The Middle East Channel

The new Egypt at (almost) two

On January 25, thousands of Egyptians will gather in Tahrir Square and across Egypt to commemorate the uprising that toppled the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. They will celebrate with good reason. When Mubarak, pressured by millions in the streets and ultimately betrayed by his own top generals, resigned on February 11, 2011, a military-backed dictatorship that ...


On January 25, thousands of Egyptians will gather in Tahrir Square and across Egypt to commemorate the uprising that toppled the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. They will celebrate with good reason. When Mubarak, pressured by millions in the streets and ultimately betrayed by his own top generals, resigned on February 11, 2011, a military-backed dictatorship that had ruled and largely abused Egypt for more than half a century came to an end. Most Egyptians were euphoric, and the world was transfixed by the unexpected power of the Tahrir Square freedom movement.

However, in the two years since, the transition remains fragile, and Egypt’s politics remain dangerously polarized. In fact, in addition to celebration, there may also be clashes on January 25. Today Egypt has an elected president, a new constitution, and will soon hold parliamentary elections. But if Egypt has made halting steps toward democracy, worrying signs of illiberalism and poor governance are increasingly apparent. The outcome of the revolution in the Arab world’s most populous country remains uncertain, and the threat of violence looms large. 

To understand where Egypt’s revolution might go from here, it is useful to take a sober accounting of the key lessons that we have learned over the past two years, and to debunk some myths that stubbornly took root during that time.

The Muslim Brotherhood are not democrats. Despite some prominent Western journalists and analysts’ continued wishful thinking to the contrary, the Muslim Brotherhood — a secretive, rigorously disciplined and hierarchical organization — neither understands nor sees inherent value in democratic politics. Rather, the Muslim Brotherhood believes in a narrow majoritarianism and its leaders and supporters often confuse that with democracy. The Brotherhood believes that 50 percent + 1 equals a free hand to pursue its agenda. And its agenda is manifestly an illiberal one in which universal rights are subordinated to religious doctrine.

The manner in which Egypt’s new constitution was conceived, written, and adopted offers the clearest example of the Brotherhood’s authoritarian and majoritarian tendencies. A post-authoritarian state should adopt a consensus document, but the current constitution was rammed through despite the staunch objections of non-Islamists. Rather than guaranteeing protections for minorities and women, the constitution leaves a troublingly broad scope for violation of their human rights. Looking ahead, as the Brotherhood embarks upon a legislative agenda, expect laws that will seek to limit media freedoms and constrain freedom of assembly.

The military remains very powerful. In November 2011, Egypt’s Islamists, which had for months worked closely with the Mubarak appointed military leadership, protested the proposed "Selmi document" which was designed to ensure the military’s privileges in any new constitution. However, after President Mohamed Morsi was elected in June 2012 and dismissed the two top Mubarak era generals in August, Egypt’s Islamist dominated constituent assembly crafted a constitution that explicitly guarantees the military’s power and privileges. The Islamists learned that trying to bring the military under civilian control was a dangerous task, and the two entities now have a more collaborative relationship. This gives some of Egypt’s non-Islamists, who erroneously believed that the military represents the last line of defense against Islamists, migraines. But the more salient factor is that a military not under direct civilian oversight is simply bad for nurturing a fledgling democracy.

Sectarianism in Egypt is alive and well. Attacks on Egyptian Christians were not uncommon in Mubarak’s time — on New Year’s Day in 2011, three and a half weeks before the uprising, a church in Alexandria was bombed, killing 21 worshipers. But Christians have thus far fared even worse in post-revolution Egypt. Churches have been burned, Christians have been attacked and prevented from voting, a Christian man’s ear was even cut off — and few perpetrators have been arrested, fostering a culture of impunity. In fact, Christian victims are often blamed for being attacked. In October 2011, for example, the military attacked a group of Christian protesters, killing 27, and as the melee was taking place, a state TV presenter requested that "honorable citizens" report to the scene to protect the soldiers from the marauding Christians.

Now with Islamists politically ascendant, hardline influential Muslim clerics have ratcheted up their sectarian invective against Christians. They are emboldened by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafi extremist junior partners believe in the primacy of Islamic principles over equal citizenship. While the Brotherhood, to appease Western skeptics, has issued various blandishments about its commitment to "equality," its leaders will stand by idly as more hardline Islamists spew ugly and dangerous rhetoric about Christians. Egyptians Christians should be concerned. Even if legislation is not overtly prejudiced, the views of Egypt’s leaders will increasingly permeate the country, fanning existing anti-Christian biases.

The progressive "Muslim Brotherhood youth" is a myth. In the years leading up to the Egyptian uprising, there was a prevalent belief that the younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood would exert a moderating influence on the Muslim Brotherhood, especially if the movement was granted legal recognition. Many young Islamists are indeed more moderate, revolutionary, and yes more liberal, than the leadership. However, these more progressive, democratic young Brothers are outnumbered by adherents of similar age who remain committed to conservatism. As a result, the "young brothers" have not had the moderating influence that was expected.

The more impressive progressive Brothers, like Ibrahim El Houdaiby, have left the Brotherhood and started their own small political parties, or joined forces with more established, popular, moderate former members like Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh. Their defections have only reinforced the orthodox conservatism and authoritarian nature of the movement. On November 22, 2012, when Morsi declared himself above legal challenges, the Brotherhood ordered its younger members to gather in support of the president’s statement, even before the content of that statement was known. The young Brothers actually had no idea what Morsi was going to say. They just knew that they would agree with it.

The silent majority remains the most potentially potent force in Egypt. To be sure, the Brotherhood is currently the most powerful and organized political force in the country. It can count on a bloc of between five and 10 million voters. And these voters have delivered victory after victory over the last 22 months in referenda as well as parliamentary and presidential elections. In fact, it is likely that Islamists will win the upcoming parliamentary elections. However, Egypt has more than 50 million voters. The biggest bloc is the unaffiliated — either because they don’t care, don’t know enough about politics, or are disillusioned. For example, only 11 million voters approved the Islamist crafted constitution. This of course does not mean that the other 39 million voters reject it, but if the Brotherhood can only get one fifth of voters to make their way to a polling station to register their approval of such an important document, it means they can be beaten.

The prevalence of undecided potential voters means that Egypt’s divided non-Islamists could make electoral progress if they successfully appeal to new voters beyond their own bloc of five to six million, mostly urban supporters. However, to date, Egypt’s non-Islamist movement remains incoherent. Thus far, their strategy has been to be the party of "no" and to try to pressure authorities through street protests. This will not work. Non-Islamists can certainly win Egyptian elections, but they have to work twice as hard. They have yet to hone an appealing message, focused on the economy, for example, that would attract voters in places like Upper Egypt or other rural parts of the country, where they are particularly weak.

Authorities are adrift on the economy. There was a strong economic component to the January 25 uprising. Egypt’s economy, like those of many other non-oil Arab states, grew under Mubarak in the last few years of his rule, but that growth did little for the poor. As recently as last fall, the Muslim Brotherhood was heralded as "serious" about economic reform. Given Egypt’s deep economic problems — growth is anemic, the pound is losing value, structural limitations to growth abound — this should have been the government’s primary focus. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood used its political capital to ram through a constitution and then found it had little leverage to push through some needed but difficult economic reforms.

Of course, if the Brotherhood had pursued political consensus, it might have been better positioned to carry out needed reforms — for example, on taxation and subsidies. In addition, were there less polarization and political upheaval, tourism receipts could well be higher and foreign and domestic investors less skittish. But the Muslim Brotherhood gambled that it was more important to cement its political agenda. For a time, Egypt’s regional importance will continue to attract aid — from the IMF, the United States and, increasingly from the Gulf — but room for maneuver on crucial reforms is now much more limited.

Sinai is a serious security problem. Sinai is becoming increasingly lawless and poses a potential threat to Egyptian security and the economy. Since Mubarak’s ouster, the gas pipeline in Sinai has been attacked more than a dozen times. In August 2012, the border police were attacked and 16 officers were killed, leading to a major shakeup of the security and military leadership. It is also disturbing that it appears difficult to get solid information about what is actually happening in Sinai — who the Sinai militants are and what are their goals. However, their actions can carry serious consequences. A single devastating terrorist attack on tourists from Sinai-based groups could deal a further blow to Egypt’s ailing economy.

Despite all the challenges that post-uprising Egypt faces, Egyptian politics are more alive than they have been in decades, and Egyptian democracy and pluralism are still good long term bets. Entrenched interests and many newly empowered political forces are change resistant — but it is very unlikely that Egypt will return to the kind of "stable" authoritarianism of Mubarak. While they are a small minority, the core group of revolutionary activists agitating for democracy remains indefatigable. Egypt will probably experience a very bumpy few years, but these activists will keep pushing those in power to move toward a more democratic Egypt. Egypt has changed.

Hani Sabra is the lead analyst on the GCC, Egypt, and the Levant for Eurasia Group.

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