Why Egypt could turn out looking like Sudan. And that's not good news.
As Egypt’s military takeover unfolded this month, comparisons to Turkey’s recent history of military meddling were almost inevitable. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF’s) 48-hour ultimatum before ousting Islamist President Mohamed Morsy, the country’s first popularly elected leader, prompted easy comparisons to Turkey’s 1971 "coup by memorandum." Other observers called attention to the parallels with Turkey’s 1960 and 1997 coups, among others. In all three cases, the Turkish military returned power to civilian authorities after intervening, just as the SCAF did following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and as it has recently pledged to do again. Given the current tumult in Egypt, a Turkey-esque transition to civilian rule — despite its own considerable drawbacks — would arguably be one of the least bad outcomes resulting from the coup.
There is, however, another, far uglier precedent for Egypt’s political trajectory: that of its poverty-stricken, authoritarian southern neighbor, Sudan. Egypt’s recent history — from the overthrow of Mubarak to the election of Morsy to this month’s military putsch — parallels the developments in Sudan in the mid-1980s with remarkable accuracy. Sudan’s story from this period, moreover, serves as a potent reminder that coups almost always represent a detour, not a shortcut, toward stable, durable democracy.
On May 25, 1969, Gaafar Nimeiry, a young colonel inspired by the Arab nationalist ideology of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power in Khartoum, the capital, in a military coup. For the next 16 years, he ruled Sudan in much the same way as Mubarak ruled Egypt beginning in 1981 — heavy-handed but secular, and accommodating to his Western backers. And just as such tendencies pitted Mubarak against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Nimeiry faced openly hostile relations with Sudan’s Islamist Umma Party. (Those tensions came to a head in 1970 when Nimeiry ordered an attack — with air support from Egyptian bombers coordinated by Mubarak, an air force officer at the time — that killed some 12,000 Umma militants and supporters at the party’s spiritual base on Aba Island.)
Political repression, however, contributed less to Nimeiry’s eventual downfall than systematic mismanagement of the Sudanese economy. During his tenure, rising inflation, high unemployment, and lackluster foreign investment plunged the economy into a tailspin. By 1979, Sudan’s GDP was contracting by more than 5 percent annually. As it finally started growing again a few years later, crippling inflation took hold, reaching roughly 40 percent in 1985. When in March of that year Nimeiry announced a rollback of food and oil subsidies in order to repay foreign lenders, including the IMF, protests erupted in Khartoum shortly thereafter. A broad cross-section of Sudanese society — including doctors, university students, laborers, and union activists — took to the streets demanding Nimeiry’s ouster.
It was precisely this sort of economic malaise that drove the Egyptian protests in 2011. By the time of Mubarak’s ouster, 80 percent of Egyptians rated their economic condition as "bad." Poverty was on the rise, with one in four Egyptians living under the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Inflation peaked at 18 percent in 2008 and remained in double-digits through 2010, helping to push up the price of basic goods — particularly wheat — despite multibillion-dollar government subsidies. The bleak economic situation hit young Egyptians the hardest. By 2011, Egyptians under age 24 comprised more than half the population, and a whopping 87 percent of the country’s unemployed, making it unsurprising that this demographic dominated the ranks of the protesters who overthrew Mubarak.
During Egypt’s 2011 revolution, the police mostly remained loyal to Mubarak, but the military proved less reliable — akin to the circumstances surrounding Nimeiry’s ouster in 1985. With protests roiling the Sudanese capital, Sudan’s top military commander, Gen. Abdel Rahman Swar al-Dahab, seized power and formed the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which served as the country’s governing authority for the next 12 months. Like the SCAF, which ran post-Mubarak Egypt, the TMC bungled basic governing tasks, but also like the SCAF, it followed through on its promise to hold elections in 1986.
Both uprisings — Sudan’s in 1985 and Egypt’s in 2011 — and their subsequent coups held the promise of a more democratic future. At the same time, however, they revealed the hazards of military stewardship. When juntas empowered by so-called "democratic coups" hand over power to civilian governments, the post-coup governments almost invariably find it hard to address the grievances that enabled the coups in the first place. The end result is a cycle of more popular discontent and more coups. Sudan and Egypt have both proved that they are not exceptions to this rule.
But the troubling parallels extend further. Sudan’s post-coup elections in April 1986 ushered Nimeiry’s former foe, the Islamist Umma Party, into power. But the coalition government led by Umma’s Sadiq al-Mahdi thoroughly botched its stewardship of the economy, devaluing the Sudanese pound to roughly 10 percent of its mid-1970s value and allowing the price of basic commodities to skyrocket. In response, the Sudanese flooded back into the streets to protest, setting the stage for a June 1989 coup. This time, it was Omar Hassan al-Bashir, then an army colonel, who led the military back into the political arena.
Like al-Mahdi and his Umma Party, Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood failed to reverse Egypt’s faltering economy. Since Mubarak’s ouster, GDP growth has slowed to roughly 2 percent, the unemployment rate has risen to 13 percent, and Standard & Poor’s downgraded Egypt’s long-term debt rating from BB+ to CCC+. Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have also dwindled to $16 billion, half of what they were under Mubarak. While Egyptians chafed at Morsy’s creeping authoritarianism, a majority rated having a strong economy as more important than living in a strong democracy in a May public opinion poll. That Morsy could not meet Egyptian expectations for a better economy provided at least part of the impetus for this month’s mass demonstrations and coup.
This is where the stories of Sudan and Egypt hopefully diverge. There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic: Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the armed forces, has not undertaken a wholesale power grab like Bashir, who held every major post in Sudan’s transitional authority. Any expansion of Sisi’s power beyond his new roles of deputy prime minister and defense minister would of course be cause for concern. Meanwhile, statistical evidence suggests that nonviolent mass protest, something Egyptian civilians have shown an aptitude for, is a leading indicator for democratization. Such protests succeed by undercutting the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes and fostering more engaged citizenship. This, in turn, creates disincentives for those in power to roll back democratic gains.
But what if Egypt does follow the Sudanese path? Immediate improvements in service delivery since Morsy’s ouster could tempt some Egyptians to embrace a military-backed strongman on the model of Bashir. Indeed, with the military now in charge, rolling power blackouts have disappeared, gas lines have melted away, and the police are now fully deployed. The speed of the turnaround has fueled suspicion that the military — along with Egypt’s old guard bureaucrats — had been purposely undermining Morsy’s rule. The return of an authoritarian regime, however, could have disastrous long-term effects on the Egyptian economy. If there is one lesson from 2011, it’s that such regimes have a limited shelf life — a reality that would likely keep international investors away.
Regardless of what kind of regime emerges, turning around the Egyptian economy poses a monumental challenge. If a civilian government takes office, it will face the same economic troubles that plagued Morsy. The IMF has been pushing Egypt to raise taxes and reduce popular fuel subsidies in return for a badly needed $4.8 billion credit line. Morsy could avoid bowing to IMF pressures because of cash infusions from Qatar, Libya, and others, but the faucet will not remain on forever. In the event that such cuts bring Egyptians to the streets again, the military should stay on the sidelines — lest Egypt risk giving rise to its own Bashir.