Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, May 13, 2011

Egypt's Transition to Democracy: The Prognosis

My last post on Egypt listed and described the major political players. Here, in part II, I explore the probable relations among these actors, as well as the kind of politics that will likely emerge as a result of these interactions.
At least at this point, it seems safe to say that the Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), will be the main power brokers in the legislature. Compared to other groups in Egypt, the MB has strong advantages in political skill, savvy, and organizational infrastructure. Right now, it is the faction best positioned to attract and mobilize its supporters at election time.  There is a temptation to automatically assume MB members in the legislature will join together with the Salafis to produce an Islamic bloc. But I suspect the MB—after waiting so long to play a meaningful role in Egyptian politics—will make decisions that are more grounded in pragmatism than in some sort of religious unity, which leaves the prospect of such a bloc questionable at best. It is very possible that the MB will find other partners that offer greater political benefits to a coalition. And besides, keep in mind, because of religious differences, there are many members of the MB who hold unfavorable views of the Salafis.
Where does the military fit? Let us assume that Egypt continues in a democratic direction. In this case, consistent with new democratic rules and laws, the military will have to cede formal political power to elected bodies (president, legislature). That said, at a minimum, the military will still wield informal political power, likely by overseeing government functions and processes behind the scenes. It has way too many political and commercial interests to back out of politics completely. Additionally, I do not doubt that there is some mixture of tradition and entitlement involved as well. After all, although the military has not formally been in power for decades, military men have been in charge and they have made sure that the military as an institution reaped all kinds of perks. And over time, from one president to the next, the military has only expanded its tentacles into more parts of the state apparatus. Thus, the military likely expects to be heavily involved in the state, and will seek to do so, if for no other reason than that is how business has been conducted for the past 60 years.  
The MB clearly recognizes the looming presence of the military. For instance, over the last few months, MB members have slavishly supported almost every move by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). There has been speculation that the MB and military have formed a tacit, if not explicit, agreement to forge a political alliance, though both sides have dismissed such talk. What we do know is that the MB will need the military much more than the military will need the MB. The MB knows full well that it will need the approval and backing of the military to be successful. Arguably, without the support of the military, even if it won free and fair national elections, the MB would be seen as illegitimate and unfit to govern. The military, by contrast, as a powerful and immensely popular institution, can, and will if necessary, protect its interests on its own.
Lastly, please note that there are many details on Egypt’s new democratic politics that need to be figured out. Most importantly, we still do not know if Egypt will opt for a presidential or parliamentary system. Some have argued in favor of a presidential system, at least for the next several years, to ensure there is a strong actor guiding Egypt’s transition. Others, however, fear that a presidential system, with considerable power vested in the executive branch, will inevitably lead back autocratic rule. The MB, on the other hand, knowing that it is in a good position to dominate the legislature, supports a parliamentary system.
Future Politics
Overall, I am optimistic about politics in Egypt. Why? The presence and role of dual forces—the military and the revolutionaries—will keep the extremists in check and help to steer the transition in the right direction. First, I believe the military can be a very productive player in Egyptian politics. Certainly, there are reasons to doubt the military. It had a checkered role in the revolution. Last month it employed rough and tough tactics against demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Moreover, many Egyptians have complained that the military failed to stop the recent violence and bloodshed between Muslims and Christians. And given its commercial interests and the other benefits it received from the old regime, we have to question if it really does support substantive political reform.
But to fully understand the military and its role in Egypt moving forward, we have to move away from the small details of specific events and get into the big picture analysis of how it operates. That is, we must figure out its motives. This is how we will best get a feel for how the military will act and behave in the future. In short, the military is a self-interested actor. This sounds damning, but it is not. By pursuing its own desired interests, the military will act in way that is mostly good for Egypt. Let us look at two factors that underpin this logic.
Two, the military values its image and standing among Egyptians. The military is very mindful of how it and its actions are perceived. Despite some disconcerting actions taken by the military over the last few months, there is no evidence that any of that was instigated by senior military officials. And immediately after each incident, the military has profusely apologized and announced investigations to figure out what precisely happened. These are good steps, as is the military’s push for unity during these uncertain and turbulent times. In general, the military sees itself, and in turn is widely seen as, the vanguard of the nation, the main defender against internal and external threats. This is a role the military relishes, as it gives it legitimacy and political power, putting it at the apex of the Egyptian state. The military is not inclined to jeopardize such an exalted position. With this in mind, going forward, we will likely see the military supporting most of the public’s preferred policies and political goals and objectives.
The other actor that triggers my optimism, of course, is the bloc of pro-democracy reformers, demonstrators, and revolutionaries. This group consists of educated, informed, and politically moderate Egyptian citizens. They are activated, energized, and highly motivated. After the ouster of Mubarak, the revolutionaries have kept the pressure on authorities; they have not rested on their laurels. They have continued to hold protests, convened meetings and conferences, and begun to outline plans for Egypt’s political future. This is the kind of revolutionary spirit that will be necessary to check unbalanced power in the government, hold officials accountable, and stymie the rise of radical and fringe elements in Egyptian society. Yes, they will need to overcome the obstacles inherent in organizing new political groups and parties. But already, leaders have started to emerge, people are starting to coalesce around democratic ideas and institutions, and the stirring of progress is underway.
Things to Keep an Eye On
1.  The Military: There are a number of worst-case scenarios we can hypothesize about. Just offhand I can think of two situations—the rise of extremists to power, and empowered groups that infringe on the military’s interests–that could provoke a nasty, perhaps brutal, response from the military. A full description and explanation of both situations in beyond the scope of this blog post. It is sufficient to say both are possible. But for now, my main concern is that the military will try to take advantage of its position in Egypt by bending various rules and institutions to serve its interests. In particular, such actions could lead to rampant corruption, a rise in income inequality, an erosion of transparency, and ineffective and weak institutions, among other things. And if enough damage is done to the political system, even if done unintentionally, the country’s transition to democracy could be stillborn, leaving Egypt to linger in a proto-democratic state for years.
2. As stated in part I, it will be important to note salient trends in public opinion, especially views on political parties, candidates, and ideas. Simply put, the people matter again in Egyptian politics, and we have to take into consideration what they think and believe. It seems obvious that Egyptians would want a seamless move toward political and economic reform, but real world events and crises can shift their attitudes. For example, if the security vacuum continues in various Egyptian cities and towns, leaving crime and violence at unacceptable levels, will Egyptians still support democratic reform? Or will they go the way of Russia in the 1990s? Remember, Russians saw a clear distinction between law and order on one hand and democracy and liberalization on the other, and eventually sided with more security and less freedom.
3. How will the NNP do at the ballot box? It could exceed expectations by doing well in rural areas, which is where the old NDP strongholds are and where Mubarak is still held in high regard.
4. Sectarian feuds and violence: The recent violent street battles between Muslims and Christians has caused quite a bit of concern and alarm, rightfully so, and led Egyptians to search for reasons for these occurrences. Sectarian hatreds have been ruled out. Instead, most point to simple thugs and religious fanatics or counterrevolutionaries as the main culprits. The first group needs little explanation. Regarding the counterrevolutionaries, they are seen as agitators who are aiming to stir up enough chaos and instability to trigger a backlash against the reform movement in general and the revolutionaries in particular who created the current conditions in Egypt.
If we take a step back, we realize these events are not surprising. Egypt is now a democratizing country that just overthrew the old order. This means a host of rules, norms, and institutions are new and weak or yet to be established. It literally is a period of transition for all parts of the state, with many state institutions, including the security apparatus, not functioning optimally nor working in an efficiently coordinated manner with other parts of the state. As a result, it is the perfect environment for criminals, gangs, and hoodlums to wreak havoc. It is also ripe times for demagogic political or religious leaders to sew trouble. Furthermore, we should expect power-hungry members from the old guard to attempt to claw their way back into leadership positions, using whatever means necessary.
Undoubtedly, there will be hiccups along Egypt’s path to democracy. The key is to detect problems immediately and deal with them directly before they spiral out of control. I think that is what is happening now.  There have been widespread calls for unity and an end to sectarian strife. Many Muslims have publicly defended Christians. There is now an ongoing and much-needed debate on minority rights and religious equality. The military has claimed it will quickly handle sectarian violence. All of this is a good sign of a country coalescing rather than breaking apart.
5. After years of repression and abuse of power, it is understandable that Egyptians want Mubarak, his sons and wife, and many of his cronies to be punished for their crimes. They ought to be held accountable for their actions. It is part of what it means to be a law-based society. Additionally, such moves represent a symbolic dismantling of the old corrupt and ruthless authoritarian regime. Yet the revolutionaries, governing elites, and the military should resist the urge to exact revenge against the old guard, especially former NDP officials. Witch-hunts will do nothing but cause unnecessary internal divisions, bad blood, and other negative consequences. As a cautionary note, just think back to the decisions made by Iraq's leaders after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Sunni Ba'athist party was disbanded and its officials were purged from Iraqi politics. Meantime, ordinary Sunni Iraqi citizens were effectively publicly demonized and pushed to the margins of society. The result? Sunni Iraqis felt politically targeted and physically threatened, which only radicalized them: some formed ties with al-Qaeda and took up arms against the Iraqi state. As we can see, the stakes on this issue are high. Let us see how Egypt's leaders proceed.

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