Some Basic Political Science Regarding Egypt
Some thoughts on the ongoing situation in Egypt.
I have been travelling for work and family and have been a bit out of the blogging loop, so I m a little late in commenting on the unfolding events in Egypt, but here are some thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain:
1. Yes, it’s a Coup. Regardless of what people want to call it, the actions by the Egyptian military to remove Morsi from office was a coup. A coup is an extralegal action to remove the head of a government (it can also refer to extralegal dissolutions of legislature, see, e.g., Fujimori, Alberto in Peru). By “extralegal” I simply mean outside the scope of established processes. In the US, for example, the only legal way to remove a sitting president is the impeachment and removal process. Any other means would be outside the established law, hence “extralegal.” The term “illegal” is often not used not because an extralegal action is legal, but because there may not actually be a law governing the action taken (again, hence “extra”). There are almost certainly no laws that forbid the military from doing what they did, but then again no law authorizing either.
This is, in fact, the second coup in the ongoing political turmoil in Egypt. Back in 2011 when Mubarak was removed, that was also a coup (as I argued at the time). The political crisis in Egypt has resulted in the game being played without adequate rules and that underlying problem has not ben fixed yet.
2. No, it’s not a Revolution.
Part of the confusion is just misuse. For example, there is a tendency in the press (and amongst participants) to call any mass protest a “revolution” (see, for example, the Orange Revolution, the Cedar Revolution, and the Green Revolution—none of which were actually revolutions). And, of course, participants prefer to call such events “revolutions” because that is what they want: major change. Calling something a revolution, however, does not make it so.
A revolution is a very rare social phenomenon (as I noted back at the start of these events) that results in change to the political, economic, and social structures of a country. Classic examples of true revolutions include France, Russia, China, Cuba, Iran, and Nicaragua. To quote from Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (264) we get both a definition of a coup and of a revolution (definitions that are widely accepted in the political science literature, although no doubt quibbled about on the margins):
A revolution is a rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership. and government activity and policies. Revolutions are thus to be distinguished from insurrections, rebellions, revolts, coups, and wars of independence. A coup d’etat in itself changes only leadership and perhaps policies; a rebellion of insurrection may change policies, leadership, and political institutions, but no social structure and values; a war of independence is a struggle of one community against rule by an alien community and does not necessarily involve changes in the social structure of either community. What is here called simply “revolution” is what others have called great revolutions, grand revolutions, or social revolutions. Notable examples are the French, Chinese, Mexican, Russian, and Cuban revolutions.
Revolutions are rare.
Emphases are mine.
The bottom line is that while there have now been multiple changes in terms of who is in charge (at least nominally, if not in reality) of executive authority in Egypt there has not been a major restructuring of politics, economics, or social structure in Egypt.
3. Yes, Words are Political. The fact that there are disputes over what words to use is a mix of misuse of terms and politics (indeed, it is mostly politics). If one is anti-Morsi, one does not want to call recent events a “coup” because it has a negative connotation. If one is pro-Morsi, one prefers the term with the negative connotation. Likewise, “revolution” tends to have a positive connotation.
In the case of the US, there is the very real political difficulty of calling these events a “coup” because of the laws concerning aid to countries where a coup removes an elected leader (which Doug Mataconis discussed a few days ago). One thing I would note on this specific issue: the fact that Obama administration is trying to finesse the topic is not endemic to the Obama administration. Any US president would be doing the same thing. The reason the US gives all that money to Egypt in the first place is about the strategic significance of Egypt. Just look at a map and note the country’s proximity to Israel, not to mention the Suez Canal and its relevance to the flow of oil. Indeed, while I have noted many trying to make political hay out of the Obama administration’s continuation of support for Egypt, if one knows one’s history, one should note that the massive amounts of foreign aid the US provides to Egypt is long-standing and is very much linked to US policy towards Israel as well as to energy. These are rather major components to US foreign policy regardless of one’s views on ongoing events. This is not to say that the policy is good, bad, or indifferent. It is to say that understanding of the policy requires a multi-decade view, not one vested in one’s views of the current administration. It is also to say that if one knows one’s history one should know that changing those standing policies is not an easy thing to do, nor it is something to be done on a capricious reaction to short-term events.
4. Yes, Institutions Matter. The ongoing situation in Egypt points to the importance of institutions (i.e., rules and structures that govern political activity) in more than one way. In terms of the post-Mubarak period we saw a lot of playing of the game without clear rules (i.e., without established, functioning institutions).
It would seem that one would not want to wait until the week of a presidential election-or worse still, between rounds of said election-to define the powers of the president-to-be. But then there is Egypt.
I believe it is unusual for a president to be elected before a constitution-even a provisional one-has been enacted. Normally, there is a constituent assembly, during which time a provisional government remains in place, as in Tunisia currently, or else a constitution is negotiated prior to any elections (as with several Eastern European and African transitions of the 1990s).
The sequencing matters. To put it in simple terms, what they did in Egypt is like what many of did as kids playing in the front yard on a summer afternoon: they starting playing a game without establishing the rules and then the players started to call fouls based on their own personal preferences. And, like children in the yard yelling “not fair!” or “that’s not a rule!” the situation degenerated into a fight. And, like those front yard brawls, the big kids (in this case the military) were the winners in the fight, not because they were necessarily right, but because they were the most powerful.
When there are no established rules, power ends up winning the day. One constant in the entire Egyptian process has been that the military has remained intact and has been a fairly autonomous actor (i.e., there is no authority controlling them).
If one goes back and looks at the process one will see a problematic constitution-writing process as well as an ongoing set of institutional clashes and other examples of lack of agreement over the rules (or, more precisely, a lack of clear and accepted rules).
5. No, it’s not Over Yet. Anyone who pays attention to political transitions should not be surprised that the ouster of Mubarak did not settle the political scene in Egypt. These types of processes are often lengthy and they have ebbs and flows. To get back to the previous point: until there are regularized processes established and accepted by the participants, this process will not be complete.
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