Contentious Politics in Egypt

Winner-take-all is not a sound foundation for a newly birthed democratic project. Unfortunately, it seems this is the direction the Egyptian revolution seems to be targeting. The Mubarak era was one in which the ruling party dispatched political and economic largess as it willed. Its legitimacy rested in the fact that it held power. President Morsi’s government shows no signs of reversing this trend. In fact, they seem all too willing to take up right where Mubarak left off – albeit with an electoral sheen.

This mode of contentious politics is all too prevalent in Africa and it leads to chronic instability and economic distress. It leads to life or death struggles at the ballot box as winning a majority ensures that one’s chosen political network gains access to state largess while those on the minority side are frozen out both politically and economically. At worst it can lead to situations as in Cote D’Ivoire, where Laurent Gbagbo refused to let go of his grip on power, instigating another round in a conflict long plaguing Ivorians. At best it can lead to a situation comparable to Zimbabwe, where a modicum of stability has been maintained by Robert Mugabe’s ability to maintain patronage networks in the face of economic difficulty. All too often politics devolves from an institutional framework to the street.

Egypt, somewhere between the two points illustrated above, is already in the street. Both those who support Morsi and those who oppose him have turned out on the street in the thousands. Street battles, attacks on political party offices, and other acts of violence are all too common. Neither party has been afraid to use whatever organs of the state wherein they have influence to do battle. Opposition parties have been all too willing to use the judiciary, largely stacked with Mubarak era holdouts, as a tool against the Brotherhood controlled government – first disbanding the parliament and then moving against the constitutional convention. One of the more dangerous precedents set appears to be Brotherhood supporters capturing and torturing opposition protestors and then handing them over to military or police for arrest or continued interrogation. It seems no questions are raised regarding the conditions of those detained or even why private actors are detaining people in the first place.

The idea that legitimacy rests solely on electoral success has long been debunked in democratization literature. Yet it persists. Surely, elections are a key plank in any democratic process, but without institutional capability and trust in those institutions, even when an opposing party is in power, elections cannot ensure legitimacy. Democracy is a process, not a result. Egypt’s democratic processes, on the other hand, have been deferred to presidential electoral results.

It may be years before any clear appraisal may be possible, but, for now, Egypt seems set for more instability.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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