Egypt’s Preventable Political Catastrophe

On Friday Eygpt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed law-making (and constitution-writing) powers when the Supreme Constitutional Court disbanded the Egyptian Parliament.  The Court’s pretext was the invalidation of the parliamentary elections of late-November-late December 2011, which resulted in about 356 seats in the 508-member People’s Assembly (70%) going to 3 alliances of moderate-to-Salafist Islamist parties.  Some of the cruder observers in the West quickly predicted doom, but the ensuing months brought the troubling noises familiar to us from mature democracies, rather than the alarming foreign sounds characteristic of a hijacked revolution.

Lingering concerns over their sentiments on the status of women and religious minority groups (and on a more-Machiavellian note, their commitment to intelligence-sharing with the US and the peace treaty with Israel) aside, Egypt’s Islamist parliament seemed to have a pragmatic center interested in actual governing.  To be sure, it wasn’t going to be a liberal parliament, but it was going to be the most-representative lawmaking body Egyptians had ever had.  The Brotherhood’s political leadership seemed quite serious about establishing accountability and seeking consensus–on its own terms of course, but far more-seriously than the sclerotic and brutish (but admittedly Anglophile) Mubarak regime ever had.  It would displease the United States with some of its foreign and domestic policy choices and perhaps even offend our sensibilities, but it falls short of relativism to say that an elected Egyptian parliament would have been a good thing anyway.  Egypt’s religious conservatism isn’t the foremost issue here; consolidating the gains of Egypt’s democratic revolution is (or was).  As the most-populous Arab country, with the region’s cultural hub in Cairo, Egypt has (or had) the potential to demonstrate democratic best practice–and worst practice–to Arab countries currently in varying stages of the Arab Spring from democratic transition to civil war to icy regime retrenchment.  Outside of Islamist terrorists, every domestic political actor–the statist old guard, the young revolutionaries, the poor farmers, the moderate Islamist, the Palestinians, the Israelis, and us Americans–could have benefited in a non-trivial way from Egypt’s demonstration of true democratic give-and-take.  Submitting one’s political message to the people, as morally-specious and inconsistent in narrative as it may be, requires one to make an argumentative appeal, and to have enough trust in one’s countrymen to respect the result, including what one might find to be a deplorable result–at least temporarily.  The alternatives are personal exile or resort to political violence–terrorism if one doesn’t control the military and has few supporters, revolution if one’s supporters are numerous but civilian, and finally retrenchment and perhaps a politicide of dissidents if one is in power and unwilling to commit to concessions.

Democracy doesn’t guarantee total accountability of the government to the people–indeed, democracy sometimes reveals the perversity of too much democracy or even too much accountability–but good-enough looks wonderful compared to the caprice, corruption and violence of which so many of the World’s autocracies are capable, or arguably cannot hope to transcend.

The official story is simply that the interim constitution–which of course was submitted to Egyptians for referendum last year by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces–required that 1/3 of the MPs elected to the People’s Assembly be independents unaffiliated with a party.  For what it’s worth, that’s a stupid rule.  The Liberal Ironist mistrusts independents more than partisans–even if the latter can clearly be faulted for being ideological or unwilling to listen.  Partisans are highly-accountable.  With some general political knowledge and experience you typically know what they are going to say and do, and their rationales for either.  Hell, they want you to know what they are going to say and do.  Partisans are also inclined to hold each other accountable.  If a person goes into politics but has no use for parties at all, he is either not serious about the issues (What, he can’t choose between 2 or more parties with programmatic platforms?), a mercenary (If he’s such a freethinker, is he willing to trade the vote for transitory access to material benefits in legislation?), or vain (We should already know to watch-out for those ones).

Perverse as such a constitutional provision may be in theory, consider it in practice: The Supreme Constitutional Court found that many of the nominally-independent MPs had unofficial but clear ties to 1 party or another–a situation the Liberal Ironist very-ironically likes to call “reality.”  This led to the invalidation of last year’s entire vote–1/2 a year after the fact–and the disbanding of the Egyptian Parliament.

The Constitutional Court’s story is about legality.  There is another story, a widely-believed story about ideological suspicion between the pro-Mubarak “deep state” in the military and the courts, and a story that resonates far less abroad, about property and money.  This story happens to be the one driving this coup.

The ideological frame, promoted by the old-guard in the Supreme Armed Forces Council and most-explicitly expressed by Ahmed Shafiq (Shafik?), the incumbency candidate for President of Egypt and President-for-Life Mubarak’s last Prime Minister, is that the Muslim Brotherhood is unreconstructed from 30 years ago, when it killed then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel and attempted a violent revolution in Syria.  Shafiq implies that liberals’ worst fears about the Brotherhood are true, that it has stuffed the ballot boxes (almost a provocation for a Mubarak crony to allege) and that as we speak it is scheming with foreign powers (the US? Israel?!) to consolidate its monopoly over political life in Egypt.

I still think this is just propaganda, and I say that while acknowledging that in a mature democracy I wouldn’t support the Muslim Brotherhood based on its social policy.  But Egypt needs accountability–not just through elections but by derivation through some kind of change in Edypt’s reigning business-government tryst.  For Mubarak’s last appointed Prime Minister to lead the next Egyptian government, freshly following the disbanding of Egypt’s 1st freely-elected parliament by Mubarak-appointed judges and the military’s appropriation of the power to rewrite the constitution, and after apparently losing the popular vote to the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate…To accept this result is either to accept that Egyptians cannot be trusted with democracy, or that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces cannot be trusted not to answer further challenges to its political authority without violence.

Such results are not inevitable.  Actually, there are a variety of ways this could still play-out, starting with Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Morsi’s (Mursi’s?) apparent election to Egypt’s Presidency.  Ahmed Shafiq, sowing confusion and perhaps thereby hoping to have some votes thrown out to have the courts appoint him Egypt’s next President, has made parallel claims to have won the election.  These claims appear to be assumed solely by virtue of Shafiq’s role as a connected and vested member of the old military-backed regime, and by an unhelpful fear of the Muslim Brotherhood.

If the SAFC does accept Mr. Morsi’s election as Egypt’s next President, it still retains the power to rewrite the constitution.  We can expect the SAFC to protect many economic and property interests–and that is the 3rd explanatory frame for the current military government: Beneath the pretexts of constitutional enforcement or a struggle by the forces of order against Islamist ideology, there are the commercial interests of those connected to the military regime.  This is what the power base of the Mubarak regime wants to protect, because Egypt is a poor country and the Muslim Brotherhood has promised reforms to address corruption and inequities of wealth.

Carles Boix theorizes in his influential work of political theory Democracy and Redistribution that the most-favorable political conditions for a democratic transition are either those with a large middle class (or at least a narrow financial range between the rich and the poor) or those in which the rich can easily reinvest their wealth outside of their home country.  Both propensities for a democratic transition come back to the security of the rich from policies of extreme wealth redistribution: If the gap between the rich and the poor is relatively-narrow within a polity, the rich aren’t so worried that an elected government will attempt to appropriate their wealth, even in a protectionist financial system.  Alternately, if the rich can move their capital into foreign markets, they are less-vulnerable to wealth-redistribution policies.  (As an inverse consideration, government policies that tax wealth too heavily can scare foreign investment from a financially-globalized country.)  The upshot is that Egypt has both the structural conditions (a large underclass and a lot of captive assets such as stakes in state contractors or land), and political actors making the reformist pledges (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) to provoke retrenchment by authoritarian political forces.  Those authoritarian political forces are coherent, highly-centralized and empowered.

The proverbial pie has shrunk–slightly, but perceptibly.  On May 21, Egypt’s Minister of Planning announced that the country’s annualized GDP grew by 5.2 percent in the 1st quarter of 2012.  But her figures represented superficial statistics; GDP growth was 5.2 percent over that of the 1st quarter of 2011, at which time the economy contracted because the revolution against Mubarak was in progress.  The truth is that in the 1st quarter of this year Egypt slid into recession.  The Tahrir Square protests that brought Hosni Mubarak’s near-30-year reign in Egypt to an end were a young persons’ revolt, brought on by rising costs of staples and a lack of employment opportunities in a polity that was rigged in favor of corrupt ruling elites–and which treated dissenters cruelly.  If the military SAFC is smart, they will recognize Mohammad Morsi as the winner of Egypt’s presidential election to appease the justifiably-suspicious revolutionaries.  They could choose to secure their commercial advantage in the new political system discreetly, and allow the appointment of new judges and for free and fair parliamentary elections that will be binding.  Having taken this agressive step to protect their privileges, they could certainly choose to go no further.

The Liberal Ironist doubts they are that smart.  But even a “final” outcome of military retrenchment depends on the way an unrepentant dictatorship tries to develop the economy.

As it happens, Egypt’s plans for the future of “Cairo” are grandiose.  And they are set-up to profit the powers that be, and they might make things worse to boot.  If you have some time, the Liberal Ironist would like to move away from the news and discuss a development–pun intended.


One thought on “Egypt’s Preventable Political Catastrophe

  1. heretofore and eternally Jon

    Entirely apart from the other things you said – the point that transitions are harder when the old elite can’t easily reinvest their wealth elsewhere is an interesting one, considering that most military holdings are very much tied to local manufacturing, local real estate deals, etc. Not promising, if that theory is true.


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