Spanish Lessons

History does not repeat itself but it teaches lessons. As Egypt moves from autocracy, it can learn from the way in which Spain made its own transición in the 1970s from the dictatorship of General Franco to the liberal democracy of his appointed successor, King Juan Carlos.

History does not repeat itself but it teaches lessons. As Egypt moves from autocracy, it can learn from the way in which Spain made its own transición in the 1970s from the dictatorship of General Franco to the liberal democracy of his appointed successor, King Juan Carlos.

Spain managed political change with great astuteness. And there is a marked similarity between the Spanish and Egyptian situations that favors managed change: the absence of specifically social upheaval. In either case it is the clarion call for human rights and representative democracy that sounds, not the more radical cry for wholesale replacement of one social system by another. This is not, in other words, revolution or civil war. So change can be effected without violence, give or take the roughness of demonstrations or police responses. It can be advanced institutionally through the redrafting or replacing of constitutions. It can be managed peaceably.

Spain represents the triumph of constitutionalism. The victory was two-fold. The first was the dismantling of Franco’s political system and prevention of the means by which the old dictator sought to perpetuate it from his grave. This was secured by the king’s law tutor at university, Fernández-Miranda, who drafted the Law for Political Reform. As Speaker of the Cortes (parliament) he ensured with lethal skill its ultimate approval. This made possible the second victory: the drafting of an entirely new democratic constitution, approved in a national referendum in December 1978. This led to elections and Spain’s emergence as one of Europe’s stable democracies.

How were these remarkable changes brought about? The key was King Juan Carlos’s determination to make Spain’s transción inclusive, even if this seemed at times a thin veneer. Sufficient links with the old regime were maintained to ensure the old guard’s acquiescence in the changes and to prevent a successful counter-coup. This began with the King himself, not Franco’s stooge after all but, to almost universal amazement, an arch democrat.

It continued with the king’s appointment as prime minister of Adolfo Suarez, minister for the Movimiento, the sole legal political party under Franco. He guided the democratic agenda. Fraga Iribarne, Franco’s minister of tourism, went on to become the new Spain’s minister of the interior. And use was made of the lesser technocrats increasingly forming Franco’s later cabinets.

In Egypt, there are members of the Mubarak era National Democratic Party who are reformers with ideas as innovative as any to be found in an opposition with which they have a natural affinity. For instance, there is Hossam Badrawi, briefly NDP secretary general before his resignation after Mubarak’s last, unacceptable speech, whose children protested in Tahrir Square. He was head of the party’s education committee and has a radical education agenda based on British higher education standards.

Now, it was inevitable during the thirty long years of Mubarak’s rule for decent and talented individuals to have associations with a regime whose negative characteristics they did not endorse. Life goes on under whatever the prevailing conditions may be. Spain’s example teaches the benefits of neither criminalizing such people nor of seeking reprisals in a manner perpetuating precisely the vengeful features of the previous government. It provides sufficient continuity to avoid a sharp national polarization and spur to countercoup. It also offers opportunities for position, business, influence, namely a vested interest in change.

Spain’s transición was all-inclusive in another sense. It provided the context for the drafting of the constitution. The king held clandestine meetings in a country house outside Madrid with the long-barred Communists. Their leader, Santiago Carrillo, was so grateful, not least to avoid prosecution for massacres in the Civil War, that he became not only a staunch supporter of the new political order, but also, paradoxically, highly appreciative of the monarchy. Thus in Egypt it is important that the Muslim Brotherhood should be fully included in framing the new constitution. Supported by a minority of the population, they do not in any case pose the threat that the regime alleged in order to maintain the state of emergency allowing Mubarak to turn Egypt into a police autocracy.

Of course in Egypt there is a major incognito: the army. Given its massive privileges over the 60 years of military rule since the 1952 officers coup, how will it respond to whatever adjustments result from the new civil political order? Spain had its own answer to the army through which Franco came to power and maintained his position, though he never gave it the social and economic advantages that Mubarak’s enjoys. Essentially the Spanish army was won over to democracy by bribery in the form of NATO membership which upgraded its prestige and resources – including nuclear weapons. What comparable incentives might people in Egypt have to be ready to offer Egypt’s military establishment to keep it aligned with their emerging democracy?

Leslie Croxford is the academic director of the British University in Egypt.