Egypt: The More Things Change…

History has shown that elites share their power when faced with the prospect of losing it, as Egypt now shows.

Egyptian turmoil
The military junta of Egypt has been the ruler since 1952 [EPA]

Oxford, UK – The spectre of revolution was imminent. Rising food prices, unemployment and dissatisfaction with corrupt authoritarian regimes had all reached a boiling point, and within months the upheaval had shaken all corners of the continent. The year was 1848 and the countries in revolt were France, Italy, Austria, Bohemia, Hungary and the German states as well as a half dozen others that had not blossomed into full-fledged revolution. But after a few symbolic victories – Louis Philippe abdicated in France; Hungary achieved momentary independence from Austria – the uprisings were quashed and the old order resurrected once again. In the words of historian Peter Stearns, “the revolutions of 1848 were short and very nearly stillborn”.

And so too with many of the revolutions of 2011: Saudi Arabian troops crushed the democratic uprising in Bahrain, Yemen’s bid to unseat President Ali Abdullah Saleh quickly descended into chaos, and President Bashar al-Assad continues to put down protests in Syria with a force rivalled only by his father, the late Hafez al-Assad. Meanwhile, the execution-style killing of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya marked both the end of an old order and the beginning of a new one that is already characterised by familiar patterns of violence. Only Tunisia seems geared for an orderly transition.

But the revolution that has left the Old Guard in the best position to reassert itself – and upon which the success or failure of the revolutions of 2011 may well be judged – is Egypt’s January 25 uprising. On November 28, Egyptians are scheduled to cast their ballots in the first of three rounds of voting to determine the post-revolution parliament. What they will not do is vote in a parliament that has the power to do much of anything. Repression from state security services has returned with a vengeance. A pall of gloom has already set over Egypt in the face of running battles between protesters and the military police that has left at least 33 people dead since last week. In Egypt, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A real struggle is unfolding between the military and civilians. Members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt’s current governing body and the country’s de facto rulers since 1952, have already reneged on their pledge to transfer power to a civilian government. The generals have decided instead to “keep the power until we have a president”, in the words of Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Hegazy. In practice, this means that the SCAF will remain in power for at least another year.

The SCAF has also positioned itself to exert maximum control over Egypt’s constitution-writing process. When Egyptians overwhelmingly approved a constitutional referendum this March, they expected that a newly elected parliament and president would, within six months of taking office, appoint a 100-member assembly to draft a new constitution. But the SCAF has since unveiled a “charter of principles” investing itself with the authority to appoint 80 members of the constitutional assembly, leaving a mere 20 members to be chosen by democratically elected parliamentarians. The charter also dubs the SCAF protector of “constitutional legitimacy” and shields the military’s budget from parliamentary oversight.

Democratic discontent

The SCAF’s growing assertiveness has irked many activists, who are already lamenting a revolution lost in transition. But, to any observer of history, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Institutional change, as the failed revolutionaries of 1848 might have certified, tends to be incremental in nature. In fact, institutional persistence is often the norm, rather than an exception. History is replete with examples where seemingly radical institutional changes have turned out to be moments of transition, rather than moments of transformation. Indeed, neither the abolition of slavery in the United States nor the end of Apartheid in South Africa immediately broke the back of status quo. Elites have a remarkable tendency to endure, even in the face of radical reform. No surprise, then, revolutions can signal greater continuity than change.

The deeper explanation for such institutional inertia, according to MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard political scientist James Robinson, lies in the very composition of power in a society. Revolutions, they suggest in an American Economic Association (AEA) paper, can often lead simply to a reshuffling of de jure power, leaving unaltered the distribution of de facto power, defined more broadly to include the distribution of economic power and the ability to solve collective action. When viewed through this lens, Egypt’s current institutional paralysis appears less exceptional. Even as the political arena is opened to new and varied contestants, the distribution of economic power – a large part of which resides in the military – has not changed. Nor has control of the means of violence; the military, together with the Interior Ministry and the notorious State Security Investigations Service – recently reborn as the National Security Force – continues to pull the levers from behind the scenes. Meanwhile, Egypt’s role as a regional peacemaker that ensures significant flows of US foreign aid, further entrenches the military’s power.

And if the power structure that sustained Mubarak has not changed, neither have the means of preserving it. In September, the generals renewed Egypt’s decades-old emergency law, reconfirming the right of security forces to arrest and detain civilians without levying charges. The SCAF has also made use of Mubarak’s tried-and-tested strategy of “divide and conquer”. Thousands of political prisoners are still languishing in jails. On October 9, while military vehicles savagely ran down peaceful demonstrators who were protesting the torching of a church in Upper Egypt, state television announcers called on “honourable Egyptians” to defend the military from Christian thugs. Days later, the SCAF announced its intention to remain in power even after parliamentary elections are held. It seems that Egypt is moving not towards rule of law, but towards rule by disorder.

Revolution in Egypt, then – like the revolutions of 1848 – is perhaps best understood in the classical sense: a cyclical process in which one arrives back very near the starting place. But even if the SCAF’s rule bears an uncanny resemblance to Mubarakism, there is reason for some guarded optimism. The continuing protests at Tahrir Square are gradually tipping the scales against the ruling military junta. History tells us that governing elites are more willing to give strategic concessions when faced with the prospects of losing power. A new constitution and openly contested, multi-party elections – even if they are for a subordinate parliament – appear to be some of these concessions. Before and after the election, the onus is on political incumbents to gradually win more space from their military overlords – whether by persuasion or by protest. In the end, much will depend on a series of small battles between politicians, civil society and remnants of the ancien regime small battles with potentially enormous consequences for institutional change.

One such battle will undoubtedly be fought in the economic domain. Can Egypt’s rulers be persuaded to concede more than just political space? Can genuine economic reform take hold in the post-revolution era? Egypt’s economy has long been greased through revenues from foreign aid, tourism and remittances. There is a need now to create alternative streams of revenue through trade and private sector development. If spread widely, such revenues can help create a durable constituency for political reform and drive economic power away from the military, gradually subordinating it to civilian control.

But so far, political forces have not offered a concrete economic agenda – and this plays to the military’s advantage. Having never been an avid supporter of liberalisation in the first place, it can manipulate public opinion – already decidedly anti-business after the revolution – against genuine reforms that replace privilege with competition. In this less sanguine scenario, dictatorship may simply give way to democratic discontent.

Adeel Malik teaches development economics at the University of Oxford and is a fellow of St. Peter’s College, Oxford. Ty McCormick is a freelance journalist and Clarendon Scholar at Oxford. His coverage of the Egyptian election is supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting.