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For the third consecutive year, the editor has invited the contributors of ExploringGeopolitics to define the most significant geopolitical development of the year.
Dr Andrea Teti (Naples, 1973) is Lecturer in International Relations at University of Aberdeen. His teaching focuses on Middle Eastern history and politics, and on political theory (particularly post-structuralism).
Dr Teti studied for his MA (Hons.) and PhD at the University of St Andrews.
In this contribution to the Geopolitical Review 2011, he gives his views on various aspects of the popular uprising in Egypt. Can we speak of regime change? How powerful are the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamists and the NGOs? And what are the consequences for the European Union?
The other parts of the Geopolitical Review have been written by Alex Chitty/Simon Dalby, Saul Cohen, Jeremy Crampton/Stuart Elden and Virginie Mamadouh:
Does Egypt have better chances today to become a liberal democracy compared with one year ago?
One often hears debates about what kinds of chances Egypt has of becoming a liberal democracy. This kind of focus on liberal democracy is misguiding, because while the uprising, for the vast majority of Egyptians who took part, was about democracy and opposition to authoritarianism, the uprising was not necessarily about liberal democracy. Western audiences and policy-makers – not least as a result of a consensus within the field of democratization studies – have become accustomed to thinking about democracy in what are normally referred to as ‘minimalist’ or ‘procedural’ terms, as something which has to do only with political rights such as voting, free speech and freedom of information. But for Egyptians from across the political spectrum the issue was always broader than that: they wanted political rights, but also social justice.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the combination of the two key slogans of the Egyptian Uprising: the first was ‘aish, horreya / adala igtema’eya (bread, freedom, social justice) and the second was ash-sha’b yurid / isqaat an-nizaam, “the people want the downfall of the regime”. This entails much more than just Mubarak’s removal, and a far greater challenge than simply holding ‘free and fair’ elections, both in terms of the objectives in themselves, and in terms of the resistance within and outside Egypt to this kind of change.
The situation in Egypt remains very fluid, and it is still possible a transition towards democracy will eventually occur, but the balance of conditions this requires is so delicate that precedents over the past twelve months are not at all encouraging.
The Military’s ‘revolutionary’ credentials
Another question one often hears is ‘Will the military ferry Egypt towards democracy?’ Most activists who have been involved in the pro-democracy struggle would probably answer in the negative, and from the standpoint of a detached observer, one would have to be very sceptical about the military’s track record so far.
In part, this is because the figures in government today present a strong degree of continuity with the regime under Mubarak. Field-Marshall Tantawi, the Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was Defense Minister and latterly Deputy PM (under Ahmad Shafiq, who is himself running for the presidency despite being reviled by pro-democracy activists). Other figures such as General Sami Enan, currently SCAF’s Deputy Chairman, were also very close to the centre of power under Mubarak. There are also some figures from the NDP government who have managed to survive – most notably the Minister for Social Affairs Faiza Abou el-Naga, who has gained notoriety for being at the centre of the recent and highly controversial crackdown on Egyptian and international NGOs which began in the aftermath of the January Uprising, intensified over the summer, and recently culminated in the raid of dozens of democracy and human rights NGOs – including the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, all unmistakably close to the US – and the arrest of 43 activists, not least of which the son of a serving US Senator.
But the greatest continuity can be discerned at the policy level. It is true that the military have made certain “concessions” towards democracy – and the fact that they’re commonly referred to as concessions ought to be indicative – including holding parliamentary elections, but all of these have come after a considerable amount of stalling, much pushback by pro-democracy activists, and grudging concessions by the military. Two examples are particularly significant: first, the use of emergency powers, and second, security sector reform. Upon taking office after Sadat’s assassination, Mubarak had an emergency law enacted which has been confirmed every two years since by his puppet parliament – legislation which effectively allowed the Ministry of Interior to arrest and detain without charge, or through state security courts, leading to what many have said was a massive increase in abuse of power by MoI forces, and the detention of several thousands of prisoners of conscience. Under Tantawi, that number grew at one point to over 14,000, and even the recent ‘repeal’ of the emergency law does not apply to ‘thugs’, i.e. the very category which the military have used to stigmatize pro-democracy activists. The second, closely connected issue, is security sector reform. Before the uprising, the security establishment felt it could operate with impunity outside the law or simply bending it to serve its purposes. This has not substantively changed since Mubarak’s departure, and for the moment there are only timid signs from the new Parliament that it will attempt to hold the military junta to account.
All this suggests a system in which few personalities and even fewer policies have changed since the uprising – and seems to be hell-bent on changing as little as possible, if not reversing the changes which occurred since the ouster of Mubarak.
The big question has always been: do the military simply want to secure their interests (which, economically, are vast), or do they no longer trust that a civilian administration and the Ministry of Interior (which grew much stronger under Mubarak) would respect those red lines? Certainly, in public the junta has been committed to a ‘transition’ towards a ‘civilian state’. In practice, however, the pattern of their actions is at the very best ambiguous – indeed, most observers are extremely sceptical about their proclaimed intentions, putting them down to ‘public opinion management’ alone.
The Internal Balance of Power
The security establishment as a whole is certainly as influential as it has ever been in Egypt, an influence which extends from security and policing, all the way into politics and economics. There is of course the Ministry of Interior discussed above, but the General Intelligence Service under Mourad Mouafi, successor to Omar Suleiman, also remains extremely influential in most aspects of Egyptian public life.
As far as political forces are concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood are often – and rightly – acknowledged as the best-organised and best-funded political force by far – although the gains by Salafi parties surprised everyone. There is little doubt that if the Brotherhood decided to take a confrontational stance against the security establishment, it would be impossible for the latter to maintain the façade of transition. This, however, is not the path the MB leadership has chosen – as they have done consistently over the past thirty years, they have opted for compromise in the hope that they will be allowed to share power. Having said that, at the forefront of the concerns for that leadership is certainly the initial cooperation with, and then oppression at the hands of the Nasser regime.
Salafists made considerable gains, but in Egypt’s confused parliamentary electoral process it is difficult to tell how much of their success is due to their policies, how much to their extensive funding, or other factors.
The groups with the least formal power include many which were at the forefront of the uprising. Liberal pro-democracy NGOs have come under sustained attack from all sides (last but not least, the ongoing persecution, including Western citizens). Independent trade unions have been absolutely vital both during the uprising and after it, and thus far are perhaps the best-organised force outside the political ‘mainstream’, but they were amongst the first to come under systematic attack by the military junta, which banned strikes and stigmatized union action as destabilizing the country. But the ‘lack’ of power for these groups needs to be qualified: these are the only groups that have consistently pushed for the original goals of the uprising, and one might say also that the very diligence with which they have been oppressed since Mubarak’s departure is an indication of just how much of a threat their agenda is to the elites in power (including the Brotherhood). Some of these groups do have the ability to mobilize and maintain a certain level of action, and could become a force to be reckoned with if they manage to build up a national movement with political consciousness. The independent labour movement in particular has proven this in the five-year cycle of strikes which preceded the January uprising.
The goal of the uprising was – and still is – a change in the way Egypt operates as a country. The people demanded the fall of the regime, that is to say not just Mubarak, not just the NDP, but of an entire system which exploited the poor and defenceless, both economically and politically. This was and remains the main goal: to build a more inclusive and representative society, both politically and economically.
There are several obstacles which stand in the way of this objective, but I would single out three: security sector reform, economic reform, and political representation. Aside from the question of security sector reform outlined above, there are other two issues – economic and political reform – are more headline-grabbing, but no less thorny.
At an economic level, the relative impoverishment of considerable portions of the population were worsened by the ‘liberalization’ policies pursued by the regime under Mubarak. While these policies increased GPD-measured growth rates and per capita growth, that wealth was regressively distributed, and purchasing power actually declined since 1997. Moreover, privatization, which ought to have led to liberalization, amounted to a kind of Russian-style ‘oligarchization’, which has little to do with liberalism.
Politically, Egypt’s old political class was both deeply corrupt and unrepresentative. This is the daunting task new MPs face: to actually represent the interests of their constituents. The new groups which have gained representation in parliament – particularly the Muslim Brotherhood – face a dilemma: at the moment, the easy way to achieve and hold on to power seems to be to cosy up to the military junta; but doing so would risk simply reproducing the old regime in a new guise, and therefore quite rightly alienate voters. On the other hand, successfully opposing the security establishment would require popular mobilisation and a common front with groups such as independent trade unions which were at the forefront of the January uprising, but which have very different political agendas.
Implications for Western policy
There is no doubt that Egypt remains strategically important to the US and to the EU, not least in connection with Israel/Palestine. But as was recently highlighted in a hearing of the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, the unwillingness to support the democratic process rather than the person in charge – Mubarak – has led to an impasse not unlike that of Iran in 1979: by supporting an autocrat, Western governments had alienated the population at large, putting them in the impossible situation of having to chose, now, between a military government which to all intents and purposes appears to be blackmailing the US, and a population all too aware of the uses to which Western financial support has been put in the past. The GCC stance wholly – if quietly – hostile to any real democratic transition only deepens the dilemma for Western capitals.
Both the EU and the US have been reviewing their policies since the uprisings, but the outcome looks rather dismally similar to its predecessors. In particular, while these policies proclaim concern with both political reform and economic inclusion, their suggestions for how to deal with this is ‘more free market’ – the very same ‘liberalization’ which brought greater poverty under Mubarak.
The problem the US, the EU, and its Member States face is that adapting its policies to recognise the demands of the uprising – fairer distribution of wealth and proper political representation – goes against the broad thrust of economic and political trends in Europe over the past thirty years. Ashton and Clinton may be ready to acknowledge the role of poverty in stoking the uprising and even the role of independent trade unions in Egypt and Tunisia, but it is politically impossible to reform democracy assistance and – more importantly – economic policies on the basis of fairer wealth redistribution, as this is of course precisely the opposite of what is being argued to be ‘necessary’ most notably in Greece, Italy, and the other ‘PIIGS’ countries, but also in France, Germany and the UK.