On Morsi’s second coup

Regular readers of this blog would know that among my favorite approaches in analyzing politics is to identify the power poles that drive different political actors, and to frame major developments based on the struggle among these poles.

In the run-up to the 2011 Tahrir Revolution in Cairo, for instance, I described four power poles trying to outmaneuver each other in Egypt: the military-intelligence clique, personified by generals Omar Suleiman and Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, that had dominated the country since the fall of the monarchy; the forces of then-dictator Hosni Mubarak’s family, who wanted to anoint Gamal Mubarak and eventually supplant the military’s grip on the nation’s politics and economy; the loose coalition of liberal pro-democracy groups that include major figures like Mohammed ElBaradei; and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose vast grassroots organization is unparalleled in the country.

The Tahrir uprising was a genuine, spontaneous display of People Power that removed the Mubarak forces from the equation. In its aftermath, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood became the only credible power poles, with the disunited hodgepodge pro-democracy groups relegated to the sidelines. The ruling generals seized power in a silent coup, but were forced by the international community to facilitate a transition to democracy. When parliamentary elections were unsurprisingly won by the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals laid down a series of roadblocks designed to delay the transition and keep powers to themselves. By the time the Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi became the first duly-elected civilian president of the country, the generals had already suspended parliament, usurped legislative powers, and left presidential powers undefined and subject to the whims of the military junta. I thought Morsi would become a lameduck president. I was wrong.

President Morsi proved to be a formidable, and daring, politician. Taking advantage of an embarrassing military blunder that killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers in September, the President’s political operators steered the national conversation towards the view that the military has become so busy with politics it has neglected its primary duty of securing the country. He then sacked all senior generals and replaced them with officers more amenable to civilian rule, restored the Brotherhood-dominated parliament, and reversed the military junta’s decrees that clipped his presidential powers. It was President Morsi’s first coup, and it took the world by surprise. The President has been ruling Egypt by decree since then.

Now, two months later, President Morsi has pulled a second coup, this time against the country’s judiciary. In a series of controversial decrees, the President has declared his powers, along with the Constituent Assembly, which is writing Egypt’s constitution, to be outside the judiciary’s jurisdiction, until a new constitution is promulgated. In other words, President Morsi has declared that not only are his powers absolute, they are beyond reach, too.

One important context to President Morsi’s decree, now characterized by the Western press as a power grab, is that the Muslim Brotherhood seems to view the judiciary not as an independent branch of government but as an institution that has been infiltrated by pro-military and pro-Mubarak forces. This is understandable, considering that it was the Supreme Constitutional Court that, upon prodding by the military junta, arbitrarily dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated parliament prior to President Morsi’s election earlier this year. The same court had been scheduled to rule on a petition to dissolve the Constituent Assembly next week, and the President must have feared a court-ordered dissolution of the Assembly, hence he preempted it. The Assembly’s dissolution would have taken the Egyptian transition back to scratch.

Not surprisingly, President Morsi’s maneuver has enraged the various pro-democracy and anti-Islamist groups. Professional associations of lawyers, law professors, and judges have condemned the President’s attempt to curtail the judiciary’s independence, while activists have once again taken to the streets. In response, the Muslim Brotherhood has mobilized its own rallies to support the President, leading to occasional clashes between the protesters. This has resulted in another round of Egyptian instability that has spooked investors, leading to, among others, the plummeting of the country’s stock market.

Now, back to the quadri-polar paradigm mentioned above. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of the 2011 Tahrir Revolution has prodded Egypt’s power poles to align themselves on the basis of an emerging political cleavage between Islamism and anti-Islamism. Obviously, the current configuration is tilted towards the Islamists. On the other hand, two of the weaker power poles mentioned above, the pro-democracy groups and the remnants of the pro-Mubarak forces, provide some limited form of checks and balance against the Muslim Brotherhood. The other formidable power pole, the Egyptian military, is lurking in the background and may not be willing to join the fray anytime soon, although it remains to be the wild card.

President Morsi’s decree has reinvigorated the pro-democracy groups. They have formed a loose entente called the National Salvation Front, with Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, a darling of the Western press, as its leader. While they could barely muster enough crowds for their pre-planned rallies weeks before the President’s so-called power-grab, they are now mobilizing some of the biggest rallies Egypt has seen since 2011. Still, they remain without a firm machinery that can coordinate political strategy. Their extremist position– they refuse to negotiate with President Morsi unless he rescinds the decree, yet they are not offering any counter-proposals to address some of the concerns that led the President to promulgate the decree in the first place– would render them irrelevant.

In contrast, President Morsi’s coup has been meticulously crafted. As Professor Nathan Brown has noted, the decree includes some carrots for several political actors: An extension of the Constituent Assembly’s term, which the non-Islamist Assembly members have asked for; a re-trial of several officials involved in the violent attempt to infiltrate the Tahrir protests in 2011, which is designed to placate some activists; and compensation for the families of the so-called martyrs of the Tahrir Revolution. Moreover, President Morsi’s timing is perfect: He has just won some accolades for successfully brokering a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel, softening the effects of his anti-judiciary decree in the international community.

American politicians, like Senator John McCain, have come out with a strong condemnation of President Morsi’s second coup, going so far as to call for the withdrawal of American aid to Egypt. But the Obama administration has adopted a softer tone, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton merely asking President Morsi to re-examine his decree and hear what the Judiciary has to say. The President has obliged, inviting judges for some small talk, but he still didn’t budge in the end.

Somehow, the leaders of the judiciary have shown some weakness by conceding that, indeed, they have no jurisdiction over President Morsi’s acts of sovereignty, a vague concept that is somehow akin to what are known in democracies like the Philippines and the United States as political questions. This soft stance is probably a result of the calibrated diplomacy conducted on President Morsi’s behalf by Vice President Mamoud Mekki, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki, and Prosecutor-General Abdel Maguid Mahmoud– themselves former judges who used to figure prominently in the resistance against Mubarak’s efforts to subvert the judiciary during his regime. For his part, President Morsi has announced that his decree is merely temporary and is designed solely to ensure an efficient transition, although very few are convinced.

The only thing that could derail President Morsi is an intervention by that other formidable power pole, the Egyptian military. But my take is that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have already forged some sort of agreement, where the troops would stay in the barracks as long as the present dispensation keeps the military’s economic clout intact. There’s a similar arrangement in Thailand between the royalist military and the Thaksinite forces, who are erstwhile sworn enemies, so it’s not at all unlikely. Further, I suspect that the Egyptian military as an institution is seeing a generational changing of the guard: The old generals are giving way to younger officers who are willing to cede political power to the civilians, if only to move the nation forward.

Of course, I don’t know the Egyptian military enough to confidently say that these are not merely unfounded speculation; but it’s reasonable to say that the generals would have little incentive to confront the Muslim Brothers for now, especially since, thanks to the Gaza-Israel ceasefire, President Morsi has the confidence of the American government as well as the support of Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been showering Cairo with aid as part of Ankara’s attempt to cement its influence in the region.

Some years from now, students of politics would examine the remarkable emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as the pre-eminent power pole in Egypt; and they will see a disciplined and meticulous strategy of being engaged in the democratic space, knowing how to take advantage of auspicious situations, employing carrots to rein in some actors to prevent them from reinforcing a competing power pole, cultivating some political capital in the international arena, and keeping a rival power pole at a safe distance.

Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood is winning, and would continue to steer Egypt’s transition. The question now is where it would take the Egyptian transition. Would the Brotherhood build the theocracy it has long dreamed of, or would it emulate its new patron, Prime Minister Erdogan?

Things are getting uglier in Syria

After four days of marathon negotiations, the different Syrian opposition groups have finally agreed to form a united front against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. A moderate Islamic cleric, Maath al-Khatib, has been elected president of the coalition. This is a minor achievement for Qatar and the United States, which, along with many others, have been pushing the fragmented Syrian opposition to get its acts together. One wonders, however, if this is a tad too late.

When the Arab Spring began in Tunisia last year, the international community anticipated an awesome Arab version of the velvet revolutions of the late 1980s. The turn of events, however, proved to be a disappointing regression from good to ugly: The protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, while relatively peaceful, took longer than usual, with the military and, eventually, the Islamist hi-jacking the gains of the revolution. The protests in Libya, on the other hand, resulted in a bloody civil war that almost left the country in tatters. Syria, so far, has been the ugliest episode: Almost two years after the initial pro-democracy protests, the country is still in a protracted civil war, at times threatening to explode into a wider, regional conflict.

There’s one important difference between Libya and Syria. The erstwhile autocratic regime in Tripoli had generally been isolated, which made it easy to mobilize international support for an American-led multilateral intervention in support of the Libyan uprising. In contrast, Syria sits at an important geopolitical crossroads, and how things end in Damascus would affect the interests of major regional powers like, among others, Iran, Turkey, and Russia.

President Assad’s regime is a reliable ally of the Iranian theocracy. Despite his Arab nationalism, the Syrian dictator’s father had sided with Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War, and Damascus has been helping the Iranians smuggle arms to their Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. In return, the ayatollahs in Tehran are lending their all-out support to the embattled Assad regime, thereby fueling the Syrian armed forces, which the dictator has unleashed on his own people. Undoubtedly, the ayatollahs see the Syrian uprising as a proxy war between the Islamic Republic and the Israeli-American axis.

Turkey’s interest, on the other hand, is to preserve Syrian stability. Syria’s unraveling could complicate Ankara’s main source of insecurity, the Kurdish insurrection in the Turkish south. Ankara fears that a power vacuum in Damascus could lead to the creation of an autonomous Kurdish entity in the Syrian north, which could in turn coalesce with the Kurdish nationalists in Iraq. This could embolden the Iraqi Kurdistan to secede from the currently very weak Iraqi state, absorb the Syrian Kurds, and eventually form a Greater Kurdistan, which would of course be an existential threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.

Taking his “zero-problems” (with Turkey’s neighbors) policy to heart, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had pursued friendly ties with President Assad in the last few years. It was Ankara’s overtures that revived President Assad’s international legitimacy, which had been greatly diminished by the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. When massive pro-democracy protests broke out last year, Ankara initially supported President Assad, but eventually changed course when his regime embarked on a bloody crackdown. Prime Minister Erdogan has since realized that supporting the Syrian dictator would cost Turkey the political capital that he has been patiently cultivating in the Middle East. Turkey is now among those supporting the Syrian opposition, although it’s apparently bent on managing the pace of the civil war.

As for Russia, it maintains its only overseas military base in Syria, and would naturally have the incentive to oppose, or water down, any anti-Assad resolution in the United Nations Security Council. This makes any multilateral intervention difficult, since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has repeatedly ruled out imposing a similar aerial embargo that it had imposed on Libya last year, unless the United Nations endorses it.

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition had been hopelessly fragmented. The Turkey-based Syrian National Council tried to pose as the representative of the Syrian opposition in the international community, but its leaders have been living in exile for years and are arguably out of touch with what’s happening on the ground. As a result, Al Qaeda-linked Islamic extremist groups has stepped in to fill the vacuum in the Syrian opposition, raising alarm bells among many observers.

Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group composed of Syrian extremists and mujaheddins from all over the Muslim world, has been leading the charges against President Assad’s forces, according to reports by the Washington Post. The core of this group is said to be President Assad’s own Frankenstein: Syria has cultivated an Islamist terrorist network that Damascus unleashed on American and Israeli interests in the Middle East and the anti-Syria political opposition in Lebanon; and now, these same Sunni terrorists are going after the Assad regime, which, for them, represents Shiite heresy.

Allegedly supported by leading Arab powers like Saudi Arabia, Al Nusra has reportedly recruited an impressive corps of multinational fighters. The last time mujaheddins of different nationalities have been seen fighting together was during the American-supported Islamist resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. And as the secular Free Syrian Army suffers from declining ammunition due to lack of Western support, many opposition fighters have desperately turned to Al Nusra, giving the jihadists a significant amount of popular support.

It’s in this context that the United States, the European Union, Qatar, and Turkey have pressured Syrian opposition groups to get their acts together. And now that they finally have, the ball has returned to these Western powers’ court; they must now act decisively. The prospect of an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist regime taking over Damascus and its massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons has infinitely raised the stakes.

I was wrong on Egypt

Around three months ago, I predicted that whatever the outcome of the presidential election that time, Egypt would remain under military rule. The logic was simple: The military, represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, had successfully consolidated power prior to the polls. The Council had the Supreme Court dissolve the Parliament– dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood– on technical grounds, granting the ruling generals the power to legislate. The president’s powers, on the other hand, were loosely-defined, giving the junta the ability to diminish the presidency. I thought Mohammad Morsi would be a lameduck president.

It had seemed that the only viable option for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood then was to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the ruling generals, which I thought would not have yielded much result since the Muslim Brothers would have to negotiate from a position of weakness. I was wrong.

It took only one embarrassing failure on the part of the military for President Morsi to outmaneuver the ruling generals. Sixteen Egyptian soldiers were killed in a security breach along the border in Sinai last month, exposing the army to widespread criticism. The prevailing opinion in Cairo at that time, which no doubt were either crafted or encouraged by the Brothers’ political operators, was that the military had been too busy meddling in politics that it had neglected its real job, which was to secure the nation. The imbroglio had zapped the Council’s political capital.

Sensing an auspicious opportunity, President Morsi decisively launched a daring civilian coup. He sacked the head of the Council, Field Marshall Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, who had been acting as Egypt’s de facto head of state prior to the President’s inauguration; the chief of staff of the Armed Forces, General Sami Anan; and the heads of the army, air force, and navy. These senior generals were replaced by officers widely perceived to be more amenable to civilian rule. The President also reversed the Council’s decrees that limited his powers, and, in a stinging rebuke to the Supreme Court, restored the Parliament, which had been writing Egypt’s constitution before its dissolution.

The speed with which President Morsi completed his coup took the Middle East, Washington, and all concerned capitals by surprise. But the biggest surprise was the fact that there was hardly any resistance from the military. To be sure, some kinks were ironed out: All the generals forced into retirement were decorated with national honors and retained as presidential advisers. But for an institution so used to substantially controlling Egypt’s government and economy, the Egyptian military’s meek acceptance of civilian rule was surprising. Some analysts suggest that it signaled a generational changing of guards in the Egyptian armed forces: The younger officers are more willing to cede power to a civilian authority and go back to their barracks, if only to move the nation forward.

What does this mean for Egypt? Well, despite this blog’s liberal leanings, I’ve always argued that letting the generals steer Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition was the way to go, if only to maintain stability. This early, President Morsi is already being implicated in the massive, violent protests against the West over an inconsequential American film that disrespects Islam. Does this signal the track President Morsi and the Muslim Brothers would take for Egypt?

Obviously, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the beneficiary of the revolution– and the subsequent silent coup— that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak last year. It has outmaneuvered its sworn enemy, and is now holding the key to Egypt’s future. But how would it dispense the enormous powers it now has? Has the Brotherhood matured enough to effectively govern a modern society, or is it still stuck in its medieval beliefs that are incompatible with democracy? Would it go the way of Erdogan’s Turkey, or would it eventually tread the path of the Ayatollahs in Tehran?

Military rule will remain in Egypt

All eyes are on Cairo now as two of the country’s presidential candidates, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi and former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, have simultaneously declared victory in yesterday’s presidential polls. But whoever wins the presidency, Egypt would likely remain under military rule.

The election is arguably the culmination of the decades-old war between the Islamist Brotherhood and the military clique, which has been ruling the country through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces since Mubarak’s ouster last year. For all intents and purposes, the two institutions represents the only credible power poles in Egypt: The military, aside from being the guarantor of the nation’s security and political stability, controls a substantial portion of the Egyptian economy. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, has a formidable grassroots support that makes it the only credible threat to the military’s political power.

Between the two, the military has the obvious upper hand. Having hi-jacked last year’s people power revolt through a silent coup, the generals of the Council have been dictating the terms of the post-Mubarak transition. Through the whole machinery of the government, the ruling generals appear to be moving mountains to ensure General Shafiq’s victory. But even if the former Air Force Marshall fails to win, the Council can still retain power by making the Brotherhood’s candidate a lameduck president.

Earlier, the ruling generals had the Parliament dissolved by the Supreme Constitution Court on technical grounds. The said Parliament had been writing a constitution, which would have defined the powers of the president vis a vis the Council. But now that the Parliament has been dissolved, legislative powers has reverted back to the Council, which means that the Council will now be the one to define the powers of whoever would be elected as president. If the Islamist Morsi becomes president, the Council would certainly make his office practically toothless.

As if these are not insurance enough, a case has been filed before the Supreme Constitution Court questioning the legality of the Brotherhood itself.

As I see it, therefore, the Brotherhood’s only options now are either to cut a power-sharing deal with the Council or to mobilize massive street protests. But I suspect that any protest actions would likely fizzle out since the Brotherhood has reportedly lost some public support following concerns about its reckless introduction of Islamist bills in the previous Parliament. Moreover, the Justice Ministry has recently declared that military and intelligence officers could again arrest civilians, hinting that the Council is willing to flex some muscles in order to nip massive protest actions in the bud.

Cutting a deal with the ruling generals, meanwhile, would be a pragmatic option, but it would not yield much tactical advantage. The Islamists would have to negotiate from a position of weakness, which means that the Council– unless prodded by the United States, which is unlikely at this point– would only allow few concessions to the Brotherhood, if at all. Moreover, cozying up to the generals might alienate the conservatives among the Brotherhood’s ranks.

In short, more than a year after risking their lives in a people power revolt in Tahrir Square, the Egyptians will now have an empowered military clique ruling alongside a toothless president and without a parliament. This arrangement will likely stall, or even reverse, the country’s democratic transition; but it will also guarantee a predictable regime that would maintain whatever is left of Egypt’s, and the entire region’s, stability.

How to deal with Egypt

Some nine months ago, I wrote how the January 25 uprising in Tahrir Square that ousted erstwhile Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was not really a velvet, but a negotiated- or calibrated- revolution. Although there was spontaneous mobilization of people power on the ground, what really ocured was not a People Power transition but a coup d’etat. The people’s uprising was hi-jacked by the military clique, which had long been disenchanted with Mubarak, to finally launch their own coup against the dictator who had been trying to create a dynasty at the expense of the interests of the military.

This reality is now obvious to the world: As expected, the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces (SCAF), which took over from Mubarak, maneuvered to protect its turf in Egyptian politics and stalled the democratic transition. Indeed, although parliamentary elections are scheduled this week, until now it is not clear when the Council would hand power over to a civilian Executive. As a result, massive protests broke out, followed by the transition’s civilian leadership’s offer to resign their post in solidarity with the protests. The SCAF responded to these mass actions with crackdowns reminiscent of Mubarak’s methods, which only emboldened the protesters. “It’s January 25 all over again,” screamed one of the 20,000 people that filled Tahrir Square last Saturday. “They are back and we are not leaving. Down with military rule!”

Continue reading “How to deal with Egypt”

Egypt: People power or coup d’etat?

While many Filipinos are pointing out the parallels between this week’s historic events in Egypt that culminated in the ouster of strongman Hosni Mubarak and the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution that ousted President Ferdinand Marcos, it must be noted that they are, in a very important way, opposites of each other: Edsa 1986 had seen a military coup that ignited a people power uprising; Tahrir 2011, on the other hand, saw a people power uprising sparking a military coup.

Notwithstanding the ensuing euphoria, the reality is that what happened in Egypt was not a people power revolution but a military coup d’état. While Edsa 1986 gave the Philippines a duly-elected government and a constitutional democracy, Tahrir 2011 is cementing military rule; the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces– a junta, for all intents and purposes– is taking over.

Continue reading “Egypt: People power or coup d’etat?”

Egypt’s calibrated revolution.

Twelve days into the massive protests against his autocratic regime, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is still clinging on to his position. This has led many to ask the super question: What’s taking Egypt’s velvet revolution too long?

Since the uprising exploded on January 25, many Western pundits, perhaps more hopeful than informed, had been predicting that Mubarak’s departure would only be a matter of days, if not hours. But it’s now becoming clear that, while for all intents and purposes Mubarak’s dictatorship has come to a close, the transition would probably be slow and have less drama. The on-going situation in Egypt resembles not a velvet but a negotiated—or calibrated, if you will—revolution.

Continue reading “Egypt’s calibrated revolution.”

On Tunisia, velvet revolutions, and the battle of political perspectives in the Philippines.

The news of continued protests in Tunisia over the appointment of cabinet ministers associated with recently-ousted autocratic President Zine al-AbidineBen Ali in the new, transitional “unity government” reminded me of an interesting thesis on velvet revolutions by Timothy Garton Ash. I came across it in 2009 through the blog of Manuel L. Quezon III, now President Benigno S Aquino III’s Undersecretary for Communications.

According to Ash, one fundamental difference between traditional revolutions– those class-oriented mass actions led by the republicans in France, the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Maoists in China– and the modern velvet revolutions– those that democratized autocracies from the Philippines to Central Asia to Eastern Europe from the late 1980s– is that the latter do not produce a winner-takes-all situation where the losers lose not just their influence and properties but also their lives. Instead, the members of the ruling elite get not the guillotine but a seat at the round table.

Continue reading “On Tunisia, velvet revolutions, and the battle of political perspectives in the Philippines.”