Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Andrew Arato on “Egypt’s Transformation: Revolution, Coup, Regime Change, or All of the above?”

Andrew Arato has kindly contributed the following post: “Egypt’s Transformation: Revolution, Coup, Regime Change, or All of the above?”:

Among those who believe that in the modern world democracy is a universal value, all have been inspired, amazed and totally convinced by the Egyptian democratic movement. It has accomplished the country’s liberation from its gerontocratic, kleptocratic, and personalistic dictatorship. Many recognize, however, that the task is half done at best: after liberation comes the hard task of creating free, democratic institutions.

Was Egypt’s liberation part of a genuine revolution? Until a few days ago, regime defenders both inside Egypt and outside were saying that they would tolerate nothing more than “reform”. But, are the events in Egypt a revolution in the sense of 1789, 1917, 1979 involving violent overthrow of old regimes, and the replacement of one sovereign authority by the organized forces of another. Or is it instead like the peaceful, velvet, self-limiting, negotiated revolutions of 1989-1990 in Central Europe or 1990s South Africa, where negotiations between old and new forces produced constitutional democratic outcomes? This hard to say, because while the impressive non-violence and self-discipline of the democratic movement belongs to the self limiting version, the military coup that actually put an end to Mubarak’s government fits in more with the classical version. Indeed, classical revolutions are always linked to coups—whatever their popular character. This is true whether one sees an existing institution like the Estates General in 1789, a civil vanguard with strong military forces like Lenin’s party in 1917, a religious vanguard like that of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, of the military itself as in Egypt in the early 1950s. Given the fact that one sees in Egypt both classical and “velvet” dimensions, it is important for the Egyptian people, ultimately, to determine, which dimension will become dominant. The fate of regime change depends on this choice: A coup led by the military that establishes the military as the controlling power over the nature, timing and forms of participation of the transition may very well block the road to regime change. The ousted Egyptian regime was a military dictatorship, and this is why a military coup could be so silent and so efficient: it had to remove only a few persons from positions of authority.

News reports make clear that a lot of Egyptians see this state of affairs very clearly. Many also realize that the social position of the top officer core makes it conservative. Some even hint that the top officers do not understand what democracy is, and see corruption alone as the problem that needs to be addressed. Few, however, realize that it is precisely the nature of the revolutionary rupture linked to a coup that has now put a specific body of people, the Supreme Military command in a position to speak without any legal limitations in the name of people as a whole or the state. This type of situation, by definition dangerous, is all the more dangerous when that body is a group of conservative military officers.

Historically, such situations have almost always given rise to revolutionary or military dictatorship. We should not expect this inevitably to occur under the watchful eyes of this very great movement and its sophisticated groups, as well as the wider world that has now become deeply interested in Egyptian democracy. There are three possible options that the all encompassing present jurisdiction of the Supreme Command will allow it to take:

  • #1: The conservative, reformist option. The high command can use its power and authority, but only to make the type of minimal changes already discussed while Mubarak was still in office. This would mean lifting the emergency that in any case can be maintained by other means when the ultimate power is in the hands of the military. It will entail making a few constitutional amendments and legal changes that would be submitted to parliament (the amendments will now be illegal with Mubarak gone, unless enough deputies of the old ruling party can be suitably coerced to sponsor them). It will involve also adding a few willing oppositional members as window dressing to an interim military led government. This road would aim at early elections, and the military would probably settle on a candidate to support. One drawback would be the need to admit international observers, and the possibility that the elections would be lost (as in Turkey in 1983 after a coup). A few constitutional changes would not, in that case, give enough guarantees to the gerontocratic top officer core, and its wealth.

  • #2: The radical, authoritarian option. The same power can be used to displace all existing institutions–as was suggested to Al Arabiya, but not later fully confirmed. This may appeal to some revolutionaries of the old stamp. However, they should be careful about dissolving parliament, junking the constitution and replacing the present government by a military led body. While these things need to happen for a transition of the type that El Baradei, among others, has demanded. It would not be good, however, if the sovereign will of one body replaced both the rules and the body that now has the legal right to change them. A full and complete interim constitution could be enacted this way, with or without token participation by experts or the masses, but it could result could in (a) overprotection for the armed forces and possibly undemocratic concessions to them, and (b) insufficient enforcement for those rules that are supposed to guarantee free and fair elections, democratic communications and participation. The world is full of authoritarian provisions, religious and secular, that the experts who do the drafting could imitate. Here too the goal would be to secure the election of a suitable candidate, but beyond that, to hobble any government that is elected against the will of the old power holders—something that happened, for example, in the first decade after Pinochet in Chile.

  • #3: The option of negotiated regime change. Just because a coup has occurred, and the classical revolutionary path seems to have commenced, this does not mean that the choice is irreversible. In Iraq, the United States carried out a much more through revolutionary alteration of power (without any legal legitimacy!) and attempted to impose a top-down constitution-making effort in producing the interim constitution. It was made to back down by the Shiite movement led by the Grand Ayatollah Sistani. I am hardly proposing that it will be a religious movement that would lead such a charge in Egypt. Indeed, I think the military could most easily accommodate religious demands under options 1 and 2, while still fighting the Brotherhood. This would, in fact, replicate a pattern already set by Mubarak. The need here, as in Iraq but more consistently and inclusively, would be to turn a (potentially) top-down, imposed process into a fully negotiated, participatory, open and legitimate process. We know the steps by which such a development has taken place in Central Europe, South Africa, and in a deformed version Iraq: negotiations, interim constitution, free elections, constitutional assembly under some limits, under supervision by a constitutional court, and either a provisional government of national unity, or a power-sharing executive council overseeing the arrangements. It is this scenario that would certainly lead to regime change, even as it has a chance to offer some guarantees (personal rather than institutional) to beneficiaries of the old regime.

I do not think the choice among these 3 options should be a difficult one for democrats. They should prefer #3. Unfortunately, the choice is also easy for the Supreme Command: #1 or #2 but not #3. The Supreme Command must be strongly pushed to accept something other than they prefer and accept the one option that will lead to regime change.


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