The misgovernment of Iraq

In April, Iraqi lawyer Zaid Al-Ali wrote a remarkably prophetic article arguing that Nouri al-Maliki, who had convinced many Iraqi voters in the just-concluded elections that he was a strong man, was actually presiding over a rapidly weakening state. The armed forces were a "paper tiger," he argued, sapped by corruption and politicization and unwilling to fight. Six weeks later the Islamic State struck and proved Al-Ali right, as Maliki's forces in the north melted away.

The full details of just how badly Maliki governed Iraq can be found in Al-Ali's book, The Struggle for Iraq's Future, an account of misrule in the country since 2003. One particularly cutting anecdote, in which Maliki kept in use a demonstrably fraudulent bomb detector, apparently to save face, at the cost of hundreds of lives, is excerpted on The Arabist here. Read in light of the fall of Mosul, the accounts dramatize how the same instincts that propel a political leader to extend control over all the institutions of state leave those very institutions fragile, led by opportunists and functionaries. That a ruthless leader does not make for a strong state is a lesson that the Arab world should have had ample opportunity to learn, yet many here still keep falling into the same trap.

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The revolution in winter

The third anniversary of Egypt's 2011 uprising was a dismal day for the revolutionary activists that organized it. Its birthplace in Tahrir Square was filled by pro-army demonstrators calling on military chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi to lead the country. Small anti-military rallies in the streets around were quickly dispersed by security forces and chased through the streets by army partisans. Deadlier clashes in the city's outskirts left scores dead. Over 1,000 people have been arrested, joining many prominent activists already in jail. The mood in the movement echoes a poignant letter released several days before the anniversary from one of those imprisoned revolutionaries, Alaa Abdel Fatah: "What is adding to the oppression that I feel, is that I find imprisonment is serving no purpose, it is not resistance and there is no revolution."

This day has naturally triggered despondency in a movement that has long used anniversary protests to rebound from despair. Only a few months ago, activists were telling themselves that having toppled two presidents, Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Mohammed Morsi in 2013, it could easily topple a third. But now they see both their key symbol - Tahrir - and their favorite tactic - street protest - appropriated by their opponents. If al-Sissi nominates himself for president, as seems increasingly likely, he will face the long-term challenge of presiding over a state and an economy that are far more delicate than they were under Mubarak. However, unlike Mubarak, el-Sissi has a confident and committed mass following that believes Egypt needs a strong Nasser- or de Gaulle-style leader. Unlike Morsi, he has the full loyalty of the security forces and the bureaucracy.

But while the activists are sober, few are self-critical. 

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Can strikes reduce civilian deaths in Syria?

One of the main arguments against US missile strikes to punish Syria's regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons is that such attacks will be of little immediate use in protecting civilians. This is only one aspect of the debate: others center around whether strikes are likely to lead to a stable negotiated ceasefire , or whether they will deter use of chemical weapons in future conflicts, or whether they fit American strategic interests. But it is an important one: the question of whether strikes will have a direct impact on civilian deaths in Syria is a key component of their legality under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

study published by the Journal of Peace Research currently making the rounds suggests that external intervention in civil wars is actually likely to increase civilian casualties. War is unpredictable, which makes comparative studies of this sort that show general patterns extremely valuable. But any set of comparisons will have outliers. Syria’s differences from most civil wars, and the unusual nature of the proposed intervention, show how strikes -- if they can deter future chemical weapons use -- might not fit this pattern.

The differences are:

1)    Chemical weapons are used extremely rarely in war. When they are used in populated areas, they are disproportionately deadly to civilians

2)    In Syria, unlike many civil wars, the rebels control large swathes of territory and government forces are extremely circumscribed in their movements

3)    Syria is already seeing large-scale external intervention by President Bashar al-Assad’s allies

Firstly, chemical weapons are a devastating but haphazard way of making war. Civilians can often take cover from conventional artillery, even if fighters actively defending an area cannot. Chemical weapons on the other hand are silent, disperse over a large area, seep into places like basements which provide shelter against other sorts of attacks, and linger, killing rescue workers and others who enter contaminated zones, either by accident or necessity. (Reportedly, all but one of the activists who rushed to document the Ghouta attack died doing so.) The deadliest conventional artillery bombardments in Syria’s war, such as those that struck Homs in February 2012, usually killed 50-100 people in a day. The low-end estimates of the Aug. 21 strikes in Ghouta outside Damascus are around 400-500 dead, and the US estimate runs over over 1,400. Many writers have pointed out that, even if strikes deter chemical weapons use, artillery and airstrikes will continue to kill civilians. They will, but about five to ten times less efficiently.

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Morsi as Hitler: The analogy that won't die

Despite sound advice not to, some Egyptian officials and Tamarod activists are persisting in comparing the ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi to Adolf Hitler, the key variable being that they both came to power through democratic means. An actual comparison to the two leaders is kind of interesting, but to those who say Morsi could have turned out like Hitler had he not been toppled, I would say: This analogy does not offer the lesson that you think it offers.

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Sissi's choice

 Lt Gen al-Sissi's call to Egyptians to take to the streets to support unspecified measures against "terrorism" is a potentially risky move for him. To be sure, outright criticism is mostly limited to those groups who have long been skeptical of the army's involvement in politics from the beginning. But this direct foray into mass politics is a signal to the army's civilian politician partners that they are dispensable, and a few are grousing about such a circumvention of the way things are normally done in a civilian-led state. Investors, who were delighted to see Morsi pushed from power, are nervous.

Unless he genuinely miscalculated the impact of what he said  -- as we learned with SCAF, this is always a possibility when career military men enter politics -- al-Sissi has diverged considerably from his July 3 strategy of having a civilian interim government out in front. That strategy presumably stemmed from al-Sissi's experience in SCAF, whose tenure as the direct rulers of Egypt from 2011-2012 began to tarnish the military's treasured reputation as the apolitical guardians of the country.

Al-Sissi didn't really need to break with this strategy. Al-Sisi is vastly popular, there are no indications of any serious breaches between the army and Adly Mansour's government, and the Muslim Brothers, though defiant, are really far too isolated to pose much of a threat to the transition. Why might al-Sissi have chosen to change his strategy? 

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The trouble with a 'coup for democracy'

By Sumita Pahwa

Egyptians are fiercely divided on whether the recent army intervention to depose the increasingly unpopular president Morsi was a step forward or backward for democracy. Those who flooded Tahrir Square to cheer a 'second revolution' argued that the Morsi-led government may have been elected but that it had lost legitimacy with its exclusionist, illiberal exercise of power. The Brothers had stoked fears of electoral authoritarianism in the past year: their demonstration of bad faith in going back on assurances that Morsi would appoint a consensus cabinet including opposition figures, their signalling of hegemonic intent in trying to circumvent the courts with constitutional declarations, in attempting to stack institutions of state with loyalists and most importantly in pushing through a narrowly partisan constitution against the protests of the non-Islamist opposition, and their willingness to clamp down on civil society by punishing critical voices and tarring NGOs as foreign agents, revived old fears that Islamists merely saw elections as a means to an illiberal end.

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Morsi's year

Seeking to head off the planned June 30 mass protest campaign to push him from the presidency, Mohammmed Morsi delivered a speech last night that, far from being conciliatory, appeared to be an attempt to rally his base and remind voters why they may have cast their ballots for him.  Much of it was dedicated to listing what he considered to be his achievements. Morsi's opponents accuse him of trying to apply a radical agenda dictated by the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was striking that, for an Islamist trying to fire up other Islamists, few of the achievements he mentioned had much to do with Sharia or Islam. Also, for someone who came to power in the aftermath of a revolution, little of what  he mentioned was particularly revolutionary.

Rather, Morsi's achievements were largely a list of his government's additions to Egypt's social welfare programs. It could have come from the front pages of al-Ahram back when Ganzouri was prime minister the first time around. This seemed aimed at that considerable proportion of the population who had responded to the Brothers' implied message in presidential and parliamentary elections: there's nothing fundamentally unsound about the system, the problem is it hemorrhages money through corruption. Because we fear God, we won't do that.

This is a popular message -- the great middle ground of Egyptian politics, which is no doubt why Morsi chose to emphasize it. Beyond it, Egypt is a divided country: some want an Islamic state, others a more secular-leaning one. It is also divided among revolutionaries -- those who want government agencies accountable to the public -- and the considerable number of Egyptians who work for one of these institutions who want to be left to do as they please. 

Morsi 's decision to fall back on social welfare in defining his presidency in his pre-June 30 speech, like much of the other signature decisions of his presidency, is largely an attempt to chart a course through this particular political terrain. To define Egypt's problems as the fault of a high-ranking feloul left over from the Mubarak era avoids tackling any of the thornier questions about the future identity of the Egyptian state, where you can't take a strong side without alienating one group of the other.  Whatever one thinks of the job Morsi has done, any future government of Egypt will face most of the same challenges.

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The legacy of minority-based regimes

The question of what to do about former elites haunts countries that have undergone a radical political transformation. Retain them in office, and dissidents will complain their revolution has been "betrayed." Purge them, and the inevitable fall-off in state services, even if it is temporary, will feed instability and spread nostalgia for the fallen regime. This dilemma has recently surfaced in Libya, where militias made up of mostly working-class ex-rebels have backed a law to purge from office anyone -- including their wartime middle class allies -- who held even a minor government position under Qaddhafi. Similar laws have been drafted in Tunisia and contemplated in Egypt, and will almost certainly figure in an aftermath to the Syrian conflict.

The United States faced this dilemma in Iraq. May 16 is the ten-year anniversary of the decision it took: Coalition Provisional Authority Order 1, the decree that removed top-ranking members of the Baath party from their positions in Iraqi state institutions, swiftly followed by CPA number 2, which dissolved the military to be rebuilt anew. As Sunnis tended to rise more easily to top posts than Shiites, both decrees affected Sunnis disproportionately. Collectively they are often termed "de-Baathification."

Today, CPA Order 1 is one of the most universally condemned American foreign policy decisions of this generation Even proponents of the war tend to describe it as a terrible mistake. With Iraq's legacy under review, both because of the 10 year anniversary and because of contemplated intervention in Syria, CPA Order 1 has been invoked by both sides in the debate: one side frequently depicting it as an indication of the headstrong mindset by which the Americans helped plunge Iraq into the chaos, the other side seeing it as a mistake that, because it can be avoided in the future, does not necessarily condemn intervention as a doctrine.

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