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Roundtable on Post-Mubarak Egypt: Authoritarianism without Autocrats? (Part II: Al-Amrani)

[Tahrir Square demonstrations. Image from unknown archive] [Tahrir Square demonstrations. Image from unknown archive]

[This is the second 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. A description of the roundtable can be found here.]

An Optimistic Rejoinder to Jason Brownlee

It is hard to find fault in the narrative described by my friend Jason Brownlee’s article on “Egypt's Incomplete Revolution.” He is correct to point out that no real reform of the security services is yet underway. He is right in thinking that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), headed by Hosni Mubarak's jaundiced defense minister of some 20 years, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is not a force for democracy. Few in Egypt, notably among the protest movement that sparked off last January’s uprising, are happy about the transition phase so far — as the presence of thousands of them on several cities’ main squares indicates. Even if, as Brownlee notes, the civilian security services under the aegis of the Ministry of Interior have been winded by their defeat on 28 January, they are now recovering and their military counterparts appear to have been schooled in the same brutal methods.

I would add to this that the class dynamics that sustained the Mubarak regime, pitting a small (if somewhat growing) globalized elite against a permanent underclass associated (in the former’s imagination) with danger and chaos, have not fundamentally changed; that the most important of the state-controlled media, the television channels that seek to influence the worldview of millions of Egyptians, are still outrageous propaganda outlets; that much of Egypt’ss political class is either woefully unprepared or so steeped in the bad old habits of Mubarakism that it eagerly awaits a signal for co-option; that foreign powers (Arab and Western) are busy plotting the return of a predictable rather than democratic and thus, at least initially, uncertain government in Cairo; and that 60 years of authoritarian mismanagement have placed the entire country in such a perilous socio-economic situation that one can’t hold a grudge against the many ordinary citizens for whom stability and order might be a higher priority than democracy. Need I mention that the economy is not doing too well either?

I am not an academic, and cannot refer to the body of literature that might accurately describe the present Egyptian predicament. I would merely note that, in many respects, it is easy to conclude that Egypt is screwed.

Yet, Brownlee — like many who wrote of the persistence of neo-authoritarianism in the Arab world — is too pessimistic. His understanding of what might be a desirable outcome is also too limited. For instance, in pointing out that new political parties and the “revolutionary forces” of Tahrir might not perform well in upcoming elections, he minimizes the fact that democracies have little alternative to elections to decide their leadership. Like some liberal forces in Egyptian politics, he describes the result of an admittedly very flawed referendum last March as a defeat for democracy. Let us remember that the main force for a “yes” vote in the referendum was an eagerness for a rapid transition and a return to civilian rule. Simply because we do not like the Islamist current, which backed this choice, does not mean it was the less democratic one. Indeed, it might do us well to remember that many self-described liberals were for years eager to look the other way when the Mubarak regime tortured and arrested Islamists, socialists and other “radicals”.

This, one must stress, is not true of the revolutionary movement, which became possible partly because of a historic reconciliation between new generations of leftists, liberal and Islamist activists. Yet, revolutionaries are not bound to become the new rulers, and this is not a particularly bad thing. The Muslim Brothers will do well in the upcoming elections, as will Salafists. Some former members of the National Democratic Party will undoubtedly be elected again, particularly in rural areas. But the truth is it is hard to say what Egypt’s new political landscape will be next year — indeed the elections will be crucial in providing some clarity on this. The key thing is not that they should be free of fraud — like elections in India and many developing world democracies (democracies function fundamentally differently in countries with mass poverty), there will be vote-buying and violence. What is important is that the state refrains from participating in the fraud.

It is too early to see any broad trends emerging in Egypt that would indicate either successful democratic transition or the triumphant return of authoritarianism. As I write these lines, protestors have reoccupied Tahrir Square for the sixth day, the minister of interior has just fired 600 police generals, the SCAF just grudgingly accepted to draft guidelines for the upcoming constitution and the selection of the constituent assembly. Protestors continue to demand an end to military tribunals and the criminalization of strikes. It is true that the Emergency Law has not been revoked (although when, in the last 30 years, has the situation so much resembled an emergency?) but the SCAF has committed to do so by September. There is one crucial thing to remember: the moral authority of the regime evaporated some time ago, long before January 25. There is no sign that Egypt’s interim rulers have regained any of this legitimacy; indeed they seem to be barely hanging on. They may be defining the boundaries of the transition but not its momentum.

Egyptians expect to have to fight for every democratic advance they’ll achieve, and are increasingly clear-eyed about the challenges they face and the resistance they’ll encounter from the military and state administration. But never for the last half-century have they had a better opportunity to make change happen. There is a growing, broad consensus across the political spectrum on the need for democracy, respect for human rights, and better governance and accountability. (Let us remember that not so long ago, many Islamists, Arab nationalists, and even some leftists were skeptical about parliamentary democracy — only few are today.) There are new reasons every day to believe that this change can come over the next decade, however painfully. Let us not prejudge the outcome: we are still in a time of infinite possibilities.

NEXT: Samer Shehata tells us what needs to be done to reform the Ministry of Interior…

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