The Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) hosted a conference on the democratic transition in Egypt on Friday as part of its Program on Arab Reform and Democracy.
Twelve Egypt scholars from American, Egyptian and European universities and think tanks convened in four panels throughout the day to discuss the revolution, the transition process, the changing political landscape and Egypt’s future. The conference was co-sponsored by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.
Panelists included Hoover Institution senior fellow Larry Diamond, history professor Joel Beinin, political science assistant professor Lisa Blaydes, CDDRL visiting scholar Ben Rowswell and CDDRL Program Manager Lina Khatib. They were joined by academics from Kent State University, Harvard University, Georgetown University, the University of Texas, Notre Dame University, the University of Exeter, the American University in Cairo and the Brookings Doha Center.
Each panel featured an introduction by the chair, followed by two or three 30-minute talks by panelists and a 30-minute Q&A session.
Emad Shahin, an associate professor of religion, conflict and peacebuilding at Notre Dame, opened the first panel with a talk that emphasized the role of the youth in charging the 18 days of protest that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak.
“In 18 days, this movement dismantled three pillars of Mubarak’s regime—the security apparatus, NDP [National Democratic Party] and…the military,” he said.
Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, discussed the response of the regime to the protests and the reasons for its failure.
The second panel looked to the future, focusing on the Egyptian presidential elections scheduled for later this year. Speeches addressed the process of negotiations between the regime and opposition groups, the agenda for constitutional and institutional reform and political repression.
Panelist Jason Brownlee, an associate professor in the Department of Government at University of Texas at Austin, drew a parallel between the current situation in Egypt and the one in Russia in 1991. He described the liberal movement as “electorally weak” and said it experienced difficulty in maintaining momentum.
The third panel addressed political parties in the post-revolution landscape, including the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party. Panelist Hesham Sallam, a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University, spoke on how the timeline for the parliamentary elections, currently set for this September, disadvantages newly formed parties and favors parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The speed of transition in Egypt gives advantage to existing political parties by not allowing time for newcomers to organize,” he said.
“The Brotherhood knows how to play politics where liberals have absolutely no idea,” added Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.
Diamond described parallels with the situation in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
“The liberals weren’t good at organizing, had no mass constituency and got electorally crushed…but they had a constructive influence on the constitution making process,” he said.
“We should look at this as an iterative process of several elections to come,” he added.
The final panel focused on looking forward. Rowswell presented a new “Open Source Democracy Promotion” project, designed to provide Egyptian activists with an option for crowd sourcing constitutional negotiations.
“The best approach is for informed and engaged citizens to support the Egyptian activists…inspired by the opportunity Egyptians have given themselves but also inspired by what Egyptians have given the world regarding democratic state building and ushering in a new age of democracy based on mutual collaboration and participation,” Rowswell said.
Hamid delivered the final talk of the conference, presenting his forecast for the parliamentary elections. He singled out newly formed parties backed by wealthy individuals as key players in the upcoming vote.
“The established political parties will do quite well, but also individuals with name recognition in their districts and those with resources will do well,” he said.
Hamid cautioned against overly idealistic projections, given the disorganization of the liberal parties in Egypt.
“We have to be realistic,” he said. “We wanted to think for a long time that once there was democracy, Egyptians would become fluffy American-style liberals, and we don’t know if that is true.”
“From the perspective of international actors doing democracy promotion, I think there’s a distinction between encouraging Egyptians to make one choice over another,” Rowswell said. “I think it should be ensuring that there is a choice to make.”