Tag Archives: coup d’etat

Twelve Takes on a Transition

24 Jan

As we roll through another transition in American power, here are 12 semi-related opinions on what we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks, and what may yet come.

1. The 2020 inauguration was surreal–and yet it wasn’t at all, either. A who’s-who of a greying political elite that has dominated the American stage for the past 30 years was strewn about a socially distanced stage, masked up before an empty Mall to perform its quadrennial ritual. In many ways it signified a return to boring politics, a development that may not be cause for celebration but at least offers a more familiar, navigable script. There was some fresh poetry and a very elaborate Lady Gaga brooch and some fuzzy Bernie mittens to liven it all up, but otherwise it seemed, in the end, what one might expect this moment to offer: the old gang back together again, and making deep concessions to a changed world.

2. I don’t have a ton to say about Joe Biden that I didn’t say back when he visited Duluth in September or immediately after his win over Trump. As one of the most entrenched establishment presidents ever, he is in many ways a bizarre figure to take charge in a moment of great crisis, amid a pandemic and on the heels of an insurrection, at the seeming end of Reaganomics and amid the highest racial tensions in 50 years. But here he is, anointed by history to take charge, and he has a great opportunity before him. The bar is relatively low: get people vaccinated and back to work and the national mood will lift considerably, and the opposition party has a fascinating struggle ahead of itself as it figures out where it stands in relation to its departed leader. Biden has a chance to be the president who really delivers.

3. The necessary caveat: never underestimate the power of the left eat itself alive. If the vaccine rollout gets bogged down in attempts to target narrow groups (as it already has in some states) or if Biden takes heavy internal heat for a stalled progressive agenda that needs Joe Manchin as its 50th vote, this could wind up as one of the most sclerotic presidencies ever. There is some reason to expect that it won’t. Unlike the Republicans, whose insurgency went straight to the presidency in 2016, the Democrats are a comparatively unified caucus right now; their loudest internal critics wield little actual power. But as the events of 2020 show a roiling frustration with incremental progress on American streets, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the Democratic center fails to hold.

4. The two previous points ask a fundamental question: is this the start of a new era, a swing in the American pendulum that went from New Deal consensus to Regan consensus and now turns toward something new? Or is it another lurch in a nation growing more and more ungovernable, one which the 2022 midterms will promptly offset? Transition or decline? The next two years will, I think, provide a definitive answer on the direction.

5. Pedantic international affairs major insertion: what happened on January 6 was not a coup. Coups d’état involve the active collaboration of the armed forces. The reaction of the American military establishment was basically the opposite of a coup. One could even argue that the events later in the day were constitutionally questionable, because the order to call in the national guard did not come from Trump. Mike Pence, in order to prevent the subversion of the democratic process, seemingly took control; we can only assume that a threat of the 25th Amendment extracted the eventual Trump semi-concession. It took a small dodge of the constitutional order to maintain the larger constitutional order, and was the only logical endgame for a form of politics built around trolling existing order.

6. Whatever failures occurred at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the reaction of the American security state has been overwhelming. The FBI is hunting down the perpetrators with systematic precision, and with a military occupation in Washington DC, the inauguration passed without a hint of returned insurrection. (That said, as someone who once attended another inauguration, I can assure people that the monster security presence, while expanded in 2020, is no new development.) Let no one question the vast power of the American state when it mobilizes, and while it can be terrifying in its reach, it provides a reminder that the old Max Weber maxim, that the state is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, can be a force of great stability. Stability can be unfair and unequal, but it also tends not to kill very many people, and it usually offers ladders to those who can play its games. It has its discontents, no doubt, but it also has its merits.

7. On a similar note, the power and the social media giants to silence Trump shows their overwhelming ability to control the so-called public square. I have some low-level minor league experience in this world: as someone who has moderated a silly little hockey message board for over a decade, I apply a set of online content moderation standards on a semi-regular basis. (At one point, before I got my admin powers, my board even spun off its own little Parler of disaffected users, though that forum has since gone the way of the dodo.) The language of the Facebook and Twitter plutocrats over the past months is all too familiar because I have said some of the same things to justify some decisions: my message board is a private space, to be moderated by its owner and his designees; we are like bouncers at the bar, not a government, and our users have no inherent right to anonymity or unrestricted speech on our platform. I try to be consistent and just in this space, though I am only human.

8. In short, I think Twitter made the right decision. No one should be above the established standards of content moderation in an established space. What is galling, however, is the inconsistency: if Trump can get tossed for inciting an insurrection, why are oppressive if not outright genocidal regimes still around? The answer, of course, is profit, a trend that the flight of capital from Trumpland post-insurrection underscores further. On the one hand, this seems like a depressing comment on access to a major source of contemporary discourse; one the other, maybe we need to dust off Adam Smith’s old arguments about the moral underpinnings of markets. One can dream.

9. One of the greatest joys of the Trump social media ban: getting Trump out of the heads of the media. A relatively small number of Americans uses Twitter (they are no monopoly, so let’s stop pretending like breaking them up would do any good), but it is very much a major source for everything the news broadcasted over the past five years. No more Trump Twitter means no more real-time lib-owning and the glee or exasperation that came with it. The quiet is so, so very welcome. If a side effect of social media crackdown is that more people spend less time on social media, I will shed no tears.

10. The world will, I hope, become several degrees less crazy when Covid-driven lockdowns cease to be a thing and life frees people from refreshing their news feeds every five minutes, and this trend applies to the left, the right, and the center. Life has blurred more and more toward virtual reality over the past year, with people increasingly reliant on technology for so much of their social lives and their escapes. In some ways technology will only continue this trend, but we have also seen the horrible limits of this world over the past year. In a weird way, I take some solace in the number of people who are just done with lockdown measures. It’s a sign that, when some sense of normalcy returns, a lot of people will embrace that analog reality.

11. On a less obviously political note, I’m very curious to watch and see what happens with real estate markets and American migration patterns when Covid becomes less of a thing. Over the past year, the headlines have been dominated by flight from crowded cities as people seek escapes; anecdotally, some northern Minnesota locales that haven’t seen population growth in a long time have seen an uptick in interest. As someone who thinks that neither $3,000-a-month Manhattan rents nor $30,000 Iron Range homes are signs of healthy economic competitiveness, this pleases me. Now, can it keep up?

12. It seemed somehow fitting that the man who delivered the inauguration convocation was a figure from a strange, dream-like past. I spent my college days eating in a dining hall named after Father Leo O’Donovan, a former Georgetown University president who I’d simply assumed was long dead. Instead, there he was: aged but still vigorous, insisting that a critical moment was upon us. Tennyson’s Ulysses seems an apt metaphor for the start of this new administration.

The Coup in Egypt: Ten Questions and Answers

8 Jul

Mohammed Morsi is out in Egypt, and the military is busy trying to put together a new government. I am no Egypt expert, but I have a decent theoretical background in foreign affairs, so I’ll grapple with the crisis on that level. If the conclusions are depressing, well, welcome to the world of foreign affairs. Here are ten questions and answers about the recent events along the banks of the Nile.

(Also, a special thanks to my old college classmate, A.L., who has done an excellent job of trying to weigh the various arguments from a critical distance while many of his fellow Egyptians seize upon certain talking points and run with them. He’s done as good a job as any news source of collecting information and doing what he can to explain things to the rest of us.)

1. Is this really a coup d’etat?

Some defenders of Morsi’s overthrow have been leery of this word, and it certainly has a sinister air to it. But it very much meets the standard definition of a coup; the real question is whether the different circumstances surrounding this one make it any more justified. This one had plenty of popular support—a circumstance that, while not unheard of, is not common of coups. The military also hasn’t shown any desire to (directly) hold power via a military junta. Not all coups are created equal; they simply involve the military removing the head or heads of state. They can be bloodless and immediately hold elections, or they can be brutal and lead to a junta, but they’re still coups.

2. By that definition, wasn’t the initial overthrow of Hosni Mubarak also a coup?

Yes. During the initial uprising, many protesters claimed “the army and the people are one.” They quite clearly knew the military had the power to play kingmaker in Egypt. The problem is, the army and the people are not one: the military is an institution with its own set of interests that may or may not align with the rest of the population. When Mubarak finally lost his legitimacy amid the Arab Spring, their interests did align, and the army was all too happy to oblige the protesters and show the autocrat the door. They were allies of convenience.

3. So is this a revolution or not?

By the technical definition of a revolution, no, not at all. A true revolution doesn’t just throw out the man at the top; it fundamentally alters the power structure of the regime. It tosses out the old ruling class and puts a new one in place. There has not been any of that in Egypt. Mubarak, after all, was a military man who kept order in Egypt for decades. He was forced out by the military when he became a liability to maintaining that order. He may have fallen of his own accord had the protests gone on, but the military (for very understandable reasons, even if one is skeptical of the role of the military), sought to make the transition as smooth as possible. It wasn’t easy, and the generals went on to oversee an election that ostensibly transferred power to a new leadership. But through it all, the generals held the trump card.  Morsi committed the fatal error of believing it was a revolution, and that the social order had been upended. It was not. Had he stayed in power long enough to further consolidate his position, he might have been able to strip the military of its political role, as occurred in a number of Latin American countries over the past few decades. But even so, that would have been more of an ordered transition than a revolution.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Revolutions are, frankly, overrated. The U.S.’s worked, though it required an incredibly bloody civil war some 90 years later to properly consolidate itself. A few in eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War produced happy democracies, though they came under some very unique geopolitical circumstances. Just about all the others have killed a lot of people and resulted in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Most democracies emerge through a careful, perhaps even frustratingly slow, managed transition.

4. Is the coup a threat to Egyptian democracy?

More than anything, it just reinforces the fact that, in spite of that one election, Egypt has a long way to go before it becomes democratic in any real sense of the word. Opponents of the coup are quick to claim it undermines the democratic transition. Surely, they argue, it would have been better to wait, allow Morsi to continue to discredit himself, and let him be voted out in the next election. The problem was that it was hard to tell if Morsi had much interest in an actual democracy. The Brotherhood did an excellent job of convincing people (the military included) that it was going to play by the same rules as everyone else. Many of their actions since—running a presidential candidate when they said they would not, ramming through a new constitution, purging the judiciary—suggest otherwise. The difficulty comes in trying to figure just how far they were planning to go in flouting these rules, and there is no clean line between “democratic” and “autocratic” actions (people accuse American presidents of the latter just about every day, and not always without reason). I will defer to people with more knowledge of the situation to answer the question, but one’s opinion on the coup will turn on one’s beliefs about the Muslim Brotherhood’s motives. Now that they are out of power, we may never know how far they planned to go.

5. How will the Brotherhood react?

This is the million dollar question. If they find a way to work with the new government put in place by the military, all may yet end well. History, however, is not encouraging. “Unity” governments that are formed against groups of certain ideologies almost inevitably invite violence, as the excluded group takes up its only remaining means of protest. Given the size and political influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, they would prove a formidable opponent. The early returns, with dozens of protesters shot dead, are not encouraging for a civil discourse. This could get very ugly very quickly.

6. So is it best to just trust the military in power and let them crush any opposition as they see fit, a la Pinochet in Chile, then transition back to democracy in an orderly way in a decade or two, once things have settled down?

Well, if you’re willing to live with the inevitable bloodshed and human rights violations and call them regrettable necessities of progress, I suppose it’s an option. There is a key distinction, however: Pinochet was fighting an ideology (communism) that, in time, came to be discredited and ultimately rejected by most of the planet. Barring some truly apocalyptic event, it’s hard to imagine anything that could similarly discredit Islamism, which bases its appeal in an interpretation of the word of God, not the postulates of a nineteenth-century German philosopher. They are entirely different animals. That said, the Islamists do base a lot of their appeal on their organization and effective social programs. If the Egyptian state could actually provide those services, interest in the Brotherhood might wane. But, to my knowledge, rising wealth is not really correlated with decreasing faith, and the process could take decades. This would be quite the gamble, even if the moral issues are left out.

7. In that case, we can’t give the military a carte blanche. Shouldn’t we get it out of politics right now?

No doubt the military has long been an impediment to democratic development in Egypt, and it may continue to be. They exist to perpetuate themselves and keep the military aid from the U.S. flowing in, and little else. But, for all their issues, they do guarantee some measure of order, and it’s impossible to imagine a democracy emerging from utter chaos. And right now, the military probably is the only thing keeping Egypt from utter chaos. To their credit, the generals have made an effort to conduct their coups about as smoothly as possible, and their presence might be needed again if the mobs rise up against some future president, whether to protect that figure or again negotiate a transition. They can’t do this forever, though; sooner or later they will begin to lose legitimacy if their solutions aren’t working. It may already be happening.

8. Wow, this sounds like a mess. Maybe they just should have lived with Mubarak?

This argument commits the conservative fallacy of believing that things will always stay the same. All autocracies come to an end. Mubarak would have died someday, or perhaps committed some even more heinous crime that would have had people after his head. The regime may have appeared quite stable, but sooner or later, its day of reckoning would have come. Even the most brilliantly designed autocracies (Mexico in the 20th century, for example) cannot last forever. Liberal democracy is the only form of government that has proven consistently capable of allowing for peaceable democratic transitions. The problem is that building a robust liberal democracy is very, very hard.

9. What should the U.S. do?

Very, very little. Recognize whoever is in power, encourage them to bring other voices to the table and adhere to international law, and little else. The U.S. is already perceived as meddling in everything, and has been accused of supporting each and every side. In a conflict in which no one has the obvious moral high ground, no good can come of throwing American power around and choosing sides. Egypt’s future belongs to the Egyptians, not the U.S., and recent lessons should have taught the U.S. that there is only so much it can do to shape the course of events in other countries’ domestic politics.

10. What should Egyptians do?

First and foremost, they should remember that national politics is not destined to determine happiness. They should go on with their lives, to the extent that raging mobs allow them, and work together with their neighbors with the full awareness that the state may not be able to provide much of anything—services, food, security—in the immediate future. If they pull together, Egyptians need not descend into some Hobbesian all-against-all state of nature. Back when Mubarak came down, there were stories of neighborhoods banding together to police themselves and maintain some semblance of order. That is the best defense mechanism people have. When it comes to maintaining some semblance of order in life, mobs in the street are nowhere near as effective as boring, local political activity, though I concede that this may not  always be possible under the compulsion of tyranny or amidst a civil war.

That is, I fear, where Egypt is headed. I pray I’m wrong, and hope the military and its transitional government can find some way to bring the Islamists back to the table.