In the absence of a compromise and forces that can guarantee its terms, polarization can lead to bad outcomes, ranging in seriousness from Spain in 1982 to Turkey in 1980, and, most worryingly, Algeria in 1992, when the military regime’s nullification of an Islamist electoral victory touched off a prolonged and brutal civil war.
Although Egypt’s generals are by no means as threatened as their Algerian counterparts were in December 1991, they do have enough power to flip the tables. Depending on the outcome of the ongoing negotiations between SCAF and Morsi, the size of protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, and the degree of pressure from the international community, a deadly confrontation cannot be ruled out.
The most likely scenario, however, looks something like Turkey in 1980: an undemocratic, military-dominated outcome, but no serious bloodshed. In this scenario, the current constitutional assembly would be dissolved, and SCAF would form a new one to its liking. It would strongly influence the constitutional drafting process to enshrine its privileges. In other words, SCAF, not the elected president, would remain the dominant actor in Egyptian politics — an outcome likely to generate continuing resistance from pro-change forces.
The best outcome — resembling Spain in 1982 — is the most optimistic. After the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) won parliamentary elections and formed a government in October of that year, the right-wing military establishment accepted the new democratic rules of the game and foiled a coup attempt that sought to block the advance of the left. The PSOE also realigned the party along more moderate lines, renounced Marxist policies and led a comprehensive reform program — El Cambio (the change).
In Egypt, a similar scenario would enhance the prospects of democratic transition. However, the SCAF leadership shows no inclination to emulate the Spanish generals.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, for its part, usually takes a risk-averse, gradualist approach to crisis management. However, that approach would be hard to maintain when confronted by a revolutionary situation. Further progress toward democratization would require Morsi to keep intact the broad coalition of Islamists and non-Islamists that brought him to the fore — and to sustain its mobilization capacity in Tahrir and elsewhere.
Successful transitions from military to civilian rule in Turkey, Spain and elsewhere partly reflected sustained US and European support. However, perhaps more than that, Morsi will need tangible achievements on the economic and domestic-security fronts to shore up his legitimacy at home. Otherwise, Egypt’s generals will not be returning to their barracks anytime soon.
Omar Ashour is director of the Middle East Graduate Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, and visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
Copyright: Project Syndicate