by John Amaruso
It was in February of 2011 when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak went on national television and declared that he would not seek re-election. The former Air Force Commander and Vice President who took power after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamic extremists finally saw his reign come to an end after 30 years in power. The vacuum left behind was filled by an overly enthusiastic populace coupled with political opportunists both inside and outside the ruling government. Following the President’s announcement, Vice President Omar Suleiman declared the military’s supreme council would run the country in the absence of a ruling authority.
His step down from power was anything but smooth. In the first few weeks riots turned bloody as Mubarak supporters attacked anti-government protesters while riding camels and horses, wielding clubs and sticks to beat down protesters. The ensuing battle left over a dozen dead and a country outraged at Mubarak’s refusal to relinquish power. In state TV interviews along with press releases, Mubarak declined to answer the wishes of the people, disappointing and angering millions when he stubbornly refused to resign. He did however, offer concessions, claiming he would not seek re-election in September but would remain as President until that time. The already hyped up and over zealous crowd saw this as an insult and refused to accept the offer, leading to more violence in Tahrir Square.
February 12 was the day that saw Mubarak gave into the crowd’s demands. His resignation sent the country into a frenzy as demonstrators celebrated until the break of down in Tahrir Square (Dailymail). Only 18 days and an entire country with a vast and intricate history saw what looked like the beginning of a new country- something the world had never seen before; a democratic Egypt.
It is within these hopeful moments that countries often fall victims to their blind optimism. It is here that political opportunists and power hungry organizations see their chance at consolidating power for themselves as we have seen in places like Afghanistan, where in the absence of a strong government the Taliban successfully managed to control large swaths of Afghan territory. Many feared that the same fate may befall Egypt as concerns over the speediness and disorganization involved in the transition could hurt the prospects for a true democracy in Egypt.
This fear almost came to fruition when the military declared only two days after Mubarak’s resignation that they would dissolve the parliament, suspend the constitution, and possibly hold elections in 6 months. Although the military’s approval rating was positive seeing their decline to help Mubarak in his attempts to remain in power helped the opposition, still many were concerned about allowing an institution which previously ruled the country with Mubarak to continue doing so.
It’s Phillippe C. Schmitter who says in his article Dangers and Dilemmas of Democracy, “…when the transition is initiated and imposed from above, the previous rulers attempt to protect their interests by ‘embedding’ authoritarian practices within the emergent regime.” (Schmitter). It seemed as though Egypt was on this path with the suspension of the constitution and the military’s reach for power. Fear of becoming a ‘dictablanda’, a regime where “certain individual rights (are given) but do not render themselves (the military) accountable to the citizenry” was becoming a reality (Schmitter).
Not only this but there were hints of infusing this regime type with the style of a ‘democradura’, a regime where “elections are held, but under conditions that guarantee the victory of the governing party, that exclude specific sociopolitical groups from participating, or that deprive those elected of the effective capacity to govern” (Schmitter). This came to light when ahead of the elections the military’s supreme council excluded 10 out of 23 candidates due to ‘legal irregularities’, among them a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Khairat el-Shater. The ‘legal irregularities’ included such frivolous things as one of the candidate’s mothers owned a U.S. passport. Once again protesters took to the streets, protesting military rule, anxious to have a civilian government put into place.
It was right before the election in 2012 that the country saw the beginning of a ‘democradura’ when ‘severe’ limitations were placed on whomever would take position as President. According to the Time World, “The military announced on Sunday night that it would assume all legislative control, as well as the right to appoint a committee to draft the country’s new parliament. The generals also said they would retain full control of the country’s armed forces, including its budget, and any involvement it chooses to have in security measures at home and abroad” — (Hauslohner).
Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University said “It places the military in a position of oversight, in the short term over the whole political system, and then in the long term over the writing of the constitution.” (Hauslohner).
The eventual election saw the victory of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist and member of the previously banned political group The Muslim Brotherhood. A U.S. educated engineer, he was seen by many as a conciliatory figure despite his hard leaning Islamist ideology. “I am a President for all Egyptians” said Mohammed Morsi shortly after election (TIMESIsrael) “If I don’t obey God in serving you, you have no commitment to obey me.” (TIMESIsrael). His words made claims of being a leader accountable to the public; words that soon lost their meaning when his grab for power in the coming months saw a revival of old totalitarian practices.
Democracy in Egypt
It was in November of 2012, less than half a year after his election that Mohammed Morsi made a decree which would enrage citizens and civil rights groups. His declaration that presidential orders were not to be subject to judicial review by Egypt’s highest court made him in effect the tyrant Egyptians fought to depose only a year earlier. It was said that Morsi’s attempts to weaken institutions to strengthen the power of him and his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, would work only to bring the country backwards in their progress towards democracy (Fleishman).
Nabil Abdelfattah, a legal expert with Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies said “He became the ruler of everything, his hold on legislative and executive powers is completely dangerous and unacceptable”. Mohammed Morsi claimed that this was temporary measure to maintain security in Egypt’s road to drafting the final Constitution which saw his signature in December of 2012. Claims that the constitution’s language was vague, it didn’t protect rights of minority groups, and the continued military trials for citizens became the newest grievance of protesters as Tahrir Square once again became the center for their outrage.
Following the continued protests and demonstrations, Mohammed Morsi has made a few moves which have only deepened the political turmoil in the country. Freedom of speech, a right seen inherent in any democracy was put into jeopardy after the persecution of the now famous Bassem Yousseff, a satirical Egyptian comedian. His arrest in April of 2013 came with charges of “insulting the President” and “insulting Islam”, an offense declared by Mohammed Morsi as punishable by jail time.
Groups sympathetic with the Muslim Brotherhood have called for Mr. Yousseff’s show to be taken off the air, as it ‘corrupts morals’ and ‘violates religious principles’. This attack on his right to criticize the President and the government is exactly the type of symptom associated with the beginning of a crackdown on civil liberties. Despite the charges, Bassem Youssef was released after international and domestic pressure and has returned to his show, vowing to continue his work as Egypt’s leading political comic and right to freedom of speech advocate.
The commitment to democratic beliefs, culture, and practices is an imperative in countries that have recently shifted to democracy. If a country’s elected leaders see no incentive or value in upholding traditional democratic practices, it is highly unlikely that true democracy can be applied to a society. Dankwart A. Rustow writes in Transitions to Democracy, “Robert A Dahl and Herbert McClosky, among others, have argued that democratic stability requires a commitment to democratic values or rules, not among the electorate at large but among the professional politicians- each of these presumably linked to the other through effective ties of political organization” (Anderson p. 3).
Larry Diamond in his book Developing Democracy echoes this sentiment, “Prominent theories of democracy, both classical and modern, claim that democracy requires a distinctive set of political values and orientations from its citizens: moderation, tolerance, civility, efficacy, knowledge, participation.” (Diamond p. 161). This idea of a ‘political culture’ is an imperative when bringing democracy to a country.
Robert Dahl in his book ‘On Democracy’ talks about the conditions that favorable and unfavorable to democracy. Among those are ‘control of military and police by elected officials’, ‘democratic beliefs and political culture’, ‘no strong foreign control hostile to democracy’, ‘a modern market economy’ and ‘weak subcultural pluralism’ (Dahl p. 147).
Among these conditions, conspicuously absent is the control of the military and police by elected officials, democratic beliefs and political culture, and weak subcultural pluralism. The military which has shown itself as a larger than life force in Egyptian politics has proven it is immune to judicial review executive review as shown through their actions before and after the elections. Meanwhile, the problems with the various ethnic groups in Egypt, among them Egyptian Jews and Coptic Christians have shed light on what could potentially become a thorn in the side of democratic progress.
In March of 2012, Session Film productions were set to air a movie entitled Jews in Egypt, only to have their request denied by Egypt’s censorship bureau (El-Kady). The reason for this was never provided, but many claim it is the instilled discriminatory culture of Egypt against non-Arabs that led to its ban. Almost out nowhere, the ban was lifted, and the movie finally aired in September 2012 but not after this embarrassing and frankly prejudicial move by the Egyptian authorities against the Egyptian film based on life as an Egyptian Jew.
As Dahl says in On Democracy, “Cultural conflicts can erupt into the political arena, and typically they do: over religion, language, and dress codes in schools, for example…” (Dahl p. 150). It seems as though this situation is exactly the type of cultural conflict Dahl is talking about, for the move to ban the movie was less of an isolated incident as much as it was a reflection of a deeper, more systemic practice of discrimination against Egyptian minorities.
This sectarian conflict has turned violent, as Coptic Christians have become a target by Islamic extremists in Egypt. As recently as April of this year deadly clashed between Muslims and Coptic Christians left several dead along with a variety of hate crimes and vandalism against places of worship. This included the burning of a Coptic Christian church as well.
This failure to defuse tensions between the religious groups shows also a potential failure in transitioning to democracy. Coptic Christians which make up about 10% of Egypt’s population of 84 million under any other sort of democratic government would be entitled to some degree of political representation. Currently, there is no system set in place to ensure the rights of Coptic Christians are protected. Even the recently drafted Constitution has failed to protect the rights of various minority groups across Egypt.
Clearly Egypt has much more work to be done. Democracies as young as Egypt often experience hiccups, bumps, bruises and deep wounds when attempting to solidify their fragile existence. It is in these pressing times that it is essential leaders who respect and value democratic processes, political equality, and the rule of law come to the forefront to lead the country onto a path of true democracy. Not only this, but the electorate at large must be made aware of their rights, must be provided the opportunity to participate in their political process, and must have the mechanisms available to hold their leaders accountable when transgressions are forced against them.
As of now Egypt has an omnipotent military, a power hungry executive, a powerless judiciary, violent subcultural pluralism, and an overly zealous youth who want too much too soon. It is possible that with time the military could make good on its word and relinquish its grip over the government. It is also possible the executive could be reined in by a leader willing to fulfill the aspirations of their people, and rule of law and authority restored to the judicial branch. All of these are possible if the Egyptian society at large is willing to take their lumps, look past their indiscretions, and move forward towards an Egyptian society where the rights of all are protected, the leaders are held accountable, and democratic practices are respected.
Democracy in Egypt References:
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