More Shots Fired in Egypt’s Transitional “Truel”

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are expected to take to the streets on June 30 to press for the resignation of President Morsi and his government, and the impending confrontation between these protesters, the government’s supporters, and state security forces has lots of people on edge. Here’s how Tarek Radwan set the scene in a recent post on Foreign Policy‘s Mideast Channel blog:

What began as a humble attempt to translate countrywide discontent with the way President Mohamed Morsi has governed Egypt, the Tamarod — or “Rebel” campaign — has mobilized millions of Egyptians for a protest that promises to be epic on the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. Although opposition forces initially kept the signature drive that demands Morsi’s removal from office and early elections at arms length, nearly all of the relevant players in Egypt’s transitional drama now recognize the campaign’s significance and potential to affect change. Movement within the political opposition, including coordination meetings with the campaign and youth groups for a post-Morsi transition plan, suggests a fundamental belief that the June 30 protests could realize Tamarod’s goal of replacing the president.

Islamists who support Morsi’s government, primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood, responded with a counter-signature drive of their own called Tagarrod — or “Impartiality” — to reiterate their faith (no pun intended) in the political system and the elections that brought him to power. Supportive Islamist groups have also called for a June 21 protest against violence. However, the counter-campaign’s attempt to balance the scales only seems to accentuate the country’s deeply divided polity.

Meanwhile, the army has responded ominously to the planned mass protests, issuing a public warning that it will “not allow an attack on the will of the people” and a calling instead for dialogue and (ha!) consensus.

In a recent column for Egypt’s online Daily News, activist and one-time candidate for parliament Mahmoud Salem sketched three scenarios for how this latest confrontation ends: 1) a clear victory for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), 2) a clear victory for the Tamarod campaign, or 3) a military coup. The forms the latter two outcomes would take are clearest: the government resigns and fresh elections are held, or the military tosses out the government and installs itself or a government of its choosing in power. It’s less clear to me what an “outright victory” for the MB would look like, but Salem seems to have in mind a violent routing of the organized opposition with the cooperation or at least complicity of the military. Salem sees the third scenario (military intervention) as the most likely one but acknowledges that the situation is highly uncertain.

For reasons that are probably narcissistic but I’d like to think are intellectual, I’m struck by how closely Salem’s scenarios and outcomes match up with the game-theoretic model I use to analyze the politics of democratic consolidation and breakdown. This model portrays politics in newer democracies as a kind of “truel“—a lousy neologism for a three-way version of a duel—involving two rival political factions and the military. In principle, any of those three groups can usurp power at at any time. Election winners can rig the game to ensure that they keep winning; election losers can overthrow the government by revolutionary means; and the military can carry out a coup.

In the metaphor of a truel, attempts to usurp or defend power are like shots fired at different rivals. As in a real gunfight, those shots don’t always hit or kill, and rivals can also choose not to fire. In many new democracies and other “transitional” cases, it’s easy to imagine one or two or even all three of these actors attempting to hoard or usurp power (i.e., take a shot) at almost any time, and it’s also easy to imagine most of those attempts failing.

Democracy is effectively consolidated when all of those actors routinely abide by and uphold democratic procedures, especially but not limited to fair elections and freedoms of speech, association, and assembly. The risk of these usurpations of power never gets to zero, but in some long-standing democracies it’s awfully close to it. That’s the truel equivalent of everyone agreeing to put their guns away and resolve their disputes in other ways. In the real world, military coups have become less common than they were during the Cold War, and revolutions rarely succeed in overthrowing elected governments. Consolidations of incumbent advantage aren’t hard to find, though, and attempts at all three forms of usurpation are still common in the “life courses” of newer democracies.

So what can the truel metaphor tell us about Egypt? First, it’s evident that Salem’s three scenarios exclude an important fourth scenario in which everyone either misses or holds his fire. If the June 30 protests don’t force out the Morsi government, inspire a military coup, or lure MB supporters into widespread counterrevolutionary violence, this latest round could come and go without producing dramatic changes in the political landscape. Based on the outcome of the last couple of confrontational moments in Egyptian politics and the fractiousness of the Tamarod coalition, I’d say this is probably the most likely outcome.

The truel metaphor also raises some questions about the wisdom of the opposition’s decision to press revolutionary demands through mass unrest. This is the political equivalent of shooting at the incumbent, but game theorists will tell you that the optimal strategy for the weakest player in a truel is often to hold fire or to miss on purpose. That’s because the dominant strategy for the two strongest players is usually going to be to try to eliminate the other, so the weakest player can often do well by letting that confrontation play out, leaving him in a showdown with the lone survivor, possibly even with the advantage of getting to shoot first at a now-damaged rival.

In Egypt right now, I’d say the MB and the military are clearly the two strongest players, while the groups behind the Tamarod campaign are still the weakest. If that’s right, then the maximalist strategy Salem and his cohort are pursuing is probably quixotic. As Salem acknowledges, this attempt to oust the MB is unlikely to succeed, but the act of trying is probably increasing the risks of both a military coup and a deeper consolidation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on power by strengthening those groups’ fear of a revolution, and thus their incentives to preempt or respond to that threat with a crackdown or coup of their own.

Of course, that might be exactly what some of the participants in the Tamarod campaign are hoping for. Some of the MB’s rivals have openly called for a military coup against the Morsi government as their best hope for a “reset” of Egypt’s transition, and the occurrence of sustained mass unrest is, at this point, probably the only thing capable of making that happen. By attempting another revolution—or a counter-counterrevolution, depending on whom you ask—these factions are probably looking to draw the Brotherhood’s supporters into a fight that would, in turn, lure the military into a coup. What looks a little crazy on the surface may turn out to be crazy like a fox.

Last but not least, careful consideration of the current moment in Egyptian politics shows how the truel metaphor elides the possibility of bargaining among the players. After writing a draft of this post yesterday, I discussed it with Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. As Michael pointed out to me, there’s really a fifth scenario here, too, in which the military uses the credible threat of a coup to compel the MB government into a political deal designed to halt the spiral of polarization that keeps producing these showdowns. The military seems like it really doesn’t want to be responsible for governing Egypt right now, but it probably wants even less to see the country descend into a period of sustained mass violence. One way to try to achieve both of those goals would be to give the government an ultimatum: accept a compromise with the opposition or get shot at from two sides at once. If I had to lay odds, I’d say this is probably the second-most-likely outcome, after the “everyone misses or holds his fire” scenario described earlier.

So that’s what my analytical self makes of this remarkable moment. All the while, my emotional self continues to marvel at the courage and tenacity of the many people who keep struggling to make the most of this historic opportunity to democratize Egypt, and to sympathize with the fatigue and frustration this seemingly endless transition and its accompanying economic woes must be producing. Honestly, I have no idea what that’s like, and it’s infinitely easier to comment from afar.

Leave a comment


  1. If the fifth scenario doesn’t occur after the June 30 protest, I think it eventually will. I don’t see a high probability for a coup precisely because of what you outlined — SCAF didn’t want to be in power when it was and doesn’t want to retake those reins. From all I can tell Morsi and the MB enjoy their current position and will attempt to consolidate it through at least token reforms and concessions.

  2. Grant

     /  June 26, 2013

    If Radwan’s correct then this relatively loose group of political parties might have seen the unexpected energy of the protest and felt that they had no choice but to link their factions to it, rather than it being a choice made by them deliberately. Alternatively, perhaps they overestimate their strength.

    As for Radwan’s point about counter protests only increasing polarization, the Muslim Brotherhood and related parties may have felt that they have no choice. In their calculations it might be that if you aren’t for them, you’re against them and you need to be politically crushed.

    I’d give anything to know where the money’s going in Egypt right now.

  3. I feel that this analysis doesn’t take into consideration the sheer terribleness and unsustainability of Egypt’s economy and currency position.

    • I’m open to that. So, how do you see those conditions shaping the behavior of the factions discussed here? Or what else am I missing?

      • I think the first thing that needs to be understood is that the military has something to lose outside of the general tax take of the country. In general, it has an entire economic infrastructure devoted to making the higher ups wealthy and comfortable, typically with very poorly thought out land development schemes. They also enjoy a certain financial relationship with the US in the sense that they effectively gets lots of US arms in exchange for peace with Israel.

        Contrast the situation that the MB, and what anyone actually in charge must face…a stagnating economy, an utterly uncooperative set of bureaucratic infrastructure that are even harder than cats to herd into a cohesive policy structure, and an desperately unfavorable trade and currency situation.

        This situation was what brought down Mubarak. There *was* a truel situation between the neoliberal faction of Mubarak’s set, headed by his sons, and the MB. The MB came into the revolutionary environment thinking like they’d won, rather than Mubarak losing, and they had a focus on the usual rewards for the country gentry MB types generally represents. However, there really was no spoils to split, and a lot of angry and underserved people out there with their hands out. The Military doesn’t want any part of this, because as I’ve said before, that puts their economic assets at risk of being pulled into general government resources. They can’t profitably take power. Most of the opposition are pretty content to let the MB flail about until they destroy themselves. There isn’t a truel situation now.

        Of course, if Morsi was an actual intelligent person, instead of just another greedy country schmuck run by some clumsy would-be shadow shogun, he’d have long ago resigned and gone for a renewall of the MB regime through new elections. Think about how Chávez handled the recall in 2006, for example. Morsi’s actions reflect an unwillingness to admit that the determination of the MB to hold onto power is not in the MB’s best interests, and they probably also reflect a fear of what losing power might mean, rather than any confidence that they could get it back.

      • Grant

         /  June 28, 2013

        The questions are, can the Muslim Brotherhood (presumably working with the military) safely use force to end the protests and is the public willing to put up with more uncertainty and revolution or do they think that this is too damaging to security and economics? Hard to answer either of those, I know, but if the protests can sustain themselves without the state successfully shutting them down it creates a serious threat to Morsi’s government.

  4. I don’t know if you’ve read Hazem Kandil’s new book, (Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen), but it has some relevance to your post, I think (Not so much on potential outcomes, but explaining how the 3 main actors, (security services, military, political regimes), interact with eachother)
    Here’s a link to a rundown he gave in LRB recently

  5. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. The people elected a government “democratically.” What do they expect? If Egypt has new elections, is there any reason to expect anything would be different? Do they want something more than democracy? If they want a government that somehow knows the will of the people and creates government policies accordingly they want something that doesn’t exist anywhere. It seems like “democracy” as we now know it is the problem.

    • Realist Writer

       /  July 1, 2013

      The problem was that Morsi was elected by only 51.73% of the vote. The other 48.27% are the ones protesting.

    • Grant

       /  July 1, 2013

      Then there’s also the problem that it came down to a choice between him and a former spymaster just after the old regime tried to extend it’s power, and both of them weren’t really popular with the majority of the country. They were just the last two candidates.

  6. Grant

     /  July 2, 2013

    Well, given military statements and Morsi’s response it seems fairly likely that there will be some sort of coup (a soft one where he is “urged” to leave office or a hard one where soldiers force him out). Looking at your list for 2013 you mention that if one considers the SCAF push to remove Mubarak from power to be a coup then Egypt enters the top 30 nations (from number 48 if you don’t).

    It seems to me that soft coups where the military acts as kingmaker instead of directly governing might be more common now (and perhaps times of armed forces directly governing were actually the exception to the norm).

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