I am planning a longer piece that puts today’s polling in Egypt into a broad historical perspective, but wanted to share a few thoughts as the first stage unfolds.
After a week of demonstrations, violence, and counterdemonstrations, Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections are underway. So far so good. There are sporadic reports of tension at polling places outside the big cities, but there hasn’t been any violence. As the day has gone on the Egyptian people’s enthusiasm for the election seems to have grown. My friends on the ground say that lines at polling stations are long and voting has been extended to 9:00pm (2:00pm EST). Like the national party that unfolded in Tahrir Square on February 11th and 12th, what we are observing today is the very best of Egypt.
Even at this early stage, it is possible to draw a few important conclusions:
Of course, all the good news has to do with process. After last week—which for a time put the polling in doubt—it is hard not to be inspired by the determination of Egyptians to vote.
When Field Marshal Tantawi accepted the resignation of the Sharaf government yesterday, he did not announce a new prime minister. Why? Apparently the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) cannot find anyone willing to take the job—at least under the present terms of the position. This isn’t terribly surprising. Essam Sharaf was hoisted upon the shoulders of Tahrir revolutionaries when it was announced that he would take the place of Mubarak crony, Ahmad Shafiq, last March, but ultimately left office in ignominy. Read more »
In a piece today at ForeignPolicy.com, I argued that the root of Egypt’s present troubles is a worldview on the part of senior military officers that cannot accommodate Egypt’s new political dynamics. Only under massive pressure from growing protests around the country and four days of violence did the SCAF cede ground, declaring that it will transfer power to civilians in June/July 2012 instead of the same time in 2013 as the officers had originally planned. Whether that will mollify the crowds in Tahrir Square or other places in Egypt that have become zones of protest remains to be seen. As I write, reports are coming in of unabated violence in the area near Egypt’s Interior Ministry. One tweet called it an “apocalyptic scene.”
Through all the events of the last four days, it has been hard to gauge what the military is doing and what its commanders are thinking, but there are some hints. The lag of almost twenty-four hours between the time of that Essam Sharaf’s government offered its resignation and the time when reports began surfacing that the military will cede power this coming June/July suggests that the Egyptian military is following the pattern of other militaries around the globe. Readers might think immediately of Turkey or Indonesia, but those examples are not entirely apt. Rather, the Egyptian officers are looking a bit more like some of their South American counterparts. I’m no expert on that area of the world, but I did some reading on it during dissertation research and writing my first book, Ruling But Not Governing. Like the Egyptians, Chilean officers misjudged the politics of the country—in their case with a referendum that unexpectedly did not go in the military’s favor—that triggered a transition to civilian rule. Perhaps a more appropriate comparison is Argentina, where the officers so bollixed up the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that they practically begged civilians to take over. We are definitely not there yet in Egypt. Still, with evidence of officers defecting in Tahrir Square and the country on the verge of chaos, the SCAF may now be more concerned with saving the armed forces as an institution and are beginning to negotiate their exit from politics.
If this is in fact the case, it is good news. Chile and Argentina with their functioning economies and democracies look extremely good in comparison to an Egypt that after 60 years of authoritarian rule is on its knees. Habla espanol, Mushir Tantawi?
Please see below for my latest article that appears at ForeignPolicy.com.
Once again, tear gas hangs over Tahrir Square. For the third straight day, Egyptian activists, ordinary citizens, Islamists, and soccer hooligans called the “Ultras” battled the Central Security Forces (CSF) — paramilitary troops under the command of the Ministry of Interior. The revitalized protest movement has prompted suggestions that Cairo may be on the verge of another revolutionary wave, similar to the one that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February.
As one Egyptian activist on Twitter noted gleefully, “I went to sleep and I woke up on January 28th [the Day of Rage].” But as the death toll currently stands at 23 and the wounded at more than 1,700, how is it that some Egyptians still long for what has been a spasm of violence and fear?
What is happening in Tahrir Square — as frightening as it is — may very well be a clarifying moment. From the start, the Egyptian military’s declarations that it was preparing the ground for democracy were far from credible. The officers’ interest in remaining the sole source of political legitimacy and authority, the military’s economic interests, and the Ministry of Defense’s conception of stability are simply not compatible with a more democratic Egypt.
INSTANBUL — So far I have been in Turkey four days and try as I might to avoid it at all costs, it keeps coming up. What is “it”?, you ask? It is the subject of Turkey-Israel relations. Perhaps my Turkish interlocutors believe that, because I am an American and I live and work near and inside the Beltway, I must want to discuss the consequences of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, the notorious Davos Smackdown, and the infamous Mavi Marmara incident. I don’t really, but I will because I am both polite and my hosts have brought up the topic and just in case anyone hasn’t noticed I am interested in the political effects of narratives.
The Turkish account of where their relationship went wrong with Israel is all-at-once principled, self-righteous, rife with head-spinning ironies, and a certain amount of bravado. The latter is manifested in the declarations that “Israel needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Israel,” and “Turkey is more strategically important to the United States than Israel.” The Israelis and their supporters respond that whatever anyone says, “Israel actually really is strategically important to the United States.” Never mind the fact that if either country was actually confident in their strategic value to the United States they would not need to declare it much less get into a spitting contest over it. Still, any way you look at it, you have to give this one to the Turks.
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INSTANBUL — With the sharp deterioration of Turkish-Syrian relations over the last two days, some Turkish and Western observers have declared Ankara’s “zero-problems” foreign policy dead and buried. This sentiment has been building for some time, especially among critics of the ruling Justice and Development Party, but the denouement of the Erdogan/Davutoglu investment in Bashar al Assad—a signature policy—seems to have signaled the end of what has been billed as Turkey’s transformative diplomacy. The facts are hard to ignore. In an era when Ankara aspired to know problems with its neighbors, it actually has cok problems: Syria, Israel, Armenia, Iran, Cyprus, and the EU to name just a few.
To be fair, Ankara’s neighbors have not exactly cooperated, but at the same time, it is not all that much of a surprise that zero problems has not delivered as promised. For all of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s many talents, his signature policy was not all that visionary. In fact, it was downright conventional. Stripped of all the romance about Turkey being a role model, zero problems was based on the central hunch that drives economic determinism: If people are getting richer and happier, they will accept the status quo because they will develop an economic interest in said status quo, in turn, providing incentive to avoid any problems for fear it might undermine people’s newfound wealth and ipso facto, presto—zero problems.
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From the Potomac to the Euphrates examines how debates about Mideast policy in Washington connect to the region, with a special focus on Egypt and Turkey.