The Nightmare in Egypt

In his statement condemning the violence in Egypt President Obama has asked his national security team to assess the implications of the military’s assault against its own people. There is no need for long deliberations. The likely consequences are uniformly grim.

This is a grave setback for the cause of democracy and the prospects for nonviolent change. From the blood of the many ‘martyrs’ killed by the military will grow seeds of revenge and retaliatory violence. Chaos and terror will likely spread in Egypt and beyond.

The military may be able to kill and imprison the leaders of the Islamic Brotherhood, but they will not be able to crush the broader Islamic movement, or alter the fact that Islam has been and remains the dominant political force in Egypt and most Arab countries.

The slaughter now underway undermines the hope for democratic politics in Egypt and most of the Arab world. No Islamic political leader in the region will be able to argue credibly that the methods of democracy are a viable path to progress.

The same is true for the use of nonviolent methods of change. The dreams of the youth who led the unarmed revolution have turned into a nightmare, their bright hopes shattered by mass killing in the streets. Few will believe any longer in the power of nonviolence.

President Obama should take more forceful action, joining with other nations to seek a quick end to military rule and a return to civilian rule.

The Closing Window of Opportunity in Egypt

The Egyptian revolution is being crushed and I grieve for what is being lost. That glorious unarmed uprising that so inspired the world is now being gunned down by the armed forces. I grieve especially for the people of Egypt and the dangers that lie ahead unless something is to done to save the day.

The army’s massacre of dozens of people on July 28 was an unspeakable crime, equivalent to the horrors of the Mubarak era. It will go down in Egypt’s history as a day of infamy. I fear it could be one of those cruel turning points in history, when a gathering tide of lawlessness and instability burst into violence. The sense of foreboding is palpable.

The military’s brutality and lies are a grave menace to Egypt’s future. They make the incompetence and authoritarianism of the Morsi government seem mild by comparison. The Muslim Brothers are the main target of attack now, but all of free Egypt is in jeopardy.

Mohammed El Baradei and other liberals have finally criticized the military, but they must go further. I can imagine what Gandhi would say to them. Resign your posts. No one should continue to serve the military regime or follow any of their directives. Mass civil disobedience is the only solution in this emergency, not only in the streets but in pervasive refusal to accept military authority.

The military has gone beyond acceptable moral and legal bounds and must be forced to yield power. The Obama administration should work with the Arab League through the United Nations to support the creation of a broadly representative independent civilian authority in Egypt that guarantees the participation of all social forces, including the Brotherhood. Secular and liberal forces must work with the Brothers and the Salafists to establish an interim government and decide a road map to the future.

The international community should provide help to get such a political process started and must insist that the military turn over authority as soon as it is established. If the army refuses to yield power all U.S. and international assistance for the generals should cease.

Those who say the Muslim Brothers are not prepared or inclined for war do not understand the rage boiling over from the army’s repression. The deadly descending spiral of violence-begetting-violence is beginning, and may soon get out of hand as it did in Syria. Until now the Brothers have been very reluctant to use force, but there is likely a limit to their endurance, as for all people. Arms and materials for making bombs are readily available in the region.

The time to act is now, before it is too late.

Perils in Egypt

It’s a military coup, and it’s a tragedy for the Egyptian revolution. The Morsi government was certainly incompetent and increasingly authoritarian, but the army had no legal or constitutional authority to remove from office and arrest a legitimately elected president.

The Egypt revolution began in January 2011 with great promise and in 18 days overturned the Mubarak dictatorship through unarmed struggle that inspired the world. As a scholar and practitioner of nonviolent action I was eager to learn how the mostly young urban activists had sparked massive nonviolent protests across the country. I visited Egypt twice in the months after the revolution, helped to organize a conference at the University of Cairo on “lessons from the unarmed revolution,” interviewed dozens of young revolutionaries along with journalists and political observers, and wrote several chapters of a book trying to analyze and apply the lessons of Egypt to the study and practice of nonviolent civil resistance. Now I’m not sure what to write.

The military has taken power again, and we are staring into the abyss of a dangerous and uncertain future. The security forces brutally suppressed initial protests from Muslim Brotherhood members. So far the Brotherhood has remained officially committed to nonviolent methods. On Friday the Brotherhood organized massive occupation-style rallies and civil resistance actions.

The Brotherhood has said it will accept early presidential elections but it wants Morsi released and has rejected the military’s hurried and poorly planned outline for a new constitutional process, as have many other Egypt political parties, secular as well as religious.

If the Brotherhood is excluded from power after having won three straight elections, violence is likely to erupt. Already some angry voices have called for armed jihad. The scenario looks disturbingly like Algeria, where in 1992 the Islamist FLN coalition won an electoral victory but was prevented from taking office, prompting a bloody civil war that continued through the decade and took as many as 200,000 lives. Political strife has torn apart Syria.  Let’s hope Egypt does not suffer the same fate.

Revolution 2.0: Fulfilling Egypt’s democratic promise

This past Friday my wife (and fellow peace activist) Karen Jacob and I participated in a huge pro-democracy rally in Tahrir Square. The demonstration was completely peaceful and much larger than those we witnessed earlier in the week. The huge throng filled the entire Square and was reminiscent of the historic mass mobilizations in February that brought down the Mubarak dictatorship. The rally was announced as a ‘million man march’ and had the backing of a broad cross section of Egyptian activist groups, from liberal secularists to conservative Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood did not support the march, although many of its youth members joined the crowd. The rally had a positive and hopeful spirit, in sharp contrast to the earlier violent clashes, which we witnessed on November 20.
courtesy of Karen Jacob

The atmosphere in the Square on Friday was almost festive. We saw families with children, vendors selling food and drinks, and everywhere the red, white and black stripes of the Egyptian flag, face-painted on children, and thanks to a group of laughing teenagers, also painted on our hands. It was a diverse crowd, young and old, women and men, middle class and the very poor. We were welcomed and greeted warmly by many.

courtesy of Karen Jacob

The crowd was friendly but determined in its commitment to fulfill the promise of the revolution. There were no speeches but constant chanting from groups throughout the Square, all with a similar message. Military rule must end. “How long will you stay in the Square,” we asked a young woman. “Until the generals leave power,” she replied. “The military should defend the nation not rule it,” said one of the many hand-written posters. An older man explained that the generals who took charge in February have lost their legitimacy and must step aside in favor of civilian democratic government.

Where the revolution goes from here is uncertain. The military council is digging in its heels and refuses to step down. It has appointed a new civilian Prime Minister, Kamal el-Ganzouri, a Mubarak-era apparatchik, but it refuses to accept independent civilian leadership. The generals have issued ‘guiding principles’ for the democratic transition that assert their right to veto constitutional provisions and exempt the military from parliament authority.

The democracy movement will not accept this. It has been reawakened by the events of the past week and will not relent until the military steps aside in favor of a fully empowered civilian interim government—one that can shepherd the country through the parliamentary elections that are now beginning, the constitution-writing process that will follow, and the presidential elections that all hope will complete the democratic transition and bring to power Egypt’s first popularly elected civilian leader.

Dark Days on Tahrir Square

We saw people severely beaten right in front of our eyes yesterday in Tahrir Square. We were horrified later when the news reported that several were killed. As we watched from a balcony overlooking the Square we heard the boom of military cannons, saw contrails from tear gas canisters hurtling across the Square, and felt clouds of stinging gas wafting up to our landing. Panicked crowds frantically rushed from the police. The news reported that several people died from the stampedes.

photo courtesy of Karen Jacob

Just below us we saw soldiers in black uniforms savagely beating an already prostrate demonstrator, clubs repeatedly pounding his motionless form. Was he one of the fatalities? Nearby a young man struggled to wrestle out of the grip of soldiers, staggering under the blows of continuous whacks to his head, arms and shoulders.

We had entered the Square a couple hours earlier from the subway, where we could smell the lingering tear gas from clashes on Saturday. We walked into the gathering crowd without incident and made our way to a nearby bookstore, only to find it closed, windows broken and boarded, apparently damaged during previous street clashes. All along the sidewalk and nearby street the pavement was torn up to provide paving stonesand bricks for protestors to fling at the police and military.
photo courtesy of Karen Jacob

When the melee started we were in the midst of an interview with the learned Dr. Nadia Mostafa, former chair of Cairo University’s political science department. Suddenly we heard shouts and screams from the crowd and sounds of military attack. We rushed to the balcony to survey the unfolding carnage.

As we gazed in shock at the battle below, Dr. Nadia quietly stepped back from the balcony. We turned and saw her sitting alone in her office, hanging her head, shaking it from side to side in dejection. She had just said that the continued clashes were harming the revolution, that unknown forces were at work among the activists and in the military to undermine the revolution and prevent the transition to democracy. No good can come from this, she said. Little could she have imagined that her words would be so quickly and horribly confirmed.

David Cortright and Karen Jacob

Protective Military Interventionism: The Pros and Cons

With the Qaddafi regime collapsing, now is an appropriate time to begin assessing the implications of the NATO-led military mission, and of the broader policy of multilateral protective interventionism.

I was an early supporter of the no-fly zone, which morphed into a campaign of air support for the Libyan rebels. It was unusual for me to support armed action, since I have been an active opponent of U.S. military interventionism for decades, from Vietnam and Central America to Iraq and Afghanistan. As a peace activist and scholar I abhor war and believe that nonviolent solutions are available for resolving conflicts. But I felt that multilateral military action in Libya was warranted because of the imminent threat of massacres in Benghazi and other threatened cities back in March.

In making the case for military intervention, President Obama and other Western officials invoked the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P). When governments are unable to protect their citizens, or are actively terrorizing their own people and committing mass murder, the international community has a responsibility to step in and help those who are victimized. This principle was endorsed by world leaders at the UN World Summit in 2005 and by a resolution of the UN Security Council in 2006. Libya is the first example of a formal attempt to implement the principle through multilateral military intervention.

The intervention was legal under international law because it had the backing of the UN Security Council. It also had regional political legitimacy as the Arab League voted in March for the UN to impose a no-fly zone and create “safe zones” in Libya, declaring that the Qaddafi regime had lost its right to sovereignty because of its attacks against civilians. The Security Council responded to the Arab League request by adopting Resolution 1973, which authorized the multilateral military mission, condemning the Qaddafi regime’s “widespread and systematic attacks” against civilians. In June the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants against Qaddafi and his sons for crimes against humanity in the massacre of innocent civilians.

The implications of these developments for future policy are uncertain.  It was encouraging to see the international community demonstrate such quick and forceful resolve in responding to government abuse against its own people. Whether this action will serve as a model for other interventions against brutal regimes is uncertain. Some are asking if the Arab League and NATO should take action to save the people of Syria from the murderous actions of the Assad regime. That seems unlikely in the near term, but the apparent success of intervention in Libya may give pause to tyrants who claim the right to massacre their own citizens with impunity. The NATO-led action in Libya may signal a more active international commitment to opposing genocide and mass murder.

On the other hand, many questions are raised by the Libya experience. Protective intervention is indeed a legitimate principle of human security, but the use of military force should be a last resort, not the primary or only means of intervention. The success in Libya may create a false impression of the efficacy of military force and prompt some to argue for more frequent military interventions around the world. This could divert attention from nonmilitary tools of policy—including sanctions and diplomacy—that can help to prevent armed conflict and human rights abuse.

Troubling legal and constitutional questions are raised by the Obama administration’s refusal to seek congressional authorization for the use of force.  This reinforces the claim of executive war making privilege, weakens legislative authority, and increases the danger of future abuses of power.

The Libya intervention also brings into question NATO’s role as the instrument for multilateral intervention in regions beyond Europe. If protective intervention is to become global policy, an appropriate international legal framework needs to be created for this purpose. A more diverse security capability needs to be developed, one that is structured according to human security principles, as Mary Kaldor has advocated, and that is oriented toward policing rather than military action, as Robert Johansen has argued.  

These questions deserve debate and discussion in the coming months. Your comments are welcome.

Women, men, and the spirit of Egypt’s revolution

Today I spent several hours with a group of students from Cairo University who were actively involved in the uprising. Four men and three women, all in their twenties—those who made a revolution.

I asked the women about gender relations during those extraordinary days.

In Egyptian society, one of them remarked, relations between men and women are ‘not positive.’ Another put it more bluntly: ‘we are always being hassled and harassed.’

During the revolution, though, a miraculous transformation occurred. Men were more considerate, and women could participate freely without being harassed.

One woman described her experience on the terrible night of January 28 in Tahrir Square, when dozens of protestors were killed and she herself had been knocked down and injured.  At 3 in the morning, tired and aching, she searched for a ride home. A young man offered to help. He put  her in a car with three other guys and drove her home. No hassles, only caring support.

‘Something like this never would have happened before.’

Continue reading “Women, men, and the spirit of Egypt’s revolution”

Dispatches from Egypt, land of revolution

So many lessons learned already in the first day of our symposium on the unarmed revolution at Cairo University. Here are a few flashes:

Egypt’s uprising has been described as an internet revolution, but the regime did not fall because of Facebook messages and tweets. It was overthrown by the determined resistance of millions of people in the streets. Estimates we’ve heard range from 8 to 12 million across the country. One of the professors said yesterday, no fewer than 15 million. We’ll reserve judgment on the final number pending more research, but this much is clear: This was one of the largest outpourings of mass civil resistance in human history.

The people faced brutal police repression and attacks by thugs. They died by the hundreds from bullets and beatings. Thousands were injured. Yet they returned to the streets day after day in ever increasing numbers. An incredible display of mass civic courage—similar to what we are witnessing today in the streets of Syria and Yemen. Continue reading “Dispatches from Egypt, land of revolution”

In Liberated Egypt

I’m in Egypt this week for a symposium the Kroc Institute is co-sponsoring with Cairo University and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict on “learning lessons from the unarmed revolution in Egypt.” It is exciting to be in Cairo in the wake of the remarkable 18-day uprising that brought down the Mubarak dictatorship. As I stepped off the plane last night I felt a special sense of excitement and joy at entering a newly liberated country.

I know Egypt faces many problems and contradictions. The revolution was incomplete, and many crises and challenges lie ahead. All of this will become clear, I’m sure, as we study the political and social dynamics of the revolution in the coming days. For now, though, I want to bask in the enormity of what the Egyptian people have accomplished. They have demonstrated the power of mass nonviolent resistance. They have proven again that a people united in their determination to be free are a mighty force for change.

Let us hope the people of Egypt can succeed in forging a successful transition to a more democratic, prosperous and secure future.

Time for a diplomatic strategy in Libya

It is obvious by now that the rebels cannot defeat Gaddafi’s forces. Replacing the dictatorship with a more representative government remains the best strategy for protecting civilians and advancing democracy, but that goal will not be achieved by a ragtag rebellion and limited international air support.

Coalition air strikes have had some success so far in preventing civilian massacres and providing cover for resistance forces. But the operations themselves have taken Libyan lives, and supporting the insurgents has become more difficult as Gaddafi’s defenders have shed uniforms and military vehicles. The further utility of military force is questionable.

The U.S. and NATO should pursue diplomatic options. Two of Gaddafi’s sons recently proposed a negotiated transition in which their father steps down in favor of a constitutional democracy. Most observers dismissed the offer, but it may provide an opening that could be exploited by creative diplomacy. An offer to suspend NATO-led air operations could provide powerful leverage for negotiation to gain real concessions. Continue reading “Time for a diplomatic strategy in Libya”