Notebook, 17 February 2011: Authoritarian Regimes, Egypt and the Pentagon . . .

“Farmers in Meru had prospered from the production of coffee. With the proceeds they had earned, some had invested in cattle. many had financed the education of their children, some of whom attended elementary school in the village, others secondary school in town, and some universities abroad.

Many of these who secured an education then taken jobs in the cities, maintaining ties with their families at home, they funneled a portion of their earnings back to the farms and shops at Meru. Even during a drought in 1985—the year I worked in the district—Meru, its farmers, and its towns radiated a sheen of prosperity and well-being that reflected the successful response of its peasants to the opportunities presented by the export of coffee.

Departing the farms at the foot of Mount Kenya, I then journeyed farther inland and crossed into Bugisu, a coffee-producing region lying on the slopes of Mount Elgon in Uganda. There too farmers had invested in the production of coffee, and towns had sprung up to provide them the means to ship their crop, to collect payment, and to make purchases for their farms and families. But prosperity and tranquility, I soon learned, lay in Bugisu’s past; stagnation and fear characterized its present. Unlike the streets and towns of Meru, those in Bugisu were not crowded with farmers hurriedly making purchases or leisurely enjoying the pleasure of town; rather, they were occupied by soldiers, while farmers fearfully huddled on their homesteads in the forests. Youths did not stroll about in school uniforms, as they had in Meru, in Bugisu, they instead marched, lockstep, in military garb, lashed by the voices—and the belts—of their commanders. On the farms, the coffee bearing trees remained unpruned; diseases ran unchecked from plant to plant and farm to farm; stocks accumulated, for want of the ability of merchants to finance the purchase of the crop or its transport to the coast.

By venturing from the coast inland, I was therefore forcefully introduced to the link between prosperity and violence. In the central harbor, force was not absent; rather, it was structured and organized.”1

Author’s Note: This will be a long diary I’m afraid, the combination of at least two loosely related posts I had planned, but I find that in composing one of them, they weren’t as loosely bound as I thought. I fell into a trap aptly described by T.S. Eliot:

“. . . And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.”

As I watched, as engrossed as anyone, on the events in Egypt, I found my thoughts continually ebbing and flowing outward from Cairo to other parts of the world, and then contracting again as I felt compelled to bear witness to the protest in Tahrir Square. I’ve decided it’s better for me to give in than try and fight it.

So please forgive the length. I’ll try my best to make your time here easy and worthwhile.

Last November, The Economist Intelligence Unit published its Democracy Index for 2010 entitled, Democracy in Retreat (pdf). The short description is that the EIU uses five criteria to score the existence, degree and strength of democracies in 187 countries. Norway topped the 2010 report, while North Korea unsurprisingly rounded out the bottom. (Perhaps. Somalia wasn’t even included, as it goes through a turmoil which reminds me very much of what Beirut went through in the years from 1975 to 1990.) The criteria scored are:

  1. Electoral Process and Pluralism
  2. Functioning of Government
  3. Political Participation
  4. Political Culture
  5. Civil Liberties

The results place every national government into one of four types of regimes (bold mine):

  Number of Countried % of Countries % of World Population
Full democracies 26 15.6 12.3
Flawed democracies 53 31.7 37.2
Hybrid regimes 33 19.8 14.0
Authoritarian regimes 55 32.9 36.5

Which begins to illustrate the scope of the problem of political repression worldwide. Almost one third of all national governments and over one third of everyone alive today lives under a dictatorship of one kind or another. As the hallmark of developed nations is the peaceful turnover of power to your opponent, the hallmark of many authoritarian regimes in the world is the handing of power to a successor hand-picked by the ruling regime; especially a son. In Egypt, this would have been, Gamal Mubarak. Saudi Arabia has what seems to be a endless supply of princely relations to call on to lead the nation. Cuba, that socialist paradise, nonetheless put Fidel’s brother Raul into power when the hero of the revolution began to falter. China appears to be a special case, but I’d be amazed if I heard that the extended family members of the leadership weren’t being quietly taken care of. Certainly the Tan family represents the old way of business as usual. I can only imagine the family and social pressures applied on heads of households in these societies, where the successes and failures of one’s offspring must be a form of score-keeping among their peers.

Of course, the crown must set uneasily upon the heads of authoritarian rulers, as it easily identifies a single point-of-failure. Anastasio Somoza’s fall was a catastrophe for the coalition of power elites in Nicaragua, whereas in Egypt (and as is the case elsewhere) the coalition represented by the prestige, the implied force and the economic reach of top ranking military members of Egypt’s armed forces rallied to, among other things, ensure that their interests are protected. Mubarak and Suleiman are two of their own, after all, and I highly doubt any charges will be brought against them for crimes committed in the course of their official repression. Not successfully, anyway. Unless things change, Egypt still does not possess an independent judiciary, and I don’t believe the Egyptian SSI can be counted on to investigate itself.

Not that the West is immune to this sort of social dynamic. Our own variant, the “old-boy network,” still thrives, and has expanded to include allies from across both oceans. Not all these networks of alliances operate under the same rules, but the usually pursue a similar goal: maintaining existing relationships (mostly business related), maintaining the group, if not the individuals within, at the apex of the socio-political structure, and ensuring that family and close allies enjoy benefits only the group can confer. Hosni Mubarak left office voluntarily. Part of this calculation may have been that it was the best thing he could do to pass on his prestige and power to Gamal, and it is now the Military Supreme Council overseeing the transfer of power to nurture Gamal’s future, which I fully expect the Egyptian army brass to accomplish, the end result being that Gamal will retain a competitive advantage over his domestic peers.

The daily workings of this is described very well, even poignantly, in Wikileaks State Department cable number VZCZCXRO9862:

A Caucaus Wedding:

1. (C) Weddings are elaborate in Dagestan, the largest autonomy in the North Caucasus. On August 22 we attended a wedding in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital: Duma member and Dagestan Oil Company chief Gadzhi Makhachev’s son married a classmate. The lavish display and heavy drinking concealed the deadly serious North Caucasus politics of land, ethnicity, clan, and alliance. The guest list spanned the Caucasus power structure — guest starring Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov — and underlined just how personal the region’s politics can be. End Summary.


3. (C) On August 22, Gadzhi Makhachev married off his 19 year-old son Dalgat to Aida Sharipova. The wedding in Makhachkala, which we attended, was a microcosm of the social and political relations of the North Caucasus, beginning with Gadzhi’s own biography . . . As Russian power faded, each canton fielded a militia to defend its people both in the mountains and the capital Makhachkala. Gadzhi became the leader from his home canton of Burtunay, in Kazbek Rayon. He later asserted pan-Avar ambitions, founding the Imam Shamil Popular Front — named after the great Avar leader of mountaineer resistance to the Russians — to promote the interests of the Avars and of Burtunay’s role within the ethnic group. Among his exploits was a role in the military defense of Dagestan against the 1999 invasion from Chechnya by Shamil Basayev and al-Khattab, and his political defense of Avar villages under pressure in Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Gadzhi has cashed in the social capital he made from nationalism, translating it into financial and political capital — as head of Dagestan’s state oil company and as the single-mandate representative for Makhachkala in Russia’s State Duma. His dealings in the oil business — including close cooperation with U.S. firms — have left him well off enough to afford luxurious houses in Makhachkala, Kaspiysk, Moscow, Paris and San Diego; and a large collection of luxury automobiles, including the Rolls Royce Silver Phantom in which Dalgat fetched Aida from her parents’ reception. (Gadzhi gave us a lift in the Rolls once in Moscow, but the legroom was somewhat constricted by the presence of a Kalashnikov carbine at our feet. Gadzhi has survived numerous assassination attempts, as have most of the still-living leaders of Dagestan. In Dagestan he always travels in an armored BMW with one, sometimes two follow cars full of uniformed armed guards.)

Gadzhi has gone beyond his Avar base, pursuing a multi-ethnic cadre policy to develop a network of loyalists. He has sent Dagestani youths, including his sons, to a military type high school near San Diego (we met one graduate, a Jewish boy from Derbent now studying at San Diego state. He has no plans to enter the Russian military).


. . . visitors from all over the Caucasus during the afternoon of August 21. The Chair of Ingushetia’s parliament drove in with two colleagues; visitors from Moscow included politicians, businessmen and an Avar football coach. Many of the visitors grew up with Gadzhi in Khasavyurt, including an Ingush Olympic wrestler named Vakha who seemed to be perpetually tipsy. Another group of Gadzhi’s boyhood friends from Khasavyurt was led by a man who looked like Shamil Basayev on his day off — flip-flops, t-shirt, baseball cap, beard — but turned out to be the chief rabbi of Stavropol Kray. He told us he has 12,000 co-religionists in the province, 8,000 of them in its capital, Pyatigorsk. 70 percent are, like him, Persian-speaking Mountain Jews; the rest are a mixture of Europeans, Georgians and Bukharans.3

Please take the time to read the entire cable, it’s well worth it. Of course, the sting is in the end:

The “horizontal of power” represented by Gadzhi’s relationship with Ramzan is the antithesis of the Moscow-imposed “vertical of power.” Gadzhi’s business partner Khalik Gindiyev, head of Rosneft-Kaspoil, complained that Moscow should let local Caucasians rather than Russians — “Magomadovs and Aliyevs, not Ivanovs and Petrovs” — resolve the region’s conflicts. The vertical of power, he said, is inapplicable to the Caucasus, a region that Moscow bureaucrats such as PolPred Kozak would never understand. The Caucasus needs to be given the scope to resolve its own problems. But this was not a plug for democracy. Gadzhi told us democracy would always fail in the Caucasus, where the conception of the state is as an extension of the Caucasus family, in which the father’s word is law. “Where is the room for democracy in that?” he asked. We paraphrased Hayek: if you run a family as you do a state, you destroy the family. Running a state as you do a family destroys the state: ties of kinship and friendship will always trump the rule of law. Gadzhi’s partner agreed, shaking his head sadly. “That’s a matter for generations to come,” he said.4

Author’s Note: Kudos to the author of that note. It appears that this was partly the work of William Joseph Burns, U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, and as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs is now the ranking Foreign Service Officer in the United States. Likely it was only his imprimatur an a document written by one of his staffers, but they (he?) brings great credit to the State Department for efforts like this.

That same organization which, probably inaccurately, seeks to characterize these documents as “stolen.” The Secretary’s own word. My operating assumption is that they were “leaked” and that’s a whole other kettle of fish. (So get over it, Hillary. For a political appointee, you’re doing a very decent job in your post, so don’t ruin it by going all liberal hawkish. Paul Kennedy wasn’t even half-ways right.

This post is partly for you.)

S Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program describes the situations authoritarian rulers face when their power and status are not founded in laws upon which everyone is agreed upon, but in custom and informal alliances:

  • Clans, regional elites, and financial magnates are a formidable presence in the politics of all Central Asian countries. Working behind the scenes, they have placed leaders in power for over forty years and define the nature of politics today.
  • The fundamental political dynamic in each country is between the president and these power brokers, not between president and parliament, as is often assumed in the West. Any effort to advance democratic norms must be built on the recognition of this reality.
  • Because of their lack of resources and personnel and their dependence on largely invisible power brokers, “authoritarian” rulers view themselves as weak. The countries they rule are in fact not over-governed but “under-governed.”
  • The presidents’ desire to emancipate themselves from control by the power brokers who put them in office and thus strengthen their rule can lead them to look favorably on parliaments and parliamentary elections, albeit for their own purposes. This is true even though parliaments may ultimately challenge the rulers’ authority.
  • Day-to-day parliamentary practice helps create a political class and concept of citizenship that is independent both of the authoritarian rulers and of the clans, magnates, and regional power brokers who put the parliamentarians in office.2

Considering all this, the Egyptian ruling elite must be feeling especially vulnerable right now. Wondering if they are about to lose their official protection, and yes, that remains to be seen. Though the point-of-failure turns out not to be the office of head of state, relationships inside the ruling elite are not always to be trusted. Fealty can melt away when exposed to sunlight. This is a fundamental weakness which every one of those 55 countries the EIU labels “authoritarian” face. The other side of the coin in Egypt is that the protesters feel even more vulnerable, and it is without question that the official protections they can count on in a pinch are next to nil. If it is a truism that legitimacy rests on the consent of the governed, then long term, Egypt only has greater security to look forward to through re-establishing democratic processes. Perhaps Starr and the EIU recognize that the conflict between the hoi polloi and the aristos is a never ending process, an ever shifting balance taking place on many levels in every society. Starr’s aim is democracy building (which I have no problem with. democracy is a process by which something I do care about—self-determination—is most broadly and securely carried out), and the thrust of his idea in his paper is to work closely with parliamentarians overseas.

It sounds nice. Fact of the matter though, is that a hefty percentage of American diplomacy is carried out by the boots on the ground overseas. On a daily basis, US soldiers are meeting with, sharing tea with and holding conversations with foreign civilians in America’s interest. As has been noted elsewhere (practically everywhere in fact) this was the secret of the surge in Iraq. However, this kind of back and forth is just the tip of the iceberg of The Militarization of US Foreign Policy. Mind you, i’d be the first to admit that it can pay dividends, and by all accounts was part of the mix responsible for the relative peace of the Cairo protests. I’d be very surprised if the Pentagon wasn’t in fairly frequent contact with their counterparts in the Egyptian military these days.

In practice, the extent of training and advisory roles performed by US military personnel is widespread and is regularly budgeted. One could call this an form of public diplomacy, though Gates himself warns us about this. We can see his point. The military is not trained to carry out diplomacy on behalf of the US, nor should it ever be. The military’s mission is complex enough, demanding enough (never mind the resources. Screw the resources. It’s a life-and-death matter to those who practice it on our behalf) and is performed best when untainted by exterior considerations, like US diplomatic relations. Where I part company with Starr is with his emphasis on engaging would-be parliamentarians, not that I don’t recognize that this needs to be done too, but in authoritarian regimes, like Egypt’s and Pakistan’s, the army is about the only viable national institution available. Absent a military, we are left only with dealing with the heads of states whose positions may be shaky and with a raft of minor clan and/or ethnic leaders whose position in their own country may not be all that secure either:

“These family groups have long memories. The present president of the Kyrgyz Republic, Kurmanbek Bakiev, is described in the West as a “southerner.” Yet among the Kyrgyz it is know that back in the 1880s his tribe or clan broke ranks with the other southern tribes and cooperated with the hated Uzbeks of Kokand. Thus, some of his most bitter foes are fellow southerners.”5

Diplomacy is an art of the possible. A diplomat cannot openly cultivate contacts with a ruler’s opposition without weakening diplomatic relations, one cannot cultivate a relationship with these opponents who may not be around much longer just through the ordinary process of repression. and above all, a diplomat should not be the cause of the supreme leader’s ire falling on an authentic democratic ally. I’m rather an effete (well, wannabe effete) intellectual, and on one level, the narrative of the “A Caucasus Wedding” cable struck me as presenting a strong, rather noble and quaint society. This is an error. Gadzhi did not travel around with an armed uniform guard nor did he carry a Kalashnikov on the floor of the back seat in probably every car he rode in for nothing. In Moscow, no less. he learned to be armed and travel with an armed entourage through hard experience, and I’ve no doubt that in the world’s hinterlands this is more often the case than not.

So the intrusion of military personnel into diplomatic circles is likely unavoidable in certain situations, and a process likely to continue to grow rather than the obverse. At least while we have men and women under arms overseas. When General Karl Eikenberry took up the post of US Ambassador to Afghanistan (and what political appointee would’ve lobbied hard for that particular post) I wasn’t surprised, nor chagrinned. Military personnel may, in fact, be the best choice in many situations, especially where the national military of the host country may be about the only think holding the country together and (in both Egypt’s and Pakistan’s case) an important part of the host country’s economy.

I think, if our own interests are best pursued with the creation of more Merus and fewer Bugisus, then attitudes like Arif Rafiq’s:

are less than helpful. Our goals will not be achieved at gunpoint, as he seems to believe. The guns are there precisely to support those untentured PhD’s who at least have the wit about them to describe the world to Washington (which has its own baggage to deal with) out there as it really is.

So we can deal with it.

Thanks for reading.


1Bates, Robert H. Prosperity and Violence, the Political Economy of Development, First Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. pp 28-29.

2Starr, S. Frederick, Clans, Authoritarian Rulers and Parliaments in Central Asia (pdf), June 2006, from The Silk Road Studies Program. Retrieved: 16 February 2011.

3 Wikileaks cable VZCZCXRO9862, Embassy Moscow, 31 August 2006.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: of the thousands of entries I’ve read in the State Department cables, as well as the Afghanistan and Iraq War Logs, I’ve come to the conclusion that practically all the time, every person either employed or deployed in service overseas has done so admirably. I might not like what they’re there for. I might not like the cost. I grieve at the personal cost which they and their families too often bear. However I can in all honestly say that they have done so honorably and well. The “Caucasus Wedding” cable can be misleading.

For which many thanks.

4Starr, p 7.


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