Transitional Politics in Egypt

The news that over 7,000 Egyptians have been tried in military courts since February raises important questions about the legitimacy of political authority in a post-Mubarak Egypt. Highly pertinent, such issues lie at the very heart of the debate surrounding the future of the political system. 4 months on, the legacy of the revolution remains in flux and the coming weeks will be crucial in determining whether we come to see those 18 days as a catalyst for genuine political change, or as the start of yet another elite-managed transfer of power.

A brief appraisal of their governing record so far may prove instructive here.

Although their narrative has been one of maintaining stability, the SCAF’s public posturing belies its own inaction. For example, their record on economic prosperity – one commonly cited reason for the ‘necessity’ of their rule – remains poor. For a start, unemployment continues to rise: some estimates suggest about 800,000 people have lost their jobs in the past three months. Furthermore, the SCAF’s attempts to mitigate the economic decline remains inadequate. The deployment of foreign currency reserves in order to prop up the Egyptian pound has only served to rapidly deplete those reserves with little success to show for it. If this trend accelerates, experts predict that Egypt could be left with almost no hard currency reserves by the end of the year. One likely consequence would then be market speculation and sales of pound-denominated holdings, plausibly leading to a currency collapse, and yet more economic and political turmoil.

Instead, it seems that the best chance for economic stability – an outcome that many crave – will come with the reform that (one hopes) will finally be enacted by the next government. As Jane Kinninmont points out, Egypt’s current economic problems have their roots in a deeper political malaise that requires institutional solutions. But how and when will the transition of power take place? The debate over when to hold elections continues to rage among the activist community. Although still a minority opinion among the wider population, the line of thought that prioritises constitutional reform over an immediate transfer of power seems to be gaining traction. However, this does raise questions as to who would determine the structure and contents of a new constitution. If the SCAF are not viewed as the legitimate authority to do so, then what is to say than another interim body would be?

Another common justification for a postponement of the elections relates to the strength of Egypt’s political parties. At present, it is believed that Islamist parties would be the largest beneficiaries of early elections. As the only political organisations that were able to operate in the Mubarak era – albeit under the constraints of sporadic and often immense repression – they remain best equipped to rally support at the ballot box. However, as Marc Lynch points out, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the ranks of Tahrir points to one of the greatest and most sharply contested legacies of the revolution: Who can legitimately claim to speak for the revolution? The loose coalition of youth activists and liberal politicians warn loudly that the Islamists might “hijack” the revolution. But the Muslim Brotherhood youth were in Tahrir as well, fighting hard. So were a wide coalition of workers, ordinary people, and the “Ultras” which have been receiving a bit of attention of late. Indeed, that diversity is precisely what made Tahrir so amazing. But if the Brothers were a key part of the assembled forces on Tahrir, then why do they not have equal claim on its legacy? Why should prominent and media-savvy young activists have a greater claim than the labor union leaders and ordinary people whose participation in the uprising helped it succeed where a decade of internet-led activism had mostly failed?

The success of the sort of representative democracy that western observers encourage did not occur over night. Rather than springing to life fully constituted, it emerged over centuries of political conflict and contestation. To manipulate the electoral process into favouring one particular strain of thought would seem reminiscent of the political stage-management for which both Mubarak and the SCAF have been criticised. Furthermore, arguments that justify postponement on this basis are rooted in the problematic assumption that democracy should only be measured by its substantive outcome. In a recent article,  Jillian Schwedler, Stacey Philbrick Yadav and Joshua Stacher offered an excellent deconstruction of this position:

Most people currently enjoying such choices elsewhere in the world would probably not agree that this is what is important about democracy, if it were put to them so starkly. Why do we herald choice when it comes to market practices, but evaluate outcomes when it comes to (other people’s) politics? The answer is the Islamists.

But as Issandr El Amrani argues, the postponement of elections could be used for more fruitful purposes. The extra time could, for example, see the authorities working towards the establishment of a more transparent electoral process:

Egypt’s referendum was held under a system in which it was impossible to ensure that people did not vote twice — staining thumbs with ink simply is not enough. Not enough is being done in both countries to ensure the electoral procedures are beyond reproach, and in Egypt there is too little consultation and transparency on the forthcoming electoral law. The governments of Egypt and Tunisia should be spending much of its time to make sure Egypt has the cleanest, most irreproachable election in its history.

For me, this remains the most compelling argument for any delay. A more transparent process would enhance the victors’ claim to legitimacy, ensuring the possibility of the sort of political stability that so many crave. It is this – and not the supposed steady hand of the SCAF – that will ultimately provide best chance for economic recovery. Not only are investors less likely to be deterred by the political uncertainty of a post-Mubarak Egypt, but the new government would have a more certain set of foundations upon which to build a new economic strategy. If elections are to be postponed, it should be for this reason, rather than out of ideological fears regarding the beneficiaries of an earlier polling day.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Just how ready are the Muslim Brotherhood? « leloveluck

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