Both uprisings -- Sudan's in 1985 and Egypt's in 2011 -- and their subsequent coups held the promise of a more democratic future. At the same time, however, they revealed the hazards of military stewardship. When juntas empowered by so-called "democratic coups" hand over power to civilian governments, the post-coup governments almost invariably find it hard to address the grievances that enabled the coups in the first place. The end result is a cycle of more popular discontent and more coups. Sudan and Egypt have both proved that they are not exceptions to this rule.
But the troubling parallels extend further. Sudan's post-coup elections in April 1986 ushered Nimeiry's former foe, the Islamist Umma Party, into power. But the coalition government led by Umma's Sadiq al-Mahdi thoroughly botched its stewardship of the economy, devaluing the Sudanese pound to roughly 10 percent of its mid-1970s value and allowing the price of basic commodities to skyrocket. In response, the Sudanese flooded back into the streets to protest, setting the stage for a June 1989 coup. This time, it was Omar Hassan al-Bashir, then an army colonel, who led the military back into the political arena.
Like al-Mahdi and his Umma Party, Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood failed to reverse Egypt's faltering economy. Since Mubarak's ouster, GDP growth has slowed to roughly 2 percent, the unemployment rate has risen to 13 percent, and Standard & Poor's downgraded Egypt's long-term debt rating from BB+ to CCC+. Egypt's foreign currency reserves have also dwindled to $16 billion, half of what they were under Mubarak. While Egyptians chafed at Morsy's creeping authoritarianism, a majority rated having a strong economy as more important than living in a strong democracy in a May public opinion poll. That Morsy could not meet Egyptian expectations for a better economy provided at least part of the impetus for this month's mass demonstrations and coup.
This is where the stories of Sudan and Egypt hopefully diverge. There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic: Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the armed forces, has not undertaken a wholesale power grab like Bashir, who held every major post in Sudan's transitional authority. Any expansion of Sisi's power beyond his new roles of deputy prime minister and defense minister would of course be cause for concern. Meanwhile, statistical evidence suggests that nonviolent mass protest, something Egyptian civilians have shown an aptitude for, is a leading indicator for democratization. Such protests succeed by undercutting the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes and fostering more engaged citizenship. This, in turn, creates disincentives for those in power to roll back democratic gains.
But what if Egypt does follow the Sudanese path? Immediate improvements in service delivery since Morsy's ouster could tempt some Egyptians to embrace a military-backed strongman on the model of Bashir. Indeed, with the military now in charge, rolling power blackouts have disappeared, gas lines have melted away, and the police are now fully deployed. The speed of the turnaround has fueled suspicion that the military -- along with Egypt's old guard bureaucrats -- had been purposely undermining Morsy's rule. The return of an authoritarian regime, however, could have disastrous long-term effects on the Egyptian economy. If there is one lesson from 2011, it's that such regimes have a limited shelf life -- a reality that would likely keep international investors away.
Regardless of what kind of regime emerges, turning around the Egyptian economy poses a monumental challenge. If a civilian government takes office, it will face the same economic troubles that plagued Morsy. The IMF has been pushing Egypt to raise taxes and reduce popular fuel subsidies in return for a badly needed $4.8 billion credit line. Morsy could avoid bowing to IMF pressures because of cash infusions from Qatar, Libya, and others, but the faucet will not remain on forever. In the event that such cuts bring Egyptians to the streets again, the military should stay on the sidelines -- lest Egypt risk giving rise to its own Bashir.