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Whatever Happened to Egypt's Democratic Transition?

[Protester carrying a sign featuring Mohamed Morsi's face on a dollar bill. 25 January 2013. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim] [Protester carrying a sign featuring Mohamed Morsi's face on a dollar bill. 25 January 2013. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim]

There is a paradigm nobody talks about much anymore in regard to Egypt: the democratic transition. The problem with the idea of democratic transition, dearly beloved by the Barack Obama Administration, most of my colleagues in political science, and the Muslim Brotherhood, was that it presumed the institutions of the state would be passed, intact, from the old regime to the new. Through elections, constitutions, and the circulation of new elites, popular sovereignty and democratic practice would re-invigorate the barren institutions of the old order. Where necessary, new ones would be created.

What, we are impelled to ask, went wrong in Egypt? What made it, as one analyst is reported to have said, the stupidest transition ever or the revolution that never was? Or did the fault lie not in our Egypt but our selves? Not least in our inability to recognize that the complicated and confusing period, lasting a decade or more, between the first observation of revolutionary upheaval and its conclusion, is both more important and more uncertain than we feel comfortable with.

I want to begin at the point where theories of failed revolution and failed democratic transition diverge:  the institutions of the old order.  Theorists of failed revolution tell us that too many of Egypt’s old institutions and old elites survived the 2011 upheaval:  the Armed Forces, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and the old elites. Theorists of failed transition might seem to believe that not enough of the old institutions survived but on closer inspection they have a different concern: Given free elections and the doctrine of popular sovereignty, not enough Egyptians seem to have taken the outcome of elections with sufficient seriousness. Specifically the winners of the parliamentary and presidential elections, the Muslim Brothers, have not been accorded the legitimacy of a freely and popularly elected government.

This is puzzling. Free and fair elections are the tonic of transition. All theorists of transition recognize that free elections are not “enough,” as they put it, to ensure democracy, but free elections, by definition, are the way in which the people express their will. Once elections have been held, it is up to the new government to do its work and for the people to wait a decent interval before judging its performance at the ballot box rather than through ongoing and defiant street demonstrations and conflict. This is even more puzzling because it is difficult to argue that this has something to do with Islam since the Islamist parties won and they have no problem with asserting the doctrines of popular sovereignty and electoral legitimacy.

The dominant concern in Egypt today is the high, and increasing, level of polarization. It seems to be common in the US and Europe to describe this a conflict between the country’s minority urban secular middle-class and its religious (Islamic) majority. That Egypt has become increasingly polarized is apparent, but it is doubtful that the polarization that paralyzes the country is between the secular middle-class and the rest of Egypt. Much of the violence in the streets today is occurring outside of Cairo in the Canal Zone and the provincial cities of the Delta, places not known for their large, secular middle classes. The violence is often specifically between the Muslim Brotherhood, its direct supporters and its occasional allies on specific issues, and the restive lower middle and working classes in these cities. Socially, we can speak of polarization on many dimensions. There is a marked rural/urban dimension to what we see. There is also a clear aspect of educational attainment. In terms of religion there is also an obvious Christian/Muslim dimension, but within the Muslim community there may also be an antagonism based on how the Brotherhood understands Islam in the modern world. Lastly, there is a rather widespread dissatisfaction with what many Egyptians perceive as the Brotherhood’s own internal lack of transparency and democracy and aggrandizing organizational ambitions. These, in turn, provide both local and national elites with the basis through which they have opposed the Brotherhood but over which they have very little direct influence.

It is possible to use electoral maps to see a geographic dimension to this increased polarization. Egypt has had two constitutional referenda, parliamentary elections (and run-offs) for two chambers, as well as a presidential election and runoff. The elections are not strictly speaking comparable but what we see is a decline over time in turnout, relative support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and an increasing polarization centered on the Delta. Specifically three quite different provinces—Gharbiyya, Cairo, and Menoufia—have emerged as localized centers of opposition to the Brotherhood. All three of these provinces, which voted no in the December 2012 constitutional referendum, had voted yes in the March 2011 referendum. They also voted against Morsi in both the initial and runoff stages of the presidential election. Gharbiyya is the province in which the textile center of Mahallah is located, whose 2006 strikes are often referred to as the origin of the collapse of the Mubarak regime. Tanta, however, also a textile center, is even more strongly opposed to the MB. What may differentiate the two is the presence of the headquarters of an important Sufi order, the Badawiyya, which is located there and to which there is an annual pilgrimage. Cairo is the most urban of the governorates and, of course, has the largest concentration of the so-called secular middle class. Menoufia is quite unlike both Cairo and Gharbiyya and the best anyone can come up with to explain its behavior is that it was the home of both Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, but this argument seems weak.

Given recent events it might now be possible to add the Canal cities of Suez, Port Said, and Ismailiya to the list of anti-MB strongholds. There are some specific grievances in each of these three cities of which the most well-known stems from the deaths of seventy-nine people at the Port Said soccer stadium on 1 February 2012 during a match between the local team, Al-Masry, and the Cairene Ahly team. The death sentences handed down to twenty-one defendants in Port Said on 26 January 2013 led to demonstrations and riots in Port Said and demonstrations in support of the verdicts in Cairo. The next day, itself the anniversary of the uprising that toppled Mubarak, massive riots broke out in Port Said and the other Canal cities as well as Alexandria. In response, President Morsi declared a state of emergency and curfew, which the demonstrators promptly and publicly broke by announcing street demonstrations to begin at the same hour as the curfew. The army refused to enforce the curfew with force and Morsi was left to slowly withdraw it and then allow it fade away.

One of the peculiarities, then, of the last two years is that the authority of the executive and the legislative branches of government has, for the time being, diminished while the authority of judicial branch and the Armed Forces (especially in the months since it relinquished power to President Morsi in August 2012) has increased. The Armed Forces have become more independent, constitutionally and even practically, from the executive branch than at any other time in recent history and the judiciary has intervened in politics with remarkable independence over the past two years. Sometimes, as when they dissolved Mubarak’s National Democratic party, the courts gained universal praise. At other times, as when the Supreme Constitutional Court proclaimed the first post-Mubarak parliament elected in violation of the constitution, less so.  The courts in Egypt, as elsewhere, are a counter-majoritarian institution. Their role may seem to be hard to explain in the context of the Arab world generally where such an independent court system that asserts such broad powers of review is anomalous. It is, in fact, anomalous within the context of the French jurisprudential system from which Egypt’s judicial system springs. Briefly, what we are seeing is the result of two trends. One is the culmination of at least one hundred years of judicial culture in Egypt based on asserting the necessity of the rule of law as a way for the ordinary courts to control the executive and asserting claims of constitutional interpretive power. The other is the reality that, of the three branches of government, the courts have been the one to which ordinary Egyptians have resorted most frequently and with most success over the past hundred years. The courts can be arbitrary, corrupt, and unresponsive, but they have proven to be more useful than the other branches.

It is, I think, for this reason that there has been, in the years since 2011, so little popular response to calls for the establishment of revolutionary tribunals. Egyptian experience with exceptional tribunals, whether revolutionary or military, has not been positive.

Looking forward, then, we can see two institutional forces with significant legitimacy: the Armed Forces and the courts. And we can see, two institutions, paradoxically based on liberal notions of legitimacy—an elected presidency and legislature— are having the most trouble establishing broad acceptance. One problem for the president is that he tries to wield the power of his office in ways consonant with a regime that is dead (the old republic) or with a regime that has not yet been born.

Let us recall his attempts to deploy the power of the presidency in the interregnum between the old constitution and the new one. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had dissolved the lower house after the Supreme Court ruled it had been elected unconstitutionally. On assuming the presidency Morsi tried to issue his own constitutional declaration ordering the lower house back into session. The courts, the SCAF, and significant portion of public opinion rebuffed his attempt. I have already noted that his recent attempt to create a state of emergency in the Canal provinces failed. In November he issued a constitutional declaration that allowed him to replace the Public Prosecutor and also shielded the work of the committee writing the constitution from judicial oversight. Massive demonstrations, including attacks on the presidential palace, forced Morsi to rescind the declaration, although not its effects. The committee wrapped up its work in record time so that a referendum could be held, thereby putting the threat of judicial review behind it. 

So, going forward, politics in Egypt appears to be bounded by four forces:  the judiciary, the army, the elected legislature and presidency likely controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the mass public protest. Mass public protests, rare between 1952 and 2011, have often had the effect of forcing the executive to back down on policies and the last two years, in which they have become common, are no exception. Unfortunately these protests have, over the past year, increasingly turned into street battles between the Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents, especially in the provincial towns. Even casual viewers of Egyptian television recognize that the Canal cities and other towns of the interior are now the scenes of pitched battles in which people—clearly not the secular westernized intelligentsia—are determined to attack and destroy the Muslim Brotherhood’s local offices and headquarters. The most obvious example occurred in early December 2012 when the national headquarters of the MB in Moqattam (Cairo) was torched. Generally the police do nothing as they do nothing in most street fighting unless they themselves have been attacked. But there are also indications in many provincial cities that Muslim Brotherhood militias and those based partly on soccer clubs now engage in routine street battles with each other.

It may come as a surprise, then, to realize that the Morsi government has been able to carry out some of its responsibilities even if it has chosen to do so in ways that maximize the influence of Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, in politics. The government has recently managed to pass a law allowing it to issue Islamic bonds over the opposition, not of the secular liberals who play almost no role in the Shura Council (the upper house) but over the opposition of Al-Azhar and the Salafi parties. The government has been able to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the absence of an agreement has more to do with concerns about Egypt’s unstable politics than with the incapacity of the government to reach an agreement with the international body. The government does not, it is clear, have much control over the police, but the opposition leadership does not have much control over the demonstrators. If the opposition leadership often appears weak and divided it is equally clear that its base, especially in the industrial cities, is unwilling to tie its future to the National Salvation Front. In other words, the broad outlines of power are far from settled in the country.

New parliamentary elections will be held beginning in April. The opposition has, for the moment, decided to boycott the elections. Not to participate is to allow the MB and other Islamists to dominate the parliament completely which, given the new constitution, will allow them fairly wide power over society. Whether that will come with the ability to solve the country’s pressing economic problems and increasing polarization is far from clear. Obviously, the Muslim Brothers hope to ride out the storm, but if they do there is every reason to believe that their preference will be to impose rather than negotiate policy.

And indeed, neither they nor any other government will have much time given the rapid decline of Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves, the evident lack of competitiveness in the export of manufacturing or agricultural products, and the country’s declining tourism (itself in part subject to competitive pressures since the primary tourist destination is the country’s beaches not its Pyramids).

Egypt is by no means a country engaged in a democratic transition.  It is a country in the midst of a revolution. For better or worse, however, unlike the classic revolutionary situations, Egypt has a functioning and still respected court system (not true of France, Russia or China) and a functioning Armed Forces, which will intervene to prevent the collapse of the state but not much more.

Egypt is also a country whose urban population has been mobilized as never before and which has stayed ready to take to the streets long after most people had written that possibility off. It is primarily the pressure of the streets that have pushed the political situation forward, but at some point the political leadership of the country must take up its real responsibility. Egypt is now in a situation reminiscent of what, in 1975, Michel Crozier, Samuel Huntington, and Joji Watanuki called the crisis of democracy. What they meant was that the levels of mass mobilization had undermined traditional (that is, previously existing) relations of authority within the state, the religious institutions, and elsewhere. The masses were too eager to participate and thus, through an excess of democratic aspirations and activity, threatened democracy itself at least as Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki (and the Trilateral Commission) understood it.  The decline of authority, or haibat al-dawlah as the Arabic equivalent employed in Egypt today has it, was a moral as well as a political crisis in the minds of these three distinguished conservative intellectuals. They could hardly imagine how such a chaotic situation would end well. The world of the advanced industrial societies differs today from the one that existed in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century and probably also from the one that the authors of the report might have preferred. The revolutionary democratic impulse that they feared was contained for many reasons, not least of which was the adjustment of institutions and elites to new ways of governing. To paraphrase Lenin, revolutionary situations occur when elites can no longer govern in the old way and large numbers of people want to live in some as yet unspecified new way.

What might this mean for Egypt?  For the Muslim Brotherhood, this may mean that winning elections is no longer anywhere near sufficient as a goal. To succeed they will need to find a different way of governing. Today’s polarizing conflicts in Egypt are far from limited to differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and a secular, middle class (or Facebook) opposition. It is possible that, for example, many of the young people who showed up to dance the “Harlem Shake” in front of the Muslim Brothers’ national headquarters were engaged in middle class mockery. If that were the opposition with which the Muslim Brotherhood had to contend they would be in a very different situation than they find themselves. The dock workers who have several times shut down the port at Ain Sokhna (most recently in mid-February 2013) were interested neither in embarrassing the Muslim Brotherhood nor in line dancing. Nor are industrialists like Magdi Tolba dancing for joy: the weakened pound is causing nearly as many problems as it solves for textile exporters like him.

The National Salvation Front faces its own problems. Frequently derided as feckless and irresponsible, they have the opposite problem of the Muslim Brotherhood: A political coalition that is sufficiently broad and whose institutional connection to its possible electoral base is sufficiently tenuous that they cannot find a way to compete coherently in the electoral process. Whether the boycott strips the elections of legitimacy or locks the opposition into the political wilderness remains to be seen.

Even a large electoral majority in parliamentary elections may not, for the foreseeable future, translate into viable governance as popular demands continue to be expressed in ways that are both democratic and disruptive and as the political leadership of the country finds it difficult to agree on a common path forward.

[A version of this article appears in Nisr al-Nasr.]

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