What Will Become of Egypt?

Following mass protests, Egypt’s military intervened on July 3 to remove President Mohamed Morsi from office, marking a dramatic turn in the country’s post-Mubarak transition. Four Egypt experts and Sada contributors weigh in on Egypt’s current predicament.

Following mass protests, Egypt’s military intervened on July 3 to remove President Mohamed Morsi from office, marking a dramatic turn in the country’s post-Mubarak transition. Egypt’s armed forces are now back at the helm, with promises of a new political roadmap and quick transition back to a civilian government. But the country is deeply divided and the path forward is profoundly uncertain.

Four Egypt experts and Sada contributors weigh in on Egypt’s current predicament. Each offers a unique perspective on different factions’ motivations for political reconciliation and compromise and whether a political solution is possible.

It’s Not About Civil War

Nathan Brown

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.

Nathan Brown is a non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and professor of political science at George Washington University.

It’s All About Inclusiveness

Mohammed Samhouri

Out of the many important lessons one can draw from the ouster of the Egyptian Islamist president Mohamed Morsi early this month, two in particular are highly relevant and have significant implications for addressing Egypt’s future political stability and viability. First, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) failed to fully understand the unique historical circumstances that brought them to power last summer. Second, they failed to exercise the art of modern-day inclusive, participatory, and consensus-building politics that is necessary to move post-Mubarak Egypt forward.

As a consequence of this tragic double failure, the MB has grossly misused the slim-margin (51.7%) presidential mandate they were given by the Egyptian people in June 2012, gradually advancing an Islamist agenda that was in sharp contrast to the Egyptian people’s wider, more diverse, and more pressing aspirations—as shown in their famous cry at Tahrir Square two and a half years ago for “bread, freedom, and social justice.”

The price of this tragic failure was quite high indeed, and it manifested itself by the end of Morsi’s first year in office in a number of ways: an increase of the country’s political instability and uncertainty, heightened social unrest and fractionalization, deteriorating public and personal security conditions, and the decline of the Egyptian economy to the point of near collapse. All of this added to the sense of frustration of an already impatient public that was eager to see tangible improvements in their lives and livelihoods.

Only by taking into account these complex political, social, security, and economic factors can one fully understand what happened in Egypt on June 30, and—perhaps more impressively—why an unprecedented 20 million Egyptians (by some counts) took to the streets demanding an early end to Mosri’s four-year tenure in office. Only in this context should one judge the adequacy of the “roadmap”—such as the timetable for its implementation, how the committees in charge for amending the suspended 2012 constitution will be formed and what the nature and scope of their mandate will be, and whether the different powers vested in the interim president will be acceptable to different political players—for the post-Morsi transition, announced by the Egyptian interim president on July 9, and assess its chances of failure or success. And only in this context is it possible to emphasize the crucial need for a speedy political reconciliation and to strongly caution against a non-inclusive transition process that could drive Egypt further into the unknown.

Mohammed Samhouri is a Cairo-based economist and a former senior fellow and lecturer at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies in Boston.

Tough Going for Reconciliation?

Mohammed Salem

What will come after the fall of Mohammed Morsi? The question was not considered before the June 30 demonstrations and remains unanswered. Its complexity may arise from the fact that the protests focused solely on the immediate removal of the Muslim Brotherhood, without considering how to deal with them after their fall from power. This has led to the present crisis, which if not defused could easily reverse the gains of the January 25 Revolution. A solution to bypass a potential catastrophe is desperately needed to move forward—turning back is not an option and the status quo is not sustainable. Undoubtedly, national reconciliation appears difficult at the moment, with a host of challenges standing in the way:

  • Both sides are digging in and refuse to yield ground or listen to creative compromises proposed in good faith.
  • The post-Morsi period began with muzzling the media, freezing the assets of Brotherhood leaders, and a massacre by the Republican Guard, all of which created an atmosphere hardly conducive to reconciliation.
  • A sense of fascism—whether religious or exclusionary fascism within secular opposition circles seeking to wipe out the Brotherhood—is rising to the surface as both sides reject any calls for reconciliation.
  • The military leadership is not offering solutions that would incorporate the Brotherhood in the political process. El-Sisi and the other generals are making two critical mistakes in this regard: they are not offering any compromise solutions, and their actions have proven different from their initial promises.
  • The Brotherhood is also refusing to participate in any dialogue unless Morsi is reinstated. For the Brotherhood, this is a fight for survival.

Even though the chances of reconciliation appear remote, there is some cause for hope in the fact that overcoming the crisis is in both sides’ interest. Despite the Brotherhood’s unyielding rejection of dialogue, there are members who see a need for a safe exit and some reassurances for the post-Morsi era. Although they are few and far between, the idea could gain traction in the future, particularly since the military seems disinclined to yield to the Brotherhood’s demands—not to mention that the Brotherhood’s illusion of defections within the army’s ranks now seems far-fetched.

Meanwhile, it is in the army and the secular opposition’s interest to legitimize the new political process, prove that what took place wasn’t a military coup, and demonstrate that its aim is to put the revolution back on track and prevent Egypt from reaching civil war. Talk of political diversity must be anchored in comprehensive national reconciliation—before rushing off to the ballot box.

This text was translated from Arabic. 

Mohammed Salem, a researcher at the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies.

Par for the Course

Nadine Abdalla

Egypt’s experience demonstrates that operational democratic procedures are not sufficient for a successful transition. These procedures have to be held within a consensual framework among political and social actors. A new political order has emerged in recent weeks in Egypt that will probably lead a new transitional process under the military’s tutelage. This order is governed by the liberal opposition and the Salafi Nour party and is implicitly supported by state institutions (the bureaucracy, judiciary, and security apparatus). Inclusiveness—and therefore the reintegration of the Muslim Brotherhood—remains the only hope for a sustainable transition. Otherwise, political instability is likely to increase and the state could possibly collapse under the pressure of an increasing economic crisis—repression will thus be the tool to achieve stability. In this case, Egypt will risk returning to a semi-authoritarian regime partially similar to the Mubarak era.

Taking into consideration two principles—a sincere attempt to reintegrate the Muslim Brotherhood and the new configuration of power relations mentioned above—Egypt can have a transition toward a “competitive authoritarian” regime in the short term. This will possibly have the following features: a balance of power between the parliament (that is roughly half Islamist) and the president (most probably with a military background or possibly from the opposition); a security apparatus similar to the Mubarak era regarding the police and the army at the heart of the regime; and an open political space that includes relatively free elections. It is also worth noting that the political space was opened up after the January 25 revolution and no regime has since been able to close it.

This scenario would suggest that Egypt’s several setbacks are part of its long and slow democratization process.

Nadine Abdalla is a research fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. 

This article is reprinted with permission from Sada.  It can be accessed online at: http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/2013/07/15/what-will-become-of-egypt/gfji

Related Stories