Two years ago, two million Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to unseat a despot who had ruled their country for 30 years. Using largely peaceful means they changed the political makeup of their country and the wider Middle East, taking bold steps towards democracy.
Twenty-four months later, however, the unbridled optimism that defined the revolution has faded. While the initial unity – which emerged following the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak – was bound to give way, the extent to which Egypt’s different socioeconomic and religious divisions have since exploded, has been worrying.
With the country heading to the polls in April to elect its parliament, there is an opportunity to heal old rifts but only if Egypt can avoid re-igniting new strife.
A turbulent 24 months
So far, the revolution has gone through three notable challenges, involving the army, the courts and the president.
The first challenge came from the military. The army’s decision to back the protesters in 2011 was a key factor in Mubarak’s toppling but while the interim Supreme Council of the Allied Forces (SCAF), was set up to oversee the transition to democracy, it soon squandered its good will.
In October 2011, the army was implicated in the killing of 21 Christian protesters, and then in February 2012, were blamed for using brute force to crush protests that erupted during a football match in Port Said. Scores were injured and 74 killed in the incident. The aftermath quickly turned political.
By April, tens of thousands were back on Cairo’s streets demanding the council step aside. While a presidential election was held in June, SCAF orchestrated an 11th hour power grab to prevent the winning Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Morsi from gaining control.
All might have been lost but mass protests once again broke out, eventually pushing the military to concede and step back from civilian life.
As Morsi overcame one hurdle, however, he crashed straight into another.
The parliamentary elections, held in late 2011 and early 2012, resulted in some 70% of seats going to Islamist candidates, which in turn appointed the constitutional assembly, tasked with drawing up the constitution.
Fearing that the Islamist assembly was trying to enact Sharia Law, the Supreme Court dissolved both bodies.
Thanks to popular support, Morsi was able to reinstate the parliament and brokered a compromise to create a more representative assembly – with spots reserved for minorities – but the courts have remained weary and the final constitution has nonetheless proven divisive. According to Human Rights Watch it “does provide basic protections against arbitrary detention and torture, and for some economic rights, but fails to end military trials of civilians or to protect freedom of expression and religion.”
Then, on 22 November 2012, under the pretext of protecting the constitution-drafting process from further judicial interference, Morsi staged his own revolutionary coup, declaring himself immune from judicial or parliamentary oversight.
This time it was the opposition that revolted en masse. In one day the Egyptian stock market plummeted 10% as between tens of thousands to 200,000 protesters marched on Tahrir Square and judges across the country walked out in protest over Morsi making himself a “new pharaoh”.
During two weeks of upheaval, 7 were killed and hundreds injured. Widespread outrage over the violence force Morsi into a corner and on 8 December, He rescinded most of his new power and promised to hold new parliamentary elections if voters rejected the constitution.
Despite threats to disband parliament again and to not approve the constitution as is legally mandated, the judiciary allowed the constitutional vote to go forward. It won 64% of the vote and was signed into law on 26 December. While there is concern that the constitution does not provide enough checks-and-balances, its passage sets the stage for April’s parliamentary elections.
Why neither side is right
Since 2011, the secularist opposition has been on the defensive. The liberals have ostensibly failed to unify or attract support outside of Cairo’s middle class, while the quasi-independent judiciary and the old guard, once loyal to Mubarak, have struggled to restore their image.
The secularist opposition has played on the fear of an Islamist takeover, insisting that the Brotherhood will dismantle Egypt’s democracy once in power. Their use of the courts to challenge the Islamist ascendancy has occasionally been welcome, but has also seemed like the desperate attempts of the old elite wishing to undermine the new democratically elected one.
“…The crisis was spawned when the Supreme Constitutional Court annulled the parliamentary elections and disbanded the parliament that had been elected in elections that everybody had recognised to be free and fair,” Bernard Gwertzman, a consultant editor at the Council of Foreign Relations said in a 2012 interview.
“What we have now is this paradoxical situation, in the name of democracy, in which the secular opposition is trying to prevent any form of voting. They don’t want the referendum and they don’t want elections because they know they are going to lose them.”
Since coming to power in June, however, Morsi has given mixed signals and not alleviated fears about his intentions.
His first months in office were relatively incident free as Morsi worked to stimulate the economy, wrecked by years of turmoil and decades of corruption. Morsi also proved his worth internationally, winning support at home and abroad for his handling of the Gaza war in November. Yet, a day after the 22 November Cairo ceasefire, Morsi enacted his power grab.
Enraged by his actions and the new constitution, the voice of minorities has grown louder. In a radical example in December, a Christian Copt Group even called on the international community to sever ties with Egypt.
“We demand that world leaders withdraw their recognition of Egypt’s phony ‘pro-democracy’ leader, Morsi, who is backed by the illegal Muslim Brotherhood party,” Ashraf Ramelah, president of Voice of the Copts, said in an open letter sent to the world’s press.
“Freeze your political relationships with Egypt, halt all investments and aid to Egypt and force Morsi’s regime to step down…The new (constitution) promotes anti-democratic Islamic principles of intolerance. With a boycott, Egyptians can avoid another corrupt election and reject the avenue paved by Morsi toward Islamic Shariah law.”
Two steps forward, one step back
November’s bloody episode may be a precursor of worse to come but it also illustrated that some revolutionary green shoots are flourishing.
“The dramatic events in Egypt…should not surprise or frighten anyone,” wrote Rami Khouri, a Professor of Middle East politics at the American University Beirut.
“In fact, the continuing developments can be seen as a positive stage in the country’s historic political transition from autocracy to democracy. We are witnessing now the first serious move by several important sectors of governance and political society to affirm their influence and start to shape a checks-and-balances foundation for the democratic transition that remains to be completed.”
For all the setbacks it seems the power of the street has become a respected force in post-revolutionary Egypt. According to a Freedom House report, released 16 January, in 2012 Egypt moved from “Not Free” to “Partly Free.” It bucked a negative regional trend that saw freedoms severely curtailed in Syria, but also Iraq. A string of more moderate Arab countries also declined. Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman and the UAE all lost ground.
“We have seen similar push-backs against other looming single powers in Egypt in the past 22 months — against SCAF when it assumed unilateral powers last summer, just before Morsi’s inauguration; against assorted Islamists who appeared to be gaining disproportionate power after the parliamentary elections,” Khouri wrote in a column for Lebanon’s The Daily Star.
“Now Morsi is learning the same lesson — that political authority in Egypt today cannot be monopolised by any one faction, but must be subjected to the validation and the checks-and-balances of democratic pluralism that are anchored in the principle of the consent of the governed.”
Regardless of the threats, the opposition did not boycott the constitutional vote. This shows that they consider the system sufficiently legitimate to participate even if they cannot win, Meghan O’Sullivan, adjunct senior fellow at CFR wrote in a recent Bloomberg article.
The opposition also scored credibility points at a time that Morsi was losing his standing amongst moderates. Khouri now forecasts that Morsi’s support will fall back to its pre-revolution levels of around 25%, down from the 50 to 60 percent he commanded throughout much of 2012.
This could provide an opening for the opposition to pick up more seats at the next election, pushing them to shape the system from within.
Despite November’s power grab, Morsi too has shown he can listen. In November, he called off rival Muslim Brotherhood protests to stave off violence. He has also worked to secure external investment, receiving billions from the Qatari government, while negotiating a $4.8 billion IMF loan expected by April.
Meanwhile, a much-feared alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Islamist Nour Party has not materialised. Earlier this month Nour – which holds 25% of the parliamentary seats – announced that it would oppose the Brotherhood this April.
But not everyone is convinced. London School of Economics international relations professor Fawaza Gerges publicly slammed Morsi for doing “little to address Egypt’s economic woes or further Egypt’s fledging democracy.
“Instead, he has focused on shaping the Egyptian political and constitutional scene by consolidating power and authority in his own hands,” Gerges wrote in an op-ed article for UK’s The Independent.
The ongoing uncertainty has also pushed both the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition to try and draw the army back into national life to skew the balance in their respective favour.
“… The military is sending ambiguous messages and appears to want to remain above the fray, even as each side attempts to drag it back in – and in doing so is willing to give it concessions almost all factions opposed only a year ago,” Middle East analyst and former International Crisis Group’s North Africa chief, Issandr El Amri wrote last month.
Changes to the constitution, which have given the military more power, have been particularly alarming. Human Rights Watch notes that, “the latest (constitution) draft, unlike the earlier versions, defers to objections from the country’s military leadership and removes the clear prohibition on trials of civilians before military courts.”
Where to in year three?
With the constitution in place, all eyes are on whether its limited protections on minorities, women and freedom of speech will be upheld. How well it is enforced will in turn determine how legitimate the April elections will be.
Conditions appear promising and international monitors will be allowed thus far, although it is unclear how many monitors will be permitted on the ground. Fears nonetheless remain that if the opposition fails to win enough votes, it will keep working to undermine the system.
Figuring out how to make the various post-2011 parties play by the same rules will be a Herculean task, but for all the hurdles, Egypt is a more representative place than two years ago and the revolution is far from dead