When Morsi was ousted, so was Egypt's democracy

When Morsi was ousted, so was Egypt's democracy
Comment: Six years after Egypt's fleeting year of democracy, Sisi has engineered a country where political competition no longer exists, writes Mohamad Elmasry.
7 min read
03 Jul, 2019
Mubarak supporters reject the military coup bringing Sisi to power on 3 July 2013 [Getty]
The summer of 2013 was an eventful and important one for Egypt. 

It began with the culmination of a movement to end the presidential term of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, and ended with chaos and violence in the streets. 

Morsi's 3 July 2013 ouster has had far-reaching implications. Exactly six years after the event, and about two weeks after Morsi was killed by Egypt's military regime, it's worth examining whether Egypt is better or worse off today than it was on 2 July 2013, the day before the coup was formally executed.

This is an important question, particularly given the extent to which Egyptians are, and have been, divided on the issue.

Scientific opinion polls carried out by the 
Pew Research Center and Zogby Research Services shortly after Morsi's removal from office showed that Egyptians were split down the middle on the move to end Morsi's term early.

In examining the success or failure of the intervention, I'll briefly consider two intertwined areas of Egyptian life: political freedom and economics. 

Egyptians rose up against dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 in order to set up a more democratic political system and create more economic opportunity. After Morsi's ouster, General Abdelfattah al-Sisi - who ultimately replaced Morsi as president - promised both democratic political reform and an economic renaissance. 

Political freedom during the Morsi period

Under Morsi, Egypt was a democracy, albeit a young and imperfect one. The military and police continued to exert disproportionate control and power, as evidenced by how easy it was for them to oust an elected president.

Moreover, many of Egypt's new political parties - formed in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak - lacked experience, leading the well-organised and popular Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hailed, to dominate the post-uprising political scene. The Brotherhood won all five free-and-fair elections and referenda held in 2011 and 2012.

Political competition was relatively strong, however, and the Brotherhood's presidential candidate, Morsi, nearly lost a tightly contested election in June 2012.

Under Morsi, Egypt was a democracy, albeit a young and imperfect one

During Morsi's year in office, more than 40 political parties vied for influence, and an expansive anti-Brotherhood coalition, the National Salvation Front (NSF), formed in late 2012 to challenge the government. 

The NSF helped create a competitive atmosphere around the December 2012 constitutional referendum and worked with political parties, the military, and the tamarod movement to contest Morsi. 

Popular opposition to Morsi was open and explicit, a reality which suggests more than a modicum of political freedom. Political groups openly called for Morsi's removal, journalists routinely mocked the president, and many news outlets perpetuated a series of myths about the government.

The anti-government media narratives continued unabated, despite attempts by Morsi supporters to file legal complaints. My own research on Egyptian media during this period showed that anti-government news programmes often did not even offer a pretense of balance.

Anti-government propaganda and political manoeuvring seemed to be working in the opposition's favour. Morsi's approval rating dropped over time and, following a controversial constitutional decree in December 2012, Morsi agreed to revise the constitution along the lines of opposition demands.

Importantly, the terms of Morsi's presidency were governed largely by the 2012 constitution, which, although flawed, limited the president's powers and would have permitted Morsi only two four-year terms.

152 could have allowed for Morsi's impeachment with a two-thirds parliamentary majority. 

Were it not for Morsi's early removal from office, opposition groups may have had a real chance to both revise the constitution to their liking and win in the next round of elections for parliament and president.

All of this points to a relatively vibrant political climate and underscores that there was meaningful political space to manoeuvre.

Morsi and the Brotherhood do not deserve all the credit for Egypt's democratic opening - they were but one of many revolutionary forces that helped bring down Mubarak and usher in a brief period of relative freedom, and they did sometimes seek to curtail freedoms themselves.

Read more: Mohamed Morsi didn't 'die' - he was killed

The point, though, is that there is little question that the post-Mubarak transition, including the brief Morsi period, represented a period of relatively greater openness for Egypt. 

Politics since 2013

The events of 3 July 2013, which political scientists consider a textbook coup d'etat, ended democratic politics in Egypt. Today, the regime of the current president, Abdelfattah al-Sisi, controls all state institutions and makes unilateral decisions about state affairs. Under Sisi, Egypt has turned into an all-out military dictatorship.

Following the coup, political opposition parties and groups were banned, the top-tiers of opposition leadership arrested or exiled, and dozens of news outlets and websites shut down.

Popular opposition to Morsi was open and explicit, a reality which suggests more than a modicum of political freedom

The military regime has carried out unprecedented human rights violations, including mass killings and mass arrests. The Sisi government has routinely used forced disappearance and torture as tools of intimidation.

Civil society was "crushed" by a May 2017 law criminalising much of the nation's NGO work. According to Amnesty International, the state of human rights in the Sisi era is worse than it has ever been in Egypt. 

The penal code, constitution, and press law all criminalise speech that undermines national security; a draconian protest law effectively prohibits protesting; and 2015 anti-terror legislation criminalises the publication of information that differs from the government narrative.

Sisi has used brute intimidation and legislation to pack parliament with his supporters, a reality which effectively prevents political debate. 

Given this basic framework, it is unsurprising that political competition no longer exists. When Sisi ran for reelection in 2018, he arrested his would-be opponents. In the end, he allowed one token competitor who, revealingly, was himself a Sisi supporter.

During the lead-up to this year's referendum on constitutional amendments, the government openly advocated for a 'yes' vote, arrested people who campaigned for the 'no' vote, blocking 34,000 website domains belonging to groups opposing the amendments. 

The constitutional changes, which passed in a landslide, have plunged Egypt further into autocracy - Sisi will now be allowed to govern until 2030

The Egyptian economy, from Morsi to Sisi

Discussions of Morsi-era economics are tricky because Morsi only completed one year in office, and also because Egypt's economy was rocked by the uprising against Mubarak. But because he has completed five years in government, the Sisi period is somewhat easier to assess.

Some of Egypt's macro-level economic indicators have improved since the coup. For example, Egypt's economy is experiencing year-over-year growth, the budget deficit has decreased, foreign reserves have surpassed pre-uprising levels, and revenues from foreign investment and tourism have increased.

But some of the economic upturn is owed to a large IMF loan and grants provided by unsustainable aid programmes.

The IMF loan has required harsh austerity measures which have made life more difficult for the average Egyptian. Since the IMF reform programme started in 2016, inflation has increased sharply and the Egyptian pound has lost more than half its value.

As the government has cut important subsidies, the average Egyptian has faced hardship, with close to 60 percent of Egyptians living in poverty.

Arguably, Sisi has mismanaged the economy in important ways: He launched an ambitious $8 billion Suez Canal expansion project in 2015, ignoring international experts who cautioned that the government's revenue estimates were unrealistic. Adjusted for inflation, the canal expansion has generated almost no additional revenue.

According to Amnesty International, the state of human rights in the Sisi era is worse than it has ever been in Egypt

Sisi has poured $45 billion into a new capital city, which will feature a megamall, Africa's tallest tower, and a presidential palace several times larger than the White House.

Many believe Egypt has more pressing needs, and that the new city will primarily benefit the nation's elite.

Investments into the new city will help the Egyptian military, which controls around 40 percent of the Egyptian economy. Importantly, the military's hold over the Egyptian economy has expanded under Sisi. 

Egypt also isn't investing enough in education, healthcare, or its crumbling infrastructure. Water scarcity is nearing crisis levels, in part due to government mismanagement. 

Egypt's murky future

I argued in the summer of 2013 that Egyptians would be better off proceeding with democratic politics than turning the government entirely back over to the military. My view hasn't changed, and Egypt is worse off today - politically and economically - than in the summer of 2013.  

Rumblings from within the Egyptian establishment have created government insecurity that borderlines on paranoia. In addition to quelling all forms of dissent and arresting opponents, Sisi has warned Egyptians against western polling agencies.

Both Pew and Zogby, two organisations which had been conducting regular polls in Egypt, have been shut out for more than five years. It is likely that Sisi understands he is not nearly as popular as his media outlets project. 

The government's insecurity feeds a sense that the Egyptian revolution may not be finished. Time will tell whether another uprising is coming to Egypt. 

Mohamad Hamas Elmasry is an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, and an Assistant Professor of Communications at the University of North Alabama. He writes about the sociology of news, the media and race, and Egyptian politics and media.

Follow him on Twitter: @elmasry_mohamad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.