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Egypt’s Bumpy Road to Democracy

By Henry "Chip" Carey

One year after the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian military that has organized the transitional government, accepted a limited role for the new parliament, and moved up presidential elections to July. However, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is implicated in the murders of 300 protesters and the violent repression of female demonstrators. Also, SCAF demands that significant authoritarian prerogatives be preserved, such as a general amnesty for repression and corruption. It seems as though “Mubarakism without Mubarak” will haunt the nation into the future.

The process of demilitarization will most likely be slow and uneven, regardless of whether the Army seeks to control a transition to democracy as occurred in Indonesia and Brazil or attempts to immediately switch to a genuine democracy. The U.S. could encourage an immediate transition by providing incentives that spur genuine democratic reforms as the E.U. did with Turkey after it wanted to become a member of Europe's economic and political union. Thus, as its chief provider of foreign aid in the past 40 years, the U.S. could attach conditions to the billions of dollars of annual aid it provides to Egypt, including $1.3 billion to the armed forces alone. And pursuing a goal of reducing military repression could then act as a driving force in the Egyptian democratization process.

Such reforms certainly risk that Palestinian rights will be advocated more forcefully by the newly heard majority of Egyptians who favor a greater role for Islam in government and society. This is virtually inevitable, and the rest of the world must deal with the increasing roles for Islamist parties. Islamist majorities may yet prove more pragmatic and moderate than ideological and intolerant if they are elected democratically and are held through aid stipulations to respecting the rules of democracy and the rule of law. However, adeptly using the aid-conditionality card would still be America’s best hope to muzzle extremists on all sides (military, religious, and secular) and speed up the transition to a peaceful and tolerant democracy in Egypt.

The successful revolt in Egypt a year ago symbolized much more than the removal of an autocratic president. Neither can anyone ever claim again that Egyptians are afraid of rising up to the army and of taking non-violent action, nor that women of certain ideologies and religious orientations are apolitical and passive. It can also no longer be said that that being an Islamist in Middle Eastern national security states like Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Syria is taboo, or that all authoritarian oppositions inevitably result in totalitarian Islamist parties taking over power. Likewise, the notion that opposition should only come through state-controlled channels, as opposed to emerging from civil society has been completely discredited, as has the belief that divisions within the opposition would prevent it from ever working effectively against a regime.

Yet, the overthrow of Mubarak can hardly be said yet to have successfully launched democracy in Egypt. The military took power as an interim government, claiming to uphold the revolution and provide security and stability during the transition to full liberal democracy. But as the democratically earned power of Islamist parties loom ever larger, the military has become more and more fearful and repressive, and it is trying to entrench its heavy influence in any forthcoming constitutional government. The Muslim Brotherhood has also pointed out some of the SCAF’s repressive measures. It thus remains to be seen whether the largest, non-fundamentalist Egyptian religious party is trying to work out an arrangement with the military.

Most states throughout the region instituted harsh crackdowns of protests to maintain their hold on power. The early success Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, had in overcoming the institutional legacy of decades of repression is crucial since it could set an example for the Middle East. So far, only Tunisia seems to have completed a democratic transition. Libya may be liberated of Gaddafi but is in virtual anarchy; Syria’s dictatorship stubbornly clings to power through daily massacres of protestors in those cities in revolt; and Yemen and Bahrain have massively repressed large-scale revolts with the tacit support of the U.S. military. In the run-up to the three stages of legislative elections in Egypt that were held late last year and in January 2012, the then-ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood was just another terrorist group like Hamas. To be fair, Hamas actually was a 1980s Palestinian spin-off of the Muslim Brotherhood, which itself had been established in 1928. However, in the recent elections, the NDP legacy was repudiated, as the Muslim Brotherhood won a large plurality of votes. Egyptian voters granted 75 percent of the legislative seats to Islamist parties, of which 45 percent went to the reformist Muslim Brotherhood and 25 percent to the more fundamentalist Salifi Al-Nour. Still, the ruling SCAF, headed by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, has repressed protesters and warned the new parliament not to attempt to constrain the military’s autonomy or its budget authority. Most importantly, it demanded impunity for the members of the military and the former Mubarak regime, only excluding Mubarak himself.

Whether and how the newly elected parliament, and eventually an elected president, can demilitarize Egyptian politics will depend to a large extent on the complicated, tense, and evolving relationship between the military hierarchy and the 90-year old Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best organized party and enjoys nearly a majority of legislative seats.

Since the January “revolution,” of last year, the Muslim Brotherhood has already made a pact with the SCAF to postpone the hand-over of power until June of this year. However, a instead of areal demilitarization , there has only been continued repression and provocations to divide and rule the opposition along ethno-religious, class, and ideological lines. This has resulted in numerous unacknowledged atrocities likely to have been committed by the military in an attempt to provoke e sectarian communal strife, such as the massacres of dozens of minority Coptic Christian protestors on several occasions during the past year.

Nevertheless, the historically antagonistic military and the Muslim Brotherhood, have only been collaborating to some extent because they share an adversary, namely, the Salifi fundamentalist party that represents nearly a quarter of the seats. They also find common ground in supporting the Camp David accords with Israel, as well as economic liberalization in cooperation with the IMF and World Bank.

The Muslim Brotherhood has established itself as a democratic, non-violent party, seeking to reform Egyptian politics along the lines of its mentor, Turkey's moderate Islamic AK Party. It also follows the AK Party’s line in seeking justice against the military. Therefore, both the U.S. and Israel, who have strong working relationships with the Egyptian military, are very cautious about embracing such a reformist party. Many elements in both countries prefer that the SCAF not cede government power this summer. Considering that no one assumes responsibility for the assassination of a UN worker on February 12th as well as the army’s ambiguous if not pernicious role in the trampling 74 soccer fans to death in Port Said on February 2nd, many are suspicious that the military, thanks to the backing of Israel and the U.S., is not going to cede power. The military certainly wants to continue to exert power, similar to the army's role in Turkey and Pakistan, and to prevent democratically elected legislatures from effectively reviewing the national budget for defense spending.

Egypt’s “people power” does have a fighting chance, because unlike Afghanistan or Iraq, where democracy was forcefully imposed by external powers, Egyptians have an organic democracy movement that has emerged independently and that seeks a civil state under the rule of law. Meanwhile, the U.S., which plays a crucial role in funding the Egyptian military, tries balance its geopolitical interests with the Egyptian desire for democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood, as the most powerful party in the legislature, must not respond like the Hamas. The latter uses force to seize power in Gaza after its electoral victory and rules coercively and undemocratically. Rather, the Brotherhood can and should integrate the moderate secular demands of the population for reform, which in fact was expressed by both the party and civil society in the electoral campaign late last year.

Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood has minority currents and factions that are extremist and would renounce the group’s historic roots in favor of a civil state. These radical elements would expand and be mobilized by further repression by the army. SCAF, in turn, has always claimed that it was the Brotherhood that was violent and radical. The failure of the SCAF to yield power could end up a self-fulfilling prophesy, facilitating the radical Brotherhood elements to mobilize, polarize, and radicalize, while advocating an Islamic state and violent resistance.

After decades of nearly total repression by the armed forces, the ruling military,  the leading opposition party, and the Muslim Brotherhood relate to each other with mutual wariness. In the past, the Brotherhood renounced terrorism, despite the assassination of their founder and the imprisonment of many of its leaders. It is largely the older generation of incarcerated Brotherhood activists that represents the more radical factions, including some who have left Egypt, such as al-Qaida's current leader Aymin al-Zawahiri current leader of,and various members of Hamas in Gaza who advocate Shar’ia law and theocracy. The army may try to provoke and fuel the aggression of these radicals, just as it has murdered dozens of Coptic Christians to inflame ethno-religious tension, and to justify delaying presidential elections that are currently scheduled for June 30, 2012.

The SCAF has also repressed NGOs advocated democracy. Victims of this crackdown include both Egyptian and U.S. donor-created NGOs, such as the U.S. Republican and Democratic Institutes, and Egyptian NGO monitors that have documented many of the instances of Egyptian electoral frauds of the past decade. Interestingly, the only time that credible elections were held was under Mubarak. This credible vote count during the 2005 legislative vote, when the candidates running independently but affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood won 80 seats was facilitated by a court order that requested the presence of a judge in every polling station But in 2007, Mubarak’s ruling party instituted a constitutional change that banned judges in polling stations, and the Muslim Brotherhood-linked candidates were thus hindered from winning a seat in the November 2010 election. With NGOs now effectively out of the picture, the military could do much more to manipulate the electoral process to its favor since it can act away from public scrutiny.

It remains to be seen whether Egyptian politics will moderate religious or extremist attitudes (as in the experiences of French and Italian communist parties) or entrench existing and simmering radicalism (as in the case of Hamas in Gaza). Yet, conditioning aid to restrain the Egyptian military from repression and abuses of power will steal the thunder of the radicals’ calls for violence and at the very least establish the foundation for a democratic system. The release of 16 U.S. citizens, who were arrested for promoting democracy in Egypt, is one of several important human rights and rule-of-law requirements for continuing the billions in U.S. aid that should be used as leverage to promote democratic reforms.



Henry "Chip" Carey is an associate professor of Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He is the author of: Privatizing the Democratic Peace: Policy Dilemmas of NGO Peacebuilding and Reaping What You Sow: A Comparative Examination of Torture Reform in the United States, Israel, France and Argentina.

(Photo courtesy of Zakodite)

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