The Path to Democracy in Egypt

Scenes from the political battles, social dilemmas, and struggles for a democratic future

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Cairo is full of a hundred metaphors for the incoherence, fragmentation, and spirited improvisation that animate Egypt's unfolding transition. My favorite was the traffic cram that erupted at a major intersection near Cairo University. The problem was not the number of vehicles, but the absence of traffic police. Seemingly resigned to the possibility that we would never cross, my taxi driver looked overwhelmed. There was no miraculous parting of this sea of cars. Instead, he and his vehicular compatriots used shrieking horns, occasional rebukes, and momentary four-wheel brinkmanship to, finally, make it through.

Much like the frustrated drivers at that intersection, Egypt's citizens -- and those political leaders who speak in their name -- seem unwilling to let the present incoherence defeat their unfolding revolution. If anything, it is the very absence of a full fully fixed system that provides some basis of hope. Egypt's march will encounter strikes and confrontations like Friday's battles in Tahrir Square between protesters and security forces. Whatever the aspiration of old regime elements to revive or recast their order, it seems more likely outcome that we will see a fitful lurching forward that will lead Egypt, though it may take ten or more years, well beyond the "liberalized autocracy" that defined its politics from 1974 to February 2011.

It should be no surprise that many of the emerging players see the incoherence as merely a camouflage for a conspiracy of control and collusion. This is the perception of the young, mostly secular social activists who led the Tahrir protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak. They express little doubt that that the military is seeking to reinvent its power by aligning with the Muslim Brethren and the remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party. Such a pincer maneuver would leave the liberals with little choice but to rely on the military for protection in a manner that might resemble Turkey's illiberal democracy of the eighties and nineties. Egypt, they fear, is going back to someone else's future.

The Democracy ReportIslamists also worry that they might be mere pawns in a military plan to "rule without governing," as scholar Steven A. Cook once put it. Veteran Muslim Brethren remember the fateful year of 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers, after their coup, liberalized the political arena only to repress all dissent once they had identified their enemies. Thus, behind the veneer of cordial relations that has thus far marked their relations with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), some Islamist leaders wonder if the military's icy embrace is but a prelude to a strong fist.

It's not a coincidence that Islamists and secularists share similar fears. The military, lacking any experience in open political management, has behaved erratically. Plunged into a novel political arena, the 20 generals who constitute the SCAF have been improvising ever since. But because their decisions will surely shape the political arena in ways that will benefit some more than others, it follows that all forces -- particularly those least likely to benefit in the first years of the transition -- conflate consequence with intention.

The military has two goals in domestic politics. First, to sustain its substantial corporate interests, not only as a military institution but also as an economic actor that has sunk deep roots in the private and public sectors. Second, to protect Egypt's political and business elites. For this purposes, the military is ready, and even keen, to put on trial the former president, his sons, and several prominent cronies. But such sacrificial lambs -- whose rapid trials could undermine a judiciary struggling to demonstrate independence -- only underscores the military's desire to have it both ways: to respond to popular demands while at the same time managing a transition that leaves much of the socio-political elite intact.

This cake-and-eat-it too strategy seems thus far to have proven successful, despite - or perhaps because -- of the military's penchant for tactical improvisation. Time and time again it has proposed laws -- such as a ban on strikes or protests -- only to retreat when thousands remobilized in Tahrir Square. But, despite these day-to-day maneuvers, the military is still working to sequence political and constitutional reforms in a manner consistent with its conservative vision of change.

It's not easy to roll back autocratic governance. The procedure is arduous. It requires forming a new political body to administer the necessary steps: the creation of a constituent assembly, the election of a president, the drafting of a new constitution, and finally the holding of new parliamentary elections. This sequencing is vital. Any other approach would make the process dependent on the old, rotten order, thus complicating and possibly even rolling back the democratization process. Of course, some regime forces (not least of which is the military) may have to be partly accommodated. They are powerful enough that a degree of their consent is needed to move forward, whether we like it or not.

Unsurprisingly, Egypt's military rejected this approach. Rather than convene any kind of inclusive forum that remotely resembles, for example, the Polish round-table negotiations of the late eighties, beginning in late February the SCAF choreographed a "dialogue" by selectively meeting with different political and social leaders. Echoing the 1970s tactics of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the officers gave the appearance of open-mindedly consulting with popular forces but nothing suggests they feel bound by their wishes. The SCAF's goal appears to be holding elections as quickly as possible, then having the new Parliament elect a 100-person council to focus on the constitution. This approach would not only facilitate the military's exit from the excruciating tasks of daily political management, it would also make the SCAF the champion of a "democratic" process that would nevertheless favor the most well organized political forces, namely the urban-based Muslim Brethren and the rural-based elites. Because both groups have effectively used patronage machines in previous elections to mobilize the vote, the military's is working to shape a political arena that gives each of these existing forces a share of electoral power.

Liberal professionals and student leaders, as well as social activists hailing from Egypt's small but energetic leftist and labor groups, have rejected the military's plan. They have also received support from potential presidential candidate Mohammed ElBaradei, and from veteran political activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. The campaign to prevent the "hijacking of the revolution," as Saad Eddin puts it, has sympathetic followers among some American academics and columnists, who fear that the intended or unintended consequence of the SCAF's actions will be to produce an Islamist regime and/or a polarized arena that will only invite the return of military rule.

Egyptian opponents of the military's transition plans -- the "Constitution First Camp" (CFC), as they call themselves -- face a tough, maybe impossible, challenge. They lost their first battle on March 19, when 77 percent of voters endorsed a referendum for a short list of constitutional amendments. Most of the proposed amendments related to the powers of the president, but articles 76 and 189 require that the constitutional assembly will elected by the new parliament. While the changes -- which included a crucial two-term limit for the president -- were widely praised, youth leaders worry that the proposed sequencing will make conservative forces, which are better organized and thus likely to do well in the looming parliamentary elections, the lead arbiters of the new constitution. The failed campaign to vote "no" on the referendum demonstrated the outer social and geographic boundaries of the Tahrir protest movement's influence, as well as the irresistible pull of identity politics in a society where the crucial issue of mosque-state relations had never been addressed through democratic procedures. Seizing on the fears of ordinary Egyptians, some Islamist forces -- particularly the increasingly aggressive Salafi groups -- portrayed the "no" vote as anti-Islamic. Abetted by thousands of expensive placards that materialized in Egypt promoting a "yes" vote, this widespread campaign fed suspicions that the SCAF, or its allies in the business community, were working to make the referendum's approval more likely.

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Daniel Brumberg is a special adviser for the U.S. Institute of Peace's Muslim World Initiative, where he focuses on democratization and political reform in the Middle East and wider Islamic world.

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