Recently, in Egypt, a breakout of anti-government protests resulted in the arrests of innocent people, including both bystanders and peaceful protesters. Young citizens took to the streets chanting, “Down with Sisi” and “Leave now.” These protests, however, did not last long, as state armed security forces dispersed the crowds with tear gas and arrested well over 3,000 protesters.
According to Freedom House, which ranks nations according to their democratic policies and level of personal freedom, Egypt has an appalling aggregate score of 22 out of 100. On January 19th, 2018, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared his intentions to run for a second term. March 26th-28th, 2018 marked an election in which el-Sisi won an astounding 97% of the vote, against a single opponent, Hamdeen Sabbahi. An AP News articled deemed the election illegitimate and described it as “unfair and unfree,” with no international monitors to confirm the election results. Citizens were “forced to vote or were bribed with food and money.” Additionally, the constitution was flawed by recent amendments. His current term was extended to 2024, terms were increased from four to six years, and he was given the ability to run for a second six-year term. But more importantly, el-Sisi and the current governmental system have suppressed the country’s freedom of speech and press through near-total media domination.
In “How Democracies Fall Apart,” authors Kendall-Taylor and Frantz describe the approach post-Cold War populists use to come to power, and how the changes they implement led to a democratic backslide within a country. “These leaders first come to power through democratic elections and subsequently harness widespread discontent to gradually undermine institutional constraints on their rule, marginalize the opposition, and erode civil society. … [They] deliberately install loyalists in key positions of power … and neutralize the media by buying it, legislating against it, and enforcing censorship.”
El-Sisi, who first came to power in 2013, has done just that and continuously displays authoritative traits. Egypt’s governmental system lacks the constitutional norms that are needed to enforce its checks and balances on the president and the government as a whole. Already a fragile democracy, Egypt underwent a 2013 military coup d’état led by el-Sisi to overthrow the legitimately elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Now, Egypt is facing rule under el-Sisi, where freedoms have been revoked, and the media is heavily controlled. His election was a scam, an illusion of democracy; he was not freely elected. He eliminated his opponents systematically. He detained a major rival, Sami Anan, under the pretense that he had run for president without permission, a horrifying thing to hear about a so-called “democracy.” An article by Raf Sanchez of the Telegraph reported that, “One by one political figures who have stepped forward to oppose Mr Sisi have been arrested or intimidated out of the race and on Wednesday the only candidate still standing, labour lawyer Khaled Ali, said he too was withdrawing.”
El-Sisi’s undemocratic path to power is not the first time this has happened in Egypt. During the Arab Spring, tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters forced dictator Hosni Mubarak out of power. Mubarak had been in power for 30 years, and his removal threw Egypt into a state of extreme political instability. Following Mubarak’s downfall, Mohamed Morsi was elected democratically, but tensions between him and the military remained. Despite his fair election, his military removal is a nod to failing democratic system.
Because of el-Sisi’s prior army position as Chief General during his coup d’état, he was able to install allies in the military and governmental positions. These loyalists would prove useful to him in enforcing political control over citizens. The government is corrupt, and there are no means to inspect and punish this corruption. According to Freedom House, “Sisi has rules in a style that entrenches military privilege and shields the armed forces from accountability for their actions.”
In “On Democracy,” Robert Dahl iterates the importance of maintaining freedom of expression in order for citizens to engage in political life. This also means they must have the ability to hear and consider others’ opinions regarding the government’s actions and decisions. As Dahl puts it, “To acquire an enlightened understanding of possible government actions and policies also requires freedom of expression. … Without freedom of expression citizens would soon lose their capacity to influence the agenda of government decisions. Silent citizens may be perfect subjects for an authoritarian ruler; they would be a disaster for a democracy.” Without the ability to express ideas and engage in political discussion, elections and other democratic institutions cannot be upheld effectively. This should be considered when observing Egypt’s politics because the citizens are unable to express any anti-government views.
As previously mentioned, a more prominent feature of Egypt’s gradual democratic backsliding is the frequent occurrence of media censorship and governmental control. Kendall Taylor and Frantz, in “How Democracies Fall Apart,” say, “The playbook is consistent and straight forward: deliberately install loyalists in key positions of power (particularly in the judiciary and security services) and neutralize the media by buying it, legislating against it, and enforcing censorship.” El-Sisi has heavily enforced a distaste for the freedom of expression and has created a country of silent citizens. Time after time, journalists and reporters are penalized for speaking out against the government and its interests, restricting their ability to spread information and educate the public on what goes on in the political world. According to Freedom House, “Journalists who fail to align their reporting with the interests of owners or the government risk dismissal. Journalists also continued to face arrest for their work, and 20 remained behind bars as of December 2017, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.” This type of behavior is prevalent and sparked critique and involvement from the United Nations and the United States. Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, has said, “As part of our long-standing strategic partnership with Egypt, we continue to raise the fundamental importance of respect for human rights, universal freedoms, and the need for a robust civil society.”
The conditions of Egypt’s backsliding, such as the arrest of el-Sisi’s running mates, detained journalists, and occasions of media censorship, are best iterated in “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. “Democracies may die at the hands of not generals but of elected leaders—presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.” The foundations of democratic erosion are often misunderstood: people still believe democracies die at the hands of outright dictatorships. While el-Sisi did conduct a coup d’état in 2013 to remove the president from power, he attained his position of power with a seemingly democratic election. El-Sisi has weakened the country’s institutions and democratic norms and is guiding the country towards its democratic downfall.
I think understanding and analyzing the effects of democratic backsliding worldwide is very important in order to understand how to prevent the erosion of democracies in the future. At the same time, as you have enumerated here, there are situational parts of Egypt’s particular case that draw particular attention like the arrest of el-Sisi’s running mates and the detained journalists. This is certainly a more explicit example of the same broad trends we see here in the United States and other consolidated democracies.