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