Egypt’s repeat search for democracy

By John Lloyd
July 3, 2013

I’ve spent the past few days walking beside and watching the largely youthful demonstrators in Egypt, and I’ve been struck with admiration that’s quickly drowned in despair. I admire them for the way they’ve rejected the creeping authoritarianism of an incompetent Muslim Brotherhood government whose only accomplishment is inserting its members or sympathizers into every part of Egyptian life that it could.

But my despair is greater than my admiration. There is no good outcome to the Egyptian “second revolution,” as the opposition wishes it to be called. The army has taken control, and may — as it says it wishes — hold the ring only until a temporary constitution is agreed upon and another election called. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose government is led by President Mohamed Mursi, may, with reluctance, acquiesce in this — though  many of its member are furious over the coup, as they rightly call it. The opposition forces may abstain from ramming what they will see as a “victory” too hard down the Brothers’ throats. These “mays” are, as this is written, be unlikely when set against various degrees of escalating conflict. But they are possible.

Yet even if all of that were to move from the conditional to the actual, the outcome would still not be good. Hatred, or at least deep distrust, between the Brotherhood and the opposition groups has increased since the weekend, as deaths — often the outcome of attacks on the Brothers’ offices — mount. These feelings are now absolute.

On the Brothers’ side, there is a settled conviction that the opposition wishes to take from them a legitimate electoral victory of one year ago. On the side of the opposition, there is an equally adamantine belief that the Brothers meant to so change the state and society that the various causes they represent — moderate Islam, liberalism, socialism, secular nationalism — would never again have a chance of, or even a share in, power.

On the street earlier this week, I met an old friend from my years spent in the communist and post-communist bloc. Al Stepan, a political scientist at New York’s Columbia University, is one of the world’s great experts on democratizing — that is, how authoritarian states get out of an authoritarian state, and what becomes of them. He’s also one of the world’s great travellers, and he’s been to the Middle East, and to Egypt, many times in “Arab Spring” years, and before.

Democracy, says Stepan, isn’t a finite thing. It may be a goal in a general sense, but it’s not a goal in a sporting sense. That is, once scored, it doesn’t stay on the board. It’s a process. Even the most entrenched democracies struggle, depending on the depth of civil society, the independence and strength of the various centers of power, and the robustness of the constitution. Less tangible, but often more important, things like tolerance, political skill, and ability to compromise also come into play.

Where a democratic transition has been successful, he says, it has depended on a network of tacit or open agreements between mutually antagonistic forces. Take, for example, Chile after the plebiscite of 1988, which threw General Augusto Pinochet out of office; or Brazil, which through the seventies and eighties saw the military forced to relax its grip on power; or, closer to Egypt, Tunisia, where religious citizens tolerated the state and the state tolerated religious citizens after the 2011 ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In all of these cases, people who disliked and distrusted each other realized they disliked and distrusted the authoritarian ruler more, and came together both before the revolutions and after to thrash out a way in which they could live together in democracy.

That hasn’t happened in Egypt and isn’t happening now. As Stepan notes, although there’s a “growing sense of the dignity of the individual,” all of the main players — the Brotherhood, the military and the opposition — have sought to protect themselves in the future “by placing limits on the rights of democratic institutions to make public policy.

The military, its power resting both on armed force and domination of nearly a quarter of the economy, has always insisted on a special position, which essentially means autonomy from government and judiciary. The Brotherhood sought, in its constitution, a special place for Islam and the development of sharia law. The opposition, whose groups do contain real democrats but who differ greatly in their recipes for the future, sought and seek again to make a deal with the military to suppress the Brothers. Everyone wants a wall around them, like mediaeval barons in their castles.

Stepan’s lesson is that no good will come of a “democratic” future if no, or too little, work has been done on its essential foundation in the past or present. The military are too secure in their own assumption of power to do more than make populist gestures to the political forces. The Brotherhood, decades of semi-clandestine existence behind them, and armed with a belief that society should be Islamized rather than democratized, have little taste for democratic preparation with people they regard as enemies. The opposition groups are their mirror image in this, seeing the experience of the past year as complete justification for sweeping the Brotherhood out of power, even if it has three years of its electoral mandate left to act out.

Thus whatever deal is — or is not — agreed in the next few days will be limited by its lack of an understanding that everyone must construct a way of living together in at least outward civility. Civility of this kind isn’t to be found in the air, or on the streets. It’s a product of a society determined to remain at peace, and of forces capable of rising above the separate imperatives of grievance. Egypt doesn’t have that product presently. Its only hope is to develop it, fast.

PHOTO: Supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi shout slogans during a protest to show support to him at the Raba El-Adwyia mosque square in Cairo July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

This piece has been updated to reflect changing events.

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Comments
7 comments so far

“Egypt army moves in tanks, president isolated”

By Tom Perry and Maggie Fick

CAIRO | Wed Jul 3, 2013 2:37pm EDT

(Reuters) – Egypt’s army deployed tanks and troops close to the presidential palace in Cairo on Wednesday after a military deadline for Islamist President Mohamed Mursi to yield to street protests passed without any agreement.

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Perhaps OUR military forces could take a lesson from the Egyptian military, as to what to do when a government clearly does not want to listen to its own people.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

Actually, John, this is VERY good advice for this nation, BEFORE we descend into chaos.

“Thus whatever deal is — or is not — agreed in the next few days will be limited by its lack of an understanding that everyone must construct a way of living together in at least outward civility. Civility of this kind isn’t to be found in the air, or on the streets. It’s a product of a society determined to remain at peace, and of forces capable of rising above the separate imperatives of grievance. Egypt doesn’t have that product presently. Its only hope is to develop it, fast.”

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

I agree with the comment above, but with one caveat: what this nation needs is NOT civility.

We already have an excess of civility which is hampering our survival as a nation.

What WE need is a means to “construct a way of living together” that does not push this nation’s economy into that of a third world country, which is where we are headed now.

We need a government that is determined to keep THIS society together and growing in peace and economic security.

I think our government is counting on the fact that the American people are too “civil” to create problems that would require military intervention, but there will come a point when the economy has crashed again, as it will soon, when the American people will be without even the basic necessities of life.

THEN it will be too late for Congress to offer to listen to the pain of the American people.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

Let me be VERY clear about what I mean.

I glossed over what Mr. Lloyd said and I disagree VEHEMENTLY with the portion of it that states “civility” is an equally acceptable outcome as a resolution of their problems.

THAT is absolute bullshit!

“Agree to disagree” as the US Congress would presently phrase the issue is NOT an acceptable solution for the American people.

It is what those in power ALWAYS want, a “civil” population that allows them to do whatever it is they choose to do without any restraints or complaints.

THAT is what we have NOW.

THAT is NOT ACCEPTABLE.

My point is that IF Congress continues on its present course, then the only recourse for the American people to settle this in the streets.

I fervently hope it will not come to that, but I have little faith in any other outcome.

As long as attitudes like Mr. Lloyd prevail within our government, our nation has a very high probability of becoming like Egypt.

At that point, it WILL be settled in the streets.

Don’t think for a moment it will not come to that in this nation, because it has on numerous occassions in the past.

The reality is that these past 50 years or so have been a “honeymoon” between the government and the American people.

That 50 year “honeymoon” is about to end.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

John must be willfully missing the point. Any time you have ONE group forcing Their view down every one else s throat You have problems. Big problems. Religion, by its very nature can not stand NOT doing this. Religious groups should be Banned from the Political Process worldwide

Posted by DOOM2U | Report as abusive

“There is no good outcome to the Egyptian “second revolution,” as the opposition wishes it to be called.” What possibly qualifies YOU to make such an assessment at this time?

“On the Brothers’ side, there is a settled conviction that the opposition wishes to take from them a legitimate electoral victory of one year ago.” Please. Only a dupe could consider Egypt’s previous election as a legitimate and unbiased process.

Egyptians with little trust, for good reason, demanded it held far, far too soon. At that time ONLY the Muslim Brotherhood was sufficiently organized to conduct a political campaign, and there was genuine fear that remnants of those supporting the previous deposed dictator might wind up “in charge” so no one was.

A disorganized and fragmented “opposition” had no candidate and no platform. The “election” was one in which the Brotherhood ran against no one and nothing, boycotted by many in frustration. Hardly a “mandate”.

Steps progressively implemented by Mursi and his henchmen confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that “…the Brothers meant to so change the state and society that the various causes they represent — moderate Islam, liberalism, socialism, secular nationalism — would never again have a chance of, or even a share in, power.” “The Brotherhood sought, in its constitution, a special place for Islam and the development of sharia law.”

They lost sight of the fact that ordinary Egyptians did NOT intend their votes to begin the transformation of Egypt into an Islamic state. A horrified people unwilling to live under such religious restrictions responded desperately by any and all means available to bring this process to a halt. It is little less than a miracle that they succeeded.

“The opposition, whose groups do contain real democrats but who differ greatly in their recipes for the future, sought and seek again to make a deal with the military to suppress the Brothers.” Yes and no. The opposition is still only defined by the fact that they preferred reasonable freedoms that the Brotherhood would progressively deny them. There is simply no way they could have ever “come together” to meaningfully oppose or contest the “rule of the Brotherhood.”

Their only option was to ask the army to stop their political enslavement and reset the process such that the Egyptian people could ALL have meaningful voice in a genuinely democratic society. It would appear that the army is doing just that, and will assure a “level playing field” that Islamists no longer control. What’s bad about that?

You speak of “…people who disliked and distrusted each other realized they disliked and distrusted the authoritarian ruler more, and came together…to thrash out a way in which they could live together in democracy.” There is no country with more experience in the “democratic process” than these United States.

Has anyone noticed that since the religious right hijacked the Republican Party it’s agenda has become more and more authoritarian? Has anyone noticed that the “conservative majority” on the Supreme Court more and more seems to favor the best interests of “big business” over the best interests of “we, the people”? Americans today live in a glass house, and should not throw rocks at Egyptians doing a good job or sorting their own mess out without foreign intervention.

“The Brotherhood…armed with a belief that society should be Islamized rather than democratized…” whether they like it or not is not a force with which civility is effective. They and their ideas are so fundamentally opposite to democratic principles and goals that the two are, and shall remain, forever mutually exclusive. The Brotherhood has done the world a great favor in making this clear.

Well done, Egypt! You have earned your second chance. Don’t bungle it!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Right on. You go Egypt; you gave the brotherhood enough rope and it hung itself. You were smart not to wait for three more years of the brotherhood takeover of your country. We Americans wish you well in your pursuit of a democratic secular Egypt that tolerates diversity and participates in the 21st century world.

Posted by JHD2 | Report as abusive
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