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By Marina Ottaway
Egypt faces three major and related political challenges to a successful democratic transition: the role the military is playing and will continue to play; the presence of powerful Islamic forces, not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but also the Salafi groups and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya; and, somewhat more unexpectedly, the growing reluctance of some self-proclaimed democrats to put the future of the country in the hands of a democratic process. The way these challenges are handled in the coming months will determine whether Egypt moves toward democracy or sinks into a new authoritarianism. Unless Islamists and liberals manage to find a modus vivendi in the coming months, the outcome will be a new authoritarianism, with an alliance between the military and so-called liberals as a more likely outcome than a takeover by radical Islamists.
Judging simply on the official pronouncements of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been acting as a sort of collective presidency in Egypt since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the military does not constitute an obstacle to a democratic transition. On the contrary, it has taken upon itself the task of guiding the country toward such transition, maintaining stability, and ensuring continuity until a parliament and a president are elected. Indeed, many reports point out that the military appears uneasy with the central role it is playing now, and that it is anxious to return, if not to its barracks, at least to the less conspicuous position it occupied under the Mubarak regime, as the ultimate guarantor of stability with no involvement in the day-to-day running of the country.
Until January 2011, a discussion of Islamists in politics in Egypt was a discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, the situation has become increasingly complex. The Muslim Brotherhood has formed a separate political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. Al-Wasat, an old splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood that had tried unsuccessfully to register as a party for over 15 years, also received approval. Some younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood have started showing their independence, first participating in the uprising even as their elders were holding back, joining forces with other youth groups, and finally forming the Egyptian Current Party (al-Tayyar al-Masry) as well as the smaller al-Reyada.
The Illiberal Democrats
Illiberal democrats are Egyptians who advocate democracy and are sometimes as well-known as democracy advocates, but in the end are so worried that democracy will bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power that they turn to illiberal positions and advocate illiberal policies in the hope of avoiding such an outcome. Most democracy advocates do not fall into this category, of course, but since committed democrats are not an obstacle to democracy, they need not be discussed here.
The military, Islamist parties, and illiberal democrats are all obstacles to a democratic outcome of the Egyptian transition. Depending on how the three actors react to each other, the outcome could doom the chances of a democratic transition or enhance them.