June 11 - June 18
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for June 11-18!
The Dispatch is a day late this week because as of Sunday night two of the big stories of the week were still up in the air. Moving forward, however, the Dispatch will be moving to Monday night, as I rather like having a weekend.
Egypt held run-off elections for President this week, the first since Mubarak fell. The run-offs pit the two largest power centers in Egypt against each other: the military, which took power after Mubarak’s fall, represented by Ahmed Shafik; and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political group which won a majority in parliament in January, represented by Mohammed Morsi. The elections themselves were overshadowed, however, by the Egyptian Supreme Court, which ruled the election of nearly a third of the members of Parliament illegitimate, and ordered the body dissolved. The military quickly instated martial law, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military’s governing body, declared it would assume legislative powers, as well as convene a council to draft Egypt’s new constitution. The elections were held on Saturday and Sunday as planned, and Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, won, though what his role will be remains to be seen.
The nature of the Egyptian Revolution has been a subject of debate since Mubarak left power. While the most oft-repeated narrative has been that of a popular uprising, many analysts have pointed to the military’s strong and continued roll, as well as Mubarak’s military background, as evidence of a military coup. The protests in the street were the catalyst, but the real shift in power wasn’t to the people, it was from one member of the military to another, and that’s where it’s stayed. Events of this week would seem to enforce that view.
There’s another side to the situation worth noting, though, and that’s the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt. Before the courts dissolved Parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood was on track to control both the Legislature and the Presidency. There’s also evidence of Brotherhood attempts to take control of the drafting of the new constitution; attempts to form a constitutional commission have been repeatedly stymied by boycotts by both liberal and hardline Islamist representatives reacting to Brotherhood overreaches. The Brotherhood and the military have been meeting repeatedly since Mubarak’s fall, and much of Egypt’s recent domestic politics can be seen as an extension of the power dynamics between these two groups. The military is legitimately concerned about the Brotherhood taking full control of the country - the dissolution of Parliament may be more a response to Brotherhood overreach than SCAF ambitions.
Either way, the winner this week was not Democracy, a fact the Egyptian people are keenly aware of: polls indicate the voter turnout was around 25%.
Greece held a second round of Parliamentary elections this week, after the last round failed to produce results. The two main parties in the election were the center-right New Democracy party, who had pushed for Greece to stay in the Eurozone, and Syriza, a coalition Leftist party which had promised to fight Greece’s imposed austerity. The New Democracy party received a plurality of the votes, but not enough to avoid having to form a coalition government.
Prospects look better for actually forming a government this time, but Greek politics of late haven’t tended towards geniality, so it’s anyone’s guess whether this election will actually yield a government. The election ultimately wasn’t about whether Greece should stay in the Euro or not - the vast majority of Greeks don’t want to leave the currency, and even Syriza wasn’t arguing for Greece to exit the Euro - but whether and on what terms it should attempt to renegotiate the loan agreement signed in October. Syriza argued for a much more assertive negotiating stance, but even New Democracy has argued the loan agreement and its attached austerity measures need to be renegotiated. The rest of Europe appears to be falling in line with this view, if for no other reason than a paralyzed Greek government can’t pay anyone anything.
After slightly more than 3 months in the country with little to show for their efforts, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Syria announced it was suspending operations because the region had become too violent to continue. Russia, one of Syria’s few remaining supporters, has dispatched two warships to the region to protect its remaining citizens and assets in the region.
There are now three problems in Syria. The first is Bashar al-Assad. After a year of increasingly bloody crackdowns, there’s no future for Syria that includes Assad. The Russian warships have raised some eyebrows due to Russia’s continued support for Assad, but a higher Russian profile in the region will expose the country to more of the heat in the region, which could force the Russians to make a choice about whether they’ll continue to support Assad or not. Should the Russians decide the Syrian situation has become too costly, they could pressure Assad to step down - a case much more easily made with two warships and a tank column.
The second problem is the Syrian opposition, which is at best incoherent. The Free Syrian Army may be the most cohesive faction, and while their military capabilities have apparently increased quite a bit, the recent chaos in Libya shows what happens when the militias are stronger than the government. The Syrian National Council has very little support inside Syria, and hasn’t managed to become the unifying front they’d hoped to be. There are a few dozen other groups in play, but nobody apparent with the ability and the respect required to actually act in a governing role. If Assad is taken out of the picture, there’s no group in the opposition ready to step in to replace him, but there are now plenty of heavily armed militias.
The third problem would be the reaction of other groups in the country to Assad’s departure. Among the more concerning are the Shabiha, the militias who have been blamed for the recent massacres. The groups are ostensibly pro- Assad, but there are questions about how much control over them the central government really has. Should the Assad regime collapse, the Shabiha may go with, or they may spawn another faction vying for power. They’re well-funded and clearly prone to violence, a bad combination in a country with a power vacuum. Another concern are the emerging Sunni extremist groups - Syria has become a magnet for extremist groups in the region, and in the event of either a full collapse or the emergence of an Islamist government, these groups could wind up taking up residence in the country.
The Syrian situation is close to full collapse. Between international pressure on the Syrian regime, increased incidence of the sort of massacres that tend to attract NATO interventions, a more assertive opposition, and no real clear road to a post-Assad government, the country is in a very precarious position. The situation will almost certainly require a settlement between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government sans Assad, most likely negotiated by external players and probably with significant military presence at hand to keep the independent factions from going rogue or attempting to drag the country into a deeper civil conflict of the sort Iraq endured after Saddam Hussein’s fall.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!