Amidst the Arab Spring Movement in 2011, Egypt was one of several in the region to successfully overthrow their government, igniting inspiration of a democratic future. Today, however, the continuous political unrest and lack of economic prosperity have led the public to believe there may no longer be a brighter alternative. The hope of basic representation glows dimly as President Sisi’s recent referendum swept a total vote of 88.8% in support of amendments to the constitution. In addition to granting power to the military elites in politics and allowing the president to oversee the judiciary, the immediately enacted article extends Sisi’s current term to six years and will allow him to run for another, potentially prolonging his to rule until 2030. This form of executive aggrandizement, coined by Bermeo (2016), erodes at the constitutionally placed institutions and delegitimizes any emergence of democracy in the country. The amendment is a massive threat to civilian rights, and the current redistribution of power is far from where revolutionaries had hoped it would be. On a regional scale, Egypt’s path to populism after the revolt could act as a precedent for others in the region if their uprisings are poorly executed.
Brief Timeline of the Populism Rise
- 2013: Protests against the first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, spark military overthrow led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
- Sisi declares a “technocratic government” on the state.
- 2014: Proposed new democratic constitution drafted with little public debate or opposition campaign.
- 2018: Sisi up for re-election and wins 97% of the votes with a 44% turnout rate.
The Allure of Democratic Characteristics
Under the doctrine of Diamond (2002), Egypt could be defined as a hybrid regime as even authoritarian militants attempt to legitimize their rule through a “contested, multi-party election (however fraudulent, coerced, and manipulated).” However, society would be too forgiving to grant such regimes the legitimacy of even calling themselves a “hybrid” of democracy. No matter how much as political scientists attempt to reconcile constitutional theory with the actual distribution of power, it is a fact that the Egyptian government has slipped into the realm of populist rule and should no longer be allowed a veneer of democracy in the eyes of the international community.
Egypt ranks 127th of 167 countries on the Democracy Index and has been notorious for controlling the press and opposing candidates since Sisi’s rise to power. Since the first government overthrow, elected officials have failed to create the democratic culture of unspoken rules; namely, a peaceful transition of power and mutual tolerance for opposing parties (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). The existence of political opposition alone is insufficient for legitimate representation, as demonstrated by the fact that Egypt has over 100 political parties, several of which the candidates have been stifled through arrests and massive electoral fraud; however, only one party is written on the ballot. Disincentivizing political participation from the public is characteristic of populist power, where leaders adopt a “caretaker attitude” and rule complacent citizens (Muller, 2016). Sisi’s extended power coupled with the lack of transparency about the political process will cause citizens to continue feeling defeated and as though there is no point in voting since the results are ‘rigged.’
Yet, despite the blatant authoritative style of President Sisi, it is still somehow almost necessary for countries to maintain the image of democracy. Dahl (1971) writes that leaders often attempt to “pay some lip service today to the legitimate right of the people to govern;” in this sense, democracy is used to disillusion the public about a better future ahead. In alignment with such values, populist leaders who claim to represent the ‘silenced majority’ tend to push for this romanticized idea of democracy, such that the ‘morally pure civilians’ will be properly represented (Muller 2016). For Egypt, Sisi used this rhetoric during his 2013 speech after the coup, claiming previously elected president had failed to properly unrepresentative the people (only 30% of Egyptians were eligible to participate in the constitutional referendum process). The rise of a populist rule in Egypt comes with little surprise as it was much easier to blame the elite when Sisi was in the opposition. Now in power, Sisi’s attempt to legitimize his rule has fallen a constitutional overhaul with a cynical and defeated public.
Is There Any Hope of Egypt and the Post-Arab Spring Region?
Clearly, there is no straightforward answer. Some news outlets suggest this amendment is the end of the era that began with such hope. The power of such an extended rule can be written into the constitution, allowing Sisi’s legacy to outlive his rule. I am one to support this perspective, but I would like to argue there is more at stake. Egypt’s haphazard redistribution of power should be a warning sign to vulnerable countries. With more countries beginning the second wave of revolutions, notably North African countries such as Algeria and Sudan, potential leaders should be wary of these outcomes and future goals. Thus, with these revolutionary claims comes Egypt’s cautionary tale. Change must not occur in a drastic overturn of power. Once protests begin to fight for an entirely new constitution, governments must be wary of their autocratic consequences. In most cases, democracy works because there are exists legitimate political parties that gatekeepers, preventing the potential rise of populist leaders (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). Grant, this is not to say a revolt is unproductive, but once a country is vulnerable to such drastic changes, the appropriate leader must be elected in order to see democracy grow, and Egypt should serve a case study for the region.
Image Credit: Photo By Mohamed Abd El Ghany, Reuters. Taken April 20, 2019. The original source of the photo can be found here.
- Bermeo, N., 2016. “On democratic backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, 27(1), pp.5-19.
- Diamond, Larry. 2002. “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes.” Journal of Democracy 13(2): pp. 21-35.
- Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
- Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter 1, 5, and 6.