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.

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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.

Don’t Turn That Dial

The media scene in the Middle East and North Africa is complex and shows the push and pull of new and old ideas. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions much attention was brought to new media outlets such as Facebook and the blogosphere. However, television still maintains its primacy as people’s primary method of media intake. Satellite television has opened up a whole new range of stations and ideas, of which Al Jazeera is only the most prominent example. Local stations are also heavily influential. Still, the push and pull of censorship remains and, in some cases, may be expanded. Revolutionary countries have not yet let go of state run media and many, while abandoning the editorial line of the prior regime, still act as something of a propaganda tool for the new governments.

There is no question that social media has provided a new and vibrant method for sharing information for a wide swath of Arab society. One study showed that nearly nine out of ten Egyptians and Tunisians were using social media tools to help organize protests (although this was a small sample of only 200). While there is little debate as to whether these new forms of media played a role in revolutionary movements, there is much debate as to how much of a role should be ascribed to them. Egypt, for example, managed to continue its protests through an internet blackout. Sidi Bouzid, where the Tunisian protests began, is a farming town with relatively low internet penetration. Libya was significantly more restricted in its internet access than either Tunisia or Egypt. One must be cautious of putting too much stock in the relevancy of the internet and new media in countries and regions that do not see the same level of internet penetration as more developed countries. Regardless, the advent of social media has opened a new forum for the flow of ideas in the region.

Television, on the other hand, remains of primary importance. Satellite television has made it increasingly difficult for censorship and control of the airways to be effective. During the Libyan revolution Qathafi used the state-run media outlet Al Jamahiriya to show images of his ‘adoring supporters.’ Meanwhile, home viewers were treated to images and reports on the protestors trampling on Qathafi’s face and throwing shoes at the giant screens carrying his image. The major satellite providers for news are Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, BBC Arabic, and Al Hurra.  

Al Jazeera in particular occupies a preeminent position across the region. While the Qatari-owned station might avoid discussing Qatar, it has proven to be one of the most open stations from the region, earning the ire of both regional leaders and the United States (although US enmity appears to have waned somewhat in recent years). Viewership during the Arab Spring skyrocketed. In the first two days of the Egyptian revolution livestream internet viewers of Al Jazeera increased 2,500 percent to 4 million viewers, viewership over the airwaves was likely even higher.  Al Jazeera has earned its reputation for reliability by being the first Arab station to host an Israeli official and airing guests such as dissidents, feminists, and Islamists. The main questions that arise when discussing Al Jazeera center on whether it is sympathetic to Islamist parties, whether or not it targets particular Middle Eastern regimes, and what role the Qatari state plays in its organization and methodology. While it is unlikely these questions will have a definitive answer anytime soon, the network remains possibly the most influential on the block.

Even with satellite television and internet, censorship remains a problem throughout the region. Even Al Jazeera’s Qatari connection is questioned, as mentioned above. While there was initially great hope that revolutions would have changed the game regarding the flow of information, this has not proven to be the case. Egypt, for example, is still known to arrest journalists covering demonstrations. The leadership of Al Ahram, Egypt’s leading daily, has been assigned in much the same manner as under Mubarak, with the only major difference being the Brotherhood is in charge now, resulting in little change in terms of freedom of expression.

Tunisia has also had problems. Nessma television was fined in 2012 for airing a film about the Iranian revolution, Persepolis, which includes a scene in which Allah is animated. Nessma was fined $1700 for “broadcasting a film that disturbs public order and threatens proper morals.” Vigilante justice is a concern as well. Going back to Nessma, their fine was imposed after over 300 protestors attacked the studio, attempting to set it on fire, and Nebil Karoui, the head of the station, came under siege in his own house by around one hundred protestors – the government’s response was the issuance of a call to “respect sacred things.” Clearly, the freedom of the arts is, for the moment, playing second fiddle to perceived Islamic values.

Indeed, media in the Middle East and North Africa post Arab Spring shows much continuity with what came before. Censorship is still viewed as an acceptable tool by the leadership. However, given the presence of satellites capable of receiving content beyond the control of a single state censor, people are still able to receive information that is, if not censor-free, at least censored by a different body. Social media is opening up new avenues for dissemination of information, but it is unclear yet what long-term effects this will have. Put simply, states that have not undergone change have hardly changed their media policy and those that have undergone revolutions have not overturned the apple cart either.

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.

A Smooth Criminal

Iyad Ag Ghali, head of Ansar Dine, has rescinded his pledge to halt violence and work with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Bamako. Specifically, “Ansar Dine has decided to revoke the offer to stop hostilities together with the negotiations being conducted in Ouagadougou.” This could mean greater difficulty for any force seeking to break up the control of Northern Mali by various Islamist groups. However, it is important to recognize that Ag Ghali is a canny operator and may not have as strong an ideological commitment to militant Islamism as it appears.

Firstly, it must be remembered that Ag Ghali has been on the scene for some time. He was instrumental in launching a previous rebellion in 1990. However, Ag Ghali also signed the Tamanrasset Agreement with Bamako in Algeria. He even obtained a Malian diplomatic posting to Saudi Arabia. Although it appears he was removed from his post for consorting with jihadis, it is unclear what real effect this had on him. His main connection was with Tablighi Jamaat, which, while definitely fundamentalist, does not generally espouse direct violent political jihad. 

After all, before the breakout of the current conflict, Ag Ghali was known to desire a position in the secular MNLA. He was rejected not for any Islamist leanings, but because of his prior relationships with Bamako, not to mention exterior actors such as Algeria. Even after getting rejected for a position as secretary general of the MNLA, Ag Ghali still didn’t go the Islamist route. Instead, he attempted to become the political head of the Ifoghas clan, to which he belongs. After he failed to attain this position he finally decided to helm the Ansar Dine movement.

This, by no means complete, history doesn’t show a particularly ideological man. The fact that Ag Ghali has retracted (for now) his offer to lay down his arms should not detract from the fact that he has been willing to talk to both the MNLA and Bamako. Not to mention that Ag Ghali and Ansar Dine have not ruled out laying down their arms in the future. In fact, the current retraction of the offer to stop hostilities was followed by a statement that Ag Ghali was open to “new negotiations, even if (Ansar Dine) has never detected a willingness from the other party to reciprocate.”

While it is believable that Ag Ghali’s time in Saudi irrevocably changed him, it is entirely possible that Ag Ghali is simply holding out for the best deal. If he believes that association with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) will be more profitable for him, he will likely maintain a more bellicose position. However, when events start moving in another direction he may prove more receptive to diplomatic overtures. For now, with any international intervention months, if not a year, away and Bamako seemingly incapable of retaking the North alone, he will likely continue to vacillate between conciliation and conflict.

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.