Just four months after forcing their president of thirty years to step down—the culmination of what Egyptians now refer to (with still considerable pride) as their “revolution”—many citizens have begun to show signs of impatience and concern. In a just-concluded week-long trip to Egypt and a set of conversations with Egyptians from across the political spectrum, I found far less jauntiness than in a previous visit in March. Some of the declining enthusiasm was inevitable given the unrealistic expectations generated by the elation of the February triumph. 

But two developments should concern even the more cautiously optimistic. First, the ruling junta’s numerous political mistakes—most made more out of inexperience than out of ill intentions—are coming home to roost, especially its opacity and badly designed transition process. Second, a political chasm between Islamist and non-Islamist political forces has emerged in the aftermath of the constitutional referendum in March (in which the two forces lined up on different sides of the issue). 

Differences of opinion among political leaders are necessary to give people democratic choices, but the problem for Egypt is that the suspicions among various leaders are growing so deep that conspiratorial talk of secret pacts, foreign funding of and support for opponents, and hidden agendas has become extremely widespread—and this in a context in which the rules of political contestation are not yet written (and indeed must be devised by rival trends that view each other increasingly darkly).

My best guess is that Egypt’s future will be far more pluralistic and democratic than its past despite these problems, that the poorly designed transition will produce manageable outcomes for all parties, and that the rivalries among political forces will ultimately be shaped in a democratic manner by the yet-to-be determined electoral process. I remain deeply optimistic about the country’s political future. But I suspect that while Egyptian activists will emerge with important lessons for those who wish to mobilize under authoritarian conditions (and indeed, some have already played a mentoring role to those in other Arab countries), very few Egyptians will be asked to make a career as consultants helping those in other countries emulate the Egyptian transition process.  

The Actors

The Military
In understanding the actions and intentions of Egypt’s currently ruling junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a considerable amount of guesswork is required. And that is a problem not only for an observer attempting to decipher Egyptian politics; it is a problem for Egypt as well.

While some SCAF members speak publicly in order to explain and justify their decisions, almost all Egyptians active in political life are clearly frustrated with the body’s opaqueness and failure to consult with or listen to the country’s various political forces. And that has been a clear flaw from the beginning of the SCAF’s entry onto the political scene, shortly before President Hosni Mubarak’s departure. 

In my recent trip, I asked most activists and officials I met with if they had any reliable knowledge of any direct contacts between civilian political or government leaders and the SCAF outside of widely announced but ritualistic dialogue sessions. None was able to come up with a single name or instance. Cabinet ministers are far more accessible and are able to set policy to some extent in their specific spheres, but basic decisions about the transition process are firmly in military hands. Vague allegations of a secret Muslim Brotherhood-SCAF agreement are taken as established truth in many non-Islamist circles, but no evidence is ever cited. Two Brotherhood leaders disavowed any direct contact with the SCAF outside of the formal sessions now widely seen as useless.  

The generals clearly monitor both traditional and newer media discussions very closely. (Indeed, on a previous trip, I met someone who was responsible for providing military leaders with a report on public reaction to a package of constitutional amendments presented to the voters in the March referendum. He did so the same way I did—by reading the newspaper, watching television, and browsing various websites.) The SCAF’s hypersensitivity to public criticism has led to some heavy-handedness on its part, and the military in general remains one of the few remaining areas treated as too sensitive for extensive media discussions (though it is hardly off-limits in private conversations).

While the SCAF’s lack of transparency and failure to consult with various political forces receive much criticism, as do many of its decisions, no Egyptian I spoke with felt that the military aims to retain power indefinitely. When I was asked for my own opinion and advice (one of the subtle changes in post-revolutionary Egypt that I noticed is how much more frequently activists—especially, but not exclusively, younger ones—seem eager to hear others’ opinions and suggestions), I said my impression was that the SCAF was behaving like a newly licensed driver who is not quite ready to navigate narrow streets or heavy traffic. Every time I used the analogy, it provoked a chuckle and a nod. One member of the coordinating committee of revolutionary groups went further and said the SCAF was like a new driver who had decided to enter a Formula One race.

If the SCAF does not want to rule, but refuses to surrender decision-making power for now, what motivates its actions? What seems most likely is that the generals want to ensure that they retain their privileged but insulated position in the Egyptian state, maintain a strong voice in external security, and keep their affairs immune from the political process. In short, they do not want a military regime, but neither do they want civilian oversight. One SCAF member raised eyebrows when he suggested that the military be removed from presidential control, since it should be responsive to the needs of the Egyptian people as a whole rather than a particular official—a view that ostensibly was in alignment with a post-Mubarak focus on trimming the presidency down to size but utterly incompatible with any existing conception of democratic control of the armed forces.

It must also be noted that while the SCAF parachutes its decisions and decrees down onto the civilian population, it is hardly impervious to popular pressure. Indeed, the revolutionary coalition has held together to the extent that it has largely because of the realization that a large demonstration can persuade the SCAF to stop dragging its feet on a particular issue—such as the arrest of high officials of the old regime and Mubarak’s prosecution.

Non-Islamist Forces

Indeed, the pattern of the SCAF bowing to public pressure risks leading many of Egypt’s non-Islamist political forces to focus on issues that they can achieve through demonstrations and distracting them from the impending electoral process. There is every reason to keep up the pressure on Egypt’s otherwise unaccountable junta, and a highly mobilized and engaged population offers some possible guarantees against an authoritarian relapse. And there is no reason why mobilizing for demonstrations and for elections are mutually exclusive—in many democratic countries, they are tightly linked. But I was startled when I asked a former Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary member what other groups he saw organizing in his Delta district, and he responded that he was not aware of any.

Egypt’s non-Islamist forces—a very diverse array of youth groups, labor organizations of various stripes, ideological movements, and older and newly forming political parties—know that they are not ready for parliamentary elections in September. Since the March referendum—when most of them supported a losing campaign to reject the amendments that seemed to rush the transition process—their fear of Islamists (who supported the referendum) has merged with their deep concern about electoral politics. In recent weeks, they have returned with some coherence to their argument during the referendum campaign that the SCAF’s transition sequence is mistaken. Coalescing around the demand “The Constitution First,” the non-Islamist forces are ironically and un-self-consciously asking for a postponement of full democracy.

Three severe problems exist with the attempt to reopen the issue of the transition timetable. First, the SCAF has been consistent about the sequence of the transition from the beginning. And the constitutional referendum in March and the subsequent constitutional declaration seem to have resolved the issue months ago. Shifting to the “constitution first” would defy both the SCAF and the considerable majority of voters who approved the referendum. The SCAF’s legal behavior has left enormous loopholes for those who argue that the issue is less than resolved (see my piece with Kristin Stilt, “A Haphazard Constitutional Compromise”), but it puts non-Islamists in the politically difficult position of arguing for the irrelevance of the most democratic referendum Egypt has ever held.

Second, the effort is blatantly partisan. Many of those who favored writing the constitution as a first step in the transition process are all but explicit that their primary motivation is fear of the electoral strength of the Muslim Brotherhood. What started out as a principled (and fairly cogent) argument about proper sequencing in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s fall has now metamorphosed into an attempt to write rules to serve specific political forces (see also Marc Lynch, “Uncertainty and Optimism in Cairo”).  

Finally, holding up all aspects of the transition until a constitution is written lengthens Egypt’s current political interregnum and leaves the military in charge in the meantime (earlier demands for the SCAF to cede some authority to a “presidential council” are still heard but have receded). And the suggestion that the constitution be drafted before anything else has not been coupled with any realistic proposal for writing such a document in a democratic manner before some aspects of democracy—such as an elected parliament—are put in place.

Despite such obstacles, non-Islamist political forces have been gradually swinging behind the demand to write the constitution first. And they are using the mobilizing techniques that have served them so well in the past few months: large demonstrations, clear and simple slogans and demands, and broad, non-ideological coalitions.  

The problem for their long-term political prospects is that such efforts seem to be taking the place of the hard work of converting their organizational successes into parties and effective electoral organizations. To be fair, many of Egypt’s revolutionaries make very clear that they do not seek to make such a shift: they see their role as overseeing the transition process and exerting pressure on leaders rather than running for office and governing. But even the rapidly thickening forest of emerging parties seems to be more effective at debating on television rather than organizing on the ground. 

Egypt’s Islamists—and especially the Muslim Brotherhood—have reason to look upon the events of the past few months with tremendous satisfaction: a regime that used harsh and brutal tools against them has fallen and the Brotherhood is very much a part of efforts to construct a new political system. For the first time in six decades, the movement has legal status, in the form of its nominally independent political party, the Party of Freedom and Justice. And its leaders are looking forward to the upcoming parliamentary elections with optimism.

But the current period contains real challenges for the movement as well. First, its progress has clearly stoked fears among many Egyptians and panic among a few. For more than a decade, Brotherhood leaders had worked—with admittedly mixed success—to present a less intimidating face, broaden their rhetoric, and reassure other political actors. In the post-revolutionary environment, their ability to accomplish these tasks may be receding; perhaps more troubling for Egypt, some of their interest in talking across Egypt’s political divide is declining as well. The movement’s leaders feel that they are operating in a hostile media environment, with every rhetorical misstep trumpeted in newspapers and television discussions for days. (While the resentment has a solid foundation, some Brotherhood spokesmen seem to be expert in unintentionally providing rich sources of ammunition for their detractors.)

When pressed, Brotherhood leaders acknowledge the growing political rift but claim that it operates only at the level of the political elite. Moreover, they disavow any responsibility. (Brotherhood leaders constantly assert, for instance, that they are willing to develop a joint electoral list with all political parties. The proposal may be well-intentioned and has led to some polite agreements in principle that are unlikely to bear much fruit. But it would simply be very strange to begin democratic politics by divvying parliamentary seats before voting takes place.) The unspoken retort to non-Islamist forces seems to amount to: “You can mobilize tens of thousands in Tahrir Square; we can mobilize millions of voters.” Unlike their non-Islamist counterparts, they are ready for electoral politics to begin.

The gap also seems to be throwing the Brotherhood and some salafi movements together. Attempts to coordinate with salafis are not easy; one Brotherhood leader explained that they had no unified leadership and that “some want to participate; some do not; and some want to call you an apostate.”  And the problems with a Brotherhood-salafi alliance lie not merely in the latter’s lack of organizational coherence. Salafis have been a growing presence in Egyptian society, but they are clearly inexperienced in making broad public appeals. For every gaffe by a Brotherhood leader, there are scores of far more egregious salafi statements. (One Egyptian, evincing both amusement and horror, showed me a video clip of a salafi preacher explaining that anyone who entered a room saying “Good morning,” rather than the Qur’anically enjoined “Peace be upon you,” is attracting Satan.) And a Brotherhood leader acknowledged that salafis needed help in learning how to speak outside of their own narrow circles. In short, a Brotherhood-salafi alliance would not only be a product of Egypt’s deepening political rift; it would also greatly aggravate it.

A larger long-term problem for the Brotherhood may stem from its political success. Ideological movements that enter electoral politics often see a slow shift of energy and focus from the leaders of the ideological movement to the political strategists. A group of Brotherhood parliamentarians who speak publicly, draft laws, provide constituent services, and garner popularity might begin—over several electoral cycles—to pull the movement in a political rather than a broadly social and religious direction.  

Movement leaders show some concern about being overly seduced by politics and have therefore worked to keep their new party on a very short leash (see my article, “The Muslim Brotherhood as Helicopter Parent”). Such a solution might work for the short term, but over the long term, any electoral success by the party is likely to develop into a strain between politics and broader social and religious work.

Post-electoral Outlook

Few Egyptians deny the deepening gulf between Islamist and non-Islamist political forces, but not all are deeply concerned. Several very savvy activists suggested that the parliamentary elections slated for September will accomplish a great deal of political sorting. Not only will the relative strength of various forces become clearer, but political authority will gradually shift from non-democratic, ad-hoc structures to institutions and processes more firmly rooted in democratic legitimacy.

Over the long term that will likely happen. The fate of the revolution—and even its qualification as a true revolution rather than a more mild regime change—will not become clear until new structures are built and determine Egypt’s political directions. The events following January 25 have already turned up on Egypt’s national secondary school examination, but students should be forgiven if they cannot answer all of the questions. Not even the September elections will resolve all problems. The parliament itself will likely be divided; most observers expect a strong Islamist minority (likely the largest bloc); a more scattered assortment of liberal and leftist parties; and a large number of independents. It is this parliament that will select the 100 authors of Egypt’s post-revolutionary constitution. Three enormous unanswered questions about the post-electoral political environment remain. First, what is likely to be the role for the president and the SCAF? The SCAF assigned itself tremendous authority before the presidential election, and a few quiet suggestions of the postponement of presidential elections raise the possibility of a continued leadership role for the junta. But how effectively would the SCAF be able to present itself as the highest authority in the nation in the presence of an elected parliament? And what will its role be—if any—if presidential elections are indeed held? Will the new president have any real checks placed on his authority? And what will the interim cabinet look like? The constitutional declaration removes most elements of parliamentary oversight from the cabinet—meaning those who are running Egyptian health, education, finance, and justice ministries will be able to do so as they please, or perhaps merely answer to the SCAF or the president who will likely appoint them. Will the parliament attempt to question ministers and, despite the silence of the constitutional declaration on such issues, hold them politically accountable? Will the idea of a technocratic cabinet continue to seem appropriate, or will various political forces try to insist on a presence?

Second, what will be the role of popular mobilization, which has been so effective in pushing the process forward over the past few months? Will the network of groups that brought down a regime and continue to pressure reluctant generals be able to continue to pull people out into the streets around a coherent agenda? And if so, how will they try to shape the constitutional process and the legislative agenda of the new parliament?

Finally, how will Egypt’s new constitution be written and what will it say? The process as laid out in the March constitutional declaration is strangely (and probably badly) designed: the new parliament will designate a group of 100 figures to write it. (There is no evidence that anyone has yet given any thought as to who the drafters should be—what mixture of parliamentarians, politicians, constitutional lawyers, and civil society activists—and how various interests should be balanced. There is not much evidence either that anyone has considered its content beyond a few contentious issues, such as the role of religion and the balance between presidential and parliamentary authority.) The drafters are to complete their task within six months, but there is no clear guidance on what happens if they miss the deadline. Their work is to be submitted to a referendum within fifteen days, but nobody is slated to review it and there will barely be enough time for people to read it before a vote.

The political mistakes of the SCAF and the growing divide in the Egyptian body politic are rubbing some of the luster off the January 25 revolution. In a less promising political climate, these factors might lead to very unfortunate outcomes indeed. But the relative homogeneity of Egyptian society, the strength of its institutions, and the residue of post-revolutionary enthusiasm will likely make them complicating factors rather than fatal flaws.