Sun, Oct 09, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Whither the Egyptian revolution?

Assisting Egypt’s transition requires patient, long-term engagement to promote liberal economic policies and democratic development

By Olin Wethington

Illustration: Lance Liu

Egypt’s revolution toppled a dictator in February, but the country’s future as a stable, functioning democracy remains uncertain. The West is, of course, limited in its ability to shape the transition process. Nonetheless, the potential for constructive influence remains considerable, and it should be responsive to those in Egypt who favor liberal ideas, democratic institutions and broad distribution of the benefits of economic development.

The upcoming parliamentary elections are but an early stage in a long — perhaps decades-long — struggle to define the new Egypt. Will Egypt gravitate toward Islamic theocracy or adopt a secular government that respects minority rights? Which economic policies — statist, liberal, or some combination of the two — will best ensure social justice and broad distribution of prosperity? Can civilian control of the military be established? Will the regional security structure formed around the US, Egypt and Israel survive?

The elections next month will not resolve these fundamental questions and whether a workable constitutional framework will develop is uncertain.

A parliamentary system of government will likely emerge — including a prime minister and a Cabinet — with the strong possibility that the presidency will be politically overshadowed, particularly if the presidential election is delayed. The central unknown is the composition of the ruling coalition.

It appears unlikely that a single party will emerge from the election with enough parliamentary seats to govern on its own. So a coalition government will be necessary. The political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood — the Freedom and Justice Party — currently is the best-organized party and may be in the strongest position to form a majority coalition, including Salafist elements.

By contrast, secular liberal parties have yet to develop effective organizations or project compelling visions for the future. Although sentiment favoring a secular state is considerable, a coalition that can serve as an alternative or counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood will be difficult to assemble.

In the near term, the most likely counterweight could be a liberal coalition with a heavy component of former members of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) — that is, those who have not been discredited by their association with Mubarak.

Election rules favor those who were organized before the revolution. Approximately one-third of the new parliament will comprise “non-party list” candidates. Established networks based on family, local loyalties and tribal affiliations will be key determinants in voting.

These circumstances may favor “non-party list” candidates associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the former National Democratic Party, particularly in rural Egypt.

Post-election shifts in the composition of coalitions could complicate the situation, making governance even more difficult. Power-sharing among coalition partners will be an intricate affair, including behind-the-scenes deals with the military, which will insist on measures to safeguard its interests.

The political atmosphere in Egypt remains volatile. Expectations of economic improvement are extremely high. The initial elected government may pay an early political price for failure.

The starting point for the West in trying to assist Egypt’s transition must be recognition that patient, long-term engagement will be required. The effectiveness of this engagement will depend primarily on the persuasiveness of the West’s policy prescriptions, rather than on the volume of financial assistance.

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