About Louis M Wasser

Louis, a now repentant former Cairo-based journalist who has returned to the bosom of the ivory tower, is currently a doctoral student in political science at Yale. His contributions to the blog will focus on the Middle East and North Africa, political violence, and natural resources, among other things.

What We’re Reading

More of “What We’re Reading” from the TSFR team, with a healthy dose of Egypt links at the bottom:

  • Learn your ABC’s with this Soviet-era erotic alphabet. This is interesting on many levels; in particular, consider that this was a policy by the USSR used to combat adult illiteracy: in other words, art, erotica, and a bit of sexism were combined in imagery as an educational policy. A friendly warning: do not open this at work. Do not open this around children, either.
  • More on protests in Brazil, from Nauro F. Campos. He concludes: “Against the stereotype of a laid-back and peaceful people, the historical record suggests the propensity to protest in Brazil is high and may have increased in the last decades. The current wave of protests has multiple causes but three important ones are corruption and inefficiency in public services delivery, political ineptitude and the electoral cycle. These make for the possibility that protests may well continue as the executive and the protesters push for political reform and improved public services against forces that are well represented in the legislature.”
  • Andrew Gelman writes in Slate about “researcher degrees of freedom” — reminding all of us to leave stargazing to the astronomers.
  • Why all Muslims are not terrorists, according to Bayes (and Phil Arena at the Duck of Minerva).
  • Sometimes it seems like Jordan might be one giant attempt to see how many things you can do to a state before it fails. The current episode: Syrian refugees. Lots of them.
  • Matt Yglesias wonders aloud about whether poor social mobility in the American South is associated with historical efforts to disenfranchise blacks: “If your poor population contains a very large number of African-Americans, then perhaps the only viable means of keeping the black man down are going to involve denying opportunities for upward mobility to poor people of all races. Strong public schools, economically mixed neighborhoods, dense cities, and other pathways of economic mobility would undermine the racial hierarchy, so they meet with unusual levels of resistance.”
  • Ahsan Butt has a clever new piece in International Organization arguing that the decline of U.S. intervention in Latin America in the 1930s is the cause of a bump in Latin American wars during that same time period. We don’t know if we buy his empirical story, but the piece is important because it has obvious implications for U.S. retrenchment today. It seems like trying to find analogous historical episodes of retrenchment is something both sides should be doing in making their arguments for U.S. policy, rather than arguing solely based on fuzzy concepts like “leadership.”
  • Selection effects and the Voting Rights Act: Justice Ginsberg’s dissent in Shelby County v. Holder argued, “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens weighs in on the case (including this particular argument) here.
  • Interesting empirical finding from India: “We find that increasing the political representation of Muslims improves health and education outcomes in the district from which the legislator is elected. We find no evidence of religious favoritism: Muslim children do not benefit more from Muslim political representation than children from other religious groups.” The paper exploits a regression discontinuity based on narrow electoral victories. If the finding is true, it seems like a coalitional story — where Muslim politicians are often part of a coalition that also represents poor Hindus — is likely part of the answer, although the draft has little explanatory narrative.
  • An opposition figure is gunned down in Tunisia with the same weapon used to kill another prominent politician earlier this year, further complicating Tunisia’s transition.
  • Fighting in Syria as diplomatic wrangling proceeds in New York.
  • Egypt!
    • Steve Negus at the Arabist on army chief General al-Sissi calling for mass demonstrations seeking a mandate against “terrorism” — code for the Muslim Brotherhood and allies. Negus argues this marks a strategic shift (“Unless he genuinely miscalculated the impact of what he said  — as we learned with SCAF, this is always a possibility when career military men enter politics — al-Sissi has diverged considerably from his July 3 strategy of having a civilian interim government out in front.”) and offers some possible explanations as to why this shift took place.
    • Steven Cook weighs in with a NY Times op-ed: “A Faustian Pact: Generals as Democrats”
    • Sinai continues to boil over following Morsi’s unceremonious ouster from Egypt’s presidency early this month.
    • If you can’t disperse ’em, massacre ’em (not an endorsement of said tactics): some images (many disturbing/graphic) from clashes at a pro-Morsi sit in on Saturday.
    • Speaking of terrible violence, Sarah Carr writes Saturday on state strategy, and parallels to Tiananmen: “It seems more and more likely that security bodies will act in the next few days. Yesterday night’s violence on Nasr Road demonstrates that they are incapable of acting with restraint or with any kind of sensible plan. That they are taking on a massive civilian sit-in spells disaster. But just for the record, I would like to suggest that there are ways to minimise [a Brit!] the deaths and injuries so that we do not replicate what happened in Tiananmen Square.”
    • Another piece by Sarah Carr, on al-Sissi’s speech and its reception in Egypt: “The general public was sold. It ran stumbling and screaming into Sisi’s protective arms and nestled in his bosom. Almost overnight, people mutated into barrel-thumping nationalists celebrating a victory against a foreign enemy, when no battle has yet been won and their enemy is one of them. Hot air — lots of hot air — has been blown into former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s corpse. Perhaps they are trying to blow his spirit into Sisi. Three years after the heady independent days of January 25, and Egyptians are once again seeking out the army strongman to hold their hand, and an enemy — invented or real, it doesn’t matter — to define and shape their cause. Like all nationalist movements, this is sentiment partly informed by fear and hate. There is nothing of real ideological substance here, no long-term goal other than either containing the Brotherhood or crushing the Islamist movement.”
    • Egypt’s foreign minister on Brotherhood participation, and potential repercussions if they fail to come into the political process following Morsi’s ouster, which the group has strongly opposed: “If they decide to withdraw from politics, it will be disappointing. If they decide to pursue violence, then you are looking at a completely different confrontation […] Even if I personally reject their positions or ideology, they have to find their place in Egypt’s political life.” But…
    • …see Ashraf Khalil on setting the legal basis for Morsi’s detention through investigation of espionage charges: On July 26, “an Egyptian judge announced the detention of deposed President Mohamed Morsi for 15 days while authorities investigate charges of espionage levied against him by the transitional government… The fact of Morsi’s detention is less surprising than the nature of the charges themselves—branding Morsi and the Brotherhood, in essence, as traitors. It is not the sort of maneuver that a government interested in reconciling with disaffected opponents would make. Friday’s ruling, combined with the pro-military protests called for the same day, have now set the stage for a sweeping crackdown on the Brotherhood that seems likely to drive the organization back underground.”

What We’re Reading

Or, how we’re spending our summer “vacations”…

  • Melonie Fullick on “Risk, responsibility, and public academics“. 
  • Writing intro textbooks is apparently more lucrative than we might have guessed. Buried in a story about a textbook publisher’s bankruptcy: “Greg Mankiw, a Harvard University professor who advised Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is owed $1.6 million in royalties, according to the bankruptcy filing.” Since Mankiw has been producing this textbook for well over a decade now, this suggests that the $1.6 million is only some small portion of what the textbook has garnered him over the years. Krugman flags this because — from what we can tell — he hates Mankiw. Mankiw provides a story that suggests he’ll get paid.
  • Barry Blechman on cutting strategic nukes: “Reducing the size of our strategic [nuclear] force by one-third would save a lot of money — funds that could potentially shore up conventional air, naval and ground forces being hollowed out by the sequester-driven budget cuts.”
  • “29%:The share of college undergraduates who are traditional students.” Here.
  • Reflections of an IR lecturer here: “We’re trained on how to give conference talks, which we’ll give perhaps four times a year (and the median performance there is still pretty bad), and extensively workshopped in giving job talks, which my generation will probably give (at the median) about three times. But lecturing, which is our most common vehicle for expressing scholarship, is never clearly discussed. What makes a good lecture? What is an appropriate amount of time to write a lecture about a subject you know well–or, as happens to us all, about which you know almost nothing?”
  • Roger Berkowitz reflects on the debates sparked by Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” newly reanimated by Margarethe von Trotta’s recent film. He argues that many of Arendt’s critics misread and oversimplify her argument, which retains immense relevance to contemporary politics.
  • Louis Hyman at Symposium Magazine talks about the how, when and why of writing the history of capitalism. In related news, some feminist writers are rediscovering (reemphasizing?) Karl Polanyi.
  • An older post on sexual assaults in Tahrir: “In Tahrir Square since Sunday, when protests against Morsi first began, there have been at least 169 counts of sexual mob crime.”
  • On social capital and the Nazis: “Towns with one standard deviation higher association density saw at least one-third faster growth in the strength of the Nazi Party. [A]ll types of associations – veteran associations and non-military clubs, ‘bridging’ and ‘bonding’ associations – positively predict NS party entry. These results suggest that social capital in Weimar Germany aided the rise of the Nazi movement that ultimately destroyed Germany’s first democracy.”
  • Morsi’s downfall hammers Hamas”  — Relations between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinian Hamas were not as warm as many had expected upon Morsi’s election, but his fall and the military’s return to power could spell trouble for the Gaza-based movement. Political instability in Egypt could also encourage instability and violence in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

What We’re Reading

Happy (belated) 4th of July! While you work off that post-celebration hangover, here’s some more of what we’re reading to pass the time:

What We’re Reading

The Quest to Rule Egypt, Plus Sinai

It’s been an eventful month so far in Egypt, to put it mildly. On the heels of rising instability and fatal violence in North Sinai pitting militants against both the Egyptian and Israeli states, on Sunday President Mohamed Morsy announced significant changes to both the leadership of the armed forces and the structure of the political system.

Clashes in the north of Sinai are nothing new, but the attack on August 5 — an operation that resulted in the deaths of 16 Egyptian border guards, as well as the theft of vehicles then used to penetrate Israel — was shocking in both its magnitude and audacity. (See The Arabist for Issandr El Amrani’s exceedingly useful summary of the initial attack in Sinai, posted August 6.) The area has since seen additional violence, including Egyptian airstrikes that` reportedly killed 20, and further armed clashes initiated by both militants and Egyptian armed forces.

As the situation in North Sinai has continued to boil over, the jockeying over power at the national level doesn’t seem to have skipped a beat. President Morsy (who captured the presidency as the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, although since his election victory he has formally left the organization and its political party) recently moved to assert his authority in a two-pronged maneuver, as laid out in an August 12 article in The New York Times:

President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt forced the retirement on Sunday of his powerful defense minister, the army chief of staff and other senior generals, moving more aggressively than ever before to reclaim political power that the military had seized since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year.

Mr. Morsi also nullified a constitutional declaration, issued by the military before he took office on June 30, that had gutted the authority of his office. On Sunday, he replaced it with his own declaration, one that gave him broad legislative and executive powers and, potentially, a decisive role in the drafting of Egypt’s still unfinished new constitution.

This came after a different shakeup earlier this month in direct response to the attacks in Sinai. As for what this all means, there isn’t exactly consensus. The August 12 NYT story following the more recent personnel changes noted:

For his new defense minister, Mr. Morsi chose the head of military intelligence, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who was seen as close to Field Marshal Tantawi… Gen. Mohamed al-Assar, a member of the military council, was named an assistant defense minister. He told Reuters that Mr. Morsi’s decision was “based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council.”

While the retirements marked at least a symbolic end to the military’s dominant role in Egyptian politics, Mr. Morsi’s abolishment of the constitutional declaration posed a more fundamental challenge to the military. It also raised the possibility of a new confrontation with one of Egypt’s highest courts.

After offering a caveat regarding the preliminary nature of his impressions, El Amrani presented his initial perspective on the moves in a Sunday post. In the piece, he breaks down Morsy’s decisions into two categories, dealing first with the military personnel changes:

The overall impression I get is of a change of personalities with continuity in the institution. More junior officers are taking the posts of their former superiors, and some SCAF members are shifting positions. The departure of Tantawi was inevitable considering his age and unpopularity…

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Peeking Through Syria’s Fog of War

With recent high-profile blows to the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Assad and his allies — including last month’s bombing in Damascus that killed and wounded a number of key regime figures, the metastasis of the conflict into Aleppo and Damascus (both of which were largely quiescent previously, while other parts of the country were being ravaged by the war), and continuing defections, including the  prime minister’s escape to Turkey earlier this month — the rebels appear to be gaining significant ground. But is this an accurate assessment, and what can we expect moving forward?

In trying to understand the dynamics of the conflict in Syria, as well as its possible trajectories, the initial step must be to nail down exactly what we’re looking at. In this effort, disaggregation is one of the strongest potential tools at our disposal. Media coverage of Syria and other conflict situations often suffers from a lamentable tendency to lump all different sorts of civil wars together, a habit that hinders understanding of the conflict dynamics in specific cases. But there is actually more than one sort of civil war — and determining which category Syria falls into is essential to generating a more thorough understanding of the conflict.

In a 2010 article, political scientists Stathis Kalyvas and Laia Balcells show that,

insurgency (“guerrilla” or “irregular war”) is neither the only technology available to rebels nor is it as time invariant as assumed. In addition to irregular warfare, [they] identify two overlooked technologies of rebellion: conventional warfare and symmetric non-conventional (SNC) warfare.  (Kalyvas et al. 2010, 415)

These technologies of rebellion take into account variation on both the challenger and incumbent sides, and each type is characterized by a unique constellation of joint capabilities — as well as distinctive internal wartime dynamics.

The focus on technologies of rebellion has several advantages. It allows the study of civil wars as an evolving and dynamic historical phenomenon rather than one that remains constant over time. We show that the relative balance of power between contending forces determines the war-fighting strategies of the respective sides. We also indicate that the three technologies of rebellion reflect distinct military, social, and political dynamics, and affect differentially the strategic logic of conflicts, including their tactics, ideology, recruitment practices, and relations with the civilian population, among others…

Conventional civil war takes place when the military technologies of states and rebels are matched at a high level; irregular civil war emerges when the military technologies of the rebels lag vis-à-vis those of the state; and SNC war is observed when the military technologies of states and rebels are matched at a low level. (Kalyvas et al. 2010;  415, 418)

It seems clear that the Syrian conflict up till now fits into the irregular war category. Rebels remain lightly armed compared to the regime, which still has yet to unleash the full force of its military capabilities in its brutal campaign against its own people, including many noncombatants. (There was some very limited use of heavy weapons by the insurgents in Aleppo earlier this month, but for the most part they fit the profile of lightly-armed fighters).

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The Junta and the Brothers

Egypt’s democratic future is bright! Except, of course, that it probably isn’t — at least in the near term. The process of ‘transitioning to democracy’ under the stewardship of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has largely been a sham, a long con carried out by the junta as it has sought to preserve military power and privilege.

The end of last month brought a symbolic — albeit uninspiring — milestone in this process, with the armed forces making a show of formally transferring power to the recently-elected civilian president:

Egypt’s new President Mohamed Mursi said on [June 30] the military that took charge when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last year had kept its promise to hand over power, speaking at a ceremony to mark the formal transfer of authority.

This ceremony capped a month of rapid political developments, against a backdrop of apparent confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the generals, interspersed with conciliation. Highlights from June — which I was fortunate to be able to spend in Egypt — include swirling rumors about Mubarak (ismubarakdead.com); the invalidation of parliament; naked power grabbing by SCAF through a constitutional declaration; and the presidential run-off round, accompanied by Egypt’s collective holding of breath as the announcement of results was delayed.

Fun times with the Brothers and the junta have continued into July. Juan Cole noted last week:

Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi tried to steal third base on [July 8], announcing that he was calling back into session the dissolved Egyptian parliament. It would continue to meet, he said, until new parliamentary elections, to be held within 60 days of the completion of the new constitution. He thus took on both the Supreme Court and the officer corps, setting the stage for a face-off.

Apparently cute photo ops aren’t everything (check out the hyperlink embedded in the selection from Cole, above); the military and the oh-so-impartial judiciary wasted little time before hitting back, a New York Times article explained:

Egypt’s highest court and its most senior generals on Monday [July 9] dismissed President Mohamed Morsi’s order to restore the dissolved Parliament as an affront to the rule of law, escalating a raw contest for supremacy between the competing camps… [A]t its core, the fate of this Parliament is another chapter in the long-running battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military[.]

(For particulars of parliament being dissolved, see this Arabist post, including Tamir Moustafa’s comment at the bottom of the page.) The result? “Not so defiant: Egypt’s parliament meets for 5 minutes” — followed shortly after by Morsy seemingly backing down, at least for a moment. The matter is currently in the hands of an administrative court, and decisions on this and other critical issues are slated for today, July 19.

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