Democratic Transition in Egypt: A Review

Carla Rizk Analysis, Law & Institutions, Middle East

It has been eight years since Egyptians toppled Hosni Mubarak’s military regime, but little has been accomplished to reduce poverty and government abuse, stabilize the country, or enforce civic and democratic rights. By comparing both post-revolutionary regimes, it becomes evident that, in the current state of Egyptian politics, the deciding factor for regime stability is military support. The seven years since the revolution have been a constant struggle to preserve the status quo while halfheartedly and insincerely attempting to democratize and reform the economy. Consequently, Egypt has not built the promised enduring economic system with efficient institutions that will surpass the lifetime of a single leader, bypassing the whole point of the Arab Spring and falling back into old habits (or more accurately never changing).

The Breaking Point: Military Support

Given that the military has vested economic interests in the state, whoever remains in power must defend first and foremost the military enterprise. In the case of former President and Muslim Brotherhood (MB) member Mohamed Morsi, the rivalry between the military and the MB ultimately caused a military coup. Morsi’s inability to develop strong institutional structures, create economic inclusiveness and protect human rights led to widespread civil unrest and protests. Two options arise in this situation for regime survival: fix the problem or suppress the complaints. Given the military-MB rivalry, the resulting civil unrest was difficult to stifle without military backing. If anything, this was a clear opportunity for the military to regain control and eliminate its rival.

On the other hand, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was the former army commander and defense chief, served to consolidate the military’s power by resorting to intimidation and staged elections to stifle dissent and eliminate any form of political rivalry.

Additionally, the government has been trying to position itself as a democratic state, even though President el-Sisi was re-elected with 97% of the vote in April of 2018. The corruption witnessed was expected by most international spectators considering the months of coercion and intimidation that preceded the elections, which resulted in all opposing candidates either getting detained or withdrawing from the race. Add to that the worsening human rights violations, all of which are also manifested in a corrupt judiciary process. This is further aggravated by the increase in terrorism and the inability to deal with the issue democratically.

While corrupt elections are expected in the early stages of democratic transition, both presidents failed to deliver the promises stemming from the Arab Spring and left Egypt in a constant state of political crisis. This dynamic has impeded the process in two major way. First, the military still dominates over society and the economy and impedes the establishment of a free market, defeating the purpose of Sisi’s economic reform. Second, the persistent rivalry between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood makes it impossible for fresh parties and faces to join Egypt’s political scene.

Military Economic Reign and El-Sisi’s Reform Program

In 2016, El-Sisi developed a three-year economic reform program, funded and developed collaboratively with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to build an inclusive market economy. For a 12 billion US dollar loan, Egypt has to contain inflation and public debt, develop social safety nets and inclusive growth, and diversify financing options. According to the IMF, in 2018, the GDP grew from 4.2% to 5.3%, deficit narrowed to 2.4% of GDP from 5.6%, and government debt decreased to 93% from 103%.

Strong economic development is an important precursor to a successful democratic transition, especially when social and educational programs are targeted. According to the IMF’s latest findings, Egypt has been implementing the program and has managed to stabilize the economy as well as increase tourism and exports. However, research and international observers contradict these findings, criticizing the reforms for having accomplished little structural adjustments, providing inefficient social safety nets, and favoring the military’s economic reign.

Some reforms agreed upon to curb military economic power have technically been implemented, but military presence remains intact. [efn_note]Roll, Stephan. “Flash-in-the-Pan” Development in Egypt? (July 2018, German Institute for International and Security Affairs) [/efn_note]This is not surprising as the military will have to let go of an economic empire seventy years in the making, dominating almost every aspect of the economy, such as production and supply of basic goods, construction, and energy.

Under the guise of ‘social programs,’ the military accumulates profit from these sectors, suppresses private competition, and utilizes recruits for cheap labor. The military also restricts the involvement of private businesses in the energy sector—a very lucrative field in Egypt. Not only does it hold high stakes in state-owned energy sectors, but any oil and gas exploration requires its approval. [efn_note]Noll, Jessica. Egypt’s Armed Forces Cement Economic Power (February 2017, German Institute for International and Security Affairs)[/efn_note]Furthermore, military-owned businesses get the majority of large projects and benefit from value-added tax exemptions on goods, equipment, machinery etc. This clearly hinders economic inclusiveness and defeats the purpose of market economies whose main function is to support competition. It is unrealistic to expect private businesses to compete with the government and the military or, in any case, under such disproportionate conditions.

Military vs Muslim Brotherhood: Ongoing Rivalry

The Muslim Brotherhood, outlawed or otherwise, plays a significant role in Egyptian domestic politics and society. Its evolution from a religious Islamist organization to a political party with a sizable support base has given it a stable spot in Egypt’s political scene. The Brotherhood has, over the years, invested in an increasing number of representatives running for office. Historically, the MB positioned itself as somewhat of an activist, supporting movements and fighting for professional unions. [efn_note]El-Ghobashy, Mona. The Metamorphosis of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers (2005, International Journal of Middle East Studies)[/efn_note]Although, such signs of ‘moderation’ are merely a political tactic rather than signs of democratic values, especially as the MB clings to conservative and undemocratic views as a frame of reference.

Nonetheless, such activism and social involvement gave it legitimacy among alienated Egyptians, oppressed by the ‘secular’ military regimes that preceded the revolution. As the MB garnered support by targeting disgruntled youths and lower-middle class citizens, it allied with various political parties to advance its influence in Parliament and political life. Growing support for the MB and its alliance with opposition parties resulted in a rivalry with the dominant military regime. Over the decades, relations between the two waxed and waned, experiencing cycles of warm relations followed by banishment and imprisonment of MB members. [efn_note]El-Ghobashy, Mona. The Metamorphosis of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers (2005, International Journal of Middle East Studies)[/efn_note]

The domination of this rivalry was clearly manifested in the latest Presidential elections, where all candidates came from a military or MB background. The reality is that both parties are fighting for power instead of democracy, meaning that fresh faces will be silenced and sidelined by the dominant parties. Similar to the military’s undemocratic motivation to remain in power, the MB, as seen during Morsi’s time, seems to think that democracy stops at holding elections. However, democracy represents an umbrella of values, not least of which are religious and personal freedom.

As the constant stand-off between the military and the MB restricts a diversity in candidates, and as both have proven themselves to show little regard for democratic values apart from holding sham elections, Egypt will have to work on re-evaluating national political values alongside its attempts at fixing the economy. As for the fate of the MB, it is too big and structured an organization to fade into the background. Outlawing the MB, as is customary in Egypt, will only strengthen the rivalry and push disgruntled citizens towards them.

Unlikely Transition

In conclusion, dictatorships in Egypt have deeper roots than poor economic performance, with the major obstacles to transition being the military’s monopoly over the economic and social sectors, the rivalry between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, and massive human rights violations under all regimes. Additionally, there are key aspects of economic performance that typically result in successful transitions, such as a strong middle class, social safety nets, and a market economy, all of which are interconnected. Thus, as long as poverty persists and competition, both economic and political, is suppressed by the military’s involvement, macroeconomic improvement will not significantly aid a successful transition.

About the Author

Carla Rizk

Carla Rizk is Managing Director and President of the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from the faculty of political science at Concordia University, Montreal and is currently undertaking further studies in computer science. Her research interests include Middle Eastern geopolitics.

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