Egyptian democracy: as good as it gets
The first freely elected President of Egypt Mohamed Morsi named its first democratic Prime Minister Hesham Kandil on Tuesday, bringing the distressed country to a point where its corrupt military tyranny might also see the start of end. It was an auspicious moment, coming during the week marking the 60th anniversary of a revolt that overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk.
It has been a long journey but freedom and liberal democracy remain far distant. It is not clear yet whether democracy might be any less of despotism than the armed forces since 1952 or the monarchy before that. The fog arises because democracy might simply be a back door to narrow-minded Islamist rule.
Morsi has resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood and Kandil is not a Brotherhood member. A religious Muslim, his credentials are suspect for many since he was a minister in the cabinet appointed by Egypt’s military rulers after the people’s revolt of January 2011. Kandil is expected to form a cabinet soon but could be just a buffer for Morsi to deflect blame for submission to the ruling military’s demands.
Morsi has promised a national-unity government but he has already made clear that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will choose the Defense Minister. The optimistic revolutionaries who brought Mubarak’s downfall last year are still remote from power, though they are the only ones who deserve support from democrats around the world. They remain leaderless and without a coherent policy agenda compared with the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafists.
The military holds almost all the cards and has many political supporters who yearn for the rule of law and the stability needed to maintain order and drive prosperity. Because of its control over most of the reins of power, the SCAF is a formidable barrier to Islamist rule but it is no friend of liberal democrats. The liberal Arab Spring protagonists are in disarray and could rapidly be sidelined in the power struggle between the SCAF and Islamic sympathizers.
The underlying conflict is between traditionalists and modernizers. Morsi has pledged modernization but his hands are tied by both SCAF that prefers caution and his Islamic base, which cares more for piety than modernity. The monarchy had many faults but it brought modernization, including fewer women in veils, economic growth and more Egyptian influence in the Arab-speaking world. The military coup brought Gamel Abdel Nasser, an anti-capitalist who dismantled the monarchy’s economic gains, and was followed by ever more corrupt and despotic rulers.
Now the military’s reach extends over the economy, security services, legislature and judiciary. Foul rivalry is increasing among Islamists and between them and the military for the spoils of power. The current smog may lead to a still more corrupt and inefficient state.
Since the 1952 revolution, Egypt’s population has risen to over 80 million from some 20 million and it has fallen back in terms of several economic and social criteria. Some prominent analysts say the Egyptian economy and society have regressed, causing a psychology of defeatism despite the Arab Spring’s brave élan.
Mubarak’s ouster and his trial, unprecedented in the Arab world, were spectacular but it now appears that other generals used the Arab Spring to get rid of a thorn in their side. During his last decade in power, Mubarak started to cut off his long time coterie of generals from the levers of wealth and behind-the-scenes power. Those generals used the liberal revolutionaries as a tool to depose Mubarak and quietly tighten their grip on power while paying lip service to democratic practices. The liberals were then pushed aside to clear the political battleground for a face-off between the armed forces and Islamist interlopers.
Yet, Morsi’s resignation from the Muslim Brotherhood and his choice of a non-member as Prime Minister are reasons for optimism. His national-unity government might not be ideal for democracy but it will be the best sign of hope for the future. For the moment, that’s as good as it gets.