Monday, May 23, 2016

Democratization's First Failure: The American South After 1865

This is the second of two entries against American exceptionalism.  The first dealt with the period of the revolutionary war of independence.  This one addresses the occupation of the South after the Civil War and the failure to create a democratic capitalist system there.  

Americans, including academics, have an immense appetite for books, stories and films about the
people, processes, and details of the Revolution and the Civil War.  American academics have a nearly equally immense appetite for books and articles about democratization, but more recently their tastes have changed to include studies of authoritarianism, dictatorship, and repression.  Neither citizens at large nor academics, however, have much of a taste for the period in which American history comprises grim accounts of authoritarianism, terror, dictatorship and the violent overthrow of elected governments—the period between 1876 and 1956.

American academics do occasionally research and write about those years but they prefer to focus on what are, generally, more uplifting stories.  These include the expansion of American industry, the political integration of millions of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, the development of the welfare state, and the increasingly important role of the US as a global power. What negative aspects there are to the role of urban political machines, the unequal distribution of wealth in the Gilded Age, and the inability (or unwillingness) of the US to bring democracy to the real or metaphorical islands where US troops were dispatched from the Philippines to Central America or the Caribbean form a necessary counterpoint to the ineluctably progressive character of the American experience. 

Inherent in these stories—whether told in the academic or the popular press—is the belief that America is one country with one people.  Its territorial boundaries expand and its population becomes increasingly diverse but, as our national motto has it, we are, out of many, one.  Walt Whitman is our national poet because he celebrates our protean ability to combine multitude of individuals.  To the extent that we may be slightly skeptical of how exceptional we are, we sometimes note the role that ideas of race have played in the history of the American state and American society.  Because African slavery in Americas was nearly coextensive with white settlement, we have come to see African Americans as people against whom there has been discrimination but who are historically part and parcel of the American people and American history. 

There are sound reasons for looking at American history this way, but we can learn something else about the history of our country and the world by looking at things slightly differently: as the centuries-long account of attempting, with varying degrees of success, the integration of two very different countries—one with liberal democratic and market institutions riven by class conflict and one with an authoritarian political system and a command economy and a caste society—into one and of attempting, often with very little success, to democratize one of them. Seen in this light and shorn of the idea that the conflict over race is simply a matter of individual prejudice (although that too exists) similarities between post-colonial states in the Middle East, Asia and Africa with the United States become more apparent.  

For anyone interested in whether an occupying army can accomplish democratization or the ways in which a dispossessed elite regains authority or simply how much political capital US governments are willing to expend in the pursuit of democratization, the years between 1865 and 1960 in the American South provide a wealth of insight.  In April 1865 the Federal government won the war it had prosecuted for four years against an insurgent government, the Confederate States of America.  Unlike many rebellious movements the CSA was a fully formed state.  It had an army, governing institutions and offices, diplomatic representatives, and a legal system.  It claimed and, except when militarily defeated by the Union army, largely succeeded in maintaining a monopoly of legitimate violence in the territory it claimed. Had the Union not occupied the south, including its successive capitals, there is no reason to believe that it would have been anything other than a functioning state in the global system of states. 

It is generally understood today that the war was fought over the issue of slavery but what this means is often unclear.  The war was not fought over racial discrimination, but over whether the state would recognize and defend property rights in human beings. More exactly it was fought to determine whether a political system in which slavery provided an elite with crucial economic power would continue to exist in North America where it had already been abolished in the two neighboring polities of Canada and Mexico. The Emancipation Proclamation was a tool through which the Union destroyed the economy of the CSA.  Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US constitution in 1865 outlawing slavery made the re-creation of the Old South’s political economy impossible. 

Over the next twenty years several Republican presidents and congressional majorities wrestled with the problem we now call democratization.   They thought of it as a problem of how to construct republican government.  In a world of monarchies and empires, political theorists still thought more about republics than democracies as the alternative to autocratic rule.  Equally pressing was that the wording of the US constitution permitted the Congress to ensure that the various states had republican not democratic governments.

The fourteenth Amendment to the constitution and the civil rights act of 1866 were initial attempts to create political (but not social) equality between black and white citizens.  In the mid-19th century several states of the Deep South had black majorities and thus political equality necessarily transferred power in any fair and free election.  Former slaves were solidly Republican voters but the candidates they supported were usually white.  Some were from the South and others were immigrants from the North.  It is testimony to the continued power of the political vocabulary of southern reaction that the nomenclature to describe these whites, “scalawags” and “carpetbaggers”, has survived into the 21st century.

To a degree perhaps unprecedented in human history, the racism that structures relationships between black and white Americans is the outcome of conscious human decision-making.  Unlike the relationships between Shi’i and Sunni Muslims or Armenians and Turks or Koreans and Japanese, there simply are no historical categories that correspond to white and black as Americans understand them before 1620.  Neither the progenitors of Europeans or Africans inhabited the continents that were to be named after the obscure Italian navigator Vespucci.  If the children of Europe came largely of their own volition, the children of Africa were brought in chains and suffering and the relationship between the two developed in relatively well-documented historical time.  

With the exception of the American Indian peoples, neither the US constitution, ordinary politics, nor American scholarship is in the least at ease with the idea that ours is a multi-ethnic or pluri-national country.  There was really no time when Black and white in America lived happily together in a paradise riven by colonial machinations.  And yet precisely because this is so it is easier to re-imagine the historical processes of American economic and political history creating two distinct nations and facing, however imperfectly, the necessity of transforming them into one.

It is common today to look with some disdain on movements and thinkers in American history who seriously considered that black and white Americans were separate peoples.  Merely to state it in those terms seems to provide the segregationists and slave-owners with a kind of victory.  Such a refusal ignores that Abraham Lincoln looked favorably on the idea that freed slaves would be best returned to Africa. Many whites and a number of black in the nineteenth century supported colonization of West Africa and the creation of the state of Liberia.  It is easy to condescend to Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa movement.  With his hats and his bluster and the ultimate collapse of his movement in corruption he is no longer an inspiring figure, but there was a moment when hundreds of thousands of African Americans considered him a beacon of hope in a violent and impoverished time.  Garvey, like many earlier figures who promoting the return of African Americans to Africa, seems to have thought of them as a people that only required a territory of their own to become truly a nation.

The one theoretical claim that African Americans might be a distinct nation within the US is even more suspect.  Harry Haywood, a long-forgotten Black Communist, wrote Negro Liberation precisely to propose that the inhabitants of the Black Belt deserved recognition as a separate nation with a separate territory.  Uncomfortable as we may be today with the concept of reparations, it is far easier to consider reparations than the idea of a sovereign or semi-sovereign entity on the territory of the United States with an African-American elite.   Writing within the framework of Stalin’s definition of nationhood, Haywood proposed to his comrades that the Negro people were a nation because they shared language, history, economic relations, and culture. Haywood realized that the Negro people shared many of these characteristics with whites. There is nothing anomalous in Haywood’s argument if we recognize the Irish, Welsh or Scots as nationalities distinct from the English despite sharing with their former overlords these same presumably primal characteristics.  What distinguishes those nations from each other would be either their claim to antiquity—an existence prior to conquest—or a “national project” in modern times.  Haywood understood that an African-American people were created by conquest and slavery and thus could not pre-date it, but his work remains of interest if we can see in Garvey, Malcolm X, and other leaders the enunciation of a national project. American academics no longer believe that nations are created by shared structural characteristics and thus Haywood’s argument has long been forgotten.  

Seen in these lights, the post-Reconstruction period of American history looks more like the forerunner of later American attempts (and conspicuous failures) to impose democracy on divided societies and less like the halting progress of triumphant liberalism.  The Confederacy looks more like an alien society whose autonomous existence whether within the United States or as an independent entity posed an existential threat to the liberal, industrial, market-oriented Federal republic.  

The defeat and occupation of the CSA posed dilemmas for victors and vanquished alike.  The Radical Republicans were all too aware that they might have won the war only to lose the peace while the  former political and economic elite of the conquered territory sought desperately to prevent the transformation of their loss of status and influence into complete irrelevance and replacement by a new mixed elite of blacks and whites.  

Writing in 1935, WEB DuBois in Black Reconstruction described a “singular schism in the South.  The white planter endeavored to keep the Negro at work for his own profit on terms that amounted to slavery and which were hardly distinguishable from it…Meanwhile the poor white did not want the Negro put to profitable work.  He wanted the Negro beneath the feet of the white worker.”  DuBois further described the unease of the victors: “Back of all the enthusiasm and fervor of victory in the North came a wave of reflection that represented the sober after-thought of the nation.  It harked back to a time when not one person in ten believed in Negroes, or in emancipation, or in any attempt to conquer the South.  This feeling began to arise before the war closed, and after it ended it rose higher and higher into something like dismay.”  

DuBois viewed the task of Reconstruction as the revolutionary remaking of the Southern economy.  His analysis was as cool as his prose was ardent.  He summed up the penultimate chapter of Black Reconstruction with the words “How the civil war in the South began again—indeed had never ceased; and how black Prometheus bound to the Rock of Ages by hate, hurt, and humiliation, has his vitals eaten out as they grow, yet lives and fights.”  As DuBois recognized, “it is always difficult to stop war, and doubly difficult to stop a civil war.  Inevitably, when men have long been trained to violence and murder, the habit projects itself into civil life after peace, and there is crime and disorder and social upheaval, as we who live in the backwash of World War [I] know too well…When to all this you add a servile and disadvantaged race, who represent the cause of war and who afterwards are left near naked to their enemies, war may go on more secretly, more spasmodically, and yet as truly as before the peace.  This was the case in the South after Lee’s surrender.”  

DuBois recognized military dictatorship (his description) as the necessary instrument to transform the South and that the failure of the revolutionary project of Reconstruction (again, his description) to create a liberal, market-oriented South brought in its wake an even more potent counter-revolution.  Americans, DuBois noted, “apparently expected that this social upheaval was going to be accomplished with peace, honesty, and efficiency, and that the planters were going to quietly surrender the right to live on the labor of black folk, after two hundred and fifty years of habitual exploitation.”

DuBois’s Marxist-inflected analysis is predicated on the belief that force and violence necessarily accompany profound social and political transformations.  His account therefore highlighted the use of violence to forestall the revolutionary implications of Reconstruction.  Political science today is less concerned with violence than was DuBois and this is especially true, as DuBois suggested, of the study of American politics.  DuBois himself, as do many analysts, described the Ku Klux Klan as a major contributor to the violence that overthrew Reconstruction and that sealed the victory of counter-revolution.  The Klan, however, was a national organization and had largely been dismantled by 1872 thanks to vigorous Federal prosecution.  The decade before DuBois wrote Black Reconstruction a new incarnation of the Klan emerged and the organization was therefore once again on the minds of American progressives.  Nevertheless too great a focus on the Ku Klux Klan places too little emphasis on the degree to which local elites deployed violence not simply against individuals but against even the institutions of the state.  Repeated and sometimes successful attempts by terrorists and unofficial militias to overthrow local governments by force were a pervasive feature of life in the South between 1866 and 1900.  

The power of DuBois’s analysis is clarified by a closer look at the violence that pervaded the South from 1866 until 1900.  The Ku Klux Klan was one, but only one, organizational expression of widespread white resistance to equality for African Americans in the former CSA.  Radical Republicans and the multi-volume House and Senate investigative reports on the activities of the Klan published in 1872 recognized that opposition to democracy in the South transcended the Klan. The majority report noted that Southern whites would accept no reconstruction “so long as it embraced the liberation, the civil and political elevation, of the negro [sic].”

Disrupting the Klan entailed mass arrests and in one case (South Carolina) the suspension of the right of habeas corpus.  If the Klan itself had been broken by aggressive Federal military intervention the decentralized and partly spontaneous activity of terrorist groups and local white militias grew.  The use of violence to attack constituted and frequently democratically elected governments throughout the South continued until at least the end of the nineteenth century.  This was well beyond 1876, conventionally understood as the end of Reconstruction. Even halting and temporary democratization required the use of the full power of the occupation to forestall counter-democratic coercion.

Violence occurred early in New Orleans.  In 1866 a planter-dominated elected legislature voted to restore the pre-Civil War constitution.  The governor, a planter named James Madison Wells, vetoed the legislation and called a Constitutional Convention to meet in New Orleans, then the seat of government of Louisiana.  Mayor John Monroe, a leader of a secret society, armed the police and local citizens to attack the convention when it opened.  What amounted to a pogrom occurred on May 30, 1866 in which between 38 and 48 people were killed and more than a hundred wounded.  General Philip Sheridan, who President Grant had appointed as the governor of the Southwest Military District, returned from Texas and called it a massacre.  Had it not been for the presence of Federal troops and their willingness to intervene Reconstruction in New Orleans would have been ended before it began.  The Convention that Sheridan enabled finally sat in 1868 and adopted a constitution that guaranteed political rights to the black population and that repealed a repressive labor code although it limited suffrage to men.

Sheridan, for whom a square in Washington DC is named, is not a particularly appealing figure to many modern eyes.  He led the Army of Shenandoah which duplicated Sherman’s more famous March to the Sea in its devastation of the Confederate civil economy.  He fought similar campaigns against the Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa as well as the Ute War, the Red River War, and the Great Sioux War.  He responded with vigor in New Orleans.  He summarily dismissed Governor Wells, Mayor Monroe, and stripped much of the white population of their voting rights.  He was himself dismissed by President Andrew Johnson who accused him of being a tyrant.

To accomplish the democratic reconstruction of Louisiana and the rest of the South would require more than one constitutional convention.  In Grant County armed militias faced each other during a particularly tumultuous and tense conflict over local elections.  In April 1873, in the wake of a highly contentious electoral process in which a Republican and Democrat both claimed victory, black and white militias fought a battle for control of the county courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana.  Armed whites, led by former Confederate officers, overpowered a black militia led by former Union officers.  In addition to horses and guns the white militia also had a four pound cannon.  By the end of the fighting, between 100 and 275 black men, women, and children were dead; many had been executed with shots to the back of the head.  The Colfax massacre (as it was then known) became a national scandal but its repercussions were primarily to confirm the efficacy of violence by white militias. In 1950 the state of Louisiana placed a roadside sign at the site of the Colfax massacre justifying it.  

It is thus not surprising that the following year in New Orleans white militias again attempted to use violence to decide the issue of political power.  This was the Battle of Liberty Place when, in 1874, the White League acting as the “Louisiana State Militia” attacked a meeting of a disputed legislature.  Some 5000 members of the League defeated 3500 police and state militiamen and took control of the legislative building for three days until they were driven out by Federal troops.  In 1891, in the wake of the formal disenfranchisement of the state’s black population, the New Orleans city council erected a monument to commemorate the 1874 events.  The monument was placed in a prominent location on Canal Street and, although it was moved in 1993, it remained on public view until 2015.

The withdrawal of Federal troops after the compromise of the 1876 presidential election sealed the end of Reconstruction.  The conflict over the political rights of black people continued.  In North Carolina political violence culminated in 1898 in what has been described as the only successful coup d’etat in American history: the legally elected government of a major American city was overthrown by an armed insurrection. Until 1898 Wilmington had been a black majority city but in the wake of disputed election a secret society of white supremacists organized a group of armed men, including the “Wilmington Light Infantry” to attack black-owned businesses including the newspaper.  These men, properly described as a mob, then forced the white Republican mayor and other members of the city council to resign and installed a new one.  By 1898, unlike 1868 and 1873-4, there were no Federal troops to reverse the use of violence to overthrow an elected government.  Black residents fled and Wilmington became a white-majority city.  In modern terms we might describe this as a form of ethnic cleansing as well as a coup. What we call the “Great Migration” of African-Americans out of the South in the twentieth century was a slower process by which refugees sought safety and new beginnings and in which the demographic character of the South was changed.  In 1868 nearly 60% of the residents of Mississippi were black; today a little less than 40% are.

The insurgents who successfully installed a white supremacist government were widely recognized and known by their clothing: red shirts.  In the late 19th century red shirts had a different meaning than today.  Garibaldi’s troops wore them in Italy and they were widely associated with the militias of nationalist movements.  Throughout Europe and Latin America the wearing of red shirts was understood to reveal the patriotic sentiments and willingness to use force associated with rising nationalism.

There is every reason to believe that we should see Reconstruction more nearly in the light of contemporary nationalisms, state-building, and the suppression of the political rights of minorities than simply as a failed or premature struggle to extend the virtues of American liberal individualism against prejudice.  A declining old white Southern elite and a rising new one struggled to subjugate a minority to their control and, in the process, sought to ensure their control over their fellow members of the majority.  They were willing to employ significant violence in the form of terrorism and insurrection as well as all the legal methods at their disposal.  They saw themselves as re-creating the nation whose loss they feared military defeat would bring about.  Citizens of the US, having defeated their enemy, lacked the staying power to transform the society they had conquered as DuBois argued. After a decade they gave up.  And so the honorable citizens of the South, the religious fundamentalists, the former soldiers of the vanquished regime, and even those who had been educated in the values of US liberalism in its finest schools such as Princeton, Harvard, or Yale, collaborated in the creation of a repressive and authoritarian regime that lasted more than 100 years. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Giulio Regeni: The Police, The Citizens, and the Foreigner

            The murder of Giulio Regeni threw unexpected and unwelcome light on the Egyptian government.  Not a single story proposed by senior government figures to explain how the young Italian researcher came to be tortured to death has proved the least bit convincing.  Neither an automobile collision or a night of rough sex leave a victim whose body shows evidence of having suffered electric shock to the genitals, cigarette burns, and a broken neck.  The most recent explanation proferred by the government is that he was kidnapped by a gang specializing in the abduction and robbery of foreigners.  The police say they killed all the members of the gang in a shoot-out but were able to obtain Regeni’s identification papers (which the gang conveniently retained) as well as his cash (which they equally conveniently neglected to spend). 
For now everything is speculative but the marks of torture on his body and the obstinacy with which the Egyptian government has resisted the entreaties of Regeni’s family and the Italian government for a joint investigation strongly suggest he was killed by Egyptian security agents. 
            One of the most puzzling aspects of Regeni’s murder is understanding why the Egyptian government would have wanted him dead or even why they would have tortured him.   One commonly held theory in Cairo and beyond is based on the suspicion of Egyptian security agencies that foreigners are agitators.  Thus they believe that the uprising of 2011 was the result of external interference rather than popular initiative.  They therefore saw Regeni not as a researcher but as an activist and he was deliberately retained after he attended a gathering of independent trade union activists.  Regeni, in this reading of events, was not unlike the American and German resident employees of organizations that funded civil society associations who were formally accused of being foreign agents in 2011.  If this were the belief of high government officials then it would have been easy to deal with Regeni: either by revoking his visa or an unofficial warning that he would be indicted if he did not leave the country promptly.   
Another theory is that he was simply unlucky.  He took the subway from a stop near a meeting with union activists to Tahrir Square to visit a friend on January 25, the anniversary of the start of the 2011 uprising. He never arrived. The government had put a massive police presence in place as well as undertaking widespread arrests.  Regeni, in this scenario, was an accidental victim.  If this were the case, however, it is hard to fathom both why he was not let go and why the government has had such trouble finding the guilty police agent.  To appease public anger the government had no trouble arresting and trying Mustafa Feto, a police officer who shot a Mohammad Adel, cab driver in the lower-class neighborhood of Darb al-Ahmar, after an altercation over a fare.  Not quite two months passed before Feto was sentenced to life in prison.  Even if it proved impossible to discover who had killed Regeni it would seem to be as easy to appease the anger of the Italian government by bringing a sacrificial police lamb to trial as by the deaths of five suspected criminals.
Seen in this light Regeni’s fate resembles that of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, young Americans who were killed in Chile in the days after the Pinochet regime came to power by overthrowing President Salvador Allende.  Horman and Teruggi, however, were not picked up on the streets.  The were arrested by the authorities in their homes and executed along with Chilean opponents of the junta when its hold on power was still uncertain.  Most chillingly we now know for certain that US officials knew of and may have encouraged their arrests because they also saw these young men as enemies of the Chilean military and US policy.  This is certainly not true of Italian military or diplomatic officials in Egypt.
            How, then it might well be asked, do such obscure and enigmatic events throw light on the nature of the current situation in Egypt?  One answer to that question is to suggest a slightly different scenario, elements of which certainly have circulated in Cairo.  This suggestion is not for the purpose of telling the true story of what happened but of illustrating the institutional balance of forces within the current regime.  In regard to Regeni we are truly situated in the world of Akira Kurosawa’s famous film “Rashomon.”  The deeper truth of the movie is not that there can be different accounts of a single event but that, for this is how Kurosawa deliberately made the movie, we cannot construct out of those different narratives a single coherent "true" account.  We may never know what really happened to Regeni but it nevertheless illuminates the complexity and fragility of contemporary Egypt. If we accept that the Egyptian government and particularly its security agencies fear that foreigners are outside agitators and that Regeni was stopped and taken more or less at random and taken into custody what does that tell us?
            Authoritarian regimes are invariably anxious about conspiracies whose origins they impute to foreign machinations.  Insofar as dictators claim to represent an inherently united class, nation, race  or religion the existence of opposition can only arise from the temptations posed by outsiders who threaten the moral integrity of the community.  It is easy to ridicule such fears as intellectually feeble excuses for repression and the settling of political scores.  It is less easy to see that paranoia and xenophobia can be crippling.  It is, however, giving the police in such regimes far too much credit to believe that they have independent and infallible ways to determine who the regime’s enemies are.  They rely on many sources of information:  paid informers, complaints, and denunciations.  To say that these sources are reliable or objective would be ridiculous.  Informers inform for their own reasons which may have little to do with the objective truth of the information they provide to authorities. Using the government’s anxiety and enmity as a tool to rid oneself of enemies real or imagined is probably as old as government itself. 
            Immediately after the coup in 2013, Egyptians turned on each other.   Accusations of membership in the banned Muslim Brotherhood or in terrorist cells mushroomed in a society in which conspiracy theories had been nurtured by government officials for decades.  The government arrested well-known leaders of the Muslim Brothers for political reasons, but tens of thousands of other Egyptians were arrested by local authorities.  Some of these arrests and subsequent trials became notorious due to the summary death sentences imposed on defendants in mass trials.  Other arrests and convictions of well-known activists have merited intermittent treatment in the international press. 
All these accounts of arrests and trials suggest that Egypt has a unified government that knows what it is doing: limiting the political activity of the opposition, frightening the population at large, reinforcing the power of the dictatorship by targeting a variety of regime opponents.  What it is doing may be wrong, unpalatable and destructive, but at least the government has a clear authoritarian vision of subduing the population.  The public trial of Al-Jazeera correspondents and the arrest of Egyptian reporters are all designed to curtail access to information.  The pitiful spectacle of Esraa al-Taweel, a young woman on crutches weeping at a hearing reinforced the sense of weakness and impotence of the movement to which she belonged.  The killing of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh at a demonstration where she sought to lay flowers on the ground as well as the jailing of Mohammad Soltan, the son of a Muslim Brotherhood leader and an American citizen, or the deaths of countless others were all designed to re-build the wall of fear that surrounded Egyptians since the days of Nasser. 
There is no doubt that the Egyptian government is willing to use overwhelming and lethal force against its perceived enemies. In early July 2013 dozens of demonstrators were killed in front of the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo.   Upwards of a thousand people were killed when the government dispersed demonstration/encampments at Rabaa Square in Cairo and Nahdet Misr Square in Giza.  The government has also prosecuted foreigners such as Peter Greste, an Australian employee of Al-Jazeera news in the wake of the 2013 coup, for reporting without a license and aiding a terrorist organization. 
Yet each of these events have contradictory elements. What if, instead of an all-seeing government we are actually witnessing a blind Moloch? Greste was held for more than a year along with co-defendants Mohammad Fahmy (a Canadian-Egyptian) and Baher Mohammad (an Egyptian).  International pressure mounted heightening the embarrassment of the Egyptian government.  The courts refused to end the trial until finding the defendants guilty.  In the end the Egyptian government promulgated a law allowing President Sisi to deport foreigners such as Greste accused or convicted.  This face-saving allowed Greste to leave the country.  Fahmy and Mohammad were pardoned by Sisi shortly after their convictions. Soltan had been sentenced to life in prison but renounced his Egyptian citizenship and was later deported to the United States.  The policeman who shot al-Sabbagh was later sentenced to 15 years in prison for assault (which suggests he will serve about one third of the sentence). 
In short, the Sisi government not infrequently finds itself in embroiled in embarrassing situations or acts that provoke significant domestic anger or foreign scorn that it can neither contain nor repress.  The most dramatic such event was the claim by the government in 2014 that it had discovered a cure for hepatitis C, a disease of epidemic proportions in Egypt.  The bogus cure amounted to little more than metallic dowsing rods that swindlers in Iraq have also claimed can detect explosive devices under cars.  The government has since silently retired both the apparatus and its inventor while moving to provide Egyptians with an effective medication developed in the US and hoping its mis-steps would be forgotten.
Regeni’s murder, however, will not be quickly forgotten nor can it be easily fobbed off with excuses.  The inability of the Egyptian government to respond adequately to the demands of the Italian government, however, point to the contradictory nature of the case.  Regeni’s murder has provoked anger and fear but it has also produced some bewilderment. Therefore, what events of the past two months suggest is a government struggling for control and troubled as much by conflict within the ruling coalition as between that coalition and society.    
            Assuming for the sake of argument that the Egyptian police believed Regeni was himself organizing political opposition to the regime, how would they have come to that belief? The police would have already given Regeni clearance for his research since all foreign academics submit such requests to obtain visas.  Had they believed initially he was intending to agitate rather than research it is unlikely he would have received a visa. More plausibly someone among the people he studied was submitting reports to the police.  When demonstrators entered the offices of the State Security Police in Cairo in March 2011, it became apparent just how detailed (and frequently inconsequential when viewed objectively) the level of reporting was and how many records were kept on many citizens.
There is no reason to believe that such reports in police states are any more accurate than accounts of miraculous cures or membership in banned organizations.  False reports are submitted for many reasons: personal dislike, revenge, a desire to please superiors, simple malice, or even misunderstanding.  I had good reason, when I was doing research on trade union history in Egypt in the 1980s, to believe that the government was receiving copies of my correspondence and that elderly union leaders were followed to (and probably from) interviews.  The arrest and detention for over a year of Aya Hijazi, founder of the society Beladi that sought to provide aid to Cairene street children, seems to rely on false reports of trafficking and sexual abuse.  Hijazi, an American citizen, has no known connection to Egyptian political groups of any kind and none of the allegations has held up under external investigation.
Even in liberal societies such secret police reports are difficult to refute because they are hidden under a veil of secrecy.  In Egypt today and yesterday there is essentially no way to gain access to such reports and certainly no way to correct them.  If Regeni was picked up on leaving the Cairo metro in a sweep by police officers who initially had no idea who he was, his file might have contained false or misleading accounts of his activity.  If he was picked by police who already knew his identity, they might have been guided by the same kind of reports.  Regeni however would not necessarily have had any idea why he was questioned about suspicious or illegal activity and would have had no answers for an increasingly brutal and inexplicable interrogation.  Even readers of translated Egyptian fiction such as Karnak Café by the late Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz will be aware of the brutality of such interrogations and also of the casual way with the accuracy of the accusations interrogators had.
We may never know what exactly happened to Regeni in the days during which he was tortured to death.  Even with the prodding of the Italian government, Egyptian authorities refused to release information about Regeni’s cellphone calls in his last hours of freedom or the video footage that might have been available from Metro cameras.   Italian investigators claim that their Egyptian counterparts are stalling the investigation, which of course raises more suspicions.
Unlike deportations or the quick arrest and conviction of a known perpetrator the government has been unable to put Regeni’s death behind it.  The belief that the government purposely arrested Regeni and now seeks to hide the fact gains credence with the fudged explanations and foot-dragging.  More recently it has been proposed that no matter what happened to Regeni, President Sisi fears the police.  He will, it has been asserted, require the police to protect him should another round of massive demonstrations threaten to sweep him from power. 
The weakness of this account of the Regeni affair is that rarely, if ever, have the Egyptian police safeguarded an incumbent executive from mass demonstrations.  For nearly a century when kings and presidents have faced massive upheaval it was the armed forces—not the police—that intervened to protect authority.  In 1919 the British required armed columns and martial law to put down a revolutionary uprising; in 1952 martial law was again required after the burning of Cairo; in 1977 troops returned order after the government lost control of the streets during protests about the rising cost of food; in 1986 it was police units themselves rebelled and were put down by the Armed Forces; and in 2011 the police vanished leaving the army to take up positions in Cairo and Alexandria and ultimately to take direct control of the government.
            By the time mass demonstrations engulf Egypt the police will be helpless.  No matter how imperfect, corrupt and brutal, however, the police do manage to keep order in ways that the armed forces cannot in ordinary circumstances.  The withdrawal of the police, their refusal at many points in the first three years of the uprising to enforce the law, encouraged criminality and simply increased disorganization on the streets in the first years of the uprising.  The proliferation of street vendors, the illegal sale of land and construction, the occasional gunfights as criminals fought, as well as the proliferation of demonstrations were all the result of decreased police presence or the unwillingness of the police to enforce rules.   The freedom to take to the streets or the ability to buy cheap goods on the sidewalk are not equivalent to violent criminal behavior or the theft of real estate.  When the military took power in 2013 they promised to restore order and begin to solve the economic and social problems of the country.  For this they need the police.
            And yet the police have already threatened the new regime.  There are routine accounts of conflicts, including the use of weapons, between police officers and army officers.  These are, of course, isolated and individual confrontations but they suggest deep conflicts between the two security services about status and authority.  Policemen have also engaged in demonstrations against the government’s salary policy in blatant violation of the law against unauthorized demonstrations. 
The government needs the police because the armed forces can seize power but they cannot police the country.  The police suffered a historic disaster in 2011 but now they have recovered.  Thus even a military government that is on the defensive and embarrassed by the activities of the police cannot afford to look too deeply into what they do and how they do it because it cannot govern without them.  This is not to suggest that the President, his government and the military high command are innocent victims of a police conspiracy.  It is to say that they have attempted to rule a large, largely urban, and diverse country with tools that belong to a different generation and a different country—the Egypt of the mid-20th century—and that their grip on even those tools is weak.  The most important tool of a police state, the police, are now operating with little or no oversight or self-restraint. Two months ago a policeman murdered a taxicab driver in a dispute over a fare; days ago another policeman killed a vendor in a dispute over the price of a glass of tea. 
As my co-author, Hind Ahmed Zaki, and I argued in 2012 the uprising of 2011 made the issue of respect for the state and the legal system central concerns in Egypt. Our fear that the courts might begin to lose legitimacy has unfortunately been realized, but our greater fear was that the Egyptian state would be tempted to restore its authority (“haibat al-dawlah”) by force and that this would undermine the state and the very idea of the rule of law.  We did not expect that police violence of an almost random nature would come to pass, but its effects may be devastating.
The 2011 uprising was in significant measure due to concern about police brutality and Regeni’s murder in 2016, on the anniversary of the events of 2011, showed just how significant the problem of reforming and controlling the security forces remains. The image of Khaled Said’s broken face shocked members of the urban middle class who could see themselves in it.  There is every reason to believe that the image of Giulio Regeni would be, as his mother maintains, an equally powerful testament to torture and brutality on the part of the police. It has become common to say that Egypt today is more repressive than under Mubarak, but the events of the last six months suggest an even more disturbing possibility: the police are escaping from, or have already escaped from, control by Egypt’s political leadership.  If President Sisi, his government, and the armed forces cannot bring themselves to bring the police under control it may indeed be that they fear them.  They do not fear them for what might happen on the day after an uprising but because as Egyptians come to see them as simply a violent and corrupt gang, any hope of reversing the economic and political collapse of the last half decade will be utterly lost.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

US History As A Lens for Seeing the Middle East: Part 1, the Revolutionary War and ISIS


            This is the first of two posts in nisralnasr discussing US history as a source for understanding events in the Middle East.  This one concerns the Revolutionary War; the next one will address Reconstruction and After.

            The history and politics of the US have long been presumed, not least by Americans themselves, to be sui generis.  Until recently it was widely understood that American law might have much to teach other legal traditions but little to learn from them.  American political institutions do not, we have almost all been taught, prosper in other soils and we ourselves have no reason to adopt the practices from abroad.  There is not much point then to comparing American experiences and those of other countries.  That this is self-evidently so is made real in the practice of my discipline where American politics and comparative politics are seen as two distinct sub-disciplines.

            American history and politics remain what was once called Whig history: a narrative of perennial improvement.  No matter what sordid and terrifying features of the past are unearthed, the narrative remains Whiggish.   The more we learn about the horrors of the past the more certain we become of how far and how irreversibly we have come.   Another particular feature of how we prefer to understand our own history, consonant with Whig assumptions, is that we are the authors of our fate—collectively and individually.  Americans have made American history, we want to believe, without any external assistance.  Whether this is a common belief for a liberal republic or for an imperial power deserves study, but as we seek to understand the rest of the world through the lens of our own history we should take care not to believe our own myths too strenuously.

            In a recent, widely read discussion of the Islamic State the American-born and educated French scholar Scott Atran argued that US history can help us appreciate its revolutionary potential.  Citing a study of contemporary jihadis and the Viet Cong, Atran asserts “what matters in revolutionary success is commitment to cause and comrades.”   Atran connects this study of contemporary fighters to those who fought in the Continental Army with George Washington.  Atran recalls the winter of 1777-8 when Washington withdrew with his army to Valley Forge, not far from Philadelphia.  “Haggard remnants” of that army, Atran reminds us, were on the verge of leaving Valley Forge when Washington gave a speech, an “inspired appeal” as Atran describes it.  After hearing Washington’s stirring appeal the troops “fused together in the harsh winter…henceforth able to withstand any adversity.”

            Atran is arguing that revolutionary action is the fusion of a deep sense of sacred justice with personal solidarities.  IS cadre, in this argument, is the fusion of a belief in a sacred mission shared by committed activists tested in conflict.  Whatever the objective status of their beliefs revolutionaries understand their goals to be sacred and their links to be those of personal devotion to each other as well as their ideal.  National liberation, the Islamic caliphate, or the dictatorship of the proletariat can presumably all provide such goals and be championed by comrades of such devotion.

This essentially voluntarist view of revolution has deep roots in American social thought although it was probably not shared by most of the men who founded the state.  We can find it among others for whom transforming a movement into a state was never an option or simply never succeeded.  “If you will it” as Theodor Herzl told his followers in the Zionist movement, “it is no dream.”  Saul Alinsky, the premier community organizer, once said “We must believe that it is darkest before the dawn of a beautiful new world.  We will see it when we believe it.”  Or, in the words of Jefferson Davis, first president of the Confederate States of America, “Obstacles may retard, but they cannot long prevent the progress of a movement sanctified by its justice, and sustained by a virtuous people."

Human beliefs matter, but believing that the sheer power of belief is all that really matters beggars belief.  In the US successful business executives, like the movement leaders cited above, fervently believe that their fervent commitment to their product and their own well-being propelled them beyond their peers and competitors.   Businessmen, no less than civil rights leaders, have dreams but we rarely take them as models when we talk politics.  Not simply because they are businessmen but because so many of them fail.

As the leaders of the American Revolution well understood, neither Valley Forge nor George Washington’s speeches were the key to victory.  Contemporaries and most modern historians recognized two very different undertakings in 1777 as crucial to the success of the revolution.  Neither involved Valley Forge or George Washington and one was, at least briefly, a direct threat to Washington’s leadership.  As most of Washington’s contemporaries were well aware, he was in Valley Forge because the British had successfully captured Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress.  British troops had earlier taken control of New York and not long thereafter they successfully besieged Charleston.  In short, while Washington waited out the winter in Valley Forge, the British had seized control of three of the most important cities on the North American continent and in the entire British colonial empire including the capitol of the revolt.

The revolution was rescued by foreign support, not emotional discourse.  In September and October 1777, General Horatio Gates and the elements of the Continental Army under his control won the battles of Saratoga, decisively defeating General John Burgoyne near the upstate New York town.  Gates’s defeat of Burgoyne effectively ended any possibility of British control of the Hudson Valley or of regaining control of Boston.  It also very briefly provided a challenge to Washington's command. News did not travel fast in the late 18th century but when accounts of Saratoga reached Paris two months later, King Louis XVI promptly decided his government could enter negotiations with the American envoy Benjamin Franklin to assist the revolutionary cause.

Louis was no revolutionary, but he was willing to work with American insurgents out of fear that the British consolidation of a transoceanic empire at French expense would leave France in a permanently weakened situation.  France had lost its primary North American and South Asian possessions at the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763.  To engage the French, Britain was forced to draw down its land forces in North America and re-direct its fleet away from the American coast. Once this occurred the revolutionary colonists were able to fight British forces on a more nearly equal footing.  Yet even what most Americans think of as the final defeat of Britain, the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, was the result of a victory by the French fleet over the British in the Chesapeake Bay and a joint Franco-American ground force.

It is thus not surprising that Saratoga and the decision of the French monarch are the crucial events for understanding the success of the American Revolution, not Valley Forge.  The success of the American Revolution, like that of others, depended far more significantly on international succor and support than it did on the intense commitment of the revolutionaries. 

The supposition that revolutions succeed because revolutionary heroes refuse to accept defeat has a long history.  Still, indomitable will as the basis of victory and its absence as the cause of defeat is far more common an idea among reactionary radicals than among conventional leftists.  Far more common among the latter is the belief that social change including revolution is the result of institutional and social structures than the untrammeled desire of the revolutionaries.  It has also long been a staple of critics of liberal societies whose members and leaders are generally thought to be insufficiently dedicated to the rights and liberties whose importance they proclaim.  Arguing that the success of the opponents of liberals is due to the strength of their commitment is frequently used to buttress a claim that a more tough-minded approach to protecting society from the depredations of its enemies is necessary.

            The Islamic State has not succeeded because of the devotion of its members although commitment to the cause has probably brought people who otherwise might have been engaged elsewhere to the border areas of Syria and Iraq that it controls.  It has succeeded, to the extent that it has, because more powerful states regionally and internationally have not been able to agree on whether or how to eliminate it.  That seems to have begun changing recently—Russia, the US, Turkey and Iran have increasingly come to practical arrangements that will make it more and more difficult for the Islamic State to function.  In the process they have also come to arrangements to resolve their disagreements about other actors in the region as well.  These include Bashar al-Asad, the Ba’thi regime in Syria, and a multitude of anti-regime political and military forces including the Kurdish ones.

            Here, however, it is possible to see another way in which the American experience usefully illuminates events in Syria and Iraq.  If it is true that insurgents and revolutionaries cannot succeed without international help, it is equally true that external states cannot simply generate whatever forces they would most prefer in a given conflict.  There is every reason to believe that Louis and his ministers would have preferred different American allies than the ones they had.  But in the end, intervening to help the insurgents in North America as part of a global strategy aimed at Great Britain required the French government to work with whatever leaders had survived on the ground. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sinai: War in a Distant Province

            The July 1 battle in which the Egyptian Armed Forces regained control of a small border town from the self-proclaimed Sinai Province of the Islamic State (formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis or Supporters of Jerusalem) has heightened fear, anger, and above all self-congratulation among both the government’s supporters and its critics.  Days after still unknown assailants had assassinated the country’s Attorney General by means of a car bomb, IS fighters attacked a series of checkpoints in the northern Sinai peninsula and appeared briefly to have taken control of Shaykh Zuwayed near the border with Gaza and Israel.  The attack occurred more or less on the anniversary of massive demonstrations (June 30) and subsequent coup (July 3) in 2013 when former President Mohammad Morsi was removed from office.

            Most commentary, and especially in English, has focused on the incapacity of the Egyptian armed forces to prevent such attacks and the threat to the Egyptian state of an IS insurgency.   The rapidity with which IS took control of important cities in Syria (notably Raqqa) and Iraq (Tikrit, Falluja, and Mosul) as well as areas of Libya and Yemen suggest that much of Sinai and perhaps portions of the Egyptian heartland could fall easily into its grasp.   The argument of many analysts is straightforward: increasing levels of repression by the Egyptian dictatorship radicalize the population and drive Egyptians increasingly to accept the use of violence to overthrow an unpopular regime and IS stands ready to provide the violence.  In this argument that repression occurs in the context of the massive uprising of 2011 and the democratic elections of 2012 makes more Egyptians likely to find the regime intolerable and to sympathize with or participate in armed revolt against it.

            The logic of the argument is impeccable but as with so many arguments about Egypt and the Arab world over the past four years it turns politics into a morality tale whose authors are rewarded with victory.

            It is more useful and far more interesting to place the fighting in northern Sinai in the context of the last 35 years of Egyptian history.   Seen thus, the very real limits of the IS threat to the Egyptian state and the likely continued degradation of the Egyptian political scene as the government coercively responds to the military challenge it faces becomes more apparent.  As Egyptians become inured to a coarser and more violent political life, it seems unlikely they will be able to free themselves from it for at least a generation. 

            IS is a locally dangerous opponent and it may be true that the Egyptian Army lost more men in the first week of July 2015 in Sinai than at any time since the 1973 war with Israel.  However in July 2015 the Egyptian dead were about 1.5 % those who died in October 1973; and other attacks in the past several years have taken dozens of lives.  The violence in Sinai is real and frightening but so far it is well within the capacity of the Egyptian armed forces to repress.

To fully appreciate the meaning of the events in Sinai we need to look elsewhere.  We can begin with the period between 1979 and 1981: the years in which Egypt, during the presidency of Anwar Sadat, regained control of the Sinai from Israel and during which Egypt also faced its first (and arguably most threatening) Islamist insurgency.  These two processes are intricately linked, not least by the assassination of Sadat in 1981.

Although the Egyptian state presents the 1973 war as a military victory, Israel won and in the process not only regained control of the Sinai peninsula that it had first seized in the 1967 war but also a portion of the west bank of the Suez Canal.  It was widely believed at the time that it would not be long before yet another Arab-Israeli war would be fought. Instead a peace process returned Sinai to Egypt in return for a peace treaty that removed Egypt from the Arab military front facing Israel and demilitarized much of northern Sinai.

Egypt regained control of Sinai through lengthy and domestically contentious negotiations coinciding with a period of economic stress best remembered for two days of demonstrations and rioting in 1977 when the government lost control of the streets in downtown Cairo.   To limit political opposition to the treaty and to counter popular discontent rooted in economic distress, Sadat ordered the arrest of some 1500 people in the late summer of 1980.  Islamic activists engaged in what we would now call a Salafi-jihadi current assassinated Sadat and including members of the self-named “Islamic Group.” 

Sadat’s assassination while he presided over a parade celebrating the October war as a victory is well remembered globally.  Its shadow has obscured another side of the events of October 1981: the attempt to overthrow the regime by force.  In the days after Sadat’s assassination, Islamist militants launched an insurrection in the southern Egyptian city of Asyut.  Something like 60 police were killed in the fighting and ultimately the government regained control of the city by sending in Army paratroop units.  Asyut is one of the largest cities in Upper Egypt and has long been an important government and economic center for the region.  The Egyptian government has, on occasion, found it difficult socially or politically to dominate many urban and rural areas but Asyut is the one time in recent memory when it lost control of a major city for several days due to an armed uprising.  That events in Asyut had no echoes in the rest of the country was, for some Islamist activists, a clear indication that armed uprisings were doomed as a means to confront the regime. 

Sadat’s actual assassins were executed but other members of the Islamic Group, notably the cousins Abbud and Tariq al-Zumor, were given lengthy prison sentences.  They remained in jail even after they had served the judicial sentences imposed on them because the Egyptian government believed they posed a continuing threat. 

Sadat made significant progress in realizing the goals of the Camp David treaty before his murder.  As befits a treaty aimed at ending a series of increasingly costly and destructive wars between states, Camp David provided strong reassurances that neither party could easily launch a surprise war again.  It did this primarily by limiting troop deployments on each side of the Sinai border between Israel, the Palestinian enclave of the Gaza Strip (then still under direct Israeli occupation), and Egypt.  Although Egypt had regained sovereignty over the entire peninsula, Sadat had agreed that it would station no members of the armed forces in a zone stretching from Sheikh Zuwayed on the north coast to Sharm el-Sheikh on the southern tip.  Only lightly armed civil police would patrol “Zone C.” 

In years since 1981 development in the Sinai has centered mainly on the tourism industry in the south.  South Sinai with about 160,000 people is lightly populated but it has world-class beaches, scuba diving, and hotels.   One of the few issues that divided the Israeli and Egyptian governments after the signing of the treaty was the determination of the exact boundary demarcating the countries at Taba.  A court decision awarded a small slice of land and two hotels to Egypt, one of which is today the Taba Hilton. In the first decade of the 20th century there were attacks on tourist facilities in South but these were decidedly aimed at destroying the traffic rather than in creating a “liberated zone” such as IS has in Syria and Iraq.   Tourism has not done well in the years since 2011; revenues have shrunk from over $14 billon to under $ 5 billion a year.  

North Sinai, never the object of much investment by Egyptian governments, has suffered an even more catastrophic economic collapse than the south.   Although North Sinai is also lightly populated, with 420,000 people it is much larger than the south.  The largest city, El-Arish, with about 164,000 people, has roughly as many people as all of South Sinai.  Sheikh Zuwayed has about 60,000.   El-Arish is the largest city in Sinai proper, but it is not the largest city in the region.  Almost as large is Rafah which has 150,000 inhabitants thirty miles away on the Palestinian side of the border.  Not far beyond Rafah is Khan Yunis with more than a third of a million people and 18 miles further north is Gaza City with another half million. 

Much has been written about the tunnels under the Egyptian-Palestinian border.  They have supplied Gazans with cement, medications, and food (most of which is ordinary and some of which is luxurious).  They have been used for weapons (which became cheap and available after the collapse of the Libyan regime) and drugs such as tramadol (an opiate medication).  They have been viewed as engines of growth, survival and incubators for entrepreneurship as well as security threats and lifelines.  Less frequently has the estimated $700 million to $1 billion that passed through them been evaluated as vital to the economy of Egyptian North Sinai.  An impoverished area with little industry, however, would inevitably orient its economy toward the largest market in the region.  North Sinai may be part of Egypt politically but eastern North Sinai is necessarily connected to the Gazan economy.

In addition to goods, the North Sinai economy includes traffic in human beings.  By some estimates tens of thousands of Eritrean and other African citizens have attempted to illegally enter Israel through the Sinai border crossings.  Although it is impossible to accurately measure the number of people involved, international human rights organizations have described large numbers of people pressed into servitude, tortured, and held for tens of thousands of dollars in ransoms.   As is clear from the American Southwest, lengthy borders in desolate regions are difficult to police even for a strong state; where the state has withdrawn it is effectively impossible.   

Northern Sinai is also the route of a pipeline that until 2012 was the major export artery for Egyptian natural gas.  A main line connects the central Egyptian network to El-Arish on the northern Sinai coast where it splits into two parts: one, underwater, connects with Ashkelon in Israel; the other, significantly larger, connects to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.  The gas connection with Israel was highly controversial and the pipeline, which provides little direct economic advantage to North Sinai, has been bombed more than 25 times since the 2011 uprising.  Increased demand for gas in Egypt prompted the government to end the contract with Israel in 2012 and reduce supplies to the Arab countries.   The Egyptian government has recently decided to allow the import of natural gas via a reverse flow from Israel through the same pipeline. 

Before returning to connect the strands of the argument so far, it is worth pondering what would happen if Gaza could trade freely with its Israeli and Egyptian neighbors.  Gaza City alone has roughly the population of the four largest nearby non-Palestinian cities combined: Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Beer Sheva in Israel and El-Arish in Egypt.  The 1.8 million people of the Gaza Strip (or Gaza province of Palestine if you prefer) are the largest concentration of human beings in the Sinai and southern Israel region and probably the largest supply of labor. 

North Sinai is a gateway for Gaza as long as its 1.8 million people can neither import directly through their own port or trade with Israel.   The northern towns of Shaykh Zuwayed, El-Arish, and ultimately Rafah (on the Egyptian side) have provided the otherwise absent gateway.  Egyptian governments from Mubarak through Muslim Brother president Morsi to now-president El-Sisi have limited legal economic exchange with Gaza and frequently closed the official border crossings.  Trade has thus required transport through tunnels, ie, as a form of criminal activity.  This is a trade that initially the lightly armed police were not equipped to deter and were sometimes paid to ignore.  Morsi’s government placed more pressure on this trade but governments since his ouster have been even more assiduous in shutting it down.

            Returning where we left off: as the 2011 uprising in Cairo and other major cities grew and the police forces collapsed, the maintenance of public order devolved to the Egyptian Armed Forces.  This required pulling troops into central Egypt, especially the cities, and left the borders unguarded.  The Supreme Council of Armed Forces did negotiate a very early agreement with the Israeli government to send troops in South Sinai partly to prevent attacks that would have damaged the tourist industry but North Sinai receded even further from effective government control.

            Unlike other equally impoverished areas of Egypt, North Sinai in the wake of the 2011 uprising did have one important economic sector: illegal trade.  It was precisely its illegality that made it rewarding. Illegal trade (in the north) and tourism (in the south) are important drivers of the economy and politics in these two areas. 

            Foreign mass tourism in Egypt is a post-Sadat phenomenon and it has provided regime opponents with a soft target. The most famous and still the most murderous incident is the 1997 attack on Hatshepsut’s Temple in Upper Egypt in which 68 people (including 6 attackers) died.  The attack was carried out by members of the Islamic Group who opposed a truce some of their leaders had arranged with the Mubarak government.  In 2004, 2005 and 2006 hotels and tourist attractions in Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh, and Dahab in South Sinai were attacked and more than 150 people killed in total.

            Salafi groups claimed responsibility for the attacks in South Sinai although the Egyptian state and many external observers see them as the work of North Sinai Bedouin who hoped to affect the tourism industry.  One aspect of the attacks that differentiates them from 1997, is that they all occurred on holidays associated with the Egyptian state or Egyptian society broadly speaking.  The 2004 Taba attack occurred on October 7 (a day after the anniversary of the start of the 1973 war and Sadat’s assassination) and the Sharm attack occurred on the anniversary of the 1952 revolution.  The 2006 attack in Dahab occurred on Sham El-Nessim (the only holiday celebrated by both Christians and Muslims) that occurs in spring and whose origins are pre-Islamic and pre-Christian.  These attacks thus struck at the economic roots of the state as well as its cultural and social claims to legitimacy.

            It is not surprising that within weeks of the beginning of the 2011 uprising some North Sinai residents had also attacked the gas pipeline. In May 2011 unknown attackers used a rocket propelled grenade to attack the tomb of the eponymous Sheik Zuwayed during a period in which attacks on Sufi shrines created mounting tensions in Egypt.  These attacks also made it clear that not all the arms that traveled through the region had been sent to Gaza: rocket propelled grenades, high explosives, and automatic weapons were widely available.  In mid-summer of 2011, in addition to the earlier attacks on the gas pipeline and the shrine, the police station in El-Arish was attacked and 6 policemen killed.  In November 2012 an RPG was used to attack a cement factory in El-Arish. 

            Although the army and the Egyptian media have recently alleged these weapons arrive in Egypt from Gaza, it earlier recognized that their primary source was Libya.  After the collapse of the regime there weapons became widely available for export.  Controlling the border with Gaza is probably more important as a way of draining financial resources from the state’s opponents in northern Sinai and also preventing them from having a safe haven from the Egyptian army.

            By August 2011, regaining control over the border area had become a priority for the Egyptian Armed Forces after a series of cross-border attacks from southern Sinai into Israel.  Who was responsible for these attacks remains unclear but they did provoke the first serious exchange of gunfire between Israeli and Egyptian troops in decades.  Five Egyptian soldiers were killed when Israeli soldiers crossed the border pursuing the attackers.  Coupled with the earlier attacks on the gas pipeline, the police station, and the threat to the tourism industry Sinai became more prominent to the government.  Few if any Egyptians were sympathetic to Israel’s security needs but equally few wanted the decision about whether renewed war would break out to pass into the hands of North Sinai Bedouin and guerrillas.

            A year later, on August 5, 2012, armed men again attacked an Egyptian military outpost, killing 16 soldiers, stealing armored vehicles and attempting to enter Israel where they were killed.  In the days after the attack, then President Morsi asked General Muhamed Tantawi to resign as Defense Minister and replaced him with Abdel Fattah Sisi who later mounted the coup that overthrew Morsi. 

            In mid-May 2013, as the Egyptian political crisis that ended with the coup deepened, seven Egyptian soldiers were kidnapped.  They were freed but not before a video in which they appealed for help was shown on the web.  Their freedom came after negotiations between tribal leaders and the kidnappers during which the Armed Forces appeared to be irrelevant and powerless. 

            In late October 2014 armed men launched yet another attack on army checkpoints in northern Sinai with car bombs, explosives and automatic weapons in which 27 soldiers died and 26 more were injured.  This was the largest guerrilla attack on the armed forces in the history of north Sinai to date although this, along with the incidents mentioned above, are only a few of the stream of violence occurring in the area.

            The Egyptian Army, like most militaries, has few tools other than overwhelming force with which to re-establish control over North Sinai.  Opening the border with Gaza would have antagonized Israel and empowered the Hamas government but it would not have solved the economic problems of North Sinai; it more probably would have exacerbated them as the smuggling trade diminished.  Of course neither did directly attacking the smuggling trade endear the military government to the inhabitants of North Sinai.  Specific investments in North Sinai would take years to result in significant economic growth and the overall Egyptian economy was shrinking any way as foreign and domestic investment stalled and then declined.   Even had the central government been willing to pay fees to allow gas exports to transit the national territory, there was no politically appropriate way to allocate them to local inhabitants. 

            Armed elements in North Sinai have proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State and asserted that they are the nucleus of a “Sinai Province.”  How exactly does a region whose insurgents are, even if loosely, connected to smuggling goods and trafficking people, fit with the creation of a state-building enterprise whose core is in eastern Syria and western Iraq?  And how does it relate to a project whose leaders claim it to be based on “strict” Islam? 

            One obvious connection is that the Islamic State has emerged in areas where structures of governance have been destroyed by war and where existing elites have been politically marginalized.  IS itself is not an armed insurgency against an existing government.  It was not organized in the wake of a popular uprising.  It exists where the old state ceased to exist and few if any structures of governance are in place.  In Iraq the American invasion and occupation effectively destroyed the old Iraqi state and the army.  The reconstruction of institutions of governance in the Kurdish north and the Arab south left the Sunni Arab center largely adrift.  A prolonged and exceptionally destructive civil war in Syria abetted by external actors accomplished an even more severe result there.  In both places armed Sunni militias competed for influence and control.  The details of how the Islamic State defeated its rivals are unclear but in the absence of a functioning army able to defend the national territory those are unimportant.  The existing militias (which in Syria include the Lebanese Hizbollah and the remains of the former Syrian Armed Forces) can defend themselves and their territories.  The Islamic State has been unable to move into ethnically or religiously different areas and its opponents have shown little willingness or ability to defeat it on its home ground.  The Islamic State itself survives, as the late scholar of state-building Charles Tilly would have recognized, by engaging in racketeering.  It operates a “protection racket” against competing militias and enforces its own power with displays of ruthlessness on a par with those of the Zetas and other drug cartels.   The Islamic State has clearly, as its name implies, created state or state-like institutions but it continues to require external aid (in the form of recruits and finance), external trade (in oil and looted goods) as well as internal political acquiescence if not support. 

            This brings us to the events at Shaykh Zuwayed in mid-2015.  On May 16 shortly after deposed President Muhammad Morsi was sentenced to death, three judges in north Sinai were murdered in a drive-by shooting of the mini-van carrying them from their homes to court.   The execution the following day of six men convicted of membership in a terrorist cell provoked some domestic outrage and international concern.   Far less attention was paid to events in north Sinai itself where, according to the daily Al-Misry al-Yawm, the army and police “eliminated seven takfiri jihadists.”  The newspaper described the killings as revenge for the deaths of the jurists.  Government spokesmen began to walk back the claim that the Armed Forces and the police are involved in a vendetta rather than enforcing the law, but the immediate perception of the headline writers may be quite accurate.  Something similar happened after the October 2014.  Headlines in the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm proclaimed in large type “No Mourning Before Retaliation” which may have reflected sentiments in the Armed Forces but was not itself reported as official policy. 

Unofficially retired generals, who had taken up posts as security advisers and experts, such as Sameh Saif al-Yazal, Hamdi Bekheit, and Gamal Abu Zikri called for clearing the population from the area so that the army could eliminate its opponents.   Since the fall of 2014 the Egyptian government has followed this policy and created a buffer zone up to a kilometer wide on its border with Gaza, razing hundreds of residences in the process. 

The coordinated attack on several army checkpoints indicated that the Sinai Province fighters have the capacity to engage in such operations against stationary and lightly held positions.  Reports about casualties vary and the Egyptian government has been careful to limit much news of the operation but it is generally agreed that dozens of people—soldiers, insurgents and civilians—died. Unlike the Syrian or Iraqi armies, the Egyptian Armed Forces are extremely well-armed due to years of aid from the United States and they have retained their operational capacity and institutional chain of command.  It is therefore neither surprising nor the cause for particularly great congratulations that, using armored vehicles and jets, they rapidly overwhelmed the fighters of the “Sinai Province.”  Nor is it surprising that the army’s operation took civilian lives as well as that of the IS combattants.

            Less obvious is how events in Sinai play out on the broader stage of Egyptian politics.  The fear of many foreign (and some but fewer domestic Egyptian) analysts is that Sinai is the beginning of a larger Islamist insurgency against the nominally civilian but essentially military dictatorship that now rules Egypt.  The reasoning is, as noted above, straightforward and certainly has merit.  The military ousted the democratically elected president of Egypt, Muhammad Morsi and outlawed the party he represented that was itself the political expression of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The MB is now outlawed, its members are being arrested, tortured, and (most recently) killed out of hand.  Consequently it will (and some of its younger members already have) turn to violence against the state.  Given that the MB had mass support, a membership of perhaps a million Egyptians, and that Morsi won millions of votes an insurrection that it leads will be more powerful than even the ones led by other (Salafi) Islamists in 1980 or the early 1990s.  The fighters of the “Sinai province” are one pole around which a larger insurrection might ultimately coalesce. 

            This is a powerful scenario but it deploys an overly simple psychology to underpin a policy argument based on an understandable normative antagonism to dictatorship.  Existing states, whether democracies or dictatorships, rarely lose to insurgencies.   Egypt may be an exception but it is unlikely.  The Egyptian state retains significant international support—from a superficially unlikely coalition that includes the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia—while Egyptian insurgents (whether former members of the MB or the “Sinai Province”) have little.  It is rare for insurgencies to win when they have little or no external support and while the central government retains international allies who provide it with arms and financial support. 

            If the MB is indeed moving from confrontation to violence, several of its presumed harder-line Salafi allies have been conspicuously absent from joining it.  The move toward violence by younger members of the MB may be accompanied by increasing use of Salafi-Jihadi rhetoric but neither the Salafi Nour party nor the Islamic Group have yet broken with the regime.  Nor, despite significant criticism of the government, have some of their better-known sympathizers such as the daily newspaper Al-Misriyyun.  This may be the last legacy of the Sadat era and a final irony of the way in which contemporary politics has developed.

            In the year after the uprising of January 25, 2011 the Armed Forces freed hundreds of members of the Islamic Group and other Salafi trends in the same part of the political spectrum who had been imprisoned by both Sadat and former President Mubarak.  Whatever political calculations the generals made, at the time it was presented primarily as accepting court orders mandating the release of prisoners who had served full sentences.  Holding them in indefinite preventive detention was not, the courts had said in previously ignored orders, in accord with the law or the constitution.  These men, including the Zumor cousins who had been part of the conspiracy to assassinate Sadat, re-emerged into political life.   Some have been associated with both the Nour party and others with the Building and Development party, linked to the Islamic Group.   

The experience of many of these leaders with armed conflict against the Egyptian state was bitter.  It had begun with the uprising in Asyut and continued sporadically until it developed into a medium insurrection in the early 1990s.  This period culminated with an attack on a Pharaonic temple and prominent tourist destination in the Upper Egyptian city of Luxor in 1997 where 62 tourists were killed.  This attempt to destroy the tourist industry eliminated what remaining the popular support the Islamic Group had.  Thousands of Egyptian police, soldiers, political activists and ordinary citizens died and those leaders appear, for now at any rate, to have little desire to resume the bitter conflict that they survived and lost.  Whether this is a counsel of prudence or commitment to public order we cannot know but they continue their peaceful (if often politically controversial and extreme) political activity.  They write articles for newspapers, give interviews, and organize their supporters for what they hope will be parliamentary elections in the future.  They also claim to desire an Islamic state but evidently not the Islamic State on offer. 

            The Sinai Province of the Islamic State will no doubt continue to trouble the border region of northern Sinai.  Until some agreement is made between the government in Cairo, Hamas in Gaza, and Israel it will be difficult to catch the Islamic State between the anvil of the border and the hammer of the Egyptian Armed Forces.  But that agreement will, tacitly or openly, probably come.  Until that time the Sinai Province may manage to survive in a region where the Egyptian state is structurally weakened by its international commitments, its absence of local support and alienation caused by its violence and political mis-steps. 

            Two decades ago the Egyptian state fought one war with Islamists in Upper Egypt where they had far more local support in a relatively large population.  IS in its incarnation as the Sinai Province has less support in a far more marginal area.  It is not likely to be the place from which a successful assault on the Egyptian state is launched nor will it easily become, like the IS provinces in Syria and Iraq, a “liberated zone.”  That IS and perhaps other opposition groups have been able to use car bombs in Cairo and Suez is not necessarily indicative of widening support for a popular insurgency.  On the contrary, as Russian revolutionaries realized a century ago terrorist violence can legitimate the state for many citizens and demobilize a popular movement. Whatever else they have done, President Sisi and the generals have worked tirelessly over the past two years to demobilize Egyptian civil society.  It is instructive in this regard that IS may have paid more attention to the anniversary of the coup than did the government it brought to power.  That Egyptian have become used to much higher levels of open political violence than at almost any other time in recent history, however, is a sad reality.

The lasting threat to the Sisi government lies elsewhere, among core elements of Egyptian society and the state.  These will include general officers in the Armed Forces if they come to believe that they have lost control of the way coercion is deployed in society.  Loss of control occurs as the forces of order come to think of their task as the work of vendetta not the provision of safety.  And then there will be those with important economic interests who come to feel threatened by policies that have ceased to work and who want a larger say in how government is run as well as a growing sense of fatigue with a military regime.  That, however, is likely to be a long time in coming.