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Transition in Egypt: the challenges of going beyond a democratic facade

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal


Mass protests erupted in Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, in January 2011, as the revolution in Tunisia seemed to inflame an accumulation of grievances against the rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak resigned and turned over power to the military after 18 days of sustained protests, thereby ending 30 years of autocratic rule.

This momentous – and in many ways unexpected – transformation of the political landscape in Egypt has been greeted with great enthusiasm and hope for the future both within and outside the country. Egypt’s revolution is a truly twenty-first century phenomenon: a peaceful and historic popular uprising whose mobilisation was facilitated in large part by the use of the latest communications technologies, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Yet, as Egypt embarks on a road towards democratisation, it is essential to remember that the ousting of Mubarak is only the beginning of a process that is likely to prove complex and challenging.

As the wave of democratisation that swept through much of Latin America, Africa and Asia beginning in the 1980s shows, overthrowing an authoritarian regime can be difficult, but institutionalising democracy is even harder. Only a limited number of countries that underwent democratic transitions as part of that wave have succeeded in establishing consolidated and functioning democratic regimes. Instead, many of them have ended up ‘getting stuck’ in transition, or reverting to more or less authoritarian forms of rule. These incipient democracies, or ‘hybrid’ regimes’, constitute ‘ambiguous systems that combine rhetorical acceptance of liberal democracy, the existence of some formal democratic institutions and respect for a limited sphere of civil and political liberties with essentially illiberal or even authoritarian traits’ (Ottaway, Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-Authoritarianism).

Thus, the key challenge for the new emerging Egypt is establishing a regime that is democratic not only in name but also in practice. Giving real meaning to the country’s fledging democratic transition is likely to entail, among other things:

  • lifting the state of emergency
  • embarking on a nationwide dialogue to amend the constitution
  • ensuring that the process is widely participatory and inclusive of all political forces in Egypt
  • lifting laws restricting political freedoms
  • upholding human rights
  • reaching an agreement among all relevant players (including actors like the emerging youth movement, the military, Mubarak’s party, which is likely to lose power, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc.) that democracy is the ‘only game in town’ and a commitment to abide by the rules of that game.

Some progress has already been made on some of these issues. For example, a national referendum on constitutional amendments is due to be held as early as 19 March 2011, where Egyptians will be asked to approve amendments on several critical articles in the Constitution. However, this process has been led by a committee of legal experts and constitutional scholars appointed by the military and has so far not been broadly participatory. The state security agency associated with abuses under the previous regime has also been dissolved, and restrictions on the formation of political parties are expected to be lifted after the referendum.

Elections of course will also be vital – but not easy. Part of the problem in this respect is that, after 30 years of authoritarian rule, political organisation, especially in terms of credible (opposition) parties, remains extremely weak and fragmented. There are a few well organised groups that are also deeply rooted within certain sectors of the population (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood), but these are the exception rather than the rule.

As suggested above, new technologies and online social networks played an important role in bringing together the mass movement against the Mubarak regime. But the movement remains diffuse and the ties that bind its different elements together are at best weak and transient. Social activism, transformational as it may be, cannot in itself substitute for adequate and coherent organisation. This point is forcefully illustrated by the youth movement that brought Mubarak down: so far it has lacked clear leadership and representation, which has made meaningful negotiation with the military government in charge difficult.

Thus, supporting the development of political parties seems an essential task. However, it is also a highly sensitive endeavour that is likely to take time and go well beyond the first electoral cycle.

Related to this, it is not yet clear whether Egyptians will allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in the next presidential and parliamentary elections. This is a decision that will need to be made through the country’s constitutional reform process. It is also a decision that will have an impact on the kind of system that is put in place, and to what extent it is inclusive, representative, and capable of channelling different citizen demands and resolving conflict(s) without resorting to violence.

In light of these different issues, both domestic and international actors must keep realistic expectations about the kinds of changes that the transition in Egypt can bring about, especially over the short term. Managing expectations is essential in order to avoid popular disillusionment with – and a potential backlash against – the very democratic system the Egyptian people have been fighting for.