Democracy in Egypt lasted less than two years between 2011 and 2013. How do new governments fail so quickly? And is democracy gone for good in Egypt?
For those watching the Arab Spring unfold, we truly did get every possible outcome. Some nations, like the Spring’s birthplace Tunisia, became a promising young democracy. Some devolved into anarchy like we see in Libya and Yemen, and Syria has ripped itself in half in civil war. But none of these quite gave onlookers the whiplash that Egypt did. In eighteen months, the democratic experiment began and ended along the Nile. Finding why Egyptian democracy failed will be crucial in understanding what issues are unique to young democracies, and will act as a “what not to do” study for those still trying to bring democracy to another part of the world. I have a pair of theories as to what happened.
The first was that it wasn’t really one pro-democracy movement. Those calling for democracy to come to Egypt and for Mubarak’s removal were highly varied in ideas and ideals, and did not agree on a vision for the future. As Amr Hamzawy described the time just after Mubarak’s removal, there were two major factions in the pro-democracy movement – the Islamists, notably led by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the liberals, who were a bit more scattered. And from the beginning, these two factions did not trust each other at all. Much of the left was coalesced around a distrust of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar hardline Islamist groups, and much of the Islamist right had been suppressed in the past thirty years of the Mubarak regime, so they were not about to sit out this transition.
While this kind of multi-factionalism is necessary for the health of a long-term democracy, it can be the death knell for a movement and the immediate aftermath. As we have seen through history, the more successful movements are typically controlled or led by one major faction – think of Solidarity in Poland, or the Velvet revolution in Czechia. A conflict over how the democracy should be structured, and lacking trust in those conversation, will often end with one side “winning” and taking power – which will leave you only with a democracy that now does not speak for the entire public and an already organized and galvanized opposition. And of course, this is what happened in Egypt; the Brotherhood and leftists had differing views on how to structure the new government, but with the Army’s support the Brotherhood took control of the government and passed their reforms. The leftists decried the Brotherhood as illegitimate, and the Brotherhood ended all bilateral talks with the leftists. The Egyptian democracy had just begun, and one half of the nation had already stopped participating in government.
The second factor that contributed to the end of democracy in Egypt has much more to do with outside influence than the first, and sadly involves well-meaning support from the West not understanding the Egyptian political landscape. In 2012 and 2013, Morsi, the newly-minted President of Egypt, was removed from power by the military – a move that shocked many outside observers, given the military had not acted in the removal of Mubarak the year before. Many in the West, including U.S. President Obama, were quick to decry the move and call for the reinstalment of Morsi to the position he won. This clearly looked like democratic decay in its most abrupt form. However, this wasn’t quite the case for those on the ground in Egypt. Mohamed Morsi had becoming incredibly unpopular in the year he was President, with no help from the global recession that had hit Egypt especially hard – shipping was one of the industries most damaged by the 2010 Debt Crisis, and the Suez Canal’s fees paid by the shipping industry comprises a large part of the Egyptian budget. Morsi cracked down on dissent by passing a new law making his orders immune to judicial review – making sure the only people that could stop him would be the parliament, which dominated by his Muslim Brotherhood. People poured into the streets to demand Morsi’s removal. The army obliged. And the people then called for the leader of the army, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, to take his place as President. The army obliged.
The part of this story that many in the West and on the outside seem to have missed was the public opposition to Morsi. The people of Egypt saw Morsi becoming more authoritarian and wanted him removed. But the West called this removal a “violation of the popular will?” The West had put itself, and democracy, on the side of the unpopular authoritarian that had just been removed. To many Egyptians, the U.S. was turning a blind eye to their grievances in the name of respecting their democracy. If democracy had faltered under Morsi, which it clearly had (some however debate exactly how authoritarian he was, like Shadi Hamid and Meredith Wheeler here), then it was here in 2013 that democracy died. Democracy had become associated in the Egyptian collective conscious with American interventionism, and General al-Sisi had saved them from both Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, and America and its interventionist interests.
Democracy in Egypt is certainly dead now, no one will deny. President Al-Sisi was re-elected in 2018 with over ninety percent of the vote, in an election that the Human Rights Watch described as “farcical.” Hopefully lessons can be taken from this in the future, but when looking back at what could have been done in Egypt it feels almost that the slide back into authoritarianism was inevitable. The lack of a vision for the democracy coming into the creation of the government left only a new government that could not claim to speak for all the people, and the next time the people rose up, those that were supposed to be the “defenders of freedom and democracy all across the world” told them they were being anti-democratic. Egyptian democracy died because it was not strong enough to survive guilt by association with an unpopular leader and a powerful foreign entity.
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