Scenarios for Egypt’s Future: How Democratic Will it Be?

Hosni Mubarak is gone to the wild elation of Egyptian crowds. The country is now being run by a council of military officers. They say that they want a transition to a civilian elected government this fall.

What do the people who made the revolution want? I argued in Detroit News that this movement is at its core a labor movement. The constant drumbeat on Faux News that the crowds want a Muslim fundamentalist dictatorship is ridiculous. Egyptians are religious, but the keywords of the protests have been secular ones– elections, parliament, the people, the army, the nation (watan, the secular word for nation, not ummah, the religious community).

A communique issued by the “January 25” leadership is consistent with that finding:

* Repeal of the state of emergency, which suspends constitutional protections for human rights, immediately.

* The immediate release of all political prisoners

* The setting aside of the present constitution and its amendments

* Dissolution of the federal parliament, as well as of provincial councils

* Creation of a transitional, collective governing council

* The formation of an interim government comprising independent nationalist trends, which would oversee free and fair elections

* The formation of a working group to draft a new and democratic constitution that resembles the older of the democratic constitutions, on which the Egyptian people would vote in a referendum

*Removal of any restriction on the free formation of political parties, on civil, democratic and peaceful bases.

* Freedom of the press

* Freedom to form unions and non-governmental organizations without government permission

* abolition of all military courts and abrogation of their rulings with regard to civilian accused

These demands are generally in accordance with the current state of human rights law in Europe.

With regard to abrogation of the emergency laws, the military appears already to have agreed in principle, and this move is backed by the Obama administration. Some of the other demands seem utopian, including writing a new constitution before new elections and the proroguing of the present parliament. Likewise, if the rulings of the military courts were abrogated, then at least some terrorists from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad would be freed. Though, since thousands of prisoners have fled their cells in the chaos of the past 2 1/2 weeks (and some may have been deliberately freed by Mubarak’s secret police in order to sow chaos), the issue may be moot.

I was asked at an event at Columbia University on Thursday night what likely lies ahead for Egypt now. My reply was recorded and played on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!

What I said was that it seemed to me that three major outcomes are possible:

1. The old elite of officers and businessmen around Mubarak survives him to remain more or less in power, and further protests over time are repressed.

2. There are new presidential and parliamentary elections, but the Mubarak cronies take advantage of their experience in organizing and the wealth they have gained from their crony status to dominate these institutions, while the officer corps remains a power behind the scenes.

3. There is a genuine social and political revolution, wherein substantial amounts of wealth and power are redistributed to new actors.

Samer Shehata at Georgetown was asked to reply to my scenarios. His responses are well informed and cogent, but he misunderstood my first point, which no doubt I expressed too telegraphically. When I said that there was a (relatively small) chance that the military regime in Egypt would ‘pull a Khamenei’ and manage over time to repress the reform movement, I didn’t mean that I thought the Muslim Brotherhood would take over or do the repressing. I was just talking about a model where massive street protests don’t necessarily actually produce a big change in the top political actors, i.e., in this case, where generals like Gen. Muhammad Hussein Tantawi (Minister of Defense) and Gen. Omar Suleiman (Vice President) remain high in the government, and where many familiar faces in parliament are again returned to office. Given the events on Friday I think the likelihood of this development is now even smaller.

I suppose I also don’t agree with Samer that the National Democratic Party is not better positioned to contest early elections than its rivals, especially the inchoate networks that represent the protesters. While the NDP may not be the best-organized party in the world, it still has advantages, having dominated parliament and provincial offices for decades, that its rivals lack.

But, in neighboring Tunisia the old ruling party of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Rally for Constitutional Democracy (a descendant of Habib Bourguiba’s anti-colonial Neo-Destour or New Constitutional Party), has been dissolved. The same fate could befall the NDP, which would make it harder for its functionaries to dominate any new parliament. While parliamentary elections have been set in Tunisia, it is not clear when they will be held in Egypt. Presidential elections will be conducted this fall, but parliament was just elected in a clearly fraudulent process. The protesters are demanding that that parliament be dissolved and new polls for the national legislature be held. This step could be taken by the military council, but as far as I know that decision has not been announced.

While a thoroughgoing social revolution may or may not take place in Egypt with regard to property and capital (such events are rare in modern history), I do not mean to in any way diminish the importance of achievements such as the rule of law and constitutional liberties. If the demands released Friday by the protesters are even partially met, especially with regard to freedom of expression and of unionizing and party formation, Egypt will certainly be a very different and far more democratic place. Since it is an opinion leader for the Arab world, moreover, its example may well prove crucial in spreading these freedoms elsewhere in the region, even to Iran.

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22 Responses

  1. Juan, your three major possible outcomes (old elite, new elite, or a genuine democratic revolution) strike me as generally correct. Of course, I don’t have your knowledge of the particulars.
    I admire your ability to enunciate my analysis, which I lack the cogency to express.

  2. Thank you for your work on this blog. I always come here first for news about Egypt. The rest of it is, as you pointed out, ridiculous (but I wouldn’t limit the use of that term just to Fox). I don’t always agree with your viewpoint, but your commentary is always the most well reasoned and intelligent.

  3. These events, however they turn out, demonstrate that Muslims are worthy of respect, and thus corrode the Faux News drive to demonize them.

  4. The issue in Egypt, as well as elsewhere, including the USA, is freedom of verbal political expression. The best model is Israel, with its pros and cons, including the DEMOCRATIC establishment of a tyrannical theocracy.
    Let people learn from their own mistakes.

  5. You’ve hit on the key point ignored by all media; Egypt’s “private” economy was owned by Mubarak and the generals. It was explained by a CIA analyst that almost all manufacturing in Egypt is done by firms which include military ownership; whether they are sole owners or bought in as partners I don’t know. Obviously the Army acted in this crisis so as to protect its financial stake. A bloodbath would have been bad for sales, so the Army tried to stall on committing to any real change without actually wiping out the demonstrators.

    But what does it mean when an economy is owned by the Army instead of the civilian government? If the latter is overthrown, then obviously what it owns is either the property of the new civil regime or it is seized directly by groups of revolutionaries. Army ownership means very little may change.

    What is striking is that it seemed okay with the champions of free enterprise that the Army owned the economy. Meaning the US government, the US corporations, the GOP in particular, the neocons and the Likud in Israel. Now that things have gone bad I guess some of these groups will be quick to blame Egypt’s failures on “socialism”, but when have they ever minded massive transfers of wealth to a handful of old conservative men? Without looking at distribution of wealth, terms like socialism and capitalism tell you little about what’s really going on. There were many Latin American countries where wealthy oligarchs owned the Army and ruled through terror, but it all passed the libertarian stench test, especially in Milton Friedman’s sacred Chile. As long as wealth owns government and not the other way around, then it’s freedom!

    Why does it matter? Pakistan’s industries are heavily owned by men who happen to be retired generals. And perhaps, just perhaps, the American hypocrisy on this issue is a sign that our Far Right’s solution to its visceral hatred of the very capitalist elites in New York that it benefits by voting for total deregulation and tax cuts is to champion a more Christian and patriotic replacement class. Yes, General Motors, General Electric, General Everything owned by Generals. Or ex-generals, as long as they spout the right brand of fascism.

    • Think this is central to future prospects. Also think it goes a bit deeper (if you can imagine that), in a way that isn’t so obvious and relatively easy to see and explain.

      An enormous amount of “investment” has been made in Egypt since 79 by the IMF (aside from the 1.5-2B/yr payoff, depending on how its counted, by US on behalf of Israel). While military is HEAVY in control of manufacturing and construction, the money itself comes from the outside, and profits have been shown to usually leave the country. Although in modern, refined clothing and altogether more subtle clothing, a colonial extraction scheme, in this case the mechanism being financial manipulation versus raw commodity resources.

      There is Egyptian cotton, of course, and they make a lot of money off tourism, as well as a fair amount from remittances (citizens sending money home from the EU/US/wherever). But Egypt’s value to the world’s elites has been how it has served to facilitate the manufacture of wealth through financial manipulation. Sound Familiar?

      They are going to need a serious revolution to begin to address this, and the detoxification and development of a legitimate economy is going to take generations, assuming everybody is genuinely on board.

  6. Egypt and the Middle East have come a long way in a week; when walking through Liberation Square every 3rd or 4th person was injured by clashes with police, and still the next day, Friday, thousands of new protesters appeared even after the threat of live sniper fire. Egypt, you amaze me.

  7. Egypt could be like Turkey, or Iran.

    One is secular, but becoming more Islamist, while the other is Islamist and becoming more secular.

    Neither scenario bodes well for Israel and the US.

  8. There is an interesting debate about what to expect from the army. Some say, they are mainly against any concessions and fear democracy, some say, they may unite in their material interests with the protest movement:
    Paul Amar: link to

    What is your view?

  9. A high priority for Egyptian revolutionaries ought to be enactment of a law making elections 100% publicly funded and outlawing all foreign monies attempting to influence/finance political parties/elections. Angry Arab points out the billions Saudi, US and Israeli interests will spend in their attempts, the last part of his comment driven by a NY Times disclosure of US plans to do so:

    “FLASH; MOST IMPORTANT. US ALREADY PLANS TO INTERFERE IN THE EGYPTIAN FREE ELECTION THIS HAS NOT CAUGHT ANYONE’S ATTENTION. US BRIBES ARE ON THEIR WAY TO EGYPT TO MANIPULATE THE FREE CHOICES OF THE EGYPTIAN PUBLIC. “and the White House and the State Department were already discussing setting aside new funds to bolster the rise of secular political parties.” link to

    As you point out, there’s much to do before Egypt’s Revolution can be said to have accomplished its overall goals. We can be certain that counter-revolutionary forces will continue their attack.

  10. mubarak down next murdoc.
    once the genie is out of the bottle it is hard to return it to confinement.

  11. While Juan made some interesting comments, I found that the professor from Georgtown University certainly seems to know what he is talking about. Why dosen’t the MSM have people like him on their programs instead of the many dimwits routinely paraded before the audience as some sort of Middle East experts.

  12. The West, especially the US, will be watching very closely the attitudes of the newly vocal (hopefully newly powerful) opposition towards “Free-Markets”. It seems we always link political freedom to market freedom. Free-Markets without political freedom has always been OK, but political freedom without Free-Markets has to be challenged and disrupted.

    Pervasive unemployment,poverty and hunger seem to be the underlying energy feeding the unrest, but you don’t hear much about mechanisms in to alleviate this distress. “Free Market Capitalism” means that owners of capital are free to do anything they want to make more money (examples abound), wealth distribution from the rich to the poor has seldom been a tactic.

    Unfortunately it is political suicide to even hint at socialism. But political freedom cannot be considered an end in itself when the real problems are unemployment,poverty and hunger. Somewhere along the line the pink flag will have to show itself.

    • I have been following events on Jim Lehrer’s News Hour the past weeks.
      They have had a parade of Arab and Egyptian experts giving opinion and comment on events. As well old hands like Zbignew Brezinsky and Stephen Hadley giving us some geo-political insites.
      Margaret Warner , PBS anchor/reporter gave great coverage from Tahrir square during recent days.

      Along with al Jazeera, PBS News Hour kept us informed in Australia, of the Egyptian revolution.

      Who needs the networks and their spindoctors?


  13. The Philippines People Power movement is a close analogy to what happened in Egypt.

    The Philippines today is a democracy – with extreme and widespread poverty, corruption , political assassination of leftists, and an exodus of educated middle class.

    These type of movements can be stillborn if they are not followed up on and a social revolution in terms of property and capital should be the start of the discussion. Otherwise the other aspects of civil society will become quickly corroded.

  14. Keep in mind that in the Philippines a US backed dictator was pushed from power. Also consider the rural Communist guerilla movement as today’s Muslim Brotherhood that the US was worried about taking power (they boycotted the ’86 election with fatal consequences).

    Ukraine and the color revolutions aren’t similar parallels to Egypt at all; for one, they were Western backed.

  15. Juan — while it may, as you say, be utopian to expect a new Egyptian constitution before the elections, it isn’t utopian for the pro-democracy forces to expect, and demand, that a new electoral law be formulated and publicly debated as quickly as possible. My modest suggestion would be that they come up with modifications to their current system, opting for single-member constituencies instead of the current two-member constituencies, and dropping provisions allowing the authorities to add members at their discretion, or mandating a specific kind of representation (i.e. farmers, workers, women) — measures that take power away from the voters and make the system too complicated – and simply let the voters have their choice. They should aim for a system that is transparent, easy to understand, hard to game, and one that over the long run encourages the evolution of big-tent political parties and a strong but loyal oppositions.

  16. I guess 3 is the catch-all. I don’t think political and social revolution should include anarchy, but all hell could break loose-however unlikely…

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