Amr Hamzawy was a member of the Egyptian parliament from 2011 until the body was dissolved in 2012. He is a visiting scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. Michael McFaul, a former special assistant to President Obama at the National Security Council and former U.S. ambassador to Russia, is a Hoover fellow and director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford.
Five years after the Arab Spring, democracy seems a distant dream in the Middle East. Arab ruling elites, royal families, militaries, security services and some businesspeople welcome this outcome. Restoring stability, the argument goes, is more important than democracy.
Many Western governments have embraced this logic as well. Threatened as a result of state failure and an accompanying terrorist upsurge, U.S. and European officials now argue that the most urgent need in the Middle East is fighting the Islamic State and its affiliates — a fight that requires collaboration with autocratic rulers. Strengthening Arab autocrats — including, for some, even the mass murderer Bashar al-Assad — is an evil necessary to defeating the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and the rest of the region.
This logic is flawed. A return to supporting Arab autocrats may produce some short-term gains, but at the price of long-term disaster. Arab ruling elites and their Western supporters must resist the false promise of autocratic stability — not in the name of lofty ideas about democracy but simply in pursuit of stability. Incremental, political changes are the only way to prevent violent, radical changes in the future.
Aside from Tunisia, the Arab Spring did not produce the kind of regimes that we both hoped for in 2011. Lessons need to be learned, and mistakes must be studied, but it is naive to argue for a return to practices that predate 2011. Which is the more fanciful prediction: that Middle East autocracies will be stable and strong in 20 years or that these regimes will face new, bigger challenges in the coming two decades?
Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is celebrated as the place where restoration of autocracy has been most successful. To reestablish the culture of fear that was broken by Egyptian citizens in 2011, Egypt’s new authoritarian regime has enacted laws aimed at demonstrations and terrorism. Egyptians are bombarded with messages about the need to prioritize stability over human rights.
Egypt’s new autocracy, however, is not providing stability but sowing the seeds of even greater insecurity. Since the coup that brought him to power, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has prosecuted students, human rights activists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood , and at times even resorted to mass killing as a means to holding on to power. Egypt’s inhumane prisons are full, a well-known recipe for radicalization. Indiscriminate killing in the Sinai boosts Islamic State recruitment. Any regime that must rely on such methods is weak and unstable.
The regime also has failed to stabilize the economy. More than 22 million Egyptians live in poverty, the unemployment rate hovers around 13 percent and economic growth rates remain below 3 percent. Protests are on the rise, especially among students, workers and civil servants. Sissi’s repressive strategy for governing can work for a while, but not for years or decades. The regime lacks the sources of legitimacy that have sustained autocracies historically and in other parts of the world, such as economic growth, a monarchy or an ideology. Without reform, this system will fail.
The Egyptian regime and its external backers must pursue a new strategy for generating regime legitimacy: power-sharing. Full-blown democracy is not realistic right now. But political liberalization — opening up spaces for safe participation in politics — should be embraced.
First, the Egyptian regime should release the tens of thousands of political prisoners it is holding, some of whom have been jailed for the most trivial of offenses. Second, it should revoke the repressive security laws it has passed since 2013 and establish a framework for transitional justice, including establishing a truth-and-reconciliation commission and reforming the security services. Third, the regime should allow all actors to enter the political process, provided they credibly commit to rule of law and nonviolence and refrain from hate speech. Fourth, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the regime must hold parliamentary elections. Because of widescale vote-buying and low voter turnout in 2015, the newly constituted House of Representatives has little legitimacy. Only a new election can begin a slow, evolutionary process of restoring parliamentary legitimacy, which would be a first, small step toward checking presidential power.
Improbable? Maybe. But it is also the only plausible strategy for regime survival. For regime supporters, these incremental steps toward political liberalization would offer reduced societal tensions, enhanced governmental legitimacy and greater likelihood of long-term stability. For regime opponents, power-sharing with the government is the only way they can stop human rights violations, participate in politics again and gradually push for longer-term goals regarding the rotation of power, rule of law and democratizing civilian-military relations.
The alternative — doing nothing — guarantees more violence, greater radicalization and, eventually, the breakdown of the state. Small positive changes now can avoid big negative changes later in this most important country in the Arab world.
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