A Ship Without a Rudder

The institutions of the Egyptian state are out of control -- and it is unclear if even Sisi can bring them to heel.

In the midst of Egypt's authoritarian relapse, one aspect of the current chaos is particularly alarming: Nobody is actually in charge. While the military as an institution and Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have both emerged with their positions greatly enhanced, it is a mistake to see the trajectory of events in Cairo as the outcome of an orderly, centralized decision-making process. In fact, the current moment shows just how far the Egyptian state has fragmented during the past three years.

The military-backed interim government has embarked upon an effort to disable the Muslim Brotherhood, chill dissent, and restore stability through repressive means. Within this environment, however, critical decisions are often made haphazardly -- and are confined to security issues, ignoring the country's daunting economic challenges. Some current and former senior Egyptian civilian officials openly wonder if the security state, cheered on by a frenzied and manipulated media, can even be restrained.

Egypt's ad hoc decision making has had disastrous consequences on at least two recent occasions. First, the government designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in late December. This legally dubious decision was not the result of a careful investigation, but rather set in motion in the panicked aftermath of the Dec. 24 bombing of the Mansoura police headquarters, which killed at least 14 people and injured dozens.

Following the bombing, Cabinet spokesman Sherif Shawki accused the Muslim Brotherhood of showing its "ugly face as a terrorist organization, shedding blood, and messing with Egypt's security." This spontaneous characterization of the Brotherhood -- apparently aimed at focusing public anger on a well-known enemy -- was not immediately supported by then Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi. Nonetheless, the statement sparked intense media attention on the Brotherhood's status, creating pressure for an official designation. The Cabinet soon obliged, officially designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization -- without even backing up its decision with evidence of the Brotherhood's complicity in the Mansoura attack. This momentous step appears to have been taken with very little forethought or planning, despite the fact that the designation could ruin future efforts to reach a political settlement.    

Egypt's unsettled political state and dark public mood have also created strong incentives for hardline action, while simultaneously erecting obstacles for correcting even the most egregious excesses. The new government's second stumble, the now infamous arrest of al Jazeera English's Cairo staff at the Marriott hotel in Zamalek, exemplified these dynamics perfectly.

Following the journalists' arrest, government authorities, including the Interior Ministry, had launched discussions on how to deal with the detained journalists. But without prior consultation, the public prosecutor moved forward in formally charging the detainees. Despite the absurdity of the charges and their corrosive impact on the country's reputation, the referral raised the costs for correcting the original mistake by formally entangling the case in the machinery of the criminal justice system.

Voices within the government realized this escalation was a blunder. Even after the referral, various officials called for a speedy resolution of the case and sought ways to have the detainees freed. However, de-escalation would have required a major internal fight, direct intervention in an ongoing judicial matter, and was guaranteed to produce a public backlash. In the current climate, there were no takers for that leadership role.

These blunders paint a disconcerting picture: Even if Egyptian leaders wanted to restrain the repressive and vengeful impulses of the security apparatus, it is unclear how they would do so. And for Egyptian officials, who are keenly aware of public perceptions, the mood of national hysteria is now a further check on any potential restraining action. As such, media manipulation has emerged as a critical tool for government hardliners in setting the terms of public discourse. The institutions of the Egyptian state are out of control -- and it is unclear if anyone can bring them to heel.

This discussion will soon be centered on Egypt's next president, following the formality of elections later this spring. When he takes office, Sisi will enjoy considerable and unrivalled institutional backing, which will stand in stark contrast to the drift and opacity of the post-Mubarak period. At that moment, President Sisi will be faced with a fundamental choice: Will he use his political capital and stature to stitch the Egyptian state back together again, or will he continue the unsustainable efforts to use repression to re-impose stability?

The need for course correction is obvious. Egypt's current trajectory is ruinous, and has further exacerbated the country's interlinked political, economic, and security crises. How Sisi plans to get the country back on track is far from clear: Interestingly, some senior Muslim Brotherhood officials continue to see him as a potential interlocutor, based largely on their past dealings and an assumption that he is not fully aligned with the factions in the government seeking the Brotherhood's wholesale eradication. However, this is all conjecture for the moment, as Sisi has not yet sought to dial back the intensity and scope of repression since President Mohamed Morsi's ouster; rather, he's been a key figure in constructing public support for Egypt's "war on terror."

Sisi's decision to run for the presidency is itself a fraught one. The potential downsides are manifold: His election will re-concentrate authority in the office of the presidency, undermine state institutions, and reintroduce military dominance in civilian politics. Sisi's presidency also holds serious risks for the military itself, which has invested its prestige into his candidacy. The military has traveled a long way since its position during the Mubarak years as the silent guarantor of regime stability -- if Sisi falters, the entire institution's popularity and credibility will suffer, with potentially disastrous effects for Egypt.

In spite of these concerns, several Western diplomats who have been highly critical of the military's ouster of Morsi have indicated privately that they would like to see a Sisi presidency. They see this step as the necessary consequence of the July 2013 coup -- the assumption of ultimate responsibility for Egypt's future and the establishment of clear lines of authority.

However, even if President Sisi seeks to firmly take the reins of Egypt's runaway institutions, it would be a mistake to assume that any one man could easily undertake such a task. While the military's constitutional powers have increased progressively throughout the transitional period, the institution has consistently declined to be responsible for political decision-making. This was on full display during the stewardship of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) following the toppling of Hosni Mubarak: Disempowered and wary civilian leaders were placed front and center, unsure of their actual authority and lacking clarity as to the ultimate intent of the military, which consistently avoided making critical decisions.

This pattern largely continues, despite the preeminent position of the Egyptian armed forces. The inescapable conclusion is that, as a result, no one person or institution is actually attempting to run the country. When presented recently with the need for the military to rein in the malignant police forces, a senior Egyptian general essentially threw up his hands, asking rhetorically, "What can we do about the police?"

While the general's response may be the playacting of the disingenuous "good cop," there is no doubting that the military has either been unwilling or unable to tame Egypt's infamous Interior Ministry. More than ever, the various arms of the Egyptian state are acting according to their own whims. The Mubarak regime's fall began a process of devolution of authority, which was in several important instances formally enshrined in the recently-adopted constitution. The military and the judiciary now have greater autonomy than ever before, while the absence of any unifying authority has meant that the ties that bind the various organs of the bureaucracy have withered.

All of these problems are about to fall right in the lap of soon-to-be President Sisi. He may not be able to correct everything that ails Egypt or put the country on a course of near-term democratization -- but he might have a real opportunity to tame the jingoism of a fabulist media, rein in a brutal and unchecked police force, and quietly dial back the worst excesses of state repression. Only a President Sisi, with the backing of the military and his credibility with the public, can contemplate such steps.

But his window of opportunity may be fleeting. Given the dire state of the country and the near-certainty of economic deterioration, Sisi's popularity could soon wane. While the world of make-believe cures and hollow nationalism may provide a superficial veneer for the coming presidential campaign, Sisi will soon have a choice -- and the future of Egypt will depend on whether he is up to the task. If the past is indeed prologue, then that future will be a bleak one.  



What Doesn't Kill Ukraine

If it survives the current crisis in one piece, Kiev will have a new lease on its democratic future.

Ukraine's territorial integrity currently hangs in the balance. With Russian troops occupying Crimea and a referendum on secession scheduled for March 16, the former Soviet republic may not emerge from the current crisis territorially intact. If it does, however, Ukraine will have a new lease on its democratic future. In its 23 years of independence, Ukraine has struggled with both state- and nation-building. Regional cleavages -- between the predominantly Russian-speaking east and predominantly Ukrainian-speaking west -- have made for an often dysfunctional and polarized political process. Paradoxically, the current crisis has gone a long way toward bridging these divides, with ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's fierce repression, and now Putin's incursion into Crimea, uniting Ukrainians from across the country in support of the rule of law and civil and political rights. This, in turn, has opened up a new window of opportunity for democracy-building.

This window of opportunity, however, has been largely obscured by a misreading of the origins of the crisis. Ukraine did not end up in the current mess, as many have suggested, because the western and central parts of the country refused to be governed by a democratically-elected president with a support base in the east. The western part of the country already had a turn at governing the country, from 2005 to 2010, with Viktor Yushchenko as president and Yulia Tymoshenko as the prime minister. When Tymoshenko lost a free and fair election to Yanukovych in 2010, the transition of power was smooth. In 2012, despite growing concerns over the president's authoritarian methods and the chipping away of the main democratic achievements of the post-Orange Revolution period, the opposition participated in parliamentary elections and accepted the victory of Yanukovych's Party of Regions. The opposition in the center and west of the country did not attempt to use civil unrest to constrain the president's ability to govern. There were two policy-motivated protests -- over taxes in 2010 and over language policies in 2012 -- but both ended quickly and peacefully.

A third policy-motivated protest, which began on Nov. 21, 2013 in response to Yanukovych's refusal to sign an EU association agreement, would have likely fizzled out in less than two weeks had it not been for the government's harsh response (by late November, student organizers had already decided to leave Maidan, or Independence Square, in Kiev). But over the course of several days in late November and early December, a series of incidents of police brutality and seemingly random persecution reinvigorated the protests, expanding the number of people on the streets exponentially. Thus, Euromaidan is actually a misnomer. Both the timing of the popular mobilization and the polling data (more on that soon) show that the protests weren't fundamentally about the unsigned EU association agreement -- or even about western Ukraine's opposition to Yanukovych.

Above all, the protests were motivated and sustained by police brutality; extra-judicial persecution in the form of kidnappings, torture, and killings; and arbitrary criminal prosecutions of hundreds of protesters. Fig. 1 shows the results of surveys conducted over the last three months by Ukraine's premier pollster, the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, confirming this point. Throughout the three months of protests, the main motivating factor that brought protestors to Maidan was the repression that the government perpetrated against protest participants. An EU-oriented foreign policy and the ousting of Yanukovych were only secondary goals.

Widespread opposition to police brutality ended up mitigating, rather than exacerbating Ukraine's long-standing regional divisions. The majority of easterners and southerners did not express support for the protests in Kiev, but neither did they actively support Yanukovych at any point during the protests. There were no sizable pro-government rallies and no easterners and southerners -- with the exception of paid thugs -- flocked to Kiev to stage counter-protests. On the contrary, some traveled to Kiev to join Euromaidan; polls indicate that somewhere between one-fifth and one quarter of the protesters hailed from the east and south. Others joined local Euromaidan protests throughout the southeast. In the waning days of the Yanukovych regime, local Euromaidan activists in Dnipropetrovsk and Sumy in the east and Odessa and Zaporizhya in the south stormed regional administration buildings and even lay on train tracks to stop local military reinforcements from traveling to Kiev to suppress the protests. Between 23 and 35 percent of poll respondents from the south and east of the country blamed the government for escalating the conflict, and between 19 and 27 percent viewed them as a response to corruption and police brutality. In other words, the use of excessive force and arbitrary prosecutions against the protesters started to build national consensus around the importance of rule of law.

Ukrainian nation-building was further advanced by the Russian incursion into Crimea. Pro-Russian demonstrations in southeastern cities like Odessa, Donetsk, and Kharkiv -- attended not only by locals but also reportedly by Russian citizens, bussed in from the neighboring regions of Belgorod and Rostov -- were countered by substantially larger demonstrations for a united Ukraine. Polls taken immediately prior to the Russian invasion showed that only a minority of southeasterners supported joining the Russian Federation -- 26 percent in the eastern regions and 19 percent in the southern regions. Outside of Crimea, where 41 percent of respondents supported secession, the highest support for joining Russia, 33 percent, was in Donetsk.

Southeastern oligarchs who previously backed Yanukovych have also spoken out in support of the central government, underscoring the fact that Kiev does not face creeping secessionism in this part of the country. Two notable oligarchs, Serhiy Taruta and Ihor Kolomoisky, accepted appointments as regional governors after Yanukovych's ouster.

The fact that the current crisis has actually ameliorated the regional divide presents Kiev with a unique opportunity to advance democratization by calling early elections, not just for the presidency, but also for the parliament and for local councils. After the tectonic shift in the political landscape brought about by recent events, the electorate should be given a chance to select new representatives. New parliamentary elections would not only increase the legitimacy of the post-Yanukovych government in Kiev, but could also foster healthier political competition. In the years since independence, domestic political competition has been driven too much by the east-west divide, and not enough by the kinds of economic and social issues that divide parties in mature democracies. With the vast majority of Ukrainians united on the question of sovereignty and against Russia-dominated geopolitical projects, however, political competition can finally begin to develop along social and economic issues. This in turn makes it more likely that politicians will be judged by their ability to address corruption and improve the economy, rather than whether they are on the "right" side of the cultural and geopolitical divide.

At the same time, the implosion of Yanukovych's Party of Regions, which has dominated the country's southeast for the past decade, opens the way for new political players. This may strengthen voter and civil society activism in a region where, due to one-party dominance, civil society has been more passive. A new political party representing southeastern interests in Kiev would likewise guard against a sense of disenfranchisement that could breed radicalization and separatism. Elections are also likely to reduce the electoral appeal of far-right parties, because voters will no longer view supporting them as a protest vote.

The Euromaidan protests also left the government with a mandate to strengthen civil and political rights and work towards strengthening the rule of law. To this effect, the new government should establish a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the violence that occurred over the last three months. It should not turn these issues over to Ukraine's perennially weak and politicized courts, which have been thoroughly discredited by their role in the protests -- jailing protesters on flimsy evidence and then releasing them in batches at the executive's beck and call. The pressure on judges during this period was so pervasive and effective that the one judge who pushed back against the Yanukovych government was quickly forced to resign. Against this backdrop, any future court decisions that are in line with the preferences of the current government will be perceived as illegitimate by the opposition and as a continuation of the tradition of politicized justice. Committing any decisions with political ramifications to the judiciary will therefore deepen the rule of law problem and inflame regional tensions. Instead, the government should pursue slow and careful reforms to depoliticize the judiciary and the prosecution.

Equally important, the new government should keep in mind that the protests did not give them a mandate to pursue a major change in geopolitical course. They should not touch the Russian Black Sea Fleet question with a 10-foot pole and neither should they bring up the question of NATO membership any time soon. A poll from early March suggests that in a hypothetical referendum on EU accession, 62 percent of Ukrainians would vote in favor -- a slight increase from 55 percent who said they would do so in February. But again, any move towards the European Union has to be careful. It is possible that the boost in European popularity is a product of the EU association with lower corruption and stronger rule of law, rather than any change in Ukraine's geopolitical or cultural orientation.

But if the new government must move slowly and deliberately, a window of opportunity for the democratic project has nonetheless been opened up. Because of the unifying force of the recent crisis, the central government can now afford to pursue policies -- such as elevating the status of the Russian language and giving regions more autonomy -- that were previously perceived as dangerous due to their potential to dilute national identity, weaken central government control, and undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.

Language policies are a case in point. Polls show that among the three most commonly discussed options for language policies (Ukrainian as the only state language with Russian having no formal status, Russian as a second state language on par with Ukrainian, and Russian language officially having the status of a regional language in regions where the majority of the population wants it) the third option is the most popular. Forty-seven percent of respondents prefer making Russian a regional language, whereas only 19 and 28 percent of respondents prefer the other two options, respectively, according to a 2013 poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology.

Finally, stronger national unity and increased support for anti-corruption and rule of law initiatives can, in the medium-term, facilitate much-needed and much-delayed economic reforms. Ukraine needs to reduce its dependency on Russian gas, which in turn necessitates modernizing its outdated industrial plants. Structural reforms would be undoubtedly painful for the population, but what better time to call on Ukrainians to sacrifice economically than after a Russian invasion, and after the mind-blowing plunder of the state treasury during four years of Yanukovych rule?

What Russia views as punishment -- annulling an agreed-upon gas price reduction and halting nuclear fuel supplies to Ukrainian power plants -- actually gives the new government political cover for doing what needs to be done anyway to save the economy. With Western states and donors focused on the crisis and offering substantial aid -- such as the $15 billion offered by the European Union, plans to scrap tariffs for Ukrainian goods on the EU market, and the aid package recently approved by the U.S. Congress -- Ukraine may be in a better position to move ahead with democratic and economic reforms than at any other point since independence. With the West willing to help and its citizens willing to endure some economic hardship, there's no telling what the new government in Kiev can accomplish.