Thursday, 4 July 2013

Egypt: A Step Backwards or Forwards?

(Source: The Economist)

Now that Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi has been removed from his post by the Egyptian military after a year in office, people, politicians, and pundits both within Egypt and around the world are united only in their uncertainty as to what will happen next. 

Will this military coup (and yes, it is a coup, see Powell & Thyne 2011) lead to a new round of elections that offer more of a choice than the 2012 election,  where the only two options were the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood or Mubarak's former prime minister? Will a new Egyptian government have more legitimacy and the the ability to encourage a more inclusive economic and democratic development? Is this a blow to political Islam as both Tom Friedman and Syrian President Bashar al Assad) argue (and Morsi's supporters obviously dispute)? Is this as another indication of the political rise of the non-Islamist middle classes in the region from Turkey, Iran and more widely to Russia and Brazil?

Right now, there are clearly more questions than answers. As the glow of the Arab Spring faded and the war in Syria is well into its third year, an increasing number of observers are seeing what social scientists have seen occur in many other parts of the world--it is tough for countries that have long had autocratic personalists rulers to move to a more pluralistic and democratic society. 

Is democracy in retreat?

There are setbacks, but the overall trend (as you can see from the figure below) is towards democratic systems of governance. However the last few decades have also witnessed a growth in what are often called electoral authoritarian regimes or anocracies (the black line in the figure below).

                                (Source: Center for Systemic Peace)

More specifically, the takeaway message from the vast literature on democratization in divided or fragile states (that I am far from being an expert on, but see recent work by Andy Reynolds, Elizabeth Wood, Acemoglu and Robinson, and Benjamin Reilly) is that  (1) the democratization process takes time, (2) institutional design (e.g. writing constitutions and holding elections) and implementation (e.g. actual governing) are crucial, and (3) legitimacy is an essential but fragile flower.

The many ways of losing legitimacy

And in a little more than two years crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square have overturned two presidents who had lost legitimacy with a broad swath of Egyptian society. Overturning the first was arguable much harder and more eventful than the second. Mubarak had been in power for decades and had solidified economic and political power, while Morsi was elected with 52% of the vote against an opponent who represented the previous regime while non-Islamist parties were unable to put forward a consensus joint candidate. 

In the end a large number of people who voted for him have pushed back, in large part because President Morsi clearly did not govern as many expected. His tenure was marked by  a struggle with the military including in April 2012 suspending articles of the constitution that gave the military say in legislation and seized more power in November 2012 by declaring himself above oversight by the Supreme Constitutional Court. 

However probably most damaging to Morsi's chances of surviving his first term in office was the country's dire economic situation. As The Economist put it today:
“He did nothing to rescue the economy from looming collapse. The Egyptian pound and foreign exchange reserves have both dwindled, inflation is rising and unemployment among those under 24 is more than 40%. The IMF has despaired of agreeing on a big loan that would have opened the way to others. In the broiling summer heat, electricity cuts have become maddeningly frequent. Queues for petrol have lengthened. Farmers are often not being paid for their wheat. Crime has soared—the murder rate has tripled since the revolution.”
Thus part of the motivation for the size of the protests that led to Morsi's ouster. As many as 14 million of the county’s 82 million turned out against him (according to sources cited by The Economist)

Had Egypt become a democracy yet?

More broadly, the events occurring in Egypt in recent days highlights the importance of electoral integrity as well as governing roughly according to expectations. Most observers viewed Egypt's elections as having integrity, and by some measures this made Egypt a democracy. By other definitions like that of Cheibub, Ghandi and Vreeland (2010) it was not. Cheibub et al. required an alternation of power under identical election rules, something that is not likely to happen in the near future in Egypt. 

Is this alternation important? It depends. Botswana is considered a flourishing and well-governed multiparty democracy, but the Botswana Democratic Party has always held the reins of power having won more seats in every election since independence. Yet in Senegal when incumbent Abdou Diouf stepped down after losing elections in 2000, it was seen as crucial in consolidating Sengal's democratic tradition.

Watching, waiting, and learning

Meanwhile, aspiring political leaders in Egypt and abroad (including the region's Islamist groups) are watching. And an obvious conclusion for them to reach is that even if they do embrace democratic multiparty elections that meet international standards of electoral integrity their opponents can always use non-democratic means to subvert them. What will the Muslim Brotherhood take from this? They renounced violence in the 1970s, but if the moderates in the Brotherhood fall out of favor, extreme voices might grow louder, especially if the military handles the next few weeks in a heavy-handed manner. The arrest of Morsi and "entire presidential team" not to mention the arrest warrants for 300 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the shutdowns of several televisions stations is worrying.

The international community's response to Morsi's ouster will be crucial, although as Salon points out, these responses depend of course as much on domestic as international interests.The US could cut off the over US$1 billion in aid to Cairo, although some argue against it. Most have taken a wait and see approach as Adly Mahmud Mansur, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court takes power in Egypt and moves forward with new elections under the watchful eye of the military. The US will also likely try to stay out of Egyptian domestic politics.

And so, in the end, I come back to several of the takeaway messages of social science:  (1) the democratization process takes time, (2) institutional design and implementation are crucial, and (3) legitimacy is an essential but fragile flower. Egypt is clearly a case in point. The next few months will see whether a new or tweaked institutional structure and new leadership will be more successful than Mohamed Morsi during the 368 days he controlled Egypt.
-Rich Frank 

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