Egypt’s ‘Spoilers’ Threaten Democracy

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.

“The street wars will continue to extreme levels. … We will force this regime to renounce power and succumb to the will of the Egyptian people,” said the man who was voted out by a majority of Egyptians, and earlier removed by popular revolutionary forces. Mubarak’s prime minister and chief henchman Ahmad Shafiq made these statements last December from Abu Dhabi. The statement proved to be true. Politically motivated violence on the streets of Cairo continued, including attacks on city councils, police stations, prisons, headquarters of political parties, and multiple attempts to shut down Egypt’s largest governmental complex in Tahrir Square. This is in addition to almost weekly attacks and arson attempts on the Presidential Palace, where Shafiq’s main rival, President Mohammed Morsi, resides.

The scene in Egypt is quite intricate. There are definitely more than two parties in the power struggle. In a July 2011BBC article, I expected a usual post-revolution power struggle between Islamist and non-Islamist forces to unfold, with the losing side reneging on democratization process and attempting to spoil it. I showed that the exclusionary behavior among Egypt’s political elite has been a historic trend since Nasser’s coup of 1952, and even before it. What I underestimated is the level of violence associated with the reneging process.

The political scene is not fully captured by the simple “Islamist versus secular” explanation. After all, not only the ultraconservative Salafi Nour Party supported the demands of the “secular” National Salvation Front, but also it altered an earlier fatwa (religious edict) forbidding alliances with non-Islamist parties. In political contexts, opportunism checks belief; and political Salafis are not always an exception.

Three factors may help explain major parts of the complex Egyptian political scene. High expectations of the Egyptian people in the aftermath of the popular revolution is one of those factors. With a shaky economy, limited security, conflicting interests, scarce resources, and chaos on the streets, the current conditions hardly meet any of the revolution’s slogans: “bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity.”

Add to that another factor: the limited capacity and inexperience of the new political elite, whether the ones chosen by Egyptians in elections, or the ones who weren’t but were part of the revolution against Mubarak. Incompetence of the government and the opposition is a second factor. The ones who were victorious in the elections, the Muslim Brotherhood and their Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), were so far unsuccessful in containing polarization, in fulfilling some of their pre-election promises, and even in appeasing some of their political allies. Still, they managed to be on the winning side every time Egyptians got a chance to cast a ballot; that is four historic national elections/referendums in less than two years. And here lies the third factor.

In 1997, Stanford’s political scientist Stephen Stedman authored a seminal study entitled “Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes.” He argued that when civil war ends, various “losers” from the peace process emerge. The “losers” are groups of leaders and parties who believe that the new transition will threaten their interests. And as a result, they will do their best to “spoil” the peace. His theory applies to various forms of transition, including democratic ones. In the latter, former elites who lost their positions of power and have limited chance for a quick comeback via elections are more interested in “spoiling” the democratic game, and coming back via alternative routes. Additionally, some of the groups and parties that took part in the revolution, but consistently lose in every electoral exercise, can have a similar behaviour.

The spoiler problem and its implications are extremely dangerous for democratic transitions; equally dangerous for both national and human security. If successful, usually the country in question either descends into a vicious civil war or the process ends in a brutal military coup. In other words, spoiler behavior can turn a democratic dream into a bloody nightmare.

But the spoiler problem is not without a solution. Key in the solution is to properly identify the spoilers, their types/goals, actual weights on the ground, actual capacity to spoil, and the appropriate strategy to deal with them. Stedman identified spoilers based on their intentions/goals: limited, greedy, and total. He advised a range of strategies for managing or ending political violence, the key feature of spoiler behaviour.

Limited spoilers are those who seek a share of power within a constitutional framework, seek basic security and protection of themselves or their followers, or suffer from specific economic- or justice-related grievances. For those an inducement-based strategy to abandon political violence is advised. Greedy spoilers are the ones who expand or contract their goals based on calculations of cost and risk. Those may commit to democratic institutions and non-violent politics, but renege on it whenever faced with low costs and risks. A socialization-based strategy is advised to deal with those, including the establishment of a set of norms for acceptable behavior. These norms then become the basis for judging the demands of the parties (are they legitimate or not?) and the behaviours of the parties (are they acceptable in the normative framework or not?). Finally, total spoilers are usually led by individuals who see the world in all-or-nothing terms and often suffer from pathological tendencies that prevent the pragmatism necessary for compromise settlements. For those, a coercion strategy is advised by Stedman; a strategy that relies on the use or the threat of punishment to deter or alter unacceptable spoiler behavior or reduce the capability of the spoiler to disrupt democratic transition.

All three types of spoilers exist and operate currently in Egypt. The categories are never set in stone, though. In Egypt, the reliance on street violence to attain political goals is on the rise, and proved to be effective and useful. Whereas those tactics were justified by revolutionary forces and political groups operating under brutal dictatorships, they cannot be justified in a nascent democratization process where alternation of power is guaranteed by ballots, not bullets.