Three years after the January 25 Revolution, Egypt is no longer in a democratic transition, but the situation does not have to stay that way forever. Though the country currently finds itself caught up in an ambitious attempt to reconstruct an authoritarian political system—which will soon take its next step with the election of former defense minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi to the presidency—the project could still fail. And if it does, democratic politics could make a comeback in Egypt. As political scientists Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo write, “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.”
How might Egypt find its way back to a more democratic system? Other countries that have suffered through similar experiences—a military coup and strongman rule ending a period of democratic politics—could offer examples of possible pathways for Egypt. To that end, Pakistan, Chile, South Korea, and Argentina are briefly examined below. These cases highlight three possible avenues through which Egypt’s opposition—currently a disparate mix of Islamists, revolutionary youth, and liberals—could help bring the country back to democracy: leveraging the regime’s democratic institutions to oust the strongman, mounting another mass uprising that topples the ruler, or harnessing an external shock to the regime.
Leveraging Democratic Institutions
Authoritarian leaders do not come to power in a vacuum, but must contend instead with the state’s institutional legacy. Democratic institutions that manage to remain active can offer an avenue for contesting and even derailing strongman rule.
Pakistan: When General Pervez Musharraf ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and took control of the country in 1999, he continued the cycle of alternating democratic and military regimes that had bedeviled Pakistan since 1958. Musharraf went on to govern Pakistan for nine years, formalizing his rule via presidential referendum in 2002. Though he governed with a heavy hand, Pakistan’s democratic institutions continued to operate, including the parliament—where party politics continued—and the courts, where Musharraf increasingly found his rule legally challenged. By the time his five-year term concluded in 2007, Musharraf’s support had plummeted. Though he won an indirect presidential election boycotted by the opposition, the Supreme Court threatened to overturn the results. Musharraf responded by suspending the constitution and firing the chief justice, exacerbating the crisis and leading to his party’s defeat in the 2008 parliamentary elections. After the opposition parties formed a coalition government that threatened to impeach Musharraf, the president lost the support of both the military and the United States. He resigned the presidency and went into exile.
Chile: Despite Chile’s significant democratic history, the 1973 coup that ousted President Salvador Allende ushered in a long period of violent repression and dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet and his military junta. Seeking to legitimize his rule, Pinochet had himself elected president in 1980 and passed a constitution that gave broad powers to the military. He also agreed to a referendum on the continuation of his presidency in 1988, which he expected to win. Following an economic downturn in 1983, protests began to mount against the regime, and the diverse opposition gradually united against the president. Making a strategic decision to challenge Pinochet by the rules of his own constitution and participate in the 1988 referendum on his presidency, the opposition campaigned for a no vote, and won. Boxed in by his defeat and lacking the support of the military and international community to subvert the vote, Pinochet’s grip on power faltered and Chile entered a gradual but sustainable democratic transition.
How might this scenario play out in Egypt? Sisi will likely rule Egypt as a dictatorial president, avoiding accountability, repressing the opposition as needed, and keeping the parliament on a tight leash. But regular parliamentary and presidential elections are written into the new Egyptian constitution, as are term limits for the president. While elections can be rigged and term limits can be changed or removed, it is possible that Sisi will be unwilling or unable to take such action. The regime might be overconfident, or it might feel constrained by the rules it has written. Alternatively, Sisi might lack the political capital to rewrite the constitution or steal an election, particularly if opposition persists and he finds himself already standing on shaky ground. Under these circumstances, the opposition could conceivably gain enough seats in parliament to weaken Sisi, defeat his successor in a presidential election in eight years’ time, or—if the situation is bad enough—even defeat him in four years. If Sisi loses his electoral legitimacy, he would also be at risk of losing support from key allies in the regime and the international community, in which case his government would likely crumble.
If institutional avenues for challenging the regime are closed for the opposition, laying the groundwork for a future uprising offers another plausible route back to democracy.
South Korea: South Korean president and military dictator Park Chung Hee was assassinated in 1979 following extensive agitation against his regime. Power then passed to a provisional civilian government that promised to hold free elections—South Korea seemed to be on the road to democracy. But, within the year a new military dictatorship under Chun Doo Hwan had seized power in a coup. From the start, the new regime faced opposition, and its bloody suppression of the Gwangju Uprising in May 1980 became a rallying cry for the opposition. Demonstrations and unrest persisted, and by 1987, student movements, labor unions, the Church, and the parliamentary opposition—the same coalition that had pressured Park’s regime in 1979—challenged the regime with increasing strength and unity. After Chun announced his successor in June 1987, the protest movement grew substantially. Chun and his supporters considered using the army to violently suppress the demonstrations, but under mounting domestic and international pressure, the regime caved to the protesters’ demands instead and committed to holding free and fair elections.
How might this scenario play out in Egypt? Despite ongoing repression—which has resulted in the deaths of more than 2,500 Egyptians in protests and clashes since July 3, 2013—demonstrations remain a remarkably persistent feature of Egyptian politics. In recent months, labor unrest has once again spread, and student protest movements have proved resilient. While the intensity of protests may fluctuate during his presidency, it seems unlikely that Sisi will be able to completely repress demonstrations. At the same time, he will also be forced to contend with the still-entrenched economic and political grievances that sparked the January 25 Revolution. Another uprising that creates enough pressure to force the president’s resignation or removal cannot be ruled out.
An External Shock to the Regime
External shocks—from a sharp economic downturn to a foreign policy blunder, or even the ruler’s death—can cause an implosion and accelerate the regime’s collapse.
Argentina: The 1976 military coup that ousted the government of Isabel Peron was one of a series in Argentina during the 20th century. It brought to power a military junta that ruled the country until 1983. Though initially facing relatively low levels of organized opposition, the regime’s democratic opponents regrouped as the military lost cohesion and increasingly became consumed by internal disputes. Against this backdrop, Argentina’s embarrassing defeat in the 1982 Falklands War quickly sapped the regime of its remaining strength and precipitated a transition back to democratic politics.
How might this scenario play out in Egypt? The Egyptian economy will be the big wildcard for Sisi’s presidency. Egypt is currently depending on the Gulf countries to keep its economy above water. If Gulf aid dries up, or if some other shock such as a debt crisis produces a sharp economic downturn, it is conceivable that the regime could quickly collapse in on itself.
Lessons for the Opposition
The above situations share several similarities that suggest possible lessons for Egypt’s opposition currents as they continue to struggle for democracy in the years ahead. For one, opposition movements in Pakistan, Chile, Argentina, and South Korea were able to maintain pressure on the regime, keeping dissent alive through a variety of channels in a way that enabled them to take advantage of challenging moments for the government. Those challenges often involved economic troubles or political issues surrounding moments of succession or reelection. While the opposition in these countries was often divided along ideological or partisan lines, attaining some semblance of unity usually preceded its ability to attain the numbers large enough to threaten the ruler through protests or elections. International pressure also played an important role by limiting rulers’ options and sapping their strength in the face of popular unrest.
Can Egyptians succeed on these measures? The country’s political parties are weak and divided, its protest movements are under immense pressure, and the regime’s repressive apparatus is large and intimidating. Historically, the legislature and electoral politics have not been particularly active arenas for challenging the regime, though the courts have at times been willing to push back more against the executive. There are other indicators, however, that point to the opposition maintaining its ability to mobilize and pressure the next ruler. Student movements—which have managed to attract participants beyond the Islamist base —have so far demonstrated a tenacious ability to keep up their protests. Labor has also proved stubbornly rebellious, though labor protesters have mostly shied away from political demands for now. Additionally, diverse political groups from the Muslim Brotherhood to the April 6 Youth Movement have persisted in their efforts to challenge the regime, despite the repression they face.
Recovering the unity of opposition that Egypt experienced during the January 25 Revolution may be a more difficult feat than keeping dissent alive. Polarization between Islamist and non-Islamist opposition groups runs extremely deep, and even within these camps there are significant barriers to coordination and disagreements over strategy. There are also few, if any, figures who can offer credible leadership across the political spectrum. As Sisi steps into the presidency he may become a unifying target for the opposition, particularly if the economy continues to sputter as many expect. Perhaps that will be enough to bring his opponents together, but it seems likely that crippling divisions will persist for some time. Violent attacks against security forces by extremist groups will make it even more difficult to forge a unified opposition, by feeding into the government’s security-first narrative and driving an additional wedge between Islamists and non-Islamists.
The extent to which Sisi will be subjected to external pressure from the United States and the European Union is also an open question. Both seem to want their relationships with Egypt to return to normal as quickly as possible, but both also appear wary of human rights abuses that have occurred under the interim government. As long as the political situation can retain some minimal sense of normalcy, Sisi will probably keep their tepid support. If he is challenged by a significant popular uprising or opposition movement, however, he will likely be pressured to step down by both the United States and the European Union, as Mubarak was before him.
Fighting for Reforms
Removing Sisi from power would only be a start, of course, as the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall has demonstrated all too well. Even then, Egypt would still be left with an authoritarian constitution that provides significant powers to the military and security forces. Removing these formal powers is entirely possible—Portugal, Chile, and Turkey, among others, have managed to strip similar provisions from their constitutions—but the legal battle would not be the end of the road, either. Egypt’s military will remain a powerful actor that is capable, and potentially willing, to intervene in politics no matter what is in the constitution. Abuses by the security forces will persist even with better human rights protections written into law. And an entrenched bureaucracy, endemic corruption, and weak democratic institutions will still be the reality of Egyptian politics well into the future.
Following the ouster of Mubarak, Egyptians barely had a chance to begin addressing these issues before the country’s democratic transition was rudely interrupted by the July 3 coup. When (or if) Egypt’s opposition forces manage to overthrow their next dictator, one can only hope they will have more time.