Much has been written about the euphoria surrounding the ousting of Mubarak and the reality of making reforms work in the post-Mubarak era. The lesson that democracy is not built overnight is also frequently brought up.
The importance of institutions – not individuals – in shaping political and economic outcomes in Egypt, however, often escapes the headlines.
While many were fascinated with the trial of Mubarak (at one point televised live), in order to understand what’s really happening in the country one must look at the incentive structures that guide the behavior of decision-makers.
At a first glance, the recent news doesn’t quite make sense. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), according to some reports, has tried more than 12,000 civilians in less than a year since Mubarak stepped down. Mubarak, on the other hand, initiated only around 2,000 trials of his civilian political opposition in military courts…over the entire course of his three decades in power.
While officials cite the emergency law for bringing so many people to trial in military courts, the legal basis of such reasoning is questioned by activists.
Yet a larger point looms behind the story: the military is not meeting the expectations for greater democracy, openness, and freedom that were in part the driving forces of public frustration expressed so loudly in Tahrir square. SCAF is jailing bloggers, civil society activists, and pro-democracy demonstrators.
There are reasons for that.
In their Foreign Affairs article, Jeff Martini and Julie Taylor address the incentives that drive the military’s decision-making and the reasons behind its “ambivalence toward democracy.”
While the military has pledged to move towards democracy and remain under civilian control over the longer term, its main priority, the authors argue, is not to build a full-fledged democracy in the country.
Instead, the goal is to pass power to a civilian government in order to avoid being blamed for Egypt’s ongoing socio-economic struggles. Image matters in Egypt, especially for the military. Moreover, in transitioning to a civilian government, a strong belief in democracy is not the guiding principle; that guiding principle is protecting its own “power and perks.”
One way the military has tried to maintain control of the political scene going forward has been to build influence in local governorships. Indeed, the number of governors related to former military or security officers has increased in the past few months. Governors are appointed, not elected, and may become a tool for distributing favors and building alliances that can withstand the test of time.
Yet, while reading about arrests of democracy activists may be discouraging, there are indeed reasons to be optimistic. As Martini and Taylor note, despite their careful attempts to control political institutions, “the generals may find that democracy, once unleashed, is difficult to control.”
Egyptian civil society has tasted the freedom and endless possibilities of democratic and economic reform over the past few months. I doubt they’ll be willing to let it go.