The Middle East Channel

Will Egypt’s agony save the Arab Spring?

In the wake of the recent carnage in Egypt some observers have declared the Arab Spring dead and buried. Its epitaph has been splashed across the pages of the New York Times and other publications, along with calls for the United States to give up efforts to promote competitive politics in the Arab world. A ...


In the wake of the recent carnage in Egypt some observers have declared the Arab Spring dead and buried. Its epitaph has been splashed across the pages of the New York Times and other publications, along with calls for the United States to give up efforts to promote competitive politics in the Arab world. A democracy agenda must now give way to an agenda of "responsible governance." This eulogy is animated by the assumption that Egyptian politics represents merely one extreme version of a shared political pathology for which there is no remedy. If democratization has failed in Egypt, it is bound to collapse in every Arab state now undergoing struggles for political change.

What happens in Egypt does matter. The epicenter of the Arab world, its political struggles are being closely watched by rival political forces throughout the region. Egypt’s failure might be repeated, particularly if those groups that fear that democratization is giving rivals unchecked power decide to emulate Egypt’s "Tamarod" movement by revolting against fragile transitions. But the carnage in Egypt could also encourage rival political leaders to revive efforts to forge political consensus. Not only is the game far from over: Egypt’s struggles might help save what is left of the "Arab Spring." 

The prospects for grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat will hinge on many things, not least of which is the readiness and capacity of rival political leaders to avoid the alluring temptation to revive the old "protection racket" that had once defined the core of Arab autocracies. That system pivoted around regimes’ efforts to manipulate the fears of rival identity groups: secularists and Islamists; Sunnis and Shiites; or Christians and Muslims. Fearing domination by stronger rivals, the weakest of these groups looked to autocracies for their ultimate protection. Rulers provided such protection so long as they received the loyalty — or tacit support — of those groups that had good reason to fear that a democratic system would lead to their political demise — or worse.

The revolts of spring 2011 raised hopes that the allure of such state-managed fear mongering might have been broken. What was required was the creation of new opposition coalitions that reached across the identity divide. It is now painfully clear that in Egypt both Islamist and secular leaders failed to meet this challenge. But in the wider region hopes for breaking the logic of protection racket politics will depend on learning the right lessons that are suggested not only by Egypt’s experience, but also by the ups and downs of political change in the wider Arab world. I would summarize these lessons or rules as follows:

1)   No Unity, No Democracy. From the very outset of the Arab political rebellions, prospects for peaceful democratic transitions rested on the will and capacity of rival opposition leaders to forge a common vision of political community. Absent such a pact or agreement, the transition to democracy was bound to fall apart.     

2)   Reassuring Transition Losers. Because potential losers fear that losing an election will lead to their political exclusion (or worse), potential winners must provide institutional, legal, and constitutional guarantees that promise democratic protections. These guarantees must be clear, coherent, and consistent. In negotiating a new political order, potential losers must also offer some concessions, thus allowing the stronger party to save face with its base while making a case in favor of magnanimity.                                                          

3)   Rule-Making First, Elections Second. Negotiating the rules and institutions for a new political order requires a consensual process that gives all rivals — regardless of their presumed popularity or social base — an equal voice. This is best achieved by a committee of experts that represents diverse views, but which is not beholden to the fractious effects of democratic elections or political outbidding in newly elected bodies. If postponing elections is impossible, elected assemblies should be organized on the principle of consensus, and should be given a narrow mandate that limits their authority to constitution making for a clearly delimited period.

4)   Excluding Political Exclusion. Rule-making bodies should include all groups that accept democratic procedures for resolving conflicts. Leaders and institutions rooted in the old political order must be included rather than banned, thus increasing the chances that they will support rather than sabotage negotiations for a new political order. This inclusion rule requires transitional justice mechanisms for dealing with leaders accused of previous crimes under the old regime. Such mechanisms must be clearly defined, and not conflict with legal and constitutional provisions that give all citizens the right to engage in political participation, expression, and organization. 

5)   Engaging the Security Sector. Democratization requires a comprehensive reform of the military, police, and security forces. But because security sectors can act as spoilers — and because negotiating a new political order will not succeed in a context of escalating security challenges — it is essential that all parties or leaders agree on the content of security reform, that they translate this unified position into specific constitutional provisions, and that they then engage old and new security sector officials in rebuilding the security sector in all of its legal, technical, and institutional dimensions.

6)   Respecting Electoral Legitimacy. When and if elections do produce governments or assemblies that have a popular mandate, it is essential that these bodies not be replaced or toppled by popular protest or military coup. Either way, such an outcome threatens the very foundations of democratic governance. It does so by establishing a precedent by which any group that has reason to oppose a government will decide that it too can achieve its aims not by contesting another election, but rather by dint of popular or elite force. Invoking the "popular will" of the street not only erodes the principle of democracy, in a pragmatic sense, it is likely to elicit a violent response from those leaders and followers who had previously secured authority through elections. Under such conditions, the security apparatus will have to reassert its power, even if it would prefer to remain in the proverbial barracks. Upending electoral legitimacy is a recipe for chaos. 

In Egypt, every one of these rules was violated. From the outset, most Islamist and secular leaders looked to the military rather than themselves. The early election of a new parliament that was then given the task of choosing a constituent assembly politicized the constitution writing process. This dynamic was magnified by the Muslim Brotherhood’s quest to limit the role of non-Islamist groups — thus violating the principles of consensus and inclusion. True, the MB partly "respected" the inclusion rule by trying to pacify the military. It did this by putting aside talk of security sector reform and transitional justice, and by embracing constitutional provisions that the military required in return for tolerating a democratically elected Islamist government. This Faustian bargain magnified the fears of secular groups, whose leaders repeatedly went to the courts in an effort to block and even upend the transition process. The bargain also inadvertently signaled to General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his colleagues that their autonomy depended on a taciturn ally which could not be trusted to protect Egypt’s vital security interests. This was a perfect formula for a combination of popular revolt and military intervention, the effect of which has been to send Egypt into a spiral of escalating internal conflict.

What has been the experience of other Arab states when it comes to the above six rules, and what lessons have they drawn from Egypt’s debacle? In Tunisia, Yemen, and (to some extent) Libya, consensus based talks unfolded fairly early if not always easily. The impetus for such efforts stemmed from the absence of military institutions that had anything close to the institutional power or deep economic interests that had long ago made Egypt’s generals the master of the protection racket game. Lacking this quasi-arbitrating mechanism of a strong and politicized military, the choice facing the leaders of Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen was to talk or fight.

Of course, Yemen’s leader first chose to fight. But the country’s multiplicity of tribal, religious, sectarian, and regional divisions created a "balance of the weak" that eventually made negotiations the only viable choice. Presided over by the United Nations, the effort to hammer out a political bargain is supposed to be completed before elections, thus facilitating the work of the multi-party government. What is more, this government includes the former ruling party, thus inviting buy-in from a powerful player that retains the capacity to hurt it rivals. Because this balancing act may ultimately depend on the U.N.’s third party arbitration, it could ultimately or quickly fall apart. But remote and exotic Yemen — which despite (or perhaps because of) its weak state, fragmented religious-cultural terrain, and history of civil war — is the one Arab state that has thus far not only observed the basic rules of the transition process, but has also resisted emulating the destructive example of Egypt’s political rivals. Indeed, reports suggest that many of the key leaders in Yemen’s on-going "National Dialogue" have emphasized that Egypt’s experience has only strengthened their commitment to a negotiated solution.

In Libya, efforts to transcend Muammar al-Qaddafi’s particular brand of authoritarian protection racket politics has had mixed results. In the aftermath of NATO’s intervention, there were in fact many obstacles to negotiating a new political order. Geographical divisions, conflicts over the control of oil revenue, the prevalence of armed militias that substituted (badly) for a weak national military and police, Islamist-secular tensions — all of these factors loomed large, complicating but not excluding the fragile quest for consensus. This effort was eroded by the decision to hold elections for "General National Congress" (GNC). Monitored by international observers, the election in July 2012 magnified political tensions, thus undercutting preparations to write a new constitution. Proposals for a political exclusion law further muddied the waters by giving leaders from the previous regime incentive to use affiliated militias to sabotage the entire process. These negative developments were compounded by events in Egypt, which encouraged two leading liberal parties to boycott the GNC, while reinforcing the determination of Islamist militias to strengthen their autonomy lest they suffer a fate similar to Egypt’s MB. Thus the quest for a negotiated transition, which was always difficult, now seems harder.

By contrast, Egypt’s experience seems to have had contradictory effects on Tunisia’s transition. From the early days of the "Jasmine Revolution" the declared desire of Islamist and secular leaders to forge a consensus-based politics provided reason for optimism. But the procedures adopted to advance this goal violated key rules of democratic transition. For starters, Tunisia’s leaders decided to give an elected constituent assembly the mission of constitution making, thus ensuring that this body would be sharply politicized. Tunisia’s leaders compounded the challenge by forging a consensus agreement that failed to clearly define the mandate of the assembly. Secularists assumed it would focus on constitutional reform; Islamists believed that the assembly and presiding government should have law creating — and law enforcing — powers. This agreement to disagree sowed much distrust.

What is more, Ennahda’s leaders did not forge their own party consensus regarding the principles for a new constitutional order. Instead, hard-liners secured constitutional articles that provoked the deepest fears of secular groups. They then added salt to the wound by proposing a law that promised to exclude leaders from the former ruling party. Taken against the background of the September 2012 Salafist attack on the U.S. Embassy– and the killing of leftist leader Chokri Belaid that followed in February — these exclusionary efforts gave opponents of the "Troika" government cause to create a parallel constitutional reform process, one whose relationship to the constituent assembly remained unclear. With Salafist violence increasing and the assembly’s contentious debates on Islam and women’s rights raging, the very legitimacy of the reform process was up for grabs.

By June, Ennahda’s leaders had removed most of the contentious articles that had provoked secularist fears. But suddenly Egypt’s Tamarod Movement bust forth. With millions of Egyptians taking to the streets on June 30, secular leaders in Tunisia began talking about emulating their Egyptian counterparts. Indeed, the July 3 removal of Mohamed Morsi and his entire government emboldened Ennahda’s rivals, some who proclaimed the desire for a similar "revolution" in Tunisia. The July 25 assassination of another prominent leftist leader, Mohamed Brahmi, seemed like the last straw. His killing prompted demands for dissolving the constituent assembly, creating a "non-partisan" government of national unity — and even for the resignation of President Moncef Marzouki.

One month later, such demands have either partly receded — or at least have given way to a more sensible debate within the opposition regarding the costs and benefits of following the Egyptian model. Indeed, the flames in Cairo and other Egyptian cities may be having a salutary effect: Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouci has met in Paris with his principle rival, Nida Tunis leader Beji Caid Essebsi; discussions are underway to define the conditions for renewing the work of the constituent assembly; and political leaders are now talking about holding early elections.

All of this may still fall apart. Jihadist attacks on Tunisian soldiers along the Algerian border signal an escalating assault, which, like the assassination of Brahmi, is meant to drive secularists and Islamists toward civil war. Moreover, the opposition remains divided and unsure of its bottom line on key issues, such as the survival of the current government.

Nevertheless, in a political system that gives neither side an obvious or easy alternative to talking, and in the context of the fires burning in Cairo, Tunisian leaders have an impetus to compromise. Faced by an opposition that worries for its political and even physical future, Ennhada’s leaders must go the extra mile. At the same time, Ennahda’s opponents are unlikely to advance their interests by relentlessly demanding that the transition "start from the beginning." Instead, they would be far better off reaching a compromise that will allow for a completion of the constitution. They can then focus on contesting elections, with a view to securing enough seats such that any new government will be constrained by a loyal opposition. Such loyalty requires a constitution that unambiguously defends the rights of freedom of expression and organization. Nothing less will calm the fears of those groups who believe that democracy could be a vehicle for their political exclusion.

Tunisia’s experience, and those of many Arab states, suggests that the alternatives to negotiated transitions are bleak as they are stark: protracted civil conflict or intensified authoritarianism. The notion that there is a third way by which some groups (such as the MB) can be forcefully excluded by governments that nevertheless retain the benefits of legitimacy, accountability, and "good governance" is a pipe dream. The old game of protection racket politics as practiced in Egypt — which allowed for a measure of state-managed political pluralism and limited competition — will be difficult to recreate. In a world of globalized trade and communication, once given up or cast away, such hybrids will be a thing of the past.

Of course, a choice in favor of negotiated democracies is far from perfect. Those forces longing for full-scale "revolution" will have to tolerate governments that include representatives of the old political order. In one form or another, the constituencies represented by the National Democratic Party in Egypt and the Democratic Constitutional Rally in Tunisia will return, either through the back door of autocracy or through the front door of a negotiated democracy. Egypt’s grave difficulties will either hasten the efforts of rival elites in the wider Arab world to define the ground rules for this kind of inclusive politics, or it will speed the decent into civil conflict or new forms of autocracy that will be fraught with insecurity. Whether the United States has the leverage to influence these dynamics is worth debating. But one thing is clear: those who have written the epitaph of democratization in the Arab world must take a closer look at the solutions that the rival leaders of Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen are struggling to devise. Prompted by Egypt’s travails, these efforts constitute yet another chapter in protracted struggles whose ultimate outcomes are yet to be written.

Daniel Brumberg is Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University and a Senior Program Officer at the United States Institute of Peace. As USIP does not take policy positions, the views expressed here are his own.

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