Can Egypt’s revolutionary coalition be resurrected?

Allies of ousted President Hosni Mubarak have benefited from divisions among backers of the 2011 revolution.

It remains unclear whether pro-democracy forces in Egypt will be able to unify to defeat entrenched interests [AFP]

Three years ago, a small group of young Egyptian activists set out to challenge the governing regime of President Hosni Mubarak, quickly creating a popular revolution that forced the long-serving autocrat from office. 

Those eighteen days of protests, initiating the January 25 Revolution, seemed to presage a fundamental transformation in Egyptian society toward a more democratic, inclusive and progressive future.

Regime stalwarts opposed to democracy, such as Egypt’s long-serving chief of military intelligence, Omar Suleiman, whom Mubarak tapped to serve as his vice-president shortly before his final resignation, however, continued to maintain that Egyptians were not ready for democracy. The catastrophic turn of events in Egypt began with the virtual collapse of the political process in November 2012 following President Morsi’s constitutional decrees. It reached its conclusion with the military coup of July 3, 2013, seemingly vindicating Omar Suleiman’s pessimistic assessment of Egyptians’ capacity for democracy.

No doubt, Egyptians lack a democratic culture, but that is hardly surprising in light of the past sixty years of authoritarian rule. And while they lack the economic affluence that is generally associated with stable democratic governance, recent social science research has cast doubt on the iron-clad nature of the relationship between national income and democratisation.

What is no doubt true, however, is that many influential individuals stood to lose from the prospect of a democratic Egypt. There were powerful interests which opposed a successful transition to democracy following Mubarak’s resignation.

The supporters of autocracy included some wealthy businessmen who profited from their relationship with the regime and the crony capitalism that emerged as Egypt implemented IMF-sponsored structural adjustment programmes.

Others, however, were members of the state bureaucracy who benefitted from the growing institutional autonomy they enjoyed in the waning years of Mubarak’s rule. Even relatively low-level bureaucrats were able to enjoy some benefits from state employment in the form of increased toleration for corruption, a fact that allowed them to extract a higher level of bribes from ordinary Egyptians than would be the case were the rule of law to be restored.

Internal divisions

The Mubarak coalition emerged from the Revolution, battered and bruised perhaps, but very much alive and determined to fight to retain their privileges. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about the Tahrir Coalition: Sharply divided by questions of national identity and national priorities, they quickly fell into mutual bickering over the nature of the post-Mubarak order. This infighting led to the constitutional crisis culminating in Morsi’s constitutional decree of November 2012 and the bruising battle over the 2012 Constitution.

More important than ideological divisions over identity and political disagreements over national priorities, however, was the relative absence of a balance of power within the various groups comprising the revolutionary camp. While the Muslim Brotherhood could not claim to represent a majority of the revolutionary camp, it was the best organised and most-disciplined group among the anti-Mubarak forces. It was able to compete successfully in parliamentary and presidential elections while other members of the revolutionary camp could only look on in dismay, as they appeared powerless to influence the course of the transition.

The non-Islamist wing of the revolution’s inability to compete, however, only had the paradoxical result of pushing them into the arms of the Mubarak coalition, which was quite willing to embrace them, at least as a fig leaf during the run up to June 30. But the willingness of the non-Islamist revolutionaries to make common cause with the old regime also had the effect of pushing the Muslim Brotherhood closer to the Salafis, a party that was to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood on questions of the religious identity and one which was fundamentally anti-Revolution.

The massive public protests of June 30, 2013 only confirmed what had already been obvious: The coalition that made the January 25 Revolution possible had been irretrievably ripped apart. The only remaining question was whether the old regime would limit its vengeance to the Muslim Brotherhood, or whether it would seek to avenge itself also against its non-Islamist opponents. The massacre at Rabaa al-Adawiyya on August 14, 2013 put to rest any doubts about the direction that post-coup Egypt would take: Security would dominate all other concerns, and no opposition would be tolerated. Recent arrests and convictions of prominent non-Islamist activists and indictments of public intellectuals sadly confirm that the course of political repression unleashed by the coup has yet to reach its climax.

State collapse?

The Mubarak coalition, despite the fact that it is the most coherent political force in Egypt three years after the revolution, is not likely to succeed in re-imposing its rule over the country for the very same reasons that it collapsed during the January 25 Revolution. Held together through a web of parasitic economic relationships, it cannot undertake the reforms necessary for Egypt to avert social catastrophe without destroying the very relationships that give their coalition its strength and coherence.

That does not mean, however, that the revolutionaries will necessarily win. There is another, more dire possibility: state collapse. This is an increasingly likely possibility as partially evidenced by the increasing boldness, lethality and regularity of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’ terrorist attacks. Only the reconstitution of the January 25 coalition can avert this outcome, but is such a development a realistic possibility?

I would be the last to argue that a reconstitution of the January 25 coalition is inevitable, or even likely, but assuming that it was, what would it need to do to avoid the errors of the first transition? First, there must be an immediate cessation of the mutual recriminations and demonisation of groups that are constituent elements of the January 25 Revolution, including, most prominently, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Second, all groups must agree to avoid constitutional politics for the time being, and instead focus their energies on a common platform of fiscal, institutional and economic reform. In order to accomplish these reforms, Egypt must take steps to elect a broadly representative parliament with sufficient powers to enact these changes.

Third, all groups in the coalition must forego direct action, like strikes, boycotts and protests, as their preferred mode of political action in favour of representative politics. The Egyptian people’s demand for stability is perfectly rational and reasonable. Unless the revolutionary coalition can show that they can restore order to the country and adopt and implement, in a deliberative, inclusive and transparent fashion, a meaningful reform agenda, they will again fail. In that event the January 25 Revolution will not be remembered as a turning point for a better future, but rather as the last gasps of a country on its death bed. 

Mohammad H. Fadel is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair for the Law and Economics of Islamic Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, which he joined in January 2006. Professor Fadel has published numerous articles in Islamic legal history, and Islam and liberalism.