Nathan Brown, non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and professor of political science at George Washington University.
Egypt today is not on the brink of civil war. But neither is it engaged in any transition to a stable democratic system. All sorts of rhetorical red lines have been crossed; violence is now episodically deployed; and the sorts of abuses characteristic of pre-2011 Egyptian politics (instrumental uses of xenophobia; muzzling of media; abuses by security services) have returned in force. There is no particular party to blame in this regard—or rather virtually every party can be blamed.
Stepping back from the struggles of the past two weeks—or even of the past two years—the basic ingredients of Egypt’s political crisis come into sharp relief.
On the level of the Egyptian state, there are two major problems. First, all the mechanisms of an authoritarian order remain very much intact (military courts, an emergency law—even though the state of emergency itself is expired—abusive security services, restrictive laws governing press and civil society, and so on). They no longer are centrally controlled by the presidency—but that leads to the second problem. Important state actors operate without any political oversight whatsoever. Some show limited signs of self-restraint but reject any external checks (the military, al-Azhar, the judiciary). Others (most notably the security apparatus) seem inclined to play a very dirty game indeed. And they sometimes do so to public adulation.
And on the level of political society, there are three problems. First, there is no commonly accepted set of rules; many actors therefore seem to feel entitled to follow their adversaries’ worst behavior. Second, political polarization is not only deep and the rhetoric of delegitimation the most common language used; there are also no venues for adversaries to find even limited common ground. Third, formal organizations are weak. Most political parties are shells; mobilizational social movements are powerful but ephemeral and have trouble playing normal politics or even developing coherent strategies.
Against this long list of problems, it is important to note that Egypt’s post-2011 political order has two very positive features: it is far more pluralistic— in fact no single political actor can dominate the system— and there is a high level of political engagement. In July 2011, it is possible to add one additional, if quite odd, positive factor. The defection of important Salafi actors from President Morsi’s camp during the uprising and coup—whether it was an act of betrayal or not— has prevented the political contest from degenerating into a struggle between Islamists vs. non-Islamists.
What these elements collectively mean is that no adversary can annihilate the others. The problem is that this does not stop some from trying. But until Egyptians—and the institutions that purport to serve them—come to terms with the fact that no actor has either the ability or authority to speak for the entire people, the new pluralism will produce neither stability nor democracy.