The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged politics
Notes on the US presidential debate

I just caught up with last night’s US presidential debate — arguably the one that would be the most interesting for this audience, especially as the first segment was devoted to the Middle East. The one thing that struck me most is how limited the debate was, how frequently the bromides came, how few exciting ideas either of the candidates had to offer in what has to be one of the most exciting times in recent Middle Eastern history.

The differences between the candidates was on the surface mostly slim, largely due to Mitt Romney’s “pivot to the center” ending up being a “I agree with Barack Obama but can implement his policies better” line. Of course, as Obama pointed out again and again rather effectively, Romney changes his take all the time. (Juan Cole has a list of Middle East-related flip-flops or Etch-a-Sketch moments here

I think Obama clearly did better in this debate on substance, in part because of some Romney unforced errors:

  • Iran does not need Syria for access to the sea
  • Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some kind of council that organized the Syrian opposition? This is probably the biggest indictment to date of the failure of the, erm, Syrian National Council.
  • Romney wants to arrest Mahmoud Ahmedinejad for genocide. He said in the debate: “I would make sure that Ahmadinejad would be indicted for genocide. His words amount to genocide.” And then his campaign spokesman doubles down and suggests the UN can arrest Ahmedinejad. For something he has not done.

According to Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, successfully indicting Ahmadinejad would be more than just a symbolic victory.

“I think it would remove probably one of the most anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, pro-genocide members of that regime in Tehran,” he told TPM after the debate. As to whether he would actually be arrested: “I’m hoping that he would be indicted and that action would unfold following that indictment. Absolutely.”

Others in the Romney camp seemed a little unsure of how the indictment would play out. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, told TPM after the debate that the hypothetical charges wouldn’t even be about Israel, but about the violent repression of his own people.

“No, no, I thought he meant in terms of what’s going on internally in Iran,” Sununu said. “I think that’s what the reference was to.”

So Ahmedinejad is guilty of pre-cog genocide in Israel and genocide against his own people. Wow.

Other aspects of the debate were grimly familiar, notably he unprompted, almost incongruous, pledges of loyalty and undying love to Israel from Obama. But there was little of substance new or frankly interesting. The debate on Syria was surreal on the Romney side, and cautious on the Obama side (although I thought he made a good case for a cautious approach and the difficulty of finding “good Syrians” to back. ) Most striking was that both candidates reject direct US military intervention and Romney rejects a no-fly zone enforced by US planes.

On Egypt, Obama’s intervention was telling of the malaise in US policy circles over Egypt, which is perhaps deeper than that of Libya (although the Libyan intervention’s monstrous lovechild, the disintegration of Mali, made a front-row appearance). Romney raised Egypt having a “Muslim Brotherhood president” as a problem in itself. Obama talked tough about the points on which Egypt policy is focused:

  1. The rights of women and religious minorities;
  2. Cooperation on counter-terrorism;
  3. The “red line” of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty;
  4. Economic development.

Aside from the last point he kept talking of Egypt in terms of US applying pressure to obtain the results it wants. It definitely frames Egypt as a “problem” more than anything else.

Of liberals, secularists, Islamists and other labels

I want to discuss here the labels assigned to Arab political parties and politicians (if you want to get to that directly skip till the end of the following quotes), but before let me point out what started this post — a fine piece by Nasser Rabbat on Steve Walt's blog, Arab secularism and its discontent:

Is this a new turn for the West? Did the West support the secularists before the revolutions? And has Arab secularism really become irrelevant? My answer to all three questions is an emphatic no.

Many good points he explores each in turn, before concluding:

Arab secularism, however, remains on the street and online. Though outdone in the current rush to power by the Islamists, it still has the ability to reassert itself in the political arena, if not as the ruling party, at least as lawful opposition and guardian of the principles of civic freedoms. The culture of lawful opposition, long absent under the totalitarian regimes, needs to be reinserted into the political discourse. This is as important a function as good governance for the well-being of the nascent Arab democracies. To that end, the efforts of the discontented revolutionary youth and the seasoned secular intellectuals should be united under the umbrella of political parties. The West should help them by recognizing their crucial political role and by treating them as long-term partners not just as recipients of training and aid.

I will take him to task for a factual mistake, though, here:

The few attempts to register a secularist political presence in the elections in Tunis and Egypt were swept aside by the eminently more organized Islamist parties and by their shrewd appeal to the basic religiosity of the people, especially the poor and the illiterate.

Secularist parties have at least 40% of seat in Tunisia's constituent assembly/interim parliament, and both the speaker of that assembly and the president are secularists. In Egypt that percentage could be argued to have been 20-30% in the dissolved parliament and nearly 50% of voters voted for non-Islamist candidate in the presidential election and 50% of the electorate decided not to vote at all in the presidential election, where secularist candidates won over 30% in the first round, including Hamdeen Sabahi, who came third. 

The question for Arab secularists is not that they are an anemic force in society. It's that they are divided (on the conservative / progressive and economically liberal / socialist axes) and disorganized. The key to their future electoral success will be building strong organizations and finding the right mix of alliances with conservative political forces (i.e. felool) and moderate Islamists. In other words, the winning combination may not be a liberal one but still be a mostly secular (at least in Arab terms, not European ones) one.

The recent Libyan elections are a case in point in this distinction. What have been annoyingly called "liberals" performed well in the election, but this is a catch-all term that really is used to say non-Islamist and perhaps non-a certain type of Islamist, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. But these liberals include parties and movements led by former Qadhafi regime officials who defected early and probably a bunch of people who should not be called liberals in at least the two standard meanings of the term: either economically liberal secularists as is meant is most of continental Europe, where liberal parties tend to be center-right, or socially liberal as is generally meant in the US, and associated with the center-left. Of course the irony is that a liberal in the Arab world could very well not be secularist — i.e. he could be a moderate Islamist — while a secularist might be a Stalinist or Nasserist, or in other word not particularly progressive in terms of human rights or liberal in the economic sense. 

We need better terms that this, or perhaps more terms than merely liberal, secular (these two sometimes wrongly used interchangeably) and Islamists. Let's start with Islamists: a wide range of people fall under this label, with different views. Arguably the Muslim Brotherhood tendency deserves in own label, due to its relative ideological coherence and strength. Salafis are also diverse, since only a segment engage in politics, but that segment is pretty reliably ultra-conservative. And then there are new variants of Islamism usually described as "moderate" which is not quite satisfactory either, especially when the Brothers in particular often use this word to describe themselves. So we may have:

  • Ikhwani Islamist for Muslim Brothers;
  • Salafi Islamist for the various Salafi parties, who are mostly socially ultra-conservative;
  • Wasati Islamist for individuals like Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh or the Wasat or Egyptian Current parties.

How about the non-Islamists? Historically there is the Arab nationalist trend, which can be further divided into Nasserist, Baathist and various local variants. But the nationalist trend is fast-changing — how much longer will anyone call themselves a Baathist? Sometimes the national label — Nasserist — is most appropriate because it is used by politicians to define themselves, for instance for Hamdeen Sabahi in Egypt. But these personalities and parties do share a common adherence to the idea of Arab unity, which still has backers in many countries and often translates, as in the Maghreb, into policies that stress Arab identity (e.g. in national education). So it seems to be that Arab nationalist is a decent catch-all label for these, even for those newer types of parties that, while making a nod to Arab nationalism, are progressive like Moncef Marzouki's CPR in Tunisia.

There is also a growing social-democrat movement in the Arab world that draws inspiration from the European model — Mohamed ElBaradei explicitly referred to his experience living in Austria, for instance, and used the label himself. The Egyptian Social Democratic Party also falls under this label. Social democrats could of course be Wasati Islamists in the Arab world, and I suspect this will develop in that direction, representing what is called, usually derisively, "Islamo-gauchiste" in French.

Socialists put more emphasis on issues of social justice and the redistribution of wealth, and most often tend to be secularists. Radical socialists might as well be included here for now, since this trend tends to be stronger in civil society than in electoral politics. But whether "moderate" or Trotskyist or even Stalinist, this socialist/Marxist trend has a long and rich history in the Arab world, and there's no reason to think that it's over just because the terms "Islamist" and "liberal" tend to dominate the headlines.

Liberal is a label I feel should be used in the European sense in the Arab world, because Arab politics (in these early days of emerging democracy) tends to resemble continental Europe more than the two-party systems that have dominated Anglo-saxon politics for centuries — i.e. they are more likely to be coalition driven and constantly in flux, as the political boundaries of France or Germany or Israel often are. In Egypt the liberals are clearly the Free Egyptians (which can also be translated as the Liberal Egyptians), they are also ultra-secularists. There are similar parties in Tunisia, essentially representing the business elite and libertarians.

What of the felool? Over time, I think these will dissolve into the other trends, but they can also represent a certain conservatism. Perhaps the Bourguibist parties of Tunisia, represented by personalities like Beji Caid Essebsi or Kamel Morjane, represent this trend. There is a Sadatism in Egypt that can also be described as conservative, and most importantly statist. The Istiqlal Party in Morocco is also conservative, while taking in some Arab nationalist ideas and social conservatism. Ultimately these may be termed conservative, because they are attached to an old order and ideology.

The bottom line: Ellis Goldberg put it well in a recent piece on the importance of Egypt's institutions when he wrote:

The problem with thinking of Egyptian politics as a two-party game is that there are more than two actors.

He meant it in a broader way then about political parties, but the same thinking applies about selecting labels to describe politicians and parties in the post-uprising Arab world. The US model — Democrats vs. Republicans, conservatives vs. liberals — simply does not apply. We need to be more careful with the terms we use and stricter in defining them, so that the results of Libya's elections and future ones elsewhere are not reduced to a nonsensical "victory for liberals" headline.

Why I root for Ron Paul

I've been thinking a lot about Ron Paul and the Republican primaries lately. I am a social libertarian but don't like many of Paul's small-government ideas (or, for that matter, that he named his son after Ayn Rand). But I think he has the best foreign policy ideas out there, ones against maintaining an endless empire of US bases in the Middle East and against foreign aid. I really like this argument by Philip Weiss:

Ron Paul represents the opportunity to push an antiwar agenda inside the center-ring political system. His candidacy might actually force Romney and Obama into more antiwar positions. If he disappears, that prospect all but vanishes. An attack on Iran might actually be in the balance. If he sticks around, we might actually have a presidential debate in which candidates openly dispute aid to Israel and an attack on Iran and what Paul has called apartheid conditions on the West Bank, an honesty no other candidate is capable of.

If you care about the antiwar issue, joining with Ron Paul is like seculars joining with the Muslim Brothers to get rid of Mubarak. You needed a broad coalition to push Hosni out. And in the end, that coalition did the impossible; it moved Obama. Obama wouldn't have jumped in if not for Tahrir. He needed political cover. A broad coalition gave it to him.

But what if leftwing secular social-media types had stood around Tahrir Square asking the smart question, Hey what do these folks-- Muslim Brothers and Salafis-- want to do with the role of women in politics? They would never have gotten rid of Mubarak.

I wouldn't stress the Tahrir comparison too much, but there are good reasons to support Ron Paul among the sorry lot of Republican candidates this batch and the frankly unappetizing prospect of Obama being re-elected. Precisely because Paul brings in, along some wacky libertarian ideas, this anti-war, anti-imperialism, "isolationist" element to US foreign policy. It's a strong plus for him, one of the few things that really makes him stand out if you can stomach the other stuff.

The way I see it, there are good reasons to support Ron Paul in the Republican primaries and wait for him to become popular enough to disrupt the nomination process. If he does well enough, the Republican establishment will push through a candidate of its choice but alienate Paul voters, making the chance of a third party or independent campaign by Paul more likely. Since for me, overall, Obama is still more desirable as a president than any of the current crop of Republicans, this ensures he gets re-elected, but probably without a majority. In this situation, the Republican establishment is weakened, the Democratic establishment is weakened, and the candidate who stood on his own values is rewarded even if he has no chance at the presidency. And in the meantime, on foreign policy at least, Paul helps keep people honest in the foreign policy debate. As Phil writes:

And Obama will be a better policymaker the longer Ron Paul is in the process. Paul will actually give Obama more political capital to take on the warmongers and neoconservatives by raising consciousness on these issues. I don’t want Ron Paul's foreign-policy ideas to be in the margins of political life, I want them in the mainstream. That is what he represents.

As an independent who leans progressive (but has a secret Tory heart) and is repulsed at the Democratic party's support for Israel and the warmongering of the last decade, Paul just makes sense — precisely because he has little chance of getting power but some of his ideas deserve better airing. Too bad he came third in Iowa, but I hope sticks around.

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