Posted on 13-09-2012
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

David Frum has an odd article up criticizing Barack Obama for his “Foolish Embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood.”  According to Frum:

Nobody remembers now, but after Mubarak’s fall there was much debate whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed to participate in Egypt’s new political system. It is hardly illiberal to ban a party that aims at the overthrow of a liberal state. West Germany banned neo-Nazi parties after 1945; the post-1989 Czech Republic forbade former communist officials to hold government jobs – and both democracies are stronger for it. In the end, the Muslim Brotherhood escaped the ban by promising not to run a candidate for president, a promise it promptly broke.

First let us begin with the prime fallacy in Frum’s argument.  Unless he intervened in the debate like prior American interventions in Latin America (and thankfully he did not do something that silly), this was not America’s decision to make.  American intervention here would have backfired badly on all concerned.  Years of blind American support for Mubarak has led to widespread distrust of America on the Egyptian street.  Obama did the wise thing, he stayed the hell out of another country’s political debate.

Let us also dismiss the comparison to the Nazi ban in Germany.  That is an extremely unique situation based on the horrors of the Second World War and German determination to prevent such extreme groups from ever returning to power.  It is rarely duplicated in western democracies (the American ban on the Communist Party in the height of Cold War paranoia is an exception) for a very good reason, because it is an extremely illiberal act.  The ban in Germany is also sustainable because the neo-Nazis are a fringe group despised by German society at large.  The Muslim Brotherhood is not a fringe group and has mass support.

The problem with quasi-secular incompetent dictatorships like Mubarak is that they often leave religious fundamentalists as the most organized opposition to the regime.  Not co-opted by the tools of the autocratic regime and often subject to persecution, Islamic groups often emerge as the most coherent opposition to dictatorship.  Perversely, the dictators often allowed the Islamists to remain the only organized opposition to marginalize secular opponents and to gain support in the west from fears of the Islamist bogeyman – Mubarak did both. Iran under the Shah was another example.

It is true that the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in politics did cause unease.  They were the most organized political opposition to Mubarak and that gave them a huge advantage over the rest of the fractious opposition.  To soothe such fears they promised to not run a candidate in the Presidential elections.  As Frum notes they broke that promise.

Banning the Muslim Brotherhood would have been a profoundly stupid move that would have triggered significant unrest.  It would have given them instant martyrdom.  Given the lack of administrative experience of the opposition, it is very likely that when they eventually came to power it would have been in an even stronger position.

Turkey demonstrates this scenario very well.  The regime instituted by Ataturk aggressively excluded devout Muslims from the public sphere – to the extent that women were not allowed to wear headscarves in government buildings.  The military was the power behind the throne and repeatedly intervened by open or quasi coups.  This system survived until the 1990s.  By then the global consensus had moved to democracy.  The communist bloc had collapsed.  All the dictatorships in Latin America were gone.  And Turkish politicians were extremely corrupt and incompetent.  The Islamists were the only alternative left standing, and they kept winning elections only to have the army force them out.  Eventually the Turkish army had to bow to popular pressure leaving Recep Erdogan and his Islamists firmly ensconced in power.  Erdogan’s competence compared to his predecessors has kept him in power.

Egypts generals were likely aiming for the old Turkish model, but for now Morsi has outflanked them.  Morsi has displayed some disturbing tendencies of attacking critics for lese majeste, but has not yet become a Sunni reincarnation of Ayatollah Khomeini.  For now there are checks on his behavior from the Army, parliament and civil society.

There are many on the right who bemoan our abandonment of the Pharaoh to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power.  This is an extremely short sighted view that contributes to widespread distrust in the Arab World (along with charges of hypocrisy) against the self proclaimed “leader of the Free World”.

Ultimately I see three likely (though not exhaustive) scenarios resulting from the Muslim league assuming power:

  • They turn out to be spectacularly incompetent, resulting in a drop of support (e.g. the Ayatollahs in Iran) and eventual defeat at the ballot box.
  • They turn out to be competent stewards of Egypt’s economy and manage to tap into its human capital.
  • They lapse into populist claptrap like Hugo Chavez, take delight in poking Uncle Sam in public forums or worse and drive the Egyptian economy to a ditch.  They then rig elections like Chavez to stay in power.

The third scenario is the most disturbing.  However in this scenario, Egypt rapidly loses military aid and is not really in a position to cause too much damage – help that they have no oil either.  They will be a nuisance but not a threat.

Ultimately it just is not our problem.  Egypt deserves the right to do what the United States has done for over 200 years – choose its own leaders and chart its own destiny.  Blaming Barack Obama for his “foolish embrace” of the party that was likely to win a fair election is silly.  Engaging Egypt and insentivizing it for good behavior was the smart thing to do.  If Egypt fails to do just that, it is Egypt’s loss.

Subscribe to Rashtrakut by Email

Follow Rashtrakut on Twitter

Share
(0) Comments    Read More   
Posted on 11-02-2011
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Talk about timing…barely 30 minutes after blogging about Mubarak refusing to go, the tired old dictator leaves. An inspiring moment for Egypt and the World. Hopefully this does not signify an attempt to perpetuate the Nasserite military dictatorship. Suleiman can help by keeping his promise to repeal the 30 year emergency law and not running for reelection. May the Ayatollahs be next.

Share
(0) Comments    Read More   
Posted on 11-02-2011
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

That was anti-climactic.  With Egypt convulsing from the after-shocks from the Maghreb triggered by the self-immolation of a frustrated Tunisian fruit seller, rumors of Hosni Mubarak’s impending departure spread rapidly.  And then Mubarak doused cold water on those hopes with a vague rambling speech (blaming foreign influences) announcing that he was delegating unspecified powers to his man Friday, new Vice President Omar Suleiman.  The crowd’s displeasure is evident in the video below, particularly at the 12:30 mark where Mubarak tries to identify himself with the young people out in the streets.

Suleiman on whom the Obama administration has placed its wishful hopes for a transition to democracy the proceeded to rile the crowd by asking the protesters to go home.  The Egyptian army which has played a two faced role in this crisis has endorsed Mubarak’s plan, and Mubarak does seem to have handed some powers over to Suleiman.

So what now?  Nobody knows.  The White House was evidently blindsided by Mubarak’s defiance and has limited leverage on the situation.  Ultimately this is a crisis that must be resolved by the Egyptians.  Washington’s efforts should be focussed on preventing the army from initiating the type of bloody crackdown that crushed Iran’s Green Revolution two years ago.

With no obvious opposition candidate in the wings, Egypt faces a period of prolonged uncertainty and probably instability. A big concern in Egypt is a silent military coup, of the type that may have overcome Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution.   Suleiman is deeply tied to Mubarak’s repressive regime and in his 70s is unlikely to be a long term solution in any case.

Concerns have been raised that elections could result in the Muslim Brotherhood to power.  If the United States truly believes its pretensions of being the “defender of the free world”, it needs to come to grips with the reality that democracy can result in unfriendly governments.  For too long Washington has supported autocrats like Mubarak who provided “stability” in the form of stagnation and decay of their countries institutions, economies and societies.  After some hesitancy the Obama administration seems to be veering towards support for a democratic transition.  Here’s hoping that the Egyptians can pull it off (and by their example reignite Iran’s Green Revolution).

Subscribe to Rashtrakut by Email

Follow Rashtrakut on Twitter

Share
(0) Comments    Read More   
Posted on 27-03-2010
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

After the conclusion of the second elections since Saddam Hussein’s removal from power, Iraq has reached the crossroads.  Still unclear is whether Iraq will manage its first peaceful transfer of power without the backing of American guns.  The elections marked the resurrection of former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi who holds on to a narrow lead over incumbent Nouri Kamal al-Maliki.  See link.  Swept from power in the last elections after being branded an American puppet, Allawi made a remarkable return by crafting a coalition of Sunnis, Shiites tired of religious parties and people opposed to Iran.

But all is not well.  Al-Maliki has yet to accept the results and worse is considering post election moves supposedly based on the constitution to modify the outcome.  See link.  Al-Maliki enjoyed the benefits of incumbency and spent many of the last few months trying to weed out potential Sunni rivals by using (or abusing) the de-Baathification process.   It is one thing to weed out avid supporters of Saddam.  But a blanket ban on anybody with any affiliation with the Baath Party, which as in the Communist world was the only game in town, reeks of an attempt to pick on the already disaffected Sunni minority.  It also insults the popular vote plurality that Allawi’s coalition assembled.

Even if al-Maliki was not sulking, an Allawi government would take some time to assemble.  While he edged out al-Maliki’s coalition for a plurality, he is well short of the 163 seats needed to get a majority.  He will have to cut a deal with the Kurds who are uncomfortable with some of his Sunni allies and the coalition partly led by the thuggish and volatile Moqtada al-Sadr (who has a bone to pick with al-Maliki for sending the Iraqi army against his militia a couple of years ago).

In the norms of most parliamentary democracies Allawi as the leader of the largest pre-election alliance would get the first shot at forming a government.  But if he fails to do so al-Maliki could yet return to power.  The result will be a period of uncertainty as the political horse trading begins and al-Maliki’s attempts to pull an Ahmadinejad or a Karzai on the election results is singularly unhelpful.  By picking on the Sunni majority he weakens the strongest rationale for a parliamentary system in a multi-ethnic country – the ability to get all sections of society a voice at the table.  This is something that is sorely absent in the winner take all Presidential system that exists in Afghanistan where the whims of the President and the executive have far fewer checks.

Of course the coming months will also highlight the primary flaw in a parliamentary system- the lack of stability when elections produce such a fractured and muddled mandate.  Coalition politics are not easy for mature democracies.  Iraq’s leaders need to pick up this skill fast and act in a good faith to avoid their nation, which was an artificial construct cobbled together after World War I to begin with, falling apart.

From the American perspective the elections likely ensure the withdrawal of American troops on schedule.  With the anti-American al-Sadr playing king-maker neither an Allawi or al-Maliki government (which normally would both be relatively pro-American) is likely to have the political support to keep American troops around even if they wanted to.  Ready or not Iraq will soon be taking its first steps on its own in its nasty neighborhood.  It is yet another example of how clueless and steeped in fantasy the Chenyites and neo-cons were when they assumed that toppling Saddam would enable the establishment of permanent American bases in Iraq.

Subscribe to Rashtrakut by Email

Follow Rashtrakut on Twitter

Share
(0) Comments    Read More   
Posted on 08-02-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Previous posts in this blog (see link) had noted the challenges facing Sri Lanka in the aftermath of its total military victory against the LTTE.  Sri Lanka’s President and the Amy Chief tried to hog the credit for the victory and both giant egos faced off in the recent Presidential election, which President Rajapaksa won handily.  In what seems like a harbinger of the policy facing the defeated Tamils, President Rajapaksa seems unwilling to rest on the laurels of victory at the ballot box.  He has now proceeded to arrest General Fonseka, confirming the fears of the opposition.  See link.   Generals who grow too big for their boots while in uniform are a concern for any democracy.  But arresting the loser of an election a week later is an authoritarian move that does not bode well for Sri Lankan democracy.

Many Tamils are still stuck in refugee camps.  The minority areas had ironically voted for General Fonseka feeling he was more likely to seek a solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic divide.  With the firm backing of Sinhalese nationalists President Rajapaksa may not see the need for compromise or to implement the Sri Lankan constitution’s mandate to devolve power to the provinces.  See link.  It is hard to see how a state with two distinct ethnicities at loggerheads who are also conveniently segregated can survive without such a compromise.  The failure to compromise (and the attempt to deny citizenship to the Tamil minority) helped spark the civil war in the first place.

The LTTE’s assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 cost it Indian sympathy.  But the LTTE is now gone and sympathy for Sri Lanka’s Tamils runs deep in the next door Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  Any recurrence of civil war would put domestic pressure on India to intervene to protect the Tamils ( a situation neither New Delhi or Colombo want to arise).  Sri Lanka could use a dose of enlightened leadership that uses the period of war exhaustion to forge a lasting settlement.  I am not sure that President Rajapaksa’s thin-skinned government is up to the challenge.

Subscribe to Rashtrakut by Email

Follow Rashtrakut on Twitter

Share
(0) Comments    Read More   

The New York Times profiles former Sandinista dictator Daniel Ortega’s end around term limits in Nicaragua.  A persistent conflict in democracies is the extent to which institutions bow down to popular will.  Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and his acolytes (Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ortega and former Honduran president Zelaya) have complained with some justification that Latin America’s institutions have historically ignored the economic underclass and indigenous minorities.  However, their solution essentially replaces military caudillos with elected populist ones.  The end results are just as bad and like Chavez the populist demagogues start justifying their stay in power because they are some how irreplaceable.  The elected populist demagogue is not unknown in Latin American history as the disastrous career of Argentina’s Juan Peron can attest.

Share
(0) Comments    Read More   
Posted on 09-11-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Some good news from the middle east.  Iraq’s parliament finally approved an electoral law that will allow it to administer a national election in January without the boycotts that plagued the last election.  There is an element of kicking the can down the road, particularly with respect to Kirkuk, but it is heartening to see a compromise decided peacefully and not with guns.  Here’s hoping that the other ethnic mish-mash America is involved in continues on this path.

Share
(1) Comment    Read More   
Posted on 02-11-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Time posts about the looming confrontation in Iran on the anniversary of the siege of the US embassy.  Even though the Iranian dictatorship will not face imminent collapse until the men with guns switch sides, it is impressive to see the Iranian youth stand up in defiance.  Particularly one like Mahmoud Vahidnia who rebuked the supreme leader to his face.  Here’s hoping the bloodshed is kept to a minimum.

Share
(0) Comments    Read More   
Posted on 02-11-2009
Filed Under (Politics) by Rashtrakut

The National in the UAE has an article about the perils of American allies thwarting moderate Islamic parties that are trying to stay within the system.  It is very similar to the debate that has played out in Turkey over the last fifteen years, where the military backed secular establishment repeatedly thwarted religious parties from coming to power.  Ultimately a commitment to democracy means that you must also be willing to accept an undesirable result.

Jordan and Egypt are headed down a treacherous road.  While their regimes have cause to fear Islamic radicals, excluding such a large portion of the political spectrum will likely lead to a bloody dénouement.

Share
(0) Comments    Read More