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The Fourth Wave? Democracy in Egypt

Commentary, 14 February 2011
Global Security Issues, Middle East and North Africa
Egypt is guaranteed neither a democratic nor a stable future, but the status quo had already failed in these respects. The transitional authorities need to sustain the democratic pressure of the uprising in order to meet the challenges ahead.

Cairo Prayer

For weeks, the eyes of the world have been on Egypt's nearly aborted revolution. After eighteen days, the crowds in Tahrir Square finally secured their prize, the head and dignity of Hosni Mubarak who, instead of staging his own slow-motion stride off the stage, was bundled on a plane to Sharm el-Sheikh. Yet amidst the uprising's euphoria, there are already concerns about the fissiparous forces swirling under its surface. Throughout history, insurrections against states have consistently produced mass violence, been captured by extremist movements with aims and means antithetical to the revolution's animating spirit, and struggled to establish stable liberal democratic orders.

Tunisia's revolution was shocking and thrilling, because it tore open new possibilities in the part of the world that democracy forgot. As Latin America, East Asia, and Africa fell to the forces of multiparty democracy, pessimists spoke of 'the Arab exception'. But Egypt is democracy's real prize - cradle of the Arab world, progenitor of the twentieth century's main currents of Arab nationalism, and ruled almost continually under Emergency Law since the crushing defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, a law that the new vice president and Mubarak's likely successor, Omar Suleiman, has defended.

Problems Ahead

Three questions are paramount:

  • What of the immediate transition?
  • Could the insertion of the Muslim Brotherhood into channels of power from which it has been excluded for six decades portend disaster?
  • Perhaps most importantly: once the dust has settled, what are the prospects for long-term democracy?

Can the military pass control to Omar Suleiman, the vice president? Suleiman, a former head of military intelligence who was dubbed Mubarak's 'consigliere' by US diplomats, could hardly be less suited to overseeing transition. His appointment was calibrated to lock in military support, not that of citizens. When he ran Egypt's intelligence machinery, he was a hawkish supporter of the repression and electoral exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood. As Egypt's most powerful and popular opposition movement, its marginalisation in any transitory arrangements would shatter the legitimacy of the process and amplify popular anger.

A string of key secular figures will have to be pulled into a transitional process. These range from Amr Moussa, a highly popular former foreign minister and leader of the Arab League; Mohammed Elbaradei, an inoffensive but uncharismatic and weak former head of the International Atomic Energy Association; and Ayman Nour, a leading opposition politician.

Rise of the Brotherhood

Most dangerous of all has been the hyperbole and rank ignorance characterising Western discussion of the illiberal but peaceful Muslim Brotherhood. One of its leaders, Mohamed Beltagui, categorically insisted that it would not run a candidate in any election that took place to replace Mubarak. He also made clear his preference for a 'civil state' rather than the Velayat-e-faqih, or rule by clerics, implemented in Iran.

Besides, the group is Sunni - and therefore lacks the clerical tradition of Shia Iran. When Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei laughably suggested that Egypt's rebellion was an 'Islamic awakening', the Brotherhood shot back that it 'regards the revolution as the Egyptian People's Revolution, not an Islamic Revolution', and that it included 'Muslims, Christians, from all sects and political'.

It is true that the Brotherhood spawned Hamas, but its mainstream has repeatedly renounced violence and is loathed by jihadi groups. Moreover, it is a broad coalition that would fracture under the glare of electoral competition. It would likely seek illiberal legislation, but it is nothing short of absurd to invoke this concern for liberty after three decades of praetorian dictators, and during a prevailing state of emergency that the regime refuses to lift. The Brotherhood's website actually acknowledges that 'most Egyptians say they favour nothing more than an advisory role for religious leaders in the crafting of legislation', implying 'democracy informed by sacred values, not theocracy with a democratic veneer'.

Of most concern is their attitude to the cold peace prevailing with Israel. Here, it is imperative to recall that Elbaradei, seen as the archetypal secular liberal, has noted that the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza is 'a brand of shame on the forehead of every Arab, every Egyptian and every human being'. This is comfortably in tune with Egyptian public opinion. Any democratic government will turn away from Israel, but why should this not resemble Turkey's moderate distancing rather than anything more extreme?

Most important of all is that the revolution against Mubarak was initiated and led not by the Brotherhood, but by a coalition of secular youth. The Brotherhood's solid base of support is partly the result of decades of tyranny, and a recent scholarly survey found that only a third of Egyptians thought that their Muslim identity was paramount. [1]

In any representative and legitimate transitional government, even a full-strength Brotherhood would be balanced by countervailing forces whose meaningful existence, let alone strength, could hardly have been envisioned a month ago. The Brotherhood's willingness to slot into such arrangements was evidenced not only by their acceptance of Elbaradei as an opposition leader: as early as 1984, they allied with the liberal Wafd party in elections. And the leadership of secular and liberal voices in the protests will give these latter groups credibility and respect in the post-Mubarak haggling.

No one need endorse or embrace the Brotherhood, but nor can the positions of one organised political grouping be allowed to function as a veto on Egypt attaining a government of consent. The alternative is to argue for perpetual dictatorship, a stance which should be viewed with contempt and alarm. The myth of dictatorial stability should long ago have been exploded in a country which for decades was mired in war on multiple fronts and drove citizens into the arms of Islamist groups by its repression.

The future of Egyptian democracy

What are the long-term prospects for Egypt? In 2005, Lebanon's cedar revolution prompted euphoria, but by 2011 the militant Shia group Hezbollah had climbed its way back to power. Democratic consolidation in Egypt will depend on a few factors.

  • Will the transition see the rump regime, now shorn of Mubarak, absorb, split and degrade the capacities of the opposition? If Suleiman insists on leading a transition, the state's security apparatus is likely to spend the next nine months undermining the prospect of free and fair elections. This would prompt extra-parliamentary action and the sapping of faith in elections as a viable tool of peaceful change. This is why it is imperative that the international community backs regime change now, rather than accept the desultory concessions offered by Mubarak and his coterie. If Washington is unwilling to do this, enlightened European governments must break ranks.
  • Will the army ensure that efforts at violent subversion by losers in the regime are blocked, or will it stand aside in the name of a false 'neutralism' as it briefly did on 3 February ?
  • A precipitate rise in world food prices or a fall in Egyptian energy exports would limit subsidies and worsen an already high debt burden. This would intensify popular pressure on a rapidly reforming state, at the same time as making it very difficult to buy off dissent as regimes are presently doing across the region.
  • Will a country in which democracy has been systematically contained hone the skills of peaceful political contestation, without aggrieved parties resorting to direct action and extreme rhetoric? Egypt's parliament is not a hollow shell; elections and opposition parties have long been a feature of Mubarak's Egypt, much more so than in Tunisia or Syria. But without top-down management, government may be much more volatile - and therefore precarious - than before.

In Egypt, though a counter-revolution is ascendant, what has changed is not just the constellation of political forces but the realm of the possible. Egypt is guaranteed neither a democratic nor a stable future, but the status quo has failed to deliver either. If Egypt's embryonic uprising can be sustained into the medium-term and the transitional authorities kept under democratic pressure, then the medium-term challenges are perfectly manageable. Successfully navigating these would herald the greatest advances for democracy in decades.

Notes

[1] Erik C. Nisbet and Teresa A. Myers, Challenging the State: Transnational TV and Political Identity in the Middle East, Political Communication, Vol. 27, 2010, pp347-366

Photo: Floris Van Cauwelaert

Author

Shashank Joshi
Senior Research Fellow

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI. He specialises in international security in South Asia and the Middle East, with a... read more

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