Yesterday, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court re-scrambled that country’s already-messy politics by dissolving the country’s recently elected parliament and overturning a law that would have barred the old regime’s last prime minister from participating in the upcoming presidential runoff election. Although the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) didn’t actually issue those rulings, it appears to have endorsed them. “From a democratic perspective, this is the worst outcome imaginable,” Shadi Hamid told the New York Times. “This is an all-out power grab by the military.”
What should we call this turn of events? Judging from Twitter feed, no one’s really sure. Lots of observers are calling it a military coup, but others object, noting that the military never gave up power in the first place. That fact suggests that the court’s rulings might be described as a kind of self-coup, or autogolpe, but those tags are usually applied to situations where elected officials short-circuit the electoral machinery, and Egypt’s ruling junta was most certainly not elected. More generally, the struggle between SCAF and its political rivals has been cast as a still-unfolding process of revolution and counterrevolution, and yesterday’s rulings are being described by some as a decisive blow in favor of the latter.
The question of what to call the various twists and turns in Egyptian politics in the past year and a half isn’t purely semantic. The labels we choose should reflect our thinking about the nature of the process involved and the historical cases to which we might usefully compare it.
I don’t think we can figure out what to call yesterday’s events without first choosing a conceptual framework to characterize the larger change process in which those events are embedded. As a student of comparative politics, I’m going to make a case for anchoring the discussion in theories of authoritarian breakdown and democratization. The best of these theories a) distinguish between different phases of regime change and b) recognize that the outcome at each of those phases is not predestined.
Regarding phases, most theories of regime change now usefully distinguish between breakdown, transition, and consolidation. Breakdown refers the dismantling or collapse of existing patterns of political authority; consolidation refers to the reinforcement of, and habituation to, new patterns; and transition is just what we call the interval between the two, when the rules are in flux or undefined.
When the regime that breaks down at the start is authoritarian and the transition involves talk of competitive elections, we might say that democratization is occurring, but we don’t actually get to democracy until a freely and fairly elected government takes power. Once that happens, we can start talking about democratic consolidation. Sometimes, though, one form of authoritarian rule is simply supplanted by another, in which case we have breakdown, transition, and consolidation without democratization. When transitions drag on for too long, we get a collapsed state, but that’s a topic for another day.
With that lexicon in hand, I think it’s a little easier to figure out how to describe Egypt’s trajectory over the past 16 months. The story starts in January 2011 with a nonviolent popular uprising, or what Erica Chenoweth would call a campaign of civil resistance. In and of itself, that uprising did not constitute a regime change, but it did succeed in triggering the breakdown of the decades-old authoritarian regime characterized simultaneously by the formal dominance of the National Democratic Party, the political power of the military, and the personal power of Hosni Mubarak.
The breakdown of the Mubarak/NDP regime kicked off a period of transition, and in the Egyptian case, it’s fair to say that transition also involved democratization. Civil liberties were expanded (albeit fitfully), parliamentary and presidential elections were held, a new legislature was seated, and a constitutional assembly was even formed.
Crucially, though, the forces that seized power at the start of that transition have never actually relinquished it. When Mubarak resigned on 11 February 2011, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that state authority was passing to the then–newly formed SCAF, and that body has retained virtually all of that authority ever since.
The result has been a twin-streamed process entailing both democratic transition and authoritarian consolidation. As the democratic transition has unfolded, SCAF has simultaneously set about consolidating its own power, and those two processes have often been at odds. These competing streams were neatly reflected in the outcome of presidential election’s first round, which set up a showdown between Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister and former commander of the Egyptian Air Force, and Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the country’s most popular political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.
While it’s too soon to say that Egypt’s democratic transition is dead, there’s no question that the dissolution of the recently elected parliament has badly wounded it. Instead of a coup, we have what wrestlers would call a hard takedown. The match between authoritarian consolidation and democratization isn’t over, but SCAF is ahead in points and has now democratization on its back.
If SCAF cancels or manipulates the second round of presidential elections and then sets about writing a new set of national political rules on its own, I think it would be fair to say that Egypt’s democratization process has been aborted, and that we have officially entered a new phase involving the open consolidation of military rule. If, however, SCAF allows the presidential election to proceed—and, more importantly, either calls fresh legislative elections or allows the recently convened constituent assembly to proceed with its work—then I think we could more accurately describe this week’s events as yet another bend in Egypt’s highly uncertain, still-ongoing, twin-streamed transition.