Egypt faces three major and related political challenges to a successful democratic transition: the role the military is playing and will continue to play; the presence of powerful Islamic forces, not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but also the Salafi groups and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya; and, somewhat more unexpectedly, the growing reluctance of some self-proclaimed democrats to put the future of the country in the hands of a democratic process. The way these challenges are handled in the coming months will determine whether Egypt moves toward democracy or sinks into a new authoritarianism. Unless Islamists and liberals manage to find a modus vivendi in the coming months, the outcome will be a new authoritarianism, with an alliance between the military and so-called liberals as a more likely outcome than a takeover by radical Islamists.
Judging simply on the official pronouncements of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been acting as a sort of collective presidency in Egypt since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the military does not constitute an obstacle to a democratic transition. On the contrary, it has taken upon itself the task of guiding the country toward such transition, maintaining stability, and ensuring continuity until a parliament and a president are elected. Indeed, many reports point out that the military appears uneasy with the central role it is playing now, and that it is anxious to return, if not to its barracks, at least to the less conspicuous position it occupied under the Mubarak regime, as the ultimate guarantor of stability with no involvement in the day-to-day running of the country.
But there is also evidence that contradicts the official narrative. First, there is no way to determine whether the SCAF speaks for itself or for the entire military. There is no information from open sources about what may be happening within the military below the top ranks represented in the SCAF, and there are reasons to believe that classified sources are equally uninformative. As a result, nobody knows for sure whether there are groups in the military with different political ambitions. It is the author’s experience that questions on this topic never elicit concrete answers, but are never dismissed as preposterous. The sudden appearance in late October of a “campaign” to elect Field Marshall Tantawi as president leaves little doubt that at least some elements in the military want power to remain in the hands of the military.
Second, while the SCAF does not want to replace a civilian government, it has no intention of subordinating itself to one; instead, it wants to remain free of civilian oversight, particularly where its budget and its economic interests are concerned. There is a great deal of speculation concerning how much of the Egyptian economy the military truly controls, with estimates ranging from 5 to 40 percent. But it is known that the economic assets of the military include industrial enterprises, construction companies, Red Sea resorts, and, probably most importantly, vast tracts of land, in addition to the more traditional industrial enterprises that have long been in military hands.
Third, it is becoming evident that the military is no longer in a hurry to relinquish power and that it is interested in influencing the outcome of elections before it does so. After the overthrow of Mubarak, the military had promised elections within six months, leaving many analysts concerned that the timetable was unrealistically short. Under the current plan, elections for the two parliamentary chambers will not even start until the end of November, some ten months after the overthrow of Mubarak, and will stretch on, in installments, until March 2012. At that point, the constitution-writing clock will start ticking, giving the parliament six months to appoint a constitutional commission, which will then have another six to actually draft a constitution. Only after the constitution is approved by a national referendum will the SCAF and the government tackle the task of writing a new election law and organizing presidential elections, probably in 2013. And until presidential elections take place, the military will continue to rule because Egypt has a presidential system in which the prime minister and cabinet are responsible to the president, not to parliament, and the SCAF is acting in lieu of a president. The question can legitimately be asked whether at the end of this protracted process the military will still be power averse or will have gotten used to exercising power in the spotlight.
To complicate the issue further, on November 1 the government released a controversial draft of supra-constitutional principles and other documents that include a secrecy clause protecting the military budget from parliamentary oversight, give the military the right to refer the new constitution to the Supreme Constitutional Court if it is thought to violate any of the constitutional declarations issued by the military, and stipulate that the military can replace the constitutional commission if it does not produce a constitution in the allotted six months. A new announcement on November 3, furthermore, declared that the military would directly appoint eighty of the one-hundred members of the constitutional commission, leaving the elected parliament to only appoint twenty.
Finally, there are signs that the military looks favorably on the return to politics of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). It has so far resisted pressure to ban former NDP members from running for office. Furthermore, the military has also rejected the demand of most political parties that all parliamentary seats be filled by proportional representation, insisting instead that one third (down from one half) be reserved for individual candidates. This is believed to favor former NDP members, many of whom had built strong clientelistic networks.
None of the elements discussed can be taken as a clear indication that the military intends to remain in power indefinitely. Taken together, however, they suggest that there are reasons to worry about the role of the military and how it will affect the possibility of a democratic transition.
Until January 2011, a discussion of Islamists in politics in Egypt was a discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, the situation has become increasingly complex. The Muslim Brotherhood has formed a separate political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. Al-Wasat, an old splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood that had tried unsuccessfully to register as a party for over 15 years, also received approval. Some younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood have started showing their independence, first participating in the uprising even as their elders were holding back, joining forces with other youth groups, and finally forming the Egyptian Current Party (al-Tayyar al-Masry) as well as the smaller al-Reyada.
More surprising, Salafis, long considered to be mostly apolitical or silent backers of the old regime as long as they were left alone, have entered the political fray forming an array of political parties, of which an-Nour, al-Asala, and al-Fadila are the best known but not the only ones. And al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, a movement that burst on the Egyptian political scene with the assassination of Sadat in 1981, but whose leaders then repented after much doctrinal re-examination encouraged by long imprisonment, entered the legal political arena by launching its own Building and Development Party. Finally, Sufis also created at least two political parties: the Egyptian Sufi Liberation Party (al-Tahrir al-Masry al-Sufi) and the Voice of Freedom Party (Sawt al-Hurriya).
The strength of these parties is a matter of much speculation and will remain so until elections take place. For example, it is widely assumed that Salafis are strong in Alexandria and in Upper Egypt, but there is no way to determine either the extent of their support or their capacity to organize, thus translating sympathy for their position into actual votes. The same is true for all other new organizations.
What is clear, however, is that the new parties are unlikely to have anything approaching the capacity for organization of the Freedom and Justice Party, which can draw on the Muslim Brotherhood’s structures. The Brotherhood has a proven track record of efficient organization, not only in politics but also in its proselytizing and charitable work; it enjoys unparalleled name recognition; and it has no compunction in using its religious network in the service of the Freedom and Justice Party and its election prospects. Recently, members of the Brotherhood were told that they must join the party—and presumably turn out to vote for it. Not all will, of course, but there is no doubt that the FJP enjoys advantages that recently formed Islamist parties lack.
But the Freedom and Justice Party has not been able to corral all Islamist parties into its Democratic Alliance, despite considerable effort. On the contrary, it has alienated them to the point that most of them have joined a separate Islamic Alliance competing against the Brotherhood. The split appears to be due to political rivalries rather than ideological differences—the new parties wanted to have much larger representation on the joint electoral lists than the Freedom and Justice Party was willing to give them.
The Illiberal Democrats
Illiberal democrats are Egyptians who advocate democracy and are sometimes as well-known as democracy advocates, but in the end are so worried that democracy will bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power that they turn to illiberal positions and advocate illiberal policies in the hope of avoiding such an outcome. Most democracy advocates do not fall into this category, of course, but since committed democrats are not an obstacle to democracy, they need not be discussed here.
Democratic transitions are difficult processes and entail a great deal of uncertainty. There is never any guarantee that democratic processes, particularly free elections, will produce a democratic outcome in the form of a parliamentary majority committed to democratic principles and governance. It is this uncertainty that leads illiberal democrats to reject democratic processes and choose the authoritarianism they know.
The presence of illiberal democrats is evident in many current debates in Egypt, particularly those concerning the writing of the constitution, the timing of elections, and the role of the military in the transition. Politically active Egyptians were divided back in March on the issue of whether the constitution should be written before elections—thus by a non-elected body—or after elections by a constituent assembly, an elected parliament, or a commission created by the parliament. Those who wanted the constitution to be written by a non-elected body were self-professed democracy advocates fearful that an elected body would not produce a constitution embodying the principles they supported and were thus ready to sacrifice the idea of popular participation and to put the task of writing the new charter in the hands of experts sharing their views.
What is surprising about the debate is not the fact that it took place initially, but that it still continues long after the sequencing of transitional steps has been decided. Parliamentary elections will be held on the basis of a “constitutional declaration,” essentially an interim constitution, devised by the SCAF; the elected parliament will form a constitutional commission to write the constitution, drawing not only on its own members but on representatives of an array of organizations and on constitutional experts; and presidential elections will take place after the new constitution has been approved in a referendum.
Not only is the debate continuing, but the measures advocated by those who do not want an elected body to write the constitution have become increasingly undemocratic, although they are proposed in the name of democracy. One is the imposition of a set of “supraconstitutional” principles that the constitutional commission must abide by, and that can never be amended—an idea which denies the concept of popular sovereignty on the theoretical level and is futile on the political level since any group with sufficient power would make short shrift of principles it does not believe in. Another, more extreme idea, is that elections should be postponed and that the SCAF should transfer power to a powerful prime minister of liberal persuasion for an indefinite period of time and under the patronage of the military. Various versions of this approach have been circulating, in a swirl of rumors. And while nothing concrete has happened, and probably will not happen, the determination of illiberal democrats to control the outcome of the transition even if it means using non-democratic methods is clear.
The fear of secular-oriented individuals about the possibility that Islamists might try to put their imprint on the constitution is understandable, just as the fear of communism in Western Europe after World War I was understandable. But the willingness of supposed democrats to resort to non-democratic methods is as much of a threat to democracy as any attempt by Islamist parties to impose their views on the country. There are antecedents, in other countries and Egypt, which show how fear of one non-democratic outcome can lead citizens of a country to choose another, equally undemocratic one. In Europe, fascist regimes were ushered in and welcomed by citizens who feared communism and chose the authoritarianism of the right over that of the left. In Egypt, the Mubarak regime owed its longevity in part to the acquiescence of people who professed a desire for democracy but in the end preferred the relative security of the status quo to the uncertainty of change.
The military, Islamist parties, and illiberal democrats are all obstacles to a democratic outcome of the Egyptian transition. Depending on how the three actors react to each other, the outcome could doom the chances of a democratic transition or enhance them.
The willingness of illiberal democrats to choose a prolonged period of military control in order to postpone the elections that might confirm their fears that Islamist parties are more popular than liberal ones, could lead to the reemergence of a regime similar to the ousted Mubarak one. This in turn could radicalize Islamist parties and make them even more threatening to secular Egyptians. But a different outcome is also possible: if the transition process envisaged at this time is allowed to continue, all sides may discover that Egypt is indeed a plural society, that no one trend can dominate, and that all sides need to compromise in the writing of the constitution.
Letting the formal democratic process unfold may or may not lead to a political system that is based on democratic values as well. Blocking of the democratic process in the name of democracy, however, is certain to lead to an authoritarian outcome.