Egyptian democracy a long way off


Egypt UprisingEvents in Egypt are unfolding so rapidly that Egyptians woke up with one head of state — President Mohamed Morsi — and went to sleep — if they could — with another. The Chief of the Armed Forces has suspended the constitution and parachuted Adli Mansour, head of the constitutional court, into the role of interim president.

With events moving at such breathless speed, and no less complicated because of it, any commentary should be modest. Particularly from the other side of the world. Let us begin with what is clear. After a year in power, the first democratically elected president of Egypt has been ousted by the military, emboldened by widespread popular support.

Now, in the memorable words of Donald Rumsfeld, the known unknowns. Were more people revolting against the regime than who had voted for it? Protest is, after all, a form of democratic expression. Sexual violence is NOT.

And what role will the military play in the future? Hardly a neutral arbitrator, having been comfortably curled up in Hosni Mubarak's lap for decades of anti-democratic rule, the military is now calling for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections. Outmanoeuvered by Morsi over the presidency, will they now get a bigger slice of the pie? Or will they be true to their word and transfer power to a legitimately elected civilian leadership by a certain date?

And of course the million dollar question: will any of this improve the lives of ordinary Egyptians?

Morsi may not get much sympathy in the West. The candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political movement that unapologetically opposes secularism, he is viewed as an Islamist strongman. The Brotherhood itself has steadily built a political following in its 80 year history, despite being outlawed by successive governments and being something of a routine punching bag for Egypt's military (see 'neutral arbitrator' point above). It renounced violence back in the 1980s but the whiff of bloodshed and unashamed religiosity continues to colour perceptions.

Nor has he governed particularly well. In the years since Mubarak tumbled, so has the country. Egypt's rating on the Failed State Index has slipped from 45 to 34. Foreign reserves have been depleted and the budget deficit will be up around 12 per cent. Youth unemployment is nearly 25 per cent. Crime, including murders, robberies and kidnappings, continue to balloon. In short, the country is a mess.

However, the truth is that this crisis was not merely 12 months in the making. The autocratic reign of Hosni Mubarak was nearly 30 years of winnowing the very institutions that a successive democracy would need in order to function. Independent institutions such as the judiciary were leashed, civil society was kept anaemic, opposition groups were brutally dismantled and the economy was propped up by foreign aid. The military was the life blood. When their support stopped, the status quo under Mubarak sickened and died remarkably quickly.

Nearly a year ago Egypt grafted a democratic government onto this structure. It was as audacious as it was fraught. Many in Morsi's cabinet were untested in any meaningful way (because what opportunities had there been under Mubarak?) yet they were given the task of both fixing these deep structural issues and addressing the many challenges that spring up in the day to day. It's hardly surprising that it wasn't a smooth trajectory.

With Morsi now ousted, it is becoming clear that true to the system Mubarak created, the military remains the life blood; their intervention is being framed as a transfusion to the sick patient of Egypt.

All very understandable. All incredibly undemocratic.

Morsi's odds were not great to begin with. Even the greatest and most skilled democrats in the world (and let's be clear, the Muslim Brotherhood are not) would have struggled to grow a democratic culture and foster democratic institutions after 30 years of atrophy, all while steering a smooth enough course to keep powerful interests happy. Turfing them out may make these same people happy, but it does so at the expense of a genuinely democratic culture and again weakens all other institutions in the face of the all-powerful military. 

We are still living with Mubarak's Egypt.

Evan Ellis headshotEvan Ellis is a freelance journalist currently completing his Masters in International Studies with a China major. He won the 2012 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers for his essay 'Catholic and Aboriginal listening revolutions'.

Topic tags: Evan Ellis, Egypt, Morsi



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Existing comments

Nice summary Evan, thanks. It would be good to have a bullet point reminder of the steps Morsi took that have contributed to where Egypt is. This includes assuming total powers to himself, the Constitutional debate, and also the refusal of the 'opposition' to oppose intelligently - part of the weakness, or absence, of institutions you note. With the economy shot Egypt and little real development of political parties Egypt just continues to dance in the (Tahrir) square.
jan forrester | 05 July 2013

Egypt's woes are a sharp reminder that it is simplistic to equate democracy with an elected majority running the country. There are times when representatives of a majority are ideologically incapable of running the country for all the people. The journey to some sort of government of national unity can be a painful one. Hopefully Egypt will be able to travel that journey effectively. My views are coloured by growing up in Northern Ireland.
George | 05 July 2013

George's comments ring remarkably true Copts in Egypt, Catholics in Northern Ireland: how do you guarantee their rights and protection? The Army has always played a large part in Egypt since the ousting of the King from Neguib to Mubarak. The difference between Nasser and the other military dictators was he was neither corrupt nor into crony capitalism. The Reform Officers' Movement (which Nasser and his co-revolutionaries belonged to) was influenced by Islam. In fact, the fighting between the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood was not based on religion but power. The official Islam of Egypt as represented by Al Azhar University is pretty tame and almost "Anglican" in an Established Church sort of way. It will do as the government tells it. Whilst most Egyptians don't want democracy a la USA or here they are certainly interested in freedom, respect and a chance to make a decent living. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had an Islamicist agenda: Sharia Law etc. Most Egyptians don't want that. They want un-corruption, un-repression and respect plus a chance to live decently.
Edward F | 05 July 2013


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