Grading Egypt's Roadmap Toward Democracy

Is president-in-waiting Abdel Fattah al-Sisi living up to his word?

In Washington last week, the White House openly decried the sharply negative trajectory of Egyptian politics. The mass death sentences leveled against hundreds of Egyptians, the imprisonment of journalists and activists, and the tightening restrictions of freedom of expression and assembly, the White House said, are cause not merely for "deep" but also "growing concerns."

Visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy seemed to be representing a completely different country when he boasted of Egypt's difficult but steady progress toward democracy since last summer's overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi. "The Egyptian people revolted twice for a democratic system," he told an assembled Washington audience. "That is their objective. That is where they're going. But the process will have to go through a transition."

Which way is Egypt's politics heading? The Egyptian regime's main justification for its determined optimism has been its checklist. Then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi set out a clear road map on July 3, this argument goes, and he prepares to assume the presidency only after the country has faithfully followed the steps outlined last year. To focus on this negative development or that -- as Western diplomats and foreign journalists seem wont to do -- ignores this progress. Having lived up to their word, Egyptians should be greeted not with ostracism and criticism but with accolades for managing a democratic transition under very difficult circumstances.

So let's dust off the July 3 road map and use it as a yardstick for measuring what is happening in Egypt. A look at both the fine print and the general spirit reveals that parts of the road map have been fulfilled. But important parts have been forgotten, ignored, or violated. And that points to the deeply flawed nature of the Egyptian "transition" -- if the country is transitioning to anything, it is not to a democracy in anything other than the most technical sense of the term.

What were the elements of the road map? Let us keep our eyes both on the letter and the spirit.

1. Suspending the constitution written under Morsi
Letter of the road map: Temporary suspension of the constitution; formation of committees of forces from across the political spectrum and experts to draft and review proposed amendments.

Spirit of the road map: To move quickly and in an expert and consensual manner to make limited changes to the 2012 constitution.

Performance: The suspension of the constitution was carried out flawlessly. But then the process ran into problems: The constitution was amended in a manner that may have violated the letter and certainly violated the spirit of the road map.

First, the committee did not just tinker with the constitution -- it systematically rewrote the entire document. Did that matter? Not for everyone -- but it did for the Salafists, who had only wanted minor changes so that they could protect their favorite parts, which seemed to promise a more robust role for Islamic law. But those clauses wound up on the cutting-room floor. The Salafi political leadership complained, but then decided to support the process -- and now even back Sisi for president -- in order to retain legal existence.

And that leads to the second and far larger problem: Only parts of the political spectrum were represented in the amendment process, contrary to the original promise. The largest party in the last parliamentary elections received no seats on the 50-member committee. The second largest party received one. The reason for this oversight? They were Islamists.

The committee also seemed biased in favor of state institutions, which got more than a voice in the process -- they often seemed to get a veto. Political forces outside the state were only allowed to color inside lines drawn by generals, bureaucrats, judges, and police.

2. An acting president
Letter: To have the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) serve as acting president until the election of a new president.

Spirit: The drafters of the road map went not to the 2012 constitution but back to the 1971 constitution to pick the official second in line for succession, the chief justice of the SCC, in order to pluck a figure who would take his caretaker role seriously.

Performance: When Adly Mansour was appointed, I described him with the phrase "pleasant smile, closed lips." That proved accurate -- to a degree. It took Mansour a few months on the job to smile in public, but he finally did. And when he has opened his lips, it has generally been to give speeches so short that a leading comedian, Bassem Youssef, has posed as a man sitting down with a big bowl of popcorn who cannot take a bite before the president has concluded.

The letter and the spirit of this clause have therefore been completely fulfilled. And Egypt also got an added bonus as well: some assurance that its transition would be written up in correct legal form, since that is the acting president's forte.

3. Temporary rules
Letter: The head of the SCC will have the power to issue constitutional declarations during the transitional period until the election of a new president.

Spirit: After President Hosni Mubarak was forced out in February 2011, Egypt's rulers kept tinkering with the rules of politics through a stream of "constitutional declarations," which were designed subtly and not-so-subtly to tilt the playing field in their favored direction. And they did a bad job in a technical sense as well, leaving all kinds of loopholes and planting all kinds of time bombs in those documents. By giving the job to an acting president -- and a constitutional court justice at that -- the interim rules would be minimal and nonpartisan.

Performance: Pretty good. Mansour used his power to issue constitutional declarations very sparingly: once to disband the Brotherhood's last outpost in government, the upper house of the parliament; the other to issue an interim framework for governing that expired when the new constitution was approved in a January 2014 plebiscite. Those amendments allowed the president to change the order of elections, so Egypt would hold the presidential elections before parliamentary elections.

But there are some blemishes here. While Mansour used "constitutional declarations" sparingly, he has also issued laws by decree that have harmed Egypt's effort at democratization. Foremost among these has been a vague law that the security forces have seized upon to shut down many public protests. And he is now considering laws against terrorism that are similarly vague enough to be abused in an authoritarian manner.

4. Interim technocratic rule
Letter: Forming a cabinet of national, strong, capable experts who enjoy all powers during the current period.

Spirit: No matter whom you blame -- the deep state, a bloody-minded Islamist movement, or the sheer enormousness of the challenges -- Egypt was adrift when Morsi was president. Its economic problems were perpetually mounting, and the country appeared impossible to govern. The idea last summer was to bring in a group of people who were highly qualified to manage affairs and make policy while fundamental political questions were decided.

Performance: Strong out of the starting gate but nowhere near the finish line. The cabinet appointed in July 2013 was perhaps Egypt's most qualified one on paper. It did have some political figures, but it was impressively long on degrees, experience, and reputations.

But as it turned out, it was also short on authority, direction, and coherence. Security questions were left to Egypt's scheming security apparatus, which seemed more concerned with vengeance than political reconstruction. Economic plans were designed -- but then postponed. Foreign leaders tried to go straight to Sisi, seeing him as the current and future leader. Decisions seemed to be made -- or shelved -- in the shadows.

As a result, the country remained adrift and some of the most able figures in the cabinet left. When Sisi steps into the presidency, he will find an in-box similar to the one that greeted the cabinet last July when it took office -- and not unlike the one that greeted Morsi in June 2012.

5. Parliamentary elections
Letter: The SCC was to expedite its review of the election law for parliament passed by the Brotherhood-dominated upper house, and then the country was to move toward parliamentary elections.

Spirit: Egypt had been without a parliament since June 2012; it would get one quickly.

Performance: The letter of the road map remains completely unfulfilled -- the law was never submitted to the SCC. Instead, Mansour is having some lawyers work on a new law. And that means the spirit has been violated as well -- it is likely to be several months more before a parliament is finally seated. By this foot dragging, Egypt's interregnum was prolonged greatly.

One benefit of the procedure is that Egypt may get its first parliamentary election law since the 1970s to be found constitutional by the SCC. Mansour, after all, is pulling double duty as the SCC's chief justice and the figure overseeing the drafting of the law. He will have to recuse himself if the SCC reviews the law that he helped draft, but he is likely to have a bit of insight of how they will react to the law as it is being prepared.

6. Media reform
Letter: Putting together a code of ethics that ensures media freedom and achieves professional standards, credibility, and objectivity that prioritize the nation's high interests.

Spirit: Have the media reform themselves.

Performance: The letter has been forgotten. And the spirit? Pockets of professionalism aside, Egyptian media seem to specialize in pouring gasoline on any flame and yelling fire in crowded theaters. Enthusiasm is their strong suit, ethics are not.

Nor has the media been left to reform itself. Security forces and the public prosecution have lent a helping hand -- or to switch metaphors slightly, an iron fist -- by jailing journalists, Egyptians and foreigners alike, who poke their noses in the wrong places.

7. Youth integration
Letter: Taking executive measures to empower and engage the youth in the state institutions, to be a decision-making partner as aides to ministers, governors, and in different executive posts.

Spirit: Getting Egypt's gerontocracy to add a few seats to the table.

Performance: There has been some grudging compliance with the letter of the road map, but tokenism aside, Egypt is still ruled by older men (and a few older women). There is some indication that Egypt's new rulers sense they have a problem -- there was much handwringing over low youth turnout in the constitutional referendum earlier this year. But Egypt's rulers have still fallen back on head-bashing when faced with rebellious youth movements: One such prominent group, the April 6 Movement, recently found itself banned and its leaders imprisoned.

8. National reconciliation
Letter: Forming a supreme committee for national reconciliation of personalities who enjoy credibility and acceptance by all national elites and represent different movements.

Spirit: Can't we all just get along?

Performance: No, we can't. What else can be said in a country where "reconciliation" has become a dirty word? There was a grudging effort to allow some mediation efforts last summer. But since that time, would-be mediators have been more likely to be attacked than welcomed. There has simply been no attempt to comply with the letter or the spirit of this pledge.

With over 1,000 death sentences, thousands of violent deaths, and well over 10,000 people jailed since the overthrow of Morsi, the claim that Egypt is in the midst of a democratic transition has convinced few outside observers. But even according to its own checklist, Egypt's record is uneven. The shortcomings are not all technical and legalistic -- some, such as the fate of the reconciliation pledge, have been fundamental. And the process has taken much longer than was suggested in July 2013, allowing it to be more carefully managed by the country's new leaders.

The existence of two different visions of Egypt -- one sliding into despotism, the other dutifully following its people to a democratic future -- is deeply problematic for the country's leadership. As a result, defenders of the new order have come to equate statements of concern about the political climate in the country to hostility to Egypt. Once again, regime, state, and society are being blended in political debates -- and there is no better sign of the way that the hopes of 2011 have been dashed.


Democracy Lab

How Putin Is Reinventing Warfare

Though some deride Russia for backward thinking, Putin's strategy in Ukraine betrays a nuanced understanding of 21st century geopolitics.

The Kremlin, according to Barack Obama, is stuck in the "old ways," trapped in Cold War or even 19th century mindsets. But look closer at the Kremlin's actions during the crisis in Ukraine and you begin to see a very 21st century mentality, manipulating transnational financial interconnections, spinning global media, and reconfiguring geo-political alliances. Could it be that the West is the one caught up in the "old ways," while the Kremlin is the geopolitical avant-garde, informed by a dark, subversive reading of globalization?

The Kremlin's approach might be called "non-linear war," a term used in a short story written by one of Putin's closest political advisors, Vladislav Surkov, which was published under his pseudonym, Nathan Dubovitsky, just a few days before the annexation of Crimea. Surkov is credited with inventing the system of "managed democracy" that has dominated Russia in the 21st century, and his new portfolio focuses on foreign policy. This time, he sets his new story in a dystopian future, after the "fifth world war."

Surkov writes: "It was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the 19th and 20th centuries it was common for just two sides to fight. Two countries, two blocks of allies. Now four coalitions collided. Not two against two, or three against one. All against all."

This is a world where the old geo-political paradigms no longer hold. As the Kremlin faces down the West, it is indeed gambling that old alliances like the EU and NATO mean less in the 21st century than the new commercial ties it has established with nominally "Western" companies, such as BP, Exxon, Mercedes, and BASF. Meanwhile, many Western countries welcome corrupt financial flows from the post-Soviet space; it is part of their economic models, and not one many want disturbed. So far, the Kremlin's gamble seems to be paying off, with financial considerations helping to curb sanctions. Part of the rationale for fast-tracking Russia's inclusion into the global economy was that interconnection would be a check on aggression. But the Kremlin has figured out that this can be flipped: Interconnection also means that Russia can get away with aggression.

"A few provinces would join one side," Surkov continues, "a few others a different one. One town or generation or gender would join yet another. Then they could switch sides, sometimes mid-battle. Their aims were quite different. Most understood the war to be part of a process. Not necessarily its most important part."

We can see a similar thinking informing the Kremlin as it toys with Eastern Ukraine, using indirect intervention through local gangs, with a thorough understanding of the interests of such local power brokers such as Donetsk billionaire Rinat Akhmetov (Ukraine's richest man) or Mikhail Dobkin, the former head of the Kharkiv Regional Administration and now presidential candidate. Though these local magnates make occasional public pronouncements supporting Ukraine's territorial integrity, their previous support of Yanukovych makes them wary of the new government in Kiev. Just the right degree of separatism could help guarantee their security while ensuring that their vast financial global interests are not harmed. "Think global, act local" is a favorite cliché of corporations -- it could almost be the Kremlin's motto in the Donbass.

And the Kremlin's "non-linear" sensibility is evident as it manipulates Western media and policy discourse. If in the 20th century the Kremlin could only lobby through Soviet sympathizers on the left, it now uses a contradictory kaleidoscope of messages to build alliances with quite different groups. European right-nationalists such as Hungary's Jobbik or France's Front National are seduced by the anti-EU message; the far-left are brought in by tales of fighting U.S. hegemony; U.S. religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin's stance against homosexuality. The result is an array of voices, all working away at Western audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber of Kremlin support. Influencers often appear in Western media and policy circles without reference to their Kremlin connections: whether it's PR company Ketchum placing pro-Kremlin op-eds in the Huffington Post; anti-Maidan articles by British historian John Laughland in the Spectator that make no mention of how the think tank he was director of was set up in association with Kremlin-allied figures; or media appearances by influential German political consultant Alexander Rahr that fail to note his paid position as an advisor for the German energy company Wintershall, a partner of Gazprom, Moscow's massive natural gas company (Rahr denies a conflict of interest).

Combatting non-linear war requires non-linear measures. International networks of anti-corruption NGOs could help squeeze corrupt flows from Russia. At the moment, this sector is underdeveloped, underfunded, and poorly internationally coordinated: In the U.K., for example, NGOs such as Global Witness or Tax Justice rarely engage with Russian counterparts. Anti-corruption NGOs need to have the backing to put painful pressure on corrupt networks on a daily basis, naming and shaming corrupt networks and pressuring western governments to shut them down and enact their own money laundering laws. This would squeeze the Kremlin's model even in the absence of further sanctions, ultimately playing a role as important as human rights organizations did in the 70s and 80s, when groups like Amnesty and the Helsinki Committee helped change the Cold War by supporting dissidents in the Communist block and shaming their governments.

Meanwhile capacity building is needed for both Ukraine and the West to deal with Kremlin disinformation and to formally track the role of Kremlin-connected influencers. So far, this work is happening ad-hoc as intrepid journalists reveal Kremlin lobbyists and triple-check leaks. To be effective, this work needs to be institutionalized, whether in think tanks or via public broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe, so every sound bite from a Kremlin-funded "expert" is properly contextualized, every Kremlin meme deconstructed, and every British peer on Russian state company boards held accountable for their connections. And this needs to happen in both Western countries and Russia's "near abroad," where the Kremlin projects its non-linear influence through a variety of institutions, from the Orthodox Church, to entertainment television and business groups. Georgia, Moldova, and Latvia are particularly vulnerable, and their security services need to be prepared for the sort of indirect intervention we are seeing in eastern Ukraine.

But aside from such concrete measures, it's also important to appreciate that the Kremlin is throwing down the gauntlet to the Western-inspired vision of globalization, to the kitsch "global village" vision on the covers of World Bank annual reports and in Microsoft advertisements. It is better to understand the Kremlin's view of globalization as a kind of "corporate raiding" -- namely, the ultra-violent, post-Soviet version of corporate takeovers. "Raiding" involves buying a minority share in a company, and then using any means at your disposal (false arrests, mafia threats, kidnapping, disinformation, blackmail) to acquire control. Russian elites sometimes refer to the country as a "minority shareholder in globalization," which, given Russia's experience with capitalism, implies it is the world's great "corporate raider." Non-linear war is the means through which a geo-political raider can leverage his relative weakness. And this vision appeals to a very broad constituency across the world, to those full of resentment for the West and infused by the sense that the "global village" model is a priori rigged. For all the talk of Russia's isolation, the BRIC economies have actually been subdued in their criticism of the annexation of Crimea, with the Kremlin thanking both China and India for being understanding.

Perhaps, despite what Obama says, there is a battle of ideas going on. Not between communism and capitalism, or even conservatives and progressives, but between competing visions of globalization, between the "global village" -- which feels at once nice, naff, and unreal -- and "non-linear war." It is naïve to assume the West will win with this new battle with the same formula it used in the Cold War. Back then, the West united free market economics, popular culture, and democratic politics into one package: Parliaments, investment banks, and pop music fused to defeat the politburo, planned economics, and social realism. But the new Russia (and the new China) has torn that formula apart: Russian popular culture is Westernised, and people drive BMWs, play the stock market, and listen to Taylor Swift all while cheering anti-Western rhetoric and celebrating American downfall.

"The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock," said Surkov when he was one of the first Russian officials to be put on the U.S. sanctions list as "punishment" for Russia's actions in Crimea. "I don't need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing."

We live in a truly non-linear age. And the future might just belong to the raiders.