19 February, 2011

Irish Election Posters

The Bank's
There is a general election campaign taking place in Ireland at the moment, with the country due to vote on Friday the 25th of February. For no obvious reason I have taken to photographing election posters and created Flickr and Facebook albums of them. I have been rather surprised by reactions to them, with people from outside Ireland saying that they do not really have anything equivalent for elections in their country. Now, some places do not have election posters stuck up on lamp posts and telegraph poles, but it is the highly personalised nature of Irish election posters that most strikes others as unusual – apparently you do not normally get photographs of election candidates on posters in other countries.

Darth Vader
I was surprised by this. Ireland is not the only country in the world with constituency based elections where people vote for individual candidates, so I would have expected that elections elsewhere would at least partly be run on the basis of local candidates trying to attract a purely personal vote. This does not seem to be the case. That leaves me wondering what is different about Ireland that makes election campaigning work this way.

One thing here is political culture. Irish people seem to want something of a personal relationship with their political representatives, so it is unsurprising that we get posters with the candidate’s grinning face.

Another factor often mentioned is Ireland’s electoral system – the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. In this unusual system, people give a first preference to their favourite candidate, a second preference to the next, and so on. Candidates who receive more votes than they need to be elected have some of them transferred to other candidates, while people who have received too few to be elected are eliminated and their votes also redistributed. To get elected it is often necessary for a candidate to attract lower preferences from people voting for other candidates, including from candidate from other parties. This makes it worth their while trying to establish name recognition for themselves. It is also useful for a candidate to cultivate a sense of their own political nice-ness, so that they stand a chance of attracting transfers.

I am a bit sceptical of the idea that Ireland’s electoral system rigidly determines how politics works here, so my feeling is that the political culture argument is more important as a factor in driving our highly personalised election campaigning. I reckon that even if we had plurality voting (as seen in Britain, Canada, and the USA, among others) we would still be looking at the cheery faces of candidates from our lamp-posts. But there is no real way of telling. In any case, explaining things by reference to political culture is problematic, as you then have to start wondering what causes political culture to take the form it does.

Blue Shirts

14 February, 2011

After Mubarak: Part 3 - International Effects of the Fall of Mubarak

Final Episode

In the short term, the successful ouster of Mubarak is likely to lead to more protests in other Arab countries. There has already been unrest in Yemen and Libya, two countries with long-serving leaders who have, like Mubarak, considerably outstayed their welcome; it will be interesting to see whether this intensifies. There are also reports of emerging unrest in Algeria, where a thuggish military clique has been in power since not long after independence, and also in Sudan.

Whether the reformist wave spreads to the monarchies will be interesting. I suspect that the Gulf oil plutocracies may well prove immune to serious pressures for democratisation, but the likes of Jordan and Morocco may find their regimes under serious threat if a wind of change blows through the rest of the Arab world. Whether unrest spreads to Syria will also be interesting to see. Syria has been ruled by the same family since the early 1970s and has the usual underperforming economy of Arab countries, but it is a bit of an outlier in other respects, being perhaps the most rigidly authoritarian country in the region but also the one Arab country that is still an enemy of the West* and Israel. The latter maybe gives the Syrian regime a credibility that the various US-backed kings and dictators elsewhere lack.

The really interesting possible contagion effect of the Egyptian protests could be in Iran. The Iranian regime announced a while ago that it supported the Egyptian protests because they were akin to the 1978-1979 protests that brought down the Shah and brought the Islamic Republic into being. However, opposition figures in Iran have drawn similarities between the Egyptian protests and Iran's own protests against last year's rigged presidential election. There is talk of Iranians taking to the streets to support Egypt's revolution and then implicitly or explicitly demand democratic change at home, something the country's power elite do not want to happen.

In the longer term, the country with most to lose from the transition in Egypt is Israel. Even if a new government in Egypt does not go to war with Israel or start arming Palestinian militants, any government in a more democratic Egypt is going to be less accommodating of Israeli interests than Mubarak was. Israeli leaders will therefore be watching developments in Egypt with some nervousness. In particular, it will be interesting to see whether Egypt continues to assist Egypt in maintaining the siege of Gaza (up to now Mubarak had been keeping the Gazan-Egyptian frontier largely closed). I find it hard to see how any democratically based Egyptian government can continue doing Israel's work for it, so some opening of Gaza's southern border is to be expected. I am not sure what the Israeli government would do in response, though I note their tendency to respond with extreme violence whenever a problem presents itself.

At the moment, Egypt receives an enormous amount of aid from the United States of America. If Egypt moves to a more confrontational relationship with Israel then this aid is likely to dry up. I am not sure how much of a loss this would actually be to Egypt, as much of it comes in the form of tanks, airplanes, and other toys for the Egyptian armed forces – does anyone know if a significant proportion of it comes in more socially useful forms? Either way the loss of this aid would hurt Egypt, so a less confrontational line towards Israel may be pursued in the hope of hanging onto at least some of it.

*The extent to which Syria is actually an enemy of the West is a bit arguable; it is more that successive American regimes are hostile to it, for all that they are happy to subcontract torture and intelligence gathering to the Syrian security services. American hostility stems from Syria's support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and its reluctance to accept a one-sided peace deal with Israel. Syria's attempts to run Lebanon as a client state, meanwhile, cause problems in its relations with other western countries, notably France.

From Hunting Monsters

13 February, 2011

After Mubarak: Part 2 - The Spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood

One fear consistently expressed about a transition in Egypt is that it would lead to a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood and the institution of an Iranian-style Islamic Republic. This apocalyptic scenario was implicitly or explicitly evoked by Mubarak and his defenders, with the old man painted as the only thing stopping the mad mullahs from going on a maniacal rampage. A takeover by the Muslim Brothers and an Islamic Republic is not particularly likely in Egypt, however. One thing seen elsewhere is that while Islamist parties have considerable appeal in Muslim and Arab countries, they never seem to really command majority support from voters. So long as Egypt adopts some kind of electoral system with a significant measure of proportional representation then a parliamentary majority for the Muslim Brothers is unlikely. Of course, if Egypt ends up with a non-proportional electoral system, particularly one that gives significant rewards to the largest party, then the country could find itself with an accidental parliamentary majority of the Muslim Brothers.

However, it seems that the Brotherhood is already taking steps to ensure that it does not end up having to rule Egypt. Its leaders have said that they will not be fielding a candidate in presidential elections, an indication that they seem happy enough to remain in opposition. In parliamentary elections they may well follow the example of their fellow in Jordan, where the Islamists fielded sufficiently few candidates that it would have been impossible for them to win a majority. It seems, oddly, that Islamists like being in opposition. This may be because they have spent so long there that they do not have any kind of realistic government programme (the Muslim Brothers in Egypt have a tendency to say "Islam is the answer" when asked any awkward question).

The other reason why the Muslim Brotherhood may choose to lose is the example of what happened elsewhere when Arab Islamists won elections. In 1992 in Algeria an Islamist party looked like winning that country's first ever free elections. The military responded with a coup that plunged the country into a horrific civil war, receiving the full backing of western powers in this attack on democracy. In 2006, when Islamists unexpectedly won elections to the parliament of the Palestinian Authority and formed a government there, the international community responded by cutting off its financial support of the PA and, in the USA's case, attempting to subvert it. It is easy for Islamist parties to conclude, therefore, that political power is a prize that internal and external actors will prevent them from exercising, so it is better just to be a big opposition party rather than the party of government.

One other factor making an Islamic Republic on the Iranian model unlikely is the differing nature of Islam in Egypt and Iran. Iranian Muslims are mostly Shia, while in Egypt Sunnis predominate. Sunni Islam does not feature the kind of hierarchical clergy found in Shia Iran, so there is no monolithic clerical caste to assume the kind of leadership role the ayatollahs in Iran did. It is also noticeable that the Muslim Brotherhood is a mostly lay organisation, with relatively little involvement by Muslim clergy. That is not to say that it could not theoretically impose its vision on society, but it would not be putting Iranian-style Ayatollahs in the driving seat.

In any case, it seems like the Muslim Brothers look more to Turkey, hoping to be like that country's government of friendly Islamists who are no more threatening than European Christian Democrats or the various God Botherers who infest American politics. You may not like these people, but your not liking them does not make their participation in politics illegitimate.

From Hunting Monsters

12 February, 2011

After Mubarak: Part 1

I am writing on the day after Egypt's vice president, Omar Suleiman, announced that President Hosni Mubarak had resigned and handed power to what is basically a military junta. The situation in the country remains fluid, but I will nevertheless now attempt to sketch some likely future developments.

Mubarak's resignation does not represent a full democratic transition. The regime he headed basically remains in place. His former colleagues may be hoping that in throwing him to the wolves they can preserve their own positions of power. My feeling, however, is that they will not be able to succeed in this endeavour. If it becomes too obvious that they are just attempting to perpetuate themselves in power then the pressure for change will rise again. I see things in Egypt as developing a bit like they have been going in Tunisia, with initially mild reforms being followed by more far-reaching changes to the political system. My prediction is that Egypt will move inexorably towards fully competitive elections.

One thing I hope to see in Egypt is the dismantling of the Mukhabarat and thuggish security apparatus that was so in evidence during the period of protests. If the establishment faction remain able to haul in and torture opponents or send in street thugs against their political opponents then a full transition will not take place. It looks to me that the freedom protesters have grasped this point too, with their demands for an end to Egypt's interminable state of emergency marking a desire for a normal kind of politics where the secret police torturer has no place. Again, my feeling is that with the regime in retreat it will have to bow to the popular will in this area.

So, what will a democratic Egypt look like? One thing that will be interesting to see is whether the reform process just adds competitive elections into the existing constitutional setup, or if there is some attempt to sit back and think about what kind of political setup would best suit the country. I reckon the former is more likely, so Egypt will find itself with a directly elected and powerful president, and a prime minister responsible to an elected parliament – a new member of the family of semi-presidential nations. This is probably unfortunate – a purely parliamentary system of government might be more conducive to managing the democratic transition, as it avoids the concentration of power you get with executive presidents and the tiresome turf wars that can erupt between presidents and prime ministers; a parliamentary system would also require a more broadly based coalition government. However, the experience of transitions elsewhere is that people tend not to really think that much about institutional issues until well after a system has embedded itself, so I do not expect a purely parliamentary system to emerge.

Aside from institutional issues, there is the question of what political groupings will be influential in a post-transition Egypt. At the moment, Egypt has two big parties (the ruling National Democratic Party and Muslim Brotherhood) and a load of small parties. I suspect that unless it is forcibly dissolved, the NDP will remain a player in Egyptian politics, largely due to institutional inertia (I am partly basing this prediction on the continued existence of former communist parties in Eastern Europe after the transition there). However, neither the NDP or the Muslim Brotherhood is that well-placed to really dominate politics. The NDP is the old regime institutionalised, so it is hardly going to pick up mass support from a public eager for change. The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, is by its very nature not really in a position to pick up support from outside its core constituency. It also has an odd self-defeating streak that I will return to later. That seems to mean that the general reformist tendency that brought people out onto the streets is up for grabs. In the period before elections take place I expect to see parties and politicians emerging and scrambling to try and capture this elusive constituency.

From Hunting Monsters

07 February, 2011

A History of Egypt: Episode 4 – Mubarak

Conluding my brief series introducing the history of modern Egypt

Sadat was succeeded by his vice president, Hosni Mubarak. He has been in power ever since. He largely continued Sadat's policies – maintaining the peace treaty with Israel, the economic liberalisation, and the pro-US orientation of Egyptian foreign policy. More recently, Egypt has been assisting Israel in maintaining the siege of Gaza, merely the latest manifestation of Mubarak's traditional foreign policy.

Mubarak's economic policies (largely continued from the Sadat era) continued to show no obvious benefit to the Egyptian masses. Instead a shifty business elite, often comprising people with close links to Mubarak and his political cronies, seemed to become ever richer.

Politics remained essentially authoritarian, based around Mubarak and his National Democratic Party, with only the merest democratic trimmings around the edges. The Muslim Brotherhood (still technically illegal, but semi-tolerated) continued to be the most prominent opposition grouping. By this stage this group had largely embraced the political process over violence. The regime was too entrenched for it to directly challenge, so the Brothers concentrated on setting up charitable foundations and creating a parallel network to Mubarak's state.

However, the Muslim Brotherhood was not the only Islamist game in town. Seeing the Brotherhood as having gone soft, some were attracted to more hard core groups who carried out a series of unpleasant terrorist attacks on tourists (e.g. the Luxor massacre), regime figures, and Egypt's indigenous Christian community.

On the eve of the current round of protests, the elderly and not particularly healthy Mubarak seemed nevertheless to be secure in power. Few people liked him very much, but he seemed to have ridden out any challenges to his regime and was grooming his idiot son Gamal to succeed him. The Muslim Brotherhood appeared like a spent force, having failed to bring an end to Mubarak and suffering increased state harassment of their charitable and political activities. The headbanger Islamists had largely been crushed or had drifted off to fight the Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan. The secular opposition to Mubarak, while substantial in numbers, was leaderless, disorganised, and ineffective. The Grim Reaper looked like the only serious threat to Mubarak's continued rule.

06 February, 2011

A History of Egypt: Episode 3 – Sadat

Continuing my exciting series on the History of Egypt

When Nasser died, he was succeeded by his vice president, Anwar Sadat. In 1973, Sadat joined with the Syrians in launching a surprise attack on the Israelis. Although the Israelis ultimately prevailed, Egyptian national pride was restored by their army's creditable performance. Sadat launched a diplomatic offensive that led to a peace treaty with Israel and their withdrawal from the Sinai. This led to a period of Arab World isolation for Egypt.

Sadat also reversed Nasser's orientation towards the Soviet Union, seeking out a new alliance with the United States of America. Nasser's socialist experiments domestically were replaced by a new policy of Infitah (opening), whereby the Egyptian economy was liberalised and foreign investment welcomed. This created an Egyptian business elite without obviously benefiting the country's masses, but they may well have been even worse off if Nasserite socialism had continued.

In 1981 Sadat suffered the unfortunate fate of being murdered by disgruntled army officers at a parade commemorating the 1973 crossing of the Canal by Egyptian forces. His killers were Islamists angered by the peace treaty with Israel. There was a certain irony to Sadat's fate – he had previously encouraged Egyptian Islamists to counter leftist opposition to his Infitah policies.

05 February, 2011

A History of Egypt: Episode 2 – Nasser

Continuing my exciting series on the History of Egypt

In 1948, Egypt joined other Arab states in sending its armed forces to assist the Palestinians in their struggle against the emerging Israeli state. Egyptian forces performed rather badly in this conflict, undermining support for the monarchy. In 1952, a military coup overthrew the monarchy. After a power struggle, Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser became Egypt's president. He was the first ethnic Egyptian leader of his country since the pharaohs*.

Nasser negotiated a British withdrawal form the Canal Zone and then embarked on a radical series of reforms. He also shut down the parliamentary system that had existed under the monarchy, setting up a purely authoritarian system of government based on himself. And he began to orient the country towards the Soviet Union. Nasser cut a charismatic dash and became something of a hero across the Arab world. He even achieved a short-lived union of Egypt and Syria, seen as a possible harbinger of a future united Arab state.

When the secular nationalist character of Nasser's programme became clear, he earned himself the enmity of the Muslim Brotherhood. He suppressed their conspiracies against him and executed their chief ideologue, Sayyid Qutb.

When Nasser went and nationalised the Suez Canal, he earned the pathological hostility of the British government. They joined with Israel and France in attacking Egypt, reoccupying part of the Canal Zone. However, the invasion failed when the USA refused to support it. The three invaders withdrew and Nasser's stock soared.

From there, however, it was downhill for him. His economic reforms ran out of steam. In 1967, Egypt found itself at war with Israel again. This time the Israelis destroyed the Egyptian armed forces in an embarrassingly brief and one-sided campaign. The Israelis also occupied the Sinai Peninsula and the east bank of the Suez Canal, closing off this vital source of foreign exchange. Nasser was humiliated, and died a broken man in 1970.

*I have to qualify this statement. The Kings of Egypt had been of Albanian extraction, but by the time of the monarchy's overthrow they had lived in Egypt for around a hundred years, and could arguably be taken to have become naturalised. Nasser was also preceded as Egypt's president by General Muhammed Naguib, an ethnic Egyptian, but during this brief period real power lay with Nasser.

04 February, 2011

A History of Egypt: Episode 1 – the British Protectorate

The current pro-democracy protests in Egypt have put the country at the top of world news reports. For the benefit of readers who know next to nothing about this populous country, I present this brief history.

British commercial penetration of Egypt was followed by British political dominance and military occupation in the late 19th century. Egypt was never formally incorporated into the British Empire, retaining its own hereditary ruler (a Khedive, later a King) and government, but ultimate power lay with the British High Commissioner. Britain's main interest in Egypt stemmed from a desire to protect the Suez Canal, a vital link to India.

British indirect rule situation persisted well into the 20th century, despite a rise in Egyptian nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s. After the Second World War, Britain withdrew its military forces from most of Egypt, remaining only in vicinity of the Canal. The assumption was that the country would remain a firm British ally.

The British period saw the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world's longest lasting and most influential Islamist movement. The Muslim Brothers staged a sometimes violent campaign against the monarchy and the British occupation, both of which responded in kind.