Through the Political Prism:Dissecting Egypt's Roadmap
From its beginnings as one fruit seller's stand against police brutality to the ousting of dictators across the Middle East, the Arab Spring has turned predictions on the future of the Middle East on their heads. In conversations held on street corners, as well as in coffeehouses, offices, homes and universities across the world, the events –– widely lauded as the first wave of "Facebook revolutions" –– have forced both participants and observers to reconsider the existing literature and long-held assumptions about the region.
Nearly five months after the uprising
began in Egypt, international
academics and Egyptian activists
gathered in Oriental Hall at AUC
Tahrir Square in a conference titled
From Tahrir: Revolution or
Democratic Transition. The event, held
in coordination with
the Project on Middle East Political Science, discussed the events sweeping the Arab world and how best to chart the course for the new Egypt.
Burn the Books?
Opinions as to the true cause of the
January 25th revolution are nearly as
plentiful as the Ana Masry [I Am
Egyptian] tees for sale at Tahrir Square.
Most agree that some combination of inevitability mixed with the inspiration of Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" played a significant role in determining the precise timing of Egypt's uprising.
Despite a wealth of literature on the topic of democratic transition, many academics have been frustrated by the existing canon's overall failure to predict events.
"Traditionally, the literature on
democracy paid very little attention to
how it came about, with the exception
of that which emphasized the
numerous prerequisites for democracy,"
said Philippe Schmitter of the European University Institute, author of some of the seminal works on regime transitions from authoritarian rule and a self-declared transitologist.
"From my past experience looking on Latin America and Southern Europe, the failure to account for such transitions made me realize that the existing literature in political science
was largely irrelevant. Therefore, I decided to ignore this statistically possibilistic approach and, instead, to think in possibilistic terms.
Just suppose there are no material or cultural prerequisites for democracy and, hence, that it is possible anywhere. What strategies and combinations among actors, especially among elite actors, could result in a regime where rulers and representatives would be held accountable in a systematic fashion to their citizens?"
Others have taken a less radical stance. Steven Heydemann of the U.S. Institute for Peace, while agreeing that, at times, the literature is not as helpful as needed, cautioned political scientists from disregarding it entirely. "I think we can agree that the literature is something of the theoretical equivalent of the Mugamma [government office complex in Tahrir Square], a huge sprawling edifice that we spend too much time in at one point or another," he joked. "Still, it maintains a usefulness in that it allows us to identify ways in which Egypt's experience diverges from the kinds of sequences that the transition literature tends to associate with successful transitions to democracy."
Maha Abdel Rahman '89, '93 of
Cambridge University chose to place
Egypt's uprising in a global context.
"While the Egyptian revolution is definitely homegrown, it can only be appreciated and understood if seen in a global context, as part of transnational struggles of millions of other people," she said. "In a sense, revolutions are the manifestation of failures and contradictions unique to a society or a nation in which they take place, but have impact f ar beyond its borders."
Click Yes to Attend
A Facebook revolution? Not so, said
Hossam el-Hamalawy, the celebrated
blogger whose 3arabawy blog is one of
the most popular in the Egyptian
blogosphere. "Cyber activism began not
in 2011, but in 2000, with the star t of
the second Palestinian intifada, through
mass mailing lists that circulated
information about protests and spread
word about any detentions," he said, arguing that the relatively few
Egyptians engaged online still pale in comparison to the mobilization seen during the revolution. "Mubarak did not fall because we changed our Twitter avatars or updated our Facebook statuses," he said. "Really, most of the 12 million who were in the streets were not in the cyber
community, nor are the labor strikers."
The result of online activism is still
pronounced and will have implications
even in foreign policy, noted Marc Lynch of George Washington University. "This is going to change how Egypt chooses to deal with its neighbors because they are now accountable to their people," he said. "The Arab world and Egypt are
increasingly populated by digital natives. Hossam and the bloggers were the first, but what they have done is now being disseminated through every social g roup and will have a structural effect on the way information flows."
Elections and Expectations
Ellen Lust, associate professor and scholar of elections at Yale University, believes that a shift in people's attitudes toward elections is as equally important as rewriting the electoral system. "We tend to imagine individuals who are voters voting for individuals who are candidates, but that's not necessarily the case," she said. "Individuals going into elections and embedded in broader social structures with mutual relationships see themselves as being distinct from other s in other g roups. ... It's tempting to think that we've changed all that, and there's no reason to believe that people will go to the polls for the same things that they used to, but if you look at the literature that comes out of sub-Saharan Afr ica and Latin America, you see that clientalism is still alive. While the political system may be changing, there are lots of reasons that people's perception of themselves in society or how society fits together has not changed. It's not helpful to expect that problems will disappear just because there's a new system in town."
Sit down with Hossam Bahgat of the
Egyptian Initiative for Personal
Rights, and he will tell you a story
about the "slippery slope," his term for
what he sees as Egypt's gadual
dissolution of human and civil rights.
"In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a serious threat of Islamist violence, and a green light was g iven to the security service," said Bahgat. "What we allowed to the counterterror
ism forces later expanded out to the State Security Investigations Service, then to the entire interior ministry until we reached the point of endemic cor r uption, abuses and violence." The revolution, he explained, has given Egyptians an opportunity not seen in years to reclaim their rights. "We need to revise the entire legal framework of the structure of the interior ministry as well as the specific rules for some departments," he said, emphasizing the importance of parliament as an oversight structure and civil society as a monitoring mechanism. "We should move the prisons department to the Ministry of Justice. Civil affairs, birth certificates and driving
licenses should not be given by uniformed officers. Instead, we really need to slim down the department to just issues of law and order."
Bruce Rutherford, author of the presciently titled book Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam and Democracy in the Arab World (Princeton University Press, 2008), explained that the way to conceptualize security sector reform is to view it as the re-establishing of boundaries between
state and society. "If we start with the observation that the security services are an instrument of state power, the boundary between state power and society largely disappeared under the old regime," he said.
Rutherford also noted that the
parallel court system, created under
Nasser and employed to try civilians
in exceptional courts and military
courts, circumvented the legal system
and was responsible for denying many
Egyptians their rights, but had also left
the ordinary judiciary largely
untouched. "It is this judiciary that has
been instrumental in many of the
reforms and actions taken against the
former regime thus far, from
dismantling the NDP [National
Democratic Party] to detaining Mubarak and his family," Rutherford said. "To allow the judiciary to reclaim its intended role permanently will require reforms of that sector as well. Judges have been calling for a number of reforms, including a larger budget, the capacity to carry out their own investigations rather than relying on investigations conducted by the public prosecutor and the capacity to ensure that court rulings are implemented quickly and fully."
Now that Mubarak is gone, it's time
for the real work to begin, particularly
given the recently contentious
relationship between the role of
religion and government in Egypt.
"Democracy is less likely to be consolidated if there are deep, unresolved divisions in the polity
about fundamental constitutional issues such as the relationship between state, religion and society," explained Alfred Stepan of Columbia University, adding, "Of all the major freedom and
democracy-ranking statistical bureaus, not one has labeled any Arab state a democracy in the last 35 years. Many Americans see that no Arab country is a democracy and all Arab countries
are Muslim, and conclude then that no Muslim countries are democratic. This is untrue, but clearly, the way religion is adopted into the state will make a huge difference in how democracy is consolidated."
In addition to religion, many are
worried about how choices made to
support the country's economy will
affect the pace of political reforms.
However, according to David Stark,
also of Columbia University, the
choice between economic and
political reforms is a false one.
"Strength in the sense of being very powerful and unchecked did not bring about economic reform," he said. "Rather, the post-socialist surprise was that the main obstacles to democracy and economic development were not posed by those who gained the least from economic
reform, but rather by the early winners." Democracy, Stark noted, must have both vertical and
horizontal accountability. "Such extended accountability must go beyond those who hold office to organized groups and actors in civil society," he said.
By Madeline Welsh
Photos by Ahmad El-Nemr