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.

tamarod.campaign.in.action

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.

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