Monthly Archives: June 2012

No democracy in Egypt

In recent days and weeks, the military or the judiciary in Egypt have: 1. Acquitted security officials charged with supervising murder of peaceful protesters. 2. Disbanded the newly elected parliament. 2. Disqualified a number of key presidential candidates. 4. Disbanded one constitutional assembly, issued interim constitution that gives all power to the military and moved toward handpicking members of assembly that will design permanent constitution. 5. Reinstated martial law. 

Given this background, the presidential victory of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi signals only a new phase in a high stakes struggle for power in Egypt. Morsi will have the legitimacy that comes from the ballot box. But the military have the guns, the judges and bureaucrats and a stranglehold over key sectors of the economy. The Brotherhood can mobilize its own supporters in the streets, but will the liberals, secularists and leftists who took part in the January, 2011 protests turn out again to bolster the position of an Islamist party? Especially when there is no singular target – like Mubarak – against which to mobilize? And when progressive forces are both exhausted and demoralized by the failure of their own preferred candidates to perform well in either the parliamentary or presidential votes? 

The Brotherhood is disciplined and will try to avoid violent confrontations with the military because the party wants to avoid being tarred as extremist or dangerous (and also because if it comes to a clash of arms, those with the guns win). But once the army and the protesters confront one another in the streets – as seems inevitable at this point – the military and police will have the opportunity to provoke confrontations and to spin interpretations of any violence through state-controlled media.

One possible alternative to all-out confrontation would be negotiations between the Brotherhood and the military leading to a resolution in which the Brotherhood essentially cedes dominance to the military for now, hoping to gradually expand the scope for civilian power over time. The Brotherhood has in the past shown great patience and forbearance in their role as Mubarak’s chief opposition. 

In any case, Egypt has not yet achieved democracy and the path ahead will be rocky.



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Showdown in Egypt

The tentative progress toward democracy in Egypt since the January 2011 revolution appears to be coming apart at the seams. The Constitutional Court just ruled unconstitutional a law that might have disqualified the candidacy of Ahmed Shafik, who made it to the 2nd round of the presidential election process (which takes place this weekend). Shafik was Mubarak’s last prime minister and a former military man. He is a representative of the old regime who has been quoted as saying “Egypt needs a strong state” and “Egyptians are an obedient people.” If Shafik wins, those who opposed the dictatorship will take to the streets.

At the same time, the Court, which is packed with Mubarak appointees, ruled that one third of the winners in the previously elected parliament were invalid and have decreed that the parliamentary elections must be rerun. Islamist parties won two third of the seats the first time around, so this ruling is a direct attack on the Muslim Brotherhood and similar parties. The second effort to seat a Constitutional Assembly has also failed. When and whether a new assembly will be created to write a new constitution and how the members of that assembly will be selected is up in the air. 

This all comes on the heels of the trial which tossed out corruption cases against Mubarak and his sons, cleared six security officials of guilt in the slaying of demonstrators and convicted Mubarak and his former interior minister on charges that must believe will be overturned on appeal. 

The military has now imposed martial law ahead of the upcoming elections. It seems likely that, if the elections are conducted freely, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate will win. Yet without a constitution, the president’s powers are undefined and he will rule, at least for a time, without a parliament in place. 

While cloaked under the guise of legal rulings, there is a three way struggle taking place among the stakeholders of the old regime (especially the army, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the Coptic Christians and the business people who benefitted from tied to the state), the Islamists (which include not only the Brotherhood, but also the Al-Nour party – and smaller groups – which is Salafi – more conservative than the Brotherhood and competes with the Brotherhood for the allegiance of the religious voters) and the myriad of secularists, moderate Muslims, intellectuals and many of the young people who spearheaded the street protests that brought down Mubarak. The old regime stalwarts and the Brotherhood are the two strongest groups, with others often confused about who to support. 

Unless various groups – especially the Mubarak loyalists – step back from the brink and seek some compromises on process, there is a risk that Egypt could descend into long-term conflict and turmoil, with democracy increasingly a mirage.

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Sharing Lessons Across Borders

Last summer I participated in a three week faculty seminar in Thailand hosted by CIEE. We visited with villagers in the northeast who were fighting against destructive development projects – dams, copper mines and eucalyptus plantations – that either displaced or undermined the livelihoods of local people without adequate compensation. The same projects often had detrimental environmental impacts and largely served to enrich wealthy investors and government officials.

In each case the villagers were struggling for their rights using varied methods – political action, legal challenges and civil disobedience. As we met with the villagers to hear their stories, I noticed that staff associated with various NGOs often sat on the periphery of the meeting. These folks, often connected to an umbrella NGO called Armies of the Poor, provided the villagers with strategic advice and assistance, but generally stayed in the background and encouraged villagers to take charge of their own cause.

After one meeting, I spoke with one of the NGO staffers. My daughter has worked as a community organizer in Iowa. Like most community organizing groups, hers was inspired by the principals of community organizing espoused by Saul Alinsky, who worked on the south side of Chicago and wrote several famous books on organizing. I mentioned to my Thai friend that the methods I witnessed in Thailand seemed very similar to the Alinsky model. He replied that “Yes, we learned to do this work from studying Alinsky.”

We visited an encampment located in a eucalyptus plantation that stood on what was once a diverse forest that supported a thriving community. The local people had, years before, been removed from their land in order to make way for the plantation. Working with community organizers, they had reoccupied the land while waiting for their legal case to move through the courts. I mentioned to the NGO staffer that these tactics reminded me of the landless movement in Brazil (MST). He said that representatives from Brazil’s MST has visited Thailand and shared lessons from their experiences back home. I then mentioned that one of my friends in Cambodia had told me of similar tactics being used by displaced rural people in Cambodia. The organizer said that the Thais had passed on such organizing techniques to their brothers and sisters in Cambodia.

It is tempting to see each country and each struggle as unique. But peoples working for social justice are aware of and learn from similar struggles elsewhere around the globe. This is the bottom-up and democratic side of globalization.

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Top Ten Challenges Facing Xi Jinping

Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to be named China’s next President and Communist Party General Secretary at this fall’s party congress. Here are the top ten challenges he will face:

1. Coping with financial risks related to bad debts of local government and potential fallout from the European debt crisis.

2. Striking the right balance between asserting China’s interests in region while still reassuring neighboring countries that China’s rise is no threat.

3. Managing growing economic tensions with the United States related to exchange rates, trade imbalances, intellectual property rights and Chinese export subsidies.

4. Dealing with political unrest, especially in rural areas where disputes over land rights, pollution and corruption have generated proliferating protests.

5. Rebalancing China’s economy away from high savings, infrastructure investment and export manufacturing toward domestic consumption, a stronger service sector and a broader social safety net.

6. Calibrating China’s response to America’s “pivot” back to strengthening U.S. alliances and military presence in East Asia as wars in the Middle East and Central Asia wind down.

7. Managing growing expectations among China’s youth for greater openness, free expression and democracy.

8. Fighting widespread corruption among Communist Party and government officials and restoring popular trust.

9. Addressing China’s huge and growing environmental challenges.

10. Bridging the gap between conflicting factions within the Communist Party, especially between market liberals and populists.

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Revolution in Egypt

Just returned from a three week trip to Egypt with a group of Drake students. The trip was organized and led by Professor Mahmoud Hamad. We met with one of the principal organizers of the January, 2011 Egyptian revolution and a woman who abandoned her middle-class lifestyle to live in a tent in Tahrir Square for most of the past 18 months. We also met with the president of the Nour Party, which represents Salafi Muslims and is considered more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood. Accompanying us on parts of the trip was a judge who supervised a polling place during the first round of the presidential elections, which took place during our stay in Egypt. We also talked politics with various other Egyptians we encountered, who held varying viewpoints.

The Revolution has accomplished much since its beginnings on January 25, 2011 (actually, there had been less visible efforts to bring about change for years prior to that). Mubarak and his sons have been removed from power. Egyptians of all stripes are politically engaged and free to organize and speak their minds. Political parties are in various stages of development. The press is freer. Parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential election have been held.

On the other hand, much remains to be done. The first effort to form a constitutional assembly was aborted and a new assembly is only now being formed. As a result, Egypt will select its first democratically elected president before knowing what the powers of that office will be. And the first president may exercise outsized influence over the shaping of the new constitution.

The Army has remained in charge until now and has made clear that it will jealously guard its independence and prerogatives even after the handover to civilian rule. A major question mark is whether the Army will retain its large stake in a wide range of commercial ventures and state monopolies. If so, it will be difficult to reinvigorate economic growth or address the huge inequalities in Egyptian society.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Nour Party – both Islamist – won a large majority in the parliamentary elections and the MB candidate advanced to the second round of the presidential elections, scheduled to take place on June 14. The MB served as an illegal but still well organized opposition during Mubarak’s decades in office. The party has strong roots in Egypt’s poor communities. Imam’s are respected community leaders and the MB provided social services that were neglected by the state. After initial hesitation, the MB also played an important role in the revolutionary events that ousted Mubarak from power. No wonder, then, that Islamists have done well in elections so far.

Secular and moderate parties are still in the process of organizing and serve mostly as vehicles for particular politicians rather than mass-based, representative bodies. During the first round of the presidential contest, the progressive vote was divided among several candidates, allowing the MB candidate Morsi and the old regime candidate Shafik to garner the most votes (around a quarter of the total for each).

Many Egyptians – especially the young, educated professionals and intellectuals who spearheaded the revolution – were disappointed with the results of the first round of the presidential election. If the MB candidate wins in the second round, then the executive and legislative branches will be controlled by Islamists. While the MB has pledged to rule with moderation, Christians, secularists and moderate Muslims are still nervous about threats to social and religious pluralism. Moreover, the Army, the bureaucracy and the judiciary are still dominated by representatives of the old regime. So an internal struggle over control of the state can be expected should Morsi win.

Shafik was the last Prime Minister under Mubarak and a former military man. He ran on a platform of restoring law, order and stability. He has been quoted as saying that “Egypt needs a strong state” and “Egyptians are an obedient people.” The political activists who led the revolution may be able to stomach a victory by Morsi, since the MB were a part of the revolutionary forces and spent years opposing the dictatorship. But a victory by Shafik would push people once again into the streets, since it would be seen as a step back to the old order that produces only repression and stagnation.

Shafik is supported by those who held a stake in the old order, by those who fear the recent rise of crime and by the tourism industry and small businesses who have suffered during the economic downturn that has descended upon Egypt over the past 18 months. Shafik is also preferred by some who especially oppose Islamist rule and see the secular or progressive candidates as too weak to resist the power of the MB and the Salafis.

Shafik’s chances were probably weakened by the verdict in the case of Hosni Mubarak and his cronies. Corruption charges against Mubarak and his sons were tossed out on the grounds that the statute of limitations had already run out. Mubarak and his former interior minister were given life sentences for abetting the violence against demonstrators during the protests of early 2011. However, six security officers who were charged in the deaths of peaceful protesters were acquitted. This produced popular anger for two reasons: 1. Mubarak was not given the death penalty and was not held accountable for massive corruption. 2. Because those directly charged with killing demonstrators were acquitted, many expect that Mubarak’s conviction for abetting those same killings will be reversed by a higher court upon appeal. Even though the appeal verdict will take place only after the second round of the presidential election, expectations that Mubarak may escape justice could hurt the candidacy of his close political ally, Shafik.

Should Morsi win, as seems likely, we should pay close attention to how relations between the MB and the Army play out as they negotiate their respective powers We should follow how the constitution turns out and whether it provides sufficient guarantees for civil rights and religious pluralism and how it allocates authority among the branches of government. We should look to see what sort of economic policies the MB adopts and whether these will be sufficient to reassure international investors who shun instability. We should also examine how progressive forces manage themselves in opposition – whether they can overcome internal divisions and establish a strong popular base and a credible program of action.

Egypt remains in the process of democratic consolidation. Based upon other examples, consolidation typically takes 5-10 years. We can expect many twists and turns along the way. One thing seems certain: There will be no turning back to the old order.

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June 9, 2012 · 9:34 am

Hello world!

Welcome! If you are interested in international relations, you are in the right place. I will be using this blog to comment on various trends and events in world affairs, especially US foreign policy, Chinese politics and international political economy. I welcome your feedback on any of the topics addressed.

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US-China Relations

Over the past few months, U.S.-China relations have unfolded as a three act play. In each act, seemingly predictable and highly scripted plot lines have been interrupted by dramatic twists. Each act focused on a different aspect of the wide-ranging and often contentious political, economic and military relations between the world’s two foremost powers.

On the political front, Vice President Xi Jinping used his recent visit to the United States to introduce himself to Americans and even to a Chinese audience ahead of his presumed elevation to China’s top leadership spot. Economic relations served as the main focus of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing while military relations topped the agenda of Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie’s recent U.S. visit.

The far-reaching scope and intensity of these exchanges, following upon reciprocal visits by Chinese President Hu Jintao and American President Barack Obama in 2011, underscore the critical importance that the leaderships of these two global giants place upon managing bilateral relations. Yet the obligatory pledges of enhanced cooperation that typically accompany these high-level dialogues belie the lack of strategic trust that continues to plague relations between the United States and China.

Indeed, even as both countries recognize critical overlapping interests and fear the destructive consequences of outright conflict, officials on both sides of the Pacific seek to shore up positions of political, economic and military strength as hedges against a turn toward deepening rivalry for dominance in Asia. To further complicate matters, efforts to balance the cooperative and competitive aspects of bilateral relations are repeatedly tested by reoccurring frictions and even crises that require deft management in order to avoid escalating conflict.

Xi Jinping’s five-day visit to the U.S. beginning on February 13 included stops in Washington D.C., Iowa and Los Angeles. Each stage offered him the opportunity to present a different persona. In Washington, Xi offered himself to Americans as a skilled and knowledgeable interlocutor and while assuring Chinese that he was capable of representing China’s interests in its most important bilateral relationship. The Obama Administration recognized the political importance of getting the atmospherics right: although not yet the occupant of China’s top political position, Xi was accorded all of the pomp of a state visit, including a 19 gun salute.

Xi’s brief stop in Iowa, a Midwestern farm state, retraced the steps of his 1985 visit as a young provincial official to the small town of Muscatine, Iowa. While Xi struck a major deal for the purchase of Iowa-grown soybeans, this portion of Xi’s U.S. trip most importantly allowed him to display a common touch by mingling with Iowa farmers – even jumping on a tractor at one point – and quoting Mark Twain.

His final stop in Los Angeles allowed Xi to bask in the glamour of Hollywood and hobnob with movers and shakers in America’s entertainment industry. Expressing a fondness for movies such as the Godfather and Mission Impossible, Xi used the occasion to announce expanded access by American film distributors to the Chinese theater market.

In contrast with many of China’s often stiff and remote political leaders, Xi succeeded in projecting the image of an open, modern politician with deft communication skills and a human touch.

Yet even as this first act was concluding to much applause, an unexpected plot twist was unfolding back in China. The police chief of Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis in Western China, fled to the nearby city of Chengdu on February 6 after a falling-out with Chongqing’s powerful mayor, Bo Xilai. Wang Lijun took temporary refuge in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu where he offered U.S. diplomats a strange tale of corruption and infighting among China’s elites.

While Wang was arrested following his departure from the U.S. Consulate, his accusations of wrongdoing also brought down his former boss, Bo Xilai, who was previously considered a top contender for the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, to be reshuffled at the 18th Party Congress next fall.

This puzzling incident served to undercut the image of Chinese stability and unity that Xi sought to project during his U.S. visit and once more illustrated the unpredictable nature of U.S.-China relations as U.S. diplomats found themselves enmeshed – not for the first or last time –  in purely domestic Chinese affairs.

The latter point was driven home even more forcefully in the days preceding the recent U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue held in Beijing on May 3-4. This was the fourth in a series of such meetings first begun in 2009. Along with high-level officials, the Economic and Security Dialogues bring together lower-level diplomats and experts from various agencies in an effort to exchange views and explore cooperation across a broad range of issues. This year’s summit produced important agreements on trade, investment and currency rates, mostly aimed at a more open and balanced U.S.-China economic relationship. Whether the oft-contentious U.S.-China economic relationship will take a turn toward greater comity and cooperation remains in doubt, however, as both sides have in the past made similar pledges that they subsequently failed to implement.

Once again, however, the chances for a successful outcome were cast into doubt by wholly unexpected developments before the gathering even began. On April 22, a blind human rights activist and self-taught lawyer named Chen Guangcheng escaped from informal house arrest imposed by local officials in Dongshigu Village in Shandong Province. Chen had first been jailed in 2006 following his efforts to publicize coerced abortions and sterilizations in his home region. Following his release from prison in 2010, he and his family effectively remained prisoners in their own home. Following his escape, Chen made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing with the help of supporters.

This produced a frantic and confusing series of negotiations involving Chen, U.S. officials and Chinese officials conducted under pressure to resolve the case prior to the beginning of the upcoming summit. After one week of talk, Chen left the U.S. Embassy for a local hospital in order to receive treatment for a foot injury sustained during his dramatic escape. While Chen initially expressed a desire to remain in China under conditions allowing him to live freely and attend school, he later requested to travel to the United States to study law at New York University. Eager to rid themselves of a high-profile dissident, Chinese officials granted permission for Chen to leave China for the United States, which he did on May 19.

This affair placed the spotlight on China’s poor human rights record  and its still weak rule of law. Often critical of China’s performance on precisely these grounds and yet concerned not to allow such issues to interfere with more weighty security and economic interests, the U.S. struggled in this case – as in many previous instances – to balance principles and pragmatism. While officials on both sides displayed patience, skill and flexibility in bringing the Chen Guangcheng case to a resolution without jeopardizing the Strategic and Economic Dialogue or broader relations, the fundamental differences between the two country’s political systems and governing philosophies remain an obstacle to closer relations that cannot be avoided.

In the third act of recent U.S.-China exchanges, Chinese Minister of Defense Liang Guanglie arrived in the United States on May 6 for a six-day tour of major U.S. defense facilities, including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. General Liang’s visit was I virtually ignored bythe U.S. press, with not even a mention in the New York Times. China’s press, on the other hand, gave extensive coverage to the first visit by China’s highest military official to the United States in nine years.

Liang’s visit may, in fact, prove the most significant of the three recent exchanges.  Military-to-military ties remain the least developed dimension of U.S-China relations. While some  degree of rivalry and mistrust is to be expected as China’s rising power impinges upon America’s existing dominance,recent events have heightened tensions to a fever pitch.

Chinese defense spending continues to rise at a double digit pace even as tightening fiscal realities presage a stagnant and perhaps even declining U.S military budget. While the U.S. currently retains a commanding military advantage over China, the gap is closing quickly. China has recently unveiled its first aircraft carrier, a new stealth bomber and an anti-ship ballistic missile that could threaten America’s most formidable warships. China’s capacities in cyber-warfare and space are significant and growing.

China’s challenge to American naval and air dominance in East and Southeast Asia has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. President Obama announced a strategic “pivot” to Asia during his recent visit to the region. This was accompanied by the deployment of a 2,500 Marine contingent to Australia and the upgrading of U.S. military ties with several nations in Southeast Asia.

The U.S. has repeatedly urged closer, more consistent and transparent relations between the U.S. military and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Washington believes that China’s published military budget understates actual spending. In the absence of greater certainty about China’s weapons development plans, force deployments and strategic intentions, U.S. officials argue, then the U.S. and its allies are left to base their own planning on worst-case assumptions – thus leading to an uncontrolled arms race.

While China’s PLA has generally shown limited enthusiasm for this sort of information-sharing, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie’s visit resulted in an agreement for the two navies to hold joint anti-piracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden. Also, the Chinese invited U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to visit China at an unspecified date next fall.

Still, as with other exchanges, underlying tensions and unexpected frictions  cast future progress in developing closer military ties into serious doubt. In the past, military contacts have been among the first casualties when political tensions have deteriorated between Washington and Beijing. The potential for this pattern to repeat itself appears to have risen with recent hints that President Obama may be reconsidering the sale of advance F-16 jet fighters to Taiwan. Continued U.S. arms sales to an island that China considers a renegade province serve as perhaps the most sensitive point in U.S.-China relations. This is especially the case when such sales involve new or more advanced weapons systems that outclass China’s own capacities. A U.S. decision to go ahead with the F-16 sale to Taiwan would almost certainly bring all military cooperation between the U.S. and China to a screeching halt.

As with  the cases previously discussed, unscripted events provided a tense backdrop for General Liang Guanglie’s visit. In this case, the attempt by Philippine naval ships to expel Chinese fishing boats from an area of the South China Sea claimed by both countries led to an on-site standoff and tough language from Chinese and Philippine officials.

While the U.S. is not directly involved in the present dispute, which is ongoing as of this writing, it is party to a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines which could become activated should this or future conflicts escalate into a major naval clash. China has become more assertive in recent years about its expansive claims in the South China Sea, which holds valuable fishing resources and oil deposits. Five other countries also make overlapping claims to portions of these waters. While the U.S. takes no position on the merits of any of these claims, it has pledged to defend the principal of freedom of navigation through the area, which encompasses the most heavily used shipping lanes in the world.

The breadth and intensity of recent U.S. and Chinese political, diplomatic and military exchanges serve to underline the huge stakes attached to relations between the world’s reigning, but somewhat beleaguered, hegemon and the world’s most populous and fastest growing power. Given the range of significant differences between the U.S. and China, the continued commitment to dialogue and the modest progress achieved on concrete problems both offer grounds for hope that relations can be managed wisely and peacefully. Yet unexpected plot twists continue to test the crisis-management skills of diplomats and political leaders on both sides while adding to the suspense as the world wonders – how will this story end?

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