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Egypt May Have Advantages Along Path To Democracy

"Yes" (left) and "No" ballots for a constitutional referendum are seen at a polling station in Ankara, Turkey, on  Sept. 12, 2010. Turks  voted to adopt 26 major reforms.
Adem Altan
AFP/Getty Images
"Yes" (left) and "No" ballots for a constitutional referendum are seen at a polling station in Ankara, Turkey, on Sept. 12, 2010. Turks voted to adopt 26 major reforms.

Now that the primary goal of the protesters in Egypt has been satisfied and President Hosni Mubarak has been removed from office, the country faces countless questions about how swiftly it can move toward free and fair elections — assuming it will.

Transitions to democracy are often tricky. From Turkey to Thailand, there are plenty of examples of militaries removing unpopular presidents and then moving on to hold elections. But these have sometimes led again to coups.

For Egypt to establish itself as a true democracy, its military will have to make clear its willingness to cede power to civilian rulers.

"If they try to appoint a general to run the country, then people are going to be nervous about that and push for a quick election," says Thomas Carothers, the director and founder of the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"If there is a national unity or caretaker government with real legitimacy, then you don't feel the pressure to hold elections so soon," he says.

Beat Back The Rush

Egypt should find a "sweet spot," Carothers says, between attempting to vote in a new government either too soon or too late. Democracy is about more than elections, after all. A nation that has operated under one-man rule for decades can't be expected to switch to multiparty democracy overnight.

Holding an election in September, as had been scheduled, would be too soon, Mohammed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leading opposition figure, told NPR's Robert Siegel on Friday.

"We need at least a year of building the country from scratch," ElBaradei said. "We need to build every institution. ... We don't even have the right political parties."

Holding an election seven months from now would require a swift sprint. But while agreeing that Egypt needs to build up its civic and political institutions, some analysts and democracy advocates argue that holding elections soon will lend legitimacy to everything that follows, including writing a new constitution and establishing political parties.

"There need to be plausible promises that elections will in fact be held in a reasonable time frame," says Michael Herb, director of the Middle East Institute at Georgia State University. "If one were just to sit around and wait for a stable political party system to emerge in Egypt, one could wait a long time."

The Rules Of The Game

There are countless mechanical questions that would have to be answered even before elections could be administered, such as registering political parties and setting up a credible, independent body to oversee the election process.

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei (left forefront) arrives to speak to supporters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images
Getty Images
Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei (left forefront) arrives to speak to supporters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

The latter job used to be handled by the Egyptian judiciary but was turned over to the Interior Ministry for last year's parliamentary elections. That will not be acceptable going forward, says Leslie Campbell, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Democratic Institute, a democracy promotion group.

"There has not been an election in Egypt in our lifetimes that anybody thinks would stand up to scrutiny as an independent election," Campbell says.

Egyptians — including the military and any opposition leaders who end up becoming part of negotiations about setting up a new government — will have to determine how best to proceed in legal terms as well.

The current constitution contains numerous barriers to block free and fair elections, experts say. Changing it would be time consuming, but ignoring it creates the risk of building a democracy on an extralegal foundation.

"The problem is that if you go by the letter of the constitution, amending it requires a two-thirds majority in the Parliament and then a referendum after that," says Adeed Dawisha, a political scientist at Miami University of Ohio. "I don't know if, in Egypt's current situation, you can do that — tell the people to go home because we're going to spend three months amending the constitution."

Getting To Agreement

Whatever steps the political process takes from here, it's important that they be based on wide agreement among all the major parties or stakeholders involved, says John Stremlau, vice president for peace programs at the Carter Center, which has monitored dozens of elections internationally.

"You want to have a rule-bound process that has gotten consensus from the critical actors who are essential to implementing it," Stremlau says. "Get a process going that they're willing to make transparent and inclusive — and agreements they'll stick to, that they've struck voluntarily."

Revolutions have often been hijacked by radical fringes after power first changes hands. And national militaries have helped to set up elections, only to intervene once again later.

But there are examples of successful negotiations that included both opposition leaders and either the military or the incumbent regime, including Poland and South Africa, notes Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and co-editor of the Journal of Democracy.

"Egypt is not ready for complete legislative elections, but it would be best to have what the protesters are demanding — set up some body so there are some rules and a check on the executive," Diamond says. "The ideal would be having the regime and a representative body of outsiders come up with rules for the transition."

Looking For Models Elsewhere

As Egyptians look for models, they are likely to think about Turkey — a country that has experienced several coups over the past half-century but now has a healthy, competitive democratic system in place.

"The Turkish experience is something that they're definitely looking at very closely," says David Cuthell, executive director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University. "But Egyptian nationalism is far more benign and less hard-edged than Turkish nationalism. If they can get into a regular process of voting and reform, they could go through the steps a lot quicker than Turkey."

By which Cuthell means, Egypt may not take as many decades as Turkey did to remove the military from a central political role. But Egypt also enjoys some other advantages over other, more recent experiments in democratic transition within the Muslim world. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, their move toward democracy is homegrown, not the result of military invasion.

Egypt has a richer sense of national identity than either of those countries and will be able to project central government authority in a way that has been elusive thus far for Afghanistan, analysts say.

"The risk in democratic transitions is that the state falls apart," says Michael Herb, the Georgia State political scientist. "That won't happen in Egypt."

Not Expecting Sectarian Violence

Egypt may experience many internal divisions, but given the fact that its population is 90 percent Sunni Muslim, it won't be ripe for the sectarianism that has plagued Iraq.

"What made Iraq so violent is basically a tremendous power shift between the Shiites and the Sunnis, which the Sunnis don't want to accept," says Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment.

Dawisha, the Miami University political scientist, says that Egyptian democracy will not be "tarnished" by sectarian violence, as Iraq's was. The Egyptian divide, he says, will lie between secularists and Islamists.

Many American commentators have already expressed concern that Egypt after Mubarak could fall under the sway of religious parties. The Muslim Brotherhood has been Mubarak's main opposition for years.

But Dawisha says it's impossible to guess how strong political support for Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood will turn out to be. He argues that free and fair elections will settle that question — as well as bring the Mubarak era to its true end.

"Fair elections are the only thing that will get people to believe that the next era is going to be what they've been clamoring for," Dawisha says. "In the end, you trust democracy."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt
Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.