Q&A: What next for Arab democracy?

What does the overthrow of Egypt’s first elected president mean for the region’s future?

Army Egypt
Military intervention in the political sphere is rarely a positive force in the democratic process [EPA]

As the situation unfolds in Egypt, attention turns to the wider implications of military intervention. Jacob Powell speaks to Dr. Larbi Sadiki, a leading scholar in the field of Arab democratisation and a regular contributor to these pages. He has authored two critically acclaimed books on the issue: Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

Jacob Powell: Do you think Egypt is ready for democracy?

Larbi Sadiki: I think the question is not really answerable. The question should be: “where is the infrastructure in place to facilitate democracy?” Democracy is an open-ended game that gets developed over a long time. What we have seen since 2011, – the Egyptian people have the building blocks of democracy enacted through mostly peaceful people’s power displays. We should not engage the question through ‘exceptionalism’, relegating Egypt or Arabs to the realm of ‘non-democracy’, whatever that might be. For example, Chile had its setbacks and Pinochet toppled a democratically elected government in the mid 1970s – mostly with Western backing especially from the US. Several Latin American countries had similar experiences of democratic breakdown with the generals intervening to scupper democratic processes and purge democratic opposition. We cannot forget the Chavista and anti-Chavista In Venezuela. During 2002, Chavez was temporarily ousted by the army, and there were people protesting for and against him.

Closer to home, we cannot forget Algeria 1991-92 and the Palestinian elections of 2006. The common thread is that Islamists choosing the ballot box keep being toppled. The route to democracy is not linear. It is long, complex and fraught with obstacles, embracing both highs and lows. The journey to democracy, past and present, affirms this. I don’t really think Egyptians have something in their character that lends itself to inhospitality to democracy and democratisation.  Definitely, what has happened in Egypt has stunted a fledgling democratisation process. I’m pretty sure that the Egyptian people have the means to reclaim their power and restore the democratisation process. However, we cannot massage words about what has happened: a coup is a coup is a coup – be it one which, for now, has been triggered by massive public backing. It is naïve to think Arab uprisings have been solely popular affairs – armies are very much part of the machinations driving ousters of unwanted regimes and presidents, especially in Egypt.

JP: When asked, many Egyptians claim that Morsi was ousted because he failed to fullfill his promises in state-building. As far as democratisation goes, do you see those promises being fulfilled under the interim and future civilian governments?

LS: As I mentioned earlier, you need time for the democratisation process to gain momentum. Also, for people to acquire attitudinal behaviour, a situation the Egyptian people are going through. This ‘learning curve’ involves discussions and toleration of difference, so that people can be led by someone that is not ideologically like-minded, or have an adversarial political party lead them for a limited term until periodic elections take place again  – all of these are important steps in the right direction of democratisation. They are part and parcel of deepening and widening participation, contestation, confidence-building, the search for consensus, and for the ethical toolkit vital for the evolution of democracy and democratisation. Electoral processes, constitutional framing, or amendment processes, requires high-quality institutions and professionalism. For now, this is really problematic – not only in Egypt, but also in Tunisia and Libya. I guess what’s sad is that you wake up on July 4 and the world around you animated with ‘Arab Spring’ concepts, dreams, imagery, and actual gains completely turned topsy turvy! Indeed, on this unforgettable July 4, Arabs wake up to the shock that in their region, Israel is still the only democracy! And Iranians have just elected a new president and Arabs have toppled an elected president! The Orientalist imaginary and imagining of the Arab Middle East presents a dark spectre that will haunt the region and its peoples for some time. As the Arab world is struggling to handle democracy – there are questions and disappointments. However, we have to keep our wits about us and aver, in the face of adversity, that there is a silver lining in every cloud. For me, Tunisia is being given invaluable lessons –gratis – of how to stay the course and persist with democratisation.

JP: Some people claim the military’s decision to oust Morsi, scrap the constitution, and call for new elections was too extreme. Do you agree with that sentiment? What was the military’s rationale for their decision?

LS: I see it through the eyes of this political animal –  we are faced in a cultist political  sense with a classic contest between the two most powerful political machines in Egypt – the army and the Brotherhood. They have been at loggerheads, in constant rivalry, punctuated by confrontation, oppression and exclusion of the Ikhwan: this round is no different! However, the army is the most resourceful; it can expend the political process and summon them in motion.  That competition has been there for a long time. I don’t think we’re seeing the end of this competition. This is just a footnote in this long-standing history of rivalry. And when I talked to some people from the Muslim Brotherhood two weeks ago, they said they saw this coming – they feared that the army was going to take the centre stage. The Ikhwan are used to calamity, adversity: they thrive on this. Anyone who dismisses them so easily, knows very little about the Ikhwan – especially when this time they have a degree of legitimacy on their side, having following, legal status, electoral kudos, and popularity. The army has taken the bull by the horns on this occasion and ousted an elected president: this is extreme, by any standards. The generals will live to regret this, especially if they proceed to purge their leaders, victimise them, and may be even write laws to ban religious parties – that would alarm all Islamists. The Ikhwan, by the same token, could have been savvier, more responsive, and less secretive. Rome is not built in  days. They best bet now is to turn to the likes of Abdelomeneim Aboulfotouh, whom they excluded wrongly, Abu Alala Madi, Essam Soltan..etc – enlightened Ikhwan. Morsi has been a victim – with others leading him from behind. He should be released and regardless of how one feels about the events of the past 48 hours, freedom is freedom and values of liberty, sanctity of life, free speech, freedom from fear and oppression should apply to all regardless of creed, ideology, etc. El-Baradei should be the first to make the call for Morsi’s release. So far the musical chairs gathered around the army – minus the Islamist chair – would suggest approval of the anti-Ikhwan ‘purge’  if the freedoms El-Baradei, Sabbahi and Maher, among other champion,  are not demanded as inviolable rights for detained Islamist leaders.

JP: Are Salafist groups, such as al Nour, compatible with democracy?

LS: I think we have to make sure that we do not label Salafists in the way some Orientalists have been propagating. I think we have to champion diversity is vital for democratisation. So long as all play by the rules of the game – peaceful engagement, legality, compromise, pluralism, acceptance of electoral defeat. It is not a question of compatibility or incompatibility – cliché lines of questioning,; there will always be degrees of compatibility with democracy if the right intellectual resources, concepts, practices and processes are mobilised and deployed. Even with established democracies, we have lacunae as democracy is a continuum, and always delayed be it in varying degrees. Elected leaders make mistakes, even when they actually engage politics through full adherence to the legal and democratic rules of engagement. Morsi falls in this category – inexperienced but well-meaning. Pity for him, intentions is not sufficient in politics in a stage of Egyptian politics when people are emboldened by people’s power and take matters into their own hands if leaders fail them. The other link in the chain of transition I that people have not really thought about democratisation –  shared values are missing and the ‘cake of values’ is essential for entrenching civic virtue, democratic patriotism, fairness, power-sharing, and compromise. Had these civic traits been in abundance we would not have had the coup in Egypt or the bloodbath in Syria. Excluding opponents – through mal-distribution of power, discrimination or violence — plays an important role in hindering democratisation – the Muslim Brotherhood has committed colossal mistakes, such as excluding other groups from confidence-building and coalition-building. It is a lesson for other Islamists. Tunisian Islamists must now absorb this lesson and without delay make compromises – whilst strong, popular, and resourceful – and I expect this is what Ghannouchi will do – he is up to this task, am sure. 

JP: The June 30 Front has largely been characterised as a leftist opposition group – how valid is this claim?When elections come around, is fragmentation of this group inevitable?

LS: Definitely. The group is a hodge-podge. It is very diverse. While this is an incredible movement, opening wide-open the question of transition in Egypt, the revolt is partly a military movement, which was led by a single plan: to oust Morsi. There was no other grand vision. It is difficult to predict how well this bloc will do in the future civilian elections. It is a diffuse movement; there is no doubt about that. There are differences in leadership. El-Baradei, Sabbahi, or Maher belong to different brands of political schooling. They are united today – I doubt that they will remain united as the aftermath of the coup keeps on unfurling. Now they have to compete with one another – which is OK in politics so long as it is legal and peaceful. The significance of ‘Tammarrod’ lies in the potential for mobilisation around single-issue causes at a time of political fluidity and a great deal of disaffection. However, the army will have a say in whom it partners with even if – cosmetically – it returns to the barracks.  

JP: In an op-ed you published in Al Jazeera immediately preceding the coup, you wrote “The age of grand leaders has passed…leaderless-ness is what captures the imagination of the masses more so than the presence of fallible mortals at the apex of power.” But during the 48 hour ultimatum, Mohamed El-Baradei was nominated as the opposition spokesman, appeared with General Sisi on TV, and seems to be the leader of the opposition movement. Do these developments conflict with your statements?

LS: Definitely. Neither El-Baradei nor Sabbahi will be iconic leaders. One year in politics was too long for Morsi, and this could prove the same for succeeding politicians in Egypt and the Arab World at large. It is no longer about Who rules; rather, it is How people are ruled that matters in this midst of this most revolutionary moment. This is an age where people are perpetually dissatisfied with the status quo. The public mood, especially in Egypt, is too volatile. I’m definitely sticking to my guns – the age of iconic leaders has passed.The public square ethos is today the only force that drives change – in whatever direction – that has the last word, even I ephemerally, in the Arab Middle East…I guess, it is a question of ‘stay tuned for more’.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).