Democracy and the State in Today’s Egypt

Ongoing events in Egypt have given rise to intense sentiments, in the country itself but also the world. The military intervention of 3 July that removed from power the democratically elected President Morsi and the great loss of life that resulted from the security forces’ dismantling of pro-Morsi protest camps on 14 August, have left Egypt in a precarious state and the international community at a loss on how to react.

The divisions that have now so prominently and destructively surfaced in the country are not new. The Armed Forces have been in power through successive authoritarian Presidents for decades. They consider themselves the ultimate guarantors of internal security and the stability of the state. The secular elite, including senior civil servants and judges, as well as established religious authorities, seemingly share in this conviction of the armed forces being the final arbiter and have joined them in the interim government that succeeded that of President Morsi. A significant portion of the population, apparently those with secularist leanings, also seem to support the intervention. They actually provided the justification for it, through their large protests against President Morsi that precipitated the 3 July intervention.

Does this mean that the intervention – whether one calls it a coup or not – and the 14 August bloodshed, with the accompanying imprisonment of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters and overall repressive measures, are justified? Were the Armed Forces right in their assessment that the anti-Morsi protests were so large that they indicated a complete lack of popular support and legitimacy for the President that warranted his removal? Judging by normal democratic standards, certainly not. If that were the case in the West, every opinion poll that showed a sitting President or Prime Minister lagging behind in ratings would lead to his or her removal, with major instability as a result.

Egypt is not a normal democracy, though, as understood in the West, not at this stage at least. It was not normal even under the democratically elected President Morsi, some of the initiatives of whom were seeing as existentially threatening to large parts of the Egyptian population. They felt that he was trying to impose the Islamist agenda and a way of life alien to them. The President had got the majority of votes, though, beating the liberal opposition in the polls, and had the express support of a majority of the population that had been suppressed for a long time. Through their networks of self-help, solidarity and piety the Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathisers waited through decades of illegal or semi-legal status for their moment in the sun to come. Unfortunately, it is winner-takes-all mentality rather than magnanimity, tolerance and a really unifying vision that inspires Egypt’s leaders on either side of the religious-secular divide.

It is worth noting that this is not the only divide in Egyptian society. There is at least one other suppressed group, that of the Christian Copts, who are being tried once again during this turmoil. Having sided with the Armed Forces against President Morsi and the Brotherhood, they are now being attacked by extreme Muslim elements, their people killed and churches torched. Nothing that contributes to a peaceful solution to Egypt’s problems.

Do such actions by extreme Muslim elements, possibly linked in some way to the Brotherhood, justify the claims of the military and the interim government that they are fighting terrorism? Are all these millions of Muslim Brotherhood supporters terrorists? By invoking the “t” word Egypt’s current rulers hope to elicit knee-jerk reactions in the international community, so that they gain Western public opinion to their side and get a free hand in continuing the suppression. That, though, might well lead to an increase in radicalisation and real terrorism. The country may fall into a pattern of a protracted guerrilla war, as in Algeria in the 1990s, or into a more intensive confrontation like today’s Iraq or Syria.

The international community has been too weak in its efforts to bring a return to constitutional order and to encourage talks among the Egyptian factions for a long-term solution. The European Union and the United States have maintained positions of principle regarding the undemocratic toppling of President Morsi and the deplorable loss of life on 14 August. Their (short/medium-term) geopolitical and economic interests, though, do not allow them to take a much clearer stand, imposing sanctions and demanding a return to constitutional order. The United Nations is also absent in any substantive way. An old UN hand, Mr. ElBaradei, played a key role initially as an unsuccessful electoral challenger to Mr. Morsi, then a supporter of the military intervention and a Vice President of the interim government, and finally a fugitive of his own volition, as he resigned in view of the 14 August killings and flew to Vienna.

The situation is very complicated and the levers of influence from outside are unclear, if any. Certainly the US can influence the situation by formally declaring it a coup and cutting off aid to the military. Ideally this would encourage discussions for a quick and peaceful transition among the Egyptian parties, with or without external support. Conversely, it could lead to less US influence on an intransingent military, and a possible turn of the latter to alternative hardware providers, like Russia or China, if they want to play such a game of influence. But in the long-run it would contribute more than anything to a rapprochement between the US and the pious Muslim masses that President Obama’s 2009 speech at Cairo University did not deliver. As for the European Union, it may have less direct leverage but as a major source of trade and tourism income for Egypt it would certainly also gain in popular respect if it stood by its principles firmly in practice. The Egyptian secularists’ rights should also be protected with equally principled guarantees, but those secular Egyptian should be reminded that Europe’s strength is the social care and limited inequality model, and not a secularism built on top of second-class masses.

Internally the Egyptian parties seem to be digging in their hills, with no prospect for an immediate compromise. As mentioned earlier, Egypt can go down the road of Algeria, Iraq or Syria, all dreadful prospects for the country, the region and the world. Or its leaders from all sides may find the wisdom and the courage to negotiate a transition to an inclusive, diverse and tolerant society. Democracy has to be clearly defined neither as winner-takes-all nor as a prerogative of an elite to guard. The state has to be seen as a guarantor of basic rights for and provider of basic services to all, rather than as a suppressor of a dissenting majority or minority. Human rights and fundamental freedoms, as enshrined in global instruments and all democratic constitutions, should be the bedrock of mutual respect, tolerance and coexistence that allow for a functioning democratic state. And yes, there should be transitional justice and a truth and reconciliation commission to examine the 14 August killings and other similar incidents perpetrated in Egypt by either side at least since the fall of President Mubarak. That would be the way to go for Egypt and a great example for the rest of the countries of the Arab Spring.

Further Reading

Active: Fact-Finding in Lebanon

This three-year project, Fact-finding in Lebanon:  The Netherlands Support to Forensic Capability and Uptake in Lebanon, aims to ensure an integrated approach to forensics in…


Completed: Conflict Prevention in The Hague

This pilot project is part of the Institute's international research on City Responsibility: The Role of Municipalities in Conflict Prevention, which aims to understand how municipal…


Active: Distinguished Speaker Series

The Distinguished Speaker Series (DSS) showcases eminent practitioners in international affairs and is the centerpiece of the Institute’s high-level engagement with practitioners and academics in the city…