‘Putinization’ threat to Europe’s young democracies

Democratic regression in Hungary and Ukraine is raising questions about the vulnerabilities of young democracies in Central and Southeastern Europe, according to the findings of the 2012 Nations in Transit report. Fearing the demonstration effect of the Arab awakening, authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan cracked down on independent voices, write Christopher Walker and Sylvana Habdank–Kolaczkowska. But much more worrisome is the “Putinization” of countries that had joined the ranks of established democracies, a trend that demands a fresh look at the growing challenges to democratic consolidation.

The failure of virtually any of the countries of Eurasia to shed old governance habits and end monopolies on political and economic power has been one of the greatest disappointments of the past two decades. Regimes in countries as diverse as

Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, and Uzbekistan have taken steps—some brutal, others more subtle—to adapt to new circumstances and maintain power. It was widely understood from the outset, however, that these countries faced far steeper climbs toward democratic governance, given their far less enviable starting points, than the former Soviet satellites of Central Europe and the successor states of the former Yugoslavia.

It should therefore be all the more worrisome that the very countries which have achieved the greatest success in the past two decades are now displaying serious vulnerabilities in their still young democratic systems. Over the past five years, Nations in Transit findings have shown a clear backsliding in key governance institutions across this subset of countries.

Hungary’s precipitous descent is the most glaring example among the newer European Union (EU) members. Its deterioration over the past five years has affected institutions that form the bedrock of democratically accountable systems, including independent courts and media. Hungary’s negative trajectory predated the current government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, but his drive to concentrate power over the past two years has forcefully propelled the trend. In this edition of Nations in Transit, which covers calendar 2011, the country suffered declines in every category, a rare occurrence in the history of the report.

To be sure, the swift dismantling of democratic checks has been made easier by Hungary’s particular political circumstances, among them a weak opposition and an illiberal ruling party with an unusual parliamentary supermajority. But the Hungarian example has raised new questions about the vulnerabilities of other young democracies in the region, where the combination of poorly rooted traditions of democratic practice, resilient networks of corruption and clientelism, low levels of public trust and engagement, and shaky economic conditions have hampered the achievement of indelible democratic reforms.

In addition to Hungary, five of the region’s EU member states—Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia—have experienced net declines over the past five years in the category of independent media. Other categories that have featured erosion during this period are electoral process, civil society, and national democratic governance. Stagnation and decline have also become more apparent in the parts of Southeastern Europe that lie outside the EU. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia have all suffered declines in national democratic governance over the past five years, driven in part by the overlap between business and political interests and the nagging problem of organized crime. And the media landscape of this area has been adversely affected by factors including nontransparent media ownership and the physical intimidation of journalists.  

Meanwhile, Ukraine, an erstwhile democratic hopeful that holds a pivotal geographical and political position between the EU and Russia, has likewise experienced a sharp, multiyear decline that has accelerated over the past two years. Its scores have worsened in five of the seven Nations in Transit categories. As in Hungary, its neighbor to the west, the current authorities in Ukraine have undertaken a broad assault on institutional accountability and transparency. Most conspicuously, President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration has targeted the country’s already weak judicial independence.  

Both Orbán and Yanukovych have been accused of pursuing the “Putinization” of their countries. This is ironic, given that Putinism in Russia itself has been largely discredited over the past year, as ordinary Russians increasingly seek the very guarantees of government accountability and transparency that the leaders of Hungary and Ukraine are busy dismantling. Since the onset of public protests in December 2011, portions of Russian society have signaled an interest in reclaiming the public space that has been systematically taken from them over the past 12 years under Vladimir Putin.  But the Kremlin is clearly disinclined to enact reforms that would meet the changing societal demands, setting the stage for a potentially lengthy battle of wills. To date, the state’s ability to both coerce and coopt has allowed it to prevail, but it may be forced to lean more heavily on coercion as Putin’s extensive campaign promises run up against budgetary realities and Russia’s dependence on high world energy prices.  

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, three distinct narratives have taken shape in the geographic space between Western Europe and Asia. The first is that of the successful new democracies of Central Europe and the Baltic region. The second pertains to the slowly improving, middle-performing democratic hopefuls in the Balkans. The third, least positive narrative is that of the reconstituted authoritarian regimes of Eurasia, which have adapted themselves to a post-Soviet world while maintaining an effective monopoly on political and economic power. A small subset of countries in this region—Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine—have demonstrated democratic ambitions but have struggled to construct durable democratic institutions. Ukraine, for its part, now appears poised to leave this group. 

The deepening repression in autocratic Eurasian states such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia is no longer surprising. Much more worrisome is the multiyear stagnation and increasing reversals in the countries that had presumably crossed a threshold and joined the ranks of established democracies. Hungary is now sorely testing the assumption that such transformations are irreversible, and its experience has cast doubt on the future of potentially more vulnerable states like Latvia, which faces particularly acute economic challenges and ongoing pressure from external powers, and Bulgaria and Romania, which have yet to root out entrenched corruption and continue to confront deep economic and other challenges to consolidating democratic institutions. 

There is still a considerable “democracy gap” between the Central European and Baltic states on the one hand, and the authoritarian regimes of Eurasia on the other. And those involved in supporting democracy and human rights have understandably focused their attention on the most execrable abusers of those rights. But now that the high achievers of the past two decades are showing signs of trouble, it is time to take a fresh, clear-eyed look at the deepening challenges to democratic consolidation in Central and Southeastern Europe. 


Reverberations of the Arab Spring in Authoritarian States: The overall democracy scores of most Eurasian countries either declined or remained unchanged. Fearing the demonstration effect of the uprisings in the Arab Middle East, authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan cracked down hard on protesters in 2011, using the full weight of their pliant judiciaries to preempt and punish dissent.

Deteriorating Judicial Independence in All Subregions: Declines were most numerous in the judicial framework and independence category in 2011, appearing in every subregion covered by Nations in Transit. A total of eight countries—Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine—regressed on this indicator.

Democratic Declines Gain Momentum in Ukraine and Hungary: In an alarmingly short period of time, the Yanukovych government in Ukraine has closed the democratic space that was opened after the Orange Revolution of late 2004. Ukraine’s ratings worsened in five categories for developments in 2011, with a steep, half-point decline in judicial framework and independence. For the second consecutive year, Hungary—once among the strongest performers in the study—experienced sharp declines in four categories, including half-point drops in electoral process, national democratic governance, and judicial framework and independence.

Challenges to Reform in the Balkans: Critical reforms stalled in nearly all Balkan states in 2011. While Croatia demonstrated its commitment to winning EU membership by cooperating with high-profile anticorruption investigations, four other Balkan countries experienced declines in the areas of electoral process, national democratic governance, judicial framework and independence, and independent media. Poorly conducted elections in Albania and Kosovo revealed the fragility of electoral reform in the absence of judicial independence and accountability.  

Christopher Walker is vice president for strategy and analysis, and Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska is project director for Nations in Transit. Katherin Machalek, Tyler Roylance, and Katherine Brooks provided critical research and editorial assistance for this essay.

The above extract is from Fragile Frontier: Democracy’s Growing Vulnerability in Central and Southeastern Europe, the latest edition of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit survey. Read the rest here.

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Democracy ‘a long way off’ in Egypt’s choice: military old guard or Islamist vanguard?

“Thousands of Egyptians poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square” today (above), Reuters reports, “to reclaim a revolt they say has been hijacked after Hosni Mubarak was jailed for life and his top security officials freed in a sign they say his old guard is still in charge.”

Mubarak’s interior minister Habib El Adly also received a life sentence for ordering troops to kill protesters, but the high court acquitted six former Interior Ministry officials of the same charge, citing lack of evidence, and also cleared Mubarak’s two sons of corruption charges.

The verdicts could affect voter turnout in the upcoming runoff presidential election, said Hala Mostafa, an analyst at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“A large segment of society was outraged by the unjust verdict,” she said. “Many voters will probably boycott the elections in a large-scale expression of anger.”

The current turmoil highlights the fragility of the country’s political transition and the resilience of authoritarian power structures, say observers.

The “chilling” aspect of the weekend’s verdicts was the acquittal of four senior police officers accused of giving shoot-to-kill orders, writes William J. Dobson:

The judge indicated that these acquittals stemmed from the prosecution’s failure to present sufficient evidence. Disturbingly, this fits a wider emerging pattern. According to Human Rights Watch, since March 2011, Egyptian prosecutors have filed at least 26 cases that charge more than 150 high- and low-ranking police officers with killing or injuring protesters during the 2011 uprising. Most of these cases are either still pending or have resulted in acquittals. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a respected NGO, witnesses have come under pressure to alter their testimony, while victims and their families have been pushed to withdraw their claims. Only two police officers have been given prison sentences for the deaths of 19 people.

“All of which suggests the shallowness of the changes to the Egyptian security state that Mubarak left behind. The appearance remains of a regime circling its wagons to protect its own,” notes Dobson, the author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.

Many liberal and secular voters are planning to abstain in the runoff on the grounds that the two options – the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and former Mubarak premier Ahmed Shafiq – equally unpalatable.

The leftist Hamdeen Sabahi and reformist Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, the third- and fourth-place finishers from the presidential poll’s first round, are calling for the establishment of a “presidential council” that would force Morsi to share power and demanding the implementation of a political disenfranchisement law which would prohibit former regime officials like Shafiq from contesting elections.

Sabahi and Abolfotoh made a joint appearance before thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square (above) on Monday night, “their first together in an attempt to form a united front challenging both Morsi and Shafiq,” but the proposals “would likely force the election process to begin again from scratch,” reports suggest.

A leading liberal politician criticized the call for a presidential council as a negation of democracy.

“They should have protested against the election and boycotted it from the onset rather than after losing,” said liberal MP Amr Hamzawy (right). “It is too late now for the presidential council idea, and it replaces the election process with an appointment process, which is incompatible with democracy.”

Sabahi and Abolfotoh should form a presidential team to assist Morsi, he said, on condition that they receive specific powers, including “the formation of a presidential team with unambiguous powers, the formation of a coalition government headed by someone from outside the Freedom and Justice Party, and for the key ministries such as the defense, interior, foreign affairs, justice, finance, and education ministries [to be headed by people] from outside the FJP as well, in the presence of a program for national action.”

Hamzawy said he will probably abstain in the run-off since he would “definitely not support Shafiq regardless of what promises he makes” and “will not vote for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate either without a clear agreement on guarantees.”

Such boycotts will benefit Morsi who many seculars consider to be the “lesser of two evils,” said Mostafa, but if protests escalate or turn violent, “Shafiq will win the vote of those hoping to see a restoration of order and security.”

Political groups are engaged in vigorous horse-trading, demanding written guarantees from the presidential candidates in exchange for their backing.

The election result will hinge on the Brotherhood’s response to overtures from the secular groups, said Rabab El-Mahdi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

“If they work on building a national consensus among different political forces, their support base will increase,” she said. “But if they give up on Tahrir Square and fail to answer protesters’ demands, this will hinder their chances of winning.”

The poll will come down to a battle of political machines, pitting the Islamists’ well-entrenched organization against the former ruling party’s patronage-based networks.

“The Brotherhood’s disciplined infrastructure has put Morsi one election away from Egypt’s presidency and – barring massive fraud – he stands an excellent chance” against Shafiq, writes analyst Eric Trager.

‘While Shafiq can count on support from Egyptian Christians and many of the rural clans that previously backed Mubarak’s ruling party, Morsi is already drawing support from many non-Islamists who fear a return to the old regime more than a Brotherhood-dominated Egypt,” he notes. “Moreover, early reports indicate that, faced with the choice between the autocratic Shafiq and theocratic Morsi, many voters will stay home – a decision that will bolster Morsi, since low turnouts benefit well-organised parties.”

The current wave of protests and calls to bar Shafiq from running are “reactionary” in nature, said Hassan Abu-Taleb, an analyst and editor-in-chief of Ahram’s Al-Taqreer Al-Strategy, hinting that revolutionary factions are simply trying to avoid a painful choice.

“Once public outrage subsides – after a couple days at most –revolutionary forces will have to ask themselves whether they want a civil or religious state,” he said.

“Will Egyptians side with the anti-revolutionary military old guard or the counter-revolutionary Islamist vanguard when choosing their next president?” asks Egyptian journalist Khaled Diab

“The counter-revolution is gathering pace,” he suggests, but Egyptian politics does not fit into easy polarities:  

Many Egyptians also believe that the Islamist-secularist fault line is exaggerated and even a distraction. While it certainly does exist, it is not a black-and-white division, with a significant proportion of secularists supporting traditional values and religious intolerance, while many Islamists, particularly younger ones, believing in democracy, religious freedom and individual rights.

“It’s much more comfortable for the two sides to engage in a culture war,” notes Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.  “But the real issue is building a democratic system, and striving for social justice and economic justice. The battle over identity is just polemics.”

Some secular democrats, while critical of the Brotherhood, do not believe that a Morsi victory will usher in an Islamic state.  

“Don’t panic,” says veteran journalist and activist Hisham Kassem. “I don’t think the Islamists are powerful enough to change the identity of the state.” 

If Morsi does win the presidential election, the Islamists’ political hegemony should not come as a surprise, observers suggest.

“Did the Islamists really hijack the revolution? Was it a liberal revolution to begin with?” asks analyst Rahim Elkishky.

Egypt’s liberals have demonstrated a disabling blend of disorganization, optimism and naivety about political Islam, repeating the mistakes of their Iranian counterparts in 1978-9, he suggests.

“The first misstep of the Iranian secular movement came as early as 1978, when they blindly embraced a union with the religious opposition,” Roya Hakakian wrote in Time magazine’s “Egypt through the Lens of Iran’s 1979 Revolution.”  

The liberals’ “pre-revolutionary entente” with the Brotherhood was evident well before the Tahrir Square revolt, says Elkishky

According to WikiLeaks documents published in January 2011….the major anti-regime groupings shared a vision for the post-regime era. It stated that “several opposition forces — including the Wafd, Nasserist, Karama and Tagammu parties, and the Muslim Brotherhood, Kifaya, and Revolutionary Socialist movements — have agreed to support an unwritten plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy, involving a weakened presidency and an empowered prime minister and parliament, before the scheduled 2011 presidential elections”

While Egypt’s liberals remain divided and disorganized, the Brotherhood’s political machine is poised to deliver victory in the presidential poll.    “The importance of strong organisations in securing political victories is hardly unique to Egypt. writes Trager, the Next Generation Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“But when only one group can organise effectively in a newly competitive political environment, single-party domination becomes inevitable – with hidden consequences,” he warns. “After all, the dominant party can nominate just about anyone, and win. And if it uses its power to prevent potential competitors from emerging, it can also get away with just about anything.”

The Project for Middle East Democracy, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, adds: 

Million Man March for Revolutionary Trial

Several entities, including the Muslim Brotherhood and defeated presidential candidates, have called for mass demonstrations to protest the results of Mubarak’s trial and to push for the disqualification of Ahmed Shafiq. On Saturday, Mubarak and his former interior minister were given life sentences for their role in the deaths of protesters last year, and six high ranking officers were acquitted of similar charges.  Protesters in Alexandria voiced their demands that they be retried and that those responsible for destroying evidence in the case be brought to justice. Revolutionary groups met earlier this week to determine their demands, including the dismissal of the public prosecutor, a trial for members of the former regime, disqualification of Shafiq under the political disenfranchisement law, and the formation of a presidential council made up of Mohamed Morsi, Hamdeen Sabahi, and Abdel Moneim Abuel Fotouh.

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Sources “Tuesday mass protests aim at Shafiq’s disqualification from Egypt presidency race Ahram Online”, (English), 6/5/2012. “Millions Today and Friday to Demand Removal of the Remnants of the Regime”, Al Ahram (Arabic), 6/5/2012. “Activists prepare for massive Tahrir Square demonstration”, Tuesday Egypt Independent 6/5/2012. “Four Demands of Today, Brotherhood Participates”, Al Ahram (Arabic) 6/5/2012. “Tuesday’s papers: Million-man marches demand ‘Revolutionary Trial’”, Egypt Independent (English) 6/5/2012.

Candidates Announce Support for Presidential Council in Tahrir

Former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi, Abdul Moneim Aboel Fotouh, and Khaled Ali announced their support for an interim presidential council in lieu of allowing the run-off between Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Morsi to continue. The candidates told thousands of demonstrators at Tahrir that they would form a council to prevent the return of the Mubarak regime. They also joined in demanding the implementation of the political isolation law, which would ban Ahmed Shafiq from participating in the run-off and could bring third place finisher Sabahi back into contention, as well as the formation of a revolutionary court to try Mubarak and former members of his regime. Mohamed El Baradei is expected to announce in a press conference Tuesday whether he will join the proposed council.

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Sabbahi, Abul-Fotouh, Ali announce support for ‘presidential council’ in Tahrir”, Ahram Online (English) 6/5/2012. “ElBaradei to take stance on presidential council in press conference”, Egypt Independent (English) 6/5/2012.

Major General Being Held for Destruction of Documents

Major General Hassan Abdel Rahman, the former head of the state security service, is being held on charges of destroying documents related to state security. The judge also questioned former interior minister Mahmoud Wagdy and decided that the interior minister did not have the authority to order Abdel Rahman to destroy state security documents. Abdel Rahman was among the officers in court two days ago that pled not guilty to charges of killing demonstrators.

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Sources “Imprisonment of Major General Hassan Abdel Rahman for 15 days in Case of Destruction of State Security Documents El Shorouk (Arabic) 6/4/2012. “Despite acquittal, former state security chief to stay in prison” Egypt Independent (English) 6/3/2012.

Because you have signed up to receive POMED’s Egypt Daily Update, we thought you might also be interested in receiving a weekly English-language news roundup on Egypt’s parliamentary activities (including reports on both general sessions and sub-committee meetings). 

This Egypt Parliamentary News Roundup is produced by the Egyptian Democracy Academy, one of POMED’s partner organizations in Egypt. To receive these parliamentary news updates please click this link.

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Ukraine’s Orange breakthrough ‘gone bitter’

The mood in Ukraine is “like a volcano ready to explode,” says a local civil society activist. And that’s not due to anticipation of this month’s European football championship.

The optimism fostered by the democratic breakthrough of the Orange Revolution has given way to bitter disillusion, observers suggest.

“It’s been a real disappointment,” said Andrew Wilson, a Ukraine scholar. “There were genuine hopes after the revolution for a political breakthrough. A lot of political capital was squandered.”

Ukraine may not be a “dictatorship,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently suggested, but it has veered away from the European mainstream under President Viktor Yanukovych.

“Two years into his presidency, Yanukovych’s professed foreign policy of balancing Ukraine’s relations with the West and Russia appears to lie in shambles,” writes the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer.

“Over the past two years, the president repeatedly stated that his priority foreign policy objective was to bring Ukraine closer to, and eventually into, the European Union. But democratic regression and selective prosecution of opposition leaders, such as Yuliya Tymoshenko, have stymied Kyiv’s efforts to improve its ties with Europe and pose an obstacle to Ukraine’s relations with the United States,” he notes.

“Yanukovych miscalculated. He assumed that he could pursue political repression at home and nonetheless enjoy good relations with the West.”

But the country’s political malaise predates Yanukovych’s rise, says a leading observer.

“Ukraine’s record over the past 20 years demonstrates that it is not enough to abolish socialism,” writes Leszek Balcerowicz, a former deputy prime minister and finance minister of Poland. “The real challenge is to build free-market, rule-based capitalism. And, to do that, an energetic civil society must demand an end to crony capitalism.”

It is the failure to consolidate rule of law and build effective political institutions that have left Ukraine’s economy “lagging far behind those of its neighbours,” the Financial Times reports.

“Its nominal gross domestic product per capita last year, at $3,621, was little over a quarter of EU member Poland’s $13,540, or Russia’s $12,993, according to the International Monetary Fund,” it notes.

Whereas recent research confirms that “inclusive” political institutions generate growth and wealth, “political analysts view Ukraine as a variant on Russia and former Soviet states where a presidential clan uses state power for its own benefit,” the FT reports:

In written responses to questions from the Financial Times, Mr Yanukovich said his family’s property had been publicly declared and all senior appointments were based on merit. “Recent staff rotations were simply intended to accelerate the modernisation of the state,” he said. “For me, for appointments to vacant positions the key requirements are hard work, full dedication and support of my course of modernisation. What people choose to call this management style is beyond me.”

Yanukovych’s political miscalculations may partly result “from an inflated sense of Ukraine’s geopolitical weight,” says Pifer:

Many in the Ukrainian elite appear to hold the view that Ukraine’s geopolitical importance to Europe and the United States is so crucial—that Ukraine matters so much in a geopolitical tug-of-war between the West and Russia—that the West would ignore democracy problems and embrace Ukraine, for fear that Kyiv otherwise would fall into Moscow’s orbit. …

The West bears some blame for fueling this sense of geopolitical importance. Most recently, the NATO summit declaration in Chicago, before criticizing domestic problems within Ukraine, stated that “an independent, sovereign and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security.” So one can understand why there is the belief in Kyiv in Ukraine’s central geopolitical importance.

“Ukraine is sliding back in terms of democracy, media freedom, corruption, and rule of law,” said Nadia Diuk, a vice president of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

On the plus side, Ukrainian civil society remains vibrant and politically engaged, she told a recent Brookings seminar, citing activists’ success in securing a new law on non-governmental organizations.

Forthcoming elections “could now be pivotal” to arresting and possibly reversing Ukraine’s democratic regression, say the FT’s Neil Buckley and Roman Olearchyk:

Several of Ukraine’s fractious opposition parties have agreed to field joint candidates to confront Mr Yanukovich’s party. Civil society groups are preparing to combat vote-rigging. While Ukrainians have not poured into the streets to protest over the democratic retreat, opinion polls suggest more people are ready to do so.

Oleh Rybachuk, a civic activist and former chief of staff to Mr Yushchenko, says the mood is “like a volcano ready to explode”. October will show whether his words are prescient or wishful thinking.

In the past twenty years, the countries that used to comprise the former Soviet Union have taken on new political and cultural identities as they consolidated their independence. Apart from the Baltic states, none has yet achieved a stable democratic system despite revolutions, youth-led protest movements, and other forms of political upheaval. Will the “first free generation” of youth be at the forefront of positive political changes and reforms?

In her latest book, Nadia Diuk illustrates how young leaders have risen up to challenge or become coopted by the old guard and assesses youth-led protest movements and their impact on political developments. 

The International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracyinvites you to a panel discussion to celebrate the publication of The Next Generation in Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan: Youth, Politics, Identity, and Culture, published in April 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield, featuring author Nadia Diuk, National Endowment for Democracy, with comments by Sharon Wolchik, George Washington University, and moderated by Marc F. Plattner, International Forum for Democratic Studies.

Monday, June 18, 2012

12:00–2:00 p.m.

(lunch will be served from 12–12:30 p.m.)

National Endowment for Democracy

1025 F Street NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20004

RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Thursday, June 14. 

Nadia Diuk is vice president for the National Endowment for Democracy’s programs in Europe and Eurasia, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. For more than twenty years prior to her appointment as vice president, she supervised NED programs in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet states. Prior to her appointment at NED, she taught Soviet Politics and Russian History at Oxford University; was a research associate at the Society for Central Asian Studies, United Kingdom; and editor-in-chief of the London-based publication Soviet Nationality Survey. Sharon Wolchik is professor of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Her most recent book, coauthored with Valerie Bunce, is Defeating Authoritarian Leaders in Postcommunist Countries.

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Managing change in Egypt?

Whether Egypt transitions into a state resembling Turkey or one similar to Pakistan will depend in part on continued support for the country’s civil society through a new U.S.–Egyptian strategic dialogue that balances regional security concerns with support for political and economic reform, according to a new report.  

The days when the United States could prioritize regional security over support for Egypt’s political and economic transitions are over, writes Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Middle East program officer for the National Democratic Institute. A multilateral trust fund for supporting democratic reform and civil society organizations could help counter efforts to politicize assistance and help manage the sensitivities related to this type of support

Egypt is in the midst of a series of major political, security, and economic transitions that will unfold for years to come. The 2012 presidential elections set to conclude later this month in a final run-off election mark the end of one period in this transition. But Egypt faces a long road ahead, including drafting a new constitution, setting checks and balances in the new political system, and concluding trials for former leaders in previous governments.

The world’s most populous Arab nation could transition into something that resembles Turkey, with a greater voice for Islamist parties and curbs on the previously unchecked power of the security establishment. Or Egypt could transition toward a scenario similar to Pakistan, in which the military and internal security forces continue to hold significant political power and dominate key sectors of the economy. Most likely Egypt will carve out its own path with its transition shaped by multiple centers of power—some that have emerged since the popular uprising in 2011 and others that have existed for decades.

The path Egypt takes will have major implications for the rest of the region. The changes in the formal structures and internal balance of power in Egypt’s government, alongside the social and economic transformations Egyptians continue to experience, will be some of the most important strategic dynamics reshaping the Middle East. What happens in Egypt will be as important as the threats and challenges posed by Iran, the re-emergence of Turkey as a regional power, and the continued problems emanating from the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict.

Engaging with the new Egyptian government in all these arenas will require the United States to balance and integrate efforts to advance two core objectives—maintaining a close partnership with Egypt in advancing regional security and supporting Egypt’s political and economic transitions toward more effective governance and expanded economic opportunities for its citizens.

The days when the United States could prioritize regional security over support for Egypt’s political and economic transitions are over. Egypt’s political transition remains a volatile work in progress after multiple rounds of parliamentary and presidential elections, with the constitutional reform process representing the next key phase. This political uncertainty has weakened Egypt’s economy, leaving endemic problems of high unemployment, growing public debt, corruption, and increasing pressures on Egypt’s foreign cash reserves—without a coherent economic policy response from the interim government. This domestic economic and political instability could lead to more problems in the security realm. Egypt faces increased crime and civil disorder, as well as heightened security threats, particularly in the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula bordering Israel.

These overlapping upheavals require a fundamental reassessment of how the United States manages its bilateral ties with Egypt and implements its overall Middle East strategy. For three decades, the central foundation for U.S. policy on Egypt was military cooperation and the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. This now needs to expand.

The United States should propose a strategic and economic dialogue with the new Egyptian government akin to what the United States has done with countries such as India and China. This dialogue should aim to cover all key aspects of the bilateral relationship, including security, diplomatic, and economic cooperation. It should be as broad and inclusive as possible—connecting key agencies of our governments, including the U.S. Congress and new Egyptian parliament—and also have nongovernmental and private-sector tracks.

But even before a U.S. internal policy review on Egypt and a strategic dialogue with the new government in Egypt is conducted, the broad contours of a new U.S. policy on Egypt are already apparent and should be acted upon. Given the substantial economic and political reform challenges Egypt faces, the United States should begin to rebalance its overall approach toward support for economic growth in Egypt. This means gradually shifting the current emphasis on military assistance—now at $1.3 billion a year—toward economic and political assistance— now around $250 million a year.

Egypt needs to make substantially greater investments in its human capital, and it needs to place a high priority on job creation and economic reforms to spark broad-based economic growth. The new Egyptian government needs U.S. support for this effort now.

As it continues to shift its emphasis towards economic growth and job creation, the United States should make democratic governance reform, anticorruption measures, and support to civil society organizations working for political reform a priority. These efforts are even more complicated now with the ongoing trials of both Egyptian and American nongovernmental organizations, but the United States needs to work with other countries to establish innovative multilateral efforts to support civil society and democracy reform. Support for economic growth should not come at the expense of the important yet complicated efforts of support for political reform.

Given the substantial economic and political reform challenges Egypt faces, the United States should begin to rebalance its overall approach toward support for economic growth in Egypt. This means gradually shifting the current emphasis on military assistance—now at $1.3 billion a year—toward economic and political assistance— now around $250 million a year. Egypt needs to make substantially greater investments in its human capital, and it needs to place a high priority on job creation and economic reforms to spark broad-based economic growth.

Over the past three decades, Egypt has become addicted to development assistance, and its previous authoritarian leaders created a system that fostered a cycle of dependency—its government programming and planning became dependent on external sources of economic assistance, and the country’s debt grew.

In the longer term, the United States and Egypt would benefit from Egypt making a transition that integrates its economy more closely with the rest of the region and the world. Private-sector business support is one key tool, and Egyptian Americans working in the private sector can serve as an important link in providing this support. In developing a new bilateral strategic dialogue, Egypt and the United States should seek to coordinate with a track of private sector organizations in both countries to expand the dialogue on economic cooperation.

Some efforts like these are already underway, such as the Partners for a New Beginning, a network of private-sector and civil society leaders aimed at building partnerships between the United States and a number of countries including Egypt in efforts to promote economic opportunity and enhance educational opportunity.

Direct bilateral assistance from the United States to Egyptian civil society organizations has become more complicated by the recent efforts to politicize this assistance inside of Egypt.

The nongovernmental organization crisis has not yet been resolved. Court trials for both U.S. and Egyptian groups continue, with these and other civil society groups facing severe restrictions to operating in Egypt. The United States should lead multilateral efforts to continue to offer support to Egyptian civil society groups.

Working with other partners both within the region and in Europe in efforts to help Egyptian civil society can help manage the sensitivities related to this type of support. One idea under discussion inside a number of policy circles, including the U.S. government, is a multilateral trust fund for supporting democratic reform and civil society organizations in Egypt.

The United States must also take into account the economic and political impact of support to Egypt’s military in a new, comprehensive U.S. approach to Egypt. The strong role that Egypt’s security establishment plays in the economy, including the inefficiencies this has created, makes it a critical area for both economic and political reform in Egypt. The security establishment’s efforts to shield itself from oversight from the civilian government will have a major impact on the trajectory of political reform. 

Throughout this process, the United States needs to maintain realistic expectations. The leverage and influence that the United States has on Egypt will become increasingly more limited by several factors, including more assertive and independent political leaders in Egypt, widespread anti-Americanism, and financial and political constraints inside the United States. It will not be able to dictate outcomes in Egypt, but by working with Egyptian partners and other regional and global powers, the United States can help influence trends. This paper offers an initial roadmap to help policymakers navigate these changes in the months and years ahead.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia. From 1995 to 1998, he lived and worked in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Egypt for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.

The above is an extract from Managing Change in Egypt. Read the rest.

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