04 January 2016

Comparative Politics: From Juntas to Democracy

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From an article (9/1/15): “A New Year in Egypt: The Significance of President Sisi’s Speech.” Sisi was addressing the leading Islamic scholars at the al-Azhar University in Cairo, calling for an “Islamic revolution.” At one point he said, “It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!” From an article (9/1/15): “A New Year in Egypt: The Significance of President Sisi’s Speech.” Sisi was addressing the leading Islamic scholars at the al-Azhar University in Cairo, calling for an “Islamic revolution.” At one point he said, “It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!” http://spectator.org/articles/61428/new-year-egypt-significance-president-sisis-speech

Now using the 2008 edition of Ghannouchi’s book (The Public Freedoms in the Islamic State, Damascus), I’m behind in my translation (plenty of changes, plus new material), but I’m still close to three quarters done. Also, it’s plunged me into political theory – hence this blog!

Keep reading – this is more fascinating than you might think. I’m using a paper by James Dorsey and Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario that opens up a whole new understanding of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It will also pave the way for a later blog on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.


The Dorsey-Rosario thesis

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you’ve read blogs on soccer in the Middle East by James Dorsey. In fact, his landmark book, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer (Oxford U. Press, 2016) comes out next month. Among other distinctions, this award-winning journalist is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, and Co-Director of the University of Würzburg's Institute of Fan Culture.

Here Dorsey teams up with Rosario to examine and compare the role of the military in the democratization process of various states in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) and Southeast Asia: “To Shoot or not to Shoot? Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern Militaries Respond Differently.” This is part of a book they’ve written together, which will also be published this year.

They argue that if you compare these nations’ militaries and their impact on political change in both regions, you discover that although all these countries came out of the colonial period with similar regimes – “The military was either the government or propped up a dominant political party” – the Asian nations succeeded for the most part in transitioning from military-backed (or security force-backed) regimes to democratic ones, whereas after the popular uprisings of 2011, apart from Tunisia, the MENA states failed to do so.


Military regimes in Southeast Asia

Indonesia and the Philippines succeeded in creating a process by which “political power changes hands as a results of free and fair elections”:


1) Indonesia: in the wake of a violent coup General Suharto mounted against the communist regime of President Sukarno in 1965. In turn, Suharto’s military regime was upended in a popular uprising in 1998. The key factor, however, was that a faction in the Indonesian army intervened to oust the president and secure a democratic transition that is now firmly in place. These officers worked in tandem with key leaders of civil society to make this happen (as it also happened in Tunisia). As Dorsey & Rosario see it,

“Indonesia is possibly the only country in both regions in which the civilian government succeeded in asserting control of the armed forces on the back of a series of well-sequenced reforms that unequivocally returned the military to the barracks.”


2) Philippines: in a similar manner, President Ferdinand Marcos managed to run an oppressive martial-law regime for 21 years, but was toppled and forced into exile in 1986 by “a group of disgruntled military officers” who defected and backed the popular uprising. The transition to democracy in this country has fared well generally, but challenges remain: “The Philippines achieved a degree of civilian control despite several failed coup attempts but institutionalisation remains a tenuous and challenged process.”


3) Myanmar, three years after the military’s declared transition toward democracy, “remains locked in a power struggle between the military and civilian forces with the armed forces continuing to exert their weight behind a veneer of democratic reforms.” Still, like in Indonesia and the Philippines, the Burmese military has decided that political opening is in its best interest and is willing to partner, at least to some extent, with influential leaders of civil society. After the November 8, 2015 parliamentary elections, Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won an absolute majority. This bodes well for the future Burmese politics. Dorsey & Rosario’s cautious phrase above was written before these elections. Still, democratic transitions take years to work out and there will likely be more ups and downs.


4) Thailand: “Thailand is Southeast Asia’s odd man out. Its military supported a popular uprising in 1992 that led to the restoration of democracy, yet intervened again in 2006 and 2014 to topple two democratically-elected regimes.” In effect, “Thailand is experiencing its 13th period of military rule in 80 years.” Nevertheless, they have tasted democratic rule, and that should make it easier to restore it in the future.


Military regimes in the MENA region

1) Turkey: as the only non-Arab ex-military-backed regime in the region, it is also its best success story (Tunisia is a close second). Yet its experience differs from the military states in both regions: “Its assertion of civilian control occurred in a pluralistic, democratic environment in which the government could rely on the European Union, which demanded civilian control of the military as a pre-condition for accession to the EU.”

That said, the Turkish military intervened four times in politics (including three coup d’états: 1960, 1971, 1980; in 1997, it was a “memorandum”). Thus it took decades to wrest power from a military that saw itself in control of the state so as to protect its Kemalist secular heritage. Amazingly (and yes, EU pressure no doubt helped), it is the current Erdogan regime led by the moderate islamist AKP Party that has done the most to expand the scope of civilian rule.

Like Egypt, Turkey has had to wrestle for decades against the structures of the “deep state,” defined by Dorsey & Rosario as “a network of vested political, military and business interests.” The difference is that Turkey’s struggle is mostly behind it, while Egypt is still in the thick of it.

I write "mostly behind," because President Erdogan has been in power for over eleven years and with his soft islamist party (AKP) has been able to muzzle much of the opposition and the press (over a dozen journalists are in prison for their views and he took over by force the most popular opposition newspaper), there are concerns about the future of democracy in Turkey. Still (now inserting this remark in June 2016), the rise of the center-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and especially with the possible leadership of Turkey's "iron lady" Meral Aksener, Erdogan may not be able to proceed with a change of Turkey's constitution in favor of an executive presidency.


2) Egypt: this nation has historically been seen as the Arab trend-setting state. President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ideology of Arab secular and socialist nationalism sparked a wave of similar regimes in the region. This section of Dorsey & Rosario’s opening paragraph is worth quoting:

“By the time of his death in 1970, Nasser’s brand of nationalism had informed various related military and security force-backed regimes across the region. These included those of the rival wings of the Arab socialist Baath Party in Syria and Iraq, the revolutionary government that emerged in Algeria from a bitter, anti-colonial war, and that of 27 year old Libyan army colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who overthrew the Libyan monarchy with the intention of molding his country’s in Nasser’s image. Regimes reliant on the military and/or security forces became the norm for Arab nations.”

Though the Arab popular uprisings of 2011 started in Tunisia, the fate of the Egyptian “January 25 Revolution” has had enormous consequences for the region – especially for what happened two years later: “Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was ousted in a military coup in 2013 that brought to power general-turned president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and a regime more brutal than that of former president, Hosni Mubarak.”

Now we come back to the “deep state,” because that reality is at the root of Egypt’s severe dysfunction today. But a little background is necessary:

“In Egypt, successive military-turned-political leaders secured the loyalty of the armed forces by giving it control of national as opposed to homeland security, allowing it to build a commercial empire of its own and establish an independent relationship with its U.S. counterparts that enabled it to create a military industrial complex, granting it immunity, and shielding it from civilian oversight. Egyptian military attitudes towards the popular revolt against Mubarak as well as Morsi were shaped by a desire to preserve these prerogatives as well as the right to intervene in politics to protect national unity and the secular character of the state. In effect, the military was willing to enter a bargain in which it would neither rule nor govern but at the same time would not be ruled or governed – a deal it ultimately failed to clinch in part because of its political ineptitude.”

Naturally Sisi, by trading his uniform for a president’s 3-piece suit, came to power by portraying himself as the only one who could save the nation from the islamist specter. But in order to accumulate more power he decided to strengthen the security and intelligence forces at the expense of the army. Still, the military theoretically retains veto power over any civilian government, and for the time being it sees President Sisi as its ally – and especially in the brutal war now being waged in Sinai against insurgents allied with the Islamic State.

In the next blog on the Muslim Brotherhood I will have more to say about Egypt, but now I must move on.


The three “Arab Spring” nightmares: Libya, Yemen and Syria

These tragedies bleed into the pages of your daily news – and they are much more complicated than I have the space to explain. I will only quote Dorsey & Rosario. Here they have just cited political scientist Philippe Vincent Droz who contends that the Arab militaries all acted as the “tipping point” in bringing down the regimes in place. Then this:


“The picture in Libya and Yemen - where the military split or suffered from significant defections and where the fall of the autocratic leader led to mayhem, insurgency, civil war and/or foreign intervention - is more complex. The popular revolt in Bahrain was thwarted by brutal government repression and the Saudi-led military intervention by friendly Gulf states. In Syria, Gulf states for differing reasons saw the fall of the regime as in their interests but increasingly funded and supplied arms to anti-regime forces that did not see greater freedom and accountability as cornerstones of transition but their own religiously-inspired version of autocracy as an alternative to the ruthless regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.”


All three nations (excluding Bahrain) are now engulfed in brutal civil wars with the interference and collusion of outside forces, including the Islamic State in Syria and Libya. The war in Syria was sparked originally in March/April 2011 by a series of peaceful protests, but to which Asad responded “with military force and brutality.” Violence bred violence, and almost five years later over 200,000 people have died.


Tunisia: like in Egypt just days after, it was the military as an institution that saw a change of political leadership as in its interest. But the reasons were different: “The Tunisian military which had been defanged and sidelined by the country’s ousted autocrat, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a product of the security rather than the armed forces, was the one Arab military with a vested interest in political transition. That eased the establishment of civilian control.” Later on, Dorsey and Rosario put it even more clearly:


“Tunisia is in a class of its own, being the only country where the autocrat, Ben Ali, in one of his first moves after coming to power, decimated the military and ensured that unlike the Egyptian armed forces, it had no stake in the system he built. As a result, the Tunisian force had no reason to obstruct real change; indeed, if anything, it was likely to benefit from reform that leads to a democratic system, in which it would have a legitimate role under civilian supervision.”


So what are the key ingredients for a transition to democracy?

The conclusion, then, is that the kind of political reform that took place most notably in Indonesia and Turkey will need to be initiated and followed through in Egypt. Further, after Syria, Yemen and Libya somehow are able to achieve a form of national reconciliation and embark on a political path that brings together all the vital forces of their respective nations, then they too will have to tackle the drawing up of constitutions that redress the military/civilian balance of power, professionalize the military institution, which includes breaking up the “deep state,” and finally, strengthen all sectors of civil society.

That last point is something that Ghannouchi in his book emphasizes again and again. But I’ll give the last word to Dorsey & Rosario, who explain the needed transition in this way:


“The record shows that successful transitions depend on participation of at least one faction of the military as well as on civil society engagement in line with game theory that postulates that democratisation is possible when moderates in the ruling elite cooperate with civil society and/or opposition forces to fend off advances by hardliners. It often involves the military increasingly viewing the cost of governing rather than ruling as too high and seeing controlled liberalisation as the solution” (emphasis mine).


If some of this is a bit technical for some of you, take heart. This will really help to explain how in Egypt a democratically elected president could be shaken by a popular revolt one year later, and then be removed within days by the army, spurred on by the security forces. And, by the way, if you noticed in this blog, nothing was said about religion, whether in Southeast Asia or in the MENA. That is part of my point. The turmoil surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is all about the swirling and crashing of political forces. In fact, when religious symbols are manipulated for political purposes, almost inevitably religion gets hijacked and then betrayed. Ghannouchi, the islamist, is very anxious about this. In the trilogy of blogs that follow ("The Impossible Islamic State?"), we’ll see his solutions to this dilemma. We'll also establish a better foundation in political theory to understand his evolving positions.