What the Egyptian Army Can Learn From South Africa


South Africa is, in many ways, the greatest of post-atrocity success stories. Two decades after the demise of a system based on racism, minority dominance, and oppression, the country is a democratic beacon that (despite many issues) is a symbol of strength on the continent. All of this success has come under the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC), a party that stood in opposition to the apartheid system for nearly 70 years prior to the installation of "one-person, one-vote" democracy. The ANC was not always a peaceful movement, spending much of its history fighting the violence of the ruling regime with violence of its own. However, when given the opportunity to participate in elections, the organization swore off violence and was rewarded with electoral success and subsequent political power. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has spent a similar amount of time as the most organized opposition party in a country dominated by tyrannical leaders. The MB has frequently been banned for its commitment to violence, but when given an opportunity to take part in the political process, its members have been also themselves been deposed, arrested and even killed. These stories present an important contrast, illustrating the danger of removing the Brotherhood's incentives to peacefully take part in the political process.

Before we get too deep into this conversation, it is necessary to point out a couple of important caveats. First, Mohammad Morsi is not Nelson Mandela. While Mandela was at certain points in his life not fully committed to (as Abraham Lincoln once said) "malice towards none" and "charity for all," he was never the self-interested tyrant that a year in power showed us Morsi was. The second seemingly obvious caveat is that Egypt today is not the South Africa of 1994. Each transitional situation is individual, with unique actors, unique histories, and unique cultural idiosyncrasies. There are extraordinary commonalities and lessons that can be drawn, but such differences mean that all such lessons should be taken as generalities rather than certainties.

Founded primarily as a political organization in the early 1920s, the African National Congress quickly expanded in an effort to represent and bring awareness to oppressed Black South Africans (for a more general history see here). Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK, the "Spear of the Nation"), the group's paramilitary wing, was founded in the early 1960s, partly in reaction to the infamous Sharpeville riots. Many of the leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle we recognize today were important parts of the MK. The violence of the MK would continue until negotiations for the end of apartheid caused the ANC to swear off the use of violence and terror. Once these tactics were dropped, negotiations between the apartheid government and the ANC secured the release of political prisoners, amnesty for those returning from exile, and eventually a new constitution and political system built on the one-person, one-vote principle. Since 1994, when a new democratic constitution was passed, the African National Congress has been the country's leading political force.

The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, was launched in Egypt in 1928, and its ideas would spread rapidly throughout the country and the wider Arab world. Under colonial British rule, the organization was largely tolerated until a number of violent attacks were perpetrated in 1948, at which point the British government dissolved the organization. A few years later, the Brotherhood would play a role in Egypt's struggle for independence and its participation would win it tolerance for another few years until its attempt on President Gamel Abdel Nasser's life. After the attempted assassination in 1954 the group was once again banned. Over the next few decades the group would occasionally experience tremendous crackdowns at the hands of the military government, until it attempted to rejoin the political mainstream in the 1980s where it would remain for some time. Despite moderate success at the ballot box in 2000, the group was the subject of further crackdowns by the now-deposed Hosni Mubarak.

This brief history lesson brings us to the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the subsequent electoral successes of the Brotherhood. In the country's parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party would win over 47% of the seats, allowing the party to form a ruling coalition. It also went back on a previous promise not to field a presidential candidate, running Mohammad Morsi, who would win the presidency with 51% of the vote. Over the year that Morsi spent in office a constitution widely seen as strongly Islamist was pushed through and the only attention that was given to alternative viewpoints was through arrest and imprisonment. This style of leadership resulted in massive protests on the one-year anniversary of his swearing-in, which ended with the military's removal of Morsi.  

So what do these stories have in common? The former is of a country that now (despite many issues) is a functioning democracy. This democratization came along as the country's main opposition group swore off violence in favor of peaceful negotiation and political participation. The latter tells the story of a country in the midst of a difficult democratization process. In this story the main opposition group has been banned several times due to its violent acts. The group was also banned by a despotic leader for nothing other than electoral success. However, after this dictator's ouster, the group participated in elections, believing they were the best method for exerting influence. After winning elections, the group was deposed by the same military that had oppressed them for so many decades.

Perhaps the most important lesson to take from these competing narratives is the danger of flawed incentives. While the African National Congress was eventually given significant incentives for non-violence, the Muslim Brotherhood has had the opposite experience. Whether the group moves underground and actively participates in violence or swears off such action and participates in elections, they found themselves banned, oppressed, and then deposed at the hands of the military. There is no doubt that the Brotherhood still commands immense support in Egypt and will play an important role in the country's future. Whether that role is productive or destructive remains to be seen. What we do know is Morsi's ouster has cemented a dangerous incentive structure.