What’s left of the left in Central and Eastern Europe?

Dr. Luke March, Senior Lecturer in Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics; Deputy Director of the Princess Dashkova Russia Centre

It goes without saying that the left (in the form of governing Marxist-Leninist parties) was the dominant force in Central and Eastern Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century. It also goes without saying that this legacy has been problematic for left-wing parties trying to regain support in the post-Soviet era. Nor was this taint confined to the East – globally, many left-wing parties suffered for the misperception that ‘socialism’ had died with Soviet communism. After all, this was the period of the ‘End of History’, ushering in the belief that (neo-)liberal values were dominant and that ideological challenges to capitalism had ended.

The international financial-economic crisis of 2008 onwards has revived interest in the left, not least because this should be the ‘perfect storm’ for left-wing politics: a crisis originating in unfettered market practices has led to widespread economic decline, social immiseration, unemployment and inequality – indeed, in many ways it appears to vindicate long-held left-wing arguments. However, across Europe, the obvious economic and social crisis has not yet produced consistent dividends for the left – a few victories here, a few defeats there, but nothing like a genuine upsurge.

Has the situation in the East been any different? On the face of it, no. There have been some notable gains (e.g. the Albanian Socialists winning in June 2013, the Romanian Social Democrats gaining government in January). On the other hand, social democrats are very weak in several countries (such as Poland and Hungary), and the broader left (the ‘radical left’ and Greens) are rarely strong. Indeed, the left has generally been out of government in Central and Eastern Europe since before the crisis and any major electoral dividend since the crisis is difficult to discern (see Table). What explains this?

Data are aggregate figures, from 20 former communist countries, gathered from www.parties-and-elections.eu. Data correct as at 10 July 2013.

What is the left in CEE?

As elsewhere in Europe, the contemporary left comprises three main party families. The social democrats are generally the dominant partner (except in the former Soviet Union, where they have weaker historical roots). Several of these parties are so-called ‘successor parties’ (i.e. former ruling parties whose leadership cadres jettisoned Marxism but still sought to exploit their parties’ former connections and resources). The radical left is stronger in the former Soviet Union (e.g. Russia, Ukraine, and especially Moldova, whose communist party is one of the most electorally successful in history), but far weaker in Central and South-Eastern Europe (with the main exception being the Czech Republic). The reasons are complex, but much is explained by a greater stigma outside the former Soviet Union (a perception that communism was a foreign importation and that the countries’ destiny was to ‘Return to Europe’ have succeeded in delegitimising the radical left). In contrast, (with a few exceptions such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Latvia) the Greens are generally weak across the region. Again, history explains much. The liberalisation in the West in the 1960s that ushered in new ‘post-materialist’ (environmentalist, feminist, pacifist and individual liberty) movements had no analogue in the East, where the late sixties entailed a period of declining liberties (compare the different role 1968 played across the continent). The Greens emerged as a political expression for these new strata. Only now are sporadic environmental and sexual rights groups very tentatively gaining political relevance in the East, and the political-cultural environment they confront is often very hostile.

These three left-wing party families have differences between them that should not be minimised, and which explain some of the left’s overall weakness. All strands are ‘left’ in that they broadly stand for equality, social justice, international solidarity and community cohesion. The social democrats and radical left share a belief in an activist welfare state (although they differ markedly over its parameters), whereas the Greens distrust central state action and prefer localism. The social democrats are the most uncritically ‘Atlanticist’ (i.e. pro-US, pro-EU, pro- NATO and favouring institutions like the IMF and World Bank), the Greens more critical but not supportive of radical change; the radical left in contrast argues for a transformation of the international architecture (including the abolition of NATO). All three families increasingly criticise neo-liberalism and call for greater market regulation, but only the radical left supports an (often vague and unspecified) ‘transformation’ of capitalism. Needless to say, the relative emphasis placed on social vs. individual liberties, economic vs. environmental protection, and precise policies varies much between individual parties as well as the party families. For instance, the social democrats and Greens in CEE have generally been more neo-liberal and Atlanticist than many of their Western European counterparts, whereas the CEE radical left (the vast bulk of whom are communist parties) has, conversely tended to be more Sovietophile, materialist and traditionalist than those in the West (for example, parties such as the Portuguese Left Bloc and Icelandic Left-Green Movement are fully post-materialist feminist and environmentalist parties).

The left: four crises?

Why has the left generally failed to exploit the current crisis? Because it is suffering from (at least) four crises of its own. First, the post-communist legacy still entails a perception that left-wing economic policy prescriptions are unviable. This is perhaps scarcely credible given the current travails of neo-liberalism, but one only has to look at a reputable publication like The Economist, to see how even relatively mild Keynesian economic solutions are painted as obsolete throwbacks. Many left parties confront the hostility of major economic and media concerns who present tax-raising or protectionist policies as economically illiterate.

Second, although this hostility is evidence of a neo-liberal hegemony, we can hardly speak of a neo-liberal conspiracy when left-wing parties are complicit in their own misfortunes and have failed at providing a distinct vision. Many left-wing parties (particularly social democratic parties under the influence of Blair and Schröder’s so-called ‘Third way’) actively embraced the widespread deregulation of banks and markets and so become utterly implicated in the crisis of neo-liberalism that they now excoriate. Moreover, those parties that remained critical of neo-liberalism have a real problem in presenting a viable alternative. Critics such as The Economist may be painting a distorted picture, but the argument that in the era of globalisation and credit agencies market-regulating policies will cause capital and business flight and economic disruption cannot be merely dismissed. The left (and particularly the radical left) argues that transnational governance and regulation can help protect states against such exigencies. However, the painfully slow progress of the EU’s adoption of a financial transaction tax indicates the major problems about building the necessary transnational consensus over even minimal market regulation.

The third major crisis of the left is rooted in its changing social basis. The industrial proletariat has long been a minority in European countries, and changing identities have meant that social class is more fluid and less cohesively linked to party fortunes than fifty years ago. Affiliated organisations such as trade unions are often in long-term decline. Economic cleavages are just one of many in many countries. But if the left is not the party of the workers, what is it? What kind of new issues and new strata can it encapsulate to make up for the attrition of its social support? The emergence of the Greens in the 1980s was prompted in part by social democrats’ inability to address new socio-cultural changes in Western societies. The emergence of a new radical left in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany in the 2000s was similarly prompted by a perception that ‘neo-liberal’ social democrats were deserting their traditional supporters and policies.

The fourth crisis is that the left’s message is no longer distinct. This is clearly related to the fracturing of this social base. If the left no longer speaks for the workers, if equality is now considered economically illiterate, then the left often finds itself putting forward a message little different from its competitors. Indeed, since the 2008 crisis there has been a lot of ‘red-washing’ – i.e. competitors adopting policies which the left has traditionally regarded as their own. Leaders such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy were among the most forthright in criticising the excesses of the market (small matter that their policies did not substantiate their rhetoric). Similarly, a number of right-wing populists have embraced socially protectionist themes (for example the British National Party’s demand for ‘British Jobs for British Workers’), and so appeal to many former social democrat voters who feel that their parties’ embrace of globalisation has left them defenceless to foreign competition.

Problems and opportunities in the East

The left in Central and Eastern Europe confronts similar crises, but they take on a specific form. First, the communist legacy is more contradictory. In many countries it is much more divisive. Anti-communism is a distinct and constant feature of political discourse (e.g. in the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia). Radical left parties have sometimes been banned (e.g. in Romania), and in many countries barely exist. On the other hand, left-wing ideas have significant subcultural support (particularly in the former Soviet Union). The ‘successor parties’ were able to exploit popular yearning for pro-welfare policies and nostalgia for the stabilities of Soviet times in the 1990s, although the political boon of legacy has much declined two decades on.

Second, even more than in the West, has the Eastern left failed to advocate a realistic political or economic alternative. The general trajectory of transitions from communism has been (broadly speaking) rightwards, involving the building of capitalism and (in many cases) new nations. Those successor parties that entered government in the 1990s (such as the Hungarian Socialist Party) enthusiastically embraced what some commentators dub a ‘socalism of transition’: programmes of market liberalisation and orientation towards the EU and US that had little, if any, obvious left-wing content. These parties were thus implicated in neo-liberal policies at an even earlier stage than their western counterparts. The radical left, where it has existed in the East, has generally been strongly nostalgic, even revanchist (e.g. Russia, Ukraine), and as such has not been seen as a viable alternative government. In the one case where the radical left has governed (Moldova, from 2001-2009), its policies were scarcely identifiably ‘socialist’ (although there was a slowdown in privatisation). Finally, the East European Greens are generally more neo-liberal than their Western counterparts, taking on the ‘neither left nor right’ image that many of their Western counterparts have now abandoned. Indeed, many have participated in government with right-wing or liberal parties.

Third, if the Western parties have had problems with a changing social basis, the Eastern ones have faced the absence of any social basis whatsoever. After all, the Western left emerged as a product of historical labour-capital conflicts in the course of industrialisation, and once aspired to be mass parties emerging out of working-class movements. In most former communist countries (principal exceptions being Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria) the left was relatively weak prior to communist rule, and industrialisation was a product of, rather than a precursor to, the communist regime. The major mass movements in the 1980s and early 1990s were obviously against the communist system. In several cases (most notably Poland), the trade unions were an integral part of the anti-communist movement. Elsewhere, the mainstream trade unions remain heavily affected by their past as Leninist transmission belts – they are far more involved in the co-optation of workers and management in corporatist relations with the state than they are genuine defenders of workers’ rights. Accordingly, the trade unions are only very rarely willing or able to act as the fellow-travellers of social democratic or radical left parties as they are to varying degrees in the West. The Eastern communist parties are not workers’ parties at all – in many cases, if they have a consistent support base it is both pensioners and the former Party apparat (who often overlap).

Fourth, the left’s message in Central and Eastern Europe is still more indistinct than in the West. Polling data does show that a majority of the population in former communist countries does understand the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and are able to place themselves on a left-right scale (although to a lesser extent than in the West). However, the relatively fluid post-communist party systems have meant that consistent ideological positions are rarer: it is common for ‘left-wing’ parties to appropriate ‘right-wing’ messages and vice-versa. A particular problem for the left is a menagerie of ‘social populist’ parties using socially protectionist rhetoric alongside national-religious slogans. These parties may be more radically inclined (such as the former Polish Self-Defence party) or more centrist (such as Smer-SD in Slovakia, which initially took a ‘neither left nor right’ image before adopting a more mainstream social democratic identity). Eastern parties have a tendency to be more leader and less programme-oriented than Western parties. Moreover, there are a number of programmatic differences that tend to divide Eastern and Western parties that we have already hinted at: Eastern social democrats tend to be more uncritically Atlanticist than Western ones; Eastern radical leftists are undoubtedly more communist, traditionalist and socially conservative that Western ones, whereas Eastern Greens tend to be more focussed on political than social rights, and more Green than Red. All of these divisions make articulating a distinct message across Europe still harder.


The current juncture confronts us with a definite crisis of neo-liberal capitalism. Unfortunately for the left, it coincides with (and to some extent has exacerbated) a range of internal ideological and strategic crises. Although it presents the left with some clear opportunities, there is a high risk that it will fail to capitalise, and will cede ground to other parties (particularly those of populist protest). Certainly, there is no shared pan-European response to the crisis, not least because the left is divided into three distinct party families (social democrats, the radical left and Greens), who share some generic aims (e.g. social justice and opposition to neo-liberalism), but who have fundamental disagreements over the nature of these aims, not just between but within the party families.

Nevertheless, the prospects for the left should not be underestimated. At least in the West, where the left has far more stable electoral and social roots, it is hardly likely to disappear as an electoral force, and cyclical changes in the preferences of the electorate may well make the left an attractive governing option again (particularly if the current ‘age of austerity’ continues to immiserate European populations). But re-calibration between the different party families (e.g. greater support for the Greens and radical left) is likely to complicate matters in future – recent elections have shown that the era of social democratic dominance may be over and in future the left party families will increasingly need to search for consensus and cooperation. Moreover, the question of what actually the left can do differently from the right in office has not been resolved. In the East, the situation is more complicated, because all left party families except the radical left have weaker social roots and since the radical left is dominated by ageing communists, its future is far from assured. Accordingly, situations where the left can be all but annihilated as a result of corruption scandals (as in Hungary and Poland in the 2000s) may well recur. Against this, generational and cultural change may help the Greens to gain the prominence they did in Western Europe in the 1980s onwards. Newer post-communist radical left groups (such as Hungary’s Fourth Generation Party) may benefit as the communist-era stigma gradually declines.

For Russia, the left can present an awkward partner – in part because its own internal contradictions mean that a consistent ‘left’ policy across Europe is difficult to identify. It is undoubtedly true that the ideological proclivities of the current Russian authorities and the ruling United Russia party (e.g. their emphasis on the strong state and religious/cultural traditions) would mean that they are closest to conservative parties (it is no coincidence that United Russia sits in the conservative ‘European Democrat Group’ in the Parliamentary Committee of the Council of Europe). Of the left groups, the social democrats and Greens (in particular) tend to have a stronger normative accent on human rights issues that means that they are no less critical of Russia than many liberal parties (for example, it is the Greens that have voiced most dissatisfaction with Russia over the Pussy Riot case). Perhaps paradoxically, it is the radical left who have positions closest to Russia on some issues (particularly their criticism of NATO and EU militarisation). Some communist parties, although far from all radical left parties, remain instinctively pro-Russian. However, in general radical left parties’ marginal position in European politics makes them less viable as potential partners.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that the political and cultural differences between Europe and Russia mean that even European conservative and nationalist parties have significant policy divergences from Russian views (for example, many tend to be strongly pro-American). All in all, Russia would be advised to cultivate a range of political partners, including the left. Above all, the left’s continued importance in many European party systems, East and West, and its regular participation in governance make it an important force with which for Russia should pursue pragmatic relations and dialogue.


This post was originally published by the Russian International Affairs Council. We gratefully acknowledge their permission to republish it.

UK in Europe 40 Years – special 2-day Transatlantic Seminar

The University will be co-hosting (with the European Parliament office in Holyrood) a major 2-day event on what 40 years of EU membership has meant for the UK and Scotland.

Speakers include PIR’s own Charlie Jeffery (and yours truly), the Law School’s Jo Shaw, Mike Shackleton of Maastricht University, the legendary Tam Dalyell, Ian Traynor (Brussels correspondent for The Guardian) and a rich variety of MEPs, MSPs and MPs.

Dates are Thurs/Fri 31 Oct and 1 Nov. Details on how to register are at: http://www.pol.ed.ac.uk/news/2013/special_two_day_transatlantic_seminar. Hope to see you there.

John Peterson
Prof of International Politics/
Edinburgh PIR

Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Still) Fit for Purpose?

Ethics Forum

Professor Christine Bell’s opening lines were salutary. Sixty five years ago the world stood exhausted and near ruined by global conflict, while the suppressed aggression of the Cold War mounted. In this moment of brokenness, we declared our humanity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gave voice and vocabulary to the dignity of persons.  The inaugural University of Edinburgh Ethics Forum asked if the UDHR still speaks to our needs, and for our aspirations.

The Ethics Forum aims to bring together academics, students, practitioners and members of the public to discuss the ethical dimension of current affairs. Professor Christine Bell (University of Edinburgh, School of Law) and Professor Tim Hayward (University of Edinburgh, Politics and International Relations) presented reflections on the challenges and opportunities we face when considering the future of the UDHR. The University of Edinburgh is a major partner in the newly invested Global…

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New UK bill on illegal immigrants: The lure of symbolic politics

Politics, Knowledge & Migration

The government’s proposed new measures to crack down on illegal immigrants are a textbook case of symbolic politics. Many have already pointed out that the measures are misdirected. The overwhelming ‘pull’ factor for migrants entering the UK (or any other country) is opportunities on the informal labour market. Plus, in many cases, the fact that they may have friends or relatives already settled in the country. So the effect of making it more difficult for such people to access accommodation, health treatment or other services will be to render them more susceptible to exploitation, or more reliant on other co-ethnics who can ill-afford additional obligations.

The second problem is that efforts to ‘steer’ social systems such as the housing market, the health service or banking system frequently produce distortions and counter-productive effects. See my article for BJPIR on the challenges of regulation in the area of illegal immigration.


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Thoughts on the new appointment of a new Secretary of State for Scotland

By James Mitchell, Chair in Public Policy,


Coalition with the Liberal Democrats has proved particularly helpful to the Conservatives in Scotland. In 2010, the Tories would have had to appoint their only Scottish MP to the post of Secretary of State for Scotland or provoke a predictable outcry by either abandoning the post as a separate entity or appointing someone from outside Scotland. The Scotland Office describes its remit as, ‘We ensure the smooth working of the devolution settlement in Scotland. We represent Scottish interests within the UK government and we represent the UK government in Scotland.’ This has been a controversial remit since devolution with some turf wars, especially between John Reid at the Scotland Office, and Donald Dewar as First Minister for Scotland. When the SNP came to office in Holyrood in 2007, successive Labour Scottish Secretaries were criticised by opponents for using the office as a platform in party political battleground.

With 11 of Scotland’s 59 MPs and having served in coalition with Labour in the Scottish Parliament from 1999-2007, the Liberal Democrats were a useful detoxifying agent for the Tories north of the border. Mr Cameron essentially devolved responsibility for Scotland in Whitehall to the Liberal Democrats. Danny Alexander was appointed Scottish Secretary. Mr Alexander was a well-known figure in Westminster at the time but hardly known in Scotland outside his Highland constituency. He replaced David Laws as Chief Secretary to the Treasury after the latter’s resignation. He was replaced at the Scotland Office by long-time rival in the small world of Scottish Liberal Democrat politics by Michael Moore.

The return of the Scottish National Party with an overall majority in Holyrood raised the Scottish Question up Whitehall’s agenda. Mr Moore’s style has been described as a ‘bit too chillaxed’, by Fraser Nelson of the Spectator, reflecting a common view that a more combative style was needed in the year running up to Scotland’s independence referendum. Alistair Carmichael’s appointment is expected to mark a shift towards a more aggressive style of campaigning from the Scotland Office to match that adopted by the Better Together campaign group on the ground in Scotland.

In 2010, Alistair Carmichael, the new Scottish Secretary, told Holyrood magazine that there would be no Scotland Office if his party got into power. It would be replaced by a Department of the Nations and Regions, ‘I think there is a job to be done but having the Scotland Office is not the right way to do it because it should be the clearing house between government in Edinburgh and government in London but now it is just a focal point for conflict.’ He now finds himself holding an office he recently argued should be abolished with the task of leading the attack from London on the SNP and its goal of independence.


Professor Mitchell originally contributed these thoughts to an LSE blog on the government reshuffle, which can be found here. We gratefully acknowledge their permission to republish.

Egypt’s ‘Civil Society Coup’ and the Resilience of the Post-1952 Order

By WJ Dorman, Honorary Fellow PIR

The military overthrow of the Morsi government in early July 2013 marked the return of ancien regime forces to the foreground of Egyptian politics. Of course, the Egyptian state’s underlying centres of power — including the military and security/intelligence forces, sometimes referred to as the ‘deep state‘ — had never gone away. In the late spring, they made common cause with the anti-Morsi political opposition, staging a so-called ‘civil society coup’.

Their ascendancy is manifest on a number of levels, most notably with respect to the interior ministry and an explicit return to the abusive police practices credited with driving the original 25 January protest movement. But the emerging political dispensation, while embedded in post-1952 traditions of authoritarianism, does not simply reinstate the Mubarak era. Egypt’s second transition has been marked by an unprecedented degree of violence, initially by the state against the Brotherhood. Military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi has an unprecedented degree of public popularity, but the armed forces must choose between retreating into the shadows of a future ‘presidential monarch’ — a role for which al-Sissi may be auditioning — or reaffirming its formal autonomy vis-à-vis a weakened presidency as was the case during the short-lived Morsi government.

However, various factors may complicate an authoritarian consolidation. The brutal demise of the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to unravel the complicated entanglement of religion and politics in Egypt. Cairo’s new rulers have few plausible solutions to the long-standing problems of political economy with which all post-1952 governments have struggled. While Egyptian civil society failed to democratise the political order in the wake of the Mubarak overthrow, it remains a potentially revolutionary force.

Governing, Not Ruling

Given the prevalence of public discourse in Egypt proscribing the Muslim Brotherhood as unEgyptian and ‘terrorist‘, it is worth remembering that the military overthrow of Morsi government probably reflected its weakness as much as its malfeasance. While saddled with the responsibilities of governance, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government hardly ruled the state. Rather, it remained beholden to the military, whose interests it defended in the much maligned December 2012 constitution. It never secured the allegiance of the security forces despite being blamed for their continued human-rights violations. Indeed, its abbreviated tenure was characterised by a “balkanization of the state” in which various institutions including the judiciary and al-Azhar religious authorities, sought to assert their autonomy. Perhaps most importantly, the Morsi government’s lack of control over the state meant that it was never able to see off its critics in the secular opposition, and on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities. In Spring 2013, these forces coalesced around the Tamarod “rebellion” movement whose widely subscribed petition demanding Morsi’s removal and mass protests scheduled for 30 June, the government’s first anniversary in office, set the stage for military intervention.

Observers have speculated as to whether the overthrow was planned in advance. Perhaps Egypt’s military rulers during the post-Mubarak transition had allowed the Muslim Brotherhood their victory in the Spring 2012 presidential elections intending them to fail. But one can argue plausibly that the Morsi government came to power on the basis of an undeclared understanding with the armed forces that it would respect the military’s institutional prerogatives and economic privileges: in effect governing on behalf of the ‘deep state’ which still ruled behind the scenes. If so, then perhaps the military intervened at the culmination of the Tamarod campaign because the opposition had successfully signalled Morsi’s failure in the intermediary role. His government had proven unable to halt the recurring cycle of protest and crisis inherited from the transition period and consolidate at least the appearance of political order and social peace.

‘Civil Society Coup’?

The role of Tamarod in the Morsi overthrow is suggestive of the so-called the “civil-society coup,” in which clashes between nominally democratic political actors allow the reassertion of praetorianism. This paradigm is intended to capture situations where a populist autocrat pursues anti-establishment policies in a poorly institutionalised political system, unconstrained by generally weak opposition forces and an absence of checks and balances. Civil society organisations mobilise, becoming the main focus of opposition and take to the street in protest. In moment of crisis or institutional breakdown, these forces make a deal with the military and perhaps hold together an anti-government coalition of soldiers and politicians. While the normative focus of the paradigm is sometimes a critique of civil society ‘gone rogue’, empirically the contribution and significance of civil-society groups to military intervention against the populist autocrat varies from case to case.

Although the Morsi government was hardly populist or anti-establishment, its demise at least partially fits the civil-society coup paradigm. Its approach to governance was unilateralist, leading to widespread suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood was seeking to entrench itself in the state and recreate the Mubarak-era regime with itself at the centre. Opposition forces were not just weak, but also divided and lacking a coherent agenda. The entire political environment remained implicitly authoritarian with few institutionalised opportunities for meaningful political contestation. Hence it was perhaps inevitable that the opposition would return to the repertoire of street protests which in June/July 2013 signalled the Morsi government’s loss of control and, crucially were used to give the military’s return to power a populist cover. In the lead-up to the overthrow, some opposition activists had demanded military intervention. In its aftermath, there were reports of coordination
between Tamarod and the soldiers during the protests. The opposition and private-sector media have subsequently sought to justify Morsi’s removal and subsequent massacres of Muslim Brotherhood supporters with a hyper-patriotic appeals and scare-mongering. They precluded any serious domestic debate about the merits of overthrowing an elected government and the violent repression of its supporters.

But actual civil society participation in the overthrow itself and subsequent consolidation of power has been limited. Neighbourhood-level popular committees have acted as a kind paramilitary auxiliary. Ordinary Egyptians began to show their disdain for Brotherhood activists. But the removal of the Morsi government and subsequent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood was mainly done by the police and the army, leading some skeptics to claim that the ‘second revolution’ of July 2013 was stage-managed. Deep-state forces and Mubarak-era elites rather than the secular opposition groups appear to be the most direct beneficiaries of the overthrow. Hence the paradigm’s normative critique of civil society must not be exaggerated. There were few opportunities for the secular opposition to play ‘loyal opposition’ vis-a-vis the Morsi government. Its role may have been momentarily crucial in legitimating the takeover, especially to external audiences, but transitory with respect to the longer-term replication of the deep state and the reconstitution of authoritarianism in Egypt.

‘The Empire Strikes Back’

The repressive character of the post-Morsi dispensation seems self-evident in the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. But the interim government’s autocratic tendencies have been obscured by the public popularity of the campaign against the Brotherhood as well as Gen. al-Sissi’s incipient cult of personality, both propagated in the private media. Nonetheless they are manifest in the return of Mubarak-era officials to the cabinet as well as retired military and police officers to the upper echelons of ‘local’ government. The police and military have suppressed labour unrest. There have been repeated attempts to intimidate and coerce journalists whose reporting is perceived as unsympathetic, as well as smear campaigns against secular liberal politicians and leading figures in the Tahrir protest movement.

While the post-transition political order remains a work-in-progress, some observers discern the consolidation of authoritarianism in the constitution-writing committee dominated by representatives of state agencies. The interim government has proposed laws restricting protest and increasing its ability to jail its opponents. Moreover, a proposed electoral law would weaken the largely Cairo-based opposition parties and foster the reemergence of the rural notables, perhaps even of a ruling party, as key political brokers in the countryside. Such forces have been have been the backbone of top-down clientelist politics since the 1950s.

In many small respects, the interim government is reenacting the Mubarak era: for example, in its efforts to curb Islamist unrest by closing small mosques and banning unlicensed preachers, and distributive measures to ‘buy’ social peace including increases to public-sector pay rates and the minimum wage. The tentative accomplishments of the ‘revolution’ are also being wound up at the micro-level: in January 2012 Bedouin residents in Marsa Matruh on the Mediterranean cost took advantage of the post-Mubarak breakdown in state control to re-occupy land, from which they had been displaced nine years earlier on the pretext of constructing a nuclear power plant.[] However recent reports indicate that Egyptian military intelligence has retaken the land. Interim president Adly Mansour has announced the site would be first in a series of nuclear power stations, a wholly impractical scheme but nonetheless in keeping with the long-standing “edifice complex” of Egypt’s rulers.

Violence & Oligarchy

Such multi-pronged revanchism is indicative of the underlying resilience the post-1952 political order, put in place by Nasser and his Free Officer colleagues and reproduced through 2010. If al-Sissi does become president then it will be tempting to see the 2011-2013 period as merely a brief interregnum in this praetorian tradition. But the post-Morsi dispensation is not a straightforward return to the presidential authoritarianism of Mubarak and his predecessors.

While the post-1952 order was historically less violent than counterpart regimes in Algeria, Iraq and Syria, exemplary massacres have become a recurring phenomenon since the Mubarak overthrow. The clearance of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins on 14 August, with a death toll of close to 1,000, was described by Human Rights Watch as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in Egyptian history.” This top-down violence may be instrumental in the creation of a new praetorian dispensation. But it also risks again radicalising the Egyptian Islamist movement and has helped provoke a de facto insurgency in the Sinai, sectarian uprisings in Upper Egypt and what appears to be the beginnings of an urban guerrilla campaign in Cairo and other secondary cities.

Egypt’s armed forces have always been the foundation of the post-1952 order. But Nasser and his successors were civilian ‘presidential monarchs’, helping insulate the military from the responsibilities of governance. Thus direct military rule in the wake of the Mubarak overthrow was relatively novel, and seen as disastrous for the military’s reputation. The current chief al-Sissi has a public profile unseen since Nasser, to whom he is frequently compared. Yet it is unclear whether he wishes to formalise this role as a presidential strongman when elections are eventually held. Instead, the emerging dispensation may be more formally oligarchic, with deep state institutions such as the military and police given a constitutionally enshrined degree of autonomy from the executive. If so, it risks reproducing one of the underlying pathologies of the Morsi era: a president who must govern without ruling.

“The 25 January Revolution is not over”

The increasing brutalisation of the political arena and the balkanisation of state institutions will shape, and probably obstruct, the future consolidation of authoritarian power relations in Egypt. Several bottom-up factors are likely to be significant as well.

1. The secular opposition has been accused of supporting the Morsi overthrow, because it was unable to defeat the Islamists electorally. But the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood does not mark the end of Islamists in Egyptian politics or their intersection with the state. The rival Salafi trend — a more doctrinaire Islamist movement which stood clear of the Morsi government’s demise and has been included in the second transitional dispensation — is likely to be the most immediate beneficiaries of the Brotherhood’s demise. Its parties took over a quarter of the popular vote in the 2011/2012 parliamentary elections and are likely to attract religiously minded sections of the electorate in the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement has quiet linkages to the security services — acting as a police proxy in the subaltern zones of Egyptian society — and has signalled a willingness to defend military interests. Overall, the post-1952 political order has never really been secular, Mubarak and his predecessors made instrumental use of religious appeals and regarded Islamist groups as a means of engaging with the Egyptian grass-roots by proxy.

2. Egypt’s fundamental problems of political economy remain and indeed may have worsened. In addition to its political problems, the Morsi government struggled with the declining hard-currency reserves. They constrained crucial purchases of wheat and fuel — necessary to maintain the subsidy regimes which have helped guarantee social peace since the Sadat era — and help explain the power cuts, gas lines and bread shortages which further destabilised the government in its final months in office. In the short-term, this situation has been ameliorated by $8 billion in cash infusions from the Gulf states happy, for their own reasons, to see the end of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political experiment. But the Egyptian economy remains essentially ‘circulationist’, dependent on external rent streams which are historically in decline. How any future government will cope with this situation is unclear. Despite decades of economic reform by pretence, Egypt rulers have been reluctant to embrace the austerity measures to control demand. This unsustainability of the political economy will be a long-term constraint on the renewal of durable authoritarianism

3. Finally, the contradiction at the centre of post-Mubarak politics remain. While the post-1952 order was predicated on the demobilisation and containment of Egyptian civil society, the political narrative since 2011 has been that of bottom-up protest. Opposition parties and civil society forces have been unable to foster a genuine process of democratisation, but remain a potential obstacle to the consolidation of authoritarianism. Eventually issues of the economy or other quotidian crises will signal the end of current ‘honey moon’ period for the government of the day and its backers in the deep state. Egypt’s new rulers must somehow figure out how to wind down the now normal practices of public contestation and protest despite the almost inevitable persistence of the grievances which inform them. If they are unable to do so, then Joel Beinin may be prescient when he wrote: “The January 25 Revolution is not over. Rather, it has not yet occurred.

This post originally appeared on Open Democracy. We gratefully acknowledge their permission to republish.

The Scottish Question and ‘ordinary’ Politics

By James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy


Scotland’s ‘constitutional moment’ may not conform with Bruce Ackerman’s notion that constitutional debates are the ‘highest form of politics’, superior to ‘ordinary politics’. The distinction between ‘ordinary’ and constitutional politics breaks down in practice. The Scottish Question is an amalgam of issues and debates in which a narrow understanding of constitutional politics operates alongside questions of identity, everyday public policy concerns and party politics. Additionally, the referendum exhibits classic features of adversarial ordinary politics that are difficult to interpret as in any way ‘superior’. Nonetheless, the relationship between ordinary or everyday politics and constitutional politics is worth exploring.

Gutman and Thompson (2012) argue in The Spirit of Compromise that governing demands compromise but campaigning undermines it. The referendum is an interesting test case. How will the referendum affect governing at all levels in Scotland?

There are broadly three types of everyday issues in this referendum. The economy, defence and welfare are CORE to the referendum leaving little room for consensus. A familiar pattern has emerged to how these are framed by each side. Independence in framed by YesScotland as offering opportunities, highlighting the manoeuvrability of small states pursuing broadly social democratic policies. Better Together frames separation, its preferred term, as a threat which will leave Scotland isolated, losing the clout in a hostile world.

Another set of everyday issues are INSULATED from the referendum debate. The referendum excites much attention and media coverage but teachers continue to teach, doctors to tend the sick and the vast array of public services not only continue to be delivered as normal but debates on how these might be improved, how to deal with shrinking budgets and preparing for demographic changes already well underway occur is isolation from the referendum debate. Interviews with senior public officials and others across a wide range of services and in different parts of Scotland suggest insulation from the hurly burly of the referendum debate. And that is how many involved in these debates want to keep it.

The public policy challenges Scotland faces are broadly the same as those faced across many liberal democracies. The fall-out of the economic crisis including its public financial consequences is uppermost in the minds of decision-makers. There is a widespread acceptance amongst many at the sharp end delivering services that years of abundance are being followed by years of famine. For some, the referendum debate is cover for preparing ground for the era of austerity most expect to last for many years to come regardless of the outcome of the referendum. A lively debate continues on public service reform that remains largely insulated from the referendum. This is how many of those involved in these debates want to keep it. There is concern that the adversarial debate will spill over into everyday politics as has happened in Holyrood and council chambers. But the referendum has a capacity to overwhelm any everyday matter.

There is a third category of issues. A number of issues are being INSINUATED into the debate. Policy entrepreneurs are aware of the dangers such a strategy but see the opportunity of using the high profile nature of the referendum to further agendas and interests.

There is a long history of this. In the 1970s, Shetland saw an opportunity to play each side off against the other in Scotland’s then constitutional moment. In the Constitutional Convention debates in the 1990s, Shetland and Orkney won concessions from the Constitutional Convention to have separate representation in the Scottish Parliament for each island archipelago. Today, the two island local authorities have joined with the Western Isles in a campaign, Our Islands, Our Futures to make the case for significant new powers from Westminster and Holyrood.

The most successful example of insinuation in the Convention debate was the women’s movement. Various women’s groups linked women’s representation to the establishment of the Parliament. They pressed for more ‘family friendly’ Parliamentary procedures and made some gains though were less successful in pursuing everyday public policy gains for women.

A number of human rights bodies are attempting to insinuate themselves into the debate. The Scottish Refugee Council (SRC) produced a report at the start of 2013 that set out what it saw as good policy and practice in the fields of refugee and asylum policies and challenged each side to outline how different constitutional scenarios would affect these areas. The two Human Rights Commissions (one covering devolved, the other retained matters) have each engaged with the debate, following a similar approach of challenging each side to outline how human rights would be improved under different constitutional scenarios.

Organised labour and business have engaged in diverse ways with the referendum. The CBI (Scotland) has become part of the anti-independence campaign engaging in adversarial style. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce recently issued the results of a survey emphasising that its members are more inclined to insulate themselves from the referendum debate, stressing that businesses want to get on with their ‘day to day business’ and calling for more information. The call for more information is proving a common means of insulating various interests from the debate. The Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) has challenged each side to provide details in response to its A Just Scotland campaign. It has avoided taking sides to date, aware that its members are divided on the Scotland’s constitutional future.

With almost a year to go to the referendum, a pattern has emerged of highly contested adversarial issues at the core of the referendum. Ackerman’s notion of constitutional politics as superior looks unconvincing but so too does the notion that constitutional politics can be separated from ordinary politics though the challenge for many is to keep these spheres separate or to insinuate ordinary matters into the debate in a constructive manner. Both present significant challenges.


This blog was first published on the Policy and Politics Blog from the LSE. We gratefully acknowledge their permission to republish it here.