Democracy

By Ben Jury

Source: Patrik Nygren/Flickr

Ah, the new year. Whether you’re still regretting your overly priced New Year’s Eve Uber or putting off your New Year’s Resolution another day (or year), the writers and editors at the US-Middle East Youth Network are excited to bring you fresh insight on the latest news from the region. We’ve got a number of exciting projects lined up for this year, including collaborations with other universities across the country.

So much has changed in the last year throughout the region. The multilateral nuclear weapons deal with Iran, the ongoing refugee crisis throughout the Middle East and Europe, the terrorist attacks in Paris, and protests against trash and corruption in Lebanon are just a few of the headline grabbers from 2015. Perhaps It was also a watershed year in the war against the Islamic State. With ISIS’s loss of Ramadi’s center just a few days ago, the tide seems to be turning against the terrorist group, though its far too soon to tell what the future holds for ISIS.

Yet so much has remained the same. Five years on, President Obama’s 2009 call for a ‘New Deal’ between the United States and the Muslims of the world rings hollow. Five years on, the Syrian Civil War rages with no end in sight. Continued drone strikes in Yemen and other countries throughout the region put civilian lives in danger. American troops remain stationed in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and more than a dozen other Middle Eastern countries. All the while, private military contractors continue to operate and profit from continued presence in the region.

What we need now from U.S. policymakers and politicians is the resolution to make tangible steps towards Western military disengagement in the Middle East. Similarly, it’s high time that Western multinationals and governments ditch the military-industrial business model in the region and formulate a new strategy to support our supposed allies without treating them like second-class powers. Rather than using predatory and neo-colonial economic policy under the guise of spreading democracy and peace, Washington needs to reconsider its grand strategy for foreign policy abroad. President Obama has a little over a year left in office to realign American strategy towards more equitable and mutually prosperous relations with Muslim countries. It’s time to make good on these high-minded promises.

Whether or not you believe the United States is an empire in decline, it’s clear that America’s role in global politics is shifting. As we move towards a more multi-polar system with Russia, China, and other nations exerting more and more power within and beyond their regional centers, the old model of imperial politics must fade into obsolescence. Remaining a strong global power may well be Washington’s priority. Brute force and coercion aren’t the only ways of preserving American strength and influence in the world, much less in the region. Sending American boots on the ground will always be an unsustainable, quick fix solution to a perennial problem. MENA nations need to build up their own national security infrastructures to combat terrorism and domestic threats to their sovereignty, all the while remaining transparent. Diplomacy, soft power tactics, and fair-minded coalition building with regional actors will ensure the Iran keeps its promises better than anyone.

At the very least, a country’s foreign policy represents its vision for how the world should be. 2016 is a promising year for change, with a number of important elections (including the U.S. presidential election) and global summits. Yet the chance for meaningful change requires political courage. Change in the world, in the Middle East will require bottom-up organizing and active, meaningful participation by the people affected by policy changes. Chances of that happening on a systematic level are slim. After all, only 10% of New Year’s resolutions are successfully followed through with come December 31. Maybe this year, the West will seek a change and follow through.

 

By Salma Khamis

Egyptian President Abdelfattah El Sisi and his French counterpart François Hollande at the Opening Ceremony of the Suez Canal's Expansion, July 2015. Source: BFM TV

For anyone who has been following Egyptian affairs, this past month’s headlines have provided for a curious case of seemingly implausible coincidences. Coming from a country that sometimes seems to be purposely trying to embarrass itself on the international stage (see: the army-financed AIDS-curing laser machine), I must say that PR mishaps are no stranger to the Egyptian government. Unfortunately, the events of this month only serve to reinforce this fact.

The first case in point: the tragic September 13th accidental killing of 8 Mexican tourists by an army airstrike in the Egyptian White Desert.  In every sense of the word, this event was a domestic and diplomatic catastrophe, and it should have been treated as such. Rather, internally, Egyptian media outlets chose to focus on whether or not the tourists should have been where they were without the army’s authorization. Externally, President Abdelfattah El Sisi, the presumed highly skilled arbiter of diplomacy, chose to congratulate Mexico on the occasion of the Mexican Independence Day, whilst in mid-condolence-speech regarding eight of their nationals who perished on Egyptian soil for absolutely no reason other than institutional incompetence.

Fast-forward to September 23 and France’s announcement that it has decided to reroute its previously Russia-bound Mistral helicopters to Egypt. As any freshman IR student could tell you, this is a decision with profound geopolitical motivations and consequences. On the one hand, increased Russian military intervention in Syria undoubtedly played a role in determining whether or not the weapons made it to Putin. On the other hand, there could not possibly be a more pronounced endorsement of Sisi and the path upon which he is leading his country than an internationally advertised arms deal such as this.

Despite limited French criticism of the Egyptian government’s human rights abuses, it was only during the opening ceremony for the expansion of the Suez Canal (itself a vestige of French influence in the country) that the speculation regarding warming Franco-Egyptian relations was confirmed. Sitting side by side with El-Sisi, French President François Hollande seemed every bit as impressed as Egyptian liberals were infuriated. The visual of a P5 country president sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Sisi served as a loud and clear confirmation, not only of the economic soundness of the canal expansion (a notion widely contested by academics); but of all that Sisi has become notorious for in barely over a year of being in office: forced disappearances, mass death sentences, dwindling academic freedom, and a whole host of other “democratizing” pursuits.

Adding yet another ‘coincidental’ insult to injury, on the same day the French government announced the Egyptian arms deal, the Egyptian government announced that Sisi had decided to presidentially pardon 100 political prisoners. Out of these 100 prisoners, the names of two in particular caught the world’s attention: Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed who, up until their arrest in 2013 on terrorism allegations, worked in Al-Jazeera’s Cairo bureau. Despite being a Canadian national, Fahmy could not secure his release through diplomatic efforts in what had become an international controversy as the Egyptian government continued to defy foreign pressure to release the Al-Jazeera journalist. Predictably, Sisi was hailed domestically for his act of historically unprecedented benevolence.

I am fully aware of the dangers of having hypothesized a correlation between a set of variables, only to make it seem like there are no two ways about it. This sequence of events could very well be purely coincidental and, as a cynical Egyptian observing events from afar, I could be making an unfair correlation between a number of factors that bear little relevance to one another. It is not like Sisi was subsequently making a trip to the United States the very next day after pardoning these prisoners, attempting to put the final nail in the coffin of Egypt’s bad press.

The fact of the matter is, foreign and domestic analysts alike should not be commending President Sisi for the decision to pardon 100 political prisoners who should not even have been arrested in the first place. To commend his efforts is to be complicit in justifying the need for their initial arrest and subsequent detainment under blanket “anti-terrorism” laws that serve only to terrorize an entire population into silence. The decision to pardon these prisoners comes not from Sisi’s newly found conviction in the sanctity of human rights, but from a need to save face after a month of spectacularly unfavorable press. Even if the prospects of being elected for a second term have already been deemed an inevitability in domestic discourse, Sisi still has to salvage his image abroad.

Rather than commending Sisi for pardoning 100 unjustly detained political prisoners, we should question the premise upon which the pardon was issued. Bartering the livelihood of 100 individuals for the acquisition of weaponry or redemption of diplomatic stature is not only irresponsible, but provides room for the future manipulation of domestic affairs to save face on the international stage.

When push comes to shove, what commentators do not want to admit in their analysis of Egyptian affairs is that all of these coincidences, or mishaps, or temporary setbacks, or whatever it is we want to call them; they are but symptoms of an overarching and undeniable institutional failure that needs to be addressed before it morphs itself into yet another global embarrassment… or twenty.

By Veronica Baker

Protestors wave the Moroccan flag during the 20 February protests in 2011. Source: Hasna Lahmini

The Arab uprisings of 2011 yielded diverse results: Libya, Syria, and Yemen are in states of violent disarray; the Gulf monarchies crushed dissent and carried on as usual; Egypt saw its revolution crumble with the ascent of Al-Sisi; and Tunisia has risen as a cautious, yet promising, example of democratization done right.

The results of the protests in Morocco and Jordan, on the other hand, are less clear. Their governments reacted quickly, acknowledging the legitimacy of their citizens’ complaints of economic trouble and rights violations. In the past four years, Morocco and Jordan have passed reforms: some real, some symbolic.

Abdullah II of Jordan pledged to promote the role of citizens in political life and the decision-making process. Initiatives included the creation of new elections laws, a constitutional court, and a national integrity commission. However, little change has actually materialized. The monarchy has so far succeeded in preserving power by using instability on the country’s borders to justify maintaining the status quo.

Mohamed VI quickly gave Moroccans the opportunity to elect a new parliament and promised modifications to the constitution, effectively pre-empting the revolution. Constitutional reforms gave parliament the ability to pass laws on most issues, took steps towards protecting the independence of the judiciary, and increased the role of a number of independent commissions. However, these reforms are hollow: while they appear to shift power away from the king, there are plenty of ways still available for him to circumvent the parliament and judiciary to pursue any policy he wants.

On Friday, July 1, Moroccans  voted on a constitutional referendum to approve changes put forth by the King in a speech a week earlier. The banner on the right reminds people to register. The banner on the left yes, "Yes to the Constitution". Source: Christopher Rose
On July 1, 2011, Moroccans voted on a constitutional referendum to approve changes put forth by the King in a speech a week earlier. The banner on the right reminds people to register. The banner on the left reads, “Yes to the Constitution”. Source: Christopher Rose

Models of reform?

Some academics and journalists have expressed support for Morocco and Jordan’s respective strategies of “reform.” Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi made news in 2014 when he declared Morocco and Jordan “successful Arab Spring models.” Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, The Tower, Brookings, and others have echoed the idea that the Moroccan and/or Jordanian responses to the 2011 uprisings could serve as examples for the rest of the Middle East to follow.

Such positions are rooted in idealistic notions of what Morocco’s and Jordan’s kings have done, and not in the reality these countries now face. The reforms in Morocco and Jordan have been overwhelmingly symbolic and have not truly bestowed upon the people the rights they fought for in 2011.

Morocco and Jordan are the unfinished stories of the Arab Spring. The economic and human rights situations in both countries remain troubled. The instability surrounding Jordan will only serve as a successful excuse for police state-type activity for so long; such an approach is simply unsustainable. Morocco, while in a less precarious state, still has plenty of problems left to face, especially concerning everyday violence, the contested state of the Western Sahara, and terrorist organizations within and directly outside its borders.

Legitimizing the so-called reforms made in Jordan and Morocco will only result in further instability in the future. The shifting of political powers, edits to the constitution, and changes to the penal code mean nothing if new laws are not enforced and human rights do not become a priority. To maintain peace in Jordan and Morocco, more legitimate reforms must be made.

Neither government has transferred significant power away from the royal establishment and into the hands of democratic institutions. Economic and social conditions in Morocco and Jordan will not improve without an independent and accountable judiciary; a truly free press and internet; a strong network of NGOs that protects the rights of women, minorities, and other at-risk groups; a massive overhaul of both countries’ inhumane prison and detention center conditions; and the legitimate implementation of laws that enshrine the rights of individuals to express themselves without fear of abduction or arbitrary arrest.

Graffiti in the streets of Casablanca photographed in 2010. Source: Jeremy Salmon
Graffiti in the streets of Casablanca photographed in 2010. Source: Jeremy Salmon

Opportunities for change

At their core, reform movements in the Middle East are calls for human rights. In the West, democracy is often seen as the vehicle for attaining those, but it is not the only option.

Supporters of Moroccan and Jordanian-style reforms have a valid point. If the pathway to rights is more likely forged through a stable political system, then perhaps a revolution is not necessary.

However, both countries have a long way to go. Both are signatories to such conventions as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Despite this, the Jordanian and Moroccan governments are both frequently caught in the headlines for violating human rights, such as by restricting freedom of association, deporting refugees, trying civilians in military courts, and failing to respect freedom of expression.

Citizens in Morocco and Jordan do not have the political leverage to effectively demand their rights be taken seriously. The kings have little reason to shift the status quo themselves. Thus, influence must come from the outside. Morocco and Jordan are two of the greatest allies of the United States in the region. This provides a unique opening for dialogue and positive pressure for human rights.

Just as the United States needs Jordan and Morocco, they also need the U.S. Through the fiscal year 2015, total U.S. aid to Jordan and Morocco has amounted to approximately $15.83 billion and $2.7 billion respectively. The U.S. should exercise influence on the governments to which it supplies aid to support the well-being of that country’s people.

It is in the interest of the United States to support the will of the Jordanian and Moroccan people pressing for peaceful change. In the face of extremism (ISIS in the Levant, as well as AQAM and other militant groups in West Africa), it is necessary that the citizens of Morocco and Jordan continue to feel connected to and empowered by their state. Marginalization of citizens, particularly youth, will only serve to further destabilize the region.

As the U.S. successfully supported Tunisia in its transition, it must now turn to Morocco and Jordan and stand as a supporter of human rights. In doing so, we have the ability to shift the dying legacy of the Arab Spring.

In its current trajectory, the legacy of the “Arab Spring” will be of Tunisia’s singular success story all but overshadowed by the death and destruction in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. It is essential that we, as a prominent economic and political actor in the region, do what we can to turn that around. By holding the Jordanian and Moroccan governments accountable and pressuring them to enact real, not symbolic, reforms, the United States has a chance to serve as a positive and enabling force in the Middle East.

By Tyler Abboud

Protestors march in Oakland on May Day, 2015 in solidarity with those protesting the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk

In a vicious cyclical example of what constitutes news in this country, the tragic Nepalese earthquake is now out and the events in Baltimore are now in. The typical reactions associated with any circumstance involving sour Black-American and police relations have now arisen from their temporary and ugly slumber. A plea for the rights of property, appeals to Martin Luther King Jr. quotes, and then the more denigrating racial dog whistles. All of this is so expected as to follow script at this point. But what are its origins? The Atlantic journalist and social commentary writer Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in this brilliant essay why the calls for non-violence are quite absurd given the circumstances of the situation in Baltimore. However, even he did not fully address what I feel is the missing theme within these calls and others like them. Implicit is the assumption, and a dangerous one I might add, that the State is superior and wholly above frivolous concerns like rights.

To see this I urge you to scroll no further than the nearest Facebook feed or cable news program. Those condemning the rioters generally lob up a recently Google-searched MLK quote on non-violence, conveniently forgetting for a moment that were it not for 620,000 dead in the Civil War then there would be no MLK; or they will ask rhetorically “what is wrong with these people?” (Emphasis added). They assume that the State’s violence is somehow more legitimate than that of the bottle and brick throwing of the protestors. They plea for non-violence, but only in one direction; in Baltimore that was after a man’s spinal cord was snapped in State custody. However, their condemnations and protestations are not limited to this, in fact it is a theme that dominates American political thinking at all ends. Its lessons in foreign policy, where some of the most barbarous of State violence occur, are even more apparent.

In light of that I have to wonder, where are you, beloved sharer of MLK quotes? After all he said that the US is the great purveyor of violence in the world. Surely you cannot feel that way when only the state can save you form those angry black faces. I suffice it to say that you probably just did not care what the state does, because the state in your mind is infallible when its violence is directed towards them. If it happens to do wrong you circumvent this with easily applied “bad apple theories” that require no recourse. Of those calls for non-violence, did they not apply to the lives of 500,000 Iraqi children massacred by US sanctioned starvation? Or what of the weddings, parties, social events, or just plain lives in Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan? Innocent bodies incinerated from a hellish blaze, the State high up above. Let us not pretend that the State has no discriminatory excuse too, it just executed two of its citizens in Yemen. Oh yes, all that property lost too, destroyed by the State, here or there, most of it forever. Yet you remained silent.

Could it possibly be that you care not about the ubiquitous value of property and instead care only that the state remains above the law and general morality? Like a pig feeding from a trough you eat up the propaganda on “just war” and “collateral damage,” ideas that never apply to the people the state deems unworthy. As long as it is they and not you, you so callously figure. Your positions on government, whatever ideology you desperately cling to, are no different than the statists of old. That is the state, in all its wisdom, has more rights then the individual and is not bound by law: more rights to utilize force against innocents with impunity, more rights to desecrate property, and more rights to evade responsibility. All of this creates an immoral situation that makes it hard to listen to those angrily posting on Facebook or complaining on the street about how much they hate those people. Until their frustrations are pointed at the larger of two evils, and the one they actually have some control over, my sympathies will lie with those protesting instead.

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By Salma Khamis

Photo link: Source: http://breakawaybackpacker.com/2013/06/cairo-street-art/

If asked about the outcome of the Egyptian revolution, most Western academics and local democracy activists alike would probably locate their response somewhere within a narrative of failure and disillusionment. That isn’t to say their responses wouldn’t be entirely true. Rather, a brief survey of the political, economic, and social indicators underpinning the analysis of any country’s post-revolutionary progress would indicate a clear degradation in today’s Egypt. However, succumbing solely to this one-dimensional narrative, at the expense of a plethora of nuances, is all too easy. Alternatively, considering one of the often-ignored byproducts of the Egyptian revolution can contribute towards the formation of a different, and starkly more optimistic, legacy of this popular uprising.

http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/2945
“You will not kill our revolution” by Hosni, 2011. Source: Al-Akhbar Weekly.

Walking through downtown Cairo five years ago would have provided for a very different journey than pursuing the same path today. Four years after Tahrir Square erupted in protest the walls of Cairo’s epicenter are lined not only with the blood of countless slain martyrs, but also with the spray paint commemorating their legacies. Large-scale murals, iconic stencils, and freehand graffiti slogans overlap one another on any wall large enough to house them. Especially today, in an Egypt characterized primarily by the increasingly militarized and authoritative regime of army strongman Abdelfattah el-Sisi, the advent of this extremely accessible and explicitly defiant art form represents the slow reclamation of the urban public space by artists and spectators alike. A public space that was once available to all during the eighteen days of uprising in January has since been seized (arguably more strongly than ever) by local authorities, both literally and figuratively. The emergence of this locally produced (and often improvised) powerful graffiti, as well as its persistence despite the increasingly oppressive political and social climate, is a testament to one of the Egyptian revolution’s few, and thus infinitely valuable, successes.

The Power of the Stencil:

From January 2011 to this day, every new wave of protests in Egypt has brought with it a series of different, albeit sometimes overlapping, rhetorical themes – depending on that which is being protested. As such, the street art accompanying each respective movement has also been characterized by a different set of themes and grievances, the evolutionary trends of which are interesting to track. Despite local authorities’ attempts at, literally, whitewashing martyrs’ legacies that had been documented by street artists on walls all over the capital, this only provided new planes upon which to display more relevant material.

https://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/for-the-love-of-graffiti-cairos-walls-trace-history-of-colourful-revolution/
A stencil of Khaled Said’s face, 2011. The accompanying text reads: “The Interior Ministry are all thugs.” Source: Suzee In The City

Triggered by the brutal murder of Khaled Said in 2010, the initial uprising of 2011 saw the emergence of classic revolutionary rhetoric, highlighting the uprising’s main goals in a simple visual, and thus accessible, form. A stencil of Said’s headshot was plastered all over Egypt, the remnants of which today stand as a painful reminder of the initially pacifistic calls of an uprising that, four years on, has become increasingly violent.

After President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February, the interim military government too faced powerful opposition on behalf of the liberal and progressive factions that had led the calls for change characterizing the January 2011 uprising. When a video of a female protestor being unclothed and beaten up by security forces emerged in December 2011, the infamous image of her blue bra virtually characterized anti-SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) dissent. As rhetorical coming-of-age, if you will, the graffiti that had previously been dominated by vague demands of equality and democracy now began to reflect newly articulated and more defined demands: gender justice and anti-police brutality.

The stencil of the infamous blue bra. The text above sarcastically reads, "No to unclothing the population." The footprint below contains text which reads, "Long live the revolution." 2011. Source: designandviolence.moma.org.
The stencil of the infamous blue bra. The text above sarcastically reads, “No to unclothing the population.” The footprint below contains text which reads, “Long live the revolution.” 2011. Source: designandviolence.moma.org.

The image of the Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti wearing a gas mask (shown at the top of this article) is equally profound. While the blue bra piece highlights the importance of female participation in the unfolding anti-SCAF protests, the second piece criticizes the army’s disproportionate use of force against protestors. One cannot deny the lasting impact of both pieces. Most prominently, the previously inaccessible messages triumphed by progressive artists, who previously could not effectively relay their ideas to the greater public, were finally freed from the ivory tower that they were previously confined.

Transcending Allegiances:

What is particularly interesting to note about the development of graffiti in Egypt is how it transcends the ideological differences that make up the myriad political factions on Egypt’s spectrum. Despite the fact that urban street art was perceived to be a luxury reserved for privileged westernized progressives, the walls of this misconception quickly crumbled in 2011 as protest, in all its forms, became mainstream. From the conventionally Eurocentric perceptions of democracy and equality portrayed in the art that defied Mubarak’s rule in 2011, to Islamist opposition to the 2013 military coup – people’s virtually uniform access to the public space meant that anyone with anything to say could take to an empty wall and say it, colorfully and beautifully. Thus, irrespective of who’s in power, revolutionary Egyptian graffiti is able to both represent a rejection of the status quo and provide dissenters with the medium upon which to express their discontent with whatever rhetoric they see fit.

The text reads, "Say no to drugs: hashish, prescription drugs, and Egyptian television," criticizing the biased nature of Egyptian state TV. Hosni, 2011. Source: Jadaliyya.
The text reads, “Say no to drugs: hashish, prescription drugs, and Egyptian television,” criticizing the biased nature of Egyptian state TV. Hosni, 2011. Source: Jadaliyya.

Furthermore, one needs only to consider the frequency with which Egyptian authorities are quick to pin public discontent on “foreign conspiracies” to note the suspicion traditionally attributed to the transportation of foreign phenomena into Egypt. Distinctly, however, the Egyptian graffiti scene has dodged this counterproductive cultural barrier and reaped the fruits of this western tradition of visual protest, while simultaneously maintaining a distinct national identity. Not only is the majority of the work decorating Egyptian walls today in Arabic, but the combination of Arabic calligraphy with the techniques of traditional urban western graffiti has also allowed artists and activists alike the opportunity to express their protest with a degree of authenticity previously alien to Egyptian political and cultural discourse.

Post-Coup Transformation:

Amidst rumors of strengthened anti-graffiti laws and the magnitude of unjustified arrests of both political activists and graffiti artists, followers of Egypt’s graffiti scene fear its disintegration. As the government relentlessly tries to promote its own legitimacy both in the domestic and international spheres, there seems to be no room for the counterculture in Sisi’s Egypt. The voices of those who favor the return of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in particular have been eradicated from both the mainstream media and socially acceptable public discourse. Why should their corresponding graffiti scene be any different?

Anti-military graffiti reads, "No military coup," "CC [referencing President Sisi] is a traitor," and "The military are murderers." 2013. Source: Mada Masr /Jano Charbel
Anti-military graffiti reads, “No military coup,” “CC [referencing President Sisi] is a traitor,” and “The military are murderers.” 2013. Source: Mada Masr/Jano Charbel
However, the desperation of the pro-Brotherhood cause, coupled with the current regime’s propagation of ultra-nationalist, militarized rhetoric hasn’t meant the complete disappearance of political graffiti, only its transformation. As noted by Jano Charbel, those producing pro-Morsi graffiti today “appear to be more interested in publicly posting their messages than in the aesthetic value of their graffiti. In Cairo, they have produced no murals and very few stencils, forms which become prevalent over the past three years.” This could explain their increased use of the English language: to maximize the accessibility of their message and testify to their increasing despair. Having been the prime target of government and public persecution since the coup of July 2013, pro-Morsi activists have been using what’s left of their dwindling resources to voice their opposition through whatever simplistic (and arguably thus less effective) forms they can manage – albeit to an audience that is, at best, largely ignoring them. Today, everything from public trashcans, to the walls encompassing the world-renowned al-Azhar University, is covered in these freehand expressions of discontent. It is clear that Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers are trying to make the most of the limited access they have to the public space after over eighteen months of intense persecution.

To clarify, this article has been but a brief introduction the fascinating pursuit of analyzing the different rhetorical trends governing the Egyptian graffiti scene since January 2011. It would not have been possible to capture the entirety of this dynamic and inspiring movement with the accuracy and justice it so rightly deserves in such a short piece. I hope, however, to have brought to light an optimistic result of the 2011 uprising on Egyptian society: the flourishing of a vibrant and expressive urban graffiti scene that has garnered mainstream popularity. I believe that analyzing the prominent themes and stylistic techniques employed by the local pioneers in this burgeoning field can help arm future activists with the knowledge of what does and doesn’t work in garnering a response from mainstream Egyptian society. As has already been proven time and time again since the initial uprisings of 2011, it is only by demystifying commonly perceived “corrupt” ideals and practices that fly in the face of the status quo, and presenting them to the greater public in an accessible and interactive form, that domestic political discourse can truly be productively transformed.

 


Author’s Note:

This particular topic has garnered much international attention and I urge anyone wanting to find out more to explore Don Karl and Basma Hamdy’s newly released book on the topic titled, “Walls of Freedom.” In the words of the writers themselves, not only does the book document the explosion of revolutionary street art in Egypt, but also seeks to track “the transformation of citizens into artists and artists into activists [and] shed light on the larger framework of the revolution.”

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By Veronica Baker

Tunisia, a country undergoing democratic transition, needs strong leadership in the wake of the Bardo attack. Source: Amine Ghrabi
On March 18, Tunisia suffered a large and tragic attack. Gunmen stormed the Bardo Museum, a site of national heritage adjacent to the Tunisian parliament building, and took the lives of 21 victims. Over 40 more were wounded.The international media promptly jumped to connecting the attack to the world’s enemy du jour: ISIS. Initially, ISIS did not claim responsibility for the attack, releasing only a statement of support. The following day, the group pivoted and claimed responsibility. Their delayed reaction suggests that ISIS was not actually behind the attack.Terrorist claims of responsibility are notoriously unreliable. Association with a successful attack can increase prestige, attract recruits, and further goals of perceived worldwide infiltration. Such motivations are so strong that large terrorist organizations sometimes take credit for attacks carried out by domestic groups, or at least claim affiliation as part of a decentralized network.ISIS does not have an established presence in Tunisia, and the attackers did not come from abroad. It is far more likely that a small cell of extremists within Tunisia organized the attack, and ISIS later decided to indict itself. The objective of terrorism, and what differentiates it from other forms of political violence, is the creation of fear for the purpose of gaining power. ISIS would have little reason to issue a statement of support, and later switch its position to a claim of responsibility, unless it was not the culprit.Not surprisingly, the mass media is asking the wrong questions. The Bardo attack is not significant for its supposed relationship to ISIS. The importance of the attack lies in its root causes and its ability to shift domestic political priorities, particularly at the senior level.Considering the Roots of Extremism in TunisiaTunisia’s political transition has succeeded in being inclusive and balanced for most Tunisians, but one group that has not been properly re-integrated is the Islamists. The mass pardoning of jailed and exiled Islamists upon former dictator Ben Ali’s departure opened the floodgates of extremism without proper consideration of future consequences. Islamist party Ennahda’s victory in the elections for the first transitional government suddenly put a number of these ex-convicts, many of who had received no higher education, in positions of power.

Predictably, Ennahda did not have the proper public policy experience to successfully lead the Tunisian transition. It stepped down two years after the election and handed power to a nonpartisan government. This failure to lead has contributed to the frustration of many Islamists who already had a history of disenfranchisement and exclusion.

Moreover, in the eyes of religious conservatives, Ennahda did not manage to sufficiently push for Islamist ideals in the transitional process. Much of the proposed Islamist legislation was dropped, and Ennahda has largely tried to distance itself from extremists. This has further contributed to the isolation and desperation of extremists, making violence all the more attractive as a vehicle for recognition and power.

Lastly, the conditions of economic inequality so often connected to terrorism are also present in Tunisia. Despite nationwide increases in education, unemployment remains disproportionately high in southern and western regions, sometimes outpacing unemployment in developed regions by more than 2:1. Tunisia’s impoverished regions, which have been asymmetrically affected by decades of corrupt economic policy, serve as breeding grounds for extremism. Youth unmotivated by the religious elements of extremism are instead being swept up by promises of wealth and glory.

Feeling betrayed by Ennahda’s failure to remain in power, lacking political agency, and suffering economically, Tunisia’s Islamists are desperate. In order to slow the spread of extremism, Tunisia must focus on promoting a national discourse of inclusion and political voice through democratic institutions for all communities while allocating funds to development and employment projects in the rural governorates.

 "I want the Tunisian people to understand that we are in a war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us," said Essebsi following the attack. Source: Guillaume Paumier.
“I want the Tunisian people to understand that we are in a war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us,” said Essebsi following the attack. Source: Guillaume Paumier.
The Long-Term Significance of the Bardo Attacks
Moving forward, it will be important to recognize this event as a highly significant one in the course of Tunisian history. Tunisia suffered, proportionally, similar losses to those of the United States on 9/11. This event has the power to dramatically shift Tunisian domestic and foreign policy, bringing issues of security and terrorism to the fore at an unprecedented level.The attacks may also give new President Beji Caid Essebsi a much-needed rallying cry. Some Tunisians have complained that since his election, Essebsi has hidden away in the Presidential palace and failed to act as a visible and inspiring leader. The Bardo attack has reignited national patriotism and unity in a way that Essebsi may capitalize upon in the coming months.At the same time, Essebsi runs the risk of pursuing the type of reactionary and narrow-minded politics that often flourish after a terrorist attack. His vow to wage a “merciless war against terrorism” recalls the Bush-era tunnel vision that led to un-winnable wars against an invisible enemy.Tunisia is in need of strong leadership and anti-terrorism policy. President Essebsi’s rhetoric may simply be designed to serve these needs and strengthen national unity. On the other hand, it may lead the country down a dangerous road of justifying state violence in the name of security. The way in which the threat of terrorism is handled will be a turning point as Tunisia continues to define itself, and its politics, in the course of its transition.

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By Joshua Shinbrot

Benjamin Netanyahu (Left) and Isaac Herzog (Right) Source: Facebook

A Close Race

On March 17, the Israeli people will choose their new government in an election with an outcome that is not yet predictable. After averaging polling data from 12 different sources, the Likud Party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slightly trails the Zionist Union Party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. Yet, which party will overtake the other is currently unclear.

Likud? Zionist Union?  What’s the difference?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Source: Facebook
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Source: Facebook

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) leads Israel’s Likud party. Along the political spectrum, Likud sits to the right of center. Throughout this campaign season, Netanyahu has sought to position himself as a man capable of securing Israel from threats as varied as Iran, Palestinian Terrorism, ISIL, and the international delegitimation effort. In one comical campaign ad, Netanyahu arrives at a family’s home in place of a babysitter and refers to himself as the “Bibisitter.” He proceeds to tell Israelis that this election is a choice about who will look after their children.

Regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Netanyahu government does not currently see the Palestinian Authority as a capable partner. Moreover, Netanyahu believes that the current security situation significantly limits his ability to engage in unilateral withdrawals similar to those executed by Ariel Sharon. The disastrous result of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and its subsequent fall into the control of Hamas terrorists provides support for Netanyahu’s view. Certain members of Netanyahu’s coalition have supported settlement activity in recent years and they are likely to continue to back settlement activity if they remain in power.

The Netanyahu family is well known throughout Israel. During his military service, Benjamin Netanyahu served in an elite commando unit. His older brother, Yonatan was killed in action during Operation Entebbe, a famous rescue of Israeli hostages. This perception certainly does not harm the Netanyahu team’s desire to portray Bibi as a man truly capable of maintaining Israel’s security.

Tzipi Livni – Zionist Union Party Leader. Source: Facebook
Tzipi Livni – Zionist Union Party Leader. Source: Facebook
Isaac Herzog – Zionist Union Party Leader. Source: Facebook
Isaac Herzog – Zionist Union Party Leader. Source: Facebook

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Zionist Union is a joint ticket comprised of Israel’s Labor party (currently led by Herzog) and Tzipi Livni’s Hatenua party. Along the political spectrum, the Zionist Union sits to the left of center.

If elected, Herzog and Livni intend to rotate the post of Prime Minister, with Herzog serving the first two years and Livni serving the last two. One of the party’s more ambitious goals is to set the final borders of Israel. They hope to achieve this through a diplomatic solution reached in bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, but they are willing to pursue other avenues if negotiations with the Palestinians do not bear fruit. According to the party platform:

“The arrangement shall be designed with the support of moderate Arab states and the international         community, and based on the following principles: demilitarization of the Palestinian state; keeping the West Bank settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty; strengthening Jerusalem and its status as the eternal capital of Israel; and guaranteeing religious freedom and access to the holy places of all religions while maintaining Israeli sovereignty.”

Who will win?

While most polls show the Herzog and Livni’s center-left Zionist Union party narrowly beating Netanyahu’s center-right Likud, there is no guarantee that Herzog will assume the post of Prime Minister. In fact, even if Likud does not win the election, there is still a chance that Netanyahu and his party may remain at the helm of power. In Israel, the ability to form a government is often more important than the ability to win elections. Forming a government requires building a coalition of parties that consists of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. As the world saw in 2009, Tzipi Livni’s party won the greatest number of seats in Knesset.  Yet, Livni was unable to form a majority coalition. Netanyahu’s Likud technically lost the 2009 election: that year, Likud won the second greatest number of seats. However, unlike Livni, Netanyahu was able to form a majority coalition, enabling him to take power. Due to the number of small religious and right wing parties in Israel, many doubt Herzog and Livni’s ability to form a government even if they do win the election. Despite this challenge, new dynamics that are unique to this election have the potential to work in favor of the Zionist Union.

Israel’s Arabs Join Together

Traditionally, several Arab parties attain a small number of seats in Knesset each Israeli election cycle. This year, for the first time in Israel’s history, the various Arab parties have joined together with Hadash, Israel’s communist party, and will run on one ticket. Approximately twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arab Muslims, Christians, Bedouins, and Druze. In the past, voter turnout has been lower among Israeli Arabs than among Jewish Israelis. The unity of Arab political parties with Hadash could have transformative implications in the Israeli political process that may inspire greater Israeli Arab participation in elections. My average of twelve polls predicts that the Joint List between the Arab parties and Hadash will win approximately 12 seats in Knesset.  That is likely the same number of seats that will be won by centrist party Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s modern orthodox, nationalist party, The Jewish Home. Currently, The Jewish Home is in coalition with Likud and it is unlikely that the party would form a government with the Zionist Union. The Joint List is expected to win more seats in Knesset than the powerful, ultra-orthodox Shas party, which has been a part of every governing coalition since the party’s creation except for three (including the present government).

 

The Joint List. Source: Wikipedia
The Joint List. Source: Wikipedia

While the Arab parties have joined together to run on one ticket, questions still remain about the extent to which these groups have put aside their differences. One of the Joint List members is Hadash, Israel’s communist party. Hadash has a different social agenda from the United Arab List, a party that has strong support among Arab nationalist and Bedouin citizens of Israel. Ta’al, a party that normally runs jointly with United Arab List, is Islamist. It will likely find it difficult to advocate its strong religious views in a coalition that involves a communist party, given the communist tendency to suppress all religion. As a result of these internal differences, it is possible that these parties may be running together not out of ideological unity, but merely as a result of the practical consideration that Israel’s increased electoral threshold would likely lead to significant vote wastage if the parties were to run independently.

Moreover, the power of an Arab party with twelve seats would be largely linked to its ability to join a governing coalition. By helping to form a governing coalition, the Joint List would be able to negotiate key posts in the government for several of its ministers. However, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on March 3, Joint List spokesman Raja Zaatry said, “there was no chance it would join even a left-wing government at this time.”

Arab Party Will Not Join Government

Refusal to join any Israeli government has consequences that are twofold. First, it will limit the influence of the Joint List, as none of the party’s ministers will be appointed to the cabinet. Second, if Joint List chooses not to join a government, it will be practically impossible for the Zionist Union to form a form a majority coalition even if it wins more seats than Likud. Given its support of a settlement freeze and recent criticism of Israeli construction in Jerusalem, it is unlikely that the Zionist Union would form a coalition with Israel’s smaller, right wing parties. Consequently, without Joint List support, it may not be possible for the Zionist Union to capture the minimum 61 seats needed in Knesset to form a government.

Who will decide the election?

Another new party running in this election is Kulanu and it is projected to win approximately 9 seats. The party’s leader, Moshe Kahlon, used to be a member of Likud, but has formed a new party and is committed to reducing housing costs. Recently, Kahlon, working with Netanyahu, lowered cell phone costs in Israel. He has not yet determined which party he will align with and it appears that Kahlon’s party will determine whether it is the Zionist Union or Likud that can form a government. However, if the Arab Joint List truly decides not to join any government then it will be numerically impossible for the Zionist Union to form a majority coalition.

Chart created by Joshua Shinbrot
Chart created by Joshua Shinbrot

The chart above depicts my categorization of the listed parties into blocks. Likud’s block is projected to control about 50 seats and the Zionist Union block has 42. Parties that have not yet committed to supporting the Likud or the Zionist Union will control approximately 28 seats. The Arab Joint List controls twelve of those seats.  If the Arab Joint list does decide to enter into a coalition with the Zionist Union, Herzog’s chances for forming a coalition are greatly improved. A chart depicting that outcome would look like this:

Chart created by Joshua Shinbrot
Chart created by Joshua Shinbrot

It would still be possible for Netanyahu to form a government in this scenario. Yet, the requirement that Netanyahu attain the support of both Kulanu and the religious United Torah Judaism party would be a difficult threshold to cross. However, if Likud is able to win enough votes to secure at least 22-23 seats, they will likely be able to form a government even if the Joint List aligns with the Zionist Union. In that scenario, the support of Kulanu alone will probably be enough to bring Likud to the 61-seat threshold.

A National Unity Government?

Together, both Likud and the Zionist Union will receive considerably less than half of the seats in Knesset. It is at least theoretically possible that Likud and the Zionist Union may choose to come together and form a National Unity government. This move would not be unprecedented. Shimon Peres (Labor) and Yitzhak Shamir (Likud) rotated the post of Prime Minister in a unity government they formed in the 1980s. It is worth mentioning that the transition from Peres to Shamir in 1986 is often blamed for a significant deterioration in the peace process.

Today is certainly not 1986. Since 1986 Israel has signed a Peace Treaty with Jordan and the Oslo process began transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an existential conflict to a political conflict. However, the Zionist Union and Likud have different attitudes towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace. While both parties are skeptical of the capabilities of their Palestinian counterparts, Netanyahu believes that the security situation prevents the Israelis from significant withdrawals at this time. He also does not believe that a diplomatic solution is currently possible.

The Zionist Union believes in imposing a settlement freeze, except in the major blocks, and pursuing a peace plan that uses the 1967 Green Line as its basis. A Zionist Union led government is also likely to be more amicable towards Israeli unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank. If there were to be a national unity government, Herzog and Netanyahu would likely divide their time as Prime Minister. A major ideological difference on unilateral action such as those regarding settlement building and unilateral action in the West Bank could easily make for a highly problematic transition.

By Josh Donovan

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Sean Hannity speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Source: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

In the wake of September 11, the United States was reeling from the worst attack on American soil in its history. Among the changes wrought by the tragedy was a fundamental reframing of American policy. Finally, it seemed, American foreign policy made sense again. President Bush drew clear battle lines, vowing to “win the war against terrorism.” Fourteen years later, the world is every bit as scary as it was before. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan taught us something: there are limits to the long-term political changes that the American military can impose. The lines are blurred.

Recognizing this, President Obama has been treading a careful line in dealing with ISIS: tactical support and limited arms, rather than flooding the region with weapons; thousands of airstrikes, but no boots on the ground; and cautious diplomacy with Russia and Iran. To be sure, this lacks the “grand vision” many may be familiar with. But rebuilding Syria will not come solely, or even primarily, through a military solution. While some hawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have specifically called for American boots on the ground, many politicians—and most Americans—are too war-weary to consider this palatable. American military leaders, too, seem skeptical about deploying troops.

Enter the prospective Republican presidential candidates. As 2016 draws closer, many Party favorites are speaking out on foreign policy issues—including ISIL. Naturally, they seek to draw contrast between themselves and President Obama. However, given the complexity of the current crisis, this has proven to be somewhat difficult (with the exception of those calling for ground troops).

Take Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), for example. When asked by Sean Hannity at the recent Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) convention how he would deal with the threat of global terrorism if he were president, Sen. Rubio took a page out of Obama’s book: the United States needed to send intelligence and logistical support, launch airstrikes, and build a coalition of Middle Eastern states (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, etc.) to combat ISIS. Despite tacitly admitting that Obama was on the right track, the Senator simultaneously accused Obama of “not putting in place a military strategy to defeat ISIS” because he is afraid of upsetting Iran—despite the fact that Iran has been heavily involved in combatting ISIS and has called on other nations to join in the fight.

In a recent interview, another likely presidential contender, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) accused the Obama administration of failing to adequately arm the Kurds (despite the fact that the US has sent over 3 million pounds of ammunition to the Peshmerga) and accused the President, who authorized over 2,100 airstrikes on ISIS targets, of “leading from behind.” Rand Paul, in anticipation of Hilary Clinton’s likely run for the White House in 2016, recently said he “blamed her for a lot of this”. Paul argued that the United States’ 2011 intervention in Libya created a “breeding ground for terrorists” and voiced opposition to the Obama/Clinton plan to provide arms to Syrian rebels. Remarkably, in the same interview, Paul did an about-face on arming rebels, suggesting that Obama needed to arm Kurdish militias and “do much more.” Perhaps the most embarrassing 2016-fueled response to ISIS came from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who assured Americans that his experiences in “dealing with” peaceful Wisconsin protesters made up for his lack of experience and an actual plan.

Fortunately, the GOP rank-and-file seems largely unwilling to obstruct or interfere with the President’s response to ISIS, for now. Further, many Republicans who are not running for President in 2016, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, seem ready to engage in a serious debate about what form the United States’ continuing struggle against ISIS should take. With the serious exception of sending a controversial letter to the leaders of Iran in an attempt to undermine the United States’ uneasy relationship with a now critical regional partner (like it or not), we must hope that if Republicans participate in foreign policy making (as they should), they set aside election politics and do so in a responsible and constructive way.

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By Salma Khamis

Woman voting in the 2012 Election. Source: VOA News.

In the seventh election since 2011’s popular uprising, over 54 million registered Egyptian voters are scheduled to head to the polls between March and April of this year to vote for their legislative body. On first glance, it may appear that Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections represent the next logical step on the country’s precarious road towards democracy. However, several observers of the developments unfolding on the Egyptian political stage since President Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s inauguration in June 2014 are much more skeptical of the country’s presumed democratization. With news surfacing about the advent of pro-Mubarak, counterrevolutionary, candidate participation in the upcoming elections, coupled with the boycott or banning of several leftist, revolutionary, and Islamist parties, it is becoming increasingly difficult to legitimize this electoral process.

A new electoral law ratified by President Sisi in June 2014, with little to no public participation or consultation, designates 420 of the 567 seats in parliament to independent candidates and 120 to party lists. The President personally appoints 27 deputies to fill the remaining seats. Under the pre-existing electoral law, which governed the 2012 parliamentary elections, there was to be 332 seats dedicated to party lists and 166 reserved for individual candidates. It seems likely that we will witness this subversion of the ratio between party lists and individual candidates translate into the election of several Mubarak-era deputies who, otherwise, would not have been able to harness the political support needed to form a successful party list.

The new law does, however, provide particular quotas for traditionally marginalized members of Egyptian society: 56 women, 24 Coptic Christians, 16 youth, and 8 members with disabilities. Nevertheless, it has been disheartening to note that, four years after the 2011 uprising, little has been done to enshrine sexual and religious equality within Egypt’s legislative body. Sisi’s electoral law guarantees less than 10% of parliament to female deputies and a shocking 4% to Coptic Christians, both of whom make up a significantly larger portion of society.

The announced boycott of several revolutionary and leftist parties further calls this election’s legitimacy into question. Founded by Nobel peace prize laureate Mohamed el-Baradei, the liberal al-Dostor party recently announced its intention to boycott the elections, citing an oppressive and unfavorable political climate. Similar justifications were provided by the Popular Current and Strong Egypt parties, both of whom played prominent roles in the 2011 uprising. On the leftist front, the recent brutal murder of unarmed socialist activist Shaima al-Sabbagh by police forces in January has prompted both the Socialist Popular Alliance and the Revolutionary Socialists to also declare their intentions to boycott. With the ban imposed on the Muslim Brotherhood since 2013, and any political party formed on religious premises, the range of parties across the Egyptian political spectrum who are allowed, willing, and able to partake in this electoral process has dwindled, to say the least.

So, who is actually running? Mubarak-era prime minister Kamal al-Ganzouri’s national list is expected to win the largest number of seats. The list includes a number of civilian parties and public figures that are united in little else but their commitment to maintain the status quo currently governing Egyptian politics. Unsurprisingly, the list is spearheaded by former members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) but also includes a host of post-revolutionary liberal parties such as Naguib Sawiris’ Free Egyptians Party. A phenomenon similarly observed in Egyptian media and throughout public political discourse, it seems that the fermentation of Sisi’s expansive cult of personality, perfectly complemented by the strengthening of his oppressive security apparatus, has succeeded in forcing factions of the opposition to pursue apathetic or, worse, actively counterrevolutionary tactics.

Adding insult to injury, the European Union announced that it would not be sending a full mission to monitor the upcoming election, as it has done in the past. This was followed by a scathing statement, criticizing the Egyptian authorities for their recent human rights infractions. The statement mentioned in particular the recent issuing of several mass death sentences for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the criminalization of LGBT people, amongst other developments that have strayed the country away from its post-revolutionary democratic path. This comes after the Carter Center, led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, announced ceasing all of its activity in Egypt as well as having no intention to monitor the upcoming elections. As such, not only do we see a lack of legitimacy stemming from the candidates running in this election, but also from the procedural process itself, the validity of which can no longer be guaranteed in a country fraught with a legacy of electoral corruption.

It is important to note the pertinence of these upcoming elections within the current overriding global geopolitical landscape. As signs of Sisi’s shifting allegiance to Russia became increasingly apparent with Putin’s recent visit to Egypt and the initiation of an Egyptian military campaign against ISIS in Libya without American consultation, this new parliament is going to be instrumental in defining Egypt’s new position within the regional and global balance of power. Unfortunately, however, it seems that the incoming deputies will do little else but commend the steps taken by Sisi thus far and advocate for their continuation.

Does all of this mean the end of the prospect of Egyptian democracy? Not in the slightest. As has already occurred with the judicial and security institutions, the declining legitimacy afforded to the legislative institution in Egypt only signalizes one more facet of Egyptian politics that can no longer be utilized by revolutionary activists in their attempts at instilling more democratic values throughout Egyptian society.

If for nothing else, the 2011 uprising was successful in finally germinating the beginnings of an effective, mobilized, civil society. Members of the non-governmental organizations, parties, and human rights monitors that make up this civil society now have to face an increasingly oppressive political climate star-studded with a growing number of corrupt institutions. Having already overcome a number of obstacles presented in the past four years simply by continuing to exist and voicing their opinions, despite the heightened risks that now poses, one can only but take solace in the hope that, somehow, they will manage to tap into sufficient public discontent to mobilize a coordinated and effective expression of their rejection of the current state of affairs in Egypt. This tentative optimism stems not from any observable signs of hopeful change in Egypt, but rather in the conviction that the prevailing status quo (definitively worse than that which existed pre-2011) can not continue to exist for much longer.

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By Mason Hill

Ihsanoğlu speaks at the U.S. Islamic World Forum in 2012. Source: US-Islamic World Forum

Since clenching the Turkish Presidency and enacting constitutional reforms that made the once ceremonial position the crux of Turkish political power, President Erdoğan has once again turned Turkish politics on its head. Whereas at one time all political parties in Turkey defined themselves in reference to Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), it appears that after ten years of rule by the Justice and Peace Party (AKP), Turkish politics might be realigning. Indeed, Erdoğan’s religiously tinged populism seems to be assuming the central role that Kemalism once filled.  This is particularly evident in the electoral decline of the CHP and the nature of political opposition in Turkey today.

The 2014 Presidential election is of particular interest. Erdoğan won after beating his nearest opponent by 15 percentage points; the nature of his opposition underscored how fractured the once central Kemalist forces have become. For example, the CHP did not field its own candidate; instead, they endorsed the nationalist candidate Ekkmeledin Ihsanoğlu who is a far cry from the traditional standard bearer of secular Kemalisim. Indeed, the fact that the CHP endorsed Ekkmeledin shows how dead traditional Kemalism is in today’s Turkey. In many ways, Ihsahnoğlu’s career represents the antithesis of what it means to be a Kemalist.

Ihsahnoğlu’s own biography reads like a critique of the excess of Turkish secularism. His father, an academic, fled Turkey to teach at the al-Azhar University in Cairo. Indeed, Ihanoğlu’s father ran from Ataturk’s secularism because he was so deeply opposed to it. Furthermore, Ihsanoğlu’s own academic and diplomatic careers have had Islamist tinges to them. Not only did he make his academic career as a professional historian that specialized in the Islamic intellectual tradition, but also his highest administrative position was Secretary General of Islamic Co-operation, an organization that served somewhat as a rejection of secular and nationalist tendencies that are entailed in Kemalism.

This is not to say that Ihsonğlu has not since come to embrace elements of Kemalism. He emphasized during the campaign support for a secular state, and since losing the election he has emerged as a potential CHP candidate for parliament. Nevertheless, that he has come to be associated with the CHP shows the decay of traditional Kemalism. On the other hand, it shows that while Erdoğan has been largely successful in consolidating power, it has not been without alienating more conservative members of the cultural establishment that once supported him. Ihsanoğlu once talked about being Erdogan’s 2007 AKP Presidential candidate when the position was still largely ceremonial. Fetullah Gulen and his brand of Islam were a key part of Erdogan’s rise, but Ihsanoğlu and Gulen have since had a falling out. The sustainability of Erdogan’s coalition will be put to the test in the upcoming parliamentary elections, but his success to date has been a testament to his ability to cobble together new support as once powerful backers turn on him. Whereas the Republican People’s party was once emblematic enough of the status quo to draw ire and opposition from all who did not like the way things were in Turkey, Erdoğan’s party has now assumed that role of drawing criticism from both the left and the right. Perhaps that, more than anything else, is indicative of how much power Erdoğan has consolidated.

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