Egypt’s Democracy Challenges: Military Today, Economy Tomorrow

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan

The Egyptian people aspire to fulfill their needs for individual emancipation, self assertion, the legitimate pursuit of their interests and the establishment of state institutions that enhance these interests. They expect democratic institutions to multiply opportunities and challenge the inherited discrimination that is based on race, religion and political orientation.

Democracy that leads to individual liberation must realize the legal interests of ordinary people as they see them, and at the same time the people of all backgrounds must recognize and accept the differences of other people and respect for diversity. If the Egyptians will succeed in making the transition, the military involvement in the politics should recede. Early phases of democratization will face fundamental problems in the process of building democratic institutions and tackling the challenges of economic reform. This is even more problematic in Egypt since the transition is controlled by the military. Regardless of the length of the military rule, the military always acts to protect its institutional interests and the military regimes limit political liberties and competition. 

As things stand today in Egypt, there is systematic optimism and pessimism. For the optimists, the revolution has inaugurated an era where the youth activists will keep pressure on the military to surrender the government to democratically elected civilian officials, with no chances of reversal. The popular sector groups that have succeeded in toppling the authoritarian regime have a great capacity to thwart the attempts to postpone the creation of liberal democratic institutions. The optimists also believe that post-Mubarak era, even under the stewardess of the military, will lead to a new epoch of justice, freedom and economic prosperity that benefits all with less corruption, patronage and nepotism.

For the pessimists, the military, an authoritarian institution, is viewed as a well entrenched arbitrary power rather than a transitional phase of the road to competitive rule. The military leaders protected the revolution but they have the power to shape the form of the future democratic institutions. The pessimists are suspicious that the upcoming changes will be just a facade, behind which authoritarian structures remain well entrenched. The perception is that the military rulers are engaged in efforts to demobilize the populace that overthrew the repressive regime. With the military tribunals in place, the military has accumulated all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary. This is viewed as tyrannical rule that has to be restrained by the peaceful popular pro-democracy activists. Past experience with the military left a legacy of cynicism and distrust by Egypt’s general public.

Majority of the Egyptians tolerated the populist-authoritarian rule of President Jamal Abdel-Nasser because millions of his constituency benefitted from the land reform at the cost of alienating privileged feudal landlords; he built the Aswan Dam that was financed by the Soviets; and workers in the public sector received high salaries and benefits. He created the military officers’ class and the state bourgeoisie class that comprised those who managed the socialist economy and the technicians who ran the public sector. Egypt’s socialist economy was overcommitted and under-producing but Nasser depended on foreign assistance to fill in the gap between supply and demand to meet the expectations of his constituency. Even in aftermath of 1967 war defeat and when Nasser offered his resignation, the masses poured into the streets calling Nasser back to power. But Nasser had succeeded in institutionalizing authoritarianism and weakening the opposition. The institutions he created have survived forty years after his death where the executive control passed routinely from one military officer to another. The Egyptians today do not want a repeat of a military rule! The success of Egypt’s democracy depends on whether its leaders can dislodge the old ruling class interests embedded within sectors of society that benefitted from the deposed regime.

The pessimists believe undemocratic actions of the military, that was part of the old ruling class, may resurface at any sign of crisis. Members of the military used deadly force against the peaceful Coptic demonstrators and the protesters who staged a peaceful rally in Tahrir Square demanding the military transfer authority to civilians faster and stop trying to control the drafting of a new constitution. Pro-democracy activists spent much of this year confronting the military over its repeated efforts at expanding its power over the transition process and the upcoming constitution.

The recent events in Egypt where peaceful demonstrators were killed or injured are either action of poorly trained military on dealing with protesters or by enemies of the revolution attacking protesters to provoke sectarian strife and undermine the revolution. This is even more painfully disappointing since it comes at the heels of the heroic peaceful rebellion against the repressive authoritarian regime by all sectors of society and during the first phase of the transition to democracy. The killing of the demonstrators suggests the need to speed the consolidation of Egypt’s emerging democracy to protect the rights of its citizenry. Democratic transition occurs only when each citizen or any group of citizens has the freedom of expression, including the freedom to criticize the conduct of government and the socio-economic system in which it is embedded.

There is fear of the incompleteness of the civilian supremacy in the future. The longer the military is in charge, the more difficult it will be to reduce its influence on many non-military areas after the transition to civilian rule. Reforms are needed for a take-off from the existing low point of the economic crisis and the “lost decades” of authoritarian rule and widespread corruption. The democratic government will be legitimized when the social and economic reforms are pursued effectively, the discretionary arbitrary power of the state is limited and the possibilities for the expansion of civil society are enhanced.

The staggering level of poverty, the unemployment, the gap dividing rich and poor and the social and economic inequalities post as a serious problem to democracy as the military rule. In the consolidated democracies, government’s legitimacy is measured by the state of economy. People under democracy demand full employment and sustainable economic growth to absorb the natural growth of the work force. The electorate holds the government accountable for economic stagnation or downturns.

It will take years of good planning to rebuild the Egyptian economy that has been destroyed by decades of corruption and state inefficiency and improve the living standards of the ordinary people that had been declining under Hosni Mubarak regime. In January 1977 riots that rampaged through the streets of Cairo and other cities protesting President Anwar Sadat’s reduction of subsidies on basic commodities, the estimated urban poverty in Egypt was 35%; the poverty today is more than 50%.

Once the transition is made, the new democratic government that is born in the wake of a bloody struggle will face pressure from new groups entering the political arena after a  long period of repression and from established private and public industrial and financial interests demanding reassurances.

The pro-democracy activists do not have to surrender their place in the national discourse. According to the Latin American sociologist Augusto Varas, “Democratization efforts must confront both the entrenched absolute powers that resist their eradication, as well as new forms of absolute powers.” Democracy will create conditions for the development of independent popular organizations that may resist efforts by the government to carry on certain political or economic policies. Workers under democracy enjoy the freedom to organize, protest and strike in reaction to particular economic grievances: unemployment, housing, inflation in prices of staples, declining wages and tax reform.

Protesting against the government policies is essential feature of democracy. Once the transition is achieved, Tahrir Square will have even more protesting crowds, and the police force have to learn how to protect the peaceful protesters.

– Hasan Afif El-Hasan is a political analyst. His latest book, Is The Two-State Solution Already Dead? (Algora Publishing, New York), now available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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