On November 28, 2011, Egyptians went to the polls to begin electing a new parliament in three stages. It was in many respects the first genuine democratic election ever to be held in the country. Yet a number of momentous institutional decisions remain to be made that may affect the direction of Egyptian politics and society for years to come. Many of these will be foundational constitutional questions about the relationship between religion and state, particularly the degree to which Islamic law will be the source of legislation. But Egypt must also settle on a method for electing its representatives, and the universe of electoral laws is quite large.
With the convening of the country’s first post-revolutionary parliament in late January 2012, Egypt’s troubled transition has entered a new phase. As the battle over Egypt’s future shifts from Tahrir Square to the newly elected People’s Assembly, Egyptians may be facing their most difficult challenges yet. The country’s interim rulers, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF)—a 20-member body representing all four branches of the Egyptian military (similar to an expanded U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff)—have laid out an ambiguous and problematic roadmap. With presidential elections and the drafting of a new constitution scheduled to take place by July 1, the transition is imperiled by an ever-present threat of popular unrest as well as an economy teetering dangerously close to collapse. Yet, it is increasingly clear that the most formidable threat to Egyptian democracy comes from the ruling military council itself, through its manipulation of the political process, growing repression, and desire to remain above the law.
Meanwhile, recent events have reconfigured the delicate power balance among the country’s three main centers of power—the military, the Islamists, and those who started the January 2011 uprising. While the ruling military council retains its virtual monopoly on power, its legitimacy has been greatly eroded by its own gross mishandling of the transition. Recent elections handed the Islamists a decisive parliamentary majority, giving the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood an electoral mandate by which to challenge military rule. Meanwhile, the revolutionary youth groups that launched the uprising in Tahrir Square as well as other pro-democracy forces continue to be marginalized by regime repression and a political process that has passed them by.
While Egyptians and well-meaning outsiders continue to hope that recent elections will open the way for a better transition and facilitate the military’s exit from power, parliamentary politics alone may not be enough to reverse the damage done over the previous year or quell the revolutionary fervor simmering just beneath the surface. While a democratic outcome may still be possible in the long run, it will require major changes in how, and by whom, the transition is being managed.
This article challenges the common assumption that the external actors involved in the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) are driven either by neo-realist strategic competition or by the constraining power of domestic lobbies, or by a mixture of both. Such implicit assumptions are evident in the controversial argument of the power of the ‘Israel lobby’ as promoted by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. This article argues that approaches based on such assumptions fail to explain adequately the policies adopted not only by the United States, but also by other key external actors who have been historically engaged in the MEPP — the Soviet Union and the European Union. A better explanatory framework is provided by treating the MEPP as an institution and by applying a historical institutionalist approach to the development of the MEPP, using such concepts as critical junctures, path dependence and positive feedback to analyse how the main external actors involved in the MEPP came to adopt their distinctive national approaches to the peace process. In particular, it is the responses of these actors to certain critical junctures, most notably but not exclusively to the period of the 1967 and 1973 Arab– Israeli wars, that has had a particularly strong influence on policy formulation. For the US case, the creative policymaking of Henry Kissinger during the period after the 1973 war, which was subsequently incorporated into the US conceptualization of the MEPP, provides powerful and generally unrecognized insights into the initial puzzle identified by Walt and Mearsheimer — the consistent and almost unconditional support given to Israel by the United States despite the strategic problems this creates for broader US Middle East policy.
The democratic uprisings and consequent turmoil in the Arab world during the last 18 months have had significant impact on the geostrategic situation in the Middle East as well as on the policies of major regional and global powers. As the upheavals continue to unfold, especially in strategically important countries such as Syria and Bahrain, they will continue to have a major impact on intraregional politics as well as great-power interests.
Judging by the popular press, in January 2011 Twitter and Facebook went from being simply engaging social diversions to become engines of political change that upended decades of Arab authoritarianism. It is tempting to be swept away by this narrative, which suggests that social media prompted hundreds of thousands, and then millions, of Tunisians and Egyptians to pour into the streets and peacefully demand change. Brittle authoritarian regimes had little choice but to comply, and in this way, social media irrevocably changed the future of the Middle East. Following the logic to its conclusion, it would suggest that the Middle East is on the brink of a period of democratic consolidation, as the ideals and tools of revolutionaries lead the region forward into a period of anti-sectarianism, liberalism, and hope.