The Jihajjis

For centuries Muslims have been making pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj is an extremely important part of a Muslim’s religious life and it leads to a growth in societal status when one returns. Upon return, those who have successfully made the pilgrimage are accorded the title of Hajji, which denotes an enhanced respect for the person in question. This practice of according enhanced respect to pilgrims has existed for centuries and continues to do so.

However, there today appears to be another method to acquire respect based upon a different type of pilgrimage, that of jihad. While less formalized than the Hajj system of societal ascendancy (no new titles are necessarily bestowed) those leaving for jihad very often do find a newfound respect from their home societies upon return from warfighting. Jihad is very clearly an important element of Islamic tradition, including both its internal and external variants. Internal jihad refers to the attempt to continually improve oneself and external typically refers to efforts to defend or expand (depending on your interpretation of the relevant religious texts) the ummah, or community of believers.

In the 1980s Afghanistan offered prime jihadi real estate. Not only was there an opportunity for jihad, there was also significant funding and state support. Saudi Arabia in particular was known to encourage its militants to go to Afghanistan to fight, partly out of religious duty, but also out of a desire to export religious militants who were worrying the political establishment (especially after the 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca). Fighting was “openly celebrated and did not require concealment…many activists understood their work as a form of political and religious solidarity.” On return many jihadis found a newfound respect from their compatriots.

As a side note one could make an argument that jihad is significantly more respected when the jihad takes place in a foreign land. Local efforts and attacks often have very different effects – as returning Saudi (and other) militants found when they attempted to bring the fight back home.

The Arab Spring has provided new opportunities for jihad. Syria, Libya, and maybe Egypt provide opportunities for jihad. There is a lot of material coming out discussing states’ worries that returning jihadis will come back and attempt to pursue jihad in their own countries, but there is another, more subtle, effect as respected jihadis return from their ‘pilgrimages.’ Most of these ‘Jihajjis’ aren’t going to turn towards militancy in their home countries, but they may, as a result of their enhanced societal prestige, be able to influence public opinion and public policy in unexpected ways.

That effect may be much harder to gauge than that of more militant, violent actors, but it could push societies into a mindset more open to fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts and duties.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

The Struggle between Populism and Democracy in Egypt

At this moment, the Egyptian military, under the direction of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and with the support of anti-Morsi protestors, is removing the current Egyptian president from power.  Over the coming days, many will debate the moves of the military, the effectiveness of the Morsi administration, and the realistic expectations of liberal protestors.  What is essential at this moment, however, is to recognize how serious the emerging problem is for Egyptian citizens.  A democratically elected President is in the process of being removed from power by his country’s military. 

The removal of President Morsi is supported by millions of Egyptians who oppose the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood, are fed up with the current regime’s inability to fix Egypt’s myriad of problems, or are fearful of what the religiously-guided Muslim Brotherhood will do to the country’s nascent democratic institutions.  The opposition to President Morsi has completely legitimate complaints about his administration, but there is a fear that the actions taking place today will only serve to undercut democracy and increase social tension in Egypt.

First, it is the military that once again chose to step in to solve a dispute within Egyptian society.  Not only is this pattern dangerous for democracy, but it undercuts the very notion that civilian leaders have any real power in Egypt.  Second, pro-Morsi supporters will not forget or forgive today’s actions.  The Muslim Brotherhood and other religiously-motivated groups remain powerful factions in Egyptian society.  It is entirely possible that removing Morsi from power will completely sour his constituency on the benefits of democracy and motivate them towards more radical political methodologies.  Finally, the opposition to Morsi who have seized control of Cairo’s streets in an effort to show their displeasure with the current government are not an organized force in a political sense.  If President Morsi is removed, then can this hodgepodge of forces making up the opposition put democracy on a firm footing?

In short, Egypt has a serious problem between democratic procedure and populist sentiment.     

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

No Candles Today

Every year on the 4th and 5th of June, a grim anniversary becomes the source of political theater.  These dates are the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, in which the central leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and the senior leaders of the Beijing Municipal Government ordered the pro-reform protesters to be forcibly removed from Tiananmen Square. 

For much of the world, the 1989 Tiananmen Protests have become almost myth.  Every year during the anniversary of the crackdown, thousands take to social media platforms to talk about “the Tank Man”, the “Goddess of Democracy”, and the pro-democracy message of the protestors.  It is unfortunate that much of what survived that spring in 1989 does so as image or slogan. 

The reality is that these protests started as a tribute to the death of Hu Yoabang, a CCP leader with a reformist bent.  The protest movement that emerged from this initial memorial was never about pushing for Chinese democracy.  It was a reform movement that wanted greater government transparency.

The battle for reform continues today, but instead of protestors concentrating within a national symbol, activists and netizens use the anniversary to highlight the degree by which the Chinese state continues to control information and worries about opposition.  Almost every year some bizarre action is taken in order to block discussion of the Tiananmen protests.  In 2010, foursquare, a social networking website, did not allow people to check in at Tiananmen.  This year, web searches regarding the Shanghai stock exchange are limited because it closed last year on June 6th with a loss of 64.89 (6/4/89).  Also this year, Sino Weibo, the most popular Chinese blogging platform, refuses to allow people to use the candle graphic.  The graphic is generally used in reference to death.

Most regimes around the globe lack the willingness and/or capacity to engage in information control to the same degree as the CCP in the People’s Republic.  However, every regime facing opposition acts to protect its own power and discredit the opposition.  When the opposition cannot be discredited, then isolate them as much as possible.  Perhaps this is the reason Prime Minister Erdogan criticized social media recently – such tools allow the opposition to circumvent the state’s ability to repress. 

The question, though, is this – how far must a regime go before realizing its efforts to repress are a waste of energy?  Is it really worth taking the steps the Chinese state takes in order to limit discussions of Tiananmen Square?  In the end, the population always figures out ways around them – as they did, at least temporarily, this year [link – using the giant inflatable duck from Hong Kong’s harbor in place of tanks].

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Direct Democracy, Militia Style

Democracy is a tough project. Even in well-established democratic countries the process can get extremely messy at times and some even claim that here in the United States our democracy is failing. Now, the accusation that American democracy is failing might be hyperbolic, but try to imagine constructing a democratic system in a country without any history of democratic rule, a lack of institutional viability, and no control over what happens within its own borders. Enter Libya.

Qathafi claimed, in his Green Book, to have found “the final solution to the problem of the instrument of governing.” Of course, the Brother Leader never really precisely laid out what the organizational apparatuses of the Jamahiriya were supposed to be. Oh sure, you can find charts aplenty that show the interrelations between his proposed Popular Congresses, but the operational aspects? Regardless of ‘theory,’ Qathafi left a state that wasn’t a state. What was meant to be an attempt to reach the ‘ideal’ of direct democracy effectively remained a totalitarian state under the thumb of the Brother Leader and his family. There was almost no institutionalization to speak of and rule of law was a pipe dream. What existed was a bizarre combination of both strong and weak state.

Flash forward to today and one sees that creating a democracy from such a shambles is indeed messy. Perhaps messy is too light a term. What we are seeing now is a shambles. The country is effectively split between various militias and localized groups that maintain control of their region/ city/ neighborhood/ street. At this point even the government’s nominal ability to influence the country has been significantly damaged.

Let us look at only Tripoli, for the sake of brevity. This week has seen militias storm government offices, including the parliament, and dictating legislation. From April 28 until May 5, militias held the government under siege until parliament passed a political isolation law that would exclude former Qathafi-era government workers (of any rank) from holding office in the new Libya. This law could potentially even include the Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, who had defected from the Qathafi regime in the 1980s. The vote was only democratic in the sense that it was passed by elected representatives. Now a precedent has been set. Bring enough guns to the table and the Libyan government will be forced to acquiesce.

Unsurprisingly, the militias responsible have no made further demands upon parliament, including explicitly requiring the Prime Minister to resign, freezing the state’s budget, and taking charge of the foreign ministry. The government is powerless to do anything about this, although rival militias claiming to support the government are now offering to dislodge those besieging the government. Zeidan himself is trying to play the man in middle saying, “We don’t have militias in Libya, we have revolutionaries.” In this case, truly a distinction without a difference.

Democracy simply cannot function without an effective security sector. Without the proper level of coercive authority the state becomes simply another player in a complex version of the Middle Ages as groups struggle to assert territorial and governmental dominance.  While Libyans explicitly refused any sort of external peacekeeping force post-revolution it is hard at this point to see how an effective transition can be made without one. The state simply cannot support itself and without any sort of security cushion it is hard to believe that militia-style direct democracy won’t become the wave of the future. Of course, getting anyone to sign up for such a task would be no easy feat. And defining what end such a theoretical force would be may prove even more difficult.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Young and Reckless

Many commentators have looked at the effect of youth bulges on the revolutions that swept through the Middle East and North Africa region in recent years. Combined with high levels of unemployment, the large amount of youth in Arab countries has led to a persistent instability. Of course there are other factors involved, but one would be hard pressed to say that population dynamics aren’t critical to ongoing events.

But what has been happening since the revolution took hold in various countries? At least in Egypt, the problem only seems to be getting worse. During the Mubarak era, Egypt generally saw a wavering trend line – a slight bump here, a slight decline there – that seems to have held relatively steady. However, in 2012 birthrates soared to 32 for every 1,000 people, which equaled the 1991 rate extant prior to the imposition of family planning campaigns during Mubarak’s reign. Whereas the Mubarak government viewed economics and demographics as linked, the Morsy government tends to either prevaricate and not tackle the problem via policy or to view this the instability as a strictly economic one.

Importantly, there may also be a connection between democratization capabilities and demographic time bombs. Richard Cincotta, of the Stimson Center, notes:

“Since 1970, for a country within the demographic arc of instability (often referred to as a “youth-bulge country”), the risk of intra-state conflict has been 2.5 times, or higher, than on the outside. At any one time, intra-state conflicts inside the arc outnumber those outside the arc by an average of nine to one. Perhaps more surprisingly, after a state’s population matures, and after its internal armed conflicts have been settled, it tends to leave behind much of the risk of an intra-state conflict.”

While one should be cautious of any certainty here, this does imply that Egypt’s ongoing population explosion will make further conflict more likely and thus inhibit Egypt’s democratization project. Of course there are other factors involved, but this certainly will not make things any easier on Egypt going forward.

Perhaps Egypt should look to the example of Iran. During the 1980’s Iran experienced a huge population boom, partly as a result of the desire for more children during the war years. In the 1990’s, however, Iran instituted one of the most successful family planning regimes in history. To give a rundown:

“After the war with Iraq in 1988, the government realized that rapid population growth was a hindrance to development and subsequently called for the establishment of a national family planning program. In December 1989, the revived family planning program was inaugurated with three major goals: 1) encourage spacing of 3-4 years between pregnancies; 2) discourage pregnancies among women aged under 18 and over 35 years; and 3) limit family size to 3 children. In May 1993, a law was passed that included disincentive penalties for couples who had more than 3 children. According to the Ministry of Health and Medical Education (1989-97), there was an increased use of contraceptives among married women, and the total fertility rate (TFR) dropped from 5.2 to 2.6 children. Moreover, Iran’s 1996 census showed a total population of 60.6 million with an average annual growth rate of 1.5% over the previous 5-year period.”

Clearly these trends are reversible via good policy. Iran was capable of completely turning its trajectory around. Yes, Iran still suffers a youth bulge due to the prior birth explosion, but the effects have been significantly mitigated.

Will Egypt be able to chart a similar trajectory? Only time will tell.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

This weekend Egypt is likely to see another verdict handed down relating to the crisis stemming from the Ahly-Masry match riot. The last time a court ruled it caused a mass tumult in the Suez Canal Zone. Given the expected new verdict, a brief follow-up is in order.

The riots in Port Said have continued unabated since the initial ruling came down, just this Tuesday over fifty people were injured. Even if the new ruling is a full acquittal, it is unlikely that the riots will stop (although upholding the sentences could lead to enhanced civil disturbances).  As my previous post on the subject argued, this is more an issue of regime versus periphery rather than Al Masry Ultras versus Al Ahly Ultras. Port Saidis are not happy with their status on the periphery of the regime and want more of a voice; of course this does not solely apply to Port Said or the Suez Canal Zone.

The protests have increasingly focused on the role of the police. Most recently, large protests were held in remembrance of Ahmed Galal, who was killed during clashes with police. The police find themselves in a difficult position. Under Mubarak they were given carte blanche to essentially hand out whatever brand of justice they saw fit to anyone at any time. No one was really watching and no one really cared as long as the police kept society ordered.

After the revolution there has been a focus on the police in terms of abuses committed and lives lost. The police do not quite understand this. They do not even understand what their precise duties are. On 8 March 2013 the police themselves began protesting, demanding “a law to clearly lay down their powers and duties, and…weapons to deal with ongoing political protests.” The police have no one watching them – either for abuses or for successes. In the words of one officer, “We want a law to protect us. They tell us to confront the protesters, then when we do we are put in jail.”

In response to the police protest the chief of the Central Security Forces was sacked, but this does not address the root of the problem. The police should be there to protect society, but with no one watching them or laws to guide their behavior, they fall into patterns of abuse.

Unfortunately, rather than deal with the problem of police training and the legal strictures that guide their behavior, the government has decided to ditch the police in favor of the military. The police have been withdrawn from Port Said and replaced with the military. While this made the protestors ecstatic, and I am certain the military loves to burnish their image of an untarnished, uncorrupted institution, the military simply will not function permanently as a police force. Also, if the rioting in Port Said continues the military will be hard pressed to maintain its ‘impartiality.’

 A serious effort must be put in place to reform the police system in Egypt. Security is a primary concern in post-revolutionary Egypt and it will not get better without, amongst other things, an effective police force. The police have a long way to go towards earning any sort of trust from the Egyptian people – being the front line of the Mubarak era’s repressive force has severely damaged their reputation. But this trust must be regained. Providing a clear legal framework for their duties and effective training in those duties would be a good place to start. Indeed, who watches the watchmen?

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

More Reasons Not to Arm the Syrian Opposition

As my colleague Ian descibed last week, the Obama administration’s Syria policy again came under fire after outgoing Defense Secretary Panetta revealed that top level administration support in favor of arming the Syrian opposition was overruled by the President and the White House. Critics of the President’s handling of the Syrian conflict seized on this as another example of him leading from behind and being overly cautious when it comes to using U.S. power to influence events and outcomes during the Arab uprisings. Some commentators even went as far as to say that the Obama administration had over learned the lessons of the Iraq war to a point of paralysis, and that the time to arm the Syrian rebels is now.

While the Obama administration has been criticized for its lack of action in Syria, there is little argument against the administration’s stated policy objective of ending the Assad regime through a transition to a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic Syria, where the rights of all Syrians are protected.  What is unclear, however, is how a strategy of arming and supporting one faction in Syria’s civil war would somehow achieve this stated objective.  Such a strategy would resemble the one currently being employed by Iran as it continues to arm and equip Shiite and Alawite proxy forces. This strategy makes sense for the Iranians because it supports their objective of keeping Syria divided in order to maintain influence once the regime falls and keep open its gateway to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Similarly, Turkish and Qatari support for the Syrian opposition forces has also resulted in keeping Syria divided, most recently in the country’s northeast where opposition and Kurdish forces have engaged in repeated clashes.

Contrary to what proponents of intervention say, the interference of neighboring countries in Syria’s internal affairs very much resembles what happened during Iraq’s civil war, and the U.S. would be wise not to repeat its same mistakes.  The U.S. should not militarily assist another group of exiles from a majority sect take power from an oppressive regime controlled by a minority sect.

If the Obama administration’s goal is to convince Alawites, Christians, Kurds, and Shiites to unite against the Assad regime, it does not make sense to arm the Syrian opposition who these groups view as the biggest threat to their future in a post-Assad Syria. A more logical strategy is the encouragement of reconciliation between the factions, which is precisely what the administration did last week when Vice-President Biden endorsed Syrian opposition leader Moaz Al-Khatib’s overture toward Assad to enter into conditional negotiations. While there are many obstacles precluding a successful agreement, it is better to continue to try to hammer out those issues now while all sides still have an incentive to compromise and pursue some level of national reconciliation.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Regime and Periphery in Egypt

The crisis in Egypt continues unabated. It has gotten so bad that the Egyptian Defense Minister, General  Abdel Fatah Al Sissi, claimed that, “The continuing conflict between political forces and their differences concerning the management of the country could lead to a collapse of the state and threaten future generations.”

Currently, the state is indeed in a, well, state of crisis. What started as a football riot in Port Said has now (after a delay for the courts) degenerated to a situation in which the Suez Canal zone is effectively out of the control of the government. While the Egyptian military is still guaranteeing transit of the canal, Egyptian ports may be all but unusable. The idea of the Republic of Port Said has cropped up as demonstrators in Port Said defy the government mandated curfews and state of emergency. At least 40 have died in protests in Port Said even as the government has been unable to contain the situation. 

And then there is a whole region that seems to have been forgotten about: the Sinai. There, a largely Bedouin population has accumulated enough arms to take advantage of the chaos elsewhere leaving Sinai without state control over large swathes of territory. There have been cross-border attacks into Israel as well as attacks on Egyptian security and military officers.

The situation is also difficult in Cairo. Fires (now contained) were started at the presidential palace as protestors threw Molotov cocktails as they battled police. Protests in Cairo continue. However, there have been negotiations between the Brotherhood and opposition leaders under the auspices of Al Azhar. Perhaps this will lead to a reduction in violence in the capital, but that is as yet far from clear.

These protests are not necessarily related in goal, unlike the 2011 movement that ejected Mubarak from power. While all three areas of concern (Cairo, Suez, Sinai) likely look to President Morsi as a problem, the problem in the Suez and Sinai goes much deeper. The issue here is the almost hyper-centralization of the Egyptian state. The protestors in Port Said or the Bedouin militants in the Sinai do not simply want to rerun elections and obtain a new head of state. They desire a reworking of the innards of the state – and where the largess of that state is distributed.

These areas wish to have more of a role in their own governance and more of a say at the national level instead of a regime-periphery relationship. Port Said and other canal cities view their ports as one of the primary sources of income for the Egyptian state – and they do not feel that they get anything out of the deal. The Bedouin in Sinai suffer a similar problem. While the Sinai coastline has been turned into a tourist haven, the Bedouin who live there have seen little development.  

Talks between Cairene political players at Al Azhar may hold solutions in Cairo, but they are unlikely to bring a lasting solution to the problem of the periphery. The Egyptian state must find a way to be more inclusive of areas and avoid thinking along the lines of regime versus periphery. The talks at Al Azhar will need to be expanded to fully address the developmental and organizational inequities that present in the current state structure. The era of Mubarak is over, and the only way a democratic Egypt can emerge is by integrating the whole of the populace. Unfortunately, Egypt so far has followed the traditional method of declaring a state of emergency and hoping the police take care of business. It is clear this strategy is no longer as effective as it once was.

Al Sissi may have been more right than he realized.

 

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Mali in the Crucible

The battle for Mali appears to have greatly accelerated in the past few days. Firstly, Islamists, including Iyad Ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine, have begun a march on southern targets. On 8 January Islamists marching in the direction of Mopti were fired on by the Malian military. Just today, 11 January, Islamists have taken control of the village of Konna. The situation is summarized thusly:

The Islamists now threaten a major airfield some 25 miles away at the town of Sévaré, which is also the home of a significant army base. And 10 miles from Sévaré is the historic river city of Mopti, the last major town controlled by the Malian government, with a population of more than 100,000.

It may be that a major offensive on the side of the militants is underway. The loss of Mopti, while still hundreds of kilometers from Bamako, would constitute a major setback for the Malian government. However, to counter this advance it appears that the French have decided to participate directly in the Malian conflict.

On the same day that Konna fell, President Hollande stated:

“We are faced with a blatant aggression that is threatening Mali’s very existence…I have decided that France will respond, alongside our African partners, to the request from the Malian authorities. We will do it strictly within the framework of the United Nations Security Council resolution. We will be ready to stop the terrorists’ offensive if it continues.”

The Malian and French governments have confirmed that French troops are on the ground. The French have been involved in interventions as recently as 2011, in Cote D’Ivoire. It is likely that a trained French force could provide significant support for the Malian military, but direct French involvement carries with it other issues that may impede the success of the mission. While President Hollande did recently go to Algeria and acknowledged “the suffering that colonialism inflicted on the Algerian people”, he did not apologize for said suffering. Whether or not Algeria feels comfortable with a French intervention so close to its border may have unforeseen consequences for the Malian conflict.

Whether or not any of these events represent a turning point in the Malian conflict remains to be seen. What can be sure, however, is that a difficult situation just got significantly more complicated.

 Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

From Newtown to Panjwai

On December 18th, the PBS Newshour aired a segment featuring several residents from Newtown, Connecticut reflecting on the horrors of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting that resulted in the deaths of 26 people, including 20 children. The people interviewed stated that they all felt a sense of helplessness and expressed a responsibility as a community to help and “to do something.” For the rest of the interview the various respondents suggested ways that civil society could affect positive change through political advocacy on issues such as gun control and school security, and by using their platform to start a serious national discussion if Washington remained locked in political gridlock.

That same day the U.S. Army announced it would seek the death penalty for SSG Robert Bale’s alleged murder of 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children in two villages outside Kandahar.  Local Afghans interviewed about those horrible events last spring expressed a desire to see that justice would be done through a legitimate legal process.  But aside from seeking retribution against the perpetrator, there has been little coverage in the Western media of how the tragedy has affected the Afghan people, and what means are available for Afghan civil society to address the broader political and social issues raised by the killings, namely the constant insecurity of the Afghan civilian population.

Sandy Hook and Panjwai may not be perfect parallels, but the stark contrast between the civil society outlets available to Afghans and Americans highlights one of the negative aspects of scaling back U.S. objectives in Afghanistan. What little progress the Afghan government has made on protecting human rights and providing good governance has largely been a result of international pressure.  Usually this has amounted to little more than lengthy paper decrees issued from Kabul that provided the Afghan population with few measurable improvements.  Afghan civil society organizations have had some success in organizing, but are still a long way from having influential voices in public policy discussions and are vulnerable to government reprisals when they become too controversial.

While the U.S. certainly can’t fix all the problems facing Afghan civil society, there is no reason to pretend that conditions for the Afghan population are somehow going to improve post-2014. Newtown might have shaken the American public to its core, but for Afghans what happened at Panjwai was sadly just another day.

Please note that the views expressed in this article do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.