By Jamie Anderson
Contributing Writer

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.”[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.


[1]Moghadam, V. M. (2013). What is democracy? Promises and perils of the Arab Spring. Current Sociology, 61(4), 393-408.

[2]Sen, A. (1999). The Perspective of Freedom. In Development as freedom. New York: Knopf.

[3]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).

[4]Egypt: End wave of home demolitions, forced evictions in Sinai amid media blackout. (2014, November 27). Retrieved from

[5]Weyland, K. (2012, December). The Arab Spring: Why the Surprising Similarities with the Revolutionary Wave of 1848? Retrieved from

Photo by Jonathan Rashad


Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012

By Marvin Andrade
Staff Writer

It is well-known that conflicts have a tendency to cluster in the same geographic regions around the same period of time; it is difficult to assess, however, whether conflict contagion is initiated from similar economic, political, social and other relevant country attributes, or if exposure to a neighboring conflict directly influences and spreads to nearby states. For more than a decade, the Middle East has experienced multiple civil conflicts that have stemmed from populations rising up to challenge their governments. These demands have been for increased government transparency, better economic opportunities and improved human dignities. The development of transnational communication networks through the increased use of online media has allowed these ideas to be spread to neighboring groups with similar grievances. It is arguable that civil conflict in Iraq and other Arab nations in the height of the Arab Spring had a direct impact in the incitement of conflict in Syria and that this realization by the global community has resulted in an evolution of how refugee camps are constructed in the neighboring regions today in response to the Islamic State.

How was conflict in Syria Contagious?

In Syria, conflict arose at the height of the Arab Spring. Through social media, the grievances of disempowered masses from Arab nations such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia were highlighted. Research into conflict contagion states that violent mobilization in one country may lead to emulation by neighboring groups facing similar conditions. This is in large part due to the fact that transnational groups are made aware of certain grievances that they are facing in their home country and may raise their level of political demands made to their government – which are oftentimes not achieved.

Since the 2003 American invasion, Iraq has succumbed to one of the largest population diasporas in modern time. There has been gradual population dispersal in Iraq stemming from political conflict and instability in the region. Following the escalation of violence in 2006 deriving from heightened sectarian tensions, Iraq witnessed one of the largest waves of population exodus. Due to historical relations with Iraq and lenient border restrictions, approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refugees of an estimated 4.5 million fled to Syria.

Since 2007 and the arrival of a large refugee population, the Syrian government’s resources were strained as it attempted to accommodate a new segment of its population. With a population of approximately 20 million, the Syrian government struggled to accommodate a sudden six percent increase in population. In 2008, three years before initial violence broke out, Syria witnessed a 30% rise in foodstuffs and basic goods. Property prices rose 40% and rent was estimated to increase 150% in the most extreme cases. Additionally, water consumption increased by 21% and the Syrian government paid $6.8 million to provide drinking water and sanitation to the refugee population. These refugees put a strain on the unemployment rates in Syria, forcing the rate of unemployment to rise to 18% in 2006. The influx of refugees severely crippled the educational system as Iraqi citizens enrolled their children in Syrian schools, forcing drop-out rates to rise.

Overcrowding and an overall reduced standard of living increased the crime rate in Syria by nearly 20%. Syria’s economy and infrastructure was unprepared for the influx of new migrants and its economy began to buckle under the strain of over a million refugees. The Syrian government stated that approximately 80% of registered refugees in Syria had relocated to the capital city of Damascus. Of the population that migrated to Syria, it is estimated that over 60% of the population is Sunni Muslim, The ethnic makeup of the refugees entering Syria is critical in understanding the ensuing conflict in Syria itself.

Large refugee populations exacerbate resource competition between citizens in the host country and the recently arrived refugee population, and alter the ethnic balance through rapid demographic shifts. The influx of refugees provided a demographic shift which was not in favor of the ruling government. Syria, a government primarily held by Alawites, saw a further increase of Sunni Muslims (the majority population) who were already discontent with a government unable to protect their interests. As noted above, conflicts are likely spread through transnational ethnic ties, whereby the group members in one state will change the prospects of mobilization for the same group in another state. As refugees began to arrive in Syria, interaction between the citizens of Iraq and Syria begins to occur; as these populations began to speak to one another, both Sunni Muslim populations grew frustrated by the worsening conditions in both states for their particular ethnic interests. While the protests in Syria were led by Syrian citizens with legitimate grievances against their home government, sufficient evidence exists to say that the presence of Iraqi refugees exacerbated the situation through their utilization of state resources, which could have been used by the Syrian state in other forms to quell the rebellion through economic concessions to protestors.

Why Refugee Camps Matter

Due to the fact that Syrian nationals were suffering low economic standing, certain individuals’ threshold to fight were surpassed due to low opportunity costs, meaning that due to a lack of jobs, sanitation, medical care, and other human necessities, individuals were more willing to fight as they had less to lose.

Currently, more than 2.8 million Syrian refugees are spread across Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and other nearby states. Learning from the failures to provide adequate structures for Iraqi refugees in Syria, the global community has come together to respond more attentively to Syrian refugee needs. Additionally, with the escalation of violence from the Islamic State and the fact that civil conflict has the potential to spread across borders, the international community is preparing many more permanent structures for refugees so that they do not join the conflict. Not all countries can afford permanent structures, however, due to the economic strains that refugees place on their economies. In nations, such as Lebanon and Jordan, the international community is providing more financial assistance in order to prevent an economic breakdown of social structures. Countries that have a vested interest in ensuring that the Islamic State does not further expand, such as the United States, are investing more money this year than it has in the past into order to combat it through more subtle tactics. The United States, with the help of several NGOs are ensuring that states such as Lebanon do not buckle under the tremendous economic burden of supporting refugees totaling 10% of their total population.

Some countries, such as Turkey, have begun to construct more enduring refugee structures. The Kilis refugee camp is constructed with permanence in mind. This camp has containers retrofitted with walls to create 3-room homes with kitchens, televisions, and plumbing, constructed along a grid pattern with working street lights and supermarkets that accept electronic currency. The Turkish government treats this camp as a means to publicize their nation to foreigners, as this treatment may facilitate positive perceptions of the nation when the refugees return to their homes.

The issue of refugee assistance in the Middle East is not fully humanitarian in nature, but rather a matter that is given special attention in order to prevent the future breakout of conflict. The international community learned a lesson from its failure to provide refugee assistance to Syria. Today, the Islamic State is pushing conflict in the region and continues to look for volunteers willing to give themselves to this new cause. This year, the international community has given more aid to help Syrian refugees than in previous years. One can only hope it is enough.


Photo by Syria Freedom



By Elsa Felgar

Staff Writer

On the Island of Saadiyat rests a cultural hub where the East meets the West. The construction of the Guggenheim Museum, a New York University campus, and the Louvre Museum are taking place as part of an intergovernmental project envisioned to expand the art community and bring a focus to one of the most modern cities in the world today. On the coast of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), lies the island where this major project is coming to life. Although the construction of the Louvre museum in Saadiyat is appealing to many, there is a strong argument in France over extending the Louvre outside of French territory. In addition, there is push from human rights organizations urging the French President François Hollande to confront the UAE about labor rights in the construction of the Louvre.

Louvre Abu Dhabi: A New Identity

In 2007, France and the UAE signed a trade agreement for the Louvre Abu Dhabi to begin construction. Immediately there was resistance from many French citizens who felt it was an affront to France’s national identity. The rich history of the Louvre impacts French society so deeply that it’s no wonder this project was not accepted with open arms from citizens and government officials alike.

To begin, the culture of the original Louvre dates back to 1793. Built in the 16th century and growing ever since, the Louvre is the world’s largest museum and is one of France’s main tourist attractions. Not only do travelers from all over the world come to see the artwork inside the Louvre museum, they also come to admire the building itself, which represents a truly unique culture. This explains why some are so reluctant to welcome the replica that will open in 2015 in Abu Dhabi. Many have questioned why a replica of the building and some of its original artwork should be moved to the Middle East. The dichotomy between the old and the new is too stark. Attaching the name to this new building, although arguably one of the most outstanding architectural masterpieces in today’s world, is unfathomable for some who insist on protecting French culture. Many believe it is symbolic of France’s culture, and should not be duplicated or used for political advancement elsewhere.

Those in favor for the construction highlight the agreement between France and the UAE itself. The fact that it is the first ever intergovernmental cultural agreement of its kind is a major step for projects like these to come, because it shows that it is possible for two countries to take on such an internationally collaborative task. The new Louvre will encompass diverse artwork from all over the world, ranging from sculptures by various distinguished African artists to the world famous paintings by French artists Cézanne and Manet.

The discussions over the building of this museum have been influenced by economic outcomes. Inside the $1.3 billion dollar deal is the name of the museum and the use of some paintings for permanent and special exhibits. In return, the UAE agreed to buy 40 Airbus 380 aircrafts and $10.4 billion worth of arms from France. In addition to the aircraft purchases, the UAE will continue buying artwork from France. These political and economic bargains are being done as a way to profit off of the selling of the Louvre’s name. Although this creates revenue for the French government, it leaves the Louvre in Paris without certain pieces it is famous for. Instead, the French artwork will be displayed in a new light and extend its already popular name to other parts of the world. This exchange of artwork is only a two-year trade agreement. The goal is for the Louvre Abu Dhabi to build up its collection over two years and once it has formed, they will give back some of the work lent out by Paris.

But some claim this is not a convincing argument. It is not possible to buy and sell culture and history. These are pieces that the world comes to Paris to see, and only Paris. In that sense, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is attracting potential tourists from Paris as well as reducing the excitement the original Louvre once encouraged. Along with the cultural problem is the actual construction. Human rights has unarguably been a longstanding issue when it comes to building new extravagant projects like this one. For French President Hollande, this is the current pressing issue.

The Construction

The museum, as is shown from models, has a sleek design almost identical to the architecture of the Louvre in Paris. Slits in the dome-shaped building cause light to stream down, giving the illusion of falling rain. The dome itself has a diameter of almost 600 feet and weighs about 7,000 tons. Surrounding this dome is a pool of water that gives the impression of a floating building. And in the interior, there will be smaller pools of water that will be scattered throughout the exhibits. Unseen in these construction plans is the reality of the labor workers who will be working on its development.

During the beginning of the construction, workers are promised housing in a miniature village that provides all the necessities and amenities. However in reality, this housing is given to a few privileged laborers, whereas the larger majority live in far worse conditions. Violence, harassment, unsanitary living conditions, and low wages are all prevalent in the small camps that house these workers. Understanding the current situation makes supporting the construction of these museums a challenge.

These workers often come from places like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, under the impression that they are going to make more than they had been making at their previous job. Instead their passports are taken from them, putting them into unfavorable work and living conditions. And once they arrive and start working, some do not see their paycheck for 6 or more months. This makes justifying the intergovernmental agreement very difficult for government officials.

This is where the French-UAE relations is crucial. If France supported the use of migrant workers to build these museums, it would keep the relations with the UAE strong, however France would certainly feel the pressure from outside organizations like the Human Rights Watch. Even after President Hollande’s visit in 2013, conditions have not improved. 7,000 workers and 12 million man-hours will go into the making of the museum anticipated worldwide. UAE’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) has undergone a recent wave of criticism regarding human rights, but continues to argue that they have strict working condition standards that are being enforced.

This project in particular shows that it is possible for countries to come together and forge cultural ties connect the world in new ways. The idea of creating a melting pot of cultures in a modern bustling city highlights today’s advancements in international cooperation. Unfortunately, there are negative domestic and international consequences that are being suppressed, while the successful agreement between France and the UAE has the spotlight. The human cost of building on the “island of happiness” detracts from the happy ending that the end product promises.

Photo by gordontour