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Roundtable on Post-Mubarak Egypt: Authoritarianism without Autocrats? (Part IV: Brumberg)

[Egyptian police protest low wages in front of the Ministry of Interior, as army soldiers stand guard atop their armored vehicle in Cairo, Egypt (March, 2011). Image Source: AP] [Egyptian police protest low wages in front of the Ministry of Interior, as army soldiers stand guard atop their armored vehicle in Cairo, Egypt (March, 2011). Image Source: AP]

[This is the fourth 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. For the previous post click here.]

A Revolution or a SCAF-Managed Transition?

I could not agree more with Jason Brownlee’s thesis that Egypt’s military leaders are not “Self-abnegating stewards but shareholders in the authoritarian status quo.”  But it is hardly surprising—and indeed quite predictable—that the overall strategy of generals is to shape a transition that maintains a good part of the old order.  Such an effort is in keeping with the typical transition strategy of most military leaders faced with similar constraints, as the drawn out and often agonizing experiences of Brazil and Chile amply demonstrate. Indeed, take away the word Egypt and substitute Brazil, and you will find a strikingly similar story. After all, Egypt is not in the middle of a revolution—whatever the aspirations of those who helped to topple former President Hosni Mubarak. Instead, it is going through a managed transition the parameters of which are largely being determined by ancien régime forces. Given that the latter’s resources far outstrip those of the disorganized Tahrir democrats, and given the Muslim Brotherhood’s evident interest in “playing ball,” the diverse non-Islamist opposition groups must decide how to secure maximum leverage in a context that disfavors them.

On this score, Brownlee advocates shifting the focus from electoral engineering and constitution making to actions designed to “deconstructing the security state.”  I partly concur with this prescription. Indeed, as I note in a recently published Atlantic piece, I think the campaign to re-sequence the transition—by securing a constitutional document before elections are convened—is a waste of valuable organizational energy. But the deconstruction of the security state is also a huge project that will take years to advance. 

True enough, the original transition literature had little to say about this challenge, other than emphasizing the need for pact making—which of course implied making some kind of concessions to those forces that control or are linked to the security apparatus. But there is now an ample literature, which, if not quite “ambrosia to political scientists,” certainly is helpful. This literature includes a vast number of conceptual and empirical studies on “transitional justice,” as well as practical work on civilian reform of military institutions –some of which can be accessed (by the way) on the web page of the United States Institute of Peace. The latter’s field experience in both transitional justice issues and civilian reform of security/military institutions suggests a complex and prolonged sequence of initiatives, reforms and actions, few of which can be pulled off at the early stages of a transition.

In the case of Egypt, we are talking about a security apparatus that grew from some 120,000 in the early eighties to 1.2 million by 2010—a veritable monster that preyed on the population. When I was in Cairo recently and discussed the challenge of extinguishing this monster, most experts—including not a few democratic activists—argued that this endeavor would require massive institutional, human and economic resources. But there was considerable disagreement as to how to go about this, or what the proper and most propitious sequencing of this project was, particularly in the context of Egypt’s on-going, wider transition.  After all, every strategy involves trade-offs. Continued mobilization in Tahrir comes at the expense of organizing parties and coalitions.  (This point is particularly salient given the Muslim Brotherhood’s evident desire to avoid antagonizing the military, and even more so, its primary strategic goal, which is to achieve some measure of power by hook or by crook). The push for trials of former regime members could very well undercut the judiciary’s quest to establish its independence and integrity.  And then there is the question of security itself, which must somehow be reestablished but without putting the same old apparatus in charge.

All this points to the following: first, the continued relevance of keeping the overall political transition on track and slowly, fitfully moving forward to reasonably fair elections, which for logistical purposes will not possibly be held according to the military’s overly rapid time table; second, the need to sustain the campaign for a democratic-pluralistic constitution, a project that can and indeed has already begun, but which—for better or perhaps worse—will only happen after elections.(Whether the SCAF’s decision to establish a committee to set out “core constitutional principles” before the election advances or retards this project is an open question). This sequencing may be far from optimal, as ‘Doctors of Transitology’ would argue. But the overall science of transitions—to the extent that it can be called a science—still have something to say, as does the ample post-transitions literature on hybrid regimes (that I have not discussed here but which is surely known to your readers) and the above-mentioned literature on transitional justice and civilian reform the military. All of this work must be mobilized and selectively used in a context, which is neither exceptional nor surprising.

NEXT: “Some of the currently disturbing elements in Egyptian politics are sometimes a mark of how far Egyptians have come,” says Nathan Brown…

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