Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Egypt: When Good Is Better Than Perfect

by Steven A. Cook
January 12, 2012

Head of the Freedom and Justice Party Mursi and the party's Secretary General Katatni shake hands with General Anan (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters)



Leila Fadel of the Washington Post has a very interesting article yesterday about a possible Muslim Brotherhood-Supreme Council of the Armed Forces deal that would give the Officers immunity against prosecution for crimes committed during the transition.  There are, no doubt, many Egyptians especially the families of people who were killed in confrontations with the military over the last year that will be opposed to such a deal.  It will also fuel concern that the Brothers and the military are collaborating to undermine the democratic promise of the January 25th uprising.  These are valid concerns, but exempting the officers from prosecution is not only a fine idea, but also perhaps the best route to a more democratic Egypt.

Fadel’s piece reminded me of an article I published in January 2006 in the Journal of Democracy titled the “Promise of Pacts.”  I was riffing off the literature in comparative politics on “pacted transitions” and the experience of Latin America.  The details of the article, which focuses on Egypt (big surprise) are way out of date, but the underlying argument remains valid.  A bargain between democratic forces and defenders of the old order may be necessary to give authoritarians, in particular those who still control the coercive apparatus of the state like Egypt’s SCAF, the confidence that they can give up power without fear of retribution in the form of revolutionary tribunals or a bullet in the back of the head.  What incentive do Field Marshal Tantawi and his colleagues have to go back to the barracks and submit to civilian control if they believe they will join Hosni, Gamal, and Alaa in Tora prison?  None.  It was in part fear of being prosecuted for corruption and other crimes that led the Algerian senior command to nullify the 1991-92 parliamentary elections that would have brought the Front Islamique du Salut to power–an act that helped plunge Algeria into a dark decade of civil insurrection and horrific violence.

If Egypt’s officers were guaranteed immunity, allowed to keep whatever ill-gotten gains they have, and  assured that civilianization of the political system is not tantamount to destroying the armed forces—a mistake the Turks seem to be making—the chances are better that the military will yield to civilian politicians and a more democratic order.  If the experience of Latin America can be any kind of guide, these guarantees and the traces of the previous authoritarian system that go with them will fade away as democratic practices and processes become institutionalized.

It is hardly perfect, but “democracy with guarantees” provides a potential way for improving the conditions for the emergence of a democratic Egypt.  The immunity issue is no doubt sensitive and upsetting to many Egyptians and I certainly sympathize, but there is a larger project at stake.  It would be unfortunate for the perfect—in this case prosecuting the officers responsible for the deaths of demonstrators—to be the enemy of the good.

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  • Posted by wrobbie

    Very pragmatic, sound reasoning. Some people/regimes are so monstrous that offers of immunity are simply repugnant. But having ruled briefly and in a not-utterly-awful way the SCAF is not in that category, and it’s in everyone’s interests that they be given the assurances that they need to allow the transition to continue.

    This sort of thing leads to fraught moral questions, and a fine line must always be walked between what’s morally satisfying to comfortable outsiders & what actually maximizes the best interests of folks on the ground. Pinochet is an interesting example. Horrid as he was in many well-documented ways, I was personally mortified when the Europeans took it upon themselves to stir up Chile’s ghosts when they first arrested him, years ago. My fear was that the example would lead autocrats the world over to cling to power all the more tightly. In retrospect it may not have been such a bad thing, since Latin America had relatively few dictators by then, and dictators probably look to their regional peers rather than global ones for lessons & precedents & such. But it seemed like a dangerous game then – and letting the SCAF slink to the background in relative safety seems like a sound move now.

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