Foundations of Democracy – Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey

EGYPT – TURKEY – TUNISIA

There is little that is encouraging about the current situation in Egypt. After the army removed the Morsi-led government, the Egyptian society found itself in a conundrum: in the name of democracy, an elected leader was deposed through that most undemocratic institution, the army; in the name of democracy, a ruler who was criticized for acting undemocratically was removed forcibly, wiping away the consequences of the elections that brought him to power.

In any regime, the army would possess the brute power to remove the political leadership. The reason it does not do so has to do with political culture: a constitutional consensus, lack of popular support, and the long-term lack of prospects; but it is never for lack of capacity. And, as we can see in Egypt, such a brute act, even if coming from “the best of intentions”, carries implications that simply can not be squared with the idea(l)s of liberal democracy.

The Egyptian army’s intervention into the social and political life of the country is very much reminiscent of recent Turkish history. During the second half of the twentieth century, it was the Turkish army that guaranteed and upheld the secular, “democratic” state – which was not really democratic, but was (at least partially) secular. The consequences of those decades of muted oppression and silent violence were the rise after the year 2000 of religiously-inspired political forces, who have now been in government, quite successfully, for the last ten years. Recent trials directed against attempts by military groups to remove this democratically elected regime through coups d’état have benefited from the support of the majority of the population. But Erdogan’s religiously-inspired AK Party has also learned from those decades of military-backed secular rule. They have learned to thread a careful path, knowing that a good part of the population is in fact culturally secular, and still very much supportive of the original, Atatürkian blueprint of the Turkish republic. Notwithstanding those lessons, Erdogan’s government could not help itself derailing here and there from the expectations of that part of the population – and the recent string of popular protests has demonstrated just how difficult this project is: to rule in a democratic political system, but also to try to shape it, from an Islamist-influenced perspective.

Yet that seems to be Erdogan’s project, and this is why he was also very much involved with, and supportive of, the Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. He was hoping to help them carve out a path through which an Islam-influenced political group would prove that it can successfully hold power in a democratic system, while also leading the polity in the right direction, according to their ideology. An ambition apparently not very different from any other democratic party’s ambitions – to come to power, and to implement policies, based on a specific ideology.

But the dictum, “politics is the art of the compromise”, is learned by force of necessity, and not by choice. In Egypt, Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood clearly did not have the benefit of a similar set of experiences; unlike in Turkey, which was an illiberal democracy under the watchful guardianship of the military (but still a sort of democracy),  Mubarak’s Egypt was an authoritarian state, where all and sundry were equally oppressed. And this lack of democratic political experience is true for all the political forces in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi party, and the very fragmented “opposition groups” (those who opposed both Mubarak, and Morsi as well, in the name of the 2011 Revolution). Case in point regarding this lack of political experience is Morsi’s economic record, which was dismal, showing that they did not understand that the first and foremost duty of any government, notwithstanding ideology, is to provide for the physical security of the population: food, order, basic services, the ability to earn a living.

Meanwhile, neighboring Tunisia is another site for a similar experiment: Islamic parties are in power, a natural consequence of surviving decades-long oppression, having well-established structures, and benefiting from the popular capital that opposition forces have, at the time of a regime change. So what is happening in Tunisia? Although the governmental forces are at pains to distance themselves from some of the more extreme Islamic groups, recent assassinations of prominent opposition figures, supposedly by some of these groups, have brought the people unto the streets, in protest against the government, which is accused of being secretly behind these acts.

THE FIRST QUESTION: SECULAR POLITICS

What do Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia have in common? In all three countries, Islamic parties have been trying to come up with a modus vivendi, and a modus operandi, to govern in a democratic setting. In all three societies, there are significant parts of the population that are culturally secular(ized) – and another good part, in fact a majority, that are culturally religious (and have voted these governments into power). The distinctions, as always, are not clear cut.

But one should also note here that “secular” means something, if used to describe to a life-style or philosophy, and a different thing, if used to describe a political system. To give an example, the religious denominations in Western Europe, even in the countries with established religion like the United Kingdom or Denmark, are politically secular; they look at politics as a sort of neutral means to regulate decision-making in a democratic polity. These “neutral” means, then, depending on who is elected into office, can be oriented in one or another ideological direction, according to the ruling party’s philosophy (which might be closer or less so, to the principles of these religious denominations; eg. the ruling Christian-Democratic Union in Germany).

Yet what appears to be clear-cut is always a bit more complicated, a bit more confuse, when looked at closely. Take, for example, the difference between the French understanding of the secular state (laïcité), and the traditional American understanding of the same concept. In France, the legacy of the French Revolution shaped a secularism that is a-religious, verging on the anti-religious. In the US tradition, the idea of the secular state implies a coexistence, in which the institutions of the state (which possess the power) do not impose their power, favorable or unfavorable, over religious institutions. These are the models, at least on paper. Yet a closer look at how these are actually lived out shows that even in the countries that produced these models, the situation is not clear. For example, there are plenty of American political actors (or regular citizens) who understand the state from a French perspective, and French citizens who naturally lean toward a model much closer to the American one.

It is no surprise, therefore, if confusions or questions about these issues appear in countries where such models have not yet been established or tried out – like Egypt, or Turkey, or Tunisia. There are religious people (as most Egyptians are, for example), who have a secular image of politics; and secularized citizens who support an Islamic-influenced government (as in Turkey); or, on the other hand, secularized or religious people, who understand this identity in a very militant way, and would like to enforce it on the others, democratically or not.

THE SECOND QUESTION: POLITICS AS COMPROMISE

In the video below, a remarkable young Egyptian presents with astonishing articulateness the complexities of the situation in Egypt, while also reflecting the complexities of Egyptian society (he accuses the Muslim Brotehrhood of not being true to religion), and the challenges the Morsi-opponents face in making the distinction between political adversary and full “enemy”  ( a crucial distinction).

Many of the anti-Morsi political actors seem to dismiss all too easily the concern that, in a democratic political system,  the only legitimate way to remove a government is through the mechanisms of the system. But, they could say, these mechanisms are excruciatingly slow and imperfect; and they could also say that they were justified, because they are right. As true as both these statements may be (or not be), they do not change the nature of these undemocratic actions. In a democracy, “being right”, even “being certain of being right”, is not reason enough to forcibly remove a government. Politics, just like living in a society, or in a family, is indeed “the art of the compromise”: a slow and imprecise process during which one is obliged to fight even the worse positions of the political adversary, through the established mechanisms of political and civic action.

But this is not to imply that the secular-minded (in the political sense) forces are alone with this impatience and irascibility. Their action was provoked by, and was met by, the equally impatient and irascible politics of the Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government, whose actions have indeed veered undemocratically. And the of the MB was surely “I am right.” Yet “I am right” – ideologically, morally, or metaphysically – is simply not enough of a justification to bypass by force the rules of the democratic political system (at least according to the current status quo about what democracy is).

These secular and religious forces in Egypt are not alone in this struggle to deal with the cognitive dissonance between the clarity of their moral principles, and the imperfection of democratic mechanisms. Even in the more established democracies – like in the US, for example – the borders between shaping policy according to one’s ideology, and manipulating the very mechanisms of politics, based on the same ideology, are confusing and fickle. The saving grace is that the exaggerations of a political actor can be checked by the other political actors, who have this ability by virtue of the same democratic political system (through elections, checks and balances, separation of powers etc.). What makes this work, more or less, is that all political actors have subscribed to the basic ideology of the system itself, by adhering to the Constitution. What makes the situation difficult for the political actors in Egypt or Tunisia is that they did not have yet the chance to internalize the rules of liberal democracy. And this applies equally to those who support the Islamic governments and to those who do not.

Is this, then, a vicious circle – that the basic institutions of democracy have a hard time being established, because they did not already exist, and viceversa? A vicious circle is synonymous with an impossible situation, but there is no such thing, politically speaking; what is needed, is a slow learning process; and the best that Western well-wishers, governmental or nongovernmental, can do, is to support this process of democratic enculturation.

THE FOUNDATIONS OF DEMOCRACY

Superficial commentators might voice opinions to the effect that the problem is with Islam itself (theology? culture?). That would ignore the democratic experience of the largest Muslim-populated country, Indonesia (as complex as it is). Yet it is true that in the Middle East and North Africa there have been very few experiments, and those only of late, of an Islamic political force governing a liberal democracy; which is why, again, the fate of Erdogan’s project is of such interest.

Yet the problem is much broader than the current events in Egypt or Tunisia or Turkey. The questions of the ethical, philosophical, and even metaphysical assumptions of the modern liberal democracy are studiously avoided, or remain unsatisfactorily answered, even in the West. The problem is that the modern (i.e. liberal, Enlightenment) model of democratic political systems is itself based on moral and philosophical assumptions, which have not been challenged, but which are constantly being “tried and tested” on an unsuspecting population. At the basis of this model there seems to be an impetus toward individualism, and toward individual liberty as the ultimate value – but also towards the state as the ever more powerful Leviathan that ensures the programmatic pursuit of these objectives. Yet these values, mentioned here, are very specific values, belonging to a specific ideology. They are not absolute universal values, neither horizontally (in different places, today), nor longitudinally (at different points in history). Working under the assumption of an immutable “march of history” in one specific direction is both irrational and clearly ideologically biased. In other words, the “neutral means” of democratic politics is not as neutral as it seems.

It is easy to understand, then, the unease of some of the newer political actors, in some of the more inexperienced democracies. After all, what in France looked like an inherent consequence of the basic principles of the French status quo, namely the ban on publicly-worn religious symbols, was met with incredulity and incomprehension in many other countries (for example in the United States). But just a few years later, the Barack Obama-led US government needed to be harshly rebuked by a rare unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, when ideological motivations led the government to trespassing on a long established constitutional clause, which was meant to provide for the free and peaceful co-existence of different philosophical/ ideological/ theological systems. So the dilemmas the Islamic-oriented political forces in Turkey or Tunisia are facing point towards deeper unsolved questions, about the basic assumptions of the modern democratic model.

We will not solve these questions here, but this awareness might help us see how seemingly unrelated issues, such as these difficulties in the MENA region, and the conflict between Hungary’s Viktor Orbán government and some of his EU counterparts, might have surprisingly similar roots.  After all, part of the untold revolt of some Western European chancelleries had to do with the fact that the new Basic Law of Hungary makes explicit reference to the cultural heritage of the country, and it contains the flag and coat of arms of the country; unusual, perhaps – but is this not an innocuous detail? The irksomeness of these details in the eyes of some Western chancelleries points again to the fact that there are unexamined, fundamental assumptions, under which different democratic regimes work; clearly, these chancelleries have a specific interpretation of what the modern democratic model means or implies; to approach it somewhat glibly, one might say that “they have taken the Enlightenment and ran with it”. Whether one or the other interpretation is right or wrong, is not our concern. A more important question is if we could distinguish between a neutral, universal basis for democracy, or is it all just one ideology, which now has come to dominate the world? This is very relevant, from the point of view of the struggles of Islamic political forces, trying to be successful within the framework of functioning liberal democracies.

As with all things political, we usually make sense of things as they happen, or after they happened; and the strongest proof is always in practice; it is the tried that proves true or untrue. There is no question that the modern representative democracy is astonishingly attractive and appears germane to most people around the world. Successive opinion polls taken in the Middle East and North Africa before the Arab Spring have consistently showed that a large majority of those populations desire and are fond of the democratic model. One should not be reluctant then to say that some of democracy’s central principles – but not all! – clearly appeal to traits shared by all human beings (hence the universal popular appeal). On the other hand, one can not forget either that the actual, historical sources of the model are the Enlightenment, Judeo-Christian, and Classical Greek culture (probably in this order).

But how do we distinguish between what is universally valid, and the ideological excrescences? between freedom of religion, and the ban on religious symbols? Or, to turn around the question, is it not possible that there is a universal appeal, and there are universally valid traits, but they are developed slightly differently (yet equally democratically) in different cultural spaces? After all, religion vs state means very different things in the US and in France – and both are truly democratic. This is a most difficult question, as many illiberal democracies or even authoritarian regimes have excused their trespasses, by making reference to “cultural differences”. At this point, such references have almost become markers of something fishy going on.

But it might also be the case that the current experiments in Turkey, Tunisia, even Egypt, with this model of modern liberal democracy entering a relatively new cultural area, is an occasion to purify what is essential and universal about it, from what are ideological and cultural excrescences.

ABOUT EGYPT

As said, the recent deposition of an elected government by an undemocratic institution left Egypt, its politics and its society, in a deep impasse. The tragic nature of the situation could not be better evidenced than by the recent bloodshed on the streets of Egypt, as a result of both the brutal actions of the army against a part of the Egyptian population (the Morsi-supporters), and by the violence inflicted by some of the latter on their co-citizens (see the burning of Coptic churches). Obviously, Egypt can not survive divided, yet the cleavages existing in the Egyptian society are only exasperated by such acts of violence. One such act generates a reaction, a reaction deserves a response – an unending cycle of violence, all under the illusion that “the other side” can actually be silenced, eliminated, terminated.

Politics and, more specifically, the institutions of representative democracy, are made for the management of inherent societal conflicts. The existence of sharply differing ethical, philosophical, ideological positions in a society is an inevitable reality; what stops these conflicts from being fought on the streets is the consensus of all political actors, and of a great majority of the population, that the legitimate means of solving these divergences is through the institutions of (democratic) politics, especially through parties, which coalesce differing opinions into structured programs; and through parliaments, where these positions are allowed to clash through debate, and to generate a course action through the shaping of policy. In other words, if these institutions are not allowed to play out their role, politics fails, and violence speaks.

One could thus say that the only possible “solution” for the current situation, is a return to functioning democratic institutions, which could channel these societal conflicts. The problem is that the army seems to act under the impression that it can first eliminate these conflicts, and then reestablish democratic politics. This, clearly, is false. What compounds the degree of difficulty in the current situation, is that no side seems ready, able, or willing to talk to the other; instead, one seems to notice on both sides the illusion that “we can solve the situation, once and for all”, that “we can defeat them” – through force. That, however, is the opposite of democracy, and its perfect poison, both short- and long-term.

ADDENDUM & TIME-OUT

A good example of the range of cultural identities existing in the societies mentioned above is the Harlem Shake staged by Tunisian high school students (below), and the varied reactions it engendered.


Around the World (January 26, 2013)

French Military Involvement in Mali

The control of the very weak government over the Malian state was severely compromised back in April 2012, when an alliance of Tuareg rebels (who want an independent state in the north) together with hard-line Islamist groups took controlof almost two-thirds of Mali, in the northern part of the country, which includes the larger cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Since it would be unacceptable for both the other African states and for the rest of the world to allow fundamentalist groups (such as MUJAO, Ansar Dine, and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb) to establish such a strong foothold in northern Africa, and even take control of a state, last year was spent with (mostly failed) efforts to enhance the capacity of the Malian army, and with expressed (yet never-materialized) intentions to send African troops in support of the country’s government.

Finally, on Friday, January 11 France, who has a long-standing history of presence in the region, and military assets in neighboring countries, has launched a (mostly) aerial mission in support of the governmental army. French president François Hollande expressed his intention to continue to expand this involvement, including an estimated 2500 French ground troops. Although several African organizations or groups of states, including ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and the African Union, have pledged several thousands of troops, up to this point, mostly because of logistical and financial difficulties, only a couple hundred have arrived, from Senegal, Nigeria and Togo.  Other EU countries as well as the US have been asked or have already begun offering logistical help to the French and to the Malian troops, including  air-fueling capabilities, training resources and equipment.

In more recent developments, in what is the most significant military success of this campaign, French-led military forces have taken back control of the city of Gao from the Islamist groups.

Hostage Crisis in Algeria

In what is apparently a retaliation for the French intervention in Mali, an oil rig managed by BP, the Norwegian Statoil and the Algerian state oil company, located in a remote desert area about 40km / 25 miles from the town of In Amenas. was attacked and taken over on January 16 by a group associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Algeria has known decades of internal conflict (to the brink of civil war, and maybe beyond) between Islamist groups and the government, during which its military has built up an ethos (and a position in the society) that is based on an immediate and unmitigated response to violent actions from such groups. In consequence, and contrary to promises made to the British PM David Cameron, on the next day, January 17, the Algerian army launched a violent attach on the oil rig, where several hundred people were held hostage (among them about 700 Algerians and 100 foreigners) . During the resulting four days stand-off (detailed story) some 40 civilians and 23 militants have lost their lives (first-hand account).

Numerous victims were Japanese citizens, which gives us a sense of the complicated world created by the intersection of the interests of multinational corporations, trans-national terrorist networks and a political world ruled by states. Thus we have a situation where the governments of Japan and of Romania are equally concerned about a terrorist attack in Northern Africa (international death toll), attack that is linked to a French intervention in yet another country in the region.

US: White House and Cabinet Shuffles

When a US president wins re-election, i.e. when he starts a new term, it is usually expected, in the very fluid world of American politics, that he will change some of the key positions in the Cabinet and perhaps also among his staff. (The Cabinet is a key component of the executive, as it is composed of all the heads of executive departments – usually called “secretaries” (in most other political systems these are called government ministries and ministers, respectively). Since this is a presidential system, and the president “embodies” the executive, these “secretaries” do not represent specific constituencies, as it would happen in parliamentary systems, where they would be prominent politicians from the parties forming the governing coalition. Thus, the changes are relatively easy to make, since these people serve “at the pleasure of the president”. The reason why such changes are expected, on the other hand, is that the image and “energy’ projected by the president and his team, are key dimensions of their capacity to influence public opinion and the policy-making process (since constitutionally they do not play a direct role in the formulation or passing of legislation – again unlike other political systems).

Besides the Cabinet, another important institution in the US executive is the White House Office, part of the Executive Office of the President. These are the people who work most closely with the president, helping him exercise his duties and powers, but are also the closest to the president, physically (in the “West Wing“) and personally. However, unlike the heads of departments, who need to be approved individually by the Senate, as constitutionally mandated (as they are constitutionally described), these employees who work most closely with the President can be appointed (and dismissed) by him at will.

Among the recent changes made to the staff of the White House Office, the one that has to stand out is the new Chief of Staff, position that will go now to Denis McDonough, who until now worked mostly on foreign and security affairs (at least on paper; last position was Deputy National Security Advisor).

The changes to the Cabinet (who remains, who leaves) include John Brennan for CIA Director, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary, Senator John Kerry for Secretary of State (i.e. “foreign minister”), and Jack Lew (former WH Chief of Staff)  for Treasury Secretary (more on these appointments). Key positions, but overall safe choices, except for Chuck Hagel, whose nomination raised a truly bi-partisan storm, because of some past statements about US policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine; storm that has subsided, however, once he won over some key senators (especially Democratic ones, the upper house having  a Democratic majority).  Although it is customary for the US Senate to acknowledge and approve all the President’s nominees for the cabinet (and the Supreme Court), “deferring to him” on this issue, this is a tradition that stands because most nominees are generally acceptable (not too weak, not too controversial); in order to makes sure that they have such candidates, a careful vetting, formal and informal , precedes all such nominations, including private meeting with key senators. Sometimes presumptive nominees “lose their position” even before they are actually nominated. For example, Sen. John Kerry became the official name for the Secretary of State position only after the previously circulated name (Susan Rice) generated all too much public noise from the Republican Party and the media associated with it. The hearings for the Senate’s approval of these Cabinet positions have already started (John Kerry hearing), and at least one of them promises to be quite interesting.

In terms of what these appointments mean, they have already received ample commentary; in any case, they do seem to reinforce the image of a president for whom loyalty and trust are essential, and who exhibits  a programmatic determination to go beyond his own party boundaries when choosing persons for the Cabinet (notwithstanding that these are people with whom he knows he can work together, on the specific policy area, and in whose institutional competence he trusts).

Portuguese Conman Revealed: In Search of Populist Heroes

Looking of voices that would express the public frustration with the austerity measures implemented by many governments in the recent years, movements and opinion leaders have appeared not because they have some miraculous solution, but because they seem to encapsulate the popular anger and dissatisfaction with the situation. A recent (and amusing) such process took place in Portugal, where a fake economic expert academic rose to prominence in the last ten months, his stormy anti-austerity tirades being received by the people with standing ovations (literally). It turned out, however, that instead of being an internationally recognized economic expert, Artur Baptista da Silva is a former inmate, who made up his international credentials (but who may or may not have some studies in the field).

Indeed,  populist movements (and leaders) rise as the very public and very vocal expression of inchoate but acute popular dissatisfaction, especially during significant (economic) crises. They tend to pass on, however, in almost as vertiginous a manner as they appear, because the content of their public presence is mostly the reaction to a situation -and thus it is hard for them to outlast that situation, or the lack of concrete, practicable solutions.

Violence in Egypt, Two Years After the Revolution

One of the consequences of revolutions is that they destabilize the established sources of authority for the institutions that maintain the control of the government over the state –  territory and population. Usually, we go along with these institutions of the state, which maintain order, because their legitimacy is unquestioned. However, especially after violent revolutions, this everyday, commonly assumed order is severely questioned. Unless the institutions that result after the revolutionary changes succeed in establishing themselves based on commonly accepted rules (elections) and of general conformity with the goals of the revolution, a state of disorder can follow. And even if they manage to establish themselves, that radical change in societal order that was the revolution (whether it was peaceful or not) will continue to leave open the possibility that “this was not the last – or the best – alternative that we can try”; take, for example, the entire century of instability and turbulence that followed the  radically disruptive French Revolution, or see, even today, the continued questioning in Central and Eastern Europe of the foundations of the order established (successfully!) after 1989.

Similar complaints are being heard in Egypt, two years after the beginning of the Revolution – that the public, societal order has not yet been re-established. Thus, the events of the last days, although not linked, are certainly connected in a deeper way; one has to remember that the lack of legitimacy mentioned above is even more acute, and felt like a vacuum, in the case of  a transition from an authoritarian reghime (which imposes a strict order) to a democratic society (where a slight “disorder” is the natural state). Thus, in the past week, Egypt has seen both deadly riots in Port Said, in protest of a court sentencing 21 local fans to death for their role in the clashes and chaos during a soccer game a year ago (that resulted in about 74 deaths) – as well as massive public protests in Cairo and other cities against what is felt to be President Morsi’s and his governing Muslim Brotherhood’s continued actions and intent to derail the establishment of functioning democratic institutions.

The Africa Cup of Nations – AfCon South Africa 2013

Meanwhile, the premier football (soccer) competition of the African continent, which takes place every four years, started on January 19, in South Africa. Over the following three weeks, the national teams that qualified to the competition will play each other, first in the group stage, and then in eliminatory matches, up to the final on February 10  (calendar). It is in the nature of international soccer both to transcend national boundaries, by the common sharing in the joy of the game, but also to vicariously represent national and local identities, in all their pleasant or ugly forms. (Very famously, during every game of the best club team in the world, FC Barcelona, tens of thousands of supporters reserve a good few minutes to call for the independence of Catalonia; the players of the team, most of them born or raised there, are truly “troops” battling for the pride and identity of the region.) Another attractive aspect of the competition is that soccer is a sport that does not require an advanced economy,  in order for it to be practiced at mass level, and on a daily basis; thus, some of the best players in the world come from Africa. Similarly, it is a pleasure to see at AfCon the national teams of some of the countries mentioned above, in less than fortunate circumstances; the teams of Mali, Algeria, but also those of DR Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), Ethiopia, Niger etc. Here is a taste of the competition: