Egypt marked the third anniversary of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation with the restoration of a newly empowered security regime. It is little surprise, then, that the country’s democratic activists, as well as outside observers, may very well question whether a democratic Egypt is conceivable in the short (five year) or medium (fifteen year) term.
Nothing is inevitable, but if Egypt is to survive as a viable state, much less to underwrite a prosperous and just future for its citizens, its only option is to become a democracy. But, Egypt’s current path is a road to nowhere, guaranteeing further stagnation and oppression and risking state failure. Given the grave costs of this outcome, hope in Egypt’s democratic project must not be abandoned. Instead, we should attempt to objectively diagnose the transition’s failures since the January 25 Revolution and build a strategy for the future grounded in those experiences.
Lesson No. 1: Dealing with Divisions
Egypt is a deeply fragmented society, not only along the more familiar (if not very analytically useful) lines of religion versus secularism, but also along divisions of class and geography. Some 95 percent of Egyptians live on annual incomes that are less than the country’s average annual per capita income, with almost half of Egyptians’ income between $2 and $4 per day.
Both poverty and public investment are highly-correlated with geography. High levels of the former and low levels of the latter are concentrated in rural areas of the country, particularly Upper Egypt—83 percent of the country’s extremely poor and 67 percent of its poor populations make their homes there, even though the region includes only half of the country’s total population. Despite Upper Egypt’s severe underdevelopment, it receives only 25 percent of public investments in basic services such as water, electricity, education, and health.
Democratic governance in Egypt will inevitably reflect these divisions, but must ultimately be able to mediate extreme inequality in income distribution among individuals as well as across regions.
Lesson No. 2: Building National Coalitions
Egyptians lack scalable popular institutions capable of representing diverse voices that do not appeal to the most visceral—even if completely unreasonable—fears. While Egyptians were able to mobilize en masse to remove Mubarak, subsequent popular mobilizations have been motivated by the fear of fellow Egyptians. These have ranged from Islamists who have accused their opponents of attempting to change Egypt’s Islamic identity to non-Islamists who have accused Islamists of pushing a foreign agenda.
At the same time, Egyptians have engaged in countless micro-struggles involving particular issues. What is lacking, however, are institutional forums in which particular struggles and the demands of local groups can be forged into broader coalitions capable of sustaining a healthy national politics that does not depend on excluding opponents as less authentically Egyptian.
During the Mubarak era, the general absence of these institutions—with the possible exception of the Muslim Brotherhood—virtually guaranteed that centrifugal political forces would overwhelm centripetal ones, a feature of post-Mubarak politics that paved the way for the security state’s return. Egyptians who seek a democratic future for their country will have to build such institutions, notwithstanding the return of a more aggressive security state after the military ouster of the country’s first democratically elected president and Muslim Brotherhood member, Mohamed Morsi, on July 3, 2013.
Lesson No. 3: Democracy Through Accountability, Not Consensus
The opposite of authoritarianism is accountability, not consensualism. In the wake of the July 3 coup, one of the greatest tragedies for a healthy democratic politics in Egypt was the way opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood disparaged and even delegitimized majoritarian electoral politics. Many commentators dismissed elections as mere “ballotocracy.”
In a functioning democracy, majorities govern, meaning they are entitled to resolve disputes in accordance with procedures laid out in a state’s constitution. It is not anti-democratic, much less authoritarian, for a majority to exercise this right; meanwhile, the minority is obliged, whatever its misgivings, to accept those decisions until such time as it achieves power through valid elections.
To deprive the majority’s decisions of legitimacy effectively provides minorities with veto power over political developments they do not like. During his rule, Morsi’s progressive critics undoubtedly wished to cast doubt on the legitimacy of majority decisions in order to pursue their more progressive positions. In practice, however, super-majority requirements—such as those enshrined in the 2013 amendments to the 2012 constitution—tend to empower entrenched interests that support the status quo . Majority-rule is arguably the most effective tool available to reduce instances of arbitrary political power in society, and the domination and injustice that is generally an inescapable feature of social life. This is especially true in Egypt where there is no “natural” governing party or permanent and stable majority coalition that is in a position to dominate permanently a distinct minority.
Lesson No. 4: Gradual, Not Revolutionary Change
Democracy does not only empower progressives. It also empowers reactionaries, and in a revolutionary situation, it can also be manipulated by those who support the old regime. Usually, however, democracies tend to promote the average citizen’s views. In Egypt as elsewhere, democratic change is almost always incremental rather than revolutionary. In light of this fact and the realities of Egyptian society, a democratic government would probably pass laws that are more socially conservative than those favored by revolutionaries.
But, the advantage of laws adopted through democratic means is that they enjoy buy-in from the majority of people. Even though laws passed by a revolutionary minority might be objectively “better,” they are likely to be ignored in a society where the state lacks sufficient coercive power to enforce them against a recalcitrant population. Democratically-adopted laws have another advantage over laws that are imposed from the top-down, in that they can be changed over time. As a population evolves, its expectations and demands will adjust accordingly, which will be reflected in the laws adopted.
Democratic reforms start off slowly, but over time they builds up momentum and become difficult to resist as greater numbers of citizens internalize the morality of democracy. Authoritarian regimes cut short the process by which people become democratic citizens. They fail in the long-term even though they may, in the short-term, be superior to newly-established democracies on certain measures.
Lesson No. 5: Fostering Belief in Democracy
Because its success is a long-term achievement, democracy must be sustained, particularly in its formative stage, by a widely-shared belief in its desirability. This was perhaps the greatest failing of the January 25 Revolution, which never convinced a majority of Egyptians that democracy was a good in itself even if it did not bring immediate solutions for the people’s legitimate demands.
This is ultimately a question of civic education and the challenge of convincing people why, despite heightened demands on citizens, self-government is preferable to an authoritarian regime that promises much but inevitably fails to deliver.
Lesson No. 6: Institutional Solutions
Governance is hard work and requires practical compromises across a broad spectrum of issues. For Egyptian democracy advocates, the priority should not be to promote specific micro-policies, but rather to advocate for institutional solutions to manage popular disagreement and produce political outcomes that will enjoy popular legitimacy. In this respect, Egyptian democracy advocates should focus their attention on questions related to government structures, such as the benefits of a bicameral versus unicameral legislature, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of certain voting systems.
Given the highly centrifugal nature of Egyptian politics, it is crucial public institutions check the tendency of Egyptian politics to focus exclusively on the particular demands of various interest groups and help channel these local demands into a broad political program. In this regard, a bicameral legislature may be useful if electoral rules are drawn up so that successful candidates in at least one of the two legislative chambers must win votes nation-wide rather than from a particular district. One branch of the legislature could represent particular, local concerns, while the other branch would have a broader constituency and be better positioned to reflect a national constituency. Given the weakness and fragmentation of Egypt’s political parties, a cumulative voting system in which voters would be entitled to rank candidates, instead of voting for one candidate over all others, might also be effective in moderating extremist tendencies that currently dominate Egyptian politics.
Egyptian democracy advocates should also take advantage of the country’s authoritarian restoration to begin thinking about what a genuinely decentralized state would look like, with well-thought-out draft laws for effective local government and a revamped system of administrative laws that would give voice to those directly impacted by administrative regulations. Along the same lines, a draft labor law should be prepared that reflects both the concerns of labor and capital when it comes to sharing enterprise profits and satisfying the public interest in limiting workplace strife.
There is little doubt that substantive disagreements on detailed policy issues such as these have inflicted horrible damage on Egypt’s prospects for establishing a stable democracy in the wake of Mubarak’s resignation. It is crucial, therefore, that as many of these issues as possible are resolved before attempts are made to get the democratic transition back on track.
Lesson No. 7: Security Sector Reform
While undoubtedly essential, security sector reform can only take place along with across–the-board reform. Security abuses stem from three basis causes: political repression, general legal inefficacy, and the poor-quality of the police themselves. As long as Egypt is not a democracy and different political groups are repressed and imprisoned, the police will inevitably be a crucial pillar of the regime and carry out the state’s repressive policies against political opponents.
As long as most Egyptians are indifferent to the country’s laws and flout them whenever convenient, the legal system will be effective only to the extent that the state is able to coerce compliance. This situation will not change unless and until citizens internalize the rule of law. Since the police are recruited from relatively less-educated sectors of society and are relatively poorly-paid and poorly-trained, it is unrealistic to expect they will follow the law and exercise restraint in dealing with citizens, even if the law commands them to do so. Because of the first two reasons mentioned above, law enforcement officials can reliably predict they will not be punished by the state for violating citizens’ rights.
Lesson No. 8: The State’s Fiscal Integrity
A country cannot be democratic if both the government and citizens themselves are indifferent to the rule of law. Commitment to this principle is not simply a moral ideal; it is also critical to the state’s ability to uphold the law in an effective and impartial manner when disputes arise between citizens. A state can have a substantively just legal system while being so ineffective in enforcing the law that it loses its legitimacy. This is arguably the situation in Egypt.
But, the Egyptian state cannot be effective as long as it lacks sufficient resources to carry out its responsibilities. Restoring fiscal integrity to the state is, therefore, a condition precedent to establishing democracy in the country. This will require expanding the tax base and reallocating the tax burden so that it is more equitably shared among all citizens. It also means the state must reallocate its spending priorities so that fewer public resources are spent subsidizing consumption, and more funds are directed toward financing public goods such as education, health, and infrastructure.
One of the greatest failures of January 25 was its inability to formulate a realistic plan to establish fiscal sustainability for the state. Accordingly, it is crucial to begin formulating this plan now, so that when the opportunity presents itself democratic forces will not again be caught flat-footed in solving the country’s practical governance problems.
Conclusion: Toward a More Democratic Future
No doubt, reasonable people may believe there are other lessons to be learned from the failures that followed Mubarak’s resignation, but I am confident most observers would agree that the concerns raised in this essay must be addressed if there is any hope for Egypt’s successful transition to democracy. Focusing on these issues also has the advantage of avoiding ideological debates in favor of practical questions. This, too, is a major lesson learned from the failure of January 25: the reintroduction of ideology into politics led to insoluble polarization, the failure of politics, and the triumph of the security state. Democracy advocates in Egypt must prepare for the future so that such an outcome does not happen again.