12 February, 2011

After Mubarak: Part 1

I am writing on the day after Egypt's vice president, Omar Suleiman, announced that President Hosni Mubarak had resigned and handed power to what is basically a military junta. The situation in the country remains fluid, but I will nevertheless now attempt to sketch some likely future developments.

Mubarak's resignation does not represent a full democratic transition. The regime he headed basically remains in place. His former colleagues may be hoping that in throwing him to the wolves they can preserve their own positions of power. My feeling, however, is that they will not be able to succeed in this endeavour. If it becomes too obvious that they are just attempting to perpetuate themselves in power then the pressure for change will rise again. I see things in Egypt as developing a bit like they have been going in Tunisia, with initially mild reforms being followed by more far-reaching changes to the political system. My prediction is that Egypt will move inexorably towards fully competitive elections.

One thing I hope to see in Egypt is the dismantling of the Mukhabarat and thuggish security apparatus that was so in evidence during the period of protests. If the establishment faction remain able to haul in and torture opponents or send in street thugs against their political opponents then a full transition will not take place. It looks to me that the freedom protesters have grasped this point too, with their demands for an end to Egypt's interminable state of emergency marking a desire for a normal kind of politics where the secret police torturer has no place. Again, my feeling is that with the regime in retreat it will have to bow to the popular will in this area.

So, what will a democratic Egypt look like? One thing that will be interesting to see is whether the reform process just adds competitive elections into the existing constitutional setup, or if there is some attempt to sit back and think about what kind of political setup would best suit the country. I reckon the former is more likely, so Egypt will find itself with a directly elected and powerful president, and a prime minister responsible to an elected parliament – a new member of the family of semi-presidential nations. This is probably unfortunate – a purely parliamentary system of government might be more conducive to managing the democratic transition, as it avoids the concentration of power you get with executive presidents and the tiresome turf wars that can erupt between presidents and prime ministers; a parliamentary system would also require a more broadly based coalition government. However, the experience of transitions elsewhere is that people tend not to really think that much about institutional issues until well after a system has embedded itself, so I do not expect a purely parliamentary system to emerge.

Aside from institutional issues, there is the question of what political groupings will be influential in a post-transition Egypt. At the moment, Egypt has two big parties (the ruling National Democratic Party and Muslim Brotherhood) and a load of small parties. I suspect that unless it is forcibly dissolved, the NDP will remain a player in Egyptian politics, largely due to institutional inertia (I am partly basing this prediction on the continued existence of former communist parties in Eastern Europe after the transition there). However, neither the NDP or the Muslim Brotherhood is that well-placed to really dominate politics. The NDP is the old regime institutionalised, so it is hardly going to pick up mass support from a public eager for change. The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, is by its very nature not really in a position to pick up support from outside its core constituency. It also has an odd self-defeating streak that I will return to later. That seems to mean that the general reformist tendency that brought people out onto the streets is up for grabs. In the period before elections take place I expect to see parties and politicians emerging and scrambling to try and capture this elusive constituency.

From Hunting Monsters


kbrady@google.com said...

Good stuff, Ian. I like your analysis. I'm cautiously optimistic too given that the army seemed happy to let the protesters take control of the media (or at least take over the main TV stations). It's hard to have a permanent military coup without control of TV etc.

Dave Berry said...

What about the economy and the high level of youth unemployment?

ian said...

I'm glad you asked me that question, Dave. To be honest, I haven't a clue, but I have picked up the idea from elsewhere that people are less sulky about unemployment where they get to elect their leaders. It may be that future elected leaders in Egypt are more motivated to do the wherewithal to address the country's unemployment issues.