A revolution of reforms in Egypt?

Egyptians must find a way to transform a cultural revolution into a new mode of economic, social and political life.

More than a year after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, a programme to transform Egypt has yet to emerge [AFP]

Cambridge, MA – Outsiders have found it irresistible to offer agendas for reform to the nations of “the Arab Spring”, even as we struggle to understand the array of political forces, ideas and ambitions unleashed by a year of successful – and unsuccessful – protest.

Before we dream about agendas for reform, however, we should ask whether it is realistic to expect that much will change. In Egypt, more than a year on, these remain early days. The parliamentary elections have rearranged expectations and cast new players in new roles. The appointment of a committee to draft a constitution, a presidential election, the adoption of a constitution – these will all, of course, be significant steps in the nation’s political life.  

But changing a regime, like changing a nation’s political-economy, turns out to be a longer and more complicated endeavour – in Weber’s famous phrase “slow strong drilling through hard boards”. The forces that brought down Mubarak have not yet brought down his regime. They remain fragmented and lacking in institutional structure.  

Lack of change

A programme to transform the structure of the nation’s political and economic life has not emerged. For all the political drama of the last months, in large measure the military remains in charge, as it has been for more than fifty years, without institutional checks and balances or mechanisms for accountability. The economic and social opportunities and life strategies available for Egyptian citizens are little changed. The commanding heights of the nation’s economy remain dominated by the allocation of resources through off-budget or secret arrangements among the powerful rather than through an accountable public budgeting process. The nation’s resources continue to be distributed in large part as if the political powers needing to be satisfied remained those of the Mubarak era, despite the public humiliation of one or another kleptocrat from the old order.

Many hundreds or thousands of individuals spread across a population of more than 80 million, must find a way to transform a cultural revolution in the nation’s collective consciousness into a new mode of economic, social and political life.

As a result, it is reasonable today for outsiders to wonder whether the Egyptian regime can be changed, just as it was reasonable in early 2011 to suppose that President Mubarak would be able to manage and contain the demonstrations. Yet such worries underestimate the profound transformation in consciousness wrought by the experience of revolution for many Egyptians.

Millions of people believe things have changed, will change, and realise their collective potential. This is the key point: The collective self-image of an enormous number of Egyptians, from the secular elites to the traditional opposition, from the bourgeoisie to the unemployed labourer, has been transformed. Not everyone, of course, and not all the time. Consciousness is a fluid and mercurial thing at such times. But there is an opening for imagination, for personal and collective dreams and hopes, which was not there a month ago. Even if all the institutions remain the same, this will not be the same Egypt.

Whether it will be a better Egypt, whether their new hopes about themselves will be realised, remains to be seen. Much will depend upon how they take possession of the transition, define a common set of objectives for sustained reform, and maintain the momentum to get there. Many hundreds or thousands of individuals spread across a population of more than 80 million, must find a way to transform a cultural revolution in the nation’s collective consciousness into a new mode of economic, social and political life.

This requires more than constitutional change, elections or a savvy political programme. It requires a thorough transformation of the nation’s institutional life, from the security apparatus to the economy. Even the best parliament, the most liberal constitution, the most open and fair presidential election, may well leave all this untouched. It may indeed be a substitute for the hard drilling that will be necessary to change the regime.  

Besides momentum and a new consciousness of themselves, however, the agents of change in Egyptian society have one crucial advantage: The rulership has also had to re-evaluate. The military has been thrust into an unfamiliar role as rulers without a political front man, aware that the population’s expectations, self-confidence, and patience are altogether different than a year ago. The kleptocrats know that in some way they cannot foresee, they may be next. Their uneasiness is both a threat and an opportunity. The powers that need to be accommodated by off-budget deals have shifted – even if it is not yet clear that an economy that distributes the nation’s resources to ensure political peace through the open process of parliamentary budgeting and legislation can be built. Nevertheless, even if they remain in charge, this will not be the same military-industrial complex.

Transition to what?

Here we should take our cue from the demonstrators’ demands: bring “the system” down and replace it with a government and economy of institutions rather than individuals; with an open political and social culture; and with an equitable economic development strategy well designed to generate growth. The Egyptian revolution had its roots in aspirations for dignity, participation, and economic opportunity. Those who participated shared a common hunger for the respect that comes from economic and social potential for oneself and one’s family and freedom from arbitrary power in everyday life.  

We must remember that this was not only a Facebook-inspired revolution of urban youth in the centre of Cairo. Established religious communities and parties were there, as has been made clear by their political successes over the last year. The labour movement, nurtured in the now declining industries of the Nasser era, was there. It may be that the regime only truly came unglued when unrest spread to the industrial cities of Suez, Mahallah and Alexandria. The dramatic events of last year had roots not only in social media, but also in a decade of labour protest, which had generalised the experience of vulnerability to arbitrary state power across the working class.   

Realising the aspirations of such disparate constituencies will require more than constitutional reform, elections, or new leadership. It cannot be generated by schemes of transitional justice or the prosecution of those singled out as responsible for thirty years of stagnant political and economic life. In truth, millions of Egyptian citizens found ways to accommodate their lives to the old regime – that is part of what made their sudden collective determination to overthrow it so striking.

Completing the revolution will require a new social and economic bargain, reinforced by the creation of an open and responsible political culture and of an institutional structure capable of sustaining a sensible economic development strategy. It will require the establishment of social and institutional conditions capable of ensuring a vigorous culture of moral responsibility, open debate and accountability, as well as religious freedom.

As often in today’s heated-up media cycle, the Western media has rushed to give long-term meaning to very short-term events, statements, and personality shuffles. We should sit tight; it will take some time.

The early days

Looking back at other transitions – in Eastern Europe, in South Africa – we can see that what happens in early days, and how others interpret what happens, can make an enormous difference in the longer term. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to say just how. Large battles sometimes matter very little, while small things can lay down unexpected long-term pathways. Much done in the name of reform will doubtless be done to consolidate the status quo, just as stability now may turn out to be the long-term friend of real change. A new constitution will not be a new political order, anymore than an election will transform a politics of individuals into a political culture of institutions.

In such moments, time speeds up and it is difficult to evaluate what will be enduring, particularly from a distance. Will it be meaningful to remove – or reinforce – reference to sharia in the constitution? Would it mean more to change the way religion is registered as part of one’s identity in government documents and identity papers?


Whether such things are hotly debated – or completely ignored – we simply cannot know at this point which will turn out to be significant. As often in today’s heated-up media cycle, the Western media has rushed to give long-term meaning to very short-term events, statements, and personality shuffles. We should sit tight; it will take some time. From the outside, it is easy to misread the signs, to interpret them against old metrics, and to mistake forms for reality.

The Egyptian leadership is undoubtedly being buffeted from all sides by demands and recommendations about where to begin. After a year, the clamour, the disenchantment, and the resignation – along with the hope that nothing enduring will change – have all grown. At the same time, the “transition” process offers complex opportunities for existing and aspiring elites to jockey for position and struggle to improve their position for the next round.  

Signals are more significant than substance, and everyone is trying to send signals. The method, speed and extent of the proposed constitutional revision are signal, but not a plan for political reforms. The abolition – or reinforcement – of Article 2 of the old Constitution establishing principles of sharia as the main source of legislation is a signal, but will not establish the foundation for a cultural accommodation of religious life. Seizing assets, calling for prosecutions, and denouncing corruption are all signals, but not a plan for the transformation of Egypt’s dysfunctional and kleptocratic economy. In each case, everything will depend upon what happens later.

How will Article 2 – or its absence – be interpreted by judges? What will become of the judiciary itself? Will fighting corruption mean cleaning up procurement and reducing opportunities for private rent-seeking at the top, or will it mean a more equitable sharing of the nation’s wealth?  

This is the first part of a two-part series on reform in Egypt. The next segment will be published on May 22, 2012.

A version of this article was first published in Midan Masr.

David Kennedy is Manley O Hudson Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard Law School, where he teaches about law, governance and economic development.