The Path to Democracy in Egypt

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

brumberg july13 p.jpg


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.

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."


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.