Egypt’s Brilliant Mistakes
"The stupidest transition in history" is how my colleague Nathan Brown recently described the last fifteen months in Egypt. Few would disagree. At virtually every step, it seems that almost every player has made the wrong choice: the SCAF, the activists, the Muslim Brotherhood, the judiciary, political leaders… and even political analysts. When I’ve been ...
"The stupidest transition in history" is how my colleague Nathan Brown recently described the last fifteen months in Egypt. Few would disagree. At virtually every step, it seems that almost every player has made the wrong choice: the SCAF, the activists, the Muslim Brotherhood, the judiciary, political leaders… and even political analysts. When I’ve been in Cairo, or talking to Egyptian friends or following Egyptian media, the sky is pretty much always falling. Every protest is the next revolution, every internet rumor the latest catastrophe, every erratic move by the SCAF the unfolding of its cunning conspiracy, every inflammatory Islamist statement the sign of impending apocalypse. Indeed, predicting disaster is virtually mandatory for Egypt analysts.
And yet… if one had fallen asleep in February 2011 and awoken over the weekend to see a country consumed with excitement by tomorrow’s Presidential election, things might look different. Egypt now has an elected Parliament, which has underperfomed in some ways but does enjoy real electoral legitimacy. The Presidential election is hotly contested by mostly non-disastrous leading candidates in which the outcome is very much unknown. Politics, as predicted, has shifted mostly from the streets to the ballot box, and election fever has gripped the country. The military still seems intent on carving out its own empire within the state, but has consistently refused abundant opportunities to postpone the transfer of power to an elected government. Islamists, after sweeping Parliamentary elections, seem to be losing some ground with the public in part through their own political mistakes (such as fielding a presidential candidate after promising not to do so and poorly managing the Parliament they won). Former regime fullul were wiped out in those same elections, and remain on the defensive. Could it be that Egypt’s disastrous transition might still end up pretty much okay?
Don’t get me wrong — the transition really has been horribly managed in most respects. I have never been persuaded by the "evil genius" theory of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in which their every move represents the unfolding of a devious plot. The SCAF has lurched from position to position, changing the rules in mid-game, communicating exceedingly poorly with the public, and generally contributing to the widespread uncertainty and political panic in Egypt’s political class. Their habit of making major concessions only after protests led to major violence created perverse incentives galore, and further contributed to the uncertainty. They seem (unsurprisingly) intent on carving out protections for their economic empire and legal status. Their intention to announce an interim constitutional supplement before the election is only the latest example of such mismanagement (although in this case their hand was forced by the ill-conceived decision by non-Islamist political forces to boycott the constitutional assembly formed by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Parliament).
But for all of that, the SCAF has gotten one really important thing right: it has remained committed to the transfer of power to an elected government on schedule despite frequent opportunities to renege. It could easily have pulled the plug on the transition, or at least delayed it indefinitely, on multiple occasions. If the SCAF had hit the brakes after the violence late last year or after the Islamist victories in the Parliamentary elections, they probably would have garnered significant support from Egyptians tired of the political chaos or afraid of the Islamists. They deserve some real credit for sticking to the timeline for elections, and should be strongly urged to live up to their promise to transfer power to an elected government following the Presidential election. The protracted transition has only generated uncertainty and stagnation, and extending the period is not going to make things better — Egypt needs to get on with it.
Those inspired by the January 25 revolution have every reason to be disgusted by the course of events, from the brutal treatment of street protests to the ongoing military trials for civilian protestors to the rise of Islamist political power. But those disappointments always needed to be kept in perspective. It was always clear that the shift from the street to the ballot box would not be kind to activists, who represented a small, mobilized minority which was always likely to be drowned out by mass movements such as the various Islamist trends. Activists struggled to adapt to the diminishing returns of street protests, as public opinion turned against them and the numbers joining in the protests diminished. But those activists have succeeded in transforming Egypt’s political life and keeping the pressure on the SCAF, even if they are far from satisfied with their own accomplishments.
What about the Presidential elections which begin tomorrow? I’m not going to offer any predictions here. I have almost no confidence in the various public opinion surveys and don’t think they offer a reliable guide to the Egyptian electorate. The campaign has brought forward candidates who represent distinct trends in Egyptian political life, and almost any combination of Moussa-Morsi-Abou el-Fotouh-Shafik second round matchups seems plausible. The election fever on the Egyptian street demonstrates the general legitimacy of the process and a popular desire to get on with the transition — and will invest the eventual winner with real legitimacy with which to challenge the SCAF, should he choose to do so. Some outcomes would be better than others, from my point of view, but Americans (including me) need to accept that supporting democracy means being willing to accept the choice of the Egyptian public. It’s just incredibly exciting to see a meaningful Egyptian election, in which nobody knows who will win and the outcome really matters.
If Egypt does witness a transfer of power from the SCAF to an elected President and Parliament with provisionally defined powers in the next few weeks, and those elected officials are able and willing to assert their authority, Egypt could have a brighter future than most believe. Perhaps, finally, its leaders can begin to confront the massive economic, social and institutional challenges which have been so badly neglected for so long (and not only during the transition). I don’t expect it to go smoothly — this is Egypt, after all. The new President will jockey for power with the SCAF and with the Parliament, the wonderfully contentious and unruly Egyptian media will challenge and scrutinize their every move, and many activists will likely continue to take to the streets in protest. But on the eve of the election, Egypt suddenly seems tantalizingly close to something like a successful transition.
Don’t worry, though. I’m sure it won’t last, and the regularly scheduled falling of the sky will commence as the election returns begin to roll in!