The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Americans have proven remarkably sympathetic to Egypt’s protests, which are now entering their third week. But in trying to make sense of a complex situation, most commentators have glossed over the varying demands of the opposition’s different elements.
Egypt’s reform factions share a belief in an orderly transition to representative government but reflect wildly divergent political ideologies. At the head of the movement stands Mohamed El Baradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and his National Association for Change. The NAC is not a legal political party but rather an umbrella group organized around El Baradei’s demands for an end to Egypt’s decades-long state of emergency and for the introduction of democratic and constitutional reforms. Although it is relatively small and not well organized it has recently gained popularity among Egyptians everywhere.
Groups that have rallied around the NAC include the April 6 Movement and Kefaya (Enough). For the last two years the April 6 Movement has organized demonstrations in support of workers’ rights and is now calling for increasing Egypt’s minimum wage. In 2008, it supported Egypt’s first major labor strikes in decades, in the industrial town of Mahalla, on the Nile Delta.
Kefaya -- founded in 2004 to protest Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s candidacy for yet another term -- wants the government to amend the constitution to liberalize the political system. Led by the leftist activist George Ishak, the former head of the country’s union of Catholic schools, it has blossomed into a coalition that includes leftists, liberals, and Islamists. It serves as an umbrella movement for protests against Mubarak’s continued rule and in favor of an independent judiciary.
These have been joined by the Khaled Said Group (named for a young blogger beaten to death by the Egyptian police), which advocates an end to police brutality across the country, and the March 9 Movement, which strives to make universities independent from state interference. The liberal El-Ghad party (led by Ayman Nour), the liberal Democratic Front (led by Osama Ghazali Harb), and the Nasserite Arab nationalist Karama party (led by Hamden El-Sabahi), have all called for a more democratic system. None of these groups is more than eight years old, and El Baradei’s NAC was formed only last year.
Meanwhile, the traditional parties and movements that have existed for most of the Mubarak era -- such as the liberal Wafd Party, the socialist National Progressive Union, and the Muslim Brotherhood -- continue to call for political reforms as they have for almost three decades. The Brotherhood is the best organized and funded of the three, and its status as an illegal but tolerated organization gives it more autonomy in its finances and internal structure. None of these groups instigated the protests in Egypt, but all have helped sustain them.
The most immediate disagreement among the protest groups is whether they should negotiate with the current regime or demand its ouster. Indeed, the protest movement began to splinter on February 1, when Mubarak announced that he would not run for office in September and would enter dialogue with opposition parties.
Over the past several days, the newly installed vice president and a former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, has been meeting with opposition leaders to persuade them to allow Mubarak to remain in office and carry out political reforms. The opposition groups disagree about whether they can compel the government to implement reform, given that country’s cabinet, parliament, and security forces are all still controlled by Mubarak. So some key elements of the opposition -- including El Baradei, Nour, Harb, and the protesters in Tahrir Square -- have refused the government’s plan of allowing the Mubarak regime to enact reforms at its own pace.
What will happen next is difficult to predict. Although the divisions among the opposition groups will have some effect on the outcome of the crisis, more attention has been focused on whether El Baradei would be a viable replacement for Mubarak than on how a political transformation might actually occur.
In spite of their radically different political visions, for the moment El Baradei and the Brotherhood remain part of the same coalition, leading some outsiders to fear the possibility of a Brotherhood-backed government led by El Baradei -- a scenario raising the specter of the 1979 Iranian revolution, when Islamists chose the renowned communist dissident Abolhassan Bani-Sadr as the country’s first president. The short-lived alliance served only to put a secular face on the theocracy in the making. Once Iran’s revolutionaries had seized control of the key institutions of the Iranian state, they sent Bani-sadr into exile.
In Egypt, however, the demands of the protestors and the specific role of opposition figures tell a different story. The protest movement has called primarily for liberalizing the political system rather than discarding it entirely. Initially, protestors and opposition leaders requested a government under which President Mubarak would actually remain in power to guarantee stability during a period of transition to democracy -- a stark contrast to the more rigid demands of the Iranian revolution.
For both the United States and the Egyptian people, the best-case scenario would be the emergence of a transitional government that would pave the way for the drafting of a pluralistic constitution and lay the groundwork for free and fair elections. This transitional unity government would include all political parties that accept democratic values and procedures. It would enact important reforms, such as ending the emergency laws, allowing new political parties, and ensuring freedom of speech -- thus leveling the playing field among the country’s political actors. New elections could take place once political movements take root. Along the same lines, El Baradei is currently proposing a temporary council of the presidency, a group of technocrats would overseeing the reforms that would culminate in a new constitution.
Yet there is a very real possibility -- perhaps even a modest likelihood -- that Egypt will go the way of Turkey in 1980, when a military coup overthrew the democratic government to ensure that communists did not exploit the country’s political turmoil to seize power. At that time, the military cooperated with interim civilian leaders and ultimately presided over a peaceful democratic transition. A new constitution was created in 1982, and elections were held in 1983.
In Egypt’s case, such a scenario would mean that the country’s widely respected military would temporarily occupy its presidency, to provide stability during the transition to democracy. In the optimal outcome, a neutral president (head of state) would be backed by the military, while a prime minister (head of government) would be chosen by the coalition of political opposition forces. Since no opposition leader wants to install another omnipotent president, the groups should be able to agree on a system under which no one office holds a monopoly on power.
In fact, this type of transition to parliamentary government has already happened in Egypt itself, under two previous constitutions. The 1923 constitution, adopted after the country achieved independence, was essentially parliamentary in nature. The 1954 constitution -- which was to have been implemented following the bloodless military coup that brought Mohammed Naghib to power -- was extraordinarily democratic. But Gamal Abdel Nasser, the military officer who became Egypt’s president, hijacked the process and installed the authoritarian regime that persists to this day.
With Egyptians of all ideologies now demonstrating an unparalleled desire for political self-determination, only a liberal democratic government will be able to create the space in which all factions can coexist. Such a regime would promote stability both within and beyond Egypt’s borders. It is also Egypt’s best hope for fostering the good governance that would enable the country’s economy to begin growing again. Sham reform lacking the support of most of the opposition, on the other hand, would produce sham stability.