Maneuvering in Egypt

The protests in Brazil and Turkey have had their desired impact.  In these democratic countries, people wanted their elected leaders to pay attention to the demands of a rising number of secular, middle-class, urban residents .  These people felt that their leaders were out of touch and letting corruption — and the leaders’ own fantasies about their country’s future, whether as Islamic haven or World Cup host — take precedence over what their people felt were crucial immediate needs.

So these protests were designed to refocus the policy agenda, change the conversation within the leading political parties, and make leaders think twice about whether they retained the popular support they had taken for granted.

What is happening in Egypt is something altogether different.  Egypt is in the throes of a classic revolution, which means an ongoing power struggle as, following the collapse of the old regime, different groups maneuver to build coalitions, consolidate institutions, win over the military, and find a program that will bring both results and popular support.

Those are big tasks, and the first group in power usually fails.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of what has happened in Egypt.  Mubarak lost legitimacy with so many sectors — secular, Islamist, military, Bedouin — that he could not hold power in the event of a challenge.  Deserted by more and more people, the army eventually persuaded him to step down and make way for a more legitimate, popular ruler.

Yet as so often is the case in revolutions, those who opposed Mubarak were only united in their desire for change.  As soon as the change occurred, the opposition fragmented.  The major fragments were the extreme Islamists (salafis), mainstream Islamists (led mainly by the Muslim Brotherhood), moderate Islamists (sufi and Al-Azhar), minorities (Copts), secular liberals (intellectuals, professionals, media), and secular conservatives (remnants and hold-overs from Mubarak’s regime).  The army tried to stand above these groups as a symbol of national united, whose role was simply to maintain order and security while the factions engaged in electoral competition.

Yet no fragment was able to win broad support.  The Islamists operated separately, with the mainstream Islamists having the best prior social and political organization, and the most popular support, especially in rural areas.  Yet all of the Islamists together had support from not more than half to 60% of the population, and the various splits meant that the MB leaders gained not more than 25-30% of the popular vote in elections.  Yet that was enough to prevail, because the secular groups were even more bitterly divided, with the secular liberals at first rejecting the secular conservatives as more dangerous (corrupt, self-seeking, arrogant, exclusive, authoritarian) than the mainstream Islamists.  As a result, when the presidential election came down to a candidate from the Brotherhood (Morsi) against a candidate from the secular conservatives, the secular liberals — who had zero organization of their own — either stayed home, -r split their votes among several liberal candidates.  Morsi thus won the vote for the presidency, but with less than 30% of eligible voters casting a ballot for him.  His position as president may have been procedurally valid, but from the very beginning the small degree of support he actually had meant his legitimacy would be in question.

Morsi needed to be both conciliatory and successful in his policies to broaden his base of support and avoid further confrontations. He was neither.  In office he turned out to be a mirror of the secular conservatives he had opposed for so long:  self-seeking, arrogant, exclusive, authoritarian.  But he lacked the power to carry out some of his more authoritarian feints and had to backtrack. He took measures to remove some of the older military leaders and tried to win allies among the Islamists.  But he ran into trouble with Egyptians in the Sinai (long a marginal group in Egypt who now demanded attention) and especially with the urban population, as the economy spiraled downwards, tourism collapsed, and his regime gave the impression of economic incompetence.

Now, the urban population — both the secular liberals and many who had supported the Brotherhood in the hope of positive economic change — is fully rejecting the continuation of Morsi’s increasingly personal rule.  They are demanding change.

Yet they still lack leaders and organization, so they are offering (or providing an opportunity, it is hard to tell which) the military to return to its role as arbiter of power and guarantor of national security.  The military has now sets its own deadline for Morsi to resolve this mess and reverse the ongoing collapse of his support in Cairo, Alexandria, and the Suez, saying they will step in if he does not.

What will happen?  It is still too soon to tell.  Supporters and opponents of Morsi are battling in the street — again a typical situation in true revolutions where the old regime has gone and no new regime has established its legitimacy and power.

In a research essay I published some five years ago, I examined how long it took, on average, from the collapse of an old regime in revolution to the consolidation of a stable new regime.  That average time period was 12 years!   The intervening period was marked by short regimes, coups, violent elections, and street battles for power.

So what is happening now in Cairo may just be the opening stages in a long battle; it appears that there is no truly popular force on the horizon ready to gain broad assent.  So it may fall to the army to again seize power and try to preside over further competition for electoral victories and popular support.  But do not expect a sudden return to stability.  Instead, we may see periods of stability lasting weeks or months, punctuated by short surges of popular discontent and protest and demands for still more change.  This revolution has far longer to run…


About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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