By Jamie Anderson
Beginning December 2010, the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) experienced a wave of uprisings against their respective governments. This series of revolutions was sparked by the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi. His act was one of frustration over his inability to make a living and the harassment that he experienced at the hands of the police. Though the act itself provided the impetus for the revolutions that followed, the reasons for Bouazizi’s self-immolation provide insight into the environment of the MENA countries that made them prone to revolution. These countries were marked by high unemployment rates, especially amongst people under the age of 30, widespread poverty, a concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few elites and human rights violations. Protesting citizens of MENA countries sought to alleviate these maladies with pro-democratic movements. This article will explore the specific case of the pro-democratic movement in Egypt.
The choice to turn to Egypt as a case study for democracy in the Arab Spring is based on the fact that Egypt is the most populous country amongst the Arab states and the hub of Arab intellectuality. More importantly however, is that out of all the Arab countries, Egypt demonstrated the highest aspirations for democracy. In a Gallup poll conducted in 2010 amongst Muslim countries, almost 90 percent of Egyptian participants affirmed the statement “Moving toward greater democracy will help Muslims progress.” This was the highest percentage amongst all Arab countries polled, as well as all Muslim countries polled. Furthermore, 97 percent of Egyptians polled said that they would include a guarantee to freedom of speech if a new constitution were drafted, 75 percent responded likewise with regards to guaranteeing freedom of religion. Despite their avid views toward democracy, the same poll demonstrated that they were least likely to take democratic action. Only 4 percent of Egyptian respondents had expressed an opinion to a public official, which is possibly tied to distrust of the government (only 28 percent expressed confidence in the honesty of elections). What this amounts to is a country with grand democratic ambitions, little ability to realize those ambitions, and a growing dissatisfaction with the political, economic, and social status quo. One would expect that Egypt’s revolution would have produced a paragon of democratization in the Arab world. However, with the beginning of the Revolution more than four years past, the current state of affairs in Egypt begs the question of whether or not Egypt has actually achieved a democratic state. Whatever the verdict on Egypt’s current political state may be, we are also left with the task of finding the factors in Egypt led to that outcome.
In order to assess whether or not Egypt has made a successful transition to democracy, we first need a working definition of democracy. The literature on democracy indicates that it is not a two-dimensional concept but instead a set of characteristics that come together to form a particular type of society. To clarify, democracy is something that must exist beyond the realm of government; it must permeate civil society and even extend to the intimate micro-level of the family. Universal adult suffrage, political representation that guarantees “broad representation of the citizenry,” and the ubiquitous presence of democratic principles in all institutions under the government are all indispensable elements of a democracy. A government that allows its citizenry to be involved in its processes is incomplete if they are not provided with choices that do not accurately reflect their values and concerns. Similarly, de facto unfreedom results when institutions citizens come into contact with on a daily basis do not reflect the government’s democratic principles. Civil, political, social and economic rights that are protected by the government are also essential. Competitive elections and separations of powers of power are meaningless if the citizens of a state do not at least have conditions that allow them to lead a dignified human life. What’s more is democracy is not a destination but an “ongoing process…never a finished thing”, it is something to be “continually renewed, redefined, and reinvented.” Finally, Amartya Sen argues in Development as Freedom, that democracy is not a certain remedy for the ills of a civilization, but rather an opportunity that has to be seized in order to achieve desired outcomes. With this idea of democracy in mind, we can now examine Egypt’s Revolution, subsequent events, and the government that rose out of the revolution and evaluate whether or not democracy has been established.
The Egyptian Revolution began on the 25 of January 2011, when protestors occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo and demanded that the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resign. Early February Mubarak complied with the requests of the protesters and handed power and authority over to the Egyptian armed forces. In addition, the constitution was shelved and the parliament was dissolved. The military formed an interim government and formed a “six-month plan” to rewrite the constitution and hold both presidential and parliamentary elections. However, many protesters felt that the transition was proceeding too slowly and took to the streets demanding faster proceedings. They were met with violent repression at the hands of the military which imprisoned and tortured them. Female protesters were subjected to “virginity tests.” The interim military government also closed several international NGO’s and Egyptian rights groups. On the 28 of November, parliamentary elections were held and Islamic groups won over 70 percent of the seats. Six months later, Egypt got its first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood candidate. Just before his election, the interim military government closed down parliament and granted itself powers that it had not previously had, powers which detracted from the power of the president. On 22 of November, Morsi issued a constitutional decree that declared that until the new constitution is approved, all laws and decrees made by Morsi are “final and binding and cannot be appealed by any way or to any entity” and also declared that the president can “take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.” His action precipitated days of protests. Further protests emerged when the parliamentary committee, dominated by Muslim Brotherhood parliament members, passed a draft constitution that restricts rights to freedom of expression and religion and that neglects the protection of women’s rights. On the second anniversary of the Tahrir Square revolution, protesters occupied the square a second time demanding Morsi’s resignation.
After months of protests and violence, Morsi was deposed by a military coup d’état and another interim government was set up by the military. Shortly after Egypt returned to vacillating between protests and state-led acts of violence against protesters, one of which led to the death of over 800 people, most of whom were believed to have been protesting peacefully. When elections were held again, General al-Sisi, former member of the Egyptian military, won with almost 97 percent of the vote. Since his election, numerous human rights violations have been committed. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned from politics and its members have faced persecution by the state. Given the events in recent years and the current state of affairs in Egypt, it seems that Egypt’s transition to a democratic government up to this point has failed. The argument in favor of a democratic transition on the basis of the fact that democratic elections were held is invalid when one examines even the simplified, political definition of democracy. More than one party ran in each election, the second election was not competitive. During the second election, the one that decided the current president of Egypt, members of the Muslim Brotherhood were persecuted. Shortly after al-Sisi was elected, the Muslim Brotherhood was disbanded and banned from running in the next parliamentary elections. An election cannot be called competitive if one party is censored or banned from running, and an election cannot be democratic if it is not competitive. In addition, separation of powers in which each of the branches are given the ability to check the powers of the other branches, is also integral to a democracy. Morsi’s presidency failed to meet this requirement when in his constitutional declaration, he declared his laws and decrees to be “legally binding” and impervious to appeal “by any way or any entity.”
The argument that Egypt has not been democratized does not rest on political technicalities alone. Instead, it focuses on the numerous human rights violations that pervaded and continue to pervade the elected governments in Egypt. In our expanded definition of democracy, the protection and promotion of civil, political, social, and economic rights are necessarily vital for true democracy. All of these categories of rights have been violated by one or more of the regimes that have been in power since Mubarak was deposed. Since civil and political rights are most directly tied to government, it is logical to begin there when analyzing the level of democracy within each of the elected Egyptian democracies. Shortly after his election, Morsi and his party set out to limit freedom of expression and religion in the new constitution. Protection of women’s rights was also omitted from the new constitution. Morsi’s regime was short-lived but had this regime continued on and its policies been implemented, it is plausible that Egypt would have seen an institutionalized decline in their civil and political freedoms. The political and civil rights record under al-Sisi is no better. In a U.S. federal memorandum for justification of continued military aid, Secretary of State John Kerry notes the different human rights violations that persist under al-Sisi. Under the section “Freedom of Expression and Press,” the report enumerates violations such as the imprisonment of journalists and the government shut-down of media outlets “whose coverage of events does not comport with its narrative, and censor[ship of] stories that present it in an unfavorable light.” The report also highlights al-Sisi’s new Terrorist Entities Law which human rights groups fear could be applied to peaceful protesters, journalists, and NGO’s because of its broad definition of terrorism. Furthermore, the government has banned the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization and a political party. The above actions taken by al-Sisi and his government have violated articles 9, 19, and 20 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Though al-Sisi won his election with a greater percentage of votes than Morsi, his regime appears no more democratic than that of his predecessor with respect to political and civil rights.
In addition to political and civil rights abuses, Egypt continues to see abuses against other categories of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights despite the fall of Mubarak. In contrast to the Morsi government, the government under al-Sisi has made commitments to the advancement and protection of women’s rights. This has not changed the fact that women still experience violence and sexual harassment due to cultural and religious barriers. In this case, the responsibility of the state has arguably been met, but the expanded definition of democracy requires that democracy extend to civil society and even the family. In other words, even if the government is democratic with respect to this matter, one cannot say that this is a genuine democracy if the practices of the polity and its institutions do not reflect democratic ideals. In spite of a slightly positive record with regards to social rights, the al-Sisi government has committed direct violations of economic rights. The government has made efforts to create a buffer zone after an attack on a military base in the Northern Sinai region. To carry out this measure, thousands of residents have been forcibly removed from their homes “without sufficient compensation”, and reports from Amnesty international indicate that this operation is slated to continue. This is in conflict with Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, a treaty for which Egypt was a signatory. Human Rights violations stand as an obstacle to democracy that requires the government’s full commitment to overcome it.
Having addressed the question as to whether or not Egypt can be considered a democracy, we can now examine the factors within Egypt that impeded democratization. Some argue that the time between the fall of the Mubarak regime and the parliamentary elections was insufficient for the formation of new alternative parties. Another argument is that the Arab countries participating in the Arab spring lacked “organizational density” and that even Egypt’s civil society was too weak to sustain the collapse of the government. These are both valid arguments. However, they do not fully take into account the importance of the political infrastructure that survived the fall of Mubarak. The two most prominent societal pillars that emerged unscathed after the fall were the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military. The former is a dominant political party and group within civil society whose followers, since its beginning in 1928, advocated for the official establishment of Sharia law. The latter is an entity that has operated almost independently of the government and that had a history of abusing human rights. The first argument about the issue of time might have more clout if it were not for the strength of the military in Egyptian politics. One could argue that had there been more time for the formation and promotion of new political parties, people might have been less likely to vote for the most popular party from the Mubarak era. However, given the military’s general distaste for Mubarak and their assistance in his deposition, it is reasonable to assume that the military would have overthrown any government that presented opposition to its interests. Furthermore, given the spotted history these groups both have with regard to the protection and promotion of human rights, it would be likely that however uncontentious the government, human rights abuses would persist, preventing democracy as interpreted in the broad definition.
While there were problems with the inconsistencies with the political processes of the two governments that followed the fall of Mubarak, the greatest stumbling block to Egyptian democracy. However dismal the outlook for democracy in the current state of Egypt, it is necessary remember that democracy is a process that is never complete. Just as the strongest democracies in the world today are susceptible to becoming undemocratic, Egypt is not permanently condemned to a permanent autocracy.
Moghadam, V. M. (2013). What is democracy? Promises and perils of the Arab Spring. Current Sociology, 61(4), 393-408.
Sen, A. (1999). The Perspective of Freedom. In Development as freedom. New York: Knopf.
Kerry, J. (2015). Certification pursuant to section 7041(a)(6)(C) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, (pp. 1-5) (United States of America, Department of State, Secretary of State).
Egypt: End wave of home demolitions, forced evictions in Sinai amid media blackout. (2014, November 27). Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2014/11/egypt-end-wave-home-demolitions-forced-evictions-sinai-amid-media-blackout/
Weyland, K. (2012, December). The Arab Spring: Why the Surprising Similarities with the Revolutionary Wave of 1848? Retrieved from http://journals.cambridge.org/article_S1537592712002873
Photo by Jonathan Rashad