Egypt's top court, appointed by the old regime, ordered today that parliament, elected just three months ago in the first genuinely democratic elections in decades, be dissolved for a do over. It also reinstated the candidacy of the old regime's prime minister for this weekend's Presidential election. And, the transitional regime greatly expanded some recently suspended emergency powers of the military to arrest civilians.
The ruling might be one that could have been appropriate were it coming from a court installed by a historically democratic regime facing an undemocratic electoral reform of the kind recently seen in Hungary, particularly if it had come out before the parliamentary elections were conducted and the new parliament was sworn in, but as it is, it looks like a power grab. This particular court lacks the legitimacy and democratic credentials to order such sweeping, after the fact, relief related to an election on what are conceptual and technical grounds. It may, however, have the ability to consolidate support within the military for the removal of the current parliament and set up a constitutional crisis if parliament, righteously resists, or if it assents to the ruling and the new elections are not conducted honestly.
A popular uprising that was part of the Arab Spring ousted a totalitarian regime under Hosni Mubarak who was sentenced last week to life in prison for crimes against the people involved in putting down that uprising. The peaceful resolution was secured by putting a military dominated transitional government in place and maintaining the form of a legally authorized regime change conducted with the consent, albeit coerced, of the old regime.
A Pessimistic Scenario
Collectively, Egypt seems to be creeping towards a coup under color of law that would roll back the democratic accomplishments of the uprising sixteen months ago, driven by a basically, secular military used to reporting to a long time dictator that fears the potential radicalism and incompetence of a super majority Islamist civilian government now that they have seen what the parliamentary elections produced and who is likely to win if the military does not interfere with the election.
This situation could easily led to a constitutional crisis followed by a return to a totalitarian regime that abandons the democratic reforms adopted a few months ago in favor of making the transitional government itself the new non-democratic permanent rulers of the country with military backing, either with, or without, a bloody rerun revolution as outgunned democracy activists face a more determined military regime that has had time to consolidate its hold and the loyalty of the mid-level officers whose support for the revolution made regime change possible in the first place. What the military has given, it may have the power to take away. And, even if the democrats and pro-democracy factions in the military ultimately prevail, months of a bloody Syrian style conflict could unfold before they do.
An Optimistic Scenario Coloring Without The Lines
There is still room for the transitional regime to back down and retreat from these new developments. It doesn't have to make wide use of the emergency powers it was granted this week. The Islamist candidate likely to win the Presidential election this weekend could win a clean majority and be recognized as the winner and given the "keys to the kingdom" from the transitional government and military. A clean, slightly modified set of parliamentary elections could be conducted in a do over.
There are a number of less accomplishments the military could win in this bit of brinkmanship without actually bringing about chaos.
A recent study showed that electing a President before a parliament, rather than a parliament first, materially increases the chance that a newly democratic country will revert to totalitarian rule, and the military may want to heighten that possibility, making the winner into a new strong man.
Establishing the precedent that the military can use extraordinary emergency powers even under the new regime, strengthens its hand in future negotiations, even if they aren't over used as they were for most of the later days of Mubarak's regime.
Egyptians are tired of revolution and may be willing to tolerate a certain amount of tarnish on their new democracy at this point that they wouldn't have accepted sixteen months ago. The military may hope that the fervor of revolution that prevailed in the earlier rounds of the Presidential election and the parliamentary election, and that they will make a more detached and "rational" decision in a do over.
Also, the political party fragmentation of a first election in any new political system culls weak contenders and simplifies the political playing field. Parties the military is more comfortable with were weak and disorganized then relative to the Islamist parties who have been preparing for this day and learning how to maintain cohesion even in the face of totalitarian crack downs for years. Now that the non-Islamists are less fragmented and have had more time to learn the ropes of the new political system and organize themselves, the military may hope that they will be better equipped to perform in a quick new parliamentary election with somewhat more favorable election rules.
Is It Time To Break Ties To The Old Regime?
Alternately, perhaps the fig leaf of legality in the regime transition has outlived its usefulness.
The parliamentary government could simply pass a rhetorically grand declaration that the transitional government and old court are illegitimate because they lack democratic support, ideally after a new President to parliament's liking is sworn in, could defy and disregard the court ruling, and could appoint a new democratically blessed court on the strength of its electoral legitimacy - perhaps pausing to impeach the members of the old court in the process. If the security apparatus agreed to refrain from backing the old court in favor of the directions of a newly elected Prime Minister and President or President-elect's directions, this could turn out to be just a minor bump in the road, even though it looked like a dire crisis at the time.
Barriers To Good Outcomes And The Impact Of Past Policy Towards Egypt.
It doesn't help that there is little political culture to speak of in Egypt. There are basically no experienced politicians, in the democratic sense, in Egypt who have the wisdom to really judge what will and will not work. The military has no experience and habit of honoring the will of a democratically elected civilian government. The top players in the transitional regime, the military, and the new civilian regime mostly haven't spent years versing themselves in the ways of domestic statecraft.
The people have weak expectations regarding what the new regime will look like in practice. The models for Islamic regimes with some democratic aspects that have stood the test of time like Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Northern Nigeria, leave much to be desired, and Egypt has no legitmate constitutional monarch available to ease the transition. Perhaps this will encourage Egyptians to put in place a political system as a whole that fits their own unique needs. But, it is often harder to innovate than to imitate a successful model.
Of the lot, Turkey is the most plausible model, but is notable for its people's political liberalism secured through painful and sometimes misguided cultural reforms imposed by Ataturk who had a broad mandate to impose them, and for the somewhat high degree of military meddling in civilian affairs that has been exercised in its role as "guardian" of the state, a common third world military self-conception that is probably shared by the Egyptian military.
In short, even if there are tools and strategies that could allow Egypt to make it through this crisis smoothly, there is good reason to doubt that the people who matter are aware of them and capable of pulling them off in practice.
Perhaps the best hope we can have in this regard is that a large number of Egyptian military officials have had dealing with members of the American military and visited the United States. The soldiers with these contacts may use the lessons learned about how to handle political-military interactions in a democracy, and the political values they have absorbed by osmosis in these interactions to guide their own actions now, for lack of any better models. U.S. diplomatic or rhetorical involvement may be counterproductive at this point, because it could be perceived as meddling, although the Egyptian military does receive billions of dollars each year from its relationship with the United States, an investment the U.S. made initially to protect Israel. But, perhaps our past dealings have set the stage for a brighter future that we had not really seriously contemplated actually happening nearly so soon.
It also doesn't hurt that while Egypt has been a dictatorship for decades, that it has not been a particularly closed one. Average and even more so middle class Egyptians have witnesses via the media and their first hand trade and tourism dealings, how the Western world works personally. It is a nation whose wealth depends more on enterprise and functioning government than its peers with more oil per capita. If it closed itself to the outside world the way that North Korea or Saudi Arabia have, it would collapse and everyone in power knows it. It has the petite bourgeoisie of lawyers, teachers, business owners, seasoned mid-level and senior level civil servants, and technocrats that was absent in sufficient numbers in most of the newly independent nations the swiftly devolved into dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s, like Sudan. It is a nation of city and town dwellers who have a self-concept that includes long periods when they were the imperialists and know the temptation of modernity, not a nation of luddite tribesmen and subsistence farmers and laborers, whose elites were mere mere mid-level subordinates in colonially managed enterprises.
Of course, the revolution could go the way of the Iranian one and see democracy erode in favor of theocracy. But, this hasn't happened in Pakistan or Turkey, and Egypt has a national identity that is more than just Islam that may check temptations to allow it to devolve into a theocracy rather than a democracy run by people who happen to be religious and live their convictions as they act through secular institutions, in the model of Israel. So far, the Muslim Brotherhood has seemed content to keep within those kinds of boundaries, so we should not be quick to depart from our natural instinct to favor democratically elected civilian political institutions over military and authoritarian rule.
On the other hand, maybe the lesson that the Egyptian military learned is that it doesn't have to do much to win U.S. backing when push comes to shove. And, the people of Egypt may have learned that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down and that the blessings of democracy that Westerners enjoy are impossible to achieve at home. In this conflict, we have to hope that Egyptians have learned from what they seen as well as what they have lived. Time will tell.