Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

After the Arab Spring: Transitions and crisis of governability

By Mahmood Monshipouri

protest banner: "Down, down with the military"

Regime transition often presents crises of governability, rooted in the turbulence that permeates political and social change. This is especially true of transitions born of violent uprising and which involve disruptions to the state and economy.  Even democratic transitions, which tend to produce legitimate authority and respect for the rule of law and human rights, result in  upheaval, uncertainty, and counterrevolutionary resistance to reform.

Transitional periods and processes raise essential yet unresolved questions regarding the viability of the democratic process. A long view of history demonstrates that combating authoritarianism, deeply embedded patronage, endemic corruption, and the mismanagement of economy in fledgling, frail democracies is no easy task, and that the possibility of backsliding into a new form of illiberal democracy or traditional authoritarianism usually remains.  The struggling democracies of the post-Arab Spring era have found themselves entangled in such a historical trajectory.

From campaign to governing

protest banner: "Down, down with the military"

In the seven months since becoming Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammad Morsi has faced the difficulty of governing a country going through a democratic transition.  While he is ruling over a fractured and polarized society, his management of the country’s economy and politics in these difficult times has been woefully inadequate and inconsistent.  Economic and political pressures are building over Morsi’s head, as the well-being and stability of the nation have become a pivotal challenge for his regime’s survival.  If mishandled, the ongoing unrest and upheaval could irreparably erode confidence in the Egyptian state, raising the possibility that the military might once again step into civilian politics.

It is useful to remember that it was economic struggles that animated the revolution against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.  Now the Egyptian people are facing the reality that the economy is worse not better. Nabil Abdel-Fattah, director of Al-Ahram Center for Social and Historic Studies, writes that given Egypt’s dire economic predicament, there is danger of an eruption among the most underprivileged sectors of the population.  In fact, Abdel-Fattah notes, a “revolution of the hungry” may be imminent given the growing impoverishment of the urban and rural poor. (Al-Ahram, January 10-16, 2013:9).  A currency decline has raised concerns over the government’s ability to stabilize the economy. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings came at a time when Egypt was saddled with a huge debt ($35 billion), accumulated during Mubarak’s regime.  The country’s reserves have since dropped to $15 billion, in large part a result of the government’s attempts to avert further currency woes.

Is Egypt a failed state?

During my recent trip to Egypt, Gehad El-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood, argued in conversation that “Egypt is a failed state.”  He went on to say that “Today, 25 percent of the Egypt’s state budget is devoted to interest payments on the loans; one quarter of its budget is spent on subsidies, of which 80 percent is earmarked for subsidizing fuel and food; approximately one-fourth of the budget is devoted to government employees—nearly 7.5 million people work for the government; and finally, 25 percent of the state budget is devoted to other projects related to institution building and investment.”  Of particular note, he argued: “We have no choice but to accept the IMF’s offer of a $4.8 billion loan, while relying on foreign aid and loan from other countries.” Haddad was correct: the former is a precondition for the latter—that is to say that all private loans, foreign direct investment inflow, and other international aid are contingent upon the IMF’s approval.  “What is the alternative?” Haddad asked.

The major difficulty with Haddad’s position is that liberalized development has often led to the inequitable distribution of its benefits, substitution of high-skilled for low skilled workers, chronic high unemployment, low wages, and abusive labor practices, as evident in most cases involving developing countries.  Furthermore, it appears that Qatari financial assistance to Egypt, which has amounted to $5 billion, has thus far failed to restrain the decline of the country’s currency or mitigate the pressure on the Morsi administration for economic stability.

Politically, Morsi’s blatant attempts to shore up executive power came under great scrutiny when he faced vociferous opposition to the nation’s draft constitution in late 2012. Following the recent protests on the anniversary of the Port Said incident in which 74 people were killed in a soccer stadium, Morsi’s imposition of martial law on the three cities of Suez, Ismailiya, and Port Said points to a turn toward the adoption of authoritarian governance to maintain order and security.  This shift of policy has equally exposed the glaring contradictions of Morsi’s government which over the course of the last seven months has supported policies not broadly favored by the Egyptian public, while at the same time claiming to have built inclusive economic and political institutions.

Transforming the state identity

During an interview with a former adviser to President Morsi, I was reminded that Morsi has surrounded himself with many Muslim Brotherhood aides who often marginalize—and in most cases even dismiss—the voices of secular and liberal advisers by promoting a culture of “listen and obey.”  Morsi’s attempt to gradually, though not tactfully, transform the state identity from a secular one into an Islamic one has blown back to haunt him.  A nagging question persists: Where does Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood stand?

It appears that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, now represented by the Freedom and Justice Party, is less enthusiastic about following in the footsteps of its Turkish counterpart, the Justice and Development (AK) Party, which has blended a secular constitution with a pronounced socio-political Islamic identity. Morsi’s push for the constitutional referendum in December 2012, dramatically expanding presidential powers, did little to reinvigorate pursuit of the Turkish model.  Over the past two years, Egypt has witnessed protests, driven by movements for human dignity, economic security, and social justice, renewing an intense debate over the best way to respond to the demands of the broader majority of Egyptians.

The youth and street authority

"You can kill my body but you can't kill my spirit." Protest sign

Without doubt, the Morsi administration has failed to connect with young people, a requisite for the solidification of his country’s fragile democracy.  These recent protests, indigenous and local in nature, are being propelled largely by a lack of hope for economic recovery and political order.  Clearly, sustainable economic development and effective implementation of policies and programs capable of capturing this youthful momentum and energy within a democratic framework will remain a major challenge in the foreseeable future for Egypt.  For now, one of the most crucial challenges facing the Morsi administration is the lack of the proper and effective economic and political structure to drive democratic changes forward.

An alternative view holds that the spontaneous nature of street protests can be an asset for such youth movements by offering them a political voice, even one outside traditional democratic mechanisms.  This possibility, along with decentralization of information in the Internet age, renders poorly run and mismanaged governments vulnerable to wider public criticism and unrest.  Governments have often proven feeble and incompetent in coping with such spontaneous uprisings.  As Egypt attempts to move toward further modernization and democratization, its major urban areas cannot escape becoming an arena for dissent and social change.

To be sure, the Egyptian people have invested heavily in the transition process, and are prepared to deal with all of its attendant uncertainties.  Questions continue, however, about the pace of change and the extent to which such a transformation is likely to provoke violence.  In the last two weeks, more than 50 people have been killed in the clashes between street rebels and riot police.  Violence and further social discord are likely to occur over the issue of separation of power as well as the role of security forces and the military in post-revolutionary Egypt.  As noted above, democratic transitions can easily get derailed, leading to non-democratic actions, processes and outcomes, especially in their early stages.

Few transitional democracies have remained insulated from the political and socioeconomic shocks of unfolding changes, wherever they may have occurred.  Moreover, democratic transitions in the developing world may not always culminate in liberal-capitalist democracy.  If this is the case, one should not be dramatically troubled.  Egypt’s transition from revolution to democracy may take much longer than expected.  The initial democratization experiments in France, Germany, and Italy proved to be lengthy, drawn-out, and at times bloody.  Similarly, despite two decades of democratization in Eastern Europe since the early 1990s, the prospects for establishing full-fledged and genuine democratic systems are still far from positive.

Transitional uncertainties

While conducting research in Cairo this past January, I encountered a deeply divided nation leading me to believe that it could easily be five to ten years before Egypt emerges from political instability. In Syria, where a bloody civil war has engulfed the country, uncertainties about the future of the country and divisions within umbrella groups making up the opposition to Assad regime have challenged the ability of Western policymakers and analysts to predict the shape of the post-Assad era.  Whether Syria’s political opposition has sufficient credibility and stamina to stay the course and pose a credible threat to Assad regime and whether Islamists in the anti-Assad coalition are pragmatic and pro-Western remain unknown and far from guaranteed.

More recently, in Tunisia, known as the birthplace of the recent democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa and a country that offered the best prospects for democratization of all the Arab countries, the assassination of Chokri Belaid, Secretary-General of the Unified Democratic Patriots Party and General Coordinator of the People's Front, an outspoken critic of the Islamist party Ennahda, has led to a renewed outburst of violence the like of which not seen since the ouster two years ago of the autocratic leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.  This violent act and the tumultuous response pose a serious threat to the democratic process underway in Tunisia.

Will Tunisia descent into chaos and further political violence in the coming weeks and months? Would further tumult affect Tunisia’s neighboring countries? Should the United States support the rising Islamists in the region?  The worries of the Egyptian secular opposition groups were heightened in the aftermath of a recent fatwa issued by Mahmoud Shaaban, a hardline Egyptian cleric, who stated that “opponents of President Mohamed Morsi should be killed.” The fatwa, which specifically cited Mohamed ElBaradei, a leader of Egypt’s largest secular-nationalist opposition bloc known as the National Salvation Front, was clearly aimed to mute and incapacitate opposition political groups.

Albeit in an entirely different context, the attacks on the US diplomatic mission at Benghazi, Libya, which led to the killing of US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, have raised serious questions about US foreign policy toward the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, as well as the political impact of this incident on the upcoming elections in Libya.  Should the United States support Islamist groups in Libya during this transition period?  Given that Islamists are key political forces and are likely poised to play an important role in the nation-building process in Libya, this question has led to intense debate in Washington. US foreign policymakers need to keep this cast of political actors in proper perspective, while carefully evaluating the backdrop against which future decisions must be made vis-à-vis these turbulent transitions.  It has become increasingly difficult for Washington to ignore the reality of dealing with reformist Islamists who have won elections in their countries, even if they may not accept the principles of liberal democracy.

The fight for democracy and the enunciation of the rights of the public is a noble purpose, one that often demands activism and sacrifice.  No one should be under the illusion that the struggle for democratic change and reform in the Middle East and North Africa — and for that matter in any other region of the world caught in such a transition—will be risk free, nonviolent, or enduring in the coming years, but hope is a necessity in order to maintain stable progress in a country’s youthful aspirations for change.

 Mahmood Monshipouri, Ph.D., is Visiting Associate Professor, UC-Berkeley, International and Areas Studies (mmonship@Berkeley.edu, 510-643-5304).  Monshipouri is the author of a forthcoming book, Democratic Uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa: Youth, Technology, Human Rights, and US Foreign Policy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, possible publication date: September 2013).