A Path to Democracy for Egypt?

Following the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in February 2011 during the Arab Spring, many Egyptians began to look forward to a seemingly bright, democratic future. But Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, came under fire for attempting to pass a new constitution his opponents charged would impose strict Islamic standards on the country. As a result, the Egyptian military launched an effective coup d’état, assuming control of the government while placing Morsi under arrest. Recent events, such as the killing of between 60 to 120 supporters of Morsi following clashes with the military forces, have cast a dark shadow over the country’s hopes for an end to authoritarian rule. In this post, I examine the possibility of a path to democracy for Egypt and what this path may look like.

Firstly, Egypt needs to undergo a true democratic transition. While it may have appeared that the fall of Mubarak and subsequent election of Morsi in free, fair and competitive elections was just such an event, the Egyptian military, the true “power behind the throne,” remained intact and retained its position in society. In order for a real transition to occur, then, the same people who protested against Mubarak must now put aside their differences and redirect their efforts toward bringing down the military apparatus that wields supreme power in the country. This concerted and unified effort on behalf of the Egyptian population would put pressure on the military leadership to leave power.

However, this could easily result in the outbreak of violence, as the army may use overwhelming force to remain in power. While it may not necessarily result in the obliteration of the entire opposition movement in the country, brutally suppressing the democracy movement could at least lead to a protracted and stalemated civil conflict (similar to the current situation in Syria), which would prolong the rule of the military apparatus and radicalize the population. This would undoubtedly damage the country’s democratic prospects in the short term.

In order to avoid this situation, the international community needs to take proactive steps. Major suppliers of the Egyptian military in the West should make any future aid or trade in military supplies conditional on the non-intervention of the military in civilian politics. Additionally, they should make it clear to generals that an escalation of repressive activities will not be tolerated and any further killings will result in significant sanctions. This could discourage the military from escalating the conflict, in contrast to the situation in Syria, where Moscow allegedly offered to support the Assad regime regardless of the violence required to do so.

In addition, the Egyptian Diaspora has a major role to play. Egyptian intellectuals and business people who have lived and/or grown up in democratic regimes will have to assist in the democratic transition. This would be similar to the work of expatriate dissidents in Czechoslovakia in 1989, whose involvement with, and support of, the Charter 77 movement was critical to the success of the country’s democratic transition and consolidation.

These three steps, then, although difficult, are crucial if Egypt is to undergo a true democratic transition. However, such a transition would only be the first precarious step on the road. After any successful transition, Egyptians on all sides of the political spectrum would need to recommit themselves to liberal democratic principles, and would need to resist the temptation to usher in an illiberal form of democracy that would impinge on the civil and religious rights of large portions of the country’s citizenry. While all this may sound like a daunting task, the events of 2011 have already shown that the Egyptian people, working together, can bring down a seemingly monolithic and impregnable regime. This, itself, should give those in the country faith that they have the ability to bring about a successful democratic transition.

Submitted by Michael Toomey


The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of Rutgers University or the Division of Global Affairs.

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