Egypt, Afghanistan and Failed States

American policy planners for Afghanistan would do well to take note of developments in Egypt, where last week the army deployed in Cairo to fill the vacuum created by the disappearance of the hated police. To my mind, there’s a clear parallel with Afghanistan, where the notoriously corrupt police are likewise hated, while the army enjoys a similar — if not as historically established — reputation as the Egyptian military. But the difficulty in Egypt in finding an acceptable transition scenario to the current unrest suggests the limitations of a society in which the military is the only credible institution of governance. I understand the need to address Afghanistan’s security situation and to pass on military operations to Afghan security forces in order to facilitate a Western withdrawal. But the proposed endgame there, whereby the state is essentially dependent on a massively disproportionate security apparatus dominated by the army, is by definition unstable. The events in Egypt and Tunisia also suggest that we need to revise our definition of failed states. Regimes like those of (future former?) President Hosni Mubarak and former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali are supposed to serve as bulwarks against the kind of instability that is associated with that term. The events of the last month make clear that they actually represent the illusion of stability, what I called last week ” a thin crust of dry earth slapped down over a flowing current of molten lava.” In other words, they’re failed states on the installment plan, with the repression making the degree to which they have failed harder to determine. The major disadvantage democracies face in both domestic and foreign affairs is the regularly occurring policy disruptions that result from elections. But the handicap of regular disruptions is made up for by the fact that they are usually carried out in an orderly fashion. It’s also the case that radical changes — in foreign policy, especially — are less common in democracies, as interests remain relatively constant. Authoritarian states manage to maintain policy stability for longer periods of time. But when change does finally come, the fallout is generated by the rotating blades of a fan, making it much harder to predict and contain, and far more unpleasant to clean up after. As much as any of the other regional tyrants, I’m sure that Beijing is keeping a very close eye on what this kind of collective refusal to take it anymore looks like. Finally, before we in the democratic West and elsewhere assume too self-congratulatory a posture, it bears noting that the same sentiments that brought down Ben Ali and risk bringing down Mubarak have been on display in the streets of Greece. They also, in the form of the Tea Party movement, have already helped bring down the Democratic majority in the U.S. Congress, and more recently contributed to the fall of the Irish government. There is no parallel between Western democracies and Arab dictatorships in terms of the civil liberties we associate with free societies. That makes the parallels between the political and economic grievances currently on display — and the sentiment that no government, whether democratically legitimate or not, is really going to change anything — all the more troubling. Ben Ali was not the first casualty of the global downturn, just the first non-democratic casualty. And given that very little has really been done to address the fundamental causes of the popular discontent that is now being expressed in the Arab world but is present far more pervasively worldwide, he is not likely to be the last.

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Egypt, Afghanistan and Failed States

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