Will a Democratic Transition Happen in Egypt?

06/14/2011 05:03 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2011
  • Rabah Ghezali Associate Professor of Economics at Sciences-Po Paris

Since Mubarak's ousting, a pivotal player has been brought to light in the Egyptian political structure: the army, which is clearly not neutral as it has an agenda and interests. If Tahrir Square's protesters certainly help, the army played the main role in Mubarak's resignation and it now enjoys absolute power.

When forcing him to resign under American pressure, the army did not exactly arbitrate between Mubarak and the protesters but rather between Mubarak and itself. The protesters victory remains symbolic as the regime is still in place. Mubarak's departure was a concession of pure form, difficult to accept, but ultimately without major stakes. It is when negotiating the design of new institutions and the preparation of the upcoming elections that we will observe the army's crucial role in this transition.

As in Tunisia, if the army favors law and order, they are not ready to resort to any means to obtain it, since it would undermine their legitimacy and role in the post-Mubarak Egypt. The protesters of Tahrir Square have been able to aggregate representatives of most social groups in Egypt. Their movement became a "survey" on the unpopularity of the regime. When the movement seemed to spread among larger segments of the population driven by social rather than political demands, the army strategically decided to sacrifice Mubarak to preserve street order. The problem is now to turn a leaderless movement, united by slogans, without any program into a transitional force. The old regime and the political forces have not been dissolved: the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Democratic Party (NDP) formerly headed by Hosni Mubarak, the businessmen - who in one way or another are necessary for the economic recovery -- the intellectuals and the unions.

The popular movement could act as a censor during the transition by calling for demonstrations if the army fails to lead the way towards democracy. However, a force whose value is only to protest would appear as an obstacle rather a constructive force. Today, the stakeholders involved in the political negotiation have a shared interest in marginalizing the street movement. As this movement has not yet crystallized into some form of political party, it is likely that the reconstruction of the Egyptian political landscape will be a monopoly of the old forces, including the NDP, since excluding this party from this transition would give the Muslim Brotherhood a dominant position. Democratic transition is somehow the opposite of a revolution as it requires the inclusion of all political and social forces within a common framework. Insofar as the regime did not fall but that Mubarak is gone, and that therefore the old regime is still in place, the current balance of power in Egypt allows the military to weigh beyond the simple preservation of order.

Moreover, the Egyptian elites who occupy important positions within the administration and the business sector are equally reluctant to leave the scene. If some of its members resented how things were turning over the last years of the Mubarak presidency, this does not make them revolutionaries as they don't trust the popular movement. Willing to remain in charge, they may well agree with the army and, to some extent, with the Muslim Brotherhood, provided that the latter does not ask more than what the army is willing to concede. This perhaps explains why the Muslim Brotherhood stated that it would not seek the presidency and why it participated in the commission in charge of amending the constitution. It clearly wants to consolidate its position rather than engaging in the struggle for power.

With this current internal political dynamic and since President Obama's Middle East speech, which announced an economic aid package for Egypt, the scenario of a double transition, a simultaneous transformation of the political and economic regimes, seems unlikely. This package includes $1 billion in debt relief, an additional $1 billion in loan guarantees and "several billion dollars" in additional funding provided by multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. If this support would mark the beginning of the economic transition, the old regime is going to play a central role administering it. By using this aid to address the primary causes of the revolution, i.e. poverty and unemployment, the regime would reduce the social pressure it's facing and divide the social movement between the majority who protested for better life conditions and those who were primarily pushing for a real democracy.

Economic recovery rather than democratic reform is likely to become the priority of the army, particularly since it is likely to create greater popular contentment. As this agenda would match Egyptians' main expectations, the regime would enjoy more leeway in managing the democratic transition which could become less of a priority for the Egyptians in the future. A consolidation of the old regime's power is to be expected as the economic reforms would help marginalizing the popular opposition by depriving it of one of its raison d'être. If economic stagnation accelerated the Egyptian spring, one could predict that with massive investments on their way the old regime would certainly enjoy a new lease of life, thus unfortunately relegating the democratic transition for later.