5 Political Scientists on the Crisis in Egypt: Consequentialism over Idealism

In the aftermath of the July 3rd military intervention that removed the elected Islamist government from power, the political crisis in Egypt shows no signs of abating. The events which led to the second military intervention to oust a civilian government in just two years is the culmination of a severely flawed process of political transition which utterly failed to account for the consequences of an idealistic and misguided rush to electoral politics. The reason, it appears, is the persistent inability to understand the strategic dynamics of political transitions and the continuing insistence on courses of development grounded in a “logic of appropriateness” that seems to equate electoral institutions with democracy. While this is a continuing fault of policymakers and activists, the academic record is somewhat stronger on this ground, despite the fact that it is largely ignored. While structural theories of democratization continue to be the vogue for the international community, it is the process-based accounts of democratization, emphasizing strategic choice, that provide the keys to understanding the failure of Egypt’s political transition of the past two years.

In 1999, Robert Bates remarked:

A major reason for the relatively democratic outcomes [in Southern Africa] is that the new regimes left the former repressors in possession of a political hostage; the private economy… Should the [retreating] tyrant and his followers own industries or banks, should they control capital, physical or financial, should they, in short, possess economic power, then those seeking their political surrender should respect their rights (1999, 83-4).

Bates’ comment, which forms the core of his explanation for successful democratization in South Africa and Namibia, constitutes an argument that successful transitions cannot lead to the replacement of one ruling group with another, for democracies are never born of revolution, but rather that successful transitions must seek to incorporate elements of the old regime into the new. This argument is also made by Adam Przeworksi in his strategic-choice account of democratization, Democracy and the Market (1991). Przeworksi’s account of transitions identifies splits within two opposing camps and predicts that successful democratic transitions are born of alliances between reformers within the old regime and moderates within the opposition, against their hardliner and radical counterparts. In both formulations, democracy is impossible without participation of the old regime.

In the Egyptian transition, this did not happen. The coalition underpinning the old regime, a combination of military and commercial power, fractured in February 2011. As a result, the military overthrew the civilian commercial elite and extended their hand to the opposition. However, the second stage of the transition caused the collapse of the process. The opposition insisted on the punishment and marginalization of the old regime, and increasingly after the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory, the moderate opposition. While in revolutionary contexts, such as Iran in 1979, moderates find themselves without an ally owing to revolutionary bloodshed, Egypt experienced little revolutionary violence; the military continued to play a dominant role as powerbroker and members of the old regime retained their economic “hostages;” Egypt did not experience a true revolution. Two years later, facing a similarly intransigent challenge from the Brotherhood, “Reformers” and “Moderates,” the groups responsible for the ousting of Mubarak, united once again to oust a hardline regime that was as authoritarian in tendency as that of Mubarak.

If Egypt is to successfully complete its transition towards a more democratic form of rule, the Muslim Brotherhood, as Przeworksi’s “Radicals,” can have no leading position carrying the state forward. This is where the conclusions of Przeworksi clash with the liberal ideals of international democracy activists arguing for a greater role for all Egyptians in the path forward. As Przeworksi argues, democratization is possible only if “(1) an agreement can be reached between Reformers and Moderates to establish institutions under which the social forces they represent would have significant political presence in the democratic system, (2) Reformers can deliver the consent of the Hardliners or neutralize them, and (3) Moderates can control the Radicals” (1991, 68). In the Egyptian context, only condition (2) was fulfilled. Rather than tread carefully to ensure equitable representation and guarantees for vulnerable groups and to protect a centrist “core,” impatience both within the Egyptian secular opposition along with international observers (especially in the United States) led to an emphasis on a rush towards participation before the scope and terms of contestation had been decided upon. The “Radicals,” representing a more unified bloc than the disorganized “Moderates,” gained control of the process and progressively sidelines moderates, manipulated electoral rules, and mounted an attack on a judiciary which largely carried over from the old regime. This attempt at consolidating power was doomed from the outset. Participation was opened before the basic institutional infrastructure of the system could be determined, and an under-informed electorate was pressured to support a constitution that was ill suited for the promotion of meaningful democratic politics. Constitutions should not be selected through majoritarian politics.

Such an observation dovetails nicely with the core arguments of Robert Dahl (1971) and Samuel Huntington (1968), both of whom argued that institutions of contestation must precede the expansion of participation. Such a trajectory of political development characterizes early democracies, such as Britain and the United States, along with certain colonies, most notably Mauritius, and even such repressive regimes as South Africa. In fact, in 1984, Huntington, in a rare moment of forward-looking insight, predicted that South Africa was on a path towards democratization. In 1999, Bates’ remarks validated this observation. By gradually expanding participation, newcomers to the system, “invaders” in the parlance of evolutionary game theory, cannot destabilize the system due to their small numbers in an already consolidated system. Instead, they must accommodate to the equilibria already specified by the system in place. By collaborating with remnants of the old regime, coalitions of compromise were required and radical politics eschewed.

What does this imply for Egypt? First, Przeworski and Bates both explain the trajectory of Egyptian political development from February 2011 through July 2013. The failure of the “Moderate”-“Reformer” alliance took the form of demonstrations against military rule and the demand to turn politics over to the opposition before the constitution was written led to the emergence of “democracy without guarantees” and an attempt to monopolize the system by the radicals. In turn, this attempt threatened the power and privilege of the military and the economically powerful remnants of the old regime. In response, these remnants (Ar: fulul) manipulated the economy and eventually intervened outright to depose the Muslim Brotherhood. However, this leaves Egypt in much the same position it was in two years ago, with a military regime facing a decision about where to go next. The solution being pushed by many in the liberal camp would entail an essential repetition of the process which failed previously. Perhaps the Brotherhood has learned its hard lesson, but I suspect their reaction to a second chance would be an attempt to cut a narrow deal with the military at the expense of the rest of the population. An Islamist-dominated process in Egypt, because of its polarizing tendencies, is doomed to authoritarianism.

If Egypt decides to follow the policy prescriptions stemming from the conclusions of Huntington, Dahl, Przeworski, and Bates, then Egypt’s future would entail a strongly managed transition negotiated by leaders of the moderate opposition and the military. They would decide on the ultimate form of the state and write a constitution that would establish the institutions necessary to ensure such a state, and then would impose it on the rest of society. Elections would only be held after the imposition of a new constitution. Entry into the system would be somewhat guarded so that no group could enter the system and undermine it from within, leading to the prohibition on participation of some forces, notably the Brotherhood, during the transition. This is not to say that individual members of the Brotherhood should be barred from participation, which would push them towards renewed radicalism, but rather that the organization must be politically demobilized and individuals remobilized in other frameworks specified by a new constitution. One solution would be a constitutional clause mandating separation of religion and the state (Turkey), another would be a ban on religious parties, which is currently being considered by the interim administration. The remnants of the old regime would have to be integrated into the new state and their basic privileges protected alongside new rights and protections for groups composing the moderate opposition. Finally, the new process must guarantee the rights of individuals rather than groups.

Such a prescription is not a panacea, and it will undoubtedly be received with discomfort, if not outright revulsion, by pro-democracy activists and policymakers. In fact, outspoken voices across the globe have been advocating precisely the opposite, demanding the reincorporation of the Muslim Brotherhood! Moreover, the violence that has gripped Egypt in recent days has gravely damaged the cohesion of a moderate coalition and increased moderate sympathy for radical positions, once again polarizing Egyptian politics. Furthermore, it has lent credence to a false narrative that equates Mursi supporters with pro-democracy activism, leading liberals to support the continuation of a process which has done nothing but undermine political liberalization in Egypt. While this violent repression has served little constructive purpose, the alternatives being advocated, ranging from the reinstatement of Mursi to reconciliation and reincorporation of the Brotherhood, will not put the country on track to democracy. The only solution is to begin again with closer attention to the possible consequences of constitutional decisions and recognition that constitutions reflect the interests of their writers.

The consequences of the rush to elections and universal inclusion have made themselves felt in Egypt and beyond. Similar transitions are in danger in Libya and Tunisia. Unlike the others, however, in Egypt the military is ideally situated to manage a transition to political democracy due to its corporate identity, cohesion, and general dislike of civilian politics. While they would be, as Barbara Geddes argues in her analysis of authoritarian breakdowns (2004), the most suited force to lead a state to democracy, the generals must not succumb to the pressure of idealists to exit politics until a new system is in place, as this would be just as damaging as a decision to remain in politics in the long term. Simultaneously, they must not antagonize those inclined to support their intervention by continuing their offensive against Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations. For as the continuing stalemate, marked by mutual recriminations, reveals, the Egyptian state cannot get on without the military in an active stewardship role in the short term, even if they cannot prosper under military rule in the long term.

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11 thoughts on “5 Political Scientists on the Crisis in Egypt: Consequentialism over Idealism

  1. Very interesting analysis. One question: The military was untouched during Morsi’s rule and now the same military with the same leader is suppose to lead the path towards democracy? I don’t like military doing politics. Do you think they will be a unifying factor after all this violence?

    • An excellent question. General Sisi was actually a Mursi appointment after he forced General Tantawi to retire. That decision was made because Sisi was the youngest member of SCAF and they believed he wouldnt be overly assertive. Ironically, Mursi was approved to run after the original brotherhood candidates were disqualified for precisely the same reason. I think that democracy will continue to be elusive in Egypt, it seems the last year has generated a lot of bad blood, but Egypt needs a strong central force to prevent the country from disintegrating further while a stronger constitution is written. The army can be part of the solution or part of the problem, but the Muslim Brothers have proven that they can only be part of the problem.

      • Actually, the army/military has been part of the problem since the days of Nasser. It forms the core of the Egyptian ‘deep state’, and even after Mubarak fell, the ‘regime’ has been kept in place. Although I agree with your core argument about first putting proper institutions in place before elections, as well as the (potentially positive) role of the military, this has yet to be borne out. Morsi and the MB overreached, yes, but as long as the military deep state exists, democracy will truly be elusive for the foreseeable future.

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  6. The economic and political power of the military is unquestionable. The argument these political scientists make is that no transition to a more democratic form of governance is possible without their acquiescence. They may be part of the problem, but they cannot just be wished away. Any democratic polity in Egypt is going to have to respect some of their privileges or else they will continue to stand in the way. That’s what Bates means when he describes “economic hostages.” One constant in strategic choice approaches to democracy is that the powerful and the wealthy must be respected.

  7. Your analysis is interesting, and I think Przeworksi’s model can provide important insights into Egypt’s failed transition. That being said, I think you’ve misidentified the actors, which undercuts your argument. The Muslim Brotherhood did not play the role of radicals; rather, they were clearly in the moderate camp as defined by Przeworski. In the first two years of the transition, they repeatedly attempted to negotiate the parameters of the transition with the military, and that is reflected in their positions toward the SCAF in 2011 and the preservation of the military’s privileges in the 2012 constitution. I would argue that many of the secular political parties could also be considered moderates, while the radicals would be the revolutionary groups who protested against the SCAF in 2011 while consistently rejecting formal participation in the transition.

    The problem in Egypt was that the “reformers” in the regime were not actually reformers. They were temporarily forced into that position by the rapid collapse of Mubarak and the retreat of the “deep state” that followed. However, as the military quickly established its control over the transitional process and then slowly regained its confidence, two things happened. First, the moderates became increasingly divided along Islamist and secular lines, a process that was encouraged by the military and fulul. Second, the military and other old regime actors reneged on their “reformer” position and consistently undermined the democratic institutions of the transition that they were supposedly overseeing (for example, dissolving the constituent assembly and parliament, disqualifying Islamist candidates, and stripping the presidency of its powers before the election).

    When Morsi took office, there were precious few true reformers left with whom the Brotherhood could negotiate. Additionally, the hardliners’ actions surrounding the parliament and the presidential elections had already caused a significant break with the Brotherhood. As a result, you saw increasing conflict between Morsi and the institutions of the state. At the same time, Morsi’s position as a president with vague powers and no legislature, not to mention the rise of the Salafis on the Brotherhood’s right flank and Morsi’s significant personal shortcomings, all but guaranteed that polarization between the Islamist “moderates” and the secular “moderates” would get worse. Which it did, with disastrous consequences. What happened on July 3 was not moderates and reformers removing a recreation of Mubarak’s regime. Instead, it was the hardliners, who had temporarily been reformers only by necessity, manipulating divisions within the moderate coalition to co-opt the secular moderates and reestablish their control.

    Perhaps the new constitution will be a technical improvement on the 2012 version, but it will not reflect a societal consensus, and it is unlikely to set Egypt on the path toward democracy. At the end of the day, constitutions matter less than political realities on the ground. As a result, you will probably see a return to the structure of Mubarak’s regime, in which security forces and the military act with impunity, a strong president with ties to the deep state buys allies through state patronage, and Islamists and secular democrats are excluded from political power.

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