As we have seen in my first post, Egypt is now at a critical juncture. I make this judgment not with enduring cultural patterns, civilizational characteristics, religious fundamentalism, and the like, in mind, but with some fundamental facts about regime change and revolutions.
Under a dictatorship in its modern form, revolutions rarely can bring about a democratic transformation. Either they , as mere coups, will usher in only governmental change, or old or new elites, enabled by transitional dictatorships, will be able to renew authoritarian rule in new forms, under new legitimating ideologies. Since 1989, an immense amount of literature has shown that it is negotiated transitions based on compromise among many actors that have the best chance of establishing the guarantees require by constitutional government, that represents the actual threshold of regime change beyond dictatorships. It is very important that in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the East Germany and South Africa oppositions demanded not the fall of a government, but comprehensive negotiations concerning regime change: its timing, rules, procedures, and guarantees. The fall of governments of Gierek, Kadar, Zhivkov, Honnecker and P.W. Botha, was only a first step in each, an inner ruling party affair.
In Egypt, while there were important opposition groups they did not demand to jointly negotiate with the government. Even worse, a couple of them negotiated one by one with Mubarak’s men (the Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, or the latter’s adult branch). The initially clever strategy of celebrating the military also backfired: it partially re-legitimated the regime. When Mubarak’s last speech surprised the crowds, leaders like ElBaradei openly called for a military coup without claiming any role for the opposition in the transitional arrangements.
Yet it is not impossible or too late even now to graft a negotiating process onto the revolutionary coup. This happened even in Iraq, where the attempt of the American occupiers to impose a constitution failed under the challenge of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and where the method of constitution making adopted wound up resembling the two stage Central European/South African model, although it was a version deformed by all sorts of exclusions and irregularities. Accordingly, it would be possible to treat in Egypt, the current junta and its top down method of change similarly to the various efforts of Communist and other authoritarian governments to save regimes through reform from above. They should be forced to discover that this method cannot be legitimate unless it is fully negotiated with the widest possible inclusion of opposition actors. Using, for example, a roundtable approach, as described by Matynia in an earlier post on DC.
Fortunately, there should be several reasons why the reconstruction of the system of 1953 and after from above should not be easy this time:
First, the high level of mobilization of Egyptian society, and the sophistication of part of the grass roots: Undoubtedly many have understood the meaning of the coup within the revolution, and the military dictatorship that follows it. But challenging it too soon would have dramatically split society. The military is popular. So the right time to act would be when the Supreme Council of the Military, the true governing organ, undertakes unpopular actions, or fails to to carry out some key measures like the lifting of the emergency.
Second, conditions for organizing have undoubtedly improved. So while it was not easy before to create an umbrella organization of the main opposition groups, it should be much easier now. This should be done also because there may very well be a need to run a single oppositional candidate against a favored military candidate in presidential elections in what will remain a highly presidential system in the current amending scenario. Once formed, an umbrella organization of the type I have in mind has the right and duty to demand comprehensive and extended negotiations with the military government concerning the timing, procedures and guarantees of a democratic transition.
Third, the link between power and outcome is not absolute. Lenin was very surprised to lose free elections to a constituent assembly when his party already exercised dictatorship through the councils. Similarly, but on the right, General Kenan Evren was also highly surprised in Turkey after the coup of 1980 to lose an election in 1983 on behalf of the parties he favored, even as he banned the most popular leaders and parties. Thus even under the conditions of the present military dictatorship, it will be worthwhile to struggle for relatively fair and free elections under international monitoring.
Fourth, as the freedom struggles of other Arab countries influenced by Tunisia and Egypt continue, these can have democratizing effects on Egypt itself, especially if at least one country actually manages to break the threshold of regime change to constitutional rule. Today we cannot tell which country this will be, but Tunisia remains the prime candidate.
The events in Egypt should inspire us all (except for the Israeli right that is losing an enabler to go on without changing their rejectionist policies). We should not however suspend our critical tools when we examine the results. The project of creating a constitutional democracy in the largest Arab country is far from done, and we should realize that the very revolutionary form the country’s liberation has taken represents serious dangers to the possibility of a genuine democratic regime change. There are serious signs that the popular movement’s struggle may be frustrated, although the outcome is still open.