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Middle East and North Africa

Egyptian democracy may face years of external meddling

When Hosni Mubarak was ousted from the Egyptian presidency in February of 2011, after nearly thirty years of rule, it surprised very few that the Muslim Brotherhood stepped forward to take charge. The MB may have been banned in 1948, but since then it has grown into an international juggernaut, providing educational and charitable services to many in Egypt who were not important or well connected enough to reap full benefits from the central government. The ruling National Democratic Party repeatedly struck out at the group, but all the while the MB was quietly gathering a loyal and growing base of supporters.

Thus, when frustration toward Mubarak and the NDP heated to a boiling point two years ago, leading to the former’s arrest and the latter’s dissolution, the MB had both the means and the motive to rise up and fill the power vacuum left behind. When the Democratic Alliance for Egypt, led by the MB-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, took a plurality of seats in the People’s Assembly, and FJP Chairman Mohamed Morsi was elected president, many murmured in trepidation at the thought of Egypt becoming more Islamist, but few were truly surprised at the outcome.

Hearkening back to the security of the MB’s position in 2011 makes the recent coup all the more surprising. But as if history is replaying itself, Egyptian citizens gathered in the millions to protest a seemingly corrupt and authoritarian leader, with the backing of the ever-powerful Egyptian Armed Forces, resulting in a new government within mere days. But unlike in 2011, when the MB was an obvious choice for the Egyptian people, there does not seem to be a well-established Egyptian civil society group with the means and popularity to take charge.

This does not bode particularly well for Egyptian democracy, which was only in its infancy at the time of this coup d’état. The new politicians in charge, acting president Adly Mansour and acting vice president Mohamed ElBaradei, are respected statesmen, but neither have a true, unified movement with which they are aligned. This may prove adequate in the short term, but when election season comes again, there are very few strong civil society groups that can engage in a rigorous fight at the polls. Unfortunately, years and decades of repression first from the NDP and then from Morsi culled any civil oppositional force except for general anti-government discontent. But who then, will be on the ballots?

If clear choices do not emerge organically within Egyptian civil society, we can count on external forces exerting their influence even more loudly than they have in the past. The most obvious one will be the Egyptian Armed Forces. (It may seem odd to characterize a domestic organization as an external force, but in democracies, militaries ostensibly operate outside of and subservient to a country’s government and democratic process.)

Of course, in Egypt, the military has already done plenty of meddling, including issuing the ultimatum to Morsi to step down that proved the final nail in his political coffin. Indeed, the Egyptian military actually founded the Egyptian state in its current iteration; with the Free Officers Movement overthrowing King Farouk bin Mohammed Ali in 1952. It is unlikely that this involvement will cease in the coming years. It does not seem likely that the Egyptian Armed Forces would dismantle the democratic system within Egypt when they have fought to protect it for the past two years, but it would not be surprising if the military continued to issue recommendations for political office and fill posts that needed to be filled, as they did with Mansour and ElBaradei.

Egypt can also expect an influx in foreign influence, so long as the absence of strong domestic civil society groups continues. After all, the Morsi regime was being funded partially by the government of Qatar, which may continue to support the MB. Now that the MB is out of office, anti-Brotherhood countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may work more vehemently to keep the group on the outs, while still supporting Islamist groups that do not delegitimize the Persian Gulf monarchies.

Perhaps a more stable option would be a group or a candidate supported by some combination of the Egyptian Armed Forces and the Republic of Turkey. Of course, currently Turkey is ruled by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish), both of whom were friendly with Morsi. But with vehement protests erupting all over Turkey this summer, the position of the AKP for the next election is tenuous, and it would not be at all surprising if the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP in Turkish) takes power in 2015. It may be that the CHP and the Egyptian Armed Forces, both being of a secular, pro-military persuasion, may, either overtly or covertly, become bedfellows by supporting the same secular, pro-military candidates or groups. If it occurs, this would likely anger Egypt’s Islamists, but this might fuel the creation of an anti-statist Islamist opposition, which may form into an actual functioning political party.

Egyptian citizens will likely spend many years being unhappy with their government. But at least since 2011, they have a legitimized avenue for expressing their angst, through mass protest. The trick will be for these problems to resolve themselves internally, within the contract between the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people themselves, and not with intervention from the military or foreign sources. Only time will tell how soon—and how successfully—Egyptian democracy will wrest itself from external influences and truly come into its own.

By Laura Gates

Source: The Economist, The New York Times

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