The Arab Spring has reached its first autumn, and it is still not clear whether Egypt will have a revolution. In my view, it hasn’t had one yet. The Mubarak family attempted a revolution of its own early in the year, replacing the military-business regime that has ruled the country since the 1950s with a dynastic dictatorship. The military beat that revolution back with the help of popular demonstrations; the Mubaraks are gone, but the military state at the core of Eygptian power since Nasser’s time lives on.
The most recent demonstrations in Tahrir Square are trying to change that. Both liberal and Islamic groups fear that the army will continue to rule by stuffing the parliament with cronies who have roots in the old regime. Those fears seem well judged; that is presumably exactly what those who rule Egypt hope to accomplish.
So far, what Turks would call the “deep state” of Egypt — the institutions and individuals who hold the real power, whatever that pretty constitution says — have been able to stave off a direct conflict between the military and the popular forces. My guess is that both sides know that at this point the military would win a direct battle for power and that public opinion, beyond the hard core of Islamists and liberals, would acquiesce. Egypt is not yet in a pre-revolutionary state.
What we are seeing in the streets of Cairo is less a revolution seeking to take shape than a haggling process. The leaders of the Egyptian political parties want to be able to choose all the parliamentary candidates through naming them to parliamentary lists. That would make party leaders the chief power brokers in a parliamentary regime. The military wants more MPs to be elected as individuals, weakening the parties and making it easier for the real powers in the country to manipulate the parliamentary process.
The party leaders argue, not without reason, that one of the banes of politics in developing, corruption-prone countries like Egypt is that MPs engage as freelance operators, selling their votes and allegiance for patronage and other favors. Creating stronger, more ideological parties is a way of fighting that trend. Mature democracies are characterized by parties that stand for something other than the selfish ambitions of political entrepreneurs; the fight to strengthen parties in Egypt is a fight for modern democracy.
There is some merit in this argument, and Egypt is not the only country where reformers have embraced strong party structures as a way to consolidate democracy. Giving party leaders the right to select candidates on the party list is a way of accomplishing that; members of parliament will have to vote as their parties wish or face the loss of their seats in the next election.
But party leaders’ motives are mixed. Power in Egyptian politics for some time to come will be inextricably linked to corruption; no doubt there are some sincere liberal and Islamic activists who intend to use their new power purely for the public good as they see it, but experience suggests that they will be significantly outnumbered by the hacks and timeservers who see political parties as money and patronage machines.
If party leaders have the power to select candidates, it will not so much eliminate corruption from Egyptian politics as centralize it. You will have to pay large bribes to party leaders to get what you want rather than sprinkling lots of smaller bribes among hungry MPs. The party barons will keep the reins of patronage and policy firmly in their hands, forcing young and hungry members of parliament to dance attendance and obey as they work their way up the party structures.
A cynic might see the current wave of demonstrations in Egypt as an attempt by the political party leaders to ensure that as much bribe money as possible flows through them in the future. Cynics are usually at least partly right, and it is very likely that some of the party leaders promoting a party list electoral procedure are well aware of the potential consequences. Others may be young and idealistic now, but if the new system is adopted and takes hold, it is quite likely that over time some of the young leaders will trade idealism for experience in the conventional way and make their peace with some of the less savory consequences of a party list electoral system.
But if cynics are rarely totally wrong, they almost always overstate their case. The fight over party list representation is not just an empty patronage fight; it is also a way to shift power to those who opposed the Mubarak regime; the leaders of the new political powers contending in Egypt today were mostly the “outs” under the old system. Building patronage machines under their control is a way to distance post-Mubarak Egyptian politics from the status quo ante.
This is, however, still a negotiation rather than a revolution. The Egyptian power system is accommodating itself to new realities and the distribution of power within the system is changing. But so far the changes in Egyptian politics are still fairly superficial — and the still-powerful forces behind the current system have every intention of keeping it that way. If it comes to that, the military can probably work pretty comfortably through party leaders; unless either the sincere Islamists or the idealistic liberals dominate the new parliament (unlikely), the deep state is likely to find politicians it can work with.
Incremental reform and slow change looks to be where Egypt is headed for the next little while. That is good news for Egypt’s friends and neighbors — and also good news for most of the Egyptian people. Revolutions in poor countries without many viable economic strategies are often both ugly and futile. Without reform, Egypt’s corrupt nexus of government and business will strangle economic growth and radicalize the people; with too much instability the economy will tank as tourists and foreign investors flee. The good news is that for now at least, Egypt seems to be on the middle path: reforming some of the worst abuses of the Mubarak system but not lurching off in directions that would bring long term harm to its growth prospects.
The bad news is that Egypt remains a heavily populated, resource poor country with a weak educational system and a deeply corrupt political organization. As I’ve written in earlier posts on this blog, Egypt has been trying — and failing– to modernize since Napoleon’s conquest in the late eighteenth century. It hasn’t succeeded yet, and so far the current moment of political unrest does not seem capable of changing Egypt’s historical arc. This is not the first time an idealistic generation of western educated, modern minded, patriotic youth from mostly elite backgrounds has tried to change Egypt; it is unlikely to be the last.