Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

Behind the Headlines: Egypt

by Saara Ilmonen



Three years after the revolution that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, Egypt has not managed to fulfill many expectations that its own citizens as well as the international community had for it at the beginning of the Arab Spring. The revolution overthrowing the 30 year-long Mubarak dictatorship was supposed to pave the way for a democratic Egypt that would be an example for all the other states in the Arab world to look up to. Instead it has been Tunisia and not Egypt that has become a place to look for an inspiration.[i] The initial progress towards democracy in Egypt has in many aspects been reversed and the country is once again facing the possibility of a military dictatorship. Today what most people in Egypt want is stability and a military dictatorship can accomplish that goal.

In slightly over three years, Egypt has changed its president three times and it has had seven governments and three constitutions. In June 2012 Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president a year and half after Mubarak had been overthrown. His presidency lasted only for a year and in July 2013, Morsi was removed from power by the army, after large protests by the public. The overthrow of Morsi was followed by significant violence with the army and the police, forcefully breaking apart the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins inciting the Muslim Brotherhood to torch public buildings and churches and attack police officers. Since then, the security services have executed a brutal crackdown towards the Muslim Brotherhood and other political activists resulting, according to some estimates, in around 2,500 killed and close to 16,000 arrests.[ii] Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood has been proclaimed as a terrorist organisation by the government and most of its leadership has been either jailed or exiled.

For many Egyptians, the events that ousted Morsi in July 2013 were not a coup, but a second revolution. In their opinion, Morsi’s actions justified his removal from presidency as he stopped working towards the goals that had initially motivated the protesters to gather at Tahrir Square in January 2011. It is worrying how easily the population accepts his overthrow somehow as part of a democratic process. Additionally, the overthrow of Morsi’s democratically elected government by the army has created a powerful precedent in Egyptian politics. After staying out of politics following the ousting of Mubarak, there is now a strong fear that in the future the army will intervene whenever it feels that politics are going into a direction it disapproves of and that it justifies intervention to protect the people. This is unlikely to create the necessary conditions for a democratic transformation of Egypt’s society.

Despite his authoritarian tendencies, Morsi was a legally elected ruler and for the future transformation of Egypt. It would have been better for him to be removed from power through elections instead of being overthrown by the army.[iii] Of course, it has to be taken into consideration that Egypt is not a full-blown western democracy, there are no efficient checks and balances, and the population has no experience with how a democracy truly works. However, for Egypt to continue on its road towards the construction of a more democratic state, an elected leader should be removed from power by going to ballot boxes and not by popular protest. The protests can initiate early elections or even a resignation, but they should not justify interference by the army in politics or for the army to be used as means to get rid of politicians whose opinions differs from theirs. It seems that after getting a taste of successful protests, the Egyptians do not know how to stop protesting. However, for Egypt to move forward and have a chance in stability, its population must learn other ways to have a say in where the country headed towards.

In the case of Morsi, the Egyptians as well as many international commentators see his overthrow as justifiable, due to his increasingly authoritarian tendencies and the attempts made to consolidate power for himself. The first free elections did not result in increased democracy, but in an elected dictator. However, this type of authoritarian leadership style seems similarly acceptable to the Egyptian people when it is used by military. The army remains the most trusted institutions in Egypt and many Egyptians believe that military rule will bring both stability and prosperity.[iv] Since 1952, Morsi has been the only president not originating from the army. The military played a central role in the overthrows of both Mubarak and Morsi and portrayed itself as protector of the national integrity and freedom of the population. In the aftermath of the ouster of Morsi, the protesters praised the military as the ‘guardians of the revolution’. [v]

The interim government put in place by the military, following the overthrow of Morsi, has brutally attacked Muslim Brotherhood supporters, arrested journalists and jailed political activists. As well, it has banned exactly the type of political protests that first overthrew Mubarak and then two and half years later, Morsi. Most recently, Egypt has demonstrated its slide towards increasing authoritarianism by the mass trials that have in the past weeks sentenced thousands to death without the possibility to defend themselves properly. In fact, most of those prosecuted have not even been present in court. Even though due to the nature of the system where the death sentence has to be approved by the grand mufti, it is unlikely that the sentences will ever be carried out. [vi] Such sentencing shows that the judiciary is no longer independent and the rule of law in Egypt is seriously questionable.

For Egypt’s future to look brighter, its next leader has to address growing differences within the society, transform the failing economy and find solution to increasing insurgency. These are difficult endeavors in any of the above-mentioned circumstances, but in the context of growing ideological differences in Egypt, it is difficult to see what the next president can do. The presidential elections will take place on May 26 and 27 with the clear favourite, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, running against two other candidates, a liberal politician, Hamdeen Sabahi, and pro-army lawyer, Mortada Mansour.[vii] Whoever becomes the president will have to meet the same high expectations than Morsi was faced with to transform Egyptian society and economy. But such transformation is not going to happen overnight and thus the Egyptian population must adjust their expectations to more realistic goals.

Former head of military intelligence under Mubarak, a member of the military council ruling for 18-months following Mubarak’s overthrow, as well as army chief and defence minister appointed by Morsi, al Sisi is to be the new addition to Egypt’s military leaders. To run for presidency, Al-Sisi had to resign from his posts as defence minister and army chief and he announced these resignations alongside his candidacy on 26 March. The announcement was expected already earlier, following the surprise resignation of the interim cabinet at the end of February in the wake of continued strikes and protests. However, al Sisi resumed his positions in the new cabinet of Ibrahim Mahlab, the former housing minister. It has been speculated that the dissolution of the cabinet by former Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawy took place to pave the way for al-Sisi’s candidacy. By resigning, the former government could shoulder the blame for the current problems, such as economic crisis, widespread strikes and blackouts. [viii]

Opponents of the current leadership criticise it for leading Egypt towards the type of authoritarianism that is similar to the Mubarak’s regime. Under the rule of the interim government, the army has increased its role in the society and at the same time the political space available for democratic debate has diminished. With the election of al-Sisi, which is an extremely likely possibility, the army is expected to continue to play a large role in the politics of the country. Furthermore, there has been an increase in the number of people nominated into the prominent positions within the government with links to the Mubarak regime. This includes the recently nominated prime minister, who was a member of Mubarak’s ruling party and head of the state-owned construction company, Arab Contractors, for over decade under the Mubarak regime.

Despite the seeming inevitability of al-Sisi presidency, his success in the post is nowhere near certain. In the speech announcing his candidacy, he warned the Egyptians that he could not perform miracles.[ix] Al Sisi’s popularity is largely based on his central role in the overthrow of Morsi. The turmoil of the past three years has made Egyptians to long for a strong leader that can bring stability and address the increasing jihadist insurgency, especially in Sinai. However, so far, al-Sisi has not shared any concrete policy plans for tackling economic problems affecting the daily life of the majority of the population through inflation, suffering from the effects of rising unemployment and power outages. Many in Egypt seem at least for now willing to sacrifice some of their freedom for prosperity and stability and al-Sisi is banking on this insight by campaigning on counter-terrorism and by promising to stabilize the society. However, in the long term, it is unlikely that Egypt’s young population, the same one that protested in Tahrir Square, is willing to give up their political freedoms in exchange for a better economic performance and yet another authoritarian leader.

For more information from ISIS on Egypt, click here.












2 comments on “Behind the Headlines: Egypt

  1. Pingback: The 10 Best Articles on International Security Issues this week |

  2. Pingback: Behind the Headlines: Egypt « ISIS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 171 other followers


%d bloggers like this: