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.

Advertisements

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.

 

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.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

As Washington decides whether to intervene more assertively in Syria, the civil war there has once again spilled across the country’s borders. Last week, armed groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army clashed with an Iraqi army convoy that was defending Syrian government troops near the Rabia-Yaarabiya border crossing. The result was 62 Syrian and nine Iraqi soldiers killed or wounded along with six members of the FSA.

In response to these events, the Iraqi government announced the formation of a new Iraqi Army unit in the city of Sinjar located along the areas disputed by Arabs and Kurds in Nineveh province bordering Syria. The Iraqi government justified this deployment due to fears of further infiltration of Iraq’s borders by Syrian opposition forces allied with Jabhat Al-Nusra. These developments further escalated tensions between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government in the disputed territories that have been simmering since November when confrontations near Kirkuk resulted in the deaths of 11 people. These events show how the crisis in Syria is simultaneous serving to further destabilize the situation in Iraq.

Somehow amidst these developments, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki found time to host Egyptian Prime Minister Kandil and discuss economic and energy issues, despite the Muslim Brotherhood led government’s support of the rebels in Syria. Further complicating the situation are upcoming Iraqi provincial elections on April 20th, along with continued protests in Iraq’s predominantly Sunni areas against the authoritarian nature of the Iraqi central government.

So what are we to conclude from all of these simultaneous events? 1) Iraq feels incredibly vulnerable to the effects of a destabilized Syria – so much so, that it is reluctantly being pushed further into the Iranian orbit. Washington should capitalize on this insecurity and help its “strategic partner” reintegrate with the GCC and the Sunni Arab world instead. Iraq’s recent hosting of the Arab League Summit and its high level talks with Egypt make for good starting points. 2) Any decision Washington makes regarding the level of support it decides to provide the Syrian rebels should take into account conclusion number one above. 3) Finally, Iraq is not immune to the Arab Awakening. Maliki’s heavy handed moves to quell the Sunni protests and consolidate power at the expense of the country’s independent institutions have not gone unnoticed. Iraq is dangerously close to no longer choosing to “solve” its problems through the political process instead of through violence as the U.S. has touted since the withdrawal of its military forces.

The Obama administration’s rush to declare Iraq a success and shift to other policy priorities in the Middle East such as Syria and Egypt ignores the fact that all three are interrelated. Washington is wise to resist military escalation in the region, but this is no excuse to bury its head in the sand and ignore how the internal politics in one country can spillover into the wider region.

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.

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.

Contentious Politics in Egypt

Winner-take-all is not a sound foundation for a newly birthed democratic project. Unfortunately, it seems this is the direction the Egyptian revolution seems to be targeting. The Mubarak era was one in which the ruling party dispatched political and economic largess as it willed. Its legitimacy rested in the fact that it held power. President Morsi’s government shows no signs of reversing this trend. In fact, they seem all too willing to take up right where Mubarak left off – albeit with an electoral sheen.

This mode of contentious politics is all too prevalent in Africa and it leads to chronic instability and economic distress. It leads to life or death struggles at the ballot box as winning a majority ensures that one’s chosen political network gains access to state largess while those on the minority side are frozen out both politically and economically. At worst it can lead to situations as in Cote D’Ivoire, where Laurent Gbagbo refused to let go of his grip on power, instigating another round in a conflict long plaguing Ivorians. At best it can lead to a situation comparable to Zimbabwe, where a modicum of stability has been maintained by Robert Mugabe’s ability to maintain patronage networks in the face of economic difficulty. All too often politics devolves from an institutional framework to the street.

Egypt, somewhere between the two points illustrated above, is already in the street. Both those who support Morsi and those who oppose him have turned out on the street in the thousands. Street battles, attacks on political party offices, and other acts of violence are all too common. Neither party has been afraid to use whatever organs of the state wherein they have influence to do battle. Opposition parties have been all too willing to use the judiciary, largely stacked with Mubarak era holdouts, as a tool against the Brotherhood controlled government – first disbanding the parliament and then moving against the constitutional convention. One of the more dangerous precedents set appears to be Brotherhood supporters capturing and torturing opposition protestors and then handing them over to military or police for arrest or continued interrogation. It seems no questions are raised regarding the conditions of those detained or even why private actors are detaining people in the first place.

The idea that legitimacy rests solely on electoral success has long been debunked in democratization literature. Yet it persists. Surely, elections are a key plank in any democratic process, but without institutional capability and trust in those institutions, even when an opposing party is in power, elections cannot ensure legitimacy. Democracy is a process, not a result. Egypt’s democratic processes, on the other hand, have been deferred to presidential electoral results.

It may be years before any clear appraisal may be possible, but, for now, Egypt seems set for more instability.

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.