Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Part 2)
(For a discussion of the overall goals and logic of these postings on the Arab Spring, see Part 1, Nov. 6, 2011)
Egypt is at the core of the Arab Spring. What happens there will be critical to the success or failure of the larger Arab democracy movement. As Egyptians go to the polls for what is the most free election since the 1952 military coup d'etat that overthrew the monarchy, what are the prospects for Egypt making a transition to democracy?
What many analysts have failed to mention is that Egypt has been under military rule since 1952. There were only been 3 presidents between 1952 and 2011 and the last two were vice presidents for their predecessors (Sadat for Nasser and Mubarak for Sadat). As Leonard Binder pointed out some time ago in his study, In a Moment of Enthusiasm: Political Power and the Second Stratum in Egypt, the Egyptian military has been a highly cohesive organization given its social base in what he termed a "rural middle class." While the military (known officially as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF) has evolved since Binder's 1978 study, it still demonstrates incredible cohesion at the upper echelons of the officer corps.
To speak about the military is to really speak about a military-industrial complex. Following the 1956 Tripartite invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel after Gamal Abd al-Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, all major foreign enterprises were nationalized. This policy was followed in the early 1960s by a similar wave of nationalizations as domestic industry and financial institutions were taken over by the public sector. From that time forward, the "commanding heights" of the economy have been under state control.
While Anwar al-Sadat's famous "liberalization" of the economy (al-infitah) in the early 1970s suggested a step away from the public sector dominated economy of the Nasser years, this was not to be the case. The public sector actually grew after 1973, only now in partnership with foreign investors. In the process, corruption spread as did the spectacular growth of the nouveaux riches who were the engineers of the new economic order.
Why are these considerations important for understanding Egypt's efforts to shed authoritarian rule and move towards democratic governance? The military is above all the most powerful institution in Egypt. But it is much more than that. It is more conceptually accurate to speak of it as a "military-industrial complex" because the military has developed a parallel economy over time. This parallel economy not only gives the military a monopoly over the instruments of coercion but control of the national economy as well.
From an institutional perspective, the choice to develop a state controlled public sector in the late 1950s and early 1960s created a "path dependency" which is difficult to reverse. This development of this massive institution - the public sector in alliance with foreign capital - has created a huge set of material interests among the military-industrial-commercial elite. This political-economic elite views the demands by democracy activists for open and accountable governance as threatening the very core of its power. Thus it is not surprising that the military has tried to create a post-Mubarak political universe that parallels its economic universe, namely one in which it beyond the reach of civilian control.
The conclusion one can draw from the structural conditions of Egypt's military-industrial complex and the SCAF's behavior since the toppling of Mubarak is that it will not concede any meaningful power to civilian rule. The key question is not just whether Islamists in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood will acquire power in the Egyptian parliamentary elections but whether the military will be forced to transform itself into a different and accountable institution.
What might be some of the incentives that would lead the military to change course in the face of continued tenacious demonstrations throughout the country? The military claims that its efforts to restrain demonstrations are intended to prevent the country from slipping into complete disorder. Using the very potent Arabic term "fitna," the SCAF has tried to frighten non-activist Egyptians that they have everything to lose if they support pro-democracy forces and the country slips into chaos.
This argument might be more powerful if the ongoing demonstrations were indeed limited to Cairo's Tahrir Square. Both the military and its civilian supporters have been fond of stating that "Egypt is not Tahrir Square." However, this argument is belied by the spread of demonstrations throughout the country. In many cities and towns in Egypt's provinces, local security forces have been totally overwhelmed by demonstrators who have taken over local security offices and police stations (see, al-Hayat, Nov. 23).
The anger of the demonstrators that the military has "stolen" the revolution continues to energize large numbers of Egyptians, and not just youth. That the military refuses to place its budget under civilian control in the new constitution that is to be written after elections take place tells many Egyptians that unless they keep up the pressure, the SCAF will continue to rule much as did Husni Mubarak.
What concerns the military is what we might call the "Iran factor." During the revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran, troops refused orders to fire on demonstrators which hastened the Shah's downfall (as we have seen occur in Syria as well where troops have defected rather than kill civilian demonstrators). Continued demonstrations might undermine the willingness of the Egyptian army and security forces to suppress them. Were that to occur, the SCAF would lose its ability to control the street and hence its political power.
Where do the Islamists fit into this equation? The Islamist movement suffers from fragmentation and from not having demonstrated sufficient commitment to the pro-democracy revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood was very tentative about the anti-Mubarak demonstrations that developed last January and did not support renewed demonstrations this month against the military. The Brotherhood fears that demonstrations and the violence that invariably accompanies them will give the military the excuse to cancel elections. Because the Brotherhood is confident that it will do well in the elections, it does not want to alienate the military by pressuring it to make additional concessions.
The Brotherhood has alienated part of its base among youth who have come to view it as yet another Machiavellian political party whose real interest is to gain power rather than implement democratic governance and provide Egypt's citizenry with needed social services. To its right, as it were, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is being challenged by Salafists from the Party of Light (hizb al-nur), which is especially strong in Alexandria, and by more moderate Islamists and secularists to its left.
After 80 years of trying to win power, the Brotherhood may end up with limited political authority given the SCAF's unwillingness to cede any meaningful power. It may also engender hostility from Salafists, and Islamist and secular moderates, who see it as developing an accommodation with the SCAF and not challenging military authority given its desire to acquire political power.
Where does this leave Egypt's pro-democracy revolution? Demonstrations will continue and perhaps even become even more threatening in the provinces beyond Cairo's Tahrir Square. The military may decide that, from a cost-benefit analysis, it has more to lose by continued unrest, and the impact that such unrest will have on the Egyptian economy, than in trying to continue to suppress the demonstrations.
The SCAF's policy of trying to mobilize Egypt's so-called "silent majority" does not seem to have worked, although elections may temporarily take some of the wind out of the demonstrators' sails. However, what the SCAF does not realize is that many Egyptian, especially the young, have little hope in the future. There is every incentive for demonstrators to continue the struggle since there is little cost to them when compared to returning to a status quo ante which offers few possibilities for advancement.
Egypt's "stalled" transition to democracy could unfortunately continue for the indefinite future. In both Yemen and Syria, protests and conflict have not abated, despite the state's use of violence to suppress opposition forces. In Egypt, the negative economic (and political) consequences of this protracted conflict are now becoming clear.
The United States, the EU, and Turkey - to mention the external actors with the most influence among the SCAF - would do well to bring to its attention that democratic change is not all that is needed in Egypt. Changes in the privileges enjoyed by those who control Egypt's military-industrial complex are long overdue as well.
(The next post on Egypt will discuss the role of ideas in efforts to bring about democratic change and the uneasy alliance between Islamist and secular forces and between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military)