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.

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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.

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.

Jumping the Gun?

The conflict in Mali may proceed at a greater pace than desired by the international community. Dioncounda Traore, Mali’s interim president, recently came out and stated that, “The legitimate, legal, quick and clean war we want to wage with the international community’s support… needs more time for all technical, strategic and legal aspects to be fine-tuned. However I can tell you one thing: Mali will not wait months, as some seem to advocate. We will not wait for the cancer to spread. The war against the terrorists will happen sooner than expected and the Malian army will be at the forefront.” This seems like it will be far in advance of the September or October dates envisioned by the United Nations and other international actors.

A preemptive strike by Malian forces could make a difficult situation more untenable. It is highly unlikely that the Malian military, itself in disarray after the March coup, will be able to wholly retake land lost to Islamic radicals in the North. It will likely rely on impromptu militias that have been forming out of populations that have fled the Islamist dominated North. On top of that is the question of what will happen to the MNLA, the secular Tuaregs that kickstarted the rebellion. Will Bamako be able to come to a meaningful agreement with the MNLA, or even Ansar Dine?

While it is clear that something must be done in Northern Mali it may not be feasible to expect action immediately. Perhaps President Traore’s statement is meant to catalyze quicker action by the international community. It may also be a result of internal politicking. After the arrest and resignation of Prime Minister Django Sissoko in December, the President may be acting to shore up support with the military. However, if not, then a new wrinkle will fold out in an already complex situation.

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.

Post-Assad Chaos, or…?

Reports came out this past week that Assad’s forces may be on the brink of defeat.  The battle is now essentially being fought over Damascus with the regime relying on increasingly desperate measures to continue fighting (though the Syrian Vice President is arguing the conflict remains a stalemate).  The Assad regime’s strongest international allies are wondering about the regime’s longevity (while making sure to clarify that they remain ever-steadfast in their support of the regime).  It is now the time to examine what a post-Assad Syria might look like.

The revolution in Syria has been an appallingly bloody affair – putting Syrians in grave danger, decimating the economy, destroying infrastructure, and increasing social hostility.  Analysts have long feared that a victorious opposition would turn to retribution and sectarianism.  I do not disagree that a post-Assad Syria will likely be a contentious, if not an outright dangerous, place, but is it certain that chaos will reign after Assad goes?

The devastation within Syria will undoubtedly guarantee that any post-Assad regime will face incredible challenges, but such difficulties do not guarantee that a post-Assad regime is doomed to failure.  A post-conflict Syria is not locked into a path dependent course. 

The current groups making up the Syrian opposition are divided.  The Free Syrian Army remains dominant due to its alliance of fighting groups leading the armed struggle against Assad’s forces.  Local Coordination Committees, often assisting the Free Syrian Army by passing information, remain focused on local organization and establishing some type of grassroots governance.  The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a new opposition group that seeks to become the platform for a new regime, is untested and faces a legitimacy problem as its members primarily reside outside of Syria.  The divided nature of the opposition is troublesome, but too many overlook the positive features of Syria’s opposition. 

First, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is an organization based on avoiding the mistakes of the former Syrian National Council.  Second, the Local Coordination Committees have constructed a network of institutions that provide some measure of local governance – a resource on which to build a new Syria.  Third, for all the hype given to the danger of jihadi groups operating within the opposition, their appeal is isolated and their reputation complicated by their outsider status.

Given the dangers that could result from post-Assad chaos, is it not finally time to truly engage the opposition?  The opposition has provided lists of specific resources it needs to begin rebuilding the country.  These requests are not for weapons, but rather aid in the form of foodstuffs, building materials, communication equipment, financial lending guarantees, and other similar items.  The increasing desperation of the Syrian people and the failures in getting help to them provide further cause for action.  Syria after Assad will be an uncertain place, but uncertainty can be diminished with engagement and strategic assistance. 

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.