliamentary one. A significant percentage of those who voted for Morsi no doubt did so because they perceived his rival, Ahmad Shafik, to be a representative of the former dictatorship. So the constituency that propelled Morsi into office is not a solidly reliable Muslim Brotherhood one. There’s no reason to conclude that Egypt is doomed to a future dominated by Islamists.

Second, don’t understate the problem.

The Muslim Brotherhood has proven, time and again, that it is, at the moment, the most powerful and effective political party in the country, at least in terms of rallying voters and summoning huge crowds. The Brotherhood may not be on the brink of completely taking over authority in Egypt, but it’s difficult not to see the military and the courts acting in what amounts to a defensive rearguard action against its creeping power. While Egypt isn’t doomed to an Islamist future, if other political forces continue to prove ineffective and, especially, if the Brotherhood can disingenuously continue to conflate its agenda with that of building democracy in the country, Egypt might be stuck with one anyway.

Third, don’t drink the Kool-Aid about Islamists being democrats.

One need only consult statements by Morsi during the first round of the presidential elections a few weeks ago to be reminded how reactionary and extreme the Brotherhood’s social attitudes and political agenda really are. Add that to decades of unchanging Muslim Brotherhood ideology that reflect profoundly undemocratic, misogynistic, homophobic, chauvinistic, paranoid and intolerant attitudes. To view this party and its ideology as anything other than a profound threat to all non-Islamists, if it should ever come to uncontested power, is unforgivably naïve. After a period of genuine constitutionalism, Arab Muslim equivalents of Europe’s Christian Democratic parties, or even Turkey’s constitutional Islamist AKP, will probably eventually emerge. But they will look completely different from today’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Fourth, focus on constitutional structures and constraints on government.

It’s impossible to build Arab democracies without including peaceful Islamist parties, no matter how reactionary and intolerant their attitudes might be. It is an inherent conundrum of representative systems that they must be able to include illiberal, undemocratic elements in what are otherwise liberal, democratic orders. Naturally, there is always the chance that these illiberal, undemocratic parties might actually gain a measure of power. Constitutions, therefore, must constrain the powers of government and ensure ironclad, inviolable protection for the rights of individuals, minorities and women. These protections must be defended by military forces that defend the Constitution, but don’t meddle in electoral politics. And they must be amendable, but extremely difficult to change.

Fifth, begin seriously organizing positive alternative narratives and movements.

Non-Islamist forces in the Arab world under the current circumstances have a marked tendency to focus all their energies on explaining what’s wrong with the Islamists, rather than expounding their own vision. And they tend to be unorganized and disunited.

The recent elections in Tunisia demonstrated both of those characteristics perfectly. Non-Islamist parties won a majority in parliament, but were divided into so many smaller groups that the Islamist Al-Nahda party emerged as the strongest block. And in both Tunisia and Egypt, non-Islamist candidates spent far too much effort trying to scare voters about their Islamist rivals rather than presenting a proactive vision of tolerance, inclusion, competency, jobs, social justice and so forth.

Moreover, it’s time for these forces to develop a positive narrative about the virtues, rights and responsibilities of citizenship inherent to each and every individual through his or her status as a citizen. Such a narrative, which should be at the heart of a region-wide movement, is the best antidote to a sectarian religious-identity cult. Far too much discourse in the Arab world surrenders to Islamists the rhetoric, traditions, civilizational heritage and symbols of Islam. But the Islamists do not and cannot define Islam. And they certainly cannot define an enormously heterogeneous Arab world. A vision of citizenship, on the other hand, can and must.

The result in Egypt will certainly embolden and inspire Islamists across the region. Non-Islamists need to begin urgently and diligently developing a narrative of citizenship and inclusion that can present a powerfully appealing alternative to the Islamist vision.

Good News, Bad News

The good news is that Egypt has just elected its first civilian president in its modern history. The bad news is that a religious fanatic has won. And both the good news and the bad news need to be taken in their broader political context, because neither are straightforward.

The good news is indeed encouraging. Egypt’s Presidential Election Commission, to all appearances, played it straight, even though their four-day delay in announcing the results gave rise to an enormous amount of speculation that some kind of chicanery might be underway. In the end, they announced results that almost all observers agree are credible, although their outgoing chairman, Farouk Sultan, made the country and the world sit through an interminable and very defensive preamble.

Fireworks light up the sky as Egyptians celebrate in Cairo’s Tahrir Square the victory of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi in the national elections, on June 24, 2012. (Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images)

So the Egyptian people have had their say, and it has been respected. This is, by any interpretation, a major step forward in the struggle for democracy. But the new president will inherit an office that has been stripped of many key powers by the recent supplemental constitutional articles issued by the military. The power of the Parliament has also been constrained. The generals appear to be trying to carve out a decisive role for themselves; equivalent to that once enjoyed by the Turkish military.

The good news continues.  Egypt has also avoided an open, street-level confrontation that probably would have resulted had there been any effort to fix the election’s outcome in favor of former Mubarak-era Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. So, rather than resorting to blatantly unlawful measures like vote fraud, the strategy of the military and its allies has been to work through legal and quasi-legal maneuvers to shift the de jure power structure.

So we can look forward to a protracted power struggle in Egypt over the respective authority held by elected institutions such as the presidency and the Parliament on the one hand and existing, permanent institutions (most notably the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) on the other. But for the foreseeable future it is likely to remain a political and legal fight rather than anything involving widespread unrest or violence.

So much for the good news.

The bad news is that Egypt has undeniably elected an extremist president from a radically illiberal party. Egyptians appear divided into three main camps: Islamists and other Muslim Brotherhood supporters; those who are relieved at the defeat of the candidate of the existing institutions but wary of the Brotherhood’s intentions; and those who are profoundly alarmed at Mohammed Morsy’s victory. But anyone who remains unconcerned about the Brotherhood’s ability to secure electoral majorities, demonstrated in both the presidential and (recently overturned) parliamentary ballots, is being woefully naïve.

It was always likely that Islamists would be the initial beneficiaries of a more open Egyptian political system. But they are now—disingenuously but somewhat successfully—positioning themselves as the “revolutionary” vanguard in a long-term struggle for democracy and popular will against “counterrevolutionary” forces in the existing establishment. This creates a dangerous conflation of their profoundly illiberal agenda with liberal imperatives for securing the authority of the people’s voice. It threatens to create a circumstance where, in attempting to secure the trappings of democracy, Egyptians might instead usher in a religiously reactionary new form of oppressive authoritarianism, enforced in the name of “the people.”

For now, the power struggle in Egypt may continue at the legal and political register, but it is possible that violent confrontation has been merely forestalled rather than entirely prevented. The battle will now focus on the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution, which will formalize the emerging allocation of power. This new constitution might require a new presidential election and limit Morsy to a short term in office, at least if the military and its allies get their way.

The upcoming parliamentary reelection will also be hotly contested. Non-Islamist forces proved much stronger in the presidential election than they did a few months ago in parliamentary voting. The Brotherhood has demonstrated its street power through huge demonstrations. And the courts have carefully retained a “nuclear weapon” against it: a recent ruling that could re-illegalize the Brotherhood was postponed until September. If things go badly, they still might get extremely ugly.

If Egyptians wish to find a path to genuine democracy, which balances the right of electoral majorities to exercise power with protections for individual, minority and women’s rights, they will have to find a way of curbing the authoritarian aspirations of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. Right now, they find themselves squeezed between two political forces, neither of which has demonstrated any sincere respect for or appreciation of genuinely democratic processes.

Sunday Night’s Alright for Fighting

Deposed former Pres. Hosni Mubarak is reportedly lying in hospital in critical condition, and Egypt’s post-Mubarak political scene isn’t doing all that much better. Both candidates—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsy and former Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq—are claiming victory and the Presidential Election Commission has postponed its official announcement from last Thursday to sometime this weekend. Everything is set for a protracted power struggle in Egypt.

 All week the rumor mill has been buzzing with various unnamed officials saying off the record that, contrary to Brotherhood claims, Shafiq, in fact, has won by 200,000-300,000 votes. A report this morning, citing “government sources,” says the Commission is set toannounce Shafiq’s victory on Sunday with 50.7 percent of the vote.

Egypt’s presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq (R), the last premier of ousted Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, speaks during a press conference in Cairo. (Patrick Baz / AFP / GettyImages)

If Shafiq is declared the winner, not only will the Muslim Brotherhood angrily dispute the outcome, but many will believe that the tally has been somehow or another “cooked” to ensure the victory of the candidate representing existing Egyptian institutions over the long-standing Islamist opposition group. Earlier this week and today, the Muslim Brotherhood held huge rallies in Cairo in an obvious display of muscle flexing.

Events of the last week have done a great deal to complicate Egyptian politics, but the Brotherhood itself has three key weapons it can use in any unfolding power struggle.

First, it can claim popular legitimacy based on its strong performance in recent parliamentary elections (although those elections have since been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court). And it can claim that, according to its figures and most media reports, its candidate in fact did win the presidency. There’s no question that the Brotherhood is the most effective organizational political machine in the country, and its most powerful party.

Second, it has again demonstrated its ability to bring huge numbers of people into the street. This raises the specter of not only demonstrations, but possibly sustained protests and even riots should Shafiq be declared the victor. Brotherhood leaders have beeninsisting that they will not turn to any form of violence and that an “Algeria scenario” in which foiled elections lead inexorably to a bitter and bloody civil war is unthinkable in Egypt. However, the implications of its display of street-level power were not lost on anyone.

Third, it can try to mobilize support from those who are skeptical about its intentions but categorically determined to break the grip of the military and existing government institutions on power. It can try to pose as the vanguard of the revolutionary forces that overthrew the former regime, even though, in reality, it has had a very tense and fitful relationship with those forces. But in the context of what is being widely perceived as an illegitimate power grab by the forces of the “deep state,” it has the real potential to appeal to even some of those opposition forces who are deeply skeptical about its behavior and intentions.

To promote this narrative and to hedge against defeat, Morsy today announced he was forming a “National Revolutionary Front” with two other key figures who have previously resisted an overt embrace of the Brotherhood: former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed El Baradei and self-styled “liberal Islamist” Abdel Monem Abol Fotouh.

It’s also possible rumors about an impending Shafiq victory are intended to set up a “surprise” announcement that Morsy indeed has won. This might be intended to assuage concerns over recent declarations by the military accruing to itself extraordinary governance powers, by cultivating a sense of relief that an open confrontation has been avoided, or at least postponed, and that the results of the election will be widely accepted as valid. It’s also distinctly possible that the military, if not other existing government institutions, might believe that a weak and failing Morsy presidency can be useful to its purposes over the long run.

If there is a confrontation, as seems increasingly unavoidable especially if Shafiq is declared the new president, it is likely to be largely political rather than violent. And its outcome will almost certainly be some kind of deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. But such an accommodation will only be possible once the relative strengths of both parties have been thoroughly tested, possibly including in the streets, or when and if both feel they have secured their minimum necessary requirements.

Both the military and other existing government institutions and the Muslim Brotherhood have greatly contributed to the parlous situation in Egypt. Each has tried to shamelessly manipulate existing systems to strengthen its own hand, and both have failed the Egyptian people by behaving highly irresponsibly. Whatever is announced this weekend is unlikely to resolve matters clearly. Look forward to a long, hot summer in Egypt.

The looming power struggle in Egypt

A series of dramatic events over the past week seems to have made bitter power struggles in Egypt all but inevitable. Indeed, the situation is so volatile key factors may have shifted by the time this article is posted.

The most obvious is a potential battle over last weekend’s second-round presidential election. The Muslim Brotherhood immediately declared that its candidate, Mohammed Mursi, had defeated former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik by a significant margin. Shafik’s camp angrily disputed these claims, and an official election result announcement isn’t expected until Thursday.

But most independent observers believe that Mursi probably won, although by a much narrower margin than he claims. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, for example, estimated he won by just over 100,000 votes. While other scenarios are possible, the most likely is that officials will report a Mursi victory later on this week.

But such a victory may mean much less than Muslim Brotherhood supporters would have hoped. Over the weekend the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a new “constitutional amendment” transferring broad powers to itself and, most importantly, freezing SCAF’S composition in its current form.

So, even if Mursi is confirmed as president, the prerogatives of the office have just been greatly degraded by military fiat.

This comes on top of a court order dissolving the recently-formed Islamist-dominated parliament and ordering new elections. The Muslim Brotherhood, after several days of silence, has announced that it doesn’t recognize the order as valid and intends to persist with the work of the legislature. This means not only a confrontation with the court, but also with the military, which has made it clear that it intends to enforce the ruling.

So, major confrontations are potentially looming over the outcome of the presidential election, the role of the presidency, the legitimacy of the last elected parliament, and the power of the courts to intervene directly in Egyptian politics. This last confrontation might be greatly intensified on Tuesday, when courts are due to rule on a case that could lead to the formal disbanding of the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization and its return to illegal status. If that happens, the long-term consequences are extremely difficult to predict.

It’s not clear what, if any, impact such a ruling would have on the legitimacy of a Mursi victory, assuming that it is confirmed later on this week. But it makes a direct confrontation likely. As it stands, protracted power struggles, even without a new ruling banning the Muslim Brotherhood as a legal organization, seem unavoidable.

Other potential flash points include a recent military declaration authorizing security forces to arrest civilians and refer them to military tribunals. This, in effect, reinstates the substance of the recently-lifted and long-hated Emergency Law. And the judiciary has also disbanded the parliament’s Constituent Assembly, which is tasked with drafting the constitution.

For many Egyptians and outside observers, the recent moves by the courts and the military—even without denying Mursi the presidency, assuming he has really won it legitimately, or again illegalizing the Muslim Brotherhood—already represent a coup d’état by forces associated with the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. Yet the results of the presidential election suggest that there is a very significant popular constituency for these forces, assuming that Shafik was widely understood as representing them.

Egyptian society, in other words, is deeply divided along multiple axes. Islamists and their allies among revolutionary forces, who prefer anyone over remnants of the former regime, are likely to view ongoing events as a dictatorial plot by a junta to thwart democracy. Most Shafik voters, by contrast, may well see the developments as an unpleasant but necessary step to forestall Islamist domination, which would, they undoubtedly feel, lead to an even more oppressive system, albeit backed up by some degree of popular mandate.

A large number of liberal revolutionaries who were crucial in bringing down the former regime have adopted a stance condemning both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military and its allies. And it’s likely that most long-suffering Egyptian voters are ideologically unaffiliated and simply want jobs, economic security, law and order, and to have their votes recognized rather than bypassed by decrees.

The Muslim Brotherhood traditionally doesn’t like confrontation, but it may be left with little choice and can try to deploy new leverage by claiming a popular mandate. The military has the guns and, for now at least, control of most state institutions. An accommodation is hard to envisage.

The coming months in Egypt, therefore, are almost certainly going to test the relative strengths of these forces. And this struggle will come at the expense of the Egyptian people.

Was the Arab Spring Worth It?

Last year’s Arab revolutions captured the world’s imagination as they toppled dictators from Tunis to Sanaa. But what they haven’t yet done is make life measurably better for the people throwing off the tyrant’s yoke.

The price of freedom may be incalculable, but it seems equally hard to tally up the very real costs of the so-called Arab Spring. How many have died or been displaced in these conflicts? How have they affected economies and standards of living? Have they made their societies more or less stable? A look at the numbers so far makes for grim accounting: In the four most violent uprisings, in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen — all four of which slid backward on the Failed States Index for 2012, and likely will again next year — as many as 50,000 people have died since the revolutions began. Some $20 billion of GDP evaporated last year in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, in addition to more than $35 billion in public finances, according to International Monetary Fund data.

But each country will assess the revolutionary toll in its own way. In Libya, clearly the staggering death tally from the civil war dwarfs all other prices. For average Egyptians, growing political tensions and the cratering economy probably outweigh the violence between protesters and security forces. Yemen was well on its way to failed statehood and economic collapse before the Arab Spring, and virtually all indicators are distinctly, and in some cases alarmingly, negative, while the benefits of the protest movement have yet to manifest themselves in any concrete way. In Syria, there is only cost — including thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of displacements, and an incipient economic meltdown. The benefits, if any, of the Syrian intifada will only be realized far in the future.

So, was it worth it?

Because most of these dramatic transformations are still playing themselves out, only soothsayers and knaves can give a confident answer. In spite of the ongoing violence and chaos in Libya, there appears to be very little nostalgia for Muammar al-Qaddafi. The same applies to Egypt, where the longing for Hosni Mubarak is still limited to remnants of the former regime. In those countries, where the costs have been very grave, most would say the uprisings were nonetheless worth it — at least for now. The answer is far more complicated in Yemen, where the country’s interlocking crises make it hard to untangle where the chaos began and how it will end.

It is in Syria that the biggest constituency for a “no” is probably to be found. Yet the protest movement, as well as the insurgency that arose to protect it, is not going away. The costs of unseating Bashar al-Assad will be exorbitant in blood and treasure, it is now abundantly clear. But the brutality of the crackdown is inexorably pushing ever larger numbers of Syrians to think that anybody but Assad is a better way to go.


2011 Failed States rank: 45 | 2012: 31

Deaths: According to government figures, at least 846 Egyptians died in the three-week uprising early last year. In subsequent months, at least another 150 have died in violent street clashes.

Economic costs: After growing 5 percent in 2010, Egypt’s GDP grew less than 2 percent in 2011.


2011 rank: 111 | 2012: 50

Deaths: There is no independently verified account of the number of people killed in the Libyan civil war, but the new government claims at least 30,000 people died on both sides. Postwar clashes have killed dozens of others.

Refugees: According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 700,000 people, almost half of them expatriate workers, fled during the civil war, and few have returned.

Economic costs: In 2011, Libya lost as much as 60 percent of its GDP as the value of oil exports fell an estimated 40 percent. GDP is projected to grow at a 76 percent clip this year, with oil production returning to pre-war levels.


2011 rank: 13 | 2012: 8

Deaths: Yemen’s government recently estimated that 2,000 people were killed in the uprising leading to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation. Amnesty International’s estimate of 200 people killed during the protests is far smaller.

Economic costs: Before the crisis, the United Nations projected Yemen’s economy would grow 3.4 percent in 2011, but instead it has “shrunk substantially,” with inflation averaging about 20 percent. And it will get worse: The IMF expects Yemen’s GDP to decrease another 0.5 percent in 2012.

Humanitarian crisis: Nearly half a million Yemenis have been displaced from their homes in recent years. Almost 1 million Yemeni children under age 5 face acute malnutrition, with 250,000 at risk of dying. An estimated 55 percent of Yemenis live below the poverty line on less than $2 per day, with 10 million “food insecure” and 5 million of those “severely food insecure.” Youth unemployment is estimated to be more than 50 percent.


2011 rank: 48 | 2012: 23

Deaths: The most recent U.N. estimate of civilian deaths in the Syrian uprising, from late March, is more than 9,000. By now that number has likely exceeded 10,000. Opposition groups cite figures closer to 15,000.

Refugees: In May, the U.N. estimated that half a million Syrians had fled their homes during the fighting and that 73,000 had become refugees in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Economic costs: Syria’s currency is in free-fall, inflation is soaring, and exports collapsing. The consultancy Geopolicity estimates that the country had lost more than $6 billion in GDP as of October 2011.

O Brotherhood, Where Art Thou?

“You are no parliament. I say, you are no parliament. I will put an end to your sittings.”According to tradition, that’s what Oliver Cromwell told the English “rump parliament” when he dissolved it in 1653. Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court must have been channeling Cromwell on Thursday, when its justices effectively dissolved the new Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament.

When you cut through the maze of legalese, the ruling demonstrates that powerful forces in Egypt simply won’t accept Muslim Brotherhood domination of the emerging political system. And because the Brotherhood is increasingly politically isolated, the court and its allies may get what they want.

An Egyptian protester holds her shoe against portraits of presidential candidates Ahmed Shafiq and his rival, Mohammed Mursi, with a slogan that reads in Arabic: ‘No, they should not rule’ (Marwan Naamani / AFP / GettyImages)

The ruling was shocking, but not surprising. In a series of statements last month, the head of the Judges Association clarified that the judiciary now sees itself as a fully political entity, and as the primary bulwark against Islamist domination.

In effect, Egypt has witnessed “a soft coup” by the military and remnants of the former regime. Other recent measures have also been aimed at protecting the power of the military and other existing institutions, and forestalling Islamist control. These include, for example, the reassertion of the security forces’ power to arrest civilians and refer them to military tribunals, and the overturning of the law that barred former regime officials from running for office.

And after Thursday’s decision, the military quickly asserted that it would take on the role of the legislature, as well as that of the presidency. They added that, following the election, the new president will take his oath before the military rather than the parliament.

Dissolving parliament also means dissolving the constitution-drafting Constituent Assembly.  So, Egypt enters this weekend’s decisive second round presidential election without a constitution, a clear constitution-drafting process, a parliament or crucial protections for civil liberties.

The Muslim Brotherhood reacted as if it was completely taken aback by the ruling, and it has yet to issue a clear-cut statement. One of its more intriguing options would be for parliament to refuse to comply with the ruling. Other Egyptian parliaments have been ordered dissolved by courts in the past, but have continued to exercise their legislative function. The Brotherhood might decide to try to test the power and authority of the SCC by ignoring it. Because the military has ordered the parliament to disband and close its doors, as this would also almost certainly mean a confrontation with the Army.

In addition to being left with only such desperate and implausible options, the Brotherhood faces deeper political problems. Egyptian revolutionaries are outraged by what they reasonably interpret as a coordinated counter-revolution coming from the military, the courts and other Mubarak regime figures and institutions. But many of them are also completely fed up with the Brotherhood. As they see it, the Brotherhood cut a special deal with the military (which explains why they failed to back numerous demonstrations), and now that deal has now backfired. Many revolutionaries argue that the Brotherhood tried to hijacked a revolution they can take little credit for. Their efforts to stack the constitution drafting assembly, sudden retraction of their long-standing commitment not to field a presidential candidate, and other heavy-handed missteps have revivified suspicions about the Brotherhood across the political spectrum.

The Brotherhood appears bewildered and defeated. In public events on Thursday, its candidate, Mohamed Morsi bellowed angry platitudes that suggested profound anxiety, even though he recently scored a clear victory in overseas balloting by Egyptian ex-pats. His mono-tonal shouting probably doesn’t help either. By contrast, establishment candidate Ahmed Shafiq (who was prime minister under Mubarak), was brimming with confidence before a rapturous audience. Not only were his remarks presidential, they sounded like an acceptance speech.

The conventional wisdom is that Shafiq will either win cleanly (indeed, his support has recently surged in numerous areas, including Upper Egypt), or through fraud coordinated by the military and remnants of the former regime. Egyptians are divided into at least four main camps: Islamists; liberals, sympathetic or unsympathetic to the former regime; and unaffiliated voters mainly concerned with economics and law and order. The situation is complex enough that Morsi could certainly still win. But if Shafiq wins—whether fairly or unfairly—it will complete the circle of counterrevolution. The Brotherhood, which never truly represented the forces that brought down the former regime, will have played a major role in bringing the revolution to a crashing halt.

Both liberal revolutionaries and the illiberal Brotherhood will be back to square one. But they don’t share a common agenda or political values. The bottom line is that if a new, democratic Egypt eventually emerges, it can’t be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. There are too many forces, with significant public constituencies, that simply won’t accept an Islamist-dominated Egypt.

Kritarchy in Egypt?

Kritarchy is the standard, if obscure, English term for rule by judges. It might be a stretch to apply this to the present situation in Egypt, but under current circumstances it’s tempting. In case after case in recent months Egyptian courts have either made or attempted to make the most crucial decisions regarding the country’s future.

Two upcoming major rulings later this week will only intensify that pattern.

On Thursday, just two days before the second-round runoff of the presidential election is scheduled to begin, the Supreme Constitutional Court will consider a case asking them to apply the so-called Political Isolation Law to former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and disqualify him from running. If they did so, the second round would be abandoned, and Egyptian voters would have to repeat the initial phase of the election all over again, but this time with 12 rather than 13 candidates.

This seems unlikely, since the court’s legal advisers have reportedly suggested that it should reject hearing the case altogether or declare the law unconstitutional. The court is not bound to follow this advice, but precedent suggests it usually does.

Even though a ruling overturning the presidential election process as it currently stands is unlikely, it again points to the pivotal authority now being wielded by the judiciary. A small group of people, elected or appointed under the former regime, stand as supreme arbiters for the fate of the nation.

An even more incendiary case is pending regarding the constitutionality of the parliamentary election law under which the new Islamist-dominated legislature was voted into power. The most important task of the present parliament is the establishment of a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Egyptian constitution. Initial efforts to do this fell to pieces when Islamists tried to stack the Assembly with an overwhelming majority.

Late last week, after the military gave the parliament 48 hours to appoint a new Assembly or cede this authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Islamist and secular parties appeared to finally reach an agreement for a 50-50 split in a new Assembly. The military approved the deal, but over the weekend secularists again walked out of the process, claiming Islamists were still trying to usurp their seats and again secure a majority in the Assembly. Parliament seems likely to approve the new body anyway [since this article was edited, it has indeed done so], but the whole process is again in disarray and mired in deep division and controversy.

In this context, the court’s ruling on the election law threatens to make a confused situation even more convoluted. If it invalidates the process by which parliament was elected in the first place, not only would the process for forming a constitution-drafting assembly be overthrown, new parliamentary elections would be required.

All of this comes in the context of a series of earlier controversial decisions by various Egyptian courts. Among these were rulings disallowing numerous leading candidates from the presidential election on narrow technicalities and delivering a verdict in the trial of former President Hosni Mubarak and his associates that many Egyptians found offensively unsatisfactory.

The judiciary, particularly through its influential Judges Club, has also made a series of recent pronouncements that suggest it sees its role in a directly political, and indeed partisan, framework. In early May, the head of the Club issued harsh criticisms of the parliament, and implicitly its Islamist majority, stating bluntly that, “From this day forward, judges will have a say in determining the future of this country and its fate. We will not leave it to you to do with it what you want.” He accused Islamists of pursuing “a systematic plan meticulously designed to destroy this country.”

Nathan Brown has provided the most detailed English-language account of the present state of the judiciary’s role in Egypt’s political system and a useful guide to its complex structure. What these and other accounts demonstrate is that, more overtly even than the military, the court system now sees itself as a bulwark against Islamist domination of the new Egypt and the only empowered arbiter of the legitimacy of the new systems being created.

The court’s newly-asserted, proactive role (which goes far beyond what in the United States is derided as “judicial activism”) is greatly contributing to a dangerous atmosphere of uncertainty in Egypt’s transition. It’s no longer a simply question of what Egyptian voters decide for themselves, but also what the judiciary will allow them to decide.

Hopes for real democracy in Egypt are now not only threatened by the potential of a tyrannous Islamist majority secured through elections, or military rule that is either open or behind-the-scenes. It is also now being called into question by the direct intervention of judges who appear to be inspired by what can only be described as undemocratic “liberal,” or at least anti-Islamist, imperatives.

Democracy in Arabia

A new book supplies an indispensable, yet uneven, account of the revolutions in the Middle East

If anybody asked me, particularly in a plaintive tone of desperation, for a comprehensive backgrounder on the uprisings that have convulsed much of the Arab world since December 2010, I’d have no hesitation in pointing them to The Battle for the Arab Spring. Lin Noueihed, a Reuters editor, and Alex Warren, a consultancy expert, have joined forces to produce a remarkably far-reaching and exceptionally precise summary of the uprisings generally, but unfortunately, referred to as the “Arab Spring.” Particularly for the uninitiated or those seeking a synoptic but relatively detailed account of what has and hasn’t happened in the Arab world in the past year and a half, their book fits the bill perfectly. Dutifully and methodically, Noueihed and Warren cover all the bases. Everything is here that a specialist would expect to be provided to a popular audience seeking guidance and information, and very little that is obviously crucial is missing.

But this great strength is also the book’s most fundamental weakness. The Battle for the Arab Spring often reads like a list of lists, or a particularly well-executed Wikipedia entry, whose authors have established a logical, straightforward set of categories for its subject, and then dutifully filled them in with the appropriate facts, citations, and observations. This makes The Battle for the Arab Spring often surprisingly flat and difficult to read, particularly for anyone with a strong background in recent Middle East affairs. The combination of almost suffocating predictability and unerring reliability produces very little with which such readers can engage. Turning its pages often involves a sigh of exasperation, as the authors check box after inevitable box.

The book begins with a series of chapters on the essential conditions that led to the uprisings: political disempowerment, bad governance, and the lack of personal dignity; the socioeconomic frustrations of a skilled “middle-class poor” population in the region, condemned to un- or underemployment; and the rise of a new Arab public sphere defined by the communications revolution of pan-Arab satellite TV channels, mobile phones, and the Internet. There then follows a series of chapters on the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, presented in an almost too logical and chronological order. Finally, the book builds out a more lively analysis as it weighs the consequences of the uprisings for the shifting balance of power in the Middle East, surveying the challenges facing the (mostly) more stable Gulf states; the effects of declining American power in the region in the context of an emerging multipolar world order; and the political rise of Arab Islamists of varying stripes.

The book is at its strongest in some of its later chapters, particularly in considering the challenges facing the Gulf monarchies. In a chapter called “The Kings’ Dilemma,” Noueihed and Warren may have produced one of the best existing condensed treatments of the subject—particularly in appraising the dynamics within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is led by perennial monarchal rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The authors acknowledge that the Saudi government was deeply disturbed by the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak—and that the entire GCC is united in seeking, at all costs, to stop the spread of rebellion to any monarchies, including Morocco and Jordan. They also point out that Saudi Arabia and Qatar can now agree that “if there had to be a democracy [in any Arab republic], then better a Sunni Islamist one that could bolster the Gulf stand against Shi’ite Iran than a firebrand secular liberal one with a mission to spread freedom to the monarchies.” The bottom line, of course, is that Islamists generally can be much better accommodated by the existing social and political systems in the Gulf than liberals ever could be—which is why throughout the region Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudis have allegedly thrown support behind several Salafist groups. Noueihed and Warren also correctly note that while “all of the Arab monarchies will survive in the short term . . . oil will run out at some point, and when it does, the entire structures of some of the Gulf states will be called into question.”

Likewise, the authors provide some welcome analytic depth in their chapter titled “The Islamist Resurgence.” Here, their discussion proves quite strong in emphasizing several crucial points that are often missed in Western accounts: that the Islamists are a remarkably heterogeneous spectrum; that Arab democracies won’t be able to function without their inclusion; that Islamists would almost inevitably be the primary beneficiaries of newly opened political space in many Arab societies; and that there is nothing in theory that ought, over time, to prevent Arab Islamists from developing constitutionalist mentalities consistent with the norms of democratic functioning.

Nor do Noueihed and Warren miss the fundamental contradictions embedded within Islamist rhetoric emphasizing democracy, pluralism, human rights, and, especially, citizenship—all supposedly based on Muslim “values” as the Islamists define them. Islamist “democrats,” such as Rachid Ghannouchi and Said Ferjani of the Tunisian Ennahda party, never tire of invoking the centrality of citizenship. But even these relatively “liberal” figures within the Islamist movements have stopped well short of explicating the limitations of the rights of individuals envisaged under their religiously inspired agenda. Noueihed and Warren suggest postdictatorship Arab societies might produce “illiberal or religious democracies in which the government is elected and there is a rotation of power but where, for instance, homosexuality remains banned and minorities and women lack the same rights as Muslim men.” In such a scenario, Islamist assurances about equal citizenship will be exposed as a rhetorical Potemkin village.

Since the uprisings broke out, I’ve warned that postdictatorship Arab societies face three major pitfalls: military rule, failed states, and tyrannical majorities. While the flood of data they present can make the ultimate thrust of their argument hard to discern, Noueihed and Warren seem to be describing the third pitfall as a very likely outcome.

And indeed, a right-wing religious and political revival in the Middle East, backed by mass democratic support, is an all too likely outcome of the present unrest. As the authors note, one cannot expect Arab Islamist groups to develop into constitutionalist parties without going through a process of genuine constitutionalism—something that’s been conspicuously absent in Arab political history. Noueihed and Warren are quite right that, as a consequence of decades of brutal repression and torture, some “Islamists [have] been radicalised in prison.” But one of their few missteps is the claim that such policies have been the norm throughout the region: “Arab rulers reserved their harshest repression for the Islamists because they perceived them to be a genuine threat.”

In certain times and places, that has been the case, but, generally, Arab rulers have tended to provide more space to Islamists than to liberals or leftists. The governments have long justified the continuation of their ineffective and despotic rule to both domestic and international audiences by arguing, in essence, “it’s us or the Islamists.” They have operated under the dictum that if one must have opponents, it’s best to make them appear as threatening as possible. To expect Arab Islamists to be fully developed democrats at this stage, given their ideologies, their history, and the state of contemporary Arab political culture, is certainly unrealistic. And empowering them in the region’s ascendant democracies raises the specter of tyrannical majorities suppressing the rights of individuals, women, or minorities in the name of a popular mandate, backed up by appeals to alleged “traditions” and “authenticity.”

Noueihed and Warren write that in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya “there was a broad consensus that free and fair elections were the way forward, with little apparent disagreement over the need for a separation of powers.” The first part of this passage is probably an understatement: The idea that political legitimacy requires the consent of the governed, and that this can only be achieved by regular multiparty elections with the peaceful transfer of power, has taken root in almost all Arab political orientations—the exceptions being most of the existing ruling elites and extreme, fringe Islamists such as Al Qaeda. The Arabs, to put it in reductive American terms, “get Jefferson.” As for the separation of powers and the question of individual rights, Noueihed and Warren are far too optimistic. There’s still a very long way to go before a similarly wide consensus understands the limitations of majority rule and the need for a real separation of powers—in other words, before the Arabs “get Madison.”

For some sense of how inchoate the principle of the separation of powers remains in emerging Arab democracies, consider the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s recent decision to break its long-standing vow not to seek the presidency. In announcing this reversal, officials with the Brotherhood cited the opposition the organization was facing in the wake of its overwhelming victory in the legislative elections. That pressure, the Brotherhood maintained, was forcing a reconsideration of its role as Egypt weighs whether to shift from a presidential to a parliamentary system. That is to say, once the Brotherhood had tasted sweeping political success in Egypt’s parliamentary election, it could only hope to wield real political power via a bid to control Egypt’s executive branch as well as the country’s relatively weak legislature, since the presidential system is likely to endure.

Meanwhile, if there really were a concept of equal citizenship based on individual rights, guaranteed by a separation of powers and an independent judiciary, Noueihed and Warren’s forecast of the emergence of illiberal democracies holding regular multiparty elections while suppressing women and minorities wouldn’t be as plausible as it unfortunately is. Even if the emerging new Arab political scene is able to avoid the disastrous development of failed states and direct or thinly veiled military rule, it would be entirely possible to claim, to popular approbation, the right to suppress all kinds of individual, minority, and women’s rights in the name of a large and empowered majority expressing its intolerant will at the ballot box. This, it would be said, is merely democracy at work.

In spite of its considerable narrative and stylistic flaws, The Battle for the Arab Spring is easily the best summary of the Arab uprisings yet produced. As a primer for the uninitiated, it contains almost everything it should. It’s a shame, however, that so much of the material it synthesizes feels so familiar, overworked, and monotonous for anyone who has closely followed the historic transformations under way in the Arab political landscape and culture.

Strong and Stronger

At a recent informal meeting with Jewish Americans at the White House, President Barack Obama apparently expressed concerns about “domestic political constraints” holding back Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the peace process with Israel. This has led a number of observers, including Peter Beinart, to conclude that Abbas is politically “weak,” or at least that Obama thinks so.

But this misreads the political realities in the West Bank. In fact, Abbas is in a very strong political situation domestically. Indeed, Abbas’s strength, like that of his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is just the problem: without outside prodding, neither has a real political imperative to deal with the other.

Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Mahmoud Abbas in the White House’s East Room in 2010. (Tim Sloan / AFP / Getty Images)

To be sure, Abbas’s power is not totally unfettered. His office recently overreached by shutting down several websites, some of them owned by a discredited rival. The uproar within Palestinian society, and indeed within the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization, forced a reversal of the censorship. But Abbas has been systematically removing, discrediting or fending off all potential rivals, and he has no clear successor.

True, Palestinians are increasingly fed up with their situation, most significantly with the occupation. And they’re clearly dissatisfied with both Fatah and Hamas. But a recent poll showed that if an election were held today, Fatah would most likely crush Hamas. This is less a matter of Fatah’s popularity than an index of Hamas’s profound unpopularity outside of its base. So in spite of general dissatisfaction, popular challenges to Abbas are also well under control. The alternatives are either obviously less palatable or hard to identify.

Like Netanyahu, Abbas finds faces no strong political challengers. But the political strengths of both are a product of, and dependent on, the status quo. The national interests of Israelis and Palestinians clearly demand bold moves on peace, but there isn’t much political incentive for either leader to take such measures.

Palestinian options are significantly limited: Israel, as the occupying power, holds almost all the cards. But it would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that Abbas’s policies have contributed to the present impasse. All three major players—Israel, the United States and the Palestinians— have either made mistakes in recent years. Abbas has not managed his relationship with the United States well. And he repeatedly miscalculated the balance between domestic political considerations and Palestinian diplomatic imperatives, at times with avoidable negative consequences on both.

Netanyahu’s allies frequently cited the “domestic political constraints” of his previous coalition as a major reason why he could not take major diplomatic initiatives. Plainly that no longer applies, at least in the way it used to, to his new gigantic coalition. Unfortunately, there is no evidence so far that Netanyahu’s thinking has changed meaningfully regarding peace. He insists he wants an agreement, and indeed he might, but anyone who doesn’t harbor doubts about his sincerity on this issue is profoundly naïve. The explosion of settlement activity, initiated by his former coalition in its final months, is continuing at full speed.

For at least the next fifteen months, Netanyahu can no longer cite a fragile coalition as an excuse for inaction. Of course he still faces considerable “domestic political constraints” for any serious move towards peace. But there is no question Netanyahu has much greater wiggle-room now than he had with his previous coalition. We will know much more about his broader intentions in a year or so.

The Israelis and the Palestinians are at such an impasse and degree of polarization that, left on their own, it will be extremely difficult for them to break out of the status quo. They would greatly benefit from outside help to find a diplomatic initiative that is also politically tolerable.

The United States is the only candidate to play that role, but at the moment our national leadership is otherwise occupied. Interestingly, of the three key leaders, it might be Obama who is facing the greatest “domestic political constraints” on bold action. Running for reelection, he faces a lousy economy and a Republican challenger who will probably outspend him by at least 30 percent. So the administration is understandably risk averse on foreign policy.

Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership can convincingly cite profound domestic political weakness or vulnerability to explain policies that are counterproductive, ineffective, or downright dangerous (such as Israel’s settlement expansions). They can wait for the United States to finish its election, and hope for the best after that, or they can use their real domestic political power to adopt their own more constructive policies.

Learning From My Mistakes

A year and a half into the emergence of a new Middle East in the context of the Arab uprisings, it behooves commentators who have been tracking these events to step back and assess our own evaluations. There’s no point in dwelling on what we think we’ve gotten right. What’s more important is where we can see we have gone wrong, and why. Taking note of these missteps provides valuable lessons for reading ongoing events with greater accuracy.

I’m going to look at several of my own most notable mistakes or rushes to judgment over the past 18 months, and what can be learned from them.

The most obvious of these is the most recent: like most other observers, I was surprised by the first-round results of the Egyptian presidential elections. Towards the end of 2011, I became convinced that former Arab League chief Amr Moussa would be very difficult to beat because of his name recognition, status as a professional politician in a field of relative amateurs, and what I thought would be his ability to garner support from a wide range of constituencies.

Boy was I wrong. I could see it coming with the rise of the “liberal Islamist” Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, who seemed to be emerging as the most appealing individual politician in Egypt. Almost every commentator I know of thought that at least one of these two, Moussa or Aboul Fotouh, would make it into the second round.

That Egyptian voters would turn away from all candidates touting their individual personal appeal to the establishment representatives of the former regime and the Muslim Brotherhood was, I think, a surprise. That the Brotherhood was able to organize strong support for its candidate was no surprise. But that all charismatic individual candidates would be swept aside by uncharismatic institutional ones is something almost everyone misread.

Opinion polls and conventional wisdom proved completely useless in anticipating where Egyptian voters would fall. The situation is far more stark and polarized than most people, myself included, had imagined. Indeed, it is so desperate that a presidential win in the second round by former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, based on a longing for order and fear of Islamists, is by no means implausible.

Another of my errors was to dismiss the unrest in Bahrain in its early stages as a “sideshow.” I quickly reversed my misjudgment, but I was wrong because I had identified the uprising in Bahrain as essentially the continuation of a long-standing domestic conflict between the Sunni monarchy and the Shia-led opposition that had previously erupted in the 1950s and the 1990s. On this basis, I thought it would not be of great importance to the broader Arab world.

What I failed to initially recognize was the centrality that regional sectarianism was beginning to play in the context of the uprisings. Even though there’s no evidence of direct Iranian involvement in the mainstream Bahraini opposition, Gulf Arab states and much of the rest of the Sunni Arab world saw the conflict as an extension of the broader rivalry with Iran. Far from being a sideshow, therefore, it was cast as a crucial battleground in the larger regional sectarian confrontation. It was also a red line for the Gulf monarchies that revolutions, if they must happen, must be restricted to republics only.

Throughout 2011, I traced the rise of sectarianism as the primary regional fault line. Even though I frequently noted that it was fluid, the almost total dominance of regional sectarianism was briefer than I had imagined. I should have anticipated that the situation in Iraq would prevent the Arab world from dividing along strictly sectarian lines, for that would virtually cede Baghdad to Tehran’s influence.

In 2012 both Baghdad and the Arab states made significant moves toward reintegrating Iraq into the Arab fold. They recognized that even a Shia-led Iraq was an essential component of a stable Arab world. Crucially, the Iraqi government made it clear that, whatever the fate of the regime in Syria, Baghdad would not serve as a new Damascus, a foothold for Iran in the Arab world.

As a consequence, there has been a significant step back from the stark regional sectarianism that developed through 2011. While this was predictable, it developed more quickly than I had anticipated.

Such missteps suggest the following lessons. Resist trying to impose any grand narratives. Take every apparently emerging pattern as contingent and unstable. Be prepared for Arab states and publics alike to pleasantly surprise or disappoint without warning. Avoid predictions whenever possible. And acknowledge that we frequently don’t really “know” what we think we “know,” for political realities are always at least a dozen steps ahead of every analyst.