Two Perspectives on Egypt’s Transition | Freedom House

Two Perspectives on Egypt’s Transition

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The Recurrent Temptation to Abdicate to the Military in Egypt

 by Alfred Stepan*

During a March 2011 visit to Cairo with Freedom House, my biggest surprise was the willingness of some leaders of the Tahrir Square protest movements against Mubarak to exchange the possibility of democratic civilian rule for the security protection offered by an authoritarian body—the military.  Why this “Brumairian” abdication to the military in Egypt, similar to the French Revolution when the tensions between different revolutionary factions and compromises with Napoleon Bonaparte created the opening for him to seize power?

Egypt’s military won the trust of many Tahrir Square activists in late January 2011 by acknowledging “the legitimacy of the people’s demands” and promising “not resort to the use of force against this great people.”  When I first heard this, I was immediately certain of three things. First, that Tahrir Square would not end like Tiananmen Square—in a massacre. Second, that Mubarak’s days were numbered, in that the “military as institution” would protect itself by receiving credit for removing the head of the “military as government”.  Third, that the danger for Egypt’s attempt at democratization would be that the “military as institution” would be relatively unchallenged, and indeed would be able to consolidate its numerous political and economic prerogatives in any new electoral context, due to emerging “Brumairian” exchanges.

This last danger became absolutely apparent when on February 10, 2011, one day before Mubarak left office, the generals met in a room without the typical photo of Mubarak on the wall. They issued Communiqué #1 which said that they, as the “Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF]… based on the responsibility of the Armed Forces and commitment to the protection of the people and the people’s interests and safety… has decided to continue meeting regularly to study the options, procedures and measures to keep the safety of the nation and the ambitions of the great Egyptian people.” Tahrir Square was flooded with shouts that ‘the people and the Army are one hand”. SCAF has subsequently, by their own hand, issued over 150 Communiqués to set policy and to shape the political system—i.e., to rule the country.

What forms did these Brumairian temptations, among some secular, and otherwise liberal, activists take? The fear that the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies would win the elections was so intense among these activists that they were already searching for ways to constrain in advance of the elections the Muslim Brotherhood’s possible democratic electoral power by giving constitution-making power to unelected experts instead of the elected parliament. Another tactic was to press the military to exercise constituent power themselves, before the election of the Constituent Assembly, by drafting the fundamental principles and thus ensuring in the minds of Brumairian secularists and “liberals” that the constitution would be “inclusive” but not “majoritarian.” These sentiments in favor of abdicating the opportunity for civilians to exercise constituent power were captured in a widely read Cairo publication, Al-Ahram, on September 23, 2011 by Samir El-Sayed: “In general, liberal parties would like the constitution to be written before the elections take place, fearing that a post-election constitution-making process will be dominated by Islamists.”    This could only come about if liberal activists encouraged or acquiesced in a prolongation of military power and some of them did precisely this. For their part, the Muslim Brotherhood also retained a Brumairian-type acquiescence to the military in exchange for what they hoped would be their inevitable success when elections were eventually held.

Although SCAF maintained a revolving door of experts and intellectuals – many associated with the revolution who regularly consulted with the generals on policy, by the end of October 2011, the generals had not yet participated in a single collective meeting with an authoritative group of secular and Islamist political leaders to bargain over the timing and content of a full transition of power. Despite the consultations with various intellectuals and experts, individuals who had engaged in regular conversations with the generals often complained of their propensity for unilateral decision-making. For their part, the major civilian players had not yet issued one consensual document of what they, as would-be leaders of political society groups and parties, demanded of the military concerning a much more rapid and unhindered democratic transition. This was a stark contrast to opposition leaders in Tunisia, who had agreed in 2003 that any future elected government would “be founded on the sovereignty of the people as the sole source of legitimacy” and soon after the fall of Tunisian President Ben Ali, a consensus was formed on the priorities for a democratic transition, starting with the election of a constituent assembly that would write a new constitution and appoint a government.  This consensus was key to the progress toward democracy that Tunisia has made to date.  On November 2, 2011, Egypt’s military eroded the conditions supportive of the pattern of Brumairian civil-military relations. The SCAF grossly overplayed their hand. They managed to offend both the Muslim Brothers and liberal secularists and to reignite protests in Tahrir Square. Early in my career, I specialized in civil-military relations in Brazil, Argentina and Chile and in military prerogatives. But I had never seen in any of these countries such a public assertion by the military of their claim for the permanent power and political prerogatives as occurred in Egypt on the eve of elections that would supposedly start a democratic transition.  The SCAF released a document called the “Draft Declaration of Basic Principles for the Constitution of the Egyptian State,” which stipulated that the “Supreme Command of the Armed Forces has the exclusive right to investigate and monitor issues in relation to the military forces. The Council has the exclusive right to discuss the military budget, which should be placed on the top of general state budget, and approve laws concerning  the military forces before their promulgation.” For their part, the Muslim Brothers broke their tacit alliance with the military and went back to Tahrir Square because the same document made it clear that, no matter how well the Muslim Brothers might do in the elections, they would only be allowed a small role in constitution- making. Article 22 of this Draft Declaration stipulated that the composition of the 100 people charged with drafting the new constitution “will be formed as follows: 80 (non-elected) members from outside the (elected) People’s Assembly and the (elected) Shura Council” would be assigned largely by corporatist bodies, most of whom the SCAF still influenced strongly. The subsequent Muslim Brotherhood and liberal protests resulted in violent civil-military conflicts, with military police shooting civilians.  Images of soldiers beating, stripping and kicking female demonstrators (most infamously in the “blue bra” beating) went viral.   Egypt’s Brumairian moment had begun to pass (though the temptation still remains).

But no consensual road map towards a democratic transition has yet been drawn, even though the date of the presidential elections has been moved up to mid-2012. Indeed, the December 29, 2011 SCAF-sanctioned raid on 10 NGOs, including Freedom House, only intensified doubts about the SCAF’s willingness to let civil society deepen and a true democratic transition occur.

Liberals have stepped up their pressure on the military to relinquish power, but the absence of a consensual road map for a democratic transition weakens their position.  The prospects for a democratic transition in Egypt would be strengthened if liberal and moderate Islamist forces would reach consensus on the way forward, accept the sovereignty of the Egyptian people, as expressed in elections, and build the institutions needed to ensure that when the elected government takes office, it will uphold the rights of all Egyptian citizens.

The most cherished word used in Tahrir Square at the start of the Arab Spring was “dignity”. It may or may not take a long time for a completed democratic transition to occur in Egypt; however, the military’s previous assumption that they are the legitimate “owners” of the Egyptian polity is inconsistent with this newly deepened sense of citizen’s dignity. Even if authoritarian rule persists in Egypt, it will in the future be less stable and more challenged.


*Alfred Stepan is the Wallace Sayre Professor of Government at Columbia University and the author or co-author (often with Juan J. Linz) of numerous books and articles on military authoritarianism, democratic transition and consolidation, and religion and democracy.


Don’t Underestimate Egypt’s Liberals

by Sherif Mansour
Senior Program Officer

Many western analysts are mistakenly jumping to the conclusion that liberals are out of the game in Egypt because of the parliamentary election results, which gave Islamists the lead. They are once again falling into the self-fulfilling prophecy promoted previously by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and now by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that Egyptians can only chose between a stable autocracy and a theocracy.

In his Freedom at Issue blog piece, Al Stepan criticizes Egyptian liberals for trying to get around the outcome of elections and thus leaving an opening for the military to cling to power.  Stepan’s argument about the weakness and lack of consensus among liberals is to a large extent true, and the SCAF has cleverly (and in many cases not so cleverly) played various political actors off against one another in a cynical attempt to maintain political control.  But there is more to this picture.

The SCAF has not provided a fair environment for the elections. Since June 2011, the SCAF singled out liberals in public attacks, and liberals had to spend valuable time defending themselves. Only liberal leaders of the revolution were put on trial in military courts, defamed on TV and in public statements, and targeted for investigation because they organized demonstrations. Only liberal civil society groups were investigated for "illegal foreign funding" and had their offices stormed, although they are open about the funding they receive, and they receive significantly less money from outside of Egypt than the Islamists do.

Liberals want more than elections; they want liberal democracy. The SCAF and Islamists both aim for something short of that. The SCAF fear liberal democracy because they don't want get into trouble for their corruption and human rights violations before and after the revolution. Islamists fear liberal democracy because it will ultimately put them in contradiction with their belief in supremacy of sharia and their unsettled debate about rights of women and minorities. This parliament, incidentally, will have the lowest-ever percentage of women -- they hold less than 2 % of all seats.

Furthermore, liberals were much more concerned about the transition environment and the revolution’s success than electoral gains. They focused on the transformation needed to lead Egypt toward democracy and they struggled to reshape government institutions, which is something Islamists gave little attention to.   Liberals forced the SCAF to change two cabinets, abolish Mubarak’s local councils, and bring Mubarak to justice. They brought down Mubarak’s party and kept the representation of its members to less than 5% of the new parliament.  Taken together, these successes are far more impressive than any election campaign.

Most importantly, liberals forced the SCAF to schedule presidential elections earlier than the SCAF had planned, thus paving the way for a transition from military to civilian rule in June 2012. The SCAF wanted to put this transition off until 2013, which would have allowed them to retain executive power even after a new parliament was elected.  Because of the efforts of Egypt’s liberals, the SCAF should be on its way out in a few months. But the liberals are staying in the game. And Islamists will have to work with them. Liberals will be well represented in parliament, with about a third of the seats and with many well-known and respected figures. Egypt may elect a liberal president as well.

Within the upcoming year, a new parliament and new president will be busy fixing the damage left by the SCAF, focusing on the economy and building institutions. Liberals have a key role to play in addressing these challenges. They can, yet again, prove Mubarak’s prophecy wrong. Liberals can ensure that the autocratic military – the SCAF –will leave power and the Islamists who won the parliamentary elections will respect the rights of Egyptians. And that is why the liberals need our support now more than ever. 


Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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