Egypt’s Revolution: Outlook and Factional Pitfalls

Though the end is not yet, many of the threats to Egyptian democratization appear to have been slowly defeated or coopted.  I can think of 4 visible factions thought to pose a potential threat to a democratic transition in Egypt: Mubarak’s political class, the state security police, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military which leads the transitional government.  These 4 factions have gradually but measurably receded as a threat to a transition.

The Old Guard

First, there is the old guard.  Several members of Mubarak’s party have resigned; some, such as Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, have actually been arrested by the transitional government and brought under investigation–in his case, for official corruption, not the torture he is widely-suspected of.  But Adly isn’t the only official of the Mubarak regime or his National Democratic Party to be arrested.  While the house-cleaning of the ruling party in Egypt may not be as thorough as that in Tunisia, some powerful and feared men in Egypt face jail time; the former interior minister is currently residing in an Egyptian prison.

Members of the old guard haven’t simply been arrested.  President-for-life Hosni Mubarak of course resigned on March 11th; his Vice President-for-2-weeks General Omar Suleiman resigned along with him.  General Suleiman had been extensively discussed as a legitimate transition leader, but he had disqualified himself by acting as little more than a shill for Mubarak at a time when his actions were indefensible and even somewhat defiant of common sense.  More surprising was the insistence of demonstrators that the much more reasonable-sounding Ahmed Shafiq also resign as Prime Minister, seemingly because Mubarak chose him for that position.  Shafiq resigned on March 2nd, in the face of ongoing massive protests; the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council announced this transition on its Facebook page.  What’s interesting to the Liberal Ironist about the intransigence of both Tunisian and Egyptian pro-democracy protesters is their unflagging insistence that principal figures of the old regime must step down; this appears to be motivated by an experience that dictates that corrupt regimes thrives on the presence of their personal contacts.  In fact, “subordination of the law to personal contacts” is the very definition of a corrupt regime.

The State Security Police

The hated and feared Egyptian state security police are broken.  Formal death for the organization came as new Interior Minister Mansur al-Issawi’s decision to disband them on March 15th.  But the organization suffered a blow from which it might never have recovered 2 weeks ago, when protesters rushed into state security headquarters in Cairo to stop police from shredding many volumes of documents detailing their extensive investigations into Egyptians and others.  The Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council requested the activists turn these documents over so they could be admitted as evidence in ongoing transitional justice investigations; they first copied many of them and submitted them to media, or posted them on social networking sites.

The Muslim Brotherhood

First, a word about the concern over the Muslim Brotherhood’s newfound freedom to run candidates in Egyptian elections openly.  The issue isn’t necessarily the Muslim Brotherhood’s animus (which might still be a reasonable cause for concern) but whether they can sweep the initiative from a movement that they clearly don’t lead.   The 1979 Revolution in Iran was the work of numerous parties, and French political theorist Michel Foucault discovered to his astonishment that the domestic political class apparently never believed Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had a major constituency.  The result of this complacency was the swift transformation of an anti-Shah revolution into an Islamist revolution.

But such a comparison between Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011 is based on a crude analogy–“So 2 impoverished Middle Eastern Muslim nations experienced a revolution against an autocratic ally of the United States; what’s the difference?”–that ignores the centrality, legitimacy and political independence of the Egyptian military and under the circumstances, belittles the protesters.  Any comparison to Iran in 1979 overlooks the absence of any Islamist remotely approaching an Ayatollah Khomeini’s stature in Egypt, far lower levels of animosity towards the United States, and an Egyptian civil society that so far has shown almost no affinity for theocracy.

The Liberal Ironist agrees that the Muslim Brotherhood is an x factor, and both the extent of poverty in Egyptian society and the lack of serious political experience outside of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council, and the Muslim Brotherhood are troubling.

The Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council

Finally, a word on the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council itself.  The military could be seen as either the most-obvious or the most-subtle threat to prospects for democracy in Egypt.  It is the most-obvious threat as, following Mubarak’s abdication on February 11th, control of the government fell to the military.  The military reserves sovereignty for the transition period, and appointed the panel responsible for proposing recommendations on constitutional amendments.  The more-subtle threat the military poses to Egypt’s democratic transition could in turn be thought of as either independent of or related to the obvious one–that is, it’s the oft-stated fact that the military is the most-respected national institution in Egypt.  I can think of 3 facts, however, that may constrain the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council to responsibly manage a democratic transition:

  1. The Egyptian military, as I’m sure you know, is the beneficiary of $1.3 billion in US military aid;
  2. The Egyptian military, I’ve heard, is a 15% stakeholder in the domestic economy (though I haven’t confirmed the exact extent of their formal holdings) and business has a lot to lose from both further upheaval and repression;
  3. The fact that protests continued in Egypt over labor rights and women’s rights even after Hosni Mubarak’s departure likely reduce the attraction to the Supreme Armed Forces Council of attempting control of the Egyptian political system directly or indirectly.  This is not to deny that the Egyptian military will remain a major and independent political interest in this country, particularly considering its substantial business interests and foreign ties, and its role as a major employer.

The political old guard, the state security police, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council: The democratic movement in Egypt succeeded in moving the first 2 and last of these factions apart from each other as they all sought cover.  This allowed the military to promote itself as being beyond politics, while consenting to or leading the charge against Mubarak’s cronies or the hated security police.  The Muslim Brotherhood likely has a major constituency but there is no evidence that it possesses either the political momentum or the singularity of purpose that would incline it or allow it to sweep up Egypt’s democratic transition.

The disharmony among Egypt’s past or prospective political elites is most promising.

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