The Egyptian people ratified constitutional amendments significantly expanding President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s power in an April referendum. The vote, which closed on April 22, left el-Sisi with greater power to appoint judges to important courts, as well as the ability to appoint a third of the members in a newly re-established upper house of Congress. The amendments also curtailed judicial review and expanded military courts. Finally, it extended the presidential term by two years and expanded the term limit from two to three. Though the amendments passed through legal mechanisms, the democratic nature of the measures is somewhat questionable.
Politics in Egypt, including the most recent amendments, are a perfect example of an increasingly common trend worldwide: the use of legal democratic means to undermine opposition and prevent partisan alternation, a practice dubbed stealth authoritarianism (or democratic erosion). This more subtle antidemocratic current is a result of increasing international pressures to democratize, encouraging leaders with authoritarian tendencies to consolidate their power under a veneer of democracy. Constitutional amendments are frequently used tools of democratic erosion, and the Egyptian amendments are clear examples of that democratic threat.
Specifically, the Egyptian amendments are an example of executive aggrandizement, whereby the chief executive expands their power through legal means, without suspending the constitution, as would be done in an executive coup. Oftentimes, this is achieved by reducing checks on executive power. The Egyptian amendments do exactly this by reducing judicial review. Furthermore, politicians engaging in stealth authoritarianism often restructure the courts and appoint judges in such a way that the judicial process will be favorable to them. El-Sisi’s increased power over appointments is a perfect example of this tactic of stealth authoritarianism. Finally, the extension of term limits and duration is quite obviously a questionably democratic measure for the president to cement personal power.
The context in which the amendments passed also clearly displays stealth authoritarian tactics. Before the vote, the government blocked 34,000 websites in order to restrict a campaign collecting signatures against the amendments. Shrinking the public sphere in this way is a common stealth authoritarian tool. Furthermore, el-Sisi offered rewards to people voting on the amendments, aiming to boost the legitimacy of the vote’s results by increasing turnout. Granted, people received the rewards regardless of whether or not they had supported the amendments. However, given the certainty of the vote’s outcome, it is hard to accept this as a reasonable promotion of democracy. Instead, it could be interpreted as an incumbent using their position of power to buy certain favorable democratic outcomes (be they favorable election results or merely legitimization through increased turnout). This kind of vote-buying is a common tactic of populist authoritarians.
However, democratic erosion under el-Sisi did not start with the recent amendments. In 2013, el-Sisi led a coup against the president, Mohamed Morsi, criticizing his antidemocratic tendencies and promising to build a better Egypt. This is a common occurrence in more recent history; indeed, military coups dubbed promissory because their leaders promise to enhance democracy have mostly replaced more open-ended coups ending in explicit dictatorships. Unfortunately, the orchestrators of the coups often win the subsequently organized elections, and democracy is almost always worse off in the years after the coup than before. Egypt is no exception: el-Sisi went on to be elected president in 2014 and it has been said that freedom in Egypt is worse off now than it was under the repressive leader Hosni Mubarak.
Indeed, during his 2018 reelection campaign, el-Sisi intimidated and jailed so much of the opposition that in the end his only competitor was one of his supporters. Notably, one of his rivals, a former Egyptian armed forces chief of staff, was charged with breaching military rules. This is significant because using power to prosecute opposition leaders for non-political crimes is a very common tactic of stealth authoritarianism. Throughout his presidency, el-Sisi also established a strict control over the media, a move often associated with populist authoritarians.[Kendall-Taylor] All of this repression was justified in the name of stability and protecting against terrorism. This is yet another common stealth-authoritarian tactic; popular authoritarians often feed off of fears related to terrorism to justify their actions eroding democracy.
The Egyptian people elected el-Sisi, and the Egyptian people ratified his amendments to the Egyptian constitution. But, as has been shown, el-Sisi’s rule has never been democratic in the truest sense of the word. This seeming contradiction actually reflects a common tendency for modern states to appear democratic upon a cursory inspection of voting practices, while in fact being quite authoritarian in nature. This trend is one of the gravest threats facing modern democracies. Egypt is a sobering reminder of where democracy might lead us if we are not careful. It also excellently demonstrates that democracy is more than just the right to vote. Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1673-742.
 Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).
 Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (January 2016): 5-19.
 Jan-Werner Muller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
 Pippa Norris, “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks,” Forthcoming, The Journal of Democracy (April 2017).
 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).
Photo by Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia – http://en.kremlin.ru/catalog/persons/379/events/55521/photos/50092, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63346445