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.


A New President of Iran (Part 2)

As noted in the first part of our overview of the recent presidential elections, power and influence in Iran depend on the interplay between the different sources of political legitimacy, the formal and informal institutions of the system, and the networks of connections in the society. Among the main sources of legitimacy are, on the “official” side, the relationship with the figure of the founding Leader and the 1979 Revolution, the appeal to the teaching of Islam, to velayat e-faqih, or to the  Constitution, and the religious or political stature of the person. On the “unofficial” side, one’s involvement with previous moments of popular revolt (eg. the Green Revolution of 2009), the relationship with the informal leaders of the “opposition” (Moussavi, Khatami), or with other “moderate” figures (Rafsanjani), are similarly relevant.

Although there are no official political parties in Iran, the formation of coalitions of interests is a natural process within any society; these networks might take different forms or names, but they are generally recognized as representing different positions. Within Iran, one can distinguish a spectrum ranging from, on one end, those most faithful to the original intent and spirit of the Revolution and to Khomeini’s legacy (and thus most closely following his specific interpretation of Shia Islam) – to, at the opposite end, groups and people associated with the recent movements of popular protest, who have been excluded, or have excluded themselves, from the official political process. In-between these there is a broad political middle, trying to be a part of the process, with some walking a centrist line while having their bearings more in the traditionalist direction, and others belonging to the reformist camp.

Of course, various readings are possible; in the media, very often the political life is simply divided into traditionalists and reformists, But a bare bones description does not do justice to the complexity of the situation on the ground. For example, the traditionalist direction, usually identified as “the principalists”. is by no means monolithic; an important dividing line has formed recently between the “deviants” or radicals, as Ahmadinejad’s populists are called, and those who are closer to the Supreme Leader Khamenei and to the clerical circles. This conflict burst out in 2009, when Ahmadinejan “walked out” of cabinet meetings for almost two weeks, in protest to Khamenei imposing his people and influence within the government.

Given the exclusion from the official political competition of those who had a direct involvement in the 2009 events, the centrist-reformist part of the spectrum covers a broad range as well, but is generically where the dissatisfied place their hopes and votes. Within this group there are many figures who have occupied or still occupy important positions in the system, and who have been a part of it for decades, and thus possess not only popular appeal (being a reformist voice), but also official, institutional legitimacy. Among them, Hassan Rouhani has been known for a long time as a not-so-prominent moderate voice.

Given the complexity of the factors listed above, it is easy to understand that the Council of Guardians probably did not have an easy job vetting and selecting the candidates “qualified” to run for the presidency. At the end of the registration process there were almost 700 people who manifested their intention to run in the election; true enough, most of them had no chances of being taken into serious consideration. For example, among them there were several women, although the Constitution prescribes that the President must be a male Shia Muslim. From the CoG’s perspective, however, the most important decisions had to be made about a small number of prominent players, who possessed the political and religious backgrounds that made them acceptable for the regime, and were (at least potentially) attractive to the people. Two of these, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, were especially interesting cases, Rafsanjani because of representing the moderate pragmatic line and having a reputable political past (friend of Ayatollah Khomeini and two-time Iranian president), and Mashaei because of enjoying the forceful backing of Ahmadinejad’s camp (which certainly did him no good with either Khamenei or the Council of Guardians).

At the end of the selection process, the Council of Guardians ended up with a brief list of eight suitable and suited candidates (biographies), including, on the traditionalist side, the Khamenei-backed mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; the adviser to the Leader, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel; the former head of the Iran Revolutionary Guard and adversary of Ahmadinejad, Mohsen Rezaei; and the chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, strongly supported by the Ahmadinejad people. On the centrist, or pragmatic-reformist side, the approved candidates were Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister close to the Rafsanjani circles; a former vice-president of Iran, current member of the Expediency Council, and prominent friend of Khatami, Mohammad-Reza Aref; and a lesser-known cleric and former chief nuclear negotiator named Hassan Rouhani. An unknown quantity, perhaps straddling the two camps, but with a long political-administrative record, was the eighth and last approved candidate,  Mohammad Gharazi.

Since these candidates were not selected so as to have only one representative of each faction (as they are not officially recognized), during the campaign that followed (and which included televised debates) they had to take some strategic decisions in order not to dilute the vote that would go in support of the direction they represented. Accordingly, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel withdrew in order to strengthen the so-called “conservative” camp. In the reformist camp, it was important, but for a long time not clear, behind whom would Rafsanjani and Khatami throw their support; finally, their choice was Hassan Rouhani. In consequence, Mohammad-Reza Aref withdrew, for Rouhani’s benefit. Slowly but surely, through careful messaging and key endorsements, Rouhani rose to become the candidate representing the reformist direction. With his established past and moderate reformist rhetoric, he became the attractive choice for pragmatists, moderates, reformists – and, by default, for those who had been engaged with the opposition movement. An interesting contrast arose, therefore, between a carefully calibrated, generically encouraging, yet moderate rhetoric from the candidate, and the increasingly larger and louder crowds of supporters (who at one rally even chanted the name of detained opposition leader Mir Hussain Mousavi).

The possibility of such a broad, popular coalition forming behind Rouhani has its explanation in the generalized unhappiness with the state in which Iran finds itself – with inflation, recession, youth unemployment, a conflict-ridden foreign policy, and general insecurity about the future. No amount of ideological rhetoric, not even the most exacerbated one, can supplant the failure of a regime to provide these basics elements of security, and there is no factor that undermines a government’s messaging more, than a failing economic situation.

This large and widespread disaffection with the regime – including Ahmadinejad’s administration of the economy and the Khamenei-lead control over the society – and the safety that both the people and possibly also the regime could find in such a centrist, experienced, economically-minded candidate like Rouhani, might explain why he was both successful in the campaign, and tolerated by the powers that be. Rouhani’s messaging, meanwhile, maintained his moderate positioning, and he kept his statements generic and well-meaning enough, to contain hints both toward the Green Movement people, and the ideological power establishment.

But what do we know about Rouhani? Hassan Rouhani is a Shiite cleric, born in 1948. Until the June elections, Rouhani has been serving on the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts; before that, he was a leading member of the Majlis for 20 years. His security and foreign policy background also goes back a long way, starting with the leadership role he played during the Iran-Iraq war; afterward, for 16 years he was a member (and then the head) of the Supreme National Security Council; and until recently he lead the Center for Strategic Research. In 1999 he came out forcefully against the popular protests, on the side of maintaining public order. Between 2003 and 2005 he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, brokering agreements with the EU. In recent years he was a constant critic of Ahmadinejad’s mishandling of both the foreign policy and the economy.

During the campaign, he carefully defined his position: “I have no problem working with Principalists or Reformists, I have a problem with extremists… and I have come to replace extremism with moderation.” He further clarified this self-definition when he mentioned by name the three key representatives of these factions (Supreme Leader Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Khatami), connecting himself neatly with all of them: “my close relationship with all three men began before the revolution and God-willing it will remain that way.” Thus, a moderate figure – but one of reform and pragmatism, against the thick ideological overtones of the previous president and of some hardliners. He said things that sounded good to the people, while not alienating the regime, as when he advocated for the need to pay attention to the impulses toward change that arise from “religion, freedom, and the people’s movement towards democracy.” No wonder that the people responded, pinning their hopes – for change, for a different voice, for a channel for their discontent and frustration after the uprising of 2009 – on him.

And the people expressed this support on the polling day, at the voting booth.  In Iran, the president is elected by popular vote, in two rounds. In the first round, all candidates are in the run (six, in our case). If no candidate obtains over 50%, a second round is organized, with only the top two candidates participating (those who obtained the most votes); in the second round, the candidate with the most votes (surely a majority) wins the elections. On June 14, the date of the first round of voting, there was an atmosphere of expectation, waiting to see if the regime would simply impose its will (as it did 2009), and who would qualify to the second round. To most people’s surprise, not only was the regime quick in making public the results, but the winner became apparent already from the first round of voting: it was Hassan Rouhani, with about 51% of the vote (results; results). According to the authorities, 72 % of the 50 million Iranian voters (including Iranians from abroad) participated in the elections. The win was clear and quite overwhelming – especially given the precedents.

As for Rouhani, in his first press conference after winning the elections, his emphasis did not change a bit; the word he kept repeating was “moderation”. Then. on August 4, 2013, he was inaugurated as the new President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Of course, the challenges for him and for the Iranians who greeted his election with immense enthusiasm are just starting. After the task of forming a government (i.e. making the right selection for members of the cabinet), the people of Iran (and also the rest of the world) will look eagerly to see if he will be willing, as the new President, and if he will be able, within the limits of this position, and the intricate Iranian political system, to transform his talk about moderate reform, economic pragmatism, and less tense foreign relations – into effective action.

NOTE

An excellent source documenting the campaign and the elections was Wilson Center’s Iran Election Update series, prepared by Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani (Scribd). Al Jazeera also followed very closely and reported abundantly on the process.


A New President of Iran (Part 1)

On Sunday, August 4, Hojatoleslam Sheikh Hassan Rohani was inaugurated as the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Previously, on June 14, the Iranians had voted overwhelmingly to elect him as president, already from the first round. The result was greeted with great elation on the streets of Iran, and with surprise in the West. But what does this election mean, and how did it come about?

THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN

For the past eight years, the Western media was dominated, in all things Iran, by the figure – at times grotesque, at times comical – of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the eyes of the media he stood for all things threatening or questionable about Iran’s Islamic government – and also, quite problematically, he stood for “Iran” itself. Yet this image neglected an important fact – that Ahmadinejad was only the President of Iran, namely the holder of an elected position limited to two mandates, of an office that is in no way the most important or influential one, in the Iranian political system.  “President” might sound like a grand title, but it is not. It is a position of power, indeed, but one of the many, in the intricate web of formal and informal institutions that constitute the Iranian political system.

At the heart and foundation of Iran’s political system are an originating event, a founding figure, and a grounding theory; respectively, the Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the ideology of velayat e-faqih. The Islamic Republic was founded as a result of a popular uprising against the brutal regime of the Shah, regime that had been established and maintained with the visible support of the governments of US and of Great Britain. Turning against this regime in 1979 was a broad coalition of varied forces, from Marxists to Islamists – and, of course, the population. Yet, no matter how wide the ideological range of those who rose against the Shah, the best organized and most prominent were the determined followers of the charismatic (previously exiled) leader, Khomeini. And after the removal of the Shah, they proceeded to swiftly purge the institutions of the state, and the country itself, from the competing revolutionary groups, and to establish a political system and a society that would be based on Khomeini’s own theory of government, the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” (velayat e-faqih).

Most Iranians belong to Shia Islam, and more particularly to Twelver Shia Islam, whose peculiarity is that the believers live in expectation of the return of the twelfth Imam, a descendant from Muhammad’s line who was supposed to become the next leader of the Muslims, before he disappeared in the year 874 CE. This is very important because, following Muhammad’s model, the leader of the Muslims is supposed to be the leader in all aspects of life – including what concerns us, the political. This is in keeping with the fact that, within Islam, ideally there is no justifiable separation between the religious and the social, between what is known to be right and just, and what is practiced, in all aspects of life (even if historically these spheres became separated not very long after the Prophet’s death). Therefore, since the (religiously) legitimate ruler of the Shia Muslims, the Imam, is not present, the question emerges as to who can rule them, and under what circumstances, so that they can live in faithfulness to the Quran and to the Islamic traditions. While in exile, Ruhollah Khomeini sat down to formulate an answer to this question, and the resulting theory, velayat e-faqih, became thus the fundamental principle of the new socio-political arrangement. In its essence, it states that, until the return of the Twelfth Imam,  the community of the (Shia) Muslims is put under the “guardianship” of the “jurists”, namely under the temporary guidance and rule of the trained scholars and clerics who know best, through their vocation and education, how to interpret Islam and apply it to the challenges of the day. A fairly commonsensical solution, given the premises; yet a solution that is by no means accepted by all Shia clerics and scholars, a number of whom consider it an abuse or deformation of Islam; and rightly so, since who gave Khomeini the authority to establish such “rules of the game”?

And here comes the second of the aforementioned foundational elements of the Republic of Iran: the figure of Ruhollah Khomeini. His intellectual and concrete leadership in overturning the Shah’s regime and establishing a new one, and his day-to-day rule over the newly formed republic, with him as ultimate decision-maker in all matters social, political and religious, make Khomeini the founding father of the Iranian polity as we know it. He is the source of the original ideology of the state, and he is also the revolutionary leader who established the new Islamic state. One could compare his figure to those of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Catro or, more recently, Cesar Chavez; but also to the more appealing  figures of the Framers of the American republic, Konrad Adenauer, or Charles De Gaulle: people who have shaped the founding principles of a state both through their ideas and through their actions, their actual leadership.

Thirdly, the other original source of legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is the 1979 Revolution itself, namely the social and cultural re-action to the authoritarian regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Given that that regime had been established and propped up through the very active involvement of Western interests, namely of Great Britain and the United States, against the will and desires of a good part of the people (see the 1953 intervention), the Revolution itself, at least in some circles, had a pronounced anti-Western, anti-American and anti-British coloring, as they were turning against the Shah and his backers.

The relevance of the three foundational elements of the Islamic Republic presented above is neatly evidenced in the preamble to the Constitution of Iran (which embodies the “guardianship of the jurists” theory, although it does not mention it); and this Constitution, together with velayat e-faqih, constitute the basic principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

FORMAL AND INFORMAL INSTITUTIONS OF POWER

To understand the role and relative importance of the presidential position, one needs to understand the system of institutions and functions that try to implement in reality the principles laid down in the Constitution and prescribed by the “guardianship of the jurists”. In keeping with the Islamic view of society, a polity will be moral and just only if it lives  in accordance with what is know to be true and right, namely the word and example of the Prophet, and the Islamic tradition. At the same time, within Islam, all believers are equal; even in religious matters, the “voice  of the people” can play a very important role. The Islamic Republic, therefore, is constituted so as to embody both these sources of legitimacy, and thus has two sets of institutions, one corresponding to each.

This situation is similar to that of other ideologically-grounded regimes, such as the People’s Republic of China. As the name states it, China is “the people’s republic”; accordingly, it has a set of institutions that is meant to make the people’s voice heard (the principle of representation), and also a parallel structure (the institutions of the Communist Party), which constitutes the ideological check on the system and on the representative institutions. Both in Iran and in China, the set of institutions that is more powerful is the one that provides the ideological leadership to the political system; accordingly, the representative institutions are weaker, and are kept in check (through the selection of candidates, or perhaps through sheer manipulation), so that they do not deviate from the ideological direction of the country.

It is worth noting here, perhaps, that such mechanisms or such an internal logic of the system are also found in what we consider to be liberal democracies. For example, in many countries the constitutional court is an unelected body that has the last say (or check) on the functioning and power of the representative institutions, based on a set of principles (or ideology) embodied in the founding principles (constitution, revolution) of that country. This is by no means a remark intended to create a false equivalency between the political systems of an Iran, a China, and a Germany, for example. It is however useful to understand the inner logic of a system, and to see that all these systems have a set of ideas at their basis, ideas which their supporters claim to embody the “truth” (i.e. the best form of government possible). The consensus today is that a form corresponding to the principles of representative democracy, freedom  (of speech, action, opinion), and what is broadly called “human rights”, is the optimal form of government, or what we usually call, in shorthand. “democracy”.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meeting President Putin

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meeting with President Putin

Returning to our discussion, it is relevant to note that, notwithstanding the similarities with China, the Iranian political system has a much stronger and more vocal “representative” component. Also, the ideological power is more diffused in Iran, within a range of formal and informal arrangements; unlike in China, where the Party’s institutions are more streamlined. But let us look at Iran.

At the top of the  political, social and religious structures of power in Iran is the Supreme Leader – currently, the Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei. Khamenei is only the second Leader after the founder, Khomeini. He was elected (since the Leader is elected by another institution) after the Khomeini’s death, in 1989, as a compromise candidate between various factions. Co-worker of Khomeini, he was President of Iran under him during the 1980s.

Immediately below the Leader, on the next rung of power, is the Council of Guardians. As the name suggests, this organ is at the heart of the system, expressing the idea of the guidance of the Islamic jurists over the direction of the society and of its institutions. Accordingly, the CoG has many powers, and a central role in making sure that both the institutions and the individual actors in the state follow the Quran and the Constitution. Of its twelve members, six are elected by the Parliament, and the other six are appointed by the Leader.

This being the heart of the ideological system, there are two other institutions that, although with more ideological rather than representative functions, are situated somewhere between the “democratic” (demos + cratos) and the “theocratic” dimensions of the system.

The Assembly of Experts is the institution that elects the Leader; again as illustrated by its name, this institution gathers people with theological studies (86 of them), who need to pass examinations in order to qualify; however, they are voted in by the population, through universal elections happening every ten years. As it is with most other elected positions in the system, however, the candidates are vetted and pre-selected by the Council of Guardians. It is interesting to note that theoretically the Assembly of Experts also possesses the power to dismiss the Leader, if found unfit.

The Expediency Council is a more recent institution, established not long before Khomeini’s death, and its role is to mediate the legislative and decision-making conflicts between the elected Parliament and the Council of Guardians. These being its formal roles, informally it is also an institution that gathers many of the most powerful individual actors in the Iranian polity: military leaders, top clerics, government ministers etc. Given that it is the Leader who appoints them to the EC, it can also be seen as a way for him to gather and maintain the informal support of the power players of the country.

On the “purely” representative side of the political system, Iran looks like a combination of a presidential and a parliamentary system. Its legislature is constituted by the unicameral parliament, the Majles, which is directly elected by the population, through universal suffrage, every four years.  Although both men and women can be members of Parliament (unlike in the institutions mentioned above), in order to run for election one needs to be a Muslim; there are however spots in the Majles that are reserved for the members of the religious minorities – Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians. In order to run for elections, the candidates need to be vetted by the CoG; and not all qualify. Nonetheless, the Parliament is a relatively powerful and active institution; it is after all the characteristic of any institution that, once formed, it tries to cut itself as large a slice of power as it possibly can.  Just like other parliaments, the Majles debates and passes laws, and is able to check on the government (executive); at times, it has not shied from passing decisions (which never became laws) trying to check on the power of the Council of Guardians.

The executive branch is constituted by the President (who is its head) and the Cabinet (ministers). The President is directly elected by the population, every four years, and is limited to two terms. Of course, the list of candidates for the presidency is first vetted by the Council of Guardians; some of the basic requirements are that the candidate be male, a Shia Muslim, and an ethnic Iranian (i.e. not an ethnic Kurd or Armenian, for example). The President shapes a good part of the policy (which makes him a relatively forceful head of government), but he does not have the last say over the overall direction of the country. For example, while he signs international agreements and appoints ambassadors, the general thrust of the external policy is in the hands of the Leader and of his circles of power. Most pointedly, given much of the West’s concerns, the President is only an executor, and not a shaper of policy,  in what regards Iran’s nuclear plans, The Cabinet functions as a “council of ministers”; its members are appointed by the President and are approved by Parliament.

The President (with his Cabinet) is essentially in charge with running the day-to-day business of government, but his appointments and initiatives need to be approved or passed by the Parliament, which can also remove Cabinet members. In this sense, given also the reality of a very activist Majles, one could say that governing power (on the “representative” side) is somewhat equally divided between legislature and executive. Their activity (meant to express the intentions of the people, and to benefit them) is ideologically checked for corresponding with the grounding philosophy of the regime: Islam and the legacy of the Revolution.

There are additional institutions, such as those necessary for maintaining order and control over the society and its institutions: the Army, the Police, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the judiciary, the judiciary’s secret police etc. As is to be expected, these are very large, numerous, and relatively secretive; and maintaining control over them is crucial. On the other hand, there are also quasi-nongovernmental (quango?) or para-statal organizations, with roots in the Iran’s social culture and its recent past. Such are the Foundation of the Disinherited, the Martyrs’ Foundation, the Foundation of the Oppressed; these are large, sprawling even “foundations” that fulfill social and economic functions. For example, they might distribute benefits to the veterans of the war between Iraq and Iran, which has left the deepest marks on Iranian society; on the other hand, they also have economic interests and activities so large that they are some of the main employers in the country.  These parastatal structures constitute therefore very important sources of patronage; and the last say over their activity and leadership belongs to the Leader. Another very influential social organization is that of the Friday Prayer Leaders. Having control over what and how is communicated to the population at the Friday prayer, given that within Islam there is no ecclesiastical hierarchy, and thus no institutional check over the clerics’ or scholars’ activity, is of course very important. Consequently, the ultimate influence over this body rests with the Leader.

Iran pol sys 10

It is important to have a picture of this network of formal or less formal institutions and relationships, in order to understand that to have and wield power in Iran is a not a simple, unidimensional challenge. After founding father and revolutionary leader Khomeini’s death, in the absence of his towering figure, the system had to negotiate a modus operandi, which in actuality looks like a sum of compromises and relationships between various centers of power. Even the fact that the current Leader, Khamenei, was initially a “compromise” and relatively non-threatening candidate illustrates that having and maintaining power in this system is not as simple or straightforward endeavor as it could seem. Here one can notice again some similarities with China, with the plays on and for power within the structures of the Communist Party. One needs to create a rely on a network of institutional, ideological and individual supporters, or interested actors – and the population itself is one of these actors. After all, no regime can survive a complete loss of legitimacy.

ROHANI’S ELECTION

This is why it is very relevant and important that Hassan Rohani was elected so overwhelmingly, obtaining over 50% of the vote from the first round, and that his election was received with such a huge cheer by the population and the “reformist” forces . But it is perhaps even more significant that, of a field of candidates that initially included almost 700 names (anyone could register), the Council of Guardians, surely with the acknowledgment of the Leader, vetted and selected eight persons, one of whom was Rohani.  Thus let us take a look at the circumstances of his election, the interplay of the various influences, and the interesting profile of the newly-inaugurated Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, in the second part of our analysis.

[VIDEO: Raucous Rohani Campaign Meeting]


Around the World (February 9, 2013)

Queen Beatrix of Netherlands to Abdicate

After 33 years as the monarch of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (comprising the Netherlands, Curaçao, Sint Maarten and Aruba), Queen Beatrix announced her intention to abdicate in favor of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander (video). The announcement is being greeted with expressions of respect and thankfulness from the majority of the public in The Netherlands. With the prince’s ascension to the throne come April, it will be the first time since 1890 that the monarch will be a male. As in all other constitutional monarchies (that are also parliamentary democracies), the monarch in The Netherlands has only head of state roles, and even those are mostly focused on the ceremonial-representative dimensions. From this point of view, Willem-Alexander’s efforts to build up a respected profile, not only in terms of the public persona, but also as in the field of humanitarian work, were a good laying of groundwork for his future job (given that he had his share of controversy in his younger years).

EU Council Agrees on Seven Year Budget Plan

After a marathon debate, the European Council (the gathering of all heads of state and/or heads of the executive in the European Union), which is in many respects the highest decision-making body in the EU (structure), agreed on a 7-year budget for the Union. After the final decision was reached, all the major players declared themselves very satisfied with both what they gave and with what they took in order to get to this agreement. IN order to come into effect, the budget will still have to be approved by the directly elected European Parliament, and that is by no means  guaranteed, given that it is austerity-oriented; yet it is probable, given the perceived need for decisive action from the EU in these uncertain economic times.

German Leader Resigns Following Accusations of Plagiarism

In another instance of what seems like a never-ending chain of resignations and scandals related to accusations of academic plagiarism in the last 3 years, throughout Europe, one of the prominent leaders of the Christian Democratic Union and a close friend of Angela Merkel, Annette Schavan, recently resigned after losing such a public battle (video). Until then she was the Federal Minister of Education and Research, and this was in fact why, while completely rejecting all accusations, she decided to resign: to guard the authority of the ministerial position and the interests of a CDU that is entering an election year.

Tunisia Opposition Leader Killed – Mass Revolts Follow 

The assassination of Chokri Belaid represents the most troubling event yet in the history of the young Tunisian democracy, after the Arab Spring. Just like the turmoil in Egypt, it shows that building the habits and institutions of a functioning democracy is not a simple, unidirectional process, but a vulnerable and uncertain trajectory. There are two mechanisms that have to be taken into consideration, when looking at these events in MENA:  one has to do with  the normal process of moving from euphoria to disappointment after a revolution; and the other with understanding the specific make-up of the countries of Middle-East and North Africa. Currently, the Islamist-dominated governments that came after the Arab spring in several of these countries are suffering from (inevitably) failing to deliver on the (naturally) exaggerated public expectations regarding the overall quality of life, the functioning of the institutions, and the general pace of change. On the other hand, while the Islamist forces enjoyed significant legitimacy after the Revolution, given that they had always been the most  prominent and well-organized opposition forces during the previous regimes, their ideological make-up does not correspond with the profile and expectations of a significant part of the respective populations.  As the post-1989 history of Central and Eastern Europe has taught us, it would be part of the natural post-revolutionary process for these Islamist forces to lose the next elections; but handing over power and accepting this democratic turn-over might be a difficult fit with their ideology, and it is certainly not something yet part of the political culture of societies that until recently lived under authoritarian regimes.  The mass protests, violence and strike following Belaid’s funeral  are visible manifestations of these tensions.

Failed Attack on an Ethnic Turkish Political Leader in Bulgaria

Bulgarian political leader Ahmed Dogan recently became an internationally known figure, when  footage showing a young man pointing a gun at his head became one of the most watched videos on the internet. What happened? Ahmed Dogan is one of the leaders (and founders) of the main political party of the ethnic Turks in Bulgaria, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). Besides a large (~ 5%) Roma minority, and other, smaller ethnic/religious groups (such as the Pomaks, who are Muslim ethnic Bulgarians), Bulgaria also has a significant Turkish minority, constituting about 10% of its population. In the 1980s, just like in neighboring Romania or Yugoslavia, the ruling Communist party adopted a nationalist rhetoric, as well as policies directed against the main minority – in this case, the Turks. Obviously these tensions did not disappear with the end of Communism,  transforming this Turkish population into a fairly unified electoral constituency, brought together by a sense of being disenfranchised and oppressed by the Bulgarian majority and the state that serves it. And just like in other formerly Communist countries, many of the “new” political and economic elites that rose to power after 1989 were in fact people with deep-lying connections with the previous Communist regime, and often with the secret police, who benefited after the advent of democracy from this already existing network of power and influence. This is also the case with Ahmed Dogan, who has been profiting in the last 20 years, politically and financially, from both circumstances. In fact, (his attacker) Oktay Enimehmedov’s statements said as much, and the ethnic Bulgarian public opinion’s tendency to both accuse Dogan of orchestrating the attack, and at the same time to  make Ehmedinov into a sort of popular hero. illustrate both the continuation of the ethnic tensions in Bulgaria, as well as a general dislike of the outspoken Dogan and of the post-1989 generation of political and economic elites that he represents. As an addendum, it  has to be noted that this was not an actual “assassination” attempt, as the gun was a gas pistol loaded with two blanks and a pepper load. The footage remains shocking, notwithstanding, which explains its popularity on the internet.


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:


Libya: The End of the Gaddafi Regime, and the Responsibility to Protect

This is a real moral victory for “the West” (if there is such a thing), “whose” intervention to protect the thousands of civilians threatened by Ghaddafi with imminent death has been accompanied, from the beginning, by ignorant recriminations from the general public about “starting yet another war in the Middle East.” Echoes of this mood affected even the political scene of the primary campaign in the US, as evidenced by some of the populist isolationist rhetoric exhibited during their first debate by most Republican candidates, some of whom have been very muscular at the time of the Iraq intervention (which was anything but a humanitarian intervention).

For once, the governments of European countries and the US had the courage to intervene when genocide was imminent. One would think that, after Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Sudan the general public would be more aware of what happens when… nothing happens; when those who can do something, do nothing. Most of it is ignorance, all too often accompanied by some of those wonderful conspiracy theories, from the usual “it’s all about oil”, to other, more darkly elaborate and farther removed from reality ones. For once, however, the governments of influential countries in the West dared to invest money, resources, and human lives, to save the lives of thousands of people.

The conquering of the capital Tripoli by the so-called “rebels” – who are in fact ordinary Libyans who rose up against Gaddafi regime – comes at a moment when there were renewed discussions about the will and the ability, both political and material, of these Western governments, to continue the aerial and logistical support they have been giving to the battered members of the uprising.

Of course, the fact that a genocide has been stopped, and that the population has removed Gaddafi’s regime from power, does not mean that Libya will become a safe, democratic country – not overnight, and perhaps not even on a longer term. The intervention was about saving people, about stopping a murderous ruler’s forces from carrying out the massacre of the population. For anyone not remembering what this was about, here is a short reminder: “140 ‘massacred’ as Gaddafi sends in snipers to crush dissent“. But we have to look no further than today’s events, to remind ourselves of the true nature of Gaddafi’s regime:

(See this timeline of events in Libya, from the beginning of the uprising, for a memory refresher.)

Libyan society is divided by tribal allegiances, and there are tribes who have been close to the Gaddafi regime, and have probably profited from it. This predicts serious challenges to establishing a functional, perhaps democratic political system. This, at its turn, raises new questions about the Western governments’ duties with regards to a continued commitment. Do they want that? Should they get involved? To what degree? In what sense? These are not easy question, but for now let us just state that, for once, the responsibility to protect has been assumed by the international community, and that is undoubtedly a good thing.

See the website of the The International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) for more information on this recently assumed new principle in international relations:

Recognizing the failure to adequately respond to the most heinous crimes known to humankind, world leaders made a historic commitment to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity at the United Nations (UN) 2005 World Summit. This commitment, entitled the Responsibility to Protect, stipulates that:

1. The State carries the primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

2. The international community has a responsibility to assist States in fulfilling this responsibility.

3. The international community should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State fails to protect its populations or is in fact the perpetrator of crimes, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.


Syria: The Regime’s Land and Air Attack on the City of Latakia

The land and air attack on the port city of Latakia (map) is already in its fourth day. It has been characterized as the most brutal act of repression since the beginning of Bashar Al-Assad’s crackdown on the rebelling population. It has involved gunboats, tanks, snipers, regular army units. Thousands of citizens are being held, according to news reports, within the facilities of the local stadium.

Here are The Telegraph’s video footage and Al Jazeera’s report.