Political Chaos in Egypt

June 14, 2012 Topic: Democracy Region: AlgeriaEgypt Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Political Chaos in Egypt

What the latest upheaval tells us about the prospects for a democratic transition. 

Entering this week, the political situation in Egypt already was tenuous, to put it mildly. The composition of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution was still contested and up in the air. The first round of a presidential election yielded what most observers considered the most polarized possible result, in which the remaining candidates were Ahmed Shafik, Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister and the presumed favorite of the military and counterrevolutionaries, and Mohamed Morsi, the official candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Then on successive days came two additional jolts. On Wednesday martial law was reimposed. On Thursday the constitutional court, while upholding Shafik's candidacy, invalidated the election of a third of the legislature and declared that the entire legislature must be dissolved. This double whammy, especially the dissolution of the parliament, seemed to be such a reversal of what had been accomplished in the prior sixteen months that observers inside and outside Egypt are talking in some of the most pessimistic terms heard since protests began early last year. It is reasonable to doubt whether what we are witnessing in Egypt can still be described as a transition to democracy.

Whether or not all of the pessimism is warranted, the second round of the presidential election is about to take place amid what has to be among the least propitious circumstances any country could have for selection of a head of state. In addition to all the polarizing tensions that already have been evident since the contest became one of Shafik versus Morsi, the winner will take office in the absence of a new constitution and thus not knowing what the powers of his office are supposed to be. Nor does anyone seem to know at the moment who, or what, will be exercising legislative power following dissolution of the parliament. It also is uncertain what effect, if any, the court's invalidating of the legislature will have on the status of the smaller constituent assembly.

The next near-term chapter of this story will hinge on the outcome of the second round of the presidential election. A victory by Shafik has the greatest potential to trigger an upsurge of unrest and violence, if many Egyptians come to see it as affirmation that a hoped-for revolution has been effectively reversed. There is some talk of Morsi perhaps being made prime minister under a Shafik presidency, although that would depend on understandings yet to be reached between the Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Possibly a Shafik win would be a first step toward a power structure similar to that in Algeria, in which the president is an important player but has only partial autonomy from the military-dominated pouvoir, which more or less corresponds to what in Egypt is more often called the deep state. There would be less likelihood of violence and severe instability with a Morsi win, but that would be only the first stage in a long process of bargaining and maneuvering between the Brotherhood and the military.

As we watch this story unfold with confusion and fascination, we should bear in mind several general points. First, it would be foolhardy to base hopes or expectations, let alone policies, on any one prognosis of where Egypt goes from here. This past week alone was reminder enough of the fundamental unpredictability of what is happening there.

Second, we should not assume that the actions of the major players reflect coherent and firm strategies and objectives. The players are making up strategies as they go along. That is true of the SCAF, whose members probably are unsure of just what they want during the coming years beyond the more parochial interests of the military itself. It also is true of the Muslim Brotherhood, even without taking into account the differences of view within the Brotherhood.

Third, to the extent there is still any basis for hope for something that could be called a democratic transition, such a transition would be a very long-term process of developing a new political culture. There has been a surreal aspect to much of the discussion of recent events centered on legal reasoning and what is or is not constitutional—surreal in that what the constitutional order in Egypt ought to look like is part of what is uncertain and in dispute. A true transition would entail years of slowly developing new habits of trust and compromise.

Fourth, there is very little that anyone on the outside can do to influence the events in Egypt, notwithstanding the continued high importance that the coming political history of that country will have for interests of the United States and others. The most important thing for outsiders is to avoid missteps that would needlessly burn bridges to any of the major Egyptian political actors.

Image: alhussainy