Egypt’s ability to democratise hangs in the balance

If Egypt wants to democratise, then it needs to adopt truth, memory, and justice initiatives.

"A democratic road-map that either  proceeds without Islamists or is boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood...does not bode well for Egypt's long-term democratic political institutionalisation", writes Larbi Sadiki [Getty Images]
"A democratic road-map that either proceeds without Islamists or is boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood...does not bode well for Egypt's long-term democratic political institutionalisation", writes Larbi Sadiki [Getty Images]

Egypt’s military coup – or overthrow as some prefer to call it – of an elected president challenges comparative theorists who are intrigued by how authoritarian countries democratise. The examples that can be drawn on to develop such an inquiry are many.

First, we must look at the strategies deployed by the interim army-led authorities and their allies to ban the Muslim Brotherhood.

Then, the Argentine and Turkish experiences command attention: they give pointers to transition in cases when the army occupies the state, and when the army clashes with religious parties.

Democratisation…by military fiat 

At the disposal of the military-backed government, after Mohammad Morsi’s ousting on July 3, are the all the various organs of the state. Through these organs, possessing institutional “legitimacy”, the elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt’s public sphere has followed a purportedly constitutional path. To this end, the judicial courts, security services and military have been employed to restrict the group’s activities.

Egypt court bans all Brotherhood activities

Accusations of violence and terrorism have been levelled at the Muslim Brotherhood that has sought to endow legitimacy on the use of violence against its members. Protests for the reinstatement of Morsi were soon succeeded by protests against the massacre of hundreds (if not thousands) of civilians at Raba’a al-Adawiyya.

Under the new government led by Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi, the possibility of banning the Muslim Brotherhood has been broached through different privately filed lawsuits. As a result, the Egypt’s judicial courts have become the battleground to not only contain the Islamist organisation but to render it non-existent.

Recently, a Cairo administrative court banned the Brotherhood’s organisation and activities, and sanctioned the confiscation of its assets. However, despite evidence to the contrary, the government has said it will not yet implement this ban until all litigation against the group has exhausted all judicial processes and procedures. Formally, outlawing the organisation would simply follow the de facto ban of its activities as demonstrated by the rounding up of its leaders and zero tolerance shown by the security forces of its protests.

A democratic road-map that either the generals calibrate so that it proceeds without Islamists or one in which the Muslim Brotherhood itself boycott all future electoral tests and contests power does not bode well for Egypt’s long-term democratic political institutionalisation.

The ‘man on horseback’ and democratisation: Argentina

When an army steps in and controls the state, their muddled role in politics does not point to an easy or brief exit from power. Portugal’s coup in the mid-1970s remains the exception.

Coming two years after the Portuguese coup, the Argentine putsch produced a seven-year dictatorship -a reign of terror based on killings, kidnappings, torture and disappearances of an estimated 30,000 people. Although transition to democracy began in 1983, the country’s generals did not exit politics for another decade.

It will take many years over many administrations – and probably painful decisions and concessions – for future Egyptian leaders to repair the mess that has resulted from the July coup.

Armies led by generals that that commit serious crimes do not exit politics swiftly or easily. Agentina’s democratic transition experience illustrates this point. The victimised publics brutalised by putschists seek rectitude through truth, memory and justice as the means to attain the twin goals of reconciliation and democratisation. That is not easy. This is why the likes of Oxford-based Laurence Whitehead, one of the founding fathers of democratisation, argue that the process to achieve these two goals makes reform complex, open-ended and lengthy. Thus, Egypt may not now be able to democratise without truth, memory and justice – all of which require time and resources under a popularly elected administration that shuns all exclusionary politics.

Eventually, a number of the Argentine generals had to face judicial trials that contributed to a national memory as senior officers vocalised stories of brutality that were kept secret until the 1990s. Nonetheless, democratisation began in 1983 but the generals over two democratic administrations, including pardons, under Raul Alfonsin and Carlos Menem were accorded all kinds of concessions in order to retain their power and influence.

So it will take many years over many administrations – and probably painful decisions and concessions – for future Egyptian leaders to repair the mess that has resulted from the July coup. So rushing to ‘normalise’ politics and transition under the auspices of the generals in Egypt by rewriting the constitution, misusing the judiciary, and deploying state-led media and propaganda will not produce democratisation in the foreseeable future. Not without truth, memory, and justice as conditions of reconciliation and democratisation.

The army vs. religious parties: Turkey

Turkey’s own army is worthy of study, and being a Muslim and Middle Eastern country is a huge bonus for comparative studies among the regions’ peoples, polities and civil societies.

Under the watchful eyes of the military and guided by Ataturk’s secularist template – Turkey’s democratisation was inaugurated in 1946 without Islam informing politics at all, much less Islamist parties. Islamists had to wait 56 years to rule in their own right. However, the route to AKP’s advent to power in 2002 was in the offing years before as Islamists began gradually lifting their game in politics. In its 85 years in the public arena, the Muslim Brotherhood has been able to overcome several learning curves as a two year-old legal entity – except for one. They have not had an analogue to Erdogan: a mayor with savoire-faire and a knack for gradualism. The one-take-all method espoused and practised by Egypt’s Islamists have undermined norms.

The democratic moment when Erdogan’s AKP won office with 34 percent of the vote began, rather than ended in 2002. This explains why it was returned to power in 2007 and 2011, with higher percentage of the total vote, respectively, 46 percent and nearly 50 percent. The pragmatism, the palpable achievements in gender inclusiveness, business acumen, dialogue with Europe, and cunning in bidding time and expanding the AKP’s constituencies, made Turkish Islamists able to “tame” even the generals. This is in itself a puzzle in Turkey’s democratisation.

The AKP is a party that grasped lessons of the quarrels a series of Islamist parties had with the state. Between the National Order Party banned in 1972 and the Virtue Party dissolved in 2001, the AKP learned many lessons of how to plot a path that neither alienates society nor leads to confrontation with the army. All of this is one more reason why the gulf between the AKP and Arab Islamists is wider than suggested.

Arab Islamists should have opted for a model of transition that is focused on parliaments: receiving one-third of the total vote, learning the ins and outs of politics and state management before seeking high office. The sudden rise and rise of the Islamists in Egypt, legitimate and legal as it might have been, threatened the army – amongst other social forces and sectors – and not made it acquiesce. The ensuing tug of war between Egypt’s most organised opposition and most resourceful institution is over how the first separates religion and politics and how the latter decouples from the state.

Larbi Sadiki is a specialist in Arab democratisation, revolution and transitions, and has been an academic at Australian National University, Exeter University, Westminster University and Qatar University. He is the author of   Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy   (Oxford University Press, 2009) and   The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses  (Columbia University Press, 2004).

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