The futures of Egypt: the good, the bad and the ugly

Written on February 5, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in IE Humanities Center, International Relations

haizamBy Haizam Amirah, Associate Professor of Humanities at IE Business School

Theme: Egypt has undergone a frantic succession of political and social changes since January 2011. Today it is possible to envisage three different ‘futures’ for Egypt, described here as the good, the bad and the ugly.

Summary: Egypt is in a central position in the Arab world. Whatever happens there will have a substantial impact on the future of its wider neighbourhood. Three interconnected factors will determine its transition: the economy, security and its capacity for political and social integration. The main actors need to reach a consensus on basic issues that are essential to stabilising the country, salvaging the economy and pushing the democratic process forwards. The first half of 2014 will provide some clue as to which of the three ‘futures’ outlined here will be most likely.

Analysis: Three years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is in a state of profound uncertainty. The euphoria of world-wide resonance that emerged from Tahrir Square in January and February 2011 has given way to other moods, ranging from impatience and disenchantment to stupefaction and disappointment. In Egypt there are not too many people who look back at what has happened over the past 36 months with optimism. Even less optimistic are many of the foreign observers who have followed the events of the Egyptian transition and its continual upheavals, surprising twists and turns and too many serious collective mistakes.

Since 25 January 2011, Egypt has undergone a frantic succession of political and social changes, including: (1) the loss of fear that led the population to demand the overthrow of a President in 2011 and again in 2013; (2) the first democratic election of a head of state in the country’s history (June 2012); (3) the coming to power through the ballot box of an Islamist, Mohamed Morsi; (4) a military coup with considerable social support that deposed Morsi after just a year in office; (5) the drafting of two constitutions in only two years, neither of which was based on a consensus; (6) a bloody repression, including modern history’s biggest one-day massacre between Egyptians; (7) unprecedented levels of social polarisation; and (8) a rapid return to the old police-state methods that kept Mubarak in power for three decades.

Egypt’s turbulent transition has so far been marked by: (1) repeated changes in the rules of the game, in a mixture of improvisation and political interference of the courts, sometimes with a questionable legal basis; (2) the inability to reach a consensus on basic issues that would be essential to stabilising the country, salvaging the economy and pushing the democratic process forwards; and (3) a ‘zero-sum’ attitude among the main players (the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the state bureaucracy), according to which any improvement in the positions of one can only be achieved at the expense of the others.

To these difficulties, which are present in other transitions after decades of authoritarian rule, should be added other factors, such as the inability so far to create stable alliances with clear objectives that are shared by large segments of society, the emphasis on battles over identity (the role of sharia law, etc.) to the detriment of the discussions on the institutions and mechanisms that ensure good governance and, finally, the repetition of mistakes made by others in the recent past. One of these mistakes has been the drafting of constitutions that are far from providing a framework for coexistence that is both inclusive and widely accepted.

Egypt has devoted much energy and precious time in 2013 to internecine struggles for control over the ‘legitimacy’ necessary to impose conditions on opponents. Despite their sectarian and incompetent management, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood considered that their electoral victory, albeit with 51.7% of the vote, gave them the right to legislate at will, to be above the law and to impose a tailored constitution. The problem that Egypt now faces is that those who have taken over the country after Morsi’s overthrow also claim to possess the ‘legitimacy of the masses’ to approve laws that restrict rights, to draft a non-inclusive constitution and to impose a narrative of ‘fighting against terrorism’, which is blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole. This has been done even at the risk of such a generic accusation becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in the case of some of the Brotherhood’s members.

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