Egyptian democracy 3.1?

The Muslim brotherhood in Egypt is currently feeling the full force of the repression apparatus of the military and economic elite. Sad to say, but the torture chambers will be busy at this very moment, demoralising the elected government and its core supporters. A sad week.

It’s been about 18 months since I last had a look at Egypt, at which point in time the situation was clear enough for me to make a call on my earlier prediction at the time of the ‘Arab spring’ to say that the old regime would re-constitute itself. My words then were:

“This is indeed exactly what has now happened: the army has put the torture chambers on full throttle in order to intimidate the urban youth. The elections have clearly shown that the largely uneducated and agricultural population has no appetite for supporting intellectuals in cities, and has gone for what they know, which is the muslim brotherhood, more radical muslims, the army, or some regional politician. …..

One is already seeing a grand bargain between the Muslim brotherhood and the regime: a further move towards religious austerity in exchange for no challenge to the economic parasitism of the army. Egypt will become a very dull place indeed……

A repressive regime is sitting centre-stage and is extending its economic tentacles, meaning that any business not belonging to the regime is fair game to predatory taxation, which in turn means economic growth will be slow for many years to come and parliament will quickly establish the pattern of doing what the commercially-minded children of the generals say in return for a slice of the crumbs. Dictatorship by democratic proxy.”

From that analysis 18 months ago till now, the situation has followed the script near perfectly: economic growth was indeed slow; the army indeed made its grand bargain with the Brotherhood in that its own budget and economic interests were kept outside of parliamentary oversight; there was indeed a general move towards Sharia-law; and the military-economic elite successfully rid itself of the more fervent members of the urban youth movement that started the revolution.

What did the Brotherhood do when in government? It, like some of the commentators on my post, thought it was more in charge than it really was. It challenged not only for control of the judicial apparatus (such as via the infamous presidential decree which would have made Morsi the next Egyptian dictator in that his decrees could no longer be challenged), but, more ominously for the true elite, was also trying to muscle in on business (despite earlier noises saying they were going to lie low). Its ever tighter control of the state media and hence purge of independent voices was one thing, but the Brotherhood really misunderstood its position when going after some big businessmen. As the Egypt Independent said in April:

“In late February the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority (EFSA) intervened to suspend a multi-billion dollar offer for Orascom’s Amsterdam-listed affiliate OCI NV to buy out the shares of the Cairo-listed company. The EFSA said it wanted more information about the transaction, which could result in Orascom being delisted from Cairo.

Then in early March, the government slapped a travel ban on Orascom chief executive Nassef Sawiris and his father Onsi Sawiris — two of the country’s most prominent businessmen — in a probe into alleged tax evasion by the company.

Later that month, authorities spooked the market by imposing a new tax covering investment gains on an offer by Qatar National Bank (QNB) to buy shares in National Societe Generale Bank (NSGB) — and telling shareholders about the tax only after they had agreed to sell.

These taxes and actions were not just ineffectual but, far more importantly, they showed the Brotherhood was trying to muscle in on the economic rents of the existing elites. That is why they are now in the torture chambers. The enemies they made of the liberal urban youth by means of suppressing speech and making Egypt more dull meant the army could get rid of them while being cheered on by the urban youth.

One should say that the military has been overly keen to get back into the act: after realising that it could not just give itself lots of parliamentary seats for free and after being seen to be a failure when it was briefly directly in charge itself in 2011, the army generals seem to have been chomping at the bits to have a go at the power structures of the Brotherhood. From the machismo of this takeover, witnessed for instance by the aerial shows it has organised the last few days over Cairo, it does appear that the generals were just waiting for an excuse to show who’s boss. If Morsi and his supporters had not been so headstrong and blind to their own weakness, the army might have had to let them carry on for another couple of years because the challenge to economic interests was pretty weak really, but it is clear that they were eager to intervene anyway.

What is going to happen in Egypt next? That’s fairly easy: there will be a Brotherhood 2.0. After all, the moderate and radical Islamists still make up the vast majority of the electorate so some new Brotherhood-like Islamic party will win the next elections and will probably be even more cautious about upsetting the elite’s hold on military and economic power than the Brotherhood already was. The same deal will be made between that new party and the military-economic elite and the same issues will arise.

Indeed, it is conceivable that we are going to see this cycle for some time to come in Egypt, just like in Turkey which saw a long succession in the 80s and 90s of Islamists parties being disbanded by the military, only to be reformed under another name, until finally one came along that was sufficiently well-organised, popular, and patient enough to finally break the hold of the military there. And that’s the optimistic scenario for Egypt!

As to the wider long-run politics of the region, there has been no real change in either the internal balance of power in the whole region (the one surprise for me has been that the Syrian regime has managed to hold on till now though the odds still look on for an eventual regime collapse), nor in the dynamics of the long-run Islamic-Christian conflict. Business as usual, really. Another sad week.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

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