I know I should be writing about Israel or Turkey (and Turkey has plenty of interesting stuff going that I want to get to, particularly surrounding the elusive Fethullah Gülen and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s very public invitation for him to return), but I can’t stop watching what is going on in Egypt. Just as voting got underway yesterday in the second round of Egypt’s presidential election – voting which was hollowed out by the dismissal of parliament last week – the SCAF issued a constitutional declaration expanding the military’s powers over the president and the constitution writing process. Among other things, the SCAF gave itself veto power over any new constitutional elements proposed by the Constituent Assembly, which it has also given itself the power to appoint, and required the president to get its approval before going to war. In a nutshell, the SCAF essentially institutionalized its position as sitting above the rest of the political system with oversight of all relevant executive, legislative, and judicial bodies, and is unquestionably the highest power in the land irrespective of who the next or future presidents are. Some are looking at this as a preemptive strike against a Morsi presidency, and that may well have been the point, but these moves make democracy in Egypt an absolute and complete impossibility no matter how many free and fair elections take place down the road.
It’s worth thinking a little about why this is. This same issue comes up with regard to Iran, where people sometimes claim that Iran is a democracy or somehow more democratic than its Arab neighbors because it has an elected president and legislature with campaigns that feature genuine choices in the voting booth. This claim is utterly false. Despite its elections, Iran is not a democracy because even a minimalist electoral democracy is about much more than just elections, and Egypt today officially entered a pattern in which it too cannot attain democratic status unless the new constitutional provisions are discarded. Neither Iran nor Egypt have what is called vertical accountability, meaning that there is an unelected group that has a reserved domain of power and that stands above elected officials without being accountable to the electorate. In Iran that group is the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader, and in Egypt it is now the SCAF. The elected president of Egypt is subject to a military veto, and the military is accountable to nobody. Egypt can hold elections every four years that are unassailably free and fair with regular transfers of power between parties, and none of it will matter because Egypt will still not be democratic.
In a way, what has taken place in Egypt is a lot more problematic than the type of military coup seen in Turkey or Latin American countries during the latter half of the last century. When the military intervenes in politics to depose an elected civilian government, it often does whatever it feels needs to be done and then returns to the barracks. As was the case in Turkey, this did not mean that another coup would not happen in ten years, but at least in the interim civilian politics was given a chance, albeit with the omnipresent specter of the military hovering over the proceedings. In Egypt, however, the SCAF is not simply intervening in civilian politics; it is establishing a permanent military veto and permanent martial law that will exist in conjunction with civilian politics. Even if the military does not ever actively remove the president, the president cannot go to war without the SCAF’s approval or do anything to curb the military’s power to indiscriminately arrest civilians or remove SCAF oversight of the legislative process. This is more insidious than a temporary military coup, because it permanently cements the subordination of elected officials to unelected generals. As much as the military was preeminent under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, this is a step even farther, since now the military will be actively involved in governing. Nobody should fool themselves about what it means should Morsi actually be declared the winner of yesterday’s election; just because he wins and Shafiq – widely presumed to be the SCAF’s favored candidate – loses does not make for a triumph of democracy, or even a glimmer of hope. There is no democracy in Egypt, and that won’t be undone through the process of elections.
One final thought about Egypt and democratic transitions. For the last year and a half, it has been fashionable to talk about Egypt’s transition or Egypt’s emerging democracy. Neither of these terms was ever accurate. A democratic transition is a frustratingly nebulous concept, and there is no good way of measuring when one has actually occurred and a state has crossed some magic threshold. That said, there are a couple of baseline definitions one might use. One (from O’Donnell and Schmitter) is the interval between the original political regime and the one that replaces it. Did that ever happen in Egypt? To my mind, the answer is a resounding no. Mubarak is gone, but his regime never went anywhere. His defense minister and army chief of staff have been running Egypt under the guise of the SCAF, and his last prime minister just participated in a two man runoff to become the next president. That is not a regime change, or even a change of government. There has been no interval between political regimes in this case since the original regime has not been replaced or even deposed.
Another definition (from Przeworski) is that a transition has occurred once a state has arrived at the point where no actor can intervene to reverse the outcome of the formal political process, and the transfer of power occurs from a set of people to a set of rules. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that this ever occurred in Egypt post-January 2011. Clearly the military has stepped in on a number of occasions to reverse the outcome of formal politics, with yesterday and last week being only the latest and most egregious examples. Egypt has also not really come close to vesting power in a set of rules rather than in the SCAF. It is tempting to describe what has just taken place as an aborted transition, but that implies that a transition was in process against all evidence to the contrary. The old regime has been in power from the start, and just signaled that it has no intention of giving that power up, no matter who wants to call himself president of Egypt. There are lots of different definitions for what constitutes a democracy and plenty of vigorous debate over what is required, but as things stand today in Egypt, it is not a democracy and did not undergo even a limited transition, and pretending otherwise is an exercise in futility and false hope.