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jueves, 20 de noviembre de 2014


Can Sisi Break Egypt's Cycle of Authoritarianism?

In January 2011, Egyptians took to the streets in large numbers, clamoring for the end of the thirty-year reign of Hosni Mubarak and demanding bread and dignity. In June 2013, fearful of the changes the Muslim Brotherhood might introduce, they again took to the streets in large numbers, clamoring for the end of the one-year presidency of Mohammed Morsi. The ensuing takeover by the military brought Egypt back full circle to authoritarianism. With the exceptions of the Muslim Brothers and other Islamists, Egyptians appeared ready to accept the return of a system that denied participation, but promised order and stability.
The lamentable circle that brought the military back to power, despite the hopes raised in 2011, risks being replicated in the future. The problems that led to that uprising continue to fester and will not be solved easily. With avenues to political participation closed by the new regime, discontent could easily lead to a new upheaval, followed by renewed fears of radical change and, again, acceptance of authoritarianism. To avoid a repeat performance, the government needs to reopen the political space for moderate, secularist parties and organizations of civil society immediately, so they can become an effective counterweight to the Islamist organizations that at some point will themselves have to be allowed back into the political system. 
Change and the Fear Factor
The renewed acceptance of military rule and authoritarian politics in Egypt is not the result of a peculiar Arab aversion to democracy. Rather, it is a common phenomenon—the typical reaction by elites in power and middle classes that have found a precarious niche in their country’s system to changes that threaten their interests. It is the same reaction that explains popular support for the rise of fascist regimes in Europe, the return of military dictatorships in some Latin American countries after periods of democracy and more generally, the failure of many attempted democratic transitions. The consequences of political openings in all those cases became threatening, even to those that advocated the change.
The 2011 uprising was not a revolution, as many Egyptians like to think. There was no project of far-reaching political and socioeconomic transformation on the part of most of those who participated in the demonstrations, and even the leaders did not appear to have a vision for a new society. Nevertheless, the uprising triggered a chain of events that potentially threatened the vested interests not only of a few people at the top, such as the Mubarak family and its close business associates, but of a much larger stratum of professionals and bureaucrats.
When the free parliamentary elections of 2012 gave 70 percent of parliamentary seats to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and other Islamist parties, and Mohammed Morsi—a Muslim Brother—became president, the old, largely secular elite that ruled Egypt feared it would be replaced by Islamist upstarts.
The array of people potentially threatened was large: the top layers of an extremely well-entrenched bureaucracy; a stratum of well-educated secularists that was critical of the Mubarak regime, was dissatisfied about the lack of individual freedoms and the paralysis of the political system, but ultimately was comfortably ensconced in the professions, the universities and the media; and a business community that had benefited from the liberalization of the economy promoted by Mubarak and, above all, his sons. Many, possibly most, of them genuinely wanted some change—as long as it did not threaten them. And below this professional stratum, was a much larger layer of Egyptians worried by instability and continuing economic stagnation and ready to blame it on the Muslim Brotherhood as they had blamed it on Mubarak earlier.
The Muslim Brothers were clearly a political threat to the old secular elite. They had much greater capacity to mobilize popular support, as seen by election results. Socially and culturally, they were an alien group. True, many of their leaders were highly educated, including in the universities of Western countries where they favored degrees in medicine, science and engineering over the liberal arts. Education did not keep them from being looked down upon as ignorant by much of the old elite. Their culture and values were different. They were part of another social milieu and engendered apprehension even before they had done anything.
The issue of women rights is revealing in this respect. During their brief tenure in office, the Muslim Brothers did nothing that affected the position of women in the society. They passed no new laws, imposed no new limitations. True, women continued to face many problems, but they did so under Mubarak and do so under al-Sisi. Nevertheless, secularists invariably denounced the curtailment of women’s rights as if the Muslim Brotherhood had been acting like the Taliban, raising the specter of what would happen to women under the continuing rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This is not to say that Muslim Brothers did not bear any responsibility for the fears they engendered. With no previous government experience, they were not well placed to run the country. Their policies were uncertain, with rash announcements and sudden reversals. Decisions were taken not just by officials in government positions, but also by the Muslim Brotherhood guidance bureau, which should not have had a governing role. Muslim Brothers were appointed to high positions in the ministries, leading to accusations that Egypt was being “brotherized.”
But an overall assessment of the period when the Brotherhood was nominally in power leads to the conclusion that the organization really controlled very little. It had no authority over the military and the police. For every Brotherhood member placed in a high position in the bureaucracy, there were dozens appointed under the thirty years of Mubarak’s rule and deeply opposed to the new government. The judiciary was hostile and dissolved the parliament within a few months of its inauguration. And Morsi was president for only one year, much of the time amidst demands for his ouster.
But the fears of what might happen were genuine, although not entirely spontaneous; by fall 2012, the media was engaged in a relentless anti-Morsi campaign. As a result, many Egyptians applauded the military coup carried out in July 2013 in the wake of massive demonstrations that the military and police had helped organize. They continued applauding in the following weeks as the new government brutally dispersed Muslim Brotherhood protesters, and then proceeded to arrest thousands of Islamists, as well as any other Egyptian daring to protest against the new regime. In April 2014, voters elected by an overwhelming majority the coup leader, the newly retired Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, as their next president.
But tensions remain. Although public protest has practically ceased except on university campuses, the government does not trust public gatherings—it even limited public celebrations of al-Sisi’s inauguration. But by and large, Egyptians seem to have settled down to an apathetic acceptance of the military-backed regime.
Democratic processes such as free elections had simply proven too dangerous. For those who live in stable democratic systems, the superiority of democracy over other political systems appears self-evident. For those who experience the disruption caused by transformation and the threat to their personal position, democracy and its advantages are at best a long-term hope, while the problems are immediate and real. And the larger the number of people threatened by the transformation, the more broad-based the resistance to change is going to be.
Democratization, Socialism and the Rise of Fascism in Europe
I have drawn a parallel earlier between the Egyptians’ acquiescence to a new authoritarian, military-backed regime and the acceptance of fascism in many European countries in the 1920s and 1930s. By drawing that parallel, I am not implying that the new regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a fascist regime. While some of its adversaries do denounce it in those terms, this is a meaningless accusation, as was the accusation of fascism directed against Morsi. Used accurately, the word fascism denotes not just an authoritarian regime, but a political system with ideological and political characteristics not found in Egypt either under Morsi, or under al-Sisi. Used loosely, the word is just a political insult.
But there is parallel between the reasons that led many Europeans to accept fascism and those that led Egyptians to submit willingly to a new authoritarianism. The drive toward liberalization and democratization in Europe after World War I took place under very difficult circumstances, as did the attempted transformation in Egypt after the uprising. The liberal political parties that carried the demand for democracy were weak, and the governments they led were unstable and ineffective—this was true in Italy, Germany and Spain, for example. These weak liberal political forces competed against socialist ideologies, which had a more powerful appeal to war-impoverished populations than the more abstract ideals of democracy. The success of the October Revolution in Russia added to the appeal of socialism. As a result, democratic elections, which had initially led to the formation of liberal governments, were playing in the hands of socialist parties. This terrified elites and middle classes alike into accepting fascism and its promise of order and stability. By the time people understood that this is not what they were getting, it was too late.
Italy had a long succession of rather weak, unstable governments at the end of the nineteenth century. Whatever stability existed was undermined first by World War I and the enormous problems it brought in its wake, and then by a change in the rules of the political game: the suffrage was extended to all males age 30 and over in 1912, and to all males 21 and over in 1918. This tripled the size of the electorate and changed its nature. The result was a large increase in support for leftist parties, with the Italian Socialist Party, radical at the time, gaining 32 percent of the vote in the 1919 elections. The fears of the middle class and the business elites grew exponentially.
This is when the Fascist Party, with its Black Shirts militias, started organizing to stop the rise of the trade unions and the left, with considerable success in northern Italy. In 1922, Benito Mussolini organized a “march on Rome” in which thousands of Black Shirts converged on the capital. Contrary to the myth the Fascist party was later to propagate, they did not storm the city and conquer it. Rather, the march frightened the king and the authorities into acquiescence, with the king finally making Mussolini prime minister. Mussolini’s display of force, but also of public support, won the day.
This was the first step toward the fascist takeover of Italy, combining superficial elements of a democratic process with the use of mass action and force. The liberal/conservative parties that had ruled Italy until then were alien to mass politics—they had developed and thrived in the days of restricted suffrage and did not adapt quickly enough. Socialists and Fascists, on the other hand, were organized for mass politics. The Fascists won out with the support of the king, and political and business elites, as well as much of the middle class, were initially relieved that the threat of socialism had receded. It took another thirty years, and the Second World War, before Italy’s democratic transformation resumed.
A similar phenomenon unfolded in Germany, fueled by the dislocation caused by the war and later by the Great Depression, as well as by the success of socialist parties. As in Italy, the fear that the parties of the left would take advantage of democratic elections to take over power generated support for the Nazis. German socialist and communist political parties received consistently about one third of the vote in the elections of 1920, 1924, 1928, 1930 and 1932. But in 1930, the Nazi Party, electorally marginal until then, gained 18 percent of the vote, increasing its share to 37 percent in 1932 and 43 percent in 1933. That January, Hitler was named chancellor by President Hindenburg. His appointment was legal, but his political rise was rooted in violence and hatred.
Italians and Germans after the First World War, like the Egyptians in 2011, wanted both political and economic change. The Tahrir slogan of bread and dignity could easily have been used by them as well; and for many at that time, socialism represented bread and dignity. For others, it was the ultimate threat.
Neither Germany, nor Italy experienced socialism. They did experience, however, the disruption and violence that surrounded the socialist project and many gave up on change and turned to the parties that promised order and stability, with “trains running on time.” Similarly, Egyptians did not experience an Islamist state either. Whatever the Muslim Brotherhood had in mind in the long run, it certainly did not turn Egypt into an Islamic republic while in power. It did not have the control, or even the time, to introduce radical changes.
It was fear of what might happen more than rejection of what had happened that led ordinary people in all countries under discussion to accept an authoritarian solution, putting an end to the democratic experiment. Ordinary people in Italy and Germany did not get the stability they had hoped for, but a different extremism. What Egyptians are getting so far is not an extremist regime, but an authoritarian one that does hide the fact that the democratic project has been shelved indefinitely.
One lesson that can be derived from the three cases is that political openings that threaten to lead to radical change are easily derailed not only by political elites who want to maintain their power, but by ordinary citizens fearful of the unknown. And the three cases also show that the cure for the threatened change can be as bad as the feared change itself, and that by the time this becomes clear, it is too late for ordinary citizens to do anything. Italy and Germany traded the possibility of communism for the reality of fascism and Nazism. Egypt has traded the fear of the “brotherization” of Egypt for the reality of a new authoritarian regime that makes it clear that the state knows best what is good for citizens and will not tolerate dissent. Neither the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, nor the response of the current regime is as extreme as the threats and responses Italy and Germany experienced, but the mechanism that led Egyptians to accept the coup is the same.
The End of Fear and the Rise of Democracy
In the early days after the 2011 uprising, many analysts singled out the “end of fear” as the most important change that had taken place in the country. The assessment was premature. Fear has had a major impact on the country’s trajectory, allowing the al-Sisi regime to consolidate its power.
The new regime controlled the raw power of the military and the police from the outset, and it is slowly moving to revive institutions that will provide it with a façade of legality. Parliamentary elections will probably be held by the end of 2014, completing the formal transition. The regime may even be taking some steps in reining in a judiciary that backed the government with an excess of zeal—a judge who sentenced hundreds of Muslim Brothers to death in the space of a few hours has been removed. But continued repression not only of Islamists, but all other dissident voices suggests a clear intention to make Egypt again into the closely controlled society it has been for decades under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, erasing January 2011.
Sooner or later, the demand for political change will revive. The social, economic and political problems that triggered the 2011 uprising persist. While the economy might recover relatively quickly from the slump brought about by four years of unrest and lack of governance, the underlying chronic problems cannot be remedied easily. And the new government is closing the door to all forms of political participation, even while going through the motion of restoring formally democratic processes. A series of new laws passed by the cabinet in the absence of a parliament is limiting the role of political parties in elections, adding new restrictions on civil-society organizations, imposing harsh penalties on protesters and allowing universities to dismiss dissident students and faculty members. The closing of the legal political space makes a gradual process of political reform unlikely, increasing the probability that a new uprising will take place, but also that the vicious circle will be repeated, with sudden change generating fear and leading anew to acceptance of authoritarianism.
In Italy and Germany, that vicious circle was broken by a devastating war that destroyed the regimes and much of their countries. The reconstruction was led, under United States tutelage, by political elites that had learned a hard lesson about all forms of extremism. These circumstances will not be replicated in Egypt. What, then, can break the vicious circle?
Countries that have successfully broken the pattern of authoritarianism provide some insights. Not all the experiences were smooth or desirable. Some countries got to democracy through violent upheavals and much turmoil before they settled down—France is the best-known case. In other cases, democracy was made possible by the utter defeat of the old regime in a war—Germany, Italy and Japan are cases in point. Or mechanisms were adopted to introduce democracy gradually—an example of this is the slow enlargement of the franchise in Britain and also in the United States, where a large part of the African-American population was de facto disenfranchised until the 1960s.
In other cases, the fear of radical change was neutralized to some extent by a more or less explicit agreement among members of competing elites to some form of power-sharing. The most recent of these pacted transitions, as they have often been called, is that of Tunisia. The Islamist Ennahda party and members of secular and leftist parties managed to negotiate with the help of the labor unions and other civil-society organizations a compromise roadmap, avoiding a confrontation. In the process, Ennahda gave up the power that it had legitimately won through elections, making it possible to reach an agreement on a new constitution and new elections. Another factor that has helped break the vicious circle of authoritarianism in some countries is the fragmentation of political parties that forced the formation of coalition governments.
The best way for Egypt to break the vicious circle of authoritarianism would be some form of pacted transition. Pacted transitions have many forms, but they are all based on an agreement among major political actors to limit their own ambitions and not to grab as much power as possible in order to avoid creating conflict and the fear reaction that leads back to authoritarianism. Pacts can take the form of the formation of national unity governments; the acceptance of some power-sharing among major political actors; commitment by all parties to respect a set of principles of governance before elections are held and governments are formed; and many others. To be sure, pacts do not always work: governments of national unity easily break up, both because of the intrinsic difficulty of reconciling conflicting programs or because a particular party or leader sees a chance to grab more power; the government of national unity formed in Iraq in 2010 soon turned into a Shia-dominated one. Power-sharing agreements can become extremely undemocratic in the long run, giving a monopoly of power to a few parties that stay in power too long and eventually become bloated and corrupt, as it happened in Venezuela. Agreed-upon principles can be violated. Still, they are a better alternative to power-grabbing by one actor.
But pacted transitions can only work when there is a balance of power among political actors, and this is what Egypt woefully lacks. Egypt’s post-uprising transition was doomed by the imbalance between Islamist and other political parties. It made the Muslim Brotherhood arrogant, as their opponents remarked, but it also made secular parties petulant in their demands for equal representation—for example, in the constituent assembly, after they had been soundly defeated in the elections. It was also doomed by the weakness of civil-society organizations, which could not act as intermediaries.
The present regime has forcibly removed Islamists from the political scene, arresting thousands and banning their parties. Whether such policy was justified or not, whether the military intervention constituted a coup or a response to popular demand, are issues that will continue to be hotly debated. No matter the answer, the removal of Islamists for the time being provides an opportunity for the growth of other political parties and organizations of civil society. At some point, this could create conditions for a pacted transition involving strengthened secular parties and the chastised and reformed Islamist organizations that are bound to reappear.
Unfortunately, the al-Sisi regime seems to be determined to curb all political activity, not just Islamist parties. If the regime does not allow for a more normal political life in Egypt now, allowing political parties to strengthen and thus creating conditions leading eventually to a pacted transition, the country is all too likely to repeat another wretched cycle of political stagnation, sudden upheaval, fear and authoritarianism.
Marina Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/RogDel/CC by 2.0

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