MacQueen and Pressman Present at Melbourne Conference

Prof. Benjamin MacQueen (Monash) and Prof. Jeremy Pressman (UConn), both bloggers here at Mideast Matrix, presented papers at a conference held at the University of Melbourne, “The Middle East in Revolt: the First Anniversary.” MacQueen’s paper dealt with the (democratic) transitions literature and its potential application to Egypt and Lebanon. Pressman talked about the Obama administration’s response to the Arab uprisings. 


Can Clinton create a new reality?

Listening to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton say Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s days are numbered, I share some of the skepticism in the blogosphere. Clinton was clear yesterday:

But if I were a betting person for the medium term and certainly the long term, I would be betting against Assad.

Yet there are no guarantees; sometimes coercive regimes survive. See China, 1989. Or Iran, 2009. Repression can work.

I do not think Clinton is unaware that brutality can be effective. I don’t chalk up this statement or others like it to naive or misplaced optimism. Rather, I think she hopes to use words to re-shape the reality. If she, and other international and Syrian opposition leaders say it, maybe they will make Asad’s fall more likely to happen.

It points to a deeper difference about how the world works. Is reality dictated by material factors or can we change the world by how we talk about it? Are perceptions reality? What do you think?

Regime Security Dynamics in Syria

Tony Karon recently wrote that Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime won’t leave power willingly because of fears of a sectarian backlash from the Sunni majority. This is certainly part of the explanation. One can think even broader, and more comparatively, to understand contemporary conditions in light of the historical record. This record demonstrates that regimes do not leave power willingly or easily, and that counter examples are more likely outliers and not useful as a basis for expecting changes in behavior.

In addition to the issue of a set of narrow groups to depend on for support, the literature on regime security provides a framework for understanding the dynamics of authoritarian regimes in “recent” states, including Syria.

In the late 1970s, Michael Hudson wrote a seminal book on Arab politics, in which he argued that Arab regimes, lacking the institutionalized nature and long historical acceptance of Western states, do not have legitimacy from their populations (or from other Arab states).

Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid defined legitimacy as a “people’s voluntary acceptance of their political community and its structures of power.” That Arab leaders came to power through force or imposition, and remained in power by these same mechanisms, contributed to such a lack of this legitimacy toward the regimes. This, in turn, contributed to their sense of insecurity, and they worked to forestall threats based on these conditions.

In 1991, Steven David built on this understanding of regime security to argue that developing countries’ decisions on alliances depended on the threats they perceived not only from other countries, but also from threats emanating from domestic sources. He argued that “it is the leadership of the state and not the state itself that is the proper unit of analysis for understanding Third World foreign policy.”

Simon Dalby pointed out in 1997 that “security as conventionally formulated is about the protection of a political community of some sort,” but that new definitions of security need to account for the fact that such political communities can no longer be identified solely as states. The Assad regime is a definitive political community, with its own narrow base of support and sense of togetherness in the face of a wider Otherness among the rest of the Syrian population.

I’ve argued elsewhere that regimes under these types of domestic pressures have three options: they can engage in limited liberalization of the economy, limited liberalization of the political system, or repress/coerce. The first two are constrained efforts, since any large-scale reforms will endanger the regimes further by opening up space to contest their illegitimacy.

We should, then, have applied the lessons of Bahrain and Libya to Syria in the first place. If the Arab Spring has taught us anything, it’s that many of the regimes did not succeed in overcoming the legitimacy deficit. Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan were successful in heading off an intensification of protests by providing some forms of the first and second options. Since Syria never tried this option, and moved immediately to repression and violence, let’s now realize our mistake and re-think the dynamics of regime security in Syria to better understand the options the regime itself perceives.

If all of this is true, that leaves foreign military intervention of some kind to stop the horrific violence the regime is committing against its citizens—which is what Steven Cook and Daniel Byman have argued. As with other places where mass murder is perpetrated, the international community will have to decide what price should be paid to halt such atrocities.

Whose Revolution? Women in the (Not-so-) New Egypt

Women participated actively in the street demonstrations that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, comprising one-quarter of the protesters at Tahrir Square. Women were among the most prominent bloggers of the revolution. Yet, the recent elections delivered only 8 women to the new parliament. As I watch political developments in Egypt, I cannot escape the queasy feeling that women’s rights are going to be threatened in the coming months.

First, the term “women’s rights” itself is associated with the discredited authoritarian regime. Mubarak instituted a 64-seat parliamentary quota for women as part of the 2010 parliamentary elections. Public disgust with these flagrantly rigged elections contributed heavily to the protests that overthrew him. Not surprisingly, the quota’s cancellation in mid-2011 was greeted with wide approval.

Second, Islamists of various stripes won a clear majority of seats in the new parliament. The more moderate Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), with 45% of the seats, states in its platform that all citizens are equal but that women’s rights should be subject to shariah. Despite the large presence of women among the ranks of its activists, the Muslim Brotherhood (the FJP’s civil society affiliate) does not allow women to participate in internal voting, and neither the FJP nor the Muslim Brotherhood has women leaders. The Salafist al-Nour party, with 20% of the seats, states that men and women are equal with respect to human dignity, but underscores “the importance of maintaining differences in their human and social roles.” A spokesperson for Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya (the militant Islamist group reformulated into the Building and Development Party and part of the Islamic Bloc coalition with al-Nour) told reporters “Islam guarantees women their appropriate and sufficient rights. [Former first lady] Suzanne Mubarak gave women [in Egypt] more than their lawful rights and that is not acceptable.” According to this party, women were granted “too many rights” under the previous regime, making it reasonable to expect an attempt to correct this “imbalance” in the future.

To be sure, there are important political differences between the more moderate, pragmatic FJP and the more extreme al-Nour. On the status of women, the FJP will be the decisive factor. Perhaps the FJP will become the bulwark defense against the most draconian proposals limiting women’s rights, in keeping with their desire to appeal to a wide range of voters and preserve their image as a moderate force in Egyptian politics, both domestically and internationally. Even the moderate FJP, however, might find that leaning toward the Salafists on “the woman question” allows them to preserve their Islamic credentials while they take other less popular, but more controversial decisions, such as preserving the peace treaty with Israel and turning to the IMF for economic help.

Third, in addition to their poor showing in the elections, most secular parties don’t appear to have defending women’s rights as a significant part of their agenda. The secular parties uniformly call for the separation of religion and state in their platforms, but only two parties expressly state that all Egyptians are equal before the law regardless of gender. (Notably, these same two parties, al-Adl and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, are the only two parties to assert the equality of all citizens regardless of religion, race or class as well.) Only two secular parties (Tagammu and al-Adl) have a woman listed among their key figures.

The stakes are high. This parliament will appoint the 100-member council that will re-write the constitution. Now that the Egyptian people are finally in charge of their own destiny (as they should be), the big questions regarding the fundamental definition of Egyptian politics, economics and society will be on the table (as they should be after a revolution). Although the main battle now is over the role of the army, we should expect questions about women’s place in society to come to the fore. Given the composition of the parliament and the larger political landscape, it is unfortunate but reasonable to expect that women will face a push to limit their rights rather than preserve or expand them. Beyond December’s rally to protest the rough treatment of “the girl in the blue bra,” it remains to be seen how Egyptian women themselves will respond to this challenge. Here’s hoping that the democratic opening gives women enough room to defend themselves.

Conference on Arab Uprisings, March 27 at UConn

If you are in the CT, New England, or NY area, come join us for a one-day conference at UConn in Storrs, CT:

“The Arab Uprisings and the Changing Global Order” (flyer)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Student Union 330 (Storrs, CT)

9:00 am — Opening remarks

Panel #1: Political Change in the Arab World
9:15 – 10:45 am

Issandr El Amrani, The Arabist
Eva Bellin, Brandeis University
Amaney Jamal, Princeton University

[coffee break]

Panel #2: Regional Dynamics
11:00 am – 12:30 pm

Robert Blecher, International Crisis Group
Gregory Gause, University of Vermont
Jillian Schwedler, University of Massachusetts

[lunch break]

Panel #3: The Uprisings and the United States
2:00 – 3:30 pm

Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress
Sarah Kreps, Cornell University
Malik Mufti, Tufts University

[coffee break]

Panel #4: Concluding Roundtable
3:45 – 4:30 pm

Sponsored by the Alan R. Bennett Professor, CLAS, and POLS.
Co-sponsored by the Human Rights Institute and Middle Eastern Studies.

For questions, please contact jeremy.pressman at

Unanswered Questions About Syria Intervention

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a strong proponent of military intervention in Libya, is now, with some caveats, pushing for international intervention in Syria.

Yet her argument raises important, unanswered questions:

1) She asserts that R2P will have a deterrent effect on other dictators:

If you believe, as I do, that R2P is a foundation for increased peace and respect for human rights over the long term; that each time it is invoked successfully to authorize the prevention of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave and systematic war crimes, and ethnic cleansing as much as the protection of civilians from such atrocities once they are occurring; it becomes a stronger deterrent against the commission of those acts in the first place.

Is there any empirical evidence for that claim? The contrary idea that dictators will not be deterred seems very plausible. If engaged in a domestic fight for survival, would a dictator be able to avoid coercion? Even if the fear of international intervention increases over time, regime survival is a powerful countervailing force.

2) If the point is to intervene to stop killings by the current dictator, does external military intervention make human right abuses less likely down the road? Does it make democratization more likely? If the United States led an intervention in Syria, would that make a post-Assad liberal, democratic regime more or less likely? Looking to Libya, it is too soon to tell. Iraq remains a question mark.

Much of the research on this questions looks at the impact of military intervention on democratization. The scholarly record is not a ringing endorsement of Slaughter’s position:

Experience with U.S. military intervention broadly conceived has no statistically significant impact on democracy within target states. Active U.S. support for free and fair elections during military interventions, on the other hand, has a positive and statistically significant impact on democracy. (Peceny, 1999, page 550)

If the past is any guide for the contemporary era, however, we are left with the uncomfortable truth that most liberal interventions have failed to lead to successful democratization. (Pickering and Peceny, 2006, 556)

The analysis shows that in the short run, democratic intervention does indeed promote democratization and that this relationship is robust to the control variable most frequently invoked in studies of democratization. However, the relationship is only apparent in the first year following the onset of an intervention. When including the entire period of the intervention and its aftermath, we do not find any strong relationship. (Gleditsch, Christiansen & Hegre, 2007, 40-41)

There is a range of research on the topic (and more relevant stuff on Foreign-Imposed Regime Change coming via Alexander Downes)(or his article here). It does not all address situations where the intervention is for one side in a civil war. Does much of it back Slaughter’s claim?

3) If the point is to protect civilians in the face of a brutal regime, why not choose the population in the world most in need of protection? Why Syria as opposed to Bahrain? Central African Republic? Zimbabwe? North Korea? Uzbekistan? The choice of Syria, in the heart of the Middle East, in the aftermath of Libya, smacks of humanitarian imperialism, “as a convenient fiction for power politics or oil politics,” precisely because so many countries seem to have been ruled out a priori.

4) Finally, Slaughter is very selective in the examples she chose to list. How about if we compare her list of killer regimes (“Governments’ systematic abuse of their own citizens have either caused or presaged countless conflicts around the world”) with cases where intervention has been disastrous, in human and strategic terms, or at least played out very differently than expected. Here are some other examples to think about in tandem with Slaughter’s list:

a) US-led intervention (2003) to topple Saddam Hussein

b) French and US interventions in Indochina/Vietnam

c) Soviet intervention in Afghanistan

d) the French war in Algeria

e) US intervention in Afghanistan

f) Algerian military’s rejection of an Islamist electoral victory (not an intervention but probably a useful example to have as well)

From this list, we should remember that intervention is often much longer and much bloodier than expected. Civilians, maybe hundreds of thousands, often die. What leaders say going in is often totally wrong. They tend to assume the best. Demographic heterogeneity can create further difficulties. It is hard to get out. Local “allies” may be no less brutal than the regime the external intervention opposed or toppled.

One underlying belief Slaughter seems to hold is that the United States has a powerful ability to control events. I think we should be very wary of relying on that idea – about the United States or any other intervener – too strongly. I would have hoped the debacle in Iraq had done damage to that certainty about running interventions. The world is far trickier and more uncertain than interventionists like to admit.

A Harsh Economic Reality in Egypt

The sitting of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak Parliament is reason to celebrate. The ability of Egyptians to take control of their political destiny, considering the constraints imposed by the SCAF and the complex electoral procedure, is a remarkable outcome.

Despite this, the economic state of ‘post-Tahrir’ Egypt is dire. Certainly, the deterioration of the Egyptian economy since 2008 contributed to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, perhaps not so much in Tahrir Square but in the broader lack of enthusiasm for the status quo. But the uncertainty of the last 12 months has compounded this, and leaves economic issues rather than questions of, for instance, the peace treaty with Israel, as the central concern the new FJP-led government must deal with.

This was the overwhelming sentiment on visiting Cairo one year after the historic uprising. Despite sporadic protests, Tahrir is all but empty as Egyptians look forward with equal amounts of hope and trepidation.

Before January 25, 2010, the Egyptian GDP had stagnated despite some years of growth up to 2008. In addition, estimates put unemployment at 20%, with the vast majority of those unemployed aged between 16 to 25. Inflation sat in excess of 12%, probably closer to 20% on basic foodstuffs, whilst corruption was rampant.

This is a situation that has worsened in the past 12 months. In other words, a teetering economy is close to falling over into a deep recession that will be tough to emerge from. Tourism, always a key barometer of Egypt’s economic performance, has dropped by more than one-third whilst local and foreign investment is leaking out of the country, seeing its currency reserves drop by more than one-half and raising the spectre of a currency crisis that could further fuel inflation.

Whilst coverage of Egypt’s on-going transformation is transfixed on Islamist electoral success and what this means for regional stability or ‘shari’ah-isation’, these economic realities are not lost on Egyptians or their new political elites. Indeed, worries of impending food shortages and inflation have been the hottest topic in Egypt, both on the street and in the local media.

It appears that this economic question is likely to be a driver of the shifting political landscape in the coming years. Egypt needs foreign investment, but will be forced to conform to global financial regulations to ensure this, resulting in a cut to food subsidies and other services. In an environment where more than 40% of the population live in poverty, food prices and unemployment are rising, it will be the party or parties that present the most feasible and reassuring economic plan who will gain the most.

It is a set of issues that is also likely to divide parties as much as, for instance, debates over religious and personal status law or the relative powers of the new chambers of Parliament. The FJP penchant for a service-based economy will certainly resonate amongst Egypt’s poorer classes, but may also be used by international organisations as rationale for hesitating on investment. An-Nour’s economic plan is similar to that of the FJP, however with much greater ambiguity and reliance on populist language.

On the other hand, it is unclear whether the smaller ‘liberal bloc’ of parties will articulate a coherent economic policy in contrast to this, for fear of alienating themselves from the majority of the Egyptian population.

This is a rather bleak picture, to be sure, but one more reflective of the concerns of most Egyptians at the moment. It is one that also helps moderate the hysteria around an FJP-led government. Turkey’s AKP are constantly held up as an example for the FJP and an-Nour of an Islamically-oreinted party enhaincing a democratic system.

However, whilst the AKP represent the conservative sentiment dominant in Turkey, as it is in Egypt, it has been that party’s economic success that has really buttressed its popularity. Should the FJP repeat this, it will leave a fundamental imprint on this new political system for the benefit of all.

Why deny Syria is in a civil war?

Erica Chenoweth has a concise post arguing that Syria now meets the academic definition of a civil war. Her thoughts beg an interesting follow-up question: if Syria is in a civil war, why isn’t it being called a civil war?

In the United States, one possibility is that the Obama administration prefers a narrative of democratic protest against a brutal regime. A civil war, which means both pro- and anti-regime violence, muddies that narrative. For instance, in late December, a Syrian opposition figure said he told (h/t US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about a nascent guerilla movement:

To my surprise, she asked that the defectors lay down their arms. That’s an odd request. Why didn’t they ask the rebels in Libya to lay down their arms? How can they do it if at any moment they can be fired at and murdered? It’s impractical.

If Secretary Clinton is still trying to discourage Syrian opposition violence, then admitting a civil war is underway would not be helpful. (Are Clinton or other US officials afraid that a civil war would be a pathway to sectarian fighting and spreading regional violence?)

On December 2, Mark Toner, a deputy spokesman at the US State Department, was explicit that the United States did not like the civil war label because it equated the violence. He was asked in reference to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, saying that “the Syrian authorities’ continued ruthless repression, if not stopped now, could drive the country into a full-fledged civil war.” Toner:

…there’s no equality between the terrible violence being perpetrated by Asad’s forces against innocent protestors and some isolated incidents of violence among the opposition. We don’t agree with any violence by any party. We think violence needs to end in Syria. And that includes among the opposition elements. But there’s no way to equate the two, which, in my view, is implied in using the term “civil war.” That said, as we’ve been very clear, it’s Asad himself who has put his country in jeopardy and who has led them down a very dangerous path where there is increasing violence and violence being used by – against some elements within the opposition. So it’s – we do view it as a very volatile and very dangerous situation.

Victoria Nuland’s more recent comments were brief but echo a similar line: “We would simply note that…the violence continues. And most of the violence is at the hands of the regime.”

A second possibility is that the Obama administration does not fear the civil war label but that policymakers are less precise than academics. Chenoweth is explaining that Syria has crossed a specifically defined threshold. In contrast with that dichotomous view, policymakers may have more of an incremental understanding that is a reaction to the intensity of what is going on in Syria. So one could have civil wars that all meet Chenoweth’s standard but nonetheless look different. Policymakers’ ambiguity is a reflection of those differences. Thus, we have wording like sliding to civil war, civil war, de facto civil war, and full-fledged civil war.

For example, Chenoweth cites Secretary Clinton’s comments from November 18, 2011:

CHUCK TODD: …Can you envision a scenario where it’s not going to take the world community or via the United Nations to have to do something militarily, a la Libya?
CLINTON: Yes, I think there could be a civil war with a very determined and well-armed and eventually well-financed opposition that is, if not directed by, certainly influenced by defectors from the army. We’re already seeing that, something that we hate to see because we are in favor of a peaceful –
TODD: Sure.
CLINTON: — protest and a nonviolent opposition. But the way the Asad regime has responded has provoked people into taking up arms against them….

Clinton not only reinforces the idea that the administration prefers a non-violent toppling of Assad, but also discusses civil war in an ambiguous manner. She could mean here is what a civil war looks like and we’re already seeing that.

It also makes me wonder what is being discussed inside the administration. If officials assume it is a civil war but don’t want to publicly call it that, they may nonetheless be setting some policy on the basis of it already being a civil war.

A third, related option is about those outside the Obama administration pushing for U.S. intervention. On December 19, 2011, 58 foreign policy experts – including Abrams, Feith, Kristol, and Scheunemann – sent a letter to President Obama calling for more aggressive actions including establishing safe havens and working directly with the Syrian opposition. That argument is easier to make if the violence is one-sided (though the letter noted: “The conflict is quickly escalating towards civil war.”). Again, admitting a full-fledged civil war is underway muddies the narrative that the US is going to help and protect the non-violent movement against the brutal and violent regime. Members of Congress and the US public would probably be less likely to support increasing intervention if they realize a civil war is underway.

I mean these ideas to be suggestive as there is much more evidence to consider than I have done in this short post. The longer Assad hangs on, the more violence we are likely to see.

11:51 am: One other speculative thought: Could Obama officials be worried that calling Syria a civil war might negatively affect the calculations of groups inside Syria such as Druze, Christians, members of the business community etc?

For a more recent post on Syria, see “Unanswered Questions About Syria Intervention.”

Israel and the Arab Spring: But the Season Doesn’t Matter

At first glance, it appears that the Arab Spring has had an isolating effect on Israel, and damaged its regional position and strategic calculus. But this is only impressionistic, because the Arab Spring has coincided with changed domestic politics in Israel: a right-wing government more or less supportive of illiberal efforts among secular nationalists, religious Zionists, and the haredi.

Indeed, Israeli leaders and commentators themselves feed into this impression of the Arab Spring as a new development Israel must contend with. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees a dark tide of intolerance of religious fundamentalism diametrically opposed to Israel’s democratic values. The (not unexpected) rise of Islamist parties where open elections have taken place is a trend that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has called “very, very disturbing.” The Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff stated that these trends “are redrawing the range of threats faced by Israel.”

Others argue that the Arab Spring provides an opportunity for Israel to connect to the publics who have taken control of their destiny and will soon be in control of their countries, and together build a new Middle East.

But the reality is that the Arab Spring hasn’t changed Israel’s regional position or strategic calculus to any great degree—at most, it has augmented existing trends. Instead, the challenges the Arab Spring poses for Israel are no different from the broader cyclical challenges Israel has been facing since 1948.

First, there is the claim that the Arab Spring had nothing to do with Israel. But Israelis—particularly in the wake of the attack on the embassy in Cairo—came to see it as another element in the “siege” of Israel.

Ari Shavit at Haaretz says “The combination of the Arab spring with the Palestinian September could create a perfect storm. Since the big Arab revolution is not offering real hope, it awakens rage and hatred. The first wave of rage and hatred was focused on Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gadhafi and Bashar Assad. The second wave will be focused on Israel.”

This is not different from the threats Israel faced from a region-wide Arab nationalism in the aftermath of the 1948 War, the emergence of Nasser’s pan-Arabism, and the efforts to redress the “Arab loss” in both the 1948 and the 1967 wars, and then liberate Palestine.

Second, there is nothing new about the fact that the Arab Spring, ostensibly about domestic issues, also drags Israel in, particularly in Egypt. This is no different from the rousing anti-Israel rhetoric found pre-Arab Spring in state-run media, religious sermons, and among professional associations.

Third, the argument that the Arab Spring is isolating Israel does not pose a new condition for Israel. Pre-Arab Spring, Turkish-Israeli relations were already growing cold; the global BDS movement was already advancing; and the peace process with the Palestinians has been in constant crisis since the Oslo Accords were signed—indeed, the Accords themselves were subject to several crises that some feared would derail them before they were put into place.

This is no different from the isolation Israel experienced after the 1967 War, when African, Eastern European, and Asian states began severing ties with Israel; when delegitimization of Zionism—that it is a racist ideology—was promoted at the United Nations; and peace talks with the Arab states were alternately called for and rejected.

Finally, discussions of how Israel must respond to these conditions are also recycled. Reports that Israel is searching for new friends (e.g., those it can count on to be at odds with Islamists or other Middle Eastern states for geostrategic reasons) are no different from David Ben-Gurion’s “periphery strategy,” in which Israel would leap over its immediate Arab neighbors to strategic ties with Iran, Turkey, and some African states.

An overly-assertive strategy is not warranted under the current circumstances. Rather, a wait-and-see posture allows Israel to gauge where these dynamics are going, and to respond accordingly to specific changes and issues.

Israel is on edge as a result of the Arab Spring, as to be expected. But it will not be affected in a major way because it has already dealt with these similar circumstances. Certainly Israel needs to construct clear tactical policies for responding to the Arab Spring and the changed regional dynamic. But this, too, shall pass. Israel has successfully made it through (most would say muddled through) past changes. This is in part because the changes that take place in the region are new only in the form they take, but not the patterns and conditions they represent.

The Arab Spring is of course an important development in the Middle East, restructuring parts of Arab politics. But nobody knows how things will turn out, even in the short term. It’s not clear how strong the moderate Islamists parties who’ve won in Tunisia and Egypt will be in parliament and in governing, faced with harder-line Islamists, non-Islamists, and remnants of the old regimes. And the successes of the regimes in the Gulf have also demonstrated that the Arab Spring is a contained phenomenon.

Already, there are signs that the Arab Spring has changed Hamas’s calculations: the organization has announced it would accept non-violence as a tactic against Israel, would accept the pre-1967 borders as the foundation for a Palestinian state, and might even consider a peace treaty with Israel under the right conditions—even as it reduces ties with Syria.

This only strengthens the sense that Israel can do little but go slow.