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.

Two months since Egypt’s popular uprising forced Hosni Mubarak from power, democracy activists there are on the defensive.

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.”

Why democracy matters

But democracy is crucial to Egypt’s progress – both economic and social. Democracies in the developing world typically realize more rapid and sustained economic growth, superior health and education, wider access to opportunity, and greater stability than their autocratic counterparts.

Democracies do better not just because they hold elections – but because they create checks and balances on executive power. Successful democracies also ensure access to information. This enhances oversight, responsiveness, and self-correction.

Regrettably, democratic transitions that don’t make these substantive reforms don’t realize these economic benefits – and tend to remain mired in semi-authoritarianism.

How to achieve real change

Transforming entrenched norms is not a one-shot deal, though. To achieve fundamental change, Egyptian reformers need to create sustainable and focused structures. To do this, they should build on their strengths – their numbers and networks – which proved so influential during the protests to oust Mr. Mubarak. These efforts should aim to connect reformist groups from across Egyptian society to build as robust and resilient a coalition as possible.

Likewise, there can be no accountability without information. Reformers need to prioritize protections for a free press and citizen access to information, especially the Internet and social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Information enables informed debate and makes it possible for citizens to monitor government expenditures, assess leaders’ performance, and communicate their priorities. Information is also indispensible to transparency. Toward this end, the release of Mr. Nabil, the young imprisoned blogger, should be a first focal point of this effort.

A successful transition to democracy will also require disentangling the presently intertwined knot of political connections and economic opportunity. Among other things, this unwinding will mean streamlining the regulatory process governing new business start-ups in Egypt. Currently, it typically takes seven months to get a building permit according to the World Bank’s annual Doing Business surveys. Contract disputes take nearly three years, on average, to resolve.

Creating opportunities for politically independent (and young) entrepreneurs will tap a long dormant resource in Egyptian society – generating productivity gains that can create much-needed jobs. Business associations of small and medium-sized enterprises can also serve as a valuable counter-weight to established business and trade groups representing the status quo.

Starting point, not the finish line

None of these reforms will be easy. Encouragingly, though, experience shows that societies that can overcome initial obstacles to reform demonstrate a surprising degree of resilience. While setbacks are common, 80 percent resume a positive democratic trajectory.

Whether they realized it or not when they began, democratic reformers in Egypt are in for a marathon rather than a sprint. Reorienting themselves to this longer (and less exhilarating) horizon is imperative if genuine change is to be realized.

A revolution is the starting point, not the finish line, on the road to democracy.

Joseph Siegle is the director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. He is co-author of “The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace.” The views expressed here are his own.

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