Opinion

The Great Debate

The surprising force behind change in Cairo

In the space of two years, ordinary Egyptian citizens have organized and led two revolutions that caused two distinct dictatorial regimes to fall. These were street-led revolutions against autocratic regimes that had the support of the U.S. and were thus seen to be invincible.

Although a large majority of Egyptians regard the two events as movements within a single revolution, they were very different in motive and structure, just as the two regimes differed radically from one another. The 2011 revolution, which brought down Hosni Mubarak, was led by the upper-middle class, who recognized the need for large-scale social change to address widespread unemployment, an ailing economy, and rampant political corruption. The more recent revolution was a movement for all, brought about by Mohamed Mursi’s government and its inability to address the root causes of discontent — poverty, inequality, the decline of living standards — and their focus, instead, on securing their own grip on power.

This distinction has been lost on many observers. In the month leading up to the June 30th demonstrations, I was amazed by how a great many of my friends and colleagues outside Egypt regarded events within the country. Most of them believed that the Muslim Brotherhood had the support of the poor and marginalized, and that the only people calling for change were the young, ideological revolutionaries or middle-class Egyptians who had been educated overseas.

The reality is much more complicated. A considerable number of people from small villages participated in the June 30th movement. Urban squatters and people from conservative Upper Egypt — the southern part of the country, home to the majority of Egypt’s poorest citizens — were among the first demonstrators. Unlike the middle class, which demonstrated because of ideological convictions, low-income Egyptians had more practical reasons for taking to the streets: hungry families, shuttered schools and no prospects of employment.

For context, consider that a quarter of Egypt’s citizens now live below the poverty line; many more risk slipping into poverty. Living conditions for many low-income families have worsened since the 2008 global economic recession, compounded by issues such as high unemployment and a rapidly growing population. These problems have been further aggravated by the political instability that has characterized the post-2011 revolution period, with security diminishing, foreign investment and tourism dwindling and the economy stagnating. The official unemployment rate increased from 9.6 percent prior to the revolution to over 13 percent last year.

Egypt: Protests built on a computer format

Protesters opposing President Mohamed Mursi at Tahrir Square in Cairo June 30, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Much commentary and reporting on Egypt’s evolving crisis depicts these events as a relatively balanced conflict between protestors and supporters of toppled President Mohamed Mursi.

The grassroots opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood regime, some analysts say, could not have gathered the 22 million signatures it claimed in order to compel new elections. For voters not only had to sign the petitions, they also had to verify their signature by including the number on their national ID cards.

Historically, Egypt’s revolution is more of the same

The history of revolutions tells us one sad fact: Egypt is in for a long period of violence, chaos and upheaval before it even begins to enter into the Promised Land of democracy.

Many Western politicians and commentators expressed surprise and even alarm over Egypt’s revolution, as the military ousted President Mohamed Mursi from power. Yet, examining the history of revolutions shows that these upheavals usually destroy more than they build – and, over the last 400 years, have rarely created durable democracies.

For a revolution to succeed and lead to democracy, five key factors are needed: A strong economic base to support democratic politics, an educated public, a supportive regional environment, tolerance for opposing ideas and an inspiring national leader. When a country does not possess all or most of these qualities, it is unlikely that a revolution can lead to long-term democracy.

Egypt: Elections do not make a democracy

An election is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy.  That’s the takeaway from the continuing upheaval in Egypt.

Last year, Mohamed Mursi became Egypt’s first freely elected president.  Mursi won with 51.7 percent of the vote — slightly more than the 51.1 percent that Barack Obama won in 2012. Mursi was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that had been banned and persecuted in Egypt for 60 years.

Mursi’s overthrow last week put the United States on the spot. Could Washington support the removal of a democratically elected government, even one we did not like?

What just happened in Egypt?

It was not supposed to turn out this way: Only a year after Egyptians freely elected Mohamed Mursi as their president for a four-year term, he was removed by a military decree. This sets in motion a “road map” for a new transitional period leading to another experiment akin to the period following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The ambivalence was hard to miss. The sheikh of Al-Azhar Mosque, Egypt’s storied and influential institution, was there to lend legitimacy to the military decree. But his words told the story. He was compelled by sharia, he said, to choose the lesser of two evils in supporting early elections. But the ambivalence of the thousands of liberals who joined together in the protests at Tahrir Square and other public squares was even greater.

Many had chanted only months ago against military rule. Some had even voted for Mursi because they felt that his opponent Ahmad Shafik was Mubarak’s man. This is not where they wanted to be — but here they were in the millions with some of Shafik’s supporters. Most are not jubilant; they are relieved but worried.

Assessing the resiliency of Hillary Clinton

As Hillary Rodham Clinton finished her last few weeks on the job, after a month of convalescence, how can we assess the secretary of state’s contributions?

The question is worth asking simply because of the job’s importance and its significance for U.S. national security. It is also relevant given Clinton’s unprecedented role in our national life over the last two decades.

She is probably the most politically powerful woman in U.S. history — at least in terms of positions held. She has come closer to being elected president than any other woman. She may well try again, and her record as secretary may be the best way to judge her candidacy for the highest job in the land. So how has she done?

A battleground for weapons of the future

More than a week after a U.S.-Egyptian brokered ceasefire brought a fragile peace to Gaza, military analysts are busily assessing the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Their goal: Apply lessons from the eight-day battle to weaponry still in development.

Israel’s frequent conflicts with its Arab neighbors have historically been proving grounds for the latest in battlefield technology. Arab-Israeli wars inspired the first operational aerial drones, radar-evading stealth warplanes and projectile-defeating armor. All are now staples of the world’s leading militaries.

Analysts now say this recent fighting could spur the proliferation of highly accurate, fast-firing defenses against rocket barrages, a threat that has long flummoxed military planners. The solution could be inspired by Israel’s now-famous Iron Dome, a rocket-intercepting missile system that shot down hundreds of Hamas’ rockets before they could strike Israeli settlements.

Mideast’s dynamic opportunity for peace

The Arab world may be in turmoil, but its leaders actually need an enduring peace—now in Gaza and long-term with Israel—because regimes across the region are vulnerable as never before.

Whether they like it or not, that’s true for newly elected Islamists. And old-order autocrats need resolution to prevent protests at home from turning against them.

The challenge for Washington is taking advantage of the vulnerability to work with the new political roster — including players it doesn’t know all that well. The tectonic political shift over the past two years offers a dynamic opportunity.

Romney’s big chance with Jewish voters

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the Monday foreign policy debate, should play to the Jewish TV audience like he was the star of a Borscht Belt revue.

Romney has a tempting assortment of issues he can tap to frame President Barack Obama as a leader whose policies are perilous for Israel. He can use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Egypt and even Syria to make a case that Obama’s policies are wrong for the Jewish state.

Given the tenuous state of relations between Israel and the United States, it’s surprising that, according to a recent American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish opinion, 61 percent approve of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israeli relations, while 39 percent disapprove. Those are numbers Romney needs to change Monday night.

The key to understanding the ‘Arab Spring’

The United States has been unable to develop a clear national policy about the Arab Spring largely because Washington does not fully understand what’s happening in the Middle East.

The term, “Arab Spring” is itself misleading. The changes over the past 20 months have produced a fundamental transformation of the region – but not in the way most outside observers anticipated: They reflect the replacement of the dominant Arab national identity by a more Islamic identity.

This change has been evolving for more than 40 years and did not begin in January 2011 with the demonstrations across the Middle East.

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