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[This is the first of seven posts associated with a Jadaliyya electronic roundtable on the future of Egypt. Click here to access the full roundtable. Participants include: Issandr Al-Amrani, Zeinab Abul-Magd, Nathan J. Brown, Jason Brownlee, Daniel Brumberg, Mohamed El-Menshawy, and Samer Shehata.]
Almost six months have passed since former Vice President Omar Suleiman appeared on television to announce to the world that 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule have ended. As monumental and decisive as Mubarak’s defeat was, it remains unclear (or perhaps unsettled) who exactly emerged victorious in this battle: The millions who rallied in public squares in Cairo and beyond demanding the downfall of a regime that failed its people on multiple counts, or the range of political, bureaucratic, and socioeconomic forces that saw in Mubarak’s ouster an opportunity to preserve (whether collectively or separately) the core foundations of the political order over which Mubarak presided and that has long protected and advanced their narrow interests?
Jason Brownlee’s recent piece in Jadaliyya “Egypt's Incomplete Revolution: The Challenge of Post-Mubarak Authoritarianism” cuts through the heart of this question by highlighting just how contested and difficult the battle against Egyptian authoritarianism has become ironically at a time when every political actor in the country—including its de facto military rulers—claims to speak on behalf of the revolution and its democratic aspirations. Brownlee tells us that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is doing much more than just sponsoring a constitution writing process and election schedule that will reinforce the uneven political playing field that Egypt inherited from the Mubarak era—a point on which many observers of Egyptian politics (myself included) have focused. More importantly, he warns, the Council’s policy of keeping Mubarak’s core repressive apparatus—the ministry of interior and its affiliated security organizations—out of the reach of serious reform efforts, “ensures authoritarianism by default” and will likely limit the prospects for democratic change in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Taking Brownlee’s sobering analysis as a springboard for discussion, I invited a roundtable of distinguished group of scholars and researchers who follow Egyptian politics closely to provide their own assessment of where Egypt is heading at the moment. I asked participants whether they see evidence that Egyptian authoritarianism is in fact reconstituting itself with the aid of the SCAF. I also asked them to reflect on the factors and processes that will likely shape the quality of accountability, transparency, participation, representation, and inclusiveness of post-2011 Egyptian politics.
Two broad points emerging from this roundtable are worth emphasizing.
First, while all respondents agree that SCAF’s actions have been anything but supportive of democratic change in Egypt, some do not share Brownlee’s pessimism and believe that Egyptians still have a fair shot at achieving the democratic goals of their revolution. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the challenges ahead, Nathan Brown sees a lot of promising changes in Egyptian politics, pointing to the vitality of political contention and participation, growing public demands for greater government accountability and transparency, as well as the “mini-revolutions” that are happening in the media, universities and unions. As easy as it is to conclude that Egypt is doomed, Issandr Al-Amrani writes, it still remains that battle for the country’s future is unresolved and that the opportunity for achieving transformative change has never been better in the last half century. Echoing this same point, Mohamed El-Menshawy adds that even though military leaders have a strong interest in limiting the scope of reform, it is hard to imagine them succeeding in the face of powerful protests and wide public scrutiny campaigns. Irrespective of their anti-democratic inclinations, he concludes, SCAF’s options may be too limited to succeed in containing popular demands for democracy.
Second, analyses seems to converge on the conclusion that the long-term battle for democracy in Egypt is unlikely to hinge entirely on elections, but will probably center on unaccountable sectors of political power inside the Egyptian state, most notably: the Ministry of Interior and its affiliates, military institutions, and bodies and agencies responsible for setting economic public policies and priorities. The battle to make these critical sectors more transparent, accountable and responsive to public demands could very well shape the major features of the post-Mubarak regime in Egypt. Concurring with Brownlee about the pressing need for overhauling the existing security apparatus, Samer Shehata offers a nuanced explanation of what needs to be done to turn the Ministry of Interior from an instrument of repression and control to a force for protecting and upholding the rule of law. Achieving these goals will not be easy and will require a great deal of political commitment, resources and time, as Daniel Brumberg reminds us. He indicates that previous experiences of security sector reform in transitional countries demonstrate the difficulty of completing such reforms during the early stages of a transition such as the one Egypt is currently facing. Brumberg also highlights the tough tradeoffs involved in trying to reestablish security and law-and-order in the short-run while simultaneously advancing efforts to purge and reform the security apparatus. The challenges do not stop at the security sector or even the military institutions that are currently controlling it. Zeinab Abul-Magd’s contribution stresses that the economy and economic policy making remain largely untouched by this revolution, despite the enormity of the socioeconomic disparities that made many Egyptians rally in demand for Mubarak’s downfall. She suggests that unless economic policymaking becomes more participatory and responsive to the demands of the revolution, specifically aspirations for greater distributive justice, efforts to reform electoral and security institutions will fail to bring about the change that Egyptians want and the new political order will be devoid of popular support and legitimacy.
In sum, it seems that the challenges ahead for Egyptian advocates of transformative change will remain formidable and strenuous—at least until the overwhelming power of the Square, yet again, proves us wrong.
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