Egypt and the Arab Awakening: What Next?

Some cautionary notes on Egypt's prospects for democratic transition


Photo Credit: World Economic ForumWHILE the specific end game for Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak regime remains to be written, the prospect of some form of democratic transition in the Arab world is higher than ever.  Many are celebrating this as the long awaited Arab Awakening and a watershed in global history.  

To be sure, the emergence of a consolidated democratic regime in Egypt would be a cause of celebration. Democratic regimes allow for orderly and non-violent transfer of power, they institutionalize higher levels of transparency and accountability, and they mitigate against high levels of corruption.   They protect the rights of individuals and minorities through a system of laws and judicial checks on executive authority. Democracies also contribute to more stable international partnerships.  

Of course, consolidating a democratic transition is a complicated affair.   And before we get too far ahead of ourselves, a few cautionary notes are warranted.  While there has been impressive expansion in the number and quality of democracies in the past three decades of democratic transitions, the results have also been mixed with some very unequal outcomes.   We have seen setbacks and frustrations with several of the democratic transitions in Africa, post-Soviet states, the Balkans, and central Asia.  

In Egypt, the most often expressed concern is that we may see the emergence of an illiberal Islamist regime led by the Muslim Brotherhood.  Whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood would pose such a threat if it were to come to power is still open to debate.  But there are any of a number of illiberal elements that might take control – from counter-revolutionary security elites to new charismatic leaders – some of which might try to exploit fears of the rise of an Islamist regime to highjack the revolution for themselves. 

Democratic transitions are susceptible to the emergence of authoritarianism for a number of reasons. First, in countries that lack histories of democratic institutions, weak political parties, and limited experience with regular political contestation, new forms of political allegiance and identity have to emerge.  The easiest mobilization strategies revolve around religious, ethnic, or sectarian identity.  These identities tend to be more salient than identities rooted in political ideology, and they are susceptible to political exploitation and manipulation during high levels of fear and anxiety associated with the early days of a political transition.  

Second, a key vulnerability in democratic transitions is maintenance of public security.  From politically motivated vengeance, to looting, to vandalism, theft, and property destruction, criminal activity often increases during periods of political transitions.    The transitional government needs to be able to provide wide range of basic policing and security – from maintaining social order and cohesion to responding to routine criminal activities, coordinating traffic, and ensuring the rapid deployment of emergency services such as ambulances and fire brigades.  However, a challenge for these transitional governments is that they often must undertake some form of vetting process with the police and military -- the institutions responsible for public security – because they are often tied to the previous regime and responsible for past repression and corruption.  On the other hand, if the transitional government does not act quickly enough, public nostalgia for stability of the old regime can create conditions for counter-revolutionary forces to re-assert control.  

Third, democratic transitions often lead to weakening economic conditions in the short term. Routine economic activity is disrupted during transitions, leaving government employees, contracts, revenue collections, and expenditures all on hold or in limbo.  Meanwhile, political uncertainty alters consumption patterns and private sector behavior leading to shortages and price spikes.  Uncertainty also scares domestic and foreign investors.  Business and investment – and a return to some form of “new normal” – have to wait until there are clear signals from the new government over a wide range of economic policies including commercial laws, property rights, regulatory structures, and financial rules.   This can be particularly destabilizing when weak economic conditions contributed to the initial pressure for democratic reforms and the new government is unable to meet heightened public expectations.

These are just a few of the challenges of democratic consolidation.  Regardless of what happens next, Egypt will face tumultuous times ahead.  Democracy and market capitalism are not self-executing.  It is not simple as removing a tyrannical regime and celebrating natural aspirations of the people for freedom and liberty.   New institutions, laws, and norms have to be cultivated, and the process of doing this is often chaotic and messy. 

Still, there are reasons for cautious optimism in Egypt.  First, the protest movement is organic and widespread across the nation.  In addition, the country has a strong and vibrant emerging middle class – often a key indicator of successful democratic transitions. The middle class is participating in this opposition and has a vested interest in ousting a corrupt and repressive regime. Furthermore, the speed, breadth, and depth of this protest movement and the middle class participation reveal a capacity to mobilize against a future unchecked, corrupt, repressive rule.   The mere threat of such a future mobilization may well serve as a constraint on the direction of future governments.

Second, there are reasons to believe that both the Egyptian state and the economy are better-postured to pivot to democratic governance than many of the post-Soviet states and countries in sub-Saharan Africa. While corruption has been a significant problem, the country nonetheless has a public administration sector with an educated workforce with high levels of technical and administrative skills.   They staff key national institutions such as the public health system, the education system, transportation system, as well as municipal services that will provide essential services during the transitional process.  Furthermore, much of the economy is centered on small firms and entrepreneurs that can improvise and adjust to new economic conditions more quickly than large firms.  These small firms also offer the potential for controlling rising levels of unemployment during the transition. 

Finally, the military leadership is professionalized and has close ties to democratic militaries in the U.S. and Europe.  If sustained, its decision not to use force against the civilian population means the military will likely remain the most legitimate national institution during the transition.  If it supports the democratic transition, it would be a key moderating force against the rise of various illiberal factions.  It also has the capacity to step in and provide domestic security to ensure order. 

None of this mitigates the hard work that will be needed in the weeks and months to come. Brokering and negotiating constitutional reforms including the creation of a competent and independent judiciary and media, designing electoral institutions and procedures, allocating state resources, and discerning overall political power sharing during the transition will be very difficult.  Restoring a sense of optimism and political and economic opportunity for the nation’s population – especially its young people -- will be essential to protecting against radicalization.  Getting them off the streets and integrating them into a democratic transition will require state policies that target expansion of real economic opportunities for these young people.  

Much of the world is closely monitoring the situation in Egypt and there is a sense that we are in the middle of a major historical event.  That situation is being driven by demands for freedom and an end to thirty years of autocratic rule.  If they are met and Mubarak ends his rule, Egyptians and those of us in the rest of the world should celebrate, but then we must all make a commitment to the hard work needed in the months and years to come. 


Editor's Note: this essay supercedes an earlier, advance draft that was published in unedited form for the benefit of our readers.