Middle East/North Africa Part 2: Violence, Poor Governance, and a Social Contract Void
In an earlier piece I laid out five dynamics that together are changing the nature of Middle East politics and security: (1) a wide embrace of the use of violence by state and non-state actors to pursue socio-religious and political agendas, (2) a push for governance responsible to the people without the requisite institutions and social contracts, (3) the inability of governments to financially meet domestic demand, (4) demographic changes, including a youth bulge, complicating every challenge, and (5) multiplying and diversifying identities. I also argued that these changes mean a fundamentally different region, and therefore necessitate a fundamentally different approach from American decision makers. In this piece I set out to provide greater depth to the first two dynamics.
To discuss the first dynamic I will use the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, and Iraq, countries where violence has taken the place of routine political processes. The same phenomena can also be seen in Libya, Mali, Syria, Afghanistan, and some of the Gulf Cooperation Council states. In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, the main force behind violence has been Salafists groups. Salafism is a Sunni branch of fundamentalist Islam that believes Islamic life today ought to replicate how the Salafs, the first Muslims, lived. That world was one without many things seen in today’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA), like alcohol, drugs, some level of gender equality, and a diversity of both Muslims and non-Muslims, to name a few.
Today’s Salafist organizations are broadly compartmentalized into two camps. The first is the so-called scientific component that promotes an introverted life immersed in the sacred texts. The second is the jihadi component, which advocates armed resistance against immoral forces.
Egypt’s Salafists, for example, steer towards the jihadi camp and widely reject the Muslim Brotherhood’s more modern interpretation of Islam. Historically Salalfists in Egypt have preferred an approach of local rather than national self-organization. They remained relatively quiet under Mubarak for fear of his quick and resounding repression. Now, however, after receiving the second most votes in Egypt’s 2012 elections, they have an informal understanding with the Muslim Brotherhood that affords them significant leeway in ruling the rural towns and villages in which they live. The Salafists have taken advantage of weak central government to impose their religious doctrine throughout the country, doing so with intimidation and violence.
The Coptic Christian community has been one of their main targets. The Spring of 2011 was a particularly violent period of Salafist-Coptic “relations.” Salafists cut the ear off a Copt accused of renting an apartment to a prostitute. Even after voluntarily admitting to doing so because such a punishment was required by Sharia, the police, who are responsible for upholding a non-Sharia legal code, did nothing. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood took a chapter from the Mubarak playbook, recommending “reconcilliation” talks to reduce the tensions, a tactic known for its ineffectiveness.
In the same time period, Salafists killed one villager and wounded eight over their disproval of a Coptic-owned alcohol store. A month later, Salafists filled a Coptic church and stopped on-going and much needed repairs, and told the Copts they could not worship there. After Muslim Brotherhood led reconciliation the Copts were told to build a new church further away from Salafi neighborhoods and refrain from putting a dome or other external features on the new building. When a Copt was elected governor in Qena, over 10,000 Salafiststs came out to demonstrate, protesting that a Copt would not implement Sharia (Islamic law) and calling the elected man an “infidel pig.” The government refused to intervene, and the appointment of the Coptic man was frozen. Salafists have also attacked worshipers (in one instance a priest was killed) and burned churches around Cairo.
In one of these incidents, two churches were burned and 18 people killed when reports surfaced that a church was holding a woman who had converted to Islam from Christianity. Following this violence – and no intervention from the government – Copts staged a protest in front of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union. On the second day, the protesters were attacked. Intense clashes followed, and dozens were injured on both sides.
Egypt’s Salafists have attacked other Muslims as well, targeting those whose practices are something other than their own. They have killed Muslims for not praying at the requisite time. They have targeted Sufi Muslims whose veneration of saints they consider heretical. Since Mubarak stepped down, dozens of Sufi shrines have been burned or removed. Shia Muslims, likewise, have been targeted.
Salafist groups literally around the world have long been supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar both financially and ideologically. For example, a RAND report put the Saudi’s financial support of Egyptian Salafists at over $80 million for 2012 the elections alone. Targets of Egypt’s Salafists are apparently aware of this, and have demonstrated in front of the Saudi embassy to protest Saudi culpability in the violence against them.
Tunisia’s Salafi groups, on the other hand, have thus far distanced themselves from the jihadi camp and have become crucial to the country by filling voids in public services. Ennhada, the party elected to power following the country’s revolution, has managed the Salafists impressively well, although the assassination earlier this year of opposition politician Chokri Belaid threatens to raise tensions between the Salafists and non-Islamists, many of whom blame the former for Belaid’s death.
The scientific Tunisian Salafists had been a source of support for the now deposed Ben Ali, but after the revolution they began to enthusiastically promote their doctrine and pressure Ennhada to include Sharia in the country’s new constitution. This has raised concern among non-Islamists, some of whom accuse Ennhada of scheming with the Salafists and working toward the same goals.
While there have been Salafist-driven occurrences of violence, they have been more dramatic than deadly. The most known incident was the September 2012 assault on the U.S. embassy that was part of the region-wide reaction to the infamous “Innocence of Muslims” movie. This relative calm is increasingly fragile, however. Tunisia’s militant Salafists are a growing presence in poor areas of the country, filling a public services vacuum. They are gaining control over many educational institutions and have begun mediating local disagreements, including marital problems. This community engagement is becoming increasingly violent with Salafists conducting vigilante justice. And ominously, most of Tunisia’s violently-inclined Salafists have been preoccupied fighting the enemy outside Tunisia. Should they decide to return home, the threat of violence increases significantly.
Salafists are not the only Islamist non-state actors disrupting social and political cohesion, however. One example is the Egyptian group called Gamaa Islamiya (“the Islamic group”), who is responsible for the 1997 massacre of 62 people in Luxor and classified as a terrorist organization by both the US and the European Union. After the 2011 revolution, the group developed a political party and formed local “popular committees” to operate in communities around the country. They have acted thus far non-violently by providing basic social services, including distributing butane and subsidized meat, and even collected trash when collectors went on strike. They have even taken to apprehending people accused of theft and handing them over to the police. They also claim to have rescued kidnapping victims. However, given their history and their increasing presence, non-Islamists and local police are increasingly concerned that the group will act based on its religious and ideological underpinnings and worry that vigilante justice will soon become a Gamaa Islamiya feature.
The case of Iraq’s violence is a bit different – less religiously and more politically driven. Further, the violence is often conducted by the government. Prime Minsiter Nouri al-Maliki has been quite obvious with his leverage of violence. The central government and the leadership of Iraq’s Kurdish region have long been at loggerheads. Maliki escalated the tension recently by announcing the establishment of the Tigris Operations Command, which has set up shop in the heart of the Kurdish region. It has brought exactly the opposite kind of people to the region one would bring if the goal was to reduce sectarian tension. Another similar case is the Maliki established Shia-led Al-Jazeera and Al-Badia Operations Command in the Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninewa that has met with significant local opposition.
These Sunni provinces have been in a state of protest since December of last year over widespread perceptions that the Shia Maliki is seeking to limit Sunni influence as much as possible while exerting more draconian control over the Iraqi Sunni population throughout the country. In late January, Iraqi Security Forces opened fire on protesters in the town of Fallujah, killing eight. Since the incident, Maliki has been more pragmatic about the protests, especially as provincial elections scheduled for April draw nearer. He has allowed the tensions – which he calls a security concern – to remain, giving him the pretext to postpone elections in those provinces, which he did two weeks ago. He achieved this by offering appetite-whetting concessions to the protesters without delivering the main course in order to keep them at the table banging their forks and knives.
Iraq’s Shia-Sunni divide is one of particular difficulty, and one that Maliki has masterfully played. One such manifestation is his support for a particularly nasty Shia Iranian proxy group in Iraq called Asa’ib ahl ah-Haq, whom he has used as leverage against another Shia group – the Sadrists – who have proven more politically problematic for him. Further, an on-going spate of political assassinations of Sunni figures in Sunni provinces, likely conducted by Al Qaeda in Iraq, have been effective in dissuading Sunnis from participating in politics. That these assassinations have not been seriously investigated or foiled suggest that Maliki sees them as a political benefit to himself. Further, they contribute to the case he made for postponing elections in Sunni provinces on the basis of the challenging security situation being experienced in Anbar and Ninewa.
Intimidation has been another tactic of Maliki. Reports surfaced earlier this month that Maliki made (yet another) attempt to sideline former finance minister Rafia al-Issawi by sending helicopters after Issawi’s convoy as it made its way to a funeral, although the convoy continued on. Last December, a number of Issawi’s body guards were arrested by security forces as well. Another form of intimidation has now been unleashed after Maliki allies have begun re-interpreting the Iraqi constitution, which heretofore protected Ministers of Parliament from prosecution. Anti-Maliki politicians have since been threatened with legal action for anti-Maliki statements and actions, which would be metered out in Maliki-friendly courts.
These are just three examples of how the use of violence in MENA has become a more common place means for achieving political and religious agendas. While violence as a tool has been an unfortunate feature of MENA for much of history, the elimination of strong central governance has meant that previously neutralized or controlled groups and individuals seeking various changes are now free from government harassment and handcuffs, either from tacit government approval or the inability of governments to enforce law and govern. The Egyptian police force, for example, is losing ground across many areas, and vigilante justice is on the rise. The country’s Justice Minister warned recently that prolific public lynchings could mark “the death of the state.”
Meanwhile, as governments have risen to replace their deposed predecessors, some have been able themselves to use violence given the lack of strong institutions and social contracts that would otherwise make them responsible to their people. Feeble government institutions have long been a feature of MENA – judiciaries are not exactly free or independent, elections are not often transparent or free from violence or intimidation, corruption is rampant, property rights are non-existent in many places, etc. Without good institutional structure and strength, the state lacks the necessary skeletal integrity upon which a country can develop. Therefore, establishing good governance has been essentially impossible for MENA states going through political and social transition.
Looking at the second dynamic, there are a number of indexes out there that collectively give us some insight into how governance in MENA is functioning. One such index is the World Justice Program’s Rule of Law Index which looks at a number of factors with the goal of assessing a nation’s adherence to the rule of law in practice. The factors include: limited government powers, absence of corruption, order and security, fundamental rights, open government, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, criminal justice, and informal justice.
The index scores 97 countries including the MENA states of Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Turkey, and Iran. The index ranks countries according to each factor above. On limited governance, for example, Egypt is the best placed at 40, with Iran fairing the worst at 85. Tunisia sits at 41, Morocco at 43, Lebanon at 44, the UAE at 48, Jordan at 51, and Turkey at 85. On absence of corruption, the states fall between 23 (UAE) and 80 (Morocco). For Order and Security, the best placed is the UAE at 5 with Turkey the worst at 70. The worst ranking for any country is Iran in dead last (97) on fundamental rights (the best placed in this category is Lebanon at 39), however Egypt is towards the bottom at 89, not far behind Morocco at 80 and the UAE at 82.
Another insightful index is Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. In the 2013 rankings, MENA states fell between 77(Kuwait) and 176 (Syria). Between these two fell the UAE (114), Algeria (125), Libya (131), Jordan (134), Morocco (136), Tunisia (138), Oman (141), Palestine (146), Iraq (150), Egypt (158), Saudi Arabia (163), Bahrain (165), Yemen (171), and Lebanon and Iran (174).
The Property Rights Alliance’s International Property Rights Index considers 10 variables which fall within three components relevant to surveying quality of governance: legal and political environment, physical property rights, and intellectual property rights. In the 2011 rankings of 129 countries, Qatar placed the best at 23, with Oman and Bahrain tied at 28, Saudi Arabia at 33, Jordan at 44, Tunisia at 47, Kuwait at 50, Turkey and Morocco tied at 64, Egypt at 71, Syria at 84, Lebanon at 100, Algeria at 107, Iran at 109, and Libya at 123.
The Global Competitiveness Index can be insightful as well. It is a comprehensive assessment of countries’ economic competitiveness produced by the Global Competitiveness Network of the World Economic Forum. Competitiveness is defined as “the set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country”. Crucially, it looks at the institutional environment determined by legal and administrative frameworks “within which individuals, firms, and governments interact to generate wealth.” It also considers bureaucratic efficiency and management of public finances. Among other factors, it considers health and primary education and labor market efficiency, which must “ensure a clear relationship between worker incentives and their efforts to promote meritocracy at the workplace, and they must provide equity in the business environment between women and men.”
From its 2011-2012 Report that scored 142 countries, Qatar is the best placed at 14. From there Saudi Arabia falls at 17, UAE at 27, Oman at 32, Kuwait at 34, Bahrain at 37, Tunisia at 40, Turkey at 59, Iran at 62, Jordan at 70, Morocco at 73, Algeria at 87, Lebanon at 89, Egypt at 94, Syria at 98, and Yemen at 138.
A standard index for measuring quality of life is the Human Development Index. In 2013, the best placed MENA state is Qatar at 36. From there, the UAE falls at 41, Bahrain at 48, Saudi Arabia at 57, Libya at 64, Lebanon at 72, Iran at 76, Oman at 84, Turkey at 90, Algeria at 93, Tunisia at 94, Jordan at 100, the Palestinian Territories at 110, Egypt at 112, Syria at 116, Morocco at 130, Iraq at 131, and Yemen at 160. Collectively, their inequality-adjusted HDI lower than the global average and is the thrd worst of all regions, beating out South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
While putting together one comprehensive assessment of governance is a fool’s errand, these indexes give us a fairly good overview of where the countries stand, both compared to each other and other countries around the world. What we see is nothing particularly impressive. The most “impressive” MENA rankings tend to be on lists of public safety and business environment. When correlated against other metrics like open governance, high human development, and various basic freedoms, the same countries tend to score poorly. Further, as demonstrated above, groups prone to violence have taken advantage of governance gaps to deepen their role in public life, further eroding governance. Taken together, the picture is that when governance is strong, power is centralized, oppressive of its citizens, and overbearing. When governance is weak, not only are states unsafe, but they also lack personal freedoms and routes to success outside the corrupt state-dominated economy.
Good governance is also part of the essential social contract that gives life to stable and prosperous countries. It is the yin to the quality of life yang. Social contract theory says that peoples’ obligations – political and, sometimes, moral – to society are dependent upon an agreement among themselves to form a society together. The formation of that society is upheld, protected, and advanced through governance and public participation.
At this point in time it is unfortunately obvious that the commitment of people to each other in many MENA states does not lend itself to the nation-state structure upon which each country is based, but more on this in a future post. The outcome is that the willingness to enter into a social contract is too often limited to identities that are inherently exclusionary to the point of preventing contracts with other co-patriots of differing identities.
When poor governance and lack of a social contract combine the result is not great. Add to that the diffusion of authority and capability over violence and MENA is going through some particularly difficult times. In the next piece on the Middle East I will layer on the third and fourth dynamics outlined in the original piece: the inability of governments to financially meet domestic demand, and demographic changes, including a youth bulge, that complicating every challenge.
6 Responses to “Middle East/North Africa Part 2: Violence, Poor Governance, and a Social Contract Void”
all outdated documents…..
Untrue, salafism has not been violent in Egypt since the revolution.
When a country have a poor governance and lack of a social contract, expect the worst for your country.
I’ve been reading a number of your posts and really enjoyed your writing. Great post, very insightful, your point of view.
Fantastic reading indeed!! Love way you write up there. I am so please to read a bit meaningful concept in this issue. Anyway I am looking forward to hear violence, poor governance, and a Social Contract Void. Thanks!
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