Lessons to Keep Egyptian Democracy Afloat

A recent diplomatic dispute over activity along the Egyptian-Israeli border and the subsequent populist outrage in the streets of Cairo means it is time to re-evaluate the future of Egyptian democracy, at least in the short-term.

Today, it has become clear that for Egyptian democracy to survive, it has to be cultivated in a stable, peaceful environment. In order for that to happen, the Egyptian military will have to step in and uphold the laws of Egypt’s secular institutions as well as enforce its peace treaties. The absence of such a setting could spell trouble for the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, Egyptian moderates, and Egyptian democratic ambitions.

As I have previously stated on PolicyMic, in order to see the future of Egyptian party politics, one must look no further than Egypt’s neighbor Israel. Both countries share diverse, opinionated populations.

But religiously affiliated parties, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, seek to transform Egypt’s relationship with its Jewish neighbor from one of peace and prosperity to one of hostility and discord. As the infant democratic Egypt dips its toes into the pool of liberty, it cannot afford to be splashed. A conflict with Israel would do irreparable damage to the newborn notion of democracy in Egypt and devastate Egypt’s already poor economy.

Egyptians could look to their military not to make war against Israel, but to act as a bulwark against the steady creep of Islamism into what should be a secular, liberal, and democratic Egyptian state. This strategy worked for Turkey nearly 90 years ago, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk modernized and secularized the former Ottoman Empire, turning it into a republic modeled after the West. Like contemporary Egyptians, post-World War I Turks were devoted to Islam, but they strongly supported their military. Their trust allowed Atatürk to abolish the caliphate, modernized the Turkish language away from Islamically-associated Arabic, codified an independent secular law, and pursued peace with Turkey’s neighbors. 

In order for Egyptian democracy to survive in any form, it must endure a similar “Turkish Period,” wherein Islamic pressures are kept separate from Egypt’s secular institutions at the hands of the military class. To do so should not be seen as an admittance of defeat for Egyptians who dream of a free and fair state. Today, Turkey is a stable, economically flourishing Muslim country with a significant portion of its population wholeheartedly devoted to its democratic institutions. Given time, Egypt’s “Turkish period” will help develop a stronger, secular-minded middle class, and Egypt, too, shall witness greater prosperity.

Many people rightfully fear that giving too much power to the military would be taking an enormous step back from democracy and would potentially usher in a return to politics as they were in the times of Egypt’s former president and military strongman Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Throughout the history of the Turkish republic, there have been incidents in which the military overstepped its bounds, and it seems like there is a new military-led coup d’état every decade. There would also be incredible outrage amongst the high numbers of Islamic party supporters throughout Egypt.

The key for Egypt will be finding an appropriate balance between Turkey’s once-influential and proactive military leadership and America’s civilian-controlled armed forces. Perhaps Egypt’s military could stand merely to uphold the constitution — assuming there will be one — similar to a supreme court but with claws. The idea would not be for the military to prevent democracy, but for it to restrict democracy just enough to prevent it from causing it to destroy itself. There could still be independent parties of every nature, a parliament, and an executive. However, it could be mandated that a set number of military officials — chosen from within the military leadership — sit on the constitutional courts and temper the conservative whims of the masses. 

For secular, forward-thinking Egyptians, a Turkish Period appears to be the best option to safeguard minority rights and freedom of speech. After a generation of peace and economic gains, perhaps the military can return to its established role of defending Egypt from external threats, insha’allah.

Photo Credit: Daniel Bender

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Daniel Bender

Daniel received his BA in International Affairs from the George Washington University in 2009. He has traveled extensively throughout India, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey and his academic and writing interests include Middle Eastern politics, geography, philosophy, and history.

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