The Middle East Channel

Post-Soviet lessons for Egypt

After a little over two years of questioning whether Egypt could be a new example of the Turkish model of governance, the more appropriate question after the last few days would be whether Egypt is on track to replicate the Kyrgyz model. Millions of mobilized Egyptians in the streets and military ultimata may indeed succeed ...


After a little over two years of questioning whether Egypt could be a new example of the Turkish model of governance, the more appropriate question after the last few days would be whether Egypt is on track to replicate the Kyrgyz model. Millions of mobilized Egyptians in the streets and military ultimata may indeed succeed in bringing President Mohamed Morsi down from power, and they have strong reasons for wanting to do so. However, the means used may come back to haunt those activists who think they are ushering in a better political order — at least that is what the experience of other countries teaches us.

Millions of citizens came out into the street across Egypt on June 30, protesting the Muslim Brotherhood and calling for Morsi to step down from power because many of the goals of the revolution — police reform, social justice, an improved economic situation — have not been achieved. Many rightly argue that the revolution was not only or even primarily about free and fair elections, and they are correct, although opposition to Gamal Mubarak’s inheritance of his father’s position was certainly one thing that protesters sought to prevent. 

And yet, despite the legitimacy of the opposition’s anger, the dissatisfaction with the way in which many hated elements of the Egyptian "deep state" remain intact, and opposition to various neoliberal economic policies, demands for Morsi to step down rather than calls for the implementation of immediate and specific policy changes may be driving Egypt down a different, dangerous path. A comparative look at the divergent trajectories taken by some of the so-called "Color Revolutions" indicates that attempting to — and succeeding in — forcing Morsi to leave office ahead of the end of his term could set Egypt on a perilous course fraught with heightened political violence, societal polarization, continued instability, and increasing authoritarianism.

During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, many journalists and academics drew comparisons between the mass mobilization sweeping across North Africa and the Levant and the wave of "Color Revolutions" that swept across Eastern Europe and the Balkans from the late 1990s to the mid 2000s. These comparisons were easy to draw, particularly in viewing the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. Not only were the visual images of the two sets of uprisings similar, with protesters occupying central squares and setting up tent cities, but the tactics young activists employed in Egypt closely mirrored those used by the Serbian activist group Otpor in their own protests against former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. In fact, this was no accident; Otpor students, through the Serbian Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), had provided training in nonviolent tactics, protest strategy, and organizational discipline to Egyptian activists in the lead up to the Egyptian uprising, just as they had trained the Pora youth movement in the Ukraine and the Kmara movement in Georgia.

However, despite the superficial similarities linking the mass mobilization in Ukraine and Serbia to that of Egypt and Tunisia, there were significant differences between the more "successful" Color Revolution countries — those that continued on a trajectory of democratic reform, economic growth, political stability, and rule of law — and Egypt and Tunisia. Instead, the way in which Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were forced from power more closely mirrors the political transitions of Color Revolution countries that were instead wracked with continued instability, economic decline, and political violence.

As described in an in-depth scholarly examination of the Color Revolutions by Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik, the mobilization that led to a democratic transition in Ukraine and Serbia revolved around elections as a symbolic and temporal focal point and were centered around preventing an authoritarian leader — Milosevic in Serbia and Leonid Kuchma in the Ukraine — from carrying out electoral fraud or refusing to concede office to the rightful winner of those elections. As such, the political opposition, civil society organizations, and youth activists engaged in a process of cooperation and consensus-building in the months leading up to the elections in both countries. When both countries’ presidents did attempt to rig the outcome of the elections, the broad, cohesive opposition was ready to stage demonstrations that forced Milosevic and Kuchma to concede that they lost the elections and to step down from power, allowing the rightful winners to take office. Since then, the political and economic environments of Serbia and the Ukraine — as well as those of Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Croatia, the other "Color Revolution" countries in which the political oppositions mobilized in order to force an authoritarian leader to accept fair election results — have shown a marked improvement in nearly all democratic indicators, as measured by Freedom House’s Nations in Transit Project.

Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003) and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution (2005) are often included within the group of Color Revolutions. However, in contrast to events in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, and the Ukraine, the political transitions in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan differed in critical ways. In both of these countries, mass demonstrations forced Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev from power; however neither of these figures were on the ballot at the time. The demonstrations coincided with fraudulent parliamentary elections and yet demonstrators focused on forcing the two presidents out of office rather than demanding the realization of fair parliamentary electoral results. In addition, in neither country were demonstrations led by a broad, cohesive political opposition united with civil society groups (though Georgia’s opposition was more united than Kyrgyzstan’s), and the protests were not about enforcing and protecting the democratic process. Instead, the demonstrators stormed government buildings, causing Shevardnadze and Akayev to flee their respective countries, leaving both without a clear, elected, legitimate political successor.

The different way in which regime change occurred in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan had several negative implications for the post-mobilizational politics of both countries. Unlike the improvements in democratic indicators that the other Color Revolution countries have shown, democracy indicators for Georgia and Kyrgyzstan actually worsened after the toppling of Shevardnadze and Akayev.

First, both countries witnessed heightened levels of political mobilization and violence in the years following the toppling of Shevardnadze and Akayev. While a degree of heightened civil society activity is the norm after a regime transition, the level of popular mobilization in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan has been destabilizing and is used as a substitute for dialogue and consensus building. In Georgia, the post-uprising period has witnessed significant popular mobilization, a mechanism of attempted political change used by the opposition in nearly every year since the Rose Revolution. This mobilization is in many cases organized by members of parliament, and in many cases has led to violence, most recently in May 2011. The opposition similarly used popular mobilization in Kyrgyzstan as a weapon in 2006, 2007, and 2010, with protesters and police engaged in violent clashes, and with public officials and parliamentarians targets of assassination attempts. In 2010, demonstrators once again stormed parliament and forced then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to resign.

A second negative outcome in the post-mobilizational politics of Georgia and Kyrgyzstan has been the lack of consensus and crippling political polarization. As leadership change occurred in both countries as a result of mass mobilization rather than mobilization focused on securing fair electoral results, in neither country had the political opposition engaged in a process of cooperation and consensus-building in the run-up to the mobilization. As a result, decision making has been stalled and the majority parties in parliament in both countries have shown no willingness to cooperate with the opposition, leading, in the case of Kyrgyzstan, to the forced resignation of the government in 2007 and the establishment in 2008 of a "shadow parliament."

Finally, a critical difference between the successful Color Revolution cases and Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, where leaders left office as a result of protest, not elections, is the degree of institutionalization of the democratic process in post-mobilizational politics. With the ability to look back upon the last 10 years of Georgian and Kyrgyz politics, it is apparent that the use of protests to force leadership turnover sets a precedent for instability and extra-institutional change that is detrimental to democratic consolidation. As scholars have long pointed out, the institutionalization of democratic processes depends on a shift in political culture so that actors routinely attempt political change through democratic institutions rather than through informal channels and anti-system tactics. However, in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, there has been a tendency to dissolve government or attempt to force leaders from power, rather than legislating reforms or waiting for terms to end and holding new elections. In several occasions, the Georgian opposition attempted to force the new president, Mikheil Saakashvili, from power through protests, as did opposition leaders in Kyrgyzstan. In turn, the political leadership in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan increasingly used repression to stifle dissent and opposition, rather than channeling it through institutional avenues.

In viewing the previous 10 years of politics and downward trends in various democracy indicators of Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, Egypt’s current political crisis is cause for alarm. The similarities are there: Mubarak was forced from power by massive protests around serious societal grievances, rather than rigged elections, leaving the country with no clear successor. Young activists led the protests, not the formal political opposition, which has instead remained fractured, with the National Salvation Front following the current protest movement rather than leading it, as Issandr El Amrani argues. Political mobilization has remained elevated since the revolution, and average citizens have already expressed shock and dismay at the unprecedented Egyptian-on-Egyptian street violence witnessed in December 2012 and as recently as yesterday. While Morsi has clearly made huge errors over the last year, not the least of which was the dismissal of parliament, the mass protests calling for Morsi’s resignation, rather than a unified opposition coalescing around specific policy demands, leads Egypt down a dangerous road. Forcing Morsi from office could cement the practice of forced regime change and the dismissal of the democratic process whenever politics gets hard and messy.

All of this is not to criticize the Egyptian revolution or to say that Mubarak should not have been forced from office; nor is this to say that protesters don’t have legitimate grievances with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s slim margin of victory in the elections in June 2012 do not grant him or his supporters free rein to ram through policy initiatives cloaked in thinly veiled expressions of majoritarianism. As for the opposition, however, Morsi did win the election, and while free elections were certainly not the only goal of the revolution, democratic governance and fair elections are presumably at least one of them.

The crippling problems that Egypt is facing — economic collapse, continued police brutality, extreme political polarization, and the fearsome challenge of wresting power away from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — will not be magically solved by a new president. Should Morsi step down rather than institute sweeping reforms that address these issues, this sets a dangerous precedent for Egypt’s future, one that may mirror the years of instability, authoritarianism, and corruption that Georgia and Kyrgyzstan have experienced, and which hindsight grants us the ability to observe.

The threat of attempting to force Morsi from power is not about Morsi himself, or any other individual, despite the extreme personalization of Egyptian politics that Nathan Brown recently described. This is instead about the institution of a democratically elected executive, the institutionalization of the democratic process, and about the way in which Egypt’s political factions are able to build consensus around how to address highly contentious issues. If political leaders cannot find a way to do this, then mass demonstrations to force a leader from power will likely become not the exception used to deal with one authoritarian leader, but the annual tool used against any future president. Perhaps this is acceptable to the protesters filling Tahrir Square; but a quick look at Kyrgyzstan and Georgia indicate the dangers that lie in wait.

Alanna C. Van Antwerp is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the George Washington University and was a 2012 Boren Fellow in Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt. Her research was supported in part by a Travel-Research-Engagement grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science. This post is drawn from a forthcoming book chapter titled "The Electoral Model Without Elections: The Arab Uprisings of 2011 and the Color Revolutions in Comparative Perspective" with Nathan J. Brown. Follow her on Twitter: @vanantwerpa.

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