Friday, July 5, 2013

Some initial thoughts on Egypt

This is my initial reaction to the July 4 David Brooks article:

Brooks is right to point out that there is a difference between the process and substance of democracy. This is not a new observation. But I think people tend to overemphasize it in order to accuse one party of not being "democratic" and to undermine their participation in the political process. In this case, the process was flawed from the outset - the electoral laws were developed in a black box and clearly favored the most organized political forces. There was no consensus regarding what constitutional principles should guide the country. But at the end of the day, it was not the MB alone that should pay the price for these flaws. Within that existing electoral framework, they won an overwhelming mandate to rule in both the parliamentary and presidential elections. At the end of the day, process and substance are intimately related - we see this in many other cases. For example in Hungary, a flawed electoral framework has left the country's democratic substance's wanting. Orban is no Islamist!

I do not agree with Brooks' argument that Islamists are fundamentally opposed to pluralism and modernity. Their engagement in the political process developing in an environment of great uncertainty and insecurity. Nathan Brown gets it right (as he often does): “The tight-knit organization built for resilience under authoritarianism made for an inward-looking, even paranoid movement when it tried to refashion itself as a governing party.” This is greatly problematic in a plural political setting, but not hard-wired into the DNA of Islamists.

This insecurity led the MB to distrust many of the other political forces, particularly the Salafi Islamists (who under Mubarak were given some freedom to preach as long as it wasn't political) and the secular forces. It also led the MB, once it was in power, to try to strike a series of back-room deals with the military and security forces that it had feared for so long (and that it perceived as the strongest force in Egypt). In practice, this meant that the MB did not cooperate well with the other political forces. This was a huge miscalculation on their part. It also meant that the economic and political reforms that are necessary to move Egypt forward could not happen as many of these would require serious concessions by the security forces, military, and bloated bureaucracy. But since the military is back in the driver's seat (disguised perhaps in the coming months as the passenger's seat), it seems very unlikely that the next political leaders will be able to get the military and security forces to carry out these reforms. Ultimately, this military intervention will be evaluated on the basis of what types of concessions the military is willing to make and how much ALL the political forces are willing to compromise in order to reach a mutually-acceptable conception of political legitimacy, not on the basis of who it removed.

Although I am very hesitant to use analogies, since Brooks is discussing Islamists more generally, I do think that this broad narrative about Islamists - developing in an authoritarian context with powerful security services - seems applicable to cases like Algeria and Turkey. The Palestinian and Iranian contexts are different, but share some of these features. Let's keep in mind that, while the other forces, such as the leftists, are not as prominent, they also display these problematic tendencies - distrust of others and disregard for differing viewpoints. This is what makes democratic transitions, where ever they take place, so difficult.

Sometimes it is too late to go back to undo mistakes you made in the past or simply hit the restart button. This might be one of those cases. While I would have praised a technocratic government headed by ElBaradei in May 2011, it seems very likely that removing Morsi and then arresting the MB leadership is only going to deepen the polarization and exclusion that this coup is purporting to address. I hope I am wrong. I hope that ElBaradei is involved in some way as he is one of a very few I think have a chance of pulling a transition off, but it is going to be enormously difficult.

Going forward, the MB and other Islamists must be included in the political process in a meaningful way. The focus needs to be on developing a set of constitutional principles that establish the boundaries on the political sphere for all involved parties and clearly define the concept of political legitimacy that people seem to be debating ferociously nowadays. Those who welcomed this military intervention or participated in it need to learn from Morsi's failures - they need to respect the political rights of others and be willing to compromise. While some will, I think we will find that it is not only the Islamists that have trouble doing this, it is those in power more generally.

Finally, on the US: Yes, the US has been disappointing at several points throughout the process. But I think that working with the MB after they were elected was not one of those errors. In most cases, the US should engage with a country's elected officials! The Embassy's problem is that it was not maintaining relationships with the youth activists and not leveraging its relationship with the military.

Here is a Q&A by Nathan Brown who I think is spot-on in his analysis.