Rewriting social contracts in the Middle East

Authors and experts convened last Wednesday to launch of the report Carnegie Endowment Arab Fractures: Citizens, States, and Social Contracts and the future of Arab regional order. The first panel included Amr Hamzawy, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and Bassma Kodmani, Co-Founder and Executive Director at the Arab Reform Initiative. Perry Cammack, Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment acted as moderator. The second panel included Hafsa Halawa, an independent political analyst and lawyer, Mehrezia Labidi, member of the Tunisian Assembly of the Representatives of the People, and George Abed, Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the International Institute of Finance. Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment acted as moderator.

Cammack discussed the broad themes of the report, which aims to understand the Middle East based on the experiences of people in the region expressed in a survey of more than 100 Arab intellectuals. They assessed the top regional challenges to include authoritarianism and corruption. Cammack said that the report operates within three main frameworks—the citizen, state, and institutions to better examine these challenges. The authoritarian bargain and prevailing social structures have collapsed post-Arab Spring, and new social contracts must be developed for the future.

Kodmani commented on Arab resilience and institutions as well as Syria in particular. She sees the onus of leadership in Syria now falling on society, especially youth, to manage diversity and unify the country after conflict. Local governance within communities works well, so she advocates negotiating a decentralized political system (not de facto partition). By grooming national leaders at the local level, government can be reconstructed with greater transparency and accountability. Kodmani sees the new social contract and a new balance with the army and security forces, so people feel protected by trusted security forces.

Hamzawy discussed the situation in Egypt, in which deep distrust of institutions and lack of social services have led to a revival of pockets of activism in unions and associations, universities, and among Egyptian youth. Although many have lost faith in the formal political arena, Hamzawy expressed hope in the new wave of activism and demands for a new social contract in which government is held accountable and citizens participate in the decision-making process.

Asked to assess what went wrong in Syria and Egypt respectively, Kodmani said that opposition figures failed to incorporate the younger generations into the movement, so the vision of the initial protests was never realized. The opposition was subsequently radicalized and militarized while youth turned to civil society organizations. She believes democracy could make government accountable to the people and incorporate mechanisms to combat corruption. In Egypt, Hamzawy said that an obsession with identity politics obscured the need to build democratic institutions and effect substantive policy change, resulting in an empowered military apparatus taking the reins in 2013.

In the second panel, Labidi discussed the progress Tunisia has made in building trust between the state and citizens. Many citizens feel ownership in the new system and do not want to abandon it or give it up. This translates into a spirit of consensus and participation. Although there are still difficulties, such as economic development and infrastructure building, Tunisian youth and previously marginalized regions now have a stake in the system.

Abed suggested that in states such as Saudi Arabia, oil revenue allows the government to pay its citizens in exchange for carte blanche political power, but with declining oil prices the people will start to ask questions and demand more accountability. Similarly, countries with a history of anti-colonial struggle and failed industrial nationalization must reckon with what Abed called a second Arab awakening as more people demand liberty, dignity, and transparency.

Speaking about Egyptian youth, Halawa said that civil society must balance conversations about governance with debates over identity and visions for Egypt’s future. Egyptians underestimated the entrenched nature of the country’s institutions and do not trust them. Thus, the problem is not political engagement but rather the disconnect between civil society and politics, called “the trust deficit,” which deprives Egypt of any real drivers of change.

The panelists were asked how best to engage the next generation in a way that will create change and how national and civic identity might play into this dynamic. Halawa said that there is only a bottom up approach, getting civil society actors to buy into the system and further explore what civic engagement means and how it’s expressed. Labidi said Tunisians must still define a unifying national identity that prevents fighting among themselves. Abed remained doubtful that regional governments recognized human rights as natural rights, and hoped that governments could be built to protect these rights for their citizens.

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30 seconds closer to midnight

The US Treasury today “designated” 13 individuals and 12 companies associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) ballistic missile program and its support to terrorists, in particular Lebanese Hizbollah. Their assets in the US are blocked; Americans and US residents are generally prohibited from dealing with them.  Citizens and residents of other countries may also choose to avoid dealings with them, if only to protect their interests in the US.

This is presumably only the first, and relatively mild, step in a more hawkish American attitude towards Iran, presaged earlier this week by National Security Advisor Flynn putting Tehran “on notice.” While President Obama softened his tone and moderated action against Iran subsequent to the nuclear deal, President Trump is upping the ante, either figuring that Iran will stick with the nuclear deal pretty much no matter what or that it will violate it in whole or in part. That could provide an opportunity for Trump to ditch it altogether.

That would be a bad thing for the US: it would free Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, without much prospect of putting together the multilateral sanctions needed to pressure Tehran to stop. But Iran may well figure it is better off building up its economy now and going for nuclear weapons later. It is already closer to eight than ten years before important parts of the nuclear deal expire. A civilization as old as Iran’s knows how to be patient.

Still, I would expect some reaction. When Trump blocked all travel from Iran last week, the Iranians reciprocated by blocking all travel by Americans. I suppose they might in this case designate some American individuals and companies with whom Iranians should not do business. If Boeing were so designated, that would have a serious impact, as it has sold 80 airplanes in a deal worth over $16 billion. The Iranians also know well how to harass the US navy in the Gulf and the strait of Hormuz, not to mention how to arrest US citizens (especially those who are also Iranian, some of whom are presumably still in Iran) on espionage charges.

We can hope that the escalating spiral of tit-for-tat will end before serious arm is done to peace and security, but there is little or no guarantee of that. Trump, who is surrounded by advisers even more belligerent towards Iran, is looking for an opportunity to demonstrate more “resolve” than Obama, whom he regards as having been wimpish. There is ample support in Congress on both sides of the aisle for a more hawkish stance. Much the same is true in Iran: the Supreme Leader will not want to set a precedent of backing down from a confrontation with the new American president. The Majlis will generally support hawkishness, especially in the run-up to presidential elections due May 19, damaging President Rouhani’s prospects.

Iran and the US are now pursuing the first stages of what we conflict management types call their “Best Alternatives to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA).” The Iran nuclear deal is still in place, but it does not cover either the ballistic missile program or support to terrorism. Both of those are covered by Security Council resolutions whose applicability and interpretation are not agreed. The American BATNA for now is sanctions; the Iranian BATNA we’ll have to wait and see.

There are many good reasons why the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists late last year moved the doomsday clock 30 seconds closer to midnight.

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The Qaddafi in their heads

The Carnegie Endowment hosted a discussion this week with Jonathan Winer, former Special Envoy for Libya at the Department of State, on the future of Libya. Frederic Wehrey, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, moderated the conversation.

In late 2013, when Winer arrived in Libya, he saw a disconnect between politics and government. The system had been purposely designed to serve Qaddafi exclusively and strip state actors of any decision-making abilities or legitimacy. “The Qaddafi in their heads” meant no one else could make decisions or enforce them effectively. This made it difficult for the US to engage with Libyans and resulted in a deeply divisive political system nearing anarchy.

Winer then discussed his experience trying to cobble together a functional government by bridging the gaps between political actors. Working with the Libyan leadership was frustrating given the low-intensity civil war through 2014. Winer rejected the idea of an international trusteeship, citing this as post-colonial behavior. He favors Libyan ownership in creating a single functional government.

Three precepts have helped the US work with other countries and can be applied to Libya:

  • There should be a single negotiating process for everyone, with the United Nations at the core bringing all actors to the table.
  • We should work with other countries that are patrons of Libyan clients to influence their actions and support reconciliation of different factions.
  • Benefits should be distributed to everyone throughout the country.

The upcoming 2018 elections are an opportunity to agree on a government and move away from the political legacy of Qaddafi. According to Winer, the fundamental problem is that people in leadership positions do not have the expertise required. They lack a roadmap, face constant threats from actors such as ISIS, and need to respond to demands for fast and complete solutions. It is no surprise the government is not functioning.

One major concern is the role of spoilers, including General Haftar, Islamist parties, and violent non-state actors. Winer is hopeful that Haftar has pulled back from his coup intentions and will be willing to work within a government framework. He was also careful to define the Libyan arm of the Muslim Brotherhood party along the same lines as its other regional parties and cautioned against excluding groups before knowing the consequences of that action. Winer noted that Libya’s neighbors suffer greatly from terrorist organizations in Libya and that the US has attacked terrorist training bases with the consent of the Libyan government.

Winer said that every country wants Libya to work, but ultimately Libyans do not like others telling them what to do. It would be “suicidal” to attempt a takeover of Libya: “imperial overstretch.” The result would be polarizing and dangerous, as extremists line up with extremists and Libya devolves into full-scale civil war. Thus, it is paramount to the country’s stability to focus on politics, as security and the economy will follow. Looking into the future for US policy, Winer said that he could not blame the new administration for wanting to change course, but feared change that could risk civil war, polarization, or a humanitarian disaster.

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It’s the oil

On Monday, Georgetown University’s Centers for Contemporary Arab Studies and Latin American Studies hosted an event “Oil, Authoritarianism, and Populism” to compare governance in the Middle East and Latin America after the discovery of oil. The discussion featured Daniel Neep, author of Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: Space, Insurgency and State Formation, Georgetown Associate Professor Joseph Sassoon (author of Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime), and Angelo Rivero Santos, adjunct professor and director of Venezuela Programming at the McDonough School of Business.

Neep described the study of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as idiographic, isolated in part due to the complexity and variety in the region itself. At the end of the Cold War, the field of international relations started to shift and scholars increasingly focused on democratization. By the 2000s, the conversations switched to ways authoritarianism evolves and roots itself in the context of state and society. Much of this research is concerned with individual nations or bilateral comparisons, with little attention paid to international trends. Neep argued that there is much to learn from international interregional comparison. Comparisons between Latin America and the Middle East are particularly interesting. Populist authoritarianism is more successful in the Arab world, but Neep pointed out that political society’s conception of authoritarianism started in Latin America. He highlighted state-led industrialization, class uprisings, and land reform as key elements in comparisons of pre-2005 Syria, Egypt under Nasser, and South American countries. It is essential that scholars look at similar experiences across the globe to fully understand long term trajectories.

Additionally, Neep highlighted the error in thinking of authoritarian and democratic systems as diametrically opposed, or even as different“species.” He rejected the tendency to consider authoritarian regimes as a stage before the development of a democratic system. A more accurate way of thinking frames authoritarianism as a particular type of state. He went on to cite the current political crisis in the US as an example of crossover, a democratic regime with (potential?) authoritarian characteristics.

Sassoon identified fundamental elements of Middle Eastern regimes congruent with Latin American history such as widespread use of torture, a strong security apparatus, and a strong military. Yet, despite its military dictatorships, Latin America managed to move past authoritarian structures. Sassoon proposed that oil might be the factor retarding democratic progress in the MENA region, especially considering the failure of the 2011 uprisings in the region. Sassoon points out that Iraq and Egypt were more developed than Chile in the 1960’s, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth today. Aspirations for reform suffered from a lack of proper opposition and control of the ruling party.

Latin America possessed requisite structures to establishing a strong opposition entrenched in civil society that are not present in the Middle East. Sassoon warned that whether nations are producers or intermediaries of oil, there is too much reliance on the resource. This is a fundamental issue. No country has figured out how to divert oil wealth into something more productive. Sassoon used Libya as an example of this challenge; when Gadhafi took power Libya was a rich country, with no border disputes and no enemies in the world. Forty years later it is a failed state.

Santos identified Venezuela as the best country in Latin America to compare with the Middle East because of its position as the second biggest oil producer in the Western hemisphere after the US. The history of democracy in Venezuela is complicated, with over 25 constitutions since it’s independence in 1810. Equally complex is its relationship with oil: it is both a curse and a blessing. Oil propelled Venezuela to relevancy in the world stage through membership in OPEC and the Jose Accords, and triggered social and political transformations at home. But the country is a classic example of “Dutch Disease,” where the discovery of oil shifted the formerly diverse agricultural economy to one dependent on a single resource.

Venezuela differs from many countries in the MENA region because the government always believed that the oil belonged to the people, and worked to create social contracts that addressed the role of oil in society and how to distribute resource wealth. However, you cannot distribute wealth that you do not have, and Santos remarked that low oil prices cause problems such as the current unrest.

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Hard to keep up

It really is: the novice President has set a blazing pace in destroying alliances, alienating friends, strengthening adversaries, and provoking enemies. To wit:

  1. Phone calls with the traditionally friendly President of Mexico and Prime Minister of Australia ended in acrimony, with the former over who would pay for the border wall and with the latter over whether the US would keep its commitment to take some refugees.
  2. Europeans are predictably objecting to the ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Chancellor Merkel has scolded the White House. The Brits are going to debate in parliament whether to go through with their Prime Minister’s invitation to Trump for a state visit, which would likely generate record protests.
  3. The Islamic State (ISIS) is using the immigration ban for recruiting purposes, as it fits perfectly with its narrative that the United States is at war with Islam while doing absolutely nothing to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks.
  4. National Security Advisor Flynn and the President have explicitly put Iran “on notice” about its missile tests and its assistance to the Houthi side of Yemen’s civil war. Watch this space for more sanctions or military action, though it is also possible the Americans are bluffing or just satisfying their domestic constituencies. The Iranians are likely to continue both missile tests, which they say do not involve nuclear-capable vectors, as well as assistance to the Houthis.
  5. Trump approved a Special Forces operation in Yemen that largely failed (he announced that it succeeded) and killed civilians, including children, as well as one American.

Binyamin Applebaum, who writes for the New York Times, has helpfully prepared a map illustrating those Trump has angered since taking office (click on the legend to read it):

No doubt more is in the offing. And the domestic front has been no less hyperactive: nomination of a Supreme Court Justice whose high school years included leading a club called “Fascism Forever” (you really can’t make up stuff as good as this), preparation of an executive order on “religious freedom” that would create giant loopholes enabling discrimination, and approval in the Senate of an Attorney General with a compelling record of racism and (il)legal efforts to suppress voting by minorities.

This would all be comical but for the likelihood it will lead to tragedy. While offending friends and allies, Trump remains committed to his bromance with President Putin, who shows no sign of giving Washington anything of value in return for its affection. The war in Ukraine is heating up and the Russians have nixed Trump’s proposal for safe zones in Syria, which can’t be created unless Russia as well as its Iranian and Syrian allies sign on.

Iran is the most likely point of serious friction, not only because of Flynn’s warning but also because the new administration appears determined to teach lessons that Tehran doesn’t want to learn. But North Korea is another possible friction point, as Pyongyang has the same attitude. War with either would be a major enterprise rife with risk and gigantic expense that few allies would be willing to share with a president who has no appreciation for the long history of America’s relationships with them. Trump is a unilateralist who will incur the full costs of any intervention against Iran or North Korea. He will find it difficult even to get multilateral sanctions beefed up against the North Koreans, as he has already done a lot to offend China.

America First is America on its own.

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Still damaging

President Trump’s Executive Order affects a minor portion of international travelers, and is a first step towards reestablishing control over America’s borders and national security.

This in essence is the administration’s defense of the President’s executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from the US. It completely misses the point.

First: the US already has control over its borders. Vetting of refugees is intense. Vetting of people who get visas and green cards is as well. I suppose there are ways of tightening things up, but it could have been done without presidential executive orders and worldwide publicity inimical to US interests. I know of no evidence that immigrants or refugees pose a serious national security threat.

Just as important: the executive order’s main impact is on people with no intention of traveling to the US, first and foremost the world’s rapidly growing population of 1.6 or more billion Muslims, including 3.3 million who already reside in the US. They will view the order as unjustified and prejudicial, causing at least some to be disillusioned, alienated, hostile, and even radicalized. It will help ISIS and Al Qaeda recruit and inspire retaliation. If I understand correctly, Iran and Iraq have already responded by blocking the entry of Americans.

The ban is in fact part of a long history of barring immigration: by Chinese, Jews, anarchists, Communists, Iranians, and HIV positive people. In almost all these cases, the bans have proven useless, regrettable, unconstitutional, or immoral.

The current ban is likely all of the above. Immigrants from the countries in question (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) have conducted no terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11, though Somalis born in the US have been accused of plotting them. The odds of the ban blocking someone plotting such an attack are essentially zero. They might be higher if people coming from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other allied countries (not to mention Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tunisia) were barred, but Trump won’t block them for fear of the reaction.

The administration already appears to be regretting that the ban blocked Iraqis who had supported the US military. The President’s indication that Christians will be given priority in the future is clearly unconstitutional, but of course any court decision on that question might be years in the future. Singling out Christians will, as Michael Hanna suggested this morning in a tweet, put them at heightened risk throughout the Middle East, where some Muslims will regard the favoritism as aligning Christians politically and militarily with the US. “Do no harm” is the moral imperative most of us like to see applied in international relations. Or at least do more good than harm. The administration ignores that dictum at its peril.

The courts last night blocked application of the ban to people who have already arrived at US airports. But it remains in effect for 90 days for those who have not yet reached US shores. Airlines are blocking people with passports from the countries in question from boarding, even if they have valid visas or green cards.

In other words: the demonstrations last night at airports were great, but Trump continues to cause real harm to American interests and ideals throughout the Muslim world. Our European allies recognize this and are protesting, sometimes loudly. But it is up to Americans to get Trump to reverse his foolish and counter-productive decisions.

PS: Fareed Zakaria says it well:

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