10 July 2013

Shenanigans is probably not the right word but is so much fun to say

This past weekend, aided by at least two too many glasses of wine, I worked up the courage to ask some of the Egyptian peacekeepers about the coup (I have to admit a certain fondness for the Egyptian contingent. They are by and large a lovely group of officers – they speak amazing English, are much more respectful than either their Nepalese or Bangladeshi counterparts, and they love to dance). The shenanigans, I think I called them (it was the wine. And possibly the tequila. Let this be a lesson to you: never drink Congolese tequila with UN peacekeepers). The cartography officer I was speaking with has possibly spent more time out of Egypt at this point than in it, so one might be tempted to take his analysis with a grain of salt. Prior to Congo, he served in Chad, East Timor, Syria, and Sudan – twice. He laughed and shook his head at me. No, no, I was assured. This was a good thing! Most people in Egypt, they hate the Muslim Brotherhood. This was an expression of popular will, not a coup. A democra-coup, if you will. Instead of thinking he’d been away from Egypt for too long, I found myself wondering if the military sent out a memo.

Indeed, my friend was apparently toeing the authorized line that the action – which involved a suspension of the constitution, arrest and detention in military custody of a democratically elected president and his party members, and a media blackout – was not, in fact, a coup d’état. It might look like a duck and quack like a duck, but this was a golden goose borne upon the voices of the masses. Slate has a great run-down of the plethora of official rational for the overthrow. Aside from the ‘mandate’ of the people malarkey (apparently street protests are the standard recall mechanism in Egypt?), the coup’s engineers also claim that they were simply attempting to step in to avoid greater violence. So, really, it was a civil war-preempting coup! They should be up for a Nobel alongside Dennis Rodman. Even the reliably liberal (mostly) Mohamed ElBaradei is sticking to the talking points.

Certainly, Egyptians had a right to be angry with the late Morsi government, as compiled by the Morsi Meter - a candy-coloured catalogue of the regime’s failures during its first 100 days. The fledging president was failing on all conceivable fronts. Nearly half of Egyptians live in poverty and, with the country drowning in debt, Morsi failed to secure an IMF rescue loan. Meanwhile, the last two years have seen a dramatic increase in murders, theft, and sexual harassment even as secular and progressive Egyptians have been protesting since December that Morsi was steadily moving toward the creation of an Islamist state. Still and all, the man had taken power during a tremendously tumultuous time and had only been in office for 100 days.

And if was too early to gage how Morsi would have done, it is certainly too early to determine is a coup was the right way to go. And no matter how often the military – even my charming dance partner – says it was necessary, they’re lying like rugs. This latest shift just allows for an open acknowledgement of where power in Egypt has always rested. The military has arguably been the most powerful institution in the country since it first took power in 1952 (by coup, incidentally). The military developed a tumultuous relationship with the political leadership in intervening 60 years. Now, in no small part thanks to US military aid, it is the largest army in Africa and one of the largest in the world, and controls between 10 and 30 per cent of the national economy.

The current claims that the regime change was initiated in the interests of safeguarding the population ring a bit hollow in the face of the grisly shooting on Monday, which left some 51 dead and more than 300 wounded. Supporters of the ousted president claim that the army opened fire during morning prayers, while the military has countered that they were simply returning fire and defending the compound where Morsi is being held. Given that it was a Republican Guard compound, one would assume that they enjoyed firepower superiority over the attackers and cannot help but wonder if they don’t have any standing rules of engagement for dealing with their own citizens. Perhaps those were suspended along with the constitution. At any rate, the Muslim Brotherhood is apparently now urging a full-scale uprising in response to the coup as clashes between those pro- and anti- Morsi erupt across the country. Clearly, as a means of preventing more fighting, the coup was perhaps not the most well though-out plan.

Talk of regime change is also buzzing on lips here in Congo, if for wildly different reasons. The next round of presidential elections not even scheduled until 2016, and already President Laurent Kabila is looking to change the Constitution to allow him to run and, given the ballot box-stuffing and voter intimidation shenanigans (this term clearly encompasses a lot for me) that happened two years ago, win again. Altering the Constitution in the President’s favour wouldn’t be without precedent. In advance of the 2011 elections, Kabila changed electoral mechanism for the presidency to a single-round first-past-the-post model, replacing the two tiered, more French approach that they had used previously.

To give credit where it’s due, this model is certainly cheaper. In 2006, the elections cost roughly 500 million USD, over 90 per cent of which was kicked in from the international community. In 2011, the election was set to cost 700 million USD, of which the IC only agreed to donate less than half. The switch to the single round election was estimated to save the country approximately 350 million USD.

In practice, though, this sets up a wildly undemocratic election. Essentially the candidate with the most votes in the first round gets elected even if he only receives a very small majority vote. Imagine the American system, but without the primaries and literally dozens of parties; it becomes even more of a referendum on the incumbent that it already is and completely dispenses with the ability of the opposition to form an effective, issue-based coalition. Depending on the vote split among other candidates, Kabila could conceivably pull only the 15 per cent of the population from his home province of Katanga and still win. And it worked. Even without the ‘voting irregularities’, as election observers are wont to call ballot box stuffing and/or burning, Joseph Kabila won with less than half of the popular vote against an intensely divided field.

Now that method of elections tailored to his advantage, the President has seemingly turned his attention to term limits. As the constitution is written, this term is his last. But in Congo, that seems to be no matter. To alter constitution again requires only 60 per cent of the votes in parliament, and what Kabila’s party can’t rally, they can buy. Given the thing was only written in 2002, the Congolese constitution feels a bit like the Morsi regime – it might well be deeply flawed, but it also hasn’t had nearly enough time in place to be effective.

Not that any of this talk of Constitution reform is likely to matter all that much out here in the east (to give you some idea of the scope of this country, the distance from me to Kinshasa is roughly that of Barcelona to Bratislava. Or just shy of DC to Denver, for you in the States), except for the nearly inevitable riots that will accompany the elections. The potential for violence around the election is so much a foregone conclusion that the Congolese make acerbic jokes about it. In the run-up to the elections, they assure me, Kabila’s people will tell us that he alone can save us from the M23 (or ADF-Nalu or LRA or FRPR or Mai Mai, take your pick). There would be an insurgent at every door to steal our boys and rape our daughters, but for Kabila. In this way, he is much like your President Bush. But after he wins again, and the rebels to attack, he will say the UN should help us. And in six months, when the army has no food and so they attack, he will still say it is the fault of the UN. He does not save us from the bandits – he creates them to give to the UN.