Warren Weertman
Warren Weertman

Egypt: How not to do a political transition

You’ve been elected in your country’s first democratic election. Well done. That’s the easy bit done. Now you need to actually start governing. That, as Morsi found out in Egypt, is the difficult bit.

Reasons abound for the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt. I want to focus on two issues: inclusive leadership and elite transitions.

I am focusing on these two aspects as they are important factors in any political transition. Get them wrong and the midden will hit the windmill.

Part of Morsi’s (and the Muslim Brotherhood’s) problem in Egypt was the absence of an inclusive style of leadership. The logic that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood followed was beguilingly simple: we’ve won the election with a majority of 52% of the vote, so we can now do whatever we want. This despite their election promises to govern inclusively.

The problem with Morsi’s approach is that while it is technically correct, in practice, you can’t govern a democratic (even nominally democratic) country in the interests of one set of people. Democracy requires some form of inclusivity, especially when you are trying to make a transition to a more democratic regime after 30 years of dictatorship. In essence, Morsi’s leadership style contained the seed of its own destruction.

This is one aspect of South Africa’s transition that was successful. Not only was there a political transition, but the transition was also inclusive. We were all part of the Rainbow Nation. Regardless of whether you buy into the myth of the Rainbow Nation or not, the fact remains that it is a powerful yardstick to govern the state of South Africa’s transition by.

This model of an inclusive political transition has been used by successive South African governments in various ways, particularly when a South African government has been playing a role in the transition of another African state. The most prominent example for me remains Burundi.

So whoever takes over after the next elections in Egypt should make real inclusivity a key building block of their approach to governing. In governance terminology, it’s about governing in the interests of not only your shareholders, but also your stakeholders.

The second aspect that I want to focus on is the issue of elite transitions.

Egypt’s Revolution of January 25 failed to ensure an elite transition on all fronts of Egyptian society. This meant that although Morsi was democratically elected and there was a form of political transition, the old elites in Egypt still had their hands on the levers of economic, military and judicial power.

This makes any form of effective government very difficult. You can pass a law, but what’s the point when the very people you’re trying to control by lawful means can simply ignore you?

Again, the example of South Africa would be instructive for the next democratically elected regime in Egypt.

While South Africa’s political transition was highly successful, it didn’t happen overnight. For example, the sunset clauses in the interim Constitution guaranteed the positions of apartheid-era civil servants until they retired. Despite the headaches this caused along the way, it was a useful way to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.

However, in some areas of society the transition remains incomplete, particularly in respect of the economy. What appears to have happened in South Africa’s economic transition is the co-option of members of the new political elite into the old economic elite. This approach ensures the economic elite’s continued hand on the lever of economic power.

Mind you, this isn’t the first time South Africa’s economic elite has co-opted members of a new political elite. Subsequent to the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, a similar gradualist approach of co-option of took place, ultimately leading to the creation of an Afrikaner capitalist elite. In essence, history is simply repeating itself in South Africa.

That’s a useful lesson for any democrats in Egypt. While some elites can be transformed quickly, others may be a tougher nut to crack. The question is how you handle the more delicate elite transitions.

Any transition will be a painful and difficult task. Let’s hope that the next democratically elected government in Egypt does a better job of managing their transition.

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  • 2 Responses to “Egypt: How not to do a political transition”

    1. In my opinion South Africa made exactly the same mistake as Egypt, and so did America and Britain in Iraq.

      But you are entited to your opinion.

      July 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm
    2. ‘Any transition will be a painful and difficult task’ and I would add the word ‘long’. I also believe ‘manage’ is the right word in this context. Government is the very tough job of managing, when you boil it down, and nothing is harder to manage than change.

      In the case of Egypt, these things were not understood – or tolerated – because there is no culture of democracy.

      July 9, 2013 at 9:43 am

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