Egypt and the fear of authoritarian relapse

As Egypt’s presidential election enters its run-off phase, the campaign of Mohamed Morsy has adopted a new slogan: “Our Strength is in Our Unity.” There is great irony in this rhetorical turn, as Morsy’s Muslim Brotherhood is one of the major culprits responsible for this political fragmentation that has haunted Egypt’s transition and doomed ambitious designs for revolutionary change. Much of this fragmentation reflects divergent beliefs. Equally important, however, has been the spectacular failure of political leadership since the fall of the former regime. With all sides excessively focused on short-term electoral outcomes, the country’s political leaders eschewed the complicated task of forging unified demands, advocating for change in concerted fashion, and creating a political system before fighting over its control. This inability to prioritize essential steps obscured the shared challenges that faced the various political forces that participated and propelled the Egyptian uprising.

It was, and remains, unrealistic to expect unanimity with respect to a shared vision of state and society. But the inability to forge a modicum of political solidarity around a basic set of demands ensured that the momentum for change that accompanied Egypt’s historical opening would quickly give way to the more prosaic pursuit of political power. While electoral politics remain an essential feature and goal of any credible transitional process, competitive politics alone, without a shared commitment to reform, will inevitably prove largely divisive -and are likely to fail to create any lasting/systemic change.

The latest installment in this serial mismanagement was on display in the first round of the presidential elections, in which Egypt’s political center was fractured, giving way to the extremes of the political spectrum. The top two finishers, Morsy and Ahmed Shafiq, a longtime stalwart of the former regime, were unable between them to win over a majority of voters. Yet one of these two polarizing figures will shortly be tasked with leading a traumatized and divided Egypt.

This desultory and unrepresentative outcome should galvanize a wiser attitude toward politics among those who seek fundamental change and who feel alienated by the political choices now facing the country. There are serious substantive disagreements regarding political, social and economic philosophy, even among those parties and factions most committed to the animating rationales of 25 January. The particularisms that define these diverse political currents will one day be an appropriate avenue for political contestation. But that day will only come if reformist political forces adopt an inclusive big-tent approach to electoral politics. To start, this would require agreement upon core demands, such as the maintenance of a civil state, protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, civilian supremacy over the armed forces, meaningful security sector reform, focused vetting of the worst offenders of the former regime, dismantlement of the modalities of exceptional justice, systematic efforts at transitional justice, reform of state media, an expanded social safety net, and increased transparency. Sustaining a diverse coalition would require tolerating divergent views on social and economic policy and overcoming ego-driven fractiousness.

Without such efforts, electoral politics won’t result in coalitions or unifying platforms, but instead will continue to favor parties and candidates able to consistently mobilize a base of voters, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the seemingly revitalized patronage networks of the now dissolved-National Democratic Party.      

Overcoming these organizational disadvantages will require sacrifice and uncomfortable compromise. It also will require imagination, charisma, and political wisdom -commodities in short supply in contemporary Egyptian politics. Such efforts at broad-based solidarity should have guided the first stages of Egypt’s transition following the fall of Hosni Mubarak. While the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has clearly mismanaged the transition process, the trajectory of that transition was not foreordained, including the outsized role assumed by the country’s military rulers. In the early stages, prior to the recriminations that accompanied the constitutional referendum, Egypt’s revolutionary forces were endowed with moral legitimacy in their efforts to combat the institutional legacies of authoritarian rule.

A genuine national dialogue was never attempted, however, despite the dire need for such efforts. The veneer of solidarity that marked the 18 days of Egypt’s uprising masked the limited understanding or accord among participants, and the speed with which events unfolded limited the cohesiveness of the protest movement, which encompassed broad and divergent swaths of Egyptian society.

This disarray fuelled a feeling among the Brotherhood and its leadership of impending electoral dominance and influenced their acquiescence to the transition road-map put forward by the military leadership, which was seen as an avenue for maximizing their electoral prospects. Revolutionary forces might have coalesced out of a shared fear of authoritarianism from the military as well as the Brothers. Instead, petty politics came to the fore, emphasizing minute differences and cannibalizing the ranks of the remainder of the political class. This initial fragmentation among Egyptian political factions was compounded by the difficulties inherent in political party organization in a limited timeframe and the challenges of focusing efforts on party formation when protests and street politics were still ongoing and ascendant.

These early failures in political leadership represented a recurring theme that has marred the transition process and cleared the way for expanding military power, as the Brotherhood remained largely silent, reliant on the SCAF to implement an advantageous transition road-map.

The military establishment emerged strengthened from the fall of the former regime, with its institutional rivals from within the regime diminished and its popular legitimacy enhanced by its refusal to murder Egyptians in defense of the old order. Based on the rearranged balance of power in the wake of the uprising, it was unlikely that the military’s existing prerogatives and privileges would have been challenged by Egypt’s nascent political forces. However, the fragmented political order created opportunities for the SCAF to expand its power and intrude increasingly upon civilian authority.

While the military establishment was strengthened by the toppling of the Mubarak regime, the SCAF has proven an unsteady political actor and has shifted course on those rare occasions when the Egyptian political class has managed to display unity of purpose.

It is this unity of purpose that is now an imperative if the reformist forces in Egyptian society and political life are to be effective and avoid future electoral catastrophes. This course would strengthen the possibilities for a progressive agenda that could serve as a force for positive change and challenge the reactionary visions put forth by the defenders of the old regime and the Brotherhood. Such unity of purpose will require clear-eyed political leadership and an expansive understanding of shared interests. It will also require the kind of compromise and bold negotiation that has so far eluded virtually every political grouping. Without such broad-based political organization, Egypt will face the very real possibility of authoritarian relapse. Challenging military power, contesting the electoral supremacy of the Brotherhood, and reforming the institutional and bureaucratic infrastructure of the state are massive undertakings that will end in failure if Egypt’s political fragmentation is left unaddressed.  

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow at The Century Foundation

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