Share story

EGYPTIAN General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi need no longer hold his breath in Cairo. Not only did Egyptians just overwhelmingly approve a heavily revised version of the December 2012 Constitution, but Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces just gave Sisi the green light to run for president.

This is bad news for the Muslim Brotherhood and other dissenters who have been violently repressed since the overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi last summer. Some of them have launched attacks on military and civilian targets in recent days, which some fear is the beginning of an Islamic insurgency and civil war.

As bleak as all of this sounds, Egyptian democracy should not be written off just yet. Last week marked the third anniversary of the Tahrir Square revolt in Egypt.

Unsurprisingly, the new constitution favors the military while defanging Islamists. It bans religious parties, foremost the Muslim Brotherhood, from political life. While the military retains the authority to try civilians in military courts, it has a veto over the choice of defense minister for the first two presidential terms.

This differs fundamentally from recent political developments next door, in Tunisia. There, a government dominated by Islamists reached a compromise with both the military and secular groups in a constituent assembly to enshrine the pre-eminence of Islam while still respecting civil rights and liberties.

A host of observers have drawn the conclusion that democracy is therefore set to flourish in Tunisia while it is simultaneously being stamped out in Egypt. While democracy is not a foregone conclusion in Tunisia, nor is it condemned to death in Egypt.

Over the last two centuries, only 29 percent of new democracies were founded with a constitution that they drafted themselves or inherited from a past episode of democratic rule in their country. Classic examples include Switzerland and France. A total of 71 percent of new democracies — including Egypt if the transition goes through — inherited a constitution that was designed under dictatorship and where outgoing elites dominated the transition process.

Egypt might therefore end up looking like many of Latin America’s Cold War so-called democracies. The armed forces have vowed to continue to repress the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamic groups after relinquishing rule, much like the leftist parties and movements that were officially banned and persecuted after long spells of military rule in Brazil, Guatemala, Chile and Argentina.

Furthermore, in many of these countries, former military rulers dissolved military juntas only to subsequently run for office as civilians and rebrand themselves as democratic politicians. Similarly in Egypt, General Sissi is widely expected to run for president and is forecast to win office.

Egypt’s future is not necessarily dark, however. Many democracies that never had a hand in writing their own constitution are politically and economically stable. Indeed, the democracies that are most resilient are those that inherit constitutions from their autocratic predecessors. Of all democracies that have been overturned by authoritarianism, 58 percent had constitutions that were codified under democracy and 42 percent had constitutions forged under dictatorship.

A new democracy can also discard or seriously modify a constitution inherited from the military or outgoing autocratic elites. Since 1950, 31 percent (a total of 19) of the countries that democratized with autocratic constitutions subsequently shed their inherited constitutions for new social contracts.

The prospects for Egyptian democracy are not necessarily as pessimistic as some analysts fear. The seed of democracy often requires time to grow.

To take an extreme example, England’s 1688 Glorious Revolution set the stage for gradual expansions of the franchise that ultimately led to universal suffrage in 1928.

A skeptic might balk at the suggestion that Egypt might culminate in a representative liberal democracy. Yet a case such as Turkey, which 100 years ago was the seat of the last Islamic Caliphate, proves that this is not so far-fetched. If the Egyptian government is to better represent its citizens in the future, much constitutional reform still awaits.

Michael Albertus is assistant professor of political science at University of Chicago. Victor Menaldo is assistant professor of political science at University of Washington.