The Odds are Good for Egypt

Run the numbers, and you’ll see that Egypt’s coup may be just what the country needed.


The recent ouster of President Mohamed Morsy by the Egyptian military cast a dark shadow on Egypt’s fledgling democracy. The president was displaced on July 3, just days after he failed to satisfy an ultimatum put forth by the country’s top generals. The interim president Adly Mansour, appointed by the leaders of the military, has already blunted some of the damage and put forth an ambitious timetable to return the country to democracy. 

Egypt’s political crisis has been interpreted in two sharply conflicting ways. Opponents of the coup lament the irreparable damage it does to Egyptian democracy. Not only has the constitution been suspended as a result of military intervention, triggering a crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Egypt’s first freely and fairly elected leader has been toppled, setting a perilous precedent and unleashing violence that threatens to derail the return of elected rule.

The coup’s supporters, by contrast, argue that it will help set the stage for a stronger democratic future by offsetting illiberal aspects of the constitution such as the exclusion of secular groups from power and restrictions on free expression. Indeed, they point to the fact that the new transition plan puts Egypt on a fast track to new elections. 

These conflicting interpretations are stark: Democracy is rarely cultivated in a Petri dish overnight, but it is also rarely doomed once an experiment in self-rule has begun. History instead suggests that new democracies often muddle through, meandering fitfully to a stable democratic future. Therefore, while democracy in Egypt has suffered an unfortunate short-term setback, it is not destined to fail. 

Egypt’s circumstances are not unique. Between 1875 and 2004, there have been 117 transitions to democracy across the world based on the conventional definition of procedural democracy: (1) the chief executive is elected; (2) the legislature is elected; (3) there is more than one political party; and (4) an incumbent has lost power and transferred it peacefully to a new leader. Of these transitions, 25 were quickly overturned by military coups in a manner similar to Egypt. In these instances, the military frequently intervenes to rectify what it perceives to be a critical flaw in the democratic design and sets the stage for a return to a more sustainable democracy. 

The good news for Egypt is that some of these stillborn transitions have given way to quick returns to elected rule. In 9 of 25 cases, there was a return to democracy within five years. Examples include Peru, Argentina, Burundi, and Guinea Bissau. In these cases, military leaders have held free and fair elections quickly after overthrowing civilian governments, effectively "resetting" democracy in a manner more favorable to the military or civil society groups allied with them. Some of these "second-chance" democracies experienced further backsliding (e.g., Argentina) before eventually consolidating and shedding the most extreme legacies of politicized constitutional engineering. 

Even the more delayed returns to elected rule give reason for hope. In 20 of the 25 cases of stillborn transition (including the nine cases mentioned above), there was a return to democracy within 15 years. These include Ghana, Pakistan, and Thailand. Although democracy is far from perfect in these countries, it has survived setbacks similar to those in Egypt today. 

The bad news is that a few stillborn transitions have instead yielded a return to prolonged dictatorship. In five cases, democracy was either dramatically delayed (Nigeria and South Korea) or permanently shelved (Burma, Sudan, and Uganda). And in these cases, civil strife, violence and repression have been ubiquitous features of the political landscape. Hard-line elements within the military pushed for a greater focus on domestic security. If elections are held at all, it is under conditions of severely circumscribed competition that excluded popular groups and in which pro-military incumbents are all but guaranteed victory. 

This begs the question about what determines whether countries are able to recover after a coup that resets democracy. A basic data analysis reveals that there are several "structural" factors that, while far from deterministic, play an important role in whether a stillborn transition segues into a quick return to democracy or instead represents a renewed lapse into dictatorship. Countries located in regions with a greater number of neighbors that are democratic are more likely to return to democracy at a quicker pace after a coup, as are those countries with open economies.

In other words, reclusive states in bad neighborhoods face steep obstacles in returning to elected government. Similarly, very poor countries are less likely to return to democracy, as are those that have a legacy of a large repressive apparatus under dictatorship. States with a history of financing large militaries and police forces employed to maintain order and quash dissent, rather than invest in education and infrastructure, are less likely to witness protest movements or the rise of a middle class that can help push for a return to democracy.

Political factors also play an important role in the return to democracy after a stillborn transition. These factors are ultimately the result of deliberate choices made by incumbents and the opposition and therefore suggest that the key players in Egypt are not simply passive victims of the structural factors impinging upon their ongoing political development. These include both popular mobilization associated with a revolution that ousts an authoritarian regime, and constitutional design to create a blueprint to new, democratic institutions. 

If the initial foray into democracy was the result of a revolution that brought down a long-lived authoritarian regime, then mobilized popular groups are much less likely to melt back into political irrelevance. The classic example is France. And if the initial democratic experiment was guided by a constitution blatantly engineered by outgoing autocrats, then elites are more likely to countenance a return to elected government after a coup that resets the political game. This has happened in the recent history of Pakistan and Nigeria. Both of these factors help explain why governments return more quickly to elected rule after a "reset" coup. 

Besides the obvious downside of being in a region suffused with dictatorships, several important factors for Egypt are rather propitious: it has a higher income per capita than most countries that quickly return to democracy after "reset" coups, and it has a relatively open, albeit declining, economy. 

On the political side, the news is mixed. The revolution that overthrew Mubarak emboldened civil society, which, as witnessed by the protests that catalyzed Morsy’s overthrow, will not easily fold in the face of continued repression or trumped-up "emergency rule." As in other historical cases, this bodes well for the re-establishment of elected government, as witnessed by the military’s unwillingness to rule directly as it did immediately after Mubarak’s overthrow.

Regarding constitutional design, the Muslim Brotherhood’s constitutions surely contributed to democracy’s false start. It rammed through a document with little support outside of hardcore Islamists and in the process threatened powerful interests. This set the stage for the current turmoil. 

This time the military will most likely impose a more secular constitution beforehand with more reliable limits on executive authority. As in other cases of more heavy-handed constitutional engineering such as Chile or Turkey, this should bolster the prospects that democracy — though a far less populist version — will endure this time around.

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is author, most recently, of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.

Victor Menaldo is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington.

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