Is Egypt’s Revolution in Danger?

Jack A. Goldstone, George Mason University

The January Revolution in Egypt has now entered the phase of ‘competitive mobilization.’  With President Mubarak out, his party officially disbanded, and the military providing interim rule until Parliamentary elections are held, the political field in Egypt is wide-open.  Dozens of groups are contending to gain popular support, organize competitive parties, and marshal their supporters for the coming elections.  In the history of revolutions, this is the phase during which an initial ‘honeymoon’ of joy and cooperation often gives way to sectarian conflicts and threats of counter-revolution.

Competitive mobilization can bring out the best and the worst in those seeking change.   Among the best actions, we have seen popular committees arise throughout Egypt, working to hold local leaders accountable and demand transparency and responsiveness in their actions.  We have also seen groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to the New Wafd party and youth-oriented parties all proclaim their willingness to work with anyone and everyone to create an open, free, and pluralist political system.  Among the worst actions, we have seen elitist leaders laying out conspiracy theories, seeking to gain support by frightening people with notions that Islamist parties will create a new Hamas-style regime in Egypt, or that secular liberal parties will betray Egypt’s Islamic heritage and be tools of the West, or that military leaders will revive the old National Democratic Party in new clothes and recreate an old regime that will undo the revolution.

The biggest threat to the success of Egypt’s revolution, however, is not in any of the plans of any of the parties contending for power.  It is that the very competition for power will itself become poisoned by suspicions, fears, and anxieties, creating an atmosphere in which military or radical leaders will pull people to political extremes, undermining the spirit that united Egyptians in a quest to build a free society with respect for all.  This week, we saw a ‘unity demonstration’ collapse in the face of assertiveness by Islamic groups.  If the revolutions continues to move in this direction, the heightened competition among groups to lead social mobilization will inevitably lead to greater radicalization.  This was the dynamic that drove the French Revolution first toward the Jacobins, and eventually toward the terror.

This threat is heightened by the uncertainty regarding the rules of the coming election, and whether the interim military government has the legitimacy and collective wisdom to set those rules.  The “Constitution First” movement has a valid argument that it will be far better, and more legitimate, to first create a broadly-constituted, representative committee to draft a constitution whose rules will govern future elections.

If all major groups and parties are involved in drafting a constitution, they will feel far more bound to follow its rules and abide by the election results.  They will also lay a foundation of cooperation in the negotiations on that constitution that should carry over into the initial elections.  By contrast, if election rules are set by the interim military government, parties may treat those rules as temporary and not fully legitimate.  Also they may feel they have to go all out in attacking their opponents because not just this election, but control over the future constitution is at stake.  Such all-out attacks risk undermining the very unity and mutual respect among diverse groups that made Egypt’s revolution such a stunning success.

Retaining such unity — a basic agreement that all groups should participate, and work toward agreed-upon rules for democratic procedures — is the single most important task to keeping the Egyptian Revolution on track toward democracy.  Overcoming setbacks such as last week’s breakdown of the unity demonstrations, and resisting tendencies to heightened polarization and conflict among groups contending for power, will be the key to a positive outcome.

The military regime would be wise to immediately heed the calls for first appointing a constitutional commission to draft a constitution, with broad representation and a strict deadline (9-12 months) to complete their work.  Meanwhile, the interim government should focus on the other main threat to Egypt’s revolution – the faltering economy and issues of social justice.

If one great triumph of Egypt’s revolution was to unify all parties, from the Islamist to the secular, from old to young, in favor of democracy and freedom, the revolution’s other great demand was for social justice – to end the corruption, police abuses, and the domination of the economy by a fortunate few.

To meet this demand, the critical response is to provide jobs and security for those who want to work.  While Western and Arab governments have offered generous assistance to the new Egyptian government, including debt relief and budget support, such state-to-state aid does not immediately provide employment or other economic opportunities for ordinary Egyptians.

One pillar of Egypt’s economy that is currently near collapse but easily revived is tourism.  Both Western and Arab governments should address this by immediately offering a 25% tax credit for a limited period – say from now through 2012 – to tour operators and airlines on all trips and packages that they book for travel to Egypt.   Such a credit would lead the travel operators themselves to promote tourism (‘Visit the New Egypt – A Land of Ancient Wonders and New Democracy), and would immediately put much needed money directly into the hands of Egyptian businesses and workers.  This credit would also mobilize three dollars of private spending for every dollar of government expense, and stimulate private businesses at home.  Moreover, since the tax credits would go to travel firms in Europe, the US, and the Middle East, there is no worry about the funds being lost to corruption or military spending.  Reviving tourism would also help build the people-to-people relationships that are the foundation of future investment, and improved international understanding.

The interim military government should also continue to work to revive trade, foreign investment, and domestic construction of housing, infrastructure, and energy.  But their focus must be on economic gains that put large numbers of people to work, rather than gains that inflate the national GDP figures but benefit only a few.

Egypt’s revolution started the nation on a path to co-operation and social justice.  But those goals may be lost sight of in the wild competition for power that early elections, under rules of questionable legitimacy, would bring.   To safeguard Egypt’s revolution, a two-track strategy – with a broadly representative constitutional committee drafting new rules, while the interim government focuses on reviving the economy and employment – will likely yield the best results.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
This entry was posted in The Middle East Revolts. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is Egypt’s Revolution in Danger?

  1. russell1200 says:

    It looks like they are going to be paying more for food. (top story linked).

    I actually took it to be a good sign that they were not so chaotic that they couldn’t shop around for price.

  2. Very astute. I would add that it remains to be seen whether Egypt will defy the pattern of democratization leading to enhanced popular mobilization, nationalism and ethnic division that Jack Snyder and Don Horowitz have so nicely documented. It’s terrible to say, but with the Salafists flexing their muscles and Islamists out of the closet, it may be time for a dose of realism on the Arab Spring. In Turkey, the military serves as a check on the power of the democratically-elected executive and it may be that this is preferable – in the short term – to an iliberal democracy where populist nationalism or a retrogade Islamism echo majority sentiment but trample on the rights of minorities (Shias, Copts, women, seculars, etc).

    • Eric, young democracies always have tendencies to extremism born of enthusiasm, inexperience of those new to power, and the stress of wrestling with genuing problems and threats. Salafists and Islamists are flexing their muscles, as you say, but so have the securalists and pluralists. Egypt’s friends in Europe and the US should continually offer reminders of the dangers of pure majoritariansm, and stress that the real path to democracy lies through universal protection of human rights. There is much talk in Egypt of a national assembly preparing such a bill of rights as a guideline for the later constitution drafting, but of course this is contentious. Islamists want to put clauses protecting Islamic practices in such a bill, secularists want clauses on freedom of faith. So this will play out over time, but we should root for and promote pluralism in a predominantly Islamic society, just as we in the US promote pluralism here in a predominantly Christian society.

      I wouldn’t want to encourage the military to serve as check — they end up serving their own interests! Rather, we hope laws and peaceful competition will serve to check any extremist groups; that has worked in other emerging democracies such as the Philippines and Indonesia.

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