The second democracy wave in Egypt, Tahrir 2.0, triggered a military intervention to unseat the elected President Mohammed Morsi.  He was seen to have failed as president to overcome the polarized relations between Islamists and secularist political forces in Egypt.  Under his rule the economy deteriorated to the verge of meltdown causing further misery of an already impoverished population.  Something had to be done to break the deadlock.

The military intervention and the brutal use of force against pro-Morsi demonstrators have raised many questions.  Was it a military coup or a necessary intervention to unlock a political impasse which the political elite was unable to resolve?  Has democracy failed in Egypt and is the Arab spring dead?   Is it undemocratic to unseat an elected president?   The debate about these questions will rage on for quite some time and will most likely deepen the unproductive political divisions and postpone a much needed economic recovery of Egypt.

The important questions which need to be asked, is why the contending political forces in Egypt are not able to enter into a constructive discourse about the kind and shape of democracy that is needed to bring stability and prosperity to Egypt?  Why does the political leadership not rise above the occasion and ask what is in the best interest of Egypt rather than that of their parties?  Why do the political leaders not accept that the ‘winner-takes-all’ approach to politics, assumingly legitimized by winning elections, is counter-productive in a sharply divided society?

Following the Tahrir revolution of 2011, Egypt turned towards democracy but is not a democracy yet.  In much of the analysis and the international response to the events following the military intervention, it is assumed that Egypt is or was a democracy because elections were held.  In fact, after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt entered into a transition phase towards democracy.   The first step in that process was a contested amendment of the constitution, a contested electoral law and the organization of elections.  It was an elite pact negotiated behind closed doors between the military and the political leadership.  It did not carry the legitimacy of an open and inclusive consultative process with the involvement of the wider Egyptian society.

The cleavages in the political landscape of Egypt can be summarized along two axes:   the Islamists vs the secularists and the older generation vs the young modern generation.  The elite pacts have left out the young generation, the catalysts of the Tahrir revolutions.  Where the Islamists and secularists will need to find an accommodation, so needs the older generation to move beyond elite pacts and engage the young generation in a much more open political process.

The first thing the present interim president Mansour did was to decree another amended constitution for the months ahead.  He set a short time-table to amend this new constitution leading to a referendum in which Egyptians are expected to say ‘yes’ with fresh elections soon thereafter. His roadmap for returning to constitutional governance. This approach is consistent with the many voices in the international community urging for an early return to an elected government. But none of the steps taken by interim president Mansour have been endorsed by the new, young generation which organized Tahrir 2.0 and triggered the unseating of President Morsi.  They already voiced their concern this week.

The latest roadmap is, procedural, a copy of the roadmap followed after Tahrir 1.0. but this time with the Muslim Brotherhood side-lined.  It fails to recognize the need for a more inclusive process to obtain a stronger foundation for legitimate democratic governance in Egypt. It rushes too fast to elections, with the result that political leaders will be preoccupied once again with competition for power, adding to the polarization, rather than to look for an accommodation of their conflicting interests.

After decades of autocratic governance in Egypt, building democracy and democratic governance by necessity takes time.  Egypt needs an approach that recognizes the current period as a transitional period preferably governed by an inclusive government of national unity with a mandate to oversee a process of reconciliation and consensus-building about a new democratic dispensation and the accessory institutions.  The roadmap should stretch a period of 4 to 5 years with an interim constitution and parliament managing the transitional period.  The period should be used to find agreement about the basic tenets of Egyptian democracy and end with a widely accepted constitution agreed after an open consultative process.  This should then be followed by general elections based on that new constitutional framework.

The international community should be well advised to move beyond the focus on elections and to make a substantial investment in processes of accommodation and reconciliation, facilitating inclusive national dialogues that will create the space for Egyptians across the divides to engage in a conversation.  This would go a long way in securing domestic peace and stability which is so needed to attract investment for a much looked-for economic revival.

Roel von Meijenfeldt, July 12th, 2013