The United States and Peru’s future: The view from the Miraflores Park Hotel

On Wednesday, I attended the first annual Foro Perú – Estados Unidos (US-Peru Forum), sponsored by the US Chamber of Commerce in Peru, jointly with the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy. Those in attendance got to hear from a quite focused panel on trade and Peru’s economic trajectory, followed by meditations, similarly economy-focused, by Peru’s ambassador to the US, Harold Forsyth, and the US ambassador to Peru (outgoing), Rose Likins. The conference was capped off by a more diffuse, but still illustrative overview of the country’s political scene, including brief discussions by Peruvian political commentator Carlos Basombrio and David Scott Palmer of BostonUniversity.

While listening intently and enjoying the better-than-average coffee and excellent pineapple juice provided by the Miraflores Park Hotel, a few key points and overarching themes jumped out at me. Various panelists provided key insights on important trends that are shaping, and will continue to shape, trajectories of economic growth and development in Peru. These are discussed in a generally timeline-oriented order below.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the next big thing, and the Pacific Alliance has been a great primer for some countries in the region. These intertwining issues were discussed most forcefully by Barbara Kotschwar, a Peterson Institute research fellow (and, full disclosure, a former professor of mine, and a friend). Kotschwar has written extensively on this issue, and while viewing the TPP as a potential game-changer, has argued for yet-broader Latin American involvement in the initiative. As others have additionally pointed out, many substantive deals have been made between and among various members of the Pacific Alliance (Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, plus Central American aspirants to membership). This could prove a great jumping-off point for integrating these countries further into trans-Pacific trade, but the TPP as written excludes Colombia and the Central Americans. There’s a strong case to be made that current TPP power brokers, like the US, should push to bring the remaining Alliance members to the table, for increased prosperity and economic integration on the continent and across the Pacific.

Whether the TPP becomes a driver to broader Latin American economic integration or not, Peru is in a good position: it is a member of both the TPP talks and the Pacific Alliance, and has relatively long-standing ties to Asia. But to best capitalize on gains from the TPP, Peru has some outstanding business to take care of. Two key points that jump out are centered on infrastructure and education. Shortcomings in the former, Kotschwar pointed out, can account for as much as 25% of the difference in historical growth trajectories between Latin America and near-peer competitors in Asia. Fortunately, Peru, which historically has suffered from grave problems in this area, is beginning to see these addressed, particularly in the long-laggard highland interior. The latter area, on the other hand, is not such cause for excitement. The country’s public schools are so bad that private education entrepreneurs in Lima can’t build fast enough to meet demand for private and religious schools. Meanwhile, a contentious education reform bill has generated much heat but little light, with university students protesting perceived opacity in the reform-drafting process, and a generalized sense of worry over a possible rise in costs. Both of these issues need to be addressed not just to capitalize on the provisions of trade agreements and facilitate movement into value-added industries, but also for reasons of equity. The burdens of bad roads and wretched schools falls most heavily on already disadvantaged populations, indigenous highlanders and the urban poor. No one should want to see these populations excluded from the potential fruits of trade agreements.

The ambassadors focused on fascinating niche initiatives with big potential (when they weren’t speaking in glittering generalities, which is pretty normal at such gatherings!). Forsyth pointed approvingly to President Ollanta Humala’s recent visit to MIT and hopes for future cooperation on education policy reforms. Likins discussed technology exchange programs and study-abroad. The optics on these aren’t necessarily spectacular. They don’t automatically strike the casual observer as the stuff of grand bargains or sweeping diplomatic initiatives. But they are vital bits of connecting fiber that keep the driving motor forces of Peru-US relations – trade, and human exchanges of other sorts – moving forward. Furthermore, these kinds of deals are more than representative of the productive focus on “twenty-first century issues” that could well prove a virtuous template for relations between the US and Latin America in what is, indeed, the twenty-first century.

The pursuit of economic growth by no means cancels out Peru’s many deep-seated problems, and the last panel offered timely reminders of this. Basombrio’s discussion of the key roles played by corruption and a politics of institutional weakness (an unpopular judiciary and an incredibly weak party system chief among them) was an indispensable reminder of these crucial factors. The importance of his notes is highlighted, in fact, by fears about growing corruption, raised in the wake of the 2013 release of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer. I’ve touched at other points in this space and elsewhere on issues of effective and ineffective decentralization; I found myself nodding involuntarily as Dr. Palmer worried aloud about gaps in capacity amidst decentralization reforms. As lower-level institutions receive more power and responsibility, but not necessarily more training, effective authority, or oversight for accountability, the effectiveness of decentralization reforms is blunted. Palmer’s argument echoes what other experts in Lima have told me; indeed, some commentators have explicitly linked low capacity for effective management and oversight at the local level to the growth of corruption. This matters, again, not just for capitalizing adroitly on economic growth, but for justice and equity as well and even more so.

There’s a limit to what one can extrapolate from events like this, but that last point perhaps contains within it the grand themes confronting Peru today: tremendous opportunities, but tremendous challenges around institutions and around the moral purpose of its state. And indeed, as suggested perhaps by Brazil’s burgeoning protest movement, and by ongoing questions about the role of the United States in Latin America, this is true not only in this country, but across the entire Western Hemisphere.

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Misreading Chile: The mythos of Pinochet and the WSJ’s bad advice for Egypt

A couple days ago, the second-worst editorial page in America weighed in on the tumult in Egypt. Of course the results were anodyne at best, and rather maliciously silly at worst: the piece praises the existence of Egypt’s “competing power centers” as though profound state polarization and fragmentation were good news for that country, then chases that pseudo-analysis with a couple paragraphs of mindless Obama-bashing. But it saves the worst for the very end, when the anonymous writer and his/her co-conspirators wish glibly for Egyptian general Abdul Fatah al-Sissi to emulate another general from another hemisphere: “Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.”

Oh my aching head! Certainly this profoundly misunderstands the role of Egypt’s generals and other political forces. Ruling is not the word to use, for starters. Perhaps worse, this vulgar editorial repeats the horrid rightist trope of lauding Pinochet, the general and erstwhile Army Chief of Staff who overthrew Chile’s (democratically elected) president Salvador Allende in 1973, ushering in a 17-year reign replete with torture, politicide, various other human rights abuses, a rejiggered authoritarian constitution… and, yes, sure, “free-market reformers.”

On one level, of course, this sort of tripe is unremarkable. It’s precisely the sort of thing that one would expect to be spewed out by the “authoritarian whackadoos on [the Journal’s editorial page,” an odd cabal of folks who, while keenly attuned to pedal-driven threats to American freedom, have an interesting history of publishing unsigned drivel praising Pinochet. (And, for that matter, signed drivel in the same vein, like this deeply odious piece by Bret Stephens.) So, all par for the course. And of this piece has already catalyzed some really excellent essays eviscerating it; of particular note, try this Wonkette piece, or the (hungover?) Esquire rapid-reaction cited above.

Yet beyond that particular, publication-specific, tactically free market-pushing urge from the people behind the Journal there of course lie deeper analytical pathologies. These blind spots and willful unseeings, swaddled in mythos and crowned with a neat bow of hoary prejudice, make much of what passes for rightist commentary, on both Chile and Egypt, unhelpful analytically. Worse, perhaps, they guide would-be policy-makers toward deals with deeply unsavory actors, infernal bargains that stem not, in truth, from realpolitik (all assertions to the contrary), but from acceptance of myth as truth. Pinochet is lionized as a national saint by those who are not of his nation, and we are told that we ought to hope for Sissi’s “wisdom” in emulating the Chilean’s alleged virtues. This reading, though,nis nothing more than self-deception, and it poses a deep moral danger to policymakers and thinkers upon the right, and it threatens further to guide those who have thus deceived themselves in un-salubrious directions in both foreign policy and political philosophy. Finally, to the extent that rightists make or inflect policy in this country, it threatens to enmesh the wider polity in these sorts of grievous errors. So for all of these reasons, it is worth further examining this woeful Journal piece, and the woeful thinking that lies behind it.

Getting Chile, and Pinochet, Wrong

Augusto Pinochet, as is widely known, seized power from the elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. Allende’s preceding 3-year presidency had alarmed many in Chile’s upper and middle classes, who felt threatened both by the rising tide in mobilization among the lower classes and urban poor, and by economic turmoil, occasioned by a variety of factors which included a fall in the price of copper, capital flight initiated by investors leery of the coming transition to socialism, and US sanctions. This was further exacerbated by CIA-assisted hijinks and assorted right-wing terrorism. I am more-than-implying here not only that Pinochet’s coup upset an established democratic order, but that the coup was in response to unrest fomented in part by Pinochet’s very constituency; it was both a result of deep social polarization, and a self-serving response to a state of affairs that Pinochet’s supporters had deliberately engendered.

This was of course lauded by cold warriors at the time as arresting a slide into the abyss of communism. This narrative of Soviet-style horror averted has since been internalized by the right in ways that already put Pinochet on a pedestal, by comparison to a strawman version of Allende (e.g., Stephens’ exceedingly inaccurate characterization of Allende’s government as “proto-Chavista.”) These are absurd slanders, historically inaccurate, which ignore both the constitutional commitments of Allende, which he took seriously, and the pre-existing social conditions, and tensions, of which Allende’s government was an expression. Already, these are not favorable analytic waters for our friends at the Journal and their Pinochetista comrades.

At any rate, after the coup Pinochet proceeded to clamp down on popular demonstrations and the like, regained access to international capital markets, soothed the nerves of international investors (though he did not, significantly, reverse Allende’s nationalization of the copper industry); and then moved to re-write the constitution, overhaul the country’s social security system, and moved to liberalize the economy and shift the country toward export agriculture in significant ways. He also famously consulted Milton Friedman and hired a host of Friedman acolytes to assist in these reforms. These policy shifts all met with approbation from rightists at the time, and as Chile has outpaced its neighbors in wealth and development, the clamor has only grown more fulsome, from the WSJ’s recommendation of Pinochet to protesting Egyptians, to the continuing popularity (on the Right) of the general’s pensions minister.

The complexity of Pinochet’s legacy, what there is of it, is that the economic reforms he rammed through are seen as having allowed the country to grow, develop, and get rich. This is hard to argue with (though it does assume certain counterfactuals that problematize the argument), but the pathologies of this approach, especially the entrenchment of inequality, and its effects on areas like education, are equally hard to refute. It is vital that we not overlook this accomplishment, while also not allowing to stand the narrative of economic development as uncomplicated and unalloyed good.

But let us move on to the Journal’s contention, on behalf of itself and myriad presumed supporters on the right, that Pinochet would be good for democracy in Egypt. The presumption here is that an Egyptian Pinochet (Sissicet? Pinossi?) would be able, in the long run, to see the country through to a consolidated democratic system. But this does not actually square with the historical record. For one thing, there’s the little matter of three thousand dead and ten times that many tortured in Chile under Pinochet. This is not a good precedent for a new democracy, except in the moral sphere in which the Journal moves, (and in which it is representative of plenty who weren’t forthright enough to say it this time around, and which we should never, ever forget).

But let’s set aside in infamy the many murders, not only of political activists, but constitutionalist generals and even folk singers, and even ex-diplomats and US citizens on US soil, the countenance of which terrorism by the fine folks at the Journal strikes me as very nearly treasonous. The odd nostalgia for Pinochet on the part of US right-wing chattering classes stems from his image as an uncorruptible strongman who ultimately “midwifed a transition to democracy.” But every bit of this is utterly wrong. The contention that Pinochet was the architect of a renewed democratic system is flawed for several reasons. One is the absurdity of giving the general any credit at all for returning to Chile democratic order, which had existed for decades before military intervention and was regarded as a model for the continent, 17 years after terminating it. Another is that Pinochet’s 1980 constitution was transparently authoritarian, written to rig the game in favor of conservative strata and the military. And the last, and probably the most significant, is that Pinochet never wanted to leave power at all. Insulated from the many Chileans discontented with his rule, the general thought that he would win the referendum he called in 1988, which would have given him 8 more years in power. When confronted with the results, he initially balked at leaving, and only agreed to honor the referendum when the heads of the military refused to back him in annulling the results. So much for the selfless midwife of democracy.

Lastly, the idea that Pinochet was uncorruptible is entirely mistaken. While his indictment made history because of the human rights charges that were ultimately brought against him, the general was also indicted for tax fraud. While Pinochet loved to harp on his devotion to the nation, both he and his relatives funneled millions out of state coffers into overseas bank accounts. So much for the incorruptible man on horseback! The entire mythos around Pinochet, built up for years by US right-wing commentators who yearn for these United States to more resemble authoritarian Chile, is an idol with feet of clay and a body of gilded filth, phony in every sense. The Wall Street Journal editorial which we’ve been discussing here is only the latest shameful example of this wrong-headedness. Whatever happens in Egypt, that country, and Chile, and the US too, deserve better.

Toward a politics of the real

In the three days that have passed since the Journal penned this dreadful nonsense, the situation in Egypt has shifted and shifted again; El-Baradei is out as PM before ever being in, and now Nour is claiming to be out of the interim government roadmap-drafting process, and the armed forces are ramping up repression even more. The news out of Egypt, from the heartbreaking to the merely worrisome, largely obviates (as though it needed further obviation!) the stupid editorial that I’ve discussed for almost 1600 words above. Yet we should still be mindful of the analytical lenses that we, and our discursive opponents, bring to the study of politics and policy. If our ideas about these fields have consequences, we must consider their moral dimensions as well as their strategic. But even when we privilege cold-blooded considerations of strategy, it is imperative that we get our facts straight, because this is the bare minimum requirement for policymakers. It matters whether Pinochet was, on the one hand, a selfless military man who had power forced upon him for the greater good and brought democracy back to Chile; or on the other, a murderous mediocrity who stole from the nation and had to be pushed out of power himself. In the first case, of course Egyptians would be lucky to have a man like Pinochet in charge. In the latter case, which unfortunately reflects reality, the Chilean example offers little to be emulated.

For too long, certain precedents, the Pinochet regime prominent among them, have been held up as positive examples to be followed, rather than negative examples to be shunned. This is understandable, I guess; realpolitik is hard and unpalatable, a more moral foreign policy is often seen as untenable (not without reason at times!), and the temptation to assert that US interests are also in the moral interest of the world finds embodiment in the apparently seductive person of Augusto Pinochet. This is made possible only by deliberate ignorance of the general’s record, which in turn distorts the import and attractiveness of the Chilean model. An objective analysis of the facts of the matter demonstrate that is time for everyone concerned to dispense with this gauzy mythology, based never so much on an honest appraisal of the achievements of the dictatorial regime as on a pottage of anti-communism and market-worship. This is what it means to think rigorously about comparative politics, foreign affairs, and the events with which we are confronted today, in Egypt and elsewhere.

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Toward “pacification of the state” in Brazil?

Last week I wrote that Brazil’s protest movement is playing out in a country that functions in a state of “violent democracy,” and attempted to speculate on how that movement might modify that country’s volatile patchwork of violent pluralism. Now Catherine Osborn reports at Americas Quarterly Blog that protesters have taken up the cause of favela residents (and one policeman) killed in police operations that took place in the orbit of protests in Rio on June 24.

 The events in Maré, which is about to be pacified, throw into question how committed to peace the pacification process is and brings the issue of police violence to the forefront of Brazilian protesters’ concerns.  The night after the killings, the story of the dragnet caused particular outrage when Maré resident and newspaper editor Gizele Martins, 27, related the events at a planning meeting for the next citywide protest.

“I just came from Maré,” she announced shakily to a crowd of thousands—mostly students—sitting in front of the downtown campus of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro—UFRJ). Martins said that a group of 500 residents marching through the streets of the community had just been able to pressure the last police tank to leave.

After chants of “Maré, Maré,” the group voted to add a new demand to their message for the next protest: the demilitarization of Rio’s police force. Coalitions from Maré and various favelas marched in the citywide protests in the following few days.

If we see more protests against police brutality even as the broader protest movement is quieting down somewhat, or if we see whatever core of protesters remains in motion take up demands for “pacification of the state,” these could be taken as positive steps toward a more just and accountable Brazil. On the other hand, Brazilian democracy has countenanced a routinized level of violence in the favelas for a very long time, which unfortunately suggests that it will be only too easy for the violence of Rio’s pacification program, and of public security operations elsewhere, to fall back off the radar. This is true in spades if Brazil’s protest movement loses steam.

A related question is what effect greater public scrutiny will have on Rio’s pacification programs. Until now, these have seemed like an unstoppable force, at worst a necessary evil, and bolstered rhetorically by an ideology of progress for Rio (and Brazil), and the centrality of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics to achieving this progress through infrastructure construction and geopolitical bragging rights and so on. But the Brazilian protest movement has challenged this particular spin on an ideology of progress, dethroning the promise of international sports spectacle from its central seat as a signifier of national pride and unity, and attempting to turn the focus of public discourse toward gaps and inequities in Brazilian democracy. If Brazil’s citizens have the audacity to assert that the World Cup cannot cover over corruption, then perhaps they will demand as well that the Olympic Games not serve to justify state repression against some of Brazil’s most vulnerable. The pacification of the Brazilian state will not come easily, but it is vital to the process of rendering that state accountable, entrenching social justice, and deepening democracy in that country.

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Concern-trolling the Revolution

A couple days ago David Rothkopf surveyed ongoing protests in Egypt, as well as Turkey and Brazil –  and found them wanting. Protesters, he claimed, are steadily revealing that they don’t know what it takes to enter the halls of power and effect lasting change; they are “better at organizing protests than… institutionalizing their movements or creating, cultivating, and empowering leaders who could master existing institutions.”

He goes on (after lauding the American Revolution as the historical exception that proves the rule):

Look at some of the recent outpourings of public discontent that have captured our imaginations in the past couple of decades. Tiananmen Square. The uprisings that brought down the Soviet Union. Iran’s Green Revolution. Tahrir Square. Revolutions in Libya, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world. Taksim Square. In each case, even where revolutions have brought seeming change, the protesters were hardly among the greatest beneficiaries of the outcomes.

There were really two kinds of outcomes. In the first, there was precious little change at all — as in the case of China, Iran, or, to date, Turkey. In the second, the change shifted power from one entrenched elite to another: Russia may not be communist, but it is run by a former KGB officer in a very undemocratic way; in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to fill the void created when Hosni Mubarak was pushed out, and if the current protests there play out, expect the military to resume primary control of the state, reversing the “reforms” demanded by President Mohamed Morsy.

The essay ends on a perfectly reasonable note – that is, that those who seek to encourage change must “focus more on training oppositions in the long game of getting and consolidating power,” though one might quibble that it overlooks entirely the possibility for oppositions to build their own capacity (no minor quarrel, now that I think about it!). But in its long middle passages it betrays troubling misunderstandings of the workings of revolutionary politics in general, and an odd sense of the way that things might play out in Egypt specifically.

On a general theoretical level the essay’s focus on directly pitting the goals of elite actors against the goals of the revolution muddies conceptual waters profoundly. The author complains that that when “elites have the money, control the military, control the police, control the mechanisms of political expression, if they can use the means of the state to suppress upheaval or if they can exploit revolutions to advance their own agendas versus those of other elites, they become hard to dislodge” – presumably thwarting the goals of real revolutionaries. But it is the rare revolution which contains no elite actors within the revolutionary fold. It is inconceivable, for example, to imagine the French Revolution without the participation of journalists, urban merchants, clerics, even, especially, dissident nobility.

And let’s look to the recent mobilizations cited. In the failed revolutionary case of China in 1989, prominent (and at the time recently deceased) reformer Hu Yaobang provided student protesters with a potent political symbol, while General Secretary Zhao Ziyang cast his lot with the students in a bid to open reform and lost. In the failed Iranian “Green Revolution,” young people flooded into the streets to protest against the effective marginalization and disenfranchisement not of the popular classes, but of two elite (and Guardian Council-vetted!) presidential candidates, both true sons of the 1979 Revolution. These were no less revolutionary upheavals for their incorporation of elite currents of thought and elite actors into an overarching revolutionary discourse.

The essay’s focus on alleged elite appropriation of revolutionary movements is especially jarring, given its choice of a revolutionary lodestar in 1776. The planters, merchants, artisans, and intellectuals who assumed the leadership of the American Revolution were in many cases the homegrown equivalent of a local aristocracy. Seeking to preserve their own interests meant that the American Revolution was not a revolution of “those from below”; elites’ control of money and the means of political expression were key to the American Revolution’s triumph. That’s how these things work.

And not only in that case! The outcome of the Mexican Revolution, which accomplished (relatively) profound structural changes in the Mexican state, was determined by the trajectories of regional rebellions in which elites routinely participated, and by the shift of former players in the old regime to the revolutionary side. Does their participation make less revolutionary the subsequent changes in land tenure rules, the purges of clergy, the nationalization of oil reserves?

Indeed, revolutionary movements almost always incorporate elites into themselves, whether they fail or not. This is because revolutions are inherently messy enterprises, prone to innumerable tactical shifts as their protagonists struggle for advantage not only against reactionary opponents, but also among themselves. This does not mean that pure-at-heart revolutionaries should ignore Rothkopf’s advice to get organized, the better to push back against reaction and retrenchment. But the trajectory toward greater organization and more substantive skills is a long arc, and that elites may wind up on all sides of these enterprises does not detract from their revolutionary potential per se. If we only made revolutions of parties, which also were sure to benefit not a single elite actor, we would all, from “America” to Brazil to China and so on, be… still waiting. In short, revolutionary politics are more or less always profoundly imbricated with elite politics. Imagining a neat binary of the two serves to obscure more than it illuminates, and only makes it more difficult to struggle for justice within the revolutionary context.

It is the more specific case of Egypt, to which I will now briefly turn, which helps to illustrate a bit more the point around revolutionary organizing for institutional control versus contentious politics, with a guest appearance by the oft-posited virtual-physical divide. Remember, Rothkopf is concerned that as things come to pass in Egypt we must “…expect the military to resume primary control of the state, reversing the “reforms” demanded by President Mohamed Morsy.” This is presumably the fault of protesters who failed to build stronger secular youth-powered parties and so on. But this analysis has at least two flaws. One is that it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the military will resume primary control of the state, as the military more likely seeks a sphere of autonomy and impunity in which the generals may feather their nests and preen in peace.

The latter point, which has greater bearing upon the study of comparative revolutions, and with which I will close, is that the protests of the past several days have been the largest in Egyptian history. They have been preceded by a sustained drive for signatures to a petition demanding Morsy’s ouster. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of such popular impeachment campaigns, the oft-cited number of 22 million signatures represents an impressive logistical feat in one of the key arenas of civic action: good old-fashioned canvassing! This is organizational capacity beyond “chants” or “the Twitterverse,” and it indicates that Egypt’s revolutionary forces are working hard to mature and build their own capacity as political actors. Of course there’s a long way to go – but as Rothkopf himself points out, “lasting change is hard.” From all indications no one is heading into this next phase of revolutionary upheaval with their eyes closed. It will continue to be a long haul, with considerable struggle necessary to advance accountability, and human, social, and economic rights. But knowing this upfront means that a little bit of optimism about elite participation and mobilizational forms of revolutionary contestation might not do anyone, least of all editors at Foreign Policy Magazine, any harm.

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Scattered thoughts on Egypt and accountability agendas

As I sit in a Lima hotel room writing this missive, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsy has more or less just finished a speech in which, as usual, he demonized opponents of his rule and called them “feloul” (remnants (of the old regime)). Referring to his democratic mandate as the elected president of Egypt, he dismissed the swelling chorus of demands for his resignation as counterrevolutionary hot air. These have come from the press, from an unprecedented mobilization of protesters in the streets, and from the military, which yesterday issued an ultimatum, ostensibly to all political actors, but really mostly to Morsy, which boils down to: fix this in 48 hours or we will.

In this very instant the New York Times is running a chilling photograph of a phalanx of Morsy supporters, gathering girded by pledges to defend his rule and give teeth to his defiant statements. Dressed neatly, polo shirts tucked into belted kahakis and pressed jeans, they’d look as though they’d stepped out of a mobile phone sales office were it not for the millwrights’ hard hats on their heads, the short staves that they hold by their sides.

I am trying so effusively and cross-disciplinarily to situate my readers in time because soon after I publish this essay, the piece will surely be outdated. Events in Egypt are moving too swiftly to keep up with, although plenty of folks are trying gamely to offer quality analysis in real time. The good people at Jadaliyya have done yeoman work in tracking the contortions, tactical shifts, and discursive strategies staked by the country’s major actors (this is of course not a new phenomenon). Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr renders deeply foreboding with abundant metaphor the atmospherics of the slow rolling confrontation:

The army is already swooping as the protests grow and all we hear from the MB is the steady sound of a grave being dug. There are several possible outcomes to this mess. Even if Morsy is not sacrificed there is likely to be a major army-imposed cleaning out at lower levels. Whatever the result the MB will undergo a military-led emasculation of some sorts and the bill will be written in civilian blood. Everyone loses.

Indeed, it is hard to see, at least in the short-term, a pleasant way for this to end. But events will lead on to events, most surely, and it is a necessity that those of us who follow Egypt and wish the best for its people should attempt to lay out some political heuristics. It is in this spirit that I offer an attempt to see beyond the current state of high tension, to the longer game that I suspect many of the revolutionaries have been striving toward: a more accountable Egyptian state, in all senses: democratic rule, citizen engagement, robust social and economic rights. So this will be cold comfort should Egypt in the next days descend into coup, or civil war, but I am going to talk here about accountability, and the prospects for an Egyptian “accountability ecosystem.” TLDR warning: 1600 words ahead (though that includes great block quotes from Sarah Carr, Hesham Sallam, and Issandr El Amrani).

* * *

Over the past several days I have been turning over in my head a vexed question: what would an accountable Egyptian state apparatus even look like? Attempts to envision such a beast are complicated, of course, by the profound polarization of the Egyptian public, who likely hold competing visions of such a hypothetical: some inflected by shariah, some holding a more maximalist conception of social and economic rights, some holding a more classically “liberal” sense of what the ties between governors and the governed might entail. And so on, according to individual variance in conceptions of legitimacy. Fortunately for me, some compelling journalistic and intellectual work on this has been done already.

In The National, Issandr El Amrani of The Arabist recently laid out three kinds of dueling legitimacy at play in Egypt today.* It’s an excellent piece and you should read the whole thing and then come back here, but I sum up a little bit. Revolutionary legitimacy is what keeps both Morsy’s supporters and opponents claiming that they are acting in the defense of the revolution. The need to harness revolutionary legitimacy is what leads to the application of pro-revolution rhetoric to profoundly reactionary gestures, like protesters’ calls for a coup, and indeed like the slow-motion “pretty much coup” currently simmering. Electoral legitimacy is of course conferred by winning an election, though the conferral of this upon Morsy and the FJP have been complicated immensely by their profoundly majoritarian understanding of democracy and their utter failure to speak to the 49% of Egyptians who did not vote for them. The third is institutional legitimacy –that is:

…the traditions, practices and power centres of the Egyptian state. These have been threatened by the revolutionary trend, which seeks to transform them, and by the rise of a political movement widely seen as intent on taking over institutions. The military, the civilian security services and the judiciary have thus far shown the most resistance and ability to alter the course of the post-Mubarak transition.

Indeed! And while this tendency of state institutions to resist incursions upon what they see as their own prerogatives, particularly by the judiciary, has been seen as a brake on “Brotherhoodization,” it has also undoubtedly been a brake on other, more salutary reform(ulation)s of the state. Surely, for example, fear of a bureaucracy throwing innumerable spanners into its own works has helped fix Morsy’s resistance to a rationalization of that apparatus, and his administration’s continued high spending upon that bureaucracy. One can only imagine what the bureaucracy might “think” about popular incursions into those prerogatives – doubtless nothing good. That is to say that like most state institutions, Egypt’s pursue their own, often narrowly construed, interests in an environment in which a great many factions continue to jockey for advantage. They are not – wait for it – accountable, nor interested in becoming more so.

One kind of legitimacy which El Amrani does not discuss, for the very good reason that precious few examples of it would present themselves, is the kind of legitimacy conferred by the establishment of robust connections of institutional accountability between governments and citizens, and which governments and political leaders must continuously earn in truly “democratic” contexts. In theory this sort of legitimacy would reside within both electoral and institutional realms, but this has yet to be established in Egypt, in even very tenuous terms, although of course the revolution is in no small sense about redressing the injustices of the profound accountability gaps inherent to Egypt’s pre-Revolutionary political order. On the contrary, the Egyptian state apparatus has routinely sought an exceptionally high level of autonomy from the society it putatively governs. This is aptly diagnosed in Steve Negus’ comment that one of the (many!) divisions cleaving contemporary Egypt lies between those seeking greater accountability from state institutions and “the considerable number of Egyptians who work for one of these institutions who want to be left to do as they please.” The Armed Forces’ attempts to cover themselves in glory by mediating the removal of Morsy, or by pulling off some other political clean-up operation, are in reality nothing more than another play, in a long line of plays made since their play made in removing Mubarak, to preserve a carved-out realm of autonomy, opacity, and impunity, the better to carry out their real function: self-enrichment.

Robust institutional lines of vertical accountability (even in a “newly democratized” system) are absent, and polarization of the state apparatus itself has largely precluded functioning systems of horizontal accountability. Thus more participatory ties of accountability – linked to freedom of information, the publication of state budgets, and such things – are especially absent. And thus, the crowds of Cairo (and well beyond) have come into the streets, repeatedly, as a sort of proto-institution of accountability, and been to boot the only accountability “institution” in existence. That this is not a long-term sustainable institutional situation is a truism, barely worth stating (though some do in essence make this statement). But it is what currently exists in a bewildering ongoing state of institutional, revolutionary flux.

Current events are of course by no means promising. The Armed Forces’ return to the scene as an arbiter of democratic contestation is, as noted above, is not being attempted with the national best interest in mind, and sets a(nother) awful precedent. So, as Sarah Carr notes, would be (probably) the removal of Egypt’s first elected president by popular mobilization (and, Carr again – the worst precedent perhaps involves both together):

Ideologically, I am extremely torn about the protests’ demands. I would like nothing better than for Morsy and his arrogant, obstinate Brothers to be booted out of Egyptian political life (and I voted for Morsy in order to keep out Shafiq) but have three issues:

1. It would hit the Muslim Brotherhood harder if they were ejected from Egyptian public life via elections. They would not be able to cry foul, and this would hit at their precious legitimacy in a way that the protests don’t. I have long been of the opinion that the Muslim Brotherhood should be left to their own devices as long as the economy can stand it, so that they continue to fuck up, destroy their support base, and we can be rid of them forever. This is a problematic and unpopular position, I know and it assumes firstly, they hold elections and secondly, they don’t forge results.

2. I keep imagining that it was ElBaradei or Hamdeen or someone non-MB and palatable to those taking to the streets on Sunday was elected. I imagine, what if Mr Palatable did something to garner the ire of his (Islamist) opposition on a par with Morsy’s constitutional amendment, something along the lines of removing all reference to Sharia in the constitution (PEDANTS: I AM JUST IMAGINING FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS EXERCISE AND AM NOT SUGGESTING THEY WOULD).

Say that this inspired mass protests similar to those at the presidential palace in December 2012 and that Mr Palatable’s supporters used violence against the raging Islamist mobs. Now imagine that the political impasse dragged on and on until the exasperated Islamist opposition, together with ordinary Egyptians fed up at the economic situation and turmoil (I am assuming that no president could have fixed much in a year) took to the streets demanding Palatable go.

What would my position be? I would most likely stand against the Islamist mob and one of the arguments I would invoke is that Palatable was democratically elected and you, raving Islamist mob, represent nobody but yourselves.

3. If a miracle happened and Morsy did step down as a result of these protests it sets an awkward precedent. Particularly if the army is involved.

Then again (to read Hesham Sallam in fruitful dialogue with Carr, perhaps) it may be wiser to read the ongoing popular action as the exercise of a participatory proto-institution, demanding the removal of an elected president who has manifestly declined to rule as someone benefiting from a sovereignty conferred upon him by the nation as a whole. In opting for the sovereignty only of his own constituency, one might argue, Morsy has forfeited his sovereignty on behalf of the nation as a whole. As Sallam writes in Jadaliyya:

In the absence of real national politics, there have been no credible means for channeling widespread popular discontent with the current government. This is explains the surge in protests and strikes throughout the country, as well as the overwhelming support for the Tamarod Campaign’s grassroots initiative. It takes a lot of diligence to ignore the reality that the existing political system is defunct. In such a context, prevalent media sound bites that the current protests are aimed at “aborting Egyptian democracy” are simplistic and naïve. That so-called Egyptian democracy never saw the light of day.

…Rectifying this problem demands, at the very least, a new, inclusive transition that could generate the type of politics capable of bridging part of the long-standing gap between people’s basic demands, and national political institutions. Certainly no alternative transitional framework can succeed in Egypt if it is managed by the partisan sensibilities of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, though it must not exclude them either. After all, if the current mobilization leads to an NDP-style marginalization of the Brotherhood, then what was the point of the January 25 Revolution? Whatever its mechanisms and details, any solution must begin by heeding to people’s demand for Morsi’s resignation.

In other words, the revolution will – or must – continue. And as events continue to lead on to events, perhaps la revolución continua is the precedent that must take precedent over the terrible precedent of that-which-is-occurring. If a genuinely accountable political system with a progressive and participatory institutional configuration is currently difficult even to conceive of, it will become no less difficult to imagine and implement in the absence of revolutionary will and pressing forward. This means not only prosecuting the people’s case against Morsy and the Brotherhood, but also against the Armed Forces, whatever the next days and weeks may bring. In the face of tremendous uncertainty, the revolution must continue for the realization of any accountability agenda, and for the fight to build a politics of “bread, freedom, and social justice” in Egypt.


*And this is without even the presence of a fully functioning legislature to lend to Egypt’s battling institutions the kind of dual legitimacy problem currently plaguing, say, the US system. On the other hand, if this did exist perhaps one might expect some of these other forms of legitimacy to lose their individual points of salience, and to converge in a more consolidated democratic institutional setting.

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Blood and vinegar: Practices of violence and Brazil’s protest movement

Notwithstanding my general sense of optimism about Brazil’s protest movement, disturbing incidents have occurred on the margins that raise questions about the role that violent practices play in actors’ responses to the uprising. It would seem that the citizen-centric governance toward which protesters, in the best of worlds, would move; yet at the same time, entrenched practices of “violent pluralism” will likely prove a formidable obstacle to democratic deepening.

This piece published by the New York Times yesterday gets at one piece of the violence puzzle nicely throughout. The author elaborates upon a theme of structural violence that underlies Brazil’s modernizing project, which he sees as driving a “delusional modernism,” intoxicating to the country’s wealthier denizens. He notes the burden placed upon many Brazilian citizens by the price of services inadequate to their needs, and notes ongoing inattentiveness to the needs of the country’s poorer urban residents:

The cost of public transportation for a family living in Rio or São Paulo is, proportionally, higher than in New York or Paris. Yet, the service delivered is humiliating. In 2009, security guards of a train company that services the Rio metropolitan area used whips on passengers during rush hour crowding. The mayor of Rio has proudly declared that during his tenure not a cent is being spent on subsidizing public transportation.

At the same time, he notes that repressive police actions against protests helped to catalyze resistance and bring more people into the streets. This only makes more striking, though, the clear implication that São Paulo’s initial police response was really business as usual. That is to say that from accounts of pervasive police brutality in the 1990s; to the insertion of “milicia” – death squads made up of off-duty security forces – into the violent political economies of some urban favelas; and on to Rio’s contested favela pacification programs in the present day, in which even proponents of the counterinsurgency-inspired approach to policing concede that more work must be done to avoid human rights abuses; it is clear that Brazil’s forces of law and order remain profoundly imbricated in violent practices. These relationships of violence and control, often mediated by the country’s notorious corruption, undergird a democratic status quo which perpetrates ongoing structural violence against Brazil’s urban poor. These multiple types of violence – interpersonal, structural, state-directed, and criminal – are bound together by complex networks of exchange.

This bloodshed on the margins of a movement in which Brazil’s mobilized citizens protest, in part, against the conditions that are part and parcel of what has been brilliantly characterized as a politics of “violent democracy,” illustrates the complexity of Brazil’s contemporary political context, and highlights where the limits of optimism may lie. Take, for example, the following incident, reported yesterday by the BBC:

At least nine people have died in gun battles with drug dealers in a favela (shanty town) in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, police say.

The clashes started on Monday evening after a demonstration in Bonsucesso, which reportedly ended in mass robberies near Rio’s main access road.

Hundreds of police and National Guard officers, with the support of a tank, are being deployed to secure the area.

Police say at least six of the victims were suspects and one was a policeman.

At least nine others were arrested during the operation in the Favela da Mare area, and a number of guns and drugs were confiscated, police say.

The violence broke out on Monday evening, after a peaceful demonstration ended in mass robberies.

Shops, passers-by and demonstrators were robbed by a group of criminals, police say.

We can draw at least a couple lessons from this incident:

  1. Even if police have curtailed violent tactics in response to political pressure from above, an unusual level of violence can still be expected to manifest itself in the usual places – that is, in exchanges of violence and/or authority between police and criminal groups, and unfortunately by extension against favela residents. The article quoted above notes that schools in Favela da Mar were closed as police moved to clear the area. This militarized response shows that while some of Brazil’s citizens are moving to throw off their fear of Brazil’s military police units, others are likely to continue to suffer a certain level of justified apprehension. While some practices may be changed by the ongoing display of people power in the streets of Brazilian cities, others may well not.
  2. Following on from this: at any time of political flux, existing criminal structures will react opportunistically to take advantage of heightened confusion for their own gain, and there is only so much that mobilized protesters can do to provide their own security, or to entirely take over the streets for their own peaceful ends. More traditional violent actors retain the power to disrupt progress toward these goals, and will continue to pose ongoing challenges toward democratic deepening in Brazil.

All this is to say that conditions and practices of violence are rarely far from political mobilization in Brazil. Violent practices stem from multiple sources, and can occur simultaneously. A key part of democratic deepening must be to dismantle the politics of violence represented by repressive organs of the state apparatus, organized illicit actors, and the many conjunctions and grey zones between them. These violent and shadowy practices may even be heightened during a period of contentious politics, which will only add to the difficulty of rolling back the routinization of violence. Nonetheless, this represents an aspect of Brazil’s ongoing struggle for political and human rights that ultimately cannot – or should not – be ignored.

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Brazil’s protests: (English) literature review

Brazil’s evolving protests and protest movement continue to be a topic of intense interest, and every day sees not just new developments – like presidente Dilma embracing the protest movement as an impetus to constitutional reforms – but new and interesting analyses and interpretations around the web. As such, I’ve been reading furiously just to keep up; presented below are some of the more thoughtful things I’m reading. I do not attempt to offer here not too many new perspectives, as these are proliferating swiftly from the pens of writers with a great deal more experience and proximity in this arena. Rather, this is a sort of literature review of recent analyses published around the web in English.

The catalyst for this piece comes out of Brazil, from Paulista writer Vanessa Barbara. The New York Times performed a nice public service by running a piece of hers on the editorial page on Saturday. The essay chronicles Barbara’s experience attending protests with the foot soldiers of the “vinegar rebellion,” many of whom are first-time protesters and young people. Many of the protests are sloppy; some of the slogans are deliberately surreal; and all this only makes the wide-ranging mobilization more beautiful to behold. Barbara makes a compelling case that a big part of these protests is simply the act of reclaiming democratic space in a country where public political expression has remained somewhat chilled since “re-democratization” in 1985. Protesters are laying claim to the right to assemble, and “the right to be ineffective and foolish,” and to “[learn] to protest.” That assertion of basic political rights is what makes the demonstrations so heartening, and at bottom a phenomenon of democratic deepening.

As one damn thing after the other keeps happening in Brazil, analysts continue to try to chart the possible directions and political ramifications of the protest movement. The eponymous Boz blogs insightfully on Dilma’s potential game-changer of a speech pledging to push for constitutional reforms and to push forward a progressive agenda that has been stymied at the state level and in the legislature. The key quote is here:

“…Rousseff now believes these protests are an opportunity to overhaul Brazil’s dysfunctional political system. The protesters have given her a potential mechanism to go around the broken Congress and opponents in state governments and try to work with the people directly. For a president who is as tired of corruption and political gridlock as many of the protesters, it’s at least worth the attempt.”

This connects to a key democratic deficit in Brazil – lack of representativeness and tinges of authoritarianism at the local level. Brazilian local politics is characterized to a great extent by patronage politics and clientelistic arrangements which have remained resilient despite reforms, sometimes with armed and illicit actors playing a role, and murky campaign finances. Vested interests run rampant over the accountability agenda that the protest movement demands. Dilma’s “political jujitsu” may offer a chance to dismantle authoritarian vestiges that have remained in place since the military dictatorship and long before.

At the same time, Rio Gringa has a great piece up charting the “hopes and fears” of Brazilians who are watching the protest movement, and invested in it. She finds fear that the protest movement will be appropriated by right-wing elements and by conservative opponents of the current government; to me this echoes what has occurred with anti-corruption protests in another BRIC country that I follow, India. Right-wing appropriation is surely a common threat in movements targeting progressive but hapless governments in this global protest era. Indeed, this is a risk with almost any nascent social movement – these are never monolithic, and the Brazilian version seems particularly diffuse. Indeed, the hopes that Rio Gringa points out are related to this heterogeneity and diversity within the movement, as progressive forces have pledged to mobilize and push back against rightist currents. If this continues, Brazil may indeed wind up with a progressive and politicized youth movement that “knows how to protest.” This would also surely strengthen Dilma’s hand in pushing forward a progressive agenda.

The great political science blog The Monkey Cage has put up a couple guest pieces on Brazil. One of them, from the redoubtable Brazil expert David Samuels, focuses on “a growing disconnect between taxation and representation.” It’s a solid piece, with Samuels concluding that the protests are essentially a middle class-drive tax revolt:

“As Brazilians move into or climb up the middle class, they inevitably pay more in taxes – yet they also inevitably grow increasingly aware that they do not get their money’s worth. One commonly hears Brazilians complain that they pay “1st world taxes” – about 36% of GDP – but receive “3rd world services” in return. The protests thus represent growing frustration that established political parties are unwilling to implement reforms on both sides of the fiscal coin – to improve public services (particularly healthcare, education, and public safety) and reduce corruption.”

This is great stuff, and it gets right to the heart of Brazilian grievances. Yet to my eye (and as I ended up arguing in the comments section of Samuels’ piece a couple days ago) it lacks the amplitude of analysis that a sharper focus on accountability might bring to the piece. Indeed, the very title – “Brazil is a Stable and Growing Democracy – And We’re Not Going to Take It Any More!!!” – threatens to obscure more than it illuminates via its characterization of a “stable and growing democracy.” This paradigm does not miss – Samuels is too fine a scholar for that surely – but at any rate overlooks the democratic deficits, and the gap between elections and accountability, that are an integral feature of Brazil’s low-intensity democracy.

Greg Michener at Observing Brazil, with Chris Gaffney, tries to add some of this depth by focusing more on the missing representation piece of Samuels’ argument:

“Samuels, however, paid little attention to the question of representation, a theme which is also central to our piece. In the article, we stress how parties lack national programs and apart from parties that represent specific interests, e.g. evangelicals, they simply lack ties to the electorate.”

Michener and Gaffney are fleshing out this argument further for Al Jazeera; I’ll add an addendum when they do, for documentation’s sake. But it’s worth noting already that the nonexistent linkages that they describe is a clearly deficient environment for democratic politics. As long as elections persist as profoundly imperfect arbiters of the national policy process, and as long as mechanisms for enforcing accountability post-election are scant, Brazilians will be driven to head into the streets to demand these missing components of the democratic lived experience. Any account of the protests has to take into account the inadequacies of mere electoralism and the disjunction between taxes paid in and services received.

As explanations and predictions swirl about, interpretavistic takes that attempt to diagnose Brazilian discontent with formal democracy by reference to other signs and symbols of national portent hold more than a little allure. Enter a stellar piece by political theorist Diego von Vacano, “Political Futebol: The World Cup and Brazilian Democracy,” also up at The Monkey Cage. Von Vacano argues that discontent with Brazilian democracy parallels a discontent with Brazilian soccer. He diagnoses a profound malaise in Brazilian soccer culture, the contrast implicit between wealthy stars sporting diamond studs and the “Brazilian futebol in the 1970s and 1980s: full of creativity, eccentric characters, and politically engaged soccer stars.” In this reading, growth and wealth cannot compensate for mediocrity in the symbolic sphere.

Von Vacano gets taken to task in the comments section for stretching his argument too far and presenting an explanatory variable that can’t possibly explain the protests, but he is not presenting a medical etiology or an account of causation. Rather, he presents an etiological myth, containing interpretive power without lines of causality. In this sense, his piece pivots with plenty of jogo bonito from the demise of democratic cacophony within the soccer world to the disenchantments of formal democracy without direct accountability or a sense of connection between political elites and semi-mobilized masses:

“The mismanagement of clubs by wealthy elites runs parallel to the way governments are often seen to be mismanaged by political elites. Formal democracy prevails in almost all Latin American states, but the mass-elite tension is as ardent as ever. Soccer is the mirror of Latin American nations: it reflects deep social currents, but can sometimes be the instrument to start fires like those in Brazil this past week.”

Like the protest movement itself, the appeal of the reams of writing on Brazil’s protests lies in its diversity. We can hope that this will continue, and that debate on these correlates of democracy will contribute to an enhanced understanding of citizen engagement and accountability – that is, the marrow of a robust, inclusive, and substantive practice of democratic politics.


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