The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s President Morsi backpedals to stem crisis

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi worked to diffuse a crisis sparked by a decree extending his powers meeting with the Supreme Judicial Council on Monday. In five hours of talks with senior judges, Morsi appeared to pull back from his attempts to assert power beyond judicial review saying he respected judicial independence. He asserted that he would not withdraw the decree, but assured that it would be limited to "sovereign matters." Morsi has maintained that the move was to ensure that the judges, appointed by former President Hosni Mubarak, could not dissolve the constituent assembly. The Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the first constituent assembly as well as the Islamist-dominated parliament. Morsi has failed to appease demonstrators, and opponents have continued protesting in Cairo's Tahrir Square for a fifth day. Clashes have been reported between police and protesters on Tuesday, and the demonstration is expected to grow throughout the day. The Muslim Brotherhood has postponed its counter "million-man" march to avoid increasing "public tension."

Syria

A Syrian military air strike on an olive oil press reportedly killed dozens of civilians on Tuesday, according to opposition activists. The strike hit the Abu Hilal oil press about 2 miles west of Idlib city on Tuesday killing an estimated 20 people and wounding 50 others. However, the British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it could only currently confirm five deaths. According to activists, it is unclear if there was an opposition target in the area, but there were opposition fighters nearby. The Syrian government has not yet commented on the accusations. Activists claim the attack was in response to recent strategic gains by opposition fighters, including several military bases near Damascus as well as a hydro-electric dam the opposition reportedly seized on Monday. Fighting was also reported on the southern edge of the opposition held Maaret al-Numan, on the highway between Damascus and Aleppo. Meanwhile, the government has been demolishing neighborhoods in Damascus in an apparent strategy to disperse and weaken opposition fighters by destroying the areas from which they operate. Officially, "presidential decree No. 66" was issued to rid Damascus of its illegal slums, however a Syrian official said the move was essential to drive out "terrorists."

Headlines  

  • Eight years after the Palestinian leader's death, Yasir Arafat's remains have been exhumed as part of an investigation into whether he was poisoned.
  • Israel's former foreign minister and former head of the opposition Kadima party Tzipi Livni has announced a return to politics forming "The Movement" party which will further fracture the center-left.
  • The Palestinian Authority has submitted a draft resolution to the U.N. General Assembly for recognition of Palestine as a nonmember state, which will come to a vote on Thursday.

Arguments and Analysis

Dealing with Iran (Reza Marashi, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs)
"Fast forward four years, and the U.S. and Iran stand at the precipice of a military conflict that could engulf the entire Middle East, if not the world. President Obama has repeated several times-including at the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) annual conference-that time still exists for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vociferously disagrees and makes clear his preference for a military confrontation aimed at destroying Iran's nuclear program: "The world tells Israel: ‘Wait. There's still time.' And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?' Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel."1 How did an American president who spoke of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect end up with no good options at his disposal? The devil is in the details.

To better understand how Obama's Iran policy has played out, it is important to deconstruct the realities and drivers of his strategy, and the political psychology behind each round of negotiations involving the U.S. and Iran. Understanding how we got to where we are will help us figure out how to move beyond the status quo to a more productive and less dangerous relationship with Iran."

A Way Out of Egypt's Transitional Quicksand (International Crisis Group)

"President Mohamed Morsi's dramatic one-two punch - producing a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas on 22 November; issuing a constitutional declaration granting himself full powers the next day - was proof of remarkable political deftness. It also was evidence of the impasse in which Egypt's transition has been stuck as well as of the Muslim Brotherhood's worrying tendency to try to overcome it by ignoring rather than compromising with its detractors. Morsi had ample justification for frustration. A highly politicised judiciary has been doing all in its power to hinder the new leadership's efforts and obstruct the expression of popular will, while the non-Islamist opposition has not shown itself the least bit constructive or conciliatory. But the president has offered the wrong answer to a real problem. He used a chainsaw where a scalpel was needed. The key lies in devising a compromise enabling the transition to move forward at a reasonable pace while offering substantive guarantees to an apprehensive opposition."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

The Middle East Channel

Monarchism matters

The Arab Spring was hard on Arab presidents: most of the personalist presidential autocracies are now gone. But no Arab monarchs fell during the Arab Spring. Why did the monarchs fare so well? The strong correlation between monarchism and survival suggests, of course, that monarchism had something (or everything) to do with it. Some scholars, however, have argued the success of the monarchs does not have much to do with their monarchism, but can be traced to other factors, especially oil and foreign support. These factors are not irrelevant, but monarchism still mattered, and for two reasons. The monarchs benefited, first, from their ability to promise reform and, second, from the sense amongst their citizens that, while not ideal, monarchical rule was better than the republican alternatives. These factors, however, are not permanent, and the ability of the monarchs to weather the recent storms does not mean that they will fare as well the next time unrest sweeps the Arab world.

Critics of the importance of monarchism during the Arab Spring have one thing very right: Arab culture is not the explanation. The profile of those who led the demonstrations that brought down the Arab presidents in 2011 -- young, urban, and possessing some measure of education -- in past decades was the profile of the groups most hostile to monarchs. When the Arab new middle class gained control of an army in the 1950s or 1960s, the end was near for the monarch. And the example of neighboring Iran in 1979 suggests that a nation as a whole can turn against its monarch, expelling him in a fit of revulsion that cuts across classes and political inclinations. It may be that monarchs start one step ahead of presidents because they can wrap themselves in tradition more easily (especially when passing power to their sons) but there is no good reason to suppose that Arab monarchs enjoy some sort of permanent lease on the affections of their people.

Neither, however, is oil a guarantee of monarchical survival. The monarchs, it is true, handed out many billions during the Arab Spring in the hope of keeping their people off the streets. If the monarchs did not think all this spending did them some good, or at least was an insurance policy of sorts, they would not have done it. But it is hard to attribute the monarchs' good fortune only to oil. Libya has oil wealth, and Qaddafi nonetheless faced a widespread rebellion. The oil deprived kings of Morocco and Jordan still rule their kingdoms. It is hard to argue that oil made a difference because it strengthened the repressive capacity of the state: the Syrian state also has a great deal of repressive capacity, and that did not stop Syrians from trying to overthrow their regime. Instead, the spending in the spring of 2011 suggests that the monarchs hoped to buy off their citizens. But this implies a theory of motivation among the citizens of the monarchies which is neither flattering nor entirely plausible. Are Saudis really so easily bought so that some additional spending on housing and salaries will keep them off the streets, despite the many faults of their rulers? What made the demonstrations in the republics different from those in the monarchies was that demonstrators hated their presidents but retained some measure of respect for their kings (though not always for their policies, or their courtiers). That respect, or lingering tolerance, was not purchased. Instead the monarchs benefited from the general sense among the Arab public that the monarchs were not so bad as the presidents.

Bahrain, the monarchy that suffered the most serious protests, illustrates the point. It is the monarchy in which the ruling family enjoys the least support amongst its people -- or, to be precise, amongst the Shiite majority of the Bahraini citizenry. Most ruling families attempt to balance among the various identity groups within their societies, or at least the larger ones. Bahrain's Al Khalifa instead have built a regime on the basis of the repression of the Shiites. And so the Shiites rose up in the spring of 2011. Given the family nature of the regime, and its powerful foreign friends, there never was much prospect that the Al Khalifa would lose power altogether. But it was not surprising that Bahrain was the monarchy with the strongest protests.

The rest of the monarchs possessed two key advantages over the presidents in the spring of 2011. First, they profited from comparisons between their rule and that of the presidents. A list of countries in the region once ruled by monarchs is enough to make the point: Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Libya, and Yemen. The rapid diffusion of revolution in 2011 made very clear that Arab publics do make comparisons with other Arab regimes. And this comparison in particular gave rise to a zeitgeist in the Arab world before the Arab Spring in which monarchism enjoyed some measure of tolerance as a regime type that produced better results (or at least less-bad results) than the available alternatives.

A second factor also helped the monarchs: they could make credible promises to implement political reforms. The king of Morocco treated the Arab Spring like a five alarm fire -- and in his first speech, he promised a slew of reforms to steal away the momentum from the protesters on the streets of Morocco's cities. It worked, in part because his promises were at least somewhat plausible. Compare his strategy to the plight of the Mubarak regime: the elder Mubarak wanted to install his son Gamal as president. To do so, a series of elections needed to be won, and to win these elections the regime became increasingly authoritarian in its last years. A continuation of the Mubarak dynasty in Egypt promised nothing more than more of the same authoritarianism. The king of Morocco could promise reform and hint at constitutional monarchy. He could promise to remove his courtiers, and appoint the winner of the next election to be the prime minister. And, one might plausibly hope, maybe later he could go farther and give the prime minister some of the crucial powers reserved for the palace today.

The problem for monarchs going forward, in the wake of the Arab Spring, is that these two factors are not at all permanent. The zeitgeist, by its nature, can change - and it will change if the new republican regimes succeed. Qaddafi made the worst of the Arab monarchs look good. The new regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and -- who knows, maybe Libya -- might make the monarchs look like despots. Second, the monarchs have promised a great deal of constitutional change, and have delivered very little (with the partial exception of Kuwait). The next time around, promises will not likely be enough: real signs of change will need to be clear. Absent that, the monarchs might wind up going down the road of Bahrain's ruling family, ruling over an embittered population that no longer believes promises of reform. That would not necessarily doom the monarchs, especially the family businesses of the Gulf. But it would send them down a dead end of discord and repression.

Michael Herb is an associate professor of political science and director of the Middle East Institute at Georgia State University. This piece is a contribution to a three part MEC symposium on the resilience of Arab monarchy.

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