The military coup d’etat in Egypt is generating debate among democratization proponents in Azerbaijan. Some blame the exclusionary politics of the deposed president Mohammad Morsi for provoking the coup, others see it as conventional military meddling. But people on both sides of the question are interested in learning lessons, and in ensuring that Egypt’s misfortune never repeats itself in Azerbaijan.
Underlying the ongoing debate among Azerbaijani civil society supporters is a belief that change is possible in the not-so-distant future in Baku. Thus, these supporters badly want to make sure that conditions are optimal so that any future Azerbaijani transition stands a decent chance of ushering in a genuine democratic system.
While President Ilham Aliyev’s administration seems firmly ensconced in power at present, history shows that change can come suddenly and unexpectedly. Thus, it is worthwhile for democratization leaders to do some thinking now about ways to get around potential pitfalls, in the event an opportunity for change presents itself. Here are some areas that deserve intellectual attention, taking into account the recent events in Egypt;
1. Promoting reform of the security sector. Unlike in Egypt, there is no politically powerful and autonomous army in Azerbaijan that can challenge an elected government. But Azerbaijan’s police and security forces are non-transparent and unaccountable, and routinely violate basic civil rights. Any democratically oriented government that comes to power will have to take action to reduce the security services’ power, not only for the sake of its credibility, but also to ensure that it is not undermined from within. Nothing undermined Morsi’s government in Egypt more than the perception that it failed to ensure law and order. In a political transition, elements of the Azerbaijani “deep state” can sabotage the new government by creating a situation of chaos, and having the people clamoring for the law and order of Aliyev’s days. It’s worth noting here that Heydar Aliyev’s return to power in the mid-1990s was made possible by the then-governing Popular Front’s inability to foster a sense of law and order. Therefore, it is essential that any new, democratically oriented government to have a plan in place that can contain the security sector’s ability to sow mischief. This could include a blueprint to prosecute key officials responsible for the most grievous abuses, and set in motion reforms that preclude such abuses in the future.
2. Governing inclusively. Regardless of whether the coup against Morsi was a genuine expression of the popular will, or a work of shadowy groups in the “deep state”, there is little doubt that there would have never been 17 million people on the streets demanding Morsi’s resignation if he and his Muslim Brotherhood allies had governed in a more inclusive way. Granted, one could hardly expect a highly authoritarian and secretive group that spent most of its history operating underground in opposition to a dictatorship to usher the country toward an era of liberal democracy. But the Muslim Brotherhood’s intolerant, heavy-handed ways alienated it from even many of its own voters. Any democratic government in Azerbaijan should resist the temptation to pursue vengeance against Aliyev’s officials and supporters. Only those who committed specific crimes should be prosecuted. Justice has to be restored to those wronged by political arrests, expropriation or destruction of property and other violations of their rights. But it would be a grave mistake to go after rank-and-file members of Aliyev’s administration, or members of his New Azerbaijan Party, supporters in the media, etc. A widespread purge, as some Azerbaijanis suggested Morsi should have done in Egypt, merely fuels a lingering sense of injustice and perpetuates polarization.
3. Building broad consensus for reforms. The National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) of Azerbaijan, an umbrella organization of the united opposition, has announced a program of political reforms in case its candidate wins the presidential elections in October 2013. The program includes a switch from the current presidential to a parliamentary system, ratification of a new constitution via a referendum and new parliamentary, presidential and municipal elections. To ensure that these reforms would consolidate a democratic transition, the NCDF will have to forge broad consensus over the rules of the game and timetables. Otherwise, like the Morsi government experienced in Egypt, it could easily encounter challenges at every step. Such challenges would only create what Mark Lynch, an American expert, called the climate of pervasive uncertainty and fear. This, in turn, would have negative impact on the economy, and if coupled with the derailment of the law and order, would raise the chances of a counter-coup against the democratization process.
4. Fostering transparency with Azerbaijanis and the outside world. While Morsi in Egypt managed to establish working relationship with the United States and European Union, few in Washington and Brussels appeared sorry to see him go. This is due both to his the ineptitude of his administration and the still deep-seated apprehension of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. The NCDF in Azerbaijan is untainted by Islamism, but it faces a different kind of challenge. Incumbent authorities in Baku are already portraying it as a Kremlin puppet, due to the fact that its leader, the Oscar-winning scriptwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov, resides in Moscow. No doubt, such attempts will intensify in the run-up to the elections. The NCDF stated clearly in its founding declaration that it seeks Azerbaijan’s integration into the “family of European nations.” But this alone won’t suffice to convince US and EU officials that it represents a genuine and democratic alternative. To succeed in this area, it will need to develop a clear way to communicate its messages and explain its actions. NCDF leaders would also have to remember that the primary source of their legitimacy would be Azerbaijani citizens, and accordingly keep the people in the policy-making loop.
Egypt’s experience tragically reinforces the notion that the longer reforms are delayed, the more turbulent are political transitions. From this perspective, Azerbaijan’s presidential election in October can be seen as a potential turning point in the country’s history: either it will pave the way for democratization or further entrench the existing authoritarian system, thus heightening the risks of a chaotic transition in the future. It is not just the future of Azerbaijan, but the long-term stability of the region that is at stake. Therefore, the United States and the EU must make it clear to authorities in Baku that they will not accept anything short of free and fair elections.