Egypt Sliding into Military Dictatorship

When the revolution that eventually overthrew Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak began, I warned that the end result could easily be a government as bad or worse than Mubarak’s was. In a revolutionary situation, liberal democratic forces often get outmaneuvered by more ruthless and better-organized opponents – even if majority public opinion would prefer a liberal regime. In Egypt, I pointed out, the establishment of a repressive regime is made more likely by the fact that public opinion is in may ways extremely illiberal. Unfortunately, this fear has so far been justified by events. As Thanassis Cambanis explains in the Atlantic, the new Egyptian government is well on its way to becoming a military dictatorship in some ways more repressive than Mubarak’s regime:

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Egypt’s January 25 Revolution is being eaten alive. It’s too soon to write it off, and too soon to predict that a full-fledged military dictatorship will rule the country for the foreseeable future; but that grisly outcome now is a solid possibility, perhaps as likely an outcome as a liberal, civilian Egypt or an authoritarian republic.

Eight months after a euphoric wave of people power stunned Egypt’s complacent and abusive elite, it’s possible to see the clear outlines of the players competing to take over from Mubarak and his circle, and to assess the likely outcomes. The scorecard is distasteful. The uprising — it can’t yet be fairly termed a revolution — forced the regime to jettison its CEO, Hosni Mubarak, in order to preserve its own prerogatives.

In the last two months, that regime has made clear how strong it feels. In September, in quick succession the military extended the hated state of emergency for another year, effectively rendering any notion of rule of law in Egypt meaningless; unilaterally published election rules that favor wealthy incumbents and remnants of the old regime, and that disadvantage new, post-Mubarak competitors; indefinitely postponed presidential elections, and refused any timetable for handing over authority to a civilian; reinstated full media censorship, threatening television stations and imposing a gag order on all reporting about the military; and the country’s authoritarian ruler, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, unleashed a personal public relations campaign on state television odiously reminiscent of Mubarak’s image-making. Furthermore, the government advanced its investigation of “illegal NGOs” that allegedly took foreign money, including virtually every important and independent dissident organization.

Taken together, these moves show a military junta fully confident that it can impose measures of control as harsh — or, in the case of widespread military trials for civilians, harsher — than those employed by Mubarak.

As Cambanis recognizes, the new military rulers have not yet fully consolidated their power. So a more liberal outcome is still possible. But its likelihood is gradually diminishing. Moreover, many of the military government’s opponents are far from being liberal democrats themselves. Some of them are radical Islamists who, if they prevail, would establish a significantly more oppressive government than the generals – especially with respect to women and religious minorities.

Some dictatorships are so bad that their overthrow will almost always be a net positive. The new regime can hardly avoid being a lesser evil than the old when the latter is a totalitarian state and/or engaging in mass murder. Consider such cases as Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot. Mubarak, however, was basically a run of the mill despot who repressed political opponents but was not a totalitarian and did not commit mass murder. The overthrow of that kind of regime often leads to the establishment of a worse one. Such an outcome is also a real danger in Libya, where radical Islamists are among the leaders of the victorious anti-Gadhafi rebels.