Three Roadblocks to Democracy and Reform in Egypt

Egyptians voted on constitutional amendments for democratic reforms in March 2011.
Egyptians voted on constitutional amendments for democratic reforms in March 2011.

By Sara Morell

The military-led government that replaced President Muhammad Morsi in Egypt has announced plans to hold parliamentary elections within the next six months, but in the meantime, the country will have to clear substantial hurtles to reach that aspiration. Here are three roadblocks to a democratic Egypt.

1. The democracy versus stability equation

Political scientists like to say that while democracy is the most stable option, its transition phases are more violent than stability in a non-democratic regime. The dilemma is whether immediate stability is more important than lasting and functioning democracy.

“We have this momentous backlash to Brotherhood rule that people are sort of forgetting all of the problems that came along with military rule,” said former assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East Mara Revkin.

Revkin added that people have gone to the ballot box 14 times since 2011, and after disappointing economic and political outcomes, they’re losing faith in elections.

To find out whether this belief was really as widespread as Revkin thought, I called my friend and fellow Swarthmore student Anushka Mehta, who just returned from a month-long trip home to Cairo.

“I’ve heard people talking about how they want to give the army the chance to get things under control, maybe stabilize the economy,” she said, “ – before giving elections a chance again.”

People haven’t forgotten the risk of long-term military rule, she continued, but their bigger fear is an over-powerful Muslim Brotherhood.

2. Jobs and food subsidies

Egypt’s economic woes are a laundry-list of unsolved problems.

Education improved in the last decades of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, but the job market is still too weak to put most of those new skills to work. Total unemployment stands at 13.2 percent and youth unemployment tops 25 percent. Even tourism, formerly a major source of jobs, has been slow to recover following the 2011 protests.

Meanwhile, many unemployed Egyptians continue to rely on subsidies to put food on the table – subsidies that account for a third of the state budget and heavily contribute to rising government debt.

On the state level, Egypt has struggled through negotiations over conditions attached to a multi-billion dollar International Monetary Fund loan, instead relying on loans from Qatar.

Now talks with the IMF are at a standstill and Qatar’s assistance is less certain since that country favors Brotherhood rule over a military-led government.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both strong supporters of military rule in Egypt, are now filling that void with $8 million in loans and grants.

But as Revkin points out, state-to-state handouts rarely help everyday citizens and won’t necessarily be used to restructure the food subsidies system or boost job creation.

3. Political boycotts

Not unlike Gambia, Yemen, and a host of other nations, Egypt has a history of political parties boycotting elections and offices they believe to be fraudulent or tainted.

Parties opposing Morsi boycotted elections this past February, and according to Revkin, that tactic continues because it’s one of the few tactics that opposition groups can use in their favor.

“We’ve seen this just consistent difficulty among the non-Islamist opposition,” she explained, “this failure to translate their grassroots momentum into success in elections and at the ballot box.”

She added that some groups are already planning to boycott parliamentary elections planned for later this summer.

In some cases, political boycotts go beyond skipping elections.

The Nour Party has threatened to back out of talks if former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei was named Prime Minister. On Wednesday, the Muslim Brotherhood said they would refuse any posts on an interim Cabinet.

Edited by Amy DiPierro.

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