Commentary / World

What Egypt can learn from Iraq

by Meghan L. O'sullivan


While arguing over the merits of continuing U.S. aid to Egypt, commentators and analysts tend to agree on two main points. First, there is a general consensus on what President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood got wrong. Second, virtually all Western observers are stressing the need for an inclusive government in Egypt. In the first point, Egypt offers a lesson to Iraq and, in the second, Iraq offers a lesson to Egypt. Together, they point to the direction U.S. policy should take.

Events in Egypt show that majoritarian democracy doesn’t work in transitional societies. Even when a party has won a commanding electoral victory — which wasn’t the case in Egypt — it must still seek continued legitimacy by addressing the needs and desires of those outside its direct constituency. Because of the weakness of other institutions in transitional societies, a strict majoritarian democracy is likely to leave certain populations more powerless than they would be in mature democracies. And political alienation breeds discontent and impatience, as we saw on Egypt’s streets last week.

Morsi governed Egypt as if his slim electoral victory gave him a mandate to transform the country into the state that the Muslim Brotherhood envisioned, regardless of the wishes of the rest of Egyptians. Rather than seeking to build a national consensus for Egypt’s path, he dismissed the opposition as powerless, and invested his energy in co-opting or marginalizing the security establishment and the judiciary — Egypt’s two other bases of political power. His naked assertion of power at the end of last year to force through an Islamist constitution was, for many Egyptians, the last straw. Although the specific mode of Morsi’s downfall — a military coup ushered in by popular protests — surprised many, the end of Egyptian tolerance for Morsi shocked few.

So what does this have to do with Iraq? The lesson is clear. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has explicitly and repeatedly stated his desire to move to a majoritarian democracy there. Frustrated by the constraints of the national unity government over which he presides, Maliki no doubt dreams about governing without the need to consult with members of other political parties, ethnicities and sects. Although he hasn’t turfed out his coalition members in a formal sense, his actions of the last eight months — from seeking the arrest of Sunni politicians to placing important elements of the army under his direct command — have alienated his once-partners and taken on an authoritarian hue.

Maliki, if he draws a lesson from Egypt, will probably focus on the dangers of a strong, independent military — an obvious takeaway from an Iraqi perspective, given its history of coups. But one also hopes Maliki realizes that in divided, transitional societies — of which Iraq is still one — a majoritarian democracy can’t maintain the legitimacy it needs to govern over the long term; continuing to move in that direction will be an overreach for Maliki, and probably a fatal one. Aspiring rulers of highly divided Syria should also take note.

Oddly enough, this historical juncture also gives us an opportunity to reflect not only on what Iraq has gotten wrong (a familiar pastime), but also on what it has done well, or at least better than it might have. Those of us involved with helping the Iraqis craft their initial post-Saddam Hussein institutions often wonder if the country had been saddled with entities that prioritized consensus-building so much that it made it almost impossible to govern. (Maliki and previous post-2003 Iraqi prime ministers would certainly agree.) Events in Egypt have brought clarity to this thought, suggesting that Iraq’s transitional institutions were the best option amid two poor choices, the other of which was a much more explosive, less sustainable majoritarian democracy.

For Egypt, Iraq’s experience sheds light on the complexities of power-sharing. Some watching Egypt may think that this sort of cooperation simply involves appointing a minister from the Muslim Brotherhood in the interim government. In a society as divided as Egypt’s, this won’t be sufficient.

Iraq’s early institutions (from 2004-2005) embodied complicated formulas — not explicitly to divide power among sectarian groups as many people mistakenly think, but to ensure that the majority couldn’t make decisions without the consent of the minorities. For instance, all decisions of the three-person presidency council, elected by parliament according to a formula that essentially assured a Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish representative, had to be unanimous. Although this institution lapsed once Iraq’s permanent constitution was in place, other mechanisms endure, such as the supermajority needed to select a prime minister and the tradition of having virtually all parties in Parliament represented in the Cabinet.

No question, Iraq’s journey of governance has been far from impressive or smooth. Yet the most turbulent political times have been when its government has sought to degrade, circumvent or ignore the imperative of power-sharing; again, Maliki’s flirtation with majoritarian government has been the primary source of political instability over the past year. And power- sharing, no doubt, is not the best way to deliver responsive government; particularly in severely divided societies, there is a clear trade-off between inclusivity and efficiency, something to which even the European Union can attest. The mistake is thinking that, in transitional societies such as Iraq or Egypt, the option of a government capable of making quick decisions without broad consultations is a realistic one.

If possible to imagine, Egypt’s challenges in forming an inclusive government may be more difficult than Iraq’s were at the overthrow of Hussein. Iraq had the U.S. and its coalition partners to help it agree on the structure of the transition; with U.S. brokering, in early 2004, 25 Iraqis from all backgrounds unanimously came to agreement on a road map called the Transitional Administrative Law — effectively an interim constitution that defined governance for the multiyear political transition. Although imperfect in many respects, all parties adhered to the specifics of this plan until Iraq formed a new government under a nationally ratified constitution written in 2006.

Unlike Iraq, Egypt is pretty much on its own. And arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leadership and silencing of media sympathetic to it suggest that power-sharing is not a top priority for Egypt’s new leaders.

Who will change their minds — inside or outside Egypt? Perhaps no one. But the U.S., while being in no position to broker an agreement, should be clear at least about what needs to be done: the crafting of a power-sharing agreement focused on not just holding elections but also building and restoring institutions that will be sustainable no matter the future electoral outcomes. Anything short of real power-sharing during this transition will almost certainly lead the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers to conclude that there is no room for Islamists in democracy, fueling what could be a very long cycle of political instability and violence.

Meghan L. O’Sullivan, a professor at Harvard University and former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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