Democracy pushback in Egypt: revolution was the starting point, not finish line
Democracy activists in Egypt are on the defensive after a series of authoritarian crackdowns. Pushback is a common trait of democratic transitions. Yet democratic reforms are vital if Egypt is to achieve real social and economic progress. Reformers must organize quickly, for the long-term.
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Earlier this week, 25-year-old Egyptian blogger, Maikel Nabil, was sentenced to three years in prison by a military tribunal for criticizing the military. Last weekend, army and police used tasers and batons to drive thousands of peaceful protesters from Tahrir Square in a pre-dawn raid, killing two. Hundreds of other activists have been arrested and tortured over the past month by the security forces. Nobel laureate and presidential candidate, Mohamed El-Baradei, faced organized harassment when he tried to vote in the recent constitutional referendum.
Pushback is, in fact, a common trait of democratic transitions. Individuals who have benefited from close ties to the previous regime have a lot to lose with genuine political change – and therefore have incentives to fight back. Yet democratic reforms are vital if Egypt is to break with its past. To achieve genuine democracy, therefore, Egyptian reformers need to organize quickly and for the long-term. Reform is a multi-year effort creating institutions that are representative, transparent, and accountable.
The current pattern of undemocratic actions is unfolding against the backdrop of Egypt’s Supreme Military Council setting parliamentary elections on an accelerated schedule for September. This timetable sharply favors established parties such as Mr. Mubarak’s long dominant National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. Many observers speculate that this schedule is a calculated move by Egypt’s military leaders to manage the country’s “revolution” with as little real change as possible.
Resistance to reform
Resistance to reform was similarly seen in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Indonesia, the Philippines, Chile, Brazil, and Nigeria, among others. In fact, over half of all democratic openings experience some backsliding in the early years of their transition. A third revert to autocracy.
In Egypt, in addition to the military, resistance is likely to come from insider networks that have controlled access to senior government positions, contracts, and capital. For decades, extensive patronage systems maintained loyalty. They have also fostered Egypt’s pervasive culture of corruption. This nexus between political and economic power has contributed to Egypt’s highly disproportionate concentration of wealth. The top 20 percent of the population control nearly half of all expenditures, while an estimated 43 percent live on less than $2 per day.
Given popular support for reform in Egypt, rearguard resistance will probably take place indirectly – through attempts to discredit the capacity and integrity of reformers and the viability of democracy in Egypt in general. Since the first three years of democratic transitions are typically marked by economic contraction, there will likely be plenty of opportunities to sour the public on the “false promise of Western democracy.”