As US citizens celebrated their independence and self-rule on July 4, 2013, they opened their newspapers to find that Egyptians had surrendered theirs. The previous day, amid impassioned protests across the country against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, the Egyptian Armed Forces removed President Mohammad Morsi from power. For a time, the move dominated headlines. Columnists, academics, and statesmen debated the ethics and ramifications of the coup. But soon, the world moved on. Despite Egypt’s vital ongoing struggle to build a nation, coverage of the effort moved out of the mainstream. Now, almost nine months later, Egypt deserves a second look.
In late January 2011, Hosni Mubarak, who had governed Egypt since 1981, was overthrown after weeks of mass protest across the country. In the November elections the Muslim Brotherhood, previously illegal, was swept into power with 52 percent of the vote. In June 2012, Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood, became the first freely elected President in Egyptian history. Egypt’s (seemingly) successful transition to civilian rule drew accolades from the international community. Another victory for democracy. But things were not as rosy as they seemed.
Morsi’s ostensibly liberal, democratic government proved to be nothing of the sort. In November, Morsi rammed through sweeping legislation granting himself extensive executive and legislative power, subverting the democratic process. Worse, the government persecuted dissidents. According to a May 2013 Amnesty International report, indiscriminate arrests of opposition protestors and other critics of the Brotherhood, charged with “defaming religion,” became the norm. Of course, the Morsi government’s crackdown on “religious defamation” was bitterly ironic, for even as it was scooping up Egyptian citizens for “insulting Islam and Muhammad,” it failed to prevent attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christian community. When the military finally took over, though some disagreed with the decision, few outside the Muslim Brotherhood were sorry to see him go.
Since the takeover, however, the military regime has repeated many of the mistakes of the government it deposed. Despite its promises to stabilize the nation, basic freedoms are no better protected than they were before. The government has stood and watched as Egypt’s Coptic communities are attacked by fringe elements of the Brotherhood, who blame them for their government’s downfall. Rights like free assembly, free speech, and freedom of the press are threatened as the government, unaccountable to the public, continues to take on a more authoritarian disposition toward groups it considers enemies. According to TIME Magazine, upwards of 1,000 members, supporters, and allies of the Muslim Brotherhood have been killed since the military took power. In December, the Brotherhood—a party 52 percent of Egyptians voted for the last time elections were held—was declared a terrorist organization by the military government. Though the faces may have changed in Egypt’s government, its character has not.
But Egypt’s problems don’t end there. As poorly as Egyptian politics have fared these past few years, the economic situation has been equally lamentable. GDP growth in Egypt has flat-lined at an anemic 2 percent in the years since Mubarak fell, and unemployment has hovered above 13 percent under both regimes, a full 3 percent higher than the 20-year average. The budget deficit has ballooned from 110 billion Egyptian Pounds in 2011 to a projected 186 billion this fiscal year, down from a peak of 230 billion under Morsi. Foreign direct investment has plummeted; basic utilities like electricity and gasoline are in short supply and terribly expensive. The revolution, it seems, has not brought about the prosperity many hoped. Instead, it has thrown the nation into dire economic straits.
Actually, Egypt is lucky even to be in this position. In the spring of 2013, the Egyptian Pound fell to historic lows against the dollar, prompting banks to hold currency, and leaving the country with a debilitating shortage of loanable funds and bringing the import sector to its knees. The situation was dire enough for the IMF to step in, offering a loan of US$4.8 billion in exchange for certain structural reforms designed to steel the economy against similar crises in the future. Perhaps wary of losing sovereignty, Morsi spurned the IMF and, after Germany and Russia refused to help out, Egypt was forced to turn to its regional allies. If not for last-minute agreements with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Libya, Egypt’s economy might have collapsed, and the climate today might have been far more desperate.
This bleak picture is not surprising. Amidst the political turmoil, Egypt has been unable to develop a coherent strategy for economic development. Additionally, the turmoil has made Egypt an unattractive place to invest in or to visit. Egypt’s political and economic difficulties are self-reinforcing—civil unrest brings economic stress which brings more civil unrest.
This vicious cycle can only be mitigated if one of the variables changes. A stable, equitable government might present Egypt with the time and space it needs to rebuild and revamp its economy. A sudden boost in prosperity might bring about the confidence and good-will necessary for Egypt’s incipient democracy to settle into place. Politics and economics move together. The paradox here, and the central challenge in Egypt today, is how to make them shift direction.
This January, Egypt made an attempt to do so, approving a new constitution authored by the military government. Though upwards of 98 percent voted ‘yes,’ voter turnout was less than 39 percent, with many groups urging followers to boycott the referendum rather than vote ‘no,’ so it is difficult to accurately gauge the popularity of the document among Egyptians. Upon first glance, the new constitution seems a godsend. It reestablishes democratic rule, with elections scheduled for April, and nods toward secular government, free speech, and gender equality. As such, one might be tempted to laud it as a landmark step forward.
But, as we have seen to be a theme in recent Egyptian history, reality often falls short of hope. The climate the government fostered in the run-up to the referendum, characterized by heavy-handed propaganda and intimidation, is hardly encouraging. “The state is proposing this charter with the logic of ‘you are either with me or with terrorism,’” says Ahmed Ragheb, of the National Community for Human Rights. Furthermore, despite heady promises of liberal democracy, the constitution moves three bastions of the old bureaucracy—the police force, the judiciary, and the military—further outside the purview of citizen control. Wael Abbas, a prominent activist, says “the constitution gives godly power to the military in Egypt. It makes them untouchable.” Though the new constitution hits the right notes politically, it may prove disappointing.
The military will continue to wield tremendous influence outside the sphere of elected government, but it is likely they will remain major players within it as well. The overwhelming favorite in the coming presidential race is General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the architect of the coup, and a key figure in the ensuing regime. In Cairo, he is a veritable hero. Posters everywhere display his face, and stores emblazon his name on their products. Sisi sandwiches. Sisi jewelry. Sisi pajamas. Why such hysteria? In the months since the coup, he has become something of a symbol. Sisi, with his military strongman ethos and unashamed patriotism, offers a tantalizing promise of stability after years of upheaval and uncertainty. He is a figure upon which Egyptians can project their hopes, and the nation has lionized him as its savior.
But perhaps hopes are better placed elsewhere. As a student at the United States Army War College in Pennsylvania, Sisi wrote a paper entitled “Democracy in the Middle East” in which he displays a cynicism and indifference toward democratic principles. Governments in the Middle East, he notes, are not “necessarily going to evolve upon a Western template.” To Sisi, democracy is not a moral imperative, worth pursuing regardless of other factors, but a matter of convenience and opportunity. “Due to the change that will be required and the accompanying time requirements,” he writes, “one cannot expect the Middle Eastern countries to convert quickly to a democratic form of government.” From someone who played such a decisive role in dismantling a democratic system, such apathy is not heartening.
Worse than Sisi’s lack of democratic principles are the principles he actually does hold. In April 2012, he issued a statement defending “virginity tests” for female protestors in Cairo in order to “protect the girls from rape, and the soldiers and officers from accusations of rape.” In a leaked video released some months later, Sisi asks a fellow high-ranking army officer how he might “intimidate” owners of Egyptian media companies into giving the Armed Forces a free pass in the press. Between these detestable, illiberal statements, his hollow lip service to democracy, and his outsized cult of personality, Sisi is beginning to look uncannily like the Western caricature of the Middle Eastern military dictator.
For a country coming off of a military coup and not far removed from the time of Mubarak, it is hard to imagine a worse prospective president. Even when things change, nothing changes.
So here we are. Egypt is more than three years removed from the first anti-Mubarak protests in the streets of Cairo, and yet the nation has still not found stable footing. If the tumult and chaos of the last few years have yielded anything, they have proven that Egypt is rife with complex, crisscrossing sociopolitical tension, masked for decades under authoritarian rule, but festering and smoldering below the surface. These tensions, deep and enduring, evade easy political solutions.
Egypt is the most populous state in the Arab world; it controls the Suez Canal, and it borders Israel. Therefore, stability in Egypt should be of paramount importance to the international community. Economic incentives can be offered, either bilaterally or through international bodies, toward the meeting of concrete democratic goals, such as an improvement in human rights standards, or majority election participation, among others.
Furthermore, when the next elections are held, world leaders can lend their full support to the winner, emphasizing his or her legitimacy, but also emphasize to him or her that their support is contingent on good-faith and open governance. This sounds simple, but it would represent a marked and potentially transformative departure from the status quo. Despite his flaws, the United States was supportive of Mubarak because he maintained peace with Israel, and of Morsi because he symbolized democracy in Egypt. It is difficult to argue that these men, on merit alone, were worthy of this treatment. Unfortunately, things do not appear to be changing. General Sisi is already US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s point man in Egypt, and US Secretary of State John Kerry has had nothing but praise, albeit tepid, for him. Egypt’s leaders should no longer be able to count on a free pass from the United States, and the billions of dollars per year in military aid that comes with it. If Sisi is to lead, this support the United States provides must be reciprocated with better, fairer, and more open governance.
These policy changes will help, but ultimately, there is little the world can do. Egyptian civil society will sink or swim on its own merits. Economic improvement could have a tremendous ameliorative impact on society, but this is near impossible without a stable political situation. If the new constitution brings a peaceful transition back to civilian rule, it will be a step in the right direction, but nominal democracy, as we have seen, is not enough. Until Egypt tends to its internal cracks more dissenters will die, more governments will go the way of Morsi’s, and the dreams of those brave protestors who stood up to Mubarak will go unfulfilled. For three decades, Egypt was held together by force. Now its citizens must learn how to be free and learn how to do so together. Until then, Egypt will remain stuck in this anxious, bloody limbo, the hope and passion of its fragmented revolutions ebbing slowly away like refuse in the Nile.