Egypt leaves democracy advocate in legal limbo

egypt ngo trial fhIn Egypt last month, three journalists were found guilty of doing their jobs and given seven- and 10-year jail terms. Apparently, little has changed, notes a prominent democracy assistance official.

A little more than a year earlier, I and 42 other employees of international human rights groups were similarly convicted at a Cairo trial that the U.S. and European governments have condemned as politically motivated,” says Sam LaHood, the director for the International Republican Institute in Egypt from 2010 to 2012 and currently a program officer with the organization.

“I was sentenced to five years in prison with hard labor after being found guilty in absentia of a trumped-up felony,” he writes for the Washington Post:  

In my case, appointees held over from the regime of Hosni Mubarak used repressive laws to target our groups for providing democracy assistance, manipulating the bureaucratic machinery for their own ends. Many more of these officials, who constitute Egypt’s entrenched security apparatus and bureaucracy, or “deep state,” have since returned to power after being out in the cold during the truncated presidential term of Mohamed Morsi. This deep state, led by individuals at the Ministry of Interior, state security and other large bureaucratic entities, is intent on exerting control over civil society, politics and the media through intimidation and repression.


The end of pluralism: violence trumps politics in Middle East?

TEMPTATIONS ISLAMISTIf the second phase of the “Arab Spring” is really about anything, it is about a collective loss of faith in politics, according to Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center.

We might not like to admit it, but violence can, and often does, “work” in today’s Middle East, he writes for The Atlantic:

This is not just a reference to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but also to less extreme militant groups that control territory throughout Syria, providing security and social services to local populations. From Libya to Palestine to parts of the Egyptian Sinai, armed—and increasingly hard-line—Islamist groups are making significant inroads. This is the Arab world’s Salafi-Jihadi moment. It may not last, but its impact is already impossible to dismiss, to say nothing of the long-term consequences. In Libya and Syria, even non-Salafi groups like the Brotherhood are adapting to the new world of anti-politics, allying themselves with local armed groups or working to form their own militias.

A movement meant to demonstrate that peaceful protest could work ultimately demonstrated the opposite, notes Hamid, the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East:

This is one of the great tragedies of the past few years—that a movement meant to demonstrate that peaceful protest could work ultimately demonstrated the opposite. According to former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, the Arab Spring shattered the myth that “peaceful change in this region is not possible.” Indeed, it did. But then the violence raged on in Syria and Libya. Leaders in these countries saw their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts as weak and feckless, as conceding too much to their opponents and emboldening them in the process. In .the case of the Egyptian coup in 2013, the most populous Arab country, long a bellwether for the region, willfully aborted its own democratic process. The worst mass killing in the country’s modern history soon followed.

That this violence is, in some way, tied to religion makes it more difficult for outsiders to parse. As the military historian Andrew Bacevich writes, “No single explanation exists for why the War for the Greater Middle East began and why it persists. But religion figures as a central element. Secularized American elites either cannot grasp or are unwilling to accept this.” Indeed, the divide between Islamists and what we might call “anti-Islamists” cannot be reduced to the single-minded pursuit of power. As I argue in my new book, it is just as much about real ideological divides over the role of religion in public life and the nature, meaning, and purpose of the nation-state.

Not too much intervention, too little

The Middle East, as a region, is more unstable, divided, and rife with extremism today than it has been at any other point in recent decades, Hamid observes:

It would make little sense to blame these developments on American military intervention. The past six years have been characterized not by the use of force, but by a very concerted desire on the part of the Obama administration to reduce our regional engagement, in general, and our military footprint in particular.

The presumption was that with the withdrawal from Iraq, a key Arab grievance would be addressed. The Obama administration could, then, re-establish a relationship with the Arab world based on “mutual respect,” leading to a “new beginning.” It wasn’t unreasonable to think this. After all, it was precisely our over-engagement, and the waging of two costly, tragic wars, that appeared to provoke such anger toward the United States. Yet disengagement and detachment haven’t helped matters. Anti-Americanism persists at strikingly high levels and, in a number of countries, attitudes toward the U.S. are more negative under Obama than they were during Bush’s final years.

“The two most destructive conflicts in the Middle East today are in Syria and Iraq, two countries that have imploded not because of too much intervention, but because of too little,” he suggests.


The new Thirty Years’ War?

middle_east-450x320Today’s Middle East risks incurring something akin to Europe’s seventeenth century Thirty Years’ War, the most violent and destructive episode in European history until the two world wars of the twentieth century, says a leading foreign policy expert.

Three and a half years after the dawn of the “Arab Spring,” there is a real possibility that we are witnessing the early phase of a prolonged, costly, and deadly struggle; as bad as things are, they could well become worse, says Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The region is ripe for unrest. Most of its people are politically impotent and poor in terms of both wealth and prospects. Islam never experienced something akin to the Reformation in Europe; the lines between the sacred and the secular are unclear and contested,” he writes for Project Syndicate:

Moreover, national identities often compete with – and are increasingly overwhelmed by – those stemming from religion, sect, and tribe. Civil society is weak. In some countries, the presence of oil and gas discourages the emergence of a diversified economy and, with it, a middle class. Education emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking. In many cases, authoritarian rulers lack legitimacy.

Democracy promotion in Turkey and Egypt should focus on strengthening civil society and creating robust constitutions that diffuse power,” Haass suggests. But….

There is no room for illusions. Regime change is no panacea; it can be difficult to achieve and nearly impossible to consolidate. Negotiations cannot resolve all or even most conflicts….

Policymakers must recognize their limits. For now and for the foreseeable future – until a new local order emerges or exhaustion sets in – the Middle East will be less a problem to be solved than a condition to be managed.



Political Aid and Arab Activism: ‘no such thing as democracy promotion’

carapico“There is no such thing as ‘democracy promotion,’” at least when it comes to the Arab world, according to a new analysis.

“Instead, professionals specialize and projects are narrowly targeted” on law, elections, and civil society, Sheila Carapico writes in Political Aid and Arab Activism: Democracy Promotion, Justice, and Representation.

My task is to describe and analyze the dynamics of Western or multilateral organizations’ programs “promoting” Arab transitions from authoritarianism in the context of national, regional, and international politics in the Middle East during two tumultuous decades, she writes:

The main research question is not whether political aid “worked,” but rather how it worked, in actual practice. What work gets done, how, by whom, to what effect? Who gets what, when, where, and how? What were the actual channels, mechanisms, and institutional practices—inter-governmental, for instance, or non-governmental? Where are the sites of interaction inside or beyond national boundaries? Who are the agents, intermediaries, and audiences?

Carapico hopes that her new book will provide “insights into the workings of Arab judiciaries, elections, women’s institutions, and public civic spheres as well as the varying and complicated roles of foreign experts,” she tells Jadaliyya, an independent ezine produced by the Arab Studies Institute.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sheila Carapico (SC): After the Cold War, European and American professional democracy brokers flocked to formerly Warsaw Pact and Third World states with projects to monitor elections, promote civil society, train human rights activists, and so forth. They played a conspicuous, indispensable role in establishing the Palestinian Authority, and were increasingly visible in several Arab capitals. I began visiting the foundations that sent these delegations and gathering data on their activities, and published some preliminary findings in a Middle East Journal article. It came out in 2002, when the US was brandishing a new “freedom agenda” for the greater Middle East and gearing up for the occupation of Iraq. To a considerable extent, the research and the book were impelled by events.

All the while, I did not find much systematic analysis of the repercussions of political aid (either worldwide or for the Middle East). The dominant narrative was what I call Uncle Sam’s soliloquy, about a lone actor on the world stage introspectively (perhaps schizophrenically) trying to reconcile ideals with insecurities. Scholars and pundits debated American and sometimes European intentions. The industry self-publishes authoritative, often high-quality research tracking various countries’ progress as measured by ever-refined rubrics.  Ethnographers provided some valuable micro-level case studies of donor projects.  And there were some good country studies, particularly about civil society promotion in Palestine and in Egypt. But political scientists had not mapped the professional practices, institutional pathways, or actual outputs of political aid, or explored, for instance, the implications of working with law schools, criminal justice systems, national women’s machineries, pan-Arab bar associations, UN conferences, different human rights organizations, or other national or transnational agencies. So I was also writing to fill a gap in the literature, specifically about the praxis of political aid.

What is both exhilarating and frustrating about studying Middle Eastern politics is that it won’t sit still for examination. Just as I thought I was wrapping up this book (from Cairo, no less), the 2011 uprisings confirmed my hunch that none of the hypothesized donor objectives—genuine political liberalization, the stability of autocratic allies, a lucrative investment climate, effective penetration of activist networks—were achieved. Meanwhile Egypt’s military-bureaucratic apparatus wielded more legislation and lawsuits against foreign agencies and their domestic counterparts (based on the implausible premise that American agents had been fomenting revolution). We can be skeptical about democratic evangelism without succumbing to either teleological trajectories of hegemony or Vladimir Putin’s populist ravings.

So I wrote this book to explore the practices, paradoxes and contestations of political aid. It tells stories about the ironies widely recognized by practitioners, activists, and observers, and offers an analysis of seemingly antithetical trajectories simultaneously in play.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SC: Beyond the broad foreign policy debates, it turns out there is no such thing as “democracy promotion” writ large. Instead, professionals specialize and projects are narrowly targeted. I identified three key sectors—law, elections, and civil society—and one overarching theme—gender empowerment. These are my four main chapters, each of which confronts distinctive issues, literatures, and contradictions…..

There are overarching themes, like notions of international institutional regimes and/or regimes-of-truth; questions about how stories are documented; and transcendent dilemmas facing activists who often feel caught between national and post-colonial forms of domination. I cannot begin to claim to “speak for them,” but I cite a lot of commentary from bilingual, bicultural intellectuals grappling with these quandaries.  

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SC: ….. I hope researchers will consider whether and how to factor presumed ‘Western pressure” to democratize/ respect human rights/ empower women into studies of political continuity or change; and that students will gain insights into the workings of Arab judiciaries, elections, women’s institutions, and public civic spheres as well as the varying and complicated roles of foreign experts.  

Political Aid is a book for non-Middle East specialists interested in political transitions, democracy promotion, and global aid regimes, and a contribution to the field of ‘transitology’ that often overlooks the region. The examination of the politics and paradoxes of political aid complicates reasoning about the path-dependency of guided liberalization, Arab exceptionalism, and/ or American hegemony.  I also argue for specific attention to interventions in the distinct spheres of justice, representation, gender, and civic activism.  

The third potential audience is comprised of policy analysts, practitioners and activists including employees, short-term consultants, counterparts, and grant beneficiaries – most of whom are very conscious of the complications and contradictions inherent in the work they do. …


Civil society draft law would ‘throttle’ Egypt’s NGOs


NGOs on trial

NGOs on trial

A new civil society draft law will “throttle” Egyptian Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and “rob them of their independence”, said Human Rights Watch.

In a Monday statement, the international watchdog condemned the draft law and called for it to be discarded and replaced. The group’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director warned that the draft law would “extinguish a crucial element of democracy in Egypt”.

The Ministry of Social Solidarity presented the draft legislation to Egyptian groups on 26 June. It has garnered criticism since then for restricting the activities of the already struggling civil society organizations in Egypt.

The draft gives the government veto power over all activities of civil society organizations, Human Rights Watch said. Under the new legislation, the government has the power to dissolve organizations without a court order; it can also refuse to license new organizations under the pretext that their activities could “threaten national unity”….

The draft law furthermore restricts the activities of international organizations within Egypt and their cooperation with domestic organizations, as well as imposing “crippling restrictions” on civil society organizations seeking foreign funding….The current law under which civil society organizations operate obliges them to seek government permission before domestically raising funds, which pushes organizations to seek foreign funding.

Twenty-nine NGOs rejected the draft in a joint statement on Wednesday.