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.

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.

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)?

Syria: Forks in the Road

Marc Lynch’s thoughtful post on how Syria has affected the narrative of the Arab “Spring” had me thinking about what might have been in Syria. I hope scholars eventually will work to address these questions – well, the first four anyway:

1) Had the protests stayed largely peaceful in Syria, would Asad be gone by now?

2) Exactly how much did outside aid for armed rebels undermine non-violent mobilization?

3) Did the Libya model cause elements of the Syrian opposition to put too much emphasis on the idea of external intervention and (wrongly) set their strategy with the expectation that such military intervention would come?

4) If/when Asad falls and if he is replaced by a regime that is not ruling over a fragmented country, acting as a brutal dictatorship, or executing ethnic cleansing, will the Arab Spring narrative shift toward a “positive” direction again?

5) Can we say enough times that “These revolutions…will continue to unfold for many years to come”?

One Sunni Imagination: The US-Shia Alliance

On a long drive in Jordan, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent – let’s call him Amr – shared his grand theory of Middle East politics. His perspective would make Vali Nasr proud because for Amr, the basic divide in the Middle East is the Sunni-Shia divide (though with an American-Zionist twist).

On a personal level, Amr, a pious Sunni, expressed only disgust for Shiites, deriding them as false Muslims. Yet Christians and Jews were okay.

In the region, he lamented the rise of Shiism and, in particular, the rise of Iran, the heart of the Shiite world. Iran, already in control of Iraq, is seeking control of other Arab states as well, such as Bahrain and Yemen.

The pivotal Sunni-Shia moment was the hanging of Saddam Hussein on December 30, 2006. Saddam was not hanged on just any day but rather at the start of Iraqi Sunnis celebrating Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice), a major Islamic holiday. In Amr’s eyes, this was done as an intentional slight to Sunnis and to demonstrate a marked shift of power in Iraq, from Saddam’s (Sunni) rule to the post-2003 (Shia) regime.

Saddam’s last words were especially important: “Down with the traitors, the Americans, the spies and the Persians.” Not only were his executioners merely agents of neighboring Shia Iran, but by pairing “Americans” and “Persians” he also asserted that Iran was acting in concert with the United States.

Yes, while it might sound odd to American ears, Amr argued in the course of the discussion that Iran was working with the United States. After all, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq handed the country to Iran.

An Iran-US-Hezbollah-Israel alliance against the Sunni world.

When Sunni Iraq had a nuclear program, Israel bombed it in 1981. The United States invaded in 2003 to end Iraq’s alleged nuclear pursuits. Yet with Shia Iran, Israel and the United States have taken no military action despite years of complaining about Iranian nuclear research.

The United States was perfectly willing to intervene militarily in Libya against Muammar Qaddafi, a Sunni. But despite intense pressure, Washington has held back on the question of intervening in Syria where the regime is dominated by Alawites, a Shia offshoot. Israel, too, seems to favor the maintenance of the Asad regime.

In Egypt, the United States abandoned a Sunni, President Hosni Mubarak, and has accepted the rule of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. While one might think the Muslim Brotherhood is a Sunni organization, Amr sees it as under the control of Iran. That explains Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Egypt and the general warming of ties between Egypt and Iran after decades of tension. When Morsi and Shafiq were in the presidential run-off (2012), Washington and especially then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, made sure that Shafiq lost.

In Lebanon, why has Israel not killed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader? The Israeli Mossad can hit leaders all over the world but cannot find a leader right next door? The answer must be that Israel and Hezbollah are cooperating.

Amr’s story, interesting in its own right, reminds us that political theories need not be un-done by inconvenient facts. Perhaps because of our human tendency to fit information to our pre-existing worldview, contrary information gets ignored, manipulated, re-defined in a way that does not challenge our core approach. So the fact that Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006; that Israel attacked a Syrian nuclear site in 2007; or that the vitriol between Iran and Israel/US is regular and heated matters little for Amr’s grand theory.

Somehow I think that even if Israel or the United States bombed Iranian nuclear facilities tomorrow, Amr would find a way of accounting for that seeming anomaly without altering his basic theory.

The story also helps make clear the difficulty for the United States in the region. In general today, the United States is excoriated both for what is seen as too much involvement (e.g. Iraq 2003+) or too little (e.g. Syria today). Washington has been so involved for so long that any action or non-action is interpreted in a nefarious manner. With stories like this one, I don’t imagine the challenge of U.S. foreign policy will change anytime soon.

The Resurgence of American Diplomacy in the Middle East

When President Barack Obama announced his trip to Israel, there was widespread speculation for the motivations. I thought it was a grab-bag of reasons, including for domestic political purposes, to connect (finally) with the Jewish-Israeli public, to improve personal relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and to talk about Iran and Syria.

On these grounds the visit has already been a success. But it seems the trip was about American regional diplomacy at least as much as it was about the American-Israeli relationship. This makes sense: In his second term Obama is looking to shape his legacy, and can now be more proactive—as opposed to reactive, as he was at the onset of the Arab Awakening—in foreign affairs without having to worry about re-election. It’s clear now that the point of the visit was to set the conditions for an improvement in the U.S. position in the region.

For some time analysts have been convinced that the U.S. is on its way out of the Middle East, retreating or simply impotent in the wake of the Arab Awakening. But this argument rests on a consideration of American hard power only, reads Obama’s hesitation in his first term into his second, and ignores Obama’s own modus operandi.

To understand Obama’s foreign policy we need to look at the preference he’s had for engaging with Republicans on domestic policy. Here he’s adopted a patient, low-key role. His habit has been to let other prominent individuals or groups engage in public battles over a given issue, and at some moment near the end move quietly in to offer suggestions—not orders or demands—to both sides of a dispute. In this way, he persuades them that butting heads has not worked, but that compromise will.

Obama’s trip to Israel was an exercise in in this type of American soft power. First, during his time in Israel, he charmed Netanyahu, a man with whom he previously had very tense personal relations. Having created space with its leaders, Obama then gave a stirring speech to Israeli students at the Jerusalem Convention Center. He highlighted the Jewish connection to the area, bore witness to the Jewish/Zionist struggles over time (including their contemporary security concerns), and called on them to act now in the name of Israeli Jewishness and democracy, and justice for Palestinians. These themes were echoed in a shorter speech at Yad Vashem. His visit to sites of memory and identity in Israel also validated Jewish-Israelis’ Zionism.

While critics argue that this is pandering or represent the usual ignoring of Palestinians, connecting with Israeli public opinion is important. No final agreement will be ratified in Israel unless politicians know enough Israelis (particularly Jewish Israelis) are on board with it. Given the skepticism of the Palestinians and the peace process more generally among that cohort, laying the groundwork isn’t just good politics, it’s essential.

Second, at the very end of his trip, Obama brought together Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan through a phone call that, for all intents and purposes, settled the most outstanding of their immediate disagreements (an Israeli apology for and compensation over the deaths of Turkish citizens killed during the attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010).

It’s not clear that Obama promised either of the two anything specific, but what he did do was remind Netanyahu and Erdoğan that the region is at a critical moment, and that the two countries have common interests that trump these kinds of disputes. Like a mediator, he made sure that they knew all of their interests—including that of the United States—required coordination, even if it didn’t include full agreement on all issues.

Third, Obama appears to have convinced the Israelis that the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank really is their only partner for peace, particularly as Hamas’s regional stature continues to rise. To this end, the Administration has managed to unblock $500 million in aid to the PA, which Congress had previously frozen, at the same time that Jerusalem has decided to resume transfer of tax revenues to the PA, also frozen after Mahmoud Abbas asked the United Nations General Assembly to grant the Palestinians non-observer member state status.

Finally, Obama has publicly discussed bringing the Arab states more directly into the peace process. This will provide political cover for the PA to make unpopular decisions about concessions during talks. But tying the Arab states to the negotiations further isolates Iran, and also gives them a stake in the outcome.

The conventional wisdom is that the Israelis and Palestinians aren’t interested at this point in resolving their conflict, and that the Arab Awakening, Syria, and Iran are forcing the White House to wait on events more than seek to manage them. But Obama’s trip to the region has demonstrated that this isn’t true.

Certainly there is a long way to go before Israelis and Palestinians make peace, before Saudis and Israelis overcome decades of hostility, or even before Israelis and Turks return to full normalized relations. But even still, it’s clear that Obama is preparing a network to support Washington’s leadership vis-à-vis Iran and Syria, and to better respond to the Arab Awakening.

He’s done all this quietly, by lowering expectations beforehand, and by convincing Israelis, Palestinians, Turks, and Arabs that they share common goals. This is the essence of persuasion. Obama’s ability to project American hard power in the region might be fading, but that’s not the case with American soft power.