Egypt’s Fall in the Arab World: A Crisis of Legitimacy

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Egypt’s democratic transition, already rocky and uncertain, is now very much under threat.

A new election timetable—the product of an agreement between the country’s ruling military council and 13 political parties—distorts the “transition” beyond recognition.

When the military first came to power in February, it promised to hand power to a civilian government within six months. While unrealistic, the rushed schedule suggested a military eager to return to the barracks. It no longer is. Under the new arrangement, presidential elections would be held no earlier than 2013. In an attempt to reassure skeptics, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the country’s de facto ruler, said that “given the chance, the military council will step down tomorrow,” recalling the days when President Hosni Mubarak would express his wish to retire—if he could only find someone with enough experience to be president.

The military, as I first argued here, cannot be trusted with something as important as Egypt’s fledgling democracy. Even if it had the country’s best interests at heart, the military council is unelected and therefore unaccountable to the very people it claims to serve.

If it is strictly a question of stability, then the proposed timetable is just as troubling. The extension of military rule will only fuel polarization, provoke more opposition and frighten off investors.

The current dynamic—military imposes unpopular policies, protesters protest, military makes partial concessions, protesters protest partial concessions, and so on—has proven a recipe for failure, producing a patchwork of ill-conceived laws and half-measures. Often, the military uses the pretext of “stability” to sustain old practices, including emergency law, intimidation of the press, military trials, and even torture.

What Egyptians need now is a strong signal that their country is moving forward and shedding its autocratic past. That will only come with a successful transfer of power to elected institutions. Considering what’s at stake, the United States—which provides at least one-fifth of Egypt’s defense budget—should pressure the country’s military leaders to recommit themselves to a full and speedy transition. The longer the military stays in power, the longer it will want to stay in power. The last thing Egypt needs is a prolonged and costly crisis of legitimacy. But that’s just what it might get.