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Reflections on Egypt after March 19

[Egyptian Army Spokesperson General Ismail Etman, Image Source: Unknown] [Egyptian Army Spokesperson General Ismail Etman, Image Source: Unknown]

Return of Identity Politics

The March 19 constitutional referendum and the lead-up to it have tempered the strong feeling of unity that Tahrir Square had instilled in the country’s political community. The referendum marked the return of adversity and competition to Egypt’s political arena, as political groups were actively supporting (if not campaigning on behalf of) the “yes” and “no” positions prior to the vote. Despite the unprecedented level of cohesion that the opposition showed immediately after January 25th, the fear-mongering tactics that some religious leaders adopted to encourage voters to approve the constitutional amendments has helped polarize the Egyptian political community once again across the Islamist/non-Islamist divide.

The widespread narrative that a “no vote” is a vote against Article 2 of the Constitution, which stipulates that shari‘a is the main source of legislation, turned Egypt’s first national vote in the post-Mubarak era into a divisive enterprise that reinforced sectarian and ideological cleavages. Following the vote, visible salafi figures issued statements that designated the overwhelming support for the constitutional amendments a victory for those who want to see Islam play a larger role in shaping policy and legislation. This discourse stirred fears among Egyptians committed to erecting an inclusive political system that accommodates all its diverse communities, Muslim and Christian. Despite the controversy, Article 2 of the Constitution and the role of shari‘a in lawmaking technically were not up for vote during the referendum. Moreover, the outcome of the vote was largely irrelevant because the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced a constitutional declaration that arbitrarily added new language to the text of the same amendments that Egyptian voters had approved. Nonetheless, the adversarial and sectarian tone with which many public debates surrounding the referendum were conducted helped create a political environment that limited cohesion and cooperation within the opposition. For example, the configuration of support for and against the constitutional amendments reinforced traditional ideological divisions within Egypt’s political arena, with Islamist-oriented groups along with salafi leaders supporting the yes vote, while most non-Islamist groups and the Coptic Orthodox Church favored a no vote. The salience of these divisions in post-Mubarak politics has been increasing since the constitutional referendum.

Return of Mistrust

Beyond ideological and sectarian divisions, the campaigning ahead of the referendum and the perceived success of the Brotherhood’s efforts in rallying voters in support of the constitutional amendments highlighted the notable gap between the organizational capabilities of the Brotherhood and those who supported the “no” position. Whether or not the Brotherhood’s campaign to support the “yes” position was in fact the decisive factor in determining the outcome of the referendum, the passage of the amendments with 77% approval left their rivals with the impression that the Brothers were in fact capable of dealing any potential competitors a tough electoral defeat. This perception largely explains the non-Islamist groups’ increasingly vociferous calls for postponing the national election, currently scheduled for September.

Moreover, the seemingly immense resources that the Muslim Brotherhood invested in its effort to pass the amendments, which were drafted by a SCAF appointed panel of constitutional experts, conveyed the impression that the Brotherhood was collaborating with SCAF in order to limit the scope of the ongoing transition. The parallels between these rumors and recurrent reports that the Brotherhood coordinated its electoral strategy with the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in the 2005 legislative election reignited suspicions that the Brotherhood was, once again, secretly negotiating with the wielders of power at the expense of the rest of the opposition. The Brotherhood’s decision to boycott last Friday’s Tahrir demonstration, which adopted a highly critical tone of SCAF, reinforced some of these suspicions.

The (Early) Return of Political Adversity

The mistrust and suspicion that the constitutional referendum injected into Egyptian politics seems to have reawakened the competitive instincts of non-Islamist political leaders. With the passage of the constitutional amendments and the apparent success of the Islamist strategy in garnering support for the ‘yes’ vote, non-Islamist groups saw that they have no choice but to prepare themselves for an uphill battle in September’s legislative election. The current transition, as tailored by SCAF and ratified by the referendum, effectively puts drafting the country’s permanent constitution and the rules of political competition into the hands of the parliament that will be elected in a few months. It is not surprising, therefore, that after the referendum many political actors seem to have focused their efforts on building parties and devising viable electoral strategies that could get them a seat at the table on which the country’s future will be negotiated. Thus the past month featured several announcements regarding the formation of new political parties, membership recruitment strategies, and discussions of fielding candidates in the next election. This development—in theory—will open up the political field to stronger and more representative political parties and to actors whose voices were marginalized under Mubarak’s rule. Building stronger parties is also the first step in any effort aimed at closing the longstanding gap between elite politics and the basic demands and needs of Egyptians.

At the same time, the growing emphasis on competition and electoral battles underscores some serious challenges that the so-called transition poses for the country’s political community and some of the contradictions and flaws in SCAF’s design of this process. On the one hand, convening elections as early as September sets strong incentives for relevant political actors to organize as distinct political parties and to set forth agendas and platforms that distinguish them from their rivals no matter how much they agree on key issues. Stated differently, the necessities of electoral competition are pushing opposition actors to identify and vocalize their differences, even though they are yet to see through the achievement of many of the shared goals that initially brought them together in Tahrir and beyond—most notably transformative democratic change. On the other hand, the transition roadmap is designed with the expectation that, notwithstanding these incentives for competition and disagreement, Egypt’s diverse political community will somehow reach some consensus on fairly difficult questions pertaining to national reconciliation, constitution writing, the rules of political competition, and institutional design. There is no question that under normal circumstances, disagreement and conflict are part and parcel of any healthy democratic process. But when the rules of the political game are in question, consensus building and compromise are in much higher demand than the competition and antagonism inherent to electoral politics. By making legislative elections the main vehicle for advancing efforts to write a constitution agreeable to all members of Egypt’s diverse political community, SCAF is in effect attempting to achieve consensus through a process that is bound to generate competition and disagreement. This realization may have prompted important figures, most notably Deputy Prime Minister Yehia El-Gamal, to float the idea of drafting a new constitution before the next election—and not after as initially scheduled.

This tension between consensus building and political competition is most apparent in ongoing attempts to advance a “national dialogue” in which Egypt’s diverse political communities could agree on a broad vision for the country’s so-called transition to democracy. The hostile tone with which many participants have approached these dialogues—not to mention reports of withdrawals by key participants—reflects some of the difficulties associated with trying to build common ground between individuals who are getting ready to be at each other’s throats in a matter of months when elections are scheduled. For example, opposition figures are expected to uphold the goal of national reconciliation by welcoming dialogue with former NDP figures, while overlooking the fact that former ruling party remnants will probably present a source of competition for them in the upcoming parliamentary election. Similarly, political leaders are expected to engage courteously with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, while (supposedly) ignoring the threat of being swept away by the Brotherhood in September’s electoral battles. The condensed timetable with which SCAF is determined to transition to a new elected government is creating an environment in which political posturing and jockeying are taking precedence over compromise and negotiation on the rules of political competition and the terms of national reconciliation.

The swift return of electoral competition to Egypt is also recreating some of the conditions that undermined unified collective action within the opposition under Mubarak’s rule. Specifically, electoral considerations seem to be dividing Egypt’s political community into two sectors: A conservative sector has emerged that is willing to give military leaders the benefit of the doubt and want to avoid clashing with SCAF at any cost, largely because members of that sector anticipate valuable gains from participating in the upcoming election. Antagonizing the military, from the perspective of these actors, could either get them shut out of a political process that might offer them meaningful gains, or prompt SCAF to close down political competition altogether. On the other hand, there is a more contentious sector that is willing to flirt with adventurous ways of pressuring the military to cede to some of its demands, such as pushing for serious (and publicized) trials of Mubarak and his associates, lifting laws criminalizing demonstrations and strikes, and handing over power to a civilian-controlled presidential council. Actors within this sector either see no potential benefits to participating in the upcoming election (and hence do not feel they have as much to lose as their counterparts in the conservative camp) or are committed to demands that are not directly related to convening elections, such as civilian control over military institutions, an end to military trials of civilians, and redistributive justice. The division between the conservative and more adventurous sectors can be seen in recent elite disagreement over participation in the latest Friday demonstration in Tahrir Square (dubbed “Second Friday of Anger”), as well as frequent accusations that SCAF critics are conspirators who want to drive a wedge between the military and the people. This situation is not dissimilar to opposition politics during Mubarak’s last decade in office, whereby opposition party leaders who benefited from participating in formal politics were extremely reluctant to support the efforts of junior activists or the non-legal opposition to challenge the political status quo through bold moves like large-scale demonstrations and strikes (recall that leaders of major opposition groups initially did not support calls for demonstration on January 25). In some ways, the imminent return of multiparty elections in Egypt is creating a similar set of pro-status quo tendencies within the political community, breaking the revisionist consensus that emerged for a brief period after January 25.

Beyond the challenge that competitive politics will pose for consensus building around the principles and rules of the political game in the new Egypt, there are also serious concerns about the inclusiveness of the parliament that will be responsible for writing these rules and principles. As it stands the exceptionally fast pace of the transition is lending advantage to traditional political groups inherited from the Mubarak era. The speed with which SCAF insists on convening multiparty elections will almost certainly disadvantage groups that were not already engaged in the business of elections and campaigning under the previous order. Traditional political forces that have inherited some capacity, experience and resources to contest elections—such as the Muslim Brotherhood, traditional political parties that have access to some financial resources like Al-Wafd, and powerful families and rural interests that were previously allied with the NDP—will have the edge. In contrast, new groups and movements that have been trying to break into the formal political arena since Mubarak’s ouster risk marginalization, because they do not have sufficient time to prepare themselves for competition against groups that have established themselves in the electoral arena. Since participation in drafting the country’s new constitution is contingent upon one’s access to sufficient resources to campaign and contest elections, emerging parties, particularly ones representative of the voices that were most pronounced in Tahrir Square, will have a hard time shaping and influencing this so-called transition. Unfortunately, SCAF’s design of this transition takes for granted the highly uneven political playing field that Egypt inherited from the Mubarak era and thus presents a challenge for a credible and legitimate transition process that is inclusive of all the important voices within Egypt’s political community.

Early Elections and Military Rule

There are perfectly reasonable arguments for convening quick elections, most notably getting the army back to the barracks and out of politics as soon as possible. This perspective, however, overestimates the stability and democratizing potential of any political system that a swift transition would yield, especially given the highly skewed nature of the current political playing field. Those who argue that elections would immediately send the army back to the barracks also tend to over-simplify (if not wholly mischaracterize) concerns about the persistence of the military’s role in politics. The worry is not that a military junta will continue to rule Egypt indefinitely under martial law, but that quick elections would (re)empower traditional political forces that in the long run are unlikely to push for meaningful democratic reforms or assert civilian control over military institutions. In other words, the fear is that the army would leave the driver’s seat only after ensuring that the reform vehicle is locked in park (if not reverse) mode in order to minimize the risks that an open-ended transition could pose to its interests. Beyond these considerations, it is also important to bear in mind that the shortest route to sending the military back to the barracks is not convening elections in a few months, but immediately handing power over to a civilian-controlled presidential council, one of the main demands of last Friday’s Tahrir Square demonstration.

That being said, there are some steps that could help mitigate (though not eliminate) these challenges short of postponing elections and extending formal military rule. Firstly, drafting a new constitution and approving it through a national referendum before elections later this year is an option that must be entertained seriously. There is a need to consider convening a credible and inclusive national assembly oriented toward reaching consensus on the broader principles of the new constitution and political institutional design. Such a forum would allow for a credible public debate over the rules of the political game in such a way that relaxes incentives for the overly aggressive competition inherent to electoral politics and elected assemblies. This option would also ensure that all political voices that will likely fail to secure parliamentary seats for arbitrary reasons related to timing of elections would have some say over the political future of their country, and would not be permanently excluded from representative institutions due to skewed electoral designs. Whether or not the ongoing national dialogue initiatives could provide the basis for such a credible forum remains to be seen, but, thus far, the signs are not promising.

Secondly, moving from the existing electoral formula based on relatively small single member majority districting to greater proportionality in seat allocation and larger electoral districts might give newcomers to the electoral arena a better shot at securing representation in the new parliament. Such a step would certainly help emerging nationally oriented parties that are trying to advance broad political or economic reform agendas, which, by their very nature, do not cater well to the limited parochial interests that tend to dominate elections in small majoritarian districts. Recent media reports, however, indicate that the draft election laws that SCAF proposed for the September election designates 2/3 of the parliamentary seats for single-member districting, which is already bad news for those who had hoped for an electoral formula that privileges national political agendas rather than local parochial interests.

Thirdly, applying stringent controls on overspending and misuse of campaign resources is going to be critical in protecting underfunded parties from being overwhelmed by wealthier groups that are no more representative than their less financially equipped counterparts. In the short run, effective enforcement of campaign spending caps could make the difference between a political arena dominated by big money, and a more open political arena that accommodates groups that do not embrace the interests of wealthy individuals such as Naguib Sawaris, the Egyptian billionaire who recently founded the Free Egyptians Party. Failing to adequately address this challenge would help preserve one of the major legacies of the Mubarak order, namely the marriage of politics and wealth.

But even with these steps, the tension between the short-term tactical necessities of competitive politics and the long-term goal of meaningful democratic change will probably continue to attenuate the democratizing potential of Egypt’s new political arena after September. There is no doubt that transformative change does not occur overnight. Yet the ability of normalized politics to gradually fix itself (from within) through elections and stepwise reform initiatives must not be taken for granted. Without the continuing pressure of street demonstrations—or the threat thereof—in Tahrir and beyond, the variety of political and economic demands that paved the way to January 25 will hardly find any space in elite politics after September.

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5 comments for "Reflections on Egypt after March 19"


the military council needs to read this to understand what they are doing to our country.please translate to arabic

mohsen g wrote on June 01, 2011 at 12:50 PM

This is a nice piece of serious work and I am sure your predictions and conclusion is right. The military will not leave unless they get their upper hand present and future.

Edmund wrote on June 02, 2011 at 01:14 PM

"In other words, the fear is that the army would leave the driver’s seat only after ensuring that the reform vehicle is locked in park (if not reverse) mode in order to minimize the risks that an open-ended transition could pose to its interests."

I would like to read more about this exact point. Could the author please expand and write a piece about it?

J M wrote on June 05, 2011 at 03:54 PM

Good posting, im subscribing to your rss. Many thanks once more

العاب wrote on December 27, 2011 at 03:01 AM

please translate to arabic :(

عالم حواء wrote on March 03, 2012 at 09:50 AM

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