The Path to Democracy in Egypt

Two weeks after the referendum, the CFC suffered a second blow when the military set out a package of 60-plus new and old constitutional provisions, dispensing with any pretense of consulting with civil society leaders. Liberal and leftist forces argued that the SCAF was effectively trying to resuscitate its own version of the 1971 constitution, rendering null and void the legality of the March 19 referendum. In April, the CFS once again mobilized its forces in Tahrir. In May, it appealed to the acting cabinet, whose acting Prime Minister Essam Sharaf seemed open to the idea of convening a constitutional reform body before the elections scheduled for September or October 2011.

The CFC, if successful, might well find itself snatching a huge defeat from the jaws of what might otherwise have been a much smaller setback. Whatever their legal justifications, the CFC's efforts will provoke a sharp response from the Muslim Brotherhood at the very moment that it is facing internal strife within its leadership and among its young followers. The Muslim Brotherhood Youth have repeatedly defied their elders' explicit orders, first by joining the Tahrir demonstrations on January 25, then by holding a public meeting despite Brotherhood efforts to prevent it; and more recently, by supporting the right of prominent Muslim Brotherhood member Abel Monem Fattouh to run for the presidency, despite the group's pledge that it would not field a candidate. Ejected from its Guidance Bureau for such sins as advocating a more pluralistic social and political order, Abel Monem has explicitly positioned himself as a voice of national reconciliation that can bridge the Islamist and secular camps. Though his prospects were never overwhelming, the Constitution First Campaign could widen the ideological divide in ways that would render his message all but mute. Indeed, if identity politics again sets the terms of the national debate, the Muslim Brethren will exploit the opportunity to discredit its detractors and push -- as it always has -- for "Islamic Unity."

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Mohammed ElBaradei / Reuters

When I interviewed Abdel Monem, he argued that it was only after the parliamentary elections that secular or "civil" forces would have the incentive -- and time -- to organize political parties with the organizational and ideological cohesion required for competing with the Brotherhood. This process, he suggested, would take a good four years, and would only show its true value in the wake of a second round of parliamentary elections.

Although the Brotherhood could win as much as 40 percent of the seats, polls show at least 40 percent of Egyptians uncommitted to any party or trend. The growing effort to lobby the SCAF for an electoral law that provides for a substantial measure of proportionally elected seats also suggested the Brotherhood may have its own challenges ahead. Even if a shift in this direction helps non-Islamist candidates win only 10 or 15 percent of the seats, this outcome could give non-Islamists a real voice in the formation of the hundred-person constitutional council.

It is in the formation and work of this council that Egypt's future will be quite literally written. It's true that Egypt's future would likely have been better served if Egypt emulated Tunisia, which will elect an assembly to revamp its entire constitutional and political apparatus before it holds parliamentary elections. But Egypt has something that Tunisia does not: a litter of new and old political and social forces; a political arena ripe for competition, manipulation and intrigue. The result is a national political traffic jam that is both frustrating and strangely exhilarating.

Of course, the metaphor of a spontaneous traffic jam that arises out of some kind of primordial chaos is misleading. The paucity of police in the streets of Cairo and other cities is in part a political act, meant to remind ordinary Egyptians of the high costs they are paying for the revolution. The "security problem" is in keeping with the military's strategy to reinvent -- in a more democratic form -- some of the protection racket politics that the previous regime had used to secure tacit support from vulnerable groups such as the Coptic minority, secular Sunni professionals, and/or from the corporatized labor movement.

But Egyptians and Egyptian groups are less organized than they might seem. There remains, for example, a basic divide between those citizens who believe that the state should play a major role in advancing Islamic values versus those who believe that defending faith requiring keep the state a safe distance from religion.

The Brotherhood's attitude toward non-Islamists remains ambiguous. Veteran Brotherhood leaders such as Essam al Arian insist that the new democratic politics should guarantee a place for all forces. But Arian is also quick to dismiss the relevance of liberal activists to Egypt's future. The Brotherhood's lack of tolerance for dissent within the ranks and its enduring obsession with unity and discipline scares secularly oriented activists, not only because it might suggest the Brotherhood's long-term plan, but also because liberal activists are especially good at maintaining disunity and institutional fragmentation.

Many youths in the April 6 Movement and similar groups are loathe to renounce the "purity" of mass social activism in favor of the "corruption" of everyday politics. But unless they get their hands dirty with the business of politics, they will find themselves sidelined. While their frustration with the Brethren's extraordinary capacity to blend extreme political opportunism with religious appeals is understandable, it provides no substitute for, or release from, the difficult challenges of political organization.

The outlines of liberal political organization are beginning to emerge, as liberal activists, business leaders, new labor leaders, and young Islamists explore a range of party alliance possibilities. But beyond these maneuvers there is much to be done on many levels -- political, social and even geographic. It is crucial that the forces that led the Tahrir struggle pick their battles carefully. I can see five crucial steps for Egypt's democratic transition.

First, while the Constitution First Campaign might instill a sense of common purpose within the urban liberal base, as a strategy for action the group will only polarize the identity debate in ways that risks undercutting the quest for a pluralistic democracy. This does not mean these groups should drop their efforts in, for example, a bill of rights to accompany the referendum-established reforms. But the campaign to reverse or nullify the March 19 constitutional referendum is a waste of resources and energy that could be directed elsewhere.

Second, the CFC should consider setting aside anything that might alienate religious voters in favor of themes that cut across the mosque/state debate, for example on the crucial question of economic reform and social equity. The continued eruption of protests throughout every sector of society, as well as the efforts to build an independent labor movement in the middle of an economic crisis, suggests allies for a political-social project that could have broad popular appeal.

Third, this social project cannot be limited to Cairo. It must be extended in the provincial capitals and where possible into the rural areas themselves, which account for some 40 percent of Egypt's 85 million people. Left to itself, this "other Egypt" will provide fertile ground for Salafist mobilization or the restarting of the patronage networks of the old regime.

Fourth, as they seek to widen the boundaries of political debate and mobilization, advocates of pluralism (both Islamist and non-Islamist) should focus on strategic common interests rather than on short-term political tactics. The recently announced alliance between the New Wafd Party and the Muslim Brethren's Freedom and Justice Party constitutes a marriage of convenience that is bound to fall apart (or to split the Wafd Party, as did a similar alliance in 1984). Given its liberal-secular heritage and its public support for the Constitution First Movement, Wafd leaders might be better off allying with more like-minded parties, and in so doing, fostering a more competitive playing field.

Five, to promote a more level and -- most of all -- credible political contest, parliamentary elections should not be held in September or October of this year, as the military has proposed. The fact that only 41 percent of the registered electorate participated in the March 2011 constitutional referendum highlights the huge logistical hurdles that still stand in the way of organizing national elections. All political forces, including the military, have an interest setting elections for a somewhat later date, perhaps January 2012.

Ultimately, the goal of the groups that led the Tahrir struggle should not be to recapture the glory days of mass protest, or to discredit their Islamists rivals in an epic contest to define the national identity of Egypt. The more prosaic aim should be to make sure that when elections come, these groups can obtain a small but loud organized voice in a new parliament, and in the constitutional council that the parliament will create. Although they may imagine that the military is against them, leaders of the SCAF have openly hinted that the generals would probably prefer a diverse or even fragmented political arena, thus assuring the military a continued role as arbiter, even after it has formally handed over authority to a civilian government. Such a state of affairs will be the beginning of a long road. As in other states that have taken this road to democracy -- Turkey, Chile, and Brazil, to name just a few -- democratic forces will have to compromise with the past as they build a new political future. That won't be easy, but democracy rarely is.

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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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