Can Sisi Break Egypt's Cycle of Authoritarianism?

November 19, 2014 Topic: Domestic PoliticsDemocracy Region: Egypt

Can Sisi Break Egypt's Cycle of Authoritarianism?

If the regime does not allow for a more normal political life in Egypt, the country is likely to repeat another wretched cycle of political stagnation, sudden upheaval, fear and authoritarianism.

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.