Who wants democracy in Egypt?

How can we make sense of the contradictory arguments? Who actually wants democracy in Egypt? Let’s review the positions of the three major actors in Egypt today. 

Barbara Zollner
23 August 2013

The recent news from Egypt is shocking; every day there are new reports of police fighting pro-Morsi supporters. The death toll is constantly rising with more than 800 deaths confirmed as of Monday, August 19; we see the white fogs of tear gas; dead and wounded on the floors of make-shift hospitals; scenes that remind us of a war zone. Muhammad al-Beltagi, a Guidance Council member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose daughter was shot on the fateful Wednesday morning when police began their march on pro-Morsi sit-ins, has accused the army of aiming to establish a military regime similar to that of Mubarak. Defending the interim government’s decision to crack down on the MB, Khaled Dawoud, the spokesperson of the National Salvation Front (NSF) argues that the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists and that the Army under General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi is the only guarantee for democracy. How can we make sense of these contradicting arguments? Who actually wants democracy in Egypt? Let’s review the positions of the three major actors in Egypt today.

The Brotherhood

Beginning with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) - the sit-ins were in protest against the removal of Muhammad Morsi from his office as President on the 3 July 2013. Given that Morsi was elected in June 2012 through fair and free elections in a run-off against Mubarak’s last Prime Minister and Security Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) favorite, Ahmad Shafiq, they see themselves perhaps understandably as the real democrats whose vote has been stolen through what they perceive to be a military coup. In a dramatic turning of the tables, General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, the Head of the Egyptian Army, who was appointed only a year earlier by the incoming president to counter the influence of the SCAF in politics, was able to exploit the popular Tamarod (Rebel) campaign to eject Morsi from office. Not content to bow to political realities as they have evolved in the past few weeks, MB leaders and supporters argue that a return to democratic rule can be achieved only if Morsi is reinstated as president, the interim government under Mansur al-Adly removed and General al-Sisi held to account.

The last year was challenging for Morsi’s government. Egypt’s political transition to democracy slowed to a standstill, its economy was in disarray and the regional security balance remained worryingly uncertain. With nothing going the Brotherhood’s way, the president faced increasing public pressure. Growing numbers of Egyptians joined public protests and the list of signatures demanding Morsi’s resignation was long, very long indeed. Still, the Morsi-government held onto the fact that it had been given the mandate to govern; as such it was the driving force behind the constitutional amendments and the shaping of political institutions. There is validity in accusing the Morsi government of economic under-performance and lack of political sensitivity, but to argue that it behaved in a non-democratic manner is to ignore the fact that the MB was making efforts to reinstate elected political institutions rather than abolish them. Despite legal challenges, the MB wanted parliament restored and maintained that the constituent assembly was a direct reflection of the votes given in elections. They saw their vision of Egypt’s future confirmed through the outcome of a referendum in December 2012, which approved the constitutional draft by a majority of 64%. The yes-vote would also have paved the way for new parliamentary elections, a move supported by Morsi and the MB. The democratic process was thus not stalled by the MB but rather by remnants of the old regime and, at least indirectly, by secular democrats.

Many negative things can be said about Morsi, the FJP and the MB. They clearly epitomize conservative politics which is informed by religious attitudes. This is due to the lack of organisational distinction between the MB as a movement, led in a hierarchical fashion by a predominantly orthodox Guidance Council and the FJP as a supposedly independent party. However, it does not make sense to turn this argument around to suggest that the FJP cannot function as a political party; whatever the label ‘Islamist politics’ means in this regard, the FJP put itself forward in elections and was voted into power. Nevertheless, it is true to say that in the course of the last couple of years, Morsi and the FJP moved further away from sharing power with Egypt’s liberal and socialist opposition. There is a common perception, particularly in the west, that the quarrel between the MB and secular parties centered on articles of the constitution. The argument is that the MB intended to establish an ‘Islamic state’, maybe repeating the Iranian example, while secularists wanted to focus on human rights such as equality, freedom of religion and freedom of expression. There are, no doubt, a number of paragraphs in the constitution with religious references that are clearly controversial and problematic by the standards of internationally agreed human rights. Still, the debate between liberals and socialists on the one hand and Islamists on the other hand had less to do with the letter of the constitution; the debated draft was hardly more explicitly religious in content than the text used by the old, ‘secular’ constitution Egypt for decades.

The conflict between the liberal and socialist side and the MB had more to do with power politics; Morsi and the MB simply resented the idea of negotiation, arbitration or even power-sharing with the opposition. Reacting inadequately in the tit-for-tat game, the MB remained overconfident in its authority, yet failed to realize that it was becoming increasingly insular and isolated. As such, Morsi and the MB misread the constitutional referendum, viewing it not only as a confirmation of the constitutional draft, but also as a barometer for the MB’s popularity. Having won the constitutional poll, Morsi continued with his uncompromising politics, further polarizing the political forces. Effectively, the MB drove post-revolutionary liberals and socialists into the hands of remnants of the old regime, particularly those in key positions in the Army.

Post-Mubarak liberal and socialist movements and parties

When the Tamarod movement called for demonstrations against Morsi, it appealed to a wide spectrum of Egyptians. While Tamarod was the public outlet of popular protest, liberal and socialist parties joined then under the leadership of Muhammad El-Baradei to form a coalition, the National Salvation Front (NSF). Despite fundamental ideological differences, the sustained anger of socialist and liberal movements, albeit aimed at President Morsi and the MB, is at its core founded in the Tahrir protests against authoritarian rule. The experience of victory against Mubarak’s dictatorship was a defining, but also validating moment for these movements. It explains the great deal of democratic enthusiasm and fervour for direct action. There is a tendency to idealize the concept of ‘revolution’ to the extent that the potential negative consequences are forcefully ignored. Although the commitment to the democratic ideal spurred many on to participate in the ‘Revolution of 2011’ to end the authoritarian regime, post-Mubarak the direction of the revolutionary fervour is one which is constantly shifting. While the basic ideals of equality, freedom and justice are still passionately endorsed, it is easier to say what these movements reject than what they actually stand for. ‘No to Mubarak’ was, at least for a while, replaced by ‘no to the SCAF’ and then by ‘no to Morsi’. Post-Mubarak secular movements and parties joined hands with the MB in the protests of late 2011 and early 2012 against the SCAF, calling for the end to military rule. They are now defending the same military outfit in its pursuit against the MB. As such, the loosely organised opposition alliance decided to block the power politics of the MB, even though this action involved making a deal with the Army and the remnants of the old Mubarak order.

The (now former) leader of the National Salvation Front, self-acclaimed conscience of the Egyptian people, Muhammad El-Baradei, epitomizes this ‘back and forth’. In an interview with the BBC he defended the ‘revolution’ declaring that ‘we stood between a rock and a hard place’. Never mind his critique that the MB was unwilling to share power, it is astonishing that he was content to leave the country as the government he helped into power now stages a ‘counter-revolution’.

Granted, the removal of Morsi followed a year of political and economic instability. While the Tamarod protest was outwardly directed against Morsi’s presidency and the FJP, the actual target of liberal and socialist parties was the mother-organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood. From the point of the first parliamentary elections of November-December 2011, as Nathan Brown in his Carnegie Endowment Report observed, power became a realistic goal for the MB. The MB’s reach for power was disconcerting to proponents of liberal and socialist movements. Despite the belief in the power of direct democracy, many nevertheless felt that the ‘Revolution of 2011’ was stolen from them, considering that the MB played only a minor part in the initial protests. So, while secular movements formed a coherent protest movement which forced Mubarak out, the votes of their supporters were effectively fractured, falling between many different parties. Adding to this, none of these new parties had much experience in preparing for elections or in rallying votes. The MB managed to mobilize its support into votes at the ballot box, socialist and liberal parties did not. Following the first parliamentary elections, there was thus a growing discontent with formal political institutions because these were dominated by the MB. The election of Morsi as president further polarized this already politically charged situation.

As ‘the will to power’ grew on the MB’s part, so did the possibilities of political compromise with the liberal and socialist opposition gradually fade. With this situation, the likelihood of reaching a mutual agreement in the shaping of Egypt’s democratic future slowly slipped away. When the opposition block led by the Tamarod movement called for mass-protests to mark the year of his election victory, many western commentators noted the initiative as an accurate representation of people’s disappointment with Morsi. But few considered the possibility that the demonstrations would herald the end of his presidency. All the more surprising then when the Army under General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi used the public outcry to ‘intervene’ on behalf of the protesters to force Morsi from office.

Whether Tamarod or representatives of socialist and liberal parties were indeed involved from the outset and in the deliberate planning of such drastic political change remains unclear, but the fact is that they were quick to announce their public support for the Army and for al-Sisi. For example, they have adamantly denied that the Army’s actions constituted a coup d’etat, instead declaring that the takeover of power was a ‘revolution of the people’ following a democratic expression of discontent. In deciding to support the Army, secular movements and parties have expressed their faith in al-Sisi’s promise to implement democratic change. They seem to be satisfied by the tentative efforts in this direction: Mansur Adly, a judge who previously served as the Chief Judge of the Constitutional High Court, was nominated as transitional president and a road map to elections and national reconciliation issued. Yet, in siding with the Army a self-acclaimed democratic movement effectively breaks the most fundamental principles of democratic participation. Khaled Hroub thus rightly comments: ‘Egypt's liberal forces have aborted the country's nascent and shaky democracy by bringing the army back to power. Their shortsightedness is compounded by shamelessness, as leading liberal figures accepted posts in a puppet government under the generals' oversight. The de facto coup has taken Egypt back to square one: an alliance between the military and self-proclaimed liberals (whose credentials to that label are now in even greater doubt).’

The Army

It first needs to be acknowledged that the Army does indeed have a special role in Egyptian society. It is the largest standing army in the Middle East; most Egyptians are proud of its long history, its manifestation of command and order, and are pleased with its, at points overestimated, regional sway. Sixty years of military rule and indoctrination since 1952 means that Egypt remains a military society through and through, not least because the old coercive structures coincided with hierarchically organised patrimonial social structures. The military leadership therefore appears as a council of fatherly figures who have only the best interests of the nation in mind. Moreover, the obligatory conscription of adult males has the effect that most Egyptian men can directly relate with those serving in lower ranks. This gives the Army the advantage of commanding immediate sympathies amongst the general population, regardless of the content of General al-Sisi’s political agenda.

Beyond its social explanation, one has to also keep in mind the Army’s economic role. It is a fact that Egypt’s military budget has at no time been reduced, despite the end of the Cold War and Egypt’s peace with the state of Israel. Even after the Revolution of 2011 which saw the military man Mubarak thrown out of office, the US continued to support, even generously finance Egypt’s security; that is Egypt’s military. Any attempt to control the budget of the Army, as attempted by Morsi when he first came to power, is an immediate strike at the core of the military’s power. This means that the Army had and still has, compared to other sectors, plenty of money to spend. The military has remained directly or indirectly the most developed sector and largest employer. Thus, a strong Army means jobs to many Egyptians. Following the coup, the Army’s place of importance is restored. Financially it is secure, regardless of the US’s ruminations about freezing its ongoing support. Saudi Arabia’s whole-hearted support will guarantee to cover any gap. Economically, the Army is in full control of the situation. Of course, there is also the issue of national security and regional influence.

In a NDC Report, Mona El-Kouedi suggested that the military has three ‘religious creeds’: the first encompasses the army’s commitment to ‘safeguarding its own institution’ in the face of Morsi’s political challenge to its organisational unity and its role of being the decisive political institution; the second relates to the army’s political calculation that its interests would be best protected by abandoning Morsi’s sinking ship; and the third aspect describes the increasing pressures on Egypt’s external security. Clearly, these aspects played a significant part in al-Sisi’s decision to take control. However, observing the scenes of chaos and violence, it appears that something more sinister is afoot.

In all of the turmoil, the Army under General al-Sisi emerges as the winner. The fact that the Revolution of 2011 ended the dictatorship of a military general in civilian clothing seems long forgotten. The reality is that the constitution has been suspended and emergency laws once again introduced. The detail that most newly appointed governors are officers who ascended the ranks during none other than Mubarak’s regime is conveniently ignored. Whatever one thinks of the Brotherhood, the prospect that a party which represents a large number of Egyptians as well as large sections of society, will be banned is a frightening one. The impression General al-Sisi gives, i.e. that he merely intends to protect democratic change and to install a civilian government, is blatantly false. Of course, the more chaos and bloodshed there is, the more Egyptian voices will call on al-Sisi. He may not be aiming at becoming president, but he certainly aims to rule.

What next? There is broad agreement by analysts and media that the situation in Egypt can easily escalate further. A report by the International Crisis Group on the current confrontation between the Army and the MB evaluates the potential for further violence in detail. Still, Egypt’s transitional government, which is merely a puppet government and front of al-Sisi’s rule of the Army, unsurprisingly does not share the concerns of think tanks or of the international community, including the US and European Community. Instead, it puts its trust in force, in the assertion that the only way out of the crisis is the crushing of the MB and its supporters.

So, what next? The current state of affairs borders on the bizarre. Muhammad El-Baradei faces charges of ‘betrayal of trust’; meanwhile the NSF continues to support the Army. Leaders of the MB have been arrested and charged with inciting terror. But history shows that the MB can survive an official ban as well as the imprisonment of its leaders and yet still retain formidable political influence. All the signs indicate that Egypt’s military regime is back, crushing in its way all hopes for any democratic developments, at least in the near future. The icing on the cake may be the announcement of Hosni Mubarak’s release from prison. The circle is closed; Egypt’s democracy has been firmly put back in its place, square one.


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