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Looking for an Off-Ramp Before Egypt's Civil War

If we had a solid way to predict war, maybe they could be stopped before they even started. Academe is working on making its models better at the task.
A tank near the presidential palace in Egypt. (PHOTO: VOICE OF AMERICA)

A tank near the presidential palace in Egypt. (PHOTO: VOICE OF AMERICA)

What’s the recipe for a civil war? Political scientists have long considered the main ingredient to be a “weak state”—few resources, no democracy, little shared national history. Throw in difficult terrain, lots of people, maybe a couple of different ethnic or social groupings, and pretty soon you may cook up an active insurgency.

But for a civil war? The mystery ingredient, suggests American University’s Joseph K. Young, is repression.

In a recent paper in Political Research Quarterly, Young suggests that flailing, low-resource states that respond to dissent with truncheons are more likely to see a civil war than similarly placed nations that are less repressive. “Leaders with job insecurity,” he concludes, “use repression to stay in office in the short term while making civil war more likely in the long term.”

It’s not a game of solitaire—dissidents can opt to raise the violence quotient just as much as the state can, adding the viciousness to a vicious circle.

This isn’t exactly counter-intuitive, which Young freely admits. “While claiming that civil war is a function of state and dissident violence is not entirely novel,” he writes, “highlighting this point makes it clear why scholars of civil war need to consider the dynamics of repression and dissent.” More to the point, if this connection could be nailed down quantitatively perhaps it can be used predictively. Using existing models that try to predict civil wars using poverty and slow growth, Young shows how by including some additional variables for repression and dissident activity, the model proved better at “predicting” where recent civil wars have, and haven’t, broken out. (Since “repression” isn’t exactly numerical in nature, Young derives an index from U.S. State Department and Amnesty International reports; dissident activity is triangulated from the beloved Cross-National Time-Series Data Archive.)

“Similar week states such as Zambia and Malawi have extremely low GDP,” he writes, “but their governments have average repression levels in this sample that are much lower than those of states such as Iran, El Salvador, and Somalia.”

Of course, the real value will come in making useful forecasts that include a time element. If only there were some current examples to contemplate....

Starting in 1958, Syria and Egypt were linked in what was known as the United Arab Republic. The union highlighted the hopes for a pan-Arabic state and the difficulty of melding disparate partners; it ended with a Syrian coup in 1961, although the two countries, this time with Iraq, tried and failed again to unite in 1963. Now the two are linked in another political way, a full-blown civil war in Syria and spreading civil violence in Egypt. (Iraq, of course, has had its own civil war, but outside forces catalyzed that conflict. Young himself acknowledges his model inevitably simplifies the real-world processes that foster civil war, citing outside players and mountainous terrain as examples.)

Blogging at Political Violence @ A Glance, Young argues that Egypt is indeed on the road to a civil war—but there may be off-ramps (as others on the blog have hoped):

In Egypt, we have an insecure and tenuous leadership faced with a counter claim to state control. The current leadership has begun the process of civil war by killing Morsi supporters en masse. Research on social movements and violence suggests the state’s choices vis-à-vis dissidents can influence whether the opposition responds with violence. ...

Jay Ulfelder suggests that what is happening in Egypt is Mass Killing. But the next move by the Brotherhood and other disaffected Egyptians is important. If they choose nonviolence when confronted with repression, they may be more likely to win this struggle. If the opposition chooses violence over nonviolent resistance in the coming days and weeks, this process will continue ultimately leading to deaths beyond the threshold that most consider the onset of civil war.

Then the next question in inevitably, when does this madness end? Stanford’s James D. Fearon has written in the Journal of Peace Research:

Wars originating as coups or popular revolutions have tended to be short because this ‘technology’ for taking state power turns on the success or failure of a rapid tipping process—hoped-for defections within the security apparatus.

Score one for Egypt’s future. What about Syria?

Peripheral insurgencies, by contrast, succeed or fail either by military victory or by gaining a favorable negotiated settlement.

All of which again points out the benefits of predicting, and so preventing, civil wars.