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Roundtable on Post-Mubarak Egypt: Authoritarianism without Autocrats? (Part V: Brown)

[ ["The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions supports the demands of the people's revolution and calls for a general strike of Egyptian workers," reads a banner in Tahrir Square. Image Source: Reuters]

[This is the fifth 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.]

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Jason Brownlee is right. Egypt is still led by a military leadership that has few democratic credentials; the transition process was badly designed from the beginning and continues to be confusing and uncertain; decision making in Egypt has become even more opaque; the thuggishness and unaccountability of large parts of the Egyptian state have gone unaddressed; and the opposition that pulled off a revolution is very much in disarray—and it remains in opposition.

Looking forward there are many causes for concern. 

But looking backward, it is still remarkable what Egyptians have done. And perhaps it is because I am a bit historically minded that I am still optimistic. But it is not obscurantism alone that can encourage an observer. In fact, a Janus-faced look at Egypt today in light of the country’s past and future give real reason for hope.

For all the messiness of the current political situation, there are four developments that lead me to a guardedly more cheery attitude.

First, elections are coming. Yes, the electoral law is confusing and Egypt’s electoral machinery may not be well positioned to handle truly competitive voting.  But very soon there will be new sources of authority in Egypt as well as voices that Egyptians have clearly authorized to speak on their behalf.  Tens of thousands of people chanting demands in public squares throughout Egypt will be joined by millions voting—and those voters will be selecting among genuine choices.  Some of the older political forces will manage the transition to more democratic elections, but none will remain unaffected by it.

Second, the language of political discussions in Egypt has become remarkably participatory, sophisticated, detailed, and focused on fundamental questions of governance.  The demand for accountable government—and indeed, for mechanisms of both vertical accountability (in which political authorities are accountable to the people) and horizontal accountability (in which political authorities keep an eye on each other)—has grown strong indeed.

Third, power has been dispersed. No, there is little likelihood that the military will disappear as a political force, that formerly dominant elites will be totally displaced, and that figures who made their peace operating under the old regime will slink away in disgrace. But the domination of the country by an imperious presidency and its sycophantic and venal followers is gone and will be difficult to recreate.

Fourth, the mini-revolutions that accompanied the January 25 revolution-in the media, the universities, the unions, and in other institutions in Egyptian life-have not spent all their force.

What a longer-range perspective can help us realize is how different Egyptian politics is likely to be—and indeed how much has been achieved by revolutionaries who ensured that the phrase “Egyptian politics” is no longer an oxymoron. Increased participation and pluralism are already notable. Yes, greater social and political justice have not been achieved, but avenues are emerging where such concerns can be pursued.

Democracy is beautiful; democratic politics is often ugly. Some of the currently disturbing elements in Egyptian politics are sometimes a mark of how far Egyptians have come. That the military now strives to find some guarantees that it will be immune from civilian oversight; that some liberals and others abandon some democratic principles in the face of an Islamist challenge; that many Islamists use their expected popularity as a reason to abandon their attempts to reassure their opponents—none of these developments is pleasant. But every one is a vivid reminder of reborn political contention. And each is also a mark of a new political environment in which no single force or power can dominate and in which Egyptians of various political orientations will have to argue, compete, and cooperate with each other over the country’s political future.

NEXT: Can Egypt’s military rulers withstand popular pressure? Mohamed El-Menshawy with answers…

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