More than a year after the Arab Spring, the world watches Egypt with great anticipation as this historic leader tries to become a democratic state. Not since the so-called third wave of democratization in 1970s has the world seen such a rapid succession of political upheaval in a relatively short period of time. A previous Globalization101.org analysis examined the significant logistical and economic difficulties facing the Arab Spring states as they reshaped themselves for the future. This analysis will look at deeper, more intrinsic struggles.
Egypt, as well as many of the other Arab Spring states, is experiencing the growing pains of democracy and the uncertainty of transition. In June 2012, Egypt selected the first freely-elected president in its history. This historic event was preceded by the country’s first open and free parliamentary elections. The outcome of these steps towards becoming a democracy will determine not only the new politics of the region, but also the identities of these new states.
There are major ideological differences amongst the leading parties who are competing not only for votes, but for the opportunity to instill their vision and priorities on this blank slate. Their progress will be monitored by social media activists, who helped spurred the Arab Spring revolutions. This news analysis will examine the sustainability of Egypt’s fragile democracy in light of the internal power struggles.
Recently Egyptians participated in their first truly free parliamentary and presidential elections. The results of these elections indicate a solid victory for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Both locally and abroad, many are concerned with the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power.
Internationally, many are worrying about the militant potential of the Brotherhood and their possible affiliation with and support of terrorist groups. The Brotherhood has been linked to the attempted assassination of President Gamal Abdul Nassar in 1954, which resulted in the initial banning of the group from political life. In addition, the philosophical writings of one of their early members serve as a major influence for other radical groups, such as Hamas and al-Qaeda. However, there is debate over how closely these groups and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are related.1
Domestically, many are concerned about potential violence between Egypt’s Muslim majority and the minority Christians and secularists. Despite the Army’s efforts to maintain calm, section violence is on the rise, according to the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report.2 These divisions have spilled over into the political realm. In Egyptian politics, there is a three-way power struggle among the 1) Islamist parties, 2) secular parties and 3) the established military and judicial systems.3 These divisions are found throughout the Arab world, though the Egyptian military is much more established than in some of the other Arab Spring countries, such as Tunisia and Libya, and, therefore, is a crucial element in the equation.
Theories on the stages of democracy espoused by Doh Chull Shin, author of “On the Third Wave of Democratization,” can be a useful tool for understanding Egypt’s challenges. Shin identified four rough stages that a revolution usually follows to before the home nations becomes a mature democracy.
The first stage starts when the authoritarian regime begins to lose its influence. Depending on how quickly the regime deteriorates, and the strength of the challengers, a state enters the second stage when it moves from the former autocratic regime to a democratic system. The transition though is not automatic. Regime institutions often exists side-by-side with new democratic institutions for a period of time. Following a transfer of power, democracies enter the third stage when political parties and institutions commit to the new democratic system. Many countries stay in this phase for a long time as political parties emerge and learn how to share power. The fourth stage is a mature democracy. Very few revolutionary movements reach the fourth stage because it takes a great deal of time to reach the level of mature democracy. Many democratic revolutions find themselves the victims of counter-revolutions during the second and third stages of development.
Until a revolution reaches the third stage, when parties are ready to commit to the democratic institutions, and the populace of the country has accepted the proposed democracy, the revolution is vulnerable. The transition from stage two to stage three is the most dangerous time because the groups involved in the revolution (both revolutionary and establishment) are trying to forge their way forward. This can lead to the democratic outcome desired by the revolutionaries, a counter-revolution, or even a backlash from regime hardliners.
Egypt is a country racked in the throes of a painful transition from stage two to stage three. Even as the march of democracy continues, there are fears that the military will seek to suppress the progress of the revolution. Others fear that once the Muslim Brotherhood is in power, they will curtail the rights of other religious groups. Can the Egyptian revolutionary movement reach a point where all parties have bought into the new democratic system?
The struggle for power in this fragile country is being translated into a fight amongst three governmental institutions: the military, the Supreme Constitutional Court and the new Parliament.
Parliamentary elections concluded in late 2011 creating the first freely elected, representative assembly in Egypt. The 508-member body, dominated by the Freedom and Justice Party-backed Democratic Alliance for Egypt coalition was scheduled to convene in June 2012. However, on the eve of the presidential election on June 16th and 18th, the Supreme Constitutional Court ordered the dissolution of the Parliament.4 In addition, the Court also struck down a law pushed by the Muslim Brotherhood that banned former high-level office holders during the Mubarak regime from holding office for a period of ten years.5
The timing of these events, on the eve of a presidential election, which Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi was expected to win, prompted dismay and suspicion amongst supporters of the revolution. Some regarded the action as a “coup.”6 The actions of the court and military council reveal the over-riding tensions within the Egyptian political environment. Some fear that the rulings together represent a move backwards, a step towards a new dictatorship. Others are concerned about the possibility of a strong Islamist state taking hold.
These concerns may not be unfounded, despite the relative calm associated with the current activities of the Muslim Brotherhood. After numerous confrontations with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) since the revolution, the Brotherhood-backed political groups seem to be trying to create a calmer atmosphere in the state.7 According to many, this is merely a smokescreen to allow the Brotherhood to put into effect a long-range plan for power.
In August 2010, Morsi mentioned to Eric Trager of the Washington Institute that, “Our policy is a long-term one, not a short term one.”8 This seems to indicate that on many fronts, the Brotherhood is inclined to be patient, playing a long-term game rather than work for tenuous short term gains.
In addition to the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is competition between the Brotherhood and the Salafi parties. The Salafis rose as the dominant challenger to the Muslim Brotherhood, winning nearly a quarter of the seats in the new Parliament. The Salafis practice a much more conservative style of Islam than the Brotherhood.9 All of these competing interests lead Egypt to a crossroads. Will it continue down the path to democracy or slide back into authoritarianism? What options do the citizens who were mobilized in the Tahrir Square revolution have to continue their march to democracy?
In the 20th century, television came into its own as a force for political change during the Vietnam War, as it brought home the horrors of war to citizens, inspiring years of violent protest and ultimately forcing the U.S. government to withdraw from Vietnam. In the 21st century, the events of the Arab Spring demonstrate how social media is poised to take the place of television as a motivator and medium. Social media programs were at the heart of the Arab Spring demonstrations, allowing a new generation of activists to communicate and coordinate on a scale unprecedented in prior revolutions where communication was limited by state controlled media.
“In the 21st century, the revolution may not be televised – but it likely will be tweeted, blogged, texted and organized on Facebook, recent experience suggests” claims an article by Catherine O’Donnell of the University of Washington.10 Faculty at the University of Washington analyzed gigabytes of Tweets, YouTube content and blog posts examining the role of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings.11 The study found that social media played a central role in the uprisings. The circumstance driving this ubiquity of social media is the explosion of information technology on a global scale. Use of personal computing devices has exploded across the regions of Africa, Asia and South America.12 This freedom of information and communication technology is the best ally of democratic activists going forward.
While first demonstrated as a political game-changer in the 2008 US presidential election,13 the power of social media was something quickly picked up by activists in the Arab Spring nations. Twitter was used to coordinate the operation of ten field hospitals in Cairo.14 Even now, over a year after the initial uprisings began, the Internet plays a central role in communication between besieged fighters in Syria and the outside world. These Internet and social-media based communications tools will be the best hope of those who wish to move democracy forward in Egypt. The ability to communicate anywhere may enable the pro-democracy elements in Egypt to keep the government honest and maintain their march to democracy.
If used correctly, as the democratic transition continues in Egypt, it will be demonstrated that democracy no long develops at the tip of a sword, or point of a gun, but rather at the tip of a thumb.
1 Bajoria, Jayshree. “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.” Council on Foreign Relations. June 25, 2012
2 Biddle, Jo. “Clinton scolds Egypt over violance against Copts.” Middle East Online. July 31, 2012.
3 Bishara, Marwan. “What went wrong in Egypt?” Al Jazeera. June 17, 2012.
4 Kirkpatrick, David. “Blow to Transition as Court Dissolves Egypt’s Parliament.” The New York Times. June 14, 2012.
5 Hill, Evan. “Brotherhood says Egypt uprising ‘overturned’.” Al Jazeera. June 15, 2012.
6 Kirkpatrick, David. “Blow to Transition as Court Dissolves Egypt’s Parliament.” The New York Times. June 14, 2012
7 Trager, Eric. “The Muslim Brotherhood’s Long Game: Egypt’s Ruling Party Plots Its Path to Power.” The Washington Institute. July 6, 2012.
9 Byman, Daniel and Zack Gold. “National Interest: The Salafi Awakening.” Council on Foreign Relations. June 28, 2012.
10 O’Donnell, Catherine. “New study quantifies use of social media in Arab Spring.” University of Washington. September 12, 2011
12 “Information Technology.” The Levin Institute, Globalization 101
13 “Technology and Media.” The Levin Institute, Globalization 101
14 “Social Media and the Arab Spring.” PRI. The World. December 16, 2011.