Back to Normal Political Instability

Jay Ulfelder (@jay_ulfelderasks if the present level of political instability is the world boiling over or just getting back to normal. I was surprised to see that his answer is the world is getting back to normal. According to Ulfelder, over the last decade, observed (actual) political instability has been noticeably below the predicted level of instability. The drop from 2000 to 2010 looks especially steep.

Which led me to wonder: Why was I surprised? Are the Arab Spring or events in Ukraine having an outsized impact on my perception of the level of political instability? One possibility is that in contrast to a data set that codes all cases of different types of political instability we, and the media upon which we rely, only focus on a few big illustrations.

So we may be significantly below predicted levels of political instability but a few “celebrity” or much-covered examples may distort our perception of the global total. Maybe no matter what you tell me about the relatively low level of political instability in 2011 – both compared to predicted levels for 2011 and to historical annual rates as high as 4% – I will remember the wave of Arab uprisings and the fall of long-time dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

This does raise a question, as Rex Byrnen noted:

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In my mind, our media-influenced perception is actually a weighted perception; we care about or pay attention to some places more than others, a potential explanation for my initial surprise.

A Reply to Kristof: Come Visit My Class at UConn

Dear Mr. Kristof,

I was sad to read your dismissal of political science. While you had a few useful thoughts, much of it was dated and ill-informed. I think you need to learn about political science in 2014.

So please, come to my undergraduate class on recent events in Egypt and Syria. OK, officially it is Contemporary International Politics (POLS 3402). We meet TuTh, 9:30-10:45 am in Storrs, CT. [TuTh is academic jargon for Tuesday & Thursday.] Not far from New York at all. If you email me, I’ll send you the room number.

In this class we discuss political change in Egypt and the war in Syria, real-world events. We read ACTUAL political scientists (and others) who have written in academic journals, blogs, and mainstream publications. We talk about violence, civil war, military intervention, dictatorship, democracy, gender, refugees, and many other issues you would understand without a poli-sci decoder.

I very much look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Prof. Jeremy Pressman

Will the Egyptian Coup Affect Other Islamist Groups?

In the aftermath of the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government, observers have started to wonder what effect the coup will have on Islamist groups throughout the region. Shadi Hamid argues that the coup will have “profound implications for the future of political Islam, reverberating across the region in potentially dangerous ways.” It could well, he continued, convince such groups that participation in the political process is unwise. Less apocalyptically, Barbara Slavin contends that “Morsi’s removal is a warning that Islamic parties cannot count on religious identity alone to govern successfully and need to work constructively with others.”

The juxtaposition of these two pieces highlights the difficulty in trying to understand the coup’s potential consequences for the kinds of decisions other Islamist groups might make. But short of direct knowledge of the discussions Islamist leaders are holding behind closed doors, we cannot know for certain what drives their decisions. A glance at the history of Islamist involvement in pluralist politics suggests that the response is likely to be diverse and not a simple “no to elections.”

First, the specific countries or actors used for comparison matter. Hamid looks only at al-Qaeda, a group that has never suggested it might engage in the political process or that it should lay down its arms for a trial run at democracy. There’s no evidence that jihadist groups will change much of their behavior because of the coup. Alternately, will they plan more attacks out of fear they are on the defensive? Target more governments? Perhaps, but it’s also likely they would have done so if countries were becoming more democratic anyway, without the participation of Islamist parties.

Will McCants suggests that of comparable groups that do decide to participate, Salafi parties tend to be too radical and small to obtain broad support within the political system and so can participate without having to face the kind of choice the Brotherhood did. What Salafi violence might be precipitated seems due as much to intra-Islamist politics as anything else. (McCants continues that it’s too early to draw firm predictions.)

Slavin considers Turkey and Iran. But in the former, the AKP split off from the more hardline Welfare Party and may already have been undergoing a mild internal struggle over the character of the party. In fact, the military coup that ousted the first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and the subsequent campaign to shut the party down convinced Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that participation in the democratic process was quite necessary. In Iran, the government is structured along a strict but specific interpretation of Shia Islam as conceived of by Ayatollah Khomeini that none of the main actors within the state want to change.

Second, the history of Islamist groups in the Middle East suggests that coups or similar “shocks” against them or Islamist parties in other states haven’t prevented non-jihadist groups from participating in democratic processes. In December 1991 the Algerian military cancelled elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front appeared to be doing very well, leading to a vicious civil war that lasted into the 2000s and killed over 100,000 Algerians. In 1997 the Turkish Armed Forces removed the first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and then proceeded to purge Islamists from government, the bureaucracy, and the military.

Yet in 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP by its Turkish acronym) participated in national Turkish elections. In January 2006 Hamas participated in Palestinian elections. After its victory, Israel, the United States, Canada, and others began to hold back funds they had been channeling to the Palestinian Authority; after Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Israel—again supported by the US and Canada—imposed a blockade on the entire Strip. In July 2007 and then in 2011, the AKP continued to participate in parliamentary polls (winning the government both times). In 2008-2009 and 2012 Israel attacked Hamas in Gaza, forcing it to seek a ceasefire in both wars. And in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions, Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt actively participated in elections despite the fact that the military—once their nemesis—remained a powerful actor, while in Libya the process is complicated by the existence of both jihadist groups and parties that want to participate.

The evidence is only suggestive, but it’s enough to demonstrate that coups or similar shocks against Islamists haven’t precluded participation in subsequent democratic processes. But we need more than sweeping statements for effective comparisons, so that our conclusions are not skewed.

Some More Questions on the Inevitability of Military Coups

There are lots of important questions to ask about the military coup in Egypt and what comes next. Both Nathan Brown and Jeremy Pressman raise important points about the Muslim Brotherhood’s possible options in the aftermath, while Marc Lynch considers the American reaction.

But what we shouldn’t do is condemn the coup out of misplaced expectations and pique. I don’t, of course, mean that military takeovers are an appropriate means of politics and should be encouraged as regular practice. Rather, there is a tendency, it seems to me, to look at Egypt as though the election that brought the Muslim Brotherhood (a) existed in a vacuum, and (b) is the only instance of an autocracy-to-democracy transition gone awry.

On the first point, there was in Egypt a convergence of a myriad of problems that conditioned the likelihood of success of first elections. A short list would include: an unstable transition from autocracy to democracy; deeply divided population; immature party system; a Muslim Brotherhood government that believed its moment had arrived and that was intolerant toward the opposition; a military used to its autonomy; and an American government unsure how to respond except to avoid severing the relationship.

But more than that, though, is the fact that a wide range of opposition groups, the Coptic community, and religious authorities actively supported the coup. This tells us that however legitimate the 2011-2012 elections that brought the Brotherhood to power were, its governing was not—certainly, as Michael Koplow has noted, not enough to justify the controversial decisions that they, under President Mohamed Morsi, took.

To assume under these conditions that Egyptian democracy was not fragile would be to ignore the interests and feelings of those groups both in power and out of it. The political system was not strong enough to handle either the over-accumulation of power or the widespread dissatisfaction with it.

This leads to the second point, which is that a comparison of Egypt to other transitions can tell us much about the potential success of the revolution. Historical patterns suggest that violence is the norm, that much time is needed before the transition is finished, and that a successful outcome (defined as the establishment of a real democracy) is never guaranteed.

Sheri Berman has a very good piece in Foreign Affairs comparing the Arab Awakening to transitions in France, Italy, and Germany. Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans (hat tip to Pressman) have a paper that uses quantitative analysis to determine the consequences of military coups (their conclusion is that coups are not as harmful to the establishment of democracies as we might think). Finally, commenters on Pressman’s piece in the Monkey Cage provide several more interesting comparisons.

Our energies are better focused, then, on understanding why the military coup occurred in Egypt so that another similar development can be avoided and the transition away from authoritarianism is smoothed. Understanding the particularities of Egypt’s transition should be complemented with a mining of lessons learned from other cases of transition.

A first glance indicates that while military intervention isn’t necessarily a good thing, it’s not unexpected; and it doesn’t mean the transition is knocked off course. This would be a good starting point for analysis and work.

President Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Policy

Another important guest post from James Devine, in which he considers the foreign policy implications of the Iranian presidential election:

Few people predicted a Rouhani victory in yesterday’s presidential elections, even after he received the support of former presidents Muhammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani. On the whole, Iran watchers were resigned to the election of a loyal conservative. But now that’s he’s won the election, what does Hassan Rouhani’s victory mean for Iranian foreign policy? Probably not enough of a change to suit Washington, or Tel Aviv, or Ottawa; however, we may see some subtle changes that are nevertheless important.

On the nuclear issue, Rouhani will not likely alter that much in substance. The roots of Iran’s nuclear program are deep. While Tehran does not appear to have made the final decision to build a bomb, it has been putting the building blocks in place for more than 20 years. Its neighborhood is no less dangerous than it has been in the past, and the program has strong institutional support in the security services and Revolutionary Guard. Moreover, the peaceful development of nuclear energy has become a popular symbol of Iranian national independence. More, Rouhani is himself is tied to the program. He was chair of the Supreme National Security Council in its early days and Iran’s main negotiator on the issue for a period while Khatami was in power.

It is also unlikely that Rouhani will be able to improve Iran’s relationship with the Sunni Arab world. Although relations with the Saudis and the GCC improved while his allies Khatami and Rafsanjani were in power, the region is today too polarized for him to follow in their footsteps. Iran will continue to back the Asad regime in Syria and Sunni-Shi’a conflict in Iraq is on the rise. Even without these problems, Shi’a unrest in the Gulf will ensure that tension between Iran and the Sunni monarchs remains high. It is possible that having Rouhani in office may facilitate relations with Egypt to a degree, but this would still likely be limited by popular opinion within Egypt. To those who wish to isolate Iran, this is good news, but these tensions feed the violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen and complicate diplomatic efforts on these and other conflicts.

If there is any room for substantive improvement, it might be Afghanistan. Iran’s interests are less diametrically opposed to western interests in the country. Iran has history of conflict with the Taliban, and it cooperated with the US in 2001 when the Taliban were overthrown, and again when Hamid Karzai was installed in power. The main issue dividing them, rather, has been mistrust.

Having said that, Iran will likely continue to hedge its bets by backing every group in Afghanistan willing to accept its support, and Iranian security forces in Afghanistan will be hard to rein in, even if Tehran wants to. What is more, the Iranian government received a Taliban delegation only a week ago, suggesting it is moving even further way from the western position.

Where there likely will be a change is in the tone of Iranian foreign policy. The substance of Iranian foreign policy may be dictated by regional dynamics and the constraints of domestic politics, but the way that policy is carried out may change. Rouhani campaigned on his ability to avoid needless conflict, so it is unlikely that he will be calling for Israel’s destruction or denying the Holocaust. Just as importantly, we will likely see different faces in the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Each Iranian president has brought his own people into this ministry.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came into power, many professional diplomats were replaced by fellow ideological travelers and cronies. Few of them had much experience. Rouhani will probably lean heavily on former members of the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations. It would not even be surprising to see former Foreign Minister and conservative presidential candidate, Ali-Akbar Velayati, return to his old post. He and Rouhani have worked together in the past, and Velayati is trusted by Ayatollah Khamenei and the conservative elite. Like Rouhani, Velayati was also critical of Ahmadinejad’s controversial statements. This type of change may seem trivial given the events unfolding in the region, but it is not. There is a difference between managing conflict carefully and pouring fuel on the fire.

We may also see is a little more coherence in Iranian foreign policy. Since the revolution, Iran has had a difficult time speaking with one voice. This will likely continue under Rouhani. Conservative opponents will remain in control of the Majlis, and Khamenei’s leadership style is to let his underlings compete amongst themselves and only intervene when necessary. However, if Velayati is on board the administration would bridge the divide to a degree and it would be harder for conservative opponents to criticize policy if it was associated with someone so close to Khamenei.

If Rouhani’s election will make any difference, it will also depend in part on how the west responds. If the west wants to take advantage of these subtle differences, there may be some modest gains to be had. It is also worth noting that foreign policy success strengthened Khatami’s domestic position early in his presidency. Working with Rouhani may, then, be one way for the west to strengthen the moderate current inside Iranian politics. However, if the west decides that modest gains are not enough, and pushes for fundamental policy change, it does not matter who the president is: only Khamenei can make those types of decisions.

Questions on Hamid’s Egypt

Three questions in reaction to Shadi Hamid’s detailed analysis of Morsy and Egypt:

1. “The Brotherhood’s priorities, for now, are rather simple — to survive and get to the next elections.” Won’t that always be the Brotherhood’s priority? In fact, isn’t that the priority of every party in power everywhere?

2. Is Khairat al-Shater a “revolutionary” or “pragmatic”? What does it mean to call him both?

3. How much does it matter what is in the new Egyptian constitution? Would a constitution in Egypt that Islamists liked act as a real constraint on liberals? For the Brotherhood, would it (could it) function as a blueprint for the Islamization of the Egyptian state (and society writ large)?

The Anti-Chemical Weapons Norm Is Not in Danger

The cruel violence of the Syrian regime should not have surprised anyone, nor should the fact that it continued to engage in it without concern for the ambiguous threats issues by the US and others. Regimes like Bashar al-Asad’s have nothing to gain and everything to lose by compromising and giving up some of their power.

Now that the regime may have used chemical weapons against the opposition, some analysts and advocates are calling it a “game changer,” arguing that American credibility is on the line, requiring the United States to intervene. And if it doesn’t intervene after the small-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria, Jonathan Tobin asks, how can we trust Washington’s promises to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?

Others have rightly pointed out the absurdity of calling for intervention now, after the regime has tortured and killed tens of thousands of Syrians with conventional weapons and methods. To this, Max Fisher responds that more is at stake now—namely, the norm against the use of chemical weapons in the international system.

But if we are going to think about what constitutes a “red line” that might trigger a more direct military intervention in Syria, I’m not sure that strengthening the anti-chemical weapons norm is a good enough reason: because the norm against the use of chemical weapons is not endangered of being undermined by what happens in Syria.

Since World War Two very few states have used chemical weapons. The US used them in Vietnam. Evidence suggests Egypt used some in the 1960s during its involvement in the Yemeni civil war, while Libya used some in a 1987 conflict with Chad. Iraq used it against the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War, and also against the Kurds in 1988. Beyond this, there is little evidence that many states have considered using them in many circumstances.

The reason is because the norm against the use of chemical weapons is very strong. The Chemical Weapons Convention, with 188 member-states, is the most formal representation of this. But consider, too, what a norm is. It is a “standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity,” which incorporates a logic of appropriateness—a sense that specific behaviors are required as some sort of baseline for states to participate in international political life. The overwhelming majority of states want to be recognized as “good citizens” of the world.

Customary practice, the norm of sovereignty, and the laws of war have all entrenched the use of violence under particular circumstances. In the case of conflict, good citizenship requires controlling levels of violence, and that means that violence must based primarily on the use of conventional weapons. Indeed, the evidence suggests states are increasingly moving to control “excess” violence toward this end.

When it comes to chemical weapons—or nuclear or biological weapons—the exceptions to the norm proves the rule. Even a cursory glance at those states that have used them indicates that their interest in violating the norm is specific to their conditions, leaders, and motivations. If the US doesn’t intervene immediately in Syria because of the use of chemical weapons, no state that wouldn’t already be thinking of it will look at Syria and believe that Washington doesn’t care about chemical weapons, and therefore decide to use them. What matters are the particular regime dynamics at play in a given place and time.

This isn’t an argument against intervention or against considering the need to maintain the norm as a reason for intervention. It’s to say that intervention is a big deal, and we need to be careful about why we might go in. And if we’re thinking about implications and comparisons, instead of focusing on the use of chemical weapons at this point in time, I think the lesson is rather very strongly about the need to deter mass killing near the beginning, before regimes come to believe they either have impunity to attack their own citizens or feel cornered enough to try anything.

Defining the Arab State

Issandr el-Amrani has a very angry response to Aaron David Miller’s piece on the post-Arab Spring decline of the Arab state. Though el-Amrani raises a couple of important points, the piece seems as full of misperceptions that he accuses Miller of.

El-Amrani’s underlying point—that the Arab states are not simply “tribes with flags”—is a strong one, and I think Miller undermines his own argument by falling back on that assertion. But contrary to what el-Amrani seems to indicate, Miller wasn’t arguing that the state has collapsed everywhere in the Arab world, much less so in the Middle East (where he notes Israel, Turkey, and Iran have remained coherent and strong). El-Amrani uses the examples of the UAE, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to prove his point. But apart from the fact that Miller explicitly put Saudi Arabia in the category of states “holding their own,” these examples underline Miller’s point that it’s about “basic coherence and governance.”

It’s not about feeling good about the Arab Spring, as el-Amrani dismisses Miller’s piece, but about questions of legitimacy and governance. That’s a legitimate concern to note, as different groups compete with each other, either violently or non-violently, to define the state and its basis for legitimacy, laws, and norms.

Indeed, Karl reMarks notes this in his own response to Miller, and which el-Amrani cites approvingly. He acknowledges that “the collapse of the state, in varying degrees in each of the three states [Egypt, Iraq, Syria], is an undisputable phenomenon.” reMarks’ critique is centered on the reasons for the failing nature of these states, and that’s certainly something to engage and debate.

Also contrary to what el-Amrani seems to assume, Miller wasn’t providing a normative take on the aftermath of the Arab Spring, but more like a logistical take. Will these Arab states remain functioning as central authorities, with institutions capable of asserting that authority across all of society?

I share el-Amrani’s yawn with the language Miller uses in his piece, which is—as with his other ones—filled with clichés. I suspect this is because Miller simply writes too much, and for a non-specialist audience. It seems the easiest thing to do. But that’s a different motivation than the implicit orientalism that el-Amrani hints at.

Finally, el-Amrani inserts his own cliché as much as he criticizes Miller for doing so. Referencing Miller’s take on the Hamas-Fatah split and the sectarian divisions in Iraq, el-Amrani faults Miller for ignoring the Israeli occupation and the American invasion. Obviously both are relevant, and I seriously doubt Miller isn’t aware of these as constraining factors. (In fact, he references colonial interference as a contributing factor.) But neither was relevant to his particular point, which is that Palestine and Iraq are simply unable to get their internal houses in order so as to provide good governance to their people. Explaining why certainly requires an account of the Israeli and American presence, but that wasn’t the point of Miller’s piece.  Moreover, Miller puts Palestine and Iraq in the category of “pre-Arab Spring” countries with governance problems.

The underlying problem seems to be that Miller and el-Amrani are approaching the issue from two different angles. Miller doesn’t claim that states don’t exist in the Arab world, or even that they will collapse entirely tomorrow. He admits that borders are well entrenched, and that efforts to redraw them have been few in number, and failed completely. Rather, Miller defines the state as “effective” and “possessing the capacity to protect the wellbeing of all of its citizens.” Surely, with the violence being visited upon the citizens by the governments and other citizens, this is an obvious and legitimate argument to make.

El-Amrani seems to assume that Miller is making the opposite argument. He contends that Miller confuses “the dysfunctions of Arab states with the absence of a state.” But that line of thinking doesn’t appear in Miller’s argument. Nowhere does he say there is the absence of a state; at best, only Lebanon is listed as a “non-state,” but Miller doesn’t connect this to the Arab Spring but its own long-standing internal divisions and problems.

Perhaps El-Amrani disagrees with Miller’s proposals for stabilizing the Arab states, which include strengthening national institutions and broadening their legitimacy. After all, if the Arab state is already doing fine, then it requires something else to fix the problems currently roiling them.

Miller’s assumptions of the weak foundation of the Arab states—something that’s been a perennial concern throughout the literature on the Arab state—should be engaged on their merits. Otherwise, serious policy solutions can’t be debated.