- By Nathan J. BrownNathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Will the Egyptian "revolution," as it is now universally called, live up to its name? That is not yet clear. I do see real reasons for hope — perhaps more than any time in the time that I have studied the Arab world. But I do not see the revolution as having triumphed.
For most of the past week, I have been in Amman, Ramallah, and Nablus. My initial but overwhelming impression is that Egyptian events have inspired a wave of elation and hope that is both deep and wide and that dissipates only the closer one gets to positions of political authority. The Egyptian revolution has captivated audiences and inspired a sense of endless new possibilities. Whether it is a "new dawn" or "a dividing point in history" (as I heard it described by Jordanians and Palestinians across the political spectrum), Egyptians are seen as having brought down a rotten system as they begin to write their own future. The only question is how other Arabs (and maybe even Iranians) can join them.
I am not yet so sure.
It is not that the old regime still remains (though it does; the junta and the cabinet are both still staffed by pre-revolutionary appointees and only vague hints of a cabinet reshuffle have been floated). It is clear that real change of some kind will take place. But the shape of the transition has not yet been defined. A more democratic, pluralistic, participatory, public-spirited, and responsive political system is a real possibility. But so is a kinder, gentler, presidentially-dominated, liberalized authoritarianism. In this post, I will discuss the state of play in Egypt; in future writings I hope to explore the implications for other regimes in the region.
The danger of indefinite military rule in Egypt is small. While pundits have often proclaimed the military to be the real political power in Egypt since 1952, in fact the political role for the military has been restricted for a generation. And there is no sign that the junta wants to change that for long. It is order, not power that they seem to seek. When the generals suspended the constitution, most opposition elements saw that as a positive step because it made possible far-reaching change, and I think that was a correct political judgment. (The suspension led to odd headlines in international press referring to Egypt as now being under martial law. But Egypt has been under martial law with only brief interruptions since 1939. It was not the generals who placed Egypt under martial law; that step was taken by King Faruq.)
But if the suspension of the constitution allowed the possibility of fundamental change, it did not require it. Indeed, the transition as defined by Egypt’s junta seems both extremely rushed and very limited. The generals have made no move to share power and made only limited attempts to consult. They have appointed a committee to amend the constitution — and promptly limited its mandate to six articles and the time frame of its work to 10 days. The junta has thus ruled out fundamental political change — at least for now.
The ambiguous nature of the junta’s commitment to change is perfectly illustrated by the committee it appointed. All of the members have technical expertise, and only one is identified with a particular political tendency. Some of the members are judges very closely identified with the old regime. But the committee is headed by Tariq al-Bishri, a major figure in Egyptian public life. It also includes some figures who are known for their critical and oppositional stances. The articles slated for amendment are largely connected with Egypt’s electoral system.
The main exception is one of enormous symbolic but limited practical importance. Article 179, a product of the authoritarian 2007 constitutional amendments, was part of a process of entrenching the supposedly extraordinary measures of Egypt’s state of emergency into the constitutional text itself. Repealing article 179 will arrest that process but it will not end either the state of emergency or the emergency law that made it possible; indeed, the legal basis for Egyptian emergency measures was laid by the British even before the country became independent. Authoritarianism in Egypt has deep legal roots, and the committee will not be able to weed much of that legal infrastructure within 10 days.
But if the committee’s mandate is limited, it is not meaningless. It will presumably lay the basis for cleaner elections (by bringing back judicial monitoring, an idiosyncratic way of administering elections but one that has real credibility for Egyptians) and allowing a truly open field for presidential elections. Committee members have been quoted in the press suggesting that they will push against the limits of their mandate by also suggesting some legal changes related to the political process. Indeed, changing the constitution will absolutely require changes in implementing legislation; since the junta has given itself the power to issue decrees with the force of law, those changes, once drafted, can be instituted immediately.
The decree appointing the committee suggests a quick sequence of elections: first a referendum on the amendments, then parliamentary elections, and then presidential elections. If the political changes stopped there, Egypt would have a significantly different system. The 1971 constitution would work much differently if there is no single dominant regime political party and if there is true pluralism in the parliament. But if the system would be different, it would still be supremely presidential, and many authoritarian features written deeply into the Egyptian constitutional and legal systems would remain. At worst, the result would look like a more mild and liberalize version of the existing system. At best, it might resemble a "delegative democracy" in which voters periodically elect a president who dominates the political system until his term has expired when he is replaced by a similarly dominant successor.
But would Egypt stop there? It is quite possible that it would; moments when dramatic political and constitutional change are contemplated are rare, and this one may pass. Temporary constitutions have a way of becoming permanent quite quickly. Further change would depend on a constitutional amendment process that could be dominated by the newly-elected parliament and president. And they might not want to rewrite the rules which brought them into office.
The possibility of a stalled revolution is real. But three factors make me optimistic (if I can be allowed to kibitz on preferred outcomes) that Egyptians might push farther. First, there is a very wide political consensus that far more comprehensive change is needed and considerable consensus on what that change would look like.
Second, the revolution has already shown that it can hardly be restricted to Tahrir Square. Not only were the demonstrations nationwide, but the revolution is now being played out in a whole host of Egyptian institutions — unions, professional associations, and media outlets, as figures associated with the old regime are tossed out. The Egypt that the generals rule now may be rapidly becoming a different place.
Third, the revolution of the youth — as it is seen throughout the region — has set of a spirit of hopefulness and activism that will be difficult to contain. The leaders of Egypt’s old regime — and regimes throughout the region — may try to outfox or outlast the challenge, but they are clearly on the defensive for the first time in the lives of those who now threaten the traditional rules of politics.
The 2011 Egyptian revolution was not the country’s first mass popular uprising. In 1919, a remarkably similar series of events occurred, that time aimed against the British occupation of the country. A nationwide uprising, one that spread so quickly and reached so widely that it took its supposed leaders completely by surprise, made the occupation unable to govern the country. The 1919 revolution had permanent and real effects — it preempted attempts to incorporate Egypt more fully into the British Empire and led the British instead to allow the country partial independence. But the incomplete nature of that independence, coupled with an imperfect constitutional system that tried to mix a monarchy with a parliamentary system, meant that many of the hopes of 1919 were not realized.
We will learn throughout the coming months whether Egypt’s 2011 revolution will betray a similar pattern of real but limited change. If it is only limited change, that will still be an improvement for Egypt. But the hopes of other peoples in the region are for something more far-reaching. Exactly how other societies can emulate the Egyptian model is far from clear because their precise circumstances differ. Even Palestinians who do not like Abu Mazin, for instance, do not think their problems would be solved if he simply left; the root of their difficulties does not lie in a dictatorial president. So today in Ramallah one of the slogans I heard chanted in a demonstration was "The people want an end to the division" between the West Bank and Gaza, to substitute for the Egyptian chant "The people want the fall of the regime." They sound a bit similar in Arabic.
Whatever differences may exist, for the first time in a generation, Arab societies look to Egypt for hope and inspiration.
Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.