What Can Be Learned From The Failed Egyptian Democratic Transition?

Abstract
In this paper, many tools and methods commonly recommended by the literature of democratization are examined in the light of the failed Egyptian transition. “Pacted” transition, drafting a new constitution, popular engagement through elections, and other procedures actually proved to be double-edged swords in Egypt’s situation. The constitution drafting induced severe social polarization instead of becoming a new social contract, elite pact-making for smooth transition was abused to impose non-democratic agendas, and elections advised as a tool for gaining legitimacy and ensuring popular participation aggravated political rivalries and resulted in popular frustration. 

On February 11, 2011, the resignation of autocratic president Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of massive protests represented a historic chance for democratic transformation in Egypt. This event was so influential that in the same week uprisings erupted in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Morocco. The MENA region, which for a long period had seemed immune to democratization, was on the edge of a new era. However, after only thirty months, and despite high hopes and great expectations, a military coup carried out on July 3, 2013 put an end to the transitional process.

In case of Egypt, the transitional period could be divided into two main parts: the first was managed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) from February 2011 to June 2012 and the second was under Muslim Brotherhood rule from June 2012 to June 2013. According to many scholars, Egypt’s failed democratic transition “was not inevitable”,1 and a significant number of papers have been written trying to explain why “Egypt’s revolution turned on its head”.Emad El-Din Shahin, for instance, enumerates many factors such as the disagreement over how to institutionalize the revolution and what sort of political system Egypt should have, the hostile regional environment, unsupportive international actors, and deteriorating economic conditions.2 

“Pacted” transition, the drafting of a new constitution, popular engagement through elections, and other procedures actually proved to be double-edged swords in Egypt’s situation. 

This paper will not delve deeply into this issue, but it will attempt to discuss what lessons could be learned from this failed Egyptian transition and what this important experience can add to the literature on democratization. The main argument here is that many procedures that the literature of “Transitology” suggests as helpful tools for democratic consolidation can be unintentionally misused or intentionally abused to serve exactly the opposite role. “Pacted” transition, the drafting of a new constitution, popular engagement through elections, and other procedures actually proved to be double-edged swords in Egypt’s situation.

Transition Paradigm

A simple way to formulate the dynamics of the democratization process is through the transition paradigm. According to Thomas Carothers, this paradigm assumes that “any country moving away from dictatorial rule can be considered a country in transition toward democracy”.3 This process logically includes three consecutive stages:
a. the opening, which describes the period of democratic ferment in which cracks appear in the ruling dictatorial regime,
b. the breakthrough, which means the collapse of the regime and emergence of a new democratic system, and
c. the consolidation, which represents a slow progressive process in which democratic norms are transformed into democratic substance through the reform of state institutions, the strengthening of civil society, and societal adaptation to the new democratic rules of the game.4

The transition paradigm is frequently criticized for being too simplistic. First, it adopts a linear vision of transformation, despite the fact that it is not uncommon that the democratization process produces an authoritarian-democratic hybrid regime rather than a consolidated democracy. Second, it conceptualizes democratization as a process that has the static end-stage “Consolidated Democracy”. It is better to conceptualize democratization not as a move from one category to another, but as a continuous dynamic process aiming at genuine popular sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the transition paradigm is still of use in political research. How to lead a successful transition and reach consolidated democracy has been an important topic for academic research since the 1990s. For example, Jean Grugle in his book concluded from his study of the third wave of democratization (beginning in the mid-1970s) that the chances for successful transition are greater when “capitalism is the dominant national mode of production, civil society groups are active and politicized, class and other social conflicts are resolved through political enfranchisement and incorporation—rather than exclusion—of new social groups, the state is relatively autonomous and has not captured by a small elite, the state has enough resources for redistribution and to enforce the rule and law, and the international order promotes and encourages democratization.”5

In addition to these prerequisites, democratization literature suggests many strategies and procedures for leading a successful transition. For instance, an international forum held in Cairo in June 2011 and organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provided a “prescription” for democratization based on international experiences. According to the concluding report from this forum, the “Measures Taken During Democratic Transformation” should include the drafting of a new constitution (or at least the amendment of the existing one) to become a new social contract, the holding of fair elections that allow representation of different political parties and strengthen popular participation, the containment and/or reform of forces opposed to democratic transition (e.g. in the army, police, and business community), the maintenance of economic growth, dealing with corruption, etc.6

Constitution Drafting as a Tool for Social Conflict Not Social Contract

After revolutions, people very often endeavor to capture the values and the ideals of these revolutions in a document (a Bill of Rights, Declaration, Constitution,etc.). In its recommendations, the Cairo International Forum concluding report affirms that “transitions to democracy require a new social contract—the governing document of which is the constitution”, and that the process of writing the constitution should include all political groups, economic factions, religious loyalties and ethnic affiliations so that the constitution becomes expressive of all and owned by all without exception.7

However, on the other hand, the drafting of a new constitution is sometimes an occasion to raise basic questions and settle historical grievances such as identity issues and racial discrimination. However, if the negotiating groups fail to reach an agreement upon these fundamental issues, political and societal polarization will be aggravated, endangering the whole democratization process. This is precisely what happened in case of Egypt.

At first, there was a great polarization concerning the appropriate time to write the constitution during the March 2011 referendum, with a debate raging as whether it should be before or after the parliamentary elections. The “Constitution First – Election First” battle between Islamists and non-Islamists ruined the whole process of the constitution-drafting later.

political groups forgot the very goal of drafting a new constitution. It turned to be a tool for social polarization and convulsion rather than a social contract.

In accordance with the March referendum results, which favored the Islamists’ choice “Election First”, the constitution-drafting process began with the election of the two houses of parliament. Later, the elected members jointly chose a hundred Egyptians who formed the constitutional committee. Selection of this committee with an obvious Islamist majority pushed non-Islamists to boycott the process of constitution-drafting and turn to the courts to have it stopped completely.8 Another attempt to write the new constitution was carried out after the election of President Mohammed Morsi, the candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood. The second round faced the same challenges and the new constitutional committee had to continue its work under very turbulent conditions with a far-reaching boycott from non-Islamist groups and growing fears about the apparent authoritarian attitudes of president Morsi, especially after his constitutional declaration in November 2012. At last, the new constitution was drafted and approved in a general referendum in December 2012, despite relatively low voter turnout and negative results in Cairo and some other major cities.9

Under these hectic conditions, it seemed that all political groups forgot the very goal of drafting a new constitution. Actually, it turned to be a tool for social polarization and convulsion rather than a social contract. Ironically, after the July 2013 coup, the opponents of the Islamists, who had accused them of being an exclusivist and non-democratic force, drafted a new constitution under significantly more exclusive and greatly more authoritarian conditions.

Elite Pacts as a Tool for Manipulating Rather Than Facilitating Transition

To avoid such a disastrous course during the writing of a new constitution, the democratization literature advises us to use elite negotiation and “pacted” transition to contain the differences between rival factions and prevent societal conflict.

Guillermo O’ Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, in their renowned book “Transition from Authoritarian Rule”, define democracy-enhancing pacts as “an explicit, but not always publicly explicated or justified, agreement between a select set of actors which seeks to define rules governing the exercise of power on the basis of mutual guarantees for the vital interests of those entering into it.”10 They emphasized that pacted transitions are elite affairs and the role of radicals and the masses in the negotiation process should be limited.11

Pact-making aims to limit the agenda of policy choice and ensure the proportionate distribution of benefits, in order to reduce uncertainty about actors’ ultimate intentions and lessen the fears of moderates that they will be overwhelmed by a triumphant, radical majority which will implement drastic changes.12 Although pact-making is praised as a tool to create more stable transitions, it has been criticized because it also may lead to the institutionalization of political exclusion.13 In the period from March to November 2011, at least four attempts to make a “supra-constitutional principles” pact between political elites in Egypt failed. After the Islamists remarkable success in the March 2011 referendum, non-Islamist political groups and Copts felt threatened. They sought to convince SCAF, which ran the transitional period, to supervise elite negotiations about a set of supra-constitutional principles. Initiatives from presidential candidate Dr. Mohamed al-Baradei, Deputy Prime Minister Dr.Yahia al-Jamal, Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Ali al-Selmi, and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb were faced by great rejection, especially from the Islamists, which aggravated political divides.14

Two main obstacles hindered the reaching of a transitional pact between political rivals in Egypt. First, Islamists misunderstood the “supra-constitutional principles” documents, seeing them as a way to bypass their victory in the March 2011 referendum and to put constraints on the coming constitutional committee (which they would likely dominate). The Islamists’ fears were strengthened by the way SCAF tried to abuse the concept of supra-constitutional pact to protect the interests of the military as an institution. For example, al-Selmi’s document gave the SCAF “a variety of military prerogatives not found in any democracy”.15 In the first section, entitled “Fundamental Principles,” it suggested that “the military budget should not be subject to civilian oversight.” Moreover, other passages suggested a role for SCAF in domestic governance. It stated that the military was called on to “defend constitutional legitimacy” and the vaguely defined “National Defense Council” was proposed to examine “all matters relating to the country’s security and safety.”16

The democratization literature classically describes a “Four-Player Game” between hard-liners and soft-liners on both the old regime side and opposition side, suggesting negotiation between soft-liners and the sidelining of hard-liners. In the case of Egypt, throughout the whole transitional period, “suspicions of separate deals and secret agreements”17 with the generals deepened mistrust between competing factions of the opposition, blocking any possibility for pact-making and allowing the military to manipulate this tool for their institutional interests.

Elections as a Tool for Political Exhaustion Rather Than Participation

Egyptians were called to vote for a total of five national elections or referenda, some with multiple rounds, but every vote led to differences being redefined and magnified rather than managed or resolved.

Transitologists commonly believe in the determinative importance of elections for successful democratization, not only for the legitimization of the new post-dictatorial regimes, but also to broaden and deepen political participation and increase the accountability of the state to its citizens. Therefore, democracy promoters tend to hold very high expectations for what the establishment of regular, fair elections will do for democratization.18

Nathan Brown argues for the futility of this premise. First, he states that elections deepened the growing fissures in the Egyptian body politic and aggravated them. Egyptians were called to vote for a total of five national elections or referenda, some with multiple rounds, but every vote led to differences being redefined and magnified rather than managed or resolved.19

Second, elections did not deliver authoritative outcomes that bound those who held real power. The generals, who were given a free hand to steer the transition, did not only endeavor to guard their institutional interests, but also walled off important parts of Egypt’s authoritarian state from reform. Security institutions, the judiciary, and religious institutions, for instance, could escape reform and be able to resist the newly elected institutions (the presidency and the parliament).20

Elections proved to be very subversive of the democratization process in the case of Egypt, despite theoretically being a key tool for a successful transition. It could not serve to peacefully settle disputes between political rivals nor give legitimacy to elected incumbents to wield real powers. From their side, the people, who had previously longed for democratic elections, got bored and exhausted from these overly frequent, severely polarizing, and practically insignificant practices.

Conclusion

A number of tools commonly recommended for successful transition in the democratization literature were examined in the particular case of the Egyptian Revolution. Pact-making for smooth transition, constitution drafting to promote the values of the revolution and to launch a new political era, and elections as a tool for gaining legitimacy and ensuring popular participation were widely utilized in Egypt. However, these tools have proved to be very vulnerable to abuse or misuse. In Egypt, constitution drafting induced severe social polarization, elite pact-making was abused to impose non-democratic agendas, and elections aggravated political rivalries and resulted in popular frustration.

Even mass mobilization, which was the principle tool to exert pressures on autocrats for democratization, was abused or misused later by different political actors to induce political instability, paving the road for a return back to authoritarianism. However, the aim of this paper is not to completely disregard these tools suggested in the democratization literature or to prove their futility. It is merely to show these tools’ vulnerabilities and limitations, and to call for their cautious use. What can be learned from the failed Egyptian transition is that it is important to know the limitations and vulnerabilities of widely-recommended tools for democratic consolidation and to give priority to maintaining the unity (or at least cooperation) of the pro-democracy camp, its commitment to democratic ideals and popular support for democracy as a fair—yet efficient—system of governance able to maintain order and promote social justice.

Endnotes


1.  Nathan J. Brown, “Egypt’s Failed Transition”, Journal of Democracy 23 (2013): 45.
2.  0Emad El- Din Shahin, “Egypt’s Revolution Turned on its Head”,Current History (2015): 343.
3.  Thomas Carothers, “the end of the transition paradigm”, Journal of Democracy 13, 6 (2002): 6.
4.  Ibid, 7.
5.  Jean Grugel, Democratization: a critical introduction (New York: Palgrave Publishers, 2002): 45.
6.  Report: Cairo International Forum “Pathways of Democratic Transitions: International Experiences and Lessons Learned”, 9-12
7.  Ibid, 9, 21.
8.  Brown, “Egypt’s Failed Transition”, 47- 48.
9.  Ibid, 48-49.
10.  Grugel, Democratization, 60.
11.  Michael McFaul, “The Fourth Wave of Democracy and Dictatorship”. World Politics 54 (2002): 218.
12.  Ibid, 217.
13.  Grugel, Democratization,59.
14.  Mohamed H. Shaaban, Conflict of the Constitutional Documents in Egypt, AlSharq AlAwsat Newspaper (accessed: 17 Feb. 2016)
15.  Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, “Democratization theory and the Arab Spring”, Journal of Democracy 24 (2013): 22.
16.  Tamir Moustafa, “Drafting EGYPT’S Constitution: Can A New Legal Framework Revive A Flawed Transition?”, Brookings Doha Centre Publications (2012): 4-5.
17.  Brown, “Egypt’s Failed Transition”, 55.
18.  Carothers, “the end of the transition paradigm”, 7-8.
19.  Brown, “Egypt’s Failed Transition”, 45 – 46.
20.  Ibid, 53, 56.

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