Is Egypt a Democracy?

Political Systems in the Middle East

Egypt is not yet a democracy, despite the big potential of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that swept away Egypt’s long-standing leader, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country from 1980. Egypt is effectively run by the military, which has deposed an elected Islamist president in July 2013, and handpicked an interim president and a government cabinet. Elections are expected at some point in 2014.

System of Government: A Military-Run Regime

Egypt today is a military dictatorship in all but name, although the army promises to return power to civilian politicians as soon as the country is stable enough to hold fresh elections. The military-run administration has suspended the controversial constitution approved in 2012 by a popular referendum, and disbanded the upper house of parliament, Egypt’s last legislative body. Executive power is formally in the hands of an interim cabinet, but there is little doubt that all important decisions are decided in a narrow circle of army generals, Mubarak-era officials, and security chiefs, headed by General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the army and acting defense minister.

The top levels of the judiciary have been supportive of the July 2013 military takeover, and with no parliament there are very few checks and balances on Sisi’s political role, making him the de-facto ruler of Egypt.

The state-owned media has championed Sisi in a manner reminiscent of the Mubarak era, and criticism of Egypt’s new strongman elsewhere has been muted. Sisi’s supporters are saying the military has saved the country from an Islamist dictatorship, but the country’s future seems as uncertain as it was after Mubarak’s downfall in 2011.

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Failure of Egypt’s Democratic Experiment

Egypt has been ruled by successive authoritarian governments since the 1950s, and before 2012 all three presidents – Gamal Abdul Nasser, Mohammed Sadat, and Mubarak – have come out from the military. As a result, Egyptian military always played an important role in political and economic life. The army also enjoyed deep respect among ordinary Egyptians, and it was hardly surprising that after Mubarak’s overthrow the generals assumed the management of the transition process, becoming the guardians of the 2011 “revolution”.   

However, Egypt’s democratic experiment soon ran into trouble, as it became clear that the army was in no rush to retire from active politics. Parliamentary elections were eventually held in late 2011 followed by presidential polls in June 2012, bringing to power an Islamist majority controlled by President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi struck a tacit deal with the army, under which the generals withdrew from day-to-day government affairs, in exchange for retaining a decisive say in defense policy and all matters of national security.

But growing instability under Morsi and the threat of civil strife between secular and Islamist groups appeared to have convinced the generals that civilian politicians botched the transition.

The army removed Morsi from power in a popularly-backed coup in July 2013, arrested senior leaders of his party, and cracked down on supporters of the former president. The majority of Egyptians rallied behind the army, tired of instability and economic meltdown, and alienated by the incompetence of the politicians.

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Do Egyptians Want Democracy?

Both mainstream Islamists and their secular opponents generally agree that Egypt should be governed by a democratic political system, with a government chosen through free and fair elections. But unlike Tunisia, where a similar uprising against a dictatorship resulted in a coalition of Islamist and secular parties, Egyptian political parties could not find a middle ground, making politics a violent, zero-sum game. Once in power, the democratically-elected Morsi reacted to criticism and political protest often by emulating some of the repressive practices of the former regime.

Sadly, this negative experience made many Egyptians willing to accept an indefinite period of semi-authoritarian rule, preferring a trusted strongman to the uncertainties of parliamentary politics. Sisi has proven immensely popular with people from all walks of life, who feel reassured that the army will stop a slide toward religious extremism and economic disaster. A fully-fledged democracy in Egypt marked by the rule of law is a long time away.