We are now a year and a half into what many persist in calling the Arab Spring even though there is no end in sight to the turbulence and it is hardly certain to have a happy ending.
Nowhere is this more the case than in Egypt, the most populous and by many measures the most important country in the Middle East.
On one hand, there are elements of continuity. The military is predominant, having awarded itself most of the president’s traditional powers. There is no constitution; there is no parliament.
But there are also important changes. The old president is on his deathbed, far removed from power. Sitting in what was his ornate office is Mohamed Morsi, a popularly-elected member of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt only arrived at this juncture by dodging a bullet. Namely, by allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to assume the presidency in the wake of elections. Had the military tried to foist its own candidate on the public there would have been massive protests that forced the military to either shoot into the crowds or back down. The generals would have forfeited their legitimacy whichever path they might have chosen.
By avoiding such a choice, General Tantawi and his colleagues have delayed the day of reckoning, but not permanently. The current co-habitation between a politicised military and a much-diminished president cannot last. Indeed, it may already be heading toward an end over the question of whether the parliament is to be restored now rather than after a new constitution is drafted and agreed on.
That said, de facto power sharing may linger for a time, if only because both sides have little appetite for making the hard economic decisions confronting the increasingly indebted country. Both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood fear alienating the people if they impose the necessary austerity. But the subsidies cannot go on. Egypt is akin to a start-up company that is burning its capital faster than revenues and investment are coming in. As the economist Herb Stein famously said in another context, that which cannot go one forever will not.
It is quite possible the military and the Brotherhood will agree on some necessary reforms, all the time pointing the finger at the other. But at some point the Brotherhood will tire of the imbalance of real power and force a showdown, and when it does, Egypt’s military is more likely to back down than not. The generals may fancy themselves in the mould of their Turkish counterparts who managed to “guide democracy”, but it is unlikely they will have the opportunity. Egypt is not Turkey, and even today’s Turkey is not the Turkey of old. Times have changed.
But what then? The honest answer is we have no idea. Many of the people running Egypt (or who soon will) were in the shadows only a year ago. But what is unknown to us and conceivably to them is how they will govern. What is to be the balance between the executive and rest of government? The balance between the public and private sector? The balance between government and society? For these and other reasons it is the debate over the constitution that will matter most.
In the end, the test of any individual or party is not a willingness to contest and win elections but rather the willingness to lose them. This is turn requires not just an honest count of the votes but a level playing field in terms of access to televison, the right to meet and organise, and the ability to raise money. We will learn if the Brotherhood is committed to democracy as a tactic or a principle.
What should outsiders do? For the US and Europe, interests are greater than influence. But this is not the same as having no influence. Economic and military assistance should be made conditional on behaviour — on moving in the direction of genuine democracy, respecting the rights of minorities and women, on fighting terrorists and honouring the peace treaty with Israel. Those running Egypt have the right to make their own choices, but they should understand those choices have consequences.