Geopolitics

Why Egypt Is Ultimately Destined For Democracy

Egypt's 'operating system,' to borrow a tech-world term, needs replacing — and the military must relinquish power. It looks impossible today, but is inevitable in the long run.

Egyptian military and police guard Cairo polling stations for 2018 presidential election
Egyptian military and police guard Cairo polling stations for 2018 presidential election
*Ezzedine C. Fishere

CAIRO — Five years ago, I wrote that the military would not be able to maintain popular support if they abandon the democratic process, and that neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the military would be able to re-impose authoritarianism. Egypt cannot be stable without democratic governance. The only remaining question, as I wrote in the German Die Zeit and privately owned Al-Shorouk newspapers, is whether this democratic governance would "soon emerge, or we should embark on a new round of conflict before everyone realizes the need for true democracy?"

We got the answer rather quickly. The new regime not only abandoned democratic transition, but also closed the limited pluralist space that former president Hosni Mubarak had maintained for 30 years, and became increasingly comparable to the Nasserite regime, both in terms of its despotism and the dominance of the military. As a result, many gave up on the possibility of democracy in Egypt and accepted the claim that the military will not abandon its hold over the country in the foreseeable future, or ever, perhaps.

This, I contend, is too hasty a conclusion. Sooner or later the Egyptian military will give up control over governance. They will almost certainly maintain their independence and a strong voice in the country's strategic decisions, but they will have no viable option other than to withdraw from the public sphere, opening the way for a genuine democratic transition.

The current regime cannot deliver on its promise to make Egypt "as big as the world."

I build this claim on the basis of the following four assumptions:

First, state failure in Egypt is deeper than what we often credit it for. By 2011, the state was failing to fulfill its basic functions — security, law and order, mobilizing human and natural resources, etc. This failure left no room for denial or pretense. Instead, a general realization settled that the country was sinking in misery, while its ruling elite was using public office for personal survival. This explains the overwhelming support for the Jan. 25 uprising.

Second, this state failure cannot be reversed through tightening control over politics, or mobilizing public support behind leaders. It cannot be reversed by changing ministers and senior officials, or by adding and/or scrapping governmental programs. Addressing this failure requires, to borrow computer language, a replacement of the "operating system." Reversing state failure requires a rebuilding of state institutions — economic, service and political — as well as those in charge of security and law enforcement. It requires replacing their underpinning philosophy and operational modes in ways that bring them from the 19th-century-world they are trapped in to our modern era.

This is a tall order. Such a reconstruction requires almost full cooperation among social and political groups in order to provide the necessary support for difficult decisions. And the state has to undergo these deep reforms at the same time as facing the same economic, political and security challenges that crippled its ailing institutions. In other words, Egypt needs to fight two battles simultaneously: one in confronting challenges such as the weak economy and terrorism, the other with itself; with its own institutions that are supposed to be its tools in facing these challenges. This dual fight is easily lost. It is enough for one significant political group to challenge it — or even refuse to cooperate with it — for it to fail.

Third, the political culture of many Egyptians has changed. This includes the ways in which people think about authority, and their expectations of the state and those who run it. Today, a majority of Egyptians believe they have a right to hold the state accountable, regardless of their political affiliation. They also expect state officials to be responsive to their demands and want deep changes to occur in order to make this happen.

The fourth and last assumption is that the military leadership has not understood the extent of change in Egypt. They continue to belittle state failure, attempting to contain it through a combination of painkillers, aggressive mobilization aimed at "giving people hope," and some daring economic austerity measures. They either do not understand the need to change the "operating system" of the state, reducing it to administrative reform, or do not believe it can be achieved.

Verdict of the people

No researcher can verify these four assumptions empirically without ending up in jail. Instead, I use an instrumentalist approach to assess their validity. The more data they explain (compared to competing assumptions), the more credit I give them.

Over the last seven years, these four assumptions have enabled me — and others — to anticipate a number of important political transformations in Egypt. This is how I could predict, in an article the Financial Times ran on Feb. 4, 2011, the initial success of democratic forces to topple Mubarak and the eventual rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. They also helped predict, in an article published in the same newspaper in January 2013, that the rule of the Brotherhood would be short lived. These are also the assumptions underpinning my novel Bab Al-Khoroug (Exit, 2012), which dealt with Egypt's political turmoil.

I am not referring to these predictions in order to claim some kind of special foresight, but to illustrate the analytical usefulness of these four assumptions — my only way to "verify" their validity. And if these assumptions continue to be relevant, it will be impossible for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the military leadership to maintain stability in Egypt beyond the short term.

The memories of 2011-2013 chaos and insecurity are fading.

State failure will not be reversed by the current economic, political and ideological measures the ruling elite are taking, regardless of how ambitious they are. The withdrawal, indifference and active hostility of important segments of the population make it even more unlikely to succeed.

Although the majority acquiesce to the current authoritarian rule, including its harsh repression of opponents and restriction of free speech, this same majority still holds the regime accountable for success and failure. When it fails, the verdict of the people is clear, even if it doesn't immediately translate into political action.

In other words, the current regime cannot deliver on its promise to make Egypt "as big as the world." And no media machine can hide that. Hence, the regime cannot maintain popular support through achievement and performance. It relies, rather, on the majority's exhaustion and the panic that prevailed before 2013, including fears of state collapse, as was the case in Syria.

It also relies on the absence of an alternative with a demonstrable track record of achievement. Continued terrorist acts might prolong this sense of fear, and hence support for the regime. But they also undermine public trust in the ability of the regime to provide security.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi meeting with UAE ministerial delegation in Cairo — Photo: Egyptian President Office/APA Images/ZUMA

Either way, the memories of 2011-2013 chaos and insecurity are fading. And living conditions are deteriorating for the majority of Egyptians, especially with the hard economic decisions the authorities made recently. In the absence of hope that these trends will be reversed, the verdict of the public will soon be clear.

In short, whatever tricks the military has up its sleeve are bound to run out. And when that time comes, it will run out of room to maneuver. The militarization that began after June 30, 2013, with its tight controls, closure of public space, continued media mobilization, etc., is the "last bullet" the military has in its arsenal. When its inability to reverse state failure becomes a public verdict, those in power might be tempted to use force to quell opposition. But usually, wiser minds prevail.

Key in this scenario is the validity of the four assumptions I have outlined. If I got any of them wrong — if the revolution was a global conspiracy, or the Egyptian political culture hasn't really changed, or the current policies will reverse state failure — then we, in Egypt, will live happily ever after under military rule. But I don't think so.

*The author is an Egyptian novelist, diplomat and academic. This article was translated from Arabic by Mada Masr

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Green

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.


It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park

Xinhua/ZUMA

Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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