Hundreds of Egyptian activists today staged “an unprecedented show of online defiance” to highlight the ruling military’s human rights abuses and mishandling of the political transition process. The pro-democracy groups behind Jasmine revolution are calling for a new day of rage on May 27 to call for the prosecution of former regime officials and for curbs on the power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
Has the forward march of Arab democracy stalled already?
Earlier waves of democratic change confronted countervailing forces, writes Larry Diamond. But, he notes, “most of the Arab political openings are closing faster and more harshly than happened in other regions — save for the former Soviet Union, where most new democratic regimes quickly drifted back toward autocracy.”
In Egypt – the region’s most populous and influential state – the military’s officer corps “does not want to facilitate a genuine democratic transition,” and its failure to curtail rising insecurity is perceived “as part of the military’s grand design to undermine democracy before it takes hold.”
The call for fresh protests is likely to prompt divisions among democracy advocates. One leading liberal has criticized activists for their ‘prolonged opposition trauma’ or inability to move from the politics of opposition to political organization, while others fear that ordinary citizens’ are frustrated by the current instability.
The prospect of a democratic Egypt is being jeopardized by a badly managed transition process, economic insecurity and the breakdown of law and order, says a likely presidential candidate. There is a real danger of popular disillusion setting in, says Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“People now, after the revolution, think revolution means curse. Right now, socially, we are disintegrating and economically we are not in the best shape,” he said today. “And politically, it’s like a black hole. We do not know where we are heading.”
The U.S. and other states can provide “models of how you build up a full-fledged democracy,” but he shares concerns that illiberal forces are taking advantage of the reform process and worries that democratic institutions may be undermined by the weakness of a civic culture characterized by pluralism, tolerance and respect for minority rights.
“You try to ensure that there is a majority rule but also a clear protection of the minority rules,” attributing recent sectarian violence to “many, many factors of 60 years of repression and total chaos. “
ElBaradei believes the military’s election schedule gives an unfair advantage to the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of emerging democratic forces, but a likely rival for the presidency dismisses such fears.
The march to Arab democracy is “unstoppable,” claims Amr Moussa, the outgoing head of the Arab League and former foreign minister. Egyptian inchoate liberal and secular groups have only themselves to blame.
“We can’t have the cake and eat it too. If the Muslim Brotherhood are well organized and well financed and can find their way in an easier manner than others, then others have to get together and try to organize themselves,” he said. “But you cannot blame the Muslim Brotherhood for that.”
Democratic and secular groups are starting to coordinate and form alliances: five left-wing groups have formed a coalition and the liberal Wafd Party is reportedly negotiating a pact with dissident Ayman Nour’s Al Ghad and the Nasserist Party.
Four new liberal parties agreed a tactical pact earlier this month, but the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Free Egyptians Party, Justice Party and Democratic Front Party are remain reluctant to form a coherent bloc that the Islamists would portray as rigidly secular.
“We agreed to arrange ourselves into a broad coalition of liberal, leftist and centrist parties, but not to merge, as that would be very risky,” says Emad Gad, a founding member of the Egyptian SDP. “If all of the civil powers merge into one political party it will be easy for Islamists to divide society and use religion against us.”
“We are not against religion,” he says, “but we are against those who would mix religion and politics.”
Muscular diplomacy and a reformed approach to democracy assistance are both needed to combat authoritarian actors and revive transition prospects, writes Diamond, the director of Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, and co-editor of the Journal of Democracy:
Engaging Egypt will prove vital to any larger strategy of fostering democratic change in the Arab world. Beyond aid and vigilant monitoring of the political process, the United States must deliver a clear message to the Egyptian military that it will not support a deliberate sabotage of the democratic process, and that a reversion to authoritarianism would have serious consequences.
Arab democrats must be given the training and financial assistance they need and seek, he writes, but cautions against simply increasing grant aid to civil society groups which can discredit them or promote corruption.
“Aid should be pooled among multiple donors, provide core (rather than project-related) funding for organizations with a proven track record of advancing democratic change, and must be carefully monitored to ensure that it is being used effectively,” he argues.