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Egypt’s Sisyphean Quest for Freedom, Dignity and Democracy

Hamdi Hassan

Islam och Politik


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primeiro post egito

Hamdi Hassan

Senior Political Advisor

West Asia and North Africa Programme (WANA),

International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) 



At the center of Egyptian life lies a severe sense of disillusionment. The pride of modern Egypt, for the majority of its people, has been far greater than its deed. Its dismal failures have been recognizable features: the poverty of the underclass and the monumental failure of the education system.[1] Even after one of history’s greatest popular uprisings, Egypt’s current political landscape allows for a single political force (the Islamists) to monopolize political power and diminish all potential rivals in civil society. The degradation of Egypt’s public institutions coupled with bitter political conflict make it hard to build a functioning democracy in two years. On November 22, 2012, president Morsi issued a contentious constitutional declaration granting him sweeping powers that deemed his decisions immune from judicial appeal. The declaration caused uproar among the majority of Egyptians and the judiciary. It spurred the anger of judges and prosecutors, who faced off with the executive branch for weeks. As part of this reaction, many judges decided to boycott overseeing the constitutional referendum, which was pushed through in the context of the declaration. 

In this declaration, president Morsi awarded himself questionable executive and legislative powers. While he annulled the declaration in December, the effects of the declaration are still legally valid (i.e. the sacking of the Mubarak-era prosecutor general and appointment of Talaat Abdallah). Many opposition groups are now demanding the dismissal of Abdallah on the ground that he was appointed by the president and not by the Supreme Judicial Council, as dictated by Egypt’s new constitution.[2] The Cairo Court of Cassation annulled, in a recent ruling, the presidential decree appointing Abdallah as Egypt’s prosecutor general. In a defiant move, president Morsi has stated clearly that he will not reconsider the decision to appoint Abdallah as prosecutor-general, despite the court verdict. The way president Morsi (and the Muslim Brothers) deal with the issue of the Prosecutor-General and other demands by the opposition has intensified the protest against their rule and strengthened the resolve of Egyptians to continue their struggle for a genuinely participatory democracy.

Massive protests, often combined with heavy and violent clashes continue to be seen almost on a daily basis all over Egypt – in Cairo, Port Said, Mansura, Mahalla, Alexandria, Ismailia and north of Cairo in cities in the Nile Delta. People in these cities have been collecting delegations of power (through the Notary and Documentation offices of the Ministry of Justice), declaring their wish that Defense Minister El-Sisi replace president Morsi due to his failure to effectively rule the country. There are also those who call for a care-taker presidential council to be appointed with the help of the army and for Morsi to leave power immediately. The political forecast in Egypt looks bleak and the atmosphere is boiling. But Egypt is “trapped in a balance of weakness. None of the key actors have the power to consolidate a new regime or even to resurrect the old one,”[3] as one analyst aptly puts it. In the shadow of the dismal failure of the Muslim Brothers-led government and the lack of a credible alternative from the opposition, it is the ordinary Egyptians who continue to lead the country toward political reform, freedom and social justice.

The Egyptian street as the enforcer

During the last few months, the attendees of demonstrations have been of a new type – they are not overwhelmingly youth, nor are they bearded Islamist men or only middle class Egyptians. They are very ordinary Egyptians, who are fiercely fighting the police and burning buildings. They are mostly not affiliated with any political group or religious organization. These people tend to be of a lower middle class and extremely disenfranchised. It is possible that many of them have never cared to vote. Their presence on the streets illuminates the depth of the political impasse in Egypt and, by the same token, shows how it is important to deal seriously with the socioeconomic injustices that many Egyptians have been suffering for decades. Poor education, unemployment and poverty have created a reservoir of resentment against Mubarak’s regime and now against the MB government. This rage is simmering not only among the youth who revolted against Mubarak (and now against the MB government), but also among these new comers to the world of protests in Egypt.

There are reasons to believe that these types of protest will only escalate, due to the stagnation of the political reform process and lack of confidence in basic government services, including those that strike at the heart of common Egyptian ideas about social justice. The Muslim Brothers’ government is perceived by these protesters as being utterly incompetent. Combined with fears about Islamist politics on the ground, all this has triggered something akin to a Muslim Brother-phobia among many Egyptians.

There is a near consensus in the country, including amongst some major Islamist groups that president Morsi is increasingly losing his legitimacy to rule by virtue of his inability to deliver and the extended opposition against him and his affiliated political group. The prominent Egyptian journalist Heikal asserted on television that Morsi is part of a project that is struggling to assert itself to no avail. According to Heilkal, while the Muslim Brotherhood seeks a complete monopoly of power, they lack the necessary expertise to rule a country as large as Egypt with its urgent need for political reform and pressing socio-economic problems.[4]

The fact that uprisings in Egypt and the Arab region began two years ago and still maintain the resolve to achieve political reform is remarkable. These street forces have had to grapple with centuries of political tyrannies and decades of trauma and turmoil. After all the revolts that have happened in the Arab region were not erupted in the spur of the moment, they succeeded to identify themselves with the dynamic of political reform and positive changes toward democratization in the region.[5] It seems that this dimension is not being taken seriously by the ruling Islamists in Egypt.

The ruling Muslim Brotherhood

Egyptian politics, dominated as it is by Islamists, is breeding a culture of mediocrity and entitlement that will ultimately undermine the prospect of meaningful political reform and democratic transition. The Muslim Brotherhood, who held a majority of seats in a parliament that was later dissolved, has been enjoying an unmasked presence in government and across the bureaucracy. Despite this, the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to deliver on promises made during electoral campaigns. It has also failed to live up to their commitment to a truly participatory political engagement with the liberal opposition — the row over the constitution serves as a key example. Moreover, it went into open-ended confrontation with the judiciary, pitting varied institutions of the state against themselves.

Eventually, the Muslim Brotherhood was left with no supporters outside the Islamist movement, including Salafists and associated political party groupings. According to sources from within the Muslim Brotherhood, debate within the group about the current mode of rule and future of the organization is expanding. According to some, this is in fact a more nagging problem than the recent fall-out between the Muslim Brotherhood and a sector of its Islamist allies — the Salafist El-Nour Party.

Perhaps an even larger problem is that the performance of the presidency is discrediting the entire project of political Islam. The survival of political Islam as we currently know it is conditioned on a few key steps: first, political Islam groups — especially the older and larger Muslim Brotherhood — will have to go through a process of revision and reform; then, these groups will have to decide to begin acting like they are part of the existing system rather than trying to overthrow the existing system to bring in a new one; last, the Islamists will have to come to terms with the fact that democracy is not a one-off electoral process, but rather a complex, multi-layered mechanism that will only keep them in power if they succeed in maintaining public support. Many consider that the Islamists continue to fail because they believe that they are almost infallibly right and when they make mistakes it’s due to some exogenous conspiracy.

The Islamists have to step beyond preaching about Sharia (Islamic law) and start offering serious solutions to serious problems that the average Egyptian is facing in their daily life. They also need to realize that when in power they have to cater to the pleasure of all citizens, including both moderate Muslims and non-Muslims. The US and other Western governments are increasingly concerned that Egypt’s government will exhaust the country’s foreign reserves rather than adopt the painful austerity measures necessary to win fresh funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While the danger of an economic collapse is real, it is not the only threat on the horizon for which Western governments should have concern. Cairo is also on the verge of adopting laws that would cripple the country’s fragile new democratic order and drastically reduce the West’s ability to influence Egypt’s course.[6]

The political process should have begun with building inclusive political institutes, and inclusive economic institutes to follow. When inclusive political institutes are built on the distribution of political power in a pluralistic manner, this helps achieve sustained economic growth based on the rule of law in the long-term.[7] However, political pluralism is lacking in Egypt. The Muslim Brothers and many of their supporters, mostly Salafist Jihadi, vow to defend “God’s law” and accuse liberals and secular opponents of trying to subvert their election victories more than one year ago. Meanwhile, the opposition accuses president Morsi and the MB government of steamrolling anyone who disagrees with them and maneuvering to achieve unfair domination. More seriously, they accuse the government of weakening official security agencies and permitting the operation of vigilante groups.

At the center of this mess, there is one promising development: debating the relevance of Islam in public life. An unintended consequence of the Arab uprisings is that the scope and nature of Islam in public life is being publicly debated like never before in the history of the region. The anger and fierce opposition, by mostly youth in the region, have brought the issue to the forefront. Even though we are only at the threshold of this debate, it is important to note that Islam, and especially political Islam, has never before been questioned so intensively by local forces as it is now.

Since the inception of Islam, there has been a tension between liberal and conservative interpretations – both generally and on a variety of specific points. However, the more radical and extremist sides have tended to win the battle over both the public face of the religion and its internal discourse. For approximately the last 14 centuries, the radical (e.g. Salafist) discourse is what has been the traditional core of religion. When the Muslim Brothers and other political Islamic movements in the region seek to rule, they put their efforts on organizing political movements not on political or religious reforms.

There is a battle under way in Egypt and most of the Arab region on the nature and the role of religion in public life – a battle for modernity. In fact Egypt is a country in limbo with forces pulling in both directions, neither secular enough for the secularists nor Islamic enough for the Islamists. The underlying identity crisis is unresolved. For many Islamists, freedom means alcohol and promiscuity, and they have yet to comprehend the fact that being free is to simply be human! People in the region, therefore, came to realize that religion as presented by the majority of Islamists is simply incompatible with a democratic life that guarantees freedom, human dignity and women’s rights. It is no longer about the West trying to impose its own version of modernity and democracy. It is about Egypt deciding for itself and the nuances are complex.

For many people, Egypt seems less modern – certainly less liberal and less tolerant – than it used to be more than 40 years ago. The hijab – the Islamic headscarf – has become a potent symbol of the Islamic revival since the 1970s. Many young Egyptians from a middle class background wear the hijab. For them, despite all the confusion and uncertainty of modernity, Islam is still something secure and familiar. Yet, they do not necessarily identify with the bearded old Salafi Sheikhs or even the slightly moderate Sheikh of al-Azhar. They do not see them as credible and relevant figures of authority. Egypt is still searching for a modern identity that combines the people´s aspirations with their natural and unquestioned religious feelings and believes – one that is, for the moment, out of reach. These kinds of socio-political processes take a long time to settle.

The dilemma of the opposition

Egypt’s main non-Islamist umbrella coalition, the National Salvation Front (NSF), has been facing increasing criticism lately over its responses to political developments, but its main challenge appears to run deeper.[8] With parliamentary elections on the horizon, questions are being asked about the NSF’s ability to establish a solid foundation in Egypt’s political life.

Given the economic difficulties and the senseless timing of Muslim Brother’s austerity measures, the opposition is “investing” in the crisis of the economy. They count on the MB’s damaged reputation and sinking popularity and await the long-anticipated explosion of the poor. However, the opposition’s bet on securing direct political gains from the economic crisis stands on shaky grounds for many reasons. The opposition has not developed strong organizational links with the burgeoning independent labor movement. The NSF remains heavily reliant on the support of urban-middle and upper-middle classes. The Front’s political platform barely contains any genuine social and economic elements. For example, when it comes to the deteriorating economic situation, the NFS’s stance has been by and large opportunistic and myopic, with very few alternatives given to austerity measures.

Indeed, the NSF has been perceived as an anti-Islamist coalition that lacks any internal credible political structure, let alone a wide connection with the grass roots and the vast underclass in Egypt. Thusly viewed, the opposition has no comprehensive proposal for dealing with Egypt’s socioeconomic tribulation. With this in mind, a political explosion of sorts is unlikely to lead to political gains for the opposition, despite the fact that the Islamists are in a dire state of affairs. What is more likely is for the political situation to degenerate into chaos, with the poor simply taking matters into their own hands and staging sociopolitical violence. The situation would be something like that of January 1977 in Egypt or December 2001 in Argentina, even though the former was predominantly a middle-class uprising. The main difference is that such social rioting would take place against a weak and unconsolidated Islamist regime, an almost disintegrated police force and an army that lacks the stomach to directly intervene due to their unpleasant experience with politics after the toppling of Mubarak.

The Egyptian army

The MB correctly realizes the danger that the military’s interests and power represent. Nevertheless, their strategy to contain this threat remains contingent, short-sighted, and even damaging. The MB seems to confine the political struggle to one that is only with the military—ignoring the public at large and its various political forces. When president Morsi decided to call for parliamentary elections amidst mounting frustration over the ongoing turmoil, he did not meet with members of the opposition, nor did he listen to protesters in the street who demanded the dismissal of the dysfunctional government, reform of the ministry of interior, and more distribution of power. Rather, Morsi met behind closed doors with the defense minister, stressing for the third time in less than a week his trust and confidence in Al-Sisi and the Armed Forces. 

Success for the Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections is probably the only chance to restore some of Morsi’s power apropos the military. It is also true that the military’s role in securing the elections—given the inability of police forces—is essential to its success, even if nominal. The MB seems to forget that the military does not seek a leading role within the political system, for that the very presence of the Muslim Brotherhood at the top of the executive branch enabled the military to restore its power and reputation, repeating their longstanding strategy of ruling without actually being in power. After a year and half of being the center of criticism for its failures in handling the transitional period, the military seems to only care about its coherency and autonomy from the political system. Nevertheless, it will not be able to isolate itself entirely from the state—something reiterated by a number of Egypt’s military leaders, including Al-Sisi and his Chief of Staff, Sedki Sobhi. 

The army has hinted very clearly that they need near undisputed popular legitimacy to step in the same way that they did on January 28, 2011. However, the political, economic and social situation in the country is fragile and unsustainable, creating greater risks with intervention from the army’s perspective. Insecurity and instability has grown in Sinai since Mubarak was toppled in Egypt’s 2011 revolution. There are indications that the Army might be up to something and choose to go public with information about the activities Hamas and other Gaza-bound Jihadi groups in the border area with Gaza in order to send a message to the MB who also in their turn replay in the same manner.[9]

Moreover, the relationship between the MB and the army is a complex one, which complicates matters for the military. For example, the flooding of the Rafah tunnels between Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula may have some bearing on this relationship.[10] The event might be taken as indicative of pressures being exerted; pitting the Army against the Brotherhood, using the latter’s relationship with Hamas in the case of the tunnels. Alternatively, might this be a message from the army to both MB and Hamas? Perhaps so, even though the Military’s spokesperson claimed that Egypt is fulfilling its commitments in accordance with the recent truce agreement signed between Hamas and Israel, including its pledge to halt arms smuggling through the Gaza tunnels. What is clear is that Egypt’s military and intelligence establishments consider Hamas to be a serious threat to national security and this has negatively affected the relationship with the governing MB.[11]

Where Egypt is heading: two immediate future scenarios

As I write now, the ruling Muslim Brothers are at odd with major political forces in the country, who accuse them of attempts to reproduce the regime of Mubarak in a more crude, even provincial fashion. Egypt’s political scene looks as dim as ever since the toppling of Mubarak. Going forward, there are two likely scenarios that will overcome the current political impasse.

The first scenario is one where the Muslim Brothers proceed to use their electoral mandate to control the state to establish some type of proto-authoritarian order in the name of social and political stability. The United States, other Western governments and the world community would tolerate and accept the modus operandi enforced by the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. While at least some meaningful democratic change is expected in response to the uprisings across the Arab region, a full transition to civil and democratic rule will take much longer than some may have initially anticipated due to the depth and variety of democratic gaps.

Political Islamists are commonly stigmatized as being anti-democratic, but international and local political pressures seems to be likely to prevent them from imposing radical anti-democratic programs. On the other hand, secularists and liberals, while commonly thought of as having a pro-democratic bent, are not necessarily democratic in all regards. Moreover, decades of autocratic and corrupt rule have left states with institutional, cultural and economic obstacles that stand in the way of democratic transition. There are indications on the ground that those opposition and youth movements will fiercely resist the MB and Islamists political dominance, rendering this scenario difficult to happen.

The second scenario is one where economic hardship and the imminent collapse of the economy triggers rioting and social violence led predominantly by the poor. Such a scenario is more likely to bring the army back to the street. The prospect of the Army stepping in is quite unclear at this point. There are those within the Military and GIS who believe that president Morsi will not survive the popular pressure, the political impasse, and, most of all, the deepening economic crisis. Some believe that the regime will not survive the summer. Therefore, it would be hasty for the Army to step in, unless the level of violence on the ground becomes unmanageable. However, the Army is expected to give its blessing and protection to any other regime that might arise to power after the eventual resignation/removal of president Morsi.

This scenario is the more likely one because there is near consensus on the ground about the inability of the MB-led government to rule and that they have become part of the problem, not the solution. Even the US administration, believed by MB’s opponents to be the main international backer of the MB’s rule, has serious doubts about their ability to lead the country out of political polarization and economic collapse.[12]  If the coming weeks involve worsening economic conditions and intensifying political polarization as is generally predicated, there will be escalating street protests. This might be the blow that seals the fate of the MB’s rule and, to a large extent, their larger role in the Egyptian revolution. Having said that, this scenario highlights the real danger of the armed forces stepping once more into the forefront of political life in Egypt, something that generally will likely put a halt to political reforms, civil rule and the process of democratization.

[1] The author would like to thank Ayman Ayoub, Zaid Al-Ali and Aneesa Walji for their valuable comments on this paper.

[2] According to the new Constitution, the president chooses the prosecutor general from three nominations presented to him by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC). While article 173 in the new constitution does not mention that there will be three nominations specifically, it is the practice that there will be three nominations put forward by the SJC.

[3] See Hazem Kandil, “Deadlock in Cairo” in London Review of Books, Vol. 35 No. 6 · 21 March 2013.

[4] See the interviews with Mohamed Hassanein Heikal on the private Egyptian CBC TV, March 22, 2013.

[5] See H.A. Hellyer, The Arab Spring Ain’t Over. The Atlantic, April 2013.

[6] See the Washington Post Editorial on April 2, 2013.

[7] See Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Profile Books, 2012.

[8] The NSF, which brings together liberals, leftists and even Nasserists, was established in the wake of the abrupt issuance of President Mohamed Morsi’s constitutional declaration on 22 November. These forces came together to resist what they viewed as a flagrant power grab.

[9] Abu Ela Madi, a former MB member and now the leader of the Islamists al-Wasat party (and former Muslim Brothers), said in a press conference yesterday that President Mohamed Morsi told him that Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS) has a 300.000 strong army of criminals that are ready at its disposal at any time to spread anarchy! This is very significant, given that Madi lacks any official capacity to reveal such information.

[10] In August last year, gunmen suspected of being Islamist militants killed at least 16 Egyptian Army border guards in an assault on a police station at the border between Egypt and Israel. Hamas is encouraging mediation between the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brothers, president Morsi and the Army. The army says that Hams has to hand all the perpetrators of the attack as a condition for talks and any prospect of reconciliation.

[11] Recent weeks have witnessed a campaign against Palestinian resistance faction Hamas in several Egyptian media outlets due to the alleged involvement of the group – which has governed the Gaza Strip since mid-2007 – in the attack that killed 16 Egyptian border guards last August in the Sinai Peninsula near the border with Israel. The findings of an investigation conducted by the army, in collaboration with police and Bedouin tribesmen, are expected in April. But already, leaks by anonymous security sources have suggested the involvement of Hamas elements, even some of the group’s leaders. See Ahram Online, April 2, 2013.



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