Don’t rule out a democratic transition in Egypt, writes Temple University’s Sean Yom (left). The regime is resilient but not invulnerable and a combination of sustained mass mobilization, politically coherent opposition and US pressure could yet trigger a genuine transition process.
Despite the dramatized narratives of revolution evoked by the media over the past three weeks, Egypt’s political transition stands on shaky ground. President Hosni Mubarak retains his formal office, and the only institutional change has been the ascent of his military sentinels into the governing cabinet.
However, ongoing talks between the regime and opposition leaders have the potential to generate a genuine democratic breakthrough. The ultimate outcome will hinge on whether current negotiations can produce a mutual compromise of key reforms, and whether the United States can apply constructive and vigorous pressure to facilitate this process.
The one background factor in Egypt that strongly favors a democratic direction is mass mobilization. In East-Central European communist autocracies like Poland and Hungary, popular upheavals signaled the early breakdown of dictatorial order. Yet after the initial shock, it was the specter of further uprisings that mattered most, undercutting the supposed invulnerability of the repressive apparatus while creating incentives for hardliners in the ancien régime to consider meaningful concessions.
After January 25, analogous processes have struck urban Egypt. Waves of public unrest exposed the bankruptcy of the civilian security forces and extracted Mubarak’s promise to abstain from next September’s elections; but they also sparked fortuitous byproducts—they created new ties between different opposition groups, and enabled middle-class citizens to openly discuss a post-Mubarak Egypt without fear.
Sustaining this civic spirit is critical given that the Egyptian regime’s new stewards, vice president Omar Suleiman and premier Ahmed Shafik, are career military officers with little appetite for democracy. Indeed, while the government has promised vague steps, such as broadening basic freedoms and pursuing legal reforms, it has refused to entertain core opposition demands, among them Mubarak’s immediate resignation, dissolving parliament, and ending the state’s emergency laws.
As talks with the opposition become heated, mass protests can maintain the pressure. So long as hundreds of thousands of remain mobilized, and army officers refuse to slaughter them, the regime has powerful incentives to negotiate a settlement. Continued unrest will not only further decimate Egypt’s image in the pan-Arab and global media, it could also wreak economic havoc by ruining the tourism sector and provoking large-scale labor strikes.
As the reformulated regime prepares for a bumpy ride, the Egyptian opposition has its own burdens. There was no ideological vanguard to the uprising. The well-organized Muslim Brotherhood captures Western attention, but in reality their supporters constitute only a minority of the crowd. On the secular side, youth activists, eminent dissidents, civil society movements, and leftist parties all claim parts in the informal coalition that has emerged. Yet the majority of the hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of citizens participating in the protests have no political affiliations. Much as in other mass urban protests, they insist on fundamental political change because they perceive it to be possible for the first time in their lives
Collaborating now in an unprecedented campaign, these opposition forces need to fulfill several goals to keep democratic momentum alive. First, rather than its current strategy of leadership-by-committee, a central voice must unite a reasonable majority of the opposition, provide a focal point for coordination, and prevent defections in the ranks. Mohamed ElBaradei is the de facto choice, but his celebrity alone will not guarantee enduring support; he must embrace different constituencies and resolve conflicting interests.
Second, just as the opposition demands that Suleiman and his allies abandon the status quo, they likewise must rethink their zero-sum demands. This does not imply that they blindly accept the reformulated regime’s proposed reforms, which would only result in a renewed (if more liberalized) autocracy. But the experience of democratic transitions from military regimes in Brazil and Argentina, for instance, suggests that both opposition and powerholders must be open to bargained “second best” solutions that will not satisfy either’s initial preference, but nonetheless protect mutually vital interests while providing a shared timeline of change.
One scenario is that Mubarak be allowed to stay in office until the September elections—but that constitutional revisions must occur within one month, alongside an immediate cabinet shuffle that would retain its military leadership but incorporate new opposition figures. Each side should enjoy maximum flexibility to craft different options for a transitional framework, but with one binding mandate: September’s presidential elections must be free, fair, and monitored by external observers. Other contentious issues, such as reconfiguring parliament and lifting the state of emergency, must also be negotiated, but only after mutual credibility and willingness to compromise has been established. Frustrating as it may be, the legacy of thirty years of authoritarianism will not be overcome in a single triumphalist pact.
The National Democratic Party will probably survive this rupture due to its large membership and infrastructure, but it will be only a shadow of its former self, given the military’s apathy and the public’s enmity. Nonetheless, both sides should take cues from the post-communist experience: whatever its rapacious history, the former ruling party must be allowed to compete in a climate of inclusiveness.
The commitment to inclusion also applies to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers will run candidates in future elections, but they will be constrained by the same rules of the game as other political actors. Western observers who advocate the Brotherhood’s categorical exclusion from any future electoral process have little faith in democracy—less so, ironically, than the Brothers, who contested fraudulent parliamentary elections when many secular counterparts stayed home.
Perhaps the most enigmatic variable, and certainly the key international actor, is the US. Given Washington’s strategic interests in stability, the Obama administration will play a crucial role in shaping events. Some of the most iconic snapshots of the revolt unwittingly showcased the Egyptian-US alliance, from the graffiti smeared over M60 Patton battle tanks to the screaming F-16 Falcon jets that buzzed Tahrir Square. After initial caution, the White House accepts that a gradual transition must take place under Suleiman. Virtually nothing, save perhaps massacres in downtown Cairo, will budge US policymakers from this “gradualist” stance. Egyptian citizens recognize this, and many have criticized Washington for what they perceive as an inconsistent approach of sympathizing with the protesters without pressuring the regime to make real democratic concessions.
Clearly, more can be done. A pragmatic approach could entail more forceful and consistent US pressure on the regime to continue good-faith bargaining with the opposition groups and to restrain the police and state security from further violence. That vice-president Suleiman is a well-known ally cuts both ways: though often decried as an American stooge, his familiarity also means that US diplomats and intelligence officers can more easily backchannel with him.
In addition to forceful diplomacy, the administration has the ultimate trump card in the $1.3 billion annual military aid package given to Egypt. Making at least some funds conditional on domestic reforms is not unprecedented; the Bush administration tried to do so in 2007, which raised fury in Cairo. Threats to do so again would send welcome moral signals to the opposition, while compelling the regime to continue negotiations. However, such threats must be measured: drastic warnings about cutting off aid carry little credibility for Egyptian military insiders, who rightfully predict that their country’s strategic value—and possible Congressional backlash—would force the Obama administration to backtrack.
Egypt stands at the brink of potential democratization, but it remains uncertain whether mass mobilization and a coherent opposition can sustain these pressures with a reluctant regime. The US can play a pivotal role, nudging the government towards a genuine transitional process. These contingent dynamics will ultimately determine whether historians describe the winter of 2011 as a quaint episode of rebellion in a history of durable dictatorship, or as the tumultuous inception of electoral democracy in the Arab world’s most populous state.
Sean L. Yom is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Temple University, and is finishing a book on authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.